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Food of Love by Sylvia Vetta

CHAPTER 1: Flopsy 1952

When Flopsy was served up in a stew, I couldn’t eat her. I’d fed my rabbit groundsel from the waste land at the bottom of Pomfret Avenue and bolted lettuce from my father’s allotment. Dad had no problem doing the necessaries. His father and grandfather were butchers with land near Sennen Cove, overlooking Land’s End in Cornwall. My reluctance to eat Flopsy pointed the way to becoming a vegetarian in 1987, a concept which I knew nothing about until I met my husband.

Charles Thomas Harry, my father, was born in 1902 in St Buryan, Cornwall and, by the age of two, had lost his own father. His mother, Elizabeth, remarried a year later, and Charles never inherited his father’s land or the butcher’s shop in St Buryan. Instead his stepfather gave Charles the motorbike in the picture as his inheritance. How he loved that dream machine! That gift determined his life. He trained as an apprentice mechanic with Vauxhall Motors in Vauxhall, London and then joined the RAF. When he was stationed at Henlow Camp, he drove his bike through the village of Stotfold and captured the heart of my mother, Doris Howard. They married in 1928 when she was eighteen and he was twenty six, and in the act, Charles gained a large extended family.

On April Fools’ Day in 1957, the weekly documentary programme, Panorama, broadcast a three-minute spoof report of the spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, showing attractive young women lifting strings of pasta off bushes. Hundreds phoned the BBC the next day for advice on how to grow their own spaghetti tree. Many more fell for the joke.

The narrow culinary experience of most Brits was a main meal of meat and two boiled veg, with fish on Fridays. My mother was not alone in cooking a roast dinner every Sunday. On Monday—wash day— we ate cold meat, potatoes and salad. On Tuesday, Doris would grind the remaining leftovers and make shepherd’s pie. We ate mint sauce with lamb, parsley sauce with fish, horseradish with beef and apple sauce with pork. My mum prepared her own ham and tongue. Every Friday I’d come home from school to a house fragrant with the aroma of baked cakes. I can’t remember one spoiled meal.

My mother had grown up on a smallholding in Stotfold, Bedfordshire. When I interviewed Icolyn Smith, the founder of the Cowley Road Soup Kitchen in Oxford, she described how she was born of subsistence farmers in Jamaica. Her experience of food sounded so like my mother’s. The two-up two-down house accommodating my grand-parents and their nine children would have been more solid than Icolyn’s, but apart from that, subsistence farming describes it well.

Mum’s brother Arthur and his wife Bertha continued to live there after my grandparents died when I was six and seven respectively. I loved visiting. Many of the Howard tribe were in the Salvation Army and played brass instruments but Bertha owned and played on an upright piano. My favourite aunt, Alice, who became an officer in the Salvation Army, was a proficient pianist. (More about her later.) The family liked to gather around the piano and sing hymns and popular songs. At the bottom of the garden was an orchard and beyond that soft fruit. My parents were used to just-picked freshness.

Towards the end of the war they bought the semi-detached house in Luton in which I was born. My dad’s peacetime job was as a rectification fitter at the now American-owned, Vauxhall Motors factory. Our house was unusual in being newly built in early 1945. Italian prisoners of war laid the road in Pomfret Avenue. Some of the neighbours criticised my mother when she plied the prisoners with cups of tea. Her brother Horace was a prisoner of war in Germany captured in North Africa and she empathised. My favourite uncle, Charlie, was a sergeant in the Forgotten Army in Burma. When he returned he could find nowhere for his wife Eva and himself to live, so they squatted in a Nissen Hut in the New Forest until in 1949 they moved into a new council house in Petersfield. Charlie loved Eva to bits and all he wanted was to enjoy what he could of life. I never persuaded him to answer questions about Burma and to my knowledge, all he ever said, even to Eva, was that his officer was killed and he had to find a way of getting his men back to India.

Many decades later I had the privilege of interviewing that master of speculative fiction, Brian Aldiss. Sixty years after WW2, I could taste the fear that came from the slightest rustle in the jungle as he described his experience as a soldier in Burma. Private Aldiss, with other veterans of that war in the east, arrived home in Southampton to be met on the docks by NO ONE, not even a representative from the army. Truly the forgotten army.

Father had an allotment half a mile from our house where I learned how to trench potatoes and pick peas, eating a lot raw as I worked. One Saturday afternoon as I walked home alone, I passed a man standing by a narrow alley. It wasn’t until I was close to him that he turned around displaying his erect penis. That was the first time I’d seen that particular male organ. I ran home but didn’t tell my mother—I didn’t have the vocabulary. Sex, biology, reproduction, sexuality were not topics at that time for any child, or indeed most adults. I’m not exaggerating.

Although the vegetables I picked were mostly boiled, they had flavour. It is hard for my grandchildren to grasp the idea of an orange or a satsuma being so precious that it was a star ingredient in my Christmas stocking. My parents were not unusual in post-war Britain buying their first refrigerator in 1958. Before that, food had to be bought fresh and vegetables were only available in season. In the winter, we ate whatever could be conserved: cabbage, cauliflower, sprouts and root veg. Tomatoes, often called ‘love apples’ because they evoked the colour of ruby red lips, were only available in the summer and early autumn when courting was easy. The first aubergine I saw was a sad-looking shrivelled thing imported by an Asian shopkeeper in Smethwick in 1963. No wonder a diet without meat was unusual.

While at primary school, I came home for lunch but it wasn’t called lunch; it was called dinner and was the main meal of the day. The evening meal was ‘tea’. The idea of eating out was not just foreign, it was unaffordable. The only meals I experienced before secondary school, apart from my mother’s cooking, were take-away fish and chips, meals at aunts and every other year a week’s summer holiday in a boarding house. Bill Bryson described it well in Notes from a Small Island.

Mrs Smegma... gave me a tour of the facilities and outlined the many complicated rules for residing there: when breakfast was served, how to turn on the heater for the bath, which hours of the day I would have to leave the premises and during which brief periods a bath was permitted (these seemed oddly to coincide), how much notice I should give if I intended to receive a phone call or remain out after 10pm.

There were so many rules that Bryson concluded, ‘This was like joining the army.’

And then there was the rationing. I recall between the ages of four and six, taking my ration card to the sweet shop half a mile away down a steep lane at the bottom of the road leading to High Town Road. Scooped from jars, my four ounces of sugar-filled treats were carefully weighed. Food rationing only ended in 1954. The government needed a large standing army because it was trying to cling to its colonies. The tax base was eradicated and we still had commitments on the Con tinent. All told, it meant that England was poor and the government couldn’t expand food production fast enough.

Milk was delivered to the door and so were some groceries. If the grocer’s van was seen at the top of the road, it offered no danger because it was slow, as were most cars in the fifties, and we had plenty of time to get onto the pavement. Boys and girls played together tag, hide and seek, French cricket, rounders, sticky toffee, What’s the Time Mr Wolf, five stones, marbles and hop scotch. Girls alone tended to skip and play two balls up the wall. In the summer holidays we migrated to a grassy slope at the bottom of the road to play cowboys and Indians, soldiers and nurses—all gender stereotyped and unknowingly racist. In August, we picked the blackberries and loganberries growing in the hedges.

My father was one of the first residents in Pomfret Avenue to buy a second-hand car. Unlike today, there were no parked vehicles on the road and we children played together in the street until the sun set, when Mum would call me in, give me hot chocolate and send me to bed. Parenting was a lot easier in those days. The number of minutes parents spend with their children is dramatically higher now than it was in my childhood, rising from 50 minutes in 1965 to 150 minutes in 2016. The world was safe and secure, England was the transcendent nation and my neighbourhood was my universe.

Food of Love is available in paperback and ebook

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