A much nicer photo I think. This was taken at my father’s birthday/namesday party in 2013. June 22.
A much nicer photo I think. This was taken at my father’s birthday/namesday party in 2013. June 22.
A tribute on the day of his funeral
Zbyszek has always been part of my life – he was my father’s best friend, best man at both his weddings, his adviser and supporter, and my Godfather. This was a role he took extremely seriously, never forgetting to sign himself off to me with this title. I would like to say I remember him at my Christening because I was quite old at the time (over two years old), but I don’t. I do however remember him being there when I was learning to walk. I have this vision of him and my father in a park somewhere standing a few feet apart, pushing me gently to take a few steps from one to another.
He and my father were extremely close. They spent some of the war years together at Monte Cassino and afterwards in Rome, and then they ended up in London together. They lived in Chelsea, in beautiful Royal Avenue, until my father decided to get married and my mother moved in. This meant that Zbyszek had to move out – and so began his life of becoming a man of independent means.
He was an extremely hard worker, very thrifty and very wise with his money. He made some good investments and often encouraged my father to do the same.
He worked very hard yet he had time for other passions. While he was still studying in London, he supported himself by playing the violin for a dance band in Hammersmith Palais. This wasn’t necessarily the musical career his parents had hoped for when they sent him to the Poznan Conservatoire before the war, but it was the most charming part of him. I used to love it on Christmas Eve – which he always spent with us – when the moment came for him to take out the violin and play Christmas carols, which we would sing with cacophonous gusto – my grandmother – Zbyszek actually called her Mama, which just goes to show how close he was to us, my father and I. We had terrible voices, so it must have hurt his very musical ears, but he persevered. This tradition went on for many years.
I am not sure how interested he was in sport, but he indulged my father’s obsession, as he had a TV and my father did not. My most enduring memory is of the 1966 World Cup which they made me sit through as there was nothing else to do. 22 men running around the field and two men getting more and more excited next to me. I could not tell what was going on, as it was all so small and in black and white, but my two fathers shouting encouragement and expressing despair and hope in turns, was unforgettable.
In 1959 he changed his name from Zbigniew Szczepanski to Robert Edward Gordon and was known thereafter as Reggie. Or affectionately just as Gordon. Like rock stars he was known to many people just by the one name. Fame indeed.
When I was a child he was always very special to me. He was the first person I knew who had a car – he used to take us to Richmond Park on Sundays. He was the first person who had a film camera and many a Sunday afternoon was spent watching excruciating little films of us doing “things”. I’d love to see those films now though. He was the first person who had a TV and then the first person who had a TV with a remote control which was attached to the set by a thick brown cable. And of course he was the first and only person I knew who had a swimming pool in his back garden! Shame I can’t swim!
For many years throughout my childhood, he and Jean, his first wife, would take me to the pantomime at the Palladium. We would go to dinner before, usually to the Strand Palace Hotel, where they would be amazed about how much I could eat, and then to the front row of the stalls, because Jean liked to be close up. This tradition continued until well into my thirties when he would take Jacek too. The most memorable trip was going to see Paul Daniels at the Savoy when both Jacek and I were called up onto the stage. Embarrassing indeed. But memorable.
When we first got married we were living in one room in Gordon Road ( not named after him). This was obviously much too small so Zbyszek very kindly suggested that we could live in a flat he owned in South Ealing, above his office. This was a godsend, and we stayed there for over three years, while Jacek restored a cottage in Ealing Broadway. Zbyszek and his staff in the office would be extremely helpful when Kasia was born – we had the most enormous pram which took up all the space in the entrance hall, and everyone had to squeeze past it, clients and friends, but no one ever seemed to mind.
Zbyszek was born a week after Poland became a free nation after the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of the first ever Poles. He just about attained maturity at 21 when the Second World War began and his life plans as a musician were ruined. For 77 years, thereafter he made the best of things, never tiring of work, of life, or love.
He had a fantastic memory to the end – he was always interested in everyone and remembered the slightest detail.
Of course, now I regret that I didn’t talk to him enough about his past. He was the last person who knew me as a child and now sadly he has gone.
Alert to the last, he leaves his widow Maja and his friends a legacy of good example of diligence, consistency and loyalty.
May he rest in peace.
Apple Charlotte is one of my favourite foods. Szarlotka in Polish it has a magical texture of just cooked apples, syrupy liquid which has not quite solidified on a crumbly sweet pastry base. Delicious. Not to be confused with the Polish cocktail szarlotka which is a heady mixture of bisongrass vodka and apple juice. Not for me, but if you like that sort of thing…
Charlotte as a name conjures up many memories from my childhood, though. It wasn’t a popular name in the fifties but I remember reading a book when I was very small called Lottie and Lisa by Erich Kastner, about a pair of twins whose parents got divorced. The book was full of their adventures and plans to get their parents together again. So far so good. Because they were twins I did not relate the story to my own experience at all.
And then my father asked me if I wanted to see a film With Hayley Mills in it. I had already been to the cinema once to see “Pollyanna” which I loved, so of course I said yes. And off we went to see “The Parent Trap”. And then it hit me. This was a film about me. No twin. Just me. And my parents who were going through the most acrimonious split.
I remember emerging from the cinema in a state of utter shock – whatever the message of this children’s s film was, it wasn’t a positive one for me. Which was a shame as I adored Hayley Mills.
The best Charlotte I have ever heard of is the one who had the most beautiful villa and gardens dedicated to her- the Villa Carlotta in by lake Como. She was the daughter of princess Marianne of Nassau who was given it as a wedding present when she married Georg ll of Saxen-Meiningen. Every year when we go to Italy we make a little pilgrimage there because it is the most gorgeous and romantic house on the edge of the lake, and the gardens are stunning in their variety and colour.
And lastly the name Charlotte conjures up one of the loveliest experiences in my life: one of my closest friends from my school days came to visit when my eldest daughter was about two. Kasia was the sweetest and funniest little toddler and knew how to charm. And charm she did. Apparently my friend went home that evening, decided she wanted one of her own, dumped her boyfriend, acquired a new one whom she married, and proceeded to have a sprog of her own. Little Charlotte! I haven’t ever actually seen her, as they emigrated to the US but maybe one day I will. Won’t tell her the story, though.
I love coffee. I have been drinking instant coffee since I was five and the real stuff since I went to Spain when I was seventeen. A delightful addiction, I like it strong and black, though when I was little my mother used to pour in lots of Carnation milk (made from the milk of contented cows) and loads of sugar. I gave up the sugar one Lent when I was about thirteen and stopped putting in any kind of milk about five years ago. But the aroma of freshly opened coffee spells a sort of grown up magic – mainly because it jolts me awake at five every morning and then again at five in the afternoon. Lovely. I did try giving it up altogether about twenty years ago, but the withdrawal symptoms for the first week were excruciating. So, no success.
When I went to Poland when I was eleven with my father I was so unhappy because no one would believe that I actually drank coffee. I think it added grist to everyone’s mill, trying to convince my father that my mother was a bad mother as she indulged this peculiar taste. But to give him his due, he never stopped me drinking it when I was with him. So – in Poland they tried to fob me off with INKA – some disgusting brew probably made from third grade acorns – the ones they wouldn’t give to pigs to eat. I don’t know.
All I remember it was dark and acrid and had milk with skin on it. Almost as bad was the cocoa they tried to give me instead. Yuck.
So coffee it is, instant, freshly ground, whatever. And so to the coffee machine. When I was still at primary school my parents acquired a beautiful Cona coffee machine, which I loved as it was a bit like a sand timer, with the black liquid pouring slowly from the top bulb to the bottom. It had a very sensuous shape, like a fat figure of eight if you looked at it head on – which I often did as it was at about my eye level. It was a bit of a palaver to use apparently and they went out of fashion for many years. Then one day I was dying for a coffee at Ealing Broadway station, and suddenly came across a tiny kiosk with a few sandwiches and cakes – and a Cona machine. I couldn’t resist, and the coffee was wonderful. And half the price of Caffe Nero or Costa or whatever the big brands are.
My husband, on the other hand, only drinks espresso ristretto, and has been craving a machine to make it with, with as much steam and noise as possible. I wouldn’t dare choose such a dragon myself, so a few Christmases ago I wrote him a lovely IOU saying that would be my present to him. He never got round to buying himself one, and I forgot all about it – then this year he gave up the chance for good. He asked if he could exchange all his IOUs – there have been a few – for a new machine that he can do some fancy woodwork with. Never have I seen a man so animated as when talking about the parts for his new machine, which he is designing and building bit by bit, and all for the price of a coffee machine or two!
By Philip Hensher.
Andrzej gave me this book for Mother’s Day last year. It’s a book about handwriting, of all things. Very significant, I thought, as he has the most beautiful handwriting – or at least he did when he was at primary school – it’s changed a bit since then, I think, and mine is absolutely terrible. All over the place, changing in size and direction depending on the degree of my absent mindedness or general concentration; annoying, really, because I actually believe in its importance educationally, and teach its practice with some passion.
So, this book was going to be of more than passing interest.
I read it slowly – it doesn’t have much “story” – so I read it bit by bit interspersed with many novels over the last eight months. And although there were some longueurs, where he philosophised just a little too much, I was gripped when I discovered that the style of writing I had been carefully taught by Mrs Washington, the Marion Richardson style, was the one he approved of the most. I remember Mrs Washington explaining the rudiments of joined up writing, and how we used to practise drawing lots of patterns as preparation for moving from print to cursive. Each letter had a particular form, very simple and not particularly unusual now, except for the zed. I still sometimes write my zeds with a long tail. This inevitably causes confusion with the children I teach who think I have written a number three in the middle of my surname.
So it was nice find out that what we learnt was at the time innovative, artistic and practical. As I say, I was never very good at it. I still have a few of my old handwriting exercises somewhere which show that my pen dippping control was never very good. I loved writing with a fountain pen, which helped, but by the time I went to university I was asked to change my handwriting as the lecturers could not read it. So I did. For a while I used a very angular sort of print which was clearer, I suppose, and quite decorative, but oh so slow.
Typing was the answer in the end and when I got my first little Olivetti for my twenty first birthday I was in seventh heaven. Finally I could be sure of being read! I remember carting it around with me on my year abroad, first in Salamanca, then the rest of Spain.
I had learned to touch type when I left school. I had taken myself off onto a very expensive evening speedwriting and typing course in Oxford street. Three times a week we sat at enormous Remingtons and clattered in unison while watching a film screen . Awful. I never built up much speed or accuracy, but what I lost there I gained in legibility. Now of course we have computers. Wonderful. The speedwriting or shorthand was a disaster. I learnt a few rudiments which I still occasionally use, but nothing I could ever use professionally. I did meet someone, however, with whom I used to truant and go to the cartoon cinema in Victoria!! Happy days.
So thank you, Andrzej, for this book which has been the cause of this bizarre group of reminiscences. I enjoyed it!
Every day is the beginning of a new year, or a new century or new millennium. The date is just an arbitrary convention. Yet we insist on trying to change our lives on January 1st each year. Why? I have already, as I started to type this, broken resolution no 1: do not procrastinate; do not start displacement activities. I have,however, begun to fulfil resolution no 2 – write more. So is there a point to making resolutions? Once a year no, but every day? – probably yes. Every day is a new day, the beginning of the rest of my life and all those other cliches. I am no Bridget Jones, so I am not going to start giving up smoking, or playing the piano more, or going for longer swims, as I don’t do any of these things anyway. Am I going to try and improve my life, my self? Possibly, but I am certainly not going to tell you what my plans are. I am not into public (or private for that matter) humiliation.
So: resolution number one: do not procrastinate.
I should be writing minutes for one of the organisations I write minutes for. I will do it in a minute, I promise. This internal dialogue is what keeps me going. That and generally trying to enjoy myself in whatever way my circumstances will allow. I try to actively enjoy whatever I do.
But it was not always thus.
One new year’s eve, many many years ago, when I was fourteen, I wanted to stay up to see in the ominous year of 1968 . This was a very strange idea to my parents as St Sylvester’s eve was never a thing in my family. Nevertheless they agreed that I should stay up with them. We used to eat early in those day so at about 7 pm we were in the living room, desultorily watching the television. My mother had a streaming cold and was wrapped in a blanket. My stepfather was sprawled on an easy chair with a great big jug of water beside him – the largest receptacle we had in the house, and he had a large thirst. Visiting us was my mother’s closest friend at the time – Edyta Kukuk, a fascinating woman who had won a scholarship to come to England from Krakow in 1939, thus escaping the horrors of the holocaust herself. None of her family had survived the ghetto and she never got over their loss or her guilt. But she came, as she frequently did, to spend the evening with us. She lived just down the road in a tiny flatlet in Chelsea Cloisters , where she hoarded a lifetime of papers, knick-knacks and tinned food. I loved her because she always treated me as an adult, if not exactly an equal. Making up the fifth corner of this gathering was a young man of 21 who was over in London for a few months to earn some money whilst still an architectural student. His grandfather was a tiny little man, known as Wrobelek (little sparrow)in Polish circles (or maybe just to Edyta, who was madly in love with him!) During the war – he survived Siberia and went to Iran in the same transport as my mother’s family – and he must have had extraordinary sex appeal, because apparently my grandmother had also set her cap at him during their journey of exile – I am not sure how successfully. By the time she came to London there was another man in her life, I believe.
Anyway the young man staying with us was his grandson, Andrzej. So there we were, the five of us in the coldest – because largest – room in the flat. The Christmas tree reached to the ceiling, the electric three bar heater just ate up the shillings, the conversation was non existent that evening, and so we waited. And waited. For midnight. What a crashing disappointment! I of course had a crush on the young man, but was too painfully shy to talk to him – he was uncomfortable, I suppose, because he probably could not understand too much of the tv and had nothing to talk to me about. He used to spend a lot of time writing long love letters to his girlfriend – now wife, though I don’t remember if that’s what he did in his despair that evening. I probably found something to read. it was the most excruciating dull evening.
Luckily never repeated.
I didn’t bother with New Year’s Eve again until I went to Spain in 1971 and then quite inadvertently I had the time of my life. Another story. By then I had learned to enjoy myself!
When I was very tiny I was sent to a private nursery school where I was a boarder. This was a traumatic time for my parents and for me because they couldn’t afford to look after me by themselves in London. At the time, however, it wasn’t considered such a shocking thing as there were many post war parents who were in the same position. Nevertheless there were difficulties which were compounded by the fact that the nursery was run by nuns, the Sisters of the Resurrection. Originally they had their convent and a nursery school in Gunnersbury Avenue that was difficult enough for my mother to get me to and then they moved to somewhere near Ascot. So I had to stay for the whole week there and it has to be said, with a lot of other small Polish children. Yet one week, one morning rather, we set off early to get to the train. I was dressed snugly in a pair of brown corduroy dungarees with thick woollen tights underneath and a ribbed jersey to keep me nice and warm, when we arrived at the convent gates to be met by a flappy nun who more or less screamed at my mother to take me home again because I was offending God, wearing trousers! Obviously this made no sense to me at all and even less so to my mother but she was doing her duty by me by keeping me warm. I don’t remember what happened next. She probably left me there with some changes of clothing anyway and they made me wear little skirts after that. But she always told the story with horror and shock at the narrowmindedness of the nuns. Luckily they changed their attitude by the time they came back to Ealing and my children attended to the same nursery before they went to school.
Yet my mother herself hardly ever wore trousers. She didn’t like them; she wasn’t comfortable in them and didn’t actually ever like me wearing them. So when today I came across a photograph of her wearing flares in 1976 I felt I had to publish it here because it is such an anomaly in her life. I can’t remember ever seeing her in trousers though there are some wartime photos of her in army trews.
This is a picture that I found today of Zbyszek in Florence. Looking at it it now he seems so young, though he was 45. And much thinner than I remember.
The spring weather was astoundingly beautiful. Flowers everywhere and this particular azalea was outstanding. This must have been taken near to the place where the statue of David in all his glory dominates. I would have been too embarrassed to take a photo of that,I think!