Josna Rege

33. A Nice Bit of Spanish

In 1930s, 2000s, Britain, Stories on March 30, 2010 at 10:22 pm

In the 1930’s, when my mother was a girl in Kentish Town, her Gran would give her and each of her siblings a ha’penny every week, and Gran’s son, their Uncle Tich, would give them each a farthing. Clutching their coins, they would make a beeline for the sweetshop and eye the tempting displays on the counter, since the sweets sold by the ounce in the rows of glass jars on the wall were priced out of their reach. The sweetshop owner would not only set out an array of sweets for a penny each, but ha’penny and  even farthing trays as well. As a child I loved listening to Mum’s descriptions of the astounding variety of sweets there were to choose from, and at prices that sounded fantastically cheap to me. Some children liked the toffees, others the mints, still others the black-and-white striped bull’s eyes. Mum’s favorites were the boiled sweets with soft fruit-flavored centers, while her elder sister Bette went for the Spanish licorice (“a nice bit of Spanish,” as she calls it to this day).

The siblings would make their purchases according to their personalities, some of them swift and decisive, others cautious and painstaking. Similarly, when it came to eating them, they either devoured them all at once or savored them slowly, one at a time, squirreling away a secret supply for later in the week. Bette favored the eat-’em-at-once approach, while Rene was a natural hoarder.  According to Mum, Bette would eat all her sweets with relish and then start working on Rene, begging  her not to be stingy and to share her hoard. Rene, who always had a soft heart, was also a soft touch, so Bette made out like a bandit, eating most of her own sweets and a good number of Rene’s as well. As the youngest, Mum made out best of all, because without much effort she was able to keep her own sweets and get still more, bestowed freely by both loving sisters on little “Bund” (short for “Bundle”).

Auntie Rene’s childhood generosity was a lifelong trait. We called her “Father Christmas” because every year her parcel arrived on schedule, and no one was forgotten. Throughout our childhood she spoiled us, and then she spoiled the next generation. Every year at Easter, Nikhil and Tyler received an egg carton in the mail from Great-Auntie Rene filled with Kinder Surprises, the little foil-wrapped chocolate eggs that break open to reveal parts and assembly instructions for ingenious little toys.

To be fair to Auntie Bette, in the three-quarter century since she fast-talked Auntie Rene out of her sweets, she has made up for them many times over with those that she has distributed to her children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And as for eating them herself, well, it is a great pleasure to watch a connoisseur at work.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. Josna,

    Great to read this story after hearing you tell it to us at Rao’s last week as part of our always enjoyable stream-of-consciousness weekly chats!

    By the way, Saturday night is the Song and Story Swap at Nacul’s.

  2. So funny how completely different lives have strange shared experiences. As a young child, my father would take any of the three or four of us who wanted to go along for the ride to the local candy store on Sunday mornings to pick up the fat Sunday NY Times which he and my mother would read all morning. We would all pile into the car, because he always gave us a nickel (and sometimes as a rare treat, a dime) to spend on a candy bar of our choice. He always tried to convince us to buy a Babe Ruth or a Snickers (his favorites–chocolate with lots of nuts) so he could cadge a generous bite. Of course, we would periodically foil his attempts by buying Bonomo Turkish taffy (he hated), fizzy soda powders or the worse, candy dots.

  3. I can see you all bundling into the car, Gail! I would have gone for the fizzy powders over the Snickers, although I imagine you’d tend to buy what your father liked. Our candy (sweet) consumption was pretty strictly limited. I remember when we were living in England with my cousins, Mum would buy assorted candy and keep it in a biscuit tin. Every week, when the extremely popular TV show, Opportunity Knocks (the 60s English version of American Idol where the audience vote was recorded with a clapometer) came on, Mum would break out the tin and we could each choose two items from it. And English sweets are the best in the world! I can say that with a conviction I wouldn’t be able to muster up for many other such claims.

  4. Dad/Uncle Len/Brother Len used to enjoy pineapple chunks, cough candy and liquorice (family trait:)) and like his sister Bette was I imagine an eat them all quick type to then be spoilt by your mum or Auntie Rene! Poor Auntie Rene was unlikely to have many sweets left over not that she would have minded, bless her little cotton socks. Lots of love xxx

    • So glad you’ve added your memories, Lesley, because I really couldn’t remember what Mum had told me they used to sell in those ha’penny and farthing displays. I think the stories she told me as a child were somewhat rosy compared to the tougher reality of their childhood—maybe because she had romanticized them, maybe because she was so young at the time, maybe because she was protecting me.) I’ll copy at the bottom the email Uncle Ted sent me after reading this story.

      I wonder what sorts of cough sweets they had in those days? If you look in the photo (taken at an old-fashioned sweet shop cousin Sue took me to in Kings Lynn), they are displaying Victory V’s, which I used to eat back in the 60s, not because they were particularly nice-tasting (in fact they were foul), but because they had a curious addictive power. In the 60s, I recall, their slogan used to be: “It’s Got a Kick like a Mule”; and they did, too, for in those days they used to contain both chloroform and ether!

      Dear Uncle Len had the ability, then, to live and enjoy in the moment, something we could all learn something from.
      xxx Jo

      Here’s a short note from Uncle Ted on the subject (in an email of April 3rd): Sweets. Also for next time except for a word about Trusties see Liz about spelling. This NW5’s answer to Mrs Barnett was a devotedly scruffy benefactor who inhabited a slum on the first floor of a decrepit little building in a yard down an alley off Rhyll Street, just before you reached Glad (and also Lens) primary school. He boiled sugar and added no end of almost digestible flavourings in premises a discerning rat might decline.
      They were cheap sweets though. Especially for girls it seems. At any rate, he served Liz well.You ask her.

  5. So many memories of visits to candy stores (hard candy – sweets, as you called them) summoned up by your piece, Josna. My sister and I were rewarded after a particularly long study session, or arduous piano practice on lazy Sunday afternoons spent studying on cane furniture on our New Alipore verandah, with those crystallized tamarind flavored ginger chunks, or sugared and crystallized squishy slices of fruity goodness. They were bought from the local corner store – Ganesh Babu’s, and the owner stored them in dark glass bottles in which the sweets glimmered like so many partly hidden gems. It was predicted I would grow up to be the impulsive one since I always crunched into my peppermint candies, while my sister, savored hers till it dissolved while I bullied her into opening her mouth wide so I could “see”! From farther afield, there were imports – those liquor chocolates in different shapes that were special treats from my Dad’s tea planter friends when they came to visit from Europe, with beautiful pink and gold canisters of special cigarettes for my grandfather. They transported exquisite miniature chocolate bottles in gold foil boxes too, the dark green and gold mini-bottles full to the brim with a solid dose of Bailey’s, the orange-ish ones with McAllen Whisky, for real. They were after-dinners for the adults, and we saved the chocolate shells till the Calcutta humidity got them. Most recently, I was asked for a box of those by a precious young friend of mine with sophisticated tastes beyond his years. I was delighted to rediscover them at a local liquor store in Austin. The Grand Marnier mini-bottle, sculpted perfectly, was always too good to consume. A nice bit of New Orleans! Next time, I intend to transport bottles of Texas Liquors in those crafted chocolate bottles – Agave, Mojito and Margarita. All for the grown-ups, ofcourse…

    • Urmi, those ginger-tamarind confections are making my mouth water! (We get a version of them in the local Asian grocery, but they’re tamarind balls with sugar and chili.) And when using “sweets” to refer to hard candy, I completely overlooked mithai–especially Bengali sweets–a whole delectable category of their own.

      I can imagine you inspecting the tiny dissolving peppermint in your sister’s mouth, to make her prove that it was still there! Such intimate moments are the most precious memories.

      Chocolate was a rare treat when I was a child, though I never liked it as much as hard candy. I only remember one glorious time when for some strange reason my mother had some ailment for which she was under doctor’s orders to eat chocolate. My father ordered a large case of chocolate bars and they were delivered to our house.

      I love those miniature chocolate liqueur-filled, foil-covered bottles too! (And yes, the Grand Marnier was the best.) We never had them in India, but for years here in the US they were a very special treat at Christmastime, if we or visiting relatives passed through the duty-free shop at Heathrow Airport.

  6. Ooooh Spanish Licorice.. mmmm. Haven’t had any since 1956.. great story. Thanks.

    • Thank you for your comment and I’m glad my story evoked sweet old memories. I like just uttering the names of some of the old sweets: Trebor Refreshers, Barratt’s Sherbet Fountains, Rowntree’s fruit pastilles, sherbet lemons. . . Best, J

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