Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Trouble with Ice-Cream

This afternoon, I’ve been going mad. 

Every day, at lunchtime, the ice-cream van arrives close by and all I can hear is that damned jingle playing the same tune over and over. In my youth, it was Greensleeves; now, it’s something I don’t even recognise, but it’s certainly something that jolly little men called Mr Tonibell or Mr Softee or Mr Whippee don’t mind hearing a million times over. 

Every time I hear it, however, I want to run out and punch their lights out (why could they never spell their names properly, anyway? That was another thing that always bugged me).
I have a weird relationship with ice-cream. I know that my first was in the Kardomah café in South Wales in Cardiff, the closest city to Newport, where I spent my early childhood.
A trip to Cardiff was a big event. Mum used to buy coffee from the Kardomah and, having chosen her beans, would wait to have them ground to dust while my brother Nigel and I ate ice cream from a small steel tray and with a tiny metal spoon. I can still taste that metal and feel the joy of the wafer as it sculpted the perfect dome to a melting pulp. I remember the sadness of loss, swirling the last of the warm, liquid yellow, that meant it was time to go home.
Ice-cream was a big treat, but it came with its stresses. My parents couldn’t always afford to buy it, especially at the seaside, where everything was extortionate. On the rare occasions when they could, I craved the choc-ice but had to make do with an Orange Maid lollipop. When I had my first choc-ice, it was a bit of a letdown, anyway. 

First, the chocolate melted, and the crisp exterior was quickly ruined by the ice cream seeping through the cracks. Before you were halfway through, your hands were juggling chocolate, cream, sweat and sand – and, often, tears, when you dropped the whole thing onto the beach when the soggy mess slipped from your hand. 
As a child who used to constantly come in from the garden, holding out my grubby hands and moaning “Dirt, dirt” and demanding that I be washed, the whole choc-ice thing was never going to work for me.
I didn’t have money to spend on ice-cream during my school years. I could just about stretch to a Tip Top – a long piece of flavoured ice that was wrapped in such strong polythene, you had to bite the top off to get at the stick, often resulting in the whole thing then leaping out of its packaging and onto the pavement. 

My mum made me very healthy packed lunches (a Penguin chocolate biscuit was her only nod to junk food) and I used to look on with envy at my friends who could not only buy chips from the Ranch fish shop in Bridgend (where we had moved), but follow it up with a mountainous swirl of white ice cream on a lollipop. How I craved that disgusting brick.
The doyen of ice-cream, though, was the 99 – an ice cream cone with a flake of chocolate stuck in the top; or, even better, with two flakes. I bought my first one out of my student grant when I went to university (there were books as well, but I remember this as being the first moment I realised what it felt like to have your own money and do what you liked with it). They had to be Cadbury’s flakes, too.
What I liked about cones was that they were easy constructions. All the melting goo would seep nicely through the cone and you would never have to get your hands dirty. But they don’t make cones like they used to. In my youth, they were the size of buckets; then, along came posh people like Haagen-Dazs with their sugar cones, designer clothed cones et al, and wiped out another chunk of my childhood.
I actually like Haagen-Dazs – but heck, it’s expensive. And sometimes, it’s too soft. I like my ice cream just so: not so hard that it looks as impenetrable as Iceland at Christmas; nor so soft that I might as well have bought it in a can and drunk it.
In fact, so fussy have I become about ice cream that I bought myself an ice cream maker. If anything stayed still long enough, I froze it. But now it lies in the back of a cupboard because, surely, the thing about ice cream is that it’s supposed to be a treat, not a chore: something that someone does for you. Your only task is to enjoy it - and not in that ghastly way that American TV characters do by diving into it head first every time a crisis beckons.
Like everything else, though, it melts into nothingness; it’s actually the one food that is the perfect metaphor for life. It looks promising and appetising at the start, but you don’t have to dig very far below the surface to know that it doesn’t take much for it to disappear.
But hey, folks, that’s okay. There will always be more ice-cream. Just as there will always be more life. 

Now, excuse me while I go to practise my Greensleeves jingle. 

Miss Jackee has a job to do.  


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Just Life

Yet another crisis week. 

The usual thing: a time in which I crawl into my shell, pull myself off all social networking sites, send texts and e-mails I don’t mean, throw the baby out with the bath water, because life just seems easier without having to deal with emotions. Or people.
A time in which I remember being nine years old and opening the cream tea-set I had been given as a birthday present and wishing that all my party guests would quickly go so that I could play with it.
A time in which we went to the sea-side as a family and the greatest joy was my first sighting of the slim silver of sea in the distance; the smell of salt; the rush of warm sand between my toes.
But, as Ecclesiastes 3 said much better than anyone ever did: There is a time for everything.
Not many people know that I was once a Baptist lay preacher. At one point in my life, I was going to enter the church full time. Now, I regard that period as an emotional stumbling block, as I do most religions (Buddhism remains, for me, the only logical belief), but especially Christianity. I wholeheartedly embrace the notion that people can believe whatever they want to believe to enable them to get by; the man in the sky is just not for me (do watch Ricky Gervais’s masterpiece The Invention of Lying; there is no better movie about the deception of belief).
So, where do you go in a crisis without religion as your backer? Ironically, there are still great lessons to be learned from the Bible (Be nice to people! DUH!), but to me they are philosophical ones, which is why I found myself turning again to the Book of Ecclesiastes after thinking that this was another moment that I like to call “just life”: There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, and this was just another weepy time.
It’s a bit of a strange passage, though, nonetheless. I’m not happy about the “time to kill and a time to heal” bit, nor the “time for war and a time for peace” – killing and war never having been high on my agenda. I also would never embrace the idea that there is “a time to search and a time to give up”, because I am not, nor will ever be, one of life’s giver-uppers.
The existential crisis of mankind (to me – you can choose your own) is the battle between what we want and what we can’t have: our expectations, versus those expectations not being met. Our expectations (personal or professional) come from our parenting and society at large; their not being met from our frustration at not being able to fulfil them, for whatever reason. Call me Socrates (without the beard; and the suicide bit, obviously).
Let’s look more closely at a few more of these statements. 

“There is a time to be born and a time to die”: the former is easy; the latter, horrendous (which is why people need the construct of religion and the notion of “everlasting life” to help them deal with the thing they cannot acknowledge as fact i.e. That’s it, mate. Its over. Nada).
A time to plant and a time to uproot. I have spent most of my adult life uprooting. For most people, their planting is marriage and children, and I would not deny anyone the joy that those two things can undoubtedly bring. I just never met the right seeds; just managed to purchase some awesome hoes.
A time to mourn and a time to dance. Yes, I get that. Just try telling that to the Irish at a wake.
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. Nope. Throw your arms around that guy while you can.
A time to tear and a time to mend. I have a tendency to self-destruct. It’s really a time I could do without.
A time to be silent and a time to speak. Yep. Usually that moment when you say “What do you mean, the bar’s closing? It’s only 4am.” That’s when you really need to shut the eff up.
A time to love and a time to hate. No, there is never a time to hate.
One of the things I have learned during my weeks of existential crisis (excuse the melodrama; I’m a writer. Live with it) is that it is always a time to love. I have, as always, been overwhelmed by the outpourings of love and support, many of them from complete strangers, on social networking. I haven’t gone into the details of what brought the latest meltdown into being, and nobody probed me for the reasons why.
I don’t know myself. The actions I take during these times are symptoms, not causes. I don’t believe in the man in the sky, but maybe, as Ecclesiastes says, we are tested so that we may see we are “like the animals”. In the end: “Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”
So, in that brief time we have from dust to dust, we might as well enjoy love. Yes, love. 

There is always a time to love.


Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Mirror

A funny thing happened on the way to the mirror. 

A wrinkle here, a grey hair there, a little extra weight around my hips, a sagging of the eyeylids. Yes, a very funny thing happened on the way to the mirror.

got older.
And I hadn’t even noticed.
I pulled out boxes of old photos to try to recognise exactly when and where that change took place. Eighteen, with the bouffant hairdo my mother constructed on my head that made me look 55? Twenty-one, in the brown crimplene dress, when my grandmother came to tea to celebrate, and my mother’s only concern was whether our menstruating poodle Emma would soil the Maskreys suite and/or worse, my grandmother’s “Sunday best”?
Did the stress start to show when I moved to London in the early Eighties, living on State benefits and having to steal chicken drumsticks from events I gatecrashed? Or that first doomed love affair . . . and the next, and the next, and the next?
In which part of my ageing face lies the grief of losing my father, my dear cousin Sarah, and the many, many friends who died way before they should have? Are these new wrinkles the result of my own stresses over the past few years, largely financial, but marks that also bear the indentation of those close to me who have suffered far worse in terms of health?
I see the things I should have done: paths wrongly taken, things I should have said and didn’t, people I should have loved more, people I should have loved less. Paintings and music I should have enjoyed, books from which I should have learned, walks my legs should have taken, both literally and metaphorically, when other steps didn’t work out.
Yes, a funny thing happened on the way to the mirror.
But it’s a house not just of one mirror, but many; and they are, quite simply, life. If you stare straight into one, it’s possible to see only the things you have lost - but stare into your house of funny mirrors and see the full picture.
I see the laughter of my father in my eyes, and also my mother, who is still with me. I see every wrinkle and line of a life that, despite its up and downs, is better than most could ever conceive of. Behind every mark of sorrow is a line of resurrection – not in the Biblical sense, but in the sense that I know I came through, and, if I have to, will do again. It hasn’t always been easy, and it might never be again, but all our faces, that are the reflection of our spirit, hold the hope and the knowledge that all is possible.
And I see my faults. Oh, yes, and they are many. Times I should not have got my tits out for the lads (oh, dear lord, yes); moments when I was insensitive to the points of view of others; jealousy, childishness, obsessive behaviour. Every which way I turn, another distorted vision of myself looks me in the eye. And d’you know what? That’s okay: because it’s all part of a very complex package that’s called being human. The mirror – or, rather, mirrors, never lie. But what really, really matters?
During the past few years, I have spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether I will lose my house; but in that time also, I have seen family and friends suffer both in their own health and in those of others close to them, in seemingly insurmountable circumstances. I have lost dear friends through illness. I am watching others endure pain because they don’t know what the future holds. Our health really is everything, and no bricks and mortar in the world can compete with the joy of a living heartbeat.
We live in a society in which people try to hold back the ageing process in so many ways: they look in the mirror and don’t like what they see. One young woman – beautiful, as it happens - died this week as a result of a liposuction procedure, which, weeks later, was deemed to have been the cause of the respiratory arrest that allegedly led to her death.
We spend too long looking in the mirror: looking to that which we can no longer change and looking to that over which we have no control. It is, ironically, though (and I am speaking only for myself), that lack of control I have come to embrace. We have none, and surrender is the best therapy.
So, while, today, I acknowledge that a funny thing happened on the way to the mirror, an altogether better and more extraordinary thing, happened: walking away from it. 

At the end of the day, we all end up as broken glass anyway. 

Let the reflections do what they will. 

And let’s have fun with them while we can.