Friday, 28 November 2008


Not for those on a strict diet, I'm guessing

1 loaf, 15 servings/slices

2 ¼ cups self-raising flour
¾ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup light brown sugar
¼ cup butter (softened)
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed well-ripened bananas
1 cup softened, diced apples (Bramley, if possible)
¾ cup crème fraiche
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Well-butter and flour a loaf tin (8 ½" x 4 ½")
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°)

Whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt in a bowl.

Place sugar and butter in another large bowl; beat together with a mixer, at medium speed, for a minute. Add eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Add banana, apple, crème fraiche and vanilla; beat until well-blended. Add flour mixture gradually, beating at low speed until just moist. Spoon the batter into the buttered/floured loaf tin.

Bake at 180°C for 1 hour, then check to see if a wooden pick inserted in centre comes out clean. If not, give it another 5 - 10 minutes, resting some aluminium foil over the top of the loaf if the crust seems well-done. After removing loaf tin from oven, cool 10 minutes on a wire rack before removing loaf from tin. Completely cool loaf on wire rack. Wrap in cling film and store in refrigerator. It tastes better a day later, spread with butter.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

The Lie-In in Winter

"Going to the Feelies this evening, Henry?" enquired the Assistant Predestinator. "I hear the new one at the Alhambra is first-rate. There's a love scene on a bearskin rug; they say it's marvellous. Every hair of the bear reproduced. The most amazing tactual effects."
Aldous Huxley (Brave New World)

AS A SCHOOLBOY I enjoyed an unplanned day of reading and daydreaming when the weather kept me from playing cricket or football with my mates. As if. All those years ago, I don't think I ever had a regular date, or any date at all, to play an organized sport outside of school hours. I would have been out fishing, possibly walking with a friend on the beaches of Bermuda, at the movies or at the Library. And, come the rain, wind and cold, I would not have hesitated to reach for a book, a blanket if necessary, a spaniel, and would have settled on my mother's sofa. I certainly wouldn't have complained at any misfortune. Let the storm rage, I will not.

Books from the Junior Library at first, Enid Blyton's stories (the butch ones, I wasn't into her Naughtiest Schoolgirl tales, which I regret now), the Hardy Boys, Mark Twain, CS Lewis, HG Wells (especially The Time Machine), Jules Verne, and anything described as like those on its cover. I recall the day I presented myself at the Senior Library, almost certainly the first moment I was able to do so. Would I have been twelve or thirteen, perhaps? That is when I started reading histories and biographies (I'm still at it).

Unable to afford new books, I'd go to the second-hand shops when I was hardly able to reach the shelves. So, on to the James Bond novels: I was a spy on rainy days. I bought many of the best-sellers of the 1950s that had become tattered, well-used, second-hand goods in the 1960s. I enjoyed Nevil Shute, Nicholas Monsarrat, Daphne du Maurier, and Robert Ruark's, stories. Of course, I read Irving Wallace, Irving Stone, and James Mitchener. Harold Robbins was a guilty pleasure. Music magazines were de rigueur. The usual teenaged-boy things. Not sure what sort of a buzz I got out of them.

After that, as one does, I moved on to Mann, Hesse, Gide, Orwell, Huxley, Woolf, DH Lawrence, TE Lawrence, William Blake, Yukio Mishima, Joyce, Wilde, Bernard Shaw. Mormonism brought a flood of books by and about noted members of the Latter-day Saints.

I am blessed in having had friends who pass books along to me, and who generally know exactly what I'd appreciate. From about 1975, I could hardly claim to have kept the publishing industry in the black and white. Nearly every book I read had been handed around a group. I still use the public libraries.

These days and nights, I am drawn to non-fiction first, and the classics. I am reading plays. And I have looked for novels set in the part of England where I live, and/or written by local authors. I still enjoy a good biography.

If I have only a few minutes, perhaps waiting for my car or a bus to arrive, I often spend that time reading lines from something poetic, without being poetry. At this moment, I have Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and André Gide's Fruits of the Earth at hand. I pick up Shakespeare several times a week.

In the past few months I have read several histories on the First World War. I have been reading Alan Bennett's autobiographies (Untold Stories and Writing Home); an autobiography by William Woodruff (Nab End and Beyond) about growing up in a Lancashire mill town in the 1920s; a book about the correspondence between Hitler and Stalin by Laurence Rees (Behind Closed Doors); a biography of the painter Francis Bacon (The Gilded Gutter Life) by Daniel Farson; and Simon Doonan's fabulous account of growing up in Reading in the 1950s and 1960s (Beautiful People). This last book, like the BBC-2 TV series based on it (also called Beautiful People, but reset in the 1990s), has had me doubled up laughing.

The book I'm holding in the photograph is the stage play The History Boys by Alan Bennett, which is brilliant. Bennett adapted it for the film, and that's terrific too, I've watched it many times as it's a great way to spend ninety minutes enjoying fine language and thoughts. I was something of a history boy myself.

I celebrated another birthday recently, and, using some money my sister sent me, I bought something which is, I suppose, a bit naff. A faux-fur mink blanket. It's 79" square, and warm as can be. It feels lovely. Cailean is not sure whether it is friend or foe, and growls at it from time to time, then burrows under it (the underside has a faux-suede finish) for several hours. Friend. That's the blanket in the picture. I look pretty damn good for 82, don't I? That's because I'm not nearly 82, which would be my mother's age.

It has been a chilly, rainy day. Not fit outside for man or beast, as WC Fields put it, and perfect for lounging about under the faux-mink. We posed for the photograph, time delay, but had been reading through the morning, and continued to do so all afternoon. Cailean popped up for the flash. He did not bark: I was worried about him disturbing the neighbours when I got him, so I trained him to bark in Braille. If he needs to alert me to something at the door, he stands by it and paws the floor almost silently.

We had the fairy elephants upstairs clunking around, but they were not brawling at least. For a half-hour, one of them hoovered their floors with its trunk, and they have a good deal of dust and debris to vacuum up and/or the elephant has sinusitis. I put my reading down and tried to come up with an appropriate name for two elephants in Northumberland. Elephants? Grey … Northumberland? Earl Grey. So, I've got Earl and Countess Grey thundering about overhead.

I read a bit, then wondered about this really odd and vivid dream I'd had last night. I had dreamt that I'd built a time machine (it looked rather like one of those steam-boxes for sweating off one's excess fat) and it was all set to go (from my mother's back garden) except for the fuel. The casing, the circuits, the science … those were hot to trot … but the tank needed topping up. What did the time machine in my dream run on? This is the strange bit: gossamer. I asked my mechanic where we might get some. "Fairies' wings," he replied. There might be a short story in that. How the fairies have to learn to be like normal people. The Sarah Palin Manifesto, 2012.

Now, back to The History Boys and the touch of faux-mink.

That's the way it is just north of Narnia tonight.

Thursday, 13 November 2008


Queen Street & Mill, Harle Syke, 1910

Military Record for James Arthur Lancaster, 1918

Wancourt British Cemetery, France, 2008

War Memorial, Harle Syke, 2008

Queen Street Mill & Museum, Harle Syke, 2008

A certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.
But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.

St. Matthew, 8:19-22

My little dugout, my home these last two or three days: I am in a narrow trench about four feet deep, and my dugout is a hole scooped out of the trench side and roofed over with a piece of corrugated iron. When, at night, we settle to rest, and hang up oilsheets at the openings, and light our candle, we are quite comfortable, and happy.
Lance-Corporal Frank Earley, 1 September, 1918. (He was killed the next day, aged 19.)

I DID NOT KNOW of Lance-Corporal Frank Earley and his death in battle on the Western Front on 2 September, 1918 until I read the Imperial War Museum publication "1918 - Year of Victory" penned by Malcolm Brown. I was looking for information on my grandfather's older brother, James Arthur Lancaster, who was killed on 2 September, 1918, fighting alongside the Canadians as they smashed through the "Drocourt-Quéant Switch" offshoot of the Hindenburg Line.

There are only five sentences in the book about the battle for the Drocourt-Quéant Switch, and four of those are reflections on the use of names with Wagnerian connotations by the Germans for the lines in that area. They called the Switch "Wotan". I do not know how many hours the battle lasted, or exactly how many men died and what exactly killed them, or how much firepower was expended during the battle on either side. What was the ground like? Were there any trees left near Arras by 1918? Was it raining? Had the Tommies had time for breakfast? Were prayers held? Did anyone sing "God Save the King" (or even think it)? Did anyone try and run away? Did my mother's uncle die immediately, and was his body quickly removed to a morgue? Was he bagged or boxed? Was he missed?

I've never seen a photograph of James Arthur Lancaster as an adult. He was only 24 when he died fighting for his country, and, as he'd volunteered in 1915, I imagine he did care about his country. He'd been 21 when he signed on, and would have started working in the Queen Street Mill in Harle Syke, Lancashire, ten years before. Of course, that would only have been part-time when he was eleven years of age, he might have had another year with some schooling before becoming a full-time weaver. Perhaps, after ten years in the Mill, the King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, and the likelihood of some foreign travel, even under fire, appealed to the young man.

I have seen a photograph taken, I'd guess, in about 1905, picturing James Arthur Lancaster, then aged eleven, his sister Maud, who would have been about nine, and my grandfather, William Lancaster, four or five. The boys looked much alike, their hair cut to a stubble, dressed in identical outfits that may have been borrowed or hired for the occasion, as I doubt that the Lancaster children had much need for fine-cut, black, velvet suits with white, lacy shirts with enormously wide and high collars that seem purely decorative. Not even as useful as linen antimacassars, and the family would not have had those either. The boys looked a bit flash, to be honest. Maud had been dressed as I'd have expected a girl to have looked in her circumstances: plain. However, plain did mean many layers of unattractive cloth, set off by drooping ringlets. That sort of plain takes some work.

The Lancaster children had been posed amidst some grand furniture in front of a photographer's backdrop, a brocade curtain. And that is my picture of James Arthur Lancaster, the only one that might approach the real thing. He looks a good deal like his brother, so he may have grown up to look like my grandfather did, and I have seen photographs of my grandfather at the age that James Arthur was when he was killed in the Pas de Calais. James Arthur must surely have been taller than my grandfather to have been able to enlist, for my grandfather was only a very few inches over five foot. If like my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, he would have tended to be stocky, though I cannot imagine he managed to stay very plump in the trenches. His face would have been narrow, not a very good chin, and he would have been a bit bow-legged, small feet, but not unattractive.

James Arthur was sent to France in October of 1917. I don't suppose anyone in the family had crossed the English Channel in living memory. My father's people, the Eldridges, were sailors in the Royal Navy going back many generations, but my mother's relatives had been farmers and weavers and I have no record of even a distant cousin of some sort putting on a uniform. And we didn't have the money for holidays on the Continent.

I have a number of James Arthur's military records now. It is interesting to see his rather poor penmanship, as if he struggled when signing his name to his Attestation documents when pledging allegiance to His Majesty, King George V.
King George V had the family name Saxe-Coburg Gotha, he was the first cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II of the Hohenzollern family. Lancaster was the name of an English Royal House, long before those Germans got involved.

One of the last of the papers that have come my way is shown above, and one can see James Arthur was "In the Field", which might have been fairly accurate. Or in a foxhole in the field. He was taken to a rest station a few times suffering from diarrhoea, and I imagine it must have been more severe than that one gets after a dodgy curry on a Friday night.

And, on 23 September, 1918, someone has made a memo on the records to show that the soldier was "Killed in Action". The memo was entered three weeks after James Arthur Lancaster died, and then the page seems to have been stamped and signed.

My great-grandparents, Harry and Elizabeth Lancaster, received word of their oldest son's death at their home in Harle Syke. Who answered the door? I wonder. It was just a few weeks before the War ended, my grandfather, turning 18, had been called up (fortunately, he contracted the influenza virus and was not caught up in the madness, he got to stay in the Queen Street Mill).

Another document, dated 4 May, 1919, has my great-grandfather signing for two medals awarded to his dead son. The War and Victory Medals. I have no idea where they might have gone.

The exact whereabouts of James Arthur Lancaster's grave was not known in my immediate family until five years ago when, through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I located him in the Wancourt British Cemetery in Northern France, not far from where he died. His grave reference is VIII H. 10. His name is on two memorials in Harle Syke, Lancashire, and I've shown the one by the town's bowling green. I wonder if he bowled.

The Queen Street Mill in Harle Syke is now a tourist attraction, a museum, boasting the only remaining steam-powered looms in the world. It has free parking, a gift shop and a café.

11 November, 2008, was commemorated as the 90th Anniversary of the Armistice that ended the War to End All Wars. Two Royal Marines were killed in Afghanistan today, squabbling with dusty people over some real estate that they want for their own people and we wouldn't know what to do with if we could take it from them successfully. So it goes.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Explaining All That Is Mad

The Apple Universe

The Hazelnut Universe

The Multiple Hazelnut Universe

The Convenient Hazelnut Universe

And in pis he shewed me a lytil
thing pe quantite of a hasyl
nott. lying in pe pawme of
my hand as it had semed. and
it was rownde as eny ball.
I loked per upon wt pe eye of
my vnderstondyng. and I
pought what may pis be. and
it was answered generally thus.
It is all pat is mad.
Julian of Norwich (Showing of Love)

UNDERSTANDING, FOR ME, COMES SUDDENLY. I recall vividly the first time I truly understood gravity. I'll tell you the story.

Our physics laboratory at Warwick Academy had been created by dividing the former lunchroom (which was where we were supposed to eat if it was too rainy to go outside) into two rooms. The two rooms were unequal in size; the much larger space being devoted to the biology lab, the physics lab might have been twenty feet square. In order to reach the physics lab, one had to troop through the room in which a biology lesson might be in progress.

We had two tables, and two benches, without backs, on which to sit, rescued from the lunchroom's detritus, in the physics lab. The room had two small windows. Overhead, the usual fluorescent lights flickered. The master's desk and chair faced us, behind him a blackboard and, high above that, not easily reached, was a shelf. On the shelf, a few books and a number of plaster busts, each a little over a foot tall, of the great physicists (Galileo, Faraday, Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, and so on). I remember, also, a dusty set of scales. We never used them. The only hands-on lesson we ever had involved pouring blobs of liquid mercury into our palms and feeling the weight and magic of it. We'd let the metal slide from our hands back into its clay jar and go out and eat our sandwiches.

One day (it's always one day, isn't it?) the physics master, a Welshman with a fondness for the bottle and the art mistress, was scribbling out a diagram on the blackboard, an electrical circuit of some sort with rheostats and switches, and his chalk broke. It crumbled, actually, and fell onto the floor. The physics master muttered SHIT! and thumped the blackboard with his fist. That's when a bust, that of Sir Isaac Newton, fell off the overhead shelf, accelerating at 32.2 feet per second per second, onto the master's head. The master hit the floor like a sack of apples.

At that very moment, I fully understood gravity. Gravity is having dignity or sobriety of bearing. Clearly our physics master had neither.

I WAS BROUGHT UP A CHRISTIAN. I still have a Church of England hymn book for children, purchased in Canterbury Cathedral in 1952 by my two grandmothers (doing a little sightseeing), and sent to me back in Bermuda, where I might be raised amongst Heathens for all they knew. I was two at the time and couldn't read. I still cannot sing at the age of 59.

I attended the Anglican Church in Bermuda as a small child. It was racially segregated; I guess God thought that was a good thing, certainly his devout servants did, and they preached it. I have no doubt that the Vicar had black servants in his oversized rectory. The pale, frequently sweating, well-fed priest with his double chins and fat wife would not have mowed his own lawns either. God must have liked that set-up, and provided the money required to pay for it.

Curious as it may seem, I became a Mormon when I was not long out of my teens. I was attracted by the fellowship, the friendly nature of the members, the welcome and the abundant food. There was something else, something more important. I met somebody, a young LDS missionary from Utah (wherever that was), and the very moment I set eyes on him, I had an understanding. It was clear to me, it did not require further thought, I knew him from somewhere.

A little about Carl Burke, and this is not a completely invented story like the one about my physics master and the bust of Isaac Newton. [Or was that something I made up? A creator might be thought clever if nobody realises what his occupation is.] Carl was born about three years after I was, into a Mormon family in Utah (which I discovered was just beyond the peaks of the Rocky Mountains). His father, Bill, was a convert, originally from the American Midwest, I believe. Verna, Carl's mother, was the daughter or granddaughter of immigrants from Europe who had converted to the Church. The couple had two sons when they were getting on in years, and Carl was much younger than his brother.

I do not know what pressure was put on Carl to conform to Mormon ideals and beliefs, but he got into a good deal of trouble. He liked anything mechanical, fast cars were appealing, and he developed a taste, a longing, for alcohol and, particularly, drugs. It was the early 1970s and he wasn't the only one. I was never much for drink, though I didn't shy from it, I just didn't really enjoy it. It would never have occurred to me to drink at home alone. I liked drugs though. I made a career of abusing drugs.

Needless to say, Carl got caught. In 1972, the year my manic depressive illness began as severe anxiety and mild depression, Carl was nabbed breaking into a drugstore. I didn't know him then, he told me about it in 1974. It had looked as if Carl was going to be spending some time in jail: His behaviour was out of control, his health and addictions were at a crisis point, his emotions were shot to hell. And somebody pulled a miracle out of a hat. If Carl would go on a mission for the Mormon Church, under the particular and knowing supervision of a Mission President approved by the courts, and would behave, he would not be jailed or otherwise institutionalised.

Carl was sent off to the Eastern States Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the care of Mission President David Lawrence McKay. David Lawrence McKay was no ordinary Mormon; his father was David O. McKay, the Ninth Prophet of the Church, from 1951 until 1970. David Lawrence McKay had read his father's sermons in General Conference from time to time. He knew everybody. He was connected. The Eastern States Mission was centred in a grand Mission Home on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and among Carl's duties was keeping track of Mission vehicles. He also travelled and tracted, wearing that uniform (white shirt, dark trousers, tie and knapsack, and the Elder Burke badge).

In February of 1974, Carl Burke was sent to Bermuda, then in the Eastern States Mission area, and the day he arrived his companion, Elder Steven Love, brought him around to meet me. I wasn't a Mormon then. And I shook Elder Carl Burke's hand (his handshake was not the crushing one some elders seemed to affect on the likes of me) and had this understanding, quite naturally, that he was an old friend.

Within weeks, Elder Burke was taken seriously ill and arrangements were made to get him back to New York City as soon as a replacement could pack his bags. And I knew that this wasn't the way things were supposed to be. Carl and I had not just become fast friends; we'd resumed, somehow, a friendship. Despite the activities of the Bermuda Branch leadership in preparing to ship Carl out, I decided to contact Mission President David Lawrence McKay (who I'd never met). I told President McKay the story: Elder Burke is an old friend, he has a real purpose in Bermuda, not least of all to change my life, and he's meant to be here. Be damned, but President McKay had to agree with me!

Carl Burke did change my life. He's even responsible for me uprooting myself from Bermuda three years ago and returning to England, my family's home country, where I've longed to be all the years I was away. Three years ago, in his early fifties, Carl died quite suddenly. He'd developed heart troubles, had been put on the waiting list for a transplant, and died. All within a very few months. His daughter, Gina, expecting her first child, contacted me a few hours after he'd passed. And I had to wonder where, when and how I might bump into my old friend, who'd been Carl Burke to my Ross Eldridge, again. I did think that I might go on something of a Mission of my own. Home to England.

THE REVEREND DR. PETER MULLEN, rector of the Anglican church of St. Michael's Cornhill and St. Sepulchre without Newgate in the City of London, made headlines recently by positing and posting, on his church blog, the following:

"Let us make it obligatory for homosexuals to have their backsides tattooed with the slogan SODOMY CAN SERIOUSLY DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH, and their chins with FELLATIO KILLS."

Dr. Mullen, the sort of doctor who doesn't really do anyone much good, was rapped over his knuckles, we're told. However, I don't think they took a Pectoral Cross to him, at best a Tippet.

I decided to look up Mullen's church blog, and found that the offending remarks had been purged. (St. John 15:2). However, by their fruits, and all that, I decided to look up some of Mullen's sermons. The Rector preaches regularly, and is Chaplain to the Stock Exchange (so he must be up to his Amice in prayer requests), and tackles many subjects as a very (very) conservative cleric.

One of Mullen's sermons was on science and religion, and he chose to tell the tale of the mystical nun, St. Julian of Norwich (1342 -1416), who had some sixteen "shewings" or revelations, visions, in about 1373. Mother Julian was deathly ill at the time, but recovered. She wrote up her experiences (as we all should, particularly if God appears to us, and he visited this nun), and rewrote them about twenty years later. Her spelling didn't improve, but that's the way it was when Richard II was King of England.

Reverend Dr. Peter Mullen preached that Mother Julian asked God, during one of his visits, how big the Universe was. Those nuns, eh? And, according to Mullen, God said nothing, but placed an apple in Mother Julian's hand. And Mullen went on to relate that recently when scientists, astrophysicists and so on, got together with Einstein's work (and that of others) on the table, they decided that all the matter in the Universe, when packed together, as it was at the moment just before the Big Bang, was the size of an … apple. Which kind of made Julian of Norwich look pretty good, or Stephen Hawking, or both. I imagine Mullen's flock were chuffed to hear that.

However, if you bother to get yourself a copy of Revelations of Divine Love, the account of Julian of Norwich, you'll find that God, when he popped round to see Mother Julian and answered her query about the size of the Universe, placed a hazelnut in her palm. Apples, hazelnuts, astrophysics. I think size matters, I really do.

The Reverend Dr. Peter Mullen was misleading his parishioners. If he knew what he was saying, which was inaccurate, and said it just to impress, the man needs to be defrocked. Be interesting to see if he has any tattoos under his skirts!
Does one bad apple, one bad Christian apple, spoil the whole bunch? (Please excuse bunch as the collective of apples!) I have this understanding that it just might, given the pyramidal nature of religion.

Of course, I do not know if all the matter, when compacted, is as big as an apple, or as small as a hazelnut, and I'm not going to ask God about it because I'm not exactly sure about this God thing right now. I'm certainly not counting myself as a Christian, I believe in eternal matter, eternal life, but as reincarnation. I'm looking at Past Life Regression.

I have this peculiar understanding that we've been this way before. And that one must keep looking out for old friends. One may well, in fact, one must change. So, let's not be afraid of all that.

Sunday, 9 November 2008


MY MOTHER HAS VISITED ME a few times this past fortnight. When she turns up I'm always aware that, even as we converse and interact, she is quite dead and has been since September of 1992. Death has not calmed her down; she's as manic as ever and just as difficult to cope with. Still, I enjoy the visits and I appreciate that she's always gone by the time I wake up. No lingering ghost steaming up the mirrors or making the curtains billow when there isn't a breeze.

When my mother was alive, she was something of a responsibility, rather than responsible. Manic depressive, with periods of complete fantasy and what was, at times, insanity, my mother struggled to be any sort of a parent at all. As bad luck would have it, she was forced to be a single parent long before that was a common, almost popular, way to raise up one's children.

I'm not sure that my mother did anything wrong, at least not intentionally, and not of her own volition. She was manoeuvred by her family members who felt she needed to be more assertive. My mother also tended to believe, having been told to do so, anything that was said by someone who appeared to be in authority. She believed that titles and badges and signs on office doors were everything, perhaps not bothering to really evaluate the person behind them. So she did not question things, or draw her own conclusions, but acted on those pressed upon her. That's how it goes.

Looking back now, at an age my mother only surpassed by about six years, I think I can safely say my mother was not a capable parent, and some might say she was not a good parent. My opinion is that she did her best, which was a real struggle for her emotionally (she was, after all, mentally ill), physically (she was a grand-mal epileptic, relying on considerable amounts of drugs), financially (at times she was penniless), and ability-wise (she couldn't cook, didn't drive, didn't read after she left school).

My mother would get ideas into her head and wouldn't let go of them, no matter how annoying, peculiar or unhealthy. When we were quite young, she suddenly decided that it was easier to fling the kitchen trash, item by item (cartons, bottles, bags, vegetables that had gone off, egg shells) onto the back patio. There was a bin in the back garden for these items, but my mother thought they could be gathered up every few days and binned, there was nothing wrong with letting things lie about on the lawn. I did not, and do not, understand how anyone who had a trash-can only 15 feet from the kitchen door could come to such a conclusion about refuse disposal. Particularly when she chucked the things over the top of the bin to get them to land on the patio.

We also had to live with African violets. My mother was mad for African violets, though she had no success in growing them. There were pots all over the house. Now, I have a few plants in my flat now, I like indoor plants, but I do not have my kitchen counters covered in dozens and dozens of plant pots, crammed up against each other, so that there is hardly any room on the counter for something useful, like a cutting board or bread-bin.

Dish-washing was interesting. My mother believed that washing-up water should be boiled and poured into the sink (this was before machines, of course). On the face of it, boiling water for the dishes sounds healthy. However, that's where she lost the plot. Our electric kettle was small, probably holding less than a quart of liquid, which was hardly enough to wash dishes, so my mother then topped up the sink with water from the tap. Which was cold. Dishes were not, by the way, rinsed. They were washed with a bar of Ivory Soap, and our dishes and utensils seemed to have that flavour.

I could go on and on. Perhaps I should not be trashing my mother at this stage of the game. I offer the information more as a warning to others. Given modern medications, treatments and social programmes, chances are few people need be quite as peculiar as my mother. If you or your loved ones, or not-so-loved ones, seem to be acting a tad odd from time to time, have a chat with someone about it. What? Me crazy?

For all the hassle, most of my memories of my mother are fairly bland. We got away with a good deal, we had wonderful days as children, we attended the best school, we had clean clothes (though often hand-me-downs or second-hand store purchases), we had books and record albums, money for the movies, we were hardly reined in. I have, personally, some splendid memories of my mother having fun, which she only ever did, it seems to me, away from Bermuda. I'm going to say it: Away from her own parents. She really could fall about laughing at times, found things fascinating, took dares and while she lived totally in the present, never speaking of anything that had happened before, seemed incapable of doing so, she could chatter on about something we might be looking at (a film, a play, an animal in the zoo, a gravestone, a monument, a view) intelligently and in great detail, at that moment. It would be gone the next day.

My mother, if I was not in the same country that she was in, or was some distance from her, wrote to me at least once a week. Telephone calls were too expensive. I am a writer of letters, perhaps as a result of her example or influence, and I'm glad about that. I use the telephone as well, but that's the difference between 1968 and 2008.

A memory that tells something about my mother that I'm not sure she was aware of herself. We were not at all well off and our diet, I think, suffered from variety and my mother's failure as a competent cook. She could not make what food we had tasty or interesting, perhaps because she used no herbs or spices. She made do with a great deal of salt, and a very little white pepper. That was it. No flavourings, extracts or essences. No powders, granules or leaves. Just salt. The rare and special dish we'd have was a meat pie, made in a shallow Pyrex dish, lined with my mother's own plain pastry, using hamburger, a few sliced potatoes, an onion and maybe a pat of butter, pastry over the top. The pie was pretty dry, but it was beef and I like onions. Some gravy would have been fabulous, but it didn't happen. Ever.

My mother would slice up the pie amongst the four of us (I have two sisters that I grew up with) and she would always, always, cut a very small piece for herself, nowhere near a quarter, and then cut the remainder into three equal portions. Did she do that on purpose? Was she aware that beef was a treat for us? That we probably could do with the nutriments in red meat? That we might otherwise become anaemic on our diet of boiled chicken, over-cooked cabbage and tatties?

I made a meat pie last night. I use almost two pounds of Angus beef that I cube, fresh mushrooms, onions, parsnips and baby carrots. I make a sauce using beef stock and double cream, I use lots of herbs and spices and little salt, and my crust is flaky pastry. I prefer a deep clay dish to a Pyrex pie dish. The first serving is more than sufficiently moist, but when I reheat the leftovers (I have plenty, I prepare food for several meals at a time to save time, energy and money), I usually have an onion gravy as well. Served with chips or rice.

I wish, I really wish, my mother could stop by long enough for a slice of pie, a big, generous slice. However, in my dreams I don't seem to make pies when my mother is visiting. It may be that, after all, she made the better pie.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

TOAST (Served With No Porkies)

I TELL YOU NO PORKIES: Winter has arrived! That's the way it is in Great Britain.

One day the poets are out raving about the daffodils, and the weather and the scenes are picture-postcard- and calendar-photo-perfect. One writes to the cousin in Australia:

"You'd love this! Warkworth Castle is up to its keep in golden blossoms. Songbirds are flying in from Africa. The sky is an exquisite blue that defies the palette. Our noses have stopped running. Off with the overcoats. Restaurant doors are open and the fragrance of food wafts into the street. Pretty girls and boys are everywhere."

And three or four days later the poets have to run for cover as the rains set in. Rough winds shake the darling buds of May that hadn't been shaken right off the branches in April. The people start coughing, the birds start wheezing. This is the real spring.

One day there are tourists consulting guidebooks and looking up at Warkworth Castle. It is quite warm for England, must be all of 20°C. Suddenly the countryside is green and pleasant. William Blake's ghost must be in Heaven. Well, here.

"Hey there. Nice little castle you Limeys have got. We're from the USA, by the way. Kansas City, Missouri. We're your American cousins."
"Are you Democrats or Republicans?"
"Geez, man, we're McCain-Palin Republicans."
"Then you're not my cousins. Fuck off!"
"Ethel, the natives here are almost as rude as our cousins in France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Ukraine..."

Right about then the summer flooding begins, tourist arrivals fall again. The leaves hang on, however, even when the uprooted trees float down the rivers and across the tidal marshes into the sea. The two days of summer, the balmy 20°C, are remembered well as we get the sweaters out in July and when the anoraks come down in August.

A flight of birds, a mad scramble really, heralds the end of summer. A few days of glorious autumn colours (rosy red noses and gin-flowers, hepatic-yellow eyes, and orange fingers on the blokes outside the pubs) and then a violent wind. Something one has eaten, I imagine. And it's over.

One good thing at this point in time is that the great outdoors shops have all their unsold camping gear on sale, just in case you think it might be fit to go out and enjoy the countryside and being close to nature next, erm, summer. Now is the winter of our discount tents, sleeping bags and backpacks.

This year, before Hallowe'en, we've had blizzards in Scotland, moderate snow in Wales and the Midlands, snow flurries in London (the earliest since 1934), and just a few days ago we had about 36 hours of on-and-off hail in Amble by the Sea. Not your picturesque hail, this was heavy-duty stuff which woke me several times in the night with the clattering on the windows (so much for double-glazing), and which made it impossible to take Cailean for a walk past the courtyard. He has a winter coat, but his head is bare and I'm not much for being hailed on either.

On 2 November, 2008, I find myself bundling up, having to have the central heating on, and drinking a good deal of hot tea to keep myself comfortable, which is not to say warm as toast. Even toast doesn't make me warm as toast. In fact, if you've been to England you'll know that toast is prepared the night before and served at breakfast … cold!

It's Global Warming, of course, that is responsible for this frigid weather. Thank God we don't have Global Cooling, or we'd really be fucked.

PORKIES: Cockney rhyming slang. Porkies = Pork Pies = Lies