Monday, 24 November 2014

Permutations on Lamps and The People Who Owned Them (IV)

Yes, there had indeed been a meeting, possibly the sort of thing that might be called an emergency council. We didn’t know about it at the time, it was much later that a fellow pupil in my new school told me in confidence, urging me never to reveal the ‘secret’. Or else her Dad, who was a member of the school’s governing body, would get into deep trouble. She also confided that her Dad and my Dad shared political sympathies; if these were known they would jeopardise his position. I was a loyal little body but also so cowed by now that I obeyed without thought, not even telling my parents. I don’t think I ever did.

Herr Thomanek stood above us on the level half landing with Mum and me on the steps below him. His physical attitude was that of a bully but his voice had softened a little. He seemed to be uncomfortable and spoke quietly. I was crying enough not to be able to hear him anyway; Mum listened, she didn’t speak for a long time. She nodded and appeared to agree with him and said to me “I’ll tell you when we get home.” They didn’t explain or ask my opinion..

Before we turned back down the stairs to leave I urgently wanted to make Thomanek understand that I never meant to be ‘cynical’ (whatever the word meant) and that I only smiled at him during lessons because I liked them. Hopefully, I lifted my tear-streaked face, but he turned abruptly, without looking at me.

In the German Secondary School System Middle School was the less academic branch of higher education. Although core subjects were taught, i.e. foreign languages, maths, geography, history etc., the school for academically gifted children was the Grammar School, where subjects included classics, science, music, German literature, etc. School fees were higher and students stayed on to 18/19 years of age.

At that time, in the 1950s and early 60s, both Middle and Grammar schools were occupying the same large building. It was one of the few in the town left unbombed and everywhere schools and other establishments budged up to make room for those who had lost their premises.

The heads of both schools, their senior staff and representatives of the governing body, including my fellow student’s Dad, had decided that the situation in Thomaneks’ classroom had become toxic and it would be impossible to restore order. I would have to leave. I would be offered a place in the same year at the Grammar School; school fees would be waived and I would continue to receive a scholarship. It was to be hoped that I was bright enough to catch up. It was fait accompli. Take it or leave it. The alternative was to return to basic education in the ordinary compulsory state system for all children, which precluded any chance of further academic education. Nowadays the choice would be called a No-Brainer.

Within days I was a Grammar School pupil. Some teachers disliked me from the beginning, rumours of misconduct had gone round both schools but, as now and always, gossip and rumours come and go. The girl whose Dad had spoken up for me and my parents befriended me, we discovered a joint liking for literature and poetry. I didn’t catch up in all subjects, certainly not in those I hadn’t been taught for three years, and I slipped from being top of the class to somewhere in the middle. By and by new, younger teachers came for whom I was an ordinary pupil, not tainted with having caused a teacher’s fall from grace, and we took/didn’t take to each other as such things are arranged in the natural course of events.

Middle School and Grammar School took outdoor breaks at different times but on the same school playground. Sometimes we’d overlap slightly and I’d see Thomanek doing supervising duty. I knew better than to smile at him and besides, he always turned his back on me.

there’s a paragraph or two to do with another lamp to come and a bit of an afterword. But the drama is all over.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Permutations on Lamps and The People Who Owned Them (III)

“You can’t just barge in here without an appointment”, he blustered. “This is my home and my family and I are about to eat our supper. If you have anything to say about what happens at school you have to bring it up there.”

Mum stood her ground, but he wouldn’t budge. “You have no right to invade my privacy.” He continued to attack us, insisting that he was not going to discuss any complaints except at school. A time was fixed for the next day and we left, having achieved nothing. He had bullied us into submission but his extreme reaction made Mum determined not to let the matter rest. Thomanek knew this, he knew that he would have to answer for his behaviour; Mum, working class, with no more than a basic education and quite unsophisticated, would demand answers from the school establishment.

Alas, she never got them. At least, not in so many words. In 1950s Germany most ordinary people kept their political allegiance, past and present, quiet. My parents, however, were among the few exceptions, foolishly perhaps, but definitely bravely, as they and the family had been during the whole of Nazi-Germany, for which they paid a heavy price. In the 50s the Cold War was raging, with divided and four-sectored Germany the buffer zone between East and West. Twelve million people had fled and migrated from East to West and, until the erection of The Wall in 1961 put an end to it, the mass exodus still continued.

In the end, Herr Thomanek's persecution of me was not due to personal antipathy, but the politics of hatred and fear. He was one of those who had gone on the long trek from East to West.

As a child I was sickly. Weak, under-nourished, too tall, too thin, with lung disease and all the ailments that befell children who had had a poor start in life. I wasn’t the only one, there were many of us. Twice I had been sent to sanatoria, once during the war to the mountains of Bavaria and once after the war to the island of Norderney in the North Sea. It was hoped that mountain and sea air would heal, or at least strengthen, my lungs.

During the time I was a student in Herr Thomanek’s class, Dad was offered a place for me in a sanatorium on the Baltic coast by one of his friends in the Socialist Movement; the problem was the holiday would have to be during term time and require permission from the school authorities. Permission would probably have been granted had the sanatorium been anywhere else but in East Germany, the place many of the teachers at the local schools had called home and had been forced, or had chosen, to leave. Dad, in his naiveté, had committed a monumental blunder. Permission was refused and Herr Thomanek turned against one of his star pupils.

Mum and I still had to meet him. She knew nothing about the politics of the staff room, all she knew was that her child was hurting and she wanted to know why.

We met him during morning break on the half-landing between two floors, leaning against the stone banister. Thomanek was standing above us, looking down. I was half sitting in a window embrasure, crying bitterly all the time of the interview. Although he was physically in a position of superiority, he was noticeably quieter, even conciliatory. The Headmistress had spoken to him and advised that he try to calm Mum down. There had been a meeting, he admitted as much as that.

But what would happen to me?

to be continued

Monday, 17 November 2014

Permutations on Lamps and The People Who Owned Them (II)

I caught a cold, a snot-rattling, throat-rasping, eye-watering, croaking-voiced cold.

Fräulein Optenberg was certain the cold would be gone by the day of the concert. All would be well. I begged to differ. The cold was the perfect excuse for backing out. What teacher didn’t know was that I had long had cold feet and the nearer the day came the more terrified I became. "No, Miss, I am certain the cold won't be gone in time and please excuse me from going on stage”.

Snivelling little idiot.

Frl. Optenberg was frantic. I hadn’t ever heard the phrase ‘The Show Must Go On’; Miss begged, cajoled, implored. I sneezed pitifully, then I had an idea. If it meant that much to her I’d get her a replacement. I’d get her Klara. Klara was plump, small, stupid and in possession of a much healthier, more powerful voice than my lung-sick one. Klara jumped at the chance and was so abjectly grateful that I began to doubt the wisdom of my abdication. Aladdin’s cave was no longer mine for half an hour twice a week.

My cold evaporated, the day of the Christmas concert came and Klara was a great success. Neither Mum, Dad or I were in the audience.

This was the beginning of a lifetime of doubt in my own abilities.

Then came Middle School; I passed the entrance exam with flying colours and was granted a scholarship. There were school fees which my parents couldn’t afford, ends were barely meeting. Still pig-tailed, tall and very skinny and ten years old I joined children from varying backgrounds, some already well-off, particularly the children of farmers and professional people, and some from poor backgrounds like mine, on scholarships. We scholarship kids were the bright ones, the kids from the farms the least able. (That’s not prejudice, that’s how it was. After the war many farmers were rich, had their girls been bright enough they would have gone to Grammar School, where the fees were higher.)

Herr Thomanek was my form master. I adored him and he seemed to enjoy teaching me. For three years all went well. When kids from professional households made fun of my pronunciation of foreign words he shut them up and patiently explained where these words came from and how to pronounce them. Herr Thomanek was my favourite master and I had a bit of a crush on him, as a thirteen year old  might.

When from one day to the next he turned on me I was devastated. Open-mouthed incredulity met every unkindness, every jibe at my expense, every shouted term of abuse. It’s no exaggeration to say that my form master bullied me unmercifully. He focussed the attention of the whole class on me. “There she goes, sneering again. That cynical grin of hers, look at it. What makes you so superior, I would like to know." Once I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I got up from my seat, howling in fear and frustration, making for the door. “Look at her, look how she runs and howls; exactly like one of the Furies.” I went home and finally told my Mum.

That same afternoon Mum grabbed me and we went to Herr Thomanek’s house. His wife came to the door and said we couldn’t come in, they were about to have their evening meal. Mum insisted. For once she believed me without looking for confirmation elsewhere and she was going to get the truth out of him there and then.

We were let into the sitting room. I was probably too distraught to take in details, but I instantly saw an old fashioned roll top desk in an alcove, with lots of papers on the open flap and a lit desk lamp on the shelf above. Otherwise the room was in shadow. Herr Thomanek turned towards us as we entered, his face, illuminated by the lamp, a study in angry discomfort.

to be continued

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Permutations on Lamps and The People Who Owned Them. (I)

"I can’t stand a naked light bulb,
amy more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action”,

Tennessee Williams’ Blanche Dubois in “A Streetcar Named Desire” gives herself away with this line as someone who prefers illusion to reality; who believes that dressing up naked truth prettily makes everyone happier and everything pleasant and easy. “I don’t want realism, I want magic,” she says in a later scene.

I woud hate to take Blanche as my role model but I admit, that as far as the softly glowing light of a prettily shaded table lamp - or standard lamp - is concerned, I am firmly of her opinion. It’s the kind of magic I want for myself. Standing lamps have always fascinated me, perhaps because such luxury was never my lot as a small child. Naked bulbs dangling from the low ceilings of cellars where Mum and I hid, the narrow glory hole of my bedroom or the slightly higher ceiling of the kitchen/sitting room in which we spent most of our time provided sufficient light but no comfort.  The apparent security and privacy of an individual light wasn’t mine to enjoy until I was an adult, in my own home. Once the hardship of the early postwar period was over, my parents had the means to buy lamps but, although ceiling lights were now provided with lampshades, table lamps were outside any experience they themselves had ever had. Light was a matter of necessity, not comfort; light had to be efficient, nothing more.

Fräulein Optenberg was my Infant School teacher;  she lived with another woman and it was in their sitting room where I saw my first ever upright lamp. It was Advent and a school Christmas concert was planned and I was to go on stage and sing some songs, solo. I was bright and enjoyed singing;  for teacher to choose me from all other children was flattering beyond all measure. But I was also shy and inhibited. I had none of the natural confidence some children are handed in the cradle. Rehearsals were to be held at Frl. Optenberg’s and progressed well. The first time I went, properly cleaned up, my long hair plaited and in my Sunday smock, the two ladies invited me into a room the like of which I’d never seen before. It was probably very modest by today’s standards but to me it was like Aladdin’s cave. There was a carpet, a small dining table and chairs, a desk in a corner, a pair of easy chairs and, in the alcove by the window, a piano, and, on the piano, a table lamp. It was afternoon, the lamp was lit. Immediately I knew that I had no right to be in this room, a room like this was not for me, and that all my life I would strive to win one. I was seven years old.

During the course of rehearsals a nasty episode happened. On the way home from school I daily passed  the house where Frl. Optenberg and her friend lived. On this particular day a group of boys, some infants like me, others up to fourteen years old, stood in front of her house, shouting and jeering. I couldn’t make out what it was they were shouting and when I did, I couldn’t understand what the word meant. ‘Mannweib’, the boys shouted, over and over. (Literally ‘Mannish Woman’, ‘Virago’.) I saw Frl. Optenberg appear at the window and I ran off, I didn’t want her to think that I was part of the rowdy group of children, the numbers now swelled by other girls returning home from school. I told my Dad what I had heard and he said to take no notice, that the boys were naughty and rude. The next time I went to rehearsals I stammered that “it wasn’t me who shouted at you” to Frl. Optenberg and she smiled and said “I know, child.”

The day of the concert came nearer and I caught a cold.

to be continued.

Monday, 10 November 2014

The Last Hurrah

Valley’s End
is showing a last burst of colour before the dark days of winter.

Keep up your spirits with healthy exercise:

Leaping is an exercise very commendable and healthful to the body,
especially if you use it in the morning.
Upon a full stomach and to bedward it is very dangerous, and in no wise to be used.

For the young:

Wrestling is a very good exercise in the beginning of youth, so that it be
with someone who is equal in strength or somewhat under,
and that the place be soft,
that in falling their bodies be not bruised.


in football is nothing but beastly fury and extreme violence,
whereof proceedeth hurt,
and consequently
rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded.

Wherefore it is to be put to perpetual silence!

Treat throat complaints betimes:

Take the old nest of a swallow, with all the substance
(as clay, gravel, sticks and feathers),
do nothing but beat it and sift it through a coarse sieve,
and put thereto grease and honey and make a plaster thereof.
Then stroke it upon a cloth and lay it about his neck:
of this wise have I holpen one in three hours.

The advice comes from the Compleat Gentleman of 1634, The Book Named The Governor of 1531 and The Homish Apothecary of 1561. I cannot guarantee its efficacy. But the pictures are Valley’s End's and the garden’s last (probably) hurrah and make be taken to be truthful and up to date.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

A Family Reunion - All Saints Day - Part III

The more specific maintenance of the graves fell to Uncle Peter and Aunt Katie. They often grumbled about it. Grandfather, who owned the plots, felt that it was only right and proper that the task of looking after the family graves should fall to his surviving son. He was the only one still living in the family home, rent free, as grandfather frequently pointed out. Aunt Johanna, one of his daughters, who lived in  a village less than an hour’s walk across the water meadows away and whose husband had a truck, pleaded ill health, which made her cry a lot every time somebody asked her to do something. Uncle Peter and Aunt Katie carried on working on the graves, spending time and money they could ill afford.  Aunt Katie liked to keep the peace, besides, there was nowhere else for them to go, they were dependent on grandfather’s goodwill. The old man spent little time thanking Aunt Katie for the hard work she did for him, the way she put up with his moods, fell in with his demands and tolerated his high-handed and sometimes scornful treatment of his son, her husband.

The mourners for the day stood around in the biting wind, murmuring platitudes and wishing themselves out of it and back in Aunt Katie’s warm kitchen, but not quite daring to suggest retreat for as long as grandfather stood his ground.

“I wonder who’ll be next”, they said, each hoping it wouldn’t be them but allowing enough suffering into their voices to imply it might be.

“All gone, all of them gone, who knows where.”

“Stupid woman,” I heard father whisper to mother, “dead and gone, with nothing left of them, that’s where.” Father was getting tetchy, mother’s family could be trying at times. He had long ago fallen out with two of his siblings and disliked his own father heartily.

“The old man is going to catch his death of cold”, his daughters muttered, “somebody should get him to move.”

Grandfather was a stubborn old man, he knew the family had had enough but he would be the one to decide when it was time to leave, be the wind ever so chill. He had lost his wife many years ago and celibacy and loneliness had hardened his once kind heart.

But even grandfather couldn’t go on ignoring the cold seeping into his old bones. “How much longer do you want to stay here,” he asked, sounding impatient for the others to make a move. “We’ve done what we came for.” He’d done nothing. “I for one have had enough and I’m off, stay if you want.”

He turned away from the graves and without a backward glance went towards the centre path dividing the cemetery, and made for the main gate.

Women and children scuttled after him, The men followed in a more deliberate, statelier procession.

The short day was ending, we had a train to catch, the widow of grandfather’s second son and her two children had an hour’s walk ahead to reach their home in the next village the other side of Muehlhausen.. Only Uncle Hans had brought his family in his truck. It was too soon after the war, long before the economic miracle took hold; nobody else in the family owned more than a bicycle. Petrol was expensive and not easy to come by, and Uncle Hans never offered anyone a lift.

Aunt Katie provided coffee, while the women cut sandwiches; the talk was loud and free now, the relief at having escaped for another year palpable. They were alive, they had survived, not just the day but the years of hardship and terror lay behind them. Life was still a struggle but they could see the promise of a future without fear.

“See you at Christmas”, they said jovially, and “get home safely”. The men slapped each other on the back and the women hugged and smiled broadly.

The kitchen heat had warmed the blood. My coat felt heavy and unnecessary, my hat and mittens itched. I wanted to take them off, stay here and climb the stairs to the cold attic and get into bed with Gisela.

Kommt gut nach Haus”, Aunt Katie shouted after us from the open cottage door as we trudged back to the station. The night was dark, there was no street lighting. I clung to father, who held my hand. Afraid of the dark, afraid of the potholes waiting to trip me up, I stumbled along as fast as I could.

Nobody in the family was ever late for anything, setting out in good time was a virtue. Perhaps their generation had had punctuality and reliability drilled into them to the extent where it had become second nature.

We arrived at the tiny, single-storey brick-built station and the waiting room with its wooden benches with enough time to spare before departure, for me to study the signs over two doors in one side of the room once again. I was a good reader from an early age, but these signs defeated me. “HOMMESGENTLEMEN” and “DAMESLADIES” they said in capital letters. Each time I saw them I separated the syllables, saying them quietly to myself. “hom – mess – ghent – lem - men” and “dah-mess-lah-dees”.

When I asked mother what the words meant she said “they’re Klosetts; do you need to use them?”  “No thanks,” I said, but was no wiser than before. “Toilets?” Klosetts were called ‘Männer’ and ‘Frauen’ not these strange words which made no sense to me.

On the journey home the monotonous rumble of the train rocked me to sleep.  Father was still an invalid and not strong enough to carry me on to the connecting train at the market town and he certainly couldn’t carry me on the walk home from the station to our house in St. Toenis.

During the last half hour I made slow progress. My legs ached. Shivering with cold and tiredness, I stumbled along in the middle of the road, mother and father almost dragging me, both of them holding me by a hand.  “Not far now”, they said encouragingly, “home soon.” It had been a very long day.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A Family Reunion - All Saints’ Day - Part II

Aunt Katie’s welcome smile ushered us in. The black and white tiled hall of the cottage was unheated. We shed our coats, hats, scarves and gloves as  quickly as we could and  made for the kitchen-livingroom  where the round cast iron stove blazed fiercely. Grandfather was sitting in state on his sofa under the window; he didn’t get up for us, and we had to squeeze past the table in front of the sofa to shake his hand. I didn’t like to hug him, a peculiarly stale and dusty smell enveloped him, which offended my nose. Although we liked each other well enough, I was never his favourite grandchild; that honour belonged to my cousin Gisela, Aunt Katie’s daughter, who had lived with grandfather since the day she was born.

I loved Aunt Katie. Her smile lit up her whole face and her deep blue eyes sparkled with pleasure. Her kitchen was always cosy, and the large kettle on top of the black stove sang a sweet song of hot drinks to come. The aroma of a good thick soup tickled my nostrils. I was always hungry at Aunt Katie’s; mother hated that. She never stopped complaining about what she called my greediness in Aunt Katie’s kitchen and my lack of appetite at home.

“Let the child eat if she’s hungry,” Aunt Katie blustered in her forthright manner. “Food in other people’s houses is always tastier than food at home, that’s how it is. Everybody knows that.”

By and by Aunt Katie dished up and we all ate her nourishing soup and a piece of good country bread to mop up the last drop and wipe the bowl clean.

Soon other members of the family arrived and grandfather’s cottage began to feel very small. It was time to wrap up again and walk to the cemetery, which was a mile out of the village. We children were not excused the trek, honouring the dead was a duty we learned to perform early.

Once out of the village, a forbidding reddish brown brick wall rising to more than two metres loomed out of the mist. It was breached by equally tall wrought iron carriage gates which rarely opened. The only other entry into the nunnery and convent school, for that was what lay behind the wall, was a much smaller gate let into one wing of the carriage gates. To the villagers the nuns were mysterious creatures, who  never left the convent but allowed services to be held in their chapel on special occasions and, if you paid them, for funerals and weddings. No village child attended the convent school in those days. Cousin Gisela and her friends thought it a spooky, frightening place; they told each other gruesome stories about little girls being whipped and kept prisoner within the high walls. Whenever we visited grandfather, I refused to walk past the gates without holding on tightly to a grown-up, for fear of a hand reaching out and dragging me inside.

The convent was the last building we passed before we left the main road and took the turning towards the cemetery, an avenue of mighty horse chestnut trees, the candle decked branches a picture in spring, but now dark and bare, shiny brown conkers freed from their prickly wrappers sprinkled in the thick layer of dead leaves underfoot.

The cemetery itself was enclosed by low stone walls, with wrought iron gates, wide enough to allow entrance to a hearse, in the side facing the road. There were no other buildings, no chapel, no trees, just bare open fields in all directions; only the dead safely tucked up underground could escape the bitter East wind and its spiteful, bone-chilling whistle. I kept close to the larger adults, their bulk affording my skinny little frame a small measure of protection.

It was the custom in our family that Aunt Katie and her husband, my mother’s brother, my Uncle Peter, ordered wreaths and flowers in the village and that the others paid for their share on the day. Uncle Peter had only very recently returned from a prisoner-of-war camp in Russia, and his little barber shop barely earned him enough to feed his family. Grandfather, whose savings languished untouched, didn’t like to advance him the cost of the wreaths, which meant that the flower seller didn’t get his money until after All Souls Day.

Traditional grave decorations were bouquets and wreaths of asters and chrysanthemums, interwoven with ivy and holly and ferns and backed with fir twigs. The men had been carrying them and now they were fussing over their position on the graves. Mother’s family had three plots, all in a row, one large family grave reserved for couples and two narrower ones for single men and women, much like the large wooden sided double beds and the narrower cots in the bedrooms at home.

When each man was satisfied that his contribution had a prominent enough place on the graves,  the women lit everlasting candles, which burned from the afternoon of All Saints’ day until the morning of the day after All Souls. The candles were placed in small lanterns, heavy based to stop them toppling over in the wind, and set on flat stones, each of which denoted the final resting place of an ancestor or sibling. Great grandparents lay there, grandmother too, and uncles and aunts who had died young. There was room for grandfather and a few more awaiting their turn.

“The graves are looking good this year, the cemetery gardener has done well. " He always did, he was conscientious about performing his task. “Very orderly the way he’s raked the pebbles;  zigzags are so attractive."

If you owned a grave, you paid a small annual sum for general maintenance to the cemetery authorities.

“We must do something about the headstone, is it leaning to the right, do you think? And what about the moss, shouldn’t somebody clean it off?” There was always someone finding fault. Making a fuss made the complainant look concerned.

to be concluded tomorrow.