Sunday 21 January 2024


Our beloved friend, Annette Rowntree-Clifford née Johanna Abrahamsohn, died in December. She was nearly a hundred, so she knew life in all its shades of horror and glory. Some years ago, Annette's granddaughter wrote a beautiful poem about her Granny being a bird, flitting from room to room, 'her wings are deep blue folded cardigans and tucked inside are her stories'. Emily's poem was read at Annette's eulogy yesterday, and so, I believe, was the poem below, which I had written for Annette many years ago when I visited her. After the long drive to Leicester from Cambridge, I had to be put to bed like a small tired bear. Annette tucked me cosily into one of her grown up children's bedrooms. I felt frustrated as always by my time stealing illness. Precious time with Annette and Hugh lost because of my unruly body. 

Hugh was a lifelong friend, at school and later at Oxford, of my father's brother Sadiq, and Dad spent all his summer vacations staying with the Cliffords while he was a medical student at St. Andrews. As Mum and Dad laughed and shared tea and stories together with their dear friends, I wrote this upstairs in bed: 

Moving Plates

The perfect home
has something sentimental
resting side by side
with the practical.

Everything a meaning,

a memory,
a moment - even the broken,
the chipped china,

but especially the hand woven
crochet craft work,
and the little notes
you write yourself -

you leave for us
a forget-me-not trail
winding all the way

to 1939
when the plates
          of your atlas
moved forever.

I do feel tired and heavy these days. And not because it is winter, and dark after four o'clock. After all, there are many blessings as always - not least that Dad and I walked down to the railway line twice this past week. I saw the sun and hustled Dad out. At the end of the driveway, I expected he would want to turn back as always. Expecting that, I hesitantly stepped out into the road and was met by blithe acceptance on his part. 'Anytime you want to stop and turn back, we can, ok Dad?' 'I'm fine!' he assured me, reassured me. So on we went. On - on - and out of sight.

Annette brought good cheer always. In person, over the telephone and in gifts. When I was a teenager, Annette sent me a huge postcard with one of A. A. Milne's Christopher Robin and Pooh sketches on the front. It was so special to me then, and has continued to be near me since. Wherever I have lived - home, university, rented annexe, garden shanny - I have blue tacked the postcard to a handy wall. Pooh is not just for children. Annette understood things like that. She 'got you' in the words of her son Tony. To have such people in my life - people who 'get me' - my heart should be a singing bird at all times. But. War, injustice and poverty make that impossible. 

Tony ended the eulogy for Annette with another poem. This one by a poet made famous by a war. Siegfried Sassoon had a Jewish father, like Annette and her sister Gretel did. In 1914, Siegfried, being an enthusiastic Cambridge and Kent boy, was drawn into the English army. In 1939, Annette and Gretel, being German Jews, were shepherded to England on the kinder transport, waving goodbye at the train station to the parents they would never see again. Never again. Words we hear a lot of, but not fully meant - never again, for everyone. Did you know that Sassoon's father was a Baghdadi Jew, from an Iraqi family who had settled in Bombay? And did you know that Sassoon was sent to Palestine to 'recuperate from shell-shock' - the party line taken by a government angered by the anti-war poetry and speeches made by their tall, handsome, exceptionally brave soldier?  Siegfried Sassoon wrote poetry in the spring of 1918, in Gaza and Ramallah, Palestine. He wrote, 'On the rock strewn hills I heard/ The anger of guns that shook/ Echoes along the glen./ In my heart was the song of a bird,/ And the sorrowless tale of the brook,/ And scorn for the deeds of men.' The bird he was listening to was a bulbul, whose song was heard often by my parents when we lived in Bombay. The discovery of these connections has made me happy. Annette is lifting my heart even as I write these words. 'It's complicated,' everyone says. As if a single life isn't complicated enough to fill trilogies. All we can hope is that as we near the end of our own complicated life, everyone lifts their voices to sing our tale. 

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight,
As prison birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror,
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone 
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing
will never be done.

(photo of bulbul by Sunjoy Monga via Conde Nast Traveller)

1 comment:

  1. Shaista, what a beautiful tale you have told us here. A marvelous woman (I can see those blue wings, her stories within), beautiful poems, and the unending sorrow of endless war, injustice and suffering that humans impose on other humans. I share your sorrow. Your writing always lifts my heart, because no matter what you write about, you see the beauty, as do I. And I think that is what saves us.