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As Time Goes By: Whispers

Eileen Perrin tells of her life-long infatuation with words.

To read earlier episodes of Eileen's life story please click on As Time Goes By in the menu on this page.

It is said that whispers in a child’s mind are an influence lasting through life. I believe it. What did Wordsworth write in his “Intimations of Immortality” if it was not about these hints and clues?

My love affair with words began when I was small and in my pushchair, recognising names on shop fronts - funny-sounding names like Talintyre the grocers, and Allardyce’s the bakers, and the drum-rolling Home and Colonial.

At table, reading the labels on jars: the rigmarole of Keiller’s Dundee Marmalade Established 1797, and the fable of Lyle’s Golden Syrup -“Out of the Strong came forth Sweetness “ under the picture of a lion.

Then there was my illustrated book of Nursery Rhymes, and the party games - ‘Oranges and Lemons’. I loved chanting that ending with the great bell of B-O-W and savouring its sound, shaped round in my mouth.

My childhood party-piece recitation was popular for some time, until I outgrew it.

I’m sitting on the doorstep
And I’m eating bread and jam
And I’m not a-crying really
Though I ‘spects you think I am.

On the classroom wall in the Infants’ School more words. UMBRELLA and ZEBRA were favourites.

The laborious printing-out letters with chalk on a slate. Then pencils and paper, and in the Big Girls, pen, ink and joined-up writing, loopey-loops and swanning S’s. Inkwells filled by the ink monitor. The realisation that ink just doesn’t wash off. No, it doesn’t.

This early love of words took hold of me, firing my imagination. Christmas cards, ‘Thank-you’ letters a story written with my first fountain pen in an exercise book, about ‘The Little Red Elf’, or should it be goblin or dwarf I wondered.

Truth to tell, I never finished it.

Lost to the world in a book, in the still quiet moments, I recognised strange affinities with the sea, with trees, with Scotland.

I learned the words of old songs from Minstrel shows, Mum’s Band of Hope concerts and the Music Hall, whispering them to myself in bed, watching the night-light’s steady flame throw the gas bracket’s shadow on the ceiling, with the barely-discernible shivering ellipse of its thin glass shade.

Mum had taught me to ‘sing’ all the books of the Bible - the Old testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, ending with Nahum, Habbucach, Zephaniah, Haggi, Zacharia, Malachi, and the New testament from Matthew to Revelations. This I did in the darkness, as sleep came, trailing dreams of what might have been.

Did I find it in my genes? From those circus showmen- ‘Roll up, roll up! See startling feats on horseback. See the spangled troupe perform on the high trapeze.

Much later, starting work in 1939, I was reading poems every day on the train into war-scarred London, and back again at night. Writing scores of letters, keeping in touch. Singing songs from films and shows in long hours of dark after the siren had sounded.

I went about noticing all the lovely things unchanged by war, from sparkly frost-edged privet leaves, spiders webs in the dew, starry nights (never so clear as when London was blacked-out) and recorded them in a notebook. I asked people for their most cherished memories and wrote them down in another book.

As war ended, I married and had two little ‘uns. Stories at bedtime, Three Little Pigs and Winnie the Pooh. Helped them choose names for dolls and teddies and the two tortoises - Fred Fruit and Nellie Nut.

As they grew, I led them to see things that are there for us no matter what else is taken. Learning with them bird and plant names; laughing over pee-wit and mouse-eared chickweed in those first Somerset summer holidays, remembered still by us all.

The gift of words, lovingly to conjure with them, in fantasy and fun, in pantomimes, plays, poems and school songs brought home to sing.

All the while, through the life I led, there were subtle hints with no time for heeding them, until one day, leaving my place of work, with its two hours travelling every day, lunches to pack, schedules to keep, meticulous attention to things to be remembered, dealt with and completed, I found my own time had come.

The opportunity to relax from tight time-keeping, perhaps to let go of well-tried plans which had ordered the best use of precious time.

“And how to let her out - the child inside who knows no time...'' - Herbert Lomas

The bounty I had created, this wealth of expression, destined to be drawn out of misty memory to weave into patterns in the stuff of life, - my life.

At last my long-felt want led me to join a writing class, an outlet for the store I had put by. Gradually I wrote out all my misgivings and worries. Anxieties faded in a renewal of life.

If only I had found the time to be aware of those quiet murmurs and insistent whispers, I might have made time earlier to give myself up to the delight I always craved.

Now, come full circle, I am caught up in not so much a surprise ending to years of wondering what I really wanted to do with my life, but the satisfaction that there’s no longer any need to whisper.


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