Monday, 12 December 2016


You need to concentrate when cooking, especially when - like me - your thoughts are elsewhere. The idea was a steamed fruit sponge, and preparing the fruit (apples, pears and cherries) was easy enough. No, it was the assembly of the sponge ingredients which interfered with an interesting plot development for my ongoing second novel. Suddenly I found I had completely forgotten about ‘creaming the butter and sugar’ and everything was sitting together in the bowl, eggs resting smugly on the sugar and flour coating the butter. ‘To hell with it’, I thought, and set to work with a hand mixer, convinced that I could pull it all together without a problem. Well of course it curdled. In my experience however hard I try, a sponge mixture always does. Except for one memorable occasion when it was the best mixture I ever achieved: the Snake Cake.

My son’s birthday falls a few days after Christmas and this was – possibly – his fourth, I can’t actually remember. So I decided to hold a Christmas party for him. My dear old friend Mrs. Snell bravely offered her near-open-plan sitting room and kitchen, since our cottage was tiny and impractical for a bunch of over-excited youngsters to let off steam, and her son, always game for a laugh, was persuaded to make a visit dressed up as Father Christmas. Invitations were sent out, and plans made. A friend lent me a cookery book full of children’s cakes, most of which appeared horribly complicated to make. The easiest looking was a ‘Snake Cake’, a simple sponge baked and cut to shape before being covered in butter icing. That sponge mixture went brilliantly! I must admit I tried my utmost to combine the ingredients carefully, and it rose to perfection in the oven. Admittedly the green colouring which I added to the butter icing was rather startling, but I felt it looked reasonably impressive as I stuck candles into its curves.

One small downside to the planning was the inclusion of an ‘access visit’ to my son from his father, (my ex-husband G) who was living in London and made regular trips to Devon for this purpose. It was not the best day for him to choose, but I decided to grit my teeth and accept the inevitable. Everyone was excited about the party and a lot of friends were helping – a godsend in those days when I was trying to cope as a single mother. My good friend Ali was a staunch ally when it came to explaining that G would be attending the party, and I suspect she was equally intrigued to find out what he was like, not having previously known him. My mother was invited to come along too. Now my mother isn’t particularly fond of children, and as Mrs. Snell appeared to be doing a lot of the organising did not want to interfere, so missed out on being informed that G – whom she had not seen since before the divorce – would be there.

The afternoon of the party arrived and we lugged the cake and all the food down the road to Mrs Snell’s house. She had cleared her sitting room ready for games, and the whole place was alive with Christmas decorations and sparkling lights. The cake took pride of place on the kitchen table, children arrived and the party began. As all such events are, it was a noisy affair punctuated with shouts, gales of young laughter and the odd cry of frustration and unfairness. Games went well and food was consumed. As the post-tea games began, one boy remained seated at the table. ‘This cake’s great!’ he exclaimed, and continued to work his way through it.

If memory serves me well, G and Father Christmas arrived at the same time. The children were distracted by Mrs Snell’s son’s muffled shouts of ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ and G managed to slide across the room and into the kitchen. Ali’s sharp blue eyes had missed nothing, and neither had my mother who was standing next to her. ‘Oh my god!’ my mother gasped. Ali asked, ‘Is that…?’ and my mother nodded confirmation – as if it were needed! I was forced to extract my son from a game to make a dutiful greeting to his father, but he soon dashed back into the fray because ‘Father Christmas’ was about to distribute presents. It was probably at this point when G became aware of my mother’s icy glare from across the room – she was about the last person he would have wanted to encounter, and he turned back to the cake, unwilling to take any further part in the proceedings. The children’s shouts became more fractious. Ali, with a wicked gleam in her eye, asked my mother whether she was going to go and say hello to her ex-son-in-law. She never replied. At that point the noise reached a crescendo and one of the boys shouted out: ‘You’re not Father Christmas! You’re the bloke from the garage!’

There wasn’t much cake left at the end. The boy who had consumed most of it was taken home looking rather green. I don’t remember what happened to the remainder of G’s access visit either, except that – as such visits go – it hadn’t been particularly successful. Father Christmas, who had been unable to contain his laughter after being recognised, magnanimously distributed the rest of the presents before the little guests departed, and sank into a chair exhausted. Ali and my mother withdrew to consume sherry and no doubt to dissect the events of the afternoon.

The Snake Cake… the best cake I ever made. I only managed one bite of it, but the memories flood back when I think of it, and it always makes me laugh. Sadly Ali died far too young, G also met an early demise and my dear friend Mrs Snell is no longer with us. She would have laughed too, and it is such thoughts which keep alive those who have gone.

So if you are holding a children’s party, I thoroughly recommend making a ‘Snake Cake', but make sure you save a large piece for yourself!

Thursday, 8 December 2016


There is something slightly disturbing about fog. When it follows a period of bright, crisp December days and cold nights, the elevated temperature is not a fair trade. Fog changes everything, and is one of my most hated conditions in which to drive. The only one I dread more (other than ice) is fog at night, when a car journey becomes a long tiring test of one’s ability to discern distance and recognise everyday features as though on another planet.
Many years ago I needed to drive my (then teenage) son eight miles to a friend’s house, from where he would be taken on to a school Christmas Carol Concert rehearsal. A few hours later I would need to repeat the journey to pick him up. This is actually quite a short distance and the outward journey to the friend was fine. Although it was dark (and in Devon, winter nights can be VERY dark,) the route was clear. It was as I began to drive home that a blanket of fog descended. The route became instantly unrecognisable. As I strove to remember the location of some very sharp bends and other minor hazards, my eyes grew dry from not blinking and I thought the journey would never end. The final two miles involved turning off the main road and climbing a steep, winding and narrow minor road to the village in which we then lived. The road was bordered by Devon banks, those great mounds of earth created over centuries of farmers practising ‘hedging and ditching’ to border their fields. I wondered whether their apparently spongy covering of bracken, brambles and undergrowth would bounce me back on to the road if I strayed too close. Luckily I never needed to find out, as I eventually reached home without mishap after what felt like hours.

I dreaded the return journey which subsequently proved equally as bad. It is no fun reversing the car in such conditions in order to allow another car travelling in the opposite direction to pass. Not even sophisticated parking aids work in night fog, even if your car is fitted with them (which mine was not). I arrived slightly late at the friend’s house, where the fog appeared to be clearing, and as we drove back home again the visibility improved. The next day I had to drive the route yet again – and the fog had gone. It was daylight, visibility was sharp and familiar. The previous night’s anguish was soon forgotten.

How easily we humans adapt to our surroundings. Yes, driving through fog felt like purgatory at the time, but I managed it and I imagine if I had to endure it for a long time I would become better able to cope with it. My eyes would begin to compensate for the blurring, I would blink more normally and my sense of direction might improve. But today, when I awoke to mist and the haziness of nearby trees, I was infinitely glad not to have to be taking anyone anywhere!