Living Between the Lines

Nappy cakes, picnics and pop-corn

On Sunday we threw a surprise ‘Baby Shower’ for Laura. Laura is my youngest daughter and her husband did very well to keep this surprise a secret. It was her Sister-in-law who actually organised the entire thing so, thank you Anne-Marie! Your dedication and organisational skills were very much appreciated and your ‘nappy cake’ was brilliant.

 (Who knew that a ‘nappy cake’ is not an iced cake made to look like a nappy? Not me!)

nappy cake
So, that's a nappy cake!

‘Baby Showers’ are a fairly new addition to the UK. They certainly weren’t around when I had any of my children although, thanks to some American neighbours over here from the USA in the ‘70s, I have experienced one before.

I was a teenager in Greater London in the era of Edward Heath, miners’ strikes and the three day working week. During that time, my elder sister and I acted as ‘occasional nanny’ to the two little girls of our American neighbours. He was in the Navy and they were renting a house rather than staying on ‘The Base’. (This notion of an American Naval Base sounded very exciting, not to mention romantic to an impressionable young teenager!)

The Baby Shower was held after the birth of their second child. It was a gorgeous summer’s day and we ate burgers and hot dogs in the garden. There were several babies there and I remember being horrified to see one 11 month old baby girl with little studs inserted into her pierced ears. Such things were beyond my comprehension along with patent shoes – well, how common! (I blame my mother for giving me this viewpoint. She always regarded patent shoes for children as cheap and nasty – such a shame because I loved them!) Everything around us had an American flavour. I confess to never having liked hot dogs but I ate them anyway.

This was an improvement on the previous time I’d been given a hot dog, aged eight. I’d been at the annual ‘Police Pantomime on Ice Show’ (Dad was a policeman). With a large group of children all around me and not knowing what to do with this revolting item after the first bite, I stuffed it back into its bag and pushed it into my coat pocket. By the time I’d sat on the coach for a couple of hours it was not a pretty sight.

Now I come to think about it, I was privy to quite a few American traditions during that period. There was the American 4th July picnic. That was held on ‘The Base’ and my sister and I went along to take care of the children. As we packed the car, I was a little perturbed at the lack of preparation that seemed to have gone into this picnic. Where were the picnic hampers with cucumber sandwiches and Victoria sponge? Where was the tartan rug? Where were the bottles of Pop? Ok, I didn’t call it Pop. That’s just me remembering ‘The Secret Five’ – I was an Enid Blyton fan as a child. There were plenty of nappies and changing mats and plastic bags of spare clothing, there was not a sign of what, in my 14 years’ experience, I had come to recognise as being the essential components of a picnic.

Our American friends gleefully stepped out of the car onto ‘American soil’. Now that was a strange thing as well. This was Ruislip! My first trip ‘abroad’. As we looked around, I saw that we appeared to be in a field, surrounded by high security fences, that doubled as a car park somewhere on The Base.

No one else had rugs and bottles of ginger beer either. Rugs had been replaced by tables and benches. A Barbeque was in full swing at one end of the field next to a whole pig roasting on a spit. Hot dogs and burgers and beans were being dished up with abandon . Cans of Coca Cola were nestling in ice buckets. There was an orderly queue for the food and organised games for the children. Music played and people danced. My sister and I made ourselves eat another hot dog (my first since the baby shower). The day ended with an impressive firework display (and it wasn’t even November).

It was disconcerting to be thrown into such a foreign environment. My previous experience of picnics consisted of a rug being thrown on the ground, weighed down by plates because the wind would always have got up by this time. Mum would have made sandwiches – likely to be fish paste, cheese and cucumber, corned beef or jam for us children. I do believe we may also have had ‘spam’. We’d sit on the rug to ensure it did not get airborne and munch our way through the sandwiches despite the fact that the weather may have ‘turned’ or that a swarm of wasps had decided to join us (blame the jam).

Plastic tasting orange squash would be poured out into plastic cups, the grown-ups having plastic tasting tea from a flask. The crowning glory would be a sponge cake made by mother or perhaps some chocolate ‘wagon wheels’ or ‘tiger tails’. Take all that and place it on a beach and sandwiches become sand-wedges. Ah, memories…

The American version was undeniably different – so organised! There were even proper toilets!

So, my experience of ‘things from across the pond’ continued to grow with a Thanksgiving dinner (Turkey before Christmas – how odd!) and of course, pop-corn. We mustn’t forget the pop-corn because until that moment I thought pop-corn was some sweetly flavoured sticky affair in a bag and did not connect it with the glorious ‘popping corns’ on the stove, tipped into a bowl and drenched in salt. Even my children would laugh at me for that now.

Of course, I was young and things have moved on a little since then. You can buy corn to pop in most supermarkets or ready popped, bagged and salted. Baby Showers are growing in popularity and my daughters all wore patent shoes when they were small. Come to that, fireworks are lit at any time of the year these days though still mainly between October and December.

It strikes me too that our annual Barker Barbeque, is very like an American Picnic. I wonder what customs our American friends took back to the States with them when they returned? Perhaps even as I write, they are sitting in a field on a blanket, eating cucumber sandwiches and Victoria Sponge Cake whilst reminiscing about their time in England.

I am an Author, wife to one, mother to five and grandmother to six. I live in the English countryside in Hampshire, UK, with my husband and two dogs and am a non exec Director for Glow


  • Martha Gates-Mawson

    I came to you by way of my sister, Katie Gates, and I am so glad I did! I have the opposite experience – growing up in America but spending a year of university in England and then moving to the UK in 2000 (following a lifelong dream) and becoming so accustomed to British ways that I have trouble remembering which is which. I do remember, however, when a friend in England was expecting, that I suggested a Baby Shower and she wasn’t at all sure what I was talking about! Even now, as I prepare to return to the UK (Scotland) after nearly 2 years back in the States, I have to remember what is and isn’t British or American. I will remember that pants and trousers aren’t the same thing, that I must put the “u”s back into words from which I have removed them, and that there is nothing more lovely than a pint in pub with a real fire burning or the sounds of a ceilidh and gentle laughter.

  • Deborah Barker

    Hi Martha! Thanks for popping over. Katie has mentioned you of course and that you are about to move back here. So funny that you forget which is which. I can completely understand that.
    I am with you all the way with the pub image. Mine would be a vodka and tonic in the evening or possibly a mulled wine on Boxing day, as close to the fire as possible! Haven’t been to a ceilidh* for years (despite my husband being Scottish) but your description of pub and ceilidh hits the spot!
    Hope to see you here again 🙂

    *ceilidh is pronounced ‘Kay-lay’ for anyone confused.

  • Deb

    Hi Debbie,

    I’m here, too, from Katie’s blog and from your lovely comment on mine. It’s wonderful to read this story – I laughed at the spam, which I grew up with. I’ll be back for more of your terrific storytelling.

  • Patricia

    My mum and dad were from Canada via England and Scotland – I was the only American in the crowd. My parents felt much more at ease with a picnic with family in British Columbia than at the 4th of July picnic here and we were taunted about our food. My Mother’s Sunday night special was cold jellied meat salad….
    I did not know pizza or spaghetti until I went off to college

    You do a great description here. We also did not have birthday parties – just got to pick our favorite supper meal and maybe a box of breakfast cereal.

    Picnics now I do not consider very much fun…they are just items from the big box stores like a potluck and no one makes their special dish any more.

    I was going to make my homemade whole wheat pizza for my book group one night…then thought better of that and just ordered a huge salad from the deli…..!

    Nice post….I did not have a baby shower with any of my three….but have been to many

  • Martha Gates-Mawson

    I have, indeed, returned. I love your writing. Now, tell me, is there anyone who knows Monty Python who doesn’t hear the “Spam, spam, spam, spam” when they read the word?

    Ah yes, mulled wine during the festive season. When I first moved to the UK I was in Devon and my local started serving mulled wine the first week in December. The roaring fire, friendly chatter, a fragrant, warm glass of ruby red yumminess. I’ve been so homesick…can’t wait to get back!

  • Katie Gates

    Debbie, I’m finally chiming in, and I’m so happy to see that the lovely blogging led some people here! This is a great post. I loved the way you took a recent event and then went back in time to tell another wonderfully descriptive story. Martha will appreciate the anecdote that popped into my mind as I read it: In 1967, our family traveled to England and Europe. (I was 9; Martha, 11.) We were somewhere in England on a particular July day, and Dad needed to cash a traveler’s cheque. He asked the proprietor what day it was, to which the proprietor coolly replied, “I should think, Sir, that you would know that better than I.” (It was the 4th of July.)

  • Deborah Barker

    I love that anecdote Katie!
    Yes, I received quite a few new visitors thanks to your Lovely Blog Award. Have been busy commenting hither and thither! Will be passing the award on some time next week no doubt as my schedule allows.

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