Bird By Bird and Prep School Lunches

You can blame Anne Lamott for this mashup. Bird by Bird is one of those books that I have seen recommended by so many writers that I read and admire. It keeps popping up on must read lists, hounding me. So as someone who wants to write more, I gave in and bought a copy and added to my bookstack.

I'm about 62 pages in. Smiling, laughing, learning. I can see why this book is so popular. And in addition to learning ways to improve my craft or art, I'm discovering a witty, honest human being. The subtitle of the book "Instructions on Writing and Life" is not lying. 

On page 62, I read the following...

"sometimes when a student calls and is mewling and puking about the hopelessness of trying to put words down on paper, I ask him or her to tell me about school lunches - at parochial schools, private schools, twenty years earlier than mine, or ten years later"

...then stop, put finger to keyboard and out comes the following

Being a day pupil at a boarding school in the late 70's / early 80's was a weird thing. For starters there was a whole part of school life that you weren't part of anymore. The evening high jinks, playing out in the woods in summer, playing inside on the table football or table tennis in winter, missing out on the midnight swims and not being beaten on the bare backside for talking after lights out at bed time.

Saturday lunch was another oddity. Maybe the day pupils paid less in fees, but for some reason you couldn't have a cooked lunch with your class mates on Saturday. While they were chewing away on minced steak pie with potatoes and grey-green cabbage, you were sat on a table on the edge of the dining room with a packed lunch. Which sounds a bit sad and lonely, which well it might be. But food-wise, you might have been onto a win.

My packed lunch consisted of the following. A sandwich, it's filling irrelevant, as I can't think what it might have been back then, but to guess - maybe Sandwich Spread, or pate, or Shiphams Paste. For readers not blessed with the experience of Britain in the 1970's I'll explain a bit more. Sandwich Spread, made by Heinz, was a mixture of acidic salad cream with what tasted like additional vinegar, enclosing small chopped vegetables - carrot, onion, red pepper perhaps. It would take varnish off the table top if spilled. Pate, well we all know that one. Shiphams Paste - ground fish bits or crab, mushed up with a lot of filler, I'm guessing bread or flour. Orange or pink, fishy smelling and smooth to spread on margarine covered white bread. And it came in tiny white porcelain jars, because, maybe it had illusions of scarcity and expense, like caviar, only it was available in Spar or Key Markets or Tesco.

With the sandwich came a packet of Monster Munch - pickled onion or beef flavour. In bright, gaudily cartoony bags. There must have been other food included, because my mum was an ex-nurse and knew about nutrition, but compared to the sarnie and crisps they merited no special interest. They were just calorific filler.

But the best bit. The thing that allowed me to cock a small snook at my boarder friends who were eating their dinner, feeling normal and not banished to their own billy no mates - "day bug" table, the thing I did smile about was a drink. Whilst they had a jug of tap water, cheap, efficient and probably the best thing to slake thirst, I had a glass bottle of bright red, e-number saturated, sugar laden, room temperature Cherry Aid. The Jackpot. 

I'd crack open the bottle, the audible fizz making heads turn. I'd sit on my own and drink slowly, partly to avoid choking on the bubbles, but also to luxuriate in one thing I did have that they might covet. They'd be watching, and I'd be pretending not to care. Down it would slip like cough mixture, only more syrupy.

And as they returned to their conversations, my friends' conversations that couldn't include me as I was an outsider on Saturday, all I could do was softly burp to relieve my gassiness and hope that I'd soon forget that feeling of being alone.

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