Tag Archives: Family

It’s The Great 2014 Round-Up!

Photo copyright of Gunnar Guðjónsson

Photo copyright of Gunnar Guðjónsson

This year has been an extraordinary one. A corker. There have been some ups and downs, some round-a-bouts, a see-saw, one of those wheel-of-death jobbies with the motorbikes. I may be getting carried away with myself a bit here, but trust me, it’s been that kind of year.

I’ve traveled more in 2014 than I think I have done in all the years leading up to it – Normandy and Iceland and Paris and New York – with friends where I could, alone if not, in love where possible.

I saw the northern lights with a group of strangers outside a porter-cabin hotel in the Icelandic highlands, and spent an hour under the dancing lights, smiling until the wind had chilled my teeth to a painful hum. The aurora borealis is the sort of thing that makes you want to hug the person next to you or tell someone you love them, and to see it alone was a bittersweet thing, but perhaps it was right. Was it eerie, my friends asked when I came home – was it weird? Gunnar, our guide, had explained earlier that day that the aurora, just like the volcanoes that loomed on every horizon, was a sign that the earth was healthy and alive. A planet without tectonics is a planet that is dead.

But even so, there was nothing remotely eerie about the lights. They were beautiful, and magnetic – they pulled us from our beds to stand in the frozen midnight air, miles from home. It felt….significant. It felt like a sign. Good things, dancing there in front of me. Good things, pole-to-pole. Maybe I’m naive, and hopeful, with a leaning towards sweeping spiritual statements, but I don’t think that matters. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, maybe the act of hoping is as good as getting what you’re hoping for. Maybe.

2014 was also significant – for you all I’m sure – as my thirtieth year on this planet. I know, I know, my youthful face and collection of Doctor Who toys make me seem much younger. But it’s true: thirty bloody years old. I suppose I can concede that I feel more like an adult now than I ever have before, but, that’s not really saying that much, is it?

This year I dabbled in the mucky world of Tinder, briefly. Dating often made me feel like a lone lost astronaut in an alien world, where I understood neither the rules nor the reason for them (“So…okay…you might reply to my text messages – three days later, yep, okay – but we mustn’t speak on the phone? We can have sex with each other….but we mustn’t be facebook friends? O…okay….”). The whole thing ended not with a bang but with a whimper, like a sad little fart in a next-door room. But out from my slightly pathetic foray into the world of internet dating came the desire to keep the momentum going, after years of professional dust-gathering on the shelf. I’d been hammered into shape by this point: I understood that love was about feeling constantly afraid and unsure and unattractive, it was about compromise and hiding, little bits of yourself shoved down the back of the sofa and under the carpet, control underwear and pretence and omission.

Most of all, it was the finger-wagging voice in your ear telling you you can’t have everything, you know.

Until, of course it wasn’t.

This year I’ve learned that love can still be terrifying, but instead of the lost, confused wandering of before, it’s a joyfully overwhelming thing. It’s free-wheeling headlong down a hill on a bike, someone with you, sat on your handlebars – you hurtle along, neither of you ever really knowing how high this hill is or if you’ll crash horribly at the bottom or land safely in a life you’ve built together along the way. And that’s it, isn’t it? You can never really know, no one can, but it’s the trying, that’s the thing. That’s all any of us want, surely? Someone to say they’ll try with us.

And now I’m with someone I would never have expected. Who knows what will happen, and it’s not perfect (living 3000 miles apart is a little inconvenient) and neither are we, but sometimes I look at him and marvel, because it seems as though someone stuck a pipette in my ear and sucked him right out of my brain when I wasn’t looking, three-piece suit and fedora and all.

And of course I haven’t really learned anything about love, because this is the first time I’ve known it, and it comes in many guises, and I’m only thirty. Perhaps when I’m old and grey and eighty I’ll know, or perhaps I won’t.

A week or two before I went on the first date with him, and began the slow, tentative process of falling in love, I wrote a piece about what I wanted in a man and published it on this blog. If I was going to be picky I had a long list of qualities, ending in his looking exactly like the actor Kit Harrington. But I wasn’t being picky, I didn’t want to be picky. I just wanted someone kind. Well, I think I’ve found that. And as he recently told me after coming back with our drinks in a soho pub. “I just stood next to him at the bar. That guy from Game of Thrones. You know, your boyfriend. And I’m taller than him.”

So, suck it, Kit Harrington. I’m off the market.

FUCKING FINALLY.

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Picau-ar-y-maen – Welsh cakes

One of my favourite childhood memories is shearing time. I grew up on a sheep farm in the middle of Wales, with my grandparents next door and my aunt, uncle and cousins across the field. Some mornings throughout the year we’d be woken up early to get dressed in overalls (the only thing that will keep the clothes of a bunch of kids marauding across the Welsh countryside relatively clean) and wellies, and head out up to the top of the farm to round-up the sheep, bringing them down to other fields, or into the pens in the paddock if it was dipping or shearing time.

I never remember being told it was shearing day, just that I would wake up to the sound of hundreds of bleating sheep, the odd rattle of corrugated metal sheet fences as they were shuttled through the pens, the sharp smell of sheep shit and wool heavy in the morning air. My brother and I would dress in an excited flurry, hopping out the door with one welly on and overalls flapping, desperate to watch.

Sheep farming is a solitary business, and it takes more than one man to shear a flock – there must have been some complicated schedule around the village, because neighbours would come to help on our farm, and my grandfather to theirs – sort of like one of those barn-raisings you see in the movies, but with less singing and dancing. And a lot more sheep.

Everyone would be enlisted – the men to corral the sheep and do the actual business of shearing, the wives to gather and roll the wool and pack into huge, oily hessian sacks tacked up between fenceposts. When I was very young I remember being allowed to climb onto the roof of the land-rover to jump on the sacks and pack down the wool, but this was soon deemed too dangerous, much to the disappointment of everyone under the age of ten.

Instead we’d be enlisted to peel a mountain of potatoes and veg in big buckets outside my Grandmother’s front door, and help prepare for the big meal to feed the army of helpers.

Welsh cakes were a fixture of the day, thick with butter or sugar. I still associate them with home and shearing, and I bake them every St David’s Day as a token offering – along with a bunch of daffodils in a vase on the table – to my Welsh blood.

But it’s when the summer starts to turn to autumn that I make them now, and today with the rain sheeting down and grim, and because I’m feeling a little homesick, it was the perfect opportunity to make them.

You can buy them in M&S, and some supermarkets, but you’re missing out on their wonder if you don’t eat them when they’re homemade and warm from the pan.

Here’s the recipe, that I copied from my mum’s hand-written recipe book. I add more fruit and spice though, since I love things fruity and spicy (wink wink nudge nudge) but it’s up to you how much you put in. Traditionally these were cooked straight on top of the stove, no need for a pan, but sadly I’ve never actually made them like that, despite having both a stove and a coal-fired rayburn back home in Wales.

  • 8 oz self-raising flour
  • 4 oz butter or margarine
  • 3 oz mixed fruit and/or sultanas
  • 3 oz caster sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice

Sift flour, sugar and spice and mix well. Rub in margarine.

Add fruit and mix well.

Beat egg lightly and add. Mix to a dough (if it’s too dry add a bit of milk)

Roll out onto a floured surface till about 1/4 inch thick.

Cut out shapes. As you can see from the pictures above, mine never turn out particularly neat (probably because I use more fruit than the recipe calls for, but, meh, it’s a price I’m willing to pay) – but I use a round cutter about 3 inches wide). Lightly grease a frying pan with margarine/butter – if you can use a cast iron pan even better.

Heat pan over medium heat, and cook cakes for approx 3 mins on each side.

Watch carefully, they burn easily! I generally lose a couple to the burning, but I eat them anyway, because waste not want not eh? You can eat them with butter or sugar sprinkled on, but I think they’re best plain, hot from the pan, and with a nice cup of tea. Eat whilst curled up next to an open fire if possible, in a nice comfy chair with a good book if not.

Hang on, little tomato

I stumbled upon the song “Hang On, Little Tomato” today – it’s the perfect mix of melancholy and Pixar-movie-esque hopefulness. Last year I blogged about the smell of tomatoes reminding me of my wonderful grandad and his greenhouse. He was the most cheerful, supportive and kind person I’ve had the privilege of knowing. He would have liked this song.

“Just hang on, hang on to the vine
Stay on, soon you’ll be divine
If you start to cry, look up at the sky
Something’s coming up ahead
To turn your tears to dew instead.”

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Home Sweet Home

(Click image for larger view)

Above is the picture I drew for my parents and my older brother as a Christmas present -a map of my parents house and our childhood home, on a blustery isolated hilltop 6 miles off the Mid-Wales coast.

In fact, it’s so blustery and isolated that a renewable energy company decided it’d be a good idea to harness all that bluster and isolation and put a windfarm up there. This is only a small part of the farm, and there are a few turbines on our land, but the picture is a stylised version, with a few of the places we used to play as kids (including the huge trawler net strung up between the trees in the pine forest like a giant trampoline. Which was accessed by a zip-line. My dad’s idea.)

I managed to get it printed nicely (if anyone’s interested www.agnieszkamiles.co.uk are very reasonable) and it looked lovely in a plain black frame, and went straight on the kitchen wall on Christmas morning. But not before it made my dad cry. So, succesful homemade Christmas gift, I’d say!

I really wanted to draw this for my parents – I’ve been so lucky to have the upbringing that I’ve had, in this incredible place. One day I hope that I might be able to bring up my kids there, just as I, my brothers and my cousins, my father and my uncles were. It’s a lovely place, but there’s been hard work – and hard times – to make it, not least because when my Grandparents bought it so long ago there were only two ruined cottages and a cow shed there. There’s been over 40 years of DIY building plumbing and electricals, digging wells, fixing leaking walls and roofs, watching the garden shed get blown across the yard and being snowed-in at least once a year.

But it’s in our blood and bones, this place – my Great-Grandfather was local (when he wasn’t off teaching in Cairo or Istanbul) and his family had roots in the area too. And it’s something less tangible than that too. It’s only in being away from this place that I’ve realised how much a apart of me it is.

It’s funny that – being so intrinsically linked to a couple of dots on a map. And some of it’s because that’s where my family is, but so much more of it is deeper, like it’s seeped into you after all those years – years of running around, falling out of trees and eating bilberries and bog-apples from the hillside, careening down slopes on sledges and bikes, wellies rubbing against bare-legs and clothes covered in pine-sap and sheep poo.

Yeah. That’ll be it.

ARCHIVED POST: “PS. How are the tomatoes?”

(This is an archived post moved here from my old blog, originally published on 11th May 2011)

When I’m feeling sad, or sorry for myself, or lonely, I buy tomatoes for dinner – the small, expensive ones, still on their fuzzy sharp vines. The hot musky smell of them does something peculiar to my brain, opens a little wormhole in my head – or my heart, or somewhere- and sucks me through to my childhood. My own personal, internal, olfactory time machine. Time And Relative Dimensions In Smell. Or…something. I am a child again, standing in my Grandad’s greenhouse, breathing in that smell. And it’s a little bit theatrical, a little bit dramatic, but I remember him like I last saw his yesterday, not five years ago.

But you see, my Grandad was often a little bit theatrical, a little bit dramatic. A perfect, and my favourite example: The Curious Tale of The Missing Index Finger…

If I shut my eyes I can see my Grandad’s hands – loose, wrinkled skin – the little nub of his left index finger which was cut off below the nail. When my older brother and I were kids he told us he’d got it stuck in the big anti-aircraft Bofors gun he fired during the war (presumably at a time when he and his mates weren’t using the barrel of said gun to smuggle stolen tins of raisins, or being stranded on the wrong beaches with it whilst the rest of their regiment fought it out, a little way down the coastline, in the Invasion of Sicily.)

No, he told us that he’d been firing the gun in Egypt when his finger became trapped in the mechanism. Unfortunately it had to be amputated, but the story had a happy ending because he gave the nub of discarded finger, nail and all, to a sad and starving stray dog that had been skulking around camp – which led to the mutt following him around for the rest of the war. My mother, though, has another version: she was told as a child that he lost it in a duel with a Cossack. Yes. A duel. With a Cossack. Asking around, we realised that everyone had been told a different story.

That dashing looking blond lad up there is my Grandad, Ronald Price. I’m currently in the middle of spell-checking and correcting the grammar on the literally hundreds of letters that he sent to his parents whilst away during WWII, and which I’ve typed up and intend to make into some sort of book for my family. And I’ve finally found the truth of The Missing Index Finger:

23rd March 1945

I missed writing this weeks letter for a day or two as I squashed one of my fingers with a sledge hammer on Monday and the M.O had to cut the end of it off to trim it up. It’s the index finger of the left hand so it won’t bother me at all. It’s healing up very nicely so don’t get worried or anything.”

They were putting up a tent. Not quite as glamorous as the duel or even the dramatic gun-mechanism-finger debacle. But this is my favourite story about my Grandad – if you know me well enough the chances are I’ve already told you it. It’s my Grandad, right there. The entertainer. The comedian. The truth may not be as exciting as the overblown and entertaining tales that made us laugh as kids, but there’s something in seeing this little paragraph, written to some parents at home in North London, worrying about their only son. Something so young and human. Reading these letters has let me see my Grandad as Gunner Price – in his early twenties, never left home till the war but now traveling the world, and desperate to document and share everything he sees and experiences with his mum, dad and sister back home.

In an odd way, I think I know how he felt. I spent three months in New Zealand at 19, phoning home almost every day to tell my family about the incredible places I’d been to, the people I’d met. I was desperately homesick but loving every minute – but more than that, more than homesickness, I was aching to share it all with the people I loved.
And here’s my Grandad, old creaky Grandad young and blond, dancing and swimming and eating his way around Italy, spending his leave in Rome weighed down with guide books (“I saw the famous Colosseum but as it is not the first Roman amphitheatre I’ve seen I wasn’t very stirred“), going to a Turkish Bath in Iraq (“This brings to the surface all sorts of mud and slime whereon you blush hotly and wonder what mother would say“), picking up a tan in Sicily (Yes sir, that’s me, the body beautiful. Oh what a treat the girls are missing.“).

He was obviously making an effort to be cheerful and entertaining for his worried parents back home – and for his sister, who was slowly dying of a brain tumour. His letters to his parents and his sister in those last few months before she died are heartbreakingly chipper and positive, full of cheesy jokes and shared memories for her, and assurances for his parents’ benefit that miracles happen every day, no matter what the doctors might say.

But it’s the little things, the signoffs (“Cheerio love Ron“), the asides (“I hope Dad has just pruned the roses. Now is the time, you know) and the postcripts (“P.S. How are the tomatoes?“) that bring it all home for me.

For a long time I’ve wanted to write something about my Grandad, but it’s so hard to put into words all the things that I want to say. That I want to say to him, really. He passed away on the 29th of October, 2005. And I have missed him desperately, each and every day since.

I want to tell him how much we love him, of course – but other things, silly little insignificant things. I want to tell him that his letters are wonderful, that he was so very funny, and wrote so beautifully, and that I’m sure his words were a great comfort to his parents and sister. I want to tell him about my life now – the books I’m reading, the places I’ve travelled to and things I’ve done- the way I found the courage to get up and sing on stage because of him. The way I’ll always try to be as good and loving and understanding and curious and excited a human being as he was – that I could never find a greater role model than him. And that I, like him, will never be too grown-up to get excited on Christmas Eve.

But I can’t. But I do. In my head, every day. So here I am with my tomatoes, and I am a child again, and it’s summer again – stretching on through endless sunny sunday nights, the knowledge of them ending there somewhere, but hazy, out of sight. I’m standing in my Grandad’s greenhouse- stiflingly close air heavy with the earthy smell of things growing, sunshine and water on crumbly soil. The little concrete paving slabs line up between the tall green rows, a little tangle of strawberry plants makes a break for freedom through a gap in the breezeblock foundations. But mostly tomatoes. Little hot, sunny, red skin-cracked tomatoes.

 

While not of my Grandad and his tomatoes, here is a photo of him with his other garden produce.