Frog spawn

27 May

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As far as I was concerned, frog spawn was one of those things that always seemed to work better in books and on classroom nature study friezes than it did in real life. However, given that there were always plenty of frogs around, I presumed that the frogs somewhere had it all worked out. It just didn’t happen in our wash house.

I lived in a terraced house in a built up part of Oldham, and although there was a fair amount of wasteland around – empty sites which would later be infilled with housing but which were our playgrounds in the post-war years – there was a distinct shortage of ponds. Granted, there was Alexandra Park, with a duck pond and a boating lake, but they were deep and fenced off, and patrolled by park keepers. The only other pond available was a tiny one, thick with scum and pondweed, in a neglected back garden down the road, fortunately owned by the family of a school friend. We often knelt on the wobbly stones at the edge of this unattractive pool, probably containing no more than three bucketfuls of water, and stirred it with sticks to see if anything interesting lurked in the cloudy depths. Generally, it didn’t, but just occasionally a frog (possibly caught short on its way to a more promising spot) would have obliged. Great would be the excitement as we all rushed home to beg for 2 lb jam jars, and back again to scoop and swish among the slippery mass. Eventually we would each manage to capture a small amount and, after wiping our slimy hands down the backs of our playing out clothes, bear home our spoils, with dirty water slopping generously over our feet.

In my case, the destination was the wash house. We had no garden as such, but our house being a larger one of its type, the back yard was more generous than some, with a couple of minute flowerbeds hacked out of the concrete, and that useful accessory – the wash house. Although there was a stone sink and a cold water tap, no washing had been done there in our time in the house – you could see the remains of the stone hearth where the sett boiler had been – but we used it for storing all those large and unwieldy objects that were difficult to house indoors. There were bikes (frequently out of action because of punctures that resisted all attempts to repair them), scooters, cricket stumps, squashy footballs, rusty tools, mildewed deck chairs and, fortunately, a goldfish bowl – this last something of a mystery as I had never known us to own a goldfish. “Round the Year with Enid Blyton”, or some similar volume, gave clear instructions as to how to proceed. The water should be from the pond, not the tap, but the contents of a jam jar made little impression on the volume of a bowl, so it had to be topped up at the sink. After all, the tadpoles hadn’t even hatched yet: they’d never notice. And as for their diet, apparently that had to be, in the early stages, weed from their home pond, meaning a return trip with the jam jar. Assuming they wouldn’t want the thick green scum that formed the majority of the pond’s vegetation, I managed to pluck a few more appetising sprigs, topping the meagre harvest up with a few bits of grass. Amazingly, the tadpoles did appear to thrive for a while on this menu, and clearly enjoyed their spot on the sink in the dusty and cobwebbed window (so that they could see out) as they grew arms and legs, and produced, to our great fascination, tadpole poo. True, there were a few casualties along the way, and the water had to be topped up more often from the tap than from the pond, but some years a few would make it to the stage where their tiny faces began to look froggy.

At this point, Enid Blyton advocated putting a stone into the bowl so that they could sit out and breathe, and a piece of meat on a string. Both these proved difficult. Have you ever tried to find a stone of a small enough diameter to go through the neck of an old-fashioned goldfish bowl while at the same time being tall enough to protrude above the water ? Especially as apparently if the froglets got too near the top of the bowl, they might jump out. The official solution to this was to tie a piece of muslin over the bowl. However, that would have meant bringing my mother in on the act, and as it would be fair to say that she had not been best pleased by the dried out duckweed on the back of my tartan trews, or the state of my playing out sandals (last year’s school ones with the toes cut out), I knew it would be safer to improvise, so a piece of disintegrating old floorcloth from under the wash house sink had to substitute. Besides, I needed her cooperation for the piece of meat they were to eat in order to achieve the final glorious goal. A very small and gristly bit of stewing steak would be tied to a string and dangled into the bowl. The froglets, ungrateful wretches that they were, generally showed no interest whatsoever in this delicacy, and their aversion became more marked as the meat became more smelly. From time to time, the survivors would be scooped out of the bowl, put on the sink, and given gentle prods up the rear to encourage them to jump – a trick they stubbornly refused to master. From here, it was downhill all the way. The water would get cloudier and cloudier, with the occasional decomposing corpse adding to the general unsavouriness. Adults began to threaten` that the whole lot would be thrown out, because of the smell, and changing the water for a clean and crystal clear stream from the tap didn’t seem to help, especially as it was rare for a fresh piece of meat to be forthcoming. Eventually, the contents of the bowl would follow the previous year’s down the outside drain, and the bowl would be sketchily washed out and returned to the wash house shelf to become the home of dead bluebottles and grim-faced, sturdy spiders till the following spring.

The Love of Food

16 Jul

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I am fascinated by food. I buy cookbooks that I shall never use, and greedily devour every word. I watch TV programmes, I read articles about the eating habits of people from across the globe. Yet in some ways I am at a loss to know where this interest came from.

A lot of what I ate as a child was dictated by the fact that there was still rationing. I don’t remember the rationing as such, but when I think back as an adult, it explains a lot of things about our diet when I was very young. Online research has shown me that sugar and eggs came off the ration when I was four, and meat and cheese when I was five, but for some time afterwards many foods were nowhere near as plentiful as we are accustomed to today. I definitely remember that we only used to have half an egg each: two boiled or fried eggs for the four of us, and that scrambled eggs for four would be made with two eggs extended with milk, and spread thinly on the toast. If sweets were bought (by the quarter, scooped or poured from a big glass jar into a paper bag) we had one sweet each, once a day, and then they would be put out of reach till the following day – we were never allowed to help ourselves to a sweet. Similarly, if chocolate was bought it was one square each, then put away for tomorrow. Biscuits, usually home-made at our house, could be bought by weight in small quantities from open-topped tins on market stalls, and were cheaper if you were willing to have broken ones. Cracked eggs, which nowadays would never pass health inspections, were also sold on the market, and put carefully into paper bags to carry gingerly home. How some of our shopping ever survived the bus journey was a miracle. There were no plastic bags then, and I remember many a damp and oozing paper packet of fish or meat, and soggy bags of purple wimberries leaving their stain on everything they touched as the juices seeped through the paper, and the string bag holding the shopping would have to be held well away from clothes.

Frugality was the name of the game, and my family practised it assiduously. When baking, the emphasis was on eking out scarce ingredients. “Currant fatty” was leftover pastry wrapped round a few currants, with a sprinkle of sugar and a few dabs of margarine – a kind of poor man’s Eccles cake. Boiled fruit cakes using no fat were common – these came under the category of “cutting-at cakes” which were what you had for everyday tea as opposed to Sunday or company tea. This category also contained a “Victoria”, which wasn’t an egg-rich, buttery sponge with jam or cream in, but a sparse fruit cake baked in a roasting tin and cut into squares, with a much lower proportion of sugar, fat and eggs to the flour than we would consider palatable now, and lots of milk used to make the batter soft enough. If made “for best”, this would get a thin slick of water icing, which was also used to render jam slice edible, consisting as it did of lots of very dry slice and very little jam.

And on the savoury front, tripe in its many varieties – seam, slut, honeycomb etc – bought from a market stall or a tripe shop and served cold with salt and pepper, malt vinegar and bread and margarine, was an all too common tea, and not one I relished (apart from elder – cow’s udder – which I quite liked.) Another ultra cheap bit of the trusty cow was cow-heel, which was fine if cooked long and slow with stewing steak, preferably under a suet crust, till it had melted into a rich gravy, but pretty disgusting if you got a glutinous lump that hadn’t rendered down. Older people in particular loved it even like that, and also relished the bones to suck on. Black puddings were another market delicacy, scooped out of a big cauldron-like pot and served hot wrapped in paper, with mustard or piccalilli, though my mother was too genteel for aytin’ out o’ t’ papper on t’ Tommyfield, so we brought ours home and used knives and forks. Presumably for the same reason, duck-a-muffin never passed my lips as a child, though very occasionally faggots (also known as savoury ducks or Yorkshire ducks) would be purchased from a respectable outlet like Redman’s on Curzon Street, to be carried home and reheated in their gravy, and eaten with proper crockery and cutlery.

Celebrations, whether at home or at Sunday School, where our social life was based, called for a preparatory trip to the baker’s. Bunnies, known as bridge rolls by the well-to-do, or finger rolls in some parts of the country, had to be ordered in advance. In later life, I have puzzled many a non-Oldham friend by references to the arcane practice of spreading meat paste on a bunny. In the gas-tainted atmosphere of the back room at Sunday School, a production line would be set up. Members of the Mothers’ Union and the Congregational Ladies (I had one granny in each of those august organisations) would assemble bearing bread knives, butter knives and other kitchen implements from home, in wicker shopping baskets covered with threadbare but snowy pot towels, and be allotted a task. Some would split the bunnies, the next cohort would butter (or marge, depending on the budget for the occasion) with a precision and meticulous quantity control born of long practice. They would be followed by those who had just the eye for the exact amount of paste – meat or fish, ordered in advance from Gale’s or Albright’s – that would satisfy those who liked a reet good do while not exciting adverse comment from those whose watchword was ever economy. Thick white plates would be stacked with piles of each, to be carried through to the middle room and distributed onto tea plates, each individual plate containing one open half of meat pasted bunny, ditto of fish paste, a dinky pie (again, a special order from the baker) and a cake. The cakes were usually home-made by these same ladies, and would be of the “goes a long way” variety when carefully portioned, but occasionally a shop fancy, although vary plain by modern standards, would elevate the occasion into a more deluxe affair.

At half time in the social, the dancers in t’ Big Room would take a rest from the barn dance and Valeta, the foxtrot and the military two step, the quickstep and the Mississippi Dip (with an occasional Palais Glide or very sedate jive grudgingly thrown in for the youngsters). Simultaneously, by careful prearrangement reinforced by messages ferried to and fro by runners as to the state of play, a halt would be called in the Whist Drive which kept the older generation (likely to grumble about the music and the fashions) suitably entertained in t’ Waterloo Street room. All would flock to t’ Middle Room, where a strict drill was observed: you took a plate – “Gerra move on, they’re all t’ same !” and then went to the hatch for a cup of tea, poured out ready milked and sugared from large metal teapots by a final cohort of ladies whose rightful job this was. One lady was particularly notorious for giving short measure, giving rise to caustic comments such as “Didst knaw what as ‘ow watter were on t’ ration ?” while others further back in the queue would observe the half full cups passing them and observe, in resigned tones, that it must be Ethel pouring. Her name entered our family vocabulary, and to his dying day my dad would say, if handed short rations of any drink, “Hey up, yon’s a bit of an Ethel Whitworth,” passing it back hopefully to be topped up.

Letter to my 18 year old self

4 Jun

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A house in the country

June 2014

Dear Elizabeth

I realise that you have had little chance yet to find out who you are. Don’t worry about that: self-knowledge develops gradually, over a lifetime, and when you are ready to understand and be more self-aware, you will surprise yourself, and others, in many ways.

There is no need to be anxious about your impending A-levels. You will pass them, and achieve your university place, with relative ease. Your mother is quite wrong when she claims, in order to keep you in line, that such issues as getting conduct marks for hanging your shoe bag on the peg intended for your PE kit, or being among a group caught talking when you should be silent, will mean NO REFERENCE (and then what will become of you ?) With her relatively narrow experience of education – leaving school at 14 or 15 being the lot of most girls of her generation, however academically able – she is also mistaken in her assertion that what university tutors will be looking for is girls who get their work right and can do as they’re told. Your teachers are right when they say that you need to give more of yourself, and enter into debate and discussion. Arguing a point is not “being naughty”, and once you have left home, you will neither be punished nor ostracised for doing so. As you go through the next four years, you will realise there is more to education than getting red ticks at the bottom of pieces of work, passing exams in the top three, and never being late for class.

And as for your personal life, it is totally untrue that it isn’t worth you having nice clothes because no man will ever look at you twice, and you cannot expect to marry. Look around you at all the happily partnered people of all shapes, sizes and colourings. Be bold, creative and colourful with your clothes: experiment, have fun, enjoy yourself. A girl as bright and potentially lively as you is not cut out for a life of fawn skirt and twinset, sensible shoes, a single bedsit in a dully respectable house (bath once a week, no washing to be hung in bedroom, no male visitors) and a pile of routine papers at a desk in the quietest corner of some faceless office.

All this will gradually reveal itself to you as your life goes on, though some elements of your character will not get the chance to blossom for many decades, and some parts of the process will be lonely and frightening. But you are a strong person, much stronger than anyone has ever given you credit for. You have it within you to build the life that befits the person you really are, as opposed to the person you have so far been constrained to be. You will make mistakes, but don’t be too hard on yourself about it. Mistakes can be corrected, and are often a necessary part of the process.

Step out into the world, strengthened by a hug from your older (and in some ways wiser) self.

With love

Liz xx

Currying flavour

27 May

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I made a curry for dinner tonight. Unremarkable, you might think, but my foodie friends are going to be startled by this. For those of you who don’t know my preferences, let me explain.

I hate chilli and “hot” spicing, or perhaps it would be more truthful to say I am deeply suspicious and wary. If faced with the prospect of eating something that might be too spicy, I would rather go without dinner completely, or force down, unadorned, a piece of the dry bread or a portion of the plain boiled rice served to accompany the main dish. If a meal is too spicy for me, I can taste nothing : I am so distressed by the sensation of heat that unless I am told what the dish is, I have no idea what I am eating. What is the meat ? What are the vegetables ? Goodness only knows – it’s just horribly and painfully hot. I long for the chilli fad to pass so that I have a good choice again when eating out (even erstwhile “safe” cuisines like Italian are fraught with danger these days), and go to any budget priced establishment that uses words like “extra tasty” or “zingy” and you can be sure they mean “we’ve stirred in some chilli powder”. And the one, two or three chilli rating on menus ? Meaningless. TV cooks lavish it into all manner of dishes “because everyone likes it”, and the same excuse is used at events where the choice of hot dishes on the buffet is, for example, chicken curry or veggie chiili: they can cope with the idea that someone may be vegetarian, but not with the idea that they might not want their head blowing off. And there’s something about curry and chilli that brings out the worst in a certain type of person too. Although I’m sure none of the readers of my blog come into this category, I’m afraid I do know people who would bolt from the table and rush to the bathroom, disgusted and furious, if I managed to slip some nice fresh fish into their mouths by subterfuge, yet would almost wet themselves laughing if someone like me was tricked, by sheer dishonesty, into taking a mouthful of vindaloo.

But enough of that: I do tend to get carried away… It’s not as if I dislike spiced food. I just like to be in control, and know I am likely to enjoy it, so the best solution is to cook it for myself, and to this end, I do make the very occasional curry. Tonight’s Potato and Tomato Curry came from an unlikely source: The Jewish Kitchen, by Clarissa Hyman, from the family which runs what is probably Manchester’s most famous Jewish deli. She collected the recipe from a member of the Bene Israel community in Bombay (the book was published before Mumbai was in common use) – a community I suspect may have almost died out, if it hasn’t disappeared already. It is, she says, aromatic and gently spiced; I had all the ingredients except for curry leaves; it sounded ideal. So I popped mustard seeds (yellow ones, as the colour wasn’t specified) in hot oil; I fried onions, garlic, minced fresh ginger and a cautious pinch of chilli flakes; I cooked tomatoes in the spicy mixture till most of the moisture was driven off, adding a pinch of salt. Then I stirred in cubed, boiled potatoes and a smidgen of garam masala and heated it through, finishing off by adding coconut milk and then, following the instructions, I allowed the curry to come just to the boil before removing it immediately from the heat. I served it with rice cooked in coconut milk with a little cardamom and clove, as recommended.

Did I like it ? Yes, I did: it was fresh tasting, and aromatic and gently spiced as claimed – in fact I could have coped with it a little more spicy, but perhaps the curry leaves I didn’t have would have added that extra touch. I was disappointed in the rice, having held out high hopes for it – it was claggy and sticky and not as flavourful as I’d hoped: another time I think I would serve a bread with it. But I made, ate and enjoyed a curry – one small step…

Oh, and I do apologise for the title. I’m afraid I couldn’t resist.

Full of the joys of Spring…

26 May

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It’s been a long time… Have I forgotten how to do this ? A friend has just started a blog, and another has exhorted me to “get on it” with mine. So, what to write about ? It’s been an ordinary day, but ordinary days have their own charm when you are retired and can, at least to some extent, take what you choose from life.

The British spring is a capricious and changeable season, and all the more so if you live up in the hills of northwest England, as I do. All weekend those same hills have been veiled in mist, and heavy shower after heavy shower has swept through, drenching the long-suffering moorland sheep, and battering the creamy-white blossom from the tough little hawthorn trees which flourish on our poor soil. However, I woke this morning to brightness, and opened the bedroom blinds to sunshine. The sun didn’t manage to stay all day, alas, but even now as dusk falls, it is still dry, and I am enjoying the view from my living room window as the colours fade from the moors and the sky, and the lights go on in the cottages and farmhouses scattered across the hillside opposite.

I should have gone for a proper walk this morning while the weather was at its best, but I had other things to do, and only managed to go as far as the village. However, relishing the warmth and sunlight (No coat ! No socks !) I took my time and made sure I enjoyed every moment and every step of that short distance. I smiled at a basset hound – such comical dogs – pink tongue lolling, being taken for its morning constitutional up the lane. I stopped to watch a Small Tortoiseshell butterfly sunning itself on the warm stones of the factory wall on the corner, while swifts screamed and wheeled in the blue sky over my head. I leaned on the parapet of the packhorse bridge over the stream, idly watching the sun-dappled water sliding below, while a jackdaw, far more industrious, sorted busily through potential nesting material on the bank, observing me attentively out of the corner of a bright eye. Once across the stream, I ambled at a leisurely pace past the village cricket pitch, where members of the youth team were spending their bank holiday morning practising boisterously in the nets after a weekend of cancelled fixtures, while the groundsmen stood, arms folded and deep in conversation, weighing up the state of the square.Tomorrow, they say, the rain will return, with a cold northeast wind, and people will ask what has become of our weather these days, and wonder mournfully whether summer will ever be here, and here to stay. But even on days like that there is much to observe, and much to enjoy, 

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare ?

What a difference a day makes

4 Nov

I drove to Sheffield yesterday afternoon. Although the temperature was in single figures, the golden autumn sunlight shining through the car windows was so warming that I hardly needed the heater, and had to stop to take off my coat and put it in the back seat.  The autumn leaves glowed on the trees in the valleys, and as I drove higher and emerged onto the bare moorland, its bleakness was softened by the golden light. The high rocks stood out sharply against the bright, clear blue of the sky, and the hills rolled away on both sides in folds of russet and tawny brown. At every point where it was possible to pull off the road, cars were parked while people enjoyed the fresh air – walking, having picnics, or simply standing admiring the views.

What a difference as I drove back this morning. The temperature was a fraction above freezing point, and the hills were shrouded in a dank and shifting mist. Yesterday’s bright leaves drooped dully, their colours dimmed. The moors, now darkened and full of foreboding, faded into gloom and then invisibility. Roadside parking spots stood empty, save for an occasional one where a refreshment van offered welcome hot drinks, and a few people warmed their hands around a mug while they stood with hood pulled over their head and collar up against the cold and damp. Cars loomed out of the mist, thankfully almost without exception using their lights, and soon disappeared again. Cyclists, alarmingly lightless to a man/woman, were ghostly shapes in the headlights, briefly visible then fading to mere ghosts before the mist enveloped them once more. It is no wonder that my Pennine-bred grandmother always felt forebodings when “going o’er them moors”: even in a modern car, with effective headlights and a good heating system, there is a definite feeling that anything could be out there, so goodness knows what it was like for travellers in days gone by.

As I drove down into my own village in the valley, I left the mist behind and there was a welcome return to daylight, and to the visible world of the everyday. But the sunlight in the valley was weak, and the air was cold. Darkness fell early, and the world has closed in again. Winter is coming.

Somewhat exercised…

21 Aug

“Physical exercise is any bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness.” And we all want some of that, don’t we ? My mother, not one of life’s most positive people, used to say, “It’s all downhill once you turn 70,” and as I am now a few years into my sixties, I am determined that isn’t going to be the truth for me. But oh dear, I do waver, and allow myself to be easily discouraged and deflected from my path.

Many years ago, when I was much younger, and presumably in better physical condition, I joined a private gym (I was also earning a salary – those places aren’t cheap !) I went three times a week, then twice a week, then once… then sometimes… then never. I get bored easily, and few things are more boring than gym machines, or swimming length after tedious length of a pool. Classes might seem to be the answer, but at the private gym they were full of toned and fit yuppies and yummy mummies in designer sportswear who seemed to have been put onto this earth already knowing how to do all the moves, while I and a few others shuffled lamely around on the back row, unable to achieve the positions, or continually setting off in the wrong direction and bumping into people.

Still, if I spend most of my days sitting on my backside, my mother’s gloomy prognosis will come true for me too, so I have told myself I have to try. I have joined the local council-run establishment, on a off-peak, over 55 membership, hoping that I will be sharing the facilities with people of a similar age to me, and in similar physical shape/condition. Of course, I forgot that as it is currently the summer holidays, the place is full of teens and twenty-somethings, mostly male, doing impressive numbers of reps on the machines, and powering up and down the pool, heads down, mowing down smaller craft who might navigate across their course, and leaving a foaming wake behind them. I enquired about a class that sounded suitable for my abilities  (“Aquacise”) only to be told that such classes are very popular and have no spaces on them.

Of course, a gym is not the only place for exercise. I have sometimes been able to enjoy “real walking”, outdoors as opposed to the tedium of using a machine, as I explore the lovely area around my new home, but the weather this summer has been so appalling that waiting for a dry day has been like waiting for Christmas. Even walking to the village for shopping has been a rare occurrence, let alone anything more ambitious. However, as I am fortunate enough to be retired, at least I can continue with this activity into the autumn and winter, should there be some pleasant weather, instead of having to give it up as the evenings draw in.

I wonder how long my resolve will last ? Perhaps by going public I will feel morally obliged to make more effort than usual. You all have full permission to prod me if you think I’m slacking !