Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Straw ear-rings # 2

There followed some weeks of application of Savlon antiseptic and turning the ear studs night and morning, and a certain amount of inflammation and oozing.  I wonder now if the anaerobic conditions created by the studs, rather than being more hygienic as was claimed, was more likely to provoke this than turning rings would have been. I still don’t know how people can bear piercings in more intimate, sensitive or moist areas.  Sometime after Christmas though, when we could think ahead to being able to wear other earrings, we took a walk along Hemel Old High Street.  

Hemel Hempstead is best known as a post-war new town.  I don’t know what it’s like now, but in my childhood and early youth it was an array of fairly typical and generally unlovely 1950s and 1960s architecture.  It had a somewhat unusual covered pedestrian bridge over the main road, resplendent in citrus yellow fibreglass panelling (on the outside!), which led from one upstairs shopping arcade to another on the other side.  As I say, not really a place of beauty, though as youngsters we liked it.  For the grand opening of the bridge, Batman and Robin came and drove down the high street in the Batmobile, we watched them from above, though I was rather too small to see properly.

But if the New Town represented modernity, with its yellow bridge leading to the Wimpy bar and giving a glimpse of superheroes, there was what seemed like a half-forgotten tranquil fragment of another age just a few hundred yards away in the Old High Street, which always seemed quiet, leafy, almost rural, I remember it as looking something like a set for a film adaptation of Middlemarch or similar.  Unlike my older brothers and sisters I didn’t grow up in the town but a few miles away, and was barely aware of the existence of this quarter of it for a long time, even though one of its tall, white, foursquare and fine Georgian edifices was the House Where Dad Was Born.  It was handsome by then, restored and well-kept, but in truth when my father had been growing up there, it was, I gather, a rather poorer place, crowded with his numerous siblings, sometimes cheerful but more often dogged by the uncertainties and insecurities of poverty and the fragile physical and mental health of his parents.  Grandfather, it was said, was sometimes in trouble for watering the milk and putting sand in the sugar he sold, and he often kept a pig in the back yard, possibly against the by-laws. One of my father's most abidingly horrid recollections of early childhood was having to sit on the pig and hold it down while Grandfather castrated it (I sometimes think Dad had a touch of Jude the Obscure about him...). Grandmother struggled; she fed her large and hungry brood on brawn made from a sheep’s head, and her own fragile spirit with chapel religion.  They both died, broken and insane, long before I was born.

Yet with all the nasty and brutish aspects of its history, there was, as I say, a sense of stepping back into a quaint and gracious pocket of past times, which was affirmed by the presence of the only shop I can remember there, the Basket Shop.  This establishment sold nothing but  items made from wicker, and straw and cane and rattan.  It gave an impression of a world before plastics and machine tools, filled with light structures, fragrant and warm and sepia-toned.  There was every kind of basket, of course, cat baskets and shopping baskets, picnic hampers and fishing baskets, but also some wicker furniture, stools and ottomans, peacock chairs and rockers, and those egg-shaped swinging seats that hang from the ceiling, and also trefoil-shaped long-handled carpet beaters, which I still have a fancy for as objects, even though I would probably never beat a carpet.  And somewhere in a corner was a case of small, exquisite articles also made from straw like tiny corn dollies as jewellery, including ear-rings.  They caught our eye; Az bought a pair for herself and a pair for me.

Ear-rings are funny things.  You don’t always know which ones you’ll take to, which you’ll stay with, or which will stay with you.  They can look beautiful in the shop, indeed be beautiful objects, but they’ll never sit right on you.  They can be finely crafted and formed, but then have some snicky bit that will catch in your hair or scarf or coat collar, or else they have a fragility which causes them to break irreparably .  I have had other pairs which I have loved to wear but they have left me, gone when I took off a jumper, or taken off when they started to chafe of an evening and were put to one side then lost, knocked on the floor or dropped down the sofa or gone with the vacuum cleaner.  Sometimes one is left alone which languishes forever in a box or drawer, because I’ve felt a sense of guilt and responsibility towards it, having by my carelessness lost its partner so I don’t feel I can perform such an act of callous betrayal as throw the survivor away (for a time I thought I might have an extra asymmetrical hole made in one ear to give a home to these waifs and strays, but it didn’t happen...).

I’m more careful now, and I’ve a few pairs that have done well: a quirky little silver sun-in-splendour for the right ear, with a hey-diddle-diddle crescent moon with a profile smile for the left, that I bought from a roguish and very talented silversmith in a Somerset village twenty years ago; a pair of irridescent glass pebbles coloured like oil plumes with pewter rims which Tom gave me when we were first together; and the small amethyst teardrops she-who-calls-herself-Firebird sent me for my fortieth birthday, nearly nine years ago now. I love all of these and wear them frequently.  But the tiny straw corn-dollies from the Basket Shop are the longest-lived of all, the very first ear-rings I owned after the studs.  They are light as feathers, of course, and never drag on my ears.  Being organic material,  they have deepened agreeably in colour, and they go with any bead necklace or pendant - wood, ceramic, shell, glass,and with any clothing.  I fell back on them so often, and really didn’t give them much thought, or where they came from.

Now though, I’m afraid to wear them.



the polish chick said...

what's wrong with beating a carpet? i'm fairly certain they don't have a central nervous system, and i beat mine with astonishing regularity, and much north american amazement, seeing as people here have never even heard of such an act, never mind witnessing it. am i a bad person?

Lucy said...

You're a hard woman Polish Chick.

In fact I have occasionally attempted to beat a carpet. The problem lies in a) finding a clothes line strong enough to hold it b) my not having a carpet beater! Are they still obtainable? I seem to remember people having them suspended on walls as decorative items.

My carpet beating efforts were with a stout garden cane, which was not very effective.

Kelly said...

Fabulous story. There are so many things that I have held onto for many years and occasionally I run across one of them while looking through things. I am amazed at the things that are important to me now and the things that I have no idea what they were about. On my recent visit to see my mom we sat down at my sisters dinning room table to go through a box of stuff that belonged to my dad. Most of the stuff as odd junk, then there were a few treasures. I understand why they waited for me to go through those items because I had a memory of what just about everything was. I was even able to tell them a few stories about thing that I had done with my dad that they were not aware of. It was a great trip through the past.

Kelly said...

If you are looking for a carpet beater, I am sure there are some available not far from here. I will keep an eye out for 1.

christopher said...

I was told that in Persia, they put the rugs in the street for the cars to do the beating. I was never there but my family was and it was they who told me.

William Wood Field said...

As a youngster I was sent to beat the carpets on the line next to the back door. Since I was the "Middle Child," I was sent regularly to complete this task - even though my three brothers were more than capable of beating the carpets themselves. I grew to resent the unequal assignment of tasks in our household. One day I beat those carpets with such rage that I tore one of them. My mother discovered that I could no longer be trusted with such a simple task. She never allowed me to beat the carpets again. It was then that I learned my very first lesson in Creative Incompetence: tear the carpet, drop the dish, smash anything of value, and you will never have to deal with that again.

20th Century Woman said...

I can only say that I found that story beautiful. Just beautiful.

Phil Masters said...

Judging by recent glimpses from the Cambridge-Heathrow coach, the centre of Hemel has been spruced up a bit recently, in a modern-town sort of way. The bus/coach stop is still next to the market square, though.

The thing I don't remember our parents ever mentioning as noteworthy about the place, but which earns it a mention in all the books about modern garden design, is the water gardens. I don't think that we were supposed to approve of new town civic design, even when it was famously good.

I do remember the Batmobile, by the way, although for some reason my specific memory is of glimpsing it being driven away by a chap in ordinary clothes, as we were making our way home from the event at the end of the day.

Roderick Robinson said...

I am in terra australis incognita here, nervily considering the implications of self-rending as a step towards enhanced self-esteem. I am, however, grateful for the resolution to Part One where the unexplained phrase straw earrings left me toying with a range of bucolic images, none of which fitted the Rilke-reading sophisticate of Box Elder. My hatred of waste forces me to cast around for solutions to the problem of the single earring; post-war boy's fiction often had recourse to a slightly bow-legged figure of rolling gait, marine competence and a story to tell, almost always curly-haired and wearing a single gold earring. Perhaps the role doesn't attract you and it would, in any case, be undermined if the earring turned out to be a dangler.

Congratulations on endowing Hemel Hempstead with vitality. Just for once I was able to reflect on my own superior literary pedigree. Coming from Bradford and half the character's created. HH, in contrast, requires work in the saltmines and you've risen brilliantly to the challenge.

Lucy said...

Well, you never know what's going to grab people about a post do you? First it was blood-drawing and piercing, now it's carpet flagellation.

Kelly, it's rather satisfying to find one is the family archive isn't it? Thanks for the offer of the carpet beater, but I imagine the postage would be exorbitant from where you are...

Christopher - that is very odd! Perhaps they hung the carpets across the street so that the cars drove into them vertically, as it were, rather than simply driving over them which would surely make them much dirtier. The idea of lovely Persian carpets being driven over is rather distressing...

WWF - hello and welcome. There's something of a Bros Grimm fairy tale about your story: the Ballad of Dusty Will, made to beat carpets by his mean brothers, until by his cunning he tricks his way out of it and goes on to make his way in the world, coming back years later to have his own back.

20thCW - thank you, at least someone wasn't only interested in beating carpets!

PJM - Hello Bro! The water gardens were very fine in fact, weren't they? Do you remember that spinning beach ball thing on top of a building you could see from them? I wonder of the yellow bridge is still there. You told me that was Bruce Wayne driving the Batmobile, do you mean to say it wasn't? You always did have to disillusion me didn't you?

BB - No, not many people died of TB on Boxmoor. I can't really think of a single famous soul who hailed from Hemel Hempstead in fact, though Tring had a few illustrious luminaries, as did Berkhamsted where I grew up. But I'll let you off your badmouthing of HH - see my estimable brother's comment above for further endorsing of its reputation, and we've not even mentioned its famous magic roundabout - since the epithet 'Rilke reading sophisticate' is fairly guaranteed to get round me.

Phil Masters said...

I do remember that spinning beach ball, although it seems to have vanished now - at least, I haven't seen it from the coach. The Rodin bronze out the front of Kodak's offices was a later addition; not sure if it's still there. Nor about the yellow bridge.

Famous people from Hemel (me aside hem hem) - hey, what about England's one and only pope? (Only 850 years ago, too.) Not to mention Sir Arthur Evans, Dave Vanian, and Claire Skinner?

Yes, I cheated and used Wikipedia. These days, the main thing Hemel is famous for is probably the Buncefield explosion. (And the magic roundabout, although Those Who Know regard the one in Swindon with greater Lovecraftian dread.) Which reminds me - I always remember Dad talking about an explosion at the paper mill there in his youth, which was evidently large enough to stay in his memory for a lifetime. But I can't find a single thing about it on line. I'd love to know if it really was that spectacular.

Zhoen said...

This so resonates with me. Working on the inspired post, but it's taking me a while.

the polish chick said...

i got my carpet beater in poland, where carpet beating is a national sport and every apartment complex has a carpet beating contraption, made of some kind of metal piping (i think). it is the meeting place of all neighbourhood kids who treat it as a mini jungle gym. i've spent many a childhood evening suspended upside down on the beating contraption (yes, it has a name, let's give it a try: the beater is feminine, the contraption is the masculine version of that same word, shall we go all freudian and analytical? nah, no energy).

in canada i use my outdoor picnic table or a trusty fence. i don't think mere clotheslines would withstand the fury of my mighty thrashing.