Along with rhubarb, blood oranges provide us with a neon bright shot of fruit in the crepuscular months of winter, their orange flesh mottled and marbled with the darkest of ruby reds. Their exterior gives no clue to the tie dyed extravaganza going on within, being merely a slightly more intense shade of the orange peel we expect. The taste of the flesh inside though, is complex, overlaid with bright raspberry tones as if a bowl of raspberries had been drenched with an affogato of best quality orange juice. Neither is that glorious colour subdued by cooking.
The three varieties originate from Italy and Spain, Sanguinelli from the latter and Moro and Tarocco from Italy and come from trees with a tendency to be alternate bearing, meaning that one year the crop will be heavy with smaller fruit and the next year sees lighter fruit yields but bigger and heavier in flesh and juice. The Moro is the most berry like in flavour whilst the Tarocco has a slight Seville orange like spiced bitterness to it, a more adult flavour that marries beautifully with chocolate. They are still relatively unused in the UK although in the Mediterranean region almost a third of the oranges consumed are blood oranges. Fruit carts in local markets are piled high, some of the fruit cut in half to show their brilliant hue and provide assurances to the shoppers. Small glasses of juice are ordered and drunk appreciatively, chased down by an expresso. The Sicilians serve a breakfast brioche stuffed with blood orange gelato and granita, there are cakes made with polenta, suffused with a syrup made from their juices and a spectacular duck a la orange can be produced using them instead of navel oranges.
In England we are seeing our traditional lemon curd and marmalades remade with blood oranges and preserves company Scarlet & Mustard sell them in season. Alongside being stocked in stores nationally, they often take a stall at our local farmers markets and these brim over with pyramids of stout little jars full of fruit curds and tall bottles of salad dressings, both made with orange all year round and blood oranges when in season. Take the lid off the curd and within seconds, enjoy its sharp, blowsy scent which compliments rather than competes with other festive foods- thankfully the aromas of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and rich dried fruit plus the low and slow game stews which tend to dominate a kitchen in December and January are the natural bedfellow to the orange.
For this salad I have used the Moro and you will need to use a mandolin or very sharp knife to cut the fennel as thinly as possible. The citrus will collapse if you try to slice it with the mandolin so use a knife instead. I would serve this salad with its natural bed fellow, thin bloodied and rare slices of beef although it stands happily alone, served with decent bread. A handful of fleshy and ferrous olives or a smear of tapenade on your bread wouldn’t taste amiss either and I think duck would work too. Visually it is a feast of Klimt like jewel coloured circles, almost too pretty to eat.
Blood orange & fennel salad
1 thinly sliced bulb of fennel- it must be super fresh as this salad is all about the crunch
1/2 of a red onion, sliced thinly (and I have made this with a banana shallot too)
Toss the slices of onion, the fennel, the lemon in the lemon juice and add salt and pepper to season. Then add the olive oil. Add the blood orange slices last of all and carefully (and lightly) mix them in so they don’t bleed all over the rest of the salad. Eat, preferably with some rare beef or duck.
Many of us still struggle to talk about menstruation and when it is discussed in the media, there is often a hostile response from men and women who clearly find the topic uncomfortable. However when this results in discrimination and additional pressures on girls and women in developing countries and war zones where their access to sanitary protection and toilet facilities is limited, women and men in the west have a duty to speak out.
When Heather Watson crashed out of the Australian Open she coyly alluded to the reason why her game was sub-par, ““I think it’s just one of these things that I have, girl things” breaking what many commentators describe as a taboo in sport- the discussion of how the menstrual cycle may or may not affect performance and resulting in a few press articles.
Is there a taboo about discussing it in real life or is it a case that the real life situation isn’t reflected in the media coverage and if this is the case, then whose ‘fault’ might that be? The British hockey player Hannah McLeod, in an interview with the Guardian where she talks about her own team-mates attitudes, claims that “we talk about it all the time…it comes up very frequently” then elaborates further, stating that on day one of their period, each member of the squad has to email their strength and conditioning coach, Ben Rosenblatt.
It is refreshing to learn that Rosenblatt creates training programmes that reflect the menstrual status of each hockey player in McLeods team but research into the effects of menstruation and the cycle itself on performance offers inconclusive and variable results. The Melbourne-based sports physician and Chief Medical Officer for Netball Australia, Dr Susan White stated: ”
“World’s best performances have been recorded at all stages of the menstrual cycle, including the pre-menstrual and menstrual phases.” She added, “There is one study in Italy that indicates female soccer players may have a greater injury risk before and during their menstrual periods. It is unclear whether it was because of physiological or psychological factors or a combination of them. There are no other studies at this stage that support this research.”
New research in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (2011), investigated the effects of the menstrual cycle phase using eleven rowers, concluding that not only was their endurance performance not influenced by a normal menstrual cycle, their energy expenditure, oxygenation and heart rate were also not significantly different during the menstrual cycle phases.
These studies are focusing upon ‘normal’ menstrual cycles though and are not concerned with the psychological and social impact of menstruation either. It is fair to assume that elite sportswomen pay as much attention to the fine tuning of their reproductive health as they do to all physiological functioning and it is also reasonable to assume that the assessment and evaluation of their cycles would be a normal and unremarkable aspect of their lives. The pitfalls of menstruation and any inhibition about discussing it must surely lie with the school playing fields, the changing rooms and everyday sporting lives of women at non-elite level. There is also the wider implications for women performing in any work place and public sphere where scrutiny is high and easy management of it is limited or complicated, What do women in the forces, women who live and work in poorer nations or isolated parts of the world (Antarctica) and beyond (the space station) do?
Remember those days of coyly approaching the (often male) PE teacher before swimming or cross country to tell him that it was ‘that time’ and therefore you might need to be excused ot have close access to a toilet? Remember the anxieties of using sanitary protection under skimpy and stretchy gym-knickers, leotards and skirts if you were yet to graduate to tampons? Remember the fear of accidents when wearing tennis whites? British tennis No5 Tara Moore does, and has spoken out about the nightmares she has about getting her period during Wimbledon, not just because it might affect performance, but add in the horror of white skirts, blood and the banks of press photographers there to capture the moment. Moore is not the only woman engaged in an open dialogue about menstruation and leakage. Check out the instagram feed of Mayan Toledano ( @thisismayan) for the image, below, which caused many complaints- that of a woman wearing underwear stained with blood. Mayan owns a company that makes underwear and clothing with a strong feminist ethos.
It is hard to unselfconsciously tumble across a gym-mat or upside down on a trampoline when you fear all eyes are on your crotch. Girls and women who suffer from excessive bleeding, severe pain or unpredicable cycles face even more problems and when you remember that the menstrual cycle can take a few years to regulate itself in a young girl, we can see that the problem is not a rare one, and something that teachers or care givers would encounter frequently. So what is the impact on ‘ordinary females?’
Researching this article and soliciting requests for comments led to multiple requests to use ‘first name only,’ especially from younger women. Many said they had no problems asking fathers, brothers and boyfriends to buy sanitary protection for them, they also had no problems letting the males in their life know they were having a period. But they all baulked at being identified in this piece. As Emily (19) who is a keen runner, said,
“I don’t think I am ashamed of having periods but it is embarrassing and I don’t want to become the local poster girl for it.”
I spoke to girls competing at county and regional level in gymnastics, ballet, boxing and contact sports, horseriding and long distance running and while all of them applauded Heather Watson,
“she has opened the door to a more realistic conversation about how women manage when they work or compete at a high level or in difficult conditions” (Sarah, dancer in her late twenties),
they were reluctant to identify themselves. As Louise explained,
“I am happy for my boxing trainer to know that my abdomen is tender and bloated and ‘yes I do need a toilet break every twenty minutes because my stomach is upset’ but I don’t necessarily want the whole world to know that, let alone my opponent.”
Sarah spoke of the proximity of ballet and dance, of being lifted by her male dance partner who has “his hands in my armpits, my crotch, between my legs (during lifts). Your partner odten touches your stomach and because we are so attuned to each others bodies and how they move and perform, they can feel when I have pre menstrual bloating.” She laughs and agrees at the suggestion that they are more in tune with her physiology than her husband:
“I am not embarrassed about that but…the audience, the stage hands seeing any leaks..then I have seconds to change a tampon in some of the more demanding ballets when I am rarely off stage. I’ll let you imagine what dancers end up having to do and those costumes, the classical ones and all in one body leotards do NOT come off easily or swiftly.”
Sarah is keen to get the point across that dancers tend to be very earthy about their bodies,“they are tools” but despite this, she still feels anxiety about her ‘tool’ letting her down and bleeding visibly in public.
Interestingly, discussion around the management of menstruation pointed out issues with the rules on the use of medication and herbal aids which means that many painkillers and drugs that affect prostglandins (a useful way of reducing cramps) may not be part of the box of tricks available to them. As Emma said,
“The drugs that work best on pain and stomach cramps make me woozy and disinclined to get off the sofa. And the nature of my sport (roller derby) means that I compete all the time so taking the pill to postpone or stop my periods would mean I’d probably never be able to have one. Which makes me worry because I think it is healthy to have periods ” Her conclusion? “I am left having to manage it and hoping that the world won’t stop turning if I accidentally leak because things are at the heavy stage- I think I’d take a few weeks to feel I could show my face in public again if that happened and that there’s always the risk that I’ll be all over the internet, being laughed at.”
Emma echoes a lot of women in her belief that it is not ideal to prevent menstrual periods over long stretches of times. A period offers a woman a mini health-status report every month. Regular menstruation that is not overly painful or troublesome tells us that our system is balanced, that we are neither too underweight or overweight. It is a good indicator that we are not becoming overly stressed, that we are not pregnant, that our uterus can prepare for implantation and that we are not yet approaching menopause (important to know if you are planning a family in the future). Take them away and despite their nuisance value, we might feel something is amiss.
The euphemisms about menstruation don’t help an open and frank discussion though. Girl thing, time of the month, Aunt Flo, getting the painters in, wading through the Red Sea; they are many and varied. Same for assumptions, sterotypes and misapprehensions about the physiology of the menstrual cycle and its effects, some of which were mentioned by other elite sportswomen in their reactions to Heather Watson’s statement. Here’s former tennis player Annabel Croft: “It was quite sweet, the way Heather said it…you are quite emotional at that time.” Not all women experience heightened emotions during menstruation and her words had that weird undercurrent of unintended infantilism and internalised stereotypes common to the way the behaviour of menstruating women is depicted. Hence the scene in 30 Rock which saw Amelia Earharts disappearance whilst attempting to fly across the Pacific being blamed upon the unexpected arrival of her period. Go down that road and you arrive at the ‘menstruating women are unpredictable and unreliable’ belief that keeps us out of the boardroom and the sporting field.
Many religions and cultures codify elaborate rituals and rules about how a woman must behave during her menstrual period. For Orthodox Jews, the Old Testament stipulates a woman is unclean during menstruation but the Talmud goes further, stating that her period of uncleanness lasts for an additional week after menstruation has ended.
“And if a woman have an issue, and her issue in her flesh be blood, she shall be put apart seven days: and whosoever toucheth her shall be unclean until the even.” Leviticus 15:19 (KJV)
Niddah is the word used to denote the menstruating woman and her period of uncleanness which defiles everyone and everything she touches. She may not have sexual intercourse with her husband either. His existence is the perfect state, the default setting for cleanliness and a woman risks contaminating that. Only the ritual bath (“mitweh”) at the end of the period can render her fit to return to family participation.
Islam emphasises the normality of menstruation whilst regarding its blood as unclean (najis) although this inpurity should not prevent the woman from leading a ‘normal’ family life. However entry to the mosque and touching the writings of the Qur’an, the names and attributes of Allah, the names of the Prophet, the Imams and Fatimah (the daughter of the Prophet) are forbidden. The Qu’uran has this to say about sex during menstruation:
“They ask you about menstruation. (O Muhammad) tell (them that) menstruation is a discomfort (for the women, it is a period when they pass through physical and emotional tension. Therefore,) do not establish sexual relations with them during the menses, and (again you are reminded that) do not approach them (sexually) until the blood stops.”
In Uganda and Nepal, teams of people are tackling the challenges menstruation has for local girls, both as a taboo and the resulting issues of hygiene and social exclusion which sees school attendance plummit. The cultural tradition of Chhaupadi in Nepal, believes menstruation to be polluting and harmful to others, meaning females must remain isolated, abstaining from contact with other people, often in what are called ‘menstrual huts’ with their attendant poor hygiene, risk of disease and horrendous stigma. In Uganda, many menstruating girls are prevented from cooking food and banned from carrying newborn children. Girls in Uganda face less social restriction during their periods, but for them the fear of the consequences of inadequate sanitary protection means they avoid school and social activities. Teasing from peers and even teachers is a common occurrence.
The same problem has been reported in other African countries and across India too where school attendance past the menarche drops off drastically in poorer, more rural communities. UNICEF reports that “in countries where menstrual hygiene is taboo, girls in puberty are typically absent for 20% of the school year,” with many girls dropping out at around 11 to 12-years-old. They may also miss school because they are not educated about their periods, and neither is the school which thus fails to provide secure, discreet and clean toilet facilities for them.
The word ‘blessing’ is derived from the Old English for ‘bleeding’ and indeed the menses were once regarded as a sacred mysterious event being as they were then, unexplained, linked to the even more mysterious moon and part of a cycle of fertility that begat life. In the Americas, some Native American tribes celebrate and revere them- Apache tradition calls girls at menarche “Changing Women”, and later on, “White Painted Women” whlst Navajo girls run towards the rising sun. However the Sundance ceremony sees menstruating women segregated to their own dancing area so as to act as counter balance to the energy flow of the main dance.
Some women are reclaiming this worshipful attitude yet I am extremely wary of what I call the ‘woo’ side of menstruation activism: all that Mother Earth and menstrual goddess rhetoric; the worshipping of the menarche as a sacred rite of passage, elevating its status as culmination of the fertility cycle and the sole ability of the female to bring forth a new life tend to leave me cold. Yes, when you consider the odds, the fact that women get pregnant at all can be awe inspiring (so many ‘if’s and variables) but the whole of our fertility has an easy biological explanation; our uteri are not ‘mysterious.’
Elevating the status of menstruation is one end of a spectrum that sees the less celebratory rituals that isolate and shame women at its opposite end. They take what is actually a biologically practical solution to a product we no longer need-the spongy endometrial build up- and imbue it with a spiritual ‘woo’ side that cloaks it in layers of ritual and cultural rules, albeit women friendly ones. Seeking to make the explainable more mysterious in order to reclaim it from misogyny and misunderstanding is not the way to break away from taboo as it risks alienating women who wish to shrug off their embarrassment but who do not want to publicly discourse about the nature of their menstrual blood or celebrate something which can be significantly physically debilitating. No matter how positively you embrace or re-frame menstruation, it is often inconvenient, physically uncomfortable for many and downright painful for some. There are women (and men) who want to tackle the taboo of menstrual talk without attaching any special spiritual significance to it.
Reclaiming the celebratory ‘woo’ side will, I fear, allow men to cop out of trying to understand (‘womens stuff’) and also encourages the idea that hormones and periods cause us to become unpredictable, mysterious and capricious. I do not wish to give the impression that I rise with my red hair and eat men like air at certain times of the month. Nor do I wish to be defined as a woman who is prone to eating loads of chocolate, throwing tantrums or requiring special treatment because I am some kind of menstruating goddess creature. More seriously, imbuing menstruation with a spiritual and celebratory aspect is not very different to those menstrual huts and ritual baths which after all, are the sum total of men and women trying to explain and then contain what is/was to them, the mysterious and the indefinable.
What we do need however, is greater equality in sports commentary, reporting and representation. We will not get a practical and objective evaluation of the ways in which a womans fitness and sporting ability can be affected by her menstrual cycle when the world of sports media is, in itself, so male dominated. We will not see intelligent and sensitive sports reporting that understands the impact of female biology- something that is simply not on the radar of most men. Do young girls risk losing an interest in sports at puberty because of fears about their appearance and the difficulties of managing their periods? We need to research this and make a space for their experiences to be heard and by doing this, we will help prevent this from happening. Oh and we might end up with more than one toilet break per set for female tennis players at Wimbledon and better designed sanitary protection too.
Donating money to charities, blogging and tweeting about the issue all helps frank discussion too. Please check out the links below. In addition, women in Syria and similar war zones face added privation. Please read this article which tells you more about their plight and what you can do to help.
This traditional dried fruit and almond filled pastry was eaten all over Suffolk and Essex and takes just a few minutes to make. Mentioned by Chaucer and part of a town ritual for the last four hundred years, it deserves to be eaten more widely.
Wandering around Saffron Walden some fifteen years ago I came across a trove of old cookery books in one of the second hand bookshops the town used to be known for, and now sadly closed down alongside many others. One of the books I bought contained a wealth of old East Anglian recipes including an intriguing one which mentioned the ‘Bury St Edmunds Kitchel.’ Unfortunately a lot of the pages were missing and I only read half of the story, then I lent the book out and never got it back. Then more time passed and apart from the occasional impulse to do some further research into this mysterious pastry that bore the name of the town I had moved to, life got in the way and the Kitchel remained unbaked and unknown.
Last week, whilst ambling through the lanes and highways of t’internet I came across it again and although my hope that it had a closer link to my part of Suffolk was dashed (It is linked more closely to the Essex town of Harwich, if anything), there is still enough evidence that it was baked and eaten pretty widely throughout the Suffolk with specific links to the seaside town of Aldeburgh. Alas, I can find no trace of that mysterious Bury St Edmunds link and it remains a mystery as to why the book was so adamant about this.
The God’s Kitchel is based on that tried and tested combination of pastry and dried fruit that served as efficient fuel delivery system for hard working bodies and a way of getting through the lean period between November and late March when little fresh fruit was on the market. Back then, the stores were not full of imported green beans from Kenya and satsumas from southern Spain.
Households would preserve the fruits that they could grow, those apples, cherries and plums from their own trees, but the dried fruit we associate with mince pies and Christmas puddings- sultanas, dried peel and raisins, was comparatively expensive and beyond the reach of many households. During the medieval period, foreign exploration led to the trading of exotic spices and dried fruits which could survive the many months a sea journey could take but their rarity and expense caused them to used in foods made for feasts on high days and holidays; at least for ordinary families anyway. Back then, like the mince pie, they were made with meat and served as a useful way of using up this preserved meat over the winter months. Over time, the meat was gradually omitted from the kitchel in the same way it ceased to be included in mince pies, although traditional mincemeat still contains suet, the fat that protects the kidneys of an animal.
Back then, many towns and regions had their own very specific feast day foods of which the kitchel was one- it is a close relative to the godcake made and handed out in Coventry; the only other place with a ceremony similar to that of Harwich and Aldeburgh. It has been suggested that the kitchels original triangular shape was a reference to the Holy Trinity, as are the three cuts in the top, and this very same religious symbolism (like the original crib shape of the mince pie) might have resulted in their ban from sale during the period of the Commonwealth in seventeenth century England.
Edward Moor, in a dictionary of Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823) describes the kitchel as “a flat Christmas cake, of a triangular shape, with sugar and a few currants strow’d over the top – differing, only in shape, I believe, from a bun. Cocker says “Kichel is Saxon – a kind of cake of God’s Kichel, a cake given to God-children when they ask blessing of their God father.” By triangular, he means more of a cornet shape, like a triangular apple turnover.
The kitchel was even mentioned as far back as 1386 when Chaucer cites it in his Summoners Tale:
“Give us a bushell whete, malte, or rice, A God’s kichel, or a trippe of cheese,”
and the 15th century ecclesiastical court servants of Chaucer clearly considered the kitchel a worthy enough and acceptable recompense for the saving of a soul or its delivery from penance. Evidence then that a cake that appears, to our modern palates as fairly modest, was actually a great and infrequent treat for the 15th century person.
The origins of ‘the word kitchel’ are obscure and therefore suggestive of an ancient lineage (way back to the 11th century at the very least) although the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘kichel’ (and offers an alternative spelling of cicel) as a ‘small cake’. A connection with the German for cake- ‘Kuche’- is suggested as is the Yiddish ‘kikhl’ which commonly refers to a small sugary cookie. In Anglo Saxon, ‘cicel’ is both a ‘morsel’ or ‘little mouthful’ but is also linked to ‘circle’ too. The Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language (1838) supposes that the origin is Anglo-Saxon although there is no specific reference to cake so unless anyone can further advise, one has to assume that the Germanic origins are the most likely ones. Or are they?
Locals in Harwich, Aldeburgh and other East Anglian towns say that kitchels also known as ‘Catch Alls’ because of the tradition where the cakes were thrown to the crowds by the mayor each year (and more on this later) to symbolise the showering of his blessings upon the town. Believed to date back to the Norman conquest, a 1905 guidebook describes this practice as ‘a curious custom, many many hundreds of years old.‘ In Aldeburgh, ‘kitchels’ are baked and sold on New Year’s Eve and monumental amounts of bad luck is foretold for those who do not order at least one ‘kichel’ for each member of the family. As F A Qutt says in his book, ‘The County Coast,’ the kitchel “must be eaten before midnight or the worst of ill luck was predicted for folks who failed to partake of these cakes and even now, it is said, there is no one in the town so daring as to nibble a crumb of them after the new year had dawned.”
Back in 1935, the local newspaper of Harwich and Dovercourt describes the town ceremony as a ‘good custom for godfathers and godmothers every time their godchildren asked them for a blessing to give them a cake which was a ‘gods kitchel’ and cites the saying ‘ask me a blessing and I will give you a kitchel’ as a common one.
Going back to the Harwich ceremony, the ringing of the bell from the town crier, followed by a speech, “Catch a kitchel, if you can!” signifies the start of their being thrown from the Guildhall window in a ceremony that is now held on the third Thursday in May around noon at St. Nicholas’ Church. In the next town, staff at the Cabin Bakery, Dovercourt, begin baking the 400 kitchels in the early hours, ready for delivery to the Guildhall and local schools – unlike centuries before, every child who wants one will get a kitchel. The town clerk and staff sit in the grade one listed Guildhall and wrap each one individually.
Symbolising the spreading of goodwill amongst the poor of the town by the newly elected mayor who walks through the streets back to the Guildhall from Church Street, resplendent in bicorne hat, mayoral chain and scarlet frock coat with black pantaloons worn underneath, it is thought to be a development from the tradition, at the beginning of the year, whereby godparents would present theur godchildren with a cake along with their blessing for the new year ahead. The children of Harwich however, accompany the mayor back to the guildhall and await his appearance at the window, hands outstretched, waiting to catch the kitchels.
Some recipes for Gods Kitchels specify shortcrust pastry and others use puff. I have tried both and much prefer the latter which gives it a lightness that balances out the dried fruit and ground almond contents. I have seen versions with added rum or brandy which you, of course, are most welcome to do too but I have kept my version as close to the original as possible although I use bought pastry, fresh from the chiller cabinet. The brand I buy is all butter which puffs up admirably. Despite the dried fruit, the sweetness quotient isn’t that high (sugar wasn’t that cheap back in the day) so you might want to add a little extra sugar. Or do what we do and serve it custard or with a dollop of double cream, sweetened with a little icing sugar.
Preheat the oven to 400F/ 200C/ Gas mark 6. Grease a large baking sheet.
Melt the butter over low heat in a decent sized heavy bottom pan and add the currants, spice and peel along with the ground almonds and stir them well, ensuring they are all incorporated. Set the mixture aside and allow to cool.
Divide the puff pastry into half, roll each half into two evenly sized oblongs and place one of them carefully onto the greased baking sheet. Spread the dried fruit mixture evenly over the pastry base, ensuring you leave a margin around all four edges. Moisten the edges with some milk then lift the second sheet of pastry carefully over the top. Seal the edges by crimping (you might have an excess which is fine to cut off with a sharp knife before you crimp and seal.
Mark the pastry lightly into squares with a very sharp knife. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until puffed up and golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly before cutting through the outlines knife marks into squares. Sprinkle with a little caster sugar (I like golden) and serve.
Its difficult to get hold of fresh Key Limes outside of the Americas. The memory of the fruits hanging in clusters on the rows of trees in Mexican orchards and the fruit, ripe and fallen in the front yards of the houses that edge the sandy streets of Florida’s Estero Beach torment me. I am back home in cold old England, vainly emailing Waitrose to ask if they will stock them and pestering my local market stall to look for them when they are next at New Covent Garden.
What makes the Key Lime even more valuable (and costly) is that it takes between 10-18 of the fruits to produce a small cup of the juice as opposed to the more easily available Persian lime which yields 2-3 tablespoons of juice from just one of them. And what juice the Key Lime has- both tawny and citrus sharp, like a lime with a suntan. Add to this, the aromatic oils contained within the fragile rind which itself turns a shade of arylide yellow when it is fully ripe.
Consider foods made with it- the eponymous pie and pound cake, the latter sturdy and born of the homesteader yet flavoured with a fruit very far removed from a workaday staple; the granddaddy of Floridian sauces, ‘Old Sour,’ a fiery tincture of chile, lime juice and salt; the Mulata cocktail with its deep base of creme de cacao lifted by the zing of citrus and vanilla warmth of rum. All of them wonderful hybrids, the culinary offspring of a much travelled fruit.
The journey from tree to plate is hard won though. Workers harvest the fruit wearing thick leather gauntlets (if they are lucky enough to be given them) to protect against the vicious thorns that the trees arm themselves with. Twiggy stems flex, pierce and spike pickers in the face as they push their way into the crown of the tree where the best, sunripened fruit is located. Then, once on the chopping board the battle is yet to be resolved with flesh that defies being cut into neat segments and a centre thick with seeds.
For these reasons, it is not easy to get a slice of Key Lime Pie made with the real thing these days. As Raymond Sokolov wrote in the ‘Fading Feast’ (1981):
” I drove down from Miami,, impelled by a lifelong desire to taste an authentic Key Lime Pie. As I crossed the last bridge from Stock Island onto Key West, I assumed I was only minutes from enjoying a rich slice of Florida’s most famous regional speciality. But after a week of stuffing down piece after piece of one so- called Key Lime Pie after another, I came to realise that probably none of these pies contained a single drop of freshly squeezed juice. Indeed, after some serious enquiry among local experts, I am now morally certain that virtually all ‘Key Lime Pies’ are actually made with the juice of the Tahiti (or Persian or Bearss) lime, which is not a true lime at all.”
Sokolov was not alone in his concerns and earlier attempts to ratify its ingredients had been made by the state government in 1965 when Bernie Papy Jr introduced legislation calling for a $100 fine to be ‘levied against anyone advertising Key Lime Pie which was not made with the real fruit.’ Unsurprisingly the bill was not passed. Then in 1994, the State Legislature officially recognized the pie as ‘an important symbol of Florida’ even though North Floridian lawmakers had argued against this, calling instead for the pecan pie, with nuts grown in state, be afforded this recognition. On July 2006, House Bill 453 and Senate Bill 676 of the Florida Legislature’s Regular 2006 Session made the pie the official Florida state pie- and who doesn’t love the idea of a state (or county) having a state pie, especially one made with such an alluring ingredient, far more than the sum of its very great historical parts?
Likely to be a three way hybrid involving three plant species and at least two different genera) of citron (Citrus medica), pummelo (Citrus grandis), and a microcitrus species, Citrus micrantha, the Key Lime was carried by the Arabs across North Africa into Spain and Portugal, finally ending up in the Americas after being brought along for the ride by the Spanish and Portugese who themselves rocked up there in the early part of the sixteenth century. The lime took to the climate of the Deep South with the result that it went on to flourish throughout the Caribbean and the east coast of Mexico, migrating through Central America down to the more tropical areas of South America and, not least, the Florida Keys where it flourished under the mulches of seaweed, beggarweed and velvet beans laid down by orchard owners each year.
Part of their harvest was placed in wooden barrels, pickled in saltwater and shipped to Boston where they became a popular snack for school children; who remembers the mention of pickled limes in ‘Little Women’ and ‘What Katy Did?’ Youngsters were fortified with much needed vitamin C as were the sailors who took the preserved limes with them on long voyages, the practice a nod to the pickling, salting and drying of limes and other citrus which has been long practised across the Levant and Arab countries, the latter being the original home of the lime.
Sadly, commercial production of Key Limes across the south of Florida and its west coast islands near Fort Myers and Estero Beach, along with the Keys, was halted by the 1926 hurricane which wiped out the citrus groves along with a substantial acreage of pineapple plantations. The growers replanted with Persian Lime trees which are easier to grow and pick and sturdier to transport because of their thicker skin. The peel of the Key Lime, by contrast, lacks the toughness and verdancy of its Persian cousin, becoming yellow, (called ‘yallery’ by locals in Estero), at maturity and producing that tawny, pale yellow juice that is higher in acidity than other lime varieties and flesh that is stubbornly resistant to serving in segments. The thinner the skin, the juicier the pulp is a good rule of thumb and the best limes have rind that can be pierced with a sharp thumb nail and scraped back sans knife if necessary, something appreciated by the conch divers of Florida.
These divers have Anglo Saxon Bahamian descent and now live in the Keys, eking a living from the archipelago waters by turtling, fishing and sponging. On days when the wind is ‘walking right’ the waters become ‘as crystal as gin’ (Conch speak) and the spongers, peering through buckets with a glass base, bring up sponges and conchs from depths as great as 60 feet although many of them also free dive. Some eat their conch raw, bouncing the glutinous, milky flesh around their mouths after using a knife blade to enter the shell and sever the muscle that binds it. Grasping the muscly protruding heel of the flesh, they draw it out and slice it into thin, gelatinous sashimi that quivers as it is prepared. Seasoning can be as simple as a dip in the seawater over the side of the boat or a squirt of Key Lime juice which cooks in the manner of ceviche.
Alongside the conch, another popular fish is the ‘Grunt.’ so called because of the noise this small bottom feeder emits as it is pulled from the deep. Being rather tiny, a considerable number are required to make a meal and after flash frying, they are eaten with a seasoning of ‘sour,’ the name for the bottled Key Lime juice that is squirted onto them (Nellie & Joes is often used). First their heads are whipped off between finger and thumb and after some dextrous plucking, the cerebral cavity of the grunt is exposed so the brains can be sucked out followed by the nibbling away of the crust, strips of dorsal flesh, tails and fins. These are nose to tail eating leaving little behind, not even enough for Hemingways famous polydactyl cats that prowl the island.
Years ago, the sponge and conch fishermen would have to remain at sea for some time and rations aboard could have included sweetened, condensed milk and key limes alongside eggs, the milk having been created in 1856 by Gail Borden to compensate for a lack of refrigeration. It wasn’t until the opening of the Overseas Highway in 1930 that tank trucks were able to transport ice, milk and refrigerated goods to the Keys. The terrain of the Florida Keys is not conducive to cattle farming; indeed a lot of the state is not, being largely reclaimed swamp and old Native American hunting grounds and historically, dairy was not a food group easily available to people living there. These food stuffs, milk, eggs and limes handily make up the ‘trinity’ of the pie but how we got from a larder of ingredients to the finished pie is unclear.
The origins of the classic Key Lime Pie are not conclusive with stories, in the main, appearing apocryphal at best, downright presumptious at worst. The first written reference to this pie that I can trace is in some of the writings by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) published in the 1930’s. Set up to create employment for unemployed writers during the Great Depression, the WPA created many art related programs for the relief of artists, writers and theatrical professionals, including the Federal Writers Project and in the later years of the programme, writers were sent out on assignments with photographers to document how America was eating.
Not a cookbook (in fact cookbook writers were banned from contributing), but rather ‘an account of group eating as an important American social institution and its part in the development of American cookery as an authentic art.’ The WPA writers filed thousands of stories that captured, as never before, the role food played in the formation of the countries society from possum dinners at Elk Lodges to the conch and key lime juice eating fishermen and divers of this old Spanish colony dangling off the right hand side of the contigious United States.
A ‘Promotional’ from the WPA, published in the 1930s, mentions the “world-famous” key lime pie yet a cook book by the Key West Womans Club published nearly ten years earlier in 1920, omits any mention of the recipe. Locals state that this may be due to the ubiquity of the pie being such that the editors felt nobody was in need of a written recipe (the teaching granny to suck eggs defence), but this doesn’t make sense when you consider that most Little League cookbooks feature their regions most popular and iconic recipes. Can you imagine a Charleston Little League cookbook without a recipe for benne wafers, pecan pralines and she-crab soup or its Texan equivalent lacking a recipe for a Bowl ‘O Red (chile)? Additionally, when it comes to a famous recipe that is such a vital part of a regional cuisine, everybody thinks that their recipe is the definitive one. I find it hard to believe that the editors of the Key West Womans Club recipe book were in possession of ego’s immune to such fancies.
Local Keys history tells that sometime towards the end of the 1800s, a prominent resident of Key West named William Curry, a Bahamian born immigrant to the USA who went on to become Florida’s first millionaire via his ship salvaging business, employed a cook called ‘Aunt Sally,’ also from the Bahamas, who is said to have created the first Key Lime Pie from the fruit. The story of how the recipe arose does not appear terribly likely because of the odd thing that happens when you combine lime juice and sweetened, condensed milk. They curdle and appear to ‘cook’ sans heat; without prior knowledge of what is happening and that this is meant to happen, it is quite likely that a cook would throw the whole thing out and start over. Or could Sally have been intending to bake a lemon icebox pie which also uses egg yolk and condensed milk and decided to try out the key lime instead of a lemon- in which case she’d know what to expect when milk hits citrus.
Certainly condensed milk allows cooks to make a custard without actually cooking it, a boon to a busy ships cook in a confined galley space. A boon to anyone really who is short of time or equipment. In fact, the spongers probably bought their cans of condensed milk from Curry after he began importing them to the islands to use on their hook boats, named for the hooking methods used to harvest the sponges. They would mix the milk with pelican eggs snaffled from under the bills of these huge sea birds which populate the coast of Florida so densely.
Key West is home to historian David L Sloan who is a bit of a Key Lime and pie expert. He possesses what he claims to be the ‘original’ recipe and cautions against muddling history with authenticity, a common pitfall of the food historian. Founder of a local ghost tour, it was his research into the islands ghosts that led him to the mansion of William Curry and the recipe belonging to Sally, found in the pantry. Much of the debate around the pie is binary: Graham Cracker crust or traditional pastry crust; a topping of cream or lofts of meringue; peaks toasted under the grill or blow torched big hair style. Aunt Sally opted for the former and a filling made with the condensed sweetened milk which Sloan claims Curry would have brought back to the island, fully aware as a ship salvager of how useful it would be to a ships cook alongside his own house cook. Yet despite finding what could be seen as recipe for THE ur pie, Sloan comes down on the side of the spongers as creators of it and goes as far as claiming that their version probably did not have a cracker crust either. Fighting talk there.
Here are a few of my favourite recipes made using the Key Lime. We’ll start with a drink and work our way through a (semi) complete menu.
A more sophisticated adult sibling to those chocolate and lime sweets (candies), the combination works well in this cocktail which is traditionally served straight up although you can also serve it frozen by pureeing the ingredients in a blender.
1 and 1/2 oz Light Rum / 3/4 oz dark cème de cacao / a tbsp fresh Key Lime juice or to taste / 1 cup ice cubes
Combine all the ingredients in a bar shaker, cover and shake well then strain into a martini glass.
The venerable grandparent of old Floridian sauces, this is a snappy and piquant mixture of very few ingredients that combine to form a multi purpose seasoning for both raw and cooked foods. Make a batch of it and keep in a sealed jar. It will keep unrefrigerated for several months and becomes better with age.
1-2 peppers (use Bird, Datil, Scotch Bonnet or other super hot chiles) / 1 cup fresh Key Lime juice / 2 tsp salt (I use a good Maldon, crushed in a pestle and mortar).
Leave chiles whole for a less potent sauce and slice thinly if you want it hotter. Combine all the ingredients in a sterilised jar and cover tightly. Shake well to dissolve the salt. Let the Sour stand for a week at room temperature before using then smear all over meat, seafood, fruit and vegetables.
Key Lime Pie
Needs no introduction other than by setting out my Key Lime stall, I am going to invite a chorus of “That’s not authentic!”
1 1/4 cups graham cracker crumbs or digestive biscuits, crushed / 1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar / 1/3 cup butter, melted / 2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk / 1 cup fresh Key lime juice / 2 egg whites / 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar / 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Combine the cracker crumbs, the brown sugar and melted butter then press into a 9-inch pie plate and bake piecrust at 350° for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Allow to cool. Stir together the sweetened condensed milk and lime juice until blended. Pour into prepared crust. Set aside. Beat egg whites and cream of tartar at high speed with an electric mixer just until foamy. Add granulated sugar gradually, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until soft peaks form and sugar dissolves (2 to 4 minutes).
Spread meringue over filling. Bake at 325° for 25 to 28 minutes. Chill 8 hours.
Key Lime Pound Cake
This recipe was inspired by Fran Gage’s Meyer Lemon Pound Cake in her book ‘Bread and Chocolate’ which I bought years ago and read regularly. I swapped the lemons for Key Limes because in my opinion, a Meyer lemon is to an everyday lemon what a Key Lime is to its Persian relatives.
8-10 Key Limes (use ordinary limes if you cannot get the Keys but you’ll only need 3 of them) / 1/2 cup water / 1/2 cup sugar
Zest the limes and put them in a small pot with sugar and water, bring to a boil and simmer for 1 minute. Cover and refrigerate overnight (or up to a week). Juice the limes to collect 1/3 cup of their juice, and reserve for cake.
1 1/4 cup flour / tsp baking powder / 10 tbsp (5 oz) butter / 1 cup caster sugar / 2 eggs, beaten / 1/3 cup lime juice / prepared lime zest, drained (syrup reserved)
Preheat oven to 350F. Mix flour and baking soda and set aside. Cream butter with sugar until fluffy. Add eggs a little at a time then add the dry ingredients alternately with lime juice. Stir in zest. Pour batter into a buttered loaf pan and bake about 1 hour. While cake is still warm, poke with skewer and drizzle with reserved lime syrup. Cool, then remove from pan.
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year and is a time for everyone to pause and remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
Commemorated each year in Bury St Edmunds where a service in the Abbey Gardens at the existing Holocaust Memorial sees dignitaries and civic leaders join locals for a moment of quiet reflection and memorial, this years ceremony (2015) will be marked by the unveiling of a one and a half metre teardrop sculpture which will form a centrepiece to a new Peace Garden. The Memorial Garden Trust, a registered charity, has raised more than £11,000 for the project in the Abbey Gardens.
Rob Lock from the trust said:
“In addition to providing a more dignified setting for the annual holocaust service the Peace Garden is also designed to commemorate the murder of 57 Jews in our town on Palm Sunday, 19 March 1190. It is an event in our town’s history that the trust felt needed to be publicly acknowledged.
“The teardrop is a natural and universal symbol of pity and persecution, of human suffering and sorrow. It is made from polished stainless steel; its mirrored surface reflects back to us the role we all must play in opposing humanity’s inhumanity.”
The Peace Garden, which is being installed by Urban Forestry, also includes 57 cobble stones – one for each of the victims of the 1190 massacre. There will also be two stone benches as seating for quiet reflection. The trust was formed by local residents and is supported by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, and members of Suffolk’s Jewish Community.
St Edmundsbury Borough Cabinet Member for Leisure, Culture and Heritage, Cllr Sarah Stamp said:
“The teardrop memorial is a very poignant symbol. Although this is an area that forces us to think about the worst acts carried out by mankind, the trust has also raised the funds and created a cultural space that they should feel proud of.”
Back then Hatter Street was recognised as the Jewish quarter of the town and referred to as Heathenmans Street. It was claimed that Moyses Hall could have been their synagogue but this has now been disputed, largely because it would have been next to what was then the medieval pig market. It is more likely that the higher ground along Hatter Street between numbers 25-26 served as the synagogues location, a case strengthened by the evidence of a well beneath the basement, necessary for ritual bathing and washing. Other claims for Moyses Hall is that its name is a derivative of ‘Moses’ and that it was built by wealthy Jewish merchants of the town. However, ‘Moses’ and ‘Moyses’ are both common Suffolk names.
By the 1190’s, the Jewish population in England numbered approximately some 2,500 people and until this time they enjoyed relative freedom of movement, the right to own real estate and access to education when compared to the Jewish people who lived in mainland Europe. However all was not rosy, In 1189, they were taxed at a much higher rate than the rest of England to finance the Third Crusade. Jews might have comprised less that 0.25% of the English population but they provided 8% of the total income of the royal treasury. This financial contribution did not render them beloved of the people though and the pro Christian ideology of the Crusades engendered an anti Semitic rhetoric.
In 1181, a dispute broke out between William the Sacristan (Sexton) of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds and his associate Samson. Alongside the local townspeople, the Jews sided with William but unfortunately, it was Samson who came to power the next year as Abbot. In 1190, after the Coronation riots, Samson demanded that the Jewish people in the town should be placed under his authority rather than the Kings and when they refused, they were expelled under guard.
This was set among a nationwide background of disempowerment for Jews. In the same year, King Henry II enacted the “Assize of Arms”, ordering that all weapons owned by Jews should be confiscated on the grounds that their protection came from the King and therefore they would not have any reason for owning arms. The weapons were turned over to the King’s forces, leaving them with little defence and protection when riots broke out less then ten years later.
The 1189 coronation of Richard the Lionheart saw further state sanctification of their persecution when Baldwin who was the Archibishop of Canterbury, persuaded Richard to not accept gifts from Jewish dignitaries, and further, to banish them from the palace which was interpreted by the watching crowds to mean the King favoured persecution. That same day, a pogrom against the Jews in London occurred and again, the next day. Reluctant to get involved in protecting them at the start of his reign, Richard did not enact a severe punishment of the rioters which saw the civil unrest spread to Norwich, Lincoln and Bury St Edmunds alongside other towns.
The church and locals seized on every opportunity to justify their prejudices. When Saint Robert of Bury, a young choirboy from the abbey was found murdered (crucified), allegedly on Good Friday, his death was blamed on the town’s Jewish community. Robert was buried in the Abbey church and in his Chronicle, Jocelyn of Brakelond, a monk in the Abbey during Samsons rule, even attributed miracles to him. Rumours based on the belief that the Jews had gained their wealth through sacrificial murders began to percolate through the town and their community became the focus of much anti semitic feelings. Regionally, the Jews of Norwich were accused of torturing a Christian child named William, using his blood for the Passover Seder, then killing and burying him and despite the entreaties of Pope Innocent IVs to ignore such ridiculousness, the image of Jews being dangerous to Christians became the dominant one.
After nine more years, anti semitic feelings had increased and it has been suggested that the catalyst to the massacre may have been a ‘vanquish the infidels’ type sermon, preached in the abbey church at a time when anti Jewish sentiments were even more heightened, it being Lent. The abbey was no longer a reliable place of sanctuary for them but Samson is recorded as claiming the Abbey was not the Kings property and therefore these ‘Jews were not Saint Edmunds men.’
On Palm Sunday, the 19th March, a group of Christian Crusaders rampaged through Bury St Edmunds and killed 57 Jews followed by the obtaining of a writ by Abbot Samson, leader of the monastery, to have the survivors expelled. Previously the monastery had sheltered Jews when there was a threat of a pogrom but recently the monastery had gone into debt to Jews and therefore took advantage of the opportunity to escape having to repay those debts. Much building work had taken place in the Abbey and some major debts had accrued under Abbot Hugh, despite the churches moral teachings against usury. The offer of consecrated vestments and other articles as security against the debt gives clues about their extent and the pressure upon the monastery to do everything it could to expunge them.
Six months after the massacre of the Jews, Jocelin recorded in his Chronicle that Samson’s expelling of the remaining Jews showed that he was a ‘man of great virtue’, an expulsion that was granted after he appealed to the King for permission to do so in October 1190. On July 1290, King Edward the First ordered their expulsion from the whole country, making England the first country to do so. There is some disagreement as to how many were forced to leave- either 4000 or 16,000 which is some difference- and their return was not officially sanctioned until the 17th century, some 350 years later.
This event is relatively unknown in the town and wider annals of regional history and the translation of Jocelyns Chronicle that is stored in our Records Office itself omits the event. The opening of the Peace Garden, coming at a time when Jewish people all over the world face renewed persecution alongside other faiths and creeds, could not be more timely and significant. When the Holocaust happened, we did it to our own people-NOT a group of people living separately as ‘others.’ Europe placed them in a ghetto, they did not ghettoise themselves. The Holocaust destroyed a living and vibrant part of our European culture- music, art, economics, politics, the sciences and left a gaping hole, a rent or whatever ugly image you wish to use which has yet to fill in. And when it does, the scar will still be there and we should continue to remember. There is no such thing as the ‘past. ‘
I confess that the inspiration for this soup comes not from my own imagination but from Thomasina Miers, whose column in Saturdays Guardian featured a recipe for parsnip soup with the very same fried apple. Scanning down the spices on the ingredients list, I was struck by their similarity to the contents of my packet of achiote with its notes of pepper spice and an earthiness that reminds me of the clay goblets we drank out of in Mexico where I grew up. I would nibble away at their glaze that stopped just short of the rim, slowly wearing it away to the bare fired-clay underneath whose aroma and gritty taste I loved-pica in action I guess.
Also known as annatto and used to give a mellow-golden colour to foodstuffs across the Caribbean and Latin America, achiote is obtained from the seeds of the evergreen Bixa orellana plant and was brought to South East Asia by the Spanish in the 16th century. Used to scent and colour yellow rice and blaff, the seeds have long been ground and mixed with other spices and herbs; salt, peppercorns, cumin, cloves, oregano and coriander-seed to make achiote powder or paste which can be mixed into fresh juice to make a great marinade for meat and fish.
Miers’s soup is spiced with peppercorn, cloves, coriander seeds and nutmeg so it’s not a great leap from the achiote although it lacks that deep annatto melon-gold shade. In my version, the onions have been replaced by a 50:50 mix of shallot and onion to balance the earth of the achiote but do be generous with the spice mix- the soup seems to absorb a lot of flavouring and retains a gentleness of flavour with the sweet grassinesss of the root vegetable shining through. For the apples, I chose Egremont Russets although any Russet will do should the Egremonts (which we grow on our allotment) not be available. The sweet nuttiness of this variety works especially well here, not disintegrating into apple snow after frying. However, I don’t want you to discount making this because the only apples sitting disconsolately in your fruit bowl are standard eaters. They’ll do.
This produces a thick soup that serves 3-4 in medium sized portions although it can be slackened with some more stock should you want a soup with a lighter texture and one which will go a bit further. I would serve it with some rounds of toasted sourdough for an even more filling winter meal.
50g unsalted butter
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
About 400g parsnips
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
3 tsp achiote powder
grind of nutmeg
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbsp thick Greek yoghurt or thick double cream plus extra to garnish
For the apples-
1 large or a couple of smaller eating apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1 cm thick wedges
25 g or so of unsalted butter
1 tsp sugar
grind of nutmeg to finish
Peel the parsnips and chop up into bite size pieces then melt the butter in a heavy based pan. Add the onion, shallot and a decent pinch of salt and cook down slowly and gently over a low heat for 4-5 mins then add in the chopped garlic. Sweat this all down further until it is translucent, soft and smells buttery and rich.
Whilst this is cooking, grate the nutmeg and add it to the achiote powder, ensuring they are blended together then add this to the onion mix, stirring them both together. Continue to cook this, stirring it all the time for 2 more minutes. Now add the chopped parsnips to the spiced onions and turn them over in the spice and onion/shallot mix, coating them well. Once you have done this pour in the stock, bring to a boil then simmer until the parsnips are completely soft and cooked- between 20-30 mins.
Take off the heat, let cool for a few minutes and add the yoghurt or cream. Whizz until smooth with a stick blender or a food processor and season to taste. I prefer it totally smooth but nobody is going to judge you if you leave in a few lumps of parsnip.
To make the apples, you’ll need to melt the butter in a heavy pan over a medium heat and ensure that the whole base is coated in it. When it starts to get hot and sizzle, add the apples in one layer, sprinkle with a little salt, the sugar and fry them, turning them over so both sides colour up to a golden brown but don’t let them burn or the butter burn. When done, drain on kitchen paper whilst you gently reheat the soup to warm- don’t let it get scolding as you won’t get the flavour of it, soup is best served at room temperature.
Plate up the soup, place some apple slices on top, add a grind of nutmeg if you like it and an extra dollop of yoghurt or cream if you like your soup creamier.
The literary links of our East Anglian towns have long interested me and I have written about the 101 Dalmatian topped bollards commemorating the Sudbury stopover made by the dogs in Dodie Smiths famous book here. I already knew that this handsome bronze could be found by the railings of St Peters church and that the town has staged festivals celebrating the book but what I didn’t know was that it is part of the Talbot Trail, a series of bronze sculptures that depict the towns history which are mounted on red painted bollards at significant locations around the town.
Just before midnight they came to the market town of Sudbury.Pongo paused as they crossed the bridge over the River Stour. ‘Here we enter Suffolk,’ he said, triumphantly. They ran on through the quiet streets of old houses and into the market square.They had hoped they’d meet some dogs and hear if any news of the puppies had come at the Twilight Barking, but not as much as a cat was stirring. While they were drinking at the fountain, church clocks began to strike midnight..”(From 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith)
Named after the Talbot, a breed of hunting dog that features on the town coat of arms, or to be more specific, the dog owned by the notorious Simon of Sudbury, the head of the Talbot appears sometimes in red, sometimes in black. This early breed of hunting dog is thought to have been brought to England with William the Conqueror and to have links with what we now know as the modern beagle and bloodhound.
Borough status was granted to Sudbury in 1558, rewarding its loyalty to Mary the First against the claims of Lady Jane Grey and the design originated from the coat of arms of the Theobald family who Simon was a scion of (although the arms origin is disputed by some who claim it originated from the Sudberry family). Simon of Sudbury went on to become Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury before being killed by rebels in the Peasants Revolt 1381. His legacy to the town was in the form of a college for priests which was located on what is now the site of the old Walnuttree Hospital which itself went on to become the location of the local workhouse. And his head, but more on that later.
Sudburys Tourist Information can be found inside its library on Market Hill and the Heritage Museum at the side of the town hall, prominently placed on Market Hill and built by Thomas Ginn between 1826/27 in the Greek classical style, also supplies Talbot Trail guides. The idea is to obtain a booklet from the tourist offices and then mark off the bronzes as you proceed around the town, returning to get your stamp of completion when you have seen them all. The town hall houses a general display and information about the towns past and the town gaol provides inspiration for the first bronze marker. Sadly a few of the bronzes have been stolen (presumably by scrap metal thieves) and it is to be hoped that they will be replaced by resin replicas if not another bronze.
The Town Hall and museum itself has an interesting history in their original role as gateway to the Sudbury Courtroom of Assizes and the good sized Victorian doorway that forms the entrance was once its gateway, located on the appropriately named Gaol Lane. Placed in the basement, the gaol was used to hold prisoners on their way to and from the court although the diminution of arrests for debt resulted in its decline and less cases to provide an amusing morning or afternoons entertainment for the landed gentry of the region. The site of the original gaol, before the Town Hall was built, was at 25 Friars St and was called a ‘miserable little prison’ by James Niell writing in the Gentlemans Magazine- a blue plaque marks its site.
Going on from Pongo’s bronze head which is number two, we move onto an historical icon rather less benign; Boudicca or Bodicea, The Queen of the Iceni who history indicates is likely to have gained the support of the Trinovante at Sudbury in AD 44 on her way to attack and overthrow the Roman garrison at Colchester and burn the entire town to the ground. Sudbury is thought to have been a Trinovante stronghold in those days and the Trinovante tribes supported the Iceni, ‘next door’ so to speak. However controversy again rears its head with some locals claiming that Boudicca never actually made it as far as Sudbury and decided instead to stop on the other side of the river Stour and go on to Colchester. It is believed that she reached the tiny village of Newton, site of a well dating back to Roman times which belongs to one of the households there and is known as ‘Boudiccas well.’
When Boudicca and her warriors were on their way to attack Colchester, a local legend says that this was a resting place for them, hence its name. Roman writers also record an unpleasant episode involving Boudicca and her Iceni tribe which saw her whipped and her two daughters raped in an attempt to subdue her opposition to them. Boudiccas revenge was bloody and dramatic- her tribe united with the Trinovantes, attacking and almost driving the Romans from the whole country. One of the battles is believed to have been near Haverhill, some fifteen miles from Sudbury.
Charles Dickens’ famous association with Suffolk, inspiring so much of his work, includes Sudbury and is represented by bronze No 4 which depicts ‘Rotten Row,’ set in the imaginary town of Eetanswill in his book, The Pickwick Papers, which was, in part, written whilst he was a guest at the Angel Hotel in nearby Bury St Edmunds. Written in 1836, the ‘Rotten Borough’ was thought to be inspired by Sudburys long history of electoral and political corruption where, in one election, a wealthy Sudbury parliamentary candidate was accused of spending over ten thousand pounds in bribing local voters. A character in the story, The Honourable Samuel Slumkey has an electoral agent that is said to be based upon a Sudbury solicitor called George William Andrews who Dickens would have encountered during his reporting.
Small town politics have always been hotbeds of gossip, intrigue and double crossing and this remains the case today- maybe in Sudbury, maybe not- and has inspired all manner of authors and writers alongside Dickens. In 1835 Dickens was covering East Anglian election meetings for the Morning Chronicle and after condemning Chelmsford as “the dullest and most stupid place on earth” in a letter to fellow journalist Thomas Beard, came away with no better impression of Sudbury or, to be fair, most of our other regional towns. Some steps had been taken to combat some electoral abuse in the form of the Great Reform Act of 1832, addressing the “rotten boroughs” which all too often sent MPs to Parliament despite having very small populations, but until 1870 little legislation of any great effect came into play and, in the 1840’s, Sudbury ended up disenfranchised as a named seat because of its rotten practices.
Sudbury had its own version of Mo Farah in the form of the ‘Running Boy’ when, in April 1879, a young apprentice by the name of James Bigmore ran alongside the Norwich coach, all the way from Sudbury to Norwich, a distance of 60 miles in 6 hours and bronze No5 depicts this remarkable (if bonkers) feat of endurance, although the contemporary and dreadful service offered by Greater Anglia rail between London-Norwich today might mean locals adopt the example of James and start running it because it would probably be as swift. The story was reported in the Ipswich Journal as a race undertaken for a bet or wager:
“James Bigmore, the Suffolk Pedestrian started on Monday the 1st, at Sudbury to go 50 miles in nine hours, on a half mile piece of ground, which he performed in eight hours and 50 minutes.” (Ipswich Journal: March 6th 1824).
Nearby Boxford had its pub and lion owning Wall of Death artiste in the form of Tornado Smith but Sudbury can boast the Great Blondin, subject of bronze No 6 and a trapeze artist who, in 1872, visited the town and, on a rope suspended across the yard behind the Anchor Pub in Friars St, demonstrated his prowess by pushing a Sudbury resident along a rope slung across the gap, in a wheelbarrow. The Suffolk Chronicle failed to report on this visit but did excitedly report on his visit to Ipswich, reminding readers of the artistes various feats of balance:
“On the 16th July, he again crossed Niagara, wheeling a wheelbarrow. On the 5th August he crossed again, turning somersaults and performing extraordinary gymnastics on the rope. On the 19th August he performed the unprecedented feat of carrying a man across the Niagara River on his back, thousands of spectators looking on, and momentarily expecting the death of one or both of the daring men. On the 27th August he went over as a Siberian Slave in shackles. On the 2nd September he crossed at night, and stood on his head amid a blaze of fireworks…the last performance at Niagara was given before H.R.H. the Prince of Wales. On this occasion, Blondin put the climax to all his other achievements by crossing the rope on stilts.” (Suffolk Chronicle: May 24th 1873)
Born Jean Francois Gravelot in Northern France, the Great Blondin became obsessed with crossing Niagara Falls, succeeding in Feb 1859 on a rope measuring some 1,100 foot long and 3 inches in diameter. He even performed high wire at the Crystal Palace pushing his five year old daughter in a little wheelbarrow. He went on to cross Niagara eight more times, was easily the most famous artiste in his speciality and died aged 73.
Bronze No 7 needs little introduction, being a memorial to one of Sudburys most (if not the) famous sons- Thomas Gainsborough, born in the town and previous owner of the eponymous house in the eponymous street, now a museum. Scion of a weaving family also involved with the wool trade, both industries being closely associated with Sudbury, at the age of thirteen Gainsborough went to London to study art in 1740, training under the engraver Hubert Gravelot and eventually becaming associated with William Hogarth and his school of painting. This bronze shows Thomas and his wife Margaret and is located not too far from Gainsborough House, the museum and well worth a visit to see his work.
Vital to the prosperity and livelihood of the town was its proximity to its river, the Stour which provided a navigable connection to the sea and a way of transporting the products of regional industries- farming, bricks, wool among many. A river with two names, the pronounciation of which causes much good hearted debate, it can be pronounced Stower (rhyming with myrrh) or Stour (rhyming with hour). I am not going to disclose which I favour. Bronze No 8 depicts the river transport so crucial to the wellbeing of Sudbury.
During the reign of Queen Anne in 1705, Parliament passed an act which made the River Stour navigable from Sudbury, Suffolk to Manningtree, Essex, making it one of the country’s earliest statutory rights of navigation. Sadly many of the locks have now disappeared rendering the waterway navigable only by lighter craft along the entire length. The journey from Sudbury to the estuary normally took around 2 days, with an overnight stop halfway at Horkesley where bunkhouses offering refreshments were provided. Goods, particularly bricks were taken down river via pairs of horse drawn barges and brought other goods back and were often featured in John Constable’s paintings. In 1914 the entire Sudbury fleet of around 20 lighters was scuttled in the Ballingdon Cut part of the river because of the fears of invasion at the start of the First World War.
Nowadays there are companies offering pleasure craft rides along the river, Sudbury Rowing Club operates from premises behind the Quay Theatre and the latter itself offers visitors the chance to see an exquisitely restored granary in a glorious setting. The river and water meadows are famously depicted by Constable and are one of the regions best walks with miles of beautiful views and safe, well maintained pathways.
Sadly dancing bears remain one of the more reprehensible ‘tourist attractions’ in some countries but thankfully Britain has moved on from this ‘entertainment’ although back in the day, Sudbury saw its fair share of visiting bears and traveling showmen who trained their captive bears to dance at the end of a chain connected to a ring through the animals nose. In the 19th century and before the establishment of zoos, travelling menageries or single travelling showmen reached the height of their popularity, partly because overseas trade encouraged a marketplace for animals but also because publicity glorified the experiences of explorers and travellers and created a public hungry to see living creatures in the flesh.
Brought by Victorian showmen to entertain the locals, the muzzled bears were housed down the passage beside 54 Church Street before and after their ‘performance’, near to where the showmen lodged in cheap accommodation at the rear. Bronze No 9 depicts two of the bears and is much admired by children brought up on a literary diet of bears treated considerably more amiably than those in our Victorian past.
Although I used to live in Clare, with the motte of the famous Clare Castle at the bottom of my garden, Amecia, the daughter of the Earl of Gloucester in the 12th century who married into the powerful De Clare family and brought her wealth to Sudbury, was unknown to me. Bronze No 10 commemorates her and her founding of a hospital by Ballingdon Bridge, itself thought to have been constructed with stone from northern France, a legacy of her family heritage. Originally a Norman family, the De Clares took their name from Clare in Suffolk where their first castle, and the seat of their barony, was located. The family went on to hold huge estates across Wales, Ireland, and twenty two English counties by the 13th century with a descendant, Gilbert, going on to becomeone of the twenty five barons involved in the administration of the Magna Carta in 1215.
Sudbury had come into the possession of the de Clare family through the marriage of Amicia Gloucester to Richard de Clare, Earl of Hertford, around 1182; the couple were described as relatively generous Lords of the Manor but it was vital that the town, bursting at its seams, be allowed to expand. But in 1314 the last of the male line of the family died out with the death of young, childless Gilbert at Bannockburn. It took some time to sort out the estate but after being divided between Richards sisters, Sudbury became the property of Elizabeth De Burgh who set about endowing and expanding the town via a new trading centre incorporating the field which was the site of the annual trading fair:s a field we know now as Market Hill. Amicia also granted grazing rights to the Hospital of Saint John for four cows and twenty sheep on Kings Mere (now Kings Marsh) and Portmanscroft (now Freemans Common).
Amicia and the family of the De Clares were great founders of religious houses and no less than sixteen monasteries were established by them. Amicia endowed the Hospital of the Knights of Saint John at Jerusalem, near Ballingdon bridge, with the tolls charged by bridge users and the rents of nearby houses. The Monasticon Anglicanum (1654), refers to a hospital situated in the messuage of Saint Sepulchre which was also endowed by the Clare family. There were three hospitals in the town: St Sepulchre’s, the Knight Hospitallers near Ballingdon bridge (the site now known as HospitalYard) and John Colney’s leper hospital dedicated to Saint Leonard and situated near St Bartholomew’s Priory and Chapel on the Melford Road. Human skeletons and remains of foundations of buildings have been found near and on the site of the church and during the excavation of a cellar in School St, the street adjoining Stour Street in 1800, many intact skeletons were disinterred.
The De Clare family are also closely associated with the common lands that surround Sudbury, especially its water meadows and subject of bronze No 11, depicting lands that have been continuously grazed for over a thousand years: a topic close to my heart because my own daughter is eligible to be made a Freewoman of Sudbury although, at time of writing, she has yet to take it up. in 1260, Richard De Clare gave the pastures to the burgesses of Sudbury for a rent of up to 40 shillings a year, and to this day Freemen and women recieve their share of this rent alongside their own grazing rights. Historically, they would have been the only people of the town to have a parliamentary vote and although the role now is purely honorary, they still work hard to preserve the traditions. The grazing of cattle is central to the management of this delicate and beautiful eco system because their continual grazing keeps the land at a specific point in its succession, creating an open pasture land and the frequent flooding that occurs from the neary Stour keeps the grass lush because of silt deposition, providing a great diet for the cows that dine out there.
Another of Sudbury’s famous events was the Peasants Revolt of 1381 which saw the head of Simon of Sudbury separated from his body after angry poor locals rebelled against the imposition of a Poll Tax of 15p, to go to the King and support the war with France. As Chancellor, gaining support for this was Simons job and it didn’t go down too well. Bronze No 12 commemorates this. An event that has its roots in the aftermath of The Black Death of 1348-9 that wiped out a third of the population, the resulting crucial shortage of labour meant that surviving labour forces were able to exploit the situation as for the first time competitive wages were on offer. The government sought to control this with a ruling in 1351 that saw rents and wages fixed in an attempt to control this labour/wages situation but it was unsuccessful as were attempts by subsequent governments. Labourers were understandably miffed at this measure designed to prevent them from earning more than basic wages for their work and were clearly not going to give up without a fight. When you consider that the King had to pawn his own jewels to the City of London as a surety for a loan of £5,000 to fund the war with France, you can see how both sides were fighting a cause neither could afford to lose.
Research shows that local women were instrumental in this protest and the leader of the group that arrested Simon and dragged him to the executioners block was a woman called Johanna Ferrour. The poll tax was deemed to be much harder on married women who were taxed separately from their husbands, regardless of their employment status or income, and their pole position (sorry) in the protests against the Poll Tax was explained by this. As for Simon, he was beheaded near to the Tower of London but his head, complete with axe marks, resides in a vault in Sudbury’s St Gregorys Church, something that seems rather unchristian in my opinion and making his image the subject of unlucky bronze No 13 – a clear case of art imitating life.
The final bronze in the Talbot Trail depicts ‘Kemps Jig’, danced famously by William Kemp who, instead of running to Norwich from London as the famous Running Boy did, decided to dance from London to Norwich in 1599. His partner was a milkmaid from Sudbury who got cold (dancing) feet in Long Melford and rather sensibly gave up there. When you consider the likelihood of infected blisters and the lack of antibiotics, she appears to be one very sensible women (if not much fun), although getting up at dawn to milk herds of cows would dampen anyones dancing ardour.
More commonly referred to as Will Kemp, he was an English actor and dancer who specialised in comic roles including being an original player in Shakespearean early dramas. He may have been associated with the role of Falstaff and became one of a core of five actor-shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men alongside Shakespeare and Richard Burbage. To counter claims of falsehood after his dancing marathon he published an account of the event, referred to as ‘The Nine Daies Wonder,’ with its wager that he could achieve it in less than ten days. Which he won. (Thank goodness because the sum of £100 on the table was a ruinous amount to lose in those days.) Kemp also inspired a tune titled ‘Kemps Jig,’ which became well known during the times of the Renaissance and was arranged specifically for lute players.
Kemps account went on to be sold by the west door of Saint Pauls Church in 1600 and was described as thus in the epigrath, addressed to Mistris Anne Fitton, Mayde of Honour to the most sacred Mayde Royall Queene Elizabeth:
“Containing the pleasure, paines and kinde entertainment of William Kemp between London and that Citty in his late Morrice.
Wherein is somewhat set downe worth note; to reproove the slaunders spred of him: many things merry, nothing hurtfull.
Written by himselfe to satisfie his friends.”
If you’ve worked up an appetite after walking the trail then Sudbury has a variety of good places to eat, some actually on the trail. Along Friars Street is the Rude Strawberry which provides home made snacks and small meals alongside high quality teas and coffees. Ingredients are locally sourced where possible. Slightly out of town in Borehamgate Precinct is the hub of all things chocolate, Marimba whose Hot Chocolate Melts are made from flakes of real chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Ecuador. Gainsborough Street has the CoffeeHouse and the Waggon & Horses Pub on Acton Square is very close to St Gregorys Church and the beautiful Croft with the river Stour flowing nearby. Finally, should you be craving a properly handmade burger with all the trimmings, then Shakes N Baps is for you, right by Belle Vue Park.
Sudburys Talbot Trail pdf can be downloaded from here.
We asked folks from all over (including some well known East Anglian people) about the books that made a deep impression upon them as both as children and as adults and it has been an absolute pleasure to compile this feature- so much so that we intend this to be the first in a series of literary reminiscences. All of them read as children, seeing books as solace, inspiration, as a companion or maybe a way of validating their own thoughts and lives. Others were spirited away by their book from a life which held challenges for them, whether from the usual tumult and clamour of childhood or something more. What also emerged was the way in which these readers reinterpret the books they loved as children, reframing them in the current cultural and political context that perhaps escaped them at the time. Or they revisit the comfort the books brought, seeing this in a new and fresh light which nonetheless continues to retain its original youthful purpose. Finally, we see the vivid imagination of the child at play in the way some of the contributors lived those stories, dressing as the characters, apeing their habits or in contrast, rejecting those behaviours or characters they perceived as wrong or unpleasant.
Ray Bradbury was clear about the importance of books and libraries and urged readers to go forth with the ideas discovered within: “You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”. We would say that every person interviewed here is trying to do that, in positive and creative ways, even if those hats upon their heads are strictly metaphorical, albeit many and varied.
So…..from the more traditional childhood reading to the less so; from the books that transported and educated to those that fired them up and made them want to do something, they are all here, in no particular order – person or book. Enjoy.
Karen Cannard lives in Bury St Edmunds and is the creator of the Rubbish Diet, writer of a personal blog and columnist for the Suffolk Free Press. Resourceful and possessed of great shoes, Karen has recently been a judge for the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize, continues to take the Rubbish Diet from strength to strength worldwide and has given a well regarded Ted Talk – ‘Abate, renovate & innovate: individual power over waste’. Here are Karen’s book choices:
“My choice for a childhood book is most definitely Lord of the Flies by William Golding, which I read as as a textbook for English at school. It was quite a scary read at the time. It wasn’t so much the crash on an isolated island that I found terrifying but how the structure of civilised behaviour could so easily break down into savagery and terror when everyday reference points disappeared and life became a fight for survival. For me, Lord of the Flies marked an end to my own childhood innocence and my view on the world, saying goodbye to the ginger-beer fuelled adventures created by Enid Blyton and hello to the wider grown-up world of conflict.
As an adult ‘The Struggle for Land’, by Joe Foweraker, was a study text for one of my degree subjects, International Relations. Published in 1981, Foweraker tells of the violence, politics and profiteering surrounding the agricultural development in Brazil. It was my first insight into the social injustice and environmental issues in an economy striving to serve an increasing global demand for farmed produce. From deforestation, violence and a corrupt political system, it was a real eye-opener.
‘Enough: breaking free from the world of more’ and written by John Naish questioned my own part in our consumer culture and my constant need for the latest gadgets and replacing broken things for new. Along with my growing awareness of waste, It helped foster my appreciation of what I already have, encouraged me to keep hold of things for longer and to value creativity and reuse.”
It is not hyperbolic to affirm that Linda Tirado has raised some much needed hell. Linda’s original essay about poverty, “Why I Make Terrible Decisions, or, poverty thoughts’ was written as a comment on a Gawker thread and went on to birth her book, ‘Hand to Mouth’, the raw and honest truth about being poor. A campaigner and activist on many issues, civil rights and health care among them, Linda can be found on twitter at @killermartinis and via her website Bootstrap Industries. Her choices are firmly located in the context of access to education and books and the importance of this.
“The books that stick out are The Borribles, and the ones by Madeline L’Engle and Roald Dahl. I loved scenes of children making big plans and learning incredible things. As an adult, I’ve mostly read nonfiction and history, and I’ve a soft spot for biographies of philosophers because knowing the ideas without context is only half of the philosophy really. Just now I’m reading Tom Clark’s newest book on the economy and I’m back on John Locke.
I still retain a bit of whimsy because of my childhood books; they taught me to accept the impossible and as I dealt with depression and anger I have recalled those lessons and been able to live a bit more comfortably in my head. After all, I’m not a strange elfchild battling giant rodents in Battersea with a slingshot, so how bad could it be really?
I didn’t go to college. But I’m well educated because books exist. They have at times been my only friends, and there is nothing so comfortable as a decent book and a decent whiskey. Preferably in yoga pants.”
Barry Peters is the Group Editor at Anglia Newspapers Ltd for five regional print and digital media titles and is also on twitter. He has edited the four edition print newspaper, The Bury Free Press since 2000, steering it successfully into the digital age. Here he tells us about the books that inspired and influenced him, first as a child and later as an adult:
“I was given Richard Adams’ Watership Down as a young boy in the Fens. It conjured up images I could relate to and really got me hooked on words – something which led me eventually into journalism. I loved books which related to country matters at a young age – the fun vet books from James Herriot were magical and a quick, easy, accessible read.
As for adult books, I’m sure others will write about To Kill A Mocking Bird...I could read that book over and over again and never get bored. I can always lose myself in Pride and Prejudice – you can’t beat Jane Austen being didactic. But here are some left-field ideas:
I love sport and the people who excel. I loved John McEnroe, worshipped Ian Botham and admired Lance Armstrong for his battles with cancer and his ability to win the world’s greatest cycle spectacle. David Walsh’s 2013 expose of Armstrong -Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong- cuts across both my joy for journalism (he is the Chief Sports Writer on the Sunday Times) and sport. Film to follow.
Sadly for my family, I’m a keen (if poor) angler. Chris Yates’ Casting at the Sun evokes such great imagery and is written in a way which will excite both avid anglers and those without much knowledge at all. Yates featured on the classic A Passion For Angling and, in 1980, was a boyhood hero of mine when he landed a record fish in the fabled Redmire pool. He famously cast aside buzzers, boilies and bedchairs and fished the old way with rod, line and bread flake which reminded me of my (late) dad.
Bit quirky and not very bookish, but hopefully a little different…”
Michael Lee West is the author of eight books, and counting and a blog which celebrates her life on a rural farm in Tennessee. Her books are quintessentially Southern in a modern way, suffused with the glorious food of this diverse region and acknowledging of its complicated history. A food lover to her core (as all those brought up in Louisiana are wont to be), Michael Lee West cooks as well as she writes and shares her recipes with readers on her blog, on twitter and in her books, the first of which was a memoir of food, love and family.
“I was ill one summer and my mother brought books home from the library. I adored Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (all of the books). The books took me away from quarantine, into the world of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. When I got a bit older, mom introduced me to Dickens. I began to understand the potent magic of fiction and its power to change a life. As an adult, I re-read the masterful works of Dickens and find something new each time. I also adore Agatha Christie and MC Beaton. and The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were also childhood favorites. Now I’m almost 61 and still read JRR Tolkien. So do my children.”
The prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour in South Suffolk, Jane Basham’s connections with the region go deep, over 23 years deep in fact. As chief executive of Suffolks leading civil rights charity (ISCRE), Chair and Womens Officer of the South Suffolk Labour Party, Board member at Runnymede Trust and the Police Public Encounters Board, Jane is deeply committed to the politics of fairness and equality and is a staunch supporter of local campaigns to defend mental health services from cuts. She is a force for good on twitter but does, however, find some time to read and this is what she told us:
“The book that influenced me the most when I was young was Great Expectations. I was born in Gravesend a town closely connected to Charles Dickens. I was therefore only a short distance away from the cottage and forge in Chalk that it is said Dickens based Joe Gargery’s forge on. I find Dickens characters larger than life yet so believable. Great Expectations contains some powerful messages. How those who commit crimes do not lose their humanity. How betrayal can destroy beauty and how money provides both and sorrow. How your past influences your future and the power of memory.
The Swimmer by Roma Tearne (originally from Sri Lanka) a book that I discovered in 2011 when I was the Chief Executive of the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality. Set around Aldeburgh the story centres on a refugee from Sri Lanka, his relationship with a ‘middle aged’ woman, the ‘State’ and the memory of home. The book resonated with me with because of my work with refugees, asylum seekers and my understanding of the tragedy that is the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka. Tearne makes Sri Lanka feel familiar as the main character connects to the Suffolk landscape – the reeds and migrating birds that remind him of home. Again the book speaks to me about the influence of the past upon us and the power of memory.”
Alumni of Edinburgh University, teacher at Bury St Edmund’s County Upper School, feminist and organiser of the Bury St Edmunds Fawcett Society, Eleanor Rehahn is deeply involved in regional politics and social affairs. Keep an eye out for the Fawcetts campaign in the spring which will be encouraging young women locally to vote. Eleanor can be found on twitter here.
“Books have been such a massive part of my life, to the extent that I am very suspicious of people who don’t have books in their house, at their fingertips, and are not able to tell you what they are currently reading. In terms of childhood reading there are so many to choose from.
However, the books that have remained with me for their uniqueness and magic have been the Moomin books. I have been enjoying them again reading them with my 7 year old over the past year and this has at times been a very moving experience.”
Ben Hatch is a writer, family man, gives great twitter and has both fiction and travel books to his name. His book ‘Are We Nearly There Yet’ triumphed at the top of the Kindle non-fiction charts, not just because of his digital promotion skills but because it is great writing. Ben’s latest novel is called ‘THE P45 DIARIES: How To Get Sacked From Every Job in Britain’ and is under development as a BBC sitcom. A former BBC Radio 4 Book of The Year, it is loosely based on Ben’s experiences of his teens and 20s.
“As a child the books I remember most were the ones that scared me. I remember reading about a description of the plague in a Dr Doolittle story and watching my skin for days to check it wasn’t blackening. Ted Hughes‘ story of The Iron Man gripped me for the same reason. We lived in a tower block and I’d hope each night to see a giant robot staring in through the curtains.
Mostly literature passed me by though until I was 19 and read The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield seemed the coolest guy in the world to me and for at least a year I wore a deerstalker hat turned around the wrong way to emulate him. Salinger just seemed to nail so well how you’d like to be a young man it’s a book I still dip into now. Other books that have blown away as an adult – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is so breathtakingly funny and audacious you smile and lap the book down on virtually every page. Other favourites with more subtle humour – Revolutionary Road and Tender is The Night. More recently I just love Geoff Dyer’s take on friendship in almost all his books.”
I’d say Lynn Schreiber is well on her way to becoming a force to be reckoned with in the field of child and young adult digital media. Lynn is the founder of Jump! Magazine, a site whose only assumption about girls and boys is that they want lively and intelligent content that is not predicated upon gender assumptions. Interactive and with content partly generated by its young audience, Jump! recently branched out into digital publishing with a series of e-books. Lynn and Jump can both be found on twitter; here she talks about her book inspirations:
“I’d have to say Anne of Green Gables, as it has always been one of my favourite books. Aside from the wonderfully descriptive writing, and the great humour, I love that girls were encouraged to have confidence in their abilities and their talents, and to view their physical appearance as secondary. Now more than ever, this message is vital, for both boys and girls.
I would love to say that a worthy tome, or a slim book of philosophy had most impact on my adult life, but in my day to day life, the book that most affected me was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen. It changed the way I speak and communicate with my children, and also made me more aware of communication skills with others.”
Angela Wiltshire trained as a mental health nurse and now works as a psychotherapist and certified Transactional Analyst with a practice in Hadleigh, Suffolk. Active on twitter too, Angela is deeply involved with local politics for the Labour party and works very hard to support her local High St, encouraging people to shop locally and campaigning about the issues affecting local, rural economies. Angela was also successfully nominated to stand for the South Cosford by-election to Babergh District Council last Spring, 2014.
“The book that I read in my childhood, and again in adulthood, and which impacted me very deeply was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ by Harper Lee. We read it in English classes at school. I remember looking forward to class to read it. It was powerful and my teacher did all the Deep South accents which strengthened the force of it and after she had read a piece, she would hand over to us to read a paragraph each too. Nothing in my childhood matched it, and I was reminded of it for the rest of my days at that school, as it introduced my classmates to a new name to call me…..’N*gg*r’ (Angela is part Burmese.)
The book that I read as an adult which really left its mark on me is ‘The God of Small Things‘ by Arundhati Roy. Such a sad story. I finished it and immediately started it again. The characters in the story seem trapped in all kinds of cultural quick sand, finding forbidden love outside their groups with unhappy outcomes. Roy’s characters are robbed of their cultural ‘histories’ in post colonial India, something which I strongly relate to, and do not fit into the groups designated to them. The story’s sinister ‘Orangedrink Lemondrink Man’ is way more frightening than any Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster and I couldn’t shift him out of my nightmares for years.”
James Anderson is the author of The Never-Open Desert Diner, due to be published in February 2015. Born in Seattle and raised in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, he has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College in Boston. For many years he worked in book publishing alongside other jobs including logging, commercial fishing and, briefly, as a truck driver. He currently divides his time between Ashland, Oregon, and the Four Corners region of the American Southwest from where he also tweets. We reviewed ‘Never Open Desert Diner’ here.
“The most lasting gift of art, in this case literary art, is that is refuses to be static. A poem or a novel read at a young age begs to be read again, and when it is, we find it is a whole new experience because we have changed. I have read Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain over ten times throughout my life and it has never failed to inform my appreciation of those Siamese twins, imagination and youth.
My first introduction to magic realism in my early twenties came not from Marquez or Borges, but from Mikhail Bulgakov’sThe Master and Margarita, at the time banned in the Soviet Union. Magic realism is the voice of the marginalized and oppressed. The experience of powerlessness and victimization is real and the safety of magic in heightened image and metaphor offers sanctuary and hope in a world beyond understanding. Though seemingly unrelated, Bulgakov’s novel led me in the 1980s to a profound appreciation of desert literature, most notably The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert by Bruce Berger, and the works of Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich and, ultimately, Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. In these books I discovered a thread of magic realism that spoke for the beauty of the desert and its preternatural light, again a sanctuary and a hope for a world beyond understanding.”
Blogger , twitter person, writer for the New Statesman, the Feminist Times and other media outlets, Glosswitch shines a feminist light on everything from parenting, mental health and illness to politics- from the big arena stuff to the more personal. Often focusing on the parts of the stories that other media do not reach (the reduction in life expectancy of people with mental illness; why farting is a feminist issue), Glosswitch’s writing is poignant, often very funny and always scythe sharp. Here’s what she said about her life in books:
“I would like to say something much cooler and less politically questionable, but the truth is the books that made the biggest impression on me and which I enjoyed the most as a child were ones by Enid Blyton – first of all The Magic Faraway Tree series, then later the Malory Towers and St Claire’s ones. I’d like to think that in some small way the influence they had on me was positive – I later wrote my PhD on German Romanticism, an interest which was inspired in part by reading slightly sinister fairy stories as a child (I think The Faraway Tree could count as one!). I also wonder if part of the attraction to the boarding school stories was that of a female-only space, in which girls were clearly independent agents who were not acting on behalf of a male audience. I was around 12 when I read the St Claire’s series, a time when my own school life couldn’t have been more different to the ones Blyton described (at a mixed-sex comp with major stress about puberty, impressing boys etc. etc.). While I wouldn’t say Malory Towers is exactly a feminist manifesto, I do think there’s something powerful about how female-centred it is (unlike, say, the Sweet Valley High books I later started reading and now look back on in dismay).
The main focus of my PhD was E.T.A. Hoffmann, a male writer, but beyond that I would say that as an adult I lean very heavily towards reading female authors – there’s less ego in the writing, more truth and less of a desperation to impress (I say, generalising wildly). Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal is one of my favourite novels as I think the characterisation is just perfect . Another would be Emma Donaghue’s Room. I would love to be able to write like these women but I can’t imagine how it is that one puts oneself so completely beneath the skin of another, entirely imaginary human being. As a feminist I’ve lately got into reading Andrea Dworkin’s work and that I find utterly inspiring – there’s real lyricism in the way she writes and it manages to convey a real love for women (I put off reading her for years, so convinced was I that love for women = hatred for men!).”
Lesley Dolphin, radio broadcaster and show presenter began her career at the BBC in 1980 at Look East, moving onto BBC Radio Norfolk. A migration to Suffolk a few years later saw her start her broadcasting at BBC Radio Suffolk where she presents an afternoon talk and music show packed with regional colour, music and chat alongside promoting local charities and events. A true local ‘celeb’ Lesley is a season ticket holder at Ipswich Town Football Club and is very much involved with Suffolk life although she has been known to step outside of the county to do things like climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Find her here on twitter.
“I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember. My bookshelf still displays several dogeared, well read books from my childhood. There are the classics like The Borrowers, Wind in the Willows and Winnie The Pooh alongside all 12 books written by Arthur Ransome. These were my dads favourites and several of our summer holidays were spent in the Lake District following in the footsteps of The Swallows and Amazons. I loved our weekly visit to the library although my 4 books didn’t always last so I would also save my pocket money to buy the latest Chalet School paperback.
It’s hard to choose any particular favourites from those years because I just devoured books and so many titles flood to mind : E Nesbitt’s Five Children and It, Fell Farm Camping, Milly Molly Mandy, Ballet Shoes, the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Secret Seven, 101 Dalmations – I could go on! However If I really have to pick my favourites there are two, both of them trilogies. Firstly Elizabeth Goudge’s The Elliot’s of Damerosehay – I had not read a family saga before and I loved her descriptive writing. The other book was a Christmas present and it was the best year ever when I unwrapped Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings – I didn’t leave my bedroom for 3 days while I read it!”
Based in Norwich, author Emma Healey’s first novel ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ was published in 2014 to great acclaim and is now being filmed for an upcoming TV drama. A graduate of a book binding course, Emma’s writing speaks of a love of books that goes far beyond the written word and her first novel is partly inspired by the memory of her two grandmothers, one of whom had dementia, the subject (in part) of her book -read our interview with her here. Instagrammer in residence at the Reading Activists Account, Emma’s website also features her vines and other short films and animations, another form of art she is interested in. Here is Emma’s list:
“One of the books I remember loving as a small child was A Lion in the Meadow by Margaret Mahy. I read it over and over with my mum when I was 3 or 4 and I remember getting a huge stuffed lion for Christmas because of my obsession with it. The book is all about credibility, and imagination versus reality, which is a theme I still find interesting! Secondly, Red is Bestby Kathy Stinson. I loved the stubbornness of the child and the focus, I felt similarly about the colour red, but wasn’t as tunnel-visioned. It was the first time I really thought about character, I suppose.
As a teenager I loved I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. There are two styles of writer in the book – the protagonist, Cassandra Mortmain, who writes while ‘sitting in the kitchen sink’, and her father, the tortured genius who hides himself away in the castle gatehouse. I thought I’d be happy being either.
I also choose The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. I was pretty obsessed with Ann Radcliffe when I was 15 (The Sicilian Romance was my other favourite). TheMysteries of Udolpho is a gothic story from the end of the eighteenth century about a young woman locked up in a forbidding castle, what I liked best was the fact that all the seemingly supernatural happenings had ingenious human explanations in the end. The author (and reader) is having her cake and eating is – creating a spooky sinister atmosphere, but anchoring the action firmly in the real(isn) world.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. As you can see above I loved the eighteenth century gothic romances which this book is sending up, and it’s very clever in the way it treads a similar path to Don Quixote, but without becoming farce in the same way. I also think the meeting between Tilney and Catherine is one of the most exhilarating and witty moments in literature – and a master class in dialogue.”
As an adult I would choose The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. It’s really wonderful, vivid and funny. The children are brilliantly drawn without sentimentality, the plot is exciting but never takes over, and the structure is quietly innovative. The protagonist and narrator,Cecil Grey, is exactly the confused jumble of awkward/ passionate/ romantic/ practical/ knowing/ innocent that I was as an adolescent. I just wish I’d had a summer in a French hotel with an international criminal.
Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. This is a brilliantly subtle book, one that explores loneliness above all (a theme which I think is increasingly important in our society). The narrator is sympathetic despite being inherently untrustworthy, the plot unfolds beautifully, and the way the story is told matches the story itself perfectly. Lastly, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym says so much about the position of certain kinds of women in church communities, it promotes a gentle form of feminism and is also very funny. There are some wonderful characters too: Anglo-Catholic priests and anthropologists, a sexy officer just back from the second world war and an elderly woman who insists on having chicken for dinner because she hates birds and believes in ‘eating your enemies’.”