Posts Tagged ‘South Wales’

Good day, Dear Reader

We were recently thrilled, not to say mildly amazed, to have a short story which we wrote almost on the off chance, selected as a finalist for the prestigious Ada Cambridge prize at the well known WillyLitFest.

It was our first time ever submitting a story to anything, so now, of course, we will submit endlessly to prizes all over the world, not to say publishers, and probably get knocked back by every one, but in the meantime we will bask in the misapprehension that all one has to do is write and enter, and all will be well.

Many people have asked if they could read the story, which is published along with all the other shortlisted and winning poetry and stories. But for anyone who can’t get to Williamstown to buy a copy, here is my story. It has been professionally edited, so any mistakes are mine alone.

The Blitz in Swansea

SCARLET NIGHTS

The woman emerged slowly from under­­ the corrugated roof of the Anderson shelter. The dawn light was barely discernible over to the east – a lick of paint along the edge of the clouds that spread across Swansea Bay like a dirty counterpane, towards where she knew the docks would already be rousing themselves.

The sky lowered an ugly black, and she shivered, despite wearing two jumpers under her thick woollen overcoat. It had been threatening to snow for days, and yesterday there had been momentary sleet as well as the endless drizzle and rain.

She looked at the soil banked up on the sides of the shelter.British convoy attacked

He’d done a good job of it, home on leave for those four days at Christmas, though a day of that was lost travelling up and down from Plymouth.

She’d hugged him tightly, chiding him, though, for making the journey, telling him he should have stayed in Plymouth with his mates and had a couple of days in the pub. He just laughed quietly and told her he’d never do that.

All he’d thought about on the convoys across the Atlantic was making it through to see her again, and the boy. She’d expected him to just take it easy and eat whatever she managed to pull together to spoil him for a Christmas lunch, but he’d shared a small celebratory whisky with her and then gone straight to the back garden, and started burying the new shelter in soil, hacking away at the stone-hard ground with a pick-axe.

After a day, the rest of the garden was effectively destroyed, but the shelter had its extra layer of protection.

Then Christmas Day intervened, and she insisted he go to the Prince of Wales for a pint while she prepared a chicken she had near-begged from her distant cousin the butcher, with all her meat coupons for a month, and a none-too-subtle appeal to family loyalty.

anderson shelterOn Boxing Day, he disappeared for an hour and came back with seedlings of cabbage and Brussels sprouts, and showed her how to keep them warm in punnets in the conservatory for a little while, and told her when to transplant them to the roof and sides of the shelter. And then he was gone again, back to the grey waves and hunting U-boats, his shy smile playing on his face in her memory. She had planted the vegetables, and prayed they would take. Food was getting scarce, and the boy was painfully thin. Despite the bite in the wind, it looked as if some of them might make it, at least.

She heard a cry and hurried back to the shelter. The boy had been grizzling; he had been awake most of the night before falling asleep just an hour ago. He definitely had a fever, since the previous morning she thought, and it seemed to be no better despite her giving him doses of aspirin powder mixed in a little milk. Feeling his forehead with the back of her hand, she was now alarmed. It was even more clammy, and hot.

She lifted him from under the blanket with ease, his tiny body belying his seven months, and rocked him gently, but he just cried. She dipped a cloth in a mug of water and wiped his head, but he shook it and turned it away from her. So she opened the door to the shelter a crack with her shoulder, and sat down with him again, willing the cool air to make him feel more comfortable.

She moved back with him into the mock Tudor-timbered semi-detached home. She loved the little circular close with its matching houses, though she never imagined she would live there alone for any length of time. The windows hid their secrets behind the white chintz. She was but a stone’s throw from the lawn tennis club where she had played almost every day as a teenager, and St Paul’s and Holy Trinity Anglican Church within whose dank medieval walls she took solace, but days like this she felt very lonely. She made herself a cup of tea, taking care to warm the pot as her mother had taught her, and stared helplessly at the little lad turning fitfully in his cot, still crying.

When she had finished, and washed and replaced the cup on the tall boy, and leaving him in his cot still crying but near, it seemed, to exhaustion, she went next door and knocked tentatively. She didn’t know Isabella Jones well, but she knew she was a nurse at Singleton Hospital, and so might have a better idea what to do.

‘Coming! Stay there!’ came from within. After a minute, the leadlighted door swung open, and Mrs Jones was there, fastening a nightgown, her hair tied up in a towel.

‘Oh, hello there, sorry, I just got off nights, was having a bath. I thought they were sending to bring me back again. It happens. Gosh, don’t stand there, you’ll catch your death. Or I will. Come in. Come in.’

She explained she couldn’t. The boy. She’d left him. But she didn’t know what to do. Could she come? Have a look?

A few minutes later they were standing over the cot. The nurse felt his forehead as she had, but also picked him up and put her head to his chest. Then she turned him round and listened to his back. She shook her head slightly, seeming confused. Did she have a teaspoon, by any chance?

She passed her the one she had just washed up after her cup of tea, and Isabella Jones, with some difficulty, managed to open the boy’s mouth and depressed his tongue a little with the back of the spoon.

She clucked, and returned him to his cot. After a few more tears for good measure, he quietened slightly and started to fall asleep again. She stroked his growing head of hair away from his eyes, and asked the woman for a block of ice from the little freezer box at the top of the refrigerator. She rubbed his forehead with it gently a couple of times, and then his lips, and worked it between her fingers, causing the ice to melt ever so slightly, and a trickle of cold water to enter the dozing boy’s mouth. It seemed to settle him further.

When he was quiet, the nurse went to the kitchen sink and washed her hands thoroughly with carbolic soap. She turned to the woman, a worried look on her face.

‘Look, cariad, I’m not a doctor, but you know I’ve seen just about everything in my time. We get to know things when we do half the doctor’s work for them nowadays, what with so many of them being off somewhere for the war, now.’

She paused, frowning.

‘There’s no point beating round the bush: I’d bet the King’s pound to a beggar’s penny he’s got Scarlet Fever. His throat looks very sore and his tongue is all white with little red spots. It’s an early sign. It’s called Strawberry tongue.

I’d say by tonight or tomorrow morning the white will have gone and his tongue will all be bright red, and then he might get spots on his body, and you can pretty much guarantee his little cheeks will go a nice shade of bright pink. Can’t miss it.’

The woman looked at each other, concern on the face of one and something close to terror on the face of the other.

The danger, the nurse explained, was the fever. Or that the infection would spread to the organs of the little body. Meningitis. Even rheumatic fever of the heart. It used to happen a lot, less so nowadays, thank goodness. She started ticking things off:

‘You’ve just got to get his fever down, and keep him as cool as possible. His temperature might go up to 102 and stay there for a while, so the aspirin will help, and it will help his poor throat too. There is an anti-toxin but it’s a toss-up whether there’s any around. I’ll walk back to the hospital and ask. And I’ll get Dr Mullaway to come round and look, too.’

The woman was all for simply picking the boy up and walking round there with her, but the nurse firmly said no.

‘They’d lock him and you in a room, dear and you’d be there for days. It’s very infectious, that’s why I washed up so carefully. And they couldn’t possibly risk having him in a place with lots of sick and injured people in it because they’d be dead set to catch it more easily. It could kill people, just taking him there. Dear me, no, that would never do.’

Excusing herself, the nurse bustled next door, and a little while later, with a wave, she headed off down the street. After what seemed like an age, with the woman just sitting at the kitchen table staring at the little boy, and occasionally wetting his forehead, she saw the nurse return and leapt up to have the door open before she got there.

Yes, she had told the Doctor, who had promised to call on his way home that evening. Meanwhile, here was some calamine lotion in case the boy developed a rash that was itchy – ‘Their skin feels like sandpaper, gets very dry, drives them mad. Specially on their back, and they can’t reach that, of course.’ – some more aspirin powder – ‘Give him a little more, it won’t kill him, but the fever might.’ – and she passed her a very light gown made of soft cotton. ‘Put that on him, not that thing he’s got on now. It’s too hot.’ She tapped the front door. ‘And keep this open a bit, and get the temperature in the house down. If he gets even hotter, pop him in the kitchen sink and let him have a cool bath. Pat him dry, but not perfectly dry.’

The woman nodded, taking it all in. Her neighbour excused herself. ‘I have to get some sleep. I’m on again at four. I’ll drop in before that.’

The day dragged by. Outside a light drizzle fell, whipped up by the west wind beating up the Bristol Channel. Mercifully the child slept, from time to time, his rest punctuated by bursts of distress. She slept in the kitchen chair for a few minutes here and there, but found his silences when she slept unnerving. She kept checking him to be sure he was still breathing.

She forgot to eat herself, but managed to get a little warm milk into him, but soon he rejected the bottle and took to crying again. When her neighbour reappeared, the mother’s red eyes were filled with tears with frustration, and gritty from lack of sleep.

The nurse repeated the earlier examination, and this time she had brought with her a thermometer, which she held under the baby’s armpit for as long as he would permit it, and then she examined it carefully. She nodded.

‘It’s just under 102. Bang on for Scarlet Fever. And his tongue is redder. But he seems tougher than he looks, poor little bugger. He’s still strong, going by that set of good Welsh lungs on him. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Mullaway will be along, but I expect he’ll say the same.’

She waited. An hour passed. Then another. It was getting quite dark now, and she couldn’t look out of the window, with the blinds drawn for the blackout. The boy was unchanged. She listened for the swing of the garden gate and a man’s steps on the path. She listened for a very long time.

It started, with no warning, at almost exactly seven thirty.

The ground shook with repeated tremors, each followed the moment after by the unmistakeable crump of a bomb exploding, and then soon after by the boom-boom-boom of anti aircraft guns responding and the distant howl of air raid sirens. She scooped up the boy and rushed to the front door in horror, flinging it open and looking out. It was not the first time Swansea had been bombed, of course, and she knew to grab her coat, a bottle for the boy, and head to the air raid shelter in the back garden immediately. But she paused, for just a few seconds, mesmerised by explosion after explosion from the east, over by the City centre, and the docks, and now and then a blinding series of flashes and resulting fire from Townhill away to the left. Uttering a quick prayer, she rushed to the shelter, pulling it closed behind her, and sat there nursing the screaming child in complete terror.

The barrage continued for hours. Whenever she thought it might have ended, the bombs started falling again. Once she heard an ack-ack gun nearby rattling out its furious tune, and she thought it must be the one sited atop the hospital. Most of the bombs seemed to her to be falling over to the east and north, but once there was an almighty crash from … from where? From what could have been her own home for all she knew, but she was too afraid to open the door to the shelter. It seemed awfully close.

After the alarms had subsided and it seemed there were no more explosions, she dared to look out. Her hand flew to her mouth as she could see that from one side of the horizon to another there seemed to be a continuous sheet of vivid flame and acrid smoke. And right nearby, in what must be the next street, a house was ablaze, its roof already well alight. She knew that people would already be there, passing buckets of water to douse the flames, and she would have helped, but she could not leave the boy, nor could she take him, so she just stared, mutely, in agony for the people concerned.

When day came, the true nature of what had happened was obvious. A massive pall of smoke hung over everything, seemingly incapable of being disturbed by the wind, such was its thickness. A sickly-sweet smell of burning oil pervaded the air. All her neighbours were gathered in the street, huddled in small groups; the occasional car came and went. As the boy seemed settled for a moment, she left him in his cot again and approached one tight knot of women to listen.

‘It’s all still burning. My Matthew, he’s over there, they’ve called in all the wardens and police, every single fire engine, and the army, too. It’s a right bloody mess. Brynhyfryd, Townhill and Manselton got it the worst. And Matthew says they flattened the Regimental HQ for the Royal Artillery, but even so they kept fighting back with any guns they had. There’s hundreds dead, they say. Hundreds. And God knows where they’re going to put all the people who’ve lost their homes.’ She gestured to her right. ‘They’ve lost everything. Only moved in there six weeks ago. And they’d done a lovely job of the bathroom. Such a shame.’

The woman knocked on Isabella’s door, but there was no reply. She walked her kitchen, back and forth, chewing on a finger, not knowing what to do for the best. At one point she went down on her knees by the little crucifix in the bedroom, and prayed for guidance. The boy seemed no better, but no worse. Although when she took off the little hospital garment and bathed him, she saw that a bright red rash had appeared on his lower legs.

She walked to the end of the road with him, but then walked back. The streets seemed eerily quiet. She picked up the phone in her hallway, but it was dead.

Around five thirty, just as dusk was falling, with the fires still burning in the distance, there came a knock at the door. Dr Mullaway introduced himself, wearily, and apologised for not having come sooner, but …

He simply waved his hand in the direction of the events of the night before.

The words tumbled out of her mouth chaotically, the emotion of the last two days finally breaking, like a dam: his fever, he’d been alright and then suddenly, and the nurse’s advice, his tongue, see? Her husband was away, she didn’t know what to do, but how is he, Doctor? You hear these things, such terrible things, about children dying from Scarlet Fever, and I can’t get out, and I don’t know, and look, look at his legs, now the poor thing, his legs.

She sucked in a great gulp of air and looked at the Doctor, her face a mixture of worry and anger. ‘His legs! Poor little mite! Now look at his legs!’

The Doctor looked at the little nuggety woman, and for the briefest of moments his eyes blazed. But then he caught himself.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ he said quietly. Almost in a whisper.

Mullaway looked at her steadily, while she composed herself, then proceeded to examine the boy carefully. She said not another word until he’d finished.

‘Just keep doing what you’re doing,’ he said in the end. ‘Good luck.’ And he left.

And that night, the sirens howled again. And the next night.

In later years – decades later, a lifetime later – when her man was long dead, and the boy had three children of his own, she would repeat Mullaway’s words to herself. Sometimes when she would sit and watch the boy swim, or run, or playing with his kids.

Or she would just look at him when he was standing there.

‘At least he’s still got his legs,’ she would say. To herself, mainly.

And then she would tap the arm of her chair, or clap her hands together, and change the subject.

As if she’d said nothing, and nothing had happened.

 

HISTORICAL NOTE

The worst bombing of Swansea in South Wales occurred over three nights on 19th, 20th, and 21st February 1941. The period known as the Three Nights’ Blitz started at 7.30 pm on 19 February. My mother and brother survived the event in an Anderson Shelter in Brynewydd Gardens, Sketty Green. By the time the ‘all clear’ siren sounded after three days, major parts of the city had been destroyed, and 230 people were dead and 409 injured. 7,000 people lost their homes. The city centre suffered direct hits that started major conflagrations, destroying many commercial premises. It has still not been entirely rebuilt.

A total of nearly 14 hours of enemy activity were recorded. A total of 1,273 High Explosive bombs and 56,000 Incendiary bombs were estimated to have been dropped. An area measuring approximately 41 acres was targeted, with 857 properties destroyed and 11,000 damaged. To raise morale following the blitz, the King and Queen as well as the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, visited Swansea.

The very name Mumbles sets one wondering what sort of a place is known by such a fascinating name. Now a suburb of Swansea in South Wales, Mumbles was where my relatives lived when I was a child, and the scene of a hundred happy holidays.
The headland is thought by some to have been named by French sailors, after the shape of the two anthropomorphic islands which comprise the headland, as the name could well be derived from either the Celtic, Latin and then French words for “breasts”.
Its famous lighthouse was built during the 1790s and was converted to solar powered operation in 1995. The nearby pier was opened in 1898 at the terminus of the Mumbles Railway, which in its time was one of the oldest passenger railways in the world. (The railway closed in 1960.) These days the name ‘Mumbles’ is given to a district covering the electoral wards of Oystermouth with its eponymous castle ruin, Newton, West Cross and Mayals.
mumbles panorama

Mumbles pier on the left, and the two islands with lighthouse on the right

Apart from being very pretty and a fun place to visit in its own right, Mumbles marks the beginning of the Gower Peninsula’s coastline, one of the most exquisite areas of natural beauty in Europe. A series of small coves and beaches, often relatively deserted even in high summer, offer much to recommend both the fossicker and the lazier occupant alike. The area is also well-known for a huge variety of “fresh off the boat” seafood, and has become something of a foodie’s stop off with excellent locally-created chocolate and ice cream as highlights.

 

Looking towards Mumbles from Swansea

Looking towards Mumbles from Swansea

Oystermouth Castle, which actually nestles right in the middle of the village, is well worth a visit, just off a busy shopping street. There are 600 castles in Wales, but there aren’t many which come with a better view than this one, looking out over Swansea Bay.

Over recent years the castle has undergone conservation work to ensure its structure is safe and sustainable for the foreseeable future. Now the public can explore parts of the castle that have been hidden away for centuries and learn about the castle’s exciting history.

Features include ancient graffiti art from the 14th century, plus people can come and explore the medieval maze of deep vaults and secret staircases and enjoy the magnificent views over the Bay from the 30 foot high glass bridge.

oystermouth

 

When I was a littlie, the family’s home was just around the corner from Mumbles, on a high ridge overlooking Langland Bay. Often forgotten in favour of more obviously picturesque and wilder bays both before and after it, Langland always called to me to ramble for hours with its mesmeric wide and sandy beach and Victorian foreshore, full of bathing huts and ice cream opportunities.

 

langland

There used to be a really excellent hotel overlooking the Bay, called, logically, Langland Bay Hotel, and the views from its massive picture windows as one enjoyed a dry sherry and then roast beef and Yorkshire Pud was simply breathtaking. 

I recall starched white tablecloths and napkins, and smiling Welsh waitresses squeezed into slim-fitting 1930s maids uniforms. (By the time I was old enough to enjoy a Sunday lunch sherry I was beginning to notice such things.) With a sad inevitability the hotel was turned into holiday flats which probably yielded much more money for its owners, but robbed the rest of us of a great cultural artefact.

In fact, the sea front of Langland and the adjacent Rotherslade, or ‘Little Langland’ as it is sometimes known, were once the location for three hotels: the Langland Bay, the Ael-y-Don, and the Osborne; and three further hotels – the Brynfield Hotel, the Langland Court, and the Wittemberg – were located in the immediate hinterland. 

All but one have closed over the past forty years, and have been replaced with apartments (Langland Bay, Osborne and Ael-y-don), converted to a nursing home (Brynfield), or closed down and sadly subjected to arson attacks (Langland Court and, previously, the Osborne). The Wittemberg was partially demolished and re-opened in its original Victorian core as the Little Langland Hotel.

 

Langland Bay - UK

 

By far the most dominant building on the Bay, built in the mid-nineteenth century and backing on to the Newton Cliffs, was originally known as Llan-y-Llan. Built in dramatic Scottish Baronial style by the Crawshay family, the Merthyr Tydfil Ironmasters, it was used as their summer residence. In the first part of the 20th century it later became part of the Langland Bay Hotel, and later again, when I was a child, it was the Club Union Convalescent Home for coal miners. I would sit on the tables outside chatting to the hoary old miners, nursing their pints and coughing up black bile from their lungs. For a nicely brought up middle-class kid their stories were eye openers, and induced in me a horror of the social effects of coal mining that has never left me. After a period of closure it has been renamed Langland Bay Manor and has also been converted into luxury apartments.

 

Siseley's painting, "On the cliffs, Langland Bay". I have walked that very path a thousand times, at the top of which was my Aunt and Uncle's home, Kylemore.

Sisley’s painting, “On the cliffs, Langland Bay”. I have walked that very path a thousand times, at the top of which was my Aunt and Uncle’s home, Kylemore.

I was by no means the first to become enchanted by the area. In 1897 the French Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley made two watercolours of Langland Bay, while on honeymoon, staying at the Osborne Hotel. Over twenty paintings resulted from his visit to Penarth and the Gower and two of them are now in the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

As well as the beach huts that still exist, Langland Bay was famous for its ‘community’ of green canvas beach tents. These were erected annually, usually between April and early September, on the stoney storm beach in front of the promenade. A much-loved local spectacle was the early September ‘spring tide watch’ when rough seas would occasionally cause the loss of one or two. Somewhat safer and more sheltered on the higher ground of the Langland Bay Golf Club, a magnificent course which abuts the Bay on the western side, where a further two rows of tents were permitted. All sadly succumbed to vandalism in the 1970s.

Langland Bay has always been a site of sports innovation. Every year in the early 1960s local teenagers becoming amongst the first in the country to take up American innovations such as skimboarding, and surfing,

You can checkout the essential idea in the video.

Whilst I never took up surfing, I enthusiastically embraced skimboarding on the vast flat beach over which the sea would roll in and provide a perfect environment with hundreds of metres of calm water just an inch or two deep. Those who are still aficionados of skimboarding and surfing  (unlike your near-retired correspondent, Dear Reader) will enjoy checking out the live webcams of the area which are here during local daylight hours.

Anyway, forgive us for wandering down memory lane to no great purpose. If you’re ever near South Wales, we warmly recommend you to visit this area.

 

lava bread

 

And if you do drop in, make sure you taste the local delicacy, called laver bread, which is essentially stewed seaweed. Not only is it an authentic memory of the folk diet of the area, it is also delicious, and incredibly good for you. Try it warmed through in the fat from the bacon which you just cooked yourself for breakfast.

If you can, chuck on some of the local cockles, too – but don’t forget a healthy slosh of dark malt vinegar on them, without which they are only half as good.

Laver cultivation as food is thought to be very ancient, though the first mention was in Camden’s Britannia in the early 17th century. It is plucked from the rocks and given a preliminary rinse in clear water. The collected laver is repeatedly washed to remove sand and boiled for hours until it becomes a stiff, green mush. In this state, the laver can be preserved for about a week. Typically during the 18th century, the mush was packed into a crock and sold as “potted laver”.

Laver and toast

 Cultivation of laver is typically associated with this part of Wales and further along the coast towards Pembrokeshire although similar farming methods are used at the west coast of Scotland.

Laver is excellent eaten cold as a salad with lamb or mutton. A simple preparation is to heat the laver and to add butter and the juice of a lemon or Seville orange.

Laverbread (Welsh: bara lafwr or bara lawr) is a traditional Welsh delicacy made from laver. To make laverbread, the seaweed is boiled for several hours, then minced or pureed. The gelatinous paste that results is then rolled in oatmeal and is generally coated with oatmeal if it is to be fried.

Laverbread can also be used to make a sauce to accompany crab or monkfish, etc., and to make laver soup (Welsh: cawl lafwr).

The most famous actor ever produced by the area. Richard Burton, was quoted as describing laverbread as “Welshman’s caviar”.

Yum!

And not for the first time. Just put Facebook in our search box to see what we mean.

And not for the first time. Just put Facebook in our search box to see what we mean.

Hilarious story today about the typical computer-driven lunacy that is Facebook. Well known for suspending accounts willy nilly with no human involvement or appeal, the internet giant has now surpassed even its own previous levels of annoying behaviour.

As it seems every news outlet on the planet has reported,  Facebook user has told how he was banned from the site for saying: “I like faggots.”

Food lover Robert Wilkes, 54, was recalling his fondness for a classic English dish from his childhood.

Save the faggots! A meal fit for kings, should never be forgot. (Sorry, this caption just went all Guiy Fawksey without warning.)

Save the faggots! A meal fit for kings, should never be forgot. (Sorry, this caption just went all Guy Fawksey without warning.)

Faggots are meatballs traditionally hand-made with offal by butchers and served with mashed spuds and peas. (And onion gravy – see recipe below – Ed.)

Wilkes says he was bewildered when his Facebook account was shut for 12 hours for using “homophobic language”.

Ah, but of course. In the interconnected world we live in, cultural imperialism rules. In the United States, the word “faggot” is offensive slang for homosexual.

Wilkes, a former Ministry of Defence guard who grew up in the West Midlands, told The Sun newspaper: “It may have a different meaning in America but I used it in a food context. Facebook allows beheading videos, cruelty to animals, stabbing and terrible swear words – but not this. It’s political correctness gone mad.”

We can only agree. Especially as the same annoyance happened to Eileen Perkins, 68, when she discussed her favourite dish on the user-unfriendly website.

Meanwhile, in case you are moved to try the aforementioned delicacy (and we strongly recommend it) here’s a good recipe we found.

Faggots are an old-fashioned British food, and one that has sadly fallen out of favor in recent years. Traditionally Faggots are made from offal, usually pork, and from the bits of the animal that are generally discarded; the heart, the liver etc making Faggots a cheap and nutritious dish, as in this faggot recipe.Birmingham and the Midlands are considered the home of Faggots in Britain, along with South and Mid Wales, but with the revival of Faggots, they are now eaten all over the UK. Our personal favourite used to be in the supermarket freezer, made by a company called Brains as you can see in this TV commercial from 1980.
 
 
And as you can see here, although the packaging and brand name have undergone a bit of an update, they are still available.Faggots are traditionally eaten with mushy peas, mashed potatoes and onion gravy.

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz/110g pork shoulder, roughly chopped
  • 4 oz/ 110g pig’s iiver, roughly chopped
  • 8 oz/250g fatty belly pork, roughly choppped
  • 4 oz/110g bacon scraps
  • 4 oz/ 110g bread crumbs
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 tsp mace
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • 2 tbsp chopped parsley
  • 2 sage leaves, finely chopped
  • 1 small red chili, de-seeded and finely chopped
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Caul fat* or streaky bacon

Preparation:

Serves 4

Pre-heat the oven to 445°F/170°C/Gas 3

  • Mince all the roughly chopped meats, if you don’t have a mincer, then chop in a food processor.
  • Place the minced meat into a large bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, onion, herbs, spices and a pinch of salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.
  • Divide the mixture into 8 and shape into balls.
  • Wrap each ball in caul or streaky bacon. Make sure the caul or bacon overlaps as it will seal as it cooks and hold the faggots together.
  • Place the faggots onto a baking sheet and bake in the hot oven for 50 – 60 minutes.

What to Serve with Faggots

Traditionally, faggots would be served, hot from the oven with creamy, mashed potatoes, and peas, preferably mushy peas and lashings of rich, thick onion gravy.

*Caul is the membrane which holds in animal organs and it makes a good container for the faggots. If you can’t get caul, then use strips of streaky bacon. One small change we would make to the recipe, we’d lose the chilli and add extra pepper. White, if you can still find it. The taste will be more traditional.

I have been doing a lot of contemplating of life, recently. This is hardly a surprise for a creative writer and poet; it is, after all, our “stock in trade”.

But sometimes one’s life events conspire to make one even more reflective than usual, and lead to discoveries that one was not deliberately intending to try and make.

Grief, it appears to me, is one of the more unpredictable, distressing and difficult things any of us have to go through.

And like most lives, mine has had its share.

Before my life really got going at all my father died of a massive coronary when I was just two years old.

Psychological prognosticating that I have engaged in as I settle into my middle years suggests that this event may have had more impact on me than I had previously suspected.

L-R Betty Yolland, Derek Yolland, me, Stewart Yolland

L-R Betty Yolland, Derek Yolland, me at a week or so old, Stewart Yolland

Not only was I alone in the home with Dad for a couple of hours after he suddenly collapsed and died rather inelegantly on the toilet – apparently when people came home I was very distressed and kept repeating “Big man won’t get up …” until I was bundled next door, (an event which I think I recall clearly), but I now suspect the subsequent experience of grieving in the household, indeed, in many of the events surrounding my growing up – the plethora of aunts, uncles and friends conferring sadly with my mother on the memory of Dad and the unfairness of his being taken from us at just 46 – had a considerable effect on how I have subsequently processed emotional matters.

My mother, you see, was a “coper”. Indeed, like many of her generation, she “coped” heroically, and made a virtue of it. She didn’t deal easily with the sympathies of others, and habitually turned them away with a self-deprecating comment.

Of solid Lincolnshire stock, and raised in lower-middle-class respectability in Swansea in South Wales, born in the middle of the Great War and growing up with all the national angst and sadness that implied, she was famously independent, ferociously strong willed – she left school at 15 without telling her parents for six months, which says something about both her and her parents – and demonstrated a stoic acceptance of whatever life threw at her, including Dad’s unexpected demise.

She coped heroically with the Great Depression, with living with a young child, (my eldest brother, Derek, 17 years older than I), under the horrific Nazi bombing of World War II, with Dad being away on destroyers for all six years of the war, with the death of a child, (my “middle brother”, Roger), with the ups and downs of life as a small retailer, and then with the trials and tribulations of impoverished widowhood with another young child to look after.

She was from the generation for whom “stiff upper lip” was more than a badge of honour, it was the only expressive option on offer. This meant, of course, that whilst she was a kind and thoroughly hard-working mother, she wasn’t the most emotionally “giving” person. She didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve so much as tucked away in a hidden pocket inside her voluminous layers of undergarments. I am sure many British kids from the era, whatever their social class, can picture themselves in the description I have just offered.

In primary school, I very clearly remember feeling somewhat lost and other-worldly amongst my contemporaries.

Only one other boy in our coterie had lost a father, and he was so fearfully clever as to eclipse even my better-than-reasonable academic performance and I really didn’t like him much, (especially as he was always shoved in my face as a paradigm to aim for), so I felt something of an oddity, as if the other kids somehow steered a little clear of me for fear of catching the disease of dead Dadness.

All the while my mother was busily coping, and my brother had moved overseas, and I recall plainly wondering why it had fallen to my lot to be moderately poor (in a relatively well off area), without the love and guidance of a Dad who everyone assured me was a great bloke, (which just made it worse), with a charismatic and good looking elder brother who lived seven thousand miles away and who I only saw for a couple of weeks every two years or so, and to cap it all not having all that many good mates either.

(I had some, though, and they know who they were and are, and I am forever grateful.)

I was happy enough, till Dad died. That was the start of a long haul.

In retrospect, then, I had grief as an undercurrent in my life for much of my growing up. And I managed it by doing the only thing I knew how. I intellectualised it away.

I was precociously clever, imaginative to a fault, (I could play alone contentedly on my bed with toy soldiers and whatnot for hours, indeed, I remember the elaborate fantasies I constructed in my head as some of my happiest days of childhood), and so I neatly compartmentalised my brain to deal with my life.

The things I grieved over – the absence of Dad, the distance of my adored brother, the un-reachability of the extended family I enjoyed so much spending time with in Wales, even my mother’s odd remoteness – as I write these words I wince at that word, because it seems so unfair for one who attended to her responsibilities with such care, but emotionally remote she undoubtedly was – these things I plonked into cardboard boxes in my head and stuck them down with sticky tape and did my level best to develop into a “coper” myself.

I repeated this process when I was unexpectedly dispatched to an English boarding school at 11, courtesy of having waltzed my way through a scholarship examination, (without any understanding of why I was sitting it – if I had known, I would have failed deliberately), and promptly found myself ensnared in the most emotionally abusive environment yet dreamed up by social engineers to torture sensitive, intellectually-gifted children.

I was bullied. Unmercifully.

Psychologically, physically – by both teachers and students – for my plummy southern accent, for my enthusiastic willingness to answer questions in class, (usually with the right answer, naturally), for the fact that I was not the biggest kid around (I filled out later, some would say as a deliberate subconscious response to avoid getting kicked in the shins by life any longer), for … well, for whatever reason they chose to dream up on the day, really.

First XV

I am prouder of this picture than most – I finally made the First XV – but looking back, at what cost? Anyway, here’s the proof. And I had nice legs, too.

Looking back, the fact that I did not raid the Combined Cadet Force lockers for a Bren gun and take fifty or so of my torturers out is entirely to my credit and to my development as a coper.

Indeed, ask my contemporaries at that school today and they will confirm that whilst they knew I was bullied, they were also impressed by my leading performances in school plays, as a capable top tenor in the school choir, as a moderately good rugby player (I made the First XV once, and played every other game of the final season of my schooling in an “unbeaten” Second XV – I should and could have played all season in the First XV but key individuals didn’t like me) and generally that I seemed like a capable and well-balanced fellow, for the most part, despite the bullying, who was making a pretty good fist of sharing their allotted time in middle-class prison.

And they were right, in a way. I was damned if I was going to let the system beat me, and ultimately it didn’t. I ended up with a passable liberal education and left on the very first day I could, a couple of weeks before the end of the last term (on some pretext or other) and breathed a very cold “And fuck you all.” as the taxi left the school grounds to take me to the quaint nearby station and home.

The pattern was set. I duly coped when a youthful first marriage went disastrously south prematurely (prematurely, that is, in my opinion, at the time; in later years the wisdom of hindsight has convinced me it was the right decision for both of us). I poured my grief out in poem after poem many of which form the first part of my book. I thought the process was cathartic – it wasn’t. I was crafting on the page a simalcrum, a mirror, an expression of the grief I was feeling, but as if that grief was happening to a third party, not me. The poems are good, and even when edited some 20 years later for publication they stood the test of time as worthy explorations of the psyche of lost love, but as a way of genuinely dealing with my grief they were merely sophisticated boxes and tape.

In time I coped with other broken love affairs (like everyone does, to be sure).

I coped with moving to the other side of the world and feeling most insecure to have done so.

I coped with working in an abusive environment that I had to ensure I stayed in because I needed the money, I coped with … well, whatever life threw at me really.

I coped when my brother died suddenly at 52, just when I thought we might get to spend some quality time together one day soon.

I don’t claim any special credit for this coping, nor am I looking for praise; I simply didn’t have any alternative, because that was how I had been brought up, do you see, and in any event, it’s not as if coping is such a bad thing. Any grief I felt at life’s shitty little surprises I neatly packed up and put away, decided on a course of action, and followed it with determination and even occasional élan.

So this was all very well, I guess, and something and nothing and a testament to the upside of coping, except that in later years the pressure of shoving all my distress and grief away into cardboard boxes in my head became too much.

When something really unconscionably close and awful happened – our first daughter got tangled up coming out, and was taken off life support five days later – it turned out the cupboard was full, there was no more room for any more cardboard boxes of neatly disposed emotions, the grief at an event so unexpected, so cruelly unfair, so immeasurably awful and unpredictable, meant I fell entirely, massively, and utterly into a heap.

Yet even then the effect of this terrible and almost unendurable life-moment was delayed by my innate copingness.

I didn’t know how to grieve. So when Rhiannwen Cari Yolland died, my first priority was her Mum.

I knew what I had to do: cope.

And so I did, I coped for 18 months. I strove to live up to, despite the pressure I was under, my image of being a “good man”. I held down a job with some success, I tried to be supportive to my wife, I didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed when she was, I tried instead to be cheerful, I … coped. In retrospect, with the benefit of 24 years of reflection, my flaws as a husband during this period are all too obvious and cringeworthy, but I assure you, Dear Reader, I did my best; my best as I knew how. I kept going. And even now, inside you, admit that some of you are nodding approvingly at my traditional, male-role-oriented determination to “carry on”.

Leaving the hospital with Caitlin. I was already near to a complete sanity breakdown, and indeed, my smile looks a bit wan. Nevertheless a wonderful gift: this is known, reflecting our earlier troubles, as the “You got a take home one, Daddy!” moment by my daughter.

Except that then, when our second daughter, Caitlin, was born, I promptly lost it. Altogether. The doors of the cupboard broke open, and within twenty four hours, I was pretty much a basket case.

Unable to grieve effectively, to grieve for so many reasons of which the baby’s death was just the most recent and most dreadful, and with grief accumulated inside my head for so long, I overnight developed a crippling case of Obsessional Compulsive Disorder which made life almost impossible to live, (not to mention its effect on the lives of those around me), and I struggled with it for fully ten years or more before a recovery slowly began and persisted.

My mind simply revolted from the pressures to which it had been subjected for all my life, having been refused the outlet of grieving.

OCD is the most pernicious and awful “mental” illness. It seems tailor-made to torture the “coper” with exquisitely precise horrors. Starved of the chemical transmitters that one needs to function rationally (which are “used up” prematurely by years of unresolved tensions and continual low level stress, and, ironically, used up most quickly, it seems, in individuals of high intelligence) the brain instead erects “rituals” designed to put the world back into order.

If only I tap my foot a certain number of times, all will be well with my day. If I count a certain number of telegraph poles correctly while driving to work, and click my teeth between each of them, it’ll be a good day. If I wash my hands, repeatedly, slather them in disinfectant or antiseptic cream, if I avoid touching anything, then I will never become sick or die, even if my hands become red, cracked, suppurating mockeries of hands. If I never say a word beginning with B, if I never use the number 6, if I always count to fourteen before speaking, if I don’t tread on the lines between paving stones, if I turn to the left and never to the right … the rituals and “rules” are as many and as bizarre as the endlessly creative human mind can construct. And all the while, with all the effort involved, they are completely, utterly, ironically incapable of controlling the world around you, of deflecting the real and natural experience of grief, or of protecting you from the future randomness of life.

That’s why OCD holds a special place in the list of “things not to get”. Not only does it turn you into a non-functioning recluse (at best), but it doesn’t even work. It doesn’t help you cope. The rituals solve nothing. Bastard. Bastard bastard bastard fucking illness. I hate it. Indeed, my hatred of OCD is so intense, it prevents it recurring in my life. My emotions over OCD are untrammeled, un-contained, unreduced. It is a bastard trick our own brains play on us, and my hatred of it is healthy and realistic.

You don’t “cope” with OCD – you can’t. You beat it, or it beats you. You smash it into little pieces, no matter how wild or scared or angry you have to become to do so. And every day, thereafter, for the rest of your life, you allow your mind to revel in its disgust at this vile illness, as you encourage everyone around you to fight it too (it affects about 4% of people and is no respecter of sex, age, social station, or any other divider) by facing up to whatever it is that triggered the brain’s response in the first place.

And that’s why, on this pleasantly warm summer’s day in my comfortably mostly-paid for home in the world’s most liveable city, looking forward to enjoying a meal this evening with my endlessly patient and loving wife and talented and adorable daughter, I am allowing myself to grieve.

Indeed, more than that, I am co-opting you to share the experience, I am reaching out to you to share it, because it is painful, and it hurts, and I don’t want to go through it alone and silent.

As regular readers will know, my dog was put to sleep eleven days ago, and I am not over it. And my rational mind is telling me that it’s silly to grieve over a dog all that much, let alone for nearly two weeks, you imbecile, and my new, pristine, “don’t always try and cope” mind is telling my rational mind to go boil its head.

I work at home. If I didn’t have meetings out, Zach was frequently the only living creature I would talk to in the day.

He would invariably come and lie at my feet, and usually on my feet, or he would lie as close to my office chair as he could, behind it, which meant I would often absent-mindedly “run over him” when pushing the chair back or stretching. This would invariably result in a plaintive yelp but no lasting damage, and an affectionate admonition from me along the lines of “Well, then don’t lie there, then, you stupid animal” as I massaged his toe, tail, or whatever. He never paid any attention to my warnings.

This morning, as I rolled the chair back, he wasn’t there. It hurt. I got hurt. And there’s no one here but you, Dear Reader, to rub my heart and make it better, so instead of rushing on and ignoring my hurt and putting it in whatever battered old cardboard box I have left up there, I am writing to you instead.

See: a little while ago, just before starting to write this article, I did the dishes.

By which I mean, specifically, I walked to the dining room a few times, rescued the dendritus from last night’s meal, and brought it back to the kitchen and stacked the dishwasher. Except today the dog didn’t ploddingly follow me from kitchen, to dining room, to kitchen, to dining room, to kitchen, waiting for scraps to fall off the plates and dishes, whether deliberately or accidentally, as his expected supplement to his daily diet. And I didn’t have to mutter “for fuck’s sake, dog, get out of the way before I break my neck” as he wandered purposefully towards me, looking up with mournful but expectant brown eyes. And he didn’t sit by the kitchen fireplace, rigidly sat to attention, following me with those huge brown pools of light grown cloudy in old age, just in case a crust, a bit of bacon rind, or a handful of left over rice was about to get lobbed in his general direction as the dishes went into the dishwasher.

And because I have vacuumed, again, there are ever fewer of his silken, golden-white hairs inhabiting the nooks and crannies of our home, needing me to pull them off the furry head of the vacuum cleaner and feed them up its capacious mouth by hand, because we’re gradually getting them all up. And one day, there won’t be a single dog hair anywhere in the house, none stuck to any of my socks, none hiding under chairs or behind tables, none floating past the window on a gentle zephyr, and then he will be totally, erasedly gone. Forever.

And it hurts. It hurts like hell.

Please understand, I don’t want you to do anything with my grief. Except listen to it.

Zach
This photograph was taken a few minutes before he died. Our local vets were magnificent, as they had been since the first day we had taken him there for puppy training, a lifetime ago. (If any of you need a caring vet, and you live near us, I’ll gladly give you their number.) They gently confirmed that his lungs and spleen were riddled with cancer, and even if we got rid of the tumour on his skin then the ones inside him were killing him with inexorable certainty, and that he was almost certainly – uncomplainingly – in considerable pain and discomfort. That was why he was coughing. That was why his back legs had gone wonky. It was time to say goodbye.

To their eternal credit, they arranged for us to gather round him as he lay on a comfortable pair of towels, in soft sunshine under a lovely tree. The vet patiently explained what would happen as he died, that it would be very fast and painless, and that animals don’t fear death as we do, and we should know that he was really quite happy, and happy to be with us.

I took him to a nearby water bowl, and let him have a drink, which he did, gently, and it seemed to me, thankfully. I don’t know why, I just think I thought being thirsty was an unnecessary indignity. I knew he was going to be dead in two minutes, but “there’s no reason for him to die with a dry mouth, is there?” I reasoned to myself.

My wife placed her hand reverently on his panting chest as he lay there, and my daughter massaged his velvet ears, as she had done ten thousand times before, and murmured to him quietly how much she loved him. We all said a small prayer, unsure of whether God has a place for dogs, but hoping against hope he does. And then the green liquid flowed into the catheter in his leg, and his eyes closed, and my wife said “There.” Because his chest was suddenly still.

And it was very sad, but it was OK. They let us leave by a side gate so we didn’t have to run the gauntlet of the people in the waiting room with our tears flowing. I took one look back. His giant body lay so still in the dappled light, and he looked simply and contentedly asleep in the garden, as I had seen him so many times over thirteen and a half years, and more than that, he looked at peace. As if the burden of plodding from place to place with the pain inside him and keeping the love in his eyes constantly there despite his trials had been lifted from him, and now he could really, genuinely, finally rest. And it was very sad, but it was OK.

And eleven days later, I miss him every time he doesn’t stick his great, silly, donkey-like head enquiringly round a corner. And right now, my days seem longer and emptier and lonelier. And you know what? It’s OK to feel that, and it’s OK, even, to say it.

That’s my discovery. It only took 53 years, since the day the big man wouldn’t get up.

Thank you for listening.

Lancaster bomber cockpit

Bomber Command crews suffered an extremely high casualty rate: 55,573 killed out of 125,000 aircrew (a 44.4% death rate), a further 8,403 were wounded in action and 9,838 became prisoners of war.

 

When they buried Uncle Ken

it took six strong men

to get him into Chapel again.

And I was one of them.

Loitering outside Swansea Crematorium in the drizzle,

old enough to smoke a Rothmans now and not get yelled at,

I dreamed old tales of a Pathfinder bomber pilot.

Bringing his plane home from Essen, staffed by bodies,

co-pilot’s head cradled in his lap, dead.

Flying dead.

Dead with a round gone in his groin and

out his shoulder, but the bucking stick and clouds of flak

meant Ken didn’t realise

till he got the crate down somehow at Warboys

and bouncing cross the grass he spoke to him

“Jesus, home again, that was close, buttie!”

and got no reply.

I was six when I’d told him I wanted to be Prime Minister.

From then, till the day he died, he used to ring up.

“Is that the PM’s office?” All haughty like.

Like a Whitehall nob in a wing collar,

not a South Wales fish merchant

in brown boots greasy with herring guts.

Even when I had forgotten the joke, he never did.

He used to send me and Mam boxes of fish.

We’d de-ice the windows

and take the Triumph Herald, complaining and wheezing,

to Christchurch station and collect them on Christmas Eve,

when they rang late in the chilled afternoon, as they always did,

to tell us the train had pulled in with the guard’s van

smelling of smoked cod and ling and plaice and even, once,

a whole salmon. Ice dripping from fire-wood slats and

fresh fish wrapped in newsprint.

Taking the strain of the box on my shoulders

I muttered “Come on, you old bugger”, under my breath

as we hoisted him out of the hearse,

weighty with years of Felinfoel Bitter Ale around his belly,

his face gone all jowly and heavy.

Memories gently pressed on me like a twig bumping a river bank.

Him leaning on my shoulder, juniper-laden gin breath,

waving gaily at the serried, hill-climbing ranks of slate-rooved glistening

gob-windowed wet granite and flint houses like a passing King,

shouting fuck off noises at his ex down the phone,

singing hymns to the stars with tears in his eyes,

while the tabby cats skulked away into back alleys and under the garden sheds.

When we reached the steps to go in,

I thought I would stumble.

The other men were all bigger than me.

Rugby broad and ruddy faced and tall as pit head joists.

So the coffin weighed down on me, digging into the flesh

under my cheap schoolboy suit.

Just as I thought I must drop him

splintered teak on marbled stairs

and disgrace the family

I felt a hand under my arm,

and a familiar slurred voice said with a smile

“Come on, Prime Minister. You’ll make it.”’

“I thought we were carrying you,” I said to myself,

through gritted and grateful teeth.

“As in life, so in death, eh?” he laughed

in an airy, young man’s voice.

And I swear it, to this day.

It was him.

No question.

High in the sunlit silence: hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew –

And, while the silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., killed 1941

Anyone interested in checking out my volume  of Poetry – 71 Poems and 1 Story – can find it here: http://tinyurl.com/7y55a7v