Poorly, elderly parents abound. I was convinced the other week that there was a great quote from the writer Lucy Ellman about the death of one’s parents. It was sad, it was witty, it was pithy. It was up there with ‘they tuck you up, your mum and dad’ (that was what Philip Larkin said, wasn’t it?).
So I searched the internet. Nothing, though I did find that quote about men menstruating through shedding each other’s blood in warfare. I think it’s a pretty meaningless statement, but it’s clever and it’s clearly struck a chord with a few people.
I started flicking through the three Lucy Ellman novels I have on my bookshelves. Nothing. So I started reading Sweet Desserts in full.
I still couldn’t find the quote. (The fearsome Dr Bowler*, the imaginary English teacher on my shoulder, is now piercing me with her steely brown eyes – can brown eyes be steely, Giles? Can they? Mmm? – until I spit out the subsequent and missing syllables QUO-TAY-SHUN!).
Sweet Desserts a cracking book. Two sisters, raised in American academia find themselves transported to Oxford after their mum dies. Art and and the art of found objects run through the book, and the text is cut up with gobbets from instruction manuals, adverts (okay, okay AD-VERT-ISE-MENTS, sheesh, Dr Bowler, calm down), recipes and lonely hearts columns. It’s funny and bittersweet and there’s more casual sex than I recalled.
Immediately afterwards, he got off me, turned on the light, opened a carton of yoghurt he’d brought with him, and a thriller. I went back to sleep slowly, feeling envious of the yoghurt.
It’s weird reading a book again for the first time since 1988. It was another age, a pre-lapsarian, pre-internet age. There were books and there were fixed telephones and answering machines and typewriters and Tippex. There were letters. People wrote letters.
The book is also so old, it has an approving quote (AY-SHUN) from Clive James on the front cover. And one from Fay Weldon on the back. I’m slightly surprised it has a barcode on it.
I finished the book, still longing for the quotation about the death of a parent, and I read the blurb on the back:
Suzy Schwarz has learnt one or two things about life: other people know how you should live your life better than you do; sisters can destroy your sanity and self-esteem; lust calls for careful timing because it rarely coincides with that of your partner; and, most heartbreaking of all, parents die on you, leaving you grieving. The only thing that provides constant solace when times are bad (and they usually are) is food.
So – it was not pithy, not witty, and it was probably not even written by Lucy Ellman. But a handful of words on the back of a book lodged in my mind for 23 years.
*Dr Bowler deserves a place in history for one of the most memorable moments in my Sixth Form. We were doing Donne, I think. Or maybe Marvell, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, perhaps.
I complained the poem was illogical.
“Giles,” said Dr Bowler, “I want you to do something for me.”
Nervous titters round the classroom. It was the mid-80s. Think The Cure. Think The Smiths. Think The History Boys, with a smattering of elegant, mysterious girls peppering our environment because being 17 at a boys’ school isn’t torture enough as it is.
“Yes?” I asked anxiously.
She replied, “The next time you try seducing someone, try using logic – and see how far you get.”
Lucy Ellman could have written that.