January 25 2018: Welshcakes

There were always welshcakes in my childhood.  Like bread or cheese they were staples in the pantry, almost any pantry.

When we visited my father’s Pembrokeshire  aunties – ancient ladies in wrap-around pinnies – we ate welshcakes at scrubbed farmhouse tables, with old copies of Farmer’s Weekly under the cushions on the settle and the faint smell of damp and cows and primroses everywhere.  Welshcakes were served with home-brewed beer for the adults and ginger beer for children.  The ginger beer was so fierce and fiery, the bubbles racing up your nose ,that it almost took the top of your head off and every  glass  of the commercial stuff  since then has been a deep disappointment.

My mother’s aunties in the Valleys served us tea in delicate cups on lace tablecloths and we had to mind our manners.  But the welshcakes were just as good. They were kept in a battered tin with a picture of King George and Queen Mary.  The houses smelled of polish  and Brasso and the free coal my uncles got as miners.

The aunties used a griddle on top of the range, my mother made welshcakes directly on top of the Aga, risking burnt fingers as she wiped a butter wrapper over the hob.  My   sister was the welshcake queen of Oxfordshire,making them in a heavy le Creuset pan and storing them in Tupperware and taking them to hospitals and coffee mornings and sick friends.  When she died we joked that she would turn up at the Pearly Gates with a tin of welshcakes for St Peter.

This week in Yorkshire  I made welshcakes with three year old Bethan, younger grand-daughter.  Wrapped round and round in an enormous apron, she stood on a chair and carefully mixed the flour and the butter, sugar, sultanas and egg, concentrating as hard as if  I was giving her the secret of the universe, which in a way,I was.

We looked for a box for her to take some welshcakes home and at the back of the cupboard I found an old ice cream carton that my mother must have used to bring cakes to us more than twenty years ago.

An ice cream carton and a recipe for welshcakes – who needs heirlooms with treasure like that to hand on?

 

 

 

 

 

January 20 2018: The girl with the long blonde hair

I heard recently about the death of an old friend.  Phil was never the great love of my life but we were  good mates, good friends and spent a lot of time together years ago.

Back in the 1970s  we shared a passion for Ealing Comedies – The Lavender Hill Mob, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers etc and spent many an evening scouring the old flea pit cinemas of Oxfordshire to see them.   Eating popcorn in  almost deserted cinemas  that smelt of damp and decay, but we were happy and laughing in the dark.

At the time Phil drove an ancient sports car with a dodgy starter motor.  This meant we often had to come giggling out of the cinema and push the car to get it going.  Then we would  – literally – jump in  the car and head off to his place or mine.

Then I moved away.  We met and married other people but over the years had met up occasionally and were always pleased to see each other, a friendship that might have survived even better had we not lived 200miles  apart.

So when I  heard he’d died I was  sad for Phil and his  life cut short and for his wife and family.

But above all, to be honest, I was sad for myself – for that girl with the long blonde hair I used to be, the girl who could jump effortlessly into a moving sports car…

 

November 1 2017: Birthdays

The best thing about birthdays is that it’s just your day – as long as you don’t count the 18,999,999 other people in the world who share it. Christmas is for everyone – inlcuding people of other religions and no religion at all – but birthdays are yours alone. You’re the only one who’s special for a whole day. Unless you’re a twin or more.

That’s why there has to be a fuss.

I know there are perfectly pleasant, loving people who do no more on birthdays than exchange polite greetings and money to buy their own present.  Dull!

Not in our house.

B irthdays mean balloons and treats, cake, candles and indulgence and lots of presents – the dafter the better.

Two years ago my husband bought me a trip to New York.  This year he went to a great deal of trouble to find a  recording of Autumn Days – a witless, mindless, senseless song that primary school children sing instead of hymns.  It is truly appalling  with dubious grammar, a cavalier approach to the truth and a wishy washy, mimsy  approach to religion.  The sort of mental sugar that rots the infant brain.  I loathe it, absolutely loathe it.

What’s more, he even managed to find a terrible rendition of it. So dire, that you cannot believe anyone ever dared post it on You Tube.

No wonder he cackled as the played it while I enjoyed breakfast in bed.

There were other presents too, of course, (Autumn Days was quite funny but if it had been the ONLY present, I might just have killed him.) –  books and pictures, cheese, cider,  liquorice sticks  and a train trip.  Videos and Whats App calls from sons and grandchildren, an outing, a meal, general jollity.

It’s like being a child again when it’s your birthday all day…

I ended the day  eating a liquorice stick and listening, again, to the awful Autumn Days.

One day we might get to the stage where we do nothing on birthdays but exchange Marks and Spencer tokens.

But not for a long time yet…

 

 

 

 

October 23: Chapel teas

Methodists do the best teas.  True, Anglicans have wine, which always helps but maybe that’s why the Methodists try harder.

A Methodist tea is a feast.  Tables groan with cakes, pies, sandwiches, tarts, buns,gateaux, sausage rolls, fruit loaves, scones, sponge cakes, brownies, parkin, corned beef squares and custard slices…  all of it home-made and all of it melt-in the mouth delicious.

Right back to John Wesley, Methodists always appreciated their food.  One of Wesley’s companions in the Durham Dales wrote  with feeling

The promised land from Kilhope top

I now exult to see.

My hope is full (o glorious hope!)

Of good spice cake and tea!

That was in the 1770s and the tradition endures.  It’s like being at  your gran’s on a very special occasion.    All the time women  keep bringing more food or staggering under the weight of enormous teapots, urging you to try this, that, another mouthful here….  And always in a little room in the back there are yet more Tupperware boxes filled with yet more food.

As chauffeur to my husband – who writes about church services – I’ve gate-crashed many such teas, often in tiny little chapels in almost deserted dales.  The population has dispersed, the congregations have dwindled but  even in their final fling they’re still filled with busy, generous women intent on sharing food as  the most basic act of communion.   Cake is always cheering and particularly suited to sharing and celebration.

Many of those chapels have now closed. They’ve been converted into holiday homes or antique shops, the pulpits and pews, boxes of china and giant teapots sold or dumped and scattered.

But in among the other memories, there are still  the ghosts of all those cheeful busy women who cooked and baked and prepared and washed up and ironed tablecloths and turned refreshment into celebration and food for the soul.

It’s a memory worth preserving.

 

 

 

October 9: Backpack ladies

You see them everywhere with a spring in their step – ladies of a certain age with all the day’s essentials in a day pack on their backs.  Sometimes the packs are seriously smart and the rest of the outfit too.  More often, the clothes  – and especially the shoes – have practical comfort first.

But whatever, the women bounce along as if a weight has lifted from them, especially if theyr’e alone.

The chances are that they started their working lives carrying  handbags until motherhood  left them unable to go out of the house without a baby, a buggy and a bag of nappies, bottles, raisins, wipes, spare clothes.   By the time they got back to work there were briefcases, laptops to carry and a handbag big enough to carry emergency essentials for everyone in the family.

(I once emptied mine for a radio programme and as well as the usual – makeup, Tampax, Ibuprofen – discovered a penknife, corkscrew, football studs and a bike pump…)

These women have gone through  their adult lives literally weighed down by work, family and responsibility for other people.

And suddenly they’re free…

So you see them in galleries and theatres, shopping, strolling, sitting in pavement cafes in foreign cities soaking up the sun and a glass of wine.There are lots of them in National Trust properties, country pubs and anywhere interesting. They have time and energy to look around them, explore new places, new experiences.

Hands-free, hands in pockets, alert, lively  and free, literally, of the baggage they’ve had to carry for years.

Women’s liberation for grown ups.

 

 

 

September 29: Great-granny’s magic sheet

The sheet must be at least 60 years old – probably  bought in the early years of my parents’ marriage  before my mother’s fancy turned to coloured  sheets  and patterns.

This sheet is plain white, made of thick, heavy cotton, worn soft by endless washings in the old wash boiler,  hung to dry in the Welsh sun  on the  line between the apple trees, then aired on the rack above the Aga.

Because my mother always believed in keeping anything that might be useful, it came to our house in a huge bag of linen after she died.  Some of the sheets I used, others I gave away. Some I cut up into tea towels, some  I turned into Hallowe’en ghosts.  This sheet  just stayed in  the bag at the back of the wardrobe, still  immaculately folded by my mother, goodness knows how many years before.

Then our first grand-daughter arrived.  Her parents brought a travel cot for when she stayed with us, complete with cheerful sunshine yellow cot sheet. But the baby never settled. She was a restless baby anyway but the travel cot seemed hopless.

Until one day I took the old cotton sheet, folded  it in four, and tucked it into the travel cot.

Maybe it was the thickness of it after the slippery polycotton yellow, maybe it was the snugness, the softness.  Maybe even it was the memory of Welsh sunshine and a great grandmother she never knew.  Either way, the baby slept soundly.

Much relief all round.

The trick worked for her little sister too.  Then this week  it was the turn of  our grandson Fred, nine months old and a hurricane force of robust energy and restlessness  after his parents had moved out of their flat before going to America.

He wasn’t a great fan of strange cots but hurtled into this one and instantly crashed out every time.   “Mmmm….” said my son, wonderingly.

And that’s why Great-granny’s magic sheet is going to America tomorrow. In a swish apartment in a swish part of Washington, Fred willbe sleeping on a 60 year old sheet.

My mother would have been thrilled to bits.

 

 

September 13: Romancing the past

I love this picture of fisherwomen on Holy Island in 1857.  They are dressed  for work, assorted layers for warmth and practicality.   Their feet are probably soaked through and cold. And their expressions as they look at the photographer clearly say “We’ve got work to do. Haven’t you anything better to do than take pictures of us?”  Even the donkeys, laden with heavy baskets of fish, look fed up.

I’m sure – I hope – that these women had some fun and love and laughter in their lives but everything about them seems to reek of   stoicism, of relentless keeping on keeping on, a daily grind that had little opportunity for treats and jollity. And they were the lucky ones who could make a living.

With all due respect to them both, they do not have the appearance of women who indulge themselves with creams and lotions or  run through hay meadows with their glorious hair blowing free in the sunshine.

This is what the past looked like.   It wasn’t picturesque and pretty.  It was for many a world of work and care, of managing on very little and having to settle for less, when girls might have been gorgeous at 16 and ancient by 30.

Just remember this when you watch Poldark.

September 2 2017: New Year Resolutions

Well that’s it.  Summer’s over. No more lazy days making the most of the sun.  School starts next week.  Time to swap flip flops for boots, order logs and get back to the real world.

There are spiders’ webs on car mirrors  in the morning and a hint of chill in the air, refreshing, energising.

Holidays are over.  Back to work again.

It’s a time to dream of new exercise books with all those clean untouched pages, new pens and pencils to make our mark.  Even for those of us who left school a long time ago, the September air has a tantalising tang of new beginnings.  This year will be different. All sorts of possibilities…

January has always seemed a daft time for a year to start.  In the bleak midwinter we just want to hibernate and get through the dark until the spring comes round.

But September is  much more crisp  and purposeful.  A good time  for a fresh start.

This time we won’t mess up our execrise books.  This time we’ll try harder.  This time we’ll get it right.

All this and new boots too.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

August 24 2017: Kabul grannies

 

These girls striding out  confidently in the 1970s  could be anywhere in the western world.  In fact, they were in Afghanistan in the days  when the country was relatively liberal.  Until the Taliban took over – then  these  happy young women  and their daughters and granddaughters were forced to wear burkas, covered up from head to toe in a bid to make them invisible, second class citizens with precious few rights.

So what did these women tell their daughters and their daughters’ daughters of how life used to be?

We in the west are used to our grannies telling us of how life used to be harder, of how  they used to work harder, dress more modestly and generally behaved better.  They remind us of how lucky we are, of all the opportunities  we have for education, freedom and ambition.

But  Kabul grannies must tell their granddaughters a different story.  When the Taliban were at their most oppressive memories of mini skirts and music and university must have been like fairy tales from some long-forgotten age.

That’s one of the ideas I explore in  Amity and the Angel .  In a society where religion rules and girls are just meant to be subservient to men, marry young and have lots of babies, it’s the granny with the long memory who’s the rebel, reminding people that there’s another way to live, a society with music and stories, where men and women are equal and free.

Well, someone has to keep the ideas alive.  And you can always rely on Granny…