Agatha Christie and “the quiet moments of everyday life”

In her enormously entertaining self-titled autobiography, the 20th-century mystery writer Agatha Christie discusses a letter she rediscovered in old age that had been written to her by her father about Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897.

Forgotten by Christie: Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Picture courtesy National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Forgotten by Christie: Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897. Picture courtesy National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, UK, via Wikimedia Commons

Young Agatha’s grandmother had arranged to take the six-year-old girl to the jubilee procession on June 22, celebrating 60 years of the Queen’s reign. Agatha’s father, who was away in the US at the time, remarks in the letter how lucky his daughter is to see “this wonderful show”, as he refers to it. “I know you will never forget it,” he adds.

Christie comments wryly: “My father lacked the gift of prophecy, because I have forgotten it. How maddening children are! When I look back to the past, what do I remember? Silly little things about local sewing-women, the bread twists I made in the kitchen, the smell of Colonel F.’s breath—and what do I forget? A spectacle that somebody paid a great deal of money for me to see and remember. I feel very angry with myself. What a horrible, ungrateful child!”

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Remembered by Christie: sewing women. This painting, “Young Mother Sewing” (1900), is by the impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926)

She goes on to write much about memories from childhood that stuck most in her mind: a field of buttercups, the smell of lime trees and grass. The happiest memories, she says, “are almost always the quiet moments of everyday life”.

I agree with her: my most vivid memories are tiny snapshots, seemingly randomly selected from the millions that make up a life. I remember, for example, aged about 8 and going through what was then called a “tomboy” stage, running inside, highly excited, after playing “cowboys and Indians” (in our ignorant way then and meaning no disrespect, but emulating the movies of the day). My nana, who was visiting, exclaimed, “Gosh, you look exactly like a cowgirl!” I beamed with pride: it seemed like the most wonderful thing anyone had ever said to me.

Years before that, I remember the live televised coverage of the lunar landing in 1969, when the astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. It was extraordinary not just for the event itself, but for the amazing feat of broadcasting, which British broadcaster and science historian James Burke has called “the greatest media event of all time”.

In fact, I don’t actually remember the coverage itself very much because of something else that happened. My father must have got us all to sit in the living room and watch the event, but I didn’t understand why we had to sit so still or why it was important, even though it had been explained to me.

Suddenly, I thought of something more interesting to tell Dad, and, at what must have been a crucial part of the broadcast, I started yabbering on.

Uncharacteristically, he spoke very sharply to me, told me to keep quiet, and saying didn’t I realise this would be one of the most important events in history? I was so upset, I couldn’t speak for hours—upset and mystified as to why my lovely daddy had cut me off when he was usually so interested in what I had to say, why he would rather watch something on TV than listen to me. I was so upset, I didn’t really see or hear the event itself. I can still feel my hurt today, all these decades later. Funnily enough, when I mentioned it to my dad many years later, he didn’t remember me interrupting, but he vividly remembered watching the exciting telecast (grainy and in black and white as it was).

With thanks to the novelist Angela Savage, not only for urging me to read Agatha Christie’s autobiography, but for acquiring a copy of it for me. I’m 110 pages into the 551-page tome, and enjoying it immensely. Thanks again, Angela!

I’m a poet and I didn’t know it!

Dear Readers,
I’ve been pondering how we start and end our correspondence, particularly electronically (which is 99% of the correspondence I get these days anyway). I made a quick list the other day of some of the greetings and closes I’ve received recently. I laughed when I read it back, because it sounds like a poem. Here is my list, which I’ve even given a poetic title:

 Truly, sincerely, faithfully

Hi/Dear

Sir/Madam

Madam/Sir

To whom it may concern

How are you?

I hope you’re well

 

Kind, best, warm regards

Yours truly, sincerely, faithfully

All good things

In solidarity

Bye for now

Thank you

Cheers

When I was growing up, there were strict rules about letter writing. You started with “Dear so-and-so [comma]”. You then indented the next sentence on the line below. This sentence should contain a greeting: “I hope you’re well”, if it was an informal letter to a friend or acquaintance, or a statement of the purpose of the correspondence if it was a business or professional letter.

How you ended your letter would depend on your relationship with the person.  If it was a formal letter, you would thank them for their attention and then sign off with “Yours faithfully” if it was a first letter on business, then “Yours sincerely” in subsequent letters. Historically, Americans use “Yours truly” and “Sincerely Yours” in the same way. There’s a link here to more on the rules, if you’re interested.

Nowadays, of course, the old rules have been relaxed, especially with the advent of emails. Hardly anyone starts an email with “Dear…” any more, particularly young people. They almost always write “Hi…”.

I always sign off with “Love, Caron” if I’m emailing close friends or relatives, or “Cheers” for colleagues or acquaintances (for want of anything that doesn’t sound as formal as “Regards” nor as familiar as “Love”). Because I write so many emails to friends and relatives, putting “Love, Caron” is almost automatic: I often double-check emails to my students to make sure I have put “Regards” and not “Love” absentmindedly, because the latter would sound weirdly inappropriate!

And I often think “Cheers” might not always be appropriate for acquaintances, because of its connotations with drinking. But as I say, I can’t think of anything else, so I use it reluctantly.

Sometimes, I just sign my name, without a closing “Cheers” or “Regards”. Then again, many people don’t bother to sign off emails at all, because their name is at the top anyway.

By the way, “In solidarity” is how staff at my union sign off, and “All good things” is the hallmark of a happy friend.

Cheers,

Caron

New York, 1968: “Love, Daddy”

NY1968 NY1968_0001

My mother recently gave me some old cards and letters she’d kept, and among them was this wonderful postcard that my late father had sent me when I was a little girl, in 1968. Dad was in the New Zealand army, but we were living in England where he was doing some research at York University, and he had gone to New York on business. This might well be the first piece of mail I ever received addressed to me personally.

It is dated 24.6.68, and he writes:

Dear Caron,

My hotel is just along the road from this big building, and after lunch today, I am going to go right up to the top. I will take some movies, and you will be able to see them when I get home. Love, Daddy.

It reminded me of a much earlier letter I have, from another father to his young child. It is addressed to “My dear little man”, and it was written by my grandfather, Captain Freddy Eastgate, to his son, my father Harold Eastgate (later Captain as well). Dad was 5 when this letter was written to him by his dad, who was a career army man. Years after this letter was born, my grandfather would be away for seven years at the Korean War and with the army in Japan.

MyDearLittleMan

Hut 150
Trentham M. C.
Saturday 16-5-42
My Dear Little Man,
I thought you would be almost better by now. I sent you a small parcel last Sunday but it doesn’t seem to have arrived there yet. There is nothing in the camp much to buy or send to little boys. I hope you are getting better. Try and be a good boy and help Mummy as much as you can. I am going to try and get home to see you next week end. You try and get better by then aye.
Cheerio for now.
Lots & lots of love from
Daddy xxxxxx

I wonder now what was in the parcel and if Dad received it. Dad kept quite a few things from when he was young, so it’s possible whatever it was is still among his possessions, most of which my mother kept.