The End of an Era

Auntie Aileen died on 2nd April.  Her funeral was on the 14th.  There was a splendid turnout which was overwhelming for Suzy and me.  I think she would have enjoyed the service, and here is what I wrote and read.  Nothing I have thought subsequently is any better than this.

 

This is the last photo I took of Auntie Aileen, on 19th December, 2015, wearing a Christmas hat and with her walker decorated with tinsel.

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I volunteered to speak because I wanted to pay tribute to Auntie Aileen.  I quickly realised that I don’t have time to even scratch the surface of who she was.   When we were here last week, Alexander, my nephew, said ‘Auntie Aileen inspired me’.  He told me that it was her character; the stories she told him about her travels that then inspired him to travel; how she has influenced many of Alexander’s characters in his screen plays; and her obvious passion for so many diverse things.   
 
When Auntie Aileen was born, expectations for women were so very different.  She had initially hoped to go to university to study English Literature, but preference was given to demobbed servicemen, and she would have had to wait too long.  She then wanted to study at Atholl Crescent but our grandparents couldn’t afford the fees.  So she studied nursery teaching at Moray House, and she became an excellent teacher rising through the ranks, and sitting on national boards.  Sadly she had to retire a couple of years early when our grandmother’s Alzheimer’s necessitated that Auntie Aileen become her carer.  
 
She once told me that had she been born later she would have liked to have been a conservator of fabrics in a museum, but even so, as a woman born in what to me was another time, she managed to lead an incredibly modern life.  She was financially independent, had the satisfaction of her career, and she loved travelling.  
 
Boy did she love travelling!  As a result, Sue and I were often frustrated at not being able to contact Auntie Aileen easily, and so we bought her an answering machine for her 70th birthday.  Of course, this only helped us if she was actually in the flat and checked her messages, or indeed had time to call us back.  Eventually we agreed that she would let us know her plans in advance and believe me her trips took up a large chunk of my calendar.  It seems unbelievable that only four years ago she sailed around South America. 
 
The decision to stop travelling abroad wasn’t taken easily, but Auntie Aileen realised in 2012 that failing eyesight combined with unsteadiness on her feet made her a liability.  Her final trip across the border was for Big Andrew’s 60th birthday party in August 2013 when she held court in a corner of the hall, entertained by friends and family, and laughing at our dancing.  After that visit, she decided she couldn’t visit Sue or me any more.  That same unsteadiness also made long train journeys difficult for her.  She still read travel brochures though and dreamed of where she would have liked to visit or indeed revisit.
 
Photography was another passion, documenting her trips and taking family photos.  I am the youngest of three, and I honestly thought that Mum and Dad had got bored by the time I was born because there seemed to be very few photos of me as a baby or child.  Thank heavens for Auntie Aileen.  As Sue and I cleared her flat last year, I finally found some photos and slides of me.  
 
In fact, Auntie Aileen taught me to use a camera.  She took me to Edinburgh Zoo, another of her passions, and showed me how to point and shoot.  My first photo was, of course, of a bear.  It had to be really, didn’t it?  The entire bear is in the frame, so she taught me well.  We all know of Auntie Aileen’s love of bears – teddy bears, pottery bears, carved bears, all kinds of bears, all sizes.  I think there were almost 800 in the flat when we cleared it, and Auntie Aileen had named every single one, and remembered all their names.  
 
Auntie Aileen had many hobbies, again all addressed with passion.  She was a fine needlewoman, and also knitted beautiful lace.  She was a long-time member of the Scottish Mineral and Lapidary Club, and I am thrilled to own jewellery that she made.  She loved classical music concerts and fortunately, thanks to the sensitivity of the staff at Southpark Retirement Home, she was able to attend Scottish Chamber Orchestra concerts even after the stroke and almost to the end.  This meant so much to her since this was the one passion that didn’t require sight or balance.  
 
This wouldn’t be a true memory of Auntie Aileen if I didn’t mention that we didn’t always get along.  Sometimes I found her embarrassing and I know she often felt the same about me.  But time passed and I now realise that in many ways we were similar.  Passionate, outspoken, loud, opinionated, fiercely independent, interested in everything – so in many ways we were competing with each other, except that I had the opportunities Auntie Aileen would have loved to have had.
 
We became much better friends after she visited us in Hong Kong in 1987.  I realised then how open she was to new experiences and she was definitely one of the easiest guests we ever had.  During that stay, however, I had to tell her that Nana, her mother, had been given a place in a home.  Auntie Aileen would be returning to the flat where she’d lived since the age of 7 to live on her own for the first time.  I had never seen Auntie Aileen cry before.  I realised then that she was a real person.
 
After that sadly the tears were more frequent, especially after the stroke.  Auntie Aileen really, really didn’t want to leave her flat.  She had hoped to die there, but strokes are cruel.  She knew she couldn’t be a prisoner there, and so she moved to Southpark.  She grieved her loss of independence and privacy, and the staff did everything to make the transition easier for her.   Recently however Sue and I sensed that she was slipping away.  Her once tremendous memory was failing, the breathing problems increased, and she couldn’t see us when we visited, only recognising our voices.
 
The phrase that has been used by so many people is that this is the end of an era, and it truly is.  Who else wore huge red silk Christmas baubles as earrings?  Who else matched the colour of her Sobrani cigarette to her outfit?  Who else made Danish Lace Biscuits?  Who even knows what Danish Lace Biscuits are?  Who ensured that I had a stellar collection of dolls in national dress?  Who else will send us books and presents about Scotland in case we forget our heritage?  Who else will call Sue and me ‘the girls’? 
 
 Bye bye, Auntie Aileen, rest in peace.  We know you were proud of us.  We know you loved us.  We loved you too.
Nana, Aileen and CFM 12.1962
How I think she would rather be remembered – hale and hearty next to Nana in Otley. That’s me on her knee.
There are many recipes that make me think of Auntie Aileen – dates stuffed with marzipan; coconut ice; Scotch Broth made with beef and dried peas – the ‘original’ way but not as good as my recipe; Danish Lace Biscuits; and Toddy Tart.  Since the Danish Lace Biscuits were always such a joke (behind Auntie Aileen’s back…), I’m going to link to a recipe for them.  Alas her actual recipe is not available but here you go Danish Lace Biscuits.  The recipes call for cups but I know you all know how to use those!
Enjoy!

 

 

Bit of a Pickle

Grandma never wasted anything.  She turned fruits and vegetables into jams, jellies, chutneys, and latterly wines.  We foraged for brambles together; and friends and neighbours were quick to give her their extra harvest of anything in return for whatever she turned it into.  Even Mr Hoare, who owned a mobile grocery van which visited once a week, was known to return at the end of the evening to ask her if she wanted a tray of this or that which wouldn’t last to be sold the next morning.  But what I hated most about chutney season was the smell of boiling vinegar which permeated the whole house.  Even Papa was known to join in and I remember him pickling walnuts.  They tasted good, but that smell was disgusting. This gene of Grandma’s escaped me somewhat.  We don’t eat much jam, and nor do we eat much chutney.  Usually whatever chutneys we are given at Christmas last until the following year.  I have made lemon curd in the past, and during a particular Earth Mother phase bottled vegetables in oil, home-made cheeses in oil, prunes in brandy, and made lemon curd.  They were all successful, but inevitably a jar got forgotten and that is why there is a large Kilner jar with killer prunes in it, sitting in one of the cupboards.  Those prunes have been sitting in the brandy for ten years and only one will knock you out for the rest of the evening! I do enjoy making elderflower cordial and fruit alcohols – they’re easy and they taste good.  The basic recipe for fruit alcohol is 1 pint (20 fl oz) of vodka or gin, plus one pound of fruit (if using plums or sloes, prick the skins so that the juice can escape.  Tradition says that they should be pricked with the thorn of their tree), plus 1lb of sugar (I sometimes use less, say 12 oz, if the fruit is very sweet).  Mix them all together in a container with a lid.  Shake over several days until all the sugar has dissolved.  Put in a dark place for at least three months.  Strain and bottle.  If you look in the garden, on the left hand side, halfway down, there is a damson tree.  The fruit from that tree makes a lovely gin. The reason I’m a bit stumped with this blog though is that George and Jess have started making chutneys and he wanted some recipes, and I don’t have any!  I looked through Auntie Chrissie’s recipe book and she has several, one of which seems to be an Indian recipe.  It’s quite difficult to read, because it’s been written on air mail paper (google it, ye children of the email!).

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However, here we go with Cauliflower Pickle – I have transcribed exactly what Auntie Chrissie wrote, so any ambiguities are hers.  George, please let me know how it tastes.

Cauliflower Pickle

Ingredients

  • 1 small garlic
  • 2 tablespoonsful olive oil
  • 1 dessert spoonful ground ginger
  • 3 ozs preserved ginger
  • 1 medium sized cauliflower
  • Cayenne to taste
  • 2 tablespoonsful sugar
  • 2 tablespoonsful curry powder

Method Steam the cauliflower after removing the outer leaves, till fairly soft.  Then break up into pieces on a dish and add sufficient salt to taste.  Leave for one night.  Heat the olive oil with the cloves of garlic till the garlic is brown.  Add all of the other ingredients, cover with vinegar and cook for 5 to 8 minutes. Enjoy!

Girls in Their Summer Clothes

New York is heaving with visitors at the moment.  The students have left and have been replaced by summer school students and the first wave of the summer tourists.  A couple of days ago, the weather was sunny and people were dressed accordingly – colours had replaced the NYC working woman’s all black uniform, and it was all rather lovely.  This last couple of days have been less summery but the temperatures are due to rise again tomorrow.

Our family summer holidays were always spent in Scotland.  Grandma and Papa wanted to go home, and they wanted to see their families.  So every summer until 1972 (when Gran and Pop moved to Northallerton), the car was packed and we drove up.  There were no radios in cars then, the roads were slow, and the journey was long.  It was the only time we were officially allowed to chew gum.  And chew we did as we tried to look at registrations and every year we would try to spot all the year identifiers issued up to then.  Each year Papa warned us as we drove north that the first letter (A, of course) had been issued mainly in the south and that we’d been jolly lucky to see one.  Every year we found one and duly considered ourselves exceedingly fortunate.  As a result of this game I am still more likely to notice a registration plate than notice even the colour of a car.

I can just remember having to time the trip to catch the car ferry from Queensferry to Fife.  Papa didn’t want to get there too late and so get caught with the people commuting from Edinburgh.  I remember very clearly being poked in the arm by Grandma and told to look up.  Above me was the almost completed Forth Road Bridge.  “Next time, we come up, we’ll be going over the bridge”, I was told.  I have never lost the excitement of going over that bridge.  When there was still a toll (2/6d), Papa tried very hard not to actually stop the car when he was paying the toll.  Generally he succeeded.

I don’t remember Gran and Pop’s first home, Craiglyn, where Uncle Johnnie, Grandma, Vi, Suzy, Alastair, Kenneth and Alan were born.  Kenneth and Alan are two of my cousins.  Gran and Pop sold it when they returned from New Zealand in 1961 after being away for a year.  Craiglyn and its gardens had become too much for Pop.  I do remember the first trip to 24 Spencer Place, their new home.  I loved visiting that house.  The back garden had a lawn, and then sloped sharply downwards to the Dysart road.  Alan and I made dens down there and spent ages playing amongst the trees.  We even created a burglar trap which I’m sure would have been hugely successful if any burglar had decided to climb the slope by that route.

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Alan and I in the garden of 24 Spencer Place, before we were old enough to build traps for burglars

Spencer Place was very near to the Ravenscraig Park, and Grandma used to wake up early, wake me up and we would walk through the park, past the mynah bird who yelled “aye” in a broad Fife accent or whistled the opening notes to Laurel and Hardy, and onto the beach.  It wasn’t a beautiful beach, but there was a lot of sea coal which is great for skimming.   Skimming stones is one of those pastimes which is absolutely absorbing and, even if you’re not that good, you might be, and so you continue.  Back to Spencer Place and breakfast.  Afternoons, if the weather was good, were spent on nicer beaches, generally Lower Largo where the main dangers were the cold of the sea (and no it doesn’t get warmer when you get your shoulders under the water), and the rocks which I always seemed to tread on.

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Playing on the beach at St Andrews

But what I most looked forward to when staying with Gran and Pop was Gran’s baking.  Gran baked the best gingerbread I have ever tasted.  It was a moist, dark, rich cake which really was neither a cake nor gingerbread, but it was so delicious.  I have a passion for ginger in all its forms – fresh, powdered, preserved, pickled – it doesn’t matter to me.  My mouth is watering at the thought of a slab of Gran’s gingerbread spread with unsalted butter.  After Gran died, we all wanted the gingerbread recipe from her recipe book.  You have no idea how sad we were to discover that she used cups mixed with imperial measures.  No-one knew which cup she had used.  My cousin, Carole, thinks that she has worked it out, but I haven’t tasted her gingerbread yet.  So you might have an idea of how delighted I was to find in Edinburgh a recipe for gingerbread written in Gran’s handwriting, and totally in imperial – no untraceable cups!   So here it is.  I haven’t converted to metric.  Gran used lard, according to this recipe, but I will probably substitute butter.

Gran’s Gingerbread

Ingredients

  • 6 ozs plain flour
  • 2 ozs sugar
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp mixed spice
  • 1 level tsp baking soda
  • 2 tbp treacle *
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 ozs lard
  • fruit and nuts

Method

Melt treacle and lard slowly.  Sieve dry ingredients and beat eggs.  Stir eggs and treacle into dry mixture.  Bake in greased and lined tin in moderate oven** for 1-1.25 hours.

* Treacle = Black treacle in England or molasses

** A moderate oven is 180-190 C / 350-375 F

Enjoy!

Family Treasures

The clearing of the Edinburgh flat is almost complete.  There are four shelves of books left to pack and then that is it.  124 years of McKay and Moyes occupation will have been looked at, sorted, boxed up, thrown out, given away, given to charity, moved, or sent to an auction house.  Every single piece of paper was checked, every nook and cranny searched.  The dust was incredible, the task was formidable.  It’s very sad when lives are reduced to packed boxes, no matter how thrilled the recipients of those boxes are.  When Grandma died, I found it very hard when the house was sold and bank accounts closed because it felt to me as though we had put a price on her and Papa’s lives together.  It’s been no different with this.

But the treasures and discoveries have been wonderful.  When I emptied the bathroom cupboard I found old boxes.  For the Brits reading this, who knew that Boots’ logo used to be red?  It’s always been blue in my lifetime.  Why would anyone keep things that long?  I came to the conclusion that since both Nana and Auntie Aileen were/are short, after my Papa’s death no-one climbed up to look on the top shelf.  There was a bottle of paraffin in the Glory Hole.  The label showed that it was quite old.  But it’s been illegal to sell paraffin in a bottle for many years!  There was an old motor insurance certificate, quite beautiful and looking like a bond or share certificate.  I have never seen anything like this.  There were flat irons, irons with a three point round plugs, and irons with three point square plugs.  Not bad for someone who never ironed.  Every book we opened had a newspaper cutting inside.  Something had attracted someone’s attention and had been lovingly snipped from the paper, slipped inside a book, and probably never looked at again.  I have never seen so many recipes culled from papers and magazines piled into boxes or put into bags.  Again, once clipped and piled, I doubt many of them were ever re-read.  I confess to doing the same thing.  I cut out recipes, but, and it’s a big but, I then put them into a scrapbook.  I don’t stick them in properly at first.  Every six months, I go through the book and take out any recipes I haven’t made or which no longer interest me.  Maybe I should just hang on to everything instead and let people wonder what I was thinking at the time?

It seems my great aunt, Christina, did the same thing, and I now have her recipe book.

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Christina Emily Marshall Moyes was born in Asansol, West Bengal on 31st January, 1891, the fourth child and fourth daughter of Andrew Moyes and Alice Roseanna (nee Marshall).  They would go on to have five daughters, then six sons, then another daughter, but not all lived to adulthood.  Christina was known as Chrissie or Churkie, which I’ve always been told was a derivative of the Urdu for ‘little frog’.  Auntie Chrissie moved to Edinburgh when her father retired from the Indian railways just before the First World War.  She never married and looked after her father in a flat in Edinburgh.  They took in students and, like many other women in our family, she seems to have enjoyed cooking, and cutting out recipes!  After Grandpa Moyes’ death, she moved into the flat where she stayed for the rest of her life, dying in 1951.  This book is a true treasure.  Many recipes are in her own handwriting, using a mixture of imperial measures and cups, and in some recipes Indian words.  I have been googling a lot since starting to read this.  There are recipes for Indian dishes which I am really looking forward to trying.  When I was talking to Auntie Aileen about this book, and about a recipe for Fowl Pillau, I was told that Churkie’s lamb pillau was amazing.  She used to boil a neck of lamb and then use the stock for the rice.  Auntie Aileen’s mouth was watering at the memory.

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Tucked in are the inevitable cuttings from newspapers, some from the Second World War about using egg substitute; many about many pickles and chutneys; one extraordinary article about holding babies by their feet and dangling them – definitely recommended; but most of them are cakes or puddings, large and small.  Some I am tempted to try; some seem impossibly sweet; and some are just interesting to read.  Tucked in the pages, I found this

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It’s absolutely fascinating to read but can’t say that I fancy Mock Kidney Soup or Fish Custard!  And in the back of Auntie Chrissie’s book is a pattern for a knitted bedspread.   Which made me laugh.  Gran’s recipe book also has, at the back, a knitting pattern but for socks.  Gran and Auntie Chrissie weren’t related.  Was this something that all women at that time did?  Throw in a knitting pattern just to confuse later generations.

What a treasure.  What a marvellous thing to own and read.  And I started wondering (in a Carrie Bradshaw sort of way), will my children be the last ones to have a physical book of their mother’s recipes to read?  With the internet, will people bother writing out, cutting out, or printing out a recipe that they fancy trying?  Or will they just assume that they’ll google it if they ever need it, and read from a screen?  While I don’t expect many people will have cut out and kept as many recipes as Auntie Aileen did, I find it a wee bit sad that our culinary lives will be just our internet history.

And today’s recipe is one which I cut out from a magazine, which survived my six-monthly cull and which I have made a couple of times.  It’s very easy and very tasty, and contains two of my favourite ingredients, almonds and lemons.  Today’s recipe is Pine Nut, Almond and Lemon Slice, and I think I cut it out of Good Housekeeping magazine since I’ve been here in New York.

Pine Nut, Almond and Lemon Slice

Ingredients

  • 100 g unsalted butter
  • 120 g golden castor sugar
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 3 eggs
  • 150 g ground almonds
  • 40 g pine nuts
  • mascarpone, to serve

Method

Heat the oven to 190 C / 170 C fan / gas 5.  Beat the butter with the sugar and lemon zest until pale and fluffy, then slowly beat in the eggs, one by one.  Beat in the lemon juice, and fold in the ground almonds.  The mixture will look separated, however it will come back together once baked.

Spoon into a 20 cm buttered and paper base-lined tin, sprinkle over the pine nuts and level.  Bake the tart on the middle shelf for 25-35 min or so until lightly coloured on top and just set.  Serve while still warm, with mascarpone.

 

Enjoy!

A la Recherche du Temps Perdu

I started writing this blog a couple of days ago, but managed to depress myself while doing so!   I am restarting, with the same title, but a couple more days of reflection have turned my sentiments around.  The last few months have not been straightforward with the challenges of Auntie Aileen’s move into the care home, and Belle’s death.  I have been reflecting on two very strong women who fought hard to stay alive, but then realised that their lives weren’t at all what they wanted them to be.  I’ve also been thinking a lot about sorting out the flat in Edinburgh, and how sad it is to break up someone’s home while they’re still alive.  This was the starting point of my last draft – yup, it was that cheerful!  As my next trip to Edinburgh fast approaches, though, I was thinking of the benefits (from our point of view) of Auntie Aileen still being around so that we can ask her questions.

I do not really need to say again how many things are in that flat.  We still haven’t gone through everything to sort out obvious rubbish from charity donations to what is being distributed amongst the family.  That should be completed by next week.  What has helped though is being able to ask Auntie Aileen what things are.   Her short-term memory may be shot, but her long-term is still spot on for the most part.   She was unable to see many things clearly, but she felt them and told us immediately what they were.  It was quite emotional too on occasions as certain things brought back memories for her.

It did feel wrong but to be going through someone else’s possessions and dividing what we found into piles, but there were occasional joys.  We found several fur hats in a wardrobe and immediately recognised one as having been Nana’s.  Strangely even after 27 years, it still smelt of her, and that smell took me back to being a child, having cuddles and her sweet, sweet smile.   We found more photographs than you can imagine – most of them Auntie Aileen’s holiday snapshots, but some family ones.  We will take these in to show her, and hopefully with her new magnifying glass (with a light no less) she will be able to identify some of the people for us.  I wonder if Auntie Aileen remembers that she was the first person to show me how to use a camera?  One summer after Grandma started work, I was judged too young to be left on my own during the school holidays and so was sent to Scotland for the summer.  I spent most of the time in Kirkcaldy with Gran and Pop, but had a few days in Edinburgh with Nana.  Auntie Aileen took me to the zoo, and taught me how to hold the camera and position the lens.  My first photograph was a black and white shot of a bear.  I wonder if I’ll find that photo in amongst all the others?

Today’s recipe has nothing to do with Auntie Aileen or Nana, it’s Belle’s recipe for Old-Fashioned Bread Pudding, a recipe I brought back from London especially for you.  Reading the recipe makes me laugh because Belle once made the pudding and took it with her one day to the Friendship Group at church.   Everybody ate it, and everybody said how marvellous it was.  The following Sunday, however, one of the ladies (who shall remain nameless) collared me in the Church Hall and gave me some of her bread pudding.  “Now, isn’t this bread pudding better?” I was asked.  I claimed that my mouth was full, smiled in a vacant sort of way, nodded in a non-committal sort of way, and she seemed satisfied that I was in agreement.  Not a terribly friendly act or indeed Christian but the idea of bread pudding rivalry still makes me chuckle!   This is a great way to use up old bread, and Belle has written on the recipe ‘An approximation of a recipe from childhood’.  I have copied exactly what she wrote.

Old Fashioned Bread Pudding

Ingredients

  • 1 lb (450 g) stale bread of any sort crusts on
  • 1 pint of milk (550 ml) or water
  • 4 oz butter melted (100  g)
  • 6 oz soft brown sugar (150 g)
  • 4 teaspoons mixed spice
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 12 oz (250 g) mixed fruit and cherries or other fruit to taste
  • Rind of one orange and one lemon
  • Nutmeg

Method

Soak the break in milk (or water) for at least 30 minutes and mash with a potato masher.

Preheat oven to gas 4 (180 C)

Add eggs, melted utter, sugar and mixed spice and mix in with a fork – make sure there are no lumps.

Add the mixed fruit and orange and lemon rinds.

Pour into a suitable sized tin, grate some fresh nutmeg on top.

Bake for about an hour and half.

Now I have a vague recollection that the difference between Belle’s bread pudding and the competitive bread pudding was that for the second the fruit had been soaked in rum.  My memory isn’t as good as Auntie Aileen’s but even if it isn’t true, it sounds like it might be a good option.

Enjoy!

Goodbye, Dear Friend

Isabella Mary King was born on 24th December, 1919 into abject poverty near Kings Cross, London.  She had club feet and was the eldest of three.  Her father had fought in the trenches during World War I and contracted tuberculosis, returning home and sadly infecting his wife.  In a wealthier family, her mother would have been sent abroad to cleaner air and maybe would have lived longer, but Belle’s mother died when she was young.  Belle’s few memories of her mother were of being made to promise to take care of George and Doris, her younger brother and sister; waving to her mother through the window of the hospital; and watching her funeral cortege take her coffin away.  Belle didn’t even have a photo of her mother until about five years ago.

Her Granny King was determined that the children wouldn’t be split up and they all moved in with her.  She taught them strong values, values that would last to the end of Belle’s days.  Despite the handicap of needing special shoes and walking with sticks, her grandmother told her she was as capable as the next.  Her father remarried, and Belle was introduced to her stepmother after the wedding with the words ‘This is your new mother’.  It wasn’t an easy relationship for any of them, with half-siblings being born, and Belle’s father eventually dying during the Second World War.

A tour of London with Belle was always interesting.  She would point out the site where her relatives had been killed by a direct hit from a German bomb – ‘poor lambs’.  She talked of how St Pancras Hospital used to be the workhouse and how she remembered the shame for families who had no choice but to go in there.  She told me that the genders were segregated with the younger children staying with their mothers, and she would watch as families were separated.   Years later, in 2007, after a stroke, she was horrified to be admitted to St Pancras Hospital.  In her head, she was in the workhouse, the building her Granny King had worked so hard to keep them from.   She used to watch the ‘posh ladies and gentlemen’ arrive at the St Pancras Hotel in their carriages (later in their cars) and dreamt of going in there and seeing ‘what all the fuss was about’.

Belle became a very able secretary.  She was very proud of her shorthand and typing skills, and specialised as a legal secretary.  She worked for various people in different firms until eventually she worked in the office of the Treasury Solicitor.  All these years on, she could still remember conversations, cases and titbits from that time, and she was still amazed that someone ‘from my background’ could have ended up with such a prestigious job.

Belle married Jack Johanson when she was 45, but she was widowed by the time we met in 1993.  I never really knew what Jack did, but I know that it was something to do with woodwork.  Jack and Belle were two of the original occupants of Mary Green, one of the council tower blocks on the St John’s Wood borders.  They were on the 19th (top) floor, and she used to jokingly refer to her home as her St John’s Wood penthouse.  The views were certainly stunning, and she enjoyed pointing out the buildings that had appeared since she first moved in.  Belle was a Londoner through and through.  She loved her native city, and enjoyed visiting new attractions, organising trips to visit Shakespeare’s Globe and Tate Modern.  She was vastly amused by the Wobbly Bridge (Millennium Bridge) and used to wonder at how many millions had to be spent to correct ‘something that the Romans knew, you know’.  And, at the last count, I believe she had been on the London Eye 8 times – she never tired of those views.

After retirement, Belle stayed busy, being an active member of the tenants’ association, St Mary’s Church (where she joined the PCC), and attending many activities at the Abbey Community Centre.  I met her at the church, after the service,  when we all gathered in the then church hall.  As I became more involved in the church, I used to go on outings with the Friendship Group and would push one of the wheelchairs, usually Belle or Ivy, and they both became friends to me.  I used to drive them in whichever Land Rover we had at the time, and it really breaks the ice when you have to push someone upwards so that they can get in!

Belle and I talked about everything and nothing, and at difficult times in my life she would listen, perhaps make a comment, then lean forward, pat my hand and say ‘It’ll be all right, Duck’.  Happily, she was always right.  We enjoyed each other’s company, and for two people who could talk for Britain, we listened and learned a lot.  We discussed such elevated subjects as the future of the Anglican Church; same-sex marriage; UK politics; and the changing shades of Britain.  Belle, of course, remembered the Windrush arriving in Britain after the War, and could judge the varying problems around the world by the nationalities who were being housed by the council in Mary Green.

After the refurbishment of Windsor Castle, Belle, Joan (her closest friend) and I went to look around the castle, and surprisingly, to me, it was Belle who knew the best pub for lunch.  For a non-drinker, she always knew where to go, and I didn’t learn this for a while.  After Joan had to go into a home, I used to make a point of visiting Belle more often, not because I’m a wonderful, selfless person, but because I really liked seeing her.  It was rare to find her on her own though.  Belle had a wide group of friends and family who visited her regularly.  She was a skilled needlewoman and used to host classes in her flat – samples of her work were framed and on the wall.

Belle was mugged more than anyone else I’ve met.  I suspect that muggers saw the cane and club feet, and saw an easy target.  The last time, she was attacked and brought to the floor in the lift lobby of her building.  She fought and fought, holding on tight to her handbag, but then looked at her mugger.  She realised the boy was about 12, and stopped struggling.  When I asked why, she said that realised that his life was over already and he was so young.  She gave him her bag, he ran off, and she managed to get up.

One of her cousins decided to give away her money before she died and gave Belle a sum with the instructions to ‘spend it on herself’.  We talked about this a great deal.  Belle found it very hard to spend such a sum on herself, but her cousin had said that she wanted to know how Belle spent it, so she had to comply.  Eventually Belle confided that she had always wanted an Aquascutum raincoat, so would I mind going to Regent Street with her?  I have to admit that it went against every fibre of her being to spend so much on a raincoat, but she was very mindful of her cousin’s instruction.  She loved trying on the different coats, eventually choosing one that needed an alteration which could be done in a couple of hours.  So we went to a pub she knew for lunch (of course) and laughed and talked as always.  She had also said that she wanted to buy a new gold chain for a locket that Jack had given to her, but on several occasions when I mentioned sorting that out she always had a good excuse for not doing it.  I suspect she gave some of the money away, and I know that she paid for her funeral in full using that money.  She felt quite pleased that she had done something useful but yet complied with her cousin’s wishes.  I sometimes wonder how long it took her to think of that – something that ultimately helped her family, but was technically for her?  Still she wore that coat with joy, and it saddened me as she was losing weight in the past two or three years that the coat was falling off her.

When we moved to New York City, I knew that it was very unlikely that she would still be around when we moved back to London.  I made Fr Andrew promise to keep me up to date with regard to her health, and saw her almost every time I went back.  We tried to Skype but it wasn’t very successful even though Andrew tried to sort it out for her.  Sometimes I would call but she didn’t hear very well.  We had started a tradition of seeing her on Christmas Eve, and celebrating her birthday together.  For Christmas 2011, when she was still relatively mobile, Andrew, Hallie and I took her to a restaurant in the St Pancras Hotel.  It had been renovated and she was thrilled to finally see what was inside.  It was a delight to see her face as we walked in.  She even allowed herself to be sung to as the waiter brought her a birthday dessert, but sometimes she was still that little girl who wasn’t sure that she should be in such places.

Belle’s health started to deteriorate after a stroke at the end of 2006.  She was supposed to have been on a train to Birmingham to visit her sister, but never arrived.  Poor Fr Andrew had to get in to her flat where he found her lying on the bathroom floor, where she’d been for 24 hours.  She had kept her spirits up by singing hymns, even though she couldn’t move.  Her recovery from that stroke was not fast enough for her.  When gently reminded that she was no longer 21, she became quite grumpy with me, and called me a ‘cheeky cat’.  I had to stifle my laughter because she really was most put out with me.  Her brother, George, died before I met her, and her sister, Doris, died in about 2010.  Belle worried that she hadn’t kept her promise to her mother, that she was still alive but George and Doris weren’t.  I said that since they had both reached more than the average age, I thought she really had kept her promise, but I’m not sure Belle was convinced..

I last saw her on her 95th birthday, Christmas Eve 2014.  She was definitely looking frailer but her brain and wit were as entertaining as ever.  In the past year, every time I’ve seen her, I’ve said a particular goodbye to her in my head, thinking that it might be the last time, and this was no different.  Belle always told me that she loved me, and that she missed me.  I knew from Fr Andrew that her health had worsened after Christmas, but I had still hoped that I’d see her at Easter.  However, Belle died on 5th March.  She had had a massive stroke nine days before and was given the Last Rites almost immediately.  Tough as she was, she lived on till the 5th, dying very peacefully while holding her sister, Margaret’s, hand.

Since then, I’ve thought of Belle a lot and what I learned from her and how grateful I am to have known her.  Because of the intent of this blog, I’ve also been trying to think of a fitting recipe to honour Belle, but when I think of food and Belle, I think of roast dinners; Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (because that was what she always took to the Friendship Group for the raffle); and tinned vegetables (because ‘they’re easier, Duck, when you’re on your own’).  Belle loved and cooked traditional British food, using up leftovers and never wasting anything.  Growing up in poverty and living through the war created a mentality that we will never understand.  She enjoyed baking and made a marvellous bread pudding, but that recipe is in London.  So I am just going to tell you how I roast a side of salmon.  I always try to cook a light meal on Christmas Eve, but something special, and I know I cooked this for Belle for one of her birthday dinners.  She had rarely had fresh salmon and we discussed how salmon had been very expensive till relatively recently, but the advent of fish farming had made it available to everyone.  95 years old – fish farming was undoubtedly the least of the changes she saw in her lifetime.  I’m not sure any recipe is a fitting tribute to Belle, but there has to be a tribute.  Thank you, Belle, for listening to me and telling me it would be alright.  It was.  And it is.

Roast Salmon

  • Side of fresh salmon with skin on – remove any bones
  • multi-coloured peppercorns

Pre-heat the oven to its hottest setting.

Line a roasting pan with foil.  Place the salmon on the foil, skin side down.

Grind pepper all over – make it look pretty.

Put in the oven.  Turn the oven off after 5 mins and leave the salmon in for another 10 mins.  Remove.

Enjoy!

Pancakes

I am a bit late in writing this blog.  Life has been complicated recently by Auntie Aileen in Edinburgh, and Suzy and I have spent a lot of time worrying how it will pan out, and doing whatever is necessary.  It now appears that events are overtaking Suzy and me, and that Auntie Aileen will be moving permanently into a home, undoubtably a home that neither Suzy nor I will have had the chance to look over first.  When you weigh this against the situation Auntie Aileen finds herself in – extremely lonely and unable to leave her flat – it is obvious which is more important.  So as Suzy and I comfort ourselves with the fact that we will find another home if it doesn’t work out, please forgive my tardiness.

I always looked forward to Shrove Tuesday as a child.  Not for the eating of the pancakes per se but for the annual attempts by various people to toss the pancakes.  There were always tremendous cheers as someone succeeded or groans at failures.  Despite this fun, I have never been a huge fan of the traditional English pancake with lemon juice and sugar, and so it was wonderful when I realised that you could put other things on them, like bacon, and cheese, and more bacon if necessary.

I wanted to make pancakes on Tuesday but I didn’t want the traditional wheat flour ones.  For some reason I wanted oatmeal pancakes.  Maybe it was because I had so enjoyed making and eating the oatcakes?  I don’t know but nothing else would do.  As before, I opened The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill where I was disconcerted to find a recipe which began ‘Boil a chopin of milk and blend it in a mutchkin of the flour of the oatmeal thus …’  Even notes which explained that a chopin equals a quart and a mutchkin a pint didn’t inspire me with confidence, and that was before I realised that this would make far more pancakes than I could eat on my own.  So I did some calculations and this is the recipe I made – not quite as F Marian McNeill describes but oh my they tasted good.

Oatmeal Pancakes – Ingredients

Makes 4

  • 180 g rolled oats
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 300 ml milk
  • 1 egg, at room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • nutmeg
  • grated rind of half a lemon

Method

Heat the milk, and add to the oatmeal a little at a time until it is thick.  Add the salt.  Set aside.  Beat the egg with a pinch of nutmeg and the lemon rind.

When the oat mix is cool, add the bicarb.  Stir well.  Add the egg mixture.  Leave to stand for at least two hours.

Lightly butter a flat griddle pan, and ladle four equal amounts onto it.  Cook over a medium heat.

IMG_1825

Just before I turned them

I ate them with a bit of unsalted butter – I had wanted honey but we didn’t have any, and I wanted something more British than maple syrup.  F Marian McNeill suggests beating together butter, sugar and orange for the top which sounds scrummy.

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Just before I transferred the pancakes to the plate.

 

Enjoy!