The slightest thing resurrects memories.
I am sitting in Soho House in Los Angeles, where next to me they are laying out oysters and shrimps (or shrimp, as they irritatingly call it in the US) for their new Friday afternoon special. Soon, a Martini cart will be arriving.
I didn’t have my first oyster until 2001, when I moved to Paris at the age of 42. It was just after 9/11 and I wondered that if I had been on one of those doomed planes, what my one regret in life would have been. It was that I had never lived in that city and the next week I was there – apartment, TV show (originally scheduled for UK filming) – and loving it.
My introduction to oysters was in Bofinger, a restaurant in the Bastille area and where I had recently enjoyed a lunch, courtesy of Channel 4 (it’s all coming back to me, Tracy . . . those endless bottles of champagne, the Eurostar liquid picnic on the way home . . . those were the days of real PR in the TV industry).
I quickly realised I was not a fan of oysters, but found that if I covered them with the onion red vinegar, black pepper, Tabasco sauce and lemon, I could just about get them down. In fact, I might as well have just cut out the middle man and had the drink in the shell.
In my first month in Paris, I lost three quarters of a stone consuming mainly champagne and oysters; it’s still my favourite diet of all time.
The memories in my nose today are not just those of Paris but of Mum and Dad, who I think probably never tasted an oyster. I recall them returning from a dinner at a restaurant called The Grotto in Cardiff’s Roath Park, where they had enjoyed Coquilles St Jacques. Food on a shell! Yegods! I remember it so well because they had the waiter wash out the shells so that my brother Nigel and I could add them to the collection we were gathering from numerous beaches.
The ribbed plates sat alongside the empty Mateus Rosé bottles from the same trip, a glamorous accompaniment to the white candles in the green glass, as Mum tried to recreate the nocturnal excitement at home: an overcoat of lava wax that breathed memories of another day, another life.
I remember so many sea smells associated with my parents. We took regular trips to Cornwall, where the beachfront shops and smell of the sand and salt filled me with an excitement I still feel today: every wave dispensing with the old, bringing in the new, an endlessly changing canvas that promises change, rejuvenation, rebirth.
Mum introduced me to cockles at Barry Island. You bought them in a cone, covered them vinegar and lemon juice and picked at them with a cocktail stick. Much like oysters, the texture made me think in subsequent years it must be like eating your lady parts (smell included), but the liquids managed to disguise whatever horrors I was feeling. There was still something so exotic about standing around on a freezing cold day (as beach days tended to be in Wales), feasting on weird things from a cardboard hat and not with a knife and fork. How cool were we!
I loved our trips to the sea, even though by the time we got there on a Sunday after church, we would have had to swim to France to catch the tide. Flotina, Tupperware containers of squash and sandwiches, chairs, table, Lilo, lounger, wind break, at least three different kinds of pre- and post- sunning lotions – Mum was meticulous in her time-consuming planning. We could have gone on safari for a decade and not wanted for anything. My favourite photo is of my brother and me in our cardigans (heaven forbid the sun should taint our tender skin) next to Mum on the lounger – complete with hairpiece. She looks like Brigitte Bardot; we look like orphans trying to get in on the action.
We were never allowed food at the beach. An ice-cream was pointless because it would have melted in the three mile trek on the way back from the vans (why could they never just park right next to the beach?), and burgers and hot dogs were a strict no-no.
How I craved the meat as we made our way back to the car (well, the sidewalk; Dad had to walk up the hill for the car while we stayed at base camp with our small house): the fat, the onions, the warmth. But no. “They’ll give you worms,” said Mum. She said the same about Farley’s Rusks when I tried to persuade her to give me those for breakfast instead of Corn Flakes.
They were the gastric horror of our age in the Sixties. It would be decades before I realised that “worms” was a euphemism for “We can’t afford it.”
When we were relocating from Newport, Mum and Dad almost bought a house at Ogmore by Sea, before deciding upon Bridgend. I was so disappointed, but Dad had done his research on how sea air could damage property and before you knew it we were living in Coity, a small village that in education terms was lagging behind Durham Road in Newport by about a decade.
The head told Mum he would have Nigel reading “by the time he’s seven”. I was not allowed to read or write after lunchtime and was consigned to basket-weaving and making butter by shaking the creamy top of every kid’s free school milk in an Empty Maxwell House coffee jar. In Newport, I had been doing algebra and Shakespeare; in Coity, I was handed a book in which 2 + 2 = was the hardest sum.
So much in my life might have been different had Mum and Dad bought that house in Ogmore.
I could have grown up with the sea in my veins and avoided a lot of pain that subsequently came to me via Bridgend.
On the other hand, I might have drowned on day one.
Swings and roundabouts, people. Swings and roundabouts.
And I’m still spinning.