a little thing unlocks the past
This object may be unfamiliar to some, now that milk comes almost exclusively in plastic jugs. Or in bags, so I’ve heard, if you live in Canada. But before plastic bottles and supermarkets, milk came in glass bottles, left on your doorstep by a milkman who collected your empties.
We’ve all heard about Proust’s petite madeleine, and how it triggered a memory of his childhood. If you watch the film Ratatouille, there is a lovely homage to this. The sneering food critic Anton Ego, a grey and joyless man, is transported back to his warm, colourful boyhood by a single mouthful of ratatouille like his mother used to make. It is a defining moment for him.
Last year I spent a few days at a cottage in Wales. The owners had left a few basic food items in the fridge, one of which was the bottle of milk pictured above. Yes, I was so amazed that I took a photo of it.
Milk, Margaret Thatcher, and me
Margaret Thatcher was renowned as the first woman Prime Minister of Britain. But before her ascent to be first among equals, she was infamous for abolishing free milk in schools. Every child in infant schools received a bottle of milk daily, around a third of a pint. It was a great honour to be appointed milk monitor, helping the teacher hand out the bottles, each with a straw to be poked through the foil top. This was of course full cream, homogenised milk, semi-skimmed was yet to be invented.
I hated it.
These days I’d wear my label of lactose intolerance proudly. In those days such nonsense wasn’t tolerated. You drank your milk, or else. During the cold days of winter, the paper straw had to be plunged through an ice cap to reach the freezing milk below. It chilled my mouth and sat uneasily in my rebellious stomach, leaving me with a bloated discomfort till lunchtime.
I learned to keep quiet about it. Complaining did no good. Consequently, when other people criticised her, I silently applauded Mrs Thatcher, milk snatcher.
Milk, my mother, and me
Was it just the temperature? Not really. Fast forward a few years. My parents worked shifts, and if my mother was doing earlies (6am to 2pm) she would heat a pan of milk for our breakfast before she left for work. We would wake to warm milk for our Weetabix or shredded wheat, the aroma filling the kitchen. At bedtime, she heated more milk to make Ovaltine or drinking chocolate. It should have been comforting. My siblings loved it.
I ate toast.
Even writing this recalls the smell of boiled milk, and my stomach shifts. Years after that, I would flee from people making hot milk. These days, I don’t mind hot chocolate, as long as I don’t have to smell the milk heating.
But I see a glass milk bottle, and I’m five years old again, dreading morning break and the forced drink that grown-ups said was good for me.
I might have been young, but I knew my own mind. The milk bottle taught me that I didn’t have agency and shouldn’t talk back to adults.
Today, the glass milk bottle reminds me that the world has moved on. Thank goodness.