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Monday, 12 December 2016

SNAKE CAKE AND FATHER CHRISTMAS


You need to concentrate when cooking, especially when - like me - your thoughts are elsewhere. The idea was a steamed fruit sponge, and preparing the fruit (apples, pears and cherries) was easy enough. No, it was the assembly of the sponge ingredients which interfered with an interesting plot development for my ongoing second novel. Suddenly I found I had completely forgotten about ‘creaming the butter and sugar’ and everything was sitting together in the bowl, eggs resting smugly on the sugar and flour coating the butter. ‘To hell with it’, I thought, and set to work with a hand mixer, convinced that I could pull it all together without a problem. Well of course it curdled. In my experience however hard I try, a sponge mixture always does. Except for one memorable occasion when it was the best mixture I ever achieved: the Snake Cake.

My son’s birthday falls a few days after Christmas and this was – possibly – his fourth, I can’t actually remember. So I decided to hold a Christmas party for him. My dear old friend Mrs. Snell bravely offered her near-open-plan sitting room and kitchen, since our cottage was tiny and impractical for a bunch of over-excited youngsters to let off steam, and her son, always game for a laugh, was persuaded to make a visit dressed up as Father Christmas. Invitations were sent out, and plans made. A friend lent me a cookery book full of children’s cakes, most of which appeared horribly complicated to make. The easiest looking was a ‘Snake Cake’, a simple sponge baked and cut to shape before being covered in butter icing. That sponge mixture went brilliantly! I must admit I tried my utmost to combine the ingredients carefully, and it rose to perfection in the oven. Admittedly the green colouring which I added to the butter icing was rather startling, but I felt it looked reasonably impressive as I stuck candles into its curves.

One small downside to the planning was the inclusion of an ‘access visit’ to my son from his father, (my ex-husband G) who was living in London and made regular trips to Devon for this purpose. It was not the best day for him to choose, but I decided to grit my teeth and accept the inevitable. Everyone was excited about the party and a lot of friends were helping – a godsend in those days when I was trying to cope as a single mother. My good friend Ali was a staunch ally when it came to explaining that G would be attending the party, and I suspect she was equally intrigued to find out what he was like, not having previously known him. My mother was invited to come along too. Now my mother isn’t particularly fond of children, and as Mrs. Snell appeared to be doing a lot of the organising did not want to interfere, so missed out on being informed that G – whom she had not seen since before the divorce – would be there.

The afternoon of the party arrived and we lugged the cake and all the food down the road to Mrs Snell’s house. She had cleared her sitting room ready for games, and the whole place was alive with Christmas decorations and sparkling lights. The cake took pride of place on the kitchen table, children arrived and the party began. As all such events are, it was a noisy affair punctuated with shouts, gales of young laughter and the odd cry of frustration and unfairness. Games went well and food was consumed. As the post-tea games began, one boy remained seated at the table. ‘This cake’s great!’ he exclaimed, and continued to work his way through it.

If memory serves me well, G and Father Christmas arrived at the same time. The children were distracted by Mrs Snell’s son’s muffled shouts of ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ and G managed to slide across the room and into the kitchen. Ali’s sharp blue eyes had missed nothing, and neither had my mother who was standing next to her. ‘Oh my god!’ my mother gasped. Ali asked, ‘Is that…?’ and my mother nodded confirmation – as if it were needed! I was forced to extract my son from a game to make a dutiful greeting to his father, but he soon dashed back into the fray because ‘Father Christmas’ was about to distribute presents. It was probably at this point when G became aware of my mother’s icy glare from across the room – she was about the last person he would have wanted to encounter, and he turned back to the cake, unwilling to take any further part in the proceedings. The children’s shouts became more fractious. Ali, with a wicked gleam in her eye, asked my mother whether she was going to go and say hello to her ex-son-in-law. She never replied. At that point the noise reached a crescendo and one of the boys shouted out: ‘You’re not Father Christmas! You’re the bloke from the garage!’

There wasn’t much cake left at the end. The boy who had consumed most of it was taken home looking rather green. I don’t remember what happened to the remainder of G’s access visit either, except that – as such visits go – it hadn’t been particularly successful. Father Christmas, who had been unable to contain his laughter after being recognised, magnanimously distributed the rest of the presents before the little guests departed, and sank into a chair exhausted. Ali and my mother withdrew to consume sherry and no doubt to dissect the events of the afternoon.

The Snake Cake… the best cake I ever made. I only managed one bite of it, but the memories flood back when I think of it, and it always makes me laugh. Sadly Ali died far too young, G also met an early demise and my dear friend Mrs Snell is no longer with us. She would have laughed too, and it is such thoughts which keep alive those who have gone.

So if you are holding a children’s party, I thoroughly recommend making a ‘Snake Cake', but make sure you save a large piece for yourself!

Thursday, 8 December 2016

FOG



There is something slightly disturbing about fog. When it follows a period of bright, crisp December days and cold nights, the elevated temperature is not a fair trade. Fog changes everything, and is one of my most hated conditions in which to drive. The only one I dread more (other than ice) is fog at night, when a car journey becomes a long tiring test of one’s ability to discern distance and recognise everyday features as though on another planet.
 
Many years ago I needed to drive my (then teenage) son eight miles to a friend’s house, from where he would be taken on to a school Christmas Carol Concert rehearsal. A few hours later I would need to repeat the journey to pick him up. This is actually quite a short distance and the outward journey to the friend was fine. Although it was dark (and in Devon, winter nights can be VERY dark,) the route was clear. It was as I began to drive home that a blanket of fog descended. The route became instantly unrecognisable. As I strove to remember the location of some very sharp bends and other minor hazards, my eyes grew dry from not blinking and I thought the journey would never end. The final two miles involved turning off the main road and climbing a steep, winding and narrow minor road to the village in which we then lived. The road was bordered by Devon banks, those great mounds of earth created over centuries of farmers practising ‘hedging and ditching’ to border their fields. I wondered whether their apparently spongy covering of bracken, brambles and undergrowth would bounce me back on to the road if I strayed too close. Luckily I never needed to find out, as I eventually reached home without mishap after what felt like hours.

I dreaded the return journey which subsequently proved equally as bad. It is no fun reversing the car in such conditions in order to allow another car travelling in the opposite direction to pass. Not even sophisticated parking aids work in night fog, even if your car is fitted with them (which mine was not). I arrived slightly late at the friend’s house, where the fog appeared to be clearing, and as we drove back home again the visibility improved. The next day I had to drive the route yet again – and the fog had gone. It was daylight, visibility was sharp and familiar. The previous night’s anguish was soon forgotten.


How easily we humans adapt to our surroundings. Yes, driving through fog felt like purgatory at the time, but I managed it and I imagine if I had to endure it for a long time I would become better able to cope with it. My eyes would begin to compensate for the blurring, I would blink more normally and my sense of direction might improve. But today, when I awoke to mist and the haziness of nearby trees, I was infinitely glad not to have to be taking anyone anywhere!


Monday, 21 November 2016

SECATEURS AND CUSHIONS


There is a section of society today which we prefer to forget. They are blamed for creating all manner of problems with which future generations will have to deal, and for draining the economy with constant demands for more to be spent on care and health care. I speak, of course, of the elderly. Those grumpy, self-opinionated and slow-moving people who fill up the buses without paying a fare and 'whizz' around the pavements on their odd little vehicles, or stagger out into the road in the expectation that traffic will stop and let them cross. If they can even stagger, that is. For there are those 'bed-blockers' too, building up ever longer waiting lists for hospital places.

I am not being deliberately cruel, or if I am it is to make you sit up and take notice! Because one day you might be one of them. And if you are grumpy and slow, it is caused by pain. If you are using your bus pass, it's because you worked for decades to arrive at a resting-place called 'retirement', but are finding that your carefully saved pennies - if indeed you still possess them - are no match for today's ever-increasing costs. And if you are confined to bed, then you might just have lost all hope.

My mother is eighty seven and earlier this year we nearly lost her. She has a multitude of physical problems and her legs hardly work. There is a shadow building in her lungs and I think time is currently being borrowed, but I enjoy every moment of her (sometimes crochety) company. Now that we know / hope she will be around for Christmas, comes the time to consider presents. When my brother brought her over for lunch yesterday, we discussed these things and he is going to give her something which I would not have expected her to request - a pair of secateurs. We all know that she is struggling with the mere concept of going outside into her little garden. She is terrified of falling and at this time of year the ground is slippery and uneven... it's just not on. Yet she has no intention of resigning herself to stopping gardening. Unlike her children she is 'carrying on regardless' - and so should we.

If you attempt an internet search for Christmas gifts for the elderly, it is a very depressing exercise. Apparently they want mobility aids, toys (TOYS?) and all manner of expensive technical or mechanical devices which they will never use. Or so the retailers would like us to think, so that they can sell us these items. I can't imagine how they are getting this so wrong. Except that they aren't really interested in this particular market, are they? There's not enough profit in it.

Well, I had already decided what to do. I love to make my own Christmas presents, and a remnant of material recently purchased was the perfect answer to something an old person can never have enough of: soft cushions. I will add to this a small but luxurious bathroom towel and perhaps some scented soap. I've already run up one of the cushions (pictured) and the other is in progress. My son's gift will be the lovely hand cream for which his grandmother asks every year.

You don't have to be old or disabled to enjoy simple and inexpensive Christmas presents. So much joy is created when we reduce our lofty expectations and opt for a more magical appreciation of Christmas.

Last word: it's amazing how much more cheerful an internet search can be if you type 'cushion' into Google!

Friday, 11 November 2016


Today is Remembrance Day in Great Britain. I will be using the two minute silence to remember my late father who fought in Burma during the Second World War. It was an experience he seldom spoke of, in common I believe with all his compatriots, and one whose horror I can only imagine. He was a quiet, steadfast and honourable man whose life - like those of everyone at that time - was completely changed by the war.

The poppies in the photograph used to grow in the garden of my father's brother. He too fought during that war, as did their elder brother who was captured early on and spent five years incarcerated in German prisoner-of-war camps - a totally different kind of experience, but equally as terrible.

I believe it is important to remember these people and what they stood for, their simple yet passionate love of life and other people, and their essential goodness in trying to preserve the very best of it for future generations.

Monday, 31 October 2016

THE ROYAL CLARENCE HOTEL, EXETER


This is a photograph showing some of the venerable and iconic buildings which form part of the Cathedral Green in Exeter. It was taken on a sunny summer's day in 2006. All of the old buildings visible in the picture, with the exception of the red-brick block behind the church, survived the Baedeker bombing raids during World War II. Who could have predicted that ten years later the Royal Clarence Hotel, dating back to 1769 and said to be the first hotel in England, would have been destroyed by fire in October, 2016?

 I worked in Exeter for many years and it's hard to count the number of times I have not only walked past but attended events at the hotel. It feels like a backdrop to my best memories of the city and Cathedral Green in particular. More importantly on a personal level it has inspired - and appeared in (under another guise) my writing.

By way of a little tribute to my memories of the place, here is an extract from my current work-in-progress 'Stopping Time' which takes place in a hotel similar to, and based on, the Royal Clarence. There is no need to introduce the characters - they speak for themselves...


GLIMPSES FROM 'STOPPING TIME' by P R Ford


They reached the hotel entrance where double doors opened into a cool shady lobby. Julia clearly knew exactly where she was, for she led Garamond down a passage and into the lounge bar which at this time of day was fairly quiet, with few customers. Those few were obviously business people, some with open laptops placed at angles on the dark wooden tables. Conversations were being conducted in low voices, and Garamond appreciated Julia’s discretion in bringing him here.
An impeccably attired young man, anticipating their needs, ushered them to a table which stood on its own in a secluded corner and asked them what they would like to drink.
“I’ll have a black coffee, please,” Julia told him. The man looked expectantly at Garamond, who was prepared for this and said:
“I would like water.”
“Still or carbonated, Sir?” he was asked, and threw an anxious glance at Julia who replied for him.
“Still, please. No ice.” She smiled up at the young man who thanked them and silently withdrew.
There was an awkward pause during which neither looked at the other. Then Garamond said,
“Thank you for meeting me here. I wish to ask you to do something for me. It is very important.”
“I suppose,” Julia replied coolly, “this is something to do with Helen?”
He nodded, and the uncomfortable silence which followed lasted for several minutes. Their drinks were served, and Julia quietly stirred her coffee as she considered how to react.
  Garamond simply sat, with his hands on his knees, as he mulled over her words. Julia remembered that his people behaved like this, and also recalled how annoying it was. She drank some more of her coffee and waited for him to speak. Eventually he said, 
“I need to consider this. It would seem that all is not as we had supposed.”
“Well, while you consider it, I need to get back to the office!” Julia announced. She drank the rest of her coffee and prepared to leave, but as she was about to stand up a man who had been sitting in the obscurity of a nearby alcove rose to his feet and strode quietly across to their table.
“Hello Julia,” he said jovially, holding out his hand to her. They both looked up at him in surprise. He was middle-aged; a smartly dressed rather overweight man with thinning dark hair swept back off a round, kindly face. His skin glowed from the warmth.
“Titus!” Julia exclaimed, taking his hand and standing up as she did so. “How nice to see you!” And how opportune, she thought as she withdrew her hand and pulled her bag up on to her shoulder.
“Have you taken to entertaining your clients here, then?” he asked her with mock amusement, before turning his sharp gaze upon Garamond who had remained seated.
“Oh, of course!” she laughed back. She wondered whether or not to introduce Garamond, and the dilemma must have shown itself on her face, because the man immediately said,
“Don’t let me interrupt you. I just wanted to say ‘hello’ in passing.”
“No, no, I was just leaving,” Julia explained. “I am dreadfully busy, you know what it’s like.” She leaned down to Garamond and said in a low voice, almost threatening in its tone, “I will meet you back here in a couple of hours, alright? But then: that’s it.” She waited until he nodded his acceptance of her offer. Then she turned a bright gaze upon the other man saying, “I’ll see you again, Titus. Take care!”
Heedless of the dilemma in which she was leaving them both, she turned and strode over to the bar, where despite her annoyance she had the decency to pay for their refreshments.
The man called Titus turned towards Garamond and their eyes met in a flash of mutual understanding.
“Hello, Garamond,” said Titus as he sat down on the chair which Julia had just vacated.
“Greetings, Titus,” replied his brother-in-law. “I wondered if we would meet.”
To any innocent observers within the hotel this could have been a meeting between two ordinary people: one a businessman, the other a tourist. Both of these people, however, were aware of the truly bizarre nature of their encounter. Titus was no more human than Garamond.
The two of them closed their eyes and attempted to make contact telepathically, but any kind of sensitive ambience in the atmosphere was at that moment dispelled by the barman switching on a loud burst of taped music. They both flinched, glancing up and around them, Garamond slightly unnerved but Titus driven to annoyance. This was clearly a feature of his new life on Earth which he did not enjoy. He threw Garamond a brief smile before focussing his attention on the barman. A few persuasive thoughts later the man rubbed at his short haircut and moved across to reduce the volume almost to silence.
Half an hour passed, during which time the barman was mentally persuaded to entirely ignore the two men who appeared to be asleep at one of the tables. A few customers came and went, and they also seemed not to notice this bizarre behaviour, although one much older man who had been reading a newspaper when they arrived found the atmosphere so relaxing that he also fell asleep...

Exeter Cathedral - front

'Stopping Time' will - I hope - be published in 2017, subject to the author having finished it by then!  I hope that there will be a future Royal Clarence, but the feeling of history engendered by such an old and beautiful building will never again be present on the site. My huge admiration for the brave people involved in fighting the fire and those who supported them (and continue to do so) is a tiny tribute here. As a county, Devon stands united in its sadness and determined in its pragmatism and hope to overcome such a blow and to rebuild for the future.



Tuesday, 11 October 2016

PUBLISHING THE PAPERBACK



Since writing the last blog post, several weeks have intervened and Summer has become Autumn.  Everything stopped for the misery of a head cold, and both my writing and the garden lost focus. Then something else took over: I decided to publish a paperback version of ‘Losing Time’ and the process began.

This has not been an easy project, and it thrust me into a world of which I knew nothing. Such an experience is somewhat akin to being pushed into a river! It wasn’t until I dragged myself back to sit on the sidelines and take stock that I realised I had it in my power to control every process if I took it slowly and stuck to my guns.

I could not have succeeded without the help of two people: my sponsor, and Alexa from Compass Publishing / The Book Refinery. My sponsor wishes to remain anonymous, so no more about him. But Alexa was a real find and if I hadn’t decided to purchase my own ISBN number I would not be writing this. 

I am a writer, not a publicist and selling a product is something new. My first task was to set up my author website, and fortunately this was an area where I had a little experience. It is also fairly easy to achieve these days, and there is a great deal of help online. Next, the manuscript of the book needed to be formatted for the printers. This was painstaking, headache-inducing stuff, but the sponsor helped at the final hurdle and the correct file was sent across to Alexa for the printers. Finally we needed to work on the cover, bringing together my efforts and Alexa's expertise to produce something which both reflects the mysterious aspects of the story and the importance of colour to the theme, as well as attracting a reader to purchase the book.

In three weeks' time I expect to be sitting in my study surrounded by copies of the paperback, and the most difficult task will begin: selling them. That will be for another blog post.

Here is a link to the new website: www.prfordauthor.com

Now... back to what I do best - continuing to write! 


Thursday, 25 August 2016

TALISMANS MEMENTOES AND LUCKY CHARMS



Very few of us go through life without at some point picking up something which appears to attach itself to us. I’m referring of course to those odd little objects, pieces of jewellery or shells and stones which mean nothing to anyone else, but a great deal to their owners. They are usually small, easily tucked away – and equally easily lost! I suspect they are collected when we are young, particularly talismans which often have ‘powers’ of some sort attributed to them. Lucky charms may also appear to their owners to hold some kind of influence, magical or otherwise. 
 
I was about eleven years old when this funny little picture came into my life. Many of my school friends had small items which they were allowed to take with them into exams, and I was desperately searching for something which I could use when my mother suggested this. It was hers, and I must try and remember to ask her where it came from – although it must have belonged to one of her parents. It is a little spherical disk measuring just under an inch and a half (3.5 cm) in diameter. The glass top has a bevelled edge and covers a photograph labelled ‘Sandown Bay and Pier’. The back looks as though the picture was stuck on to a card or some kind of souvenir from the Isle of Wight, and research has indicated that the photo dates from the 1920s – so it’s almost 100 years old! But the appeal comes from two areas where, either through a fault in the glass or the insertion of early holographic strips, a pearly green glow shines out of the picture.



This picture accompanied me to every exam I ever took, right through school to my very last Chartered Accountancy exam. It took on a significance which belied its humble origins. Every time I sat down at a desk, out came the picture to be placed – together with pens, pencils and – later – slide rule and a packet of polo mints at the top of the desk. It travelled around my schools in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, up to North Wales for accountancy and back to London for my final exams. It has survived house moves, storage, relationship break-ups and being lost, only to turn up again when we moved here to Tavistock. I can’t claim to have been influenced in any way by this object, because I didn’t always pass the exams I sat, but it had to be there on my desk and it always returns to me, even after years of being mislaid.

Why do we attach so much importance to such items? I have listened to, and argued in, many debates about superstition and religion over the years, but I hold no conclusive opinions. I have also come across a multitude of different talismans owned by both men and women - all of whom refuse to let them go. The saddest ones are those which end up in charity shops and house clearance auctions, betraying their deceased or impoverished owners by continuing to exist. They have served their purpose and they move on, perhaps to become someone else’s lucky charm.

Whatever your opinion, you cannot deny the attraction of talismans, which have been around for thousands of years. Google the word, and you will come up with hundreds of the things, some incredibly valuable, others priceless – in every sense. Humans are sentimental beings, I conclude with a smile…

A small turquoise and gold brooch, another sentimental keepsake