Thursday, August 2, 2007

Food, glorious food

Six children eat a lot. Every Tuesday, my mother would go shopping at the Sainsbury's in Brentwood High Street - no out-of-town hypermarkets in those days, and town centres still had shops in them. Her trolley would fill up with sackfuls of potatoes, jumbo packs of flour and sugar, giant-sized cartons of cornflakes and washing powder, and piles of vegetables and fruit.

During the school holidays we would help load the trolley and try to smuggle on chocolate and other goodies. I don't remember ever being very successful: my mother had an eagle eye for such unapproved luxuries. How she managed to feed us all from the weekly housekeeping money is still a mystery, though.

We older children would vie for the right to drive the heavily laden trolley up and down the aisles. My mother has the shopping gene: she always knew exactly where things were on the shelves, so rarely had to retrace her steps. I still have not mastered this trick: I still wander aimlessly around our local supermarket in search of the most basic foodstuffs. As we neared the checkout, other shoppers would try to dash in front of us, or would steer towards a different checkout in order to avoid the lengthy delays implied by our trolleyful.

My mother was expert in turning the trolleyful into hot food on plates. My favourite was potato soup: I liked to drain off the liquid on top to leave semi-solid mashed potato at the bottom of the bowl. Bread featured in many recipes: "dippy bread" (a slice of bread dipped in beaten egg, and fried on both sides), fried bread (ditto, minus the egg), bread-and-butter pudding, and my favourite dessert, apple charlotte (like an apple pie but with a coarse breadcrumb covering).

I realized only later in life that this emphasis on spuds and bread was because, with six children, my parents couldn't afford fancier fare. We never ate out, except perhaps for fish-and-chips wrapped in newspaper (still legal then) as a treat. A helping of scampi during a day trip to Southend was a treat indeed.

Bread was delivered by the bread man (he used to give us the little pieces of carbon paper from his receipt book). Milk was delivered by the milkman, fish by the fishman, and meat by a man from Hepburns, a butcher in Shenfield that is still in business.

The garden produced vegetables galore in the summer: lettuces and beans, cabbages and carrots, tomatoes and onions. My mother has green fingers: anything she touches bursts into flower. My father couldn't tell a dandelion from a tomato, but learned to follow orders when weeding the vegetable plot and flower beds. He specialized in mowing the lawn.

No garlic in our garden, though: that was associated with bicycling Frenchmen who crossed the Channel on the ferry and pedalled their way through Kent, and very occasionally to where we lived in Essex, with strings of garlic and onions over their shoulders. The first time I ever remember tasting garlic was in Germany when I was 16.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The snow of 63

Polly at the Beeb has asked her squad of Today Generation bloggers, all born on 28 October 1957, to look at each others' blogs for inspiration. And now she's gone off on holiday, leaving us to it. In search of her own inspiration, perhaps.

In desperation, I turned to my sister Elizabeth, who is two years younger than me, but whose memory is a lot fresher. Possibly because she's had less trash tipped into her brain than I have over the last several decades. Or, more likely, because she has two young children and works as a teacher, so needs to keep her wits about her.

"Deep snow in1963??? I remember you and nigel building an igloo - don't recall seeing snow like it since," says Elizabeth.

Ah yes. Fellow Today Generationer Neville remembers the snow too. It blanketed our garden. We wanted to make an igloo the Inuit way - cutting out smooth, square blocks of snow and building them up, block by block, into an elegant cupola. I remember taking a kitchen knife out into the garden to start work.

Sadly, the snow in Brentwood was not as densely packed as that in Ellesmere Island, so my brother Nigel and I modified a snowman-building technique mastered in previous winters. We rolled several big balls of snow together in a circle, hoisted another couple on top of the pile to make a roof, then plastered the gaps with more handfuls of white stuff.

The result was a misshapen cone made of a mixture of snow and rotted leaves. But it did have a door and a window, and it was possible to creep inside. It lasted a week before global warming took its inevitable toll.

"It has just occurred to me that maybe you and nigel weren't building an igloo, but attempting to bury me alive," says Elizabeth.

How can she possibly think that? Don't all small boys love their little sisters?

Saturday, July 28, 2007


"Still swotty after all these years?" asks Radio 4's Polly.

It all began with my first reading books - Jane and John (or was it Jack and Jill?). No, it was definitely "See Jane run." I learned to read because my brother Nigel, a year and a half older than me, was learning too, and I didn't want to get left behind. My mother taught us both, and by the time I went to primary school, I could read already.

Jane and John gave way to Enid Blyton's Noddy, and then the Magic Faraway Tree and Famous Five. The Famous Five were a group of juvenile detectives solving crimes while on holiday. They always seemed to be eating: the maid had packed them hampers full of goodies to take with them on their adventures.

We were allowed to subscribe to one comic a week. Nigel, I seem to remember, got the boys' comics Beano and Victor, while I got the swottier Treasure and Look and Learn.

Our younger sister Elizabeth soon overtook us in reading - she ploughed insatiably through Black Beauty (inevitably, about a horse), and the What Katy Did series, progressing to Jane Austen and Antonia Fraser. Much to us boys' shame - but not enough to lever us away from the Beano and onto more cerebral fare.

By the time I reached secondary school, the only novel I had read was Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings. But I had read it six times.

Correction: My mother says I progressed straight from Noddy to the Daily Telegraph. No wonder I had suppressed that particular memory.

Correction: Elizabeth, who is younger than me so has a fresher memory, says "it was Janet and John, featuring Nip the dog. Jane was just a bit player. Run, Nip, run!"

TV and radio

We were one of the last families we knew to get a television. My parents resisted buying one for a long time: there were five children by then, and so money was always tight. They eventually bought one and installed it in the dining room.

We watched the news (with Robert Dougall, Kenneth Kendall and Richard Baker), variety programmes (the Black and White Ministrel Show and Billy Cotton), and of course The Magic Roundabout and Blue Peter. My father used to rush back from work in London - he took two tube trains, then British Rail from Liverpool Street to Shenfield, then power-walked home from the station - in time to catch the Magic Roundabout at 17:45.

All in black and white to begin with - there was no colour TV in those days, and we didn't get a colour set for several years after colour broadcasts started.

The Black and White Ministrels consisted of a bunch of white men dressed up as black men, singing ditties to a bunch of white women dressed up as, well, white women. All very strange - I could never understand the point of it all. Only later did I realize that the show had come to be labelled as controversial and racist, and the BBC quietly shelved it. But not until 1978, when the variety genre was already passé.

The Billy Cotton show was anchored around the eponymous Mr Cotton, who conducted a Big Band. I remember being intrigued by the way that each group of musicians - the trumpets, trombones, and so on - stood up when they had something to play. For me, struggling to learn the piano while staying seated, this was a most impressive feat.

We were not allowed to watch the Morecambe and Wise comedy show for a long time. The first time we tuned in, a sketch showed Eric (Morecambe) and Ernie (Wise) getting into bed. Into a double bed, together. I was too young to realize the homosexual implications of this, but my mother wasn't. The TV was quickly turned off whenever the show came on, and we children had to watch it surreptitiously when our parents weren't looking. The double bed was a frequent fixture on the show, and there was never any suggestion of sex. I still don't know why the scriptwriters didn't specify twin beds.

On radio there was the lunchtime Listen with Mother - filled with kiddie stories and nursery rhymes, which followed The Archers - a soap opera about rural England that is still broadcast. It was something of a surprise when I learned later during my graduate studies that The Archers was in fact an educational programme aimed at farmers. I ended up in the same field - producing information materials for farmers in the developing world - and I still use The Archers as a model for how to go about producing entertaining yet educational programming.


"Earliest memory of a news event?" said Polly from the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme. She is trying to get her squad of bloggers born on 28 October 1957 to come up with stuff that is worth publishing on the Today website.

How about Churchill's funeral, on 30 January 1965? We watched it on TV - we had one by that time. The dock cranes all bowed as his coffin went past - even though the dockworkers' union and Churchill did not get on with each other.

I knew who Winston was - my father had a set of his history of the Second World War books: six white hardbound volumes. I tried starting to read the first volume, "The Gathering Storm", several times, but the photos of tanks and battleships, and my father's atlas showing national boundaries before, during and after the war, were always more interesting than the text.

My father had been drafted into the Navy right at the end of the war, when he was 19. He never saw action, but the Navy shipped him across the Atlantic, then on a train across Canada to Vancouver, then on another ship across the Pacific and Indian Oceans to Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known). He served as a stores quartermaster in Trincomalee for two years, during which time the war came to an end.

My father has never talked much about his experiences, but they left lasting impressions: his love of steam trains (he still knows exactly what type of locomotive hauled the troop train across the Canadian prairie), and the fact that wherever I go, it seems he has been there already. Indonesia? ("We sailed through the Java Sea.") Sri Lanka? ("Do you mean Ceylon?") Egypt? ("We went through the Suez Canal on the way home.") He put together a scrapbook, "Around the World in 798 Days", filled with photos, tickets and other mementos. I hope he still has it - it would probably mean a lot more to me now than it did then, now that I've been to many of the same places.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Only a game?

I don't remember any of the early games of the 1966 World Cup, but the final - England against West Germany sticks in my mind. We sat in the dining room watching the match on TV. Germany scored early on, then Geoff Hurst equalized. England then went 2-1 up, and we were all ready for celebrations when the Germans equalized in turn, just before the final whistle.

I was distraught - I burst into tears and hid behind the sofa. "It's only a game" insisted my parents - but it took Geoff Hurst's controversial goal - his shot hit the crossbar, then bounced down onto the ground and then out of the goal - to get me out from behind the sofa. My face was still stained with tears when he shot his hat-trick in the dying moments of the game, putting England 4-2 up.

The goal is still controversial here in Germany. Every time England play Germany, it seems that there is a TV documentary special about the goal, with the grainy video footage replayed over and over again. The final clip in the German documentaries is always the one showing the ball bouncing well outside the goal line.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Wilson and Heath

I suppose I should have been a lot more politically aware than I was when I was young. My parents were both members of the Young Conservatives before they married. So were my aunt and uncle. But I think the Young Conservatives were more of a middle-class dating service than a training ground for budding politicians or a springboard for grassroots involvement in the Party: neither my parents nor my aunt and uncle showed much interest in active politics after meeting their mates. Their further political involvement seemed to be confined to putting a cross against the Tory candidate on election day.

I vaguely remember Labour's election victory of 1964, when Harold Wilson replaced Alec Douglas-Home as prime minister. Wilson's face and pipe soon became familiar figures on our new black-and-white TV, which opened up a whole new world to us children. Familiar figures, but not loved: my parents grumbled about Wilson and muttered about the unions. Britain was the sick man of Europe, the country was going to the dogs, and there was one strike after another. Wilson's good points seemed to be his holidays in the Scilly Isles and his poet wife.

My parents saw Ted Heath in a more favourable light, but he permanently lost my father's favour when he took the UK into the European Community in 1973. I remember him chiefly for his orchestral conducting and yachting, and Mike Yarwood's Heath and Wilson comedy sketches. And his accession speech to the European Community, which he tried to give in French. His pronunciation was so bad that it made this schoolboy shrink in shame - couldn't his advisers at least have told him that in French you don't pronounce the final consonant of a word?