Grandma cake

This is the cake that sustains me in times of adversity.  It isn’t fancy and it doesn’t demand artistry.  It is easy to make.  You rub together butter and flour, stir in sugar and dried fruit, then bind together with eggs and a little milk.  Scoop it into a buttered tin, bake in a medium oven and your kitchen will be filled with the comforting aroma of sugar and love.

I have been eating this cake in one form or another most of my life.  I first tasted it as rock-cakes, made by my maternal grandmother, Maggie.  Before I started school, my mum would take me on two buses every Wednesday, to visit my Grandma and Grandad.  In my memory, we always ate the same meal: meat pie from Marks & Spencer, soft, sweet tinned peas and carrots (a sort of treat, because we only had fresh carrots and frozen peas at home) and Grandma’s rock-cakes.

When Maggie died, my grandad Jim started making rock-cakes.  Looking back, I find that quite surprising.  He never seemed to be the sort of man to think of providing treats or luxuries.  I did often hear him mutter “Oh dear, Maggie…” under his breath, so perhaps the rock-cakes were a way of keeping her around.  Whatever the reason, we all enjoyed eating them.

At the end of the 1970s, my parents, my brother and I moved 250 miles away, so we saw Jim much less frequently.  My mum must have started making this cake round about then.  During the “high fibre” 1980s, she experimented with a wholemeal version.  It was nice in its way and made us feel virtuous but it couldn’t match the soft, sweet comfort of the original.

During my university years and my early adult life, the cake faded into the background.  It came back to me in 2001.  When my husband was in hospital with leukaemia, my mum regularly made it and sent it me.  When I got home at midnight, after sitting with him, nothing was more comforting than a large slice of this delicious cake.  My husband had practically no immune system, so on one occasion, my mum made a cake with scrupulously sterilised equipment and the freshest ingredients and sent it, double-wrapped, so he could enjoy at the least the first piece with me. 

When my son was born in 2007, my parents visited often, always bringing this cake.  My mum was now “Grandma” and the cake became “Grandma cake”.  This cake was my son’s first taste of real sugar.

Our lives were turned upside down in 2011.  In the same week that we left London and moved to a rural village, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Throughout my 9 months of treatment and recovery, my parents were there with support and, of course, Grandma cake. 

In difficult times, this cake gives us love, energy and emotional scaffolding.  This week, even with flour, eggs and butter in short supply, I felt the need to make it myself and we have all been very glad of it.

The recipe comes from the Be-Ro cookbook.  It was first published in 1923, three years before Maggie and Jim were married.  My mum still has her 1960s copy and I have my own copy, now in its 40th edition.  I would have loved to include a picture of my mum’s copy, which is well-used and now lacks its front cover.  Sadly, it is 260 miles away and while my dad has both a digital camera and access to email, he lacks the ability to put the two together.

Four generations of my family have made this cake: my grandparents, my mum, me and now, my 12 year old son.  This week, I found a series of images of pages from the 1923 edition.  In the editions my mum and I have, this cake is simply “fruit cake”.  To my delight, I discovered that in the 1923 edition, it is called “Family cake”.  Whoever wrote that recipe knew what they were talking about.

Last day of school

Last day of school, 23rd May 1986

This picture was taken in May 1986, on my last day of school.  We were yet to sit our A levels but formal school was over and we were released, to revise and prepare for our biggest test so far.  It is a bit grainy and indistinct, snapped with a cheap camera in the days before digital, but I love this picture for so many reasons.  We look happy and confident, boldly taking possession of a corner of the local pub, at lunchtime and on a school day.  On the right hand side of the picture, about halfway down, you can see an unfortunate man, largely obscured by the school-leaver in the foreground.  I have no recollection of even noticing him at the time – a mark of youthful exuberance (or perhaps arrogance).  From a more adult perspective, I can now see that he has clearly had a quiet lunchtime pint rudely interrupted. 

We look like we’re having fun and we look as though we belong together.  That belonging was new for me.  I spent most of my senior school years not quite fitting in and feeling like an outsider – not pretty enough, not cool enough, too clever and too hard-working.  Somehow, in the sixth form, those things began to seem less important and for the first time, I felt like part of the crowd.

As a group, we were a pretty good advert for what a truly comprehensive state education can give you – or at least, what it could give you in the 1980s.  I don’t know what all of the people in the picture did next.  I do know that among the group are a GP, a city lawyer, a management consultant and a police officer.  I also know that at least one of the teenagers celebrating that day died young.

I thought of this picture this week, as I watched the staff and pupils at my son’s school take in the fact that their community, their crowd, was suddenly and brutally closing.  For most of those at the beginning of their school days, this extraordinary time will be a curiosity to look back on and recount to their children and grandchildren.  But many have been cheated of the rites of passage towards which they have travelling for many years.  This picture still tells me something about myself, more than 30 years on.  When all this is over, I hope this year’s leavers will find their chance to reflect, mark and celebrate.

Sixth form common room – even more grainy and indistinct…

Bone marrow birthday

Happy 18th birthday!

Yesterday, we celebrated my husband’s 18th birthday.  He (like most of his physical body) is actually 56, but his bone marrow is only 18 years old.  It was a gift from somebody we have never met and probably never will meet.  In September 2001, while the world reeled from the shock of the attack on the World Trade Centre, my husband felt more and more ill.  Some time towards the end of the month, he went for a blood test and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.  The months that followed quickly filled with stories, some shocking and terrifying, others unexpectedly quiet, loving and joyful.  But this week, our memories are focused on the point early in 2002, when it became obvious that the leukaemia was stronger than the chemotherapy and the best chance of surviving it was a bone marrow transplant.

My husband is from a small family and only his sister was young enough to be a potential donor. When she turned out not to be a match, things looked bleak.  The only hope was that the charity Anthony Nolan could find bone marrow that matched my husband’s, from someone who had volunteered as a potential donor.  To our amazement and delight, they found someone.

In a room in University College Hospital, the consultant said “There’s a one in three chance that you’ll die as a result of the transplant”.  My husband decided to go ahead.  What else could he do?

The preparation was grim.  More chemotherapy, then four daily hits of total body irradiation.  Trussed up like a chicken and covered in wax, my husband chose Eric Satie and Aphex Twin as the soundtrack to these sessions.  The aim was to kill off his own bone marrow (now host to an unwelcome army of leukaemia cells).  If the donated healthy bone marrow didn’t “take”, he couldn’t survive, so it was a high stakes gamble.  It felt as if the medics had pushed him off a cliff, hoping to catch him in a slightly dodgy safety net that they weren’t completely sure would actually hold him.

But it did.  On 14th March 2002, a small bag of stem cells, transfused in under an hour, gave my husband a second chance of life.  And every year, we celebrate his bone marrow birthday and raise a glass to his anonymous donor.  In the world of cancer, you quickly learn not to think too far ahead.  In 2002, we wouldn’t have dared to imagine ourselves where we are, 18 years on.  But here we stand, thanks to our National Health Service, the kindness of a stranger and the charity that made it possible.  

Good health and long life to us all.

Anthony Nolan’s life-saving work relies on all of us to support it, both financially and by volunteering as donors