Sonhood 23

Home was a hugely different place than the bakery and my parents’ relationship was certainly different from the ones I observed between the parents of school friends. For a start they kissed. I never remember seeing any of my friends’ parents kiss each other and my friends commented on the fact that my parents kissed each other hello and good bye. Also they cuddled. And we all cuddled, on the sofa, especially watching afternoon films. As the youngest I experienced more of this than my brother or sister. I certainly always felt a physical closeness to them both and in our home in general. My father was very good, at least with me, at the everyday kind of displays of affection. His difficulty was in expressing a deeper level of feeling or rather in expressing more complicated sets of feelings. He was also unable to articulate clearly how he felt except through this very stylised kind of gesture and statement. What proved to me that the Dad who hugged me and kissed me goodnight sometimes, was the real father and the rather serve, shouting, angry and controlling person I saw in the bakery was someone else, were a number of key incidents like the discovery of the paedophile.
Work life balance would not have meant very much to my dad. I think that he set out to achieve a kind of mental balance by letting off steam on issues of substance with my mother and then simply releasing energy by engaging in his various combats at work. He did not sit and drink quietly to achieve oblivion – he worked and shouted his way through his male crisis points. Work was life and therefore work was also the arena in which his own problems had to be sorted out. In a sense he did in public and obvious ways – immense effort and verbal violence – what most men do in private ways.
There was, even when he suffered the two greatest tremors of his life, a sense of balance about him. The romantic in me likes to see this balance as the personal articulation of his sense of self expressed through his craft. That in doing this simple and ancient job he worked out physically and emotionally the problems he faced in the modern parts of his life as a businessman, a husband and especially as a father.
The two worst things that happened in my father’s life were the illness that affected my sister from her late teens and the loss of his company. It is obvious that he worked out the stress of the problems with his company in the way he conducted himself. The use of his voice, his physical size, his temper and shouting, but also the intimidating quality of his skill and expertise, his imagination and charm. These combined to reflect and channel the stress of what he was failing at doing with his working life. But there were also darker things going on that at the time I did not understand. Only once did we discuss it.
After I had gone to university to read history and politics at Queen Mary College in London I returned home less frequently as the terms progressed. But on one occasion I turned up unexpectedly for a weekend. I think I had just broken up with a girlfriend, or I was broke or something had happened at home to pull be back. I do not remember. Dad woke me early as was his habit when I appeared and asked if I could help out. I realised on this trip that he did not actually need me so I said no. I had only ever said no once before.
This had happened just after the largest configuration of his companies had been taken from him because he had misunderstood something. The millers who supplied the flour to the bakery were the biggest creditors. We carried a debt of around £50,000 with them on a turnover of around £1,000,000 a year. In other words the debt though substantial was not crippling. But the business had grown large and increasingly complex. Dad could not be everywhere to supervise things and the addition of the plant bakery generated many problems of logistics and personnel. Dad seemed to be spending more and more time in meetings and less time on the shop floor making the goods. On one level he liked being the businessman, but on another it generated a kind of stress that he found difficult to deal with.
For my Dad, the continuous challenge and central appeal of life in the bakery was that while much could go wrong in the production cycle it was open to being put back on course by sheer physical effort. The knowledge that he could swing a situation by his presence and his effort on the bake house floor was crucial to his identity. The challenge of the production run in the bakery was tangible. The clock was ticking; the deadline was dawn. Everything had to be ready for dispatch to the shops, hotels and restaurants of the area of Southern England our delivery vans covered. He could not achieve the same thing in meetings with creditors or accountants.
The suits from the millers asked Dad if he wanted help with the administration of the company. What Dad thought they meant was that they would provide some executive support for the paper elements of running the business. What they actually meant was that the company would be put into administration. The day after he had signed the papers, the administrators arrived to run the company. Our house and much of what we owned were tied up as personal guarantees to various investors in the company so the misunderstanding cost Dad his business and his family our home and many of our possessions.
It was just before these events that I had, for the first time, refused to work in the bakery and took a job doing filing in the offices of Abbey Life insurance company. Now the administrators were appointed and for some reason, entirely beyond me now, I accepted a week’s work doing packing. Dad simply could not understand it. But I came in and worked for the receivers as they slowly dismantled Dad’s empire and sold off what they could. We moved from our house to a flat, selling off much of our furniture, including the stereo and paying back the personal loans that been made by friends and family. My mother was still paying these back ten years later when Dad died.
On the later occasion when I was down from university I refused to work for him again. He had by now started again with the bakery at Yeoman’s Way. Maybe I had a hangover, I don’t remember. But I said no. Very few people in life except my mother ever actually said no to my father. In part his sheer physical effort had constructed a world in which virtually everyone was dependent on him in someway or another. He was shocked but like Mr Toad, whom he sometimes resembled, he was always ready to acknowledge a fault and I heard him say to my mother: “Why do you let me do it?” In the late morning when he got back I was just up and I rushed to apologise. But it did not go well and we did not see each other until evening. Not sure where he went. I took one of my long walks. In part to smoke Marlboro lights, in part to enjoy the sense of space and light across Bournemouth Bay and in part because that is what I thought undergraduates home for the weekend should do. I ended up in town and saw various people from school either home for the weekend or whom had never left. I returned home for super – there were limits, mainly budgetary, to the amount of time I could stay away. We sat in the kitchen to a pasta supper and I started to drink Dad’s wine. He came in.
I suppose I was drunk. I had not eaten since breakfast and then I drank very fast. The wine we had made together the year before fuelled the bitterness of the questions I wanted to ask him. But the wine was the excuse I gave myself to ask the irrational, emotion driven questions I wanted to ask him about the reality of our family life, a reality that I was running away from then and I continue to run away from now: my sister’s illness. We lived in denial of it much of the time. At least I believed that my father and I did. So that day at the supper table I asked how he had allowed it to happen? Why had he not done more to prevent it? I even asked him why he did not stop it now?
In the same way that I had refused to work for him once before, I had also challenged him like this once before. When I was fourteen and had began to read socialist works like Dos Los Passos, Manhattan Transfer and Nye Bevan’s, In Place of Fear. My first love remained soccer but I was beginning to move towards books. At the dinner table in our old house at Newstead Road, my father asked my brother to do a job for him at the bakery. For some reason that I really cannot reconstruct now, I said, “Will he get paid?”. My father ignored me. “But, will he get paid?” I was like a shop steward at a negotiation but I was also like my father, repeating the same phrase over and over again. Finally my Dad snapped “yes of course he will, you all always do”. He repeated this in slightly louder voices until I was finally silent.
My questions about Claudia, five years later, were directed at a different man. Between the two occasions he had lost his business and his home. I smelled a little weakness in him. I built slowly, I goaded him, provoked him until he began to yell: “Don’t you think I would have given my right arm for it to be different”. But though he yelled at me in the familiar voice, without swearing because he was at home and mum was there. And though he was still his full size and his full strength; still his shouting did not scare me. I knew he was telling the truth. His arm was his life. But in making him say them I had transcended his power over me. Stupid, stupid, teenage fool that I was I pushed his face into his own powerlessness.
The world is rightly obsessed by the cruelty that adults do to children but I think often of the cruelty that I did to me father. Maybe I needed to do it to become myself, to escape in a way that my brother did not while my father was alive. The size of the space that he physically and emotionally occupied in our lives was immense: in part by his presence but mostly by his absences. I needed to absent myself and I felt able to do this at a moment when he was at a low ebb. I did it through the emotional language he used with me: work. I realise now that I knew that I was causing him pain but I could not help myself. He had conceded that I was going to University to read history and not to the national bakery school. Formally the plan was that I would do my bakery studies later. But we both knew that would never happen. The fight, like all fights, in my family was apparently quickly forgotten.

Sonhood 22

The small family bakery business is in terminal decline. Supermarket in-store bakeries and large chains are gradually wiping out the kind of bakery business my father ran. The harder question is whether the kind of man my father was is also disappearing. He loved his children but was never entirely sure what to do with them until he could bring them into his own domain. He was the kind of man for whom work was life, but who would cry at the thought of a grand child. He was a first generation immigrant, a typical masculine emotional enigma and the best crusty bread baker of his year at college.
What I come back to over and over again as I think about him is the quality and meaning of all these memories that I am writing down. It is such a conventional question that it seems like a cliché to even repeat it here but: why do we remember what we remember? Camus, the philosopher I used to pretend to understand in sixth form, argued that if you have lived free for a single day you have enough to remember for the rest of your life in prison. I think about that idea very often. What was freedom for a child like me, a happy child growing up in a mostly contented home? Why do I remember so little of school and so much of the bakery? I think in part this must be about status. In the bakery I was one of the boss’s sons – “Here comes: and sons.” my Dad used to say – and therefore sure of my place in the hierarchy. It was not a high place exactly but it was clearly defined so long as I continued to behave in the way that was expected of me. Sometimes I overstepped the mark.
At Elliot Road there was a production manager called David. I have no idea how good he was at his job but I always suspected he was one of the people my father carried because they were charming and good at talking, a key also to the way my father always indulged me. It was early on a Saturday morning. Everyone was working flat out. Dave was late. I heard my father shouting to someone in another part of the bakery: “Where the fuck is he?” and we all knew who “he” was.
Finally David arrived. He came straight into the creaming up room where I was working. I said, “Afternoon Dave”. It was the kind of banter I often heard amongst the bakers. A fairly gentle kind of teasing went on all the time. I very rarely joined in because I was not one of the bakers. So long as I behaved I had this sort of protected status. But I was not one of them so I should not have attacked. I should never have entered their verbal games. “Its okay for you, part timer, you haven’t had people phoning up about your house all night”. He was shouting, raving really. Crashing bowls and whisks onto the table. I knew he had been selling his house and trying to buy another. I had no idea why people would have been calling him all night about it. Of course I realise now, having bought and sold houses, that it was just stress speaking. Stress made him attack me like that. At the time I was devastated, close to tears. I hide for a time amongst the flour sacks on the far side of the bakery. Then crept back to work. Much later I sidled up to him and apologised. “That’s okay, you just don’t know what it has been like”. As he talked he filled 6 and 8 inch sponges with fresh cream in a neat spiral, replacing the lids and cleaning the nozzle. His stress soon got much worse. The house move went through and he became much like his old self, chatting about anything to anyone, usually cheerful and working for long periods in the production office, just as he had always done.
Dad then made him redundant. It was the first indication I had that something was quite wrong with the little world. It was the first real attempt my Dad made to get to grips with the managerial side of the business. He did not really believe in management. Consequently we did not have any managers as such who were not also on the production side. There was no one to think strategically except my father. It was a typical problem for a small business that had quickly grown into a large business. The trouble with Dave was that the nice guy who had come back when the stress disappeared was not up to the job. He was sitting in the production office as usual when I went to see him after hearing the news. He looked at me and said, “It is like a piece of the furniture going”. I wanted to say, echoing the talk at home the previous evening, “If you had spent less time on the furniture, then you wouldn’t be going”. But my previous encounter with him stopped me. My values were that sitting in an office was not getting the job done but rather being lazy. Dave was no manager but actually what my father needed most was more time sitting at his desk looking at the numbers and the margins and planning. Or he needed someone to do this for him while he made the stuff. Instead another production manager was appointed and things quickly went back to normal.

New beginnings

At Gigino’s

It is time to love a poet,

time to turn towards myself, stop doing all the loving,

let myself be loved.

It is time to love myself.

Happiness survives for as long as it does so,

open up and trust the waters that flow will not

drown us.

My poet looked up and saw me.

She blushed in the light of what might be

and then she became liquid, all at once we filled each other up.

Now I need to know you better.

In the better knowing of you

I stand a chance to drink from our springs and

for a while now, I will not know thirst.


it will become quieter

those shouts inside your head will be becalmed

the scene absorbs amid children

daily routine

for granted is the refrain 

natural that it would calm down

comfortable we do become

life at our age, place, time.

but then the question of your face arises

the softness of your skin

the depth inside your eyes

and then

the sweetness of you compromises

any real attempt at normalizing you.

the loveliness of you

the endless fascination of your neck

before we begin to mention your smile

each kiss reminds me 

so I will silently shuffle past received wisdom

and whisper, oh yes that is true but not my dear when we are talking about this women, let me be clear: the rules do not apply to you.

Poem for the Weekend: Happily Ever After

Poem for the Weekend: Happily Ever After.

Sonhood 21

The opportunities to snack that the bakery presented were many and varied. Custard slices came at or near the top. Layers of flaky pastry filled with egg custard finished off with fondant icing and thin strips of liquid chocolate in a diamond design. These were prepared in sheets as big as the standard metal trays we worked with, 1.25 by 75 cm – the sheets of flaky pastry were baked off then staked when cool. The custard mix which was like a very thick cream was spread evenly over the base and then the top was added. Then the fondant was spread across the top. Liquid fondant across such an area was a really skilled job – to get it even, to do it quickly enough so that it did not set before it should, was all the challenge of the Danish pastry writ large. I never managed it to do it, though Trevor let me try once when my father was out of the bakery. It was like trying to hold onto a slinky. Trevor had to rescue me. Finally and while the fondant was still a little moist, thin lines of chocolate were piped long ways down the sheets and then a set divides was used to make a series of diamond shapes by pulling the stripes of chocolate gently across each other. The sheets were then cut into individual custard slices using the pastry dividers to determine the size of each slice. There was no way in which every slice could be made exactly the right size so strips of fresh custard slice were usually left from the sides and the ends of the tray. There was a rough mix of the edge of the pastry – always a little shy of the edge. These were a rough mix of the edge of the pastry, always a little more crusty, a layer of fresh custard cream and a small amount of fondant. What I liked best was the pastry and custard without the addition of the fondant or with only a tiny amount. The fresh pastry and the soft custard was a classic combination which I loved. But what I liked about this snack was that it was uniquely part of the bake house experience. You could not buy this in the shop. When the custard slices were being done a surprising number of people, including girls from the office, found a reason to walk by this part of the bakery. While Robert or whomever was cutting the slices was cleaning his knife the edges disappeared. It was in part a ritual enjoyment of the fringe benefits of the bakery – it was different from stealing which had to be kept hidden. This was understood and enjoyed by all openly. It also represented to me a sense of belonging to the “staff”. I am always intrigued by areas in restaurants or other places that have staff only sections. I am also quick to notice the inter-relationships of staff in places we go. It is something I have noticed in my brother as well. It comes back to that sense of inclusion in the little world.

Finally, towards dawn, all the goods were ready and arranged in the dispatch section of the bakery in metal racks with trays for Jumbo and his brothers to pack. Each of these racks carried twelve to fifteen trays. Each tray was arranged with the goods in rows. Racks were divided into different product lines. In some the puff pastry lines, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties, steak and kidney pies were stored. Other racks had yeast risen buns and cakes like Danish pastries, scones and Chelsea buns. All these goods were unwrapped and often got stuck together across the rows. In other sections of the bakery the crusty bread was pushed through on large trolleys from the ovens. Different kinds of loaves were kept together as they had been baked together in batches. In other places were the cream cakes and any fancy goods that needed to be delivered in the morning. Near the door, the sliced bread was stacked in baskets carrying fifteen loaves each.

The work in dispatch was to assemble this variety of goods into individual orders for delivery. The racks were arranged along a wall. The goods in the individual trays had to be located then the right number had to be put in the right place. The trays and baskets labelled correctly and arranged for loading in roughly the order that they needed to be put onto the vans for delivery.

Much of this last part of the morning was therefore spent looking up and down the racks for the right items. I used to think that it was like some sort of strange religious ceremony. First we would change into our whites to work the shift. This was like going to serve on the altar. I used to cycle to our local church, a modern Catholic one called Our Lady Queen of Peace, on a Sunday morning to do altar service and I also served at school for Thursday benediction and Friday morning mass. Serving involved changing into red tunics and white silky tops and carrying our candle sticks onto the altar. The prize job was working the incense burner. This was a bowl on the end of silver chain that you filled with incense to produce large quantities of smoke and a very pungent smell. My friend Declan and I once over filled the pot with whatever the stuff was and began to swing it form side to side as much was possible. The smoke billowed out. I was already hot that day. I breathed in the smoke as much as possible because we thought that it was a little like smoking a cigarette. But it was too hot. As a child I would sometimes pass out for no particular reason. Growing pains was the generally accepted explanation. It was okay to do this at home but at school it was humiliating. Girls fainted, not boys. On this occasion the whole school was assembled and watched me sway and faint amid the overwhelming fumes of the incense burner. I think all this would have bothered me if I had not woken from my faint in the arms of Sister Angelic, her large breasts just above my head. In all the subsequent teasing the site of those immense comfort zones was compensation and a silent, undeclared, trump card.

Other aspects of the mass were closer to the packing movements than fainting of course. For example the constant getting up and down from bended knee was a genuflection in front of the goods, assembled like so many gods of commerce on the altar of their metal racks – at least that is how I imagined it. If the gods were feeling kind then the goods were there. If they were feeling cruel then they could not be found. That meant a shortage. We had to check other orders or check to see if there were more on the way. There was a wrath of the god of this bake house waiting if the orders were short. The wrath of my father.

Some goods were pulled fresh from the oven onto the racks but others had to be packed in cling film before they could be sent out. If the shift was going to plan these would be the first ones to be ready. However they had to cool first. Rolls were packed in perforated plastic which let them breath so they could be done a little ahead of being completely cooled down, but the others had to be allowed to cool. Otherwise, as my father would say, the “buggers would sweat” and when opened be soggy. The clash was always between the needs of the packers to get the orders together before the drivers were ready to load them and the needs of the bakers to ensure that the goods were packed at the right moment and not ruined by sweating.

Once wrapped and packed the goods had to be arranged. This was an intricate business. The cakes had to be arranged to use the space efficiently in each of the wire baskets but also so that they would arrive in as good condition as possible. This was not a total pre-packaged environment – all smooth lines, conveyor belts and white surfaces. This was a bake house. Packers were not well trained technicians who understood the processes of production but jobbers who could read an invoice and count. It is this reality that means that in a business like my father’s it is essential that the boss, the owner, the gaffer, is around as much as possible. Only he can effectively police these kinds of things. He might have a foreman or a manager of some kind but in our experience, in this size of organisation, these positions were of limited use. The bake house existed in a world somewhere between the factory and the craft workshop. The bakers cared, to an extent, that the stuff was packed probably but often they would have finished their shift well before much of the packing went on. The packers did not want to send out broken stuff but equally they wanted to pack their stuff up as quickly as possible and get home. Unless my father was there checking a lot of stuff was thrown into the trays and sent out.

The level of returns to the bakery and complaints about what had actually arrived were very limited in ratio to the volume of stuff that the bakery produced. Absences that had been paid for were almost always called in and complained about directly they were noticed. Really serious breakages, like large twelve inch continental apple pieces destroyed by a steak and kidney pie, would be reported instantly. But the goods that had been badly packed, too many in a tray or packed too hot, were much less frequently complained about. The only explanation can be that the English, when it comes to bread and cakes, will eat anything.

Sonhood 20

Dad for his first holy communion

My grandfather, fixing things

My father and his sister Marion

Sonhood begins here

It is hardest, I think, to understand the way that feelings sit in your memory. If you take a walk you will not always remember that walk. But you will always know at some level that you have walked that space. So we share that memory. We have walked with our mothers but do not remember every walk. Our relationship is made of the sum total of those walks so like a symphony our memory is not the individual notes because we cannot hear the individual notes without hearing everything else we are left with the impression of the notes together so our memory is the impression of individual moment linked together by how we feel about them.

Though my father could be an aggressive and loud man at the bakery, he was also, like his skin, a mass of softness and scars. To an extent he replaced the difficulty he had expressing feelings with an over sentimentalism. He was not good at everyday expression but could be brought to tears by momentary realisations. This would often be simply seeing one of us in the bake house and this inspiring a few verses of “There goes my reason for living”. Sometimes it was more serious. There was a hard looking person who worked in the bakery on and off for a while. He was ex-army, with tattoos and square head with black hair. He was always very nice to me and I liked him. He was arrested for child molestation. I remember him in the bakery at some point, I cannot be sure whether it was before or after, saying, “It’s the beer that does it.” He may have been talking about something else. What I am sure about is the moment my father heard. We were working at Yeoman’s way bakery and he was by the knocking out table. Someone told him the news. Tears came into his eyes and he looked over at me, “To think he was here near my children”. And he walked off into his own office, obviously crying.

On that occasion the response was instant. Other times it was almost as though he had to work himself up to something. There is a sense in which his lack of a vocabulary for speaking about how he felt demanded a disproportionate response. It was like the songs he liked to sing and the movies he liked to watch, strong, intense, operatic feelings expressed in moments of crisis. Growing up in a family that did not express in words how they felt, he developed his own way of thinking and feeling and expressing those thoughts and feelings that were very different from his siblings. And he felt things- love for my mother most importantly, with striking intensity and consistency. The letters between them before they were married, when she was in Italy and he in England, are direct, open and beautiful. He was not yet writing only in capitals. My mum says, when we look at them together, “We must have been mad”. In fact, of course, in those letters they were saner than they had been or would ever be again.

After the romantics it has become a kind of fetish in our culture to be instrumental about love. In the same way that mental health and therapy have to be based on gradual exposure of a discovered self that is motivated by complex and “abnormal” urges, so we recoil from the simple and unrestrained expression of romantic love. In these letters my parents did not recoil from romantic love and I wish I had seen that side of my father. If only that language could have survived in their relationship and our home. But, in terms of words anyway, it did not.

Sonhood 19

Sonhood begins here

When he was at bakery school and had been paid his first decent wages he had bought a very smart new white Macintosh. He hung this on his peg. When he had finished for the day it had been stolen and a dirty old coat had been put in its place. It was the same with this car phone – it was one of those early massive ones. Returning late from work one night he had left the phone in the car and had not even locked it. He must have been very tired. In the morning it was gone. At the height of his business such a device would have been very useful, by the time he got one it was part of a conscious or unconscious exercise by my mother to bolster his sense of worth which had taken many hits in the years after the business failed. Though I never think of him as a bitter man, these two events remained very raw for him.

With my father away answering the phone, I was left with 10-12 stripes of dough cut out, ready for twisting and sealing. I had a go. The problem was that my hands were too small. I could twist the dough but not get it into a net circle. I tried another which came out worse. They looked fine for a bit and then they went out of shape, like clay on a potter’s wheel suddenly going wrong. I should have stopped at this point but instead I carried on and tried another couple. Returning to them a couple of times to try and make them look better but only succeeding in making finger marks in the dough. Dad returned. Looked at my handy work, I waited for the explosion but as so often on these sorts of occasions only a mild rebuke came: “Titch I told you, when you are older”. Then a few quick roles and my oblongs became circles.

It would be sometime before I was able to take on some of the complex tasks in the bakery, so independence would also have to wait. I defined independence as the freedom to take a job and carry it out without instructions or help. There were jobs like packing that, as soon as I could count, I was allowed to go off and do. But it was making things that I really wanted to be allowed to get on with. Dad always came over to check or else spent ten minutes explaining over and over again how a mix should be put together or how a particular kind of cake should be finished. It was not a question of trust, more of him seeing me as one of the men. I desperately wanted him to see me like that and I wanted to be on equal terms with the bakers, with the leading members of my little world.

But until I got older, I mainly did simple jobs that were one part of the process of making an item. One of the first jobs I did in the bakery was cutting out the cases for the custard tarts. These were small tarts that had short crust cases and were filled with liquid custard before baking. The tops of the tarts would brown nicely and the filling was soft custard but not runny. These were not the best custard tarts in the world. Pasteis de Nata are the best custard tarts in the world. Go to Lisbon just to try them. You will never eat another kind of custard tart as long as you live. Warm from the oven the pastry is melting and flaky and the filling remains runny at the centre. There is a café near the Cathedral which serves them hot all day. A few minutes out of the oven and they are perfect. Dad’s custard tarts were not in this class but they were a good English version.

Making the cases was a job that involved organisation and timing. The pastry was already made and ready when it had warmed up a little. First you had to get a rack and fill it with trays depending on how many were on the production total. When the business was at its height this would mean a rack full per go. Years later when my Dad was managing just a single hot bread shop I was in doing the custard and I asked him which rack to use. Dad laughed heartedly and for the rest of the day told everyone I had asked him how many racks to do. He needed only about three dozen. I knew that. I just wanted to know in which rack to put them but his response was revealing of how much he missed the larger stage of his old factories. Once you had your trays ready you had to lay the aluminium cases out. These were arranged in rows, six across. Then you had to take a small hand full of pastry and put it into each case. You had to make sure that you put in enough pastry to cover the whole of the foil case when the heavy dye came down to squeeze the pastry into the shape of the foil. But you did not want too much otherwise you had to keep collecting the excess from the turntable under the dye. Once you were ready with cases and pastry you pushed your rack up to the machine. When I first started doing this job at Dad’s first big bakery at Kimberley Road, I had to stand on a jam tin to reach the tabletop. There were four bases into which you put four cases with pastry in. The dye came down and pressed the pastry into the shape of the foil case, complete with little perforated edges like battlements. By hooking your finger gently into the base you whipped the first case out and back to the tray and then returned a new case into the gap. The dye came down again, the turntable revolved and you were off.

If there was too much pastry it would begin to clog up the turntable and had to be cleared. If you hit a good rhythm you would keep the machine going for the whole tray without stopping. This was always the target. It was a race against time in the sense that the turntable kept spinning. It was also a race against myself. I would time how long a tray took me. Setting records, competing in my own Olympic games against world-wide opposition, winning medals or making great come backs after things went wrong.

Sometimes, just like with the Danish, I would get myself into an awful muddle by trying to keep up. Putting two pastry filled cases into the same base, missing an empty base, catching my finger on the dye – thankfully never fully under it – or worst of all, dropping the tray as I tried to get it into the rack without stopping the machine. Looking back it seems extraordinary that my father left me to operate such heavy machinery. The press was about the size of a lath and it is amazing that nothing serious ever happened.

When the rack was full it was pushed into the fridge to rest for a while. Then a huge jug was brought out and a mixing bowl cleaned. Into this bowl would go 5 ½ pints of milk, 2 lbs of defrosted egg, 11 ounces of castor sugar for every 82 tarts. I usually moved onto another job after making the cases and only sometimes saw the cases being filled with this rich liquid. The egg mix was made up in one of the big mixing bowls and then the jug was filled from this and each pastry case was filled from the jug and some mace was sprinkled over the top. Then came the really tricky bit. In Kimberley Road there was a five-deck brick oven that was loaded with trays. That meant that the trays of custard tart cases now filled with custard liquid had to lifted carefully into the oven and then put into their correct position using a peel, this was highly skilled and needed a really good sense of balance, I never tried it.

The use of the peel, a long paddle with a flat larger section at the end was one of a number of places in which the practices of the bakery used by my father and his merry men were the same as those used in the ancient world. No one has invented anything better that a Peel for loading a traditional oven. The way in which we made the custard tarts was in many ways representative of the continuities with past practice and utilisation of technology that was replicated in many of the things we did. The dye was mechanical and the aluminium cases modern but the shape of this recipe and the process, and the place of a good custard in the baker’s armoury were ancient. In medieval feasts the heavy meat dishes would be followed by a “custard” – an open tart that sometimes contained a thick egg-based filling according to P.W, Hammond in his Food and Feasts in Medieval England, (Alan Sutton, 1993, p 136). John Notts Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary of 1726 (republished by Lawerance Rivington in 1980) contains recipes going back to the 1660s. Included in it are five ways of making a custard, including:

258 Cuffards

Boil three pints of cream with fome whole Mace; then fet it by to cool; then temper it with eight Eggs, leaving out the whites, beat in Organe-floer or Rofe-water and a Pound and half of sugar. Your Coffins being harden’d in the oven, and pinched with a Pin to prevent their rifing in Bliffers, fill them, and fet them in the oven.

The coffins in this recipe are the equivalent of the aluminium cases I was filling with pastry.

Women, Writing and Silence: Virginia Woolf, Daphne DuMaurier and Me

Women, Writing and Silence: Virginia Woolf, Daphne DuMaurier and Me.

Where they lie

Dad died. We erected a mountain of Purbeck stone, amid the monosyllabic slabs, an abstract monument to him. The photo mum picked was the last one we took. He looked already dead. I stare at the bird shit on its eroded edges. My legs took me here, unwilled. I run away to a marriage in London.

Mary did not have time to take pictures. She sat in London while they came with their machetes for hers. Her words echo: “It is nice to have a mother”. My Kurdish friend didn’t say: and “a Dad too”, but it was in her eyes. Gas came for the Kurds, no one had a camera, but we all knew it might happen at any moment. But what does that mean when it does. Their dead lie scattered in deeper tomes than we can comprehend, in places they can never find. Even our dead lie safer. In inner city clutter, one stone against the next, or in the older sections, suburban sprawl enough room for a coffin length. We know where they are, we know their bodies lie in one piece. Even their ashes are complete.

I hear my dad’s laughter; see my sister running after me. Her room a ward, her face so beautiful I measured others against it. Her arms, so strong they would beat me in arm wrestles have doubled in size. The last stages of MS and the small eyes still see more than I ever could. And still there is irony in her look when she answers the unasked question: how are you?

Mary would have sat and held each hand of each relative as they went. I can’t do that, I love my life more than my sister.

I came to talk to Tories. She laughs: “would……they………to…” I came to talk to Tories. To say in my inadequate way that it has happened again and it is happening again. They all seemed to know, so that’s alright then. Then I met a survivor. She was safe in London and cannot forgive herself for that. Then I met a survivor. She was safe in London and cannot forgive herself for that. Somewhere there is a Sudanese mother.

Somewhere there is a Sudanese Father. Somewhere there is a Sudanese Brother. Somewhere there is a Sudanese Sister.  They are lost. Mary does not know where they lie.

One day the plot beside my father’s mountain will be filled and the whole of my mother will lie beside my father and my sister. And I will no doubt come to Bournemouth then and talk to new Tories at new conferences with distinguished panellists.  And afterwards, a Mary from Darfur will come up and say: “It is nice to know where your mother lies.” My father is dead. My sister is dead. But I know where the whole of their bodies will always lie.

Sonhood 18

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.

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