Sunday, June 30, 2013


Moving north was supposed to be all about the new. Living in an intentional community by a river in a brand-new eco-home... could there *be* a better opportunity to reassess, reprioritise and reinvent? And there's been some of that, and there will be some more -- not since I went to university 25 years ago has everything about my day-to-day life been so suddenly so different. It's not all marvellous -- if I could draw, there would be a comic strip in me called Harangued By Vegans*, and there are some people, and some places, in Oxford I MISS SO MUCH -- but when I sit back a little and survey my new territory, I think we properly lucked in. If you're going to try and live more sustainably, more mindfully, more (dammit) communally, you'd be hard pushed to find a more, for the most part, resourceful, kind, interesting and diverse group of people to try it with. When it came to the go/no go conversation back in whenever it was, of the two of us, I was the less convinced. But even I thought, hey, if I walk away from an opportunity to be part of something *this* properly groundbreaking, I'm not the woman I thought I was.

But the woman I thought I was had a mother who was all seeing, all knowing and was going to live pretty much forever. She was going to be one of those women who take up marathon running or karate in their 70s and appear to be made mostly of sinew and gold. When I saw the now infamous Twitter post of the son of the woman who confronted the guys who killed the soldier in Woolwich I burst into tears. Because *my mum used to be a motherfucking badass too*. (Except without the swearing, she hates swearing).

In fairness, she's handling her terminal illness absolutely like a motherfucking badass, at least whenever she's had the choice. The times when she doesn't are the hardest for all of us, possibly her included, though these last months I've learnt many things about the boundaries of agency. Things which I'm sure she already knew, being a nurse (and a M-F-B-A), but which for the rest of us, have been a bit WHAT THE FUCK. I've spent a lot of time sad, and a lot of time crying, but you can only spend so much time mired in anticipatory grief, especially when the person in question, on a good day, is adjusting her wig (have I got everything? phone? keys? purse? hair?) and requesting that you get your arse in gear so we can get to the curry house the moment it opens**.

Which brings me to the point. This time of planned beginnings is also a time of unplanned endings. And on the journey between the two, from Lancaster to Lytham, I change trains in Preston, the town (now city) where I was born. Preston Station is part of the landscape of my formative years... any significant journey to anywhere that wasn't in a car went via Preston. The bar in Preston Station was where I had some of my first solo drinking experiences -- hey, anyone can be in transit, I can sit here with my pint of lager, my pack of Embassy Regal and my novel, waiting for a train...

And I find myself in the same bar (less seedy these days, more's the pity), waiting for the same train, the hourly Colne > Blackpool South, that punctuated my life all those years ago. If the sun is past the yard arm, I order a glass of red wine and a mini tube of salt and vinegar Pringles. Every time this happens, a line from Michelle Shocked's Memories of East Texas plays in my head... "looking back on the road I'd come, thinking I had not come that far..." But then, I alway think (the repetition is one of the echoes) I have gone far, I've just come back. I never thought I would, but I did. And, I alway think, is that a good thing or a bad thing? 

Unless I (and, frankly, science) buck the trend set by all my grandparents, and now my mother, I'm definitely in the second half of my life. There are a squillion cliches about this, none of which I wish to quote, but suffice it to say that I only just realised it. Longevity-wise, I've peaked. To that extent, in no way is forty the new thirty. Forty is halfway to fucking eighty. I don't come from a tribe that sees eighty. So, y'know, get ready to crumble.

ON THE OTHER HAND who the hell wants to be eighty? I'm not sure I do. So maybe this is all kind of timely. You've gathered enough input, love. You've had enough stimuli. Work out what it is you want to do with it all. Stop consuming***, start producing.

These are my thoughts at the moment. I expected to be carving out new territory, but instead I often find myself in strange familiar places, wading through layers of memories. Not so long ago, I was almost never allowed to cook a meal in my mother's kitchen, that was her job. These days, I cook nearly every visit. One of my regular dishes is spaghetti bolognaise. I make it with Quorn mince, as everyone bar me is now pretty much veggie (as I was until I was Harangued By Vegans), but as I put it in the pan to brown, I remember being sent to Clarkes butchers as a child for three quarters of a pound of minced beef. I remember queuing up, thinking 'I can't see over the counter, will they see me?' (they always did, but that never stopped me worrying that they wouldn't) and John, the big butcher with blood under his nails, putting his hand in a bag and using that to grab the mince. He was nearly always spot on.

When I chop the garlic, I remember working in Pleasant Street restaurant just down the road, where I learnt to smash garlic cloves with the flat blade of a knife, to get the skin off more easily. I also remember having to do that with six bulbs of garlic every Saturday morning, to make the garlic butter for the house vegetables for the week, how sticky my fingers got with garlic juice, and how my mum taught me how to get the smell out with Vanish, which she used on the collars of my dad's shirts. With the peppers, I remember the dreadful experimental dishes of the 70s. There was something called March Pork, featuring pork and red peppers, which my mum made once, and which I point blank refused to eat. I did the same with Hungarian Goulash. Still can't do much that involves peppers and rice. But I also remember, many years later, reading a book recommended to me by my friend V, about a British Pakistani family, where one of the characters watches a friend chopping a pepper and throwing away the stalk and seeds, and is reminded of her mother, who makes a special dish from these unwanted parts, like vegetable offal. I've always wanted to taste that dish.

The mushroom thing has been there for a while... about 20 years ago I was chopping mushrooms for a lasagne with my friend N, and she was throwing all the stalks away. I asked her why, and she said that when *she* was growing up, her parents used to eat the mushroom caps and give the stalks to the kids, and she was never going to eat a mushroom stalk again. I immediately started throwing stalks away in solidarity. A few years ago I saw her chopping mushrooms again, and she wasn't doing it anymore. Oh, I'm over that now, she said. I wasn't. To this day I always chuck one or two stalks in the compost bucket, just because I can.

Every meal I make there, and increasingly elsewhere, is like that. Something as simple as cooking dinner suddenly seems to be suffused with the cooking of every dinner ever. I am meeting myself coming back. I don't know if I like it, but there doesn't seem to be much choice in the matter. Is this growing up?

I am hoping it's not followed by an overwhelming desire to pass on mushroom-chopping traditions to the next generation, because I've left that a bit late. I am the end of the line. All that will be left of me is blog posts, rag rugs, sloe gin, playlists and pickles. And I don't mind about that. At least, not yet.

Pink Floyd are finally on Spotify! Here are some more echoes.


*Not all the vegans. Just one or two of them. But there's no haranguing like it. 
** My dad has his own role in all this, and one which merits at least as many words. But for now he has taken on the role of parent-who-will-live-more-or-less-forever. Now I think about it, *both* my parents are M-F-B-As. 
*** I say this as someone who's been a taxpayer for 20 years. I'm not talking about financials.      

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Blogger Miles said...

Me, I want to be eighty! I have every intention of being a fabulously dotty eighty year old.

Lovely piece, though I still recommend "recapitulate" as a good word in these circumstances.

3:11 pm  
Anonymous jonathan said...

I don't know if I want to live to be 80 either. But I did have a very life-affirming chance encounter today, in the course of my workaday labours, with a very old Geordie ex-merchant seaman and one-time folksinger (I recognised the accent when he let me in the door and we got talking).

The old feller- his name was Robert- told me a story about a trip ashore to the backstreets of Buenos Aires sometime post-war which started with 'well, I said I'd help the lads out in the bars, I knew the lingo after all and they didn't'.. and passed through '... and she gave me a smile on the way out, just a little smile, like...'.. and ended with 'the next thing a taxi pulled up, and..' (at this point the old Geordie merchant seaman beckoned me close so he could stage-whisper into my ear, not wanting his well-to-do neighbours at the sheltered scheme luncheon club to overhear) '... why, we spent the rest of the night together bonny lad'.

The recounting of this delicous memory, dredged up from the depths of a receding consciousness, sure as hell made my day and I hope it made his as well.

11:36 pm  

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