I do not bow down to the Great God Sport. I never have. Oh, you can run very fast? Well done you, lovely, great, hurrah, I have a book to read.
I am not impressed by gold medals for swimming or rowing. I don’t care about trophies for chasing around a ball, of whichever shape. Lovely, you crack on and enjoy yourself and don’t mind me. I like to walk everywhere and I love to cycle around the canalpaths of Britain but these are things I do for pleasure as much as exercise. I don’t like the competitive and combative spirit that Sport seems to engender, the tribal warring aspect of physical achievement. I don’t care for the fact that people who come second in such efforts are always made to look like a failure. ‘Tut. You only got a silver medal, how will you ever make this up to your disappointed nation?’ No. Thank you.
This rather bad case of Sportitis probably stems from my experiences of Sport in my early youth.
I grew up in the 70s in Lancashire. Yes. Yes. Stop going on, this is just scene-setting not a sociopolitical history essay. So, imagine the times; Ford Cortinas, garish jumpers and box pleated skirts. At that time we did not have avocados, neither did we have Zumba. Aerobics was something scientists attempted in petri dishes in windtunnels. Sport, or more properly, Physical Education, consisted of only the most basic and prosaic of exertions. It also required a leotard and navy blue knickers.
In the winter, for instance, despite the Northern snow, we did not indulge in downhill slalom or the Luge, we did ‘Gym’. Admittedly sometimes it was warmer outside than it was in our school gym. This was a room modelled on the one used at the Vatican by the Spanish Inquisition. Ropes dangled from the ceiling, leotard clad girls variously knotted and entangled in their hairy coarseness and friction burns battled with chilblains to defeat us. Around the walls were wooden bars where limbs were trapped and dislocated and many were the times I was flung skyward into the rafters on an overly tense springboard or stampeded by a pommel horse. The mats, there to catch us should we fall, were always inches short of our disasters. This was, as I have said, the 70s and we did not have Health and Safety either. We had a first aid tin in which our PE teachers kept their Mars Bars and a bottle of Dettol.
In Spring, team sports began, netball starting the onslaught of bats, balls and goalposts. In my experience of team sport there is one person who is the ‘team captain’ and then everyone else is dispensible, a mere tool, possibly a sacrificial pawn, to be used by the captain to attain the shiny silver cup or similar metallic and vainglorious trophy. In netball the star athlete used my face to bounce the ball up into the hoop. In Rounders she would thwack the ball as if she might be trying to launch it into orbit, felling the opposition like skittles. Her hockey stick was a registered lethal weapon.
In Summer, slightly less snowy than the Winter, we were subjected to the rigours of Track and Field.
At my school we had Houses in imitation of much more prestigious educational establishments. We might have called them Houses but they were gangs, given primary coloured tabards to wear which were the equivalent of battle dress. My school had a Scottish bent influenced by the fact that the estate it was built on had street names taken from places in Scotland; Lochinvar, Lewis, Dumbarton etc. As a consequence our Sports Day resembled a clan war with the houses named after Scottish ancestral families: Stewart versus Cameron, Campbell versus McDonald.
We also had the torture of two Sports Days. The first was called Heats Day and everyone had to participate in order to be eliminated. I use the word advisedly. We were trooped out onto the field and pitted against one another in discus, shot and oh dear, the javelin.
I was quite bad at the shot. I was disorientated by the foxtrot two step that was required to ‘wind up’ as our PE teacher put it. I launched the shot in every direction except the one required. I was, in my polyester PE skirt, a one woman Napoleonic War. So, needless to say, I did not make the Sports Day Shotput team.
The high jump. I am five foot one and back then I was still five foot one. I had a bit of a growth spurt in my first two years of secondary school and was, at one time, for about five minutes, the second tallest girl in my class. At five foot one. I don’t know how high the High Jump was, I just focused on the word ‘High’ and then upon the word ‘Jump’. What I lacked in physical prowess and skill I made up for in blind enthusiasm and as a result the high jump became, for me, the pole vault, as my legs in their white knee socks scrabbled through the air and in what might have qualified as an advanced yoga move, became entangled in the equipment. I did not make the Sports Day High Jump team.
The Long jump. This is just the High Jump but in 2D. In 3D, in front of the assembled House, I gave a masterly run up, tripped over the take off board and landed flat on my face in the sand. It was a close thing but, yes, you guessed it, I didn’t make the Long Jump team either.
The Discus. I am not sure they ever recovered that Discus, or, more urgently, Mr Sharpe’s glass eye after an incident something like clay pigeon shooting meets the Greek Myths. The oracle at Delphi shook her head that day and had to go and have a lie down.
The javelin. It is perhaps foolhardy to set schoolchildren, many of them teenage and in the throes of puberty, against one another and then, arm them with spears.
At half time, there were oranges.
One of the pleasures of a lazy Friday evening is Gardener’s World. There is nothing here that will kill your faith in humanity, quite the opposite. You are more likely to witness someone baring their soul about their passion for Nicotiana or Dianthus and their horticultural or botanical delight casts dappled and sunlit shadows on the mossy paths of your brain.
It is also possible to ogle Monty Don and his amazing man-robe of chunky sweaters and corduroy trews and breeches. I’m sorry but these are the true and proper words for such manly garments. His boots are the epitome of stout footwear. Monty, it appears, is not the kind of chap ever to be caught wearing pointy slip-ons or a fitted Italian shirt from M&S. His shirt sleeves; a lovely stripy shirt, a battered blue shirt; are rolled up. Not for him muscles gained by posing in a gym, nope, he hefts wheelbarrows and wields spades. As I’m writing this, he is in a hothouse poised atop a sturdy looking stepladder, pruning grapes with a pair of hairdressing scissors.
Monty Don is, however, the garden ornament, the decorative gnome shall we say, to the main event. The Gardening.
I have a town garden. It is not overly overlooked and it has the benefit of several trees, birch, beech, sycamore, elder. Should Monty Don ever stop by for a mug of builder’s tea he would, most likely, have to employ a machete or scythe in order to enter at the creaky back gate.
My gardening style, as with all things, is less Versailles and more Verge.
I have a laissez-faire attitude to weeds and as a consequence I now have the definitive National Collection of them. To my eye weeds are beautiful and fruitful. Bees buzz in and through the Carpenter’s Bugle, blue, great and coal tits forage amongst stems and seedheads. Who knew Bullfinches loved dandelion heads? Rename your weeds ‘wildflowers’ and relax. Right now my patch is a frothing tide of greens of all kinds, leaf shapes needled and feathered, a breakwater of blue and pink, of Columbines in their delicate and spiky pink and white and imperial purple. Nettles seethe and burst with cream flowers, food for butterflies. There’s Herb Robert and Shepherd’s Purse making its little heart-shaped explosive seedpods.
I don’t prick out or thin. The way I see it, if something has made the effort to germinate then I should give it a chance. This is good garden practice in my particular patch where the slugs eat like locusts. At least these slimy garden gourmets turn their noses up at the rustic fare of bittercress and rosebay willowherb, whereas my green beans and sunflowers are chomped at as soon as they break ground. There are squirrels, woodpigeons and woodmice too and so some seeds are munched before they see daylight.
There are hedgehogs under the pile of logs, a random and half-rotted collection of offcuts and old Christmas tree stumps. It was interesting to see my children, now both in their twenties, become six years old again over the hedgehog I found sheltering under the clump of woodrush, picking him up with considerable care and fascination and taking selfies.
The sparrowhawk sweeps chaos before her, her arrival causing the squirrel to shift her kits into the safety of the drey in the beech tree. All around birds are pelting into the trees like a hail of small stones, the alarm calls ringing out from every species. Finch, magpie, wren. Screeling sparrows diving like spitfires into the sanctuary of the woodpile to escape those talons.
Jackdaws have built their own metropolis in the chimney pots on our road and they rise, clacking and flapping into the sky, tumbling, acrobatic and athletic. I while away many a kitchen minute watching them perform trapeze acts on the fat ball holders that I put out. I am mother to jackdaws.
The small body of water down by the shed is called ‘The Pond’ but it is barely bigger than a bucket. That said it is crammed with Flag Iris, green spears and golden flower heads which make me think of Killarney and the red deer. The water plops and bubbles now and then with frogs and newts.
Cats are banished for killing the birds for sport. There is no sorrier sight than the draggled corpse of a blackbird being abandoned by a bored suburban cat. The blackbird could have been a main course for the sparrowhawk and might yet feed the jackdaws or the worms. The cat wastes it and lets the fat rats run free.
This year the nasturtiums have come up and also my foxglove seeds although they are tiny and will not look like anything much until next year. The slugs don’t seem to eat them and I note that my lone surviving pumpkin seedling is only slightly nibbled. Already the leaves are miniature parasols bristling with hairs.
At my old house where we had a small Victorian back yard, I filled the space with pots crammed with every available plant, chiefly buddleia and nasturtium and there was a vast and long established, ballet pink cottage rose. One year, I grew pumpkins. Note the plural. I managed somehow to grow a lot of pumpkins, probably qualifying as a full blown ‘Patch’. I planted them out in the skinny strips of soil alongside the concrete path and they grew like magic beanstalks. At one point my daughter, who was two at the time, could shelter from the rain by standing under the green umbrella like leaves.
So I’ve got my fingers crossed for this lone victor of the slug wars. I am enlisting the help of the hedgehog and the birds in keeping the slugs at bay. With a bit of luck, by Halloween I should be able to harvest the pumpkin and if the need arises to ride to a Faerie Ball I have my transport sorted, frog footmen and all.
There are spell books. And grimoires. And Books of Shadows. All of these available and being maintained and added to and passed down by witches and practitioners everywhere.
In my family we have The Blue Book.
It must be said that this particular tome does not contain any love potions or incantations for the summoning of faeries. It does however, contain the best ever recipe for ‘Fruitcake’. I was going to say that there is no alchemy in this volume, but there is. The alchemy of egg and flour and butter.
The Blue Book has fed and nourished my family for fifty years and its true and proper title is ‘Exciting Cooking’ by Jean Balfour. This book, with its beautiful blue cloth cover, has an owl logo that declares ‘In Knowledge, Lies Wisdom’ and was published by the Literary Press in 1960. My sister, Jane, and I grew up with this book, it was always open on the worktop as my mum weighed out flour on the balance scale. No digital nonsense here, this scale was something like the ones they use to weigh babies and had ‘Property of Mrs Beeton’ scratched onto the baseplate. Many and luscious were the fruitcakes that materialised from the pages of the Blue Book, via flour and currants and glace cherries and my mum’s slapdash kitchen wizardry.
Slapdash. Yes. My mum was a woman who cooked with a recipe in one hand and her emotions in the other. A pinch might be larger or smaller dependent upon how stressed or busy she was. Her units of measurement were a spill and a splash, a dollop and a wodge. These are the most Imperial of all measures. A pound is a cold thing given heat by the love and intention of the person cooking. Take, for instance, my mum’s spaghetti bolognese one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. This was the epitome of comfort food, meaty, tomatoey and savoury, looped with the longest strands of spaghetti from a blue paper Buitoni packet. It was a hug on the end of your fork.
This dish was not authentic to Bologna. It was authentic to Lancashire and the ragu that my mum threw together was not called ‘ragu’ back then, well, not in Heywood at any rate. It was tomato sauce. It contained onions and celery and carrots and I think an Oxo stock cube. There was minced beef that had been minced in an actual butcher shop, The Stafford Brothers, who had a little shed style shop on Summit with sawdust on the floor. The herbs that this concoction contained were dried and titled simply ‘Mixed’. Another magic jar in the stark 70s cupboard.
The Blue Book recipes always work even though some of them are rather odd seeming these days. Prune Sponge anyone? Or possibly a nibble at a Highland Tartlet? I learnt to cook via my mum and The Blue Book and although today I sling basil and garlic around like a proper Nonna the basic skills came from that book and my mum’s tutelage. This is not to say that she was a sixties housewife in a pinny with bouffant hair, she was a full-time primary school teacher. When she didn’t have her head in The Blue Book she was peering through her reading glasses at a foxed paperback Austen or a dog-eared volume of Trollope.
I can see how I am dancing around the real truth about The Blue Book, I am dancing quite fast and trying not to see, but it is dancing after me. This blog is not about cooking. Or 70s food.
Each year my dad must repair The Blue Book as its pages yellow and brown. The cover of his copy, the original and best, is now white sticky back plastic, holding it together so that he can find that recipe for fruitcake and mix one up once or twice a year. He cannot throw away The Blue Book.
A few years ago my sister actually trawled the internet to find vintage copies for us both. There is a simple wish in this. The Blue Book has been a link back to my mum and all that she meant to us. It is about the fact that my sister and I are able to reach for the Blue Book and reconnect to those childhood times in kitchen and garden when we were allowed to run around in the rain and think that we could be fairies.
Just looking at the Blue Book whisks me back in time and taste, it locks onto memory and holds it fast because it cannot be let go.