Friday, April 19, 2013

Sardines Here, Sardines There!

I love sardines.  I grew up eating sardines, particularly the tinned variety, and loved them.  "Sardines on Toast" was a family favourite.  The tins didn't have a ring-pull like they do now; they had a key and when you wound the key, the metal lid gradually wrapped around itself to open the can and reveal those little silver fish.  We'd put them in a shallow china bowl, mash them up with Heinz Salad Cream, and spread them on toast which we'd pop back under the oven grill and toast until bubbling.  I still eat sardines on toast now though I use mayo if I can't find Salad Cream at the store, and add a teaspoonful of sweet relish to spice it up.  I even introduced my American family to the joys of the dish and they enjoy them to this day!

It's a very good thing I love sardines because there were times when I lived in Tripoli back in the mid-80s that sardines were all we could find to eat.  In early letters from Libya, I tell my family and friends:

"There is nothing to buy here except food, and there is very little food to buy.  Sardines are usually available in tins (tuna-fish too, I'm told, though I haven't seen any yet).  We can't have sardines on toast though because while we can buy bread, we can't make toast as there are no such things as toasters or grills in Tripoli."

A few months later, I share that we (the secretaries) heard a rumor that a little shop on the other side of town had large quantities of sardines so we arranged for Musbah, the AGIP company driver, to take us there after work.  The shopkeeper did indeed have sardines...cases of them just arrived from Russia.  Most cases had already gone but there were a couple left.  However, the Libyan shopkeeper tried to explain with gestures that these were rotten sardines and only fit for animals.  We bought them anyway.  But once opened, we realized he was right.  There was something peculiar about the color and smell.  I tried them out on my cat but even he, a scruffy alley cat of questionable parentage with no palate that ate almost anything, wouldn't touch them.  We had to throw them away.

By the end of my time in north Africa, I'd come to loathe them.  In one letter, I say, "If I ever see another sardine, I shall spit in its eye."  And in another, "If I ever utter the word 'sardine' out loud in a public place, you must shoot me, right there and then."

So here I am in Austin, Texas, playing Mrs. Clackett in Austin Playhouse's production of NOISES OFF in which almost my every other word is "sardine" -- "I've got a nice plate of sardines to put my feet up with," and "Now I've lost the sardines..." and "Sardines here, sardines there."  I stuff sardines down the front of my fellow actress's dress, she stuffs them down mine.  I have them thrown in my hair, my colleagues slip up on piles of them.  Six plates of sardines make their way around the stage...or is it seven?! 

Everything comes full circle, doesn't it?  I loved sardines, I hated them, I love them again.  And now I get to play with them for all the world to see.  Goodness, is that the time?  If you'll excuse me, I'm going to run lines with a nice cup of tea and a pre-rehearsal bite to eatAs Mrs. Clackett would say, "Sardines, sardines...can't put your feet up on an empty stomach, can you?"

NOISES OFF opens on Friday 26 April 2013 at Austin Playhouse in our temporary home at Highland Mall.  For details, please go to

Sardines on Wholemeal Bread...almost as good as Sardines on Toast

Monday, April 15, 2013

My Mother, The Heron

Six years ago, the morning I heard of my mother's death, I went walking in my neighborhood to try and calm myself.  Her death was sudden; unexpected.  I was about a mile from my house when two huge blue herons flew overhead, landed in a tree above my head, and watched me.  Although I live a block from Shoal Creek, I'd never seen herons in my neighborhood before.  I was overwhelmed by the sight of these birds; it brought on the tears.  Oceans of tears.  I felt the spirit of my parents in these birds.  I dismissed the fact that my parents didn't get along -- everyone gets along in the spirit world!  After that, whenever I saw a heron, I'd think of my mother.

It hadn't happened again from that day to this though I've kept my eyes open for such a recurrence.  Until this morning!  On that same walk, walking past that same tree, a huge blue heron flew over my head and landed right there.  It wasn't watching me directly at first.  In fact, it was having a bit of trouble finding its balance on the branch.  I immediately thought of my mother's balance issues in later life.  (As an aside, Mum and I decided that children "fall down" but older folks "take a fall."  As in, "Poor old thing, she lost her balance and took a fall.")  Well, there was Mum this morning, in heron form, having a bit of trouble staying upright.  At last, she managed it, turned her head and looked right at me.  

The cynics among you will say it's a coincidence but I'm open to the wonder of synchronicity.  I've been thinking about Mum pretty much constantly, about her life and her part in my life, since her anniversary last week.  I'm quite prepared to believe that God, the Universe and the Powers-that-be arranged a little visit on my behalf.  I accept good omens in every shape and form!  Blessed, that's me, blessed!

Not my picture but My Mother The Heron looks like a little like this

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Mum Joins The Land Army!

In my mother's honor, here is her own story about leaving home for the very first time.  World War II put paid to Mum's chances of going to university, at least temporarily.  Desperate to get away from a difficult and traumatic family life in the north of England, she took the first chance that came along.

"I joined the Women's Land Army in January 1943 when I was 17 years and 3 months old.

My uniform had arrived in a battered cardboard box.  Any kind of paper or cardboard was hard to come by at that time and everything was hoarded for future use.  I had asked to be posted as far away from home as possible.

I found I was going to Hampshire way down in the South of England which was pretty far from County Durham.  All traveling arrangements were done by people who drew the shortest line between two places with no regard for available transport or the traveler's convenience.  Instead of taking the bus from my house to the Central Station in Newcastle, I was ordered to take it to Durham to catch the London train from there.  No one told me to change my travel warrant for a ticket.  I thought it was a ticket.  At about six o'clock in the morning on a freezing January day, my dad took me to the bus with two enormous suitcases, neither of which I could carry.  I don't actually remember saying goodbye but I do know it was the end of my childhood, my home life and everything familiar to me.  I can't imagine what Dad was feeling as he walked back to what I still call home.  And we never discussed it so I never found out.  That's how it was in England in those days.

I reached Durham.  The railway is on a viaduct high about the road and I had to walk up there, carrying one case at a time, heave by heave.  I got a rocket from the ticket man for not changing my travel warrant and when the train came, I lurched on and found a seat with other Land Army new girls I found there.  Now, how do I say this?  They were from what were still, at that time, the slums of Newcastle.  I was a delicately nurtured, private school-educated girl who had never had to do without.  I stuck out like a sore thumb.  I am surprised I wasn't ignored or laughed to scorn -- but I think that, even then, I was able to lower my sights and be, to a certain extend, "one of them."  However, let us say that we didn't have much in common.

At King's Cross Station, we all parted and I must say, how I got from there to Waterloo Station by Underground is a mystery.  I remember that my luggage was carried by various servicemen all the way.  According to my ticket, I was supposed to catch the Portsmouth train to Rowland's Castle, quite the wrong stop according to the farmer's wife who would have had to go miles out of her way to pick me up if I had actually done that.  But Rowland's Castle had been changed to Petersfield.  I little knew then the part that Petersfield was to play in my life.  By this time I had acquired a navy escort who was so worried about my ability to get to my final destination that he insisted on getting off at Petersfield with me in spite of being on his way to Portsmouth.  I had never been "picked up" in my life.  I knew very little about boys except for people I grew up with.  I did not realize how good all these young servicemen were being to me.  Nowadays I think you'd be taking quite a chance.

At Petersfield it was raining.  It was about tea-time and nearly dark.  "Forlorn" is the word that springs to mind.  After about 20 minutes, a little car rolled up and it was the farmer's wife and her son, Roy.  The sailor was dismissed rather rudely by the wife and I said thank you and off we went.  I think this was the low point.  I was so homesick I nearly wept.  The conversation was stilted; there was little to say.  In the tiny hamlet of Chidden, near Hambledon, where the farm was, I was taken to a cottage where a young mother with a 4-year-old was living, a refugee from the bombing of Portsmouth.  Her husband was in the Royal Air Force.  I was billeted with her.  After telling me to be at the cowshed at 6:30 a.m. the farmer's wife left and I went to my room.  I don't remember any names.  The young mother was about twenty-three, I think.  She was very pleasant and I felt better.  I spent most of the night awake with an alarm clock pressed to my ear.  I was surprised at how quickly I learned to wake at six.

The farm was a small, mixed establishment.  The farmer was really old and having had a heart attack, did nothing.  His wife was much younger and was quite fat -- but strong?  My hat!  Arms like hams.  Always wore a shapeless black dress.  She had asked the Land Army for a 30 year-old experienced milk-hand and she got me.  We were not satisfied with one another.  When I arrived at the cowshed it looked like the Nativity scene.  Soft paraffin lamps, gently breathing cows, the smell of hay and dung.  This reality soon changed.  They gave me a pail, a stool and a cow and the said, "Milk it."  It had long nails that I soon either cut or got torn off.  Innocent as the day is long, I was wearing my complete uniform, every scrap of it.  I soon tore off a good deal of that as well.  It's hard work, milking.  At 9:00 a.m., I returned to the cottage for breakfast.  Then a morning's work preparing food for the animals, dinner, feeding bullocks in the afternoon, the evening's milking and at 6:00 p.m., back home in time for supper.  And me a city girl.

I stayed for 3 months.  I was a disappointment, I'm afraid; they asked to have me removed.  Well, what could they expect?  Talk about throwing someone in at the deep end.  I was sent to a women's hotel in Peterfield, and there my life began!
This is not my mum; this girl looks very cheerful!