Motherhood is the least celebrated of all the hoods and I include Robin in that. It lurches from the saccharine Madonna ideal (the religious one, not the pop diva one) to the benefits hungry ‘single mum’ of myth. Feminists decry it as a career option and you’re to blame in the psychiatrist’s chair. The term ‘stay at home mum’ is spoken in pretty much the same breath as ‘neanderthal man’ and ‘working mum’ hints that there might be a kind that isn’t working. Motherhood, folks, is all work, from the moment they, as my daughter so lovingly put it the other day ‘squeeze out of your Va-jay-jay’.
My experience of motherhood is that is has been THE BEST JOB EVER IN THE UNIVERSE. Yes, yes yes blah di blad di balderdash and all that. I can hear everyone moan at me oh, you’re exhausted, your boobs sag, you’ve got no life. But do you know what you do have? A life. An adventure. A little face asking you questions, because I mean, why IS the sky blue? You have a little hand to hold in yours. Later you have a big hand to pat you on the head as they get older and tower above you and say things like ‘Oh, Mum, you daft twat’ and ‘You are so embarrassing’. As Spike Milligan once said ‘You’ve got real life faeries in front of you’.
My son and daughter have been and despite attaining adulthood, still are, the two suns around which my tiny little planet has been privileged to orbit for the last twenty odd years. Don’t get me wrong in all this. I am aware of the stormy ocean that can swamp the good ship Family Life and all I can say is that it has been a joy and an adventure to sail with this particular crew. I have loved learning tables and cooking teas, I have been exhausted by nightmares and mopping up sick. I’ve worried and fussed and farted about over them. I am terrified for them and delighted for them. I have been mad and bad and sad and read Green Eggs and Ham. I loved making idiotic and mentally scarring costumes for World Book Day. See the note on psychiatrist’s chair above and don’t mention Arrietty or Treebeard. Like. EVER.
It has been an interesting and diverting experience watching them grow and change and become the adults that they are. It gives you a different perspective on your own parents. No child has any notion of the vast atomic weight of love that is pressing down upon them until they head off into the world and have children of their own. I recall my terror when my son was born as I realised that THIS is how my parents had felt about me.
My mum died in 1989, she was only 51 and had been ill for a long time with breast cancer. It is monstrously hard for me to write that sentence. It holds years of grief and terror within it, of the true knowledge of what ‘never’ means.
With Mother’s Day looming once again I am reminded even more of my loss. My mum was as flawed as any of us, she could be snobby but she could be kind and she was generous with her self and her time and her sympathy. Many are the times I have come home from school at lunchtime to find one of her colleagues crying on the sofa, struggling their way through a crisis. My mum would give them a mug of tea, some cheese on toast and a listening ear. They might come once or twice, they might come for a month or two and then they would drift out of their troubles and someone else would come sobbing through the door. She had time for everyone and even if she couldn’t solve your problem she could make you feel better with her kind words and warm friendliness. She cared about people.
No. I mean really cared. Like if you were lying half dead on the street my mum is the kind of person who would not step over you. She would help you however dirty, distressed or otherwise you might be. I’ve been with her when she has helped total strangers caught in a moment of despair or befuddlement in the rat run of the city. She would put you on a bus with the right fare and a bar of chocolate. She’d carry your bags home.
As a primary school teacher in the 70s and 80s she taught classes of 40 pupils and more and was their last teacher before they headed off to secondary school. She was admired by the teaching staff and loved by the kids. Some of them, obviously there were horrible kids that even my mum’s super power kindness could never reach. But she didn’t give up even on those brats. She came home and worried about the strugglers and stragglers, about the boy who was sent to school in his sister’s hand-me-down clothes.
She was a bubbly and vivacious woman, even after she became ill. Only at the very end did the illness stop her doing her own brand of ‘tap dancing’ in her clippy cloppy Scholl sandals on the kitchen floor. She liked to sing in her trilly tralala voice because she had been trained at her convent school by the notable soprano Dame Isobel Baillie. She sang ‘I yai yai yai yai yai Like you Very Much’ the Carmen Miranda favourite whilst wrestling the pressure cooker into two submissions and a hot pot. She baked, she sewed, she knitted. She had beautiful handwriting. She was capable of a huge amount of love.
She was my mum. I miss her every day. So this Mother’s Day make a fuss of yours, because I can’t make a fuss of mine.
Whilst others may fancy a tot of whisky and still others a shot of espresso, I’m in the market for a cup of tea.
Did I say cup? I mean mug, the kind that is so big it makes me look like a small child. Although I most often look like a small child as I am, as before stated, only knee high. The liquid measure of tea should be, in my eyes, not a mere ‘cup’ but possibly a flagon. I think the more ancient measuring systems lend themselves to the true pleasure of tea. Yes. Pour me a puncheon please. I’ll settle for a kilderkin.
The MP Tony Benn drank a lot of tea. He was, however, a mere sipper in comparison to me. I start the day with a pot that an otter could probably make a holt in. It’s a large brown contraption that I bought several years ago and it barely fits under the tea cosy. Once I’ve drunk that pot I feel a bit thirsty and so brew up another. The brown liquid fuels the fingers on the keyboard, powers the synapses of story. If I find I hit a bare patch on the page I reach for the kettle, snuffle around in the tea caddy for inspiration. I have had more ideas standing staring out of the window waiting for the kettle to boil than…well. Say no more. It is the soother, the comforter, the fortifier.
My tea drinking started early and I was a two sugars kind of a gal until I realised how much sugar I was drinking. My dad suggested I give up the sugar. He had already done so. ‘Give it three weeks’ he said ‘And you won’t be able to bear it with sugar in.’ He was right. Sugar wrecks the taste of tea in much the same way that it is used by people to disguise the bitter darkness of coffee. I cannot drink tea with sugar in it. It tastes, literally, like poison.
When I lived in the North my family were close by, partly because we lived there and partly because, in those days, they were all alive. The halcyon days were the ones spent in the company of my maternal grandparents where my grandma, Ellen, would have the kettle on before you alighted from the bus, or, in latter days, opened the car door. She had an array of neat porcelain mugs of a pot bellied shape and also a stash of elegant white teacups with gold trim that she bought in Tesco. I don’t think she ever served a duff cup of tea. Her tea cosy had a bobble on the top and the cups always came with saucers.
Tea must also be brewed in a pot. It’s probably snobbery but it does taste better when its had room to breathe. The idea of ‘fast’ does not apply to tea, or most other good and pleasurable and enjoyable things (oi, steady on.) Tea is an infusion, that is it requires time to seep its way into the water, to mingle and make magic. Water is a ‘fast’ drink, it comes out of the tap. If you want speed, I’d stick with that. Your average teabag can’t cope with the confines of a mug. It needs to breathe, to spread its corners east and west. And of course, there is the idea that teabags shouldn’t be allowed. I’m not that much of a tea snob. I like tasty tea and if it happens to come out of an unbleached Clipper teabag then I’m happy.
Not herbal. Oh God no. I used to work with a colleague who had the direst selection of ‘fruit teas’ ever to disgrace a chipped white mug. They ranged from blackberry and orange (bleugh) to apple and mint (blargh) through to lemon grass and mulberry (pleaughpleaughplach). They all smelled like bath salts or toothpaste and she appeared to drink them as some kind of punishment. The only ‘fruitish’ tea that I love is jasmine, glugged down after dim sum or crispy duck. Ah, jasmine.
All this blogging has made me thirsty so I’d better put the kettle on. The title of this missive is ‘Cup of Brown Joy’ taken from the musical delight that is Professor Elemental. Never was there a hymn to tea so perfectly pitched and if you haven’t caught it then you should. Which reminds me of the last time I had to replenish the caddy when, in order to brave the supermarket, I tugged on my fighting trousers. But that’s another blog, one the censors are having trouble with.
Hunt down the Professor here: Professor Elemental
Need something to read while you quaff your Earl Grey? https://www.helenslavin.com/signup/
There have been a lot of royal connections lately on the BBC epic that is ‘Who Do You Think You Are’. Danny Dyer, it turns out, is the rightful heir to the throne and Greg Davies is making a bid for Welsh Independence as the True Prince of Wales.
The silver spoon of my own family history is a more tarnished than polished. I come from a long line of stocky peasants, some involved in nefarious activities, documented as having been bundled aboard ships bound for distant shores which they then promptly hijacked to use in pirate expeditions. It might be said that they contributed a great deal to historic economies with their smuggling and looting. It is probable that many of the glistering golden artefacts gracing the display cabinets of the world’s museums carry the eager fingerprints of my buccaneer ancestors.
There was Wide Jim, so called because it was best to give him a wide berth, that is, out of range of his cannon. His sister, Sorcery Meg was renowned for the fact that she had a sword hidden in her wooden leg, the kneecup serving as handguard in many a maritime duel. Her knicker legs were riddled with a cache of small pistolry. Where Wide Jim traded in the more domestic items, chests, linen presses, tallboys, his sister was keener on the more esoteric market goods. It was Sorcery Meg who visited New Orleans and traded in a fleet of ghost ships crewed by an army of Voodoo dolls each carrying a hair of her head in their own to give them indomitable spirit. And nits probably.
On dry land my antecedents were nothing if not industrious. Squire Hesten, as he was titled by his mother, because he was a very long way from being a Squire, moved from waggoner’s apprentice to entrepreneur when he opened one of the first chip shops in Britain. Vinegar Joe’s thrived until the 1930s when Hitler cordoned off all the fish and then, Squire not being thwarted by this, chose to send the Luftwaffe with a bomb to flatten the plaice (sic).
His brother, Major, got into a fight with a stocky red-haired cove one evening at the Robin Hood over a half of Guinness. Major maintained that his half had been on the bottom as the red-haired opponent maintained that the glass had not been poured for him. There was much dusting of knuckles, cracking of cartilege and widowmaking in the hour that followed with blood, teeth and brains adorning the pints and flagons in place of the usual cherries and umbrellas. A left ear was never found. When at last the red-haired gentleman was wheeled out in a barrow, Major was approached by some city gentlemen who had been waiting for a coach to Leeds. They doffed their silk hats and introduced themselves as Graves and Tombs, bear baiters and boxing promoters to the crowned heads of Europe. Thus began Major’s career as ‘Major Storm’ the World Bare Knuckle Boxing Champion (Northern Slack Belt). In his old age he had a set of dentures made up from the molars, canines and incisors collected from his opponents in the bareknuckle boxing venues of Europe. This travelogue was insalubrious, comprised as it was of sidings, back alleys and ginnels from Helsinki to Palermo.
Bennet Wilding, my great great grandfather once removed from the Midland Hotel, was the Horseman of Shude Hill. In his time the city of Manchester was rammed with horseflesh, that still clopping about on four legs performing its civic duties, and the other being roasted by the leg for the filling of pies. Bennet did not manage his own stables but was itinerant, wandering the city to wrangle the horses where needed. Holding the ancient knowledge of the Horseman’s Word he was responsible for the Great Ducie Street Sticky Flight. A quantity of horses had been rounded up in the yards at Rigger & Poot the glue manufacturers’. The herd grew restive and by late afternoon word was sent that Bennet Wilding must come. A lad had been crushed against the fencing and the horses were trampling each other, rearing up at any who dared go near. Witnesses at the later inquest (see report in the Manchester Evening News 31st April 1877) cited the view of the ‘palisade fencing rising and swelling outwards like a high tide at Blackpool’. The wooden fence panels could be heard straining from Market Street. Hooves sparking against hooves caused a fire to begin smouldering in the hay and sawdust underfoot. Within moments an outbuilding had caught alight, which served only to spook the horses further.
Bennet arrived on his own horse, Nab, a blue roan Brabant he had rescued from a Russian ship at Salford Docks. By this time the gates, iron plated and bolted fast, were bending with the pressure of flanks beyond and the lock had distorted too far to be thrown back. Witnesses recalled how Bennet leaned to Nab’s ear before the two turned back up Great Ducie Street and jumped the gate, Nab flying ‘like Pegasus’ as one witness had it.
As Nab and Bennet wove their way through the horses, Bennet leaned in each ear but the horses, far from calming, grew still more restive, eyewitnesses spoke of the creatures turning northwards, stepping and prancing to align themselves to Bennet’s path. The whinnying reached ear-splitting decibels, the noise was blamed for the breaking of windows in a factory on Great Ancoats Street and could be heard as far off as Tipping Lane. The beasts surged and trampled, Bennet and Nab moving through until the pressure on the boundary was too great and the fencing exploded. Splinters were picked up on Deansgate and Market Street. Several thousand pigeons, roosting on nearby rooftops and windowsills, were speared and later dredged out of guttering for piefilling and sausage rolls.
Thus freed the horses stampeded forth, Bennet Wilding at the head, the beasts running north along Great Ducie Street and out of Strangeways pressing on into the distance. Onlookers commented that the sound of hooves on cobbles was akin to the bells of Hell ringing out their eerie carillon.
Some stragglers were rounded up cropping hedges at a farm at Seven Stars. The remaining herd, some say the numbers ran into the high hundreds, rammaged through surrounding villages, at last finding their way onto the moors at Belmont. The feral herd there prospered for some years and brought forth no fewer than five Grand National Winners: Fruitcake, Damosel’s Fancy, Mr Mackenzie, Hoyle’s Haunt and, most exceptional of all, The Jagger.
Bennet Wilding himself disapproved. He never raced horses, saying it was cruel sport for a kingly creature and nought could prosper that traded on fear.
On his deathbed his great granddaughter, Mabel, asked that he tell her the Horseman’s Word and, since she was a favourite and skilled with animals, he requested a scrap of paper. One was brought from the nearby dresser with a stub of pencil and he made marks upon it. Mabel never divulged what the paper said but it was kept in her pocket always.