Off the shelf

27th December 1996 at 00:00
Something about the season makes this a good time to look at one or two of those warm-hearted books of memories that cross my desk in a steady stream. All that I Was (Mousehold Press, Victoria Cottage, Constitution Opening, Norwich NR3 4BD, Pounds 4.95) is Eric Austen's account of his childhood in Norfolk in the Thirties.

It has a foreword by Richard Hoggart, who writes, "Eric Austen brings a particularly strong and still almost childlike sense of wonder, and this sharpens his powers of ordered observation." So it does. Here he writes of delivering bread in a van with his father in the school holidays: "The lovely stuff was still hot and its warm breath wafted through to where I sat. It was the smell of happiness, saturated with my father's love for me and mine for him." This is a beautiful book, and it has lots of bits that you could use in school.

A School in the Hills by Katharine Stewart (The Mercat Press, 53 South Bridge, Edinburgh EH1 1YS, Pounds 8.99) has many of the same qualities.

The school of the title is in Abriachan, near Loch Ness. Once famous for its Gaelic choir, it closed in the fifties, while Katharine's daughter was one of the last two pupils there. Katharine, now in her eighties and still living nearby uses the story of the school as a vehicle for her history of the area, told with many anecdotes of people and sometimes surprising events. "One lovely morning a young man called Peter Watkins came to the door to tell us he was about to make a film of the battle of Culloden. 'Come in!' we said, opening the door wide in welcome."

Also from Scotland comes the delightfully titled Is there a Sphygmomanometerist in the House? by Frank Livingstone Sinclair (Scottish Cultural Press, PO Box 106, Aberdeen AB11 7ZE, Pounds 6.95). Frank Sinclair was a maths and science teacher until 1983, and for most of that time wrote witty poems about his work, his colleagues, his hobby (angling).

In the Fifties, he featured regularly in the New Statesman's famous literary competitions. One such asked for "the bird's reply to the poet" (for example, the raven's reply to Poe). Sinclair's entry, "The Owl's Reply to Gray", reproduced here, achieved modest fame, and made the pages of Penguin's Comic and Curious Verse. It ends, "You heard me call my love to share a mouse, For that's our owlish way, to wit, to woo."

On the evidence of the 40 or so poems in this collection, put together by his son, Frank Sinclair was a witty, erudite and decidedly non-pompous man. Take his poems on a train journey, and you will be able to have one of those chuckles that intrigues other passengers. A sphygmomanometer, by the way, measures blood pressure, and the book's title is from a jolly poem about interruptions during a science lesson.

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