A CERTAIN AGE

Ageing can be fun...
Ageing can be fun…

I don’t write my blog every day, as I used to. That’s because I’m writing my third novel. Today, with an election tomorrow, I’ve taken time out to reflect and share my thoughts. Hopefully, I will know, by the evening, which party to vote for.

There is a perception that people of a certain age will vote the same way they always have. Some MP’s are banking on it. But there are contradictions in the language used about my age group by the media, and our politicians. On the one hand, the plan is to make everyone work until they are well past the retirement age. However, after sixty, you are seen as part of that great army marching towards death and on the way, costing the country millions by drawing a pension, ruining the NHS, taking up the GP’s time or being a drivelling Alzheimery bloody nuisance.

I sometimes think that we provide the media with a guaranteed succession of horror stories about that hideous condition called ‘ageing’ with little leg work for the journalists. There’s always some poor old sod somewhere easily persuaded to sit in front of a microphone and camera and tell all, be it stories about awful housing, terrible care, hateful nurses or unfeeling adult kids. These stories fill the gaps between the global tragedies and  become part of the way we experience fleeting shots of empathy, before we get back to our iPhones.

I’m sick of the way older people are patronized, cursed and grouped. I’m tired of being told to keep looking ‘young’, dye my hair purple, keep my figure, act young – I hadn’t realised I was ‘old’! I feel young and I intend to keep feeling that way. But I know there is gravitas, dignity and wisdom in ageing. There is beauty in wrinkles around the eyes. There are possibilities. There is still a brain in there, even though, every time you see your GP, he asks you if you’ve done the Alzheimer’s test. 

The experience of human suffering is universal. Sometimes, I wonder if the media have a graduation table. Tales of elderly misadventure keep us all on our toes, but just a little bit irritated, until the next tsunami hits the news.  When we see on TV that poor old Bob from down the road, who was always ‘such a nice chap’ was found alone and dead in his tiny flat, on a street of families who never bothered to knock on good old Bob’s door to say hello on a regular basis, we can feel outraged and empathize – but at a distance, preferably a long distance. Good old Bob should have got a job in B&Q and anyway, it’s really better for everyone concerned that he popped his clogs; one less bed-blocker.

It’s deliberately nasty to make people feel guilty for getting old and then tell them they will have to work into their seventies before they can receive a pension. We have seen, in our very recent past, the way the banks held us all to ransom. Isn’t it time they repaid what they stole, perhaps starting with the poor elderly? We have created a society where there is a lack of money and we’ve turned certain sections of society, especially old people, into the problem. Money is debt and it’s about time we opened our eyes to this fact. I will give my vote to the party that shows real compassion and understands this. 

I am not a fan of the word ‘retired’. To me, you only retire when you die. That’s when everything shuts down, like Tesco supermarkets. Before that happens, branding older people – especially those who cannot look after themselves – as second-class parasites, shows a real lack of respect for humanity. It’s not just in the UK this is happening. It’s a global phenomenon.

I sometimes think that my generation are used in whatever way suits the  political situation, providing sound-bites on the news and predictable grey votes for those in government. There are more respectful way of seeing the ageing process, one that does not confuse or create the divided opinions we are seeing in the UK and one that does not make anyone over sixty feel guilty for their existence.

Tomorrow, I will make my choice but whoever gets into Downing Street, I just hope they will stop pushing those ghastly words: bed-blockers, pensioners, the frail elderly, a strain on the NHS. And I want the media to stop using words like  old codgers, old fogeys, and even ‘elderly’. It’s discriminating. I do not want to be known in the future as that ‘old biddy’, a ‘senior citizen’, or an ‘old fossil’ – thank you. Neither, as I grow older, will I answer to ‘sweet little old lady’. If you are over sixty, you should be referred to as a ‘person’, just like everyone else, for that is what you are, regardless of your age. 

Today, reflecting on who to vote for, I note that everyone needs the NHS to function well, not just the ‘old codgers’, everyone needs political and financial security and we all need a compassionate, caring government that doesn’t put us in boxes, before time.

 

 

A PIG’S TALE

imagesWhen I was young and enthusiastic, I would attempt new recipes with the ferocity of a wild dog. Cooking from scratch was a necessity in my house, crammed full of kids, a hungry husband, several students from a local college, a dog, a cat and a hamster. All needed looking after. Feeding them well was a good way to start. However, I could be just a little hyper-active at times, when it came to choosing recipes.

Once, having watched a cooking programme on TV extolling the vertues of old fashioned recipes, I decided, on a whim, to try one. The title was Brawn. ‘Is that something Hitler’s mistress thought up?’ said my best mate. No, it’s the complicated and meticulous preparation of a pig’s head, I told her, in a jolly voice. Her response was a sort of retching sound that I can’t repeat here.

I started by asking my startled butcher for the offending organic piece of meat. This was the era of the good life and we were all growing veg and keeping chickens. Some of us were into pigs, but not me. So I had to ask Bert the butcher to assist. I don’t think he’d ever had a request for a pig’s head, at least not since 1899. He frowned and scratched his chin and said I would have to wait for the next meat delivery from the abattoir. I didn’t want to hear that word. I wanted to execute this recipe like the lady on the TV, dressed in a pretty apron, with camera angles that kept well away from visceral things like eyes, ears and a snout.

A few days later I went back to the shop and collected my head. Like John the Baptist, it sat on a silver dish, only this one was made of tinfoil. It was covered with a muslin cloth and could, in a dim light, have indeed been a human head. But I had Brawn in my sights and was ready for anything, I watched Bert whisk the muslin away and there it was, confronting me with a cold stare of defiance: my pig’s head.

I carried it home like a newborn baby. I sat it on the kitchen worktop and unwrapped it once more. The same stare followed me round the room like the Mona Lisa’s eyes. It wasn’t going to let go. I would have to wear a blindfold to do this. I made myself a strong cup of tea and gingerly took a few sneaky glances at it. The pig was perfect. It was pink/beige; the sort of colour you might paint your sitting room. It had ears. It had a snout and it had hairs, spiky and growing out of every orifice. It weighed a good twenty pounds and I still had a backache from carrying it to the car and then into the house.

As there was no Internet in those far off days, I’d borrowed a book from the library. The first recipe was HEAD CHEESE. Now just the thought of making cheese from a head is likely to make you feel a little off colour and it did. But it seems that this cosy recipe was an old-time favourite, according to the book. The use of the word cheese is just a euphemism and had nothing to do with a nice block of cheddar. You have to take the bull by the horns (or the pig’s head by the ears) and shove it into a huge pot to boil for about two days. Then, when it looks truly disgusting, you remove it – that takes help from several people – and pick off the meat; a bit like getting ear-wax out, it’s nasty but satisfying. You put the meat in a container that locks, in fact, using a padlock is probably a good idea and hide it in the back of the fridge, while you continue with the ancient ritual

Now, you have a skull looking at you. Into another pot it goes, with carefree abandon, while you pretend you are an anthropologist at the British Museum, carrying out experiments on a dinosaur head, because at this stage the bloody skull could have been any animal, even an alien one from Mars. You watch the pot as it boils and eventually, after a lifetime, you have a gloopy stock. By this time, my kids had threatened to leave home.

Out of the fridge comes the meat. Into it goes the stock. Back in the fridge and the whole thing is left to set. Afterwards, I realised I could have cut off the ears and made them into sophisticated morsels to feed my guests at cocktail parties. Even I couldn’t stoop so low.

That was my first attempt at cooking a pig’s head, but I hadn’t made Brawn. It took another trip to the butcher. I think Bert thought I was into black magic. His eyes narrowed, his lips quivered and his hands shook.

‘Are you sure you want another one?’ he asked,’ what happened to the first one?’

‘Cheese,’ I said

He nodded.

‘I’ll need a few trotters this time, too,’ I said.

‘Making Brawn, are you?’ he said, as if I’d been planning the development of a new weapon of mass destruction.

‘How did you guess?’ I replied.

‘Shall I deliver, madam?’ he said, ‘It will be a heavy load…’

I nodded. The next day, the new head and the trotters arrived. I’d put aside a whole 24 hours to do this. I had my potato ready and my large pot was full of boiling water and salt. Apparently, to check that the brine is strong enough, you have to drop a potato in it. If the vegetable sinks, the brine is too weak. If it comes to the surface, it’s just right; a bit like deciding if a woman is a witch, or not.

Then, the recipe got serious. I had to use a blowtorch on the hairs, particularly those around the snout. By now, I had decided that I was a bloody witch. Into the garden shed I went, searching for my husband’s blow torch. When I told him, he looked quite excited, but I had to explain he’d misheard me and to get on with the gardening. The torch experience was one I never want to have again. That pig hated me. I burned away every last hair and as each one disintegrated in the flame, I descended further into hell. What in God’s name was I doing? But like astronauts half way to the moon, I had to go on. There was no going back.

Into the pot and the house was once again infused with the smell of boiling head. I threw in the herbs as ordered, seasoned it with loads of salt and pepper and removed scum at regular intervals. After four hours, the skull appeared, meatless. The next bit was medieval. I had to put on rubber gloves and squint. It was skin peeling time. Even the trotters, hidden at the bottom of the pot had to be stripped. It took forever.

The next step was to chop up the meat, even the tongue and the ears. By now, I was ready to see a priest. I added the parsley – how beautiful and green it looked – and stirred in some of the stock, as instructed. Then, into the terrine, lined with cling film, a large copy of the bible on top to flatten the bugger and back in the fridge for another 24 hours. I was exhausted! How did they do it, all those dedicated women in olden times? It works. Hard cheese to all those disbelievers. A pig’s head can deliver.

The next day was Saturday. I served up the Brawn to my family, my students, my dog, my cat – but not the hampster. The cat liked it best.