I make the morning journey to my writing hut with a torch this time of year; the garden is still dark and the various paths bend and dip. My way is marked by the indignant outbursts of disturbed wrens and blackbirds. I am greeted at my hut door by a welcome burst of electric light. The outside lamp is on a sensor, but it is not just any old lamp.
Some years ago we were walking at Lea, Derbyshire, a village close to us where Florence Nightingale was born. Lying hidden in long grass by the road, seemingly abandoned for years, was the rusting round headlamp of a Mr Toad-style vintage sports car. How it came to be there; how it had come off in the first place, could not be guessed. Unless it really was Mr Toad, in a hot bull-nosed Morris...
I decided to rescue it and stick it on my hut. This turned out to be a somewhat foolhardy act, as restoring it and connecting it to a modern electrical system was pretty expensive. Worth it, however, to have this glorious reminder of the golden age of motoring attached to the place where I spend great swathes of time sitting completely still.
Florence Nightingale is of course famous for many things, but few people know that she kept a pet owl in her pocket. I learnt this surprising fact at a quiz in which I recently took part. I love a good quiz, and there are few better than the one organised by my Derbyshire neighbour for the Children’s Society. Nicki and her band of dynamic local mums have made over £100,000 for the charity in the past few years. The annual quiz night is the jewel in their fundraising crown.
Over a hundred people, organised into tables of eight, gather in the village hall to do battle. The atmosphere is electrically tense. We crunch nervously on big bowls of crisps as we scan through the titles of the upcoming rounds. ‘Word for Word’, ‘On The Map’; do they mean what they seem to? And on which round shall we play our joker and get double points?
Our crack team all have individual areas of expertise. My husband’s is politics and current affairs; another member is a geography teacher and another is an accountant and therefore good at maths. I’m supposed to be history and literature, although my best ever performance was on a round about the royals. My knowing that Prince Charles was partly educated at Geelong Grammar School, Australia landed us full marks (and we played our joker). We won the quiz, although at considerable cost to my personal cool.
We are of course all fascinated by the royal family. But it is the love that dare not speak its name. I have been teased my whole life about my interest in them and never more so when I displayed a framed letter from Biddy Baxter, legendary editor of Blue Peter, in the downstairs loo. The letter congratulated me on achieving runner-up status in a competition to design a plate for the royal wedding of 1981. It was displayed in the loo as a camp historical curio but the joke was soon on me as guest after guest worked out that I was a highly embarrassing 16 when I entered the plate-designing lists. Back to the quiz, anyway. There is a glorious supper halfway through. Heavily-laden paper plates of meat pie, gravy and mushy peas are served to you at your table and eaten with a plastic fork. Mere words cannot do justice to the sublime savoury slop of this absolute polar opposite to everything small, fussy and fiddly on the food front. Thus fortified, we cruised into the second half and won the quiz by a single point, plus the coveted trophy of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
Another of my old friends has dropped off the perch. Elsie was a magnificent 95 when she finally went to meet her Maker. She was our neighbour in the village where we lived when we first moved to Derbyshire. A tremendously spry woman, she was up with the larks and always busy. The flash of her axe in the morning sunshine being brought down on a pile of firewood was one of the local sights, just as the deafening boom of her telly was one of the sounds.
At Christmas Jon and I would be invited to partake of a glass of Bristol Cream in Elsie’s parlour, a room distinguished by walls hand-painted with thick green stripes. Elsie had done this entirely as an economy measure, to save on wallpaper. But the surprisingly artistic effect bore an even more surprising resemblance to Vanessa Bell’s efforts at Charleston, a milieu of which Elsie certainly would not have approved.
And vice versa, although Elsie did not lack an exotic side. In her middle years she kept parrots and to the end remained a fan of sensational literature. When we took our newborn son Andrew round to see her for the first time, she looked keenly at him, and then at my husband, and remarked, “He looks just like you, Jon. There’s no doubt!” To what doubt she might have been referring remains a mystery.