Posts Tagged ‘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.

Chuck a couple of these in tonight’s mutton curry and you’ll know all about it!

 

Hot chilli peppers have the best names. They sound dangerous and vaguely threatening. A warning for those stupid enough to actually try and eat one, if you will. “It’s not like we didn’t warn you,” they seem to say.

The previous record-holder for hottest chilli in the world, the ominous-sounding Carolina Reaper, has had to officially move aside to make way for the aptly monikered Dragon’s Breath chilli – a chilli so hot no one has actually eaten it yet, for fear it could kill you. How? By literally burning your airways, as if you were breathing fire.

Rather charmingly, the creator of this spicy beast didn’t even set out to break records. Mike Smith, a fruit grower and competitive show-gardener from Denbighshire in Wales, was aiming for an aesthetically pleasing chilli tree to enter into the UK’s famous Chelsea Flower Show, where it is now in the running for Plant of the Year.

“It was a complete accident but I’m chuffed to bits – it’s a lovely looking tree,” Mr Smith told the Telegraph.

The chilli was, however, grown in collaboration with scientists from Nottingham Trent University, who are interested in the medicinal use of chilis as an anaesthetic. It was they who verified that the Dragon’s Breath scored the highest rating ever recorded on the Scoville heat scale, 2.48 million, beating the wimpy rival Reaper, which measures just 2.2 million.

The Scoville scale measures the intensity of heat in units. The 2.48 million Scoville heat units (SHU) means that one drop of oil from this chili can be detected in 2.48 million drops of water, making it basically weapons-grade hot. For comparison, pepper spray used by the US Army is 2 million SHU.

The scientists believe that if you tried to actually eat this chilli, your airways would likely close up from the burn and you’d go into anaphylactic shock and die. Nice. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t maybe a force for good, not evil.

The capsaicin oil from it is so potent it numbs the skin, giving it excellent potential as an anesthetic, especially for those allergic to painkillers, or even for use in developing countries where access to and funding for anesthetics is limited.

Chili peppers actually have a long history of medical value, from calming the gut’s immune system to helping you live longer. Just don’t eat this one.

“I’ve tried it on the tip of my tongue and it just burned and burned,” Smith said. “I spat it out in about 10 seconds. The heat intensity just grows.”

Farmer Mike is currently waiting for the Guinness World Records to verify his world champion, but in the meantime, if anyone offers it to you in the pub for a bet, we’d err on the side of caution and just say no.

I am just going to leave this here.

welsh

 

 

Thanks to an interesting article published by Ancestry.com, we now know that many of us have surnames passed down to us from ancestors in Britain.

Apparently, last names weren’t widely used until after the Norman conquest of England and Wales in 1066, but as the country’s population grew, people found it necessary to be more specific when they were talking about somebody else. Thus arose descriptions like Thomas the Baker, Norman son of Richard, Henry the Whitehead, Elizabeth of the Field, and Joan of York that, ultimately, led to many of our current surnames.

“Come and see the violence inherent in the system!”

They still name people after their profession in Wales. Our long lost but much loved cousin Roger, who started a life as the owner of a footwear business, was known universally as Roger the Shoe. Until he sold the shops and took up a smallholding, at which time he became, proudly, Roger the Pig.

Apparently there are perhaps 45,000 different English surnames, but most had their origins as one of these seven types.

Occupational

Occupational names identified people based on their job or position in society.

Calling a man “Thomas Carpenter” indicated that he worked with wood for a living, while someone named Knight bore a sword.

Other occupational names include Archer, Baker, Brewer, Butcher, Carter, Clark, Cooper, Cook, Dyer, Farmer, Faulkner, Fisher, Fuller, Gardener, Glover, Head, Hunt or Hunter, Judge, Mason, Page, Parker, Potter, Sawyer, Slater, Smith, Taylor, Thatcher, Turner, Weaver, Woodman, and Wright (or variations such as Cartwright and Wainwright) — and there are many more.

This kind of name also gave a clue about whom a servant worked for. Just adding an S to a name indicated a feudal relationship with someone else. So someone named Vickers might have been a servant to Mr. Vicker, and someone named Williams might either have served a William or been adopted by him.

From the obscure fact department: in medieval England, before the time of professional theater, craft guilds put on “mystery plays” (“mystery” meaning “miracle”), which told Bible stories and had a call-and-response style of singing. A participant’s surname — such as King, Lord, Virgin, or Death — may have reflected his or her role, which some people played for their whole life and then passed down to their eldest son.

Describing a personal characteristic

Some names, often adjectives, were based on nicknames that described a person. They may have described a person’s size (Short, Long, Little), coloring (Black, White, Green, or Red, which could also have evolved into “Reed”), or another character trait (Stern, Strong, Swift). Someone named Peacock might have been considered vain, and so on.

From an English place name

A last name may have pointed to where a person was born, lived, worked, or owned land. It might be from the name of a house, farm, hamlet, town, or county. Some examples: Bedford, Burton, Hamilton, Hampshire, Sutton. Writer Jack London’s ancestor, for example, probably hailed from London.

From the name of an estate

Those descended from landowners may have taken as their surname the name of their holdings, castle, manor, or estate, such as Ernle or Staunton. Windsor is a famous example — it was the surname George V adopted for the British royal family to replace their original German name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha during World War I, because they had a home at Windsor Castle. Another Royal anglicised his name from Battenberg (a small town in Germany) to Mountbatten for the same reason. The Queen’s current husband, Prince Philip, also adopted the name Mounbatten, even though he was originally Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Quite a mouthful.

From a geographical feature of the landscape

Some examples are Bridge, Brooks, Bush, Camp, Fields, Forest, Greenwood, Grove, Hill, Knolles, Lake, Moore, Perry, Stone, Wold, Wood, and Woodruff. Author Margaret Atwood, for example, is probably descended from someone who lived “at the wood.”

Patronymic, matronymic, or ancestral

Patronymic surnames (those that come from a male given name) include Benson (“the son of Ben”), Davis, Dawson, Evans, Harris, Harrison, Jackson, Jones (which is Welsh for John), Nicholson, Richardson, Robinson, Rogers, Simpson, Stephenson, Thompson, Watson, and Wilson.

Matronymic ones, surnames derived from a female given name, include Molson (from Moll, for Mary), Madison (from Maud), Emmott (from Emma), and Marriott (from Mary).

Scottish clan names make up one distinct set of ancestral surnames. These include Armstrong, Cameron, Campbell, Crawford, Douglas, Forbes, Grant, Henderson, Hunter, MacDonald, and Stewart. Anyone with these names has Scottish heritage hiding in their history somewhere.

Signifying patronage

Some surnames honored a patron. Hickman was, literally, Hick’s man (Hick being a nickname for Richard). Kilpatrick was a follower of Patrick.

We have a coat of arms. Ner. Mind you, like "namign a star", we suspect everyone can have a coat of arms if they hunt on Google long enough ...

We have a coat of arms. Nyah nyah. It’s three eagle’s heads rampant, or something or other. Mind you, like “naming a star”, we suspect everyone can have a coat of arms if they hunt on Google long enough … We know more than a few people who own one square foot of Scotland and thus have a legal right to call themselves Laird. Which isn’t far from Lord. Which is only one step away from being bumped up to business class on international flights. Yes, we’re onto you.

And how the hell did we end up with the unusual name Yolland, Dear Reader, which we have been patiently spelling to people over the phone for half a lifetime?

Well, originally this was a West Country Saxon name something like “Attenoldelande” which means “lives at or nearby the cultivated land”. There is some record of a family seat in Lancashire, and there is a Yolland Wood in Devon, near Plymouth. And that’s about it.

So once upon a time, all the Yollands, Yoldelondes, Yelands, Yolandes, Yealands, Yellands, Yeolands, Yallands, Yellens and all the rest were … well, serfs, basically.

Although they may have been free tenant farmers under a Saxon lord. But more likely serfs.

Anyway, before we launch into more quotes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we simply note that our lineage has been around a very long time, and we have mud under our fingernails.

So there.

O. M. G. You have no idea ...

O. M. G. You have no idea …

Oh thank you! WordPress today “Freshly Pressed” this marvellous blog, which I shall immediately subscribe to, and I warmly recommend their recipe for the ineffably wonderful “Welsh Cakes”.

You may have seen an exceptionally poor piece of doggerel I wrote about Wales on March 1st, but this yummy treat is a much better way to celebrate Dydd Gŵyl Dewi.

Mum used to make them, and they were always the sweetest, most scrumptious memory of my family in Swansea that would be possible.

http://edibleswansea.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/chapatti-pan-and-spice-st-davids-day-welsh-cakes/

What I think I love about them most is how they are truly representative of a genuine Welsh cuisine.

When Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I first got together she cheerfully disposed of any British food as “something that looks vaguely brown and solid and lies flat on the plate”. And frankly, at the time, if you were going to rely on the type of food served up in restaurants (with the exception of the exquisite curry houses on every street corner) then her criticism was well-founded, and some would say, still is.

But the ethnic cooking of Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland was always there, sliding by under the radar, hidden away in the miniature kitchens of millions of working class households, like a silent language linking us all to a simpler – and more delicious – past.

So I strongly recommend you jump over to Edible Swansea and make a note of their Welsh Cakes recipe right now. And better still, rustle up a batch tonight.

http://edibleswansea.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/chapatti-pan-and-spice-st-davids-day-welsh-cakes/

It’s a funny coincidence, but last night we dined on one of my mother’s other favourite recipes, Boiling Fowl in Caper Sauce.

This is also about the easiest “gourmet quality” dish to cook in the world.

The dictionary describes a “boiling fowl” as a mature hen of about 2 years of age, suitable for eating but which requires prolonged cooking.

And in truth, of course, that is what they were – “layers” that had stopped laying – and in the cruel world of a working class Victorian backyard that meant a quick bonk on the back of the head, plucking, and into the pot to bubble away gently for hour after hour until the meat (strongly-flavoured comnpared to a younger bird) fell away from the bones and became gelatinously, shiningly slippery-soft and sweet.

Smothered in a white sauce dotted with plenty of plump, acidic capers and served with homely vegetables cooked in the same pot, plus plenty of mashed potato and hard rye bread to mop up any left over sauce, it was then, and is now, one of the ultimate “comfort food” treats of a winter’s evening.

Low fat and healthful too. The stock left over after the cooking makes a wonderful base for any soup or stew.

The recipe below can be varied to suit your personal tastes, but don’t add too much in the way of additional seasoning or you will mess with the essential rustic simplicity of the dish.

We cooked up a couple of large “Chicken Marylands”, which is cheating, but in today’s modern world finding a real boiling fowl has become ironically rather difficult in urban areas. If you can’t find a nice tough old bird to soften up, then any skin-on chicken will do, but don’t cook “off the bone” chicken breasts and suchlike this way because they eventually just disintegrate to nothing, and anyway, you want all the flavour and fat that comes from the bones and skin.

If you don’t like eating meat on the bone, don’t worry, because by the time it’s finished the meat will fall off any bones at the merest nudge of a fork’s tip.

This is vaguely the look you’re aiming for – now add mash and veggies and dream of Gareth Edwards playing for the Lions …

Variations of this great Welsh dish pop up all over the world – its served with fettucini in Italy, with beanshoots in China – revealing its ancient provenance.

And Jewish people insist – with some scientific support – that it acts as a natural antibiotic, as does the resulting soup.

So if you’re currently suffering with snow and colds in the northern Hemisphere, you could do a lot worse than to cheer yourself up with this quintessentially natural dish. From my mother to you – enjoy.

(PS The upsurge of interest in the UK in eating mutton – thanks to the campaigning of the Prince of Wales – that is to say older sheep who have past their lambing days – offers another opportunity for this recipe, because mutton goes wonderfully well with capers too. You can roast or boil the mutton according to your personal taste.)

BETTY’S BOILING FOWL

1. Take one whole boiling fowl minus the guts. Oil the skin and roast in a hot oven just until the skin takes on some colour OR take your chicken pieces (skin on, bone in) and brown on the stove top in a frying pan with a little oil.

The goal is to caramelise the skin, not to cook the chicken.

2. Remove the chicken from the heat and grab your biggest pot. Put a little fat or oil in the bottom – in the old days it would have been lard, but today probably olive oil will mean fewer frowns from the diet nazis. Chuck in a few finely chopped cloves of garlic, about one and a half casually sliced and strongly-flavoured onions, a sizeable pinch of salt and grate in a decent amount of black pepper or roughly crush some peppercorns and chuck them in. Stir steadily over medium heat for about two-three minutes but don’t let the garlic or onions take on any colour.

3. Chuck in a good double handful of diced carrots, by which I mean three or four good sized carrots. Chop up a celery stick or two into small pieces and add that too. Stir for another minute. Roughly chopped turnips or parsnip can also go in there if you like them: personally I think they skew the flavour base too much and I don’t enjoy them especially.

4. Place the chicken or chicken pieces on top of the vegetables and cover the whole lot with water. Choose one herb of your personal liking and throw a decent wodge of that in too – fresh is best but dried will do, just remember the flavour is more intense and use less – a bay leaf or two works well, so does basil, so does thyme, so does parsley, so does rosemary, so does tarragon, so does sage. All go well with chicken: the most amenable of meats.

Don’t use a bouquet garni or a hodge-podge collection of herbs or you will overwhelm what you’re trying to achieve.

Go on, you know you want to. In Wales, it should be a pint of Felinfoel Double Dragon ...

Go on, you know you want to. In Wales, it should be a pint of Felinfoel Double Dragon …

5. Bring to the boil and then simmer on a gentle bubble, adding water if necessary but sparingly, (if you’re adding water you’re probably cooking the pot too fiercely), until you are ready to eat, provided and always that you aren’t ready to eat for at least 2 or 2.5 hours.

6. Just before you’re ready to eat, make your caper sauce. Take some of the liquor from the pan – just a tablespoon full or two or you will make the white sauce too brown looking – and with some water, white flour and a little butter make a classic pale roux.

Add warm (not hot) milk to make a medium-sticky sauce – it pours, but only just. Stir through plenty – plenty – of capers.

Serve with mash and bread and butter, spooning the veggies and the sauce over the chicken. When you’ve got all the veggies and chicken out of the pot, save the resulting stock, it’s liquid gold.

In today’s sophisticated world Betty’s Boiling Fowl should probably be served with any crisp, dry white wine like a good Aussie chardonnay, but for a change, why not plump for a good, chewy British “real ale”, which is how they would have enjoyed it years ago.

welsh

St David's Day poem

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, North Wales

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, North Wales

I watched in mounting horror last night as the most unexpectedly talented, bravest, and most exciting team in the rugby world cup were eliminated at the semi-final stage by one of the least impressive, after the Welsh captain was sent off for an illegal (read, potentially dangerous) tackle.

(If you feel “mounting horror” is too strong to describe my reaction to a sporting event, then you clearly don’t appreciate what the game of rugby means to the tiny nation of Wales and its children, even those marooned in far-flung Antipodes.)

That this wrecked the game as a contest, that Wales nevertheless fought back bravely to eventually only lose by a single point, (France eventually winning 9-8), that the controversy lit up the internet and media everywhere, well, these are the things of sporting history.

That the game highlights an outrageous miscalculation by the sport’s governing body, this is the topic that must be tackled in the cold light of dawn.

A game for hooligans, played by gentleman, administered by donkeys

The noble and ancient game of rugby (it has been played in some form or another for at least thousand years, although its codification is more recent) is notable for many things, but unquestionably it is most famous for having a rule book which is more tinkered with than any other sport in the world.

Every year, seemingly, a new batch of nuances and changes are implemented, all intended to improve the spectacle for supporters. And every year, the ever-more labyrinthine rules code reduces crowds and TV viewers (even, occasionally, players and TV commentators) to a state of bemused confusion, as the game is constantly paused and re-started to answer the demands of the latest modifications dreamed up in the ivory towers of rugby administration.

And yet despite this constant and annoying fiddling (and certainly not because of it, as the effect on the game itself can only ever be considered to be marginally positive) the game continues to grow in popularity, and well beyond it’s traditional borders of the former British Empire and its closest neighbours. The United States and Canada now boast creditable teams, as do locales as diverse as Japan, Russia, Argentina, Romania and Georgia.

Indeed, the most common comment one hears in the internet chat rooms and from friends gathered around the television is “I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, but I love it, it’s magnificent!”

One can only imagine how much more the public would enjoy it if they could actually follow the rules.

Regulating the almost unregulatable.

Anyhow, last night’s game was effectively brought to a close after just 19 minutes of the first half of an 80 minute game when the latest piece of administrative tinkering saw the young captain of Wales – and one of their most effective players – sent off for a “spear” tackle which was considered both deliberate and dangerous. (I’ll explain the spear tackle in more detail in a moment.)

For any code to seek to regulate precisely the manner in which two men of vast bulk throw themselves aggressively at each other at a run would seem something of a forlorn hope. The fact is, rugby is a potentially dangerous game, played by consenting adults who nevertheless enjoy the enormous adrenalin rush coupled with sublime ball handling and kicking skills that it represents.

That some control of rugby’s inherent aggression is necessary is undoubted. For example: to “high tackle” an opponent – that is to say to trail an arm at head height and loop it around a man’s neck or across his face as he runs past you at 20 miles an hour or more – is not just clumsy, it’s potentially homicidal. It is rightfully pounced on by referees and fans alike.

More problematical is the so-called “spear tackle”. (Also called a “tip tackle”.) Please forgive the next few lines of explanation, and bear with me, as you need to understand these niceties.

Imagine two big, hard-muscled men running at each other at full tilt. One hits the other about hip or waist-high, and tips him off-balance.  The tackling player then “lifts” the tackled player off the ground, that is to say his feet are now airborne. The tackled player’s head is carried forward and downward by the force of the tackle, and his feet leave the ground behind him, travelling upwards. In a moment, driven by the momentum of the tackling player, the tackled player’s body passes through a metaphorical horizontal line drawn above the ground, and he is then deliberately thrown down head first (like a spear being thrown into the ground).

The sanction for committing such a foul is a penalty. That is to say, the ball is given to the wrong team to play with, have a kick at goal, whatever. There is nothing in the rules that state the punishment should be an automatic “red card”.

However the International Rugby Board has said that  spear tackle should be a straight red card. An IRB memorandum on dangerous tackles from 8 June 2009 states: “At a subsequent IRB High Performance Referee Seminar at Lensbury referees were advised that for these types of tackles they were to start at red card as a sanction and work backwards.”

That a spear tackle can cause terrible injury to the tackled player is undeniable. To see how it is addressed in various codes, including American Football, you can click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spear_tackle. But two key things about last night’s scrubbing of the Welsh player need addressing.

The first is the element of culpability of the tackling player, and how it was judged by the referee.

To be clear, the maximum sanction for the foul is a sending off for the rest of the game. It is hardly ever used, as losing a player in a rugby match virtually predicates the result, more so than in a game like soccer, for example. For this reason, other options are available to the ref, including issuing a yellow card, in which the offender is “sin binned”  for then minutes, or just a penalty.

The level of sanction issued needs to address certain components of the tackle.

Was the tackled player deliberately lifted upward, that is to say did the tackling player push his body upwards to get the tackled player off his feet? Then, once the tackled player is in the unfortunate position of being un-grounded, does the tackling player deliberately push him down into the ground, or “spear”  him down, risking serious injury?

And this judgement takes place on an event that is surrounded by ballyhooing giants of men, operating at speed, in under a second, remember.

Regarding last night’s game, the Welsh have conceded that skipper Sam Warburton did push up slightly in his tackle, although whether this was deliberate or clumsy is a matter of opinion. What is very clear from slo-mo TV footage is that after the most ephemeral of downward motions (we are now talking tenths of a second being viewed) the French player is then “dropped”, not pushed, into the ground, and he lands primarily on his shoulders, not his head.

Much has been made of the speed with which referee Alain Rolland flashed the red card, to almost universal shock and criticism. He did not consult with his assistants, nor did he consult video evidence. He didn’t even stand still and have a think for a moment. And in acting as he did, he virtually awarded the game to France, and ensured that next week’s final, which will be against Australia or New Zealand, will be no contest whatsoever, as the French will undoubtedly fold like a pack of Gallic cards against opposition as fearsome as that. So except for tonight’s semi-final between Australia and NZ, then, the World Cup was effectively over the moment Rolland reacted so emphatically.

A little calm consideration would surely have seen a yellow card issued instead. But the referee, mesmerised by the eternal faffing and fenergling of the rules wallahs of the IRB, reacted spasmodically. Game over.

Referees … love ’em or hate ’em. Or, well, just hate ’em.

The second issue that needs to be addressed is the choice of Rolland to adjudicate last night’s game.

To maintain public support, any body, sporting or otherwise, needs not only to do the right thing, but to be seen to do the right thing.

Rolland is Irish. The team that Wales emphatically beat to reach this semi-final was, er, Ireland.

So why would those making the decisions in this World Cup select a man to ref the game who comes from a nation just defeated by one of the contestants, a nation he once played for, and where he played the bulk of his rugby before switching to refereering?

One doesn’t have to listen to dark allegations of inherent bias to consider such a decision to be dumb, dumb, dumb. It is hardly surprising, when the administrators could have chosen a ref from, say, Australia or New Zealand, that message boards the world over have claimed the Welsh were playing the ref last night, too.

Even more so, when one stops and considers – c’est incroyable! – that Alain Rolland is the son of a Frenchman, speaks fluent French, and was, in fact, given a host of French names by his father in order to remind him constantly of his French heritage.

How’s that for building confidence in the game?

And that Rolland will carry the stigma of this one, rushed decision for the rest of his career is also a shame. He is already the subject of a virulent online hate campaign.

Anyhow, make your own mind up. Let me know what you think. You can  see the tackle, and hear professional comment, here:

And just for fun, you can read about UK media comment here http://www.stuff.co.nz/sport/rugby/5793257/UK-media-vent-at-French-ref-after-Wales-loss

Max Boyce says it best

Meanwhile, I am indebted to my old friend Richard Ember for reminding me of the immortal Max Boyce’s song which today seems frighteningly prophetic:

I am an entertainer
And I sing for charity
For Oxfam and for Shelter
For those worse off than me.

Bangladesh, Barnado’s Homes,
And though I don’t get paid
It does one good to work
For things like Christian Aid.

But of all the concerts that I’ve done
For the homeless overseas
The one I did that pleased me most
Was not for refugees.

Twas for a home in Ireland
That stands amongst the trees
The Sunshine Home in Dublin
For blind Irish Referees.

That started me remembering Max Boyce and the influence his art has had on my life. I have met Max on a few occasions, notably in the changing rooms at Eastleigh Rugby Club after a hot, sweaty, feverish, hilarious show delivered to hundreds of people crammed into the tiny club rooms drinking vast quantities of “bitter ale”, where I had gone to squeeze his hand and say thank you to him for singing songs laden with emotion that celebrated my Welsh heritage so perfectly. His influence on my poetry about my childhood and my Welsh family was subtle but unmistakeable.

Known as a comic singer, primarily – and enmeshed, of course, in the rugby culture of the whole of Britain – it would be wrong to under-estimate the role he played as a cultural ambassador for Wales generally. Wandering the byways of YouTube I came across a rendition of “Duw, it’s hard.” (“God, it’s hard.”)

My mother used to say “Duw, it’s hard” when life bore down on her, widowed with a two year old and short of money. My Aunty Chrissie would murmur it, cigarette dropping from her mouth, after cheerfully dishing up plate after plate of dinner to a seemingly endless stream of family and friends in the back room of her tiny home in Milford Haven. I once heard a retired miner mumble it as he coughed black coal dust from his wrecked lungs, and took a long pull from his pint of beer on a bench at the pub next door to the retired miner’s home at Langland Bay near Swansea.

Watch the song, and feel in your hearts why Wales’s departure from the World Cup yesterday was so bitterly unfair. And weep a tear with me, for everything that is lost, and can never be regained, and not just on a rugby pitch, butty bach.