Tuesday 29 November 2011

Teachers, tights and tantrums

Confidence, an anchor that can't be weighed, a sail that can't be set, becalmed in a sea of ideas, inspiration flutters in and on the canvas but not enough to move the craft along

Holly and I have just taken our morning walk, and what a lovely walk it was, the low bright sun flattering and flattening, creating crisp long shadows and iridescent colours.

To carry on this years’ seasonal confusion autumn seems to be optional, while some trees
rattle their leaves in defiance the wind has picked others to the bone.The grass is still green and luminescent, polka dotted with red campion and fringed with fierce nettles that have made the most of the lack of competition and grown angry and strong.

Our morning constitutional took us past the village school, a clump of buildings from the 1800’s that even with the addition of an extension is still small.

When I was a pupil, the school was just two buildings that nudged slightly uncomfortably up to each other. They watched over a little playground that was enclosed by a low fence and some bushy trees. 

A small orchard rustled at the back of the larger building and our modest sports field lay to the side of the smaller one, a strip of lush grass not big enough for a track but perfect for the egg & spoon and sack races that we ran on sports day.

The trees are still in the playground and a fence of similar stature still contains it, but sadly this square of tarmac that once rang with the laughter and shouts of children, has fallen silent and empty like so many village schools.

I still vaguely remember my first day and like for most children, it was a day of tears and tantrums. Mum wanted to walk me the short distance to the school but she worked on the land and so was usually dressed in black oilskins and even at that early age I wasn’t keen to be seen with her or hold her hand.

Amongst the usual play and painting of this momentous day there must have been a point where we had been taught to write our names, as when I got home and proudly showed my parents the days labour, dad’s reaction wasn’t what I expected, he was angry, my name was wrong. He was very proud of being a McDonald not a MacDonald

The smaller of the two buildings was the infant's classroom, dark, high and polished to my memory. A schoolteacher from a bygone age, strict and stern, taught us about far away lands and fairy tales. One of my most vivid memories though was an occasion when she smelt something un towards so we all had to take it in turns to go behind a shelf to have our pants checked by her. I can tell you even though I hadn't done anything I was nearly scared into it.

The larger of the two buildings doubled as the juniors classroom and the canteen. The dinners weren't cooked at the school but were delivered by a man in a burgundy red Ford Corsair, which the very sight of was enough to make your tummy rumble. We would watch him with greedy eyes un load the big metal containers full of food, drooling at what delights they may hold. 

Unlike some people I have fond memories of school dinners: roast meat and boiled vegetables, spam and salad, bananas and custard, rice pudding and syrup, semolina and jam, butterscotch tart and even sago, I liked them all.  However, among all these delicious delicacies were two things that I dreaded above all else, cheese pie and onion sauce.

I hated cooked cheese as a child and this soggy pastry smeared with bubbling greasy bright orange goo didn’t do anything to appease my aversion to it. The onion sauce was no better, thick white liquid with huge lumps of semi-cooked onion suspended in it.

What made cheese pie or onion sauce days all the more terrifying was there was no option at our school to leave your dinner, even if you didn’t like it. To ensure clean plates the teacher would stand guard over you, jabbing you until every last hideous morsel was loaded into your reluctant mouth.

I can still recall the involuntary gag reflex as the cheese pie made contact with trembling taste buds before being thrown down my throat. Luckily for me at least, these barely masticated lumps carried on their downward journey but I do remember one poor kid with a dislike for milk puddings not being so lucky and throwing it all back up into the very bowl he was being forced to eat it from.

So scarring was this experience that I was well into my twenties before I could get past the smell of cooked cheese and enjoy the delights of pizzas, lasagnes and even cheese on toast.

I guess there must have only been about thirty pupils in the whole school so it was a very family like atmosphere. They were a mixed bunch but generally from similar backgrounds, with the exception of some of the farmers’ kids, though truth be told though there wasn’t many signs of wealth even from them. There was one exception, a boy whose mother was a particularly glamorous farmers wife.

Now I’m not casting aspirations on any of the other mothers, including my own, they were practical and pretty but in comparison to these hardworking wholesome women she was like a movie star. A beautiful blond Scandinavian who drove her son to school in a succession of exotic bright red sports cars. To young to appreciate the beauty but oh how I dreamt of a ride in those cars.

My short lived acting career began and ended at Aby school with an inauspicious start and wholly embarrassing finale. My first role was non-speaking but I did get to be at the front of the stage, using my budding talent to play a weed.

Now if playing a piece of flora wasn’t bad enough, the costume called for me to wear thick green girls woollen tights and as a boy with no dramatic pretensions this didn’t sit well, ensuring a sleepless night and a morning of pleading to no avail on the big day. I was unceremoniously dragged to school, jostled into my position and told to wave like a weed in the wind. I preceded to refuse this and all other direction and simply glower at the gathered audience.

However, some of my natural talent must have shone through in this premier performance as in the next production I was chosen to play the lead, prince charming. This was not only a speaking role but one where my range and patience were to be stretched even further. 

The finale called for me to kiss the princess, a girl who was suffering from a cold, lack of a hankie and was obviously saving the sleeves on her princes costume for something special. When the time for the closing ahhh moment came and she puckered up and moved in close I could see the glistening liquid trail from her nostrils to her mouth, prompting me to go off script to the embarrassment of my mum and shout to her “I don't want to kiss her she’s got a snotty nose” I don't think they appreciated any add libbing so I was never asked to be in a play again. 

This girl and I seemed to have knack at embarrassing situations, a few years later when we were in the junior class, we had come to an impasse in an argument we were having, so in my wisdom I thought the only way to bring this to a close was to ask the teacher. I dutifully put up my hand and when told to speak I said, “miss she says babies come from your bum, but they don’t you have to have an operation don’t you?" Even though the teacher was a little red faced, she didn't miss a beat and told us we could talk about it later, I don't think we ever did though.

There were only two teachers in the school, the aforementioned slightly scary one and the headmistress, a kind and calm lady from Wales. She tutored us at a mellow pace, encouraged my interest in drawing, even if the subject matter was limited to Spitfires, knights in armour, vikings and the occasional horse. Our stories were listened to and tolerated, no matter how long and rambling, she brought history alive and there was even time for us to learn our tables at a pace that suited our abilities. 

All this was brought into stark contrast when I was torn from this comfortable village  environment and thrown into the impersonal pace of the much larger Alford primary in my last year. Here it seemed like lessons were a series of tests by a procession of angry teachers.
In the summer we played the usual games of cricket, rounders or running on our cosy field, but when the season changed and the leaves fell we would take a short walk up the road to the old village hall and partake in an activity that at the time seemed normal but on recall seems slightly odd. No gymnastics or calisthenics for us it was country dancing. We were given partners and whirled, twirled, spun and skipped to the refrains of highland flings and the like. 

As we enter into the holiday period I miss those early school days the most. The classroom became like Father Christmas' workshop, with the role of the elves taken by the pupils. We busily made paper chains and calendars from old christmas cards. We collected fir cones and teasels from the fields and sprayed them gold. Every box, board or ball seemed to be covered in cotton wool or tissue paper and dusted with glitter . Every wall twinkled and the ceilings echoed with colour, dinner was a festive feast and we shouted carols at the top of our voices.

It's a pity these voices won't be heard here again.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Meat & two veg

I sometimes feel that I spend more time listening to people talk about food than eating it, although the uncomfortable squeeze that I’ve felt recently putting on my trousers belies that idea.

The fact that I’m a vegetarian often excludes me from some of this culinary conversation where my moral choice is often viewed with a certain amount of suspicion, anger and definitely as a self -induced affliction, but more of all that later.

Well I just want to make the point that I wasn't born a veggie. I caught it. Probably from the cows that almost brought me up, (if you’ve read my earlier posts you’ll understand that one). 

Anyway, my parents were from Hull so fish in all its varied forms flowed through their DNA and as I was born and bred in Lincolnshire, which it could be argued is like a rural food factory or in trendier terms a giant farmers market, food and it’s fuelling for activity were always high on my agenda.

Even though the shop had closed, Aby was always well served with a different delivery van for all of our food needs. There was the bakers, the butchers, the fish, the greengrocers and on a Thursday night, the grocery van, my favourite. The excitement of when the shop keeper opened the doors of his big blue Volkswagen van to reveal a motorised pirates cave, stuffed to the roof with sugary bounty still makes my mouth water and my teeth ache. 

Now I couldn't possibly talk about food without talking about mum.

Delicate and dainty were words that couldn't be used to describe her or her cooking, she only cooked meals that would feed a minimum of 8 even when there was only 3 of us left at home. Freshly baked, roasted, boiled, fried or steamed, we may have been as poor as peasants but we ate like kings.

I don’t ever remember a time when I saw her relax, but also I never heard her complain about her lot that much either, things were the way they were and you just had to get on with it, though when I think back and even though flour fingered glasses often obscured them, there was a hint of sadness and distance in her eyes, which I guess is often the case with those whose formative years were stolen by bombs and blackouts.

I don’t think she ever realised what a sofa or chair was for, her back never graced the comfy bits, she was always ready to jump up to do what ever we bade. In fact in later life I would always try and get her to relax by pushing her back into the sofa but it was like trying to level a rocking chair, too long had she held that position.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, she was physically strong and while it took a while to make her loose it, her temper had you running for any door with a lock.

I remember seeing her and my mad aunt leaving a group of street fighting combatants in a state of shock and horror at Hull fair as they were battered about their bodies by these crazy warrior women wielding coconut laden bags, screeching that they shouldn’t be fighting because there were kids about. 

I was always of the opinion that fragile bags full of cannonball like coconuts being wheeled like medieval maces, were probably more of a risk to any children in the vicinity than the testosterone fuelled struggles of youths, but I suppose it could have been worse it could have been the goldfish we’d won.

I suppose through circumstance rather than planning, my parents had a make do attitude but even when times had got better, this attitude teetered on the insane. We had what must have been the first ever electric kettle, brown enamel and looking exactly like the type you put on top of a stove. This weird electrical hybrid's element would burn out every couple of months  meaning a trip to a strange little shop as old as the kettle to get an expensive replacement.   

When we finally got a fridge, it was giant, second hand and probably from the 50's and something I always opened with a slight sense of trepidation after the time I had come face to face with a live crab.  Even though all of these objects would be very stylish and trendy now, at the time they were a real embarrassment.

Once I came home from school to find mum cooking our tea wearing industrial rubber gloves up to her armpits and dad's wellingtons, when I questioned this new look she pointed out that it was because she kept getting electric shocks from our ancient cooker when she pricked the sausages.

However, the scullery may not  have been well appointed but oh the wonders she could produce there. All her dishes were of the peasant variety made from whatever was to hand or left over, nothing was thrown away. 

Huge stews in her old tin pot, the size of a washing up bowl, the scrumptious sea of thick meat and vegetables obscured by a sky of fluffy dumplings. 

Sunday roasts were feasts that featured some of my most favourite things 'crunchy dumplings', the same as she used in the stews but placed by the meat in the oven so they would be crispy on the outside and as soft as clouds on the inside. Giant golden yorkshire puddings that drifted across roasting tins, crispy at the edges but slightly squidgy in the centre. Roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, sausage stuffing and vegetables created mountains on our plates that thick onion gravy ran down like lava. 
She did wonders with pastry, whether puff, flakey or short crust it was tasty and thick, creating a perfect home for every conceivable filling. These pies would come in a variety of shapes and sizes, like some kind of culinary Russian doll set, until all the pastry was used up. One of my favourite was egg and bacon, every thick slice was a rough mix of yellows and whites punctuated with juicy pink pieces of ham.

There always seemed to be scones on offer which was nice, but what was even better was when she made a version of bread & butter pudding with them, spongy and sweet, perfect for thick yellow custard. Everybody's favourite cake was her ginger Parkin, the recipe is still debated and searched for by the family like a lost treasure. It was moist and sticky. Perfect with milky sweet tea.

Strange as it sounds the biggest treat and the thing I miss most is her bread. The timing had to be just right as she said it wouldn't rise if you didn't feel well, but when she did, the gorgeous baking smell would have me running from whatever, tree, den or hiding place I happened to be in.  These hot flat cakes had a thick crust that when cut open revealed a luna landscape just waiting to be filled with melting butter.

The food we ate would probably be seen as fashionable now as the archaic equipment it was prepared on, never processed or packaged, the meat was fresh from the bone, vegetables from the field, and fish straight from trawlers, but as a kid schooled in the advertising of the 70's where fresh meant frozen, meat was in plastic pockets, chips were crinkle cut and sausages neat and tidy, I sometimes longed for the uniformness of these everyday items.

 Our sausages were from the butchers, great big black spicy exploding Lincolnshire ones, ham came from the hocks that seemed to be forever bubbling on the stove, even the mushrooms (one of the only vegetables I didn't like as a child) were giant field mushrooms that turned black when they were cooked, not the small button type you saw been flicked into  pans on the telly.

But isn't it always the case that you don't know how lucky you are at the time and even though I'm happy being a vegetarian, the idea of going back to gorge on this food as left my taste buds distinctly nostalgic.