17 April 2015

International Haiku Poetry Day

Or, on this blog, International Haiku Poetry About Food & Drink Day!

making soup
my hands could be
my mother's hands

no one knows
what I'm talking about...
pumpkin pie

morning coffee
a list of things I believe
I will do today

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the poetry in your life.

9 April 2015

What mothers give us

Here is my mother's pressed glass cake stand, one of her wedding gifts from 1952, that she gave me some time ago. It's moved houses in Kent, and travelled with me to the South of France and back again. 

In her personal essay, 'My Mother's Blue Bowl'*, Alice Walker says, of the two bowls her mother gave her: [My mother] taught me a lesson about letting go of possessions - easily, without emphasis or regret.

That's how I feel about my mother's gift to me.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something your mother gave you.

It also feels like a part of my mother's life. For the first few years after her marriage she lived with her in-laws and she remembers her mother-in-law, Catherine Rees, asking if she would please teach her how to make one of her light and fluffy Victoria Sponges. 'She was so humble,' my mother still says of her. To welcome another woman into your home and your kitchen is not always an easy thing to do. And I remember my mother making cakes when I was small - how my sister and I negotiated who would get to lick the bowl and who would get the spoon, eyeing up and measuring the smears of cake mixture remaining on both.

And here's a glass plate and dome that I brought home from Tony's mother's house when we were clearing it out after she died in 1998.

I think this must be French Luminarc or Arcoroc tempered glassware, as 'France' is stamped in tiny letters on the top of the lid, and it could date from anywhere between the 1960s and the 1980s.

I knew Tony's mother, Lilian, for 12 years but I cannot remember her ever using the glass domed plate. In fact, Tony can't remember it at all so she must have bought it after he left home in 1964. Maybe it was a one-off purchase, bought for a single occasion, a birthday or Christmas perhaps, then stored in the back of a cupboard for the rest of the time. But it still feels a part of who she was: it's big airy dome and large plate like a symbol of her generous and wonderfully transparent nature.

I use them both. For every day meals and for celebrations. They hold Welshcakes, banana bread, slices of Bara Brith, apple and sultana cake, open tarts, even cheese and grapes. They instil in me a sense of the vertical in history, not just horizontal, linear time, a sense of the years passing, but the repetition of habits and actions performed by women. And how that feels as if it starts deep in the earth beneath my feet and ascends through me and my life. And will carry on growing higher after I'm gone, not through any children of my own but through the daughters, and maybe sons, who are part of my extended family. I name them now: Ffion, Iwan, Manon, Morgan, Harri, Summer, Oliver. History builders. 

* From A Slice of Life, Contemporary Writers on Food, ed. Bonnie Marranca, first published by Overlook Duckworth 2005.

1 April 2015

The Only Way is Running

And take-offs! Unexpected drama this morning at the doctor's surgery at Kings Hill, a brand new village built over the last 25 years on the former site of RAF West Malling, when a petite and glamorous young woman appeared to mistake it for the set of that bastion of English culture, The Only Way is Essex (good taste prevents me from sharing a link). 

Now, I've only ever seen the trailers so perhaps my opinion is uninformed but that was my immediate response. Not because of any one thing about her though. It was more the accumulation of details (the most superbly fitted velour tracksuit I've ever seen, brand new Ugg boots, bouncy blonde pony tail, spray tan, false eyelashes and nails, a gorgeously pert pair of breasts, a tiny waist and a Smartphone surgically attached to her palm) combined with her behaviour (stalking back and forth in front of the reception desk, some heavy duty finger pointing, and admirably articulate yelling for 'Nicola' to come out and speak to her 'face to face'). When she turned around to the captive audience in the waiting room and asked us, 'Do any of you think the receptionists here are a load of snotty bitches?' there was a split-second of felt, though unspoken, support - I reckon nearly everyone's had to deal with a jobs-worthy, intractable doctor's receptionist at some point. But when the maligned Nicola appeared from behind a partition, visibly shaken and pale, and whispered that she'd hung up on her because she didn't like being shouted at any potential tide of sympathy shifted firmly in the other direction. 

The confrontation peaked when Ms TOWIE shouted, Yes, she would leave the surgery now she'd taught Nicola a lesson, oh yes, she'd taught Nicola a lesson she had, and she swept her wonderful breasts around and managed to lift her little Ugg feet over the rope barrier just in time to avoid the most spectacular of fails for a dramatic exit. 

It was a welcome shift back to normality though the room, and all of us in it, did seem a little dowdy and grey, just for a moment. 

Whether all this has anything to do with my intention for this blogpost remains to be seen... 

Regular readers might remember my post Welcome to the Hotel Decrepitude back in December 2013 where I bleated about, among other things, high cholesterol. There wasn't a great deal I could do to improve an already healthy diet but after 6 months of denying myself butter and knocking back cholesterol lowering yoghurt drinks nearly every day surely there'd be a significant drop? There wasn't. So I welcomed back the butter and abandoned the yoghurt fixes and tried not to listen to the voice in the back of my head who knew exactly what I had to do: get off my arse and move more. 

By the end of October last year I couldn't ignore her any longer so I set myself a 30 day programme of walking/running on the treadmill for 30 minutes every day with the goal of running 3 miles non-stop at the end of it. And I did. And I've kept up the running ever since, on lanes footpaths and parks, building to about 15+ miles a week. I've also signed up for three 10km runs during the next 8 months. 

Apart from the benefit of feeling so much more alive and vital, physically and mentally, and enjoying the natural landscape I'm running through, it seems I've also cracked the cholesterol problem. At a British Heart Foundation charitable 'healthy heart check' a couple of weeks ago my overall cholesterol level was 3.8 (down from 6.7). I know! OMG as they say in TOWIE.

Today's appointment was at my doctor's request for a more detailed cholesterol test broken down into the good, the bad, and the something else and I am, of course, hoping that this tests confirms the previous simple 'finger-prick' result. There's no reason why it shouldn't.

When I left the surgery I spent some time looking at the word sculptures (created by the culture and place-making consultancy, FutureCity) set into the paving stones and garden area around the old airfield's Control Tower (now Costa Coffee). The RAF Roundel at the back of the tower is constructed of words we associate with British war movies - chocks, boffins, Blighty - and the brief tales of airmen who flew from the station during and after the Second World War. The seating roundel at the front of the tower has a story you can read by slowly circling the wooden bench, your eyes following the trail of words from the outer rim to the heart.

I'm pleased the developers, planners and designers have remembered the land's past with words. So much history is held in the voices of ordinary people. Stories that often don't make it to academic history books. 

And here is Commander A Humphrey, 60 years later, still enjoying his Kent strawberries at a pub in nearby Teston, the blood in his veins still fizzing from his airborne success. 

It seems there's always food at the end of every good story. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about flight.

26 March 2015


I am struggling to be meaningful this week. I am juggling the ingredients of lasagne, a family lunch, watching a child grow into an independent adult, running, daffodil bulbs and poetry with no sign that any of them want to sit next to each other on the plate of my blogpost. 

The closest I've got to words suggesting more than their plain, unsalted selves is:

family lunch
squeezing in another
layer of lasagne

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about what family means to you.

This is the lasagne in question: a BBC Good Food recipe whose one and a half litres of milk for the b├ęchamel sauce made my head swivel between the recipe and the biggest measuring jug I have in the kitchen. Does that lower-case 'l' really mean litres?! But it did and, as the five starred recipe reviews suggest, you get one hugely delicious dish of silky savouriness to serve eight. 

Our granddaughter is in her first year of university, studying Costume Interpretation for Theatre & Screen at UAL Wimbledon, and living in halls.

'I know this is a weird thing to ask,' she says, half an hour after arriving for lunch, 'but could I do some laundry?' Her pink duffle-bag is filled with damp clothes she's washed at her mother's house and the tangle of knickers, tops and jumpers yet to be done. She tells me that a load of washing and drying at Halls costs her £10.

And here we are standing together at the sink in the utility room discussing the merits of a Vanish stain removing bar as she rubs gently at some coffee splashes on a pale pink sleeveless top. I have to tilt my head up slightly to look her in the face.

It is when I look at Summer that I feel the passage of time. It becomes more than an intellectual perception, more than a list of occasions, events, holidays, more than a numerical record of the years. I feel it in my body's memory: her three year old palm resting on my face, the weight of her as I lift her to reach a ball trapped in the branches of a tree. And now the warmth of her 19 year old body curled up beside me on the sofa, her knees pushing through the torn denim of her jeans. I rest an arm on her hip as if doing so might keep her here just a little longer. 

Yesterday I ran 5.5 miles with my women's running group. I spent the afternoon planting daffodil bulbs beneath the lawn. Then I read half of Sean Borodale's Human Work, a poetry collection about food, its preparation and transformation, whose words and phrases are surprising, challenging and evocative, but strangely lacking, for me, in any warmth and joy. 

I told you these ingredients were resisting each other's company. But somehow they have taken their place, one by one. No shared meaning. But each meaningful in their own way. 

19 March 2015

What your life tastes like

James Wannerton tastes words when he reads or hears them thanks to a neurological condition called synaesthesia that links senses which are normally experienced separately. The Telegraph published this article back in August 2013 about a systems analyst from Blackpool who'd created a version of the London Underground map that, instead of the stations' names, showed what each one tasted like. To James Wannerton that is. He has Victoria down as 'Candle Wax' but Victoria is much more 'Old Sweet Wrapper' for me. But the sweet wrapper I have in mind is the kind of paper that Bazooka Joe bubblegum came wrapped in. And that was waxy. So maybe we aren't that far apart. 

Tastes of London 1964 - 2013
You can read more about James Wannerton and browse the whole of the map (with more clarity) by clicking on any of the links above. And I bet you'll immediately check out the stations you're familiar with to see if his taste makes some kind of sense to you. 

Wannerton has been diagnosed with lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, a rare form of synaesthesia in which spoken and written language causes individuals to experience an automatic and highly consistent taste/smell. My 'sweet-wrapper' response to Victoria wasn't at all automatic - but when I imagined myself among the sounds and smells and textures of the railway station that's my gateway into London that's what popped into my head. 

If I think about the 20 acres of orchard outside my back door it would be too easy to say it tastes of apples. Right now it has the taste of soft mud with a hint of earthworm. But in the summer it tastes like Pink Shrimps - you know those old-fashioned spongy sweets? 

You don't have to make logical sense here. It's probably best if you don't even try to as that detracts from the wonder that is our brain. How it makes links between things that can occasionally astonish (and perhaps even confuse) us. 

One of the pieces of advice that I give to apprentice writers is not to edit first thoughts, don't be judgemental at the beginning of the writing process. Just write down everything, however bizarre or boring they might seem. We can never know what might make sense, what might be worth exploring, further down the road. And you don't have to show anyone. No one has to know how barmy you might sound!

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write a list of tastes for: the street you live on, the inside of your car, your favourite room in the house, a place you loved from your childhood.

I'm reading in London at the Poetry Society Cafe next Monday, 23rd March. I'll arrive, as usual, at Candle Wax, change at Pea & Ham Soup and get off at Chocolate Digestives. 

I checked out one more station on the map. Paddington Station tastes of Flumps to James Wannerton. I'm going to have to disagree with him there too, because that's the station that rumbles me westwards towards the Severn Estuary and its bridge into Wales. It's Salted Butter.