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Posts tagged ‘childhood’

The Object of Life – Moo Cow – She Came, She Saw, She Stayed

Toy Cow

Moo Cow has travelled with our family for at least five decades, a witness to everything, patiently putting up with the touch of many hands, both tiny and large (maybe she could teach Belita, Lucy and Mary-Rose a thing or two…). I’m not sure how she’s finally ended up in my eldest sister’s house but I’m borrowing her for this post. She seems to feel at home.

Toy Cow

I cast my mind back. I’m eight or nine years old, sitting under the branches of an old stone pine in our garden. I dig my fingers into the ground, through the first crispy layer of needles, through into the damp peaty leafmould below. I bring it up in fragrant handfuls, inhaling deeply. And then the most amazing thing happens. Those tiny earthy granules are so real to me, almost like they’re charged with a never ending thread of connections, popping like tiny bubbles deep down into centuries. I feel an intense union with life, with its tragedies and potential. Maybe it is a reaction to the crazy instability of our family situation at this time, but whatever it is it exerts a potent force on me.

Under a Pine Tree

The physical objects of our lives can do the same thing. As soon as I look at Moo Cow and roll her wooden wheels and hear her funny moo, I am transported somewhere else, my four year old cheek pressed against the scratchy carpet on our upstairs landing because I like to look at the sisal weave close up. Beyond this, across the plain, still within my field of vision, there is Moo Cow, hanging about at the foot of the bookcase, and behind her the spines of the stories which we have heard again and again – The Tomten, Where the Wild Things Are and The Happy Lion.


Her wooden are wheels sturdy and solid, her tightly coiled tail is jaunty, and her compact body is familiar to my hand as…what? This is where I get stuck. Do I actually remember playing with her or am I just imagining it?

Now I see her in her present state, I’m not really sure I can recall a time when her yellow plastic horns were intact or her paper hide fresh from the Fisher Price factory. But because I know what she must have looked like, due to others’ recollections and the tell tale scraps of information still sticking to her sides, before one of us filled in the gaps with some creative paint work, I can conjure her up, nearly new, complete with her perky horns and glossy black and white skin. But isn’t that the way that memory works? We remember certain things and not others, we unconsciously blank stuff out and make other stuff up. I once thought it was linear and fixed but that was before the complexities of living had exerted a kind of alchemy on the events of the past. It seems to me that when we revisit places again and again, memories seem to change and merge, and are sometimes as clear as – well, mud.

Toy Cow Reflection

I ask my three siblings what they remember about Moo Cow and it sets off a train of reminiscing, leading among other things to our memories of listening and singing along to Pete Seeger and his album God Bless The Grass, introduced to us by our dad. In a way, his dying seems to have, for me anyway, fattened out the past and made it more present. It feels good to remember.

God Bless the Grass Album Cover    This is a really nice version of the title song.

The cyber conversation went something like this…

Well I liked the yellow plastic cog mechanism and the little yellow horns. Also the cow was always there, and generally stood in when we needed to populate a game. And was free of the obsessive attachment I had to my dolls. It was an old friend even when less battered than now!

 She was always there, with her springy tail and strangulated moo; I can remember investigating how the moo was activated – all linked up to the head oscillation as the wheels turned – and working out why she didn’t always vocalise on shiny floors (another reason to lament the absence of fitted carpets that so blighted our early lives)

That moo was really unconvincing wasn’t it :)Haha remember that grid pattern on our knees as we relaxed in the sitting room listening to Pete Seeger.

 That would be “God bless the grass” – I still know all the songs; even quite a lot of the words…. it’s available as a MP3 download…. and, according to a recent passenger of mine, the old greenie himself is still belting it out.

 You could never get comfy on that stuff!

 You didn’t by any chance saw the horns off whilst fiddling about – they have disappeared….

Off thread a bit but thinking about Pete Seeger reminded me that (just found out) ‘Midnight in Moscow’ by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen was in the charts in 1962 This has put to rest a humiliating episode at my primary school, when we had to paint a picture about our favourite pop song. I didn’t actually know what a pop song was…Anyway I did a very dramatic picture of ‘Midnight in Moscow’ – mainly BLACK paint, whilst all the other pictures were of flowers and bees and mainly pastels. The whole class gawped at it with incomprehension and the teacher seemed rather concerned. DAMN IT – if only I had known the facts I could have wiped the silly expressions from their faces and saved myself an uncomfortable hour of feeling as if I were from another universe. Having spaghetti bolognaise for supper was bad enough!

Ha ha your painting was too cool for school!

While the particulars of this conversation may only be really poignant to its participants I hope it shows how a beloved object from the past can transport us – besides, I’ll use any opportunity to get a bit of cow chat in…

And how fitting it was that today, when me and my sister of the painting were shopping in our local town, Kenny Ball’s Midnight in Moscow should waft down the aisles of the shop we were in. There was jigging about amongst the muesli and the steel cut oatmeal I can tell you.

1279733415_kenny-ball-and-his-jazzmen-midnight-in-moscow A gravelly croony Russian version of the traditional song with words

In a culture which is so fearsomely forward looking, it is sometimes easy to forget in the mayhem of everyday life that it is these shared histories we have with family and friends which are most important; it is what connects and shapes us and can help us remember a person who has gone and give solace in the difficult times. So much of life is spent forging ahead that we barely draw breath to consider and reflect, to pause and look behind, or even just to value the present moment.

A buddhist might say that this is the endless dance we enact to escape the reality of death, the only one thing that is absolutely certain in a human life. I can’t argue with the fact that becoming aware of one’s own and others’ mortality can stop us in our tracks. And perhaps it’s part of a general middle age rite of passage too. As with most things, reasons and motivations are complicated. How nice it is then, that at this point I have the simplicity of Moo Cow to help me pause and remember. I’m so thankful that one of us decided to keep her, when at the time I probably would have been one to disavow the need for a shared history as I veered off a bit blindly but resolutely down my own path.

Moo Cow helps with the bulb planting

Moo Cow helps with the bulb planting

We are so often exhorted to get rid of stuff, by the culture at large or by ourselves, to clear out, to live minimal lives without clutter, and encourage ourselves to view our stuff as the detritus of life which in an ideal world would miraculously evaporate without us having to make any heart rending decisions. We dream of empty spaces, order and a life lived out in perfect balance. We have fetishised the unobtainable – and believe that then we will finally be on top of things But, as Alain de Botton puts it: we seldom succeed in laying claim to lasting equilibrium, traversing our lives like stubbornly listing ships on choppy seas (The Architecture of Happiness).

While I also haphazardly aspire to a little more tidiness and order (retraining still in progress), I’m also voting for the positive rehabilitation of the culture of saving stuff, the personal archaeology of time, special earthly objects to help reignite the threads of memory and illuminate some of those never returning moments.

The Ark

How to make a Cornish Cream Tea – Let’s Cowgirl Up to Baking Scones

Cowgirls www.thinkingcowgirl.wordpress.comI’m pretty sure a real cowgirl wouldn’t be seen dead baking scones and you can read about some of them here, including a few feisty historical ones, in this wonderful piece by fellow blogger LL. Thanks to her illuminating article I can now make free with the verb ‘to cowgirl up’, doesn’t it just slip off the tongue? It basically means that you saddle up to any job with gusto and purpose. Which is how I intend to approach the baking of scones for a Cornish Cream Tea.

I have my mother to thank for any baking skills I’ve acquired, who passed on her extensive knowledge to me and my siblings from an early age, though I was probably thirty five before it dawned on me it wasn’t a matter of life and death that you got EVERY SINGLE BIT of cake mixture out of the bowl, a necessary frugality in time of war and rationing, likely passed by my grandmother to my mother who carried it on into the 1960’s and beyond.

A first attempt at Rock Cakes, I must have been four or five and my sister H seven, resulted in some foul tasting pale green lumps, a consequence of the blue shoe polish which we’d (or maybe it was me, can’t remember) been using only minutes before the mixing. Stirring the Christmas Pudding was always an important event, each ingredient, including a sixpence (I just about remember these) or a ten pence piece (ok money in those days!) adding to the unctuous whole. I never did actually like the pudding itself but I loved the ritual. Mincemeat on the other hand I still usually make (better get on with it…), you really can’t beat a homemade Mince Pie, can you?

Since then, bread has been added to the repertoire, but for some reason I haven’t baked many scones and when I have the results have been indifferent, let’s say flatter, than one would like. You can find a comprehensive overview on the baking of the perfect Scone here if you’re interested, a Guardian article by Felicity Cloake, it’s really good.

Anyway, my mum, stepfather and sister are coming for tea so I thought I’d give them a Cornish Cream Tea – scones, clotted cream and strawberry jam.

Baking is part of our family story as it is with many families. Participatory and comforting, it draws people together, plus you get to eat really yummy things as well. Some of my best memories of being at home are when my mum used to bake a cake on a Sunday afternoon in wintertime and we’d all gather from our fairly disparate lives and have tea in front of the fire. Favourites included Hot Lemon Teacake which involved copious amounts of butter melted between the still warm cakes, a really good idea because you don’t even have to let the sponge cool down, how great is that. Then there was Mozart Cake, I’ve no idea why it was called that, which was made with ground hazelnuts and spices and had a slab of thick dark chocolate on the top, this was my choice for a birthday cake for years. Then there was the regular Victoria Sandwich, still my all time top favourite cake, and a basic Chocolate Sponge with Coffee Icing – this one went down a few rungs on the ladder after an episode of over-indulgence.

For this tea I fell for the marketing of Womens Institute jam which is the mass produced version of a tried and tested recipe, which thousands of people have been cooking up in their kitchens for decades. I was hoping to use my neighbours’ jam which she sells outside her house but she had no strawberry and any purist will tell you that this is the one it’s got to be for a cream tea.

But let the scone show begin!

Ingredients for Scones

Ingredients: Flour, Salt, Butter, Bicarbonate of Soda, Cream of Tartar, Milk

Whisk Dry Ingredients Together

Whisk dry ingredients together, then rub in the butter and add the milk.

Scone Dough and Cutter

Knead dough quickly, roll out to 1 inch and cut rounds, I think speed is the key

Messy Kitchen

Oh dear what would Mary and Paul from the Great British Bake Off say about the state of my workstation?

Scones on Baking Tray

Brush the scones with egg and bake in a hot oven for roughly 10 minutes. Can’t believe it, I’ve had rising! Must try this cowgirling thing again.

Scone on Cooling Tray

No, really, LOOK!

Clotted Cream

Get the clotted cream, I prefer it not straight from the fridge.

Womens Institute Jam Pot

And the jam…

Tea Time

Make the tea, and assemble the scones, jam and cream

Plate of Scones

Vintage china always helps

Cream Tea Assemblage

Get your guests to help themselves. There are differing opinions (the source of many a tea time squabble) about whether it’s jam or cream first, but as long as they’re both on there who cares

Cornish Cream Tea

Et Voila

Cornish Cream Tea


Go on, please tell us about your baking memories and favourite cakes!

PS. A tearoom related blog which I’m enjoying

PPS. Are you a Downton Abbey fan? Try this funny post from my friend T, plus there’s loads of nice pictures of old kitchens.

Thought Number 4 Help We Need to Make Hay Part 2

The sun brings out some butterflies at last, a Gatekeeper and a Ringlet. The Red Campion and the Foxgloves are going over now, the Knapweed and Wild Carrot beginning to look like they might flower. The jet stream is being pushed north for a spell so we can expect a few days of summer.

After some initial dithering on Tuesday we decide it’s time to act. However B’s tractor has blown a head gasket and is out of action. Aware that there is only a slim window of opportunity we scan the horizon and spot a crew making small bale hay across the valley so I drive there and ask if there is any chance of helping us out – looking at the forecast we know we only have until Sunday afternoon to get it in. This young guy P, along with a whole array of neighbouring farmers, neighbours and friends, really pull out all the stops to help us out this week. So much of the time, not just for us, for anyone who manages land, is spent toiling away alone. It’s an amazing thing when that solitary cycle is briefly broken. We even loll about on the trailer afterwards, drink squash and eat biscuits and talk about the price of cushions.

It’s hard not to resist obsessively checking the forecast but the sky is deep blue with a few non threatening cumulous gathering at the edges. The air is heavy with the sound of machines. Because of all the rain, the grass is thick and it’s taking ages to dry, even with being turned every day. I go out with a pitchfork to turn some of the big lumps which are still green underneath. I do one whole field edge where the grass has piled up in the shade of the trees and pull it to the barer patches in the sun. It is very hot work but strangely compelling. In my solitary endeavour I imagine how it must have been in the past, when hundreds of people would have been out in the fields trying to get the hay in, backs bent into the work, and occasionally like me now, resting on the handle of the pitchfork, taking in the spectacular view over the valley and moors, the buzzards wheeling high on the thermals.

All hands on deck

We have six people on the case after D bales it on Sunday afternoon, the little rectangular blocks of hay coming out of the back of the baler like sausages. The weather has turned and the dark clouds have multiplied but it stays dry apart from a few random drops. P and S stay around with their mighty trailer and we all pile the bales on and unload them at our concrete block shed across the road, getting to and fro on the back of the trailer. It reminds me of my childhood when we used to help the local farmer with the hay in the field next to our house. Then, when the trailer was piled as high as possible he would let us ride on top the bale grabber, hands tightly gripped onto the prongs while we grinned with glee when he manouvered it up and down.

The last thing we hear as we fall asleep around midnight is the big baler across the road still working, wrapping the huge round bales in plastic, doing it’s twisty twirly dance in the dark. I wake in the night and the rain has returned, pit pattering on the slates with its familiar tune.

cows getting a bit more friendly now

Thought Number 1 Why do I like Cows?

Why do I like cows? Why does anyone like cows? In fact, why does anyone like anything?

I guess these things are written into the landscape of a life, in the places between where you come from and where you end up. Sometimes you get to choose those places and sometimes not.

Me and some cows 1971

Cow love started quite early for me. I think I’m now trying to channel my younger self, though my jeans are not quite as short. Back then I was clearly smitten, pictured here with a neighbours steers. The one I’ve got my arm around is Billy, and we struck up quite a bond for a few months. Maybe it was because I was lonely having moved to an unfamiliar home and he showed interest, but I remember the intensity of my affection. He was curious and playful and made me laugh by trying to lick me with his raspy tongue, yet he also seemed sad.

My parents kindly didn’t tell me his eventual fate, saying vaguely when the time had come for his slaughter that he had been ‘moved.’ I don’t remember being hugely upset by his absence but I’d probably made some human friends by then and was busy exploring the countryside after our previously suburban life. But I always held that thought – that one day I would have some cows of my own.

Maybe if we’re ever lost or worried we should look to the things that made us dream.

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