On My Bookshelf – Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons

My favorite childhood book was never on my own childhood bookshelf. I borrowed Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome from my local library and enjoyed it so much that in subsequent weeks I checked out all the other books in the series. I do own a copy now, though it is currently on loan to my grandsons. This year was our fourth spending a week together at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. I’m hoping the lake experience will draw Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – Swallows and Amazons”

The Night I Met Mick Jagger

LP cover. “Birds” was the contemporary slang for girls. 

Bubbling with the exited anticipation of teenagers, my friend and I rode the number 66 red double-decker bus into Romford. It was February 25th 1964 and we were headed to the Odeon Theatre to try to catch a glimpse of our latest crush. No, not Mick Jagger or any of the Rolling Stones, but Mike Sarne. Who, you may ask? Continue reading “The Night I Met Mick Jagger”

How St. Nicholas Became Santa

Russian Orthodox Icon

When I was a small child growing up in England we didn’t have Santa Claus and we didn’t hang up stockings or set out cookies on Christmas Eve. Instead, following the tradition of my mother’s Flemish homeland, my sister and I put a pair of wooden clogs by the fireside with carrots in them for St. Nicholas’s donkey. In later years as my mother absorbed English culture we abandoned St. Nicholas in favor of the very English Father Christmas. Our celebrations were complete with Continue reading “How St. Nicholas Became Santa”

Surprised by Patriotism



To celebrate July 4th I dig into The Dabbler archives for a piece I wrote some years ago recording my gradual acceptance of the American holiday and some memorable celebrations over the years. One July 4th I was surprised by feelings of genuine patriotism when I heard the National Anthem performed on a Chinese violin. In this season of xenophobia the sentiments seem especially timely.

Surprised by Patriotism

The Dagenham Idol

The Dagenham Idol
My Dagenham Idol replica











A few years ago I received a mysterious Christmas gift from my San Francisco brother. I opened the long, narrow box to find a crudely formed human figure made of wood. It looked like something you would find in the “exotic” home décor aisle at Pier 1 or World Market, along with the carved elephants and brass Buddhas. Standing 18 inches tall the figure was armless with a disc shaped head, a rudimentary nose, and a single eye. Just above the legs a round hole was an ambiguous indicator of gender. I stared at the figure for some time wondering what on earth my brother was thinking Continue reading “The Dagenham Idol”

On My Bookshelf – Rupert Bear


Strictly speaking this book is no longer on my bookshelf, though for many years it lived with a collection of old children’s books in my daughter’s former bedroom. Back in the 1980’s when my children were small my mother brought it with her on one of her visits from England. I assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that she had permission to give it away. The truth came out quite by chance. Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – Rupert Bear”

Confessions of a Hedgehog Collector

My garden hedgehog

My obsession with hedgehogs began with the gypsies. Every summer when I was a child the gypsies, in their colorfully painted caravans, made camp in a nearby field. We would creep through the trees to spy on them playing explorers encountering an exotic tribe, to use the imperial language that still lingered on in Britain long after the Empire’s sun had set. Until the coming of the gypsies my Belgian mother was all the “diversity” we had in our east of London Cockney neighborhood. The gypsies brought with them Continue reading “Confessions of a Hedgehog Collector”

On My Bookshelf – Saints and Scholars

Saints and Scholars

It was the middle of math class and I was bored as usual. So I surreptitiously opened a book on my lap and began to read. At the front of the class the formidable Mrs. Mulley droned on. She was an extraordinary bent old crone who looked something like a desiccated stick insect. She and her daughter, Miss Mulley, constituted the Math department of my convent high school. They always seemed to walk the corridors together, Miss Mulley, pudgier and straight backed, trailing her mother at a respectful distance. They both wore their hair in elaborately coifed buns that seemed to defy the law of gravity. On this day my transgression did not escape Mrs. Mulley’s eagle eye. I was so absorbed in my reading Continue reading “On My Bookshelf – Saints and Scholars”

Belgium. Cry, My Beloved Country

Version 2

Belgium is my arcadia, my beloved country of memories and dreams. A different Belgium than my mother knew – a country suffering under German occupation, so poor that her widowed mother had no choice but to place her little brothers in an orphanage. My father was among the British soldiers who liberated the medieval city of Ghent in 1944. Later he inscribed a book: Continue reading “Belgium. Cry, My Beloved Country”