MY YEAR OF NOT WORKING (AKA RATHER A LOT OF LUNCHES).

 

 

 

 

A year ago today, I left my much-loved magazine job of 29 years, in tears and in a state of numbness and shock. Although I know nobody is indispensable, I truly thought they were going to have to carry me out feet first.  Or, at least, allow me another few years there.  But major technology changes which were set in motion a few years before resulted in a massive restructuring of the company and huge amounts of job losses (almost a quarter of the entire company) in pretty much one fell swoop.  All in readiness for selling it on. My whole dept went, so it wasn’t a question of not being good at my job (just ask my ex-boss and my old team of regular writers), which is some small consolation, I suppose.  The real reason, of course, was to save money.  Isn’t it always?!

I didn’t even go to my own leaving do – by all accounts, a mere shadow of how these things used to be. I was also very angry and upset in the days before we left; afraid to open my mouth for fear of what would come out.  I talk about it and others in more detail in a previous post on my blog, so I won’t repeat it all here. Look under “L” for “Leaving dos” under my A-Z of magazine life.

People have likened it to a bereavement grieving period, but when will it end?  I think I’m feeling better about things, then choke up and start to cry in the middle of a conversation with someone.  I try to hide it. I know there are others with far more serious problems and worries.  I can’t always hide it, though.  A friend told me the other day he can feel the unhappiness coming off me in waves and he doesn’t know what to say to me.

In many ways, the magazine was like a family to us all and the combination of work I enjoyed doing and lovely, caring and supportive colleagues got me through any number of devastating life experiences while I was there. I miss magazine life: my colleagues, our banter, the laughs we used to have (though admittedly they were becoming few and far between in the last few years there), the insider and industry gossip, not to mention all the free books that landed on my desk every day.  A huge perk of the job for an avid reader and lifelong book lover such as myself.  I even looked forward to going into work on a Monday!  How many people can say that?  Although we worked hard to constant deadlines and challenges and were never complacent about our jobs, we were cushioned and cocooned to a certain extent and the reality of “out there” has been an unwelcome eye-opener for me.

My ex-boss told me the other day that she misses it all as well – and she was there a lot longer than me and can remember the really, really good old days, when our magazine (and other weeklies) consistently hit the million-plus mark in sales every week and the champagne was cracked open to celebrate.  She said she could walk back into the office tomorrow, sit down, switch on her computer and get straight back into the work as though she had never been away. I feel exactly the same.  Between us, we had 66 years of experience! No wonder we could pick it all up again right now. Not doing anything is a waste of our talents and expertise and it’s frustrating and upsetting to see how sloppy magazines and books are looking these days – full of errors on just about every page.  We all know why: fewer staff to treble-check every word. It’s bad enough with magazines but with books it’s far worse, as they are around forever.

I saw a friend three months after it had happened and he told me that was no time at all in which to try to get over it.  When he was made redundant, also from a job he loved, it had taken him three years before he could move on to something else. I don’t have his sort of money, though, so that just isn’t an option for me. But it is something that is on my mind every single day and it has given me many sleepless nights.  Which is quite ironic, really.  In the last few years of when I was working and it had all become so much more stressful, I had to have sleeping tablets from my doctor because I was having trouble getting more than just a few hours’ sleep every night (she told me to leave my job and I told her I couldn’t, ha ha). I had two alarms clocks on the go.  Now, I have those same tablets to help me sleep because I’m NOT working. I am still waking up at two or three am, mind racing back and forth, and having mild panic attacks (more on these later).

I am getting to dread seeing people I haven’t seen for a while.  They seem so surprised I haven’t found anything yet. I find myself repeating the same phrases over and over: “No, there’s nothing out there for me atm. Yes, I am on Linkedin.  Yes, I go online to look. No, nothing suitable at all.  No, I don’t know what I want to do next. I loved my job. I want to keep the skills I worked so hard to get and maintain. It’s happening all over the publishing world. There are fewer and fewer jobs out there. Freelance, you say?  But freelance what, exactly?!  What I did was very specialised. I think I’ve had my career.  I will probably have to do more than one thing to make the same amount of money. No, I’m not sending my CV out into the ether. I know what happens to those. Besides which, they have to be tailored to each job.  Please don’t ask me again. I can see the irritation and boredom in your face. Now, shall we change the subject?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, I have become slightly obsessive about people having jobs. By which I mean, when someone was complaining on Facebook about the forthcoming renovations on Buck House, and that the Queen herself should put her hand in her pocket, not the taxpayer, I chipped in with: “Yes, I know but just think of the JOBS all that work will be creating!”  Again, when my partner was recently questioning the point of Love Island and shaking his head over its rather incredible popularity, I could only say: “Yes, I agree with you but think of the JOBS that one programme must generate, never mind all the others!”

For myself, I try hard not to feel a complete failure but I know the waters are closing over my head.  I feel I’m too young to retire, can’t afford to anyway, yet probably too old to start a new career.  I feel inhibited, stuck, paralysed. Unable to move on and think about what I want to do next.  I’ve been told to focus on what I do want to do, rather than what I don’t but, truth is, I just don’t know what that is!

THE GOOD

I have caught up with friends I hadn’t seen in ages and even made a few new ones.  I am lunching.  A lot.  I joke about it.  A lot.  I’m becoming quite the expert at it and have discovered many lovely new places to try.  I’m happy to travel again, now I don’t have to,  and have been going up to town on the train most weeks.  It’s bliss, not travelling in the rush hour.  I can be a tourist and visit all those places I always said I would have to take time off work to do properly.  However, I am not best pleased with myself for managing to get lost so many times.  I have lived up here for most of my life, for goodness’ sake!  I have also discovered some lovely pockets of proper old London and am pleased to see there are still plenty of those left. What the developers have done to our beautiful riverside is nothing short of criminal, though, in my view.

Finding unexpected allies and new friends within the group of writers I used to receive stories from has been a huge bonus. Driving to my house from many miles away to see me and go out for lunch (of course!), or meeting up in town, ditto.  Sending me their books and stories to look at because I said I was missing them so much. Sending kind and supportive emails. It’s been a revelation and I am hugely grateful to all of them. You know who you are!

Catching up with my reading pile, which I always joked would only happen when I retired. To fill the void of not getting all the latest releases into the office every week (I know, we were definitely spoiled), I found myself buying loads of new books and ordering lots from the internet, at first, so that every week there were exciting parcels dropping through my letterbox. I’ve slowed down a bit now, though, to enable me to catch up. I still love fiction, of course, but I find that I am more drawn to reading non-fiction books at the moment: memoirs, biographies, collected essays, that type of thing. I have discovered a secondhand bookshop in central London where they sell a lovely mix of old and brand-new, just-published books at really low prices.  Also, there are shelves of advanced proof copy books there. These would come into the office on a regular basis and I feel a little pang of remembrance each time I search through them.

One of my writer friends has been a brilliant support, encouraging me to join the monthly group for freelance writers she co-runs in central London, and bullying me into giving a talk there last year. On top of that, this year, she asked me to speak on a panel at the literary festival she runs in the town where she lives.  After the panel session, we all had one-to-ones with writers discussing their stories and I really enjoyed doing this. Being a festival virgin, I was nervous as hell at first but would love to do it again – if anybody is listening!

I have to admit that I had always shied away from giving talks, speaking at workshops, etc, and was thankfuI I didn’t have to do any of it as part of my job.  My boss ran our workshops and gave talks to writing groups and the like and I was very happy to let her get on with it, much preferring to stay well within my comfort zone and the relative safety of my desk.

Now, however, I have been well and truly pushed out of that zone in so many interesting ways and would be very happy to do more along these lines. And by the way, if anybody wants an experienced judge for story-writing competitions, you know who to ask!

When working, I was always too busy or too tired (all those horribly early starts and sleepless nights) and too laden down with books and manuscripts to even contemplate attending book launches and talks and the like at the end of a long, long day. Ironically, since being out of work, I have been to several of these, from casual, relaxed pub lunches to very smart evening dos in swanky private clubs.

I have also critiqued a few writers’ stories for them for free, to keep my hand in. It felt great to be doing that again and to feel useful.  It has been suggested I do this officially and start charging for it but, knowing how little the writers earn from their short stories, what would I charge them to make it worth my while? Just one story can take a good few hours to do properly. I’m not going to make a decent living out of it, I know.

I have offered to help a friend with his first book (for free, again).  A bit daunting but all good practise – I hope!

I have written a few blogs for a writers’ website, which I really enjoyed doing and, finally, started blogging myself.  I love writing and the first thing I did with my redundancy money was buy a computer set-up at home, which instantly made me feel so much better. I was and am connected to the world again!

THE BAD

The obvious one – no money coming in.  For the first time in almost 40 years of working full-time, money isn’t automatically landing in my bank account every month and it’s very, very scary. More sleepless nights!

The lack of identity. I call myself a journalist and I suppose I can add writer and blogger to that as well. But I feel a bit of a fraud for doing so as I don’t feel I’ve properly earned it yet.  I was so proud of what I did and of the industry I worked in for nearly 40 years. I had a role. Now, I’m at home a lot more than I was, obviously, but that doesn’t make me a housewife. So who and what am I?

THE UGLY

Those days when I don’t have anything in particular to do or anyone to see.  I have no plan or purpose. My confidence is at rock bottom and I have to force myself to leave the house or go mad. It’s called cabin fever and, as cabins go, it’s not that bad, but I don’t want to spend all my time in it. Some friends of mine don’t understand why I have to go out every day but we’re all different. Besides, they are both retired and have each other’s company.  My partner is still working (thank goodness!) but this means I am on my own all day and often all evening as well and there’s only so much I can stand of my own company.  I refuse to go down the road of watching daytime TV, which others do to pass the time. That would be the beginning of the end for me but, as I say, each to their own.

On her retirement, a friend’s mother told her, “Get out of the house every day, even if it’s just to go up the road for a newspaper and a pint of milk.  Talk to people.  Find a friendly cafe for a coffee or sandwich.  Just. Get. Out.” Wise words I have tried to adhere to but some days it’s a lot easier to do than others.

I have learned to plan my days far ahead, so that I have something to look forward to.  I am lucky to have good friends to see and do nice things with and I am grateful for their company and am enjoying catching up with so many of them. Ten, or even five years ago it would have been a different story but we are all getting older and several of my friends have now fully retired and others, like me, have left one job and are searching for another, with plenty of spare time in between.  I have now devised a Plan B list, as well, for those days when I have no choice but to do things on my own and not be such a wimp about it. It all helps and it stops me from panicking so much.

However, I have always been prone to mild panic attacks and seem to be getting more of these now, often building up to near-hysteria over the slightest, smallest thing – though usually in the privacy of my own home.  Ask any of my friends and I think they would describe me as a bubbly, loud, lively person, who likes to chat, dance, sing, play, muck about, have a good laugh and make others laugh with me.  People have always said I’m good company.  This is just a blip. Normal service will be resumed very soon and, in the meantime, please do feel free to contact me if you fancy meeting up for lunch!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COOKING THE BOOKS – CHAPTER FOUR

 

 

Own up now: Who remembers the JY prog on the radio?  Jimmy Young programme? If I said to you: ”What’s the recipe today, Jim?” in a funny, chipmunk-type voice, would you join in, humour me, or cart me off to the funny farm?  The voice belonged to “Raymondo” JY’s sidekick and the daily recipe slot was incredibly popular. I pounced on the four books, which date from the late sixties to the early seventies, when I saw them at a local book fair a few years ago.

The books include such recipes as: Special TV Supper – a thrilling novelty back then; not so unusual now, of course.  In fact, it would possibly be more Special if everyone sat up at the table for a change.  Special Dining Table Supper doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it, though?  Jean’s Stuffed Tomatoes sounds worth a try.  Though if all does not go to plan, they will forever after be referred to (darkly) as Jean’s Get-Stuffed Tomatoes. There’s Dora’s Pudding.  And Sandra’s Chicken Pie. Not to be outdone, Audrey’s sneaked in with her fancy pate. Clare and Mo’s Onion Special sounds – er – very sociable, I’m sure. Hang on, budge up, ladies.  Here’s Lorraine with her intriguingly-titled Tuna Lorraine.  Bless them all.

Here are some others that caught my eye:

Friday Surprise was – you guessed it – fish. Not much of a surprise, then.

Sausage a la Mode was perhaps on the menu at a key-swapping party? (I once knew someone who claimed she and her husband hadn’t twigged what was going on, picked up their own keys and went home.  So she says.)

Bank Holiday Pie.  May contain wood shavings, blobs of glue and the occasional widget, left over from Dad’s abortive attempt to conquer some DIY over the long weekend. Mum is already lining up a team of local tradespeople to put right the mayhem he has managed to create in just three short days.

I misread Children’s Pie as Children Pie and my mind boggled briefly.  But don’t worry; no children were harmed in the making of this recipe. Instead, you could choose between ham or spam as one of the main ingredients.  Ah, spam! I loved it then and still do.

Grimsby Flan and Kipper Cakes jostled alongside Cheese d’Artois and Chicken a la Bon Jim (creep) at a time when we were starting to dip our toes into the crystal waters of the Med for our annual holidays and nervously experimenting in the kitchen, too.  The working classes, at any rate.  Posh people had most likely been doing it for years. You can keep the brandied blue dip, though. That’s a step too far for me.

Working Mums’ Shepherd’s Pie involves chucking tins of veg and steak into a serving dish with potatoes, crossing your fingers and hoping nobody will be able to tell the difference (bet they all did, though).

Emergency Party Flan is a bit of a misnomer. Are they referring to the party or the flan as being an emergency?  Imagine the scenario: The Brown family, all collapsed on the sofa after a hard day at work and school, energies low, nothing on the telly except a layer of dust. Whatever will get them out of their mutual torpor?  Of course!  An emergency party! Quick, ring the neighbours! Get everyone over! Yes, NOW. Turn the telly off, whack Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo, dim the lights, stick a cheese and onion flan in the oven and dig out that bottle of Asti Spumante from the back of the larder.

Economical Christmas Pudding sounds a bit deflating and cheerless and missing the point somewhat.

I don’t much like the sound of Half-Pay Pudding, either but what with all those strikes, I’m not too surprised.

Swedish Soufflé, on the other hand, sounds just the thing for perking Dad up. That, and Pan’s People on TOTP… Oh and look out, there’s a new soufflé on the block: Swiss Soufflé! Ooh la la. I smell trouble.  Time for a Savoury Sizzler, perhaps?

Frozen Crunch Flan must have been a wow with those more dentally challenged.  “Christ, Moira!  I told you not to do this one again! There goes another molar.”

Tahiti Tarts. I’m saying nothing, but I’ve had my suspicions about that man from number 47.  He moved in three months ago and hasn’t opened his curtains since.

Giggle Cake. The sender doesn’t explain why it’s called this, so we will all just have to guess. You go first.

End-Of-Week Supper.  Another cheerless-sounding effort.  I’m guessing it means concocting something from what’s left in the fridge on a Friday.  Funny how the entire family always seems to be out…

Chutney In The Raw. Ooh!  Those seventies housewives!  Hubby gets home, hot and tired after a long day flicking paperclips at his colleagues and finding excuses to get his mini-skirted secretary to fetch things from the topmost shelves in his office, only to discover wifey has gone all Continental (again) and is sitting at the dining table scoffing cheese and pickle sandwiches in the nuddy.  He wonders if he can feign a headache as, sighing heavily, he puts his briefcase down, loosens his tie and cufflinks and prepares to join her…

Quick Apricot Dumplings, Quick Apple Pudding and Quick Bread Pudding.  What’s the big rush, people?! Watch out for the Quick Liver And Bacon Lunch and the Hasty Pudding, though, or you’ll be on the Rennies all afternoon.

On the other hand, there’s Quick Spicy Pudding. Quick AND spicy!  They know just what we want, those saucy housewives of Great Britain.

As for that Canadian Tart From Scotland –  we’ve all heard of her, haven’t we?  No better than she should be (sniff). No man is safe when she hits town. It’s the accent, you see.  Drives them wild. They can’t resist something a bit more exotic. Well, that and the hot pants. They’ll be trying the Steak And Tomato Quickie next. It could lead to a right old Autumn Scramble. But it’s all Apple Pie In The Sky to me, love.

Mind you, the Scots Dumpling and Spanish Tart between them could give the other one a run for her money. I told you – the accents drive them wild.

She’s got him in a right old Savoury Whirl and he’s in for a Meat Roll if he’s very lucky and there’s an “R” in the month…

Everlasting Caramel Pudding – just what we want, though give it six months and we’ll all be heartily sick of it.

Emma’s Lunch For One: a sad mélange comprising one medium potato, I small carrot, I small leek and one egg. Forget it. The hamster can have all that. As if eating alone doesn’t make you depressed enough!

Duncan’s Date Loaf.  Perhaps he should get together with Emma and put her out of her misery.

Bakeless Biscuits sound like my kind of thing.  Why wait for them to be cooked when you can scoff them immediately?!

Quickie Date and Walnut Cake. (Ideal for working mums to make, apparently. They’ll be thrilled.) “Look, Mum, it says here it’s ideal for you to make, so get your coat off and get on with it.”

Yum Yum Cake – aren’t they all?

Bachelor’s Buttons. And how to undo them.  Quickly, of course…

Wonder Bites. It’s a wonder you’ll have any teeth left, perhaps?

Chilean Apple Cake.  Now that’s just showing off.

Botter Moppin.  A Dutch recipe, apparently. It sounds like a term of endearment, or possibly mild insult, to me: “You’re behaving like a right botter moppin, you are!”

Friday Special.  Mum’s out and it’s Dad’s turn to cook.  Fish and chips it is, then.  Hide the wrappers and there’s extra pocket money in it if you don’t let on.

Winter Quickies. You don’t even have to take all your clothes off.  “BISCUITS, you say?! Ah.”

Never Fail Gingerbread. Oh, the pressure!!

Thursday Mince. ”MUUM!!  It’s Wednesday today!!”

Nurse, the screens! She’s been on the Nutty Biscuits again.

Glad’s Special. Of course she is.  We all are!

Matrimonial Cake.  Tread verrrry carefully with this one.

Chocolate Doo-Dads: don’t go there.

Canadian Chocolate Wacki Cake: don’t go there, either. Or maybe we’ll go together. Well, if you can’t beat them…

Lightning Cake – even speedier than Quickie cake? Wow. Bring it on! The clock starts NOW.

Vicarage Cake. Sounds a bit prim. More tea, Vicar?

Paradise Cake, though: isn’t that what it’s all about, Vicar? Discuss.

Economical Family Fruit Cake.  Just omit the fruit, eggs, flour, butter and sugar.  Don’t bother.  Have a nice dry cracker instead.  On the other hand, there’s always Toss-In Fruit Cake, for celebrating with when Dad, after way too many years, umpteen attempts and near-bankruptcy finally wins the Spot The Ball competition.

Pauline’s Party Cheesecake.  The party definitely always starts when Pauline brings out her cheesecake. She should get together with the Brown family and their Emergency Party Flan. It’ll be a blast!

Brain Biscuits – er, no thank you, I think I’ll pass. After all that lot, I’m on a diet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COOKING THE BOOKS – CHAPTER THREE

 

 

I am a complete sucker for notebooks of handwritten recipes, usually to be found at vintage fairs. There’s something very comforting, yet very poignant, about them. In one I have, there’s a page headed: Bottling fruit.  Underneath, on just one line, it reads: Gooseberries 4lbs, 6 jars.  Clearly, it proved to be too much for the poor soul. She must have wept into her pinny when she realised she had only the four jars.

Mock Banana has lines scored through the recipe.  I’m not surprised.  The mock banana turns out to be parsnips!  I’ll pass on that one, thanks all the same.

Cough Mixture even gets a look-in in this little notebook. Handy, for when you are choking on those pesky parsnips.

Chocolate Fingers has, in brackets after the title: To try. How brave of her.

Friends are acknowledged throughout.  We have Glennie to thank for the Christmas cake recipe and Cissie for her chutney. A slightly waspish note at the end from the writer reads: Be sure to stir often, especially towards the end, as it burns easily.  Oh, Cissie!  You didn’t tell her that bit, did you? I bet your ears were burning, too.

Cornish Pasties.  No, no, NO!!!! You’ve missed out the swede!!  No self-respecting pasty can call itself Cornish without swede!! Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. That’s you well and truly drummed out of Cornwall, you great ignorant grockle, you. They’ll never allow you back in.

There are two recipes for Fish Pie, one with Television in brackets after. Well, if it’s on the telly it must be all right, right?

Here we have no less than four very similar recipes for Lemon Cheese, all supplied by different people.  Now that is brave!

Imagine the scenario:  Friend number one comes round for tea. Lemon Cheese is on the menu.

Friend eyes contents of jar suspiciously. ”Did you use MY recipe?”

Cook becomes flustered and drops the kettle.  “Er – I expect so, dear. It’s really very good…” she adds lamely.

The jar crashes down on the formica worktop.  The cat flees the room for the sanctuary of behind the sofa. ”This doesn’t look AT ALL the same colour as when I do MINE. HOW many eggs did you use?!”

A deathly silence falls and all that can be heard is quiet sobbing into a pinny.

To be continued…

After Ginger Biscuits, it says Very good. That’s a relief.  But what’s this?  A few pages on –Oatmeal Ginger Biscuits don’t get a Very good.  The addition of oatmeal was clearly a step too far.

Here’s Cissie again; she’s been given another chance with her Raspberry Jam and there’s a Very good after (no waspish notes this time). Take that, Oatmeal Ginger Biscuits!

Ivie’s All-Round Pudding, containing bread, flour, suet, sugar and spices ensures that you, too, will be round by the time you’ve had a slice or four. And what’s this I spy? Lemon Curd has crept in beneath the pudding recipe.  As if those four previous recipes for Lemon Cheese weren’t enough?!  She’s got some pluck, this one, I’ll say that for her. But for goodness’ sake, woman, step away from the lemons!!

Marie gets quite a few mentions, what with her Shortbread, Currant Buns, Strawberry Jam, Sandwich Cake and the rather grandly titled Marie’s Pudding. Popular girl.

Salmon Mould has ingredients listed but no method.  Merely: Steam for 1 1/2 hours and serve with parsley sauce.  Every unconfident cook’s nightmare!  Just what are we supposed to DO?!?!  And who said anything about parsley sauce?  How much parsley? How much sauce?!

Here’s a recipe for Fried Onions in Batter.  Ah, the good old days!  Cholesterol is such an ugly word.

A few empty pages signify a lull in proceedings. Did the writer go away? Did she have to replace her worn-out cooker at this point? Did she have a bit of a turn after The Great Lemon Cheese Incident? We’ll never know but look, here she is, back again with a new pinny and firing on all cylinders with Pat’s Ginger Cake and Peg’s Choc Cake. Phew. Thank goodness for true friends, eh?

Moving on now, here’s an altogether much better organised notebook, with special chapters already in place.  Omelets (sic) is, rather strangely, lumped together with the Puddings and Sweets section but we’ll forgive them that, as they are so clearly on the ball otherwise.  They’re getting a bit above themselves with Entrees, though.

This writer goes into a lot more detail. No upsetting anyone with the omission of methods, or falling out with friends over lemon cheese.  There are even a couple of biscuit recipes that have been costed out. If I could only read her handwriting here, I could tell you what they are but anyway, one makes three dozen and costs 50 pence, the other four dozen and a mere 30 pence.  Bargain!  It’s almost like an Eleven-Plus exam question:  If you take three dozen biscuits costing 50 pence and four dozen biscuits costing 30 pence, how many extra inches does that add to your waistline?

Friends’ recipes are creeping in: there’s good old Daphne, with her Apricot Tea Bread and Apple and Walnut Tea Bread.  Bit of a limited repertoire, has Daphne, but she’s a terribly good sport.  Always rustling up one or other of her tea breads for the church fete. Even if they’re always the last two left on the stall and the vicar ends up feeding them to the budgie.

What’s this?  Curried Rice Salad has edged into the cakes and biscuits section. Disaster!  It’s thrown the whole system out of kilter and, shortly after this glaring error, we note that all-too-familiar lull of a few blank pages where Cook takes a deep breath, has a lie-down for a couple of days then, refreshed, returns to the fray.

Further on, however, and it’s descending into chaos again, with Salmon Burgers and Raspberry Soufflé side by side. The thermostat has gone wonky.  Man the hobs!  Send out for reinforcements! This could turn ugly. Savoury Cheese fights with Orange and Lemon Chequer Cake (take that!) and Date Flapjacks battle it out with Salad Dressing to keep (why, what else are you going to do with it? Give it away? ”Oh, gawd, here she comes, pretend we’re not in, she’s brought her Godawful salad dressing with her again and we never finished the last bottle”).

Brown Pudding. Act One, Scene One:  Wife (for it is usually she) shuffles into the dining room and carefully, shakily, places the pudding dish on the table.

Grumpy husband (for they invariably are) peers at the contents suspiciously.  “I thought you said you were doing us a nice white pudding for afters? One of your lemon surprise specials?”

Wife pins bright, desperate smile to her flushed, worn features. “Well, I was, dear, and it has got lemon in it, and orange, too, but then there was this ever such good bit on the Archers and I stopped for a minute to listen properly -“ holds a hand up – “only a minute, mind, and when I looked again, it had turned -“ whispers -“ brown.” Stifling a sob, she shuffles over to the G-Plan sideboard to fetch the pudding bowls and spoons.

There’s a more than a hint of brown in grumpy husband’s face as he tuts, shakes his head, sighs heavily and manfully digs in.

To be continued…

The recipe for Mincemeat is from the J Y Prog – coincidentally, because that is the subject of my next and final chapter. I know, I can hardly wait, either!

Old English Flummery. (Surely it should be Olde Englishe?) Flummery.  What a delightful word that is.  So – Olde Englishe. “She be a right flummery, that one. No better than she should be.”  (I digress. Blame Poldark.)  The recipe sounds delicious but far too fiddly for me, so we’ll move swiftly on, leaving our O E F to her own devices (lock up your menfolk).

Uncle Mac’s Pudding. Good old Uncle Mac. What would we do without him and his trusty pudding? More of him later…

Raspberry Surprise. You’ve guessed it – no raspberries.

Iced Apricot Souffle, we are reliably informed, will serve 8 – or 12, with the addition of Orange and Grape Compote.  Well, that’s your five a day sorted, no sweat. Especially if you plough through the Melon Cocktail on the next page as well.

But what’s this? Pears with Chocolate Mousse? Sacrilege! Spoils the mousse.  Let’s not overdo it.  There’s more than enough fruit here as it is.

Hello – someone else’s handwriting has crept onto the page, with a recipe for Parkins (sic).  “Quick!  She’s gone out to get more eggs. Scribble it down – she’ll never notice… Here she comes – act casual (whistles nonchalantly).”

Chocolate Bake Stork sounds intriguing. ”I have some news for you, children. Mummy’s in one of her stork phases again. I’ve told her to go and have a nice lie-down.”

There are several recipes for Christmas Cake.  (It’s The Great Lemon Cheese Incident all over again, but who will win The Battle Of The Christmas Cakes?)

Here we are, we’ve arrived at the very end of the book, to a page headed: Xmas 1975.

This is one organised cook.  Mind you, with that amount of guests to cater for, she has to be. For Xmas (sic) Day, she has 16 + Sally coming and on Boxing Day there are two more (Sally is still hanging on in there, you’ll be pleased to note.  Even Uncle Mac’s Pudding hasn’t fazed her). The ingredients are mind-boggling: 30lb turkey with 7 hours! in brackets after, 6 cut loaves, 3 uncut, Milk – 12 pts and 6 pts, 1 pt double and 1 pint single cream – some over but useful.  First night. First night! Wow. I’m impressed.

Then we have three different types of stuffing: Double (double??) sausage, veal and chestnut.  Three trifles has plenty in brackets afterwards, bless her. I should think so too.  Greedy lot.

Cakes:  Chocolate Layer, Battenburg, Cherry and Walnut has the wonderful expression Hanging fire! in brackets after.  Is this another type of cake, or is it the chief cook and bottle washer letting rip on the page; something she wouldn’t dare do to her guests’ faces?

But look, what’s this? Xmas Day 1977 and there’s no Sally. Xmas Day 16, Boxing Day 14. Xmas 1976 is not mentioned, either. What happened?!  Was there a break in proceedings when they were packed off to a health farm to recover from all those trifles?  Did Sally, overcome by Uncle Mac’s manly suet pudding, run off with him to make lots more little puddings together?  Has Xmas 1976 become The Year That No-one Dare Mention? Were those words Hanging fire! of more significance than we were first led to believe? Will we ever know any of the answers to these questions? Stick the kettle on, love and give us some more of that lovely brown pudding. I’ll take this over the Archers any day…

 

 

COOKING THE BOOKS – CHAPTER TWO

 

 

I picked up a Teen Age cookery book at a book fair the other day. Note the two words, as opposed to the more standard “Teenage” we use today. I always thought the term was born in the late 50s/early 60s but no, the date on this book is 1948. You learn something new every day. It’s titled “What’s Cookin’?” A valiant attempt to sound hip and cool, I’m guessing.  Never mind. In the first chapter, Picnic Fare, we are treated to a “Surprise Turnover.”  I would imagine that most teenagers are familiar with that one already.  Oh – I see – it’s not a bit of how’s-your-father on the tartan picnic rug, it’s a savoury pastry instead.  What a let-down.

This book does have illustrations (unlike many old ones I have): full-page and in colour, no less.  They are a scream.  Everyone is dressed so formally – the men in suits, blazers and ties, the women in skirt suits with nipped-in waists and jerkins with peasant-style blouses.  In one picture of a party, the heading reads: “Make the occasion a gay one and earn the gratitude of friends.”

It was written when rationing was still going strong. Under “Fair Fare” (subtitle: “Give your friends a VARIED (sic) menu!” I note there is the wondrous-sounding “Prune mountain.” Well, if nothing else, you will almost certainly have given your friends a night to remember if you go ahead with that one…

Moving swiftly on (as indeed they probably all had to), I have a few books aimed specifically for children (duck!).  There’s one written by the famous TV duo of Fanny and Johnnie Craddock, with an interesting handwritten message inside: “Prize for picnic competition, 8/9/59” and rather oddly headed: “Elizabethan.”  I guess we’ll never know.  Suggestions include: “For picnic meals in the garden and entertaining on the porch or terrace at home.” Because we all had one of those, didn’t we, girls and boys?

Then there’s “Cookery For Girls.” We’ll ignore the blatant sexism in that title and just focus on the recipes, shall we?  Everything is pictured in colourful line drawings, so you know exactly what a tablespoon of macaroni looks like (not very much, to this greedy girl) and how to turn out a jelly (very, very carefully, I would say) and every stage is illustrated, making it somehow not so scary. It assumes you know nothing, which is fine by me! It makes for a very colourful book. In fact, why just stick to children? I think this could work for adults, too. It certainly works for this adult, anyway. I note the recipe for “Girdle Cake.”  I’m going to need one of those very soon, at this rate.

Finally, in the children’s section, we have ”Clare Goes Cooking”. Well, I had to buy that one, didn’t I?  Another cookbook in pictures for young people.  They have all the fun. I’m impressed she’s cooking full meals for her family, though. She looks very young in the pictures.  Anything to get out of doing maths and geography homework, eh, Clare?

Now for another couple of exciting titles: Cooking For Bachelors (them again) and one, Carefree Cookery, especially written for brides AND bachelors (eh?)! Inside, there’s our old favourite, Brown Stew again, closely followed by Sea Pie (see pie and eat it).  Now, what is this? Sheep’s Head Broth!  Yes, all nervous new brides and carefree, care-less bachelors should be aware of this one.  Instruction: “To prepare the head, soak overnight, if possible.”  Can you imagine the scenario?  Newly-weds thinking amorous thoughts as the night draws on.  Suddenly, she evades his ardent embrace and rushes off to the kitchen, crying: “I forgot to soak the head!” Immediate exit of amorous thoughts.

Or the debonair bachelor, planning a cosy little tete-a-tete back at his pad. The lights are low, the music soft; the mood is set.  She asks to use the bathroom. There is a piercing scream. Too late, the hapless bachelor remembers he had been soaking the head in the bath, as his one-and-only saucepan wasn’t big enough. Exit would-be new partner, at the speed of light…

“Cookery For Men Only” – such a risqué title! – includes “Poaching For Women.”  A new sport involving hunting them down?  That would certainly chime with the book’s title but no, slightly disappointingly, it simply and rather unexcitingly means poaching eggs and, for some reason best known to the author, includes women in with invalids for this recommended way of cooking!  Bizarre. I mean, I know we’re supposed to be the weaker sex and all that, but this is getting ridiculous.

“Cooking In Ten Minutes” by Edouard de Pomiane is also aimed at the bachelor (I’d aim it at his head) but what intrigued me most about this quaint little classic is not what’s within its pages, amusing and useful though it all is, but the scrap of a letter which fell out of it when I got it home (used as a bookmark, I’m guessing).  It’s page five only, more’s the pity. Clearly someone who likes to write letters. I love finding this sort of treasure in old books and I quite often do.  I want to repeat what this little snippet says, in full: “When they ask what I want I am like Wendy, the 13-year-old granddaughter and say I want nothing but I told Barbara this year I would like a full-length slip and she said ‘I’m not buying you a slip or any underwear’ so I said don’t ask me again.  What a pest this gift-giving is! If they gave me the money it would help a lot.  Do you make a fuss at Xmas or do you keep it low-key? I’d like to dispense with it altogether.  Did you watch ‘Pride and Prejudice?’ I loved it…” We will never know which bit she enjoyed most, though I think we can probably guess. Just what DID she get for Xmas, if not the underwear she required? Did she bravely announce very soon afterwards that she was dispensing with it altogether?  I do hope she did. And, by the way, “underwear” to you, snotty Barbara, whoever you were!

 

COOKING THE BOOKS – CHAPTER ONE

 

 

I collect old cookery books and friends who know I don’t really enjoy cooking are now laughing uproariously, I’m sure.  Truth is, I love to eat and I love to read about food. My favourite type of cookery book is anecdotal. Nigel Slater, Jack Monroe, Tamasin Day-Lewis and Nigella Lawson are favourites that instantly spring to mind. I fantasise about becoming their friend and chief taste-tester.  It could happen… In fact, the scrumptious Nigella and I do share one thing in common (oh, how I wish it were more) in that she apparently likes to collect old cookery books as well.

What I so enjoy about the old books is their quaint language and unfashionable recipes and ingredients. I’m thinking, chiefly, of lard. The portion sizes appear to be a lot smaller than we’ve all become used to these days, as well. Which is just as well, really, what with all that lard.

From the crammed bookcase in our kitchen, two blasts from my childhood past catch my eye: The Brownie Cookbook and Cooking For Caravanners.  The Brownie Cookbook has helpful line drawings, just in case you’re unsure what a flapjack, fishcake or finger sandwich looks like.  Books such as these were written long before men’s lib. Only Mummy gets pictured and mentioned in the text.  Poor Daddy misses out on all the fun!

Cooking For Caravanners takes me right back to the days when we belonged to the Caravan Club and went away for weekends, often with friends who also had a caravan.  This was in the days long before eating out was considered the norm, as it is now, and was instead only ever reserved for a special treat, when guests stayed, or when on holiday. To be fair, there was far less choice in those days and the word gastropub had yet to be dreamt up by some sharp-suited little marketing oik. In the instance of the caravans, though, pity the poor mothers (for it was always them). No chance of having a well-earned break from all the cooking. Expected to produce full-blown meals, just as they did at home, but with minimal equipment and storage space. For parents who worked (as mine both did), I can’t see how any of this could possibly have been relaxing and restful, although I know my dad loved driving (probably more on his own, though, it has to be said and minus the three quarrelsome female members of his family).

In the pictures, Mummy looks terribly glamorous, dressed more for a Seventies cheese’n’ wine or key-swapping party than for a weekend away in the wilds. White trousers (white!), glam top, gold jewellery, sling-back sandals and coiffed hair. Smiling, always smiling, as she beavers away at the tiny stove in the poky space some sales brochures dared to call the “kitchenette” area. The caravans alternated between dripping hot in the summer and icicles-on-the-inside cold in the winter (yes, we went away then as well.  Yes, we were mad.  I well recall being towed out of a muddy, snowy, rutted field by a local farmers’ tractor on more than one occasion).

We took our caravan abroad, too.  My father, a hardened traditionalist when it came to food, once viewed a plate of home-made ratatouille very suspiciously, until we reassured him it was only mixed veg. Which, of course, it was – and still is. Just not the sort of mixed veg he was used to. He did eat it, though. He loved to go abroad but refused to embrace anything very different and viewed with high suspicion anything even remotely “foreign”.  The first thing he would do when he got back home was make a cup of tea.  “They don’t know how to make a proper cup of tea” were his oft-repeated words while away.  He would buy the English daily newspaper, as well, even though it was a day late over in ”abroad” land. Nothing gave him more satisfaction and, I suppose, a deep feeling of security, than to spot a familiar car registration plate: “Bournemouth/Reading/Hampshire/Berkshire number” he would say with glee; subtext: ‘That’ll show old Johnny Foreigner what he’s up against.’ Ignoring our mortified cries of: “Daaad!!  We’re on HOLIDAY!!”  WE didn’t want to mix with boring old British people.  We could do that at home.  WE were eyeing up the far more exciting and dangerous-looking foreign boys…

Back to the book, which was very ambitious for its time: Here’s a recipe for Moules Mariniere, for crying out loud!  Though its exotic image is somewhat spoiled with the recipe for mussel and mushroom flan on the same page.  You can take the cook out of England… We can so clearly see a fascinating piece of emerging social history here. The struggle with wanting to appear all sophisticated and continental and trying to take the family with you on your culinary journey, yet at the same time being dragged back into ”safer” territory by the same ungrateful, unadventurous family. Pity the 70s housewife! At the crossroads of change, yet still stuck down the cul de sac of convention, in many cases.

I note the recipe for tomato fish turbans and am immediately conjuring up a picture of The Time When Father Went Too Far With One Of His Remarks About How Much Longer Did They Have To Wait For Dinner? and ended up wearing one of them.  Did the divorce statistics take a sharp hike when caravanning holidays became the norm? I think we should know.

Here are some realistic titles for you:  The I Never Cooked Before book, The I Hate To Cook book and The I Still Hate To Cook book (so the first one didn’t work, then?), plus Make It Easy Cookery all have a common theme – can you guess what it is? It’s right up my street and probably many others’, too.  In fact, “It’s Right Up My Street” might be a good title for – er – something.

Here’s another: The Reluctant Cook (that’s me, most days) comes with the most wonderful inscription: “To Gurtle (Gurtle!!!!) with hope reborn.” Dated July 7th, 1954.  Accompanied,  for reasons best known to the giver and recipient, by a pen drawing of a small sailboat on the waves, complete with seagull. Obviously deeply significant. There’s a “Reluctant Gardener” and a “Reluctant Housewife” in the same series.  I think someone is trying to tell us something.

This book has comical line drawings.  Several do, but so few of these old books have pictures, whether photos or illustrations, of what you are supposed to be aiming for.  It would be good to know that you are heading in vaguely the right direction and it would serve as a useful guide to show family/friends/guests when they are unsure as to exactly what it is that’s lying on their plates…

Now, just to make all you singletons feel so much better about your sad and sorry state (I’m kidding!), here are some titles written just for you:  Cooking Alone and Cooking For One.  Cooking Alone helpfully divides chapters under such headings as:  The Old Lady (don’t ask her age – you’ll only cry), The Bachelor, The Happy Potterer, The Grass Widower, The Career Woman and The Lonely Mother.  So that’s you lot sorted.  Cooking For One – well – it’s the rather pathetic amounts that get to me. Isn’t it bad enough that you’re eating alone, night after night?  At least be given the glimmer of light and cheer that is an overflowing plate and a stuffed belly after. Personally, I would be tempted to double up on everything and freeze some for another meal but then again, these books were written in the days before fridges – imagine!  You had to totter out for your pathetic scraps on a daily basis, to rub salt into the wound.

I once worked with a colleague who lived alone and she couldn’t bear people to know this, so she always bought enough food for two and usually ended up chucking it away.

Another colleague, who didn’t share her rather outdated hang-up, once asked a fruit market stallholder for just one apple and he said no.  She was rather forthright in her reply, which involved two words, the first starting with “F” – the second being “you”.

I have a pamphlet published by the Food Information Centre in Croydon (ah yes, that hub of all things culinary): Cooking For Over Sixties. Helpful tips include: Milk can be used in many ways, NOT ONLY in a cup of tea! Goodness, who would ever have known?! The general tone here is that you must be hard up and need smaller portions of food than the rest of the population. During the winter months, you may find shopping too difficult, it says at one point. You need a well-stocked cupboard, oh ancient being of over 60 (I said that bit, not them).  Step away from the kettle, have a hearty brown stew or egg nog (recipes included) and you will soon have the strength to leave the house.  Apparently and unbelievably, there was such a demand for this leaflet when it first appeared, copies were limited to one per household.

Another fondly remembered ingredient:  “Top of the milk” – triggers a more recent memory.  In New York for a self-catering city break with friends, we stocked up on provisions from the 24-hour deli on the corner of our block.  I would pour my “half and half” milk with gay abandon on to my breakfast cereal, all the while cheerily commenting how the American version of our ”semi-skimmed milk” tasted so much better than our own.  Almost creamy, in fact… Until the day I studied the ingredients on the box a little more carefully and realised I had been pouring half-milk, half-cream on to my daily cereal for a week.

Here’s a quaint one: Paper Bag Cookery.  Does what it says on the – er – bag. Under one intriguing chapter heading, The Bag And The Bachelor, we are informed that the menu he served a guest included sweetbreads, roast fowl and fruit salad. All produced from a bag (and I’m not talking Tesco). Very impressive!

Kitchen Essays by Lady Jekyll, by the mother of the perhaps more famous Gertrude, she of gardening fame, is a choice example of just why I love these old cookery books so much.  This particular one tells of a more genteel, bygone age, of a Downton Abbey-type existence, with chapter headings such as: In The Cook’s Absence (quick, the smelling salts!), For Men Only (I thought that was a naughty magazine?), Food For Travellers (in the days long before handy service stations and Little Chef franchises), Home Thoughts Of Florence And Some Tuscan Recipes (as you do), A Little Dinner Before The Play and A Little Supper After The Play (greedy lot), Luncheons For Motor Excursions (very Toad Of Toad Hall) and A Winter Shooting Party (line up your servants in an orderly row, especially that pesky cook, who will keep absenting herself).  Food For Artists And Speakers (are they so very different from the rest of us mere mortals?), Bachelors Entertaining (they do keep cropping up, these bachelors), For The Too Fat And The Too Thin (in your dreams) and Food For The Punctual And The Unpunctual. Sorry, I’m running late now; I haven’t got time to tell you what they all are…

By way of complete contrast, I now present to you: “Cook Happy.” As opposed to “Cook Miserable,” I’m guessing. Though most of the chapter headings are a little predictable for a title so brimming with hopeful expectancy, there are some more intriguing things mentioned within, such as “Salpicon” which I can safely say I have never heard of before. That’s the joy of all this.  You learn something new.  I bet Nigella doesn’t do a Salpicon in any of her books.

 

I wrote this piece for my old magazine, Woman’s Weekly, a few years ago now but thought it worth repeating here.  It’s as true as ever for me!   As I type, there is still no sign of rain after several weeks, creating even more work for us poor gardeners.  The grass is brown and crackles underfoot and the plants and flowers are keeling over. Perhaps you will agree with me?

An A-Z of magazine life: Z…

Z is for: The Zodiac. I have always been interested in astrology but never had it been more clearly brought home to me just how significant the star signs really are, and how easy it is to tell who is born under which sign, than when I joined WW.  There were rather a lot of people of a certain sign who gave themselves away by bordering on the negative with a lot of their remarks, ie: (Me): “It’s lovely out there today.” (Them):  “Yes, but it’s going to rain later.” (Me, slightly exasperated):  “OK, but it’s lovely NOW!”  That kind of thing.  Then there’s the sign famed for being into sex, food and gardening, though perhaps not in that order, or even all at once (though knowing some of them, I wouldn’t be at all surprised). In fact, the World Naked Gardening Day was probably started up by someone under this very sign, the kinky so-and-so.

There’s the moody sign with the famous sting in its tail (stand well back). The secretive sign who loves to know all your gossip, yet remains strangely restrained when it comes to any of their own. The frivolous, restless one who can’t settle. The sign that loves to splash their cash – on themselves.  Money really does burn a hole in their pocket.  The somewhat puritan perfectionists who gave themselves away with remarks such as: “I really just want to live in a bare, white-walled room (she was married with two children, so that was never going to happen) and: “After he’s mown the lawn, my husband goes around the edges with my nail scissors.” Sounds like a wow of a relationship.  As for my own sign, I’m not telling, except to say that I can get quite loud, excitable and worked up on occasion and I think most people would agree that I can also be rather (all right, very) impatient and bossy…

So, there you go. Magazine life as I remember it. I’m sure there’s much more I could tell you but I can’t remember everything, though I try. And you know what they say: “If you can remember it, you weren’t really there.” Chin-chin!