Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Poems and pancakes

From time to time, during the busy day, I thought of pancakes. I had the ingredients: flour, eggs and milk. And while there are numerous shortcomings in my abilities as a cook, I have one remarkable skill: I can toss a pancake and catch it, flipped over, in the pan. I don't know how I do it but I remember the teacher's face in the school cookery lesson when pancakes were on the agenda.

Cookery lessons were a perpetual misery. Under my mother's tuition I'd learnt a few useful skills: peeling vegetables, making a cheese sauce, roasting meat (I wasn't a vegetarian in those days). But I never used a recipe. My mother's instructions involved looking, feeling and tasting to get things right. In cookery lessons I was made to weigh and measure. Cakes collapsed under my assiduity so that gateaux had to be reconstituted as trifles. I dreaded the double lessons in which the cookery teacher would berate me with the direst threat she could imagine, "If you don't use the proper knife, you'll never get a husband." (The cookery teacher was unmarried.)

By pancake week, my cookery disasters had become popular entertainment. And disasters are standard in pancake-making. Before my turn arrived, I'd seen several other pupils' efforts land on the handle of the frying pan or on the floor. Given my previous record, something spectacular was anticipated - a direct hit on the ceiling perhaps. "Just a flick of the wrist," the teacher instructed. I had no credibility to lose. I flicked my wrist - and the pancake somersaulted in the air. Then it landed back in the pan, upside down. Plainly a fluke. "Do that again," the teacher told me. I did it again. And again. It was as well for my reputation that I again further convinced her of my unsuitability for marriage by rolling the pancake with the wrong knife.

I still look forward to Pancake Day - and worry in case I've lost the knack.

I'd meant to leave work early but at 6.15 I was caught in one of those corridor-conversations that generate ideas and produce better ideas that two hours in a meeting or at a computer. Suddenly I remembered another plan for the evening: a poetry reading. I'd meant to get home, make pancakes and cycle to a poetry reading that started at 7.30. There didn't seem to be a chance. "Give it a go," my colleague said.

The only train left in less than 25 minutes. I didn't wash my coffee mug (yes, I know what my cookery teacher would have said) and bundled my belongings into three bags and a laptop case. Running was out of the question but I walked so briskly that passers by must have thought me a bag lady on speed. I caught the train. I rang my teenage son - would he mind if the promised pancakes were delayed? I reached home, untethered the bike and sped to the cafe where the poets were billed to read.

The Flying Goose is a small, out-of-the-way venue that has been hosting poetry evenings for years - usually on evenings when I'm working late or can't get out of another obligation. After some rapid pedalling, I arrived early to find the cafe already crowded. It was an international evening: the poets were Adrian Caesar, representing Australia and Alexander Hutchison, representing Scotland. The bargain admission price was £3, which included a glass of wine.

I knew Adrian Caesar's work as a critic from his book on 1930s poetry. The poems he read were filled with gloom but this was, in a strange way, cheering because the gloom was mostly the gloom of daily life and middle age - and it was lightened with humour. But for me the most memorable poem was one that compared the work of a poet and academic with the valuable work of the poet's grandparents who had been miners. It's the miners, the poem reminds us, who seek out what is valuable and bring warmth into our lives - but no-one applauds them for it. We duly applauded the poet.

I didn't know Alexander Hutchison's work but as soon as he started to read I knew this was work I would like. His poetry could be simultaneously moving and playful - it included translations from Catullus into broad Scots, a fanciful and extravagant poem about haggises, poems filled with romantic longings and poems of light-hearted mockery. Above all, they were poems that celebrated language with delighted exuberance. I'd promised myself no extravagance but I couldn't resist buying a copy of his elegantly plain book, Carbon Atom. Alexander Hutchison sang too, and included a brief reminiscence of Jessie Kesson, one of my favourite 20th century writers.

So home to make pancakes and this time my skill deserted me. I couldn't get the oil right and the pancakes stuck to the base, so that I had to ease the batter away. I ended with mis-shapen pieces which didn't look much like pancakes. I tossed them anyway and my son added sugar and lemon, assuring me he didn't care what the food looked like. I asked how many he'd like. "As many as you make," he replied. I suppose that was a success of sorts.


Anonymous said...

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Kathz said...

You may have ncountered other Beeston products, such as the Ericsson telephone. And Boots still have their headquarters on the edge of Beeston although the company has npw been merged. See the wikipedia entry

Your comments are always welcome.

Alan Baker said...

So you were at the Flying Goose too! Wasn't Alexander Hutchison good? The poem about miners from Cesar was the one that grabbed me as well (see Litterbug). I was the thin bloke with glasses and a bookish air... hmm, doesn't make me stand out at the FG does it?

kathz said...

I thought Alexander Hutchison absolutely tremendous. I read your post on the subject at Litterbug - you must have been blogging at about the same time as me. And I think I may have recognized you from your profile picture - perhaps you didn't recognize me from mine???

Alan Baker said...

I'll look out for the sword next time...