I have remembered as much

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

There has been a great exodus down memory lane here recently.  My parents' recent 50-year celebrations brought a sheaf of unseen photographs of us all growing up, many of us at the ages my bots are now.  Rose was horrified. "Didn't you ever brush your hair, Mum?" She had a point.  Boris Johnson has my teenage hair.  It looks marginally better on him.

Freddie scanned every photo for signs of naughtiness, which, given it was the seventies, was a fruitful exercise. "Is that your Snoopy lighter, Mum?  Did you drink that rum and coke on the table? It's quite dark, did you stay up very late?"

The cousins all piled down for half term last week; we took the three boys to a pub to hear a skiffle band and eat pints of prawns. They wanted stories of their babyhood; my sister and I, slightly horrified at our incipient Alzheimer's, scoured our shrinking brains for new tales.  Happily, they are word-perfect on the family fables and were completely sidetracked at being allowed to fetch soft drinks from the bar like proper lads, so I think we got away with it. I vowed to try and write some down before they sling me into a retirement home; I berated myself horribly for not having kept up the Notebook of Adorable Things that has about nine entries.

Today, I am looking after a 9-month old baby girl for a friend.  She has eaten envelopes, the corner of a maths book and fistfuls of bread and honey.  She moves like a ninja whenever I turn my back;  she has pressed all the buttons and reset the printer forever.

I am remembering exactly how my own children were at this age; those gummy sticky beams of sheer joy, the primitive desire to cram absolutely everything in one's mouth, from a camera to the dog's tail, and the furious Glasgow-drunk fist-swinging before falling suddenly asleep under a chair.

It is also a matter of absolute astonishment that I even managed nine entries in the NAT.

The fire which enlightens

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Is that Master Edward in a feather boa? Don't be daft, he'd never be seen dead in fishnets. They're all bloody pie-eyed those Londoners.  Think they're hiding any left-footers? I can smell 'em. 

There was usually a houseful, crammed into a little cottage on the green in Newick in East Sussex.  We always went down for Bonfire Night, bringing duvets, sausages and booze.  The cottage belonged to Edward's parents who lived abroad, and we took full advantage of it.

It wasn't a typical Bonfire night; Sussex has a long and proud history of rebellion and to this day Bonfire Night is a celebration of poking fun at authority, remembering martyrs and expressing anti-Catholic sentiment with vigour.

That wasn't of enormous importance to us in out twenties, though.  We cared much more about the hog roast and the enormous cold-fighting brandies Edward poured that made it possible to stand in the raised front garden and overlook the parade as it passed under our noses.

It was loud and colourful and occasionally sinister.  The village, plus other nearby bonfire societies, turned out in their hundreds, dressed mainly as pirates for some reason.  If you really care, I'm sure it will tell you why here.  They streamed below the fence, with blazing torches and blackened faces, singing rebel songs and chanting.  They dragged behind them iron trollies to carry the spent torches; the sound of  metal wheels cannoning off the stone roads was mediaeval.

Being rather giddy by the time the parade started, we often dressed up in the things we found in the cottage; one year, a girlfriend and I put on in full tropical officer's mess kit and took the salute from paraders.  Another, we set up the ancient gramophone on the lawn and wafted about in kaftans, waving cigarette holders and offering cherry brandy from hip flasks.  Often, we had to reassure any Catholics in our party and persuade them to come out from behind the curtain indoors.

The firework display took place on the green right opposite the garden gate; a closely guarded secret until it was lit, the huge wooden structure lit up satirical pictures.  A priest pushing a baby's pram, the Pope in a variety of vulgar poses, any politician who'd failed to keep his electoral promises and/or his trousers on.  It was mad, wildly insulting to many people and usually very witty indeed.  When the two-story-high bonfire was lit at last and the Guy thrown upon it, the baying was fantastical to hear.  We would usually retreat inside at that point, leaving the village people to dare each other to leap the flames and keep the torches burning.  It would still be smouldering the next day as went across the green for the papers, then carefully carried our hangovers here for the world's best Bloody Mary.

The anodyne, health-and-safety-bonkers display to which we take the bots these days is  a far cry from that pagan excitement. Last year, we had to stand miles away from the fire, no hog roast and no brandy; the fireworks just went off, nobody was pilloried.  I bet all the Catholics felt safe as well.


Monday, 15 October 2012

A few years ago,  I stopped working in an office 9-5 structured sort of way.  I had worked like a driven banshee since I left university, so I was giddy with excitement and apprehension in equal measure. After about six weeks on the mummies-coffee-morning circuit I was a wreck.  For twelve years I had brought up my children, run a home and functioned physically on a daily basis without an awful lot of input from my peers.

This was a very different style of living.  The mummies consulted each other on absolutely everything; what to feed them, when they should go to bed, how long to do prep, The Facebook Question.  I inhaled a silly amount of caffeine and silently ate a stack of cakes as I absorbed the painful truth that most people ask for help.  They also spend quite a lot of time considering options, finding out how other people do things, and then slowly come to a conclusion, gathering facts along the way.

I panicked. I've never over-thought anything in my nelly. I teamed up with another recent-released-from-daily-grind Mummy and we whirled off into an 18-month adventure setting up a vintage and handmade homewares business. We belted about rescuing treasures from old junk shops and car boot sales.  We painted and restored, mended, stencilled, sanded and shabbier. We took stalls at little vintage and antique fairs and made bunting.  We made lovely cushions out of old-fashioned wool blankets and embroidered surreal and amusing and soppy things on them in colours that reminded us of the seaside.

After a lot of fun but not quite as much profit, we're going to do other things.  She, with a heart as big as Wales, is caring for less happy children than our own.  I, with a yellow streak down my back as wide as the Thames, am trying to write.  I have finished six out of ten short stories that I wanted to publish this Autumn and I am stuck.

My cupboards are alphabetised and there is nothing in my house, cellar or attic that is not labelled.  Should there be a pandemic, I could feed most of this county on the food I have cooked and stashed in the freezer.  My linen cupboard is more starched and anally organised than Martha Stewart's. The dog is skin and bones from daily hikes.

So I am asking for help.  How do you write? When, where? How do you shut the internal monologue off and the bloody computer screen on?

Just don't make me go back to those coffee mornings or i don't think I'll be able to get out of bed.

The golden thread that united

Friday, 12 October 2012

"You've bloody well done WHAT woman? Are you MAD? I told the whole sodding lot of them never to darken my doorstep again.  Lunch? I don't blasted think so. Anyway, I've blown the whole inheritance on Newcastle Brown Ale and pork pies and rum so they can sodding well bugger off."

This weekend, my Pa, the Northern Socialist, and my Ma will celebrate 50 years of marriage.   I say 'celebrate' because we are making them do something to recognise such an achievement.  We suggested theatre trips and jaunts to London, Michelin restaurants and a big party.  Like small children faced with unpleasant vegetables, they demurred, feigned deafness, twisted napkins and asked to be excused.

We compromised eventually; they would book somewhere local for a small family lunch and we would promise on our honour not to get them any presents or make a fuss.  Then they're going to slither quietly off back to Barbados and gather their thoughts with a dusting of silver sand and a frosting of Planters' Punch.

It's funny, the gift thing in our family - we all love giving them but aren't terribly gracious about being recipients. I will ponder the wherefores another time.  What we have done, to our enormous glee, is secretly contact every single person with an email address, phone or Facebook that was at the wedding, met them later, was taught by either of them, shared sporting, literary or musical passions or was just sucked laughing into their orbit.

We told these old friends that the olds were being royal pains in the arse and refusing gifts, so we wanted to make them one instead. A book recording all the gifts they have passed on to their friends, grandchildren, neighbours, colleagues. A book that details the gifts that they have and how they have used them over the past 50 years.  So we asked them to write their thoughts and maybe look out old photos instead of sending stuff.

It has been an eye-opening fortnight collating the bugger.  Seeing one's parents through an entirely new prism has been extraordinary.  Some of the tales and people were well-known, faded and comforting, old blankets we were happy to see. Some stories made us cry a little bit - they seem to have committed acts of extreme kindness and secrecy. Many just made us wonder how any of us were still here and functioning.

But the golden thread that shines through every one is the gift of their hospitality and laughter; my mother conjuring fabulous suppers on stoves in half-demolished kitchens, on barbecues on windy moors, in deserts.  She seems to have mended marriages and hearts along with split trousers and unravelled socks.  My father's socialist and sporting philosophies are still quoted in Canada, Berkshire, Barbados and Antwerp. There are grown men out there who are still terrified of him on a football pitch, in a boxing ring, guarding his teenage daughters. Every single person mentioned how much he had made them laugh.

We're going to take turns reading them aloud over lunch tomorrow. We're giving the six bots the really soppy ones.  That'll teach them.

Whistling blackbirds and the sun of October

Monday, 8 October 2012

October is a wonderful month.  I love the rhythm of routine, the cosy lamp-lit evenings, the smell of the first fires and the sweet crackle of pork belly on a Sunday.  But it is also a month of gravitas.  Much more so than September, with its frivolous conceits - new uniform, new faces, pencil cases bristling with sharp points of resolution.  No, October is where the real thing starts.  It's a month of putting your money where your mouth is, of living up to all those easy promises made in September - reading the books, sustaining the friendships.

Seductive one-last-time Indian summer sun gives way to briskness and the need for serious clothes - the unyielding clamp of long boots adding purpose to a stride; the serpentine shrug of scarf and weighty heft of jacket.  Darkening nights demand a sporting commitment too. Training under sodium light as the fine cold drizzle haloes the scene is a far cry from the flirty kick-about of last month. New uniforms soften and fade, pummelled in mud and pride.

Decades ago, I started University in October; cold blue skies filled with cascades of Cathedral bells; nose-tingling coldness and a sense of freedom and promise. New books and new friends, many of whom are still there, cracked and worn but still capable of making me question, debate and laugh until I can't breathe.

Bounty is rare, but worth seeking.  Spiny sloes will bring a throaty sweetness in the black of winter if you hunt now.  Dress for thorns and sudden downpours.  Fill your poacher's pockets with tiny crab apples and your larder with jewelled amber pots.

Many Octobers ago, came a wonderful gift. Wrapped in a white blanket embroidered with oak leaves, my long, self-contained daughter with wise eyes and see-through hair.  Whose birthday we have celebrated with pumpkins and witches, ghost walks, bonfires and curry. Who is, bar none, the best gift of all.

First, a little cake...

Monday, 1 October 2012

Baking, as we used to say when we were small, always got my mad up. There seemed absolutely no margin for error or indeed creativity, Baking was just so Draconian.  And boring.  Cream the sugar and the butter, always.  Until your aching arm fell off.  No tasting, no extemporising, just clinical orders.

At one of my many schools, I did a year of what they called housecraft.  At 11, I just wanted to eat cakes.  Instead, we were dictated the rules of the kitchen, the order in which to wash up, how to keep the cloths clean, how to order the cupboards, how to remove stains with baking soda, clean windows with vinegar.  I was achingly bored until I was asked to leave the class for cleaning the cake batter bowl with my bare hands.  Then licking them.  The following term I helped with the baby swimmers instead.

Cooking, on the other hand, seemed to positively encourage such wanton sensuality. Such blowsy measurements, so many methods - a handful, a pinch, taste as you go; simmer, fry, roast, sear.  No hanging around waiting for things to bake, rise, prove. It's an ongoing process; the food is ever at the end of the wooden spoon.  It seemed more sociable too; people gather round a stove for tasting, discussing, adding, telling tales.

When I got very thin and miserable a few years ago, a clever friend asked me to make some cakes.  I finally had an oven that stayed at a constant temperature and some scales that measured to the nearest nanogram, so why not?  I also had many amazing bits of kitchen equipment that did all the drudgery, and so I baked my way through several books.

I discovered that there is a certain comfort in the strictures of regulation, the removal of any personal input which makes life, should you need it to be, rather clear and straightforward.  Here are your weights and measures, here is the method. Do not deviate and all will be well. Your kitchen will smell like a buttery golden childhood and after the exact amount of time, you will be rewarded by the springing triumph of a risen cake.

Now that I am perfectly happy again, I still take great pleasure in the strict discipline of baking.  A fifty shades of flour if you will.  The thwack of spatula, the whip of whisk.  The bossy dictation of the rules I must follow if I am to have pleasure.  The naughtiness of a stolen finger lick. The achingly interminable wait for the timer to go off and the sweet release of cake from tin.

I don't think I've got my mad up any more.