Dios de los Muertos and the British Halloween

I spent some of my childhood in Mexico and some of my strongest memories come from Dios De Los Muertos when my mountain city became even more colourful and night and day blended into one as we celebrated and mourned. 

file000891443277

One of the most haunting and beautiful traditions of Mexico is “el altar de muertos”, the altar for the dead. On All Saints and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, the souls of the deceased have permission to visit their families still living, on earth. The Day of the Dead is a blend of pre-Hispanic indigenous beliefs and Spanish catholic beliefs and traditionally, November 1 is the day for honoring dead children and infants whilst adults are honoured the following day. Nobody goes unacknowledged though – October 27th is known as the Day of the Orphaned Souls where souls with no living relatives to welcome them are received by the community with bread and water hung on doors whilst October 28th is the day of the Accidentados , those that died a violent or accidental death. October 30th is the day to welcome the souls of children that died in childbirth before being baptized, los ninos limbos and October 31 is the day of the Angelitos, souls of children who have died in infancy, but have been baptized and are thus thought to be free of sin. There is a beautiful and pragmatic Aztec belief that in heaven there is a paradise where a tree of human breasts provides mothers’ milk for the Angelitos .

1024px-MEXICAN_CEMETERY_NEAR_SAN_JUAN_CAPISTRANO_MISSION_AFTER_-DAY_OF_THE_DEAD-_(ALL_SAINTS_DAY)_RITUALS_-_NARA_-_547801

Both life and death are experienced as part of the same plane of reality according to pre Hispanic cultural beliefs- all life is engaged in a perpetual process of destruction and creation. During Aztec times, the ultimate achievement was a glorious death with the most honored way to die being la muerte florida ( the flowering death) during childbirth, death in combat or via ritual sacrifice to the gods. Death was seen as the beginning of the seasonal cycle of life and so the dead were honoured and commemorated with rituals and fiestas connected with the time of the harvest.

Mexico is rife with folk tales that warn of the consequences of failing to properly observe the traditions of the festival. Should families inadequately decorate their altar, the returning spirit  may feel sad and angry and seek vengeance on those who have forgotten them. That vengeance might take the form of another family member falling ill and dying shortly afterwards.

“Pues el difunto podria volver ese día a la casa y hay que atenderlo bien”, (“you see, the deceased might return home that day so one has to look after them well”).

4436877142_498038a641_b
Pan de Muertos

The visiting souls are welcomed and honoured by the setting up of an Ofrenda– an altar decorated by placing their favourite things upon it: foods to sustain them on their long journey and symbols of death and eternal life. The altar becomes a symbol of everlasting love and shows us that people live on in the hearts and minds of their family and friends. Preparation of the food is a family affair with much lively discussion as to the best way to stuff a tamale or roast a chile- households get together to set up tamale prep stations (they can be fiddly) and to share their harvests. Children sit together making paper chains and decorate the house with flowers.

The traditional Mexican altar for the dead is often installed in the main room of the house, on top of a table with three levels, the highest level representing heaven. Here you will find an image of a Santo, la Virgen, a cross, or Jesus. On the middle level you place a photo, or multiple photos of the person you are dedicating the altar to, and on the lowest level, representing earth, you place all your offerings.

maxresdefault
Calaveritas de azucar

Traditional offerings dating back to the Aztecs include:

The Flowers of Tzempaxuchitl (traditional Aztec name)- Marigolds

Calaveritas de azucar (sugar sculls that can be personalised)

Pan de muerto in the shape of bodies called ‘anima’ (the traditional ‘day of the dead’ bread)

Copal and incienso – these act as guide via scent to the relatives home

Velas (candles)

A dish of salt, symbolizing purification, is always included.

file000782397232

To this the family might add tamales wrapped in corn husks filled with special ingredients, cigarettes or cigarillos, a bottle of tequila, agua fresca or clay jugs of water. You will find bibles and copies of favourite books and some of the more whimsical, traditional pieces of decorative arts, local to the region. Figures of Catrina are traditional- this tall, elegantly attired female skeleton sporting an extravagantly plumed hat is there to remind Mexicans that nobody, no matter how wealthy, escapes death. You will also find dancing skeleton figures (called Calacas) carved of wood or made into filigree paper chains cut out of picado (colourful Chinese paper) and hung behind the altar- purple is the colour of mourning whilst hot pink and orange are celebratory and petate (woven reed mats) are sprinkled with flame orange marigold petals or the flower heads of multi coloured Zinnias. Other traditional flowers are baby’s breath ( nube ) and wine colored coxcomb ( magenta terciopelo). The journey from Mictlan (the Aztec name of the Underworld), is long and very tiring so a wash basin, mirror, towel, soap and shaving products (for the men) are placed near the Ofrenda so the departed spirit can cleanse themselves before joining in the festivities. Chairs with folded striped serapes are put out for the dead to sit on while they rest, drink and regain their strength. We used to use the traditional serape of Saltillo, the town we lived in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Catrina

Come November 2nd, light the candles, burn the incense and as each candle is lit the names of the departed are called out, as if to say “Come back home, my son, your family awaits you”. Then sit and wait. The spirits of your loved ones are all around you- in the breeze coming from the desert and mountains, in the moonlight that streams in through the windows and in the candle light as it flickers. The soul is nourished through the scents and flavours of the food, both before the families start to feast and during it and is led to the feast by following the scent of the marigolds as it is believed that they carry the scent of death.

tepoztlan

Many families take their altars to the cemeteries where their relatives and friends lay buried and place offering on graves and inside tombs. At noon on November 1st, church bells toll for the arrival of the elder traveling spirits, known as the Faithful Dead. At sundown we would all process to our local cemetery accompanied by Mariarchi bands who would go on to roam the allees between the tombs, taking requests from attendees to play favourite songs and make dedications. We would picnic, drinking the drink made from corn and flavoured with hot chocolate (Atole) from earthenware bowls, eat tamales stuffed with turkey and pork and masa and break open the pan de muerto in the shape of Catrina, encrusted with primary coloured sugar crystals. Children gobbled down sugar skull candies straight from the twists of paper enclosing them then dance and, if young, fall asleep with the spicy scent of marigolds crushed underfoot. Tired out we’d be wrapped up in blankets and carried home through streets full of fiesta and gaiety.

In Mexico, life and death are celebrated and revered: the sugar skulls would bear both the names of the dead and of the living to remind us of this. I remember coveting the candies covering the graves and tombs of the muertitos (the little dead ones, or children), along with new toys. This super rich candy- Calabaza en Tacha, pumpkin cooked in brown sugar syrup was not eaten by us at any other time of the year and it is just as well- it is not good for the teeth.

zacatecas

I watched with wonder as families took the bodies of the relatives out of the tombs, unwrapped the muslin fabric that tightly encased them, washed their bodies and re-wrapped them, scattering marigold petals between the layers of cloth. There were no unpleasant scents as the cool dry mountain air encouraged mummification and families were skilled at preserving the bodies of their loved ones. Graves were scrubbed clean, redressed and garlanded with flowers and pathways swept of leaves and other detritus. From tomb to tomb the villagers moved, celebrating and mourning with their neighbours, lamps and burning torches held aloft to light the path. Incense burned in the air and the surrounding mountains cradled the graveyard, bruise-black in the distance, Friends told stories of their ancestors and renewed acquaintances with relatives travelling from afar whilst admiring the altars and graves decorated by others. As the sun went down along came hummingbirds striped of tail with breasts an iridescent oily green and they would drink the sugar water from feeders hanging from the trees in the cemetery. These feeders received an extra spoon of sugar during Dios de Los Muertos in case these birds were visiting souls in need of sustenance.

calavera-poncianista-by-jose-guadalupe-posada
calavera poncianista by jose guadalupe

Other years saw us travelling into the Zapaliname mountains that surrounded our home in Saltillo. These mountains are part of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range and provided a dramatic backdrop to the altars erected in honour of Zapaliname, chieftain of the Huachichil tribe. Garlands of marigolds would stretch between rocks illuminated by serried rows of fat tallow candles with their porky scent. The nearby waterfall thundered behind the altar, spraying us with mist and a cool breeze. Our serapes were a welcome shield against the cold of the desert and mountain slopes.

la calavera catrina
La Calvera Catrina

Such strong iconography inevitably leads to a degree of cultural appropriation sadly and this has been increasingly evident in the UK these last few years as merchandisers seek to encourage us to spend more money on Halloween- it seems to be becoming a festival lasting a week or more now. I fail to see the difference between the wearing of First Nation headdresses at Glastonbury and the appropriation of Dios De Los Muertos traditions and symbols. Decorating your home with Catrina, decorated skulls, marigolds and the other imagery is appropriation even though the two festivals share roots in common. I understand that their gaiety is appealing and especially to British children but using them without even a basic understanding of Mexican religious and cultural practices can be insensitive. So where does British Halloween tradition lie?

All Saints’ Day (also known as All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas) is a perfect example of a marriage between religious belief and superstition and it is widely thought that Halloween originated as a pagan Celtic festival of the dead related to the Irish and Scottish Samhain (the celebration of the dying of the sun as winter approached), but there is no evidence that it was connected with the dead in pre-Christian times. We have no British tradition of using Dios De Los Muertos style iconography although in parts of France, Catholic families visited their family’s graves with pots of chrysanthemums.

The day after All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) is an opportunity for believers to remember all saints and martyrs, known and unknown, throughout Christian history. As part of this day of obligation, believers are required to attend church and avoid all but absolutely necessary servile work. The remembrance of saints and martyrs and dedicating a specific day to them each year has been a Christian tradition since the 4th century AD, but it wasn’t until 609AD that Pope Boniface IV extended this to all martyrs. 13th May was originally designated as the Feast of All Holy Martyrs and later, in 837AD, Pope Gregory IV extended the festival and changed its name to Feast of All Saints and the date to the 1st of November.

The Celts believed that the long winter nights made the perfect playground for evil spirits: the barriers between the human and spirit world were weaker  and spirits walked the earth, seeking dominion over the living. Bonfires were constructed to frighten these spirits away and people danced and feasted around them, believing that the flames brought comfort to souls in purgatory. Burning at their strongest in Scotland and Ireland where Celtic influence was at its strongest, the fires lingered on in some of the northern counties of England until the early years of the last century. In Lancashire, ‘Lating’ or ‘Lighting the witches’ became a tradition where locals carried candles from eleven to midnight. If the candles burned steadily the carriers were safe for the season, but if the witches blew them out, it didn’t look good…..Also known as Nut Crack Night in parts of Northern England, nuts were put on the fire and used to forecast the success or not of marriages and love affairs, according to how they burned.

Christy's_Halloween
Halloween Apple Bobbing (Howard Chandler Christy), 1915.

Halloween was also sometimes called Snap Apple Night, in England. Contestants had to try an bite the apple suspended on a piece of string without using their hands. A variation of the game was to fix an apple and a lighted candle at opposite ends of a stick suspended horizontally and to swing the stick round. The object was to catch the apple between the teeth whilst avoiding the candle. Many places in England combined Halloween with Mischief Night (celebrated on 4 November), when boys played all kinds of practical jokes on neighbours. ‘Souling’ was a ninth century pre-reformation European Christian custom where locals would make house calls and beg for ‘soul cakes’. In exchange for a cake they promised to pray for the repose of the soul because it was believed that the prayer of strangers especially could help this souls journey to heaven. Platters of these little unleavened cakes were left on porches with water or something stronger as the pilgrims gathered, singing songs such as this:

“A soul, a soul, a soul cake. Please god missus a soul cake. An apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry, Any good thing to make us merry. Up with your kettles and down with your pans Give us an answer and we’ll be gone Little Jack, Jack sat on his gate Crying for butter to butter his cake One for St Peter, two for St Paul, Three for the man who made us all.”

If children were part of the group, they would be accompanied by a hobby horse (an echo of the Celtic past), which was called the Hooden Horse at this time of year. Shakespeare was familiar with this custom and referenced it in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Verona’ where observed pithily that one of the special marks of a man in love is to ‘speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas”.

And it is in these customs we see the beginnings of the modern practices of trick or treating and party games.

DSC02664
Soul Cakes

Soul Cakes

Similar to a Hot Cross Bun but without the cross or currants, these little allspice flavoured cakes make an authentic and delicious All Souls Day breakfast- try them with jam, honey or even maple syrup. If you wish, you can flavour them with saffron which was a traditional crop across parts of England.

175g butter

175g caster sugar

3 egg yolks

450g plain flour

pinch salt

1 teaspoon mixed spice or allspice

warm milk

Preheat oven to 180c and cream the butter and sugar in a bowl until fluffy and pale then beat in egg yolks. Sift flour and spices then slowly add in, mixing to a stiff dough. Knead thoroughly and roll out to 1/4 inch thick then cut into 3 inch rounds and place on a greased baking sheet. Prick the rounds with a fork and bake 20-25 mins or until lightly golden and cooked through. Sift with icing sugar and eat warm.

Advertisements

Fiction of the south west and western United States

Reading my way around the USA has always been a goal of mine but I do find myself drawn to particular regions more than others- the Deep South, the Southwest, West Coast and Hawaii being my current obsessions. To this end, here are some recommendations for books with a strong sense of place- a quality that is vital for me as a reader and something all these authors excel at. From the soon to be published to old favourites, I hope you will find something to transport you, wherever you may live.

‘The Never Open Desert Diner’ by James Anderson (Caravel books- to be published Feb 2015)

cover53916-small

James Anderson divides his time between the Four Corners region of the American South West and the Pacific North West and is well placed to showcase Utah as a setting in his first novel, The Never Open Desert Diner, with its shades of Lit-Noir. Reminiscent of TC Boyle’s ‘The Tortilla Curtain’ (reviewed below) in its strong, sparse characters, Anderson uses place as character itself, from the sunbleached and parched desert that bursts into life after the rains, flash flooded arroyos that first appear safe and then kill with mud, stone and water and a spectrum of light not seen anywhere else. Anderson rewards the patience of his readers with a slowly unfurling insight into his characters and their lives and the ways in which they coexist with the might of their surroundings. This novel is haunting, well woven and accomplished.

The initial unfamiliarity of the desert is reflected in the taciturn nature of Ben, a trucker come delivery driver; a lone wolf operator in a nation of large transportation companies. His route is Highway 117 where he delivers goods to those who live along it, and for various reasons choose to live as off grid as possible. From farm machinery to butter brickle ice cream (never has ice cream sounded so tempting as Anderson makes it!), Ben barely makes a living but more lucrative work elsewhere incites guilt in a man all too aware of the service he provides and of his own need to live as semi detached a life as is possible. This part of Utah is sparsely populated, with miles of desert stretching out along both sides of the tracks, towns and settlements rising up out of the dust and then falling away again as do the telegraph poles that carry power to only the most accessible areas.

As he drives along, he notices an archway leading down into an abandoned housing development, goes to explore it and ends up spying on Claire who is playing her cello, alone in her home. His rule to give a wide berth to married women fleeing their husbands is put to the test. As the story unfolds we meet a cast of characters who all have their secrets- secrets they only give up when the choice to keep them is no longer there. Ben must wrestle with impending bankruptcy, a desert environment hostile to those who fail to respect its dangers and a forty year old crime with repercussions for all.

Encounters with the seventeen year old pregnant daughter of a past lover, a Christian traveller dragging his literal cross along the highway and the elderly, forbidding owner of the Never Open Diner show the softer side of Ben. Like the desert, you will break through his reserves if you persevere. By making Ben a trucker, Anderson dips into a powerful cultural image, that of the man without ties, maybe psychically wounded (there must be a reason for all that roaming), independent yet still following a well worn route and, in him, we find the modern day equivalent of the cowboy.This trucker sees a lot from his lofty position- he is an observer of the country he travels through and his transient nature means he can take on and shed responsibilities as he/she wishes. The essential tension then develops between his job and his human need to be known, be loved and to receive these back too.

‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T C Boyle 

24731

Tackling middle-class values, illegal immigration, xenophobia, poverty, the American Dream and entitlement, TC Boyle’s prose is as spiky, muscular and mysterious as the cacti that populate his corner of the world. The title refers to both the physical wall, or border, between Mexico and the United States and the cultural wall or division between the people of these two nations and between the classes in the United States, no matter their colour or race. Backdrop to this is the unforgiving west in all its sparse beauty. Boyle’s descriptions of the desert are poetic and realistic- once again we see the unforgiving nature that goes hand in hand with the sparse beauty of this landscape.

Two couples: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a white upper-middle class liberal couple who live in a gated community on the outskirts of Los Angeles; and Cándido and America Rincón, two Mexican illegal immigrants in desperate search of work, food and shelter are brought into intimate contact after a car accident and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy filled with error and misunderstanding. The contrasts between the poor and rich are stark: Delaney’s wife, Kyra, is so afraid that her dogs will be eaten by wild coyotes that she orders an 8-foot high fence to protect them, while America, destitute and living in the shelter of a canyon, has no money to seek the medical aid she needs during her pregnancy. As the story unfolds we are left to wonder what ‘wild animals’ the fencing and life of privilege is designed to keep out. The flight of the monied white classes from Los Angeles has led to an urban sprawl into the wilds of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains especially and the creation of a hybrid eco state where “wild” and “urban” butt heads- they do not meld. As we see in the behaviour of coyotes (and in our own British urban foxes) wildlife becomes more urban while humans become more feral.

The hollowness of the American Dream is painfully filleted- as Lou Reed once said “Give me your poor, your tired, your hungry. I’ll piss on ’em” and desperation is criminalized whilst the term ‘illegal alien’ is depicted in all its literalness and metaphor. The book may be over twenty years old but the recent release of statistics showing the huge increase in children attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the USA means this story, sadly, is still relevant.

  The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

41A2UwGDnPL

Human struggle, a resourceful and moral instant mother and against a backdrop of Native American culture, Taylor Greer, grew up in poor in rural Kentucky trying to avoid pregnancy and heads west with high hopes and a barely working car. By the time she arrives in Tucson, she has encountered and taken responsibility for a child, coming to terms with both motherhood and the need to put down roots both personally and culturally.

Taylor lives in a community of women who tend to live their lives independently of men yet nonetheless we see the shared burden of femaleness in Taylors first comments about Turtle. When she sees the little girl she says that the burden of being born a woman had already affected her.Turtle is both real child and symbol of women in general, all of whom face difficulties because of their gender.

Two of the greatest influences in The Bean Trees are the the Sanctuary movement, designed to help Central Americans flee oppressive governmental regimes and relocate — usually unlawfully and secretly— in the United States and the Cherokee Trail of Tears – the route the Cherokee Nation was forced to make when it was moved to the Oklahoma territory from the southeastern United States. Serving as backdrop to the book, the journey of baby Turtle and Tailor from Oklahoma to Arizona, many of the novel’s characters are members of the Sanctuary movement. Respect for the land is depicted as inherent within the Native American population and their vulnerability is equated with that of the environment- both will be hunted and destroyed if they fail to find quarter or sanctuary.

 The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar

12377658

Tobar is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the LA Times and has written extensively about the Latino experience in Los Angeles and the United States generally. Tobar knows Los Angeles, its nail bars, the hipsters in Silver Lake and high end sushi bars in generic roadside malls, the tract houses and sprawling estates on bluffs overlooking the Pacific.  In this second novel, he returns to the issues dividing Southern California- race, class, immigration and economics.

If you are a parent, you will have one of two reactions to this story: (1) I can see how this might happen or (2) these are terrible parents who don’t deserve children. Whichever it might be, this tale has at its heart a ruptured, strained marriage and the drudgery of paid domestic servitude by immigrant workers- Pepe who maintains the lushly designed garden whose installation catalyses the argument between the couple and Araceli who is then housekeeper of the lushly equipped house with its expensive toys and ornate decor. This garden with its banana palms and ferns and mini stream is an incongruous botanical anomaly in arid Southern California, dependent upon Pepe’s ministrations. Artifice in a city of artifice in a house on a street with an overwrought and inauthentic Spanish name- Paseo Linda Bonita means beautiful pretty street. Not so good they named it twice, either.

The Torres-Thompson family lives in a fabulous hilltop home with ocean views on Paseo Linda Bonita in Orange County. Middle class and seemingly affluent, Maureen and Scott are hit by the recession meaning they have to dispense with all their staff apart from Araceli who finds herself in charge when after an argument, Maureen and Scott leave the home. They both assume the other remains at home in charge of the children. After four days without hearing from either parent, Araceli takes the children in search of their grandfather in a distant LA suburb. When the parents return to an empty house they panic – police helicopters are dispatched and borders closed and we meet a wide and varied cast of characters as the mistake becomes public.

Misunderstandings both situational and linguistic lie at the heart of this black and bleak tragi comedy from the title which reflects both the nurture of plants and children (both chores often performed by paid immigrant staff) to the odd, bilingual concoction” of the Torres-Thompson surname. We have a Mexican grandfather who refuses to speak Spanish and an indocumentada who does not speak Spanish very well. We also have Spanish left untranslated so the reader is left to experience the frustration and helplessness experienced by people living far from their native lands trying to make the best of a difficult situation. 

Curly girl – my daughter and Scoliosis

abstract-spine-design-21673766

“The operation will consist of anterior release of the thoracic curve through double mini thoracotomy on the convex side of the right side of the deformity. Second stage will be posterior correction with multi segmental fixation system and two rods. The surgery takes practically all day.”

The explanation on this letter from my daughters consultant neuro-orthopaedic surgeon made sense to me because I have invested some of my working life in training to decode the mysterious and protective language of medicine. It deals in the measurable, the objective and the recordable, flying in the face of the vagaries of the human body and its messy emotions. Some weeks after receiving that letter, we had a last meeting with her surgeon and his specialist registrar at nine pm on the day before the surgery, down in the reception area of the X Ray department, my daughter safely sedated and asleep upstairs. This meeting dealt with the less objective- a promise to do their best and an admission that sometimes things could go wrong- two weeks before a young boy having a similar operation had died of post operative complications. Our surgeon and his specially trained team- handpicked by him to manage the demands of a surgical procedure that used to be two-stage and now, thanks to his hard work could be done all in one, were all deeply distressed by this loss. We shook hands and I remember focusing on his hand in mine, steady, dry-palmed and cool. I felt reassured. I did not have doubts.

Nearly seventeen years earlier and pregnant with my daughter (and first-born) I made a home and a garden and read Sylvia Plath- happy Plath, herself pregnant and writing about her upside down tumbling unborn child. In ‘You’re’, I homed in on her words: ‘Bent backed Atlas, our travelled prawn’ and this image of a curled spine, the bone traced pale in the darkness of the womb had come to life in the smudgy early scan photos I brought home. The lightness and brightness of my daughters backbone were illuminated on that little screen then captured in a photo, the dark walnut of a heart and her own moon skull just like Plath’s baby which carried the weight of her hopes, just as my own unborn child carried mine.

Our spines are our midline, fulcrum and linchpin.  They give us shape, hold us up and channel the electrical sparks that in turn give us motor, volition and drive, movement, or the ability to choose to be still. A spine guides the body as it grows and develops and is metaphor for all kinds of pep talks: “Hold your head high!”, “Stand proud” “Show some back bone!” and sometimes, self reproach “spineless”. As my daughter grew, her spine turned rogue on her and one evening as she leaned over the sink to brush her teeth, shortly after returning from a holiday somewhere hot where she wore few clothes and ran in the sand, straight-backed and carefree, I saw that had changed. Somehow in a few short months, it looked as if her scapula had been pushed upwards and towards her clavicle and the top of her shoulders. When she stood and straightened, it did not straighten with her. I traced the line of spine with my eye and it did not follow the customary route- the one my eyes wanted to take.

A deep breath and a call to the doctor the next morning started the process that led to our time at a regional hospital, home to the team that would change everything for her. And as two years rolled past, we watched her spine continue to curl, curve and twist, copying the name of what afflicted her- scoliosis with its S and ss, onomatopoeic and disliked with roller coaster twists of consonants and vowels. Her ribs twisted into a wing bulging out of her side, her shoulder blade reared upwards and she ached with both the effort of supporting a skeleton which was not supporting her and the physical discomfort of lungs restricted in their cage of twisted rib.

“The waiting is the worst” became her (and our) mantra. The repeat out-patient visits, the measuring with callipers and a series of acronyms that moved her in and out of dark tunnels (MRI) and moved around her (CT) and asked her to stand semi-naked and vulnerable in rooms empty except for large machines and strangers peering through a window in a lead-protected room (X Ray). Adolescence is a time when a child redefines their boundaries, asserts their privacy and develops their sense of impending adult self, but my daughter was being stripped naked and asked to offer up her internal and external self for examination and photography. “The waiting is the worst” moved from something thought to something chanted as she lay on the trolley, rolling down to the anaesthesia department, waiting to be ‘flown’ by a quietly assuring teddy bear of an anaesthetist who promised he would not leave her and did not- he stayed with her not only for the thirteen-hour surgery as was his remit, but also one to one’d her in the recovery room and ITU. His own memory of losing his last scoliosis-afflicted  patient was fresh in his mind. My daughter was the first surgical case after that tragedy as the team had taken a few weeks to reassess and try to learn from what happened whilst we sat at home and wobbled and worried.

We were and remain grateful to her surgeon who insisted he would not undertake the surgery until my daughter had done her research and could show she was fully cognizant of what it would involve, both surgery and the arduous and often tedious rehabilitation. A familiar pattern assumed itself- a visit to the surgeon for monitoring, a chat on the way home followed by research online supervised by us, then tears, anger and finally pragmatism. “I have no choice so I need to get on with it. The waiting is the worst.”. In the United Kingdom, Scoliosis and its variant forms affect 3 or 4 children out of every 1,000 and can develop at any age, but is more common at the start of adolescence. In very young children, Scoliosis may correct itself as they grow but in older children and adults, it is unlikely that scoliosis will improve without treatment and in some cases the curvature may get progressively worse. My daughter was one of them and she soon achieved a magnificent curve of 85%: a spine akin to the curviest roller coaster at Alton Towers- a double curve in fact (Kypho Scoliosis) as we watched in trepidation. Our fears and her spine appeared to spiral off in tandem.

“The patient will be nursed in bed for seven days. After six to eight weeks the patient is usually well enough to travel by car. The patient will not be able to sit for six to eight weeks and will have to remain flat on their back or upright for short walks to the bathroom. The patient will not be fit to travel home by car and will be transported in an ambulance.”

Seven days of chest drains and urinary catheters. Of morphine pumps and a ward filled with women twenty to thirty years older because she fell into the gap between child and adult services. Obtaining the menu from the children’s ward was reassuring- fish fingers and chips and teddy bear-shaped food allowed her to regress back to a time that seemed commensurate with her level of dependence. Yet the morphine also made her strangely adult and stoned; sage pronouncements came from this tiny, wounded creature in her bed. We pressed the PCA (Patient controlled anaesthesia) for her when she was asleep in those early days to ensure pain did not wake her and her sleep was our respite too. It allowed us to drop our adult guard and slump, show our worry on our faces to each other and the staff. Gradually though, this turned into a belief that it was going to be okay. Strange fevers from things growing in her bones would not come to take her away. MRSA was the monster under the bed we feared the most and as her incision healed strong and clean, we imagined the bone grafts in her spine becoming impervious and inviolate, merging with existing bone although in fact, the grafts take several years to become fully patent.

A trip to X ray to check placement of the rods resulted in a meeting with a radiographer who introduced himself to her by saying “I saw your beating heart”- her thoracotomy and coloplasty had left her laying opened up and exposed on the table while the radiographer was brought in as part of the team responsible for her spinal cord monitoring and preparation for placement of those rods. She was unfazed and deeply proud of the fact that two of her ribs now lay in the bone bank to help others. She was intrigued by what had gone on during her surgery. “What did you both do Mum while I was under?” Endless Scrabble games kept us sane plus a flat in the hospital’s staff accommodation. Buckets of ice-cream, walks, sleeping, time as a family, cooking in the flat’s  kitchen with other residents. We turned inwards and forgot about everything else. It was shocking to us to see the reactions of other relatives to her. Seeing the distress on their faces at my daughters temporarily bloated swollen face (oedema from being face down for hours on end) pulled us out of our self protective bubble. We found it easier to cope by not being told how well we were coping.

How can I explain how I felt upon my return to the ward after a walk, to see a straight-backed girl in pale yellow t-shirt sitting, her back to me, on the edge of her hospital bed, being supported by two physiotherapists? I had grown so accustomed to the brutal curve of her spine that it had become an identifying feature. Lazily, it had become easy to use that. It was gone and what replaced it was a success beyond the hopes of her surgeon and his team. The remaining curve was imperceptible to the naked eye and the twist to her rib cage was now hidden by clothing. She stood up carefully and briefly, crying from pain and my other marker of time passing had changed: she was four inches taller- although as the weeks went by this settled to three. We had plaited her hair before the operation and she had been kept so still that the plait remained, tidy and neat, following the livid scar that traced the now straight line of her spine from nape of neck to her butt.

“After six months following follow up in clinic, the patient can gradually recommence activities, including different functions, building them up to one year following the surgery.”

Her surgery was one week after the end of her GCSE’s. She missed out on the celebrations, she did not collect her results from the school. She missed out on the start of her drama course and returned some months after, guarded by a literal circle of friends surrounding her, as she walked slowly and carefully through the crowds of students. Health and Safety assessments guarded her in a more formal manner. A quiet space made available for her to lie flat, a plan for what to do if the fire alarm went off- she couldn’t walk fast and must not be jostled- a modification of drama classes, an awareness that her rods restricted her from bending fully. My daughter is flexible in spirit and mind, her body lags behind.

We live in image-heavy times and the messages we are given about what is beautiful and what is perfect are twisted and skewed. My daughters spine and ribs became master and servant for a while of this. At times it ruled her growth as a young woman and caged her with pain and embarrassment. She worried about it skewing her in the eyes of others although she has met men who have loved her for who she is and admire her courage and dignity in coping. Now, ten years on, she has her scars, the beautiful and striking faded line all the way south and the two ‘tiger slashes’ across the side of her torso. She has answered enquiries about these scars by joking that she was mauled by a tiger. A few people find that more believable than the truth.


My daughter has Kypho-Scoliosis and her treatment was specific to her needs and condition and may not apply to other cases, If you have any concerns about Scoliosis please see your GP or contact a relevant support group or source of information.

Scoliosis NHS Choices Website

The Scoliosis Association UK

“Nursery rhymes are wonderful and surprising little dramas”- An interview with Michael Rosen

 

Michael_Rosen

This interview has had a gestation more complicated than a multiple pregnancy. Bedeviled by a stolen voice recorder at the Latitude festival, where Rosen was speaking and I was doing press coverage- leaving me with no choice other than to frantically scribble down answers in situ (with a pencil– old school). Then, at home, I was burgled and the bag containing the original notes PLUS transcribed document on a memory stick was nicked. I had come to accept that this was the one that got away. However a few weeks ago the police recovered some of my stolen property including the purse with the stick in. Hence interview.2 reconstructed as best I can. Apologies Mr Rosen for the time-lag.

The previous November, it had been announced that Michael Rosen had been appointed Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London in order to run a new MA in Children’s Literature starting in 2014. It was this that I was particularly interested in; the need to build an academic knowledge base for children’s literature and how this could be of benefit at a time (July 2014) where Michael Gove, then the education secretary, was making pronouncements about the worth of one set text over another.

The relative lack of critique and study of literature for children has left us all wide open to Gove-ian interference regarding what is ‘right’ and who gets to arbitrate ‘taste’ (and his departure doesn’t mean we are out of the woods either). The wrong people are exerting influence for reasons motivated by something other than their critical analysis of the texts themselves but until we have that critical rigour, we lie helpless in the face of this.

So, Michael, who is the arbitrator of taste? Who is deciding now what we read as children?

“I gained my MA in the early nineties and have been teaching and involved in education since then, from a position of wanting to share what I have learned- it all comes from that. As artists and critics, we can easily be bypassed, we have zero power and we need to work towards establishing a consensus. Through research and collaboration and educational critique, it is possible in a sense, to all get that opportunity to be a ‘King for a Day’ where we can say ‘my turn to talk…’

And Gove? Where does he come in?

Power engenders power. It’s a well-oiled party machine and there’s a belief that if they talk ‘this’ way they’ll get ‘it’ into power but Gove…he’s a liability to their side. In whatever role. 

“Gove oddly set himself up as a know it all and was not generous in his way of listening and working with teachers, those in education…the children. He has the ‘power of convenient’, he is using his position to impose his own political views. He could have convened a discussion in a human and thoughtful manner. He is very Napoleonic and cannot bear to think of a consensus. Nothing is being set free here. It is all about imposition. We have teachers who have invested their lives in learning how to do what they do really well. He doesn’t want to hear from them. 

In previous interviews, Michael Rosen has made clear his belief that despite Gove (and the government) stating that these stipulations allow schools to act as they wish with regard to what is studied in literature, in fact the adding in of extra texts above and beyond those stipulated would be almost impossible for teachers. The workload is already immense.

He goes on to state that there is huge interest and academic potential in children’s literature, not as addendum and tag along to adult literature (nor framed in the light of what we loved as children) but a whole new world of critical theory with more than 10,000 children’s books being published in the United Kingdom every year.

“Children’s books are different, in so many ways and are vulnerable to the opinions of uninformed ‘experts’- they have a dual focus in that they are part of the process of formally educating a child but they are also guiding, reflecting and nurturing. The best do this.”

If you take into account the view that each child’s background will affect their relationship not only with the idea of reading itself but the content on every printed page, it is baffling as to why there has been this snobbery for so long about the formal study of children’s literature. It has made us vulnerable to seeking out the wrong people as arbitrators of taste- people like Gove.

“We can value reading for pleasure. We learn beyond exams and the feeding in of information and the retrieval of it through exams and tests. But we learn through the world and what is around us- our bodies, the earth, the way we play and eat and the energy and life around us.

Go onto Michael Rosen’s website and what strikes you is his love of words- a playfulness and exploration and inquisitiveness that we of course celebrate in children and then find that most of us seem to lose along the way. There are videotapes of poetry readings and interviews conducted by year-sixers, jokes and quizzes and while there are sections for ‘adults’, there is little sense of him hiving off younger age groups.  The same applies too, to the different ways in which humans use words. To some of us poetry seems to breathe a more rarified air and it can be a little intimidating- not something for the ‘beginner’ in literature which is a shame.  I asked Michael how parents (and non parents too) can engage with poetry despite their unfamiliarity or unease with it-

But poetry is everyday- it isn’t a separate ‘thing’. Think of nursery rhymes- They are wonderful and surprising little dramas, full of mysteries with all kinds of interesting meanings. Even tiny babies are suddenly engaging with life- a richness of life when they hear them. Think of one- Why was Little Miss Muffet on a tuffet? What is a tuffet? Think of the sound of that word. You can ask questions about them, the child can ask questions about them and it doesn’t matter about the answer.

“Sing songs to them. Look at Dolly Parton and her song ‘The Coat of Many Colours’ which is written verse and is the loveliest story. Engage children with words that fill their heads with the strangeness of non speech language. Writing and the reading of it alone cannot show them everything that is special about a story. Use non verbal storytelling by singing and acting out the words and show them how emotion can be conveyed through the whole body. That teaches them how to manage their own feelings and how to understand the feelings of others. 

So can you recall what your own introduction to poetry was? Your first book?

“My first poetry book was the Kingfisher Book of Children’s Poetry and I love the work of Grace NicholsRoger McGough and John Foster. My parents loved poetry, we had poets visiting and we all told stories.

Michael goes on to discuss how song and poetry share an affinity through their rhythmic structure and cites the example of ‘The Song of Hiawatha’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for which Longfellow invented the four beat line. The tetrameter, (also called  strong-stress, native meter or four by four meter) is commonly used  in nursery rhymes, ballads and folk songs and has four beats to a line. On a simplistic level, anything with a heartbeat-like rhythm is going to soothe or arouse but more importantly, if you want to introduce yourself or a child to the realm of human experience seen through the prism of poetry, why not exploit what we already know to be familiar and comfortable? Start there and progress onto the other stuff.

Certainly poetry celebrates the rhythm, pitch and sound of language and also the non language sounds that come out of our mouths. Individual words convey meaning in themselves- not only when they are combined with other words. Michael Rosen’s own poetry is testimony to this. Watch this VT of Rosen reading out ‘Chocolate Cake’. There are sounds and expressions that you won’t find in a dictionary and sounds that mean something even if you have an impaired inability to decode language. A son of a friend who was diagnosed with Autism aged three responds to Michael’s sounds of glee with his own glee and it is one of the few times we see him associate joy with sound. It usually troubles him. Small babies are oblivious to the values and meanings attached to words and until they learn those things, they will enjoy a word for the sound it makes solely.  We all eventually learn that a word is an object and it has its own tale to tell but there is a kind of joy involved in going back in time through the reactions of the very young to words and poems and stories. Their reaction is unfiltered.

I once read that babies are born able to make every sound of every language in the world. So the acquisition of language is as much about the process of forgetting as it is about learning. Babies are the kings and  queens of neologisms, they play with sounds, feel them in their mouths, they listen and experience the sound of speech and noise from the inside out and this is something that poets seem to retain or relearn.

“Babies are natural poets. We as writers and poets morph and invent language- babies do this from the start. They don’t know that the sound you are making is ‘right’ or wrong. They borrow and they invent and poets- they do that too. People like Shakespeare, they didn’t fossilize or get pedantic about what word is ‘right’. 

Is poetry more supportive and reflective of changing language and idiom and would you say that it is a more natural vehicle to reflect a child’s lived experience?

“Poetry can and does talk in many voices. I see my own fathers voice..and that of others but you also need to find your own voice too. Poets can use and mine the language of anybody or anything- we do steal the voices of others when we need to. Our language is rich and it reflects what we borrow and what we invent. My own childhood home was full or oral history, tales told, my parents recited poetry and they were teachers and questioned everything. 

Michael went on to talk about how he wrote ‘Words are Ours’, a perfect reflection of the way in which language and its signifiers- the signs of the times, the signs of our times morph. The poem Incorporates ‘text-speak’ to wonder what the next thing, the next word will be and what it might say about us and the impermanence of a fast moving technology is the perfect vehicle to convey this

“We’re not statues and we don’t stand still. Poetry is dynamic and changes. We use dialect- Wordsworth wrote in dialect. People like Grace Nichols and Benjamin Zephraniah taught me how to stand and perform and how to reach people using me. I saw how they used their bodies and their voices, how the poems emanated from them. 

He has no truck with word snobbishness. He also has no truck with the idea that we must stick to our ‘own’ dialects although he is also emphatic about the role poetry has to play in promoting and valuing regional and cultural variations. Rosen sees poetry being as inclusive as any other art form and beautifully  experimental – he talks to me like a poetic Professor Branestawm. Sense of place is important but entrenchment is to be resisted. In a poet like Grace Nichols we see the linguistic gymnastics that move language forward leaving pedants trapped in a mire of their own making. Creole and standard English are woven together in her work BUT this is poetry to be performed, heard, not just left on the page. And it is this lesson that Rosen has really taken on board and demonstrated to us. He has taken it further. As I spoke to him he would break off into verse, would show me what he meant by playing with his own words, either via his own poetry or that of others, or song. He recited a portion of his own poem ‘Hand on the Bridge’ to show me how a dynamic, chanting, speechy way of reciting had been inspired by Benjamin Zephaniah and I, like a typical repressed English person at first sat a little awkwardly then by the third or fourth word, grew still and then spellbound.

For more information:

Michael Rosen’s website

Michael Rosen A-Z of Best Children’s Poems

 

Photographs copyright of Michael Rosen. Taken from his website.

 

 

 

 

Kudzu girl

the-deep-south-monochrome-steve-harrington

I’m a bit of an Ameri-lit junkie, especially of writings set in the Deep South. If it has fireflies, mad as a fish Southern relatives and moccasin snakes, I’ll read it. If it has Spanish Moss, palmetto, piney woods and a drawl as thick as sorghum, I’ll probably read it more than once. I have been known to seek out online recordings of screeching insects (Cicadas no less) to accompany my readings for that authentic touch and my allotment shed even has a porch built onto it. All we need now is humidity levels saturated enough to send a dog mad and a red clay road dried to cracks so deep you could lose your aunt down them and I’ll die happy. I am aware that I am hopelessly outdated and a dinosaur, clinging onto a vision of the south that is trying really hard to disappear in a cloud of dust down an old track; I am also aware that it is not ‘my’ south to make demands upon. I am, at best, a fascinated onlooker.

The New South is a term that asks us to refashion these older constructions and explore the duality of the Old South. As people acknowledge and face the horrors of Jim Crow’s laws of segregation and the slavery and crop sharing that predated it, it is to be hoped that literature will both reflect this and also move forward in a more progressive and inclusive manner.

Fred Hobson in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World has said that the problem for the new neo-gothic writers of the contemporary South is that southern social reality no longer so dramatically supports a writerly fiction. Read this excerpt from ‘Deep South: memory and observation‘  by Erskine Caldwell and see what I mean about an evocative portrayal of a South that may no longer exist except in our own imaginations:

“Along the trails and footpaths in the ravines, out of sight of paved roads and highways, shacks and cabins tilt and sag and rot on the verge of collapse in the shadow of the green summer thatch of white oaks and black walnuts. The faces of the old people are saying that all is lost and tomorrow will be like yesterday and today- unless it is worse”

The poetry in Caldwells writing is subdued but lucid, it doesn’t get between the reader and the story but instead offers a series of vignettes, scenes, that infuse our minds eye with vivid imagery whether we have been to this place or not- but it does feel ‘old’. It induces within me a nostalgia for the childhood I never had in a place I never grew up in and exists within me as a habit, an evocative Southern tic.

The inimitable Bailey White is author of what is perhaps my most favourite line ever. Her collection of short stories and family vignettes,Mama Makes up her Mind’ – is sublimely hilarious and creepy, saturated with left field weirdness which stays in your head, coming out to torment in the dark of night. Writing about her hardscrabble collection of gothic bizarre family members and the family home, slowly collapsing onto its own foundations, subsiding into a crawlspace literally and metaphorically invokes a terrible fear of creepy crawlies and what she describes as “The high knobbly kneed scrambling gait, a scuttling sound and then the worst thing of all…The watching silence of spiders”

More Carson McCullers than Steel Magnolias, White’s cast of characters inhabit a world of man eating clam shells, bellowing alligators that perform on command, sinkholes that bear resemblance to the Gardens of Eden and an Uncle called Jimbuddy who is slowly and accidentally chopping off bits of his body. The formidable Mama, customer of a North Florida jukejoint so intimidating it frightened Hemingway is the fulcrum of all the zaniness. The tales spill over into volume II ‘Sleeping at the Starlite Motel’ and ‘Nothing With Strings: NPR’s Beloved Holiday Stories‘ whilst her first novel ‘Quite A Year for Plums’ continues in a similar dialectic – about a peanut pathologist called Roger and the various small town women in hot pursuit of him.

jack

The phrase ‘Woman of Letters’ (whilst originally referring to a more scholarly approach) could be applied to my next love, Julia Reed whose light hearted and throaty accounts of life down South belie her fierce intelligence and journalistic pedigree. Contributing editor at Newsweek, Vogue and The New York Times Magazine among others, Reed has a long and noble history as once political correspondent, flying around the South covering the three times Governor of New Orleans, Edwin Edwards’ final comeback, and managing to make it sound as if she gaily thrived on a diet of Galatoires oysters, chicory coffee and the fumes of chicanery when in fact it was a gruelling tour around the political stumps. Any woman who can survive three weeks with a politician who states “To fall out of favour with the voters of Louisiana, I’d have to be found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy” and not knock his smug block off, deserves the utmost respect.

Reed has an encyclopedic knowledge of the South and New Orleans in particular- the food, culture, music and politics and having spent many years travelling the world for work, is possessed of anecdotes extraordinary in their breadth and hilarity. This is the woman whose account of Hurricane Katrina and her response to the devastation and political mess was in turn moving, confusingly flippant and self centred. Anna Wintour (her editor at Vogue) even told her to cut some paragraphs out because they made her sound like Marie Antoinette (oh the irony of that). Yet the love she has for New Orleans shines out and she managed to evade the National Guard to re-enter the closed off city after the hurricane to rescue friends pets, empty out their stinking fridges and feed the hungry young men and women sent to enforce curfew and rescue citizens because she couldn’t bear to think of  them subsisting on MRE’s in a city known for its fine food. After peeling enough tomatoes to feed the thousands of  folks evacuated to her parents home in Greenford, Mississippi and transporting pounds of home fried chicken to troops, we see the blitz spirit is not solely the preserve of the British.

Her book ‘The House on First Street’ is an  autobiographical  love letter to a city and then to a house – the Greek revival home she made in the Garden District after decades of unsettled roaming from place to place. Alognside her love of art, architecture and interior design, Reed is healthily obsessed with food, a source of amazement to me considering the fact that she is a long time American Vogue editor- a place not known for eating heartily. Littered with accounts of restaurants and functioning as part travel and gustatory guide, the descriptions of her appetite evolution, times with the famous, the notorious and the notable provide enough anecdotes to keep a chat show host employed for a century. I have read and re-read all of Reed’s books – ‘Queen of The Turtle Derby’, ‘But Mama Always Puts Vodka in the Sangriaand ‘Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns & Other Southern Specialities‘ and I couldn’t choose one over the other -you’d best read them all.

th

Patrick Dunne, the owner of Lucillus, a culinary antiques shop is a close friend of Reed and in his book ‘The Epicurean Collector’ he distills a soupcon of the sumptuous and epic set like charm of his store into this wonderful and informative coffee table book. Originally a series of articles written for Southern Accents Magazine, he expands upon these combining primary historical sources with personal anecdotes and exquisite photographs to tell the story of the objet d’art he has discovered, sold and owned – salt safes and pigs, cooking irons and a pair of porcelain chocolate pots, the latter inspiring an historical tit bit- Madame De Pompadour employed staff to ‘warm her frigid blood before conjugal visits from Louis XV’. ‘Like all of History’ writes Dunne, ‘the story of how we eat is yet another part of our long tale about being human’

The central power of the biographical form is not set in stone. There is the grand impersonal narrative of history and then there is the life lived and few have lived as fully as fine southern gentleman and food writer James Villas. Born a Tarheel and fiercely proud of it with a mamma who makes the best biscuits and ‘pimmena cheese’ (Pimento Cheese) in the land, Villas has sailed the Queen Mary in the company of Dali, eaten at La Cote D’Or as a young penniless student (without realising where he was), sang with Elaine Strich, tried to keep Tennessee Williams from drinking restaurants dry and was nursed through a bad oyster by MK Fisher. In between all this grandness, detailed in his many books (‘Between Bites’, ‘Villas at Table’, ‘American Tastes‘ and ‘Stalking the Green Fairy’) Villas is also capable of rhapsodising about the treasures to be found in wholesale shopping clubs, Dukes mayonnaise, the low rent food loves of chefs and the best way to make a Brunswick stew. He is, by far, my favourite American food writer.

file0001782939777

 

“Don’t try to out-Cracker me,” writes novelist and expert in Crackerdom Janice Owens. Those words headline a blog post on her website just below a recipe for Thanksgiving Potato Basil Chicken Soup and refer to her proud cultural identity as Queen of Florida crackerdom whose ancestors have been cooking cornbread in the state since 1767. The Florida Cracker has a complicated etymology with some claiming it as a racially and culturally charged slur (on a par with the British ‘Chav’ and ‘Pikey), however to a Floridian it has been redefined to encompass pride and cultural value. The historian Dana Ste. Claire describes a Cracker as “a self-reliant, independent, and tenacious settler,” often of Celtic stock, who “valued independence and a restraint-free life over material prosperity.” The Florida cracker heritage is valued and increasingly celebrated by writers such as Owens in her cookbook ‘The Cracker Kitchen’ and her novel ‘American Ghosts’. The latter addresses intergenerational Southern allegiances and the regions dark history in this tale of a relationship between local girl Jodie and her Jewish lover and its dangerous reach into the future of the people involved.

We don’t tend to think of the Jewish experience when we imagine life in the South and that is why I love Roy Hoffman’s ‘Chicken Dreaming Corn’. The title is derived from a term used by the authors Romanian Jewish grandmother to refer to the yearnings of ordinary folks for something special or extraordinary  and the book recounts the American dream of its protagonist Morris Kleinman as he runs his clothing shop in the southern port city of Mobile, Alabama. Praised by Harper Lee for its “lean and clean prose”, Hoffman was inspired by works like ‘Ragtime’ to blend both real and fictional names whilst retaining a storytelling ethos- 50% imagination and a blend of research and family stories.

It took a Hawaiian-Japanese friend to introduce me to the joys of Michael Lee West. Her early book ‘Consuming Passions’ was at there at the start of my love for southern writing when it arrived one day on my doormat via the USAF at Lakenheath. Anyone with a mamma whose leaving home gift to her daughter is a jar of Vaseline to rub on the fire escape to foil burglars (especially when her first home did not have a fire escape) and an Uncle called Bun who went to Brazil and married a South American nymphomaniac is destined to be a writer. It would be a crime against the literature loving masses to NOT commit these vignettes to paper. Each chapter is rounded off with an authentic family essay, predominately food driven (How to season a cast iron pan, ‘How to make perfect iced tea) although you do not have to be food obsessed to find them absolutely charming and riven with fun. Lee West has written quite a few fiction novels to but it is this food memoir that I love the most.

13836805214j0po

Now I know that West Virginia is not the ‘Deep South’- I was traumatised enough when I discovered that Walton’s Mountain in ‘Virginia’ was, in fact, part of the back lot of Warner Bros in Southern California so I am not going to tolerate any more southern geographical tall tales. Falling below the Mason Dixon Line is a southern qualifier and although he lives and teaches just outside of Chicago these days, Glenn Taylor is a West Virginia storyteller at heart. The author of the 2008 NBCC Award Finalist novel The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart and the recently published The Marrowbone Marble Company is one of the finest storytellers I am reading today in the true tradition of the term. Taylor clearly follows in the footsteps of his father who, dedicated to the preservation of the heritage and stories of the West Virginia hills, has spent years taping the oral histories of the older members of the community. In a Guardian feature, Taylor has this to say about the way Southern literature is categorised, after a conversation he had with a store manager at a recent signing:

“When I finished signing the stack of books, the store manager took them off to be shelved. I browsed. She called to me from two aisles over: ‘Do you want to be shelved in fiction or Southern fiction?’ I laughed. I thought of all the things I always think of when folks wonder about southern West Virginia’s regional designation. The civil war. Lincoln’s presidential decree. The creation of my home state in the year 1864. Violence. Blood. Cuisine, culture, storytelling. A slow ease to things. I answered her: ‘I’ll let you decide. I’m just happy to be here. West Virginia is not the South. Yet, as soon as I write that, I have to question what South we’re speaking of. Are we talking about maps or music? Are we talking about parts of speech, burial custom, family gatherings, cornbread, religion? Coal or cotton? Hill or field? In the end, I get tired of thinking about it. I get tired of labels on literature, of categorising fiction by region or race, of trying to figure what Southern voices New York likes and doesn’t like. Yet, at times, I freely embrace such cataloguing.”

The story of the south, its food and heritage cannot be told without acknowledging that it is also the story of the people forcibly immigrated there to work as slaves and their story needs to be told via their own mouths, not refocused through the lens of white writers although they, of course, also have their own experiences to tell. The south is not just the land of Mayberry despite my own cliched fantasies and I am aware that in part, some of my literary loves pander to the literature of bigotry by memorializing an old south which has little fond memories for a lot of those forced to live and raise their families there. There has been controversy surrounding the publication of books like ‘The Help’ which went on to become filmic best sellers and their representation of southern black vernacular. As columnist Clarence Page who is African American, said

“There is an old saying, ‘You can joke about your own crowd, but not about someone else’s. Whether you are writing for yourself or a poetic work of fiction, you take a risk; like if I tried to write a book with a Yiddish dialect.”

The books author Kathryn Stockett has gone on record as saying that ‘The Help’ addressed, in part, the lack of the female perspective in southern Civil Rights literature but in fact the book still fails to address the paucity of first person oral testimony from black women, whether fictionalized or not. We have the voice of Abileen, a black maid, heard through the narrative lens of the white author but what we also have is the noble white protagonist, there to navigate us through the troubled waters of the Civil Rights Movement. For me, that is the biggest flaw because it infantilises African Americans and re appropriates their Civil Rights struggle as one led by white people, or at the very least, guided and legitimised by them. When we have post war southern writers addressing the troubled relationship between whites and blacks and also drawing attention to the dehumanizing effects of the Jim Crow laws, is it (an albeit well meaning) extension of that dehumanisation to speak in dialect as a black character, apparently drawn from a real living person when you are a white writer?

There is a heritage of hatred and prejudice and fear but also one filled with enormous richness and beauty to draw from- southerners have been placed, as Camus said, “Halfway between the sun and misery’. Writers and commentators walk different pathways with respect to this- they can cope with dehumanization by straddling the two conflicting worlds with their ugly message of ‘separate but equal’ or they can instead, rehumanize their experiences by creating dazzling works of literature that focus solely upon their own lives, framed solely by it and independent of much of that from which they are excluded.  Zora Neale Hurston in ‘Dust Tracks’ chose not to focus solely on the inheritance of oppression (although it cannot be totally ignored) but instead draws upon a rich and complete black folk culture as the story of her move from the rural poverty of her youth to the intellectual jazz crowd of the Harlem Renaissance unfolds.

Mann_DeepSouth-1

This in itself caused some disquiet and criticism because how can any child grow up alongside Jim Crowe and appear so beautifically unaware of it, especially when many other writers were using the zoom lens on racial oppression? Young Zora contends that she did not realise she was black until she was nine years old and having experienced the death of her mother, was sent to Jacksonville to live. Life away from the prism of her previously familiar surroundings precipitates a more outward looking existence. Hurston’s use of traditional black legend and black vernacular in the speech of her characters is uncompromising- ‘This is THE world because it is MY world’ and, in a reverse of the usual power structures, we, as readers, have to adapt. You didn’t know that death is referred to as the”Square-toed one that comes from the West?” Well, work it out by getting to know the folks that people the book.

The story of people is also the story of the land and its food and is there a place generating more orgiastic hyperbole when it comes to this? It is indisputable though, that the culinary history of the south is as richly nuanced and disputed as a bowl of gumbo and in the introduction to her book ‘The Welcome Table: African American Heritage Cooking’ Jessica Harris cites the ancestry of this as a perfect example of the southern culinary diaspora. Despite the exhaustive nature of Harris’s research, Sara Roahen is inspired to explore both it and the broader topic of the New Orleans culinary legacy taking us on a romp through the definitive NoLa cocktail- the Sazerac through Sno-Cones to Turducken, a roasted bird within a bird within a bird. Her book ‘Gumbo Tales: Finding my place at the New Orleans Table’ is a great read and introduction to this subject and a city that is one of the most mesmerising places on earth.

HandsHarmonyPG56

The story of the south is one of environmental damage and deprivation and after Hurricane Katrina laid bare the peril to South Louisiana in particular, author Ian McNulty embarked upon a series of trips to discover more about the regions diverse landscapes and culture in ‘Louisiana Rambles’. There is Zydeco and crawfish, Boudin eating and dark smokehouses, riverine pub crawls, Angola prison rodeos and the Turnoi, a local marriage between medieval jousting, jockeying and horsemanship. There is also the story of the disappearing Cajun way of life with its fishermen and furriers and trappers, all of them inextricably linked to the welfare of the watery bayou and the Delta which are, in turn being gobbled up by the Gulf of Mexico. Did you know that the southern end of Louisiana is being converted to open water at a rate estimated to be equal to one American football field every thirty eight minutes? No landmass is vanishing faster. The fragile brackish and fresh water habitats of Louisiana- home to the seafood and fish that form the majority of domestic seafood consumption are dying because the sediment carried along by the Mississippi, usually deposited along the land abutting its course is, instead, being carried far out into the Gulf and deposited there. Louisiana and the Delta are paying the price for Mississippi flood control further up its course. Only when that early bird special of all you can eat at the Red Lobster for $10 is under threat will the rest of America wake up to the environmental catastrophe unfolding ‘down below’. McNulty’s book is structured around chapters, each telling the story of a person, place of event in Louisiana. The advantages of this is that you can put the book down without losing the ‘story’ and take deep breaths to overcome the anger and frustration that will be engendered by descriptions of wanton destruction and lack of care over a place that is diverse and beautiful yet functional- a powerhouse of industry and work and activity.

You might prefer this format in fiction too which is where my next choice, ‘New Stories from the South’ comes in. Edited by Shannon Ravenel it was compiled in part in response to the ‘why is Southern literature populated with crazy old coots?’ argument yet, as the editor explains in the preface, ends up addressing ‘the temperature under the skins and inside the hearts of their characters’ for they relate universal motivations and emotions. Sixteen short stories encompassing traditional tales and more up to date stories from established writers like Lee Smith and newer voices deal with drug dealing (‘Black Cat Bone’) a politicians funeral (‘Cousin Aubrey’) and emigration from Vietnam (‘Relic’) offering a great dip in and dip out volume.

If you are looking for some true southern gothic, then Rick Bass’s short story ‘The History of Rodney‘ in the 1995 collection called ‘In the Loyal Mountains’ has a Mississippi ghost town, a young couple and a newly purchased house, romantic imagery, symbolism and beautiful prose. Or try Tim Gatreaux’s ‘Waiting for the Evening News’, an exploration of the strains of modern life through a farmer raising a baby grandchild, a man in love with his own radio voice and a train driver coping after causing a disaster, among many other voices. Set in his beloved Louisiana, they will not disappoint. Finally, Elizabeth Spencer’s ‘Starting Over’ appears to take its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes or recuperate from the vicissitudes of life and reboot. Spencer is one of America’s best short story writers- her writing skewers the social niceties that underpinned racism and segregation, fed ‘The Old South’ and allowed for the maintenance of a politesse that belied the ugly, impolite truth.

 file0001356911260

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italian Gravy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I am a fan of the Italian- American red sauce, the fond name given to a hybrid recipe that developed as first and second-generation Italian-Americans set up kitchens in the New World. A good Italian red sauce trattoria will serve up bold and unapologetic oregano and garlic-heavy tomato sauces that slick olive oil across the plate and across the ubiquitous red-checked tablecloth. Think wax encrusted chianti bottle candle-holders, straw sleeves for the wine, bread baskets and haphazard family photos on the wall along with the ubiquitous Frank (the chairman of the board) who is seen as an honorary cousin. All the stereotypes and, to a certain extent, the cliches…but yet……

Red sauce joints used to be seen as inferior and the name became a derogatory term for Italian food that bore only a passing resemblance to anything served up by mama in the motherland. But recently American food writers have been championing its merits, seeing it for what it is- a cuisine redolent with nostalgia for times and territory long gone and possessed of its own identity and history. It amplifies and fetishises the scents of the Italian maccia; oregano, rosemary, thyme and myrtle trampled underfoot as ancestors walked the hills and scrub lands.They tended their crops and enjoyed the fruits of their labour:  the clean metallic salinity of cold-pressed olive oil rubbed over unsalted bread; the brute unrefined force of the jug-wine pressed from backyard grapes as it quenched their parched throats and the peppery home-cured salame speckled with dice of fat. Nothing was wasted and ingredients challenged attempts to attach value to them- the bones of the animal were as valued for the flavour they imparted as the finest Chianina steak. Yes, the idea of cucina povera still exists- the cuisine of the poor- but the meals created are not valued any the less.

Imagined like this, red sauce cooking is a greatest hits, an anthology, an abridged version of a nations food that defies any attempt to find a single definition or etymology. When you remember that Italy’s unification was only completed in 1870 when Rome moved from a decade of rule by the Papacy and joined the union which first started during the Risorgimento on March 17, 1861, it is hardly surprising that many Italians identify primarily with their region of birth and their nationality second. Strong regional ties remain with traditional conflicts being (semi affectionately) rehashed in debates as to whose food is better, whose method of preparation is superiore, what is autentico and what is not.

Now some Italian Americans confuse things even more by using  the word “gravy” for a tomato sauce. This appears to be a regional term confined to New York City and parts of New England, especially Boston with its very large Italian-American population. Others argue that ‘gravy’ cannot be perfectly translated into Italian and therefore the name mistakenly became appropriated as recent immigrants themselves appropriated American terms for various cooked down sauces (gravy being one of them). An American friend of ours maintains that the older Sicilians who arrived in New York on Ellis Island and who have remained in the old neighborhoods still refer to it as gravy. Hanging out with the guys from Brooklyn or Queens led to them inviting her over for Sunday Famiglia Dinner where nonna made the gravy that she had started to prepare the day before. Or they would go eat ‘out the back’ of Italian- American general stores such as Manganaro’s in Hell’s Kitchen where the paper plates of lasagne and spaghetti with meatballs make the sauce the main event rather than the modest napping of the plate, seen in a lot of old country pasta dishes. Standing at a counter which runs the length of this narrow and deep store, you will be served by the great-great-granddaughter of the original owners.

Other Italians will argue (fiercely) that a sugo is a tomato-based sauce that is smooth and consists in the main of tomato and nothing else whilst purists decry the term ragu because it is derived from the French ragout. However the word sugo is derived from succo  (juices) and refers to the pan drippings from various cuts of cooked meat. Italians will add these drippings along with either pan-seared meats such as sausage or garlic-y meatballs, braciole, and pork and/or simply ground beef to the tomato based sauce, cook them down until they have an unctuous and deeply savoury sauce (gravy) eaten either alone or as accompaniment or flavouring to all manner of meals.

A ragout in Italian is a spezzatino but we rarely see that being used here. Either ways, we have the gravy/red sauce conundrum, both pertaining to a certain style of Italian trattoria eating that is becoming recognised as special in its own right. Not an accident of evolution, nor a compromise, but a deliberate and proud tradition and part of the immigrant story. Consider that in its 2008 survey of Italian restaurants outside Italy, Italy’s Accademia Italiana della Cucina sniffily concluded that six out of ten dishes were prepared incorrectly and by chefs, and only a few years later 450 chefs staged an international protest at what they considered to be our abuse of the classic Bolognese sauce, which according to them, should only be made according to the recipe deposited with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce in 1982. Unless the meat is flank of beef and the pancetta unsmoked, be devoid of garlic and accompanied by tagliatelle, it should not be called Bolognese. It is perfectly understandable to us though, that once away from the motherland, retaining absolute authenticity is too much of a tall order when so many local ingredients never make it out of their regions either, leaving cooks and chefs having to improvise and substitute. And that other influence upon cooking, our financial situation, is woefully under-estimated too. If we cannot afford good pancetta, we may decide to use basic streaky and should the sauce turn out well despite this, then who is to say we should go back?

Anyway, Basta! Here is the sin-qua-non of red sauces (in my opinion), and one which takes four hours although a lot of this time involves relatively hands-off cooking. Adaptable, freezable and loved by kids and adults, this is a recipe that makes a LOT (about 4 quarts) because who has the time to wait four hours for just one meal? Make it and decant the sauce into meal-sized portions then freeze them. I have used it as a base for all manner of Italian (and not) meals, even going as far as to adapt it for a moussaka (with deepest apologies to my Greek friends who are probably arranging for my image to be places in Greek airports, as a warning to the authorities to deny me entry). It can have strips of rendered bacon slung in, aubergines and courgettes- pretty much anything really. But do master the original recipe first.

file0002083790410

Four hour red sauce

125 ml olive oil (not extra virgin) / 4oz minced garlic / 3lbs minced onion / 3 large carrots minced / 3 large celery stalks minced / 5x 28 oz cans tomatoes / 4x 6oz cans or equivalent in the tube of tomato paste / 1 large handful torn basil leaves / 2 tbsp dried oregano / sugar/ salt / 3 litres water (and you can replace some of this with 1/2 bottle red wine if you wish) / 5lbs beef bones (keep the marrow in some of them / 5lbs meaty pork bones / 1/2lb rind from Parmesan or Pecorino Romano

Method

Place olive oil in large stockpot or heavy based casserole and put on medium to high heat. You really do need a heavy-bottomed pot for this sauce otherwise you are going to be scraping and stirring the whole time to prevent it catching. Add the garlic, onions and sauté for seven mins, stirring to avoid catching. Add the carrots and celery and stir for another five minutes. This is your basic soffrito, that heavenly mixture of finely chopped vegetables which provides the bass flavour notes.

Pour the tomatoes plus juices and a pinch of salt into the stockpot then add the tomato paste, basil, oregano. Taste for sweetness and adjust by adding a little sugar if it tastes too tart- I find a tablespoon maximum is usually enough. Add more salt too if it needs it. Add the water (and wine if using) and bring swiftly to the boil then turn down to slow simmer.

Heat a fry pan with some olive oil on the hob for the next stage.

Add the beef and pork bones to the fry pan (in batches) and quickly brown them then add to the stock pot tomato mixture- add in the pan juices too. Don’t cook too many at once or you will lower the temperature of the frying pan and the bones will steam rather than simmer. Chuck in the cheese rind too. (This adds umami depth of flavour.) Stir well.

Keep this concoction at an active simmer, partially covered with a lid for three and a half to four hours, stirring occasionally and checking to see that it does not catch. The sauce is cooked when it is medium thick with a slight run and when the flavour pleases you. If it seems too runny, raise the heat under the pan and cook it a little longer to reduce the liquid. If it has thickened too much, add some more water, tomato juice or wine and cook  briefly.

When it is done, take off the heat and let the pan cool. Then skim off most of the dark-red oil that will gather on the top and discard this. Pour the sauce into a large roasting dish or tray to allow you to remove all of the bones.

Use the sauce in the next two days or freeze it.

Tip- go to a local butcher for the bones and tell him what you need them for. The butcher will ensure the bones are freshly sawn to fit your pot and possessed of plenty of meaty bits still attached. Beef short ribs are amazing in this. And I have also made it with a piece of oxtail too which obviously turns the sauce even richer and thicker with all that added gelatine and marrow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Libraries helped to build this girl

janwillemsen
Photo by Jan Willemsen, by permission- Flickr commons

I have a lot of books. In piles by the bed and underneath it, lining the book cases and shelves that in turn line the narrow upstairs passages of our late Victorian home. They are stacked by easy chairs, ready to soothe and transport an uneasy mind, slotted into gaps between kitchen units and propped up on bathroom radiators. They fill the cellar, lay in wait on stairs, accompanying me up and down them from the moment I leave my bed in the morning, stumbling and heavy lidded until they return upstairs to accompany my slide into sleep. I have read many of these books but many more await me, making me worry that I will run out before the books do – all that great writing published after I shuffle off this mortal coil that I will never get to read.

Schopenhauer said, over one hundred and fifty years ago, ‘It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them: but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.’ Sadly the last few years have been marked by an increasing lack of time to sit and read and I resent it, I truly do. If books build a person does that mean that my busy-ness has caused my construction to come to a temporary halt? Will I slip into a slow autophagy, a gentle and gentile decline in the manner of a stately home without National Trust guardianship unless I maintain an unspecified quota of books read?

I have always identified myself first and foremost as a bookworm from a very young age. A sticker on the front of a book I pulled from a shelf in the town library showed a pale young girl, eyes huge behind owlish glasses, her open book illuminated by the glow worm sitting on her shoulder. She sat late at night, the bedclothes tented over her head, (a nylon blanket and wincyette sheet set no doubt), reading in defiance of her parents who probably wondered why she took so long to rouse of a morning. I had found a graphic rendition of my own bookish existence at the age of eight and although my sheets have a much better thread count these days, I haven’t really changed all that much. The bedpost on my husbands side of the bed is festooned with a selection of eyemasks to better enable him able to cope with my late night reading.

Henry James may have referred to the city of Florence’s ‘many memoried streets’ but for me, Sudbury library with its separate children’s library and galleried upper floor containing the ‘big books’- encyclopedias and reference, is my street of memories. I started in the children’s area then ventured out into the wider spaces of this cavernous former corn exchange on the Market Hill. Tall, slightly dusty and echoing as a ‘proper’ library should, walking around here was, to me, as important as the hidden and darker corners of European cities, a surprise that taught you something around every corner and to a small child, as big and safe a city as they could ever need.

And if you are a bookworm, a library is the only way you can satisfy that intense hunger for books and choice because to buy all the books that I wanted to, and indeed did read, would have cost a small fortune. For children worldwide, the library is the place where their background and their income is irrelevant. Back in the early seventies, Sudbury had several independent book shops on Gainsborough and Friars street with fine collections of books but if, like me, you could read a Roald Dahl in three hours, the cost would soon become prohibitive. The desire to explore subjects and authors unknown was also inhibited by the risk of spending pocket money on a book that may turn out to be a dud and the comprehensive encyclopedias were completely financially out of reach. For children and families not born into stately homes with their own libraries, the ones in our towns are a fine substitute with the advantage of staff trained to guide children towards books best suited.

11289281984_57ab593089_b (1)
Illustration by Chas Robinson via Flickr Commons

Before Sudbury library, there was the one in my junior school in Mexico where I started, aged four in the first year, the only English girl and the only blonde in a sea of inky black haired locals. Their library contained shelves edged with strips of onyx, lined with imported Jane and Peter books from the USA, classics such as the Phantom Tollbooth and Harold and His Big Purple Crayon (the latter went on to become a life long favourite of mine) alongside books of the saints and martyrs which terrified me. At the school library entrance stood a lurid plaster statue of Mary the Virgin pointing to her exposed and bleeding heart past which I scuttled on my way to the books. I learned to avoid the stories of saints, broken by torture and other terrible fates for as the only non Catholic in the school, the promise of eternal reward did not sit as comfortably on my shoulders and I grew impatient with their motivation. Instead I cajoled the library assistant into sharing her comic books and learned to speak Mexican Spanish via Yogi Bear, Speedy Gonzales and Porky Pig. I sat on her lap, ate bread dipped in milk caramel, read my books and tolerated her plaiting and replaiting my locks- she had never seen white blonde ringlets before.

From the library of another country to the one in my English high school: a place so alluring that aged fifteen, on being asked to write out the games lesson register at the start of the Autumn school year, I simply left my name off it and enjoyed a blissful year tucked away behind the shelves, reading for that double period instead of freezing my ass off on the hockey field. Nobody noticed me there, not least the school librarian who had developed the habit of walling herself behind stacks of returned books and only emerging if she absolutely had to. I read ‘Heart of Darkness’ with old copies of National Geographic on my knee, the glossy photos of old Congo and the Ivory Coast and Algeria acting as back up for my over worked imagination. I read ‘Sons and Lovers’ and ‘The Waves’ and Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and came up against race and class, mental illness and structural inequality all in one cold Winter term, my back pressed against a radiator, its paint thick and smelling of hot dust as it heated up.

I moved to the countryside as a young adult and had my first child where the long distances to the nearest town coupled with the pre internet age meant the mobile library van was a safeguard against losing my enquiring mind. Or rather it was the lack of opportunity to have my enquiries answered that was the threat then. A librarian prepared to ignore the ten books maximum rule, careful cross referencing of the Times and Guardian book review pages followed by the ordering of the books reviewed, ensured I retained my sense of being a participant in a world that was moving so fast I worried about dropping off. Staggering across the green to the giant orange library bus parked up against the kerb – squalling baby under one arm, carrier bags full of books in both hands then that journey reversed, back home, ‘Please, please sleep baby’ and my excitement that an ordered book had arrived.

A move to London meant an embarrassment of library and bookshop riches. The British Library- hallowed halls but nothing, absolutely nothing in comparison emotionally to the libraries that came before. Libraries that, when I moved back to Suffolk, became the same home from home for my now two children, books borrowed by them then purchased by me because they despaired at the thought of their return for some other child to enjoy. Using the online ordering service at Bury St Edmunds Library to locate the niche, and my particular love, kitschy American cook books then using it to order books for the children and they, in turn, learning patience and delayed gratification through this. It is never just about a ‘book’. My then training as a mental health professional and a post grad in health promotion in part belonged to the libraries of Suffolk (and the local hospital library) – the patient trawling of their staff through computerised lists of elusive and niche books to keep my studies going in the small hours, my children asleep and me nearly so, nose touching pages and pages of close type.

For a happy life, Montaigne wrote, we “should set aside a room, just for ourselves, at the back of the shop” and so I have. Mine is lined with books, their spines colourful or tastefully subtle, some with deckled page edges, others smoothly uniform: a psychological  ISBN in my head that helps me make decisions or defer them; helps me cope and understand and interpret; long for, settle or decide to avoid. That room in my head has been stocked with the help of our nation’s libraries and it will be a tragedy if, in the future, cuts to library services mean that generations of children grow up with their own bookshelves depleted- the ones in their heads and the rather more literal kind.

I’ll leave the last word to E.B White:

“A library is many things,” E.B. White once wrote in a letter to the children of a small town to inspire them to fall in love with their library. “But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had.”

Further information on East Anglian library services and Bookstart-

The Suffolk Library Service

The Norfolk Library Service

The Suffolk Book League

Bookstart Suffolk

Bookstart Packs

Ten reasons to…. live in Clare, Suffolk

 

4510566830_630e6735f8_z

Prince William allegedly used to tell his little friends at playschool that ‘my Daddy is a King and will get his knights to kill you” and whilst nobody should take this anecdote as a fond endorsement of the royal family (republican here), it is funny. This anecdote reminds me of my own children’s pride at having had a thirteenth century castle ruin at the bottom of their garden- or a 70 foot motte anyway- when we lived in Clare during the mid-nineties after moving to Suffolk from London. Classmates would be invited home by my daughter to see this (ruined) wonder and would then be bitterly disappointed that I would not let them climb up this vertiginous bramble tangled hill of rock and clay. Towering over our long narrow garden, the motte did not come equipped with knights, living Ladies or any of the accoutrements of power. Instead, we had various tales of ghostly grey ladies walking their eternal and lonely route along the pathway named Ladies Walk plus a battalion of locals who, on New Years Eve, would climb the nettle-infested motte in the pitch darkness and set off fireworks from its top, accompanied by hokey power anthems played on a portable stereo.

My daughter’s bedroom overlooked the motte and I would look up from the garden to see her little face pressed against the window, keeping watch for ghosts but really not wanting to see any. Sitting in our garden on fine days could prove challenging due to the constant ant-like trail of tourists climbing up and down the motte who would stand and gaze out over the undeniably beautiful vista of Clare rooftops stretching past the church and get their breath back. Unfortunately our garden also formed part of this view and, if the tourists were particularly amiable, we’d have to wave back at each and every one of them as they hailed us, as we sat on our lawn. (In the photo above, our garden is just in view at the front left, its pink pargeted rear aspect partly obscured by the tree branches.)

The little Suffolk wool town of Clare can be found midway between Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds, in the west of the county. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, it’s name is said to come from the clear water of the river Stour that flows through the town and past the Clare Antiques & Interiors warehouse, the country park and on on past the Augustinian Friars Priory (founded 1248) which is still used as a centre for retreat and also hosts regular craft fairs.

1057713_2febed28

Popular with families because of its good schools and amenities- a library, several doctors surgeries, restaurants, plenty of pubs, the Nethergate Brewery, parks and playing fields, four churches, independent shops and a  thriving social calendar including a well supported Christmas lights display and events, fireworks and New Years Eve parties, the town has a lively and friendly air. Unlike some other small towns, the older people here seem cared about with several social enterprises devoted to maintaining mobility and independence (CLASP is one). Here are ten reasons to live, love (and visit) this engaging little town-

(1) There is plenty of green space-

From the famous Clare Country Park with its flat grass parkland where the inner and outer baileys once were to the nuttery, greens, common lands given to the town by Katharine of Aragon and country walks, you won’t need to go far to remind yourself that you are in deepest rural Suffolk. Clare Castle and its surrounding country park was developed under Norman lords seeking a powerful statement of wealth and fortification. It includes the inner and outer baileys, a former railway line (the old Bury St Eds to Sudbury branch line) and station and is a draw for tourists alongside its daily use by locals. Footpaths and walks along the River Stour lead onto the Railway Walk and the Clare Circular Walk which passes through the town, taking you further afield onto the Stour Valley Path (the Bury to Clare Walk). In the park, lakes and streams run through woodlands and there are plenty of benches to sit on and enjoy the duck feeding. A well maintained adventure playground, wide tarmac paths and the platform of the disused railway station provide children with plenty to explore. St Edmundsbury Council organise activities such as den building and outdoor skills- check out West Suffolk Diary for details.

clare-castle

Clare Nuttery is owned by Clare Town Council, forming part of the Dedham Vale and Stour Valley Countryside Project. Boundary hedging provides shelter for the many trees and indigenous plants that have been added and winding paths take you past the pond, connecting both glades and creating a lovely place to walk the dog, play or picnic. Opening under the national open gardens scheme, Richmond House in Nethergate St is well worth a visit too with its scented wall garden, Mediterranean planting, pleached Hornbeam trees and parterre alongside woodland informal planting. The National Gardens Scheme website has details of  its open days.

(2) Visit Ancient House Museum and the churches-

With its intricate pargetting, Grade I listing and location next to the imposing church, Clare Ancient House is both pretty and architecturally important. The West wing, on the High Street, is believed to date from the 14th century, and the more heavily decorated East wing may have been built in 1473, the date which appears in the plasterwork of the house. First established as a museum in 1979, it was revamped and then reopened in 1999. The Ancient House tells the story of the people of Clare, the ennobled and the not so.

images

Alison Krohn, a resident of Clare has spent over 10 years studying the histories of Clare people who were killed in action in both World Wars and the database can be found here, just around the corner from the war memorial in the town square. The exhibits are modest and low key, ranging from Iron Age and pre-Roman through to Victorian and later. They number clothing, tools, coins and everyday domestic items. There is no wheelchair access. A town trail has been developed too-look out for the fifteen information panels on five posts around Clare, beginning in the car park of Clare Country Park and brochures can be obtained from the museum or downloaded. The church of St. Peter and Paul is one of the largest and most beautiful churches in East Anglia, built during a time of great regional prosperity- the medieval wool trade, and is a lovely example of the gothic architecture, popularised then. As you enter into the porch set into the South Aisle, take a look up as above it the 18th century sundial says ‘Go about your business’ referring to the time when parish business would be undertaken there. Clare also has a United Reform church, a Baptist church and the chapel at its Priory.

(3) Shop antiques and vintage instead of Ikea-

shopdesk1
Vintage fashion

 

From the glory days of ‘Lovejoy’ in the eighties when Suffolk’s villages and towns were filled with an eclectic range of antique dealers and shops to the shocking paucity nowadays caused in the main by the rise of Ebay, the rise in business rates and rents and the low cost goods and chattels sold by discount retailers, Clare still manages to hold its own. Several well established businesses in the town continue to offer high quality sourced antiques, owned by dealers who know their stuff. They have had to diversify of course: a lot of the stock is ‘retro or ‘vintage’ as opposed to solid antique but they offer a wide choice in lovely surroundings. The Clare Antiques Warehouse down by the country park is four floors of a converted mill, stuffed with goods from over 500 dealers. From vintage quilts, retro kitchen and homeware and clothing to collectible books and bona fide antique furniture, every price point is covered. My friend’s little daughter was captivated by the packs of vintage striped paper candy bags sold by the fifty for a few pounds and I once snapped up an emerald silk satin 40’s evening gown made with a couture level attention to detail. If you want the real deal leather ‘gentleman’s chair, some antique bed linens or a pair of burr olive ash chests, this is the place to come. The location is beautiful too.

download (1)

Market Hill Antiques is a smaller shop with a carefully curated selection of items and they specialise in Art Deco and Clarice Cliff. Antiques auctioning in the town has a long history over hundreds of years and many of us locals have fond memories of helping out in our youth, lifting items up as the auctioneer ratcheted up the sales. Clare Auction is based in the town hall and is a trove for people prepared to keep their eyes sharp and requirements flexible. Viewings are usually the Friday evening before a Saturday sale. This is the place I snapped up a complete set of fifties kitchen cupboards and dressers before they became retro fabulous and a solid pine art floor to ceiling cupboard for not very much. If you dedicate yourself to the pursuit of excellent vintage clothing and accessories, then 20th Century Fashion in the old Trinders building near the Antiques Warehouse is, to me, what an beech and oak forest in Alba is to a truffle hound. Not only will you find well kept pre-owned clothing, you can also find niche and serious books on fashion and costume, textiles and haberdashery, jewellery from Hermes and Chanel, Celine clothing and Roger Vivier shoes (!) at affordable prices. The Eye of Time also sells shoes, bags and collectibles alongside putting on various cabaret events in the old town hall. Whilst on this subject, I still lament the long gone ‘Granny’s Attic’ – a tiny tiny vintage goods shop next to a holiday cottage near the turn off to the library. Selling high end new make up that the owner obtained from a friend in the industry and a jumble of household and kitchen paraphernalia (Victorian steak mallets, scales with original weights and lovely silverware), a Saturday afternoon rummage in here was always guaranteed to yield treasure.

(4) You can still buy books here-

download (1)

A town with its own independent book shop is a rare thing these days, especially in Suffolk which has seen them decimated by the online book trade and the end of the net book agreement. These days, they have to adopt the commercial spirit of the age- diversification, and often become all singing, all dancing coffee and food selling emporiums. That is why we must treasure Harris & Harris because this pretty little book shop is, pretty much, all about THE book-albeit with a few literary related gift items and handmade pottery by Jean Knowles too. With a mix of new and pre-loved books on two floors, a great ordering service and an owner who knows her stuff, the range is intelligent, clearly well thought out and deserves to be appreciated so please go there and support it by actually, um, buying or ordering a book. Seriously though, by the time you have paid Amazon’s £2:80 postage and packing, you haven’t saved that much so buying from Amazon is less of a bargain than you think and once they have driven book shops out of business they’ll put their prices way up. <End of rant>

(5) They were brewing artisanal beers before everyone else got in on the act-

Established in Clare High Street by by Dick Burge and Ian Hornsey back in 1986, Nethergate Brewery is now an internationally renowned brewer of fine ales, porters and blondes and the 2012 winner of the Good Pub Guide Brewery of the Year award. Sold from their little shop in the nearby village of Pentlow (68 different Belgium and American beers plus other products) as well as many pubs nationally, their beers have long perfumed the town in all their stages of brewing and are redolent with the flavours they use- coriander, lemon and ginger. Coming soon will be Old Growler ice cream and chocolate, infused with their most famous ale. Alongside the brewery, you can also find the quaint little off licence shop ‘The Jug and Bottle’ selling all manner of libations from an old and tiny premises.

filename-img-1831-jpg

(6) Clare is all about independent shopping rather than being a clone-town-

Independent shops come and go but Clare has always had a nucleus of shops that serve locals as well as tourists and visitors. With a farm shop, fresh bread from the deli, the Co-op and a butcher, post office inside the newsagents and a pharmacy next door, plus a fantastic ironmongers and plenty of gift stores, locals and those without transport are able to grocery shop locally. If you are looking to buy art from knowledgeable dealers, the Sea Pictures Gallery on Well Lane stocks original, contemporary maritime related art from artists across the UK, with particular emphasis on East Anglian artists, all in a pretty Georgian building.  Over the road, Hudgies the iron mongers has been in continuous business since 1835 with a welcome and service as warm as the stove which heats the store alongside a huge range of products. Blue Dog is one of the pastel pretty shops along the High Street, beautifully stocked with carefully chosen gifts and accessories- bags and jewellery, home wares plus my favourite Steam Cream and nearby is Number One Deli and Cafe, on the corner of the High Street in the old post office building specialising  in Suffolk ham and cheese and seller of lovely ice cream from a doorway cart in the warmer months. Another gift store, Hares Tail, offers a changing stock of garden gifts plus patio and conservatory accessories.

images (1)

Humphries Butchers on the Market Hill have been offering meat reared and slaughtered to the highest welfare standards (they have their own slaughter house) decades before the rest of the UK caught on. Find their own sausages, Suffolk black bacon, local game and Sutton Hoo chickens, freshly made pies and pastries plus pate, cheese, a full range of deli goods and local eggs. There is no website, sadly. Fruit and vegetables are available from the farm shop on Market Hill,, an open fronted store near the butchers and look out for Turners Fish Van making its weekly visit on the market Hill every Friday. The independent pharmacy in this age of Superdrug and Boots (pay your taxes, Boots!) grows ever more elusive but the Clare Pharmacy remains in business, on the site of the old bakers with a fully qualified pharmacist and a good range of toiletries and gifts alongside the usual products. Should you wish to seek alternative medicine, Naturally You offers Reiki, cranial sacral therapy, accupuncture and stop smoking treatments alongside various products and foods.

(7) Retreat to Clare Priory or simply walk around it

images

The grounds of Clare Priory can be reached via a footbridge over the river Stour in the country park and make pleasant walking. The priory itself was built in the 14th century, although extensively remodelled and has a shrine, housed in one of the oldest parts of the priory. This shrine contains a relief of the Mother of Good Counsel by the well-known religious artist, Mother Concordia OSB, and is based on the original fresco at Genazzano near Rome. The house contains a number of original features, including the Little Cloister with the Shrine, the vaulted porch, and impressive stone and stained glass work throughout the house. Guests on retreat are welcome to stay in the accommodations for a suggested contribution – £45 per person per overnight stay, £10 day visit, £12 day visit (with soup & roll lunch), or £15 day visit (with full lunch – Mon-Fri only) although the priory will accept what retreaters can offer- nobody is excluded on the basis of fiscal misfortune. There is also a full programme of courses such as Mindfulness and spirituality, meditation and yoga based activities.

(8) Eat and drink-

From pubs that offer full meals to tiny cafes and restaurants, Clare has a number of great establishments offering variety and quality. Cafe Clare and Number One Delicatessen and Cafe are good choices. A family run business set in a teeny tiny 14th century house near to the country park, Cafe Clare serves food and drinks across two floors and a courtyard garden- cream teas, Pudding Club evenings, local ingredients and children’s menu’s plus a soup and salad bar means this little place punches well above its weight. Number One deli & cafe serves light meals and fresh ground coffee all day from the deli or their coffee trike that pedals around the town in the daytime. Supper evenings are timed to coincide with local events (such as the auctions) or are themed. These require advance booking. Our recommendation? If its too lovely a day to sit inside, why not ask the deli or one of the cafes to make up a picnic lunch, accompanied by a retro bottle of Suffolk lemonade and an ice cream?

(9) A choice of pubs and hotels-

The Bell Hotel, on Market Hill, Clare

Where so many towns and villages have seen all their pubs closed from lack of custom, Clare continues to support quite a few of them. From the prominent Bell Hotel on Market Hill as you round the corner into the town from the direction of Sudbury, to the Cock Inn along Callis Street, Bury St Edmunds bound. there are pubs to suit all tastes, serving good beer and food. The Bell Hotel is a fifteen bedroomed half-timbered Tudor style coaching inn dating back to the 16th century and originally a Coaching Inn. A refurbishment in 2013 retained these features whilst bringing comfort levels up to date whether you want a drink in the bar, sitt in a fireside chair or eat a meal in the Tudor restaurant, garden room or the lounge area. With its large beer gardens and rambling bars, the Cock Inn is a good choice for families, serving food (allergies and special diets catered for) and Adnams beer. The Globe offers sports TV and some live music and The Swan boasts ownership of the oldest pub sign in England going back to the 13th century. Real fires, real ale, cask ales, freshly prepared food and a take out menu of pizza and pasta keep this pub a popular choice. Special menu’s and themed evenings are a pre-bookable option. Accommodation can also be found at the Ship Stores in Callis Street and at the Red House, a Georgian home with large gardens and highly regarded breakfasts.

Clare-0653

(10) Plenty of sports facilities-

Clare Park Lake golf course is just outside the town along Stoke Road has been described as the prettiest and friendliest golf course in Suffolk and comprises a 9 hole, par 3 parkland course landscaped around the natural beauty of the river Stour with tree shaded lakes and woodlands nearby. Relaxed but still challenging, the course takes around one and a half hours to play and is not members only. Course and carp fishing can be enjoyed at Hermitage Fisheries for NRA licence holders and day permits are set at £7 per day in 2014. One of the many circular and country trails passes through the lakes of the Hermitage: this region offers beautiful walking for the whole family- routes are not challenging (no mountains in Clare!) and late Spring sees the Suffolk Walking Festival with many of its events focusing upon this region. The Clare Lions junior football club enjoys the use of extensive football pitches on the playing fields on the outskirts of the town and play three teams across local leagues whilst the Clare Carpet Bowls Club enjoys playing in the stunning surroundings of the country park where their headquarters are based. Should you develop a sports injury, physiotherapy is available from Clare Physiotherapy based in the town centre. The nearby village of Stoke by Clare is home to an equestrian centre offering tuition, part or full time livery and a floodlit indoor arena and a tennis club. We have mentioned the abundance of green spaces and easy access to the surrounding countryside already but it needs to be said that the country park is a superb place to power walk, jog or run. We have also seen people geocaching there too.

For more information, please contact the Clare Business Association or the Clare Town Council website.

St Edmundsbury Borough Council (for info about the Country Park and other public spaces)

Clare Castle Country Park