Sunday, 3 June 2012

Ramblings: Roots


I saw “Roots” the other night. Not the 1970s drama with the beautifully named Kunta Kinte but the Arnold Wesker play. I really enjoyed the play, a great 1950s work about a young woman who returns to visit her family in rural Norfolk and finds herself at odds with their unthinking acceptance of their lives. I spend most of my time feeling like I’m an alien and wanting to shout “Look the Emperor is naked!” so it struck a chord.

The actors adopted perfect Norfolk accents with lyrical intonations and at times I felt I needed a translator. Hearing the accents took me back to our family holidays when I was growing up. Childhood memories are odd, suffering the distortion of nostalgia but my memories aren’t all idyllic.

My parents rented a cottage in a small Norfolk town called Wells-Next-the-Sea for a few years running when I was aged about 10. Even the name of the town is odd, implying a archaic way of speaking. It was a pretty little place, with narrow streets and a harbour where we’d lure crabs out of the water with bacon rind on a fishing line, put them in a bucket for half an hour and then throw them back. There was a lot of point to that activity.

There was one amusement arcade which was run by an elderly lady and which served mugs of Horlicks and rubbery cheese sandwiches with mushy tomatoes. I’d never tried white bread or margarine before, as my mother was a food snob, so these were a sordid treat. There were a few pubs which served things in baskets (scampi, chicken or sausage to be precise). There was also one miniscule theatre were a repertory company put on funny little shows which I sat watching in amazement.

We stayed in a small cottage which could have been still in the 1930s. The cottage was one of two and the two were interconnected. They were owned by an elderly lady, plump and whiskery and a little bit scary to a delicate ten year old. She played the organ in the Methodist chapel, was a spinster and had lived there with her sister, now deceased. Her accent was almost indecipherable.

The cottage had two rooms downstairs: a sitting room with a lumpy Victorian sofa which smelled fusty and was stuffed with horsehair and a kitchen with a huge sink and an ancient gas cooker. Upstairs were two large bedrooms. My brother and I shared the dark back bedroom which you had to go down a couple of steps to get to. There was a high bed, a dresser and a nightstand containing an ornate jug and bowl to wash with. The wallpaper was dark and highly patterned, held on with tacks and drawing pins. There was no bathroom, no inside toilet and no television. This meant traipsing down the garden to use the loo, washing in tepid water in the bedroom and missing “Charlie’s Angels”.

Lack of television aside, I loved the adventure of it all. There was a perverse fun in having to wash your hair over the sink. My head was filled with little stories and I often imagined it was the 1930s and thought about who would live there. I found a little milking stool in a cupboard which delighted me and I took to sitting on it to read my C.S. Lewis and E. Nesbitt books.

I was slightly perturbed by the interconnecting doors, imagining the whiskery old lady would swoop out in the night with a smell of boiled cabbage and archaic scent and terrorise me. She always forgot who I was. She’d greet my parents and my brother and then go on to ask “Who’s this little ‘un? He not be yours is he?”

I loved this, secretly believing that I was adopted and had been stolen from a wealthy aristocratic family. It was an understandable mistake. Where my parents and brother were dark and plump, I was white blond and thin as a rake.

“He’s a big healthy lad!” She proclaimed on seeing my brother. “Mind you, if you be from big stock then you be going to be big too.” She said, eyeing my offended mother.

We went to the beach each day and ate packed lunches, walking back through the pine woods. I remember the strong howling winds of the East Coast. In the evenings we’d be allowed to accompany my parents to the local pubs, sitting watching people with fascination as I sipped orange juice.

I remember lots of idyllic things: fresh nectarines (a rarity at the time), ice creams and scented pine woods. I remember my dad’s constant bad jokes and the joy of coming upon a tiny dolls house in the woods which someone had made out of sticks and stones. Unfortunately, I don’t just remember the good things. My mind doesn’t work like that. I also recall my father’s fury at my inability to coordinate oars on the boating lake, painful sun induced headaches and lots of boredom and restlessness at having to spend so much time in the bosom of the family. I always preferred to be alone, reading where I felt less disapproved of.

When I reached 13, I refused to go on another family holiday. I really couldn’t imagine staying cooped up with my family in a cottage for a week. It felt like a vision of hell. I was packed off, pile of books in a bag, to stay with my grandparents for a week. This same feeling lead me to leave home just after my 17th birthday.

I understand that Wells is much the same still but I have little desire to return. I’m sure the nectarines wouldn’t taste as good and the cottage probably has plumbing now.

The brilliant writer, Sophie Hannah, wrote a poem about Wells. I’ve included it below:

Wells-Next-the-Sea

by Sophie Hannah

I came this little seaside town,
And went a pub they call The Crown
Where straight away I happen to see
A man who seemed quite partial me.
I proved susceptible his charms
And fell right in his open arms.
From time, time every now and then,
I hope meet up with him again.


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