Hands Up! 

As soon as I could go, I was off. Grandma called me Dot, as that’s what I was – in the distance. A favourite place to run, was to the sea from the beach hut at West Mersea – responsible adult eyes straining and scouring the mud and waterline for my shock of white hair. My first place to run, though, was underneath Dad’s drawing board. This is my earliest memory. We lived over the shop and I’d made it downstairs and into the office and under the drafting table before my mother knew I’d gone. I sat there, wishing myself invisible, and watched legs. Tuppence’s nylon-seamed and Mary Janes, Mr Bridge’s unironed linen and desert boots, and Dad’s pressed dark wool and polished brown leather. Too quickly, legs became faces. But what I really wanted to see were hands.

My parents were good with their hands. Exceptionally. Both of them were creative, practical people raised to make and do. And they did. My father used his to play piano, draw and make shadow creatures on the wall. My mother used hers to cook, sew and write. As a child, that’s how I saw it. If I promised to sit quietly, I was allowed to watch in the drawing office. And the hands had it. Paper, pens, pencils, charcoal, watercolours, all used for magic. On those days when I was not allowed downstairs, I was to be found in the kitchen with my mother and ‘Floury Fingers’ (my first cookbook) or in my very own artist’s studio with pencils, papers and paint (the marble table in the middle of the living room – covered in tarpaulin and newspaper. My mother leaving little to chance).

When we visited grandparents, the hands still had it. It seemed there was little Grandad couldn’t make – from his carpentry workshop came dollhouses, from his pottery shed came ornaments, from his garden came the vegetables for the Sunday roast. Grandma’s hands made the lemon meringue pie we shared with her sister and mine, the food that wasn’t (it was tasty, it was simply misnamed and you had to suspend disbelief) and wrote wondrous letters. Great-aunt Ruby was a talented tailor and pie-maker. How blessed was I?

I learned to read and write from my parents and when I was 3 was sent to Oxford House Preparatory School for Boys and Girls – a Montessori school where they cared not that I was left-handed, only that I wrote. The same was not true when I entered the state education system. My father took a new job and I started a new school just shy of my fifth birthday. At Bedford Road County Primary School, the headteacher was hands-on and, as soon as he discovered I was left-handed, decided that he would teach me the right way to write. At the age of 5 I learned the word ambidextrous as he sat me down and told me his daughter was so I could be, too. Surrounded by my classmates, he forced a pencil into my right hand and commanded me Write!. Of course I couldn’t, I couldn’t see the page through tears. He laughed and told me to practice.

The next day, having heard this story (but not from me), my mother visited the school. She didn’t say a word to me about her visit, but my handedness was never mentioned at school again and the headteacher thereafter kept a safe distance. My father was naturally left-handed, but had had this educated out of him at school in the 1920s. As far as my mother was concerned, this was not going to happen in the 1960s. A while on, my sister learned to write from copying me and so became another left-hander. Except that she wasn’t or isn’t naturally, and is truly a right-hander.

When I went out with Dad, it was often to cycle or swim. When we walked, though, we held hands, always – however old we were. Frequently, in childhood, my hands were sticky with paint, sweets or dirt from playing outside. No matter, we simply linked little fingers – sometimes playing a game to see just how far we could extend them but still touch. The contact mattered. Many years later, when my grandmother lay seriously ill in hospital I walked in to visit her and had to turn around and walk straight back out again. I’d seen my grandfather at her bedside holding her hand – I’d never seen them do this before (to be fair, I think Gran wouldn’t have let him had she had the strength to resist) –  and choked up. I composed myself and went back in, smiling. Afterwards, I spoke up: I’ve never seen you holding hands before, ever. He replied: I have to hold on. She’s my best friend. She’s dying. I’m going to lose her. This exchange brought us closer – I understood better and forgave more. Holding hands will do that for me. Even seeing strangers hand in hand – that’ll do it, too.

To this day, in all my personal relationships, hands are important. When I first meet someone, I look straight at their hands. I have to understand them. And that’s as important for saying goodbye as it is for saying hello.


The Gerund

On being, doing and having.

My parents valued language, it was a dear commodity at home, and I grew up surrounded by books and adults who could, and did, read and who could, and did, voice opinions on what they read. Television arrived in our household long after the printed word had stolen my heart and captured my imagination.

Thanks to this preparation, plus one year at a private Montessori school, by the time I arrived at my state-run primary school at the age of four, I could read and write. School was strict and an A grade in any subject was hard-won. It was a war I was willing to wage for the English language (especially as my mother took a very dim view of low marks, indeed).

Within the subject of English, marks were awarded for ‘Reading’, ‘Composition Oral/ Written’, ‘Spelling’ and ‘English Progress’. Teachers’ handwritten comments did not have to match the mark awarded – you could be described as ‘outstandingly good’ and still receive a B (as I did). It took until I was nine to get As across the board: ‘An excellent year’s work has been concluded with test results which are outstanding for a child of Jane’s age’.

Thereafter, my English marks didn’t fall below B+ (apart from one year when my class teacher was trying to persuade my mother I needed private tuition; tuition from that same teacher, of course). On reaching junior school, I gained A for effort and 1 for achievement in English all the way and from there was sent on my way to high school at the age of 13. By this time, I’d already had several years of French tuition at home (from my mother) and at school. I’d taken to that, too.

Now, here’s the thing – the way we were taught both languages was very different. At the outset, English was taught by rote – methodical reading, copying and testing. Correct spelling was highly prized. Slowly but surely, however, politics eroded my English language learning. I increasingly fell back upon the knowledge of my privately-educated mother to fill in the ever-growing chasm between teachers who maintained that grammar was a dirty word and my desire to know more of the language I loved.

By the time I was 14, the closest to an English grammar explanation a pupil could drag out of any teacher in public was that a verb was ‘a doing word’. Desperate for enlightenment, I followed my Latin and French classes with increasing fervour – here, we were being shown into the secret workings of language. Thanks to the grammar translation and audio-lingual methodology then being used to teach those languages, the ‘just express yourself!’ exhortations of successive English ‘teachers’ faded away. I was weaned from my mother’s parsing of sentences (for which, I remain thankful) the day I realized a gerund was not a mutant rodent companion for my sister’s hamster.

I have since spent time teaching English to speakers of other languages, many of whose knowledge of the inner workings of their own language (thanks to state education systems which value their pupils’ intelligence) has helped them greatly in acquiring the new one. In the process, I continued my own education – still striving to improve on the paucity of information doled out almost reluctantly at school.

On being, doing and having. My language; understanding to make it mine.