Sonhood 17

Sonhood starts here

On that snowy morning, the drivers were the major focus of his temper because they had not warmed up their vans or cleared the snow and ice from the yard. The vans had to be started, moved into position, loaded and dispatched before dawn. The way in which Dad organised getting those deliveries out on this frozen night was emblematic of his strengthens and weaknesses.
After it had been snowing for long enough that he could be sure there was going to be a crisis, he began to think about ways to deal with it. His idea was very simple: an extra person would be put on each van with a shovel. Any problems and the van would be dug out. The bread and cakes would get through. For a small boy the prospect of riding “shot gun snow shoveller” on Sean the driver’s huge town centre van, filled to overflowing with bread baskets for the holiday panic buyers, such a solution to the impending crisis would make the holidays perfect. The essence of small business people is that they will do almost anything rather than let people down. They don’t have a choice. It was vital to get the morning goods – all the things baked fresh the night before – into the shops, hotels and caravan parks that serviced the tourist industry of the region. We sold our cut bread as cheaply as we could and we sold on top of that a good range of morning goods. A large part of our production was sold directly to the public through our own chain of high street shops. If people turned up once or twice to find the bread not in, or their favourite loaf sold out, they did not come back. They would go to the supermarket and get it cheaper. Each year people had more and more options. In the bakery trade, even then, it seemed that everyday saw a new supermarket with a large in-store bakery opened. For a long time we could compete on quality but the advent of these in-store bakeries saw the quality of supermarket bread improve a great deal. And we could not compete on price. So we had to beat them on service. That meant that whatever needed to be done that morning to get the vans out was to be done.

The snow had to be cleared from the driveway down to the road were the council grit trucks had been working. To do this and finish the production, everyone had to be brought in and paid double over time. They were then given cash in hand to travel on the vans with their shovels in case the vans got stuck. Much of the margin, the financial point of the production for this night, was wiped out by the extra expenditure. Obviously you could not let the customers down, especially at Christmas, and the stuff had to get out. But I am not sure if my father’s failure to plan for these eventualities was conscious or not. I think that on one level he knew that if he had put the gravel down in advance there would have been no crisis and without the crisis he would not have been able to play his favourite role: The Boss.

When faced with an emergency like the snow, my father’s response would be to get everyone, especially himself, to do something. One Easter we had so many Hot Cross buns on order that we ran out of wire baskets to pack them in and had to use cardboard ones. We were so busy and understaffed that my mum’s sisters, Laura and Dina, over from Italy for a visit, were recruited to put Hot Cross Buns in the boxes. The sight of Laura, a major industrialist, packing buns was splendid. I only remember it happening once.



My father’s ingredients card for Basic Bun dough and Jam Doughnuts
For a time I lost sight of the drama unfolding outside because I had to make the doughnuts. First I had to assemble the ingredients: the wet and the dry; the wet were water and milk and the dry were yeast, sugar, salt, flour, egg powder. The process of combining ingredients was the same for doughnuts as for anything else. My father’s recipe and costing cards contain four doughnuts. The system was simple. Each card was numbered and had columns for the volume and cost of each ingredient and then for the yield. As the years passed and costs changed new columns were filled in and new individual unit costs calculated. The four cards were for Jam, Ring, Fresh Cream and Devon doughnuts. Each was based on Recipe number 115: Basic Bun Dough Plain:

Bakers Pride (Flour) – 50lb
Sweetex (Additive) – 5lb, 8 oz
G
ranulated Sugar – 5lb, 8 oz
Milk Powder – 2lb 8 oz
Salt – 6 oz
Yeast – 2 lb
Water – 27 pts 8 fl oz

Many of the ingredients were kept in a separate section of the bakery and in this part there was also the cold storage room in which open tins of fruit, including apricot halves, that made an excellent snack during a shift, were stored. The cold room had a door that was as thick as that of a bank vault. There was always something sinister about the cold store and the deep freezer rooms. Some meat was kept in them but in the main they were used for storing dairy products and fresh cream cakes. Periodically, when they knew they would get away with it, the bakers would pick on me. Not in an unkind way but being the boss’s son I was to an extent fair game for being thrown in the flour bins or sprayed with water. Neither of these I especially minded, in fact they made me feel more like one of the crew. What I hated was being shut in the cold room, even for few minutes. The trouble was it would have been disastrous to cry or tell tales on people so I just had to wait until someone let me out. A cold storage room is the easiest place in the world to imagine yourself as a corpse.
Flour was the most important ingredient and also the hardest for a small boy to add on his own. The sacks of mainly Canadian flour each weighed about 50lb. They were tied with hard string that cut your fingers when you tried to pull it off. My father would undo a sack with a single swift motion and haul it over the side of the bowl. Eventually I could also lift one of these sacks but I never mastered the art of opening them by pulling the string. I often had to cut it open, spilling flour on to the floor and me. “Useless Boy! One day Titch, you’ll get it right”. My father would swoop down, save the sack, and empty the flour into the bowl.
The ingredients were combined in a metal bowl that measured about four feet across. Each ingredient had to be measured and added individually. Once everything was in you hit the on button and the slow rhythmical motions of the mixer’s large metal hooks manipulated this soggy mass of seemingly random textures into the smooth perfection of dough. Years of bake house innovation and controlled experiment went into making this simple dough. It was not a secret recipe, premixed and delivered, though there was a mystery at the heart of the successful creation of this dough. The mystery of the Yeast.
On one level I know how Yeast works. It is a living thing, a plant, and can be any one of a number of unicellular fungi (ie with one active cell) of the subdivision ascomycetous and genus Saccharomyces. A very simple chemical reaction makes the dough rise. Then fungi are able to convert sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. In effect the yeast eats the sugars and starches in the flour and converts them into the carbon dioxide and alcohol. This process then gives bread its lightness and provides the basis for its distinctive flavour. The reaction is fermentation. By altering the amount of sugar or starch present and by controlling the temperature the speed and extent of fermentation can be influenced and made more predictable. The greater the amount of sugar present the faster the yeast grows. To activate the yeast warm water or milk must be added and time must be allowed. The liquid must not be too hot or too cold or the yeast will die. As water is added to the mixture and begins to work with the yeast, the dough starts to form. The warm water and milk give life to the dry powders. The dough bubbles and is alive and the race against time, which is at first waiting, begins. When the dough has risen once it is then knocked back. This allows the temperature outside to equalise to that of the centre and makes for an even rise in the prover and then the oven. Once in the oven the heat kills off the yeast cells and creates a further expansion of the dough. The process of the yeast working is easy to describe and the history easy to understand. But there is also something miraculous about it. The more you think about it the more intriguing it becomes. How did it first happen? Did one the ancients deduce that this form of fungi would make flat bread rise? Was it a miracle of divine inspiration or blind luck? Whether science or a miracle, when mixed the dough needs time to rest. The best thing to do is walk away and maybe make the tea. The advantage of the plant bakery is you do not have these gaps in production. The disadvantage is that the shift becomes a continuous repetition of the same set of movements. If the salt had been kept away from the live Yeast, the warmth of the water and the bake house allows things to begin to work. Occasionally, pop back to take a look. Is the Yeast doing its work? Is the dough rising? Changing into this warm, comfortable and universal image of sustenance: the risen dough.
When it has risen like this for the first time, the dough then needs to be shaped. When I was older I could do this myself, but on the snowy morning I was not yet big enough to cut the dough out by myself so my Dad had to help. He rolled up his sleeves revealing decades of scars from burns and cuts. His hands were rough from handling hot things and rough edges like the ties on sacks of flour that cut the skin. Yet his fingers were surprisingly slender for a man of his size. They were able to do very subtle work with icing and dough. He could do the most intricate piping on a wedding or birthday cake, using royal icing to make shapes with skill and imagination. He once made a replica of Elvis Presley’s wedding cake. He enjoyed this kind of work but it was doing the oven which he seemed to relish most. It was also doing the oven that had given him most scars that were now revealed on his arms.

Sonhood

Sonhood.

Sonhood 3

Sonhood 3.

Sonhood 16


David, Claudia and me

Sonhood starts here

There was something of the showman or actor manager about my Father. A bake house is like a stage. There is a fixed amount of time to produce the goods. The shift begins with the surfaces clear and then the actors assemble. Production comes in stages like the acts of a play. But it would not be enough to be a leading man. To manage a group of characters like the people my father employed, required a sense of occasion, of timing and drama. There was always a certain amount of shouting going on. There were often scenes in which things were thrown – insults or bits of dough. Mixing bowls crashed down on mental topped tables in anger, yelling punctuated the making of the dough. Occasionally, people walked out. More often they just got back to work after a while. Much of the anger was performance. My Dad would say that this kept things interesting.

I was never shouted at the way my father shouted at my brother. I vividly recall the moment I understood this. Dad trained at the national bakery school in the Borough, London. He won cups for his bread baking in 1958 and was the star student of his year. In his early teens he took David to a bakery exhibition in Birmingham. From that moment Dave wanted to be a baker and eventually he was a very good one, especially a bread baker. To train David followed Dad to the Borough. Free in London at the age of 16 he had a wonderful time and was not top of his class. David’s results were perfectly fine, but not good enough for my father. I was sitting in the dining room at our house doing some homework. It was a project about Napoleon and I was copying information from the encyclopaedia while David was showing Dad his results in the next room. Dad now began to yell at David. He was a bit of a bully and the best way to deal with him was to shout back even louder, which is what my mother did. My brother just sat and took it. Dave sat and took verbal punch after verbal punch. The more he was silent the louder my father yelled. Until he was reduced to simply asking “Why?” Over and over again. To which David did not have an answer. Finally, he stopped and walked into the dining room, seeing me for the first time. “Titch, I didn’t know you were there. Oh well, perhaps you will have learnt something”. I concentrated on my homework.

David worked at various places around the country after this and eventually came back to work in the business. Because I was the youngest I never experienced Dad’s temper so forcefully or perhaps having heard this I was just much better at not exposing myself to the full force of his self-disappointment. David could not escape this because the relationship between my Dad and my brother was different. On David’s shoulders were placed the expectations of the eldest son. In contrast I could do what ever I wanted. I am sure it drove my brother and sister crazy. I also escaped the family business and therefore did not face the consequences of the eventual collapse of the little world. My brother did. With my sister Claudia the battle was different.

The expression in the bake house for tidying up between jobs and shifts was clearing the decks; it was an important part of finishing a production run. The next shift would then be able to assemble their ingredients and get to work. A new shift arrives in stages. Justino, the bread baker, would often get in early to start organising his tins and racks and preparing his doughs. The pastry bakers would then come in and begin rolling out their short crust and puff. Lastly, the packers would arrive and start organising the dispatch. By the time they came in the night’s work was well advanced and the early loaves or perhaps a few racks of rolls would have been pushed through into dispatch for packing.

If there is a single image that returns to me most often of the bakery it is of the clean surfaces before a shift is about to begin. There was something clinical in the tidiness. Latent in the machinery was the bread and cakes about to be created. Quite often on a Sunday morning or when the day shift had ended and before the night shift started, there would be just my Dad and me getting things ready. My father would follow his arrival at the bakery with a general tour of inspection, yelling at people when necessary, with a period of quiet preparation of his own. There were two points in a shift at which he looked most relaxed. At the start in a clean white coat, carrying a box of fat or a sack of flour, my father looked more utterly at home than at any other time. The anticipation of the night to come was realer to him than anything else. His sense of purpose and organisation, the unassailability of his expertise and skill, were evident in the smooth confidence of his actions. Obvious too was the relief he felt at being focused on the making of things and not the management of people or balance sheets. Baking was what he loved to do the most in the world and this was the beginning of the process of creation. The other point was at the end of a production run. When all the racks of hot bread and buns had been pushed through into the dispatch section of the bakery. After we had finished on a Saturday morning he would sit on the knocking out table drinking a cup of tea, perhaps eating a roll or a bun and would chat happily about the night’s events. For the rest of the shift, in-between these two points he would be a bundle of energy and a source of direction. If it was a Sunday morning and things were going well my father might even break into song. He would be almost playful. I suppose I liked the quiet times before the shift best for this reason. However, it is also a moment I think about often because it recurs when I bake at home and when I clean the kitchen.

But these moments would quickly pass and Dad would be announce his arrival. Even as he climbed out of the car drivers standing around smoking or fiddling with jump leads would leap to life. By the time we had come from the office and changed into our whites, the general speed of activity across the bake house increased markedly. I went off to start work. My father set about motivating the night shift into a final push to finish things off and get them out.

As I began work I could hear Dad’s distinctive style of repetitive yelling from across the bake house. “What the fuck are you doing in there, get out and sweep. What are you doing? No, no, please tell me, I’m interested, what are you doing?”. “What are those supposed to be? I showed you, I showed you a hundred times. I showed you. We can’t sell those. We can’t sell those” “Where are the racks? Where are the racks? Organise the racks first, clean the trays. Throw out the old paper and then tray up. Look, throw the old paper out, put the new paper in and then tray up”. “How can you work in this mess? This mess, how can you work in it? How? Clear a proper space”. “Rows of four staggered. Staggered. Rows of fours staggered by six. 24 a tray. Rows of four staggered and six rows. 24 a tray. Have you got it? Pardon? Have you got it?”


The impossibility and necessity of talking to sons

After Thomas,

during Warhammer,

and before girls,

the words slowed.

I could see them in his head be swallowed before they reached outside.

Or, they came out like pellets aiming to wound with the force of what he knows.

Fragile sits his ego forming.

Silence a shell wrapped around his need to know.

He entered a long tunnel yesterday,

I cannot accompany him.

His hormones and changes,

his feelings,

fighting a way into the world.

I wait for him,

watch carefully the swing of his eyes,

the texture of his hunch.

I wait,

just when I am sure that he is lost,

and just when I want to shake him and scream, ” come back to me”,

he drops in .

“Hi Dad”,

smiles,

snuggles for second,

comes home.

[The title is from the essay by Jean Amery, On the Impossibility and Necessity of being a Jew

A Woman’s Sentence

A Woman’s Sentence.

Let Go

A shadow appeared
Above his lip
Yesterday
Walking to the interview
“I have never done anything like this before”
They lead him away
He hides behind the door to change
Rather than run naked.
My hand is let go
Towards school, then clasped
Again goodbye
Double figures
Fewer stories at bedtime
I miss 
Already it is not like before

Sonhood 15


Sonhood starts here

One of the most difficult jobs in the bakery was using the large pastry press to make sheets of short crust big enough to do a good run of sausage rolls or apple turnovers. I never really mastered the machine. Imagine a bridge with flaps that lift up and rolling pins that can turn in either direction in the centre. The flaps were pushed down to make an overall length of about 3m. A large piece of pastry was pushed through the rolling pins for the first time and pressed down a little. Then the direction of the pins was changed and the by now larger thinner sheet of pastry was pushed through the rolling pins again and was further flattened. By now it had doubled in size and was beginning to be difficult to handle. You had to run to one end and gather up the pastry in folds because it was longer than the flaps of the table. When it was gathered up you changed the direction of the rolling pins so they would catch the pastry and pull it through in the other direction. Gradually the pastry became thinner and thinner until it was the right thickness for cutting out. It had to have a solid quality that was elastic enough for it to be worked properly and could not be too thin otherwise it would break. Now you had a large, maybe 5m length of short crust pastry, that you could use.

The pastry was rolled onto a metal tube and transferred to one of the long stainless steel topped working tables. There it was laid out. If it was for sausage rolls the dividers came out. I loved the dividers. They were like a concertina that could be set to a range of widths. At the base of each spine was a round metal disc with a sharp edge that would cut the pastry into eight equally distanced strips of pastry. Then the sausage-filling bucket would come out. The sausage bucket was one of a number of things in the bakery that I look back on with absolute horror. There was the bucket with the filling for the Eccles cakes which was as far as I could tell was the repository for any odd bits and pieces that were left over from other mixes but which was bulked out by the addition of a large quantity of currents and sultanas immediately prior to making the Eccles up. The sausage bucket had a similar sense of permanence about it. New sausage meat was added to old and I never remember it being completely finished. I assume that something was done about it when the health inspector was due to visit. An event we always seemed to know about in advance.

From this bucket a large pile sausage meat – perhaps filling is a better word because I am sure the meat content was low –was scooped out and into a piping bag. This was fitted with a plain nozzle and the meat was piped out onto the pastry in a long line. Then the pastry was folded over so the sausage was engulfed into its pastry blanket – hence the name pigs in blankets. The dividers were brought out again and the long pig in a blanket was divided up into individual sausage rolls about six inches long. There were cut out, trayed up and then put in the fridge. I remember both Robert and Bernard doing this job at different times. It was a skilled and demanding task to get the pastry to exactly the right thickness. Bernard would go about the task in silent concentration. He never spoke very much; he was serious and always surprisingly clean. His grey beard and maturity made him a distinctive presence in the bakery. He never shouted, never got involved in much of the banter but worked through a huge amount of production. I always imagined Bernard had a secret life and lived in a cave or a hut by Mudeford Quay because he looked like a fisherman. When Dad closed the last of his larger bake houses, Yeoman’s way, Bernard, like so many others, got a job in an in-store bakery.

Robert, the other pastry baker, was very different. He spent his entire time complaining. He would complain about the temperature of the bakehouse – too hot if the ovens were working, too cold if the dispatch door was open for deliveries. He would complain that the last person to use whatever it was he was using had not cleaned it properly. But most of all he would complain about Beer and Australia. Beer was his only interest in life as far as I could tell. The price and relative quality of the beer determined were he did his drinking. This is a phrase I must have first heard in the bake house but which I have heard many times since. It must be a peculiarly British phrase connected to the institution of the pub. It implies that drinking is an activity like eating or sleeping, that it is perfectly natural to do and that there must be a place, chosen over others, in which you are going to do it routinely. Robert had trouble settling down to a particular place in which to do his drinking. The local Conservative club was for a long time the cheapest place to obtain beer of sufficient quality for his needs. He would therefore attack any alternative venue vigorously for not being as good or as cheap as the Conservative club. He complained and worked at the same time. Indeed the former seemed to be a necessary lubricant to the later.

His views on Australia were more complex than his views on beer. His brother had recently gone to live there and Robert had visited. After that visit Australia became a sort of standard against which he measured things. Admittedly, Australia was too warm and the beer was too cold, but everything else was better and bigger. His long complaints would end with the general announcement that he would go and live in Australia. Before he visited his brother in Australia, his complaints had used to end: I should have been an electrician. I am not sure he ever did go to live there. It would have involved a level of concerted effort and organisation that I suspect was considerably beyond is capacity. It would also have removed his ability to complain at will and at length. I imagine him now as an old man, sitting in the Conservative Club, complaining that his life would have been much better if only he had gone to live in Australia.

At least Robert spoke. This was something Trevor rarely, if ever, did. Trevor had a purple Ford Capri in which he would occasionally give me a lift home. He was very blond and white skinned and always seemed to be enveloped in flour, which of course made him appear even whiter, almost Albino. He was the white rabbit. He seemed to be frozen in a moment of perpetual schoolboy hood. An oversized schoolboy and a silent white rabbit – Trevor was endlessly fascinating. His movements were slow in everything he did. Even if my father was shouting at him he would not move any quicker. He worked at this set pace through all his jobs until they were done. He never seemed on top of this work and it always appeared he was going to be behind which was when my father would start to shout at him. The shouting would have no impact, Trevor would not break his stride in the least, just carry on with what he was doing at the exact same slow speed until my father ran out of wind. Like a schoolboy being shouted at by the teacher, the failure to respond did not encourage my father in the way that it did with some people who met his voice with silence. In Trevor’s case it rather deflated him. As though they both knew it was not going to make any difference and the stuff would be made on time whether he shouted or not. Trevor’s chief virtue in my eyes was the Ford Capri that seemed a rather glamorous car. I measure my growing sense of maturity by my attitude to that car. At first it seemed immensely grown up. I had a toy one at home, yellow rather than purple, which I loved very much. So Trevor having a real one seemed incredible. Gradually, over the years as the car did not change but become progressively dirtier and dirtier and patches of rust appeared, I felt less in awe of it. Perhaps of course the dirt and the rust had been there the whole time but I only saw them later. By the time I was 16 I thought the car silly and no long looked forward to drives home in it so much.

Trevor’s demeanour reflected the way in which the internal dynamics between the different teams in the bakery resembled school. Both Robert and Trevor had come to work for Dad straight from school and many of the girls in the fancy cake department and in the office were taken on as school leavers or shortly afterwards. There was the same atmosphere of gossip and gangs, the same sense of people finding their places in the interplay of personalities and power struggles.

There were some jobs that were a little frightening because they brought me close to heat or in someway had a process that I did not like. Greasing the tins for the bread to go in was such a job. There was nothing actually painful about it but my had was just the right size to fit into a 20lb bread tin. The grease was in a bucket, in the bucket was a hard gease cloth which you had to hold in a fist then dip into the fat and line the tin’s bottom and sides. This had to be done well, especially if my father was the oven man. As the bread was ready the oven man would lift the tins out and knock them out onto the knocking out table. If they stuck the loaf would rip open and be ruined. Dad sweating from the heat of the oven and probably already a little niggled by some burns would explode. But the grease had a life of its own. It would spread from the cloth onto my hands and arms. I would forget to wash and scratch me hair which would then have bits of grease in. It would collect under my finger nails. The main force used to spread the grease were your knuckles and these would gradually become raw so I would change technique and use the cloth to wipe the tins out. This took longer and tended to get grease onto the outside of the tin which was best avoided because it smoked out the ovens. So the knuckle style would be returned to and the rawness endured.

This changing of method was something that annoyed my father. He would usually show me how to do something, like greasing the tins and in explaining he would always assume that I would then use his method of doing the job. However I liked to try different methods and experiment. While some of the jobs in the bake house were exciting and fun, many of the others, like greasing tins, were extremely dull, so a bit of variety was called for. With 24 2lb white bread tins in a try I would do all the bottoms, then all the left sides, then all the right sides, then the top ends and then the bottom ends. Or I would try to do it double handed. I remember one occasion when I became so absorbed in an elaborate way of greasing that I did not notice my Dad had come across to the greasing corner and was watching. I had two trays of tins laid out on the table. I started with the bottom right hand corner of tray number 1 and then did the same on tray 2 and so on. By the time Dad had come up the game had become even more complex. First I would do the sides of a tin on tray 1 and then the sides of a tin on tray 2 and so on. Jumping between the two and keeping up a whispered commentary about the order. Suddenly my Dad’s voice broke the spell: “Sometimes I really worry about the boy”. he said loudly to no one in particular. I then knocked a tray of tins onto the floor.

And I stood and looked at him. What did I feel that day, that moment. It was as if I felt pure hate. Undiluted by analysis, by age, by distance. I hated him. Did anyone else hear? See? Would they be able to repeat back to me what had happened? When I saw would they know? Would they be thinking from now on, well the boss thinks he is an idiot, well the boss despairs of him so why should we take any notice, lets get him. If Dad could not protect me here then where could he protect. But then it would stop. As we reached the outer shores of the possible consequences of these phrase I would look again at him. And then I would notice what I always saw, the softness of his mouth as he looked at me, the twinkle in his eyes always present no matter how bad things were around him, that slight twinkle was there if I was around and then it was impossible to hate him. Did I understand then, why I was there? Did I see the point of my being brought to the bakery on all those endless mornings.

Rhododendron churches

I measure life out in flowering bushes

Walking through chines of rhododendron

Looking for God, finding girls

Taking the push chair into the flower house

Escaping to be alone

Walking in the morning of birdsong

Finding my way home

In Southwark Cathedral

Hour before service

The jugs need filling

The candles trimming

The flowers checked

The choristers practiced

We wait for God

My father died

My sister, long, slow death

The layering of grief

In the colours of the window I am back on the heath

The layering of souls, petals

The benches of faith

We wait for God

Redemption the only word in English

You cannot live without

The only word you cannot live up to

The advent of household chores

The scent of pollen

The depth of green

The feeling of colour in breeze closes my pores

So much and so sublime

In these flowers, in this church

The curve of the stone

The line of the leaf

The light through the grass

The sun on the Hepworth

The sound of the voices

The song of the birds

Practicing their glorifications in divine spaces

Warning their chicks not to fall to earth

Between the sound

The light

The leaf

The space

The faith

The colour

The shape

The breeze

The prayer

The grass

The earth

Sits our idea of God and our redemption, always that word

An idea of God, so close sometimes I can touch it

Then it disappears

But now I am not alone

Sonhood 14

Sonhood starts here

Whenever I went to other people’s houses, with the exception of my friend Declan, they always seemed to smell of cabbage. I assumed this is what English people had to eat every day and that was why their houses smelled of it. They did not smell the same as my house, which as far as I was concerned did not smell of anything because that was what houses were supposed to smell of. Declan did once ask me why my house always smelled of garlic. Other people’s bread and cakes never looked quite right. Our bun rounds were how bun rounds were meant to be. Other people’s bun rounds were slightly odd. They were not wrong exactly but not quite right either. Machines and chemicals played an important role in getting this finish. Dad invested a great deal in rack ovens that used steam to produce a really good quality crust.

The best ovens for this came from Italy because the Italians were obsessed by having crusty bread and are not especially interested in the insides of loaves. So Elliott Road had big orange double rack ovens from Polin oven makers in Turin, the first of their kind in the UK. Ovens could do some of the work but additives did the rest.


There were two additives in particular that I remember, S500 and something called Sweetex. The job of both was to stabilise the work of the yeast which could be unpredictable, to ensure the goods appeared substantial enough and to prolong shelf life. When I first realised the importance of S500 in creating the bread and cakes that we lived by I was shocked. I suppose that I had assumed that except for the cut bread, a harsh necessity, the things that we made were somehow better just because we made them. I assumed that there was a virtue in technique and skill that made our stuff intrinsically superior. The quality of our additives mattered as much.


Looking back on it now, a mystery had been resolved, which raised the question of the authentic and the fake. Every element of the bakery was authentic in the sense that it was an artisan concern in which machines remained as good as the human input to them. This was not a plant bakery in which human intervention was minimal. Skill mattered. And yet part of that skill had been to ensure that the products looked and felt distinctive, even a little homemade. It was like a slash into my father’s standing in my eyes. There was never a single moment at which he became mortal. It was more one of the things that gave me a sense of his multidimensional nature. Super heroes are one dimensional, you cannot see behind them and they have no visible means of support. When you are very young fathers are rather like that. But S500 gave me a sense of the depth behind my father or rather of the wires holding him up. As you become bigger your parents must become smaller. If they do not you are not becoming yourself. As the major way my Dad and I related to each other was through the bakery his status in that context was vitally important. The universe I had created for the bakery relied on my perception of Dad as the ultimate craftsman. What was craft but human skill? S500. Even the name sounded like a Dr Who villain.

It was this villain that had made the finish to the goods I was now unpacking in Gigi. There were 18 shops in all, including one called “Yesterday’s Bake” which sold stale or out of date goods at a discount. The other shops operated under three names, Gigi, Annette’s Patisserie and the Bakers Shop. Two or three of the shops also had cafes attached called Cosy Cup. My mother also ran a boutique above one the shops in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The best shops were the ones called Gigi, especially the one in Christchurch. This was in a very old row of buildings at the base of the castle in Christchurch just in front of the medieval priory. On one side of the shop as you came in through a central front door was the sweet counter with floor to ceiling shelving. The shelves were filled with large jars of boiled sweets that were sold by weight. They remained stubbornly popular, and not just in Christchurch. Across Britain in 1961 307,000 tonnes of loose sweets were sold as “weight outs”. A decade later this had dropped to 305,000 tonnes. Nicholas Whittaker, the historian of sweets, accounts for this survival into the 1970s of boiled sweets, some of which had not changed since the 1890s, by their simplicity compared to the branded goods against which they competed:

“It wasn’t just the sweets themselves: for many people etiquette and ritual were just as important as the sugar fix. Buying a quarter of barley sugars, Everton mints or Tom Thumb drops took time and it was well-nigh impossible to conduct any such transaction without engaging in chat and pleasantries. The sugar jars and the weighing-out ceremony were parts of a street communion. Even the names rang out like a litany: “I’ll have four ounces of three noughts, red coughs, clear mints and strawberry sherbets”.

While Whittaker’s theory of street communion has something to it the reality was also harsher. While getting down a jar, opening the big and often tightly closed lid, weighing off the right amount and bagging it up, it was difficult to keep an eye on the customers and their little hands. Doing the jars was always rather difficult even if you just gave up trying to keep an eye on the wandering hands. Getting the lids off the big jars was a pain and once off your problems started. You had to get the right number out of the jars into the scales, hoping that the sweets had not stuck together or melted. When they had a huge congealed lump of sugar would come out of the jar and crash down on the scale. It was worse of course if the customer happened to one or more girls. The last thing I wanted was to surrender the obvious coolness of working behind this sweet counter by dealing with a huge mess of sweets on the flour. All you could hope for when pretty girls came in was that they would order chocolates or fudge instead.

The main counter of the sweet side housed our homemade chocolate range and an assortment of Dorset fudge. The chocolate making machine had been a major purchase. It operated from its own small room next to the fresh cream preparation area at Elliott Road. It was a very temperamental machine that needed a lot of attention. Dave the hippy baker became responsible for it. Dave seemed to live in the back of a small van that he had filled with cushions and rugs, and which was inevitably christened a shag wagon by the other bakers. He was a chirpy, bearded guy who clearly smoked dope but was also very smart and able to learn new things. He nursed the chocolate machine and did other roles around the bakery. The chocolates did not have perishable centres and kept for quite a long time. Serving the chocolates was much easier than doing the jars. The fudge was also straightforward but really too good not to pick at. The best time was when you opened a new box of fudge to fill up the trays in the counter. The fudge came in large blocks like a chocolate bar; you had to break them up into pieces. You didn’t want too many fragments left on the tray so…. For a long time after I left home I could not bring myself to eat to fudge.

Opposite the sweet counter was the cake counter. This was divided into fresh cream cakes in a chilled section, fondant and other fancy cakes both large and small, and then the morning goods that would not fit in the window or on the shelves behind. The first job to do when opening the shop was to fill the window. The drivers delivered the bread and morning goods in wire baskets and trays and left them at the back of the shop. On Sunday morning there would be a queue of people outside to get their fresh bread. The fancies were in the counter or in black plastic trays in a cupboard at the back of the shop. These could be brought out pretty quickly but the fresh goods had to be cleared from the middle of the shop first. To help build up the queue the best idea was to fill the window first. Then fill in the rest of space behind and above the counter as and when you had time. Things got really tense if the doors were opened too soon and people started asking for things that you had not yet unpacked.

In theory all fresh goods had to be picked up with tongs once you had started to serve customers because you would then take their money and put it in to the till. In reality you did use tongs if you could but with a queue going out of the door and down the street, with stuff not fully unpacked and with people shouting orders at you, the tongs were often forgotten. Everything was bagged up and with a flourish the bag was twisted over to seal it. Sometimes the bags would split open sending the carefully chosen cakes flying. When this happened I would lose count of what people had bought and have to start again. Serving in the shop was great fun if it was busy and intense like this because you never had a moment to stop. When the shop was quiet it was deadly boring because once you had filled everything up, cleaned the surfaces and restocked the bags there was nothing to do but wait for customers.

The far end of the shop had the sandwich counter with the filled rolls, baps, meat pieces, sausage rolls, Cornish pasties and canned drinks. There was also a whipped ice cream dispenser. This provided 99 flake single and double cones. Which meant that there were always boxes of 99 flakes in the back of the shop. I had a real weakness for those flakes.

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