What else have I learned?

I’m grateful Jenny Alexander for reposting my blog and I’m touched by her heartfelt and thoughtful comments.

“Your mother made the best apple pie in the world.” So said my dad’s sister, auntie Glenys, when I visited her the last time before she died. Apple Pie was my mother’s signature dish – but that is a story for another time involving Canada, my dad’s first fiancé and a sense of competition!

As the daughter and sister of two amazing cooks, pastry making for me, is fraught with all sorts of dangers, complications and anxieties. Too many issues around ‘cold hands’, my hands being ‘too warm’, ‘cold water’, resting, rolling.

Suddenly, my daughter grew into a cake maker of flourless chocolate brownies, ginger bread houses (ok one collapsed and the dachshund pulled the other off from the table using a table runner – clever  full, later sick, dog, unhappy daughter!) She made banana loaves, Victoria sandwiches so that I was left feeling a bit superfluous in the baking world while doing the mundane chore-cooking at meal times. My boss’s cakes are a delight: choux pastry, cup cakes –  yellow and light and fluffy.  Auntie myra’s Victoria sandwiches  too big to fit in a tin so they were transported covered in tinfoil!There was no point everyone seemed to be better than me.

Each week I’d watch Berry and Hollywood,  taking on board their criticisms without even trying to bake or make, so that cake  and pastry making became a sort of something I could no longer do. Yet, as a young stay-at-home mum I loved it so!

There were scone making competitions with a friend, coffee mornings and I did it and juggled being Mam to three young boys. However after relocating and being  busy –  working and single parenting to four –  baking was something that I lost.

I began withan afternoon tea for friends
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So fast forward to later in this year, back at work, I needed something meditative, repetitive and productive. I made sausage rolls as a ‘practice run’ for Christmas. Ok, I cheated buying ready made puff pastry – but even Delia does that. Besides, I needed to brush up my handling skills, so with beating eggs, brushing and gluing, I was transported back to childhood where I was allowed to help, all pinnied-up with my own basin and whisk. I graduated to pasties, then I was ready for the biggie – making my own shortcrust pastry.

Now any over anxious cook  – AKA my mother –  would have you believe that the most precarious part is transferring pie crust to the dish and it is. But I wasn’t on the set of Bakeoff; Hollywood, Berry, Torode, Nigella and Delia were not  in my kitchen. -at least not physically. What was there to be scared of?

Quite a bit it would seem. That moment when the uncooked crust hovers in the air before settling in the dish is the worst. It could crack, split slide down the sides. Trimming the sides and knocking up the edges like a pro, I was relieved. It wasn’t perfect but, it was edible and tasty. Presentationally , it all leaves a bit to be desired. I haven’t mastered the knack of getting the amount of filling correct. My pasties were uniform, but shaping the sausage rolls was difficult – I’d forgotten how!

But it was good to get baking once more. Afternoon tea,Ladies?

 

 

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Driving in our Forbears’ Footsteps.

I got lost in Swansea this week. I turned for “Swansea East’ and landed in Skewen and while I hadn’t intended to visit Heol Las, that’s what I ended up doing. I’ve been knee deep in ancestors for a few weeks as I traced, retraced the family tree lost in Welsh, Irish and Scottish versions of naming patterns mimicking those in Wuthering Heights. My plan had been to take a road trip: Llanon, Llandysul, Defynog, Ayr, Belfast,Dublin, Harland and Wolff archives, East India Dock Milwall, Westferry Road Millwall, Templeton factory Glasgow. However the family tree is now so vast I have to target my next efforts –  always assuming I can locate where registers are held.

Skewen and Birchgrove were still the same, narrow and winding with cars parked on pavements and roads. I did a road trip on Google searching for my grandparents house. As luck would have it a van was obstructing the road and I was able to get a good look at the house although it no longer had its name plate. There was brief nod to 436, and a wave to the relatives as I whizzed past the cemetery. I can always take flowers next time.

But it was a lovely drive past places where my family had settled: Llansamlet church, Ainon, Heol Las Farm, Arosfa and Ty Cae’r Gof. Thus some four hours later and some miles south of Brecon, I took a five mile detour to Defynog – a hamlet nestling between the A40 and A470 and south of Sennybridge. A yew tree grows in the churchyard that my great great great great grandparents would have known, though I suspect as nonconformists they would not have set foot in the white church with its square tower.

Indeed a few days later and I’m grateful to David Pyke’s excellent research on the 1808 revival which is detailed here http://daibach-welldigger.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/lewis-powell-and-1808-cwm-senni-revival.html?view=timesmlide

A christian researcher, he details the history of the chapels of ease, traces the connections of freisndhips between diferent denominations. More importantly for me, there is an image of the chapel where, my ancestors were baptised – a methodist calvinist chapel.

As is usual for me, christian names are a hook…. I wonder what they did from day to day, how they survived, what their homes were like. People like Jennett – an unusual name now –  yet a wide search on history websites shows that it was a popular name in that area of Breconshire.  They were obviously hardy people, able to withstand the poverty and hardships of the time until poor harvests rising rents forced them away from a rural way of life, forty miles west along the A40 to industrial Swansea, where they beacme miners, hewers carpenters and copper workers / spelters. Jennet My ancestors would have known the Welsh Not, it was used in the church school at the time ,and with their native language being symbollically choked from them, and driven off the land by absentee landowners: a cinversion of forces beyond their control.

The thing about Defynnog is that it is a green and quiet place  a Cordell country before the ravages. The pull is a physical one: I wanted to stop and look for long -gone street names and houses, wander in chapels where weddings and baptisms happened along the Senny Road. The area felt familiar; partly because as a child dad and I picnicked there once or twice, but I have always loved the Becons. I was lucky to see Penyfan from an aeroplane as I flew south and driving past ,it always feels like the guardian of the Beacons. Some places have that effect on me. They’re eternal.

One other strange thing happened to me while in the south. I was getting off a train in Neath. There  was a much older man to my left and as I looked I got a physical jolt and I almost called out my uncle John’s name. Grey white black hair, almond-shaped, deep-brown, eyes and moustache square jawed and a bit jowly. Aside from the extra height and weight it could have been dad,I thought it was John., both long dead. The man and I looked at each other in a kind of recognition,  and an unspoken question then walked in separate directions.

 

 

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This post has been a long time coming! It’s only as I take up the reins of my life that I realise how much an experience can affect me.

I’m always good in a crisis. I batten down the hatches and navigate my way through, working out coldly what needs to be done. Sometimes I fail, mostly its ok but on these journeys confidence and anxiety fluctuate until the end. These are set aside until I can deal with them. A successful outcome mostly alleviates them. Occasionally there are residues and sometimes they remain like fatballs in a sewer.

I haven’t written about the cancer diagnosis. I stated at the time too much has been written about it. what I can say is that ovarian Cancer research funds have diminished over the years. This, when it is only diagnosed in later stages. I was lucky. It’s the kind of luck that supersedes any other luck! Grace, A blessing  – call it what you will – I was blessed.

The disease, emotive as it is means different things to different people. To many it’s a battle  – consultants as the strategists, nursing staff as their commander in chief – down to armies of red and white blood cells. To others it’s an inconvenience – “I have cancer cells.” The person who said this to me suggested that the suggestions of a ‘few cancer cells’ retained her control rather than “having cancer” – giving it more room in the body. I was given the diagnosis and my response was,”right lets just eliminate it. It’s got to be gone!’

My friends rallied around, as did my amazing family – yet no more amazing or wonderful than other families in this position. This is not to diminish how wonderful they are and were to me. I felt loved and each and every day brought something new and wonderful: graduation, gas bbq, a pint with my brother in the pub, sisters making transatlantic flights and shopping for proper necessities. It could b a simple as a bar of soap in my favourite fragrance – or sushi(I had weird food cravings in the months before).  Some say I was brave. I wasn’t I had no choice but to deal with it, whereas we have a choice whether or not to be brave in situations. So what have I learned? Quite a bit actually. Mostly not what to ask a person….

Is the consultant sure of his diagnosis?

How does he know? err the elevated CA125could be just a tiny clue in conjunction with other clinical observations.

What size is the tumour? It is a tumour because I saw the word cyst somewhere? I don’t know… but later on I’ll do an impression of a fisherman doing,’the one that got away.”

While you’re waiting for treatment could you just….? Err NO!

You look well i.e. you haven’t lost shedloads of weight and you’re still smiling! and OMG You’ve got make up on! The cancer is on the inside, I’m smiling because I’m glad to see you and grateful that I’m being treated. I’m grateful for the fabulous care I’ve had.I’m smiling because I’ve no intention of letting you see as a casual questioner, that actually last night was shitty and I felt dreadful. Makeup and skin care boost my morale.

“You need to get out and socialise more!” Yes I do but I’ll give it a miss today because I’m overwhelmed, a bit tired and I tried to clean the bath. yesterday I managed the hoover! Now that’s progress!

Post treatment: You look well. Yes I do but I still have periods of excruciating fatigue. occasionally Im I’m pain as I increase my daily number of steps. Occasionally I lose sleep as a side effect of treatment.  So what kind of questions helped me?

What do you fancy to eat? Would you like to go for a short spin and have coffee

?Which box sets do you fancy next?

You look well but how do you feel….

Are you up to a short walk? Beach? Woods? Retail?Art gallery?

Do you just want hang about and watch TV together?
Any books you fancy?

A gift of sunflowers!

Can’t read… will a magazine do?

What’s your  favourite bubble bath?
Do you still like Smarties?

I’m so lucky I had friends and family that did this for me – brought small gifts an d sat with me, even when I did not know what to say! Endless cups of tea and chats – it was lovely! One lovely friend made a bag with gifts to unwrap each day during treatment. I confess now I held the last of them off until two weeks ago!

Any anxieties left? Plenty. I’ll make a list of them.

 

 

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Selling yourself

This started as piece about the need to sell yourself in job interviews and ended with a comment on language use…. 

Every time I get feedback, (“Ti angen gwerthu dy hun mwy. Ti angen gwerthu dy bwnc a dy ddoniau!“) it’s always focused on my ability to sell myself.  If anything, these comments show the commodification of education. They say nothing of my classroom skills, the depth and breadth of my subject knowledge, my experience and enthusiasm, which are assessed in classroom jobs during selection processes.

Nobody believes me when I say I’m shy but I am. Subsequent generations to mine had a different upbringing and despite being a child of the sixties, my upbringing was more 1950’s-spare- the -rod -and -spoil- child type; with “Mind what you say.”, “No showing off.”, and “Behave yourself!” as frequent exhortations. “You can’t say that!” was a confusing command, because I just had (said whatever it was)! It was a thought, which I verbalised and was clearly wrong. Often I had no idea why. Also it was only ‘bad women” who sold themselves. I didn’t have much idea about that either – just that the museum steps were a no-go area as was the bottom of Wind st.

The result was I was pretty quiet and rarely drew attention to myself. I was the one at the back of the classroom, the one who slipped through the net. A careful writer and generally a  more careful listener, so when I’m required to be an all-singing-all-dancing, gregarious, interviewee, it’s not me. I simply cannot do it. It’s not that that coat won’t fit… I never bought it in the first place.

This led me to thinking about job applications and the need to “sell yourself on paper” which I can do –  often playing “jargon bingo” in the process. The letter of application is not an explanation, but it is an exercise in saleability, setting out a stall. So lying in bed, unable to sleep, I began to wonder how would I sell myself as say, a house.

Smart tidy four bedroom house, recently internally renovated. Some external tidying up needed. House contains an enormous library and access to information systems.

Car?

Rolls Royce – coach built for comfort.

Dog?

Affectionate dog, likes company  and very sociable with others of her breed. Needs a little reassurance from time to time and affection from those she loves. This breed can be stubborn on times and does not respond well to shouting and group training exercises. Incredibly loyal and hard working breed.

Furniture

Filing cabinet. Bit muddled in places, stuffed with info and can be full of crap.

Book Genre.

Slightly battered and dated cover, this book can be found in Romance /Historical Fiction. Loves time travel and has a tendency to fall in love with characters –  especially if they have a Scottish Accent, red hair and Jacobite affiliation. Can also be fickle and found in the Medieval, Victorian, and Welsh Writing in English and Colonial Sections. Restoration texts need not apply. Stream of consciousness also unwelcome. Can be a promiscuous reader and has been known to abandon texts believing that life is now to short to finish books she doesn’t enjoy.

Main Selling Points

This woman is full of compassion and has an ability to empathise. She encourages those around her by use of humour and honesty. She loves having supper with friends and watching a rugby game. She recently defected to the Scarlets after long and careful thought( actually it was the scores  a week last Friday). She is loyal and supportive friend of  a handful of close people.  She reads a book a week and writes an average of 1-2k of words a week.  She loves cooking and walking her dog. Day to day she is a competent teacher and lecturer and firmly believes that if the learner is well and happy then everything will fall into place. Consequently, she is a good pastoral tutor and teacher who effectively tracks, monitors and targets her pupils so that they can aim and reach for their potential. She would prefer to do this at less frequent intervals believing that too much targeting is worse than none at all. It can be counterproductive, lead to a certain helplessness (oh my God Miss It’s never good enough), and accusations of being too demanding which need to be effectively counterbalanced with  realistically high expectations.

Such targeting does not happen in her personal life. She believes that generally life is messy and uncertain. Personal plans included Engaged @21, married @22, Boy @ 23 girl @24.  And we all know how effective THAT plan was. Her excuse – it was a plan to deviate from.

Professional plans after a fall into  adult education included graduate @33, MA @34 PGCE at 35. That plan had to be revised  as it made no provisions for long term illness leading to  widowhood. It didn’t really factor in Austerity, Michael Gove, Leighton Andrews and raft of curricular and subject reforms.

Otherwise known as  “The Bleach Queen” and latterly Princess Pledge she has a certain fondness of ‘eau de clean house.”  The  early plan that life deviated from contained hazy dreams of couples holidays, empty nest (no syndrome!) and did not include three remain at home children who have been known to change food fads as often as their shirts! Once she horrified her mother by soaking and orange duster in said polish and stuffing it behind the radiator, fooling everyone that the house had been cleaned.

However,  the light ironic turn of phrase used here and by a generation of parents (Peter and Jane, Mamgu on Facebook ), highlight a growing discontent for some people her age strangled by austerity and the social expectations of what is appropriate. No one ever says, “That’s a bloody stupid idea.” They’re more than likely to ask a question, or say, “I’m a little unsure of that. Is it wise?” Which means appropriately, she is more likely to use  words  such as “Satisfactory”,”Good”and “Excellent”,  and never ever jump up and down shrieking “That was awesome you freakin genius.” which is what she really feel on times.

 

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Notes from Swansea 2

Writing from the Outcasts Box has to be the strangest place to sit, watch and write. An eighties track chimes in the background – not always loud enough to hear against the thuds and thunks of a workout . The box smells of orange, rubber and synthetics but the shouts of encouragement are real enough when someone tries and fails to lift against his PB.

Luna, the lurcher, cuddles in my arms – soft, slinky and seal-like, with limbs and paws as graceful as a dancer. She’s on alert for a glimpse of Dan as he strides across the box . She’s not barked yet! Luna’s collar matches the blue of his shirt and she remains wired for her promised playtime.

Here there are no meat heads, they blow like props lifting weights, box jumping, and crashing to the floor and rebounding as they burpee their way through the session.

The window steams and the sheets of rain are punctured by the sharp smell of sweat. The late-September  light is just how I remember it: Lead-grey dotted by traffic lights swept clean by the cars that speed past the industrial estate ; then the light is grubby again.

A magpie struts in the stubborn leaves of a copper beech. I cuddle Luna – stroke the silver in her black brown pelt. She’s indifferent – she only has eyes for Dan. She refuses my affection. She remains on guard for the one who rescued her. The music tracks change and collide in the space between both gyms. Luna stretches and  changes position. Keep going keep going –  the shouts cut through the jangle of competing eighties tracks. It’s hard to remember lyrics as they cut and fuse in a noise that hurts. I reach for Luna and she changes sets and stretches taut on her lead. The shutters open and she pulls towards the window.

‘Walk?” I say and we whizz around the industrial estate across land my ancestors once worked. Luna’s eyes are reproachful – this isn’t the workout Dan promised – the one with the magic word, ‘Ball!” It is good though to smell the city and hear the roar of the traffic and with the rain, and the gloom and the music I feel 17 again.

Inside the box I’m brought sharply to my senses – tail whipped by Luna as she shakes herself dry. She shivers and curls into herself next to me on the sofa.

 

Edited for Dan and Luna

 

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Notes From Swansea

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Swansea High St at night gave a fair imitation of a late summer evening. The trees still retained their leafy canopies and the evening air was comfortable. On Bethesda St, Matts Cafe held a pop up restaurant so we left the train station in search of the street (shown above) and curry. The food was excellent as were the bands.

The good wather did not hold. The following day began with my host family’s activities: BSL lessons, a session at Outcasts in Llansamlet, lunch at Peg 2 in Mumbles, accompanied by heavy rain and drizzle. image4.jpeg

Peg 2 is a restaurant that donates its profits to good causes across Swansea and is part of a wider network that works to offset poverty across the city. I later met the cafe workers at a church service. The food at Peg’s is excellent offering a wide choice of food well prepared and presented. 

I especially loved the tiny herbs on my plate of sweet potato hash and it takes some skill to poach an egg well. The food was good value for money and all in a good cause. The one thing that has struck me is how much of a cafe culture there is in Swansea, and how it has become a city of eateries, drive through restaurants, pizza places, ice cream parlours and coffee dens. There are places to suit all tastes; there is even a roadside cafe on the road to Penclawdd selling Lebanese food which I’m assured is excellent.

Of course Penclawdd means salt marshes and mists and the weather closed in so that it was impossible to see across the estuary or beyond the motor boat. The marshlands are full of sea birds and wild life, and the seagulls squabbled and swooped until their leader succeeded in opening a chip packet

Caawell Bay was a heady mix of woodland and salt. The surf was lively and small children braved the high winds around the coast, like an army of wetsuits flanked by anxious watchful parents. Ibeatched a surfer far out in the bay and mapped familiar points in my mind. It seemed each cove or rock held an association with family and friends as I created a memory map, and even as I write this I remember more connections not just from childhood with my sister and brother but from my teens, when we built fires and grilled sausages , drank coke or Fanta and made twisty things out iv flour and water. Those idyllic summer days seemed far away in the teeth of a chill wind, and the grey high tide. I guess I’ll have to wait until next year for a swim.

 

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Which is all about an Indian Summer

Indian summer
noun
 
  1. a period of unusually dry, warm weather occurring in late autumn.
    • a period of happiness or success occurring late in life. Dictionary .com

Other than a week in May, and some days in July, it was a grey summer. So on a wet, grey, Monday morning I packed my summer clothes for the winter. Then this morning, I watched as a handful of leaves dropped to the floor; marvelling that I had the leisure to do so while realising that this bitter-sweet summer is ending.

The crown of a distant sycamore is turning yellow, while the lower canopies of those closest to me remain green. A weeping willow yellows in a nearby gardens, the crab apples and hawthorn berries are scarlet; while the pines and evergreens are wreathed in a morning mist that hopefully mean late-summer- sun, warmth and a spectacular sunset like last night’s.  And I wonder at our ability to inject emotion and meaning into plant and cellular activity, and the combination of weather factors, and the turning of the seasons.

The last days of  my husband’s life were days of golden sunrises, ferocious orange sunsets and the clearest – the most beautiful –  of night skies where it was possible to see the Milky Way.  There was even a brief roll of green light along a hillside a lucky glimpse of an aurora. I remember thinking it was if the earth was raging in a Dylan Thomas-esque way, and that the sun burned as if it were the end of something – and it was. But seasons still turned: it rained, it snowed, the frosts were harsh and the sun continued to rise and set and there were glimpses of beauty.

Consequently, I love an Indian summer – the last fierce blaze of colour and warmth –  before the earth closes in and we hibernate or go to work, ‘like pit ponies,’ as my aunt says,  ‘always in the dark.’ An Indian summer offers promise, that no matter how grey it was before before, the ‘after’ holds promise. Then the clock falls back an hour, we draw the curtains and enjoy the warmth of the fire with the smell of coal and woodsmoke. We wait for the joy of Christmas, the celebrations of warmth and light and then have to hold on in February and March for it all to begin again.

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