Midsummer Madness

A few years ago, my husband, my son and I started celebrating the summer solstice with a bonfire in the garden, over which we cooked sausages and toasted marshmallows.  The cocktails flowed, our son was allowed to stay up late and there was general hilarity.  A “selfie” from our first event shows us wearing garlands of honeysuckle, which we happened to have been pruning that day, shrieking with laughter as our son photo-bombed what was meant to be a picture of me and my husband.  Over the years since then, various features of the evening have become “tradition” – the fire, the sausages, the marshmallows, and riotous games of “Squeak Piggy Squeak”, which is a version of Blind Man’s Buff.  We often end the evening playing instruments and singing.  Last night, my husband told the traditional Irish story of The Gold Ring, which finished with the tune of the same name played on the tin whistle.  We caught our first glimpse of the bats that visit our garden each year.

We always refer to our regular celebration as “Midsummer Madness”, partly inspired by Tove Jansson’s stories of Midsummer in Moomin Valley.  There is something inherently subversive about midsummer, as the normal rules of bedtime and sensible behaviour are relaxed in celebration of our longest day.  An episode in “Moominsummer Madness” captures this brilliantly.  The wanderer, Snufkin, returns to Moomin Valley on Midsummer Eve.  Before visiting his friends, he plans to “settle an old account…with a villain.”  The villain in question is the Park Keeper, who, with his accomplice, the Park Wardress, runs the park with the sole intention of preventing anyone having any fun.  Everywhere, there are signs bearing statements such as “ABSOLUTELY NO ADMITTANCE”, “LAUGHING AND WHISTLING STRICTLY PROHIBITED” and “NO HOP, NO SKIP AND DEFINITELY NO JUMP ALLOWED HERE”.  The trees have been “cut and sheared…into round blobs and square cubes” and the paths are “straight as pointers”.  The twenty four “small, subdued children” who visit the park every day are confined to a miserable sandbox instead of climbing trees, standing on their heads and running across lawns.  Snufkin sets about his revenge.  He starts by sowing the lawns with Hattifatteners, who electrify the Park Keeper (and not in good way), sending him and the Park Wardress away as fast as they can go.  If you don’t know what Hattifatteners are, you have some great reading ahead of you.  Having dispatched the villains, Snufkin pulls up the notices and tramples them in a heap.  Later, the Snork Maiden, out walking with the Fillyjonk, stumbles on something:

“Do not tread on the grass” she read. “Look,” she said, “here’s a lot of notices that somebody’s thrown away!”

“How wonderful, everything’s allowed!” cried the Fillyjonk.  “What a night! Let’s build our bonfire of the notices! And dance round it until they’re burned to ashes!”.

A hopeful statement, especially in these strange times of freedom and not-freedom.  Like so many others, I am looking hard at what I do as we gradually emerge from the rigidity of complete lockdown and search for ways to live together safely and respectfully.  I don’t want to get back into any sort of sandbox.  I am hoping instead for lots more laughing, whistling, hopping, skipping and jumping.  If we have to wear face masks and keep a little distance from each other as we do it, so be it.  Happy Midsummer!

Tea for Victory

Over the last fifteen years or so, my husband and I have acquired more tea sets than we can reasonably use (or house).  We didn’t set out to collect them and if pressed, we would not call ourselves “collectors”.  “Rescuers” feels like a better description, especially in the face of the appalling “smash the crockery” stalls from which we frequently run in horror at garden fetes.  A tea set has the same resonance as a family photo album, something that might have been a wedding present, perhaps saved for “best” instead of being used every day.  Once we happen across a tea set that calls to us from the jumble of a second-hand shop, we no longer have a choice.  We hold our breath as each piece is wrapped, then carry our new treasure home, where it must fight for space on our already-crowded shelves.

One of our favourites is an angular green and white Palissy tea set, painted with gold stars.  My husband found most of it – a large tea pot, sugar bowl, cups and saucers and tea plates – in a charity shop on Leyton High Road, near where we used to live.  The milk jug was missing, presumably broken by a previous owner, so my husband started looking for one online.  During the search, he acquired a matching but smaller tea pot, another sugar bowl and, eventually, the elusive milk jug.  Buying china online is a risky business.  Someone posted a sugar bowl and milk jug to us with no more protection than a jiffy bag.  The sugar bowl survived but the jug arrived in pieces.  It wasn’t the one we wanted to complete our favourite tea set but the seller’s lack of care was still upsetting. 

One pot or two?
The elusive jug

Palissy china in this style was made by AE Jones Ltd in Longford, Stoke-on-Trent during the 1930s and early 1940s.  The Palissy name was bought by The Royal Worcester Porcelain Company in 1958, later passed to Spode after a merger in 1976 and was sold to Aynsley China Ltd, also of Longford, in 1989, when the Palissy Works were demolished.  The mark on the underside of our tea set seems to date it to the years between 1935 and 1939.

Which brings me to VE Day.  We wanted to remember and mark this significant event in our collective past but felt a bit queasy about any sentimental “flag-waving”.  Our solution was to focus on the personal – things we now have and cherish that other people owned 75 years ago.  My husband carried a wind-up gramophone into the garden and provided a soundtrack to the day with a fabulous collection of 78s.  Our playlist included Glen Miller, George Formby, Flanagan and Allen and even (to my great surprise) the band of the Coldstream Guards playing the National Anthem – a rare engagement by my husband with that particular piece of music.  We enjoyed afternoon tea from the Palissy tea set, thinking of our families’ war time experiences and wondering who had eaten from those plates and drunk from those cups to celebrate the end of the war in 1945.

My wig and other stories

This morning, I read Julia Harrison’s piece “Story telling” from her always-thoughtful Silver Locket blog.  It immediately brought to mind some stories my son and I shared when he was little.

He was four years old when I lost my hair as a result of chemotherapy.  Someone had advised me early on to get a wig sorted out while I still had my real hair, so it would be the best possible match.  I called a friend I hadn’t seen for ages and we had a bizarre but hilarious day in Notting Hill, choosing me a wig then heading off for a late lunch.  I can’t recall the name of the restaurant but its distinguishing feature was that when we ordered house wine, it came in an already-opened bottle, marked to show how much it still contained.  We were charged for what we drank, presumably in centimetres, although it was all a little bit fuzzy by that point in the afternoon.

My wig really was an excellent match for my real hair but my son was disconcerted by my new appearance.  As far as he was concerned, there was little to choose between my bald head and my wig.  Both were repellent.  I felt pretty much the same but I wanted to make him feel more comfortable.  I tried to make him laugh by imagining what would happen if I was walking along one day and my wig blew away.  Very soon, we had made up a story which culminated in my wig blowing into a lift as we chased it.  Inevitably, the doors closed and we were left scrambling up the stairs to keep up with it.  There was no obvious conclusion in which the wig and I lived happily ever after, or my hair grew back and the wig retired (although both are currently the case) but that wasn’t important.  The story had served its purpose in making the wig something we could joke about and a part of our family story.  My son got used to my new appearance, telling me that my head looked like a boiled egg.  I never really got used to it but I came to terms with it and now, my hair looks just as it did before.

The other tale that we all still remember is the story of Horace the Rook.  I invented it while we were staying with my parents in Devon.  Just beyond the boundary of their garden is a tall tree, which we could see from our bedroom window.  I noticed that there were often rooks perched there, sometimes in groups but more often, just one, and I made up a story.  The hero was a rook called Horace, who lived in the tree with Mrs Rook and all the baby rooks.  Every day, Horace would fly off to the beach (in reality, just 10 minutes’ walk for us) to forage for food.  One day, he found something wonderful and brought it back as a gift for my son, who, of course, also featured in the story.  I had to tell it every evening at bedtime, not just while we were in Devon but often also back at home, for many years.  Despite regular “nudges” from my husband, I have never written it down, although it is still clear in my mind.  If you want to know what happens, you will have to wait and see….

Painted eggs

Some time in the last forty years, my family started a new tradition.  Every Easter, we hard-boil and decorate eggs, then roll them down a steep hill, heading towards the sea.  We didn’t invent it; people have been decorating eggs and chasing them down hills at Easter for a very long time.  It was new, though, in the village to which we had recently moved.  It hasn’t caught on.  Local dog-walkers and holiday-makers are still amused (and sometimes puzzled) to see three young cousins, their parents and their grandparents hurling eggs down the hill and running after them.

We roll the eggs in a field that slopes down towards a Norman church, beyond which is the beach and the sea.  It is steep enough for the eggs (and those chasing them) to build up a bit of momentum but not enough to be dangerous.  If you want a really hazardous food-rolling tradition, look up the annual cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire.  So far, no-one has been injured during our annual egg rolling.

That doesn’t mean it is free from tension.  First comes the anxiety over how many of the eggs will crack as they are boiled.  Then the search for inspiration and sometimes the tyranny of the unpainted egg.  The children add their own layer of volatility, occasionally frustrated at the gap between their imaginative visions and their ability to translate them into ink or paint on an egg.  I am well acquainted with that feeling but have reached an accommodation with it, usually sticking to geometric patterns or cartoonish images.  Even once the decorating is done, dangers remain.  Paint can be smudged and eggs can be dropped.  It often feels as though we are “walking on egg-shells”.

My 2019 egg – stained glass

Once we get our eggs safely to the field, none of that matters.  They are thrown, rolled and bounced down the hill until they break, at which point they are usually eaten.  I don’t have many pictures of eggs from the past, although I intend to ask around the family and collect some more for next year. Occasionally, an egg survives several trips down the hill and is kept as a trophy.  I accidentally broke my 2018 egg a day or so ago.  I had planned to photograph it but it had somehow stuck in the egg-cup and shattered as I tried to pull it out.  I still have my 2017 egg, slightly grubby from its three years in our dusty old cottage.  The design reflects a slightly dark time in my life.  A cartoon sea monster swims under a stormy sky.  But just behind it, the sun peeps out from behind a cloud, as it did in real life.

This year has been different.  We are all in our own homes.  We have decorated our eggs but since they are now rather scarce, they will all be eaten.  For the first time, my husband blew our eggs and scrambled the contents, so we decorated empty shells and I felt I was decorating something even more fragile than usual.  I used paint to evoke the colours I have been enjoying in my garden this month and experimented by sticking forget-me-not flowers to the shell with egg-white.  This morning, we all displayed our eggs on our first ever family Zoom call.  Next year, by the sea again.

My husband’s picture of our house….
…with the house behind it.

As I was photographing this year’s eggs, I brought out some interesting egg cups.  The blue and white Cornishware ones are my husband’s favourite.  The Number 15 bus belongs to my son.  My husband found the lion at his mum’s house and the delightful rabbit whistle in a charity shop.  The whistle works well, although I can’t help wondering how many eggs have been tipped out of it by its young owners.  It also has an amusingly blunt “FOREIGN” stamp on its base, presumably from a time when anywhere not England was simply “foreign”.  From a similar period is my Robertson’s egg cup.  I love its proportions and the picture of the shop but it is so much “of its time” that I don’t feel able to display all of it.  The modern Smarties egg cup holds a ceramic decoy egg.  My dad once used a similar one to catch me with an April Fool.

Many words for egg

The jewelled egg-cosies came from the 2003 Gothic exhibition at the V&A.  They seemed an extravagant purchase at the time but have been in regular use ever since.  My son and my husband often round off breakfast with a puppet-show exchange between The King and The Bishop.

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