Poems and Punkah

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Grandmother:  “How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue?” Me, pulling and repeating:  “How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue?”

Grandmother: “Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing ever a child can do.” Me: “Oh I do think it the pleasantest thing, ever a child can do.”

Hwai Yuan, China.  Summer. Hot, muggy, stuffy, airless and no electricity.  My grandmother lay paralysed in a huge bed under a punkah, an enormous cloth fan on a frame suspended from the ceiling, moved backwards and forwards by pulling on a cord.  Today it swept over her, pulled by very young me, sitting on a couch beyond the end of her bed.  I pulled in time to the rhythm of this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, which Grandmother thought I should learn.  Punkah work was hard for my little arms, but it was fun to be with her, and now and then I too caught the its breeze. 

Grandmother said she was never bored because she had memorized so many poems, she just recited them to herself at times when she didn’t have visitors. And she never ran out.   

Canton China – the Communists had taken over the city and we were trapped, not allowed to leave but not allowed to help anyone, and hope was non existent.  Mother, in her afternoon naptime, would lie in bed recalling the words of assurance and comfort she had been made to learn as she prepared to enter her church in Hometown, USA. 

Mussoorie, India.  Miss Burch, the strange British teacher in our international school made us teenagers learn a poem a week, and on Fridays we would be given a clean piece of paper to write it out from memory.

Tehran, Iran. Our maid, who could not read or write, committed everything to memory, even the telephone numbers of people who rang while we were away. 

Tehran, Iran.  My piano teacher would give me a piece of music, tell me to memorise it so well that by next lesson I could “play” the piece, not by seeing the notes, but by seeing an imaginary keyboard.  Then, he said, we could start learning it. 

Henlow, England.  Edith, a woman rich in years had been, as a child, made to learn the entire book of Psalms, and all of Hymns Ancient and Modern and would recite or sing  to herself during the day. Once again, never bored.

New England, USA.  My brother Carl, redolent in memorized songs and quotes, easily comes out with them in conversation, and certainly enhanced our hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, as we sang along with him.

Berkeley, California.  Our daughter Lizzie, an actor, finds no difficulty in memorizing scripts, and often does so even for an audition. 

Peterchurch, England.  My beloved husband John, who – even if you don’t want him to – will start reciting “Albert and the Lion” or “I’ll tell of the battle of Hastings, that ‘appened in days long gone by, when Duke William became King of England, and Harold got shot in the eye”.   Not dissimilar, but marginally more historic, than “Casey At the Bat” which my brothers used to quote long ago.   

Why do some people in our society find memorization a glorious joy while others are mind-locked out of it, with such certainty, that there is no way to persuade them otherwise?  I don’t know the answer.  It’s what John would term “a mystery to be embraced rather than a problem to solve”.

Fifteen minutes of exhaustive research revealed: memorisation actually improves the ageing brain. It’s mentally liberating.  In days of antiquity everything was learned by rote first (e.g. all of Homer’s poems) and then studied and discussed, a system my Persian piano teacher endorsed. 

Internet information will last 30 seconds unless it’s pushed beyond the short-term into the long term memory.  The brain is made to think, gather, store, sort, manipulate, and retrieve information so it uses the memorized information to do so.  This process encourages curiosity and more learning to blossom.  Evidence of the lack of memorising, they say, is shown in increasing numbers of ADHD children.  Maybe my grandmother was right, insisting that I learn poems.

Naturally, we all do memorise, even those who say we don’t.  Ask for their own telephone number, or the way to the library, or what 7 x 8 is, and there’s hardly a breath between the question and the answer.

So I took up the challenge.  I’m learning a song by heart (isn’t “learning by heart” so much sweeter that “memorise” with its controversial spellings!). It’s a song I like – all nine verses of it.  I’ve printed it out. It’s on the fridge with magnets. 

I’ve managed  4 verses so far, and this is what I’ve found:

The learning seems to go on independently in the brain while doing routine tasks.  I guess I was previously filling that space with guilt-ridden TO DOS NOT DONE.  Refreshing!

Forgetting lines and re-learning are all part of the process.

Because it’s a song, the rhymes, and the rhythm of the tune push me into remembering more easily. 

There’s pride in being able to remember! I’m really enjoying it!

Beloved husband’s rendition of  “Now bring us some figgy pudding!” in the middle of memory practice sabotages the process temporarily. 

Another thing. It helps when you’re lonely.

By the way, I could still recite “The Swing” to the grandchildren as I swing-pushed them on the local playground.  Well….only the first verse.

Any thoughts, dear reader? Would be delighted to hear.

Swing photos by D. J. Rickwood. With thanks.

The picture in Grandmother’s notebook.

Checkerboard Upside Down Cake

Grandmother was a good cook.  This recipe comes from her recipe scrap book .   Here’s the second attempt at preparing this (you don’t want to know what happened the first time around.)

 Butter the sides and line the bottom of an 8 inch square cake pan (20 centimetres). Now make a typical British plain cake:  Mix together 4 ozs (115 grams ½ cup) butter, 4 ozs sugar (115 grams, ½ cup) 4 ozs self raising (rising) flour (115 grams, 1 cup), ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 2 large eggs.  Beat well, until batter is smooth and silky and shows no evidence of sugar granules.  Put aside as you deal with the bottom-to-become-the top. 

In a saucepan or the cake tin intself, melt 4 tablespoons butter with 4 tablespoons brown sugar gently until melterd. Remove from head and add 4 tablespoons juice or water. Mix well. Pour into the bottom of the cake tin. Arrange dried prunes and dried appricots to form a checkerboard, cut side up. Then pour the cake batter over the top. Bake in a moderate oven (350 – 375) for 30 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick (cocktail stick) comes out clean when stuck in the middle. Loosen the sides of the cake with a knife. Let it sit for 10 minutes. Then turn over and remove the baking paper if used.

Not really a checkerboard, but tasty, especially when warmed and served with cream. Yours will be better. You may wish to use tinned (canned) apricots and prunes for a softer fruit. Send photos!


  1. I remember my dad’s favorite short poems which began “The box is a funny thing . . .” And I can easily sing and remember all the songs from the opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors” since I sang and played the role of Amahl in two performances as a 14 year old in 1955. Oh, and I hum along perfectly to the French Horn Mozart and Beethoven pieces I learne do to play as a teenager. And they say memories some time play tricks.


      1. You said ‘I’d like to hear the poem about “the box is a funny thing.”’
        But now I cannot remember it all nor find the original short poem. So you will have be satisfied with the incomplete poem of what I remember “The box is a funny thing, it always gets me wondering, for whether it is big or small’ . . . Can’t remember the last line. Sorry.


  2. I’ve always supposed that a good verbal memory is a genetic thing that went with being good at words and language generally- my parents had it and so do I and my sisters, though I don’t know about my brothers. I can memorise songs and poems of any length, but am hopeless at faces and mental maps – I have (momentarily) failed to recognise each of my own parents on separate occasions, having met them unexpectedly out of context.

    Do you think it’s actually something anyone could do if they set their minds to it?

    I do agree with your grandmother that you’re never bored with a brain full of songs and poetry and I think it’s a pity children aren’t encouraged to learn more by heart.


    1. I don’t know the answer, Jenny. I did attend a lecture on The Ageing Brain once. The lecturer said that there isn’t anything wrong with the brain. What is wrong is that as we progress through life we put a screen filter up in the processing of memories. I too am an auditory learner — telephone numbers are rhythm in my mind, for John it is a numerical pattern on the keypad. I’ve started working on geography now, since John is not driving. I’m looking at maps, picturing where we’re going, and I think I’m getting better at it.

      I think you have brought up something I want to think about. Thanks. J


      1. Inspiration from your blog
        while navigating through the fog;
        these rhymes come to me as I read;
        confusion acts just like a seed.
        I find that writing all this dog-
        -erels a challenge that I need.
        Reading blogs I find so tiring –
        a cup of tea is more inspiring.


  3. I’ve always believed I can barely memorize anything. But I can still sing “Jana Gana Mana”:, the Indian National Anthem, from memory. Someone did a good job of drilling it into me!


  4. I need a tune when I write poetry – I don’t recognise “blank verse” poetry.
    We remember what we sing – as Joe Hill said, ” Write a pamphlet and people read (perhaps) and throw. Write a song and they sing and remember. See link for an Windborne example.


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