Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Thursday, April 24, 2008
As we all gathered at her daughter Caroline's just a few hours after her death we shared our shock at her passing. She may have been in her nineties but we were all convinced that she would live for ever. We also shared our memories and the gathering soon became a celebration of her life. And what a life, what a woman.
Rhoda was born in 1915 in Liverpool the second youngest of the twelve children of Charles Frederick Usher and his wife Isabella. The Ushers were a large family - Charles Frederick was himself one of thirteen children - who were ship's fender makers in the Crosby district of Liverpool. Like most large Liverpool families, members of the extended family spread far and wide and Rhoda had Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, and eventually brothers, in countries all over the world.
When Rhoda was born in December 1915, the First World War was at its height : the allies were just about to retreat from Gallipoli and the great battle of the Somme was still six months in the future. She grew up during the 1920s and 30s and as a young girl was a talented entertainer, touring for a time with the Music Hall troupe "The Winstanley Babes" (see A Babe Remembers). But she missed home and she missed her family and soon abandoned the stage and took a job at the "Bear Brand" nylon factory in Liverpool.
Whilst Andrew saw active service throughout Europe, Rhoda prepared for a new life as a farmers' wife in Canada. In 1945, with her young son David, she set sail for Canada where she met up with her newly demobilised husband. The photograph shows Andy and Rhoda (left) in Canada with her elder brother Sam and his wife who had emigrated ten years earlier. Rhoda and Andy set up home on a farm in Reston, Manitoba. Life on an isolated farm on the cold plains of Southern Manitoba, with no electricity, having to ride horses and milk cows by hand, must have been both strange and challenging to a city-girl from Liverpool : but she coped and - if my knowledge of her later in life is anything to go by - I am sure, never complained. Caroline, a sister to young David, was born whilst they were in Canada. Perhaps it was a desire to do their best by their young family, perhaps it was homesickness, but in 1950, Andy and Rhoda made the difficult decision to return to live in England.
On their return to England they lived, not in Liverpool, but in West Yorkshire where Rhoda's youngest sister Edith had gone to live when she married her husband Raymond after the war. Here, Andy, Rhoda and their young family set about building a new life, eventually being joined by Ada, a third of the Usher sisters and her family. David and Caroline grew up, married and had families and Rhoda soon became the matriarch of a large and loving extended family. Even after the death of Andrew and her sisters she was still surrounded by her family : her children Caroline and David, her niece Isobel, her grandchildren David, Beverley, Lee and Lisa, her great-nephew Alexander, and her great-grandchildren Sinaed, Liam, Aidan, Neave, Chloe, Zachary and Molly. The following photograph was taken just two and a half years ago at the family party to celebrate her ninetieth birthday.
But Rhoda was well known outside the immediate confines of her family. Everyone would have a story about Rhoda, everyone will be left with many memories of her. She could mix with anyone, she was amusing and she was generous. She loved shopping, and she would return from shopping expeditions with the most bizarre collection of garden chairs, china jugs and plastic knick-knacks. But she was never happier than when she was buying something for one of her extended family. She could have a poisonous tongue and her barbed asides, directed, in turn, at practically every member of her family, were a thing of legend. But the very fact that we used to collect such comments, repeat them, share them and endlessly laugh over them, was an indication of how we all felt about her. And we knew that if anyone but herself dared to put down any member of her extended family they would have Rhoda to answer to. Over recent years, a whole new generation of Cuthills, Garforths, Horrocks and Burnetts had grown to know Rhoda which will guarantee that stories about her will be told and re-told for decades to come.
Now she is gone, no family party will ever be quite the same. She leaves a gap in both the family and in the lives of many individuals. But we will never forget her. As we met on Tuesday, just after her death, someone said "if there is a heaven, there will be a bit of bother up there today". True. But there will be a lot of laughter as well.
Friday, April 18, 2008
I blame my dentist. I was sat in her waiting room the other morning trying to take my mind off the smell of mouthwash and sound of pain. I leafed through one of those magazines you only find in dentist's waiting rooms. And there it was, in full colour, in all its splendour : the John Wayne Timeless Hero Collectable Wall Clock (a precision instrument, this exceptional clock boasts accurate quartz movement and graceful hands, surrounded by the warmth of walnut-stained wood). No rubbish this : read those words again - quartz movement and walnut-stained wood. Could it be that when faced with the impending pain and discomfort of the dentist we are more susceptible to advertising? Does fear make for a good selling environment? There is plenty of scope here for a decent research programme which could help to establish the credibility of many a new university. If the link between fear and susceptibility to tacky adverts is proven, then the scope is endless. Doctors' waiting rooms, police stations, solicitors offices, portraits of Margaret Thatcher - all would become prime advertising sites.
Thursday, April 17, 2008
So the ship should be safe. Mind you, how far can you believe such superstitious rubbish. When the P&O liner Aurora was launched in 2000 by the Princess Royal, the champagne bottle didn't break. From then onwards it was deemed to be an ill-fated vessel. It broke down, voyages had to be cancelled, people were ill ... all the usual stuff short of hitting an iceberg. But we sailed on the Aurora last year and it was one of the best ships, and best holidays we have ever had.
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Monday, April 14, 2008
Wednesday, April 09, 2008
The first American in space was ...... Alan B Shepard.
Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Being the veteran of some half-dozen memorable cruising holidays, I have learnt to appreciate the lead-up to the holiday, almost as much as the holiday itself. Each stage has its own delights and its own opportunities for those focused day-dreams which get us all through many a cold, grey British day. Whether it is browsing the brochures and mind-hopping between exotic locations, or studying the list of excursions with scholastic intensity, each phase in the planning process has the ability to carry you through endless weeks of rain and sleet. The arrival of the coach tickets always tends to be a watershed moment : hazy fantasies suddenly turn into energetic preparations: you spend a little less time imagining the warmth of the sun on your face and a little more time searching for that new dress shirt you promised yourself.
The day after the coach tickets dropped through the letter-box the ship itself arrived in British waters. Ventura is the largest cruise ship ever built for Britain and, last Sunday, she sailed into Southampton, fresh from the Fincantieri Shipyard in Monfalcone, Italy, where she had been built. I did consider travelling down to Southampton to watch her arrive, but other things got in the way so I turned to You-Tube in the hope that someone else might have filmed the event. As expected, by Monday morning there were a range of short amateur films available, but as with most You-Tube offerings there was not enough emphasis on the short and too much emphasis on the amateur. The best of the bunch is this short from Stratticaster.
In just a few months we shall be on board. But before that we have all the pleasures of preparation awaiting us. As I look outside my window on this April morning, it is still making half-hearted attempts to snow. But my mind is hundreds of miles away watching those Mediterranean waves wash by.
Monday, April 07, 2008
The things it could do were almost beyond imagination. It could justify type (this may not sound much but for some of my publications I used to do this manually by typing a piece, counting how many extra spaces would need to be added to each line to make the right-hand edge straight, and then re-typing the piece with the spaces in). It could construct crude pictures by putting together a complex pattern of the letter "x". It could play music, and - with the addition of a little programme - it could talk. It could play wondrous games such as "Elite", "Space Invaders" and the glorious "Mr Ed" (which I still occasionally dream about). You could programme it (actually you had to programme it because it could do nothing by itself). Within a few hours of it coming into my life I had taught it to type "Good Morning Alan" when I switched it on. The book said that you could teach it to use "morning", "afternoon" or "evening" as appropriate, but I never progressed that far.
My Beeb and I lived together for two or three years until I fell for an Amstrad 1512. This was newer, more powerful, more serious ....... but it wasn't the same. If you asked me to was lyrical over an Amstrad I couldn't. These thoughts and memories were brought into focus this morning by a leader in the Guardian entitled "in praise of the BBC Micro". It came as a bit of a shock to discover that others had experienced love affairs with the same Beeb. But I am not jealous. I am reminded of those lines from Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy"
My Beeb is packed away in the loft space. I have not visited it for many years. But I will search it out and boot it up again. As they say, "first loves never die".
Sunday, April 06, 2008
This is the house on which much of the one in my novel A Proper Family Christmas was based, our childhood home in Wimbledon. AB and Issy lived with us there for several years too. My parents bought it in 1960 for £8000 and it was sold at the low point in the market in the mid 70s for £35,000, to a man who still lives there, 30 years later. My sister (Katie Fforde) noticed it for sale in the Telegraph. The asking price has recently been reduced from £5.5 million to a mere £4.75. I can't afford to buy it back.
I see from the agents' details there have been many changes. The wonderful old Edwardian bathroom I put in APFC has gone. The bath was vast - you could lie full length in it, with claw feet, huge taps, and a porcelain cylinder one raised or lowered acting as a plug. There was a hatch to the airing-cupboard next door, so that the maid could throw in a warm towel without disturbing the bather's modesty. The old scullery next to the kitchen has been turned into a smart garden room, with a terrace outside where we used to grow raspberries and roses. I expect the kitchen range has gone too. (I've only just thrown away the old cast iron frying pan we found on it when we moved in, because it was too heavy for me to lift.)
There is now a utility room in the cellar where my father used to make his gin, whisky and beer. This was in the days when any home-made alcohol was illegal, and Katie and I lived in terror that Daddy would be sent to prison. It made us very popular with our friends, though. (I wonder if our childish paintings are still pasted to the walls?) We realised there must also be a large space under the kitchen, and one day Daddy cut through the floorboards. Yes, there was a range of interconnecting secret rooms, the perfect den for me and Katie and our friends. In later years our old toys and childrens' books were stored down here, and to my eternal grief, they must have been left behind when we moved. Perhaps Mr. Xenakis still has them.
There are still 'eaves storage cupboards' (including the one that formed the turret at the side, where we inscribed our names in the joist, I wonder?) But the walk-in cupboard that turned a corner, almost a little set of rooms in itself, has fallen to the temptation of an en-suite bathroom. The huge first floor room we called the 'ballroom', where the whole family helped to lay a parquet floor, tile by tile, and we played table-tennis by candle-light during the power cuts of the three day week, has been divided into two. There was a secret cupboard there too. We found it had a false ceiling, and went up and up.
While my father was away teaching at a boarding school, my mother converted the two upper stories into flats. She did everything herself: designing, decorating, making curtains and bed-covers, buying furniture cheap because it was too big to fit into anybody else's rooms. (A great old side-board we called the 'white elephant' one of our tenants bought from us and shipped back to America.) She also dealt with the letting and the tenants, some lovely, some a disaster. How hard she must have worked! I'm about the same age now as she was then, and I certainly wouldn't fancy it.
In 1964 Bryan Forbes knocked at the door and asked if he could use the exterior for a film, Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Imagine the excitement of having a film crew around for us children! The dog enjoyed it too, and tried to get into all the shots. The film starred Richard Attenborough, and an American actress called Kim Stanley, who by a strange co-incidence Mummy already knew from when we were neighbours in London. They were delighted to see each other again, and Kim became a good friend. We visited Pinewood Studios to watch 'our film' being made. I was struck by how some extraordinarily skilled scene painter had replicated the view of the garden from our front door. We stayed in the house Kim and her family were renting, beside the Thames at Bray. It was built in the grounds of an old Victorian mansion, lived in by one old man, and it was this (now the Oakley Court hotel) that really formed the basis for Haseley House and William in A Proper Family Christmas.