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Rosie & guest at book launch. SOS

Rosie & guest at book launch. SOS

Coffee with Rosie

HOT’s Sean O’Shea talks with local author, teacher, trainer and illustrator Rosie McAndrew about her recently published memoir Wordsworth’s White Wife, her life in Guyana, her passion for Tango and her bond with Hastings. An impressive and appreciative audience turned up for Rosie’s book launch at Bookbuster, 39 Queens Rd on Thursday 3rd December 2015.

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Could you tell us a bit about your early background and what brought you to Hastings?

Yes, well, I’d spent five formative years of my life in Guyana, ending up back in England, divorced, with a young daughter and no visible means of support. I spent some time with my parents in West Sussex, teaching in a comprehensive; later, I moved into shared housing in Hampshire, doing some part-time computing work for IBM and teaching in a Sixth Form College. Then a friend recommended me for some freelance work as an Assistant Film Editor in London, and my daughter stayed with my parents for a while. But my mother got ill, so I gave up the film work and went to look after her. Around then, a childhood friend who had moved to St Leonards pointed out that housing in Hastings was affordable, and before I knew it, I had put down for a mortgage on a basement flat. And that was how I came here!

What motivated you to become a VSO volunteer and what drew you to Guyana in particular?

Well, I’d always had a yen to travel, and I also wanted to do something to redress the balance between the haves and the have-nots, and volunteering in a third world country seemed to fulfil that need. Before I went to university to study drama I’d spent six months as a volunteer here in the UK, teaching English to immigrant Asian children in Southall. That was through Community Service Volunteers. Then, when I was finishing my Post-grad year doing Radio, Film and TV at Bristol, an advertisement came round from Voluntary Service Overseas, looking for someone to work in Schools Radio in Fiji. That sounded exotic, so I applied. But in the interview I was told that that vacancy no longer existed. They tried to persuade me to take a teaching placaement instead, until they eventually admitted there was one other job in Schools Broadcasting. It was in Guyana. Would I consider that? Well, I didn’t even know where Guyana was, but I decided to go for it.

What were some of the challenges you faced adjusting to a new country?

The heat and humidity were overwhelming, especially at first. That really saps your energy. And the mosquitoes. Then having to adjust to a post-colonial system that still clung to colonial values, with its fair share of hierarchies – some obvious, like colour – and some deriving from a belief in the old ruling class, with maids and messenger boys. I wanted it all to be egalitarian, and tended to resist the civil service conventions that still applied in the department I worked in, at Broadcasts to Schools in the Ministry of Education. Little things like declining to write ‘Seen’ on each document I had to sign did not go down well, and nor did the impulse to inject my own ideas into long-established formulas for script-writing and producing. And then there was the accepted practice that men went out together, or with other women, known as ‘deputies’, while their wives stayed at home…

What about peak experiences?

Goodness! The colours, the vibrancy, the lush vegetation, the variety of fruits and flowers. The lovely old white-painted wooden houses in Georgetown, with their fretwork and shutters, their trees and gardens, and the canals lining the streets. Going into the bush, visiting Amerindian villages and swimming in the black water creeks. Attending religious and folk ceremonies and festivals that were so different from any that I knew. And trips over the Demerara and Essequibo rivers to the Essequibo coast, which was less developed than Georgetown, and to my mind more beautiful because of that. Especially a journey to Mainstay Lake, with its white sandy beaches and black water, and Tapacuma, where the drowned trees had gone ghostly white.

What inspired you to write a memoir of your time there?

Well, my ex-husband died in 2008, and as he had been a highly regarded folklorist, broadcaster and poet, his death triggered a tremendous amount of eulogy on the Internet about his contribution to Guyana. When I re-read all the letters he had written to me between my VSO year and my return to get married, I wondered if there would be enough interest to make it worth publishing them. So I began to type them up. And then I re-read my own letters home to my family during the five years I spent there, and typed those up, too. And then I wondered what to do with all this material. Should I turn it into a novel, or use extracts from it to form the basis of a memoir. And that’s what I decided to do.

Given the personal nature of the material were there any issues with getting approval for the project from those referred to, e.g. your late husband and parents?

Good question! Yes, there were. Not my late husband, of course, but I was anxious not to upset any of his relatives and friends. My own parents had been dead for a long time, so I wasn’t worried about their reaction. And when my mother had given me the letters she’d kept, she said it was in case I’d like to write about it all one day, so I knew she’d be behind me. I was a little concerned about how much of his letters to include, as some parts were quite critical of the then government and some of the people he worked with. I checked out details of fact with as many people as I could, but their memories were sometimes as fallible as my own. Not surprising, forty years on!

Have you been back to Guyana since and how has it changed?

Yes, I went back for the first time in October 2013. Georgetown had changed so much that I no longer knew my way around. A lot of the lovely old wooden buildings had been replaced with concrete, and two of the houses I once lived in were nowhere to be seen. I’d wanted to take photos of them for the book, but had to give up on that. But the Essequibo coast, though much more developed than it had been, was still beautiful, and the trip over the Essequibo River by speed launch was exhilarating. They didn’t have those in the early seventies! And I was also able to visit Kaieteur, the highest waterfall in the world, which I’d missed out on when I was there before.

You are a talented illustrator and have a children’s book Nicola’s Flying Bicycle to your credit. Could you elaborate on your art work and your interest in writing for children?

Thank you! It’s nice of you to say that! Yes, I’ve only just published Nicola’s Flying Bicycle, though I wrote and illustrated it years and years ago, when my daughter was about four. It’s all about her, in the shared house we lived in in Hampshire. I’ve always liked drawing, though I don’t do so much these days. I did quite a few courses at Hastings College of Art when we first moved here, but haven’t actually trained as an illustrator. Some of the publishers I sent copies to, all those years ago, encouraged me to pursue illustration as a career, but my lack of training stood in the way when it came to the commissioning editors. Apart from a pilot reader for Caribbean children, I haven’t written any other children’s books, though. Nicola’s Flying Bicycle just arose from a real life situation.

You are also passionately interested in Argentine Tango. Could you tell us about your involvement with this dance and some of the related journeys you have undertaken?

Yes, you’re right about that! It’s my obsession. I started over eight years ago, and I love it. Initially we learnt with Jon and Sarah, teachers who came over from Canterbury, but three or four years ago they stopped coming, and we formed our own Tango Club to practice, with occasional guest teachers. For the last few years there have been regular Sunday afternoon classes in Bexhill with Argentinean teachers Oscar and Sofia, who run monthly Milongas, too. I often go up to London for classes, and have been on lots of tango holidays in the UK, but also in Europe. I’m about to go on a tango cruise, and last year I spent two weeks in Buenos Aires, tango capital of the world!

Are there other books/ projects on the horizon?

Yes. I’m hoping to complete another couple of memoirs. One of my early life, which I started twenty years ago, and one of the years after my return to England. That is yet to be written. People who have read Wordsworth’s White Wife have asked me, “But what happened next?”, so that’s a sign that it might find a readership! And over the years I’ve designed masses of teaching materials and activities, both for EFL students and trainee teachers, in PowerPoint and Smartboard as well as Word. I’d like to publish the best parts of those, rather than leaving them to lie fallow on the shelves of my study. I’ve also started a book for English kids, based on the idea of a grammar detective. I hope to develop that further, too.

What are some of the things you enjoy about living in Hastings, and is it now your home?

I like being near the sea, the West and East Hills, the country park beyond, and the Old Town in between. Although it can be seen as run-down, a lot of it is being improved, not forgetting the Pier. It’s full of musicians and artists, and has been through the years. There’s the Stables Theatre, the Electric Palace, and now our own Kino, and plenty of pubs with a range of local music. There are probably more choirs per head than in many towns, not to mention book groups and dance opportunities, and there’s a lot of semi-political activity to get involved in, around peace, ecology, anti-nuclear power, anti-racism, and so on. I’ve lived here since 1978. It’s the longest I’ve stayed anywhere, so I really do consider it my home.

SOS

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Posted 14:11 Tuesday, Dec 15, 2015 In: Literature,SOS

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