Click to go to first installment of Sonhood

Dad in his Scouting days

I did a range of different jobs in the bakery. Usually finishing things off, for example the Danish pastries. These were finished a little ahead of time because the fondant had to be dry. This fondant icing came in solid white blocks, in boxes that weighed about 15kg. The boxes were white and sealed with clear tape. If they got too warm the fat would begin to soak through cardboard and the boxes would become slippery and difficult to handle. In preparation for finishing you had to collect one of these boxes then cut out blocks of the fondant and melt it in a large bowl over boiling water until it was runny.

The hot fondant was then ready to be applied to the Danish. You dipped your hand into warm tar like sugar and then smeared it across the pasty. You wanted a finish that would appear solid rather than a thin coating. The sugar would be hot as your fingers pushed through it and would stick under your fingernails. It become dry quite quickly so you had to keep moving as fast as your could. You also had to resist using the other hand to clean off the fondant from the one doing the spreading. I often forget this. I really hated the way the fondant dried on the skin and found it almost impossible not to touch one hand with the other thereby spreading the problem. I now had two fondant covered hands and nothing with which to pick up the next Danish pastry, so I had to go over to the sink and wash my hands and start again. Each time I washed my hands I wasted a considerable amount of the fondant and the delay meant that the mix had to be put back onto the heat to make it pliable again. In Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows there is a scene early on in the schoolroom in which a small boy is trying to do some homework. He keeps making mistakes and tearing the page out. As each page comes out from the front another comes out from the back. Mistake after mistake. Finally his exercise book is empty and he has a look, momentarily, of puzzled despair. As the fondant stuck and I added more and more of it from the box I had, I am sure, that same look.

I did not want to be shouted at by my father in front of the rest of the bakers. So I worked faster but still the number of unfinished Danish in the rack outnumbered significantly the finished ones. The clock ticked. Things started to get worse. I became self-conscience before the products themselves. My confidence deserted me and I started to think too much about what I was doing. The fondant began to be slapped on too thickly, breaking the pastry or else I returned to my endless cycle of washing hands. It was inevitable that after a while my father would check on my progress. If I was out of control of the situation and making a complete mess of things he would simply re-organise me with a few tart remarks, repeated seven or eight times, but, and this was the crucial thing, quietly. Only men on the very nearest tables would hear not the whole bake house. It was much worse if I appeared to be in partial control of the situation but not moving things forward the way they should have been moved on. Then the shouting would come, full blast and unsparing.

I felt sure that when he was faced with a half empty box of fondant and virtually full rack of unfinished Danish, the eruption would come – full and almost unconstrained. I say almost because there would not be the same quantity or quality of swear words in his tirade against me as there would have been if I had been a baker. I never really thought much about this at the time. I grew up amongst swearing in the bake house amid some people for whom fuck made up every second word in a sentence. If my mother was around my father moderated his language and if my brother or me were the object of his wrath, it was also considerably cleaner. This implies an understanding on my father’s part as to what he was doing. Like hitting so as not to mark, he was swearing but so as not to… well what exactly? It was not like I did not hear him swear in the bake house everyday, using words up to and included the c word. But somehow when it was me in front of him these words were edited out. I never remember him raising his voice after we lost the business. In the string of jobs and other businesses he then ran I do not remember the same shouting and swearing as at Annette’s Patisserie in those final years of the big business. My father was not a big drinker. He very rarely went to pubs. Working all hours after a few glasses of wine he would quickly fall asleep. His addictions and obsessions were played out in the bake house. He did no exercise outside work. The only emotional outlet I saw from him was this swearing; but to calibrate it to the listener means at one level that he was using it either therapeutically or instrumentally to achieve certain goals. In part it must have been to do with releasing stress. But in part it was also about drama and performance. In the same way that he would argue with my mother sometimes in order that life was kept interesting so he would feel that performance on the big stage of Elliot Road required some sort of climax. After the big business disappeared the stages were that much smaller. This sense of performance is certainly something I have inherited. In delivering my lectures, as I have grown more confident in my own arena – the classroom – I have injected increasing amounts of theatre. But I do not row or shout at home; indeed I have a fear of confrontation or verbal battling in emotional driven situations either in relationships or at work. Obviously being shouted at as child has instilled this dislike of direct confrontation. But part of me cannot help thinking that there was something basically healthy and cathartic about a good shouting match. I sit in academic committees sometimes, particularly ones in which vice chancellors are proposing particularly stupid ideas, and I dream of just letting rip like my father used to do. Abandoning logic and empiricism in favour of a well-constructed flow of expletives backing an endlessly repeated general point of procedure.

Stages in growing up and changes in status, changes in life, with which these rites of passage are associated, are connected in my mind with particular jobs in the bakery. There were two sides to this: complexity and independence. In terms of complexity there were certain jobs that my hands were too small to manage and which required more skill in handling dough than I had. There was often little time to teach me. Almond rings were one such job. Long strips of dough had to be woven into a ring and then cherries placed on top. The difficulty was in handingly the strips of dough, ensuring that the rings came out at about the same size and weight and that they stayed together in a circle. My father could, of course, do them very quickly and neatly, I was allowed to help with the cherries and with the tying up the finished items. When I was older I could also do the rings themselves though mine never looked as good as Dad’s or David’s.

The first time I had a go was when Dad walked away to the phone in the middle of a batch. The phone never stopped in the bakery from about 30 to 45 minutes after the first of the vans went out. Frequently people, customers or suppliers, would insist on talking to Dad personally. They would not leave a message because Dad often forgot to call them back or they were angry about something and insisted on speaking to the boss. These were usually the smallest customers and also the oldest, people who had known Dad a long time. Vast amounts of business was conducted through hurried phone calls. It was only if he was on the oven that he could refuse all calls. The timing of that job being critical and even the most angry customer understanding that and even, I suspect, liking the idea of him doing the oven. The consequence of the bakery having no management structure was that getting hold of Dad to make a decision was often vital. Things got better when my brother came back from college and could make decisions, but before that it was Dad who was the key. Mum ran the shops and aspects of the office but rarely interfered with production or dealt with wholesale customers. It was a huge weakness in the firm as it got bigger. Because getting hold of him was vital my mum bought him one of the early affordable car phones. He loved that. His usual fantasy life was as John Wayne but part of him also liked the idea of being a tycoon and doing deals. I remember when he bought the plant New Forest Bakeries that he phoned his mother to tell her, sitting on the windowsill swinging his legs like a kid who just got his first bike. Impressing his mother was important to him though her responses were often icy. He grew up in the shadow of his elder brother John, a chemist. This came home to me when he took me to a reunion of his Scott troop in Osterley. I was in my first year at London University and it was nice to see him. He had been a Queen’s Scott. When the other old Scott’s asked what he had been doing he said “You know, making a fortune, losing it and now busy making another one”. The head Scout, in whose honour the reunion was being held, seemed to think that Dad was Uncle John. He was disappointed when he realised it was Dad. “Wonder what was up with him”, Dad said but he looked really hurt and somehow very small again.