27 Apr 2011

Horizons

My first boyfriend emailed me last week. He’d read The Hungry Writer and told me I should write about where we both grew up. About Aberavon Beach and the day-trippers who came down from the valleys by the coach-load, he said. About the Welsh mams who sunbathed in their Playtex bras. Grandmas paddling with their skirts tucked into bloomers and eyes like sheep dogs on the flock of kids in the shallows. And Dads and Uncles swilling pints and playing housey in the Bay View until chucking out time at 2 o’clock.

When he reminds me of ‘Lost on the beach is a little boy’ booming out across a mile of prom I remember how far out the tide could be some days, the Trampolines and the Roller Skate Rink. I can almost feel the ridges of prickly heat that used to rise on my arms during the summer, the cool chalky scent of calamine lotion that my mother tried to soothe them with. And at the far end of the Prom, past the Jersey Beach Hotel, there was the Miami Beach Amusement Park that glittered with goldfish and painted rides and smelled of candyfloss and diesel; where, in my early teens, dangerous boys with slicked back hair and black leather jackets shouted over the music and span you faster than you wanted to go. 
Miami Beach Amusement Park, Aberafan Beach, early 1960s
The beach has changed so much since my childhood. The fair was eventually dismantled and the area cleared in the 1980s. The derelict Jersey Beach Hotel was demolished after a fire in 2001. The Beach Shops, little bookends of shops linked by seating pavilions that were dotted along the Prom, were closed down in the 1970s. Mrs Johns ran the one closest to our house in Chrome Avenue, just two streets back from the sea. She sold us Black Jacks and Fruit Salads, White Mice and Rainbow Drops, Flying Saucers and Sherbert Dabs. She was a small, plump woman who counted our sweets into white, triangular paper packets and span them around to seal them, twisting the two top corners into little ears. And even the name of the beach changed too – from the anglicised Aberavon back to the Welsh language spelling of Aberafan, where a single ‘f’ is pronounced like a ‘v’.

Aberafan Beach was featured on the UK national news over Easter. Thousands of people turned up to witness Michael Sheen’s astonishing community Passion play that roamed the beachfront, town and hills behind Port Talbot for 72 hours over Easter weekend. Sheen, now Hollywood famous, grew up in Port Talbot and I’d seen him being interviewed in the Aberafan Shopping Centre when I was home in Wales last month, had noticed posters for the performance all around the town, but I had no idea of the scope of the project, the involvement of a whole community, until the BBC evening news on Good Friday. The report showed a scene on the beach with Sheen’s character, The Teacher, removing a jacket strapped with bombs from a woman.

‘That was Francine Morgan,’ my mother told me by email. Francine who was in the same form as me for seven years at Sandfields Comprehensive School, who was so sophisticated and lovely in her white stretch boots and three-quarter length raincoat at an age when I was still cycling around on an old bike and wearing a hand-knitted bonnet that buttoned under my chin. Francine who remembered the notes on the lines of the treble clef, EGBDF, with ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Francine’, who went to University after her ‘A’ levels but within a few months turned her back on academia and enrolled in drama school instead.

In March I jogged from Chrome Avenue, up the Prom along the white painted railings to where Victoria Road joins the eastern end of the beach, around the site of the old Jersey Beach Hotel where apartments and townhouses have since been built, and back down the Prom, to the far end where a rest home, Swn y Môr, now blocks the view of the sea, but hopefully not the sound, from the people who live in Scarlet Avenue.

Sandfields Estate and Aberafan Beach
from Scarlet Ave (left) to Victoria Road (right)
What is it exactly that pulls me back more and more often to the town of my birth despite some the changes that make parts of it unrecogniseable? Is it more than just close  family, shared memories? How much does the landscape of our early years shape our psyche? 

What tugs me to this beach each time I come home, regardless of the weather? I looked at this sea from my bedroom window every day for 19 years, remember running my fingertip along the windowsill, gathering into piles the tiny salt and pepper grains of sand that found their way through infinitesimal cracks in the old wooden frames.

The tidal range here is one of the largest in Europe, although as a child it inspired resentment rather than awe when on some days the hike to reach the waves went on for an eternity across the damp sand with its scatterings of coal dust and little tangled knots of mud made by lugworm under the surface; the people behind you, dotted across the fine white sand near the seawall, getting smaller and smaller and the seashore ahead of you as far away as ever.

Having reached my half century horizons don’t seem that far away anymore.

Bara Brith (Speckled Bread)


I don’t remember ever eating this as a child. I do remember Tiesen Lap (pronounced TEE-shun), a lightly fruited sponge cooked in a tray rather than a cake tin, that formed part of the Cookery syllabus at school, along with, in ascending order of difficulty: blancmange, sausage rolls and rock cakes. Perhaps the advance preparation for Bara Brith was too intensive, too risky. Soaking dried fruit in nearly a pint of hot tea overnight and then carrying it to school the next morning exceeded the Cookery teacher’s expectations of us.

The following recipe comes from Favourite Welsh Recipes, compiled by Sheila Howells and published by J Salmon Ltd, UK and I tweak it a little here and there. I use a mix of sultanas and raisins (no currants), ordinary black tea (I’ve tried Earl Grey because I thought it might complement the lemon zest, but it isn’t tea-y enough for me), a mix of white and wholemeal flour so it’s a little lighter, and ground nutmeg because the mixed spice that’s as common as crumbs in the UK is difficult to get here in the South of France. But it still ends up delicious.

10 oz mixed dried fruit
two thirds of a pint of hot tea
3 oz soft brown sugar
grated rind of 1 lemon
12 oz self-raising wholemeal flour
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 large egg

Soak the mixed fruit in hot tea, cover and leave to stand overnight.
Set oven at Gas Mark 4 or 350 F and grease and line a 2 lb loaf tin.
Strain fruit, reserving liquid, and mix with other ingredients, adding a little of the reserved liquid to achieve a soft dropping consistency.
Pour into tin and bake for about 45 to 55 minutes.

It has a kind of bendy/rubbery feel to it when it first comes out of the oven which makes it difficult to slice until it’s cool. But it is so lovely spread with unsalted butter when it’s still a little warm so it’s worth tackling the rubberiness and cutting off one end, and a slice or two.



Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about your first boyfriend/girlfriend.
  2. Write about the tastes and smells of your childhood.
  3. Write about a lost landscape.
  4. Write about the pull of a tide.
  5. Write about horizons.

20 Apr 2011

On not remembering

Maybe just saying what it is you can’t remember gets the engine turning over.
Abigail Thomas, Thinking About Memoir

 
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I cannot remember what I had for tea when I came home from school. Breakfast, yes, dinner between half past twelve and half past one, yes, but nothing slides onto the plate of my memory for tea.

I remember the walk home, turning left out of the gates of Tir Morfa Infants and Juniors, the short stretch of Marine Drive before turning left again into the top of Chrome Avenue and how a third of the way along, where the street curved like the heel of an L, I used to measure how long it would take before I could make out our house at the far end.

I remember, after that bend, running with one foot on the kerb, one foot in the gutter, picking up speed and the air rushing past me on the stretch towards home, and misjudging my step on the lip of the kerb and fracturing my ankle. How Ann Hartshorn, who lived next door to me, ran ahead to tell my mother while I sat crying, both feet in the gutter, shocked by how quickly the world could change and fearful of how long I’d have to stay there, in the middle of the street where I didn’t know anyone.

My world was at ‘our end’ of the street, small and safe, defined by my family, the kids who lived around us and their parents who were my Uncles and Aunties. Beyond that it was constructed around prescribed routes and stops.

And we never stopped outside the house at the top end of the street where ‘The Royal Family’ lived, a family the council moved around Sandfields Estate, from street to street, as each house they occupied became uninhabitable: sheets of cardboard stuck against broken window panes, door-frames pulled out and burned for firewood. There was gossip of incest, the father ‘interfering with’ his daughters, and we’d surreptitiously check out the little kids in the front garden as we passed, looking for what might be proof: a cock-eye, a hair lip, teeth spaced like fence posts.

They were rough, we said. Not like the people at ‘our end’ of the street. People who went out to work, who paid their rent and bills and kept their gardens looking nice. Though we must have all had our flaws as well, our secrets, things we kept hidden from view: arguments, affairs, breakdowns, drinking. But I still want to say we were not like them. I don’t believe we are all the same ‘at heart’, or ‘under the skin’, that no one is better than anyone else. Respect has to be better than disrespect. Difference does exist. I’m just not sure where or when it begins.

I remember Marie biscuits, Nice biscuits, Jammy Dodgers, Garibaldi, Malted Milk, Custard Creams and, my favourite, Bourbons: chocolate cream sandwiched between two rectangular chocolate biscuits. And sometimes there were sandwiches for tea: cheddar cheese and cucumber, or corned beef, made with thin sliced white bread. Squares or triangles? my mother would ask. Mostly I went for triangles. And sometimes a slice of home-made custard tart made in a deep glass Pyrex dish. My favourite, even when the pastry base had risen up like an arch into the set custard. I don’t know why that happens sometimes and not others, my mother used to say.

 
…sometimes by stating what you can’t remember you begin to remember.
Make a virtue of the flaw.
Abigail Thomas, Thinking About Memoir

 

 Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write a page starting with the phrase, ‘I can’t remember…’
  2. Write about the journey to or home from school.
  3. Write about feeling safe.
  4. Write about what difference means to you.
  5. Write about your, or someone else’s, virtues and flaws.

13 Apr 2011

Saying Sorry & Black Olive Tapenade

an icicle melts
in my mitten
I say I’m sorry

I wrote the above haiku as part of a text for a picture book, tiny shivers. The image of cold and resistance and a gradual, but not necessarily comfortable, yielding captures the way I felt as a child when I knew I’d done something wrong, had behaved badly, and was expected to apologise. I think it still does.

Sometimes it’s even difficult for me to accept I was wrong in the first place. I have an automatic defensive reaction that propels me to point out, with sound reasons and logic of course, what the other person didn’t understand, how they might have misinterpreted my words, my actions.

But alongside my clear sense of righteousness there’s a physical tension in the place just below my collar-bone, and even more strongly in my solar-plexus, which I’m pretty sure represents my stubborn little ego not wanting to humble itself. Because saying sorry, really saying sorry properly and meaning it, takes a lot of humility.

Why is it so difficult? Are we born with the desire to protect ourselves and see apologising as tantamount to admitting weakness and vulnerability, as having to relinquish personal power to someone else? Is there a way we can teach kids how to make apologies with a positive frame of mind so it feels easier, and just and right, later in life?

If you grew up in the 60s and early 70s you'd have seen the film ‘Love Story’ and will remember Ryan O’Neal saying to Ali McGraw, ‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry’. It’s one of those sayings that has a ring of truth to it,  or perhaps it seemed like that to me in the overwhelmingly heart-breaking context of the film (well, I was only 13), but, in fact, if we love someone and hurt them, deliberately or unintentionally, shouldn’t that make us even more ready to apologise? But it can, strangely, feel more difficult to say sorry to family than to people I'm less intimate with.

I am sorry. I was wrong. What can I do to fix this? I’ll do my best to never do this again. Will you forgive me? Simple sentences and questions whose language we might vary according to how we express ourselves, although I'd hope that not all of my mistakes would demand all five of them to make a sincere apology.

Last week when Tony and I were at the Bar Crystal in Juan les Pins, over a glass of rosé wine and the complimentary black olive tapenade they serve during the early evening, he told me he’d felt hurt by what seemed like my complete lack of enthusiasm for a project he’s currently working on. With hindsight ‘I’m sorry’ would have been such an easy thing to have said.

Black Olive Tapenade

  • a handful of pitted black olives (Crespo’s my favourite brand)
  • half a garlic clove
  • two anchovy fillets (or a level teaspoon of anchoïade – anchovy paste)
  • chopped coriander or parsley, to taste
  • lemon juice, also to taste
  • about 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
I use a stainless steel vegetable and herb chopper for the olives, garlic, anchovies and herbs in turn, and then mix everything with the oil and lemon juice afterwards but if you have a food processor you could do it all at once. But don’t make it into a mush. You want a little bit of texture. A bit like an apology – too smooth and it’s just not convincing.

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1. Write about ice.
  2. Write about an argument you could have with one particular part of your body.
  3. Write about loving someone.
  4. Write a list of questions you don’t know the answers to.
  5. Write a list of things you are sorry about.

6 Apr 2011

Time: before and after.

Then

Christmas 1961: a glimpse of  'the skirt'
in the opening of my coat.
It must have been wintertime because I am wearing the skirt: a pleated tartan with white vertical and horizontal stripes that buttons at the waist; no zip, just a placket of the same fabric that tucks flat behind the short gap in the side-seam. I also remember it being dark, but that attribute might have been added by my imagination in view of the subterfuge to come. I dislike this skirt so much I have hatched a plan: if I snip a small hole in it with my mother’s manicure scissors and she notices the damage, damage that might easily have been caused by catching it on a fence or a prickly bush, she will declare it un-wearable.

I am about four, have yet to start school, so have not thought this plan through very thoroughly. 1) My mother would be able to darn a small hole. And, more significantly, 2) I am totally unaware of how pleats work, and how bunching a few of them together and snipping horizontally results in large gaping hole when they fall loose and fan out, a hole that could not be mistaken for anything but a wilful act of destruction.

In that moment I experience, without being able to articulate it, what time means: how one moment moves into another, how the future is constructed of what we do in the present. How it is possible to long for the past. I ache with the wish to go back to the moment before I closed the scissors around the thick cloth, before I even picked them up from my mother’s dressing-table. To a time before I knew I could feel like this.

Now

Not long before they all come home, before they re-fill the house with chatter and laughter. Not long before the cork pops from a chilled bottle of wine, a beer is opened, toys spill across the wooden floor. Before the chicken is pulled from the oven and set to rest, before potatoes are tipped into sizzling oil. But for now the house is quiet; the kids’ bright paintings on the kitchen wall, the oven light and the fluffed up flesh of par-boiled potatoes the only hints of what soon will be.

The kitchen, quiet and waiting.
I am at my niece’s house, while she’s out for the day, preparing a late Sunday lunch for her family, my sister and her husband, Mam and Dad. I’ve hit the slow time: all the vegetables prepared and par-cooked, the chicken on its last half-hour, the gravy and stuffing made. The house feels so quiet I notice my own breathing.

I used to fill silence. For years, when I was alone in a house, I’d have to put the television or radio on. I needed the company of activity and sound to distract me, to prevent me from looking inwards and not liking the silence I found there: silence that felt closer to emptiness than peace. I think that started to change when I began writing at the age of 30 and felt fulfilled in a way I never had before. It sounds simplistic, and perhaps a little melodramatic, but I remember it as my first real passion: something that was a part of me but which existed separately from me as well, something that acted as a bridge between me and the exterior world, a world that now seemed ripe with opportunities and possibilities. I wonder sometimes about writers who say they have always written, who were assembling home-made books and cobbling together novels before their teens. Did that sense of belonging to something, of something belonging to them, at such a young age, make life seem less intimidating, more negotiable? Or did those gifts bring their own insecurities? And I wonder too if some kind of self-fulfilment, a commitment to something outside of ourselves, is something we all need to feel truly contented?

The back door opens. My sister comes in with a bottle of champagne. Her cheek is cool when I kiss it. Her husband shakes out the Sunday paper. With the slam of a car-door on the drive, my niece and her husband are back with two flushed and excited kids.  And all that matters now is this moment, how they press themselves against me smelling of ice-cream and grass and afternoon sun.

My Best Roast Potatoes

It was an American friend, back in 1988, who told me about adding dried oregano to roast potatoes and I’ve used it ever since. 

And while I grew up with roast potatoes cooked in the fat of whatever joint was being served at dinner, and have also tried goose fat and duck fat, as per the recommendation of nearly every celebrity chef, I still prefer them roasted in olive oil.

And my potatoes of preference are King Edwards, though a Maris Piper runs a close second.

Peel and half, or quarter, your potatoes, depending on the size. Rinse well to get rid of the starch and bring to the boil in salted water. Simmer over a medium heat for between 3 and 5 minutes. As someone who has ended up with mashed potatoes for lunch, instead of the planned roast, I know how important it is to time this. The tip of a sharp knife should just be able to pierce the flesh.

Drain well. No, drain them really well. Put them back into the dry saucepan, put on the lid and give them a little bang about to fluff up the outsides then leave them uncovered in the saucepan or a dish. You can do this in advance and it’s what gives you a lovely crispiness.

Fluffed and ready to roast.

Heat the oven to 200°.

Coat the bottom of a roasting tin with a thin layer of olive oil and put it at the top of the oven for 5 minutes, or until the oil sizzles when you dip the edge of a potato into it.

Add your fluffy potatoes to the very hot oil, stirring them around and over to make sure they’re all well coated. Sprinkle with dried oregano and dried minced garlic and return to the oven for about 40 to 50 minutes.

Crunchy.
Fluffy.
Delicious.

And hot.

Cut one open to let it cool.
Savour the anticipation of the moment.


Hungry Writing Prompts

1. Write about a plan you made as a child.
2. Write about a wish that can’t possibly come true.
3. Write about an empty house.
4. Write about belonging to someone or something.
5. Write a list of everything than can bring contentment.