Which stories from books do you remember most fondly from your childhood? I read anything I could lay my hands on – fairy tales, short stories, whatever. I loved words. There were not many books available. It was an escape. I remember in particular Maciej, a man who, with his partner, were sheltering me in return for payment, reading me ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin’. Later on, after his mother-in-law had taught me to read and I was in an orphanage I soaked up the tale of ‘Oliver Twist’; his suffering echoed my own in so many respects, but it diverted me from my own woes and engaged my sympathy for his plight. Later still, when I had access to a much depleted library next door to where I was living, I loved the books of Arthur Ransome with their stories of children, islands and boats, and most of all, that vital ingredient to their diet, pemmican. I didn’t know what pemmican was and was most disappointed when I became aware that it was tinned corned beef.
Which type of books do you now most enjoy? I enjoy books about life – books which make me think, the depth of characters. I dislike violence. I also enjoy reading cookery books. I still use some Polish recipes, but have been more addicted to the TV chefs of the day, authors such as Delia Smith, Lorraine Pascal and Sophie Grigson. In general, I read the books selected by the reading group of retired teachers from Aylesbury High School; books by award-winning present-day authors of fiction.
What was the most interesting fact you discovered when writing this book? The most interesting fact I discovered when writing my memoir was an extract from the testament of a holocaust survivor from Przemysl who describes the selection by the Nazis in the town square of Jews who were to be transported to the camps, and certain death, on that day. My presence there is recorded and what happened to me, though I have absolutely no memory of this event. That has been blanked out.
What was the best thing about writing this book? I discovered that I could face the horrors of the past in a less emotional and more rational way. It also brought me and my god-daughter back together after many years; it is no exaggeration to say that without her input and editorship, this book would never have been accepted for publication.
Do you incorporate any traditions from your heritage into your life? Very few. My early youth was not exactly joyful. When I was 8 years old I was brought to Britain – Scotland, Wales, then England. My newly married parents resolved to speak only English and to become members of the Church of England. My brother was born in this country. I had a grammar school education and then went to Nottingham University where I studied English Literature. I am as British as anyone who was born here. The only characteristic that remains from those early days is a great insecurity and a heightened aversion to violence of any kind.
What do your bookshelves at home look like – where are they and how do you arrange your books? My study, our second bedroom, and my husband’s study, the third bedroom, are surrounded with bookshelves, generally from floor to ceiling, except where we need space to put our desks, a chair apiece and our computers and printers. They are in order of author alphabetically but we do have separate sections for cookery books and travel guides and maps. They are generally kept fairly tidy though I don’t always put a book back in the correct place (I’m told!)
Do you have a favourite museum or art gallery? Living in Oxford, I am spoiled for choice where museums are concerned. History of Science, Pitt Rivers, Natural History are all favourites. However, because we worked as volunteers for some years in the Ashmolean, this tends to be our first port of call. Since its reconstruction a few years back, it really is first class. I suppose the Egyptian and Oriental galleries we like the best – but is that just because they are the ones our grandchildren loved? They loved the other museums too – the shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers, the dodo and the dinosaurs in the Natural History museum, the fact that cadavers were cut up in the basement on Broad Street. Looking farther afield, we like the V&A and the National Gallery, though I have to admit to being a Philistine when it comes to art appreciation; modern art is usually beyond my understanding.
When you go into a bookshop, which department do you head straight to? I usually visit a bookshop with a purpose and not just to browse, but if that is the object then I tend to head for the fiction department. However, I am not one of those who eschews the Kindle! I like my Kindle. I can get any book within seconds of ordering it. I can adjust the size of the font. I can read it at night without disturbing my husband. Its (faux) leather cover feels to me just like a leather cover to the traditional version. And most important, when I travel abroad, I don’t have to carry weighty piles of books with me and I don’t have to hunt for books written in English.
What gives you joy? My family gives me joy. My husband and two daughters have put up with my insecurities and my up and down volatility for so many years. I think they forgive me for that. Our elder daughter lives not too far away with her husband Richard and her two children, Alice and Edward – all so far happy and successful in what they do. Our younger daughter Kay lives in Tennessee, a very long way away. She and her husband Todd have two girls, Molly and Ashley, now fast approaching university. We are sad to be so far apart as with the best will in the world one loses track with the events of their daily lives. The fact that we are technologically incompetents doesn’t help. Nevertheless we take joy in every one of their achievements in life. Apart from family, friends are very important to me and I enjoy cooking and entertaining. I enjoy travel – Canada, Japan, South America, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and still lots more to visit. I enjoy going to the theatre, cinema and concerts – I have been going to productions at Stratford-upon-Avon for nearly 60 years.
What are you working on next? I am working on a book entitled ‘Don’t Travel Like a Cabbage’.
Read my review of ‘Let Me Tell You A Story’ here.