Desert Island Discs: Mache Dich, Meine Herze, Rein

My father gave me a triple CD set of St Matthew’s Passion when I set off to university, and if I’m honest, I didn’t listen to it much at first, preferring the sweeping melodies of Rachmaninov, or the rich orchestration of Mahler. I used to turn away from Bach in my music lessons, not knowing how to turn all those black notes into something musical, something expressive.

After John and I were married we had our other children fairly quickly, and had completed our family long before most of our peers had even started theirs. It’s a funny time, your twenties. For many people, especially those who go to university, your twenties are the first time that you make your own decisions and people’s lives branch off in different directions. Of course, ours was different from much earlier on but even so, those early years – juggling babies and toddlers, primary school and then secondary school transitions, early career paths, maternity leave and then a period at home with the children full time – were both wonderful and extremely hard work all at once. They are for all families. It would have been nice to have had some friends doing the same at the same time, but we had each other, and perhaps that is why we are such a tight-knit unit now. I think I could do just about anything with John by my side.

Time passes, we grow older, and now Bach is possibly my favourite composer. In his music there is, to my ear anyway, the perfect balance of control and passion, and I can find all of life in it. His aria for bass, Mache Dich, Maine Herze, Rein (Make Yourself Pure, My Heart), bubbles with the sweetness, energy and yearning of those early family years. It presses on, so much happening beneath the smooth, controlled emotion of the soloist. I could listen to it a thousand times more and still find something new every time I do, so complex and perfectly crafted is its form. When I think back to those early years, I don’t remember the sleep deprivation, money worries or dirty nappies. I remember a busy, happy, full time, which I thought would last forever. Now that Ben is at university and Ilse about to start secondary school, I can see a time coming when life will be quiet and I’ll have all the time I used to long for. We have so many plans for what comes next, when we find ourselves with a grown up family in our mid forties. Now, though, in the midst of this transition, I like to put this aria on as we sit down for our Sunday roast, Ben home for the holidays and us all around the table together, the way we have gathered for years. There’ll be silence at first as we enjoy the chicken and wine that, years ago, was such a treat. Then the talk will start, just stories and questions, discussions about anything at all, really, until it ends in laughter. Those days of corralling little people, the endless washing and cooking and background noise are over now, replaced by teens and nearly-teens. It’s a different sort of noise. And it’ll be another sort of noise in ten years’ time. But, God willing, it’ll still be there in ten, twenty, even thirty years. The pulse of family life, the pulse that we created, John and I, beneath the sweet and different songs that we all sing.

Madeleine

Do you have music that you associate with family mealtimes? We have music that I’m sure our children will forever associate with Sunday roasts (in the same way that, for me, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is Sunday mornings): this, and Carmina Burana, A-Ha and REM – and the BBC R4 Friday night comedy. What about you?

End of an era

Next week, I’ll wash all three of those little gingham dresses and take them to the charity shop. After fifteen years of having a child at primary school, Ilse leaves Year 6 tomorrow., and there’ll be no more hanging of summer school frocks on the line.

While I deliberately muddle my children’s names, ages and doings on this blog, some moments need setting down on paper, if only for me. I’ve been taking a child to primary school since 2003. We’ve got photos of them all on their first days, excited and beaming in their uniform, and in a couple of days we’ll have photos of all of their last days, too, with skinny long brown legs sticking out from too-short shorts and dresses, scuffed shoes and faces no less excited about the next adventure.

It would be a strange sort of parent who didn’t want their children to grow up. After all, that’s why we parent: to help them grow into independent adults, making their own place in the world. I won’t pretend that I’m not glad I won’t have to stand in freezing February playgrounds, or deal with two different sets of school letters. When Ben started secondary school I think we were almost as thrilled as he was at the next big step. Now that he’s at university, I know how quickly the next seven years will fly.

This week – this last, mad, silly week of term – is full of performances and celebrations. We’ve split the events between us, John and I, and drafted in the grandparents for support. Last night Seb and Fliss performed in the cabaret at their school, singing and playing in the orchestra, while I attended a different do and John and my dad went to see Ilse in her play. I watched it on Tuesday with the other two – Ben is working away from home – and despite my best efforts I must admit to a tear or two at the end. I don’t know how many school plays I’ve sat through: how many nativities and musicals and Christmas concerts and open classrooms and parents evenings perched on tiny child-sized chairs. They all merge into one extended blur and yet I can pick out distinct moments, made clear by the differences between my children themselves. In their Year 6 musical my children have chosen such different roles: technician, stage manager, comic relief and, last night, soloist. Watching Ilse dressed like a reception pupil, taking turns in a duet with another girl we’ve known since before they could walk, was such a fitting culmination of the confidence and grace my girl has gained over the past few years. I beamed at her throughout. But the finale tipped me over the edge.

This evening will be their graduation, with video of them all in reception, a bouncy castle and ice cream van and the dreaded farewell song. Ilse’s already expecting me to cry, but I think she will, too. It’s bittersweet, this transition from one thing to the next. Exciting and fun and full of adventure, but relentlessly moving on, on, on.

Madeleine

Little wins and smaller bins

At the start of Plastic Free July, we made a commitment to just try our best and celebrate the little wins. We knew that there would continue to be single-use-plastics in our lives – the stuff is so invidious – but we also knew that we could use less of it. So far, just over halfway through the month, we’ve had to empty our little plastics bin twice, decanting as much as possible into the recycling. And while that could feel dispiriting, almost all of it is either plastics we already had in the house, or the result of Ilse’s birthday party last weekend.

We actually bought very little single-use plastic for Ilse’s party. She was very keen on having ice cream to cool everyone down after a trip to the park, and as there’s no ice-cream stand near our house I went for the biggest, sturdiest tub I could find, with a view to reusing it afterwards. She also wanted soft, sesame-topped burger buns rather than the crustier rolls we usually buy, and they only came in plastic. Oh, and the butter for her cake came in plastic butter ‘paper’. Perfect? No. But not bad for an kid’s birthday party. In truth, the majority of plastic came with her gifts, and she was delighted to receive such thoughtful, personal presents. All in all, I think it was a success.

Other than that, I’ve long been the sort of person who cuts open tubes of toothpaste and bottles of moisturiser to get the very last bit out, and that packaging has gone into our bin. Bags of rice, packets of pasta… it’s amazing how quickly it all adds up when you start paying attention. However, John has had absolutely no trouble at all doing all our greengrocer, butcher, bakery and local shopping plastic free. For my part, our supermarket shopping looks very much like this:

 

So while we have emptied our plastics bin twice (decanting as much as possible into recycling), it is beginning to slow down. So much so, in fact, that we’ve been able to do a little bin reshuffle to reflect our aims.

I never thought I’d post a picture of our household bins online, but nor did I think I’d be declaring ice-cream purchases, so there you go. Allow me to introduce our little bins, from left to right. When we bought the blue bins at IKEA, many years ago, we’d already worked out that the smaller the bin the less rubbish you were likely to produce. Not only is it inconvenient to have to empty the bin more regularly, but it also makes me cringe. The bin on the left was our original rubbish bin, and its partner our compost caddy, until I had an epiphany and swapped them around. As a result, for many years we’ve had a landfill bin that takes a supermarket carrier bag, and tried to empty it just once a week, with varying levels of success. The wicker bin used to be a plastic-bag-lined bin in our bathroom, until it became our recycling bin (in which to carry things out to the garage and sort them into the council crates). The little Tanzanian basket on the right is our bathroom bin now.

Why, you might wonder, am I writing about our bins online? Lots of reasons, really. For a start, we’ve tried to align size with desirability. We’re most comfortable filling the biggest bin with old flowers and peelings, which gets carried to the end of the garden and composted. Next up is recycling, although we are well aware recycling isn’t really the solution. The smallest of the downstairs bins is for plastic – and, so far, none of these bins needs lining with even a reused bag. And now we’ve reached the point where our little bathroom bin is the recipient of only compostable stuff, so we’re lining it with newspaper and adding it to the compost heap.

The only rubbish that isn’t allowed for here is food waste. We genuinely do waste very little food – we’ve been working on that for years – but there are still some types of rubbish that I wouldn’t put in any of our bins. Mostly, to be honest, it’s old chicken bones, boiled up for stock after a roast. They’ll attract rats if I add them to the compost, and make a wet and smelly mess in our unlined wicker landfill bin. For now, I’ve lined a funny little drawer in the bottom of our freezer with newspaper, and the plan is to wait until it’s full, then put the frozen parcel out with the landfill on bin day. When we started Plastic Free July, none of us thought we’d be storing our waste in the freezer, but my wonderful family have just gone with it, as usual.

There have been a few unexpected benefits of our plastic-free endeavours. Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I have rekindled our interest in baking, making all sorts of bread (me) and cakes (the children). Afternoon tea has hit an all-time high in our house.

Bartenders feel inclined to top up my reusable cup with a little extra, once I’ve explained why I don’t want a plastic cup to take outside into these balmy evenings. I’ve also visited shops and parts of the supermarket I never went near before. The woman on the deli counter knows me now, and is delighted by how many of us are bringing our own containers in for cheese, olives and the like. The fishmonger helped me choose some absolutely delicious fish, which I later realised was not the most sustainable breed, but we live and learn, and we chose something different the next time. And it’s so nice to fill the fridge with food already decanted into your own containers, and not have to hunt down the scissors every time you make a meal.

With the end of term in sight, and summer trips on the horizon, we’re thinking ahead but I’m confident that we can do a pretty good job, even when we’re living out of our boot. No doubt there will be some plastic involved, but it’ll be less than it would have been ordinarily, and I’m happy with that for now. If I think about all our little wins, and all the other people around the globe similarly turning down one piece of plastic at a time, they begin to feel quite substantial. So at this point, just over halfway through the month, I’d say we’re winning, on balance. And this is just the start.

Madeleine

PS – Have you been taking part – formally or informally – in Plastic Free July? Do you have any wins you’d like to celebrate? I’d also love to hear about any tips you might have for plastic-free road trips…

Desert Island Discs: Something Changed

John and I had no business meeting each other. It really shouldn’t have happened: he was a starry PhD student in another subject, at another college, while I was still an undergraduate with rather a lot on my plate. Yet one June evening, a supervisor drove me out of Cambridge for dinner at a country pub, and on the way home he parked his car at the back of Trinity. We wandered back to St. John’s through Great Court and there we bumped into a friend of his, covered in chalk dust, an ice axe in each hand.

I’d come back from Syria, where I’d been having some time out, to spend May Week in Cambridge before returning for my final year the following October. At the end of year, after exams, there are a couple of weeks of pure fun: garden parties; May Balls that go on all night; dinners and punting and lazing around all day on the gloriously sunny Backs. My supervisor, seeing that I was smitten, invited me to his garden party the following afternoon as John was going to be there, and the rest, as they say, was history. I don’t think I’d ever had as much fun as we had in those first two sunny summer weeks. They remain in my mind as a time of pure happiness.

Although we didn’t listen to any Pulp during those first two weeks, I’m always reminded of them when I hear Something Changed. My whole life turned on a chance encounter on a golden Cambridge evening. Not just finding my life partner – although that would be enough – but finding my independence again. It’s all very well, believing in fate (I don’t), but even if you do, it’s what you do with your opportunities that counts. My whole life turned on the head of a pin in those two short weeks. In a funny way, I became myself again, free and unafraid.

I had a fantastic summer that year, diving in Australia and spending a couple of months with my parents in France and then Aleppo, Syria. When I returned to Cambridge in the October, John and I, who had been writing all summer, decided to make a go of it. I made new friends – through John but also, for the first time, through my course: proper friends, people who built me up. I started to take my studies seriously, spending my days tucked in a corner of the labyrinthine University Library, periodically meeting John for tea and scones in the cafe, and in the end I did rather well. When the time came to graduate, I didn’t want to leave. I loved those final twelve months, working and playing hard, encouraged and inspired by the people around me. They made what could have continued to be a very tough time not only manageable, but a joy.

If I think of my life as a series of events, the significant moments weighing heavy on an unbroken thread, that chance meeting was one such moment for me. How lucky I was, to bump into the love of my life just then, when I least expected it. It wasn’t just something that changed that day; it was everything.

Minor miracles

There’s a box in the kitchen that keeps distracting me with its cheeping. Under the heatpad are these little bundles of fluff.

Until now, we’ve got our hens either as point of lay pullets, or as rescue hens from the egg industry. We like both. With the pullets, there’s the excitement of seeing them come into lay. Their combs grow and redden and  their first small and sometimes strange eggs appear in the nest boxes. Over time, these sleek teenagers put on weight until, imperceptibly, they have grown into the characteristically fat hens lazing around the garden.

The rescue girls are fun too, although sometimes quite disturbing to look at on arrival. They tend to be overwhelmed by the most natural of things: rain, for example, or grass. Give them a couple of days, though, and they’re strutting their stuff and giving the established residents a run for their money.

I’m not sure what made me think of hatching eggs this time around. Perhaps we were just ready to try something new. Whatever the reason, we ordered some eggs in a variety of breeds, and an incubator, and diligently turned them for three weeks. Late last week we locked down the incubator and waited for something to happen until on Sunday morning we could hear cheeping and saw the first pipped egg.

Ilse set up her Chick Watch station (blanket, colouring pencils, book, drink) and settled in for the morning, but nothing happened. That afternoon we had a long standing arrangement to go to a barbecue, and when we got back we were greeted by this little one.

He alternately charged around the incubator like a tiny, ineffective T-Rex, before suddenly collapsing into sleep. You wouldn’t have imagined that such a fragile thing could make so much noise, but apparently the noise and movement encourages the others to hatch. It must have done some good, because at ten o’clock that evening Ben, Fliss, John and I were all glued to the incubator, watching the second chick unzip then push apart its egg. The following morning there were three in there, galumphing around, and I was sure that there would be more by the time the children were home from school.

Sadly, not all the chicks made it. Now I really know the meaning of the expression don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Some of them never made it to lockdown. Some of our chicks pipped but never unzipped. I followed the advice to sit on my hands and do nothing for most of the day, but when I knew that they were dying I decided to intervene and help the last little one out of its shell. I could see its beak, peeping  and breathing, but the movements were growing further apart. So, ever so slowly and gently, I used tweezers and cotton wool and a warm flannel to keep the membrane moist and soft and, over the course of some hours, hatched the last one myself. It flopped about in the incubator for a long time, so we left it in there alone to dry off, away from the others who were alternately charging around the brooder and toppling over on top of each other.

Twenty four hours later, the last chick joined its siblings and is holding its own with no problems at all, thank you very much. We’ve learned so much by doing this, and each new chick felt like a mini miracle. Of course I am sad about the ones that never hatched, but at least I know that I gave them my full attention and really did do my best. I’m also far more confident now about what to do should the same situation arise next time. Sitting at home alone, making decisions about what best to do to look after the tiny lives in my hands, the internet came to my rescue. There is such a wealth of information out there, compiled so generously by hobbyists who freely share their knowledge and expertise. Over the past month I’ve followed all avenues of the hatching debate: opinions on humidity, temperature, intervention and so forth. Then of course the unexpected happened and I found myself right back in those pages, having moved swiftly from I think it would be better to let nature take its course to this is probably a perfectly healthy chick that just needs a little help hatching. So really, this post is a celebration of all sorts of minor miracles – none of which are really miracles at all, in the true sense of the word. Yet they have stirred a sense of wonder and gratitude in me, so I think they deserve the name. The miracle of a fertilised egg turning to a chick in three short weeks. The miracle of watching life appear before my very eyes. And the generosity of people all around the world, posting what they know online so that their expertise is right there when we need it. Minor miracles indeed.

Introducing my sewing pattern project

Over the past decade or so, I’ve been learning to make my own patterns. It all started when Seb and Ilse were tiny and I was at home, looking after the children full time. I’d bought a sewing machine to make some curtains for our new home and thought I may as well have a go at making myself some clothes as well.

I did use a couple of commercial patterns, early on, but not many. They were never quite what I wanted. I’d have an idea of what I wanted to make and then spend ages poring over the catalogues, unable to find the matching pattern. So I stuck to simple shapes: A-line skirts and sundresses that I drafted for myself and made out of old sheets and charity shop finds. Sewing quickly turned into an inexpensive hobby for me, perfect for filling wintry nap-times. I could have been so bored during those three years at home, but learning a new skill helped to keep my mind active and engaged. (In fact, I also relearned how to knit during those years, and drafted two novels, and started growing vegetables. Apparently I like to be doing…)

The lightbulb moment came in York Central Library (as it was) one sunny June day. I adore libraries. The fact that anyone – anyone! – can just walk in and immerse themselves in books is one of the most wonderful gifts society can give its members. There I was, browsing the craft section, when I came across an old edition of Winifred Aldrich’s Metric Pattern Cutting for Women’s Wear. I’d never heard of it – I am entirely self-taught and my degree in Philosophy was a million miles from this new enthusiasm. But as I flicked through its pages, something clicked, and I suddenly realised that here, in my hands, was the key to making anything I wanted.

Having seen me renew the book umpteen times, John bought me a copy for Christmas, and I’ve not bought a pattern since. That’s probably not the most sensible thing to tell you, given that I’m hoping to sell my patterns through this space. But I know that those who will want to draft their own patterns will do just that, whatever I say, and those who don’t, won’t. Not everyone likes the maths and the technical drawings, the measuring and imagining of three-dimensional alterations to a block. I really do. I love the puzzle of it, working out how to translate the item in my head into a two dimensional diagram, then back again. It’s just another form of problem-solving, made all the more fun by fabric and print and finishes.

So over the past few weeks I’ve been taking some of my oldest and simplest patterns, and recreating them for sale. Without exception, they have been chosen because they fulfil two criteria. First, they are items that I’ve made over and again, because they are good-looking and easy to wear. Secondly, they are simple enough for the novice or returning dressmaker to create. Over the years, I’ve made several more complex patterns, but the ones I’m going to release first are the simple ones.

I thought it might be interesting for people to have an idea of what the process of creating a sewing pattern is like, so I’ve taken some pictures along the way. Of course, I’ve tested and worn all of these garments, so what I’m really doing at the moment isn’t creating new patterns, but just formalising and grading some of my old favourites.

The first thing I do is create a size 12 (US size 10, European size 40) block. This is the basic shape of a type of garment – a tailored skirt, for instance. You use a chart of standard measurements and follow a series of instructions to get a life size block in that size. The reason you start with a size 12 block for graded patterns is that it is the middle size (for my patterns, anyway) so that there is greater accuracy as you grade up and down from it.

Next, you trace the block off and manipulate it until it stops being a generic shape and takes on the form of the garment you want to create. Here, you can see that I’ve cut the tracing open to introduce more flare into the skirt, and moved the darts. You then trace this onto pattern paper. If you were making the pattern in just one size, you would stop here.

However, I’m making the patterns available in five sizes, which means grading them up and down from the size 12. There are several ways to do this. I use the cut and spread method, which means cutting up your pattern along certain lines and spreading it out before sticking it down and tracing it off again. For example, a size 14 waist is 4 cm larger than a size 12, so I have to work out how much to spread each of the vertical lines on the pattern to make the overall garment 4 cm bigger in that direction. It is both incredibly simple and breathtakingly effective.

 

Finally, you have to mark the pattern pieces with their names, grainline, position of pleats or buttons and so forth, before writing up a set of instructions to accompany it. In this form, the pattern can be used as it is. However, I’m going to release one each month from September (starting with a couple of free ones) and create video tutorials and photographs to help people along. I’m also going to host a Q&A page and a link up for everyone to share their finished garments, and will of course answer emails from anyone who needs a little extra help.

The truth is that garment making is one of those things that baffles lots of people for no good reason. It’s just a skill, like anything else. People used to make their own clothes all the time – it wasn’t seen as anything special. What I really want to do, more than anything, is demystify the process and, over the course of a few years, enable others to make the same journey that I did, from complete beginner to someone who sees an item of clothing and can go home and make one for themselves.

Madeleine

PS – Of course, this is just the process for the sewing patterns. Writing knitting  patterns is different, but equally satisfying. Can you knit and/ or sew? Do you make garments for yourself? If not, what would encourage you to get started?

Desert Island Discs: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

At nineteen I found myself starting my second year at Cambridge, four and a half thousand miles from home and the single mother of a three week old baby boy.

The music I’ve chosen for this section of my life is the second movement of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs:Lento e Largo – Tranquillissimo. After the horrors of the Second World War, Gorecki wrote a three piece symphony for solo soprano and orchestra. The second movement takes as its lyrics the words scratched on the wall of a Gestapo cell by eighteen year old Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna: O Mamo, nie płacz, nie. Niebios Przeczysta Królowo, Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie (Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, you support me always).

Of course I would never dream of comparing my situation to hers, or to the suffering of billions around the world even today. Mine were first world problems, I know. The reason I’ve chosen it is that it voices the profound loneliness I felt. As well as the physical isolation of the long summer vacations, stuck in Cambridge when everyone else had gone home or was travelling, I was alone in my situation.

Even now, twenty years on, I’ve never met anyone who shares my experiences. But I have met other people who have come through difficult times and remained positive about the future. Because as well as being a sorrowful song, the piece I’ve chosen is also a bold one, and full of faith.

Waterlog

Each time of year has its antidote. In the dull damp cold of January it is whisperings of spring, of gardens awakening. In October it is tales of cosiness to come, with cold toes and shortened evenings pushed firmly to the margins. In July, it is water, and nature, and calm.

This time of year inevitably builds to a frenzy, with end of year assemblies, visit days to new schools, sports days, school plays, music concerts, holiday planning, and social visits that somehow didn’t happen earlier in the year. People are coming and going from the house at all sorts of strange times, for the day, or a night, or a couple of weeks in France. There are invitations to field and fit, like temporal tetras, into the family calendar. On top of that, I’ve been working full time, coupling my days at work with my own project at home – the beginnings of my business and rebirth of this blog – so that the usual rhythms of July days at home have been reassigned to the busy hours which bookend my working days.

While my days at home are spent writing and drafting paper sewing patterns, I’ve saved my knitting for the evenings. After a day bent over the dining table, measuring and drawing and doing sums, it is a joy to sit on the sofa in the kitchen and watch the chickens make their evening rounds while I add a few rows to my design. In all, I’m pulling together five sewing, four knitting and one embroidery project together for my first pattern collection. The idea is that I’ll release one a month, and support each with video tutorials, link ups and FAQs. This first year of projects is designed to help new sewers and knitters build both a capsule wardrobe and a repertoire of key skills at the same time, so that they can make clothes which are both achievable and beautiful.

Of course, the simpler something is, the more work goes into making it so. The little cast on of green is the beginning of a doll-sized shawl, one fifth the size of the actual design. I had started the real thing before deciding to test my pattern in a smaller format, to save time in case it didn’t turn out as I wanted it to – it’s going to be a crescent shawl with exceptionally simple shaping, and I’ve not seen one like it before. Should it work – and I think it will – the practice shawl will be a gift for Ilse, to wrap around her toy kitty.

Now that I’ve calculated the arcs and angles and figured out my gauge, I’ll have the pleasure of knitting through this little shawl over the next few evenings, Wimbledon on in the background, until it’s time for bed. But the tireder I get, the harder it is to sleep. I find this every year in July: there is so much to think about and do, so many decisions to make and hot stuffy days at work that it is hard to put my mind at rest. I have a little repertoire of antidotes, for this. The pre-sleep knitting helps, even if it’s just a few rows. This weekend I will bring in the lavender, which I’ll hang from our wooden ceiling airers and we will all drop off the moment our heads hit our pillows, lulled by its soporific scent. Most effective of all, though, is reading.

I always read before I go to sleep, but the book I find myself returning to again and again in these tricky July days is Roger Deakin’s Waterlog. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it; I tend to dip in and out of it, paddling randomly in and out of his outdoor swimming journey around Britain. There is something immensely soothing about nature writing. Reading it is like going home, or being hugged, or perhaps it is simply the literary equivalent of a long walk through green fields. Simple tales about what is both extraordinary and what has always been: training a hawk; courting hares; wild swimming through Britain’s landscape. These are the books that I fall asleep in, their cool waters closing over my head until I am a water baby myself, dreaming of clean skin and cool pastures.

When I opened this book, last week, I found a feather inside, bookmarking the middle of a chapter. I must have broken off, halfway through a bathe in its refreshing pages. I picked another and started to read, until sweet sleep overtook me and before I knew it, a new day had dawned.

Madeleine

Joining in with Ginny’s Yarn Along at Small Things

PS – What is July normally like, for you? I suspect that it varies tremendously, depending on whether you have children and whether they are still waiting to break up for the summer holidays.

The Plastic Age

3 July 1933

When I was a child, learning history in school, we went back beyond the Spanish Armada, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kings and queens, beyond Boudica and Alexander the Great and the Hittite rulers to what my teacher used to refer to as The Ages. These Ages were indefinably long and unimaginably long ago. First came the Stone Age, cold and uncomfortable to our childish minds, without eiderdowns or kettles or books. The Bronze Age was next, and then the Iron Age, bringing war in the form of swords and spear tips – as if they hadn’t existed before. It was all such a muddle of materials and history, dinosaurs and cavemen rolled into one impossible account. As I child, all I could imagine were the things those people didn’t have, and how their lives must have had kettle- and eiderdown-shaped holes. Now, of course, I understand that new materials bring new technology and that it is the subsequent possibilities that matter and change the world for ever.

Lately, though, after whole history books of materials staying largely the same, we have entered a new Age: the Plastic Age. We’ve had these queer, malleable products for some time now – even my grandfather had a MacIntosh coat. I grew up with India rubber-soled shoes and bouncing balls. Increasingly, though, there are new plastics available. There are three pairs of luxurious rayon stockings in my drawer, cheaper than silk but just as smart. I have a dress and a blouse in washing silk. It was slippery to cut and sew but such a delight to wear: lightweight and smooth and elegant. It isn’t as though I wouldn’t have had a blouse or a pair of silk stockings before – of course I did. But now, when I would have worn a cotton blouse, I can choose a silky one instead for a fraction of the cost of real silk. There are cheaper alternatives to rubber products, which don’t disintegrate due to grease and sunlight. There are vinyl records behind the sliding doors of the gramophone cabinet, next to the more brittle shellac. And our new telephone is bakelite, which is as weightless as its name suggests.

It seems as though the pace of plastics is accelerating all the time. I wonder, did the people of the Bronze Age feel the same about small shifts in their technology? Only yesterday John came home with some Scotch tape that he’d been testing at the factory – a sticky plastic strip for holding parcels closed. Before, there was nothing wrong with string, but it suddenly feels second-rate. I wonder what will be next – our bags? Our books? The pots and pans in my kitchen?

It is remarkable how many things can be made from these new materials. We see them in and about the house, and they make little improvements to our lives, but I wonder about how they might be used in hospitals and schools and – heaven forbid – another war. If I think of Now as the Plastic Age, rather than just 1933, it puts me in mind of the evolution of the sword and the cannon and, finally, the machine gun. And then I have to remind myself of the stove, and the motor car, and the wheelchair. I suppose there aren’t such things as good or bad materials. Their virtue depends entirely on what we make from them.

Cecily

PS – I was trying to imagine how Cecily would feel about the advent of plastics. They were beginning to sell in the 1930s, and then the Second World War happened and it was after the war that they really took off as consumer goods. I suspect she would have felt the way a lot of people felt about the internet – aware of its possibilities, but also aware of its dangers and limitations in a vague, nameless sort of way. Or maybe I’m wrong, and she would have just embraced them wholeheartedly. I am by no means an expert on the topic – it’s just a little thought experiment. What do you think?

PPS – I’ve very deliberately included some naturally derived materials in Cecily’s post. We don’t think of rubber, shellac, rayon and the like as ‘plastics’ today, but apparently they did, back then. Plastic means ‘malleable’ (hence ‘plastic surgery’), and so all these new malleable materials were included under the same name.

Desert Island Discs: Find the River

After three years in Jordan, we moved back to Dar es Salaam, where we stayed for five more years before I left home for university. Returning somewhere is a strange experience. Nothing is quite as you left it. The student body of international schools is constantly shifting, so that the people you left behind will often have moved on themselves. New faces take their place. Most of all though, is the change that takes place in you, and the shift from age ten to thirteen is a dramatic one.

Still, though all the buildings had shrunk and the number of familiar faces dwindled, there were widening horizons to explore. No longer content to hang out on the school campus, time was spent at friends’ houses or at the beach or, when I was a little older, at the Yacht Club (which sounds far posher than it was). Nonetheless, I did have a little sailing dinghy – a secondhand Laser – and we spent most weekends messing about on the water, racing each other, crewing for friends’ parents on their Wayfarers or catamarans, and eating junk food in the bar. We sailed through great swarms of white, plate-like jellyfish, and occasionally alongside dolphins. For a time, our favourite thing to do was to put a sandwich and bottle of water in the little watertight cubbies at the front of our boats and sail out to Bongoyo Island for a day of lazing in the sun. We had tropical beaches and reefs on our doorstep, and I quite naturally transferred my love of horses to the sea.

Of course school was school, as it is wherever you grow up, but life around the edges was rich with new experiences. There were family safaris and then, as I got older, safaris with friends. Although I never had a car, several of my friends had use of their parents 4x4s and I will never forget our trip to camp in the Usambara mountains, which were then almost totally cut off from the world we knew. We lit a fire, stored our food carefully to avoid attracting unwanted animals and spent the evening diving into plunge pools of icy mountain water. The following morning I ventured upstream, picking my way over boulders, only to look up and find myself completely surrounded by a troop of baboons. They looked at me for a while and, thankfully, went on their way. It took some time for my pulse to return to normal.

Then there were school trips. The most exciting was the Kilimanjaro climb, for which we took long practice walks along the coastline. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, but scaling most of its 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) is nothing more technical than a very long walk. You do, however, ascend extremely quickly and the altitude sickness can be quite a challenge. In the end, I never made Uhuru peak – I was just too ill. I did make it all the way to the last of the huts, but I just missed out on the final dawn ascent. One of my very favourite things about that climb though, was the chameleons. They were absolutely everywhere on the lower slopes, with their roving eyes and grippy opposing toes, and I must admit that we did test their colour-changing abilities on our waterproofs…

If I had to choose just one album to sum up those teenage years, it would have to be R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. I heard it first in a friend’s bedroom and still have it, downloaded from CD onto iTunes, and it is still a favourite. I could have chosen so many tracks for this part of my life – Nightswimming would have been quite obvious – but Find the River sums up my impatience and wonder and longing to find my own path through the world.

Recently I was having a conversation with someone who knows Tanzania, and he commented that he couldn’t think of a nicer country in which to grow up. It is so gentle, so serene, so relaxed and conflict free. Of course, as a kid you never appreciate how lucky you are. I can remember my last few weeks so vividly – exams over we would gather at Coco’s beach bar for late-night bouts of monopoly punctuated by dips in the moonlit sea. I had a vague sense that something was coming to an end, but more than that I was impatient to be moving on, beginning something new. Within a year I would so have been so happy to have gone back and sat on that terrace in front of a dukah, sipping beer and worrying about nothing more pressing than the next roll of the dice. But then, I was so busy waiting for life to begin that I didn’t realise how much of it was coming to an end.

Madeleine

PS That’s me, in the white hat with the blue brim. We were in one of the huts, partway up Kili. Do you have a photo or song that takes you right back to your teenage years?