My Granny's tarts, Michael Sheen, what a poet said, and other stories

Granny's oil lamp c.1930
Story 1
My Granny James lived in a house with no gas or electricity. The cottage was lit by oil-lamps. 'How did she cook?' I asked my mother when I was home in Wales last week. 'On a hotplate in front of the open coal fire, in saucepans,' she said. 'But we had an oil-fired oven too though I can't remember how it worked. But I do remember her baking Maids of Honour.'

Now I remember my mother's Maids of Honour from when I was a kid: a shortcrust pastry case filled with a dollop of jam, sponge mixture poured on top and baked. They were golden domes with sweet hearts and a perfect marriage of textures.

Story 2
Last night I watched Michael Sheen's 'Valleys Rebellion' (BBC 2 Wales) on iPlayer which juxtaposes the 19th century account of South Wales Chartists and the Newport Rising, 19 of whom were killed in a single day in their fight to gain the vote with the apparent political disillusionment in Wales today. But it's not the presence of apathy, Sheen comes to recognise, that keeps so many people in the Valleys from voting these days, but the absence of hope in a landscape of post-industrial bleakness, unemployment and poverty. The absence of hope? How can that be happening in a first world country in the 21st century? Something is terribly broken.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about what you think is broken.

What a poet said
In his long poem, 'Advice to a Young Poet'* the late Welsh poet and politically engaged writer and editor, Nigel Jenkins speaks of the importance of knowing where we come from, where we live:

Know your place. What legends and myths
have had their shaping here?
What stories, novels, histories?
And who have been denied a voice?

The Chartist movement was born from voicelessness: an increasingly frustrated working class who had no right to vote, no say in their harsh working and living conditions within a feudal system run by industrial capitalists. Their petition to parliament in 1839 asking for the vote for all men over 21 and a fairer electoral system, for annual elections, the payment of MPs, and the introduction of a secret ballot sounds eminently reasonable today but the petition was rejected by 235 votes to 46. In November 1839 around 5,000 men from the valleys marched on Newport. Did they imagine the violence ahead of them? The death and transportation of friends? Would they have gone if they'd known their militant action would not achieve any political end in itself? 

Other stories 
Nigel Jenkins at Tre'r Caeri on the
Lleyn peninsula, North Wales, 2012
If it hadn't been for Nigel Jenkins' encouragement I doubt I would have written Real Port Talbot. He believed in my ability to tell the town's stories before I knew I could. Getting to know the town, to quote Nigel again, 'its rocks, its soils', 'maps and histories', and 'those who filled their lungs here' changed me as a person and a writer. I discovered that the stories that prop up our past make us who we are. The history of our family, our community, our country and its people make us so much more than one person walking through life alone. And writing that book has inspired me to write another that will tell the stories of the lives and times of my great and greater grandmothers from Carmarthenshire, women who lived between 1750 and 1950, who saw Wales change before their eyes but had very little, if any, voice in those changes, or even in their own lives. 

Can hope start there? With feeling richer for knowing the stories of our past? It's probably too simplistic, after all, food feeds people, not stories, and Sheen's visit to the Rhymney food-bank illustrates the need for the most basic of practical help in some of the communities he visited. 

But on another visit he met with the United Valleys Action Group, people from the Rhymney Valley who have come together with a single voice to fight for their community through democratic channels. This is the manifestation of hope. And belief too. 

We all have to act. Inform ourselves. Take part in something bigger than ourselves. Our past maybe. Or our future. 


Eat, live, write

It's the sub-title of my hungry writer book (life stories, recipes and a year's worth of writing prompts) that'll be published in November by Cultured Llama but it's also how this week is expressing itself. I'm home in Wales for a week and every event with family and friends has involved food. Feeling hungry? I'm not anymore...
  • baked salmon with a garlic cheese crust
  • cupcakes
  • liquid salted caramel truffles
  • hot cross buns
  • pasta bolognese
  • bacon bap
  • paprika chicken
  • slow roast pork belly
  • pear tart made with the shortest sweetest pastry by angel hands in Sosban, Llanelli

And I've only been here since mid afternoon on Sunday! 

And I have found stories too, clutches of them, all waiting to be written. One of the main ones we have spoken about, reminisced over, is the story of my mother's oldest friend, Fay, who passed away 10 days ago, aged 82. Mam was with Fay when they met their future husbands, who were also best friends, on a Saturday night at the Ritz Ballroom in Llanelli. Mam was Fay's bridesmaid when she married Ken in July 1952; Dad was the best-man. 

There was 6 months between them and they had known each other for 80 years, from the time my grandparents took rooms, around 1934, with their two year old daughter, with Fay's mother in Hafod Road, Llanelli. 

Joyce James & Fay Griffiths
before they became
Joyce Rees and Fay Davies
Fay's funeral today was at the new catholic church, built on the same site as the one she was married in and just across the road from the old Ritz that's now a snooker hall. So many stories within an echo of each other.

At the funeral buffet one of Fay's granddaughters asks Mam, 'What was she like?' The first word out of Mam's mouth is, 'Loveable'. And, for me, that's what this picture is all about: the loveableness of girl-friends. Forget about the difference in fashions or hair, those entwined arms are the same 'loveable arms' that sixteen year old girls wrap around each other today.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about something you loved about a girlfriend.

Funerals are oddly contradictory events: grief and celebration, tears and smiles, goodbyes and the hellos to people you might not have seen in years, decades, or never even met before. They are ends and they are beginnings.

They can also be revelations about lives we thought we knew. Because no-one knows all there is to know about us: we show and share different parts of ourselves to different people, through the moods and emotions, hope and fears, the history we live through, the roles and identities we pick up and cast off through the years.

And now, in this moment, and in her absence, Fay is suddenly much more than a grandmother with the story my mother is telling to the young woman whose eyes are glassy with tears, of how on Tuesday afternoons, half-day closing in Llanelli town, she and Fay would take the bus to Swansea to look around the shops then catch a show at the Empire Theatre. And she sees them I'm sure, those two young girls, arm in arm, laughing together, a war behind them and, as yet unknown to them, their plans for next Saturday's dance already being re-written. 


Beware of the Cat(s) and other stories

Door plaque in Monticchiello, Tuscany
Moglet, Tussie, Chloe, Styx and Cocoa. The cats I have lived with. But only one of them ever attacked a human, although that was less of an attack and more of a mistaken (by the cat) invitation. Cocoa, a chocolate brown Burmese, used to jump from the floor onto your shoulder if you patted just above your heart but, from a cat's point of view, there's no perceptible difference between a deliberate pat and unconsciously brushing some lint off the front of a shirt. And 12lbs of sleek, dark muscle (apparently) launching itself at your jugular is enough to make the biggest man flap and squeal. As you might imagine, the women in the room literally cried with laughter. Were still laughing the next morning. In fact I'm laughing now, years later, as I type this paragraph. 

But mock attacks aside it's true that you can't really depend on cats to behave in a predictable way. They can be fickle, independent, fussy and dismissive. But that's what I love about them. I know dog-lovers champion the loyalty and companionship of their mutty friends but the idea of something, or someone, being uber-dependent on me fills me with dread. You can probably understand now why I never had children!

When I moved into Tony's house in 1985 he had two semi-wild black and white cats, Tussie, a male, and Chloe, his sister. He allowed them to sleep in a basket in the kitchen during the day but at night they were put outside. Within three months they were using the newly installed cat-flap and sitting on my lap.

A couple of years earlier there'd been three cats; another female called Tabby. All three of them fell asleep on the back of a hay lorry parked at the house but when the driver pulled away at the end of the day Chloe woke up and jumped off the back before he reached the end of the drive. Tussie and Tabby must have been too frightened to move. The driver later told Tony that he saw two cats jump off the back when he stopped at a garage a couple of miles away, on the other side of of two major roads, the A20 and the M20, but Tony never found them when he walked around the area calling their names.

Hungry writing prompt
Write about calling out someone's name.

Six months later, as Tony was leaving the house one morning, Tussie walked up the drive, crying for food. He was thin and his coat told a story of rough living but Chloe had no sympathy. It was a couple of weeks before she stopped hissing at him. Tabby never came back. 

I'm reminded of this story because I've just read Lost Cat, A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technologyby Caroline Paul with beguiling illustrations by her partner, Wendy McNaughton. If you're not a cat lover I can categorically say (see what I did there?) that you won't be a fan. But if you're one of the world's cat-adoring people you will read it in one sitting (as I did) and want to leaf through the pages of illustrations again and again. 

The prose is dressed in that deceptive simplicity that all writers know is twistingly difficult to achieve. And it's beautiful too. And sad, funny, philosophical and pragmatic. 

The two cats in the book, Tibby and Fibby, reminded me of Tussie and Chloe: one outgoing, the other a shivering bag of fur and bones convinced the slathering jaws of the universe were waiting for her outside the back door. Tussie was the affectionate one as this drawing of Tony's from 1989 illustrates.

When I turn the drawing over I find what I'd forgotten about:

12th February, 1990. Almost 25 years to the day. I'd only recently started writing but I'm pleased I already understood that emotion is better expressed in a plain fashion.

After Tussie died, Chloe seemed to undergo an instant personality transplant: suddenly she was walking into a living room full of strangers and jumping onto the sofa next to one. Cats are complex, often un-knowable, creatures, as Caroline Paul discovers in Lost Cat.

And because I'm committed to some kind of food reference in every blog-post here's the current feline presence in our lives eyeing up the canard when we were still living in France. Chica drove back with us in November 2011, from Antibes to Calais, through the tunnel to Kent, from Folkestone to Offham. More than 12 hours and 750 miles. Stoic. Not a single mewl. She swapped palm trees and lizards for apple trees and voles. But she still likes the smell of red wine and positions herself as close to any cheese plate as she possibly can. And she takes her duck à point.

All the threes: The Poet at Matfield

The expectation around the number three did not escape us yesterday, along with the fact that we only had two of them: the date - 3rd February - and the three decades that Tony and I have been together since meeting at The Old Courthouse in Jersey on 3rd February 1985. All the threes - Dirty knees - All the feathers - Two little fleas. We needed three little fleas. Or at least I thought we did.

3rd February 2015

Remember we were talking 
about the mystical charm 
of the number 3 and I said 

our anniversary – the third 
day of February – plus 
the three decades since 

we met put us in possession 
of two and we needed one more 
for a trilogy? But I was wrong. 

We have always been 
in the company of three: 
me, you and the ‘we’ 

we have made and remade 
through these years, much 
greater than either of us alone. 

And we did spend three hours at The Poet at Matfield. And we did have three wonderful courses. But I only had one glass of wine because three glasses would have had me snoring face down in my Sticky Toffee Pudding. 

The Poet is named for Siegfried Sassoon (d.1967) who was born in Matfield in 1886, the second of three sons. There's that number again. And there's more.

Sassoon is generally thought of as a First World War poet, along with Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, but he also wrote the acclaimed fictionalised autobiographies known as The Sherston Trilogy: - Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930) and Sherston's Progress (1936). Although he later published three volumes of pure autobiography:The Old Century (1938), The Weald of Youth (1942) and Siegfried's Journey (1945). 

Sassoon had a series of love affairs with men, including the actor Ivor Novello, but in 1933 (Two Little Fleas) he married the young Hester Gatty with whom he had a son. And I'll stop there. 

There's something satisfying in making these patterns from the marginalia of lives, including our own. Picking and choosing the dates and ages that suit our aims and purposes. And maybe it's some kind of mathematical satisfaction that encourages us to make more of a fuss about those birthdays and anniversaries that fall at the close of decades. They feel substantial, complete, accomplished. 

Hungry writing prompt
Write about the number 3: three children, three houses, three years, three people, three rings, three little ducks. Whatever the number three throws up in the air for you. Three juggling balls.

Although if we really want to get fancy-pants mathematical about things then maybe we should be celebrating events that fall on prime numbers. So things are looking good: Tony's 71 this year. We'll have our 31st anniversary next year. And... there's that urge to complete a trilogy again! 

Oh let's eat instead! Enjoy my three courses at The Poet. Then go there and enjoy your own. 

Red beetroot risotto with roasted carrots and a Gorgonzola mousse
Cod fillet and brandade with sauteed and grilled leeks in a caper sauce
Sticky toffee pudding with caramel ice cream