Sunday, May 27, 2012

The passing of my Gran

My Gran
For the last couple of years my Gran has been getting worse in health and on Friday, 11th May, 2012 at 10.15 am GMT, she passed away aged 94.  She had lived on her own until January of 2011 and did not complain too much when her kids moved back in to help!  My mother and uncle (Rob) spent a week on and a week off sharing Gran's house, looking after her.  But now that is over.  I was asked to speak  at her funeral and two stories came to my mind, the second my brother reminded of, and I thought I would share what I said at her funeral just a few days ago.

I loved my Gran and Grandad (who died in 1981 at almost 80 years of age).  Sometimes I would cycle down to their house, sometimes I would walk, and once in a while I would drive with friends if we were passing  by on the way somewhere, just to say 'hi'.  Gran was always good for a cup of tea and biscuits (English cookies). My friends would suffer my forced visits to my grandparents because of the treats, as well as them being fun to be around.  I was in my late teens on one of the first visits with my friends and I began to hand out the chocolate fingers my Gran made whilst she brought in the tea.  Gran used to make wonderful snacks. My personal favourites were biscuits made of oats and had a 1/2 cherry in the center.  Once the chocolate fingers had been passed around, I began to hand around a plate full of these wonderful, soft, oat biscuits with the cherry in the middle.  "Anyone for a titty biscuit?" I asked, for that was what they were called.  They had always been called that, and to me it was just a name with no meaning.  But to my teenage friends who had never seen them before - well, there were some slack jaws and some snickering! "What?" I asked.  One of my friends said: "Titty biscuits?" and held one up.  The penny dropped.  I looked at Gran and she was smiling, pouring tea.  I was mortified, she was giggling.  And from then on, when my friends came with me to Gran and Grandad's house, they were always sure to ask if there were any titty biscuits to be had!

When I last visited Gran in January last year, we got talking about cars.  She had mostly had what might be classified as little racers! Gran wasn't reckless, but she really liked to drive.  She stopped driving when she knew she would was not safe driving.  There are many elderly drivers who could take a lesson from her there.  And  I remember that my Gran was good driver and probably would have been a racing driver if she was born in a different generation.
A very nice Ford Anglia - Gran's was white!

This goes back to when Gran was driving her beloved Ford Anglia.  A wonderful little car with fins; a wonderful little car that in 1966 won the British Saloon Car Championship.  The Anglia has also been in movies such as 'Harry Potter' (the car that flew), and 'Blow Up' with Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings (one of Uncle Rob's favourite movies).  Gran loved that car.  W
hen Gran drove, she never went over the speed limit, but stayed right on it.  And when Gran got to traffic lights, she would, of course, stop at the red lights never running them. The amber lights, however, were different!

This time, Gran must have had enough of my brother and me and was trying to get to Mum's as soon as possible.  We were sitting in the back seat in a car that had no rear seat belts and certainly no headrests. I was sitting in the middle of the back seats, my favourite spot, no doubt with arms on the back of the front seats, looking alternately between the speedometer and speed limit signs. Gran was coming towards a set of traffic lights.  They were green.  Then they turned to amber and Gran sped up.The amber light turned red.  And Gran would not run a red light and so she braked. Hard. Really hard.

I remember we careened to a stop, no doubt JUST on the line!  I do not remember the car skidding, nor do I remember bouncing off Gran's arm, but I do remember that I did not stay on the back seat as the car came to an abrupt halt.  I had been propelled between the front seats and took rest in the passenger foot well in a tidy shaking ball!  I imagine my brother wondering, gleefully, if I were still alive!

Gran calmly said: "Are you alright, dear?"  and helped me out of the well and gently helped back over the front seats into the rear of the car.  My brother has similar driving skills which I am sure come from Gran, inspired by that amazing stop.  "Wow" I think was all he said.  I always liked the Anglia, despite it's grumpy look.  When I had talked to Gran about it she said: "Oh, I did love that car."

I can imagine Gran now, freed from her body at last, to be the young spirit she always was.  I can see her driving off at top speed in her Anglia to get to those who have been waiting for her for so long, so happy to have her with them again....maybe with a tin of titty biscuits and chocolate fingers sitting beside her in the passenger seat.

Uncle Rob, Mum (Di) and Gran (Daphne), 1990
Many people shared memories of Gran at the funeral and afterwards at the pub.  Not just my Mum, Uncle Rob and cousin Kat, who also delivered eulogies at the service, but others who came up to us to tell us their memories.  Some inspired or remembered (triggered) by what we had said at the funeral.  We found out where the name titty biscuits came from.  There were children (now in their sixties and older) of people who knew Gran and Grandad who came to say how much they were loved.  I learned more about Gran that day than I ever thought I could.  She truly left a positive mark on many people, and a legacy to live up to.

Love you, Gran.

Titty Biscuits, or officially "Crispy Biscuits"

Here is the recipe for 'Titty Biscuits" although going through Gran's stuff the recipe was found, and they are really called "Crispy Biscuits."

2 oz. cooking fat
2 oz margarine
3 oz sugar (brown)
1 teaspoon of syrup (Tate and Lyle's Golden Syrup which can be found in the USA at some health food stores)
3 teaspoons of boiling water
4 oz self-raising flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup porridge oats
Glace Cherries

Cream fat and sugar, add syrup and boiling water.  Work in dry ingredients.  Roll into balls, top with half a cherry, place on greased baking tray and cook for 15 to 20 minutes on Gas Mark 3 or 150c
Crispy (or titty) Biscuit

The biscuits in the photo were made by my cousin Catherine.  They sit on a plate of my Gran's crockery which she had forever on the kitchen table (with original chairs) which dates to the 1960's.  When Gran (and Catherine) made them they were never crispy, but rather the almost crispy side of soft.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

The Dreaded Nightmare Gig

Last week was nice and busy for me.  I had an all-day school residence, an evening performance at the same school, a gig at a ballet studio (dance stories), and another performance close to home.

Usually things go right!  You get to a venue and as you unpack the car you realize that you have everything you need.  This is not always the case with a busy week!  You have plenty of time to set everything up and the venue offers you helpers too, even your musical instrument has time to acclimatize to the space.  You test the space to see if you will need a PA.  You look yourself over and there are no food or drink stains on your clothes.  Your socks match your shoes and there is no cabbage in your teeth.  Things are good.

So there I was.  Matching socks, clean clothes, bottle of water, all set up and plenty of time.  I clapped my hands and said a few words in the space in which I was to perform. There was a fair amount of echo, but it was a small space.  Smaller than the other the previous nights which were also acoustically challenged.  I wondered if I might need a PA; I had one in the car.  No, it was a small space and a PA, I decided, would be more than over-kill.  Besides, when the audience shows up and the stories start, those bodies will absorb some of the sound and everything will be all right.  Except, except I did not look at the ceiling over my head and notice it is at a very acoustically dangerous angle.  The pre-arranged start time is pushed back a little.  There is, however, a deadline which doesn't get pushed back and I wonder if I can do all I want to in the shrinking time frame. I again wonder about the PA.  No, it will be fine.  It's a small enough space, and there should be about 100 people coming.  My socks still match my shoes, I have not eaten any cabbage, and my water won't leave ugly stains on my shirt.  And there is still 15 minutes before 'show time'.  I play my bodhran and watch as people come through the area I am set up in.  I then notice, a little late, that there is a dance class going on down the hall, and in a room right next to me, other activities are going on, but that's okay, the door is closed.  I chat with a few folks and sit with a couple of the kids already congregating for the tales. And then it happens.

People appear from all over to hear stories, or so I think.  They swap stories with each other, visit the activity rooms which begin to get hot with all the bodies and so the door is left open and the sound of happy voices filter out.  And because sounds travels up, those happy voices hit the angled ceiling and bounce back down amplified.  There is no one there to introduce me, so I begin.  I get out my brass Tibetan bowl and make it ring, starting off slowly until it is singing beautifully.  This usually has the effect of those nearest me hearing the bowl sing and so become quiet, which then has a ripple effect as more people hear it.  But those closest to me, by a matter of a few feet, cannot hear it or the two that can, turn and ask the others what it is and why I am doing it.

I laugh to myself and stop, putting the bowl away, and then in my big booming "pub voice" do not announce closing time, but starting time.  I do the usual 'turn your phones off', 'if you kids lose it, take them out and come back when they are calm', and 'please, please, please be quiet, the acoustics here are not conducive to more than one person talking at a time - and that person should be me - I was paid to come here and tell all of you stories after all! Respect your neighbour' and all that.  Mostly people settle down, but one man keeps talking.  He is on the other side of the hall and it sounds to me like he is sitting on my lap, shouting in my ear.  So I politely walk over, so as not to make too big a deal of it, and restate my cause and the room's acoustic issues, allowing that there is a very long corridor and that he or anyone else could carry on their conversation down there where others won't be disturbed, and I can do the best job I can.  He is very gracious and smiles.  But by the time I am back on my side of the room he is talking again, albeit much quieter.  Yet it still sounds like he is sitting on my lap.

Who designs ceilings like this anyway?  You know, apart from Christopher Wren who MEANT to do it.  And he did it so you could be heard if you WHISPERED and it would only travel around the wall, not into The Space!  I worked at a library whose architect designed a room for teens with no doors - a very open space - and then in the upper floor above put quiet study rooms.  Teens cannot be quiet.  It is a scientific fact.  That without killing their spirit, or threatening them their lives, teens cannot be quiet.  With the open design the noise from the teen room went out of the space, up the walls, hit an angled ceiling and projected the now what seemed amplified sound into the quiet study space.

Anyway, I told my first of three stories without too much trouble after this, but when I finished the kids began to get up to go.  Some moved into the activity room, some came out.  This had been going on during the story but somewhat quietly.  Now there was no need to be quiet.  I had finished, hadn't I? Wait, wait!  I asked if they wanted another story and many said 'yes', and sat back down or came to listen.  But about a third of the way through my second story I could not hear myself speak.  The adults had taken over.  I tried raising my voice, but so did everyone else.  I spoke softly so it might cause some who wanted to be respectful of those who wanted to listen to become quiet, but they did not notice.  One woman, in the picture above, walked up next to me and began talking to a friend of hers, who tried politely to make her stop - to no avail.  The kids took a cue from her and began to talk about what to do after the stories, where did they get the cool hats from, etc..  I tried every trick in the book, from trying to physically engage the kids in participation, to walking into the audience, but people then began to move around and out of the room.  My normally ten-minute story was reduced to five and before I could get into another tale, people were leaving to get to another event which was to begin in another five minutes or so.

Someone came by and asked me to stay in case people came back.  In what seemed like 30 seconds, the place was empty.  As I was left alone, I packed up most of my stuff and waited.  But no one came back.  But I waited.  Not even the person who asked me to stay and wait, "just in case".  I smiled and laughed to myself and wondered what it would have been like with the PA.  Over-kill?  It was a great drive home as I listened to some of my favourite storytellers - my kids captured on my iPod, and thought this was one event I would not forget!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A world away

When my family decided to book a vacation in Costa Rica I thought I could find a native storyteller or two, but that, sadly, did not happen.  There was not enough time and this was a family vacation.  But I have come home with a desire to return to Costa Rica and learn Spanish. Not in that order!

We read up a fair amount before taking off for these foreign climes, so we might understand the culture we were about to explore.  We read and were told that there is a thing called Tico-Time!  People of Costa Rica are very friendly and laid back.  We were told that if you want someone to show up, they may not be on time (at least not Western time, but on Tico-Time).  We never found this, everyone was very punctual.  However, whilst waiting for a ferry as we traveled from Curu to San Jose, I was in a line with a bunch of people from all over and learned another part of Tico-Time.  This was my second time in the line, getting a second cup of Costa Rican coffee (in my mind, the best coffee on the planet - even the bad ferry port coffee was really good).  The line was not moving fast due to some of the none Spanish speaking tourists who panic and look blankly at the Costa Rican's with wide eyes!  One guy was getting really up-set.  The ferry was close to leaving, but I watched the three folk in front of me fuddle their way through their breakfast order and get to the check out. Meanwhile the other guy, Mr. Upset, was getting more and more agitated.  In the end he leaned between the group of men and me, jumping the line in quite a major way, ordered a soda, paid and left.  On the ferry I saw him and discovered he was not a native, but an American!  He was the only one NOT chilled out and NOT on Tico-Time.  I guess he was starting his vacation, or had lost some surfing contest!

This really is a land to watch and listen to.  We traveled by taxi, micro-bus and regular bus with a backpack on myself, a backpack on my wife, and with the kids carrying day packs; traveling light.  Walking through forests, or sitting on beaches, and even climbing up volcano's or sitting by the pool, if you stopped and watched and listened, you saw and heard so much.  As I sat alone one morning, on the beach at the Curu Refuge I noticed a hermit crab climbing over the rocks and stones.  As I sat still and watched this little fellow make his way along the shore, I noticed another, and another.  Then, as I broadened my view, I realized the rocks were a hive of activity with hundreds of hermit crabs moving around almost invisible blending into the rocks and stones they traveled over.

In the forest we heard rustling. Turning around to our sides we saw a very different crab.  These crabs were blue or purple in their bodies, with bright orange or red legs - not water crabs, but forest crabs - congrejo.  They rattled over the dry forest leaves and fallen palm fronds.  Hundreds of them, running and hiding or bolting back into the holes they lived in.  We realized that first evening there that the holes around our cabina were not lizard holes, but homes for these crab.  We came back to find the concrete floored porch, and screen door covered in the congrejos.  It was like a sci-fi movie or Hitchcock film as we chased them away and they rattled and clattered back to their burrows.

Volcan Chato
I imagine the first Europeans to visit Costa Rica thought that the forests there were filled with demons: the eery screams and barking that come from deep between the trees.  Well there might be demons but we only saw, and heard, howler monkeys.  From the noise they make you would think they were giant monsters, with frighteningly sharp teeth.  But no!  Over-sized if they were large dogs, shy and those who are not shy, very friendly!  We were so lucky to have many howler encounters.  We watched as they danced from tree to tree, in a way Ananzi would be proud!  We saw a mother carrying, with great care and agility, her young one.  And they watched us too.

The sounds, once you got used to them, were like songs, the sites like a dance.  The scuttling crabs, the howlers had their language and at first we were wide-eyed. But the more we listened, the more we heard the songs and understood the language: the songs of the birds, the songs of the fish, the dance of the incredible flora and exotic birds, the songs of the forests and the songs of the people and the beautiful dances their joyful faces made. I have a desire to return to Costa Rica and learn Spanish. Not in that order!