25 Nov 2011

From Florida to Fowey: remembering the laughter

In June 1988 we went to Florida for three months. We lived about as far west of Fort Lauderdale as you could get at that time, in Plantation Acres, with the British artist Barry Leighton-Jones and his family.

Painting on the terrace.
During the day Tony painted on the terrace, taking on board Barry’s suggestions for editing and improving his composition or palette, and I made my first attempts at writing, thanks to the discovery of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones in a local bookstore, Books Etc. As inspired as I was by her words and encouragement you wouldn’t have been able to identify that from the first entry I ever made into a little spiral notebook not much bigger than a mobile phone: The birds were tweeting. I kid you not.  

At the end of most days, Barry’s wife, Andrea and I set out wine, jumbo shrimp and dip, and the four of us sat on the terrace and chatted while the kids jumped in and out of the pool with Ginger, a barmy red setter.

It was a summer of discovery and friendship, a summer of generosity, even if, when we first arrived, I was anxious at the thought of being 24/7 in the company of four kids aged 5, 7, 9 and 12. And there must have been moments when my tolerance was stretched but my over-riding memory of that time is one of laughter. And of mealtimes together.

Before we arrived dinner was often a fractured affair: the kids grazing, Barry eating his statutory beef and potatoes, Andrea making herself a snack. But with our arrival, and the creation of an extended family, dinner became a celebration of the day. We laid the table with silverware and napkins each night, placed that night’s meal in the centre of the glass oval table – spinach and ricotta cannelloni, or crumbed chicken, or a spiral ham from the Deli at Publix, with salad and potatoes and big hunks of Floridian French bread – and we crammed ourselves around it and ate together and told jokes and stories and laughed.

Twenty three years later we are driving to Fowey in Cornwall for Barry’s funeral. So much has happened to their family in the intervening years – court cases, debts, teenage pregnancy, separations, emigration, divorce – events that can break people, events that can turn people away from one another, but within days of Barry’s death the whole family were together again.

There has been dissent between us too: anger, disappointment and recrimination. But we’ll be there with them all on Monday. And we'll eat together again too, food prepared by Barry's youngest son who is now a chef in London.

When the kids talk about that summer in Plantation Acres, they still say ‘the two-storey house’. Before that they’d always lived in ranch-style houses and the stairs in this one were a novelty. In the 1990s they moved to Helen, Georgia where, for a short while, they lived in a three-storey house, but they never talk about that one in the same way. Life had changed by then and not for the better.

'the two-storey house'
The summer of ’88 in the two-storey house with its orange and grapefruit trees. With a field of cows next door where Ginger would roll in cow-shit the moment after you’d given her a bath. The house with ceiling fans and a TV in every room. The house where I found the beginnings of a voice that would change my life. Where we laughed and loved. The house all of us will always remember.

Barry Leighton-Jones at Plantation Acres, Florida 1988
In memory 1932 - 2011


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1.  Write about something you did one summer.
  2. Write about a dog.
  3.  Write about someone you have lost contact with.
  4. Write about a staircase you remember from your childhood.
  5. Write a eulogy to someone.

18 Nov 2011

Plain sailing with cats. And bananas.

Chica has been living mainly under the bed since we came back from France three weeks ago – in an under-bed storage drawer on wheels filled with spare bedding. Sometimes, when I bend down to check on her, the drawer has rolled up against the skirting board, or over to the far left. Of course if I try and roll the drawer while she’s in it, she’ll get out. Cats are like that. They will never do what you want them to do, or go where you want them to go, when you want them to.


Tony says she’s a strange cat (and she does have her odd ways – she won’t sit on your lap, ever, and she plays fetch, like a dog, with elastic bands) but I think she’s just taking her own time to settle into a different house and environment: from French suburban living to the British countryside, from the screech of seagulls to the low growl of a passing train, from palm trees to apple trees. And a drop in temperature at an average of 6 or 7 degrees. To be honest, I’m having a bit of a problem with all of these things myself.

But overall the 800 mile journey back with her in the car, and the first couple of weeks here, have been pretty much plain sailing. However she still won’t go out during the day, preferring the cover of darkness, and despite all the common sense and logic and ‘she’s a cat’ arguments I tried to convince myself with my stomach still tightened into a nut the first time I watched her disappear around the side of the packing shed and into the orchard, all 20 acres of it.

But, each time, she’s pranced back, cocky as a dressage horse, at negotiating the tarmacadam tundra of the farmyard and the jungle of long grass between the trees, and a whole world of smells she’s never encountered before.

When she comes in I practice my Pavlov’s Dogs routine, feeding her Dreamies so she connects returning home with a reward. (If there isn’t a Cat Psychology degree course out there then there should be.)

The Dreamies are a big success. They must be the cat equivalent of the Macdonald’s breakfast wrap I wrote about last week.

My own rewards since I’ve been back have been:
sausage (British as opposed to French)
sushi (Tesco as opposed to authentic Japanese)
stuffed vine leaves (doing my bit for the Greek economy)
Pinot Grigio (despite only being 40 minutes from Italy the Cote d’Azur staunchly protects its own wine market)
wraps (edible as opposed to pashmina)

I couldn’t buy large plain wheat wraps in the south of France and I can’t say that I really missed them, not while I was living in the Kingdom of Bread. But now that I’m back I’m indulging my banana wrap cravings.

I invented the banana wrap for my granddaughter, Summer, as it was the only way I could get a small amount of protein into her during her ‘reluctant to eat’ early years. And they pretty much do what it says on the label:

Step 1

Step 2

Step 3 might be optional for you but it’s pretty essential for me:

Step 3
Bananas and brown sugar were born to lie together. After that it’s just a case of wrapping:

Step 4
And eating.

Summer used to ask me to make this wrap for her when she came to stay. She also once asked me why she was free to do whatever she liked in my house which came as a bit of a surprise because I’d always been really strict with her as far as bedtimes, mealtimes and TV watching were concerned. But within those clearly defined boundaries she obviously did feel free.

What I Remember
                                    (For Summer)

How Dadcu wore his belt buckled at the back, pulled
so tight around his skinny waist the tops of his trousers

fluted like piecrust; how he swallowed raw eggs, breaking
the yolk in the chamber of his throat; how the fire roared

behind yesterday’s paper stretched across its mouth
and Granny melted cheese in dishes on the grate,

kept an open tin of condensed milk for tea. The lumpy
featherbed, the musty wardrobe, a chocolate coloured fur coat. 

And what will you remember? Your granddad throwing you
in the air, the fat china woman on the edge of my bath,

the window at floor level in your bedroom looking down
on red tiled roofs, sheep in long grass, the apple orchard? 

Or the day we smeared our faces with burnt cork
and you said You are my best friend. But no,

that is what I’ll remember, and how you asked
Why do you make that funny face when you look in the mirror?  


Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about an animal you had as a pet.
  2. Write about reward.
  3. Write about sugar.
  4. Write about feeling free.
  5. Write a list of things you remember about your grandparents.

10 Nov 2011

Loving it: Macdonald's and crud

A man in Port Talbot, South Wales drove his car into Macdonald’s because they wouldn’t serve him in the drive-thru hatch as he was on foot. I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t he take his car into the drive-thru in the first place? The 8 pints of lager probably had something to do with it. Maybe he thought he was in his car. I picture him miming a steering wheel, tootling up to the hatch making broom-broom noises: ‘Quarter pounder with cheese, large fries. Shall I turn the engine off while I wait?’

When the staff told him to go to the restaurant he went to get his (real) car, parked it on the kerb and walked back (you can’t fix stupid) to the drive-thru hatch to make a fuss at which point they refused to serve him anywhere.

‘You'd better move yourself, I am coming in. Even if I've got to ram these doors down, I am coming in.’ That’s the voice of a man desperate for a Macdonald’s.

In true media fashion the manager was quoted as describing the situation as ‘carnage’. No, carnage is the destruction of the rain forest. Carnage is factory farming. It’s killing people slowly with sugar. But where does corporate responsibility end and personal responsibility begin? No one’s force feeding us burgers and nuggets. We are doing it to ourselves.


I told my great niece that Macdonald’s chicken nuggets are made from giblets and crud. At first Ffion, who’s six and a chicken nugget fan, refused to believe me. More recently she’s accepted that they could be made of giblets but refuses to believe there’s any crud in them. (Crud is the word I gave her for the stuff she has to wash out of her fingernails).

‘But they fall on the floor,’ I tell her, ‘and that’s where the crud comes from.’

‘Mammy, she’s not right, is she?’ Her voice pleads from the back seat of the car. Her mother doesn’t disagree with me.

 

Tony says that when he sees the big bar of Galaxy chocolate on the coffee table he can feel his jaws starting to ache for it, his mouth begin to salivate. ‘I could easily eat the whole thing,’ he says. ‘I have to stop myself.’ When I watch the Macdonald’s TV advert for their breakfast wrap ­– sausage, bacon, egg, potato rosti and cheese lovingly folded into a wheat wrap – I want one. I really want one. (I’m developing a vein of empathy for the Port Talbot drunk.) What can be wrong with it? They use free range eggs, pork sourced from British farms. They have a sustainable seafood strategy and recycle their cooking oil. They campaign against litter and use low energy lamps in their restaurants. They employ 80,000 people in the UK and run an education programme. In the last 20 years they’ve built 14 Ronald Macdonald Houses to provide accommodation for families with children in hospital. The Sunday Times says they’re the best big company to work for. Macdonald’s are starting to sound like the Mother Theresa of the corporate world. Jeez, they’ve even received three awards from the RSPCA.

It’s often easier to accept pre-packaged arguments from both the defenders and attackers of any issue  than sift through vast amounts of information to find our own truth. But for now I’m sticking with my giblets and crud argument, at least until Macdonald’s start using free range chicken meat.

Hungry Writing Prompts
Write about drunkenness.
Write about refusing to do what you’re told.
Write a fan letter to someone or something.
Write about a childhood belief.
Write a list of positive attributes/characteristics about someone or something you have doubts about.

4 Nov 2011

Missed deadlines and sausages

I have been carrying this Cumberland sausage around for twenty minutes, the loops of its resealable transparent bag tangled around my fingers like a rosary.  It's jumbo size, curved to an oval and, guessing by the even colour it's been oven baked, and over-baked if I'm honest, its glistening brown skin a little wrinkled. I have clutched it up and down the aisles of Tesco's at Lunsford Park, near my home in Kent, feeling its heat and fearing even to let go of it at the checkout in case it disappeared under a pile of crumpled carrier bags. In the carpark each bag I lift into the trunk is one step closer to it. By the time I slip behind the steering wheel and close the door this sausage has developed mythical status: it is the homecoming sausage. It is all the sausages I haven't eaten during three years in France. It is the sausage to answer my prayer, assuage my cravings for a good British banger.

 
Of course it does not live up to expectations but some things are good even when they're bad and I forgive the way the skin squeaks when I take my first bite. I forgive the over-seasoning, the enthusiastic bite of black pepper. And I ignore the option of the resealable bag. Nothing will stop me from wolfing the whole thing down in less than three minutes flat. And I do.

 
That's what I was doing when I should have been posting the latest hungry writer on Wednesday, 2nd November as promised. Sausage lovers among you will understand.

 
Writing about what I had for lunch, even in Tesco's carpark in a state of sausage deprivation, risks the webspeak accusation of 'cheese-sandwich' blog, a blog that only offers, as columnist Pete Wells says, 'the dear-diary scribblings that don't acknowledge, let alone describe, life outside the author's dorm room.' (Click on the link to enjoy the whole article.)

 
Since starting the hungry writer a year ago I've tried to make sure that every post is 'about something', that the food, or the anecdote or memory, act as a vehicle for an idea. I think I've been more successful on some occasions than others but having this focus disciplines me, encourages me to strike out some parts of a post that verge off track, or include details to expand the theme I've decided to explore.

 
Above all, the author should know how to complete the sentence "This blog is about___." Pete Wells says later in the same article. the hungry writer began as a way for me to write about family, about childhood, and about memory through the vehicle of food. In the above link, the beginning, I also said it was, About home, about leaving home and finding ways back.

 
Last weekend I left France for good and came back to live in the UK. I have been expecting to feel some sense of loss, some sense of longing for the southern coast, the sea-breeze in the garden, the smell of bread from the boulangerie on the corner. At least a touch of sadness for leaving the house we spent so long making beautiful. But all I have felt is contentment. Okay, I have also felt an overwhelming sense of knackeredness as we packed up one house in a 40ft lorry, drove 800 miles and unpacked it all in another house in the course of three days, but the physical aspect of the move aside, my emotional response to the change of environment, of culture and language, has been joyful.

 

 

 
Shortly after we bought the house in Antibes I remember saying to Tony that I felt more at home there than I'd ever felt in rural Kent. I thought I was speaking the truth, but I can't identify with those words now. I don't think I could feel more completely at home than I do right here, now.

 
So much of what we believe, of what we feel, perhaps even of who we think we are, seems to be dependent on the moment we are living in, the world we are experiencing in that precise and elusive present.

 
far away
from the sea
today the rain
comes in waves

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about eating something secretly.
  2. Write about missing a deadline or an appointment.
  3. Write a list of things that mean a lot to you.
  4. Write about a long drive.
  5. Write about rain.