I love the rows of uneven books in our home, they are lined up on shelves on either side of the mantel piece and on a small wooden bookshelf Mum buys from the secondhand store on the corner of First Avenue.
I like that secondhand shop, but it smells musty as if someone has left old socks somewhere or if you have some clothes that are not properly dry, and you put them in a drawer and they make you screw up your nose and say “urgh” and “yuck!” That shop always has lots of things, chairs, tables refrigerators, cupboards, huge wardrobes and beds. They have so many things that they spill out onto the pavement and sometimes dogs cock their legs and pee all over the stuff, and the man selling inside runs out and chases the mutt down the road shouting things like “bugger off you little tow-rag.” You can see this if you are going to Muriel Mann the children’s clothes store to get something important, like socks.
I can’t remember learning to read. I just can. Mum says I’m reading at age three long before I start school. My brother Paul is three years younger than me. He doesn’t know even the easy words in his Peter and Jane books. I feel hot and want to hide when people say, “what a clever girl, can you read this?” and they show me a newspaper and ask me to read something stupid. I want to hug Paul and tell him that it’s alright. I’m ashamed because I find reading so easy. I wish I could share my reading with Paul in the same way that I share my last dumpling with him because I know he likes them. It is dangerous to leave things that you like on the plate in our house. You learn to eat the nicest things first, because my sisters Patsy or Rosie would say as their fork pierced the piece of food you had been saving “You don’t want that do you?” And in a gulp and a giggle it would be gone. The morsel of chicken, or baked potato vanished in front of your eyes. No, I couldn’t share my reading and Paul couldn’t steal it from me.
No one knows the word “dyslexia.” Travelling salesmen come to visit our home and my Mum purchases books on credit. She buys a set of twelve children’s encyclopedias that I read and reread repeatedly. I run my hands over the thick, burgundy-colored books and my fingers feel the raised gold lettering. A picture of the Queen is the first thing you see in volume 1. All the volumes (except the last volume which is an index) are full of green and brown sepia photographs of famous statues and places around the world. I read fairy tales and stories about famous people and lots of poetry and riddles like “As I was going to St Ives,” and “Three little kittens have lost their mittens and they began to cry.”
Once a travelling salesman brings a set of Peter Rabbit books, there are a lot of tiny pastel-colored books with slippery shiny covers that to me smell divine. “Now Mrs.” He says a smarmy tone decorating his voice. He’s dressed in a grey shiny suit with a large blue and grey kipper tie. Kipper ties look like kippers, which are really herring, and some people think that kippers are a real fish, well of course they’re real, just another name, and Mum sometimes for a treat cook them up with onions, tomatoes and peppers.
“These books are fresh off the press. Remember the ones you bought a couple of months ago? Well, these are much better. Perfect children’s stories, you can’t beat Beatrix Potter. It would be a sin not to buy them for your kids.” The salesman says to my Mum. Her big mistake is letting him into our room. Someone has let him into the house, or perhaps the front door is open, and he just comes up and as we’re on the middle floor it’s easy to find us. Mum says she can’t afford them. “No, I’m sorry but I really can’t buy them, I don’t have the money.”
“Alright then ducky,” the man says. I know my Mum doesn’t like being called “ducky.” He continues. “Alright, I’ll tell you what. I’ll leave them for you to have a look at for a week, no pressure. If you change your mind and want them then I’ll ask for a five bob down payment.” Mum says “no, don’t do that I really can’t afford them.” But the salesman puts the books on the red and grey coffee table with the yellow and cream crocheted decorations and leaves quickly, all the time my Mum is smiling and protesting. She must have seen that look in my eye. Boy I really wanted those books. She says, “Angie, I’m sorry, they’re lovely, but we really can’t keep them.” I guess I must have screwed up my face as Mum continued, “hang your basket where you can reach it.” This is Mum’s motto. Along with “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.”
I don’t listen and gobble down every one of the books before the salesman returns the following week. I loved the stories about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton Tail, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Benjamin Bunny. I loved the smell and the touch of the shiny white pages with the pastel drawings of the tiny creatures. I must admit that I skip over most of the Tale of the Two Bad Mice.
Years later my motto will become, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or ah, what’s a heaven for.”
In the year 2000, I bought “The British Millennium: 1,000 Remarkable Years of Incident and Achievement” a pictorial history of Great Britain (The Hulton Getty Picture Collection, 2000). Flipping through the copious pages, I expected to find something relatable on a personal level in at least the last fifty years of pictures. But in 987 pages of images, I found three photos of Boxing Champion Lennox Lewis, one of Rugby hero Jeremy Guscott, and a picture of the Spice Girls.
A little less than twenty years earlier in 1981 young Black people erupted in spasms of anger that tore through parts of major cities around the United Kingdom. Brixton in London, Handsworth in Birmingham, Chapel Town in Leeds, and Toxteth in Liverpool all witnessed disturbances. The previous year riots had also occurred in the St. Paul’s district of Bristol. Lord Scarman’s report into the unrest chronicled, “complex political, social and economic factors” as contributory to the riots. Undoubtedly in the minds of some BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) parents was the question of education.
Many people regardless of ethnicity frequently look to education as a door opener to better opportunities. The economic, political, and social stagnation of the 1970s and the fact that BAME people were often the last in and first out of employment, frequently in low paying work, pushed many to want better for their children. However, the panacea of education had and has always operated as a “doorkeeper”. It spawned an even more narrow gateway when the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced a market driven education system, and racial equity, and equality became casualties of a market driven colour-blind approach to education.
Racial disparities should come as no surprise. As far back as the 1960s it is clear the educational system was then and is not now immune from covert and overt racism. Macro and Microaggressions, along with conscious and unconscious bias have many times encouraged stereotyping and profiling of BAME students in the education system. Multicultural education and anti-racist policies were and are both promoted and dismissed to ameliorate issues of schooling. Moreover, the belief probably still flourishes among some BAME communities that history curricula should give BAME students more inclusive views of themselves. Furthermore, there are also calls from politicians and parts of the public for School history to play a significant role in the forging of public national identities and improving intergroup relationships. History for some still teaches lessons worth learning or at the very least remembering.
The 1988 Education Reform Act mentioned previously included several “neutral” provisions such as allowing parents to specify their preferred choice of school and a new National Curriculum for England Wales and Northern Ireland. Inspecting this new History National Curriculum (HNC) strand’s content for recognizable BAME cultural identification, reveals marginal inclusion of BAME people and their contributions to British history.
Revisions to the National Curriculum followed in 1995, 2000, 2007, and 2014. The 2000 History Curriculum had much in common with the 1995 version. Significant changes included directions to teach citizenship and “Thinking skills” plus catering to “inclusion”. The statutory inclusion statement gave teachers some freedom to modify the National Curriculum.
The 2014 new National Curriculum was perhaps even more controversial than the original. It was criticised over its exclusionary nationalistic English Literature and History curricula. Michael Grove the British Education Secretary’s ideal of a “Golden Thread” of British history saw education continuing to play an increasingly “political” role in establishing what it meant to be British. And this stance placed schools at the centre of the British “war on terror” particularly aimed at British Muslim students.
At the start and on the edge of a new decade, in 2001 and 2011, British streets were again punctured by riots in Bradford and Oldham, by mainly Asian young men, suggesting an era of transition was well underway in that community regarding what they would tolerate from sections of British institutions and society. The old choices of assimilation, integration, and nationalism as a means of social cohesion were and are no longer the only alternatives, as the rise, demise, and rebirth of jihadist groups have proved attractive to some disaffected young people and the notion and reality of Brexit has brought for some nostalgia of a perhaps mythical bygone era and for others regret at Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
These issues were and are complex. For many BAME students, any lesson content if it is interesting and well taught is likely enjoyable. For others content which excludes people they consider ancestors, may teach them they are invisible, and unimportant. Furthermore, the idea that British history preserves, and transmits concepts of national identity may often seem alien to some but highly feasible to others.
What impressions have all these changes had on school history and students? As might be expected it has been a mixed bag. The complexities of individuals coupled with the often warring notions as to why we teach history have produced a complex heady mixture. Research by Doharty (2019) details microaggressions experienced by Black students in school during Black History Month. Other research suggest ethnicity has little impact on how students receive different history narratives (Huber and Kitson 2020). However, in the United States research and personal narratives continues to strongly suggests that students’ cultures and backgrounds play a significant role in perception of lesson content and classroom experiences (Coates, 2015; Emdin 2016; Wilkerson; 2020).
Societies are sometimes guilty of cherry picking the past to excuse, promote, and to engender a sense of purpose in everyday life. And the study of history should probably have some impact on the way people perceive society. But any single “Best” version of the past is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. Studying history in a democracy should require analysis, exploration, and independent thought. School history has always been highly contested territory.
In the wake of the Windrush Scandal which questioned the identities and belonging of Black people to the United Kingdom and in the wake of Brexit we cannot demand unquestioning loyalty of BAME students if what they see around them jars with the history they learn at school.
School history should allow students to ask questions. Students don’t need and probably don’t want easy answers that actually answer little. Students need to understand how to examine and evaluate commitments and attachments people hold to competing contentious narratives of the adult world. These are skills that studying history and how it works nourish. Additionally, perceptions, real, or imagined, marginal groups have of how they are represented, or not, in history may well be mainly an affective reality; but a reality we cannot choose to ignore.
Because when we look at a group picture taken of us, we always look for ourselves, first.
Alexander, C. & Weekes-Bernard, D. (2017). History lessons: inequality, diversity and the national curriculum. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(4), 478-494.
Coates, T. (2015). Between the world and me. New York: One World.
Cantel, T. (2014). National identity, plurality and interculturalism. The Political Quarterly, 85(3), 312319.
Doharty, N. (2019). ‘I FELT DEAD’: Applying a racial microaggressions framework to Black Students’ experiences of Black History Month and Black History, Race Ethnicity and Education, 22(1), 110-129.
Emdin, C. (2016). For white folk who teach in the Hood and the rest of Y’all too: Reality Pedagogy and
Urban Education. Boston Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
Evans, R. J. (2011). The wonderfulness of Us: The Tory interpretation of history. London Review of
Books, 33(6), 9-11.
Hamilton, D. G. (2018). Too hot to handle: African Caribbean pupils and students as toxic consumers and commodities in the educational market, Race Ethnicity and Education, 21(5), 573-592, DOI:
Harris, R. (2014). The history curriculum and its personal connection to students from minority ethnic backgrounds, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(4),464-486.
Huber, J. & Kitson, A. (2020). An exploration of the role of ethnic identity in students’ construction of
Home is where the heart is a cliché of unyielding power as it contains a grain of truth in it. For me home is a place with my own bed a place where I can sleep and dream and be myself. A place where if I choose to leave the sheets on for one more day no one is going to come and literally drag the sheets from off the bed to feed a hungry machine lurking in the corner of the kitchen.
Friends told me that for them Sunday mornings in their homes was a time when you could lie in bed. Not ours. Sunday was the day clothes got washed and moreover, beds were stripped, and you had to relinquish your cozy warm sheets to the drone of the twin tub washing machine that was in the kitchen come bathroom. Weird, but that’s how it was.
Home for me is a place that I like hiding in now that I am older. When I close the door, I can strut around in the eclectic style of mismatched socks, holey cardigans or beloved hoodie and unkempt hair or my birthday suit if the fancy takes me.
Talking of birthday suits, I spent years or at least several months looking for mine. Thinking about it now, my mother was probably tired of my morning whine in the age before school uniforms,
‘Mum what shall I wear?’
My older sister always jumped in before my mother could come up with a suggestion. I knew what Rose Marie would say eyes glinting.
‘Wear your birthday suit.’ She seemed to derive pleasure from my bemused wailing.
‘But I don’t know where my birthday suit is’. I groaned as usual and began my quixotic quest to find the hidden items. It was bad enough trying to work out how people had hung an iron curtain across half the world. I mean did they have something attached the the sky? I was perplexed by these curtains and my missing birthday suit.
I was sure I had been given clothes for my birthday and just couldn’t find them, I looked high and low, but no birthday suit. It didn’t help when my sister sneered
‘You’re wearing it’.
‘Nope I didn’t get these for my birthday.’ Exasperated and tired from my futile searches came my reply, “Mum got these pajamas for me from the John Moore’s Catalogue or these were from Aunt Molly. They weren’t a present’.
Come to think of it, birthday presents were as rare as hens’ teeth in our house, which may have been why I was convinced that on one lucky birthday someone had given me a suit. I did get white ankle socks one year. Those are the only present that I remember getting for my birthday. Usually, people forgot when it was.
I was secretly glad my birthday came at the start of the school year; friends were too busy talking about the school holidays and learning about new teachers to ask the scary question,
Almost everything we do requires some form of memory. Most of our everyday actions require memory, but we seldom notice this. They’re like everyday appliances that work unseen in our homes and only the absence of them reminds of their presence. Unseen like electricity we tend to only notice when it is absent or the key that won’t open the lock as usual. Absence alerts us to their presence and usefulness.
We remember facts and skills through practice and rehearsal until some become like second nature. I remember things like how to drive my car seemingly by instinct, but if I must use another car with instruments placed slightly differently, it takes time for me to feel comfortable, reaching for the handbrake with my foot instead of my hand or vice-versa. We remember passwords and once upon a time phone numbers, were things many could recite but this is almost a lost skill as our phones now do this for us. Some memories are stored deeply perhaps never to be retrieved. Other memories float on the surface bubbling and spilling over regularly into our lives.
We are even guilty of Magpie like behavior of stealing the shiny memory nests of others and hoarding and mixing them until they become parts of our memory and our own prized possessions. Moreover, when we retrieve memories, we don’t produce exact photocopies. Memories are reconstructed in the retrieval process. We compose a picture and add and subtract and create what for us is an exact copy.
Our brains can also separate our memories and memories can be stored relatively quickly and unintentionally. We can also divide memories up into spatial and autobiographical memory which are almost inexhaustible and new situations can change our memories and the way we see things. Our memories are important because they help us build relationships among facts, events and our experiences. Amnesia or the lack of memory is a devastating condition as we are becoming all too aware of with the seemingly growing prevalence of various forms of Dementia and Alzheimer’s like diseases and the devastation on individuals and families.
In order to become more effective learners, we need to develop ways of organizing information using memorable tactics making it easier to recall. Growing up some used music Mnemonic Devices such as ABC songs to help remember the alphabet and Word Mnemonics to remember things like Musical Scales, “Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (EGBDF)” to remember the lines of the Treble Clef from the bottom to the top, and the Great Lakes of the United States are for many in my generation engrained in the word “H.O.M.E Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie.” Mind maps are another device that help us make connections and give visual understandings of complex content. But for memory to work at an optimal level we need periods of rest between retrieval and reviewing the information we’ve stored, that is spaced intervals for memory to work well. Which is why reviewing material at the start of any lesson is so important for students in and outside of the classroom.
Helping students understand that instead of reading information repeatedly they would remember more efficiently if first they wrote down what they remembered about a topic. Then checked the textbook or their notes to see what they missed out. This repeated retrieval process is a much more efficient and a better way to understand and remember any content.
Above all we need to be able to relate personally to what we want to remember. Motivation is often very self-centered. Effective teachers try to encourage their students to make up their own memorable devices when they are learning important material, if they want it to stick.
Moreover, the best ways to remember something is to keep retrieving and reconstructing the memory/information. Sadly, we all do this too often with negative memories and play them repeatedly so engraining and storing them and stopping the act of forgetting.
Most educators know how to store up all the tiny wonder moments of teaching and student learning which startle us from time to time, retrieving and replaying them when faced with the opposite and enjoying this rollercoaster ride, we call teaching. Good memories help us thrive and survive and are needed now perhaps more than ever.
I believe that a basic minimum requirement for educators should be that they want to raise the achievements of all students, and work in environments that are comfortable and welcoming for them and their students.
Getting to know, trying to understand, and building relationships with students we teach are probably the most important first steps in teaching. Research has shown that a key component of raising achievement in schools is to develop a more welcoming attitude toward parents/gurdians and to develop greater connections with the wider community.
We need to know about our students’ lives in order to reach and teach them. At the risk of stating the blindly obvious a first step must be our students’ names. In this global village in which many of us are increasingly finding ourselves, names may be linguistically challenging, but we need to learn to say them correctly.
Names are an integral part of a person’s identity. You know how irritating it can be when someone gets your name wrong, especially if you have seen this person on multiple occasions. Imagine being in a classroom for a year and having this happen on a regular basis.
A strategy that I have used for all ages is getting students to tell me something about their name that nobody else knows. You may find that your students were named after Marvel comic heroes, family members, storybook heroines and heroes and even a nice checkout lady at a supermarket. Realizing the importance of a name is a simple step to getting to know your students.
Just looking at our students and lumping them all together as one but don’t assume as to how your students self-identify. We are all guilty of reverting to unconscious bias and stereotyping. Our brains have a natural tendency to want to group, categorized and assign neat labels.
If every time we saw a ‘chair’ we had to work out what it was, we might take a lifetime thinking about what a chair was, but our brains have developed a system that categorizes what is thinks is a chair and so we have little difficulty in recognizing an armchair, highchair, wheelchair. All different but we group them as chairs. Unfortunately, we also use this system to stereotype people and assign them into neat and often historically damaging boxes.
One way of exploring identities is to use children stories such as “The Bear that Wasn’t” or by Frank Tashlin or “The Sneetches” by Dr Seuss. Have or helping students draw identity charts about themselves noting down things they think are important about themselves and sharing it among themselves is a fun useful way of uncovering what students are willing to share about themselves.
Another rich source for finding out about your students is their parents/guardians older or younger siblings, ask them to tell you 5-10 great things about the student, most will be thrilled that you are interested. It may be well as much or as little as they or their parents/guardians/siblings choose to disclose.
Some will be forthcoming others will think it is none of your business, but you can then use that knowledge to better inform your teaching practices. The students that we teach want to fit in, but they also want to be individuals. If we look for the individual not the stereotype in our students, our classrooms may perhaps become places were learning and instruction is more than a one-way street.
Along with memories of Daddy Dear cooking come recollections of his stories.
I’m sitting with my brothers and sisters on the verandah floor. My knees tucked under my chin and my hands clasping a mango that I have wounded with my teeth by tearing the skin surrounded its fleshy insides. Daddy Dear is resting on his favorite red and green two seater wooden bench, a hibiscus bush in bloom behind him, He’s also eating a mango and in between bites, he tells us the story of a King and his three daughters:
“Long, long time ago, when Adam was a boy, der was a King and him had tree gal pickney. Him want fe kno which one a dem love him di most.
So, him call the heldest one. “Daughter ow much yu love mi?” and di daughter hanswer “I love yu mor dan gold.”
Di King was not satisfi wid dat dey ansa.
So, him call him second daughter. “Daughter, ow much yu love mi?” The daughter say, “I love you mor dan silver.”
De King was not satisfi wid dat ansa.
Then the king called him youngest daughter.
“Daughter ow much yu love mi?”
The youngest daughter taught for a while and den said, “I love yu mor dan salt.”
The King was hangry “Wha yu mean ‘SALT” ! Fe yu sister dem love me more dan silver and gold and you a talk bout ‘Salt’?”
An him banished the youngest gal to her quarters.
Now, him wife de Queen ear all dis, and she go to the cook and tell dem fe stop put salt inna de food.
Now when time come and the King fe eat, him say “a wha dis?”
‘What’s de matter?’ De Queen ask.
“Dis food lacks salt” him say, an after tree day of saltless food di king get the message, cause now him know dis ya tird daughter truly love him. Wid out salt the world naw hab no taste.”
To prove his point, Daddy Dear sprinkles some salt on a green mango and gives us each a slice. The tangy sourness is tempered by the salt making the mango that was once unappealing now explode on our tongues with a unique sweetness that only salt gives.
I love to hear his stories. Images of dark nights and tales about duppies, and spirits that roamed about, and rolling calves whose eyes are blood red and change into a variety of animal spirits waiting among the trees for us. Stories chill and enchant me as I listen.
Now in my ninety-eight year, pictures of me repeating those same stories to my children and grandchildren creating contentment and satisfaction in me surface and evaporate. I’m left feeling a sense of loss.
I’ve met death before, but it never wrapped itself around and choked me, like it’s doing now. When children are buried under a landslide in a coal mine in Aberfan, it makes everyone very miserable.We hear our teachers whisper to each other about a school incased in coal. We children are gloomy because we watch the news with our parents and see huge mounds of coal.
“What’s a ‘slag heap’ Mum?” a lot of coal Angie in a large pile, like a hill? Mum replies her eyes glued to the flickering black and white screen. “Why are people crying Mum? What happened to the children? A million and one questions pour out unfiltered and children learn that children like us are buried underneath a black avalanche, and our parents shake their heads around us, and hug us just a little bit tighter than usual. Parents mutter to each at the school gate and look distraught and we watch sobbing parents over and over again on our screens.
When I’m in Primary school, Winston Churchill dies. My mother doesn’t think very highly of him, she says,
” he never set foot in Jamaica, just stayed on his ship when he visited the Caribbean.”
We learn that he made grand speeches about fighting them on beaches, but Mum is not impressed. She kisses her teeth “Chuuppps.”We all know this is a sound which means dislike, distain, disbelief and don’t care, all in a single sound.
All our family watch Churchill’s funeral on television one Saturday. At school our class make a large scrapbook history of his life from magazines and newspaper cuttings that our teachers give us. We also write our own stories about him, although we don’t know much about him, just that he likes sticking two fingers up in photos, the victory sign, but if you turn your fingers the other way you are telling people to fuck off.
At the end of the year the teacher gives me the honor of taking the scrap book home. “Look Mum we made this at school,” Mum glances at it. “Find a safe place for it” she motions with screwed up lips to a place in the corner of the room. I’m enormously proud of my scrap book and keep it for years looking at the clumsy writing of eight year olds and the slightly askew placing of back and white photographs.
Then as if in a fit of absent mindedness, when I was least expecting it the scrapbook disappeared.
“Mum have you seem my Churchill book?” “Oh you mean that old thing that was falling apart, I threw it out ages ago.” and she Chuuuupses long and loudly.
When I’m in primary school my older sister Rose Marie starts attending secondary school and Rose Marie’s books are more interesting than mine. Secretly I borrow Rosie’s copy of “Lord of the Flies,” and read it.
I still wear pink round National health eyeglasses just like “Piggy.” I’m scared.
“I hope I don’t end up like him,” I say to myself” over and over again.
I can hear the clapping sound of the wooden spoon creaming butter and sugar together as it hits the side of the beige ceramic bowl with the white insides. She bakes fruit buns and cakes, she also makes plaited loaves of bread, and we like to break the ends of the plaits off as a treat. Mum lets us play with dough and we make mini loaves of bread that we place alongside Mum’s big loaves. We need to wash our hands before we start cooking, the dough takes all the dirt off your fingers if you don’t and turns grey.
Kneading is hard work the dough starts off sticking to your fingers and as you turn it and sprinkle flour on the stickiness it becomes smooth. And then the dough must prove, and we knead, and it proves and once it doubles in size, we sprinkle it with water and sometimes we put too much water on. Mum puts them in the oven, and we wait for the smell of freshly baked bread.
I want to try some of the new Stork Margarine, but Mum says butter is better. I do taste Stork at my friend Julianna’s house on Mother’s Pride bread, and Mum’s right. Mother’s Pride bread is soggy and sticks to the roof of your mouth and you must swirl it around with your tongue or use your fingers to dislocate it from your teeth.
We learn that cakes are done if the knife we stick in the middle comes out clean. That bread is cooked when you tap it and it sounds hollow. We know that bread must be turned out immediately and left to sit on a wire tray or it will go soggy. Cakes on the other hand stay and cool down in the cake tin and then are gently pried out of their prison.
We help Mum mix the butter and sugar to make the cakes. You must mix the butter and sugar until they’re white. The best time to mix butter and sugar is when the television program “No Hiding Place” is on. We like the exciting music and we beat the butter and sugar to the rhythm of the show.
When we’ve made the mixture white, Mum breaks and separates lots of eggs. She then uses an egg whisk with a round handle to beat the egg whites until they’re white and stick to the beater like mini mountains. Then she adds the yolks and beats them. She teaches us to pour this mixture slowly into the butter and sugar, we’ve to be careful as if we fold it in too fast it’ll curdle and you’ll see the mixture starts to break up, so we’ve to put flour in slowly to stop this happening.
After we do this, we add the rest of the flour and fruit, vanilla and almond essence, lemon zest stops the cake from having an eggy taste says Mum so that always goes in, and anything else depending on the kind of cake. Cake tins need to be lined with greaseproof paper and then we can pour the mixture into the tins. Making cakes is a long process, but the smell as they cook is heavenly.
Although I like Mum’s baking one of my favorite places is a few doors down from Woolworth.
The shop is the local bakery brimming with ring and jam donuts, cream cakes of all different shapes and sizes. The ladies behind the counter wear pink gingham dresses with white aprons and caps to keep their hair in place. They glide around their tiny space behind the counter as they serve people.
In the shop window are sugar encrusted apple turnovers sometimes they’ve apple filling that has burst the seams of the pastry. There are current and Chelsea buns. Currant buns are like hot-cross buns, they’re brown on top and pale underneath and they’ve currants dotted all over them. Rose Marie and Patsy my sisters don’t like dried fruit, so if they get a currant bun, they pick the currants out.
Currant buns are the cheapest bun. I like Chelsea buns, and Swiss rolls. Chelsea buns are like currant buns but they’re square. I tried to make some once. You’ve to roll out the dough until it is flat and a rectangle, then you sprinkle sugar and currants on the rectangle, then you roll it up and then you slice it and the slices become Chelsea buns. You make Swiss rolls like this, but you make it with cake mixture that is cooked, and you roll the cake up, but first you need to put the filling in.
And then the most expensive things are chocolate éclairs, they’ve real cream in them. At school we learned to make Choux pastry and we made mini chocolate choux buns. You must pronounce the “Choux” like “shoe.” Our teacher tells us. It’s French, like chocolate éclairs. But our choux buns don’t taste like the chocolate éclairs. They taste nasty.
The bakery also has bread in a variety of shapes and sizes the most popular is crusty white “arm bread” sold unwrapped it’s tucked under your arm for the journey home where we fight over who gets the end of the bread. Once we win the prize it’s plastered with butter by the lucky winner.
Shop bread is much prized by us as our Mother bakes most of the bread we eat. I can’t understand why my friends like my uneven chunky homemade brown bread. I long for the even slices of white sticky “Mother’s Pride bread” that my classmates have for their sandwiches. Ashamed of my chunky uneven brown sandwiches I hide to eat them when no one is looking. My bread looks disfigured in comparison to the sharp triangles of Mother’s Pride sticky white bread.
The most amazing day at the Bakery comes once a year. On Good Friday the bakery is a source of wonder. That’s the day when Hot Cross buns take over every nook and cranny. They line all the shelves. They’re piled high in the window. As far as the eye can see there are brown Hot Cross Buns with fat juicy raisins peeping through the shiny brown and beige surfaces. And people line up for ages to buy them, the queues go on forever until the last bun is sold and the bakery always closes early.
“Mum why aren’t we allowed to eat Hot Cross buns?”
“They’re Pagan.” Says my Mum. So, I never taste one until years later and am disappointed with the doughy cross. Plain currant buns are nicer.
“So, it seems those people at the Colonial Office are intent on us being part of a Federation.” In my head I’m sitting upright a bit like an Egyptian goddess at the round mahogany plastic tablecloth covered table, and I’m screwing up my face, my eyes knitted together In the middle of playing a half-hearted game of Chinese Checkers with my younger sister I’m bored, and the daily newspaper is a distraction.
Reading a headline I throw the word “Federation” at my sister Mattie sitting slumped across from me, she’s losing the game and has become distracted, more engrossed in dropping morsels of avocado laced bread to a begging scrawny black and white cat lurking under the table.
“What’s that Lils?” Mattie volleyed back to me breathlessly, the freckles on her nose dancing. Apparently black people are not supposed to have freckles or so I’ve read, but Mattie’s nose and cheeks demolish that lie.
Mattie is not rising to my bait. She’s failed to catch the word just as she fails to catch balls thrown to her during games of rounders in the yard. I know that Mattie is aware that people called her a “don’t care” person. And that Mattie thinks it is useless caring about something you can’t do anything about and that I’m caring a bit too much as usual.
Staring at my sister I pondered how at first glance although as far as I can see we don’t look alike, a stranger couldn’t mistake us for anything other than siblings. Me tall and thin or marga as the patois word for thinness is thrown at me in school. My face is oval, or some may call it round, but it is oval as far as I am concerned and as long as I think so, that is all that matters. I have what people call a mole decorating the corner of my almond shaped eyes, but again ‘mole’ is too ordinary it is a beauty spot and that is that.
Matilda is also tall but gaunt, square faced with rasping breath signaling to those around the bronchitis and asthma that plague her. Out mother says that she looks like the Queen’s mother. I think her face is wide, but who am I to judge? As we continue to move checker pieces around the board, I remember how much Mattie loathes the smell of the plastic tablecloth where we are sitting, she says it seems to suck her breath away.
Thinking back I see we’re both sporting those ugly old cream turbans of cotton that are wrapped intricately around our heads, along with long sleeved blouses tucked into full cotton skirts that keep the sun and mosquitoes from wreaking havoc on our arms and legs.
“Mattie dear!” I say sharply. Matilda sits bolt upright, looking confused, her eyebrows raised quizzically.
Now that I have her attention, I want to keep it. Louder than I need to as she is only a couple of feet away I snap, “Look those know-it-alls at the Colonial Office have been talking about Federation this and Federation that since that dam war ended.”
I see myself inhaling sharply, kissing my teeth, “chuuups” making the sucking disapproving sound known to signal disgust, unbelief or plain annoyance depending on the length of the sound. I feel more annoyed than perhaps I should, and stamp one of my feet, frightening the cat for a second.
“Look how we got together and gathered money to buy fighter planes for Britain, and now our economy is in tatters. And what do we get out of it”? I’ve a habit of having arguments in my head, which are hardly ever spoken out loud.
“Guess it will stop America from criticizing what the mother country is doing with their talk of Commonwealth and closer ties.” I’m still irritated and waiting for Mattie to say something.
But Mattie remains silent. Undeterred by my sister’s muteness I deftly move a marble safely to the opposite side of the board and continue.
“I mean what is big-big Jamaica going to do with all those small Islands hanging on to its coat tails? Federation indeed.” I push a damp curl that has escaped my scarf back under, and inhale sharply, frustrated at my sister’s complacency and lack of interest in the game and conversation we’re having. A conversation which in truth I know is one-sided.
“Oh, come on Lily you know that you can’t trust Bakra.” Mattie uses the patois word Bakra we sometimes use for White people. She continues, “and as Mumma keeps telling us ‘a promise is a comfort for a fool.’”
Mattie’s high-pitched reply and fist thumping the table, makes the checker marbles shudder, a couple dancing into the air and rolling onto the floor. She’s not as uninterested as an outsider watching the two of us might think.
“Now they’re planning to come here to settle things.” I say, waving the newspaper violently at my sister.
“The conference in Montego Bay, next month. Look here the Daily Gleaner is calling it,” I move my finger over a sentence that stands out, “‘Perhaps the most momentous period in the history of the West Indies since Columbus.’”
“Oh, you mean the meeting that that puffy face Creech Jones is organizing?” Mattie is at last paying attention and I nod approvingly at her.
“Yes, him same one. Can you believe this Mattie? We’ve even made news in a British newspaper” I say turning the page around so that Mattie can see the headline. “See the Gleaner has reprinted an article from the British ‘Daily Mirror’ August 1947” I read:
“Representatives from the British Colonies in the Caribbean are meeting in Jamaica next month to discuss the possibility of some closer association and perhaps a British West Indian Federation.”
When I fold the page, I notice that my fingers as usual are stained with print ink, I continue reading “Jamaica is one of those places where there’s coffee and bananas and the temperature is hot.” And I pretend not to notice, Mattie “cutting her eyes” in disgust.
“Well, apparently Albert Gomes from Trinidad, Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante from here, and Grantley Adams from Barbados are all going to Montego Bay,” I rattle off the names because I’ve read so much about them I feel I know them personally.
“Oh wonderful. Busta!” Matilda’s face creases up in smiles at the name, showing the gap between her front teeth that she said she hated.
“What that fool? Well at least Norman Manley is going. And unlike his cousin he has some brought-upsy.” I’m frowning my ground coffee colored eyes knitted in a sneer and then I giggle.” Unbeknown to my sister the tall light skinned guy that has been hanging around me lately is the stamp of Norman Manley. I smile to myself at the thought and begin to make fun of Mattie’s hero.
“Mattie yu hear the latest joke bout Busta?” Not waiting for Mattie to reply I start to recount one of the numerous jokes circulating about Bustamante.
“Busta was giving a speech making his usual promises. He says ‘Mi will give everybody Bread B.R.E.D. he spells out the word. Then somebody from the crowd shouts out, ‘put on de letter ‘A’ sah.’ Busta is perplexed and so someone points out that ‘yu miss out de ‘A’ in bread.’ Busta scratches his head and replies, ‘Yes, as me sai, mi will give yu plenty of B.R.E.D.A.’” I can’t help laughing at my own joke. Busta has added the ‘A’ to the end of the word and as everyone knows “Breda” is the patois for “Brother.”
“Lily yu couldn’t resist it nuh?” Mattie sounds less than impressed with the joke and completely ignoring what I’ve said changes the conversation:
“But come on Lils, who do you know from Trinidad or Barbados or any of those other places? Mattie asks, dropping the last piece of bread to the cat purring loudly and who was now rubbing itself on her bare legs.
“You’ve got a point Mattie, our uncle Harry, talks about meeting “Colon Men” as they were all called, on the Panama Canal.” I smile, happy at the memory. Mattie giggling says:
“Jamaican girls” I join in knowing what’s coming. We both recite a rhyme in unison learned from our uncle:
“Jamaican girls is very nice. On Sunday they does give us egg red and rice.” We both laugh and Mattie says, “Imagine, them thinking our ackee is scrambled eggs?”
“Mattie you remember how he says they’ve ‘flying fish and Cou Cou’ and that the Cou Cou is our turn cornmeal.” I say incredulously.
We both chuckle at the thought that the common yellow cornmeal we cooked with coconut milk and spices could be considered a delicacy. In our family we often made it with plain water to feed the family dogs. If the wrong consistency it would stick to the roof of our pet dogs Victor and Lion’s mouths causing them to lick water rapidly shaking their heads frantically trying to dislodge the sticky food.
“Hey Lils, you hear from that nice coolie guy that liked you?” Mattie is making a serious attempt to change the Federation conversation.
I smile smugly, “I might have, or I might have my eye on someone not as far away as him.” My reply keeps my cards close to my chest.
“Huh! You have someone at college, one of those holy college guys, or you still like coolie Bobby Singh, the one that sent you that Christmas card with his photo in it when he was in the army a couple years back?” Mattie teases.
“Try again Mattie you might be getting warmer, then again you might be very cold.” I refuse to give away my secret.
“Like I care Lily, must be duppy yu like.” Mattie, inferring that I was in love with a duppy which is the Jamaican patois for a spirit, pretends to be nonplused.
I fold and put the newspaper down on the table, saying, “I’ll try to get 40 winks Mattie,” The humid heat of the day makes me sticky and sleepy, so placing my head on folded arms I close my eyes.
“Cho! Lily, you win.” Mattie sounds to me exasperated, she knows she’s been defeated in the game of guessing my new beau and continues to nonchalantly move Chinese checker marbles around the board.
I’m pretending to sleep, travelling back to when I first began to question my world. Yes, there it is. I can put a date to my discovery that I liked politics. It is 1938 and I’m 10 years old.
Well look at me. I’m embroidering a pillowcase with tiny white cross stitches, occasionally wincing as the needle misses the linen and embeds itself into my fingertip, I suck my finger quickly so as not to stain the material I’m working on. I’m convinced that thimbles are useless, as my mother’s silver thimble keeps falling off my thumb.
I eves drop on my uncle and mother talking about a Royal Commission. I’ve no idea what a Royal Commission is but like the word “Royal.” I know it has something to do with Kings and Queens and have heard on the radio that the commission is investigating the “bangarang” or “riots” as my mother calls them in downtown Kingston, which people talk about in guarded whispers behind closed doors.
My mother and uncle speak in spelling code. “Eee yes, Ro.y.a.l. C.o m.m.i.s.s.i.o. n! Kiss mi neck back, a so tings bad Gertie?” they continue making their susu susu whispering noise with my mother Gertie reprimanding and shushing my uncle her brother Harry putting a finger to her lips and saying “little donkeys have big ears.” And the spelling continues. But I the second child, Miss Bird my big sister, Matilda and our brothers George and Alaric have learned to crack the spelling code, we don’t let on to the unsuspecting adults.
“Lilee, Lileee” the sound of my mother’s voice piercing the air brings me back to the remembered reality I’ve momentarily left.
“Ah, well, I’d better get back to the shop.” I sigh, throwing my head backwards, shrugging and stretching one arm reaching behind my head the other stretched out in front of me.
“We can’t leave Mumma in there for too long, you know she will be fussing.” I hear myself saying.
I realize the love hate relationship with my mother is never far from the surface, and I see myself rise reluctantly. I’m on a short break from training to become a teacher at a college in Mandeville in the parish of Manchester. In truth it couldn’t come quick enough, I feel suffocated in the house and am dying to spread my wings, although I’ll miss my father.
I see me drawing myself up from the table, careful not to let the chair scrape the shiny red tiled floor which I and my sisters have had to polish with brushes made from dried coconuts and Genie polish until they’re slippery and shiny since childhood.
Placing the now folded newspaper in the center of the table and straightening my stiffly starched white apron over my faded floral skirt, I rise fully adjusting the neatly tied headwrap. A cool breeze and the odd fly having evaded the lace curtains, make their way through the open doors, and windows. Only one of these invaders is a welcome visitor in late August.
“I’ll go see if that breadfruit we saw the other day is fit. It will be nice to have it for breakfast tomorrow.” Matilda says, tripping over the cat that had by now entwined itself around the leg of her chair as she rose to leave.