I FIND myself on a Quaker trail. I am on a baking spree and shopping for my favourite rolled oats — the ones traditionally “By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen” and depicting on their box a smiling Quaker against a background of azure skies and soft cloud.
But what’s this? New packaging has detached the figure from the scarlet background of his individual portrait and planted him against a sepia suggestion of fields and hills. It becomes an exercise in Spot the Difference as I line up the old packet and the new, because Quaker Man has been subtly changed. He is much less ruddy. His mane of white hair has been given an extra bounce and curl, as though newly shampooed. His hat is set back at an almost rakish degree from his forehead. And — most striking of all — his white jabot is flowing jauntily towards his left shoulder, as though lifted by the breeze.
I am outraged at these liberties, and the oat cookies have to wait while I research what has happened here. I discover from the magazine The Grocer that a rebrand was made in 2018 “to accelerate value growth and capitalise on the rising popularity of hot breakfast options”; that the character has, indeed, been given a “gentle makeover”; and that the blue sky background has been dropped in favour of a “landscape illustration in a neutral colour”.
PepsiCo, which now owns the brand, describes the changes as “part of our ongoing commitment to drive excitement and attract new audiences to the cereals category”; something that would “reflect consumer appetite and champion the goodness of oats”. I have grown up with Quaker Man and what he stood for. Mess with our icons at your peril, would be my warning from this side of the Atlantic.
FOOD has been a preoccupation in more ways than this. My freezer is full of seaweed, harvested at low tide and in large quantities at Robin Hood’s Bay, and washed in the baths of various cast members of our play, Not Just Fish and Ships. It features in kitchen preparations for arrivals at the Synod of Whitby. I spread it out on the lawn to defrost in the sunshine, and, when I open the back door later, the garden has the salty tang of the seashore.
For each performance, we gather fresh rosemary and mint for chopping, and pick peas for podding. These tasks are timeless, and, for a few fragrant moments, the aromas fill the sacred spaces that we are in. Knowing for sure what was cooked and eaten in a monastery in the year 664 has been something of a challenge, as we are also depicting a conference dinner on the eve of the Synod. We discover that rabbits didn’t arrive until after the Norman Conquest; so prospects of skinning one of those take an early dive.
Plucking chickens? Too problematic to have real ones, especially as the temperatures on our first night in Southwell Minster are predicted to reach an all-time high. I investigate fake ones, but you wouldn’t believe the price of plastic chickens, and they look markedly tandoori. So we go for the historical accuracy of cheese and vegetables, fruit, and freshly baked bread. We offer it to the audience, too, and smile when we read on a couple of the feedback forms, “And the bread was lovely.”
Now and then
I ESCAPE from the seventh century for a while and idle in the Peak District, where it is still possible to avoid the August crowds. The family opts to meet up in the famous Scarthin bookshop, in the village of Cromford. The modest shop-front, on a steep and narrow street, belies what is behind it: a paradise of 100,000 books in 12 crazy rooms. There are geraniums in the window-boxes, and a piano you can play, if you have a mind to. The place groans with books, and there’s reading matter even on the ceilings.
We notice that the traffic lights are out, but we don’t connect that with the nationwide power cuts of the previous day until we arrive in the shop. There’s no electricity; so there are no lights and the tills aren’t working, but the staff say they’re happy for us to come in if we don’t mind paying cash or vouchers and we don’t mind using torches.
So we do — and so do many others. It becomes a glorious adventure. We lose family members in some of the dark places and rediscover them; we gravitate to the Art Room and the Music Room at the front of the building, suffused with natural light; we ascend to the café area — stuffed with cookery books — and eat chocolate Rolo cake and drink coffee, because they can’t cook food but they can heat water.
And, because we can’t use credit or debit cards, we can’t buy everything we want to and we have to make choices. We use vouchers from a Christmas spree to pay for our cake, and then we pool our cash to see what we can manage between us. I’m able to borrow from my son, and secretly buy him a book on Scottish bothies for his birthday. We are there for three hours, and drain our communal cash with a pile of books that all get written down, in proper handwriting, in a notebook commissioned for the purpose. Life as it’s meant to be lived.
Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.
Not Just Fish and Ships is at St Mary Magdalene’s, Sutton-in-Ashfield, on 14 September; Peterborough Cathedral on 21 September; St Mark and St Laurence, Bolsover, on 28 September, and Hull Minster on 26 October. www.ticketsource.co.uk/headland-theatre