Where I Was, Diana Hendry
Mariscat Press, 2020 £6.00
When every room was a world
Rooms are never more significant than in childhood, or more closely observed. In Where I Was, Diana Hendry shows us various rooms in the house where she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s. She does so with a child-like clarity and immediacy, achieved partly by use of the present tense.
It’s as if, under hypnosis, she is taken back seventy years or so and becomes the child she was. The sensory details are striking, particularly the smells — a wet gabardine on a hook under the stairs, the leather upholstery of the family car, her sister’s apple blossom perfume, her mother’s 4711.
To a child, a room is a world to be discovered. And if the room is somewhere we shouldn’t really be, or has drawers and cupboards we’re not supposed to open, the exploration is all the more exciting. Whenever I went to my aunt’s house as a child, I always spent far too long in the bathroom, because the little wall-cabinet was full of the sort of exotic treasures my mother never had the time or inclination for: perfumes, lotions, eye-shadows, mascaras, rouge and powder compacts. I would apply discreet touches and hope no-one noticed. The poem, ‘Her Room’ (in this case, about entering an older sister’s room), took me right back:
You walk –
you can’t help it – over tutus of net
petticoats, satin somethings, lacy
undies, drawn by magic to the tools
of beauty – lipstick, powders,
scarlet varnish, inky mascaras,
You’ll never be ten again.
The feeling of post-war, suburban claustrophobia is reminiscent of Philip Larkin, although the tone is quite different. In ‘Mother in the kitchen’ we see the poet’s mother smoking a cigarette ‘while cooking his breakfast’. Mother is, of course, wearing a pinny:
O happy pinny!
Pinny of mummydom!
Pinny of wifeliness!
Let’s get out of here. Put on
your lippy and your mink.
I knew this world too, in all its narrowness, and all its wonders. It’s perfectly captured in these gemlike poems.
Small details; vast change
The blurb of Where I Was describes the pamphlet as a ‘portrait’ of the house where the poet grew up. However, these poems achieve more than simple nostalgia. Through small details of style and substance, they capture not only a childhood, but also a moment of significant historical change.
‘Before Us’ (the opening piece) plunges the reader straight into action by opening on a conjunction: ‘And so we came to this English village’. Throughout, Hendry uses grammatically incomplete, snappy sentences to create a sense of momentum. In ‘Hoylake 3594’, for example, a teenager tells her friend over the telephone
That I have absolutely nothing to wear.
That no-one else has such awful parents.
That I can’t wait to leave home.
Elsewhere, too, Hendry uses lists to invoke speed and movement. In ‘From the window’, each sentence begins with a definite (or sometimes indefinite) article — ‘The Catholic Church’, ‘The sandhills’, ‘The seagulls’ (italics mine).
Consistently, the domestic is revealed as political. ‘What is it about gardens?’ asks one poem:
It seems someone has chosen to cut
the countryside up into patches so that
everyone — well, everyone with money —
can buy one.
From her subject matter to the structure of her sentences, Hendry creates a poetry that’s constantly on the move. These are poems about growing up, where a childhood home becomes a microcosmic reflection of societal upheaval. Taken together, the poems comprise a portrait of a time when a home telephone was still an ‘objet d’art’ (‘Hoylake 3594’) and the ‘new television’ was hidden in ‘a discreet cupboard’ (‘In the Sitting Room’).
Hendry writes about the past poignantly but without sentimentality. With lightness of touch and understated skill, she uses small details to depict rapid changes in both individuals and society.
The shared past
There is something about headscarves ...
I can’t read about a woman in a headscarf without seeing my mother, and the way she knotted hers firmly under her chin. They kept her safe. Inviolate, no less. They preserved her permed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life hair. Fashions changed. Headscarves vanished. But my mother never ever relinquished hers.
So reading about Diana Hendry’s mother, for me, is pure time travel. There she is —
out in the scullery putting on
an old mac and headscarf for the journey
across the yard to the shed
for buckets of coal, hods of anthracite.
[‘Mother in the kitchen’]
Whoosh. I’m back there. The word ‘scullery’ summons the dampish smell of the room where my mother did her washing, its stone (or maybe concrete) floor, the mangle for wringing out towels and sheets, the great shallow sink, usually with something sitting in it waiting to be washed (rhubarb, apples, jam pans), the heavy back door with its giant bolts and huge rattly key, and the old macs hanging on metal hooks.
And on the other side of the door, the icy path to the coke store. In the 1950s, the insides of houses were arctic in winter. And yes, we had a ‘hod’ for carrying fuel in. How can one word evoke so much? I haven’t used the word ‘hod’ in decades!
So we hauled in hods of ‘coke’ which we heaved into my grandmother’s kitchen stove. Our coal was in the cellar and we lugged it up the stone stairs in a coal scuttle. And right enough, it was the women who mostly did the lugging: my mother, my grandmother, my sister, me.
But most of all it’s the headscarf that takes me back. If I lift one of my mother’s (she left me many) and knot it under my chin, the feeling of nostalgia’s almost overwhelming.
It’s a mystery to me how some of the words from your past turn into neat poetry, like coal pressurised into diamonds.
In Where I Was, Diana Hendry knows the right words to work the magic. She summons our shared past.
I wallow unashamedly.