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About A Week: The Magic Elixir

Peter Hinchliffe tells of mustard plasters, bread poultices and elderberry syrup.

My mother placed great faith in home-made elderberry syrup. The first sniffle of a cold? Reach for the elderberry. Suffering from mid-winter blues? Feeling run down? A daily spoonful of the purple wonder-worker was the perfect pick-you-up.

The berries were picked every autumn. Mother waited until they were so ripe as to be on the point of bursting.

The hedges round our village were full of elder bushes in those days. When the berries were green and hard, in Spring and early Summer, boys used them as ammunition for pea-shooters.

The pea-shooters also grew in hedgerows. We used the thick hollow stems of Cow Parsley, or Mother Die as it is also called. We stalked each other up and down the jungle-thick hedges, armed with the shooters, fighting our boyhood version of World War Two.

A well-aimed green berry could really sting. I once berry-shot a boy in the eye. Next day, at school, that eye was traffic-light red. He got his revenge. He kidded me into thinking that he might go blind.I walked in dread until the eye returned to normal.

Although we fired hundreds of rounds of green ammunition, there were always plenty of berries left to ripen and form the basis of Mam's magic elixir.

I don't know whether her elderberry syrup had medicinal value. It tasted grand though. Sweeter than sweet, and better than pop.

Other home remedies were more unpleasant. Mustard plasters. Bread poultices. Comfrey soaks. Sweaty socks. Vinegar.

Mustard plasters were intended to cure chest colds. The mustard was spread on brown paper which had been held up to the fire to warm. The plaster was fastened to the chest with strips of gauze bandage.

Thoroughly plastered, coughing chestily, I would be bundled off to bed crackling like a Christmas parcel. Only to wake up and find that the chest plaster had become a stomach plaster, or a back plaster. Or that it had come off altogether, and was now sticking to the bed.

Bread poultices were applied to boils, among other things, to "draw out the badness". They were even messier than mustard.

Comfrey leaves were used to treat strained muscles. Folk soaked their bunions in buckets of steaming water containing comfrey leaves.

Sweaty socks cured sore throats. Leastways, they were supposed to. You tied the sock round your neck, then tried to pretend you didn't have a nose.

Vinegar was applied to bee and wasp stings. It stung worse than the bees and wasps.

Most cure-alls and build-you-ups were made from readily available wild plants. A few were bought in.

Virol, a substance like black treacle "growing children need it." Cod liver oil, taken relunctantly by the spoonful, always difficult to swallow without heaving. And Syrup of Figs. The dreaded, dreaded Syrup of Figs!

"Have you been?" my Mother would demand in an accusing tone.

She held stoutly to the belief that the secret of human happiness was regularity.

"I've been," said I, hoping that I sounded honest.

"I didn't hear you go."

"Er ... I think I've been."

' 'What you need my lad is Syrup of Figs. If you don't take some Syrup of Figs you'll get belly-ache, then you'll get head-ache."

So the Syrup of Figs was taken down from a top kitchen shelf, and a teaspoon of the black liquid was administered to one unwilling boy.
It didn't taste too bad. What I dreaded was the effect. This was never long delayed. And always Vesuvian!

Mrs Beeton's Household Management, a huge book stuffed with marvellously old-fashioned advice, devoted quite a space to consltipation, a subject of enormous general concern 50 years ago. "A glass of cold or warm water taken on rising in the morning will, in some, prove efficacious.

"Coarse brown bread or bran bread is very useful.

"Figs, prunes and ripe fruits are beneficial.

"Exercise in the open air and a cold sponge in the morning are also helpful.

"The habit of taking an apple or an orange an hour before bedtime will often effect a permanent cure."

Sound advice

Mrs Beeton also offered advice on how to get rid of headaches. "Lie down in a dark room and fast, or sip a glass of cold water slowly. "It is not wise to have recourse too dearly to drugs for headaches."

Sound advice, Mrs Beeton. Sound advice.

Nowadays, the paracetamol bottle is rattling when the headache is still no more than a hint.

In the 1960s and 1970s, doctors unconcernedly wrote millions of prescriptions for tranquilisers. In the 1950s they were equally liberal in distributing penicillin tablets.If only they had heeded Mrs Beeton.

"It is not wise to have recourse too early to drugs ..."


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