Monday, 28 July 2008

Gardens and Playgrounds

Today is an absolutely beautiful day, but for the next hour I shall enjoy it by looking at all the roses and geraniums in the flower bed that is visible through the open door to my side. I just wish my gardenwas larger, but then again, I am perfectly aware that many people have to content themselves with just balconies or the local park, to catch up with their share of fresh air and sunshine.
That was how it was when I was a child. If I wanted to go outside, playing in the garden was not an option. Balconies used to enchant me. I remember, a friend of my mother had one, in her small council flat, right out in one of those places near the end of a London underground line. I was allowed to water her balcony plants once, but only once. I think I must have watered a little too enthusistically, for she never asked me again. Not that we used to visit her very often, which was just as well really, because once I had exhausted the delights of her balcony, the beautifully-dressed Golly that sat on the sideboard, but I wasn't really allowed to play with, and certainly not take home, and the big seashell in which you could hear the sea if you put it to your ear, I became bored and restless, and probably a bit of a pain too.
There was a large garden behind our London house, but the only time I was allowed to go in it was to accompany my grandmother when she hung out the washing. Then I used to play in the waist-high long grass and make all manner of secret paths through it. I used to blow on the dandelion clocks to see what time it was, and there were plenty of opportunities to try again if the first one did not work. Dandelions would jostle with thistles and all manner of other weeds which thrived in that urban wilderness. My Grandmother always used to say "If you don't plant a garden, it will plant itself" and I had to agree with her.
Unfortunately, although she was only a tenant like ourselves, Mrs B. downstairs had control of the garden, and she didn't want me in it, or anybody else for that matter.
When I was about nine or ten, this same aunt who had the balcony, gave me an Enid Blyton gardening book. It was a bit cruel really, but I read it so thoroughly that I learnt a great deal about gardening. I knew all about how to dig over a flower bed, how to plant seeds and how to prune roses. I even learned about garden pests, and how to deal with them, but the book didn't give me any ideas how to deal with the biggest garden pest of all - Mrs B.downstairs.
Yes, I had actually had the temerity to dig over a bit of the wilderness and plant it out. Over the period of a few days I spent several happy hours out in the fresh air tending to my little bit of garden. Then one morning I came down to find that my plants had been trampled on and just for good measure, bucketfuls of weeds and coal dust had been thrown over everything.
I threw the book away. It upset me too much, now that my little foray into gardening was effectively brought to a close. But I think that incident might have been one of the contributary factors that lead my mother an I to leave London a couple of years later and try our luck in North Wales.
But there were still the Camden Gardens, five minutes walk away, even if you were not allowed to walk on the grass. People looked after things more in those days, and respected them. But the presence of a full-time park-keeper cum gardener definitely helped.
The flower-beds were not trampled on, no litter was left lying around and the actual playground at the end of the gardens, was locked up every night and painted at regular intervals.
From about the age of five, I used to go there on my own. There were always other children to play with once you got there.
There were no sandpits though, so I had to reserve my bucket and spade for visits to the actual seaside or till my mother took me to one of the playgrounds in Regent's Park or Kensington Gardens. There were no baby swings either and definitely only a hard asphelt surface to land on if you fell. But we never did. Not that I can remember, at any rate.
When I think of all the things we used to get up to it sends shivers down my spine. We thought nothing of hanging on by our knees to the bar of a big roundabout called an umbrella, and swinging out while the others pushed it round as fast as they could. Occasionally we even climbed right up to the top and sat on top of it, but that was definitely dangerous, and the park-keeper would then order us down in no uncertain terms.
With the big slide, one of us would slide down it with trailing a wax crayon behind them, with the result, when the wax had worked its way in, the metal slide became extremely slippery, and we used to shoot down it and right off the end, like bullets from a gun.
I think we had the most fun on the swings though. The chains were long, so you could swing really high. You could swing the highest of all if you stood up, especially if there were two of you facing one another. One sitting and one standing was another variation, as was swinging while the twisted-up chains unravelled, throwing you in all directions. The swings on either side had to be hooked up for this stunt, to avoid banging into them.
I have started talking about 'we' rather than I. Most of the time,especially when I was a bit older, I would come down with the other girls from our street. Somehow boys just did not come into the equation back then. I suppose they had their own groups and games. also, I think the girls in the street vastly outnumbered the boys, so, on the whole, we left them to their own devices.
Next time I will write more about all the games we used to play in the street. But right now, i have flower beds to tend to and roses to dead-head.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

I started to write yesterday, but was interrupted by my husband coming home prematurely. And now it is lost somewhere in the murky depths of my computer. But things have a strange way of turning up unexpectedly.
These days, whenever I start loosing things, or rather failing to find them because they are no longer in the place where I had thought I had put them, I realise that it is time to have a bit of a sort out. I did this with my bookshelves in the spare room the other day, and lo and behold, what should turn up but my old stamp album.
I sat down on top of the pile of books on the floor and perused it. I had carefully stuck those stamps in country by country, set by set, all in nice straight rows. The late King George features in ten of my stamps, ranging in value from a ha'pny to tuppence ha'pny(as we used to pronounce it) I've even got three with the head of his abdicated older brother, Edward. I used to like the stamps of the young queen Elizabeth best. A whole set of stamps with her young portrait on them graces my album. As I said in my last Blog - It is pity that everyone, even queens, have to get old.
South African stamps used to come in pairs, one with Suid (pronounce sayed) Africa, and the other with South Africa. Zimbabwe was southern Rhodesia in those days, and on that page, I have four stamps of English currency, with the Queen's head on them, and the writing, Rhodesia and Nyasaland (which I believe is present-day Malawi) We used to have a gardener from Malawi when we live out in South Africa, and his name was Maxwell. How he managed to work so hard in that sticky, summer heat, I do not know. But that belongs to a much later chapter of my life and has absolutely no place under the present title.
For pure pictorial beauty, the stamps of Monaco and Hungary were hard to beat. I've got a couple which celebrate the wedding of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, as well as some lovely triangular ones from that principality. I remember watching the fairy-tale wedding on our small black and white television (already described in great detail in an earlier Blog) when the American actress became a princess. In hindsight, she would have probably been happier if she had stayed in America, where she belonged, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Visiting her tomb in Monaco's great cathedral was a sad experience for me. I was still feeling very subdued when I emerged once more into the sunshine. One day she was a princess, the next a corpse. What is life and death all about?
I don't know why the Hungarians made a point of producing such lovely stamps back in the fifties. Perhaps that was one area in which their Russian oppressors (or liberators, depending on ones point of view) let them have free rein and give vent to their pent-up creativity. Anyway, I used to love collecting them. and they had pride of placein my stamp album.
I remember when I was about seven, my mother's older sister came to visit us for the afternoon. In winter, she used to remind me of a big brown bear, with her long fur coat, fur boots and fur mittens. she even used to wear the furry, sanitized remains of some unfortunate elongated creature round her neck, bright,beady eyes shining and its tail clipping somehow into its mouth. My aunt Agnes used to fascinate me in more ways than one. She was a brilliant conversationist with a witty sense of humour, and even at that age she used to make me laugh. Anyway, on this particular visit, I must have been briefly the subject of the conversation. Directly I heard my name mentioned I started to pay attention to what was being said, as one does. "Why doesn't Josephine start collecting stamps. It is a very educational hobby."
So sure enough, a few days after this visit I got a pile of used stamps complete with parts of the envelopes they were still stuck to, and instructions about how to soak them off in a saucer of tepid water. I believe a packet of stamp hinges and a very small, album was included in the bounty.
My new hobby kept me occupied for hours one end. For the rest of my childhood, quite a sizeable chunk of my meagre pocket money would be spent on stamps, and I suppose I absorbed the rudiments of geography along the way. I began to realise that Australia and Austria were two different countries and that Jugoslavia could be spellt Yugoslavia as well. I learned that the French owned a place that had beautiful stamps called Camaroons and that the Seychelles were tiny islands in the middle of the Indian ocean, with lots of birds.
I remember one stamp, no longer in my possession, a small, green one that had 'Saar' on it. I really did not know where to stick it, so it had a special place in the back of my album. Years later, when learning about the Rhine Valley at secondary school, a small black dot, denoting 'coal' had to be put in, somewhat to the south of the Ardennes. This was Saarland, where my green stamp had originated. Little did I know at that time, that I would later spend the best part of thirteen years there.
We used to have fun swapping stamps at school and in each other's houses. Everybody seemed to collect stamps in those days. And dare I say, our knowledge of the kind of geography as to where countries and continents were, and what was the capital of what, was far superior to that of kids today. I put a lot of that down to stamp collecting.
As for me personally, Geography was one of the subjects that I always seemed to come top in, in secondary school, without really trying. I had a good pictorial memory, so I could remember maps and graphs fairly easily, but the main reason was, that my curiousity about our big wide world had been nurtured and nourished sufficiently during my formative impressionable years. And in this, my hobby of stamp collecting had definitely played its part.

We used fiddly bits of specially gummed paper called stamp-hinges, to stick them in.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Pause for a pacemaker

Apologies to all my readers for this rather lengthy pause in my musings. I have got half an excuse in that I have had a heart pacemaker fitted.
If you don't mind a short digression from the subject in hand, I don't mind enlarging a bit in delicate matters of the heart so to speak, if you do, just scroll down until you come to the line of asterixes (whatever the plural of that word is)
Let me start by saying, that I definitely do not belong to those who denigrate our British National Health Service in any shape or form. I think it is wonderful. My procedures must have cost many thousands of pounds, but the only time I heard money mentioned was when a nurse offered me a penny for my thoughts.
That was at the time when no-one really knew what was wrong with me, including me, and I was hooked up to machines which bleeped and blinked and had lots of tentacles which stuck to me and itched.
The first big test was the angiogram, which meant staying in hospital for the day. The procedure involved cutting into a big artery in the groin, and threading a catheter through it up into my heart. Yes, it sounds gruesome, but it wasn't. The theatre was so modern, that I thought, in my tranquilizedup to the eyeballs way,that I had been transported to an alien spaceship, with a technology far superior to ours.
The worst part about it was having to lie flat on my back for two hours afterwards. Or perhaps it was the awful sandwiches they gave us, straight from the fridge that was the very worst, especially as we actually ate most of them, having been starved since the night before. Yes there were four of us done that day, at hourly intervals, but we all made it safely home that afternoon.
Next came numerous blood tests, from the vampire department - tubes and tubes of the stuff .
And then came the fun of having a twenty-four hour heart monitor strapped to my chest. I was actually feeling fine that day, and was able to carry on just as I normally did. However, the verdict, when it came through was that my heart was missing beats and in general misbehaving itself. And that was without consciously even setting eyes on any particularly dishy male throughout the whole day. My husband sadly, does not come into that category any more although I suppose he must have done once. Getting older is a sad state of affairs, when you think about it.
So the result was, that I was hauled into hospital yet again to have a pacemaker inserted just under my left collar-bone.
The fun bit was, that I was conscious throughout the operation. I was as high as a kite, but more or less compus mentes. I would have liked to have had a mirror hung up to enable me to see exactly what was going on, but as it was, I had to make do with the reflexion of a shiny metal arm which gave rather a distorted image of things, to say the least. But I did get a blow-by blow account, as the surgeon had his mentor standing right behind him. I learnt that one wire was going into the right atrium and the other into the right ventricle. I did ask which one was which, but the surgeon was so busy telling me that he had never got round to discussing the polarity of the wires with any patient before, that I think he forgot to tell me, or I forgot the answer; one of the two. But I have got an excuse, I was only half way down from my morphine high.
They hadn't been able to get the local anaesthetic to produce the desired effect, so they had given me a slug of morphine as well. That had done the trick! I was away with the fairies for at least ten minutes, and when my mind made its tortuous journey down into my body again, I had the distinct feeling that they were operating on someone else, and not me at all.
I went home a day later, having spent the night with a strange man. He had had the same operation, and was in the bed opposite me. There is a great controversy raging about mixed wards, but as long as nobody snores too loudly, I don't really mind. It is more important to have someone who you can talk to and be a bit friendly with, than whether they are men or women.
It would be nice to have his and her bathrooms though. Men rarely remember to put the loo seat down.
That's was it really. I came down fully from the morphine the next day, and started to feel literally a bit down, as well as completely washed out, as my mother would have said. After all, all the excitement was over, and the pain, though not excrutiating, was definitely there. I had to devise tricks to put on and remove jackets, and anything else with sleeves, and I wasn't allowed to get the affected area wet for a week. Though I did remove most of the yellow antiseptic stuff that made my neck look as though I had some scary life-threatening disease. As I had no wish to be ringing a bell as I walked along the street, shouting 'Unclean, unclean!' I decided to wash off any remaining trace that would have been visible above my clothing before presenting myself in public.
It has taken a month for my old zest for life to return, but return it has. I want to do things again, and am strong enough once more. But I have to admit, I did my fair share of moaning in the meantime, as my friends and family would testify. (Given half a chance)
I think it is time for the asterixes.
* * * *
The trouble is, that I don't feel like writing any more today. But now that I have got into the swing of things again, there will not be a very long pause, so keep watching this space.

Saturday, 31 May 2008

Comics and things

I had forgotten about the tin pencil box with aspecial pen and pencil inside, and a picture of the newly-crowned Queen on the lid. We were all given one at school to commemorate the coronation, but I have forgotten what happened to it. If only I had made the decision in my childhood to preserve some of the things I had in the fifties. If only I had put them away carefully, looked after them, or in other words, didn't use them, play with them or get any pleasure out of them at the time. But I was not encouraged in this. We were not that sort of family, and I was the sort of child who believed in squeezing every tube of toothpaste that life offered me, until it was absolutely empty. Pencils were used and sharpened with the kitchen knife, until they were stubs, too short to hold. Fountain pens did not fare so well under my tender care. I seemed to have a habit of dropping them on their nibs, or the little rubber tube inside would burst, making a dreadful mess. Tins got dented, broken or lost. Comics, once read and kept for a few weeks, became clutter, and ended up as fire-lighters or in the dirt pail.
I was an avid comic reader from quite an early age. I suppose Beano and Dandy were the ones I bought most frequently, as they were only two pence, a penny cheaper than all the others, and two pence cheaper than the one my mother ordered for me, that used to be delivered on Sunday morning. That was 'Girl' of course, sister comic to 'The Eagle', the one I think I would have preferred. But I am afraid, my mother's attempts at gentility did not really make much impression on my. Definitely before I was ten, Minnie the Minx and Dennis the Menace were my undisputed heroes. I found it delightful how they invariably ended up being put over an irate parent's knee and being thrashed with a slipper. Belle of the Ballet and Wendy and Jinx didn't get a look-in in the popularity stakes. It was only as I started to get older, that they started to appeal to me. I wish I had a pile of my old comics now. Comics, or what passes for comics these days, like lots of magazines, seem to be all pictures and headlines with no 'meat' in the middle, or they want to teach children their letters and numbers. Children don't want comics to be taught letters and numbers, or anything else that the adult world wants them to learn. They need comics to slip into and enjoy the private world of childhood. They need to be vicariously naughty, stuck-up, stupid or just plain bad, through the characters in the comics, and learn the consequences of such behaviour. In fact, there was a black and white morality in comics. Bad deeds and naughty children always got their just deserts in the end. The good and downtrodden were ultimately rewarded. The world made sense (what the public was allowed to hear, that is) But now, the unmuddied morality of those days seems to have turned into a veritable morasse of political correctness gone mad and justice frequently stood on its head.

Monday, 26 May 2008

The Coronation

I never quite manage to keep to the title if I write it first. I find the best method is to meander to where my writing takes me and think of a title afterwards, when I am done with the day's offering. For example, the subject of food leads quite naturally on to the theme of parties and Sunday School parties, and a street party for the coronation.
It was 1953 of course, and I watched from the upstairs window how long trestle-tables were put up in the middle of the road. Everybody had to bring their own chairs, so it didn't matter about those. The party can't have taken place the actual day of the coronation because we were away at my Aunt's at Hatch End to watch it on the TV - the one with the tiny twelve-inch screen, that we would acquire a few years later.
I remember, on the morning of the party, my mother looking pessimistically at the leaden June sky and predicting that it would pour with rain, and the half-a crown that she had paid for me to go would be wasted. But it didn't rain, not more than a few drops anyway, but it was chilly, and I had to cover up my best summer dress with a thick bobbly cardigan.
People had gone mad with red, white and blue. In the house opposite us they painted the palings of their fence in pillar-box red, royal blue and snowy white. The bunting they put up for the party, the decorations in all the shop windows and even my hair-ribbons were red,white and blue. My not desperately patriotic mother declared when the coronation was all over, that she never wanted to see those colours again as long as she lived. But she did take me into Central lLondon a couple of times, along the Mall and to Buckingham Palace, to join in all the excitement of getting ready for the important occasion. I think it was even bigger than Charles'and Diana's wedding. Probably it was a celebration that the war and all its privations was well and truly over. The country needed a reason to celebrate, be happy and go a bit mad. And the ascension to the throne of the pretty, young queen with her then, handsome husband and two beautiful children, was the excuse that everybody had been waiting for. It was a burst of pure sunhine after a long,dark night.
Not that there was very much sunshine to be seen on the actual day of the coronation. But the wonderful, mile-long procession went ahead anyway, with all its pomp and ceremony in spite of the fine drizzle which hardly let up the whole day. Sovereigns and statesmen from all the parts of the Comenwealth were there. I remember especially the Queen of Tonga who was over six foot tall and enormously fat, who rode in her own coach. And what a splendid display all the soldiers made, not onlyour own soldiers, but the colourful mounties from Canada, the Ghurkas and the Australien troops, with their wide-brimmed hats pinned up on one side. The palace guards wore their bearskins, but rather disappointingly, their red uniforms were covered by their long, grey coats, because of the rain.
The thousands of people waiting along the coronation route, however, hardly seemed to notice the rain , so loudly did they cheer. Probably the rain was evaporated in the warmth of their exuberance and enthusiasm, and the few drops that reached them merely served to send them into even greater frenzies of cheering. That is how it seemed to us, safely watching it all on television in a dry, warm living room at Hatch End. Perhaps the reality was, that many people got colds and suffered from mild exposure, especially those who had been there all night.
I can see it now, in vivid technicolour in my mind's eye, though at the time, I was only able see it all in black and white. I even remember the gold of the beautiful royal coach, with the Queen waving and smiling, and the crowds going mad.
Princess Anne a tiny little girl then, with a shock of blond, curly hair, was considered too young to go. Prince Charles, a serious, chubby little boy with a sheet of thick hair combed straight over his forehead, was allowed. He was very, very good. The royal children were not much younger than I was, so I could identify with them.
At school, on Monday mornings I queued up to buy National Savings Stamps. I mostly had to be content with a sixpenny stamp, with Princess Anne's curly head on it, but sometimes, when my mother had been feeling more generous than usual, I would be able to buy a larger stamp for half a crown (five times more expensive than the sixpenny one) with Prince Charles on it. Soon, my savings book was full of stamps, and my savings could be transferred to a Post Office account. I have forgotten what happened to it after that. The Post Office was a sort of black hole, where once you had handed your money in, over the counter to the clerk behind the metal grill, you never saw it again.
My Grandmother used to buy a magazine every week, either 'Woman' or 'Women's Own'. One of them, round about that time, had a centre-fold of Prince Charles and Princess Anne sitting in a beautiful garden, and surrounded by lush, dark foliage. It had the atmosphere of a Watteau painting, mysterious and exciting. I remember setting myself the challenge that if I looked at that picture long enough and concentrated hard, I would suddenly find myself transported into that magic garden with them. Needless to say, it didn't work, and somehow, after the failure of my little experiment, the mundane hit me especially hard. I didn't want to be in a place where nylon underwear and stockings, dripped from a line strung up in the kitchen. and where my grandmother wore an old working apron instead of a tiara.
I can see myself now, carrying the old kitchen chair down into the street. It was not a particularly safe operation for a childof my age, considering how many stairs and outside steps I had to negotiate, but I was adament. I wouldn't let anyone help, so my mother just hovered, just in case. Nothing happened. I got to the bottom without mishap, and took my place at the trestle table, right in front of an enormous green jelly. Yes it was the normal party fare for those days. The hard-pressed adults in charge did their best to get us to behave and eat the sandwiches first before demolishing the cakes and jellies, but I don't think they entirely succeeded. Jugs of orange juice were passed rapidly up and down the table, and became empty so quickly, that it was almost a full-time job for someone to keep replenishing them. Mugs got spilt. Colourful table decorations got spoilt. Balloons escaped from their tetherings or burst, sending the little ones into floods of tears with the shock. Naughty boys discovered ten different things to do with left-over jelly and blancmange, and the whole thing ended in our part of the road, with our table collapsing. By this time we were all overexcited and our parents began to appear to remove us from the fray.
There was the advantage of course, that I didn't have far to go home. By this time, my red, white and blue hair ribbons were drooping, throughhaving been dipped in the orange juice and I was tired. There had been too much excitement that afternoon.
I suppose I had better call this instalment 'The Coronation'

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

More about fifties food

Now where were we nearly a week ago? Examinining the contents of the biscuit barrel I think. But to move on from there to my all-time favourite meal as a child, egg and chips. The chips were home-made of course, shallow-fried just out of the pan, and the yolk of the egg would be yellow and just a bit runny. Then liberally sprinkled with salt and vinegar, and with a huge dollop of tomato ketchup on the side of the plate to dunk the chips in, I was in heaven for as long as it took to consume the feast, which usually was not very long.
From quite an early age, I always remember, when I ate alone, I usually had a book of some description propped up in front of me. That is another bad habit that I have not been able to break. Even now, when no one else is around while I am eating, there is never a book or a newspaper far away.
The back of cereal packets were quite a good source of entertainment too, in those days. There was plenty to read on them, and things to make when the carton was empty. Most of the breakfast cereals that we had in the fifties are still around today, but I think that sugar coated puffed wheat was the only sweetened one. Weetabix had to be opened from the top in those days, and then you just had to pull back the paper inside to reveal a neat row of biscuits, or slightly less neat, if I had been at them first. I once sent off for a Weetabix Wonder Atlas which only cost tokens as far as I can remember. I kept it for decades, well into my mid-adulthood. Perhaps that might have been one of the reasons why I got so hooked on geography. I loved finding out where other countries were, and wondering what it was like to live there. Indeed, I would often take my precious atlas to bed with me as bed-time reading.
I am tempted here to let myself be completely sidetracked from the subject of fifties food, but I cannot let it go without mentioning the delightful theme of junior school dinners. We had to eat them up, that was the worst of it. Every last grey lump found in the mashed potatoes, every last piece of fat or gristle in the meat and every last spike in the spiky dark-green cabbage. I used to sit sometimes in misery, the only occupant left sitting at the long table on the long bench , with my portion of evil-looking cabbage or congealed fatty meat staring back at me, and I would miss half my play time. They were the days when I had not been quick enough to get to the waste-food container without being seen by the teacher on guard. Usually, I was quick enough, and sometimes the food was palatable enough to finish without undue problems. So I didn't miss all that many playtimes.
A clean plate was a passport to the promised land of pudding, or dessert or afters, as I mostly called it and I rarely had any problems with that. The iced cake was delicious with hot custard over it, for the custard melted the icing in a most delightful way. Funnily enough, they usually managed to get the custard right, smooth and creamy, just the way I liked it. Even things like rice pudding and tapioca, which we used to call frogs' eggs, were quite palatable. But the favourite was at Christmas time, when they put coins in the Christmas pud. I once found a silver sixpence, and I have never forgotten the thrill of it. I think that was probably the present that gave me the most pleasure that Christmas.
It was at Christmas and mostly at Easter too that we experienced the luxury of luxuries, a whole chicken, roasted brown and still sizzling from the oven. The sage and onion stuffing which invariably accompanied it had been livened up with butter and extra onions and also done to a turn in the oven until it was crisp and brown on top. At Christmas time, this was always accompanied by fairy cabbages as my mother used to call brussel sprouts and roast potatoes.
No I can't exactly make out a case for being deprived and undernourished in the post-war years. But I am sure that in reality, I was just too young to appreciate the very real privations of the forties, and by the time my memory started to function reliably, it was the fifties, and things were beginning to look up.
But until quite late into my childhood, my banana intake was rationed to one a week, and it took me quite a long while to realise that pineapples ever had an existence outside the confines of their tins. Nuts, and dates we only had at Christmas time, and the nuts were still very much in their shells. We found that a flat iron in the fire-place was the best way of cracking brazils, even though the nuts inside were invariably smashed into a hundred small pieces; and poking the point of a pair of scissors in the join at the top and then twisting it, was the best way of prising open reluctant walnuts. Nuts definitely lasted a nice long time, and at least half of the pleasure of them lay in getting the things open.
It was the same with the winkles that we kids used to purchase by the handful when the winkle man came pushing his cart along our street with his cart. We used to extract the black, slightly slimy contents from their small snail-like shells with a hair-pin or a hair-grip. That was the interesting bit, but I never ate much of them. They were too cold and salty for my taste. It was a bit of a waste of a penny really.
What else did we used to eat? Butter-beans had to be soaked overnight to make them ready for cooking the next day. I used to quite enjoy them in soups and as a vegetable, although on a white plate they would look a bit insipid. Liver done in the oven with bacon and onions was better, from that point of view. But one thing was for sure, our menu was English through and through. Not even the Italian delights of pizza and bolognese, had filtered through to us, in the fifties, and exotic Indian and Chinese dishes, without which we could not imagine life today still lay at least a decade into the future. I don't think my grandmother had ever heard of curry, but we did eat rice. In fact my grandmother's rice puddings were second to none. She used to make them with custard and they had a lovely nutmeggy skin when they emerged piping hot from the oven.
We didn't go short on home-made cakes, sponges or pies either. Making a sponge-cake required a lot of beating and we used to take it in turns to beat until the mixture had reached the required state of fluffiness, and tasted good enough for me to take a surruptitious fingerful. As for pastry-making, I used to help with that too, crumbling the fat and flour together and lifting it high in the air. I loved to watch the floury mixture cascading down from my fingers, most of it landing in the bowl, but a considerable amount having to be scooped up from the table-top before my grandmother noticed. As a reward I was usually given a bit of the pastry to fashion how I liked and put in the oven by myself on an old saucer. That bit, still hot from the oven, with a dollop of jam on the top, always tasted the best of all.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Food (part1)

When I talk about the food we used to eat in the fifties, it fits in well with one of the stories that the newspapers are suddenly making much of lately. It definitely provides a contrast. When I was a child, "Thou shalt not leave the food on your plate" had the force of the eleventh commandment and I knew that I had to do my best to finish my meals. Indeed, if I dared to leave so much as a crust of bread or a solitary brussel sprout on my plate, I was told to think of all the starving children in Africa. My unspoken retort "They are welcome to it." would mostly remain unspoken as I would contemplate the logistics of sending the sloppy, unwanted remains of my dinner all the wayto Africa. At quite a young age, I decided that that particular operation was not worth the trouble, and I proceeded to pay as much atttention to it as the old chestnut, "Eat up your greens dear, they will make your eyes sparkle" Years later I tried that tactic out on my grandson, then aged four or five. When he had dutifully finished his cabbage, he blinked his wide eyes at me and asked in all innocence, "Are my eyes sparkling now Nana?"
For Sunday dinner, at least when we had visitors, we would eat in the living-room cum my grandmother's bedroom. The one huge flap of the highly-polished mahogony table would usually be up anyway, either for my jigsaw puzzles or my grandmother's sewing. When visitors came, all traces of these activitieswould be swept out of sight, and on a pristine white table-cloth, the best dinner service would be laid. Perhaps I should say the remains of the dinner service that my Grandmother had received as a wedding present in the early years of the nineteenth century, in Edwardian times, in fact. But one by one, over the years, the serving dishes and the soup tureen had got broken, until all that was left were the dinner plates and a couple of gravy-boats. Even the glaze on the plates was all cracked due to the family habit of putting them in the oven to warm, and often forgetting them until they were too hot to hold without a teacloth or an oven glove.
We usually had a Sunday roast of some description. I can see andalmost smell the aroma from the joints of pork even now. It would be covered in delicious crackling and served up with home-made apple sauce and Paxo sage and onion stuffing. Joints of beef would be expertly carved into wafer-thin slices with a knife as sharp as a samurai sword. They had been sharpened to perfection on a rectangular bit of stone which, even then, was wearing a bit thin in the middle because of all the use it had had over the years. A small dish of bright-yellow strong English mustard was always on the table when beef was served , and you would ladle out thecontents with a tiny spoon. Brown, continental mustards had not yet found their way to British tables, and neither had all the spices and herbs that we use today. Salt and pepper were the only condiments we had, and they were sprinkled liberally on everything. No-one had heard that salt was bad for you. My grandmother always used to keep a small pepper-pot in her handbag though. "Just in case..." she would explain. But she would never say in case of what.
As for cooking herbs, a small pot of mint on our kitchen window-sill would hang precariously to life, even when most of its foliage was picked to make mint sauce for the leg or shoulderof lamb
we weregoing to have that Sunday. First of all, it all had to be chopped impossibly fine and mixed with a teaspoonful of caster sugar. Then vinegar would be poured ove itand itwould be left to mature for at least twenty-four hours. We didn't use mint for anything else though. We had never heard of mint tea for example.
My grandmother did love her cup of tea. At least five times a day she would sit down and sip the steaming brown liquid in utter contentment. In fact, I can hardly recall her drinking anything else at all. Tea bags still lay in the future, back in the fifties. Instead, tea was purchased in small packets about the size and shape of a box of After-Eight mints. There were all sorts of makes, like Lyons, Tetley's and PG Tips, and prices. I cannot remember tea being rationed, but I suppose it must have been. But as it definitely belonged to the necessities of London life, and was not a mere luxury, I should imagine they took it off rationing as early as possible.
My mother loved her cup of tea too. Indeed, at the office where she worked as a typist, the tea lady was an extremely important person.
Even I, as quite a small child was taught to enjoy tea, sweet, milky and not too hot, served up in a white enamel mug. It was back then that I began a habit, which I have never been able to wean myself from, namely dunking my biscuit in my tea. And worse still , that socially questionable practice was handed down to my children, and now my grandchildren. Even if they have not got a cup of tea of their own, they ask if they can dunk their biscuits in mine. What can I say!
The biscuit barrel was always kept on top of the radio in the kitchen. It was literally a barrel-shaped container, with wood-effect on the outside, and china inside. The shiny metal lid was not at all air-tight, but just rested loosely on top, ensuring that the contents would be stale by the end of the week. Not that the biscuits often lasted that long, although we only had one packet a week, and I wasonly allowed a couple a day. It was only when I was ill or absent, that it was really put to the test. I can remember custard creams and chocolate wholemeals, as digestives were called then, being the height of luxury, but usually we just had bog-standard rich tea or shortcake. Really the british biscuit has not changed much since the fifties. That is a nice thought.