My Landlady

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by Ann Giles

The other students didn’t always do so well. One young man was told that ‘we don’t eat fruit for breakfast in this house’, as he was caught redhanded wolfing down a banana, just to avoid starvation. He subsequently went on to be a novelist, although not a particularly marvellous one. Must have been the bananas.

We came over for a term or two, or three, of English at the University of Sussex and were put up with local families. Those who didn’t get punished for eating bananas often ended up finding rooms or flats to live in.

Luckily I did much better. But it wasn’t the wonderful room or the delicious food, but what I learned from my lovely host family, that made my year with them so successful. And not just at the time.

I arrived a complete ignoramus, but hopefully I left slightly better educated about lots of cultural things. Mrs G collected books. So did Mr G. He liked books about WWI, whereas she primarily collected first editions by H E Bates. Needless to say I’d never heard of him, and I barely knew what first editions were, or why one would want them.

Mrs G sang in a choir, and that’s how I found out about Handel’s Messiah. I thought of him as Händl, and had miraculously spent 21 years not knowing about his Messiah. Or anything else much. Mrs G took me to hear it at Christmas.

On one of my first days there I found out about Lady Bracknell’s handbag. Mr G parroted Edith Evans perfectly, but it was wasted on me. I’d never heard of her, or it. But at least we were near Worthing, and that helped. The university theatre performed The Importance of Being Earnest, and we were all commandeered to go and see it. I was worried I wouldn’t understand a ‘real play’, but idiot though I might have been, my English was good enough for Wilde.

Their ten-year-old was just starting out having music lessons. F was going to play the oboe, but finding a teacher was proving difficult. I suggested the clarinet instead... I was informed that the oboe offered better opportunities for playing in an orchestra. Silly me. I’d never had a tactical thought in my head. F eventually became an accomplished oboe player, but I was in there, suffering through her early practising.

After my year was up I kept returning. I suppose they thought they’d never get rid of me. When I told Mrs G I was writing an essay about Under Milk Wood, she took me on a car journey through the Sussex countryside to buy a copy. I didn’t want to say I already had one. Obviously. The one Mrs G had in mind was a very nice, early edition of the play. Not a first edition. That would have been expecting too much, but it was good. And old. I bought it, because I’d almost seen the light, and she had searched half of Sussex for it.

So it was pretty lucky that I originally asked to be put with a family without pets. I reckon it’s what saved me from banana-man.

The Gs changed my life.

Photo credit: Ian Ransley

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