Sunday, 8 June 2014

After all these years


.......never having to say you're hungry......... get breakfast in bed.


Saturday, 10 May 2014

Its a (cling) rap

Its a song its an ode

Gastronomic overload

Lets make blind bake banana bread cherry cake

Lick the bowl pancake roll smatterbatter toad in the hole

Work of art bakewell tart

Pomme puree pumpkin mash chilli con carne corned beef hash

Kedgeree cassoulet marzipan boiled ham

Soft and floating bobbing boating

Flouring flumping soup with dumplings

A ballad to salad a chorus to rawness

Crunch it munch it tie it up and bunch it

Avacado vinaigrette pack it up and lunch it

Black eye peas grated cheese

Lettuce leaves nuts and seeds

Savoury plait a big fat slice

Tabbouleh coconut rice

Scotch egg cooked crisp steaming

Laddish radish never saddish

Cold cucumber seeming gleaming

Wash it down wine at leisure

Savour it flavour it gentlemans measure

Perhaps the plum brandy to

Prolong the pleasure

Flighty mighty feeling alrighty

Mum and Pop's cooking to remember dear old Blighty.


Saturday, 12 April 2014

It was mental growing up

Talking to oneself was well known to be the first sign of madness. Mrs Baker was pale and distracted all the time. Her two little girls wore dirty clothes and had crusty nostrils. She would slide into the shop murmuring to herself, like humming a song without a tune. The adults shunned her so we did too. One day I stood near her at the counter and Clem said, full of warmth, “Hello Christine, how are you? You can pay later you know if you need food for the girls.”

Surprised, I realised Mrs Baker had a name and it could be used, just like with normal people. I also became aware of the decency and kindness behind the grocer’s white coat and gold rimmed spectacles.

Mum used to talk to herself and we worried a lot about it, fearing that she was turning into a lunatic. She held interminable conversations with my absent father, hardly bothering to lower her voice, as if sound could not travel beyond the kitchen door. On laundry days the twin tub would be wheeled out and her monologue would rise and fall with the filling of water and the rhythmic agitation of the washer, rising to an accusatory crescendo as the spin cycle reached its peak.

We would listen breathless at the door, willing her to stop, wanting her to be normal. Yet she showed no other signs of madness, save from occasional dire warnings that she was en route to the nearest asylum – “You will drive me to Littlemore” or, more sinister, “At this rate I will end up in ruddy Rampton”.  “What’s that mum?” “A loony bin.” How we shuddered.

Teresa and I took a morbid interest in the mad people who congregated at Gloucester Green, the bus station in Oxford. In the smoky high ceilinged café the lonely people endlessly stirred their tea, staring, fiddling, occasionally laughing very loud. Muttering at the slops in her teacup the loony lady took out her orange lipstick and, without a mirror, smudged an oval in the vicinity of her mouth. Waiting near Carfax for the bus home we would be entertained by the flamboyant Joyce, a man we knew to be queer, though whether that was exactly the same as loopy we were not sure. Waving the ends of his chiffon scarf with theatrical gestures, he would perform for the queue until the bus appeared, then move on.

Adults talked in their special whispers about someone having a nervous breakdown and we understood that once this event had happened you would never be the same again and you would always make people sigh. Meanwhile Gran would refer derisively to people she had known years ago, “He wasn’t right in the head” or “She was doolallytap.”

Bats in the belfry, one slice short of a loaf – thus I was educated in problems of the mind. But the euphemisms did not conceal or dilute what grown ups were referring to and we had yet to arrive at the more knowing and equally distasteful abuse of words like paranoid, autistic, or psycho in everyday speech.

After we moved to the town we noticed a mad man in the neighbourhood. It was impossible not to see him as he walked ponderously up and down our street all day most days, generally smoking, often licking his lips salaciously and occasionally speaking. Once or twice when I met him he barred the pavement, stuck his hands deep in his pocket and pulled his trousers up as far as they could go. As he leered and thrust his pelvis towards me I felt disgust and pity, but curiously no fear.

Emboldened by incidents like this, one day I stopped to talk to the mad man and asked how he was. He told me he was having difficulty in sleeping because the car factory down the road was plugged into his brain and using the night shift to suck out all his thoughts. “They don’t care you see, but it’s very troubling and it’s upsetting me. What do you think I should do?”

That was a conundrum I could not answer; nothing in my life thus far had prepared me for that question, although a year or two earlier I had known a boyfriend’s mother who was properly mental. She was fragile, disconnected and lived in a private world. Sometimes she told stories of dark cruelty – how as a young woman nurses had pinned her down with their knees on her chest, strapping her to the gurney for the joyride to ECT. This, she was quite sure, was what had caused her subsequently to develop breast cancer. Netty would walk around her neighbourhood in many layers of ill-assorted clothing, buying large amounts of provisions she did not need and could not afford, often occasioning her husband or sons to return the goods with embarrassed apologies.

Was this a nervous breakdown? I could not tell, but I knew tragedy when I saw it and it was written on that family with indelible ink, penning the words of despair, shame, misery, guilt.

If poor Netty was an obvious nut, my father seemed to the outside world to be just an ordinary bloke, always whistling a catchy tune and ready with a smile. I decided he was a psychopath, a plausible, violent deceiver with no conscience. In pursuit of understanding and with the blessing of my very sympathetic psychology tutor I abandoned for a while the analysis of how children learn for the darker investigation of psychopathology. It got me nowhere. My dad was not mad, he was just bad. He did have a conscience, but had practised self deception for so long he did not have easy access to it.

My father had such a wretchedly low self esteem, such a lack of optimism and agency that his volcanic rage at the injustice of life infected us all with nascent insanity. It took decades for mine to surface and I struggle to live with it still.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Daft as a brush

The torpor of Sunday afternoon was sometimes broken by an unexpected vist. My parents were suspicious: "Who's that outside our house in a Jag?" Excitement from the kids, "It's Uncle Charlie!" The big fat car purred to a halt and from the passenger side emerged Aunty Ivy, in best frock, dripping with marcasite and diamante, her asymetric face a palette of pink and blue. Ivy had the unusual but pleasing habit of addressing us as if we were adults and though we recognised that eccentricity for what it was we nonetheless relished the attention and her conspiratorial confidences.

"My Charlie loves me. He bought me this beautiful brooch. Look at my lovely brooch, that's my Charlie bought me that." As we examined the shiny confection pinned to her bosom - our mum wore no jewellery at all - she would turn and bellow "don't you Charlie. You loves me don't you Charlie."

"Be quiet woman."

"See?" her lopsided mouth smiled crookedly " he loves me my Charlie does."

Uncle Charlie smoked fat cigars and looked pleased. His wealth was evident from his camel coat and the primrose waistcoat that stretched over his expansive belly, fob watch and all.

"Come on our Brian, let's have summat to drink. Not bleedin tea that's women's drink." He would survey us kids from a height and jingle coins in his pocket. "Here, go and get youselves some sweets and keep the change." Other adults might flip you a threepenny bit or a tanner, but Uncle Charlie handed out five bob. That was two weeks' pocket money.

From somewhere drinks of port were procured and the women drank tea, while children crunched, sucked and chewed as we resolutely eavesdropped on the grown up conversation, hearing snatches of ......he's lovely my Peter, oh you'd love him now I told him the bleeder, I said not on your life........... Yeah bloody long hours what can you do with five she courting yet?.......NO she's too young for all that and she's got her studying to do...........when are you coming over to see us.....

He was the archetypal lovable rogue, Uncle Charlie. He generated warmth and laughter. Both of them seemed to us like travellers from another world and we felt proud to be connected to people who were so visibly prosperous. The adults used to say oh Charlie, he's a villain, he leads her a bit of a dog's life but then again she's as daft as a brush.

Decades later I bumped into one of their sons at a family party. Charlie and Ivy were both gone. I shared my memories with Terry, who laughed and sighed as he told me how they had lived in a council flat, that most of the time they were in poverty while their dad chased one dodgy get rich scheme after the other. Oh his poor mum! He remembered the day she came home from work and found every piece of furniture had been sold to pay off a debt.

But I still remember her in finery and fur, getting me to stroke her cheek as she announced how young she was looking and how smooth her skin was, while Charlie kept half an eye on her from the other side of the room, feigning not to hear as she said again,

"He treats me like a queen my Charlie."

I like to think that in his way he did.

Friday, 7 February 2014

A school dinner

How can I say this....I loved my school dinners. (Lunches I would say now I suppose, but back then dinner was in the middle of the day.)

My primary school was in two parts, the new school and the old school. The big kids went to the old school, which was where my mother had been before me. The new school was being built (gradually) to modern standards like indoor toilets, heated classrooms and a playing field. Back at the old place we had separate playgrounds for boys and girls, spider infested latrines and one windowless classroon partitioned by a wooden divider. Without a blade of grass in sight, we loved it.

Every day we were walked to the new school by two dinner ladies for the second sitting. We would have about fifteen minutes of play, then line up again and be marched back. It was a dull routine for a child and to pass the time we sometimes played I wish, when we would fantasise about what we would have to eat. This game often ended in eeugk I hate, when someone said "lumpy mash" or "semolina". My fantasy was roast dinner followed by chocolate pudding, two treats that were never served together.

But once my wish came true and was spookily gratifying. Playing high jump in the playground I felt a nauseating crack in my knee. Whether stoic or just afraid of being told off I declined to tell the teacher, but when it came time to form the daily crocodile I realised I would not be able to walk to the new school. Mrs C, the dinner lady with the long nose, was not fond of me and told me to stop being silly and start walking. The pain was unbearable and two girls took pity on me. Linking hands and crossing their arms they made me a basket chair. We made our way to the new school, them edging along crablike, me growing paler with each jolt to my splintered bone.

Someone at the other end recognised a child in pain. A grown-up sat me down, gently lifted my leg on to a cushioned chair and arranged for me to be driven home. Someone said "do you feel like eating." I did.

That was the day we had roast beef and yorkshire pudding and roast poratoes and gravy and chocolate pudding and chocolate custard. I never forgot that meal, nor the hated Mrs C., though the kindly teacher is gone from my memory.

Who were those lovely girls and where are they now? Little forgotten saints.


Saturday, 28 December 2013

Remembering M

Someone I knew well went to Oxford as a mature student and I associate getting to know M with him although we actually met in a betting office where we both had a holiday job; the mutual association through Oxford a happy coincidence. We were the same age; he was, like me, a hard drinking, smoking, eldest child of five, a potential high flyer who spent his undergraduate years in activities outside the curriculum, with the net result - like me - of the "beer drinkers degree” (a third). I loved him like a brother not knowing then how men can despise that sentiment.

Fully aware of M's feelings for me, yet not understanding at all, I treated him as a great mate knowing he wanted more. How or even if we ever said goodbye I cannot recall. I know I heard he was working in public transport, that he married, had daughters, went to work in Malaysia, got divorced.

Many years later, I saw our mutual friend. “M was here last week, he came to stay.” “Why didn’t you tell me, I would have come then, it would have been really great to see him.”

“Oh no, he would never come while you were here. He never really got over it you see.”

I was truly shocked and full of shame that I had never appreciated such depth of feeling. By then, though, I had no real memory of what had ever passed between us, just vague recollections of fun, drinking, laughs and japes. Our shared politics and passion for social justice was acted out in an industrial tribunal we cooked up together. I remembered how he looked - very tall, slim, with disobedient hair and dark brown eyes. Nothing more.

Then at four o clock in the dark, silent morning I looked into his eyes, in an insomniac sensory memory that found us in a cottage in wintry West Oxfordshire, where a boozy party with loud music was happening, though there were few guests remaining. In that memory M's feelings were revealed to me and I responded wordlessly as we danced slow dances together, bare footed on the carpet, bodies barely touching but charged with the closeness, hearts racing, knowing and not knowing.

Back in time I felt that stomach churning electricity, stockinged feet damp with spilt beer, not caring, feeling only wonderful possibility. We did not kiss but we understood.

The next recollection played like slowmo. It was perhaps the following day. We were in the basement where my sister and I had a bedsit. M was hungover, half sitting, half lying, wearing a gorgeous white shirt. He was trying to make his feelings plain. I either turned him down or played innocent, but either way he gave up. I see him again give a frustrated groan and fall back on the pillow.

Did it end there, the thing that had hardly begun? I have no idea. We may have exchanged phone calls and letters but in those days you had to work much harder to stay in touch with people. I think I hurt him. I believe I took his feelings too lightly. I imagine I thought he was too nice - for me.

M was unrehearsed, his offer came unwrapped, revealing a naked need. I on the other hand was caught up in the performance of romantic and sexual encounters, where each side advances, retreats and side steps in a ritual pattern that is like insects engaged in a courtship dance. I was already locked into those habitual behaviours so when M revealed his naked truthfulness I instead looked elsewhere for the safety of artifice. Not ready for honesty in love, I pursued my own path blindly engrossd in the dance of the deadly insects,

Saturday, 14 December 2013


A young married couple struggle to get by on one wage. They are renting a one roomed wooden dwelling called The Retreat. A baby lies in the corner, in a pram gifted by her sad and guilty grandfather. Her mother sits and smokes for consolation while her father is tuning in a television that he insisted must be procured on hire purchase. Brian does like to have things on the never never but as for Kate she will always save and go without to get the things she needs. There they are living a never never life. Who knows what their hopes and dreams are? They are paying the price for short lived pleasure.

Kate did well at school and had no difficulty in getting a good little job as a book keeper. Her dreams of being a nurse or a famous author had ended a few years earlier when the choice had been made for her not to go to the grammar school in the distant town, with its costly uniform and bus fares. In years to come the story of that disppointment would vary by the teller and how much of it was Kate's stubbornness or her mother's indifference was moot in the context of the time, when a girl's education was not something to fret about.

Starting work meant being able to buy clothes and gramaphone records, go to dances at the corn exchange and do the jive, meet a nice boy and experience romance. But the pay was modest and Kate's parents needed her contribution to the household, so after bus fares and lunches there wasnt much left. Still a girl can dream.

In a market town where the two main employers were the car factory and the brewery, a job on the dray was seen as a stroke of luck - delivering to all the local pubs, riding in the cab, having a couple of beers on the company each day and being fed by the friendlier landlords. Brian had landed this job after finishing his national service. The money wasn't too bad and while he too had to pay his keep, his mother was malleable and always willing to lend ten bob here or there to her handsome son. Louie never could say no to Brian.

Hello hello. Going to pick up his wages and what did he see but a new bit of stuff in the office. I'll have her said Brian to himself and he did, not much later; he could be most persuasive.

Kate's parents had made it clear there would be no unmarried mother and baby in their house. Brian's family rolled their eyes and tried to welcome the brown eyed country girl and everyone helped out to get them married and into a little place of their own as soon as possible. Kate went to the registry office in a two piece suit, the jacket sitting tightly over her swelling abdomen. A new life coming into the world, a new life being made together, there should have been joy, but there was only loss. Brian mourned the easiness of his free bachelor life, Harry grieved for the little girl who had too suddenly become a woman and gone from him, while Elsie was sad for what the girl's obstinacy had got her into. And the girl grew up in a few harsh weeks, understanding that church bells and flowers would never be hers, that handsome is as handsome does and if you bring suffering on yourself nobody really wants to help you.

I have been chastised in the past for saying I was just the result of a knee trembler. But it is true. My mother, a well brought up girl who knew nothing of life outside the village, lost her virginity in an alley to a man whose volcanic rage and jealousy were only just contained by youth and masked by charm and seduction. I was created, just as we all are, by a cosmic accident. No conception is ever really planned, it is all too wonderful and random for that. Nevertheless tbe consequences of Kate and Brian's urgent, unglamorous first coupling have spread over generations, touching many lives, moulding others, casting deep shadows over a few.

Before the wedding Kate had already received a few shoves and slaps and these turned into kicks and punches before the pregnancy was out. She was sixteen when she conceived for the first time and by the age of twenty five had five children, a faithless and violent husband and no means of escape. Kate would almost turn forty before her life would take a turn for the good. And not much later Brian would be dead at the age of forty seven.