Grandad pulled up outside our Maisonette in Nashe Way. I was playing in the back garden, digging holes in the flower beds, burying my most prized possessions. I was a squirrel then, as I still am today, always hiding things, forgetting where I put them, unable to find them again. I was covered from head to toe in mud, my hair matted, large clumps of wet soil dangling from my brow; new burgundy Clark’s sandals scuffed, knees dirty and red after crouching on the wet grubby grass. I could see my Grandparents through the decorative viewing holes, in the brick wall at the rear of the property. It was windy, Nan was having trouble keeping her purple silk head scarf around her newly set hair. She held on tightly to the bow around her neck, her other hand tenaciously grasping hold of her brown leather handbag. Grandad Eric escorted Nan to the front of the flat, his hand gently holding her elbow, as she lowered her head towards the floor, trying to avoid the inclement weather swirling around her!
Mother shouted from the back door, beckoning me to come in and get ready; Nan and Grandad were heading to Portsmouth, for an afternoon of shopping at Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre. I turned around sheepishly, Mum clocked my filthy appearance; her mouth dropped; a scowl illuminated her aggravated face. Mum lifted her hand up, pointed it towards me, gesticulating her displeasure. ‘Get here now, get inside and clean yourself up, just look at the state of you!’ she protested as I gingerly walked passed her maddened stare!
After a quick clean up, rough brushing of hair, vigorously polished shoes with socks pulled up to my knees, I was suitably attired once more and ready for the afternoon ahead. Mum took my grey duffel coat from the hat peg in the hall, buttoned it tightly towards my chin, lifted my hood up and put a long knitted mantilla around my neck. As Grandad opened the door, a gust of wind nearly blew me off my feet, my hand gripped tightly by Nan, who stopped my fall.
The Tricorn Centre was a striking piece of 1960s architecture, built five years before I was born. There were flats, pubs, restaurants and shops, all served by a large concrete car park above, The brutalist structure wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but as a small child I loved it. The imposing building in the heart of the city was a hive of activity, aromas and sounds like I had never experienced before.
We walked down the stairs towards the shops at the bottom; I could smell seafood as we trod the last step. I lifted my head upwards, taking a deep breath; cod, haddock, crabs and cockles, scents piercing the senses. Market traders, shouting in their familiar Pompey tones, inviting customers to try their wares. Clothes, jewellery, freshly baked bread, displayed neatly on bakers shelves. Fresh cream cakes for Nan and Grandad and a macaroon for me. My eyes focused upwards, towards the stark austerity of the atrium above, the wind still howling around the pillars, as I pulled my coat closer around my shoulders.
After a warm cup of tea and hot sausage roll, a few hours of shopping and a large packet of sweets it was time to leave. I stood at the top of the stair case waving goodbye to the ‘little people’ down below; tired, full to bursting, clutching Nanny’s hand, I gently stepped into Grandad’s new brown Cortina, parked well away from everyone else on the top floor. Curled up on the beige velour upholstery with Nan, I drifted in and out of sleep, opening my eyes occasionally, glimpsing the World rushing by. Nan and Grandad chatted to each other, the car radio on low, the journey went on forever, just the lights dimmed glow. A final peep upwards, the city passing by, homeward bound together, contentment with a sigh!
As I sat in the lounge on a decidedly chilly afternoon, I began drifting off to sleep once again; I had only been up an hour, but after the shenanigans of the night before, staying awake was just too much. Gently I closed my left eye, gradually flickering under the light pouring in through the window. I rubbed my right eye with the back of my hand, took a large yawn and closed both lids. Head falling to the side, I nodded off; just forty winks before Sunday lunch.
Ten minutes passed and a was awoken suddenly, my slumber rudely interrupted; hissing and spitting from the kitchen and a plume of smoke filtered through the serving hatch, as Mother put the par boiled potatoes in steaming hot lard on the stove. Mum’s taters were the best, well second best to my Grandmothers anyway; cooked to perfection, basted frequently, vigorously shaken in the roasting pan and customary seasoned with salt pepper and occasionally a few well chosen herbs, picked fresh from the garden; but never garlic! In the good old days, the dreaded bulb rarely featured in the British diet. These were the years when you could only buy a bottle of olive oil from the chemist and purchasing a container of vegetable oil was considered terribly posh; Vesta curry’s were all the rage and Blue Nun was the wine of choice. I used to think, looking back, that Mum cooked everything in lard, I’m sure she didn’t, but it was the late 1970s and times were very different; austerity was the order of the day!
I always enjoyed school dinners; whenever I feel in need of cheering up or am just having a bad day, I look bad at these lunches with fondness. Cooking a similar meal at home, when it’s pouring with rain outside and the wind is howling down the chimney stack is a memory that makes me feel secure and content with the World. Roast potatoes were very much on the menu then as they are now; my love affair with the humble roastie, began way back when; a love affair that continues today.
I was first in the queue, I could smell the scorching spuds, as the Dinner Ladies brought them out to the front of the canteen. There was something about roast potatoes at School that were so different from any I have ever tasted. To be honest, they were rather soggy, not crisp like Mum used to cook, but the taste was great and I always had second helpings, thirds if I could, which is probably why I was and still am a little on the larger size. I am a product of the seventies and all that decade threw my way. Political correctness didn’t exist and it was OK to be normal, eat humble and not have delusions of grandeur. The lunch menu was a reflection of the values and aspirations of the time; nothing over the top, hearty, filling and basic, ideals we should adopt once again today!
At home, sat at the dining table, the dinner plate was piled high; thick slices of sirloin, three or four different vegetables, pigs in blankets, home made Yorkshire puddings and piping hot gravy made with the meat juices from the joint slowly cooked in the oven. To the side, each of us had a plate of bread and butter; proper butter, not that margarine stuff; natural wholesome unprocessed. Eating with gusto, I would always make a roast dinner sandwich, filled to bursting with goodies from my plate; always left to last, washed down with a cheeky glass of wine, only allowed on a Sunday afternoon!
Today my love affair with the humble roast potato still exists, cooking them as often as I can. Today I will cook them with garlic, balsamic vinegar and even Marmite. Unlike the past I will only use olive oil or beef dripping at Christmas, as a one off treat; with high blood pressure and cholesterol, lard is most certainly a no no. Suddenly the World became more health conscious and my spuds adapted to mark the times in which we now live. The basic recipe remains the same, the taste as good as ever and the memories persist, always transporting me back to family occasions, laughter around the table and stories of decades gone by!
47 year old Author, Columnist and Blogger.