Thursday, 6 May 2010

Growing Quiet

My mother was always more surprised than exasperated by the things I brought home. I once found an old glass aquarium by the rubbish bins. I brought it home, staggering to set it down gently, promptly filled it with grass and crickets; and over the next few years followed guppies, frogs, worms, tadpoles, ants, and lizards, the last of which I captured after a mad dash through the bushes. Calotes versicolor. Changeable lizard. Soft to the touch, their bodies warm and thin in my hands, scales textured in mottled colors, round markings. Their pointed heads, red with anger, studied me with bulbous eyes, their white-lipped mouths agape, pale and pink-tongued. Their tiny hearts beat like clockwork in my hands, chests trembling with quick-drawn breaths.

There were, of course, other reptiles. Cosymbotus platyurus and Gehyra mutilate. Flat-tailed and four-clawed geckos that chirped at ungodly hours and left little black contributions on the windowsill. Geckos my mother insisted I chase and throw outside—any place would have sufficed, as long as they weren’t in the house. And so I obliged. I always wondered what they thought when they went flying through the air, their wallflower life replaced by one of sudden flight.

We once made the most fantastic gecko trap. It was all a chance occurrence. No one had thought of it until it happened by accident. Someone left the bottle of Ribena open on the shelf, only a thumb’s-depth of red, sluggish cordial left in the bottom. I came down to make toast the next morning and found a gecko floating on this tiny Red Sea, held aloft by surface tension. My mother, delighted with the contraption, left the bottle open for another night. Its comrade came to meet the same sticky end. They did not die right away. They waited as death-row inmates, held immobile in Ribena, for Death to come. I saw them blink at me. My mother only stopped the game when ants began to congregate around the bodies, tiny looters that filled mouths and dull, yellow eyes.

Apart from the occasional killing, I spent my days peacefully, preoccupied with animals. My sister and I not only cared for cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, and birds, but also the slow and graceful turtle. We bought two thumbnail specimens at the pet store and kept them in a shallow bucket filled with water and a resting stone. One never surfaced. He, the water creature, drowned. We found him wedged between a rock and a hard place, and we buried him unceremoniously in the garden. The one who lived soon grew too big, and we released him in the pond at the Botanic Gardens. We buried a great many pets in the backyard. I was sorry to see them go.

In this manner I found my place in the world, firmly rooted within the porcelain pleasures of childhood. I knew that my backyard—that great, green wherein I lived and breathed and had my being—would not last the hour. It was a minute in life, regrettably short, and so I grew roots into the earth and loved my home. It was not much to look at, but it had grass and skies and trees to sustain my feverish imagination. Dilapidated white stone houses lined the roads. Our house, too, needed a fresh coat of paint, and the clay roof shingles had slipped in several places. I never noticed its condition back then—I was loathe to notice anything but fairies—unless it rained. The roof leaked.

It was little wonder. Tropical rain is not to be trifled with. It has a distinct character, a short temper, a quick burnout but I loved its fury. The storms would roll in from the jungle behind the houses on the hill; and I would watch its advent from my window. The clouds would swell fat, rising in purple towers, gathering the world into a final breath--waiting, waiting for the end. The birds stifled their song. The horizon trembled as the beast turned, his arched back breaking into streaks of light. The sky was gray—green—then sickly yellow.

I wanted to be closer to the storm, darting down the stairs to throw open the veranda door. Mamma had shut the windows, Pappa had pulled the laundry down from the line—I arrived in time to smell the rain. The storm broke above me with a deafening crash. The sky seemed to fly to pieces, shattering in a fit of rage. Thunder rumbled, the wind whipping the trees into a frenzy. Rain stood like rods to the ground, each drop indistinguishable from the next. The world was water, dripping, running, seeping. It poured into the earth, began to fill the drains.

Cold, I went indoors and watched from behind the safety of a sheet of glass. I followed the forming streams and rivulets. The rain fell on my account. Its power spent, the storm soon abated, its anger stilled to a whisper. The leaves glistened green in the late sunshine, gently dripping with an amusing self-esteem. They had survived. I went outside to feel the mud squelch between my toes, only to discover a strange sight. The rains had filled an air pocket between the grassroots and the soil, raising a welt in the grass. I let out a yell. "Come see!"
Mamma and my sister came to the veranda door and watched as I toed the bump, this green carpet undulating like a water bed. Sofia was equally excited—she tread the bulge--but our footsteps were beginning to disturb the delicate balance. Mamma (in a rare moment of silliness) wanted her turn too. She stepped up, triumphant, and laughed at the strange feel of it. Unfortunately, it did not last--the water-welt deflated like a manhandled sea cucumber.

Mamma went inside. Sofia followed. I looked up to see that dusk had stolen into view. Distracted, I had not seen the night fall, as I always did. The crickets tuned their bows. I thought I glimpsed lights in the trees. Fairies, I wanted to tell myself. But I couldn’t. A shame too, I knew. I wanted to believe, but my imaginationhad grown quiet with the years, shushed by other thoughts, each elbowing for their rightful place. I could feel it as I stood and listened to the night. I was growing deaf. My fantasies, too large and cumbersome to bring to school, too silly to take out and show to company, were put aside, forced into that dreadful corner, among lost socks and forgotten lyrics. One day I would have to put such childish ways behind me and learn to sit up straight. To listen, to know the law, to make friends. To keep them. And my efforts to stem this tide were hopeless.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Enid Blyton: Bah, Humbugs!

British food has always held a sort of magical fascination in my life. From an early age, I read the works of Enid Blyton, who never failed to tantalize my poor tastebuds with detailed descriptions of food I could never have. The children of her narratives never go hungry and are constantly eating such exotic things (to my mind) as hot scones with raspberry jam, gingerbread, boiled sweets, humbugs, lemon drops, ice lollies, treacle, toffee, macaroons, blancmange, puddings of all kinds, Pop Biscuits, Google buns, Hot-Cold goodies, and Well-I-Never rolls. (The last four examples, I admit, were of Blyton’s own invention, but nonetheless never failed to inspire my childish imagination.) In her book Five on a Hike Together, she describes a meal at the Three Shepherds.

A wonderful smell came creeping into the little dining-room, followed by the inn-woman carrying a large tray. On it was a steaming tureen of porridge, a bowl of golden syrup, a jug of very thick cream, and a dish of bacon and eggs, all piled high on crisp brown toast. Little mushrooms were on the same dish.

Blyton’s attraction to food most likely stemmed from having lived through the rationing days of the Second World War. On 8 January 1940, butter, bacon, and sugar were the first commodities to be rationed. They were shortly followed by meat, tea, jam, biscuits, breakfast cereals, cheese, eggs, milk, and canned fruit (which would explain Blyton’s fascination with tinned pineapple). After the war, rationing became even stricter. Bread was rationed from 1946 to 1948. Potato rationing began in 1947.

The loss of food is a blow to any culture, and it is understandable that England lamented its loss during the war years. Over the centuries, English food has been shaped by the country’s temperate climate, geography, history, and even its religion. It has a wide and varied background, beginning with the Celts, whose agriculture and animal breeding resulted in a variety of foodstuffs for the indigenous population. The Angles and Saxons developed different stews made from meat and herbs, and during the Norman Conquest, exotic spices were introduced into England in the Middle Ages. The British Empire, stretching far into the Orient and across the oceans to tropical islands, brought back new recipes, among them the Indian tradition of food and its strong herbs and spices.

The traditional food of England, however, remains simple and relies on high quality, natural produce. England’s Puritan heritage made it almost impossible to incorporate strong flavors, such as garlic, or use complex sauces, as these had political affiliations with the Catholics. The majority of the population consisted of farmers, which is why England is famous for its simple, but small variety of breads and cheeses, meat and game pies, roasted and stewed meats, boiled vegetables and broths, and fresh and saltwater fish. Still, it is possible to find these traditional foods in most eating establishments.

As I first walked down the cobblestoned streets of York, I was glad to discover that restaurants and pubs still serve Shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, fish and chips (one of the few foods unaffected by WWII rationing), and Sunday roasts (a roasted joint of meat, served with roasted or mashed potatoes, and a Yorkshire pudding). Thomas the Baker serves bread and butter pudding, rhubarb crumble, apple pie, treacle tart, spotted dick, trifle custard, and summer pudding, along with the traditional Cornish pasty (pronounced pass-ti, a light puff pastry wrapped around a mix of beef, potato, onion, and Swedish turnips), mince pie, and fruit tarts. The local teahouses dish out a daily, dainty delicacies, such as hot teacakes, currant scones with clotted cream and jam, and pots of Earl Grey. As a result of India being the “crown jewel” in the British Empire, Indian restaurants sprang up all over England, and the tikka masala is even jokingly hailed as “England’s true national food.”

As for myself, I find English food to be part of a larger body of work. Farmers’ dishes generally fall into similar categories—simple, heavy dishes made of meat, vegetables, and potatoes, originally made to serve hungry farmers after a hard day’s work. Pasties, steak and kidney piece, and bangers and mash have continental equivalents; pasties compare to the Swedish palt and kroppkakor (meat dumplings eaten with pork slices, butter, and lingonberry jam), and the Lithuanian cepelinai (zeppelin-shaped dumplings made from potato dough filled with ground beef, milk curd or mushrooms with salt and spices, and eaten with bacon and butter sauce); Scottish haggis is comparable to Swedish pölsa—even bloodpudding has its exact replica in Swedish cuisine. Though food is an indicator of national identity, it also works to include the country into an international community—England has, for centuries, been linked to the rest of Europe by its food. Its food has evolved and adapted with its historical circumstance, and now, once again, it is evolving to incorporate itself into a more international identity. Curries and pasties are sold side-by-side without a second thought, perhaps as harbingers of things to come.

I WANT AN A. I hate A minuses.