Have you heard of the Wars of the Roses?
I think you’ll need the gist of this bit of British history if you’re to understand what follows – which is actually, I’ll be honest, more about chips (the British ones, like bigger and better French fries) than fish.
Here goes, then. The Wars of the Roses. Pay attention.
England. Middle of the fifteenth century. Plantagenets rule OK. Well, not OK, actually.
Rival factions, the houses of Lancaster (red rose) and York (white rose) fight for the English crown (let’s not get into why, or it’ll take years, like the Wars). In 1485, Henry Tudor, for Lancaster, ends the Wars by winning the Battle of Bosworth Field, defeating the Yorkists under Richard III – who had been king for all of two turbulent years.
The new, seventh King Henry is a bit of a diplomat when it comes to marrying and chooses Elizabeth of York. He then creates a new emblem – the Tudor Rose – combining red and white.
So, there we are. King unites Houses of Lancaster and York. Tudors now rule, OK?
BUT. If you think it’s only religious wars that drive neighbours to compete – sometimes to a silly extent involving death – you haven’t grown up in Lancashire (red rose county), or Yorkshire (white rose county).
These two rival counties sit, like lungs, either side of the backbone of the Pennine hills which straggle up the centre of northern England.
Until fairly recently – let’s stab a pin in the 1980s – the north of England was a place of mills and chimneys and industry. Wool and cotton. Coal and steel.
Red Accrington brick. Pale Yorkshire stone. Black with soot from tall mill chimneys.
And then – it all died. No wool, cotton, steel or coal left to speak of, the chimneys demolished by jobbing steeplejacks.
Red brick red again, Yorkshire stone strangely clean. (It never looks right, IMHO, clean Yorkshire stone.)
The congested lungs of Lancashire and Yorkshire began to breathe more easily.
But the diet that fuelled the workers remained.
Chips. And fish.
The first chip shop opened, they say, in Oldham (in old Lancashire) in the 1860s. Notice, chip shop, not fish-and-chip shop.
Which I suspect is why, when I were a lass in Lancashire, we called the places that fried fish – and potatoes – chip shops.
My parents boasted that Lancashire chips were fried in vegetable oil. The heathen lot across the hills not only called ‘chips and fish’ ‘fish and chips’, they fried everything in lard or dripping.
Lard – as I’m sure I’ve no need to tell you – is pork fat. Dripping, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the fat that drips off beef when cooking. It turns into a creamy solid layer with a layer of juicy brown jelly on top. People eat it scraped on bread – bread and dripping. But it’s the solid creamy fat that fries the chips. And fish.
I suspect most Yorkshire chippies use oil today. But lard or dripping produce a very rich taste. And very greasy fingers.
Now, as my American spouse will tell you, England is very changeable. Within just a few miles, you might find a different name for something everyday, uttered in a different accent.
One minute you’re buying a barmcake to put your burger in, up the road it’s suddenly turned into a teacake. (And yes, they’re bread ‘buns’, not cakes.)
Life was a constant source of linguistic confusion for a young lass (a term common to both counties) recently arrived from Lancashire, living in Yorkshire.
But, happily, whether you call them ‘chips and fish’ or ‘fish and chips’, everyone, everywhere, calls the purveyors of this staple of the British diet a chip shop, or chippy, for short.
So when Stephen D asked if I wanted to go to the chippy – I knew what he was talking about.
He was talking about one of the few ways of going for a walk, beyond sight of home, in the evening, that was allowed to a sixteen year old. OK, maybe 15. But don’t tell.
Blonde hair. And a scooter. The Lambretta kind. No, it wasn’t the fifties, thank you, he was a reincarnation of mod – with style.
Something about him just – well, y’know.
He lived nearby on a street that you reached through a snicket (Yorkshire) – or ginnel (Lancashire). (It means a little passageway, sort of.)
Stephen had strawberry birth marks on his face, but it didn’t make any difference.
‘I’ve seen you making cow-eyes at that young man,’ said Mrs B, next door.
So of course, dreamy eyed, I said yes. To the chip shop thing.
At the end of our avenue a little path ran across the top of a field that took us to a side street off a main road. To a chippy.
We stopped outside the door. And then he kissed me.
Cue the song.
It all went wrong, of course. I had no idea what to do next. Embarrassed and shy, I gave off the wrong – as in misunderstood – vibes.
Years later, when I was home from uni for Christmas, the door bell rang one night. I opened it. There he stood. Still gorgeous. Both of us old enough, now, to go to the pub – where we’d locked eyes across a crowded bar a few days before.
I really, really wanted to say ‘no’ when he asked, ‘are you going out with anyone?’
I didn’t. It was never meant to be.
Now, I’m back in old Lancashire. Twenty five miles from the place I was born.
But you know – the best chips – and fish – I’ve ever had – were in Wales. I feel like such a traitor. And me a pink rose, too.