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. 


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 .


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”).

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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.

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.

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.


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)


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 


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


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


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. 

The best of dance in Norfolk & Suffolk

It is getting easier to see high quality dance across Norfolk and Suffolk with performances ranging from classical and contemporary ballet to the showcasing of dance from other parts of the world. We have amassed some of the best and most interesting of upcoming shows across Norfolk and Suffolk including a few live cinema screenings of ballets. Do get in touch if you’d like us to add your production.

Autumn and Winter at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds brings us one of the greatest classical ballets of all time- the production of ‘Swan Lake by Ballet Theatre UK between 17-19th Nov. Featuring new choreography by Artistic Director Christopher Moore and over 120 new costumes and stunning sets this production promises to provide you with a fresh look at the classic tale. This is a totally new concept to Swan Lake that is aimed for family audiences – the production has been taken from the classical four Act Ballet to only two halves, making the ballet more accessible for a wider audience.

Ballet UK are certainly no strangers to the Theatre Royal, having staged other productions there including The Little Mermaid, The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Snow Queen and A Christmas Carol.  An innovative classical dance company with a bold and unique approach to creating new theatre productions and raising the awareness of dance, Ballet UK are known for engaging their audiences with a passion and energy that is truly inspiring.

Tavaziva Dance Company

The Tavaziva Dance Company will be performing at The Theatre at West Suffolk College on Thursday 27th November in a wonderful melange of the food and music of the continent of Africa. A relaxed way to dine, food will be served in bowls before and after the event (pre booking necessary from 6pm onwards). Tavaziva Dance Company is a national touring company that presents cutting-edge new work representing the diversity of Black British Dance. The company specialises in fusing African and contemporary dance, creating a unique dance style that is both contemporary and rooted in African cultures.


At Norwich’s Theatre Royal, the dance programme sees visits from the contemporary Richard Alston Dance Company with its newly revived ‘Overdrive’ (which I first saw at Sadlers Wells over ten years ago) to Brendan Cole from the BBC show Strictly Come Dancing with his show, ‘A Night to Remember’- a blend of latin, ballroom and showbiz. I am looking forward to Ballet Rambert and the swagger of The Rolling Stones in ‘Rooster’, the first of a triptych of performances, followed by the serene elegance of Four Elements and The Strange Charm of Mother Nature ,brand new works by Rambert’s Artistic Director Mark Baldwin. With the accompanying live orchestral music, ranging from JS Bach to Igor Stravinsky, this is a going to be one heck of a night.

Brought to the stage by Matthew Bournes ‘New Adventures’, Lord of the Flies is a thrilling new dance production of William Golding’s classic novel, choreographed by Olivier Award nominated Scott Ambler. With a cast of New Adventures dancers and remarkable young talent from across East Anglia, Golding’s legendary characters are brought to life with raw energy, emotional intensity and breathtaking performances. Look out for Bournes production of ‘Edward Scissorhands’ which comes to Norwich February 2015 and is based on the classic Tim Burton movie and features the beautiful music of Danny Elfman and Terry Davies. Specially recorded for New Adventures in magnificent surround sound, this touching and witty love story tells the bittersweet tale of a boy left alone and unfinished in a strange new world.  It is a parable for our times about the ultimate outsider. Also in February is the Russian State Ballet & Orchestra of Siberia and April 2015 sees the Northern Ballet with their production of ‘The Great Gatsby’.

Dirty Dancing2. Pic Chris Nash


If you are a fan of ‘Dirty Dancing‘, then the Theatre Royal in Norwich has a two week run of the live touring show, all heart-pounding music, passionate romance and sensationally sexy dancing. This is the fastest selling show in West End history so not one to dither over booking tickets for.

The Corn Exchange at Kings Lynn sees Noise of Chance School of Dance perform ‘Hansel & Gretel’ at the Guildhall Theatre, danced by 160 local children with beguiling beautiful women, a sandman and the eponymous hero and heroine. The Pavilion Theatre in Gorleston is Dancing to Raise the Roof 2 this November to raise funds for restoration.  Watch local dance schools perform latin ballroom, contemporary ballet and comedy dance routines. A live screening of Moulin Rouge: The Ballet will be shown at Lowestofts Marina Theatre on the 2nd November. Along with a rousing French soundtrack, the ballet features high-kicking choreography and a passionate story of love, ambition and heartbreak or watch The Nutcracker performed by the Moscow City Ballet in another live screening from 27-29th November. In Woodbridge, the Seckford Theatre hosts the return of the ever popular Co-op Juniors and in February 2015, Dance East in collaboration with Snape Dance sees Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Wayne McGregor’s latest work Atomos at the Snape Maltings Performance Hall. Ten incredible dancers perform McGregor’s unique style – sculptural, rigorous, jarring and hauntingly beautiful. He is accompanied by a team of sensational artists including longtime collaborators, lighting designer Lucy Carter and filmmaker Ravi Deepres, along with costumes by the ground-breaking designers of wearable technologies, Studio XO.


Dance East itself has a full programme of dance events (as one would expect) including ‘The Measures Taken’ and ‘The Grit in the Oyster’ by the Alexander Whitley Dance Company on the 14th November. On the 22nd November, the Mark Bruce Company perform ‘Dracula’, a Jerwood House debut with ten exceptional dancers bringing Stoker’s haunting, erotic tale to life in a heartwrenching and magical dance theatre production. With an eclectic mix of music from Bach and Mozart to Ligetti and Fred Frith, Bruce explores choreographic styles ranging from the subtlety of classical etiquette to visceral contemporary dance. For children, there is the magical theatrical dance performance by Compagnia TPO in December. ‘Butterflies’ follows its amazing transformation from caterpillar to winged creature. Using motion capture technology, Compagnia TPO invites you to a festive, playful, theatrical experience. Dotted with moments of participation, children are invited to watch and join in with the company’s dancers. Paint with your arms, compose lullabies with your feet and chase caterpillars on all fours.

If you cannot get to one of the larger (often London based) theatres, then Haverhill Arts Centre is putting on live cinema screenings of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Romeo & Juliet and Ivan the Terrible between November to April 2015. Keep a look out for new shows which are announced weekly. Cineworld is also screening a full programme of classical ballet from the Bolshoi Ballet and the Royal Ballet Companies. La Fille Mal Gardee, Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, the Legend of Love and Alices Adventures in Wonderland are some of the shows available. Check their website for details of how to book.

Curly girl – my daughter and Scoliosis


“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



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


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.


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.


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.



“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.


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.


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.


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.








Things to do in Norfolk and Suffolk on a budget


We all enjoy a day out but they can denude the bank account somewhat once you have paid for travel, entrance fees, parking, food and the hard to avoid souvenirs, ice creams and other treats. The constant attempts at avoiding these expenses can be wearying and upsetting, especially when family finances are reduced and so we have set out to compile some suggestions for things to do that don’t cost a lot. We have tried to find places to visit and activities that are free but where this is impossible or will at least involve travel costs, we’ve tried to take into account whether there is still fun to be had that does not require more expenditure or where the cost can be mitigated. Many of these places allow you to bring packed lunches or picnics and we have indicated when this is allowed. In addition, some attractions that charge an entrance fee offer reductions or even free entry after a certain time of day and it is worth contacting them for more details about these special offers. If you use public transport it is also a good idea to cost out the savings potential of a season ticket or weekly pass-especially for those half term and other holiday periods. Organisations like the RSPB, the National Trust and The Woodland Trust offer reduced or free entry for members and a years membership makes a lovely birthday and Christmas gift if you have a family member who is keen on the outdoors, history or wildlife. We’d also like to hear from anybody with further suggestions as to activities available locally that we might not have heard about.


(1) Star gazing – The rural skies of Norfolk and Suffolk mean minimal light pollution and lower levels of atmospheric dust making them wonderful for spotting all manner of astronomical wonders. From the beaches of Norfolk- Salthouse or Cley and Kelling Heath to the rural back roads of Suffolk – the TV mast at Arger Fen in South Suffolk standing sentinel over the wide Stour Valley skies- it isn’t too much trouble to bundle up and drive or walk to a site away from lit areas. If you want to go stargazing on the beach, Cley Windmill offers accommodation too in an historic conversion close by. Book for the Spring Star Party at Kelling Heath in April 2015, organised by the Norfolk Astronomical Society (NAS) and a chance to meet knowledgeable people in a safe environment. Remember to buy or borrow a torch with a red light and a telescope if you can find one, pack a thermos of warm coffee or tea and some thick woolly throws to huddle under – some families take small pop up tents to shelter in. The NAS also has its own Seething observatory available for visits on a 2 acre site at the edge of Seething Airfield in South Norfolk, just 8 miles south of Norwich in the middle of the countryside (details on their website).

(2) Witness the deer rut – Nature itself doesn’t charge for its year round spectacle although the management of our glorious rural environments and nature reserves does cost money. The RSPB charges a small fee for some of its events alongside the entrance fees to reserves such as Minsmere but also offers a wide range of events at no cost. The annual deer rut in the mid to late Autumn is an impressive spectacle and this year the RSPB has arranged for people to witness this on Westleton Heath, near Dunwich free of charge. Simply turn up, dressed warmly between noon to dusk on the dates listed in the link and enjoy free use of binoculars and telescopes provided by the RSPB.

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Lackford Lakes

(3) Enjoy walks around wetlands and spot the wildlife Lackford Lakes is one of the great Suffolk Wildlife Trust sites, only a few miles from Bury St Edmunds and charges just a £1 (or whatever you want to offer) to park there and use the facilities. There is also a full timetable of activities aimed at all age groups for a small extra charge. However if you are on a budget, wear warm waterproof walking clothing, bring a backpack with some snacks and drinks, a bird and wildlife guide book or app and enjoy the trails punctuated with bird hides in scenic overlooks. Rivers and lakes, streams, marshes and reeds, woodland, breckland and open pasture stuffed with wildlife- Lackford has it all alongside their visitors centre overlooking the pond with a small cafe, education facilities and knowledgeable staff. Should you not drive, the website features a handy bus route planner. The Winter swan feeds at the Welney Wetland Centre involve an admission charge although there are discounts and family tickets (under 4’s go free) whilst you can feed the swans free of charge at Brundon Mill in Sudbury then walk the Stour Valley Path alongside the eponymous river enjoying stunning rural views and peacefulness. Parking nearby is free or you can walk along Melford Road from the direction of Sudbury. Buses go past every twenty minutes too from Long Melford on their way to and from Bury St Edmunds. Many reserves like Minsmere have buggy-friendly paths meandering through the reserve and ramps up to some of the hides so if you have pushchairs or are disabled, you will not be left out.

(4) Hunt the Woodpecker in Foxley Woods– Home to green and great spotted woodpeckers, nuthatch, treecreeper, marsh tit and jays, Foxley Woods is Norfolks oldest surviving woodland and is extrenely beautiful. One of many woodlands across East Anglia, it is a great and free place to spend a few hours, listen out for these amazing birds and even take a picnic as long as you remember to take everything back home with you afterwards.


(5) Roam the beaches– The Norfolk and Suffolk coastline is diverse, dramatic and freely accessible to all. Choose between pebbled, sandy or rock pool punctuated beaches, backed by cliffs or dunes or piney woods. There are wilderness and deserted coastal enclaves or the traditional bright lights, bucket and spade attractions. If you want to save money, avoid the resorts and entertain yourself and the kids by building castles, walking the dunes or exploring the coastal villages that are perched along seafronts- slowly being beaten back by time and tide. Eat fish and chips at the Flora Cafe in Dunwich or a dressed crab from Cookies Crab Shop, shared among the family (pack wet wipes). Parking is often free and there are bus services too. The North Norfolk Railway runs along the coastline with regular stopping off points- check their timetable for prices and times although this can work out a little costlier for larger families. Definitely worth a treat though and an activity in itself- children will be more than satisfied with the trip. Lastly, why not walk from Snape Maltings to Iken? The internationally renowned Snape Maltings and concert hall with interactive and fun public art from Sarah Lucas and Henry Moore is great for kids but we’d encourage you to walk out from the Maltings towards Iken along the River Alde. This offers superb views and is one of the prettiest parts of Suffolk- children adore clattering along the boardwalk that runs past the Maltings and out through the reeds and grass towards the sea and the walk is a relatively easy one. If you want to spend some time in Felixstowe, use one of the free car parking spaces along the front (avoid peak times) and you can take the short walk to the promenade so the children can scoot or ride their bikes from one end to other. The wide flat promenade is perfect for free range children- you can keep an eye on them from a safe distance. Appreciate how Norfolk is indeed the cradle of civilisation by visiting  Happisburgh where 800,000 year old footprints have been found in the silt, the earliest evidence of man found in the UK. Or visit Seahenge, discovered at Holme-next-the-Sea (and now kept at King’s Lynn Museum) and the 700,000 year old West Runton Elephant, the most complete specimen of the species to have been found in the world and the oldest mammoth skeleton found in the United Kingdom. (Parts of the skeleton are at Cromer Museum.)

Nowton park bushcraft

(6) Play in a park-Victorian floral splendours and Medieval ruins at Bury St Edmunds Abbey Gardens and the tangled woodland and follies of Nowton Park. Country Parks at Clare Castle and orienteering in the 100 acre woodland at Holt plus water sports and waterside walks at Whitlingham Country park near Norwich. Smaller town parks at Belle Vue in Sudbury and the majestic Christchurch Park in Ipswich offer all manner of urban and semi rural pastimes and Bourne Park in Ipswich also has a popular paddling pool for children- vital on a hot day or go to Holywells Park and let them run through the water sprays. Playgrounds, skateparks, small animal enclosures, tennis, duck feeding and formal flower gardens are all on offer and the admission is free. Small parking charges apply at Clare. Or how about a park with a view? Mousehold Heath is a lovely park high above Norwich and has great views looking down on the cathedral, castle and city centre. If you are looking for a park with good municipal facilities then Normaston Park in Lowestoft has plenty of sports provision- cricket tables, football and cricket pitches and two types of tennis court. For all park related information, local government sites all have details of the parks in their region, the opening times and lists of amenities. Our parks are a fantastic resource and should be treasured.

Rendlesham Forest

(7) Explore the forests – The UFO trail at Rendlesham Forest is based upon the rumours that a mysterious craft landed in the forest and its existence subsequently covered up by authorities. Cycle there or take the bikes on the back of the car and explore via two cycle routes or walk the marked trails and take a picnic. There is a play park with zip wire and other play equipment. All day parking is less than £4. The famous forests at Thetford and Brandon Country Park offer miles of trails for exploration under a canopy of mixed pine and broadleaf trees. Parking fees are charged at High Lodge but there are plenty of free car parks and stopping points all over the forests and public transport links are detailed on the websites. For more suggestions of local forests and woodlands, visit the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and the Suffolk Wildlife Trust– we particularly love Cornard Mere because it is a lovely example of a community resource and it is also possible to join in with the woodland management working parties, helping to maintain this gorgeous part of Suffolk. Finally, why not check out an art and craft website before your trip to a forest for some great ideas for things to do? From leaf art to downloadable trail questionnaires (available on most woodland and RSPB type sites), there’ll be something to engage the imagination and keep them occupied after they come home. Local Blogger ‘Put up with Rain’ recently wrote a charming post about all the fun to be had whilst catching leaves – particularly apropos.

(8) Find that Gruffalo– In addition to the more free form forest and woodland activities, why not take part in one of the Forestry Commission’s Gruffalo themed activities? Whilst they are designed for use in the commissions own woodlands, there is nothing to stop you using them over and over again on walks and hikes or even for some back garden fun and the downloadable activity sheets are perfect for this. Marked Gruffalo trails and Gruffalo sculptures can be found in some of the forests managed by the commission- High Lodge at Thetford Forest is our nearest one in East Anglia. Or why not stage your own Teddy Bears Picnic for the littler ones? Take teddy themed food, a blanket to sit on and some favourite toys and read to them from ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ before staging your own. Plenty of woodlands locally have toilet facilities alongside picnic benches and good parking- all useful for those littler woodland guests.

Bury skatepark

(9) Street sports– We have some excellent skate and BMX parks in both counties including the recently refurbished one at Bury St Edmunds. We are lucky enough here to have a council that actively supports and promotes the skatepark, resulting in plenty of activities around it that develop it as a resource. My own stepson Harley Miller is part of the steering and design committee and is a skilled skater himself. He formerly worked at the local street sports store – anybody wanting more information and to meet local skaters is well advised to visit Hardcore Hobbies in Bury St Edmunds which stocks a wealth of equipment and clothing alongside its role as point of contact and source of information for street sports. The Shed in Kings Lynn offers indoor skate facilities and Sloughbottom Park near Norwich has a BMX track and is home to the Norwich Flyers BMX Club. Click on the link to find the street sports facilities nearest to you.

(10) Parkour and Free RunningThe Mix in Stowmarket has dedicated itself to helping young people to feel inspired, develop confidence and experience creativity. Held under one roof, costs of activities are kept low and there is the chance to gain experience in a range of activities hitherto out of reach finances wise. Parkour sessions are hosted by Parkour Suffolk, are open to people from 5+ and cover safety rolls, vaults and other Parkour, FreeRunning movements alongside encouraging fitness and body conditioning elements. Once kids are proficient in the basics, they can then venture outside to put it into practice in a real world environment. Norfolk based potential free runners can access tutoring via Parkour Alliance who offer classes in a variety of locations around the county.

geocaching at Dunwich Heath

(11) Geocaching– The challenge of geocaching involves using a GPS device to follow digital way markers points to find the hidden treasure boxes where you can add your name to the log book and even find a special treasure secreted (cached) away inside. The locations of the caches are held online and you can also access formal geocaching events via organisations such as The National Trust who have hidden caches at hundreds of locations on their properties. The beautiful gorse covered countryside at Dunwich Heath is home to one of the trusts geocaching sites and their website carries details of all the others. Many sites have also teamed up with experts Garmin, to introduce more people to the fun of geocaching and have Garmin GPS devices available for you to try geocaching for free.

Rockpooling and wild swimming

(12) Wild swimming– Yes you’ll need a wet suit and dry suit and a warm towel and flask of something very hot for when you get out but wild swimming is wonderful in a different way in colder months, offering an unparalleled way of connecting with the countryside and with nature. The River Bure at Lamas is recommended by several wild swimming sites as a gentle and bucolic place for those of us not partial to chlorine and the indoor hyper amplified noise of other swimmers. With its river of deep, clear water flowing past houses, fields and woodland, this swim can be accessed at Bure Valley Railway car park in Buxton (not brilliantly signposted and the footpath has ‘private signs’ put up by local householders). Take the footpath toward Oxnead, cross over the bridge, turn right along the footpath (keeping an eye out for the line of poplars by river bank). Where the poplars finish, there’s a field where you can get into the water pretty easily although the banks can be muddy and a bit weed covered. Coastal swimmers should head to Walberswick which has a sandy, shingle-backed, gently sloping beach. It’s popular, so get there early in the morning or just before dusk for an evening swim. If you are after a longer haul swim, sea hike southwards towards neighbouring Dunwich – swim in the knowledge that below you in the waters lies the lost drowned village of Dunwich. Covehithe Beach can be found further along the coast, between Southwold and Lowestoft. The sea is slowly advancing inland: tree stumps dot the sandy beach as the sand-dune cliffs continue to crumble and the start of the Broads leads to a collision between these two watery elements . This in turn translates to a wildlife paradise- you might not see another human soul but you will be surrounded by bird life. Holkham Beach, part of the Holkham Estate offers wide skies and long stretches of golden sand. Lie on your back in the calm waters, kick lazily and watch the castle builders, the kite flyers and horseback riders canter along the sands. Keep surf shoes on to avoid weaver fish stings and maintain an eye on the tides. Finally, follow in the footsteps of Mellis Nature writer Roger Deakin and swim the River Waveney at Outney Common, near Bungay. Curving indolently around lush meadows of cow parsley and grazing cows, you will need to dodge the occasional canoe and pleasure boat in this popular river area but otherwise, time grows still in this wonderfully green and pleasant location. When you get home, warm up with a hot chocolate and read Roger Deakin’s seminal tribute to British wild swimming, ‘Waterlog’.

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Look up!

(13) Cast your eyes upwards – We think we appreciate what is around us but we often connect with it in very fixed ways and miss as much out as we take in. Suffolk and Norfolk are full of historic, quirky towns and villages, packed with architectural and historical treasures, many of them everyday and unnoticed. Why not spend a few hours walking around some of them and cast your eyes upwards? It is amazing how much we miss when our gaze is set to the default of eye level. A recent wander around Bury St Edmunds revealed intricate shop fronts above the mess of plastic High Street tat- dolls cemented into ancient abbey walls, elaborate and bestial gargoyles on the churches and cathedral, houses built into those same flint abbey walls and ancient symbols of wealth, status and occupation embedded and encoded into the town. Or try Norwich with over 1500 historic buildings within its city walls including the stunning Royal Arcade- head for Gentleman’s Walk, through the Royal Arcade, then left along London Street, finishing off at the wonderfully named Tombland and the Cathedral precinct. Most tourist offices will have walking guides alongside other local history resources if you want something more structured and indeed many towns also run guided walks too. From the wool villages and towns of Lavenham and Hadleigh to the magnificence of churches such as Norfolk’s St Agnes in Cawston with its painting showing St. Matthew wearing Harry Potter spectacles and the carvings of angels high up in the hammer beam roof, there is much to admire and boggle at in the manner of “How did they build that?” If you are taking children with you, pack some sketch pads, crayons and pencils and get them drawing what they see. Most churches are amenable to brass rubbing also and will happily play host to your budding artist. Books such as Matthew Rice’s Architectural Primer or his ‘Church Primer’ are greatly appealing to children, offering quirky and easily copied examples of vernacular architecture and Rice is himself, a local man. Print out some examples of techniques and styles and get the kids looking for them in real life. If you are interested in the cultural phenomenon of graffiti, you will know that this is not a recent tradition. There are wonderful examples of graffiti throughout the ages in this region and plenty of good websites that offer information as to where best to find it. Try the Norfolk Medieval Graffiti Survey.

(14) Spend time with equines Redwings has two sanctuaries in Norfolk and both are free entry although donations are much appreciated- the sites run on these charitable donations. It is unusual to find a place like this that doesn’t charge entrance fees: Redwings does offer extra activities that they have to charge for but there is plenty to see and do that costs nothing. Caldecott Visitor Centre near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk has over seventy acres of paddocks and is home to some very special rescued horses, ponies, donkeys and mules whilst the new centre in Aylsham, North Norfolk is now open every week from Friday to Monday, and is home to gorgeous Gulliver and the Gangster Shetlands. In addition, the headquarters at Hopton, not usually open to the public, nonetheless does open for two weekends a year so you can have a chance to see behind the scenes and visit their specialist Horse hospital and Re-homing centre. The Aylsham centre runs quiz trails around the visitor centre, walk and talk tours, handling demonstrations and daily pony grooming taster sessions for children over five years old. Pony grooming carries a £3 surcharge. Caldicott offers the ever popular weekend donkey talks and many other activities alongside a playpark, education centre and cafe serving hot food. Hollow Tree Farms in Semer is at time of writing (Autumn 2014) is only £2:50 entrance and families can have hours of fun feeding the animals and playing on the playground. It’s also a great place to picnic.

Pin Mill by Alf McGrath

(15) Do a Turner and paint – Get out to Pin Mill with some paints, a comfy seat and suitably artistic clothing (grin) and get inspired by the stunning, often sere and dramatic watery scenery. Should you get hungry, the Butt and Oyster is one of the best known and situated pubs in Suffolk with great views, looking out onto the River Orwell with its Thames barges moored on the mud flats, silver fields of reeds and stands of woodlands on the bluffs above the river. Inspire the kids by showing them some famous landscape paintings then take a walk along the river before settling down to put down on paper or canvas, what you all see.

(16) Inexpensive entertainment– the region is packed with free and inexpensive music and cultural events all year round. From the Summer afternoon concerts on Southwold’s greens to the free Music Day at Ipswich, there is something for everyone. The Norfolk & Norwich Festival has many low prices events plus free street theatre over a few weeks in May in the historic surroundings of Norwich and other towns in the region and Out There, an international festival of street arts and circus blends  international acts and local artists with the opportunity for everyone to try their hand in a range of crazy activities. This Summer we particularly enjoyed Pulse Festival in Ipswich- ten days of keenly priced fringe theatre and entertainment, specially priced to be inclusive and an event to be looked out for next year. Don’t forget the plethora of food festivals and farmers markets either. There’s always plenty of food and drink samples and the chance to chat with some of the UK’s most engaging and passionate growers and foodies. Suffolk markets are detailed here and you can find locations and times of those in Norfolk here.

Bury Beach

(17) Inland beaches– Keep an eye out for Bury Beach, a town centre beach area complete with deckchairs and toys for sand play in the middle of the market town of Bury St Edmunds. A feature of the bank holiday markets, the beach can usually be found on the Buttermarket alongside a host of other attractions, many free of charge. We have seen Mad Science in the Arc shopping centre, mini farms and reindeer petting at the Christmas Fair and live cooking displays outside Moyses Hall.

View from a bus- around Long Melford

(18) On the buses- Living in such a lovely region means that a bus trip can in itself be a good thing to do- you could even do what my stepdaughter does on her return home from a shift as a student midwife and have a mini late supper on the back of the double decker going over Chelsea Bridge (although some buses do frown on back seat banqueting!). The return journey from Bury St Edmunds to Sudbury trundles through some stellar landscape – the famous villages of Lavenham and Long Melford and the long curving country roads around Cockfield and Waldingfield. The trip is approximately one hour, departs each hour and costs around £5-6 each way. Stop off at any of the points and return when you are ready- the service commences around 0800 and the last bus leaves Sudbury at 1700 and Bury St Eds at 1800 so there’s ample time to spend the entire day exploring. A trip on the open top bus which goes over the Orwell bridge is £2 and is the only way you’ll get to enjoy the bridge top view when you are on it as it is not visible from a car- you’ll need to be on the top deck. Or enjoy superb views of the North Norfolk coastline from the the Coast Hopper bus service which makes it easy to get to just about any part of the Norfolk Coastal Path if you also wish to walk part of this or just visit one of the lovely seaside towns. Alternatively take an old school drive like our grandparents used to do of a Sunday afternoon. Drive the scenic Great Yarmouth to Cromer A149 coast road, starting on the Golden Mile, then going through beautiful countryside and quaint, quiet villages until you arrive at the seafront 34 miles later.

(19) Zombie adventure- Pick your park, woods or outdoor space (probably best to choose a relatively small woodland that is quiet and not packed with other visitors), find an online site that has great Zombie make up and costume ideas like this one (or try Pinterest), get the kids dressed up and stage your own Zombie adventure deep in the woods. Set up some rules about how far you all roam, how you ‘catch’ each other and pack a Zombie picnic. Then get out there and try not to give the locals a heart attack.  If you have a budding film director, get them to record it all too. There are some organisations that do Zombie days in towns and cities but nothing to stop you doing your own. Check out the great online guides for authentic Zombie movements too. Gotta get it right…

Beestons Bump

(20) Climb every mountain– Prove to yourself that Norfolk is NOT flat by climbing to the highest point in the county, Beacon Hill, less than a mile south of West Runton on the North Norfolk coast with a summit of 338 feet above sea level (and shout abuse at Noel Coward from the top).  Part of a cluster of old glacial moraines, this is the highest land in East Anglia. Choose a clear day, take some food, a bottle of wine and picnic before making your way back down. If you’ve got the kids, get them sketching what they see. Or why not take a kite and fly it from  Beeston Bump, the 203 feet highest point of the Cromer Ridge? Otherwise known as a kame and looking for all the world like an enormous molehill,  after you’ve climbed it, wander down to the beach below to explore the unusual flint formations, called paramoudras and known locally as ‘pot stones’.

Castle Acre Priory
Castle Acre Priory

(21) Castles on a budget- Although the full price of entrance to Norwich castle is nearly £8 for an adult, enter an hour before closing time and you only have to pay £2. Obviously this doesn’t leave much time but in conjunction with other activities in the city, it can be a great way of rounding off a day out. Plan your visit in advance so you don’t waste valuable time wondering where to go (and finding it) and you’ll make good use of that hour. If you travel by Park & Ride show your bus ticket (purchased the same day) to get admission for up to 5 people for just £3.80 each and disabled people can be accompanied by one person who gets in for free. Castle Rising charges £12 for a family ticket and was once home to Queen Isabella, the ‘She-Wolf of France’ (a name kids seem to be enthralled by) who plotted the murder of her husband Edward II, The huge 12th century keep stands in the centre of massive earthworks, and there are wonderful views from the ramparts. The village of Castle Acre is packed full of history and is a very rare and complete survival of a Norman planned settlement, including a castle, town, parish church and associated monastery. Entrance to Castle Acre Castle and the bailey is free of charge. Stunningly dramatic and as romantic a sight as any castle can be, Framlingham Castle in Suffolk can be enjoyed free of charge from the surrounding greensward although a family ticket is a bit steep at around £17 if you are on a budget. Wall walks, interactive displays and a full range of special events makes this one of the most popular days out around. Admission to the Castle Keep at Bungay is free of charge although donations are welcome (and much needed) while Orford Castle is a warren of old stone passageways and secret chambers. Admission, like Framlingham is not the cheapest but the amazing views from the top makes it worth a visit.


(22) Museums-From the Alfred Corry lifeboat museum in Southwold which charts and honours the history of the local lifeboat service and is free of charge to Leiston’s Long Shop Museum with its entrance concessions for locals, there are some quaint and very specific museums locally. The Long Shop Museum offers all manner of interactive and changing activities, inspiring stories and feats of engineering, interesting designs and the Long Shop itself. Entrance to the museum shop is free. The reconstructed Anglo Saxon village at West Stowe in Suffolk  is now 40 years old and still continues, with the help of the Trust, to interpret the life of the first pagan Anglo-Saxon settlers in East Anglia. Explore these houses, smell the wood smoke and see the wildlife, crops, pigs or hens. It is easy to absorb yourself in the atmosphere, imagining yourselves living in early Anglo-Saxon times. With a cafe, shop, playground and country park with wetlands and bird hides, the latter abutting Lackford Lakes, you get a lot for your admission price. In addition, for every full price ticket bought for West Stowe, you get a years free admission to Moyses Hall Museum in Bury St Edmunds. This museum, with books bound in the skin of Red Barn murderer William Corder, mummified cats and copy of the tardis is housed in a lovely old building and regularly hosts temporary exhibitions too. Be transported back to an early 19th century fishermans cottage at Cromer Museum with a good range of concessions and an adult charge of  just £4. Children and students pay just £2 at Sudbury’s Gainsborough House with its collection of artworks and other artefacts by the town’s ‘son’. Thetford’s Ancient House Museum charges a flat £1 admission for all entrances in the hour prior to closure. This Grade I listed Tudor merchant’s house has a lively and engaging programme of special events and is particularly child friendly. In the Winter, admission is free Tues-Sat between 10-4 pm and family events cost just £2. Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich is free to enter with lovely grounds, a cafe and beautiful Tudor surroundings. The Friends of Ipswich Museums offer free short daily tours of the Mansion called ‘A Peep into the Past’. These take place at 11am, Tuesday – Saturday and 2pm on Sunday, March to November only. Enjoy free entry at the Ipswich Museum also and take the kids to visit its famous woolly mammoth, the elegant towering giraffe and other wonderful curiosities from the natural world . There are exhibits from our Iron Age past onto Saxon times but it is not only Suffolk’s past that is covered- you can take a trip down the Nile too via its Egyptian Gallery.

alde gardens 051
Perceval at Snape Maltings

(23) Art for all -Admissions to the permanent exhibitions at the Sainsburys Centre is free with their works of art spanning 5,000 years of human creativity. From Picasso to Lalique, children will find many of the exhibits absorbing and stimulating in this fabulous space, sited on the University of East Anglia campus and built by architect Norman Foster in 1973 to house the Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Collection. Check out the site for details of temporary exhibitions and activities. Ipswich Art School shows exhibitions of international importance and provides a unique stage for local artists to show their work and to showcase the region’s artistic talents and doesn’t charge admission for all its events. In Bury St Edmunds, the Smiths Row Gallery is a contemporary art gallery curating an exciting programme of exhibitions and public art projects, accompanied by a range of tours, talks and workshops.  Admission to all exhibitions is free and there are ceramics, jewellery, textiles and printmaking, alongside artist-designed cards and wrapping paper for sale. Lowestoft’s Ferrini Gallery incorporates a gallery, photographic studio and video production and editing facilities with art described as mirroring the light and vibrancy of its Suffolk coastal setting. The Gallery at Snape Maltings displays the work of established artist Maggi Hambling alongside lesser known artists. This space in the Snape Maltings complex is well worth a visit, then go and discover Sarah Lucas’s work in show outside as part of Snap Art. ‘Perceval’ is a life size sculpture of a Suffolk working horse, both tribute and pastiche of working class horse brass ornaments and comment and contribution to the debate on what is art, what is design and what is ornament. Large Interior Form Sculpture by Henry Moore can be found on the lawns at Snape and is very popular with children who like to touch its sinuous coldness and many a child has been photographed playing around Barbara Hepworths ‘Family of Man’ which overlooks the reed beds. The Norwich Arts Centre delivers a lively and eclectic programme of live music, theatre, live art, comedy, live literature, new media and photography at different price points. Keep an eye on its programme of events for details of art exhibitions.

Berney Arms windmill

(24) Take a trip to a windmill and start to learn where bread comes from. The restoration of the windmill at Bardwell has been a labour of love and testimony to the patience of the Wheelers who have been responsible for it. Visit during one of the Threshing Days or other fundraising events or drop by and have a look at the small exhibition inside, climb up onto the platform and buy some of their own milled flour- we use this and it is great. Pakenham watermill is unique in Britain in having both a working watermill and working windmill. Visit it and see how it works, especially the old kitchen with its eighteenth century brewing vat and bread oven then buy some of the excellent flours. Finally, visit the market at Bury St Edmunds on either a Saturday or Wednesday and look out for the stall selling bread and baked goods by the Friendly Loaf Company. Their Pakenham Wholemeal loaf is made from the eponymous mill flour and is exceptionally good. Mark Proctor, the baker is happy to chat about his products and the local ingredients that go into them. He also runs baking classes at his beautiful headquarters on a Suffolk farm in the village of Rede.

(25) Watch a sports match – Buying tickets to premier league matches cost a lot of money even though we hear that Ipswich Town are considering reduced ticket prices for people on some benefits. However attending local matches, whether they be rugby, football, hockey or any other sport can be surprisingly inexpensive and a friendly way to spend an afternoon. BurySt Edmunds rugby club charges £5 to enter the ground on match days and offer a variety of concessions and season ticket rates. Tickets to watch the Suffolk Roller Derby Team play are around a fiver depending upon the venue and this fast paced sport is amazing to watch. Local schools also organise and participate in several regional sports events which provide good spectator opportunities. (Check out their websites for details.)

Photo courtesy of Visit Southwold

(26) Row, row, row a boat- It costs a mere 90p to be rowed from Walberswick to Southwold via the Blythe Estuary. Taking the car would involve an 8 mile journey through this watery, river and creek riddled region whereas this way is easier and a lot more fun. A bargain way to enjoy the stunning scenery- the sea and Southwold lighthouse and back towards Walberswick with its clusters of rooftops surrounded by marshland and the strength of the female rower- Dani Church who is the fifth generation of her family to row passengers across the estuary. Dani’s great-great-grandfather’s brother, Benjamin Cross, a Walberswick fisherman, was the first ferryman of her family, in 1885 and she is part of an extraordinary unbroken lineage. There are three more ‘foot’ ferries operating in Suffolk- The Felixstowe to Bawdsey ferry crosses the Deben Estuary between Bawdsey Quay and Felixstowe from early May – end September with daily trips between 10am-6pm and October weekends 10am-5pm. Contact John Barber Ferryman (07709 411511) or wander down to the jetty at Old Felixstowe. The Butley Ferry crosses the Butley River (Alde and Ore) and is manned by volunteers who row between the Gedgrave banks of the Butley River. There has been a ferry crossing here since the mid 16th century making it one of the oldest in the United Kingdom and the crossing cuts 5 miles off the section from the walk from Butley to Orford. The Harwich ferry crosses the Stour and Orwell Estuaries, running 9.45-5pm week days and  9.45 – 5.35pm weekend and school holidays. A regular passenger ferry traverses the estuary between Kings Lynn and West Lynn although it is not a rowing boat. The service has been running since 1285 and provides an ideal way to view the beautiful historic quayside of King’s Lynn from the other side of the River Great Ouse at West Lynn and also provides a convenient service for commuters and shoppers who wish to avoid travelling and parking in the town centre.

Kings Lynn feryy

Italian Gravy


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.


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


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.


Libraries helped to build this girl

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.

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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