Never Jam Today

“The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.” It’s one of those things you think your Granny must have said, but no – well, she might have said it, but it comes from Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.

It does remind me of my Granny, though. I remember her kitchen on jam-making days, and Nan stirring away like a Queen Mother-shaped witch at some great metal pot on the gas stove, tipping in sugar and goodness knows what. Presumably Mum must have been there, otherwise why would I have been? I never remember Mum being anywhere, even when she was.

I remember a lot of jam-jars, all hot and steamy. Presumably Nan had been collecting them in some cupboard or shed and now they had to be washed to get rid of dust and dead spiders. I remember that there was always some nervousness as to whether the jam would set, and that something had to be added to some sorts of jam to make it set. I remember the sweet, sugary smell as the contents of the saucepan were decanted into the jars, and the circles of greaseproof paper that went on the top of the jam. Would she have cut these out for herself, maybe using the neck of a jam-jar to draw round? Or perhaps you could buy packets of them at the corner shop – same place you bought pink and blue birthday candles and red candle-holders, hundreds-and-thousands; that strange green stuff, angelica; cake cases, paper doilies, chocolate sprinkles, silver dragees, marzipan.

The paper caps always pleased me, pushed over the top of the jar and pinched in with a bit of ribbon. The sticky labels pleased me most of all, because I was allowed to write those. I remember the jars lined up along a high shelf, along with bottled fruit sealed tight in sinister kilner jars, like tiny dead babies. Tasted all right with ice cream, though, and kept us going all winter.

I wonder what happened to all that time – the time women seemed to have to do stuff like that, to make preserves, polish brass and mend socks on a wooden darning mushroom. What happened to knitting jumpers, replacing buttons and sewing on square patches? What happened to pulling up carrots and digging new potatoes just before a meal? What happened to mint sauce made in a teacup with mint from the garden? What happened to damsons picked from the hedge, and playing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as you lined up the cherry pips around the edge of your plate? What happened to buttered crumpets, pipe smoke, coal fires and elderly snoring dogs?

Sometimes I think they must be still going on somewhere – that in one – or maybe all of my concurrent ‘other’ lives, and to paraphrase Rupert Brooke, there must be crumpets still for tea. And that I must be seven again, with a gap where my two front teeth should be and a crumpled ribbon slip-sliding out of my hair.  And in those other lives I am forever consuming crumpets as butter drips through those curious holes to make my fingers greasy.

Recording The Moon

– moon through the trees,

A tired, shining face;

The very smell of moon

Seasoned with pollen –

Why must I record?

 

My life’s a postcard

Never to be sent,

A camera set to run, a blinking eye,

A capsule for him to open in some other time or place.

 

I am a ghost town

In the desert dust,

Waiting for one who never went away,

Waiting, forever waiting, for the day he might pass by.

 

Somebody’s cat

Tiptoeing through the leaves;

No longer lived-in house

Dark under ivy; polished, empty rooms –

 

 

open

Painting: A Dance Around The Moon by Charles Altamont Doyle

Cold Cabbage and Custard, Cold Kippers and Lard

That was what Nan used to say, if you asked what was for dinner. I used to wonder where she got all her Sayings from – “It’s as black as yer ‘at over Will’s mother’s”, “Up in Annie’s Room Behind the Clock”, “Jelly, Alice?” Grandad had a few of his own. If you asked him how old he was he’d say “As old as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth.”

The best meals I remember ever were Nan’s Sunday Lunches. Many years later I became a vegetarian, but I can’t pretend not to have relished that great, steaming plateful of chicken or roast beef, gravy, Yorkshire pudding, peas, home-made mint sauce, roast potatoes at the time. Nan did the best roast potatoes in the world. And the best gravy. And the best pastry.

She grew up in the country and went into service at the age of thirteen or fourteen – so she had a range of culinary and household skills, both rural and ‘gentry’. In summer, she would pick cherries from the tree in their garden and bottle them in kilner jars for the winter. They had damson bushes, and raspberries, and she made jam. I remember the steamy, sticky kitchen and that dense caramel-sugar-fruit smell. The jam, of course, we had on bread – cut thin by grandad with a dangerous-looking breadknife. He sharpened it himself, so it had a kind of curve to it, and he cradled the loaf lovingly, slicing towards his chest.

The cherries we had with ice-cream from a home-made cold-safe which had to be raised and lowered on rope pulleys – under the washbasin in the bathroom. The bread and jam we had after Sunday tea. I got sent out to buy a jugful of shrimps from the Shrimp Man, who appeared in the road on Sunday afternoons. And there always seemed to be celery in a jug, and salt to dip the ends in. Tomatoes were straight from the garden and tasted and smelled like tomatoes rather than water and Egyptian tomato-growers’ pee.

On winter evenings Grandad would toast crumpets on the end of a long brass toasting fork – so hot that when you buttered them it melted instantly and ran down through the holes in the crumpets. Sometimes there was toast, made on an ancient electric toaster that lived permanently in the middle of the table. It had a glass flap with a black knob on either side, opening outwards from the top, and a red-hot element on either side. You opened the flaps gingerly, deposited a slice of bread on either side and closed them again, equally gingerly. Until years later I believed toast always sported a lattice of charred black strips.

I actually saw that toaster – well, not that toaster, but that model – in a museum of 40s/50s domestic life, on a visit to Bletchley Park – the country house where Alan Turing and his associates broke all those codes using the Enigma machine during the war. I was more drawn to ‘my’ old toaster than the Enigma machine, which looked a bit lashed-together and steam-punky. At the time, of course, it was the white heat of technology.

Things have gone downhill a bit from those days. I used to pity one of my husband’s bachelor friends, who appeared to live on Mars bars and minced beef, in a basement flat. He told me he wasn’t interested in food at all and ate merely to live. I started off pitying my mother, who used to cook for herself but now cannot, because of the dementia. I once spent part of one of those interminable meetings with Mum’s social workers, her Mental Health Team, her Care Agency Boss etc. – so many people to look after one old person – discussing her failure to eat regular meals. We were discussing random, margarine-smeared Ryvitas; midnight slices sawn off those interminable Tesco current cakes; the several thousand Activia yoghurts in the fridge, which she swears she rotates but doesn’t, any more than she looks both ways when she crosses the road. No – straight out there. Once more into the breach. Basically, she had a cupboard full of cake, cat food and yoghurt.

And then I went home and faced the truth. In spite of living only fifteen minutes’ drive from a farm shop, with a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables second to none, I had a fridge full of Activia yoghurt – not quite so many, perhaps – bread, butter, cheese, Economy Marmalade, Sandwich Spread, Peanut Butter and Marmite; a packet of softening Custard Creams in the cupboard, and a venerable bag of rice I couldn’t be bothered to boil since it would mean washing-up a saucepan – and flinging a succession of determined, fur-shedding cats from the cooker-top whilst using it. And after all that, only the usual baked bean/tinned curry/grated cheese slop to go with it.

Be honest, I said (sternly!) – you live on this now, don’t you? You know how to cook. On the rare occasions you have people staying with you, you actually do cook. You are perfectly capable of following a recipe. You could even now whip up a Sunday lunch (vegetarian version) preparing the vegetables, organising and timing everything so that it all comes together at exactly the right moment – just like Nan did. But what you do is sit in front of the TV set (often still in your nightie and dressing gown) glued to the Migrant Crisis or Brexit on the 24 hour News Channel, or some abstruse science programme about Black Holes, Event Horizons and the True Nature of Reality whilst slurping bowls of instant porridge or sugar-infested granola, with additional spoonfuls of granulated sugar on top, and occasionally – almost every time, in fact – dribbling the sugary milk down your chin/dressing gown.

So why wait? Why not just book yourself into the Old Folks Home tomorrow?