‘Fancy, the little Dutch child.’

3 Apr

Krasilovsky-Spier-square

‘What you want to be,’ said Alan Bennett’s Mam when he was about five years old, ‘is a gentleman farmer…They earn up to £10 a week.’

Why gentlemen farmers Bennett asks years later, and his older self replies, ‘The answer of course was books.’ His mother had never met a gentleman farmer, but she read novels and there they could be found, comfortable, secure and powerful.

That small exchange in his essay, The Treachery of Books, triggered one of those frissons that comes over you when the words on a page leap up and speak just to you.

Suddenly I was about eight in the kitchen watching my mother iron my father’s shirts. He was working late, my brothers were in bed, my sister wasn’t yet born; we were drinking warm bournvita.

‘If you want to be a teacher, my mother was saying, ‘you must read… I always wanted to be a teacher… But the war…’

A teacher for my mother was like a gentleman farmer for Alan Bennett’s. Being a teacher meant pens, paper and books. Did I want to be a teacher? I became one…of course – I was the oldest child, flagship of my parents’ dreams – bespectacled, diligent, dutiful. Mostly I’ve liked teaching. Always I’ve loved reading. As soon she could, my mother joined us up at the tiny Havelock North library, and for every birthday, gave my brothers and me small Nelson editions of the classics – Dickens, Thackeray Jane Austen and the Brontës were waiting for us whether we were ready or not.

My mother grew up in a convent in the north, and five years after the war, she left England forever with a suitcase and a book – The Valley of Decision. She sailed into Wellington one day in 1950 and lived in Oriental Bay, until she met my father who’d also come to New Zealand on a reconfigured troop ship. He dragged with him a wooden green trunk with his name stencilled across its surface. These two objects symbolised what was most important for my parents – and probably for every immigrant: education and a yearning to belong.

They built a house of blocks as secure as the third little pig’s, on a steep hill in Havelock North. It was at the end of a road; there were paddocks and sheep. Behind the house there was a forest.

And so we come, by the power of place, to fairy tales. There must have been a book; my mother must have read. But it’s her voice I hear saying Once upon a time…, Close by the King’s castle lay a great dark forest…, And they all lived happily ever after. The forest outside our house was full of sounds and airs – there were magpies in the macrocarpas – but it didn’t give delight. It was dark, there were sheep tracks, there were stinging nettles and people you couldn’t see but felt – Hansel and Gretel, Snow-White, Rapunzel. You could become Little Red Riding Hood and I did. My mother had one of those half-aprons which I transformed into a red velvet cloak. Through the forest I flew to a grandmother in a castle, an old wooden house with verandahs and a green-lidded well. The old woman who lived there lay in bed with a hairnet on her head and a tin of Quality Street chocolates on a bedside table. ‘Fancy, the little Dutch child,’ she’d say when I stood near her wondering whether she was crying or laughing because of her rheumy eyes.

I was charmed by that house and the people who looked after her: a house-keeper, a woman my mother called a ‘companion’ – different from a ‘friend’, and Ted the dungareed gardener who made a stile – the world was full of words – across the barbed wire between our house and the forest.

I was not an outdoors child. I felt early the perils of the dark wood – even the Hundred Aker Wood, where Pooh and Piglet wandered. I loved the opening sentence of Jane Eyre – ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day’, because that meant everything would unfold inside.

That old house was dark and mysterious. Outside the bedroom was a corridor with a strip of green carpet held in place by brass rods. All the doors along the corridor were closed, and the more I read, the more they became the door to Bluebeard’s chamber, to the Red Room where Mr Reed  died, to Clarissa Dalloway’s glacial green bedroom.

My reading has been formed by two things – my mother’s voice and that house. My mother has a very musical voice and instinctively understood the lure of rhyme, rhythm and repetition, and as long as she got the essentials right in a fairy tale, we didn’t mind deviation while she poked the washing with her washing stick or sat by the window knitting.

She also had a high opinion of Churchill, and we had a copy of The Island Race in our house. My brothers and I pored over this for hours, especially the execution of poor Catholic Mary Queen of Scots whose lapdog emerged from her skirts after her head had been cut off. I formed a conviction that English history was the most important history; my Dutch heritage suppressed mainly because of my unpronounceable name, and my father’s fondness for kissing us in public and calling out to us in his loud Dutch voice – so everyone looked.

There was also a problematic book, which although we loved very much because it showed us where he came, from confirmed my secret feelings that Dutch people were unreliable – they might seem quiet and low-lying, but give them a chance and they’d make a loud attention-drawing racket. The book was about Hendrika, a cow who ate too much grass, grew very fat, and fell, first into a canal, and then onto a raft. She loved being on her raft – she mooed with happiness – an embarrassing Dutch moo – and she was on a quest for a straw hat with streamers. On every page you see happy, plump, plain Dutch people in clogs, caps, and lacy aprons, staring at the cow in the canal. When she finally clatters into the cheese market spilling red waxy balls in all directions, Mr Hofstra her owner, shouts out her name in his loud Dutch voice.

It is such a good story and Spier’s illustrations are peerless, but as a child, I shuddered because of its subliminal message of exposure. I wanted to see but I didn’t want to be seen.

Which brings me back to the house in the forest. I crept around the edges of that old lady’s life but she became a blue print for other old women in literature – the grandmother whose spectacles Peter mended in Heidi, Mrs Bates in Emma whose spectacles Frank Crawford also fixed while secretly wooing Jane Fairfax. These two were silent – but one day I met one of my favourite and funny old ladies: Marcel’s stationary aunt Octave in Swann’s Way who ‘no longer wished to leave, first Combray, then within Combray her house, then her bedroom, then her bed’. She also had a bedside table – ‘a high altar of statues, missals and medicines.’ On the table in my old lady’s house, apart from the Quality Street chocolates, I remember only a glass and water jug beneath beaded crotcheted covers.

Aunt Octave talked to herself, and Marcel, the attentive watcher listened: ‘I must be sure to remember I did not sleep…(for never sleeping was her great claim…and sometimes she forgot herself and said, ‘What woke me up’ or, ‘I dreamed that’… and would blush and correct herself instantly’.

*
For most of my reading life, I’ve read novels, and loved especially novels which make me laugh, but I’ve now I’m interested in remembering. So often the first memory is of the mother’s voice, as Alan Bennett has showed us in that early essay, and Francis Spufford begins his marvellous memoir with, ‘“I can always tell when you’re reading somewhere in the house,” my mother used to say.’

For Virginia Woolf, the first memory is the primal memory:

‘If life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills, – then my bowl stands upon this first memory. It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed, in the nursery at St Ives. It is of hearing the waves breaking, one two, one two, and sending a splash of water over the beach, and then breaking, one two, one two, behind a yellow blind. It is of hearing the blind draw its little acorn across the floor as the wind blew the blind out. It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling… the purest ecstasy I can conceive.’

Every time you read a book, you bring to those words on the page all the experiences that have ever formed you – it wasn’t until I sat down to write this essay that I understood that at some level, I am still the little Dutch child listening to my mother, or standing by the bed of an old woman in a dark old house hoping for a chocolate from the Quality Street tin.

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Steph Matuku

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