They think warm days will never cease

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Blackberry picking in Cumbria in the 1970s was an endurance sport.  The cliffs from which we harvested once held a Roman amphitheatre; occasionally, your welly would encounter the russet stone remains of something ancient and you could follow the curved line of centurion's seating through the huge ancient thorns.  If you slipped, there would be a split second to decide between saving yourself from slithering down spiky perilous falls or saving your precious berries.  If they fell, black beauty winking heartbreakingly in the gorse and coarse grass, the Northern Socialist would be unsympathetic.  "Aye.  Bad luck.  Start again."

The sun would always be out, lighting up the usually murky Solway Firth, and the bucket would fill with a satisfying blue-black heft.  I loved it, though of course we kids moaned like mad.  I loved the tiny thorns that would catch in my ink-stained fingers; the thrill of silently finding a great cache of huge fat blackberries hidden from view and quickly, greedily eating the biggest one of all in an act of breathtaking defiance.  I loved the depths of sweetness that would explode with mellow lusciousness; the shock of the occasional badly-judged blackberry which puckered the mouth and sent me quickly into the damp depths of the bucket for another to take away the taste.

We would come home that week to a saccharine fug in the kitchen; the huge old windows running with condensation; the battered jam pan rattling fiercely, hissing clouds of sugary steam; glossy amethyst smears on cold saucers.  Blackberry jam is my Proust's madeleine - one lick of the knife and I am eight years old again, devouring slightly burnt toast with a slab of cold butter and a seed-flecked puddle of complete heaven.

When we moved our little family out of London eleven years ago this week, I went first, staying with my parents in their mad old house.  Edward stayed on to downsize our conference company from over twenty down to four, and supervise the house and office moves.  I put Rose into nursery school and went with my parents and Freddie up the downs to pick blackberries and fight the feelings stirred up by my little girl's first big steps.

I sobbed silently a little bit, stealing comforting sun-warmed handfuls of perfectly ripe blackberries; the absolute silence we have up the downs throbbing a little in my ears.  My Ma and I picked and talked about the stoicism we need in the face of motherhood.  The NS had stayed in the car to listen to the lunchtime news and when we climbed back in, eyes red and mouths and fingers stained magenta, he told us how the world had changed in a very new and final way.

Even watching the news, as we all did, all over the world, over and over, that strange and awful day, it didn't make sense. One of our competitors lost 16 employees and 65 delegates, doing exactly what we did every day.  And yet, I had to get Rose from nursery school and shrink my world to match her life and somehow, we all stumbled through, as did everyone else - the heroic, the brave and the terrified alike and here we are, eleven years later.  I sometimes think of the girls I knew who had never become mothers, whose lives had ended in sudden nothingness on that sunny New York day eleven years ago.

I have just been up the downs with an old colleague, who has become a dearly loved friend. Our girls are teenagers now and are taking even bigger steps. We need the same maternal stoicism as we did for the first ones.  I craved the comfort of toast and blackberry jam; we unpacked buckets and dogs from the car.

But the brambles have all been cleared so ramblers can see the sea.  I don't understand the role of pectin, and anyway, the bots hate blackberries.  We walked for miles instead, under a bright azure sky, watching the buzzards hover and the sun dazzling on the sea.  We followed the curve of the downs, emerald patchwork fields falling away below us, fat highland cattle watching lazily through silly long fringes.  We talked about being mothers.  We cried a little bit but we laughed a lot more. It was just as good as jam and toast.


  1. I am immensely flattered and a heartfelt thank you. Now another tear or two have been shed... x

  2. Anon - many thanks.

    Offof -Aye. Bad luck. Start again. xx

  3. This is what you do best, ELS. Beautiful.

    And today I made jam. Raspberry jam, from our own canes in the garden. It's not as runny as I prefer - will need to howk it out with a knife - but it tastes pretty good and the kitchen smells heavenly.

  4. Trish, you filthy show off. Send me a pot, do! Bet you were the swot in biology bang in the front row who knew ALL about pectin... X

  5. You are better than jam and even the warm berries eaten out of the hand.

    Look at this, once we get you going there's no stopping you. . .

    Oh how you write!


  6. Tish, and so are you, all the sun-warmed harvests come at once. Xx

  7. During those warm sunny summer days of childhood, my mother always made jam and jelly and the children helped. My favorite was blackberry and current jelly, though I intensely disliked picking currents. Unlike blackberries, blueberries and raspberries, they were too sour to eat while picking, and it took all morning to fill a basket. One those days I would be envious of my siblings off in another row picking sweet edible berries. The jellies and jams were, of course, worth it, and this taught me a bit about about the effort required for many worthy goals. Thanks for access to the memories of those warm days. Cheers.

  8. Love this! My 16-year-old daughter and I have a tradition that transcends all of our, um, age-related issues. One day every spring we visit our secret urban berry patch, pick our fill, and make dewberry cobbler with ice-cream for dinner. (Dewberries are mostly like blackberries.)
    For us, that day means warm days will never cease

  9. HTJ - what a lovely comment, and how clever of you to get a lesson from it. I adore black currants, and even their bitterness off the bush doesn't stop me stealing them when I can..

    James - the bots have a thing now where they compliment one by saying 'you TANK' and giving the shoulder a hard manly squeeze. That's what I'd like to do to you.

    yoga - lovely, great tradition and pudding-with-ice-cream transcends pretty much most of the age-related issues. Cobbler recipe?

  10. "Blackberry jam is my Proust's madeleine - one lick of the knife and I am eight years old again, devouring slightly burnt toast with a slab of cold butter and a seed-flecked puddle of complete heaven."

    Please just remember the irrelevant little dozy arse plonkers like me when you become Rowling-esque published.

  11. Oh, sigh, the saccharine fug. Thank you again for taking this back up. Such a joy.

  12. Dearest Els,

    Found you via Chris Cox from You got me intrigued by your name 'Els' as it sounds very Dutch!
    Oh, we all grew up as kids, enduring many scratches but picking brambles. Dad would use the horse wagon for us to climb on in order to reach higher. Mom would make jams out of them and we all had black tongues while picking them!
    Fond memories of our childhood.
    Hugs to you,

  13. Meanwhile, back in London, Tante is still picking blackites for England from her secret shmek! Just bliss to have you back treasure. x

  14. OK, I was happily converting away, then noticed there is a British standard cup (?) which didn't match the regular metric cup conversion. So, here it is in US measurements:
    1 C flour
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    3/4 C white sugar (more or less depending on berry sweetness)
    3/4 C milk
    1/4 C butter
    2C fruit
    Preheat oven to 325 (165 C), melt butter in a 9 x 9" baking dish (just put it in the oven while you preheat)
    Blend flour, baking powder, sugar and milk
    Pour this batter over the butter. Sprinkle fruit on top; don't stir.
    Bake for about 1 hour til golden on top (which gives you just enough time to wash off the blood from all the thorn scratches:)
    Serve while it's still oven-hot, topped with cold ice cream.

    I'm sure this will work with just about any fruit, but we save it for our little spring berry-bacchanal!

  15. ADG - sorry, have we met?

    LPC - it's actually my pleasure. Blimey.

    Mariette - nee, ik ben engels! What would't I give to say 'Dad would use the horse wagon' - your family life sounds like the Waltons! Lovely to meet you and thanks so much for popping by, am very grateful to Chris indeed.

    Tante - hmmm, not sure I like the sound of a secret shmek - share! Or at the very least get your jam pan out...

    Yoga - you complete darling, many thanks for this - I will give it a go for Sunday lunch as the bots have matches in the mornings and come home trying to eat the furniture... thanks!

  16. Came here via LPC. Your writing is lovely, especially this remembrance. I also had to call in my maternal stoicism this week, so I appreciated that aspect too. Cheers!



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