Talk given by Rachel Kellett, representing the Book group who co-ordinated the project
Here I am
One of my fantasies or dreams when I was at New Hall, was to read the reading at the mass on a Sunday, in front of the whole school. It was an impossible dream for one with a stammer. So here I am – 40 years later – in front of you all, sharing a memory.
Memories – fragments of our past lives. Why are some remembered, some forgotten? Some fixed with a smell of orange blossom fixative, and with that scent we’re straight back in that place, at that time. Others lost by us, but remembered by others. Sometimes the same, sometimes quite different. Whether they are our visitors or our permanent residents, our memories are part of us now, friends who travel along side us, more perhaps accumulating over time. And some of these friends have been dusted off the shelf, shared and encoded in this book – Fishy Tales.
But Fishy Tales is not just our random memories, it is an affirmation of the life of a community – the English Community of Canonesses of the Holy Sepulchre founded in Liege 1642 to today, touching the lives, forming the memories of all of us who passed through the lives of the Community, from then to now.
No, this is not a dry and academic history of New Hall, it is a collection of living memories and recollections of a place that has in different ways shaped the lives of those who passed down the Avenue.
This book has been a two year journey, a collaborative adventure the product of a diverse team. Imagine the pleasure of working again with my wonderful English Teacher Joan Jones – still punctilious: Henrietta Bond, a 1970s old fish and published author. Juliette Glass whose daughters both went to New Hall, Claire Merry, a 1980s old fish, who has also been involved in organising this day. We’ve been steered – firmly and rightly so – by Moira and Teresa from the Community. And co-ordinated with all the useful objectivity by one who never went to New Hall, Pauline, who has juggled all the 370 Events, the celebration that starts today. Others have also been involved: Claire Van Helfton professional marketing skills helped form our web pages, and background marketing. Ronnie Wald and Paula Leydon, both readers of the book, who saw the big picture, and who worked cheerfully into early morning hours, with impossible deadlines, spotting vital continuity errors, as well as as well as the detail of crossing t’s and dotting i’s.
Deciding by committee is not always easy, and much discussion was aired about the front cover. Having finally decided on an image of the Avenue, we were challenged by our excellent and meticulous editing/design team of Antony and Rosey Grey. They said ‘You must have the iconic building of New Hall for the front cover’. And you know what, all of us, united, came out of our prams, and affirmed our decision. (Antony came to agree with us).
Because it’s not about a building it’s about the people. Because the Avenue was the most over-riding memory, the one that so many people began or ended with. The Avenue was the memory that existed through the time from 1930 to today. It was the journey down this avenue for the first or the last time, that was the prevailing memory. It is the wardrobe doors of Nania, into the different life. Those silent, sentient trees, winter and summer, that caught – and catch still – in their interwoven branches all our wishes, hopes and fears, spoken unspoken over the years. It was the journey, not the arrival. And that is what this book is about – our various journeys.
While peoples memories are slightly or even completely different of the same event – there is overwhelmingly FOOD. Safe to say, food is remembered so much more than maths. (Something perhaps any new administrator should take heed of – get the food right, and your pupils memories will be sweet): There was Nettle Soup, the world famous New Hall Tartin, Puss and Bunions, Father Butlers Hat, Reverend Mothers toe nails, Sticky Wilies, melting toffee on the radiators. Food – or rather the memory of it – prevails through the ages.
There are seminal and dramatic moments repeated by many: The VE day celebration bonfire, or when the air plane crashed, or when Virginal Maskell came to New Hall to perform in the Pageant, or Great Feasts (yes food again), or the Choir performing at St Peters in Rome. And there are equally seminal if less dramatic shifting memories, the experiences of working with NHVS, and friendships forged, teachers and Community admired, who’s influence interweaves with us to this day.
For me the most fascinating discovery in this book, was not at New Hall but the time at Newnham Paddox, where in 1940 the the whole school were evacuated to. As someone described it, Newnham was alike the Marie Celeste, left by the Earls of Denbiegh, hair brushes still on the dressing tables, and on the walls paintings of women with huge bosoms. It was war time. With petrol rationing, there was no going home during term time. So it was a time of great bonding, community and pupil alike. The joint industry in keeping the vast rooms warm entailed much wooding, the nuns weilding great Bushmans saws, pupils keeping the fires going in the ball room now bedroom. Rations were shared. Honey and hedgerow fruits was valued. As one person says in the book, ‘we became family, so I’m sorry to say, I was sad to leave to go home.’ Of the 60 pupils there then, 10 joined the Community, within a couple of years of leaving, and it was this group of people, forged in the Newham life, that taught me and many of us here today. The jig saw began to make sense.
On the inside cover of this book is a list compiled by Mary Magdalene, of all the community since Susan Hawley 1642. It’s like a piece of DNA – a strand of handed down genetic love – that links and fuses all us, from 370 years ago to today. DNA.
Nothing speaks better of the book than the words inside it, so we’d like to end by our book group reading a few paragraphs, roughly one from each decade, giving you a taste (food again) of the matter inside.
By the way, we’re considering a Kindle version, so for those who missed the date, or if we’ve missed you out, or who want to contribute now – just let us know.
RK October 2012