During my childhood, life was ... sweets

"Slugs and snails and puppy dog's tails" were what little boys were made of.

Little girls, on the other hand – unfairly, I thought – were made of "sugar and spice and all things nice."

We had a shortage of little girls at home, and later, at boarding school, a positive dearth, but I don't recall actually believing this sexist doggerel to be much more than a weird grown-up joke.

I knew, anyway, absolutely, what were really made of sugar and spice and all things nice, and they were infinitely more interesting than mere girls, for goodness' sake. They were what Mr. Percy sold in his shop. He kept them in beautiful and delightful glass jars with enticing screw tops and delicious labels, delectably arranged in glorious lines on entrancing shelves. Their color and variety, shape and texture, hardness, softness, shine, sheen, and sugary sweetness were things of incalculable pleasure, the stuff that dreams are made of, sweet dreams.

In different cultures, they acquire different names – candies, sweets, tuck. Dylan Thomas in "A Child's Christmas in Wales" (a good read year-round) lists tongue-tinglingly some from his boyhood: "Bags of moist and many colored jelly babies.... Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan, and butterwelsh for the Welsh."

Mr. Percy is the only shopkeeper I remember from my Yorkshire childhood, and I even remember exactly where his shop was on Bingley's main street. He was high on my list of toddler's priorities. He must be a particularly early impression, I think, because, as I see him now, it is from a very low-lying perspective. He towers, big, round, and beamingly pink-faced – every inch a Yorkshireman – over his counter, looking down at me, his features suffused with the benevolence of marshmallow and the mouth- wateringness of peardrops, patiently awaiting my squeaked, shy order. "Could I please haf a quarterofapound of...?" Mmmm, what would it be today? Paynes Poppets? Clarnico peppermint creams? Murray Mints, the "too-good-to-hurry mints"?

The decision would already have been mulled over for a long while, probably with an acute sense of longing in bed the night before. It might be chocolate bon-bons, it might be New Berry fruits with their suddenly gushy liquid centers, it might be Sharp's toffees (buttery and chewy), it might be licorice allsorts. Should I get the toffees this week with nuts in them? Would I have enough money left over for a small bar of Cadbury's milk chocolate? Or a tube of Rolos? Spangles? Refreshers?

These were matters of grave consideration, compared to which the machinations of Hitler and the strategies of Montgomery and Eisenhower were of no significance whatsoever. In fact I'm not entirely sure I'd even heard of Churchill, and if I had my interest in his determination to defeat the enemy would probably have focused on one basic question: How soon after victory would sweet rationing end?

I suppose I ought to feel an inkling of shame about all this. But I don't. Are today's children any different? On the news the other morning was a brief item. The newscaster referred to a survey. It had concluded that although children "do know what's good for them, they still buy sweets and crisps [potato chips] on the way home from school."

I do not admit to falling backward in astonishment on hearing this news. Was a survey actually necessary? I can't help wondering how the questionnaire might have been phrased.

1. Which would you prefer to spend your pocket money on:

(a) broccoli

(b) rice pudding

(c) Mars bars, chocolate creams, fudge, and/or Turkish Delight?

2. If your school lunchbox included an apple, a yogurt, and a packet of M&Ms, and you were in a ship that has just hit an iceberg and is sinking fast, and the captain has said that you must throw overboard two of the three items in your lunchbox, which item would you keep?

3. Daily boiled cabbage or an inexhaustible supply of Rowntree's Fruit Gums. You can only have one or the other. Choose.

I feel reasonably certain of the answers.

In my own case, I continued as I had begun. When I went away to school, the extraordinary lure and appeal of the sweet was, if anything, intensified. At the beginning of each school term, my mother put together an incomparable tuckbox filled with fierce and poignant reminders of home: lemon cake, sponge cake, chocolate cake, marmalade cake, jam tarts, mince pies, rock buns, tangerines, nuts, and all kinds of chocolates and sweets. What a contradiction in terms all this generosity was! She packed us off to life in a distant and Spartan school, my brother and me, with every imaginable goody – the very treats that were not featured in school meals.

Looking back, I suspect she may not have much liked the thought of our going away to school, but it was "the thing to do." She confessed much later to me that she had loathed school herself. So I think the sweets were an attempt to soften the blow, and – for the very few weeks it lasted – it did just that.

I remember, at my first school, we were eventually allowed to walk a mile there and back to the nearest shop once we were "seniors." This was just once a week. And we could buy sweets. It was a privilege I rated rather close to a state of paradise.

At the older school, my first and last attempt at becoming a manufacturing businessman occurred. A few of us started making batches of fudge to sell to other boys. We were somewhat successful, and even made enough money one term to afford a midnight feast of almost Roman luxury at the end of term.

But the enterprise was a bit hazardous, and I have not attempted homemade candy since. Two untowardnesses were involved. The first was Vesuvian. Something in our method was chemically uncertain. After we smoothed the fudge into the trays, expecting to cut it into bite-sized rectangles once it cooled, the mixture would sometimes, with no warning, start to fizz, spit, and erupt like a volcano. It was alarming, hilarious, and financially unviable.

The other hazard, I confess, was more predictable, if almost as uncontrollable: We ate almost as much as we sold.

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