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.