Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Bag Lady

It’s getting towards that time of year when my head feel like it will explode from all the detail contained within it. It does seem to be the lot of a mother that along with childbirth and breastfeeding, remembering every single detail of your children’s young lives will fall to you and you alone. I have become the repository of the communal family memory. I need to remember presents for class teachers, costume requirements for school plays, evenings when I need to book a babysitter, days when K has to be in school all day, days when she comes home at 12.00, days when J has after-school activities, days when he doesn’t but does need to bring his PE kit home. I need to remember what they wrote on their letters to Father Christmas but have changed their minds about; things I need for packed lunches but I haven’t got in the house, what homework needs to be done and where the library books are and and and …you get the picture. All run-of-the-mill stuff that goes with the territory of having children, and probably sounds positively lightweight to those with more than two, but which at certain times of the year threatens to overload the system in anticipation of an almighty crash.

I was vaguely wondering what it would feel like when I didn’t have to be a walking memory-deposit for other people’s lives, when I glanced in my bag. And was jolted back a few years, to when going out of the house was a military manoeuvre. Time was when my bag had money and make-up. No mobile phone, back then, but usually a card from a mini-cab company, a pen for scribbling down numbers, maybe a couple of Nurofen. Then, instead of things that only I might need, my bag was invaded – and, indeed, had to be upgraded. Bottles. Breast pads. Wipes. Tissues. Nappies. Then it changed again. After a couple of years, I could ditch the huge unwieldy rucksack. But I still had to find room for snacks, for juice cartons, for plasters, for sting relief, for wipes, for tissues, for sachets of Calpol. For hair ties and glittery pencils (her) and mini Thunderbirds figures and light sabres from cereal packets (him). For crayons and drawing pads, if the journey was long. Apples and packets of raisins featured strongly.

My bag is shrinking again now. Apart from a few things that are still essential, I am reclaiming it. There is space around my wallet now, and my keys rattle. It doesn’t feel quite right. For a bag like this was once the preserve of a party girl with no dependants, and she’s long gone now. By the same token, I know my mind will never be entirely free of the minutiae of other people, never left clean and fresh and able to focus only on its own needs and interests again. And I think I quite like it this way. And after all, there will come a day when I will probably cart around a carpet bag worthy of Mary Poppins, from which I will pull boiled sweets and knitting needles and photos, and my mind will be allowed to roam and my stories will ramble and my memories will be like jewels brought out to sparkle in the light.

Monday, 12 November 2007


11 November

95 years ago today, a baby girl was born in Newcastle. The eldest of eleven children, only four of whom were to survive past infancy, she was born into what we might casually call slum housing today, although the term would have appalled her parents. Her father was always in work at the shipyards (vanished now), and he and her mother considered themselves to be respectable working class. There was a long tradition of working at the shipyards for the men in her family; further back they had been fisherman on the Northumbrian coast, and one of her maternal grandfathers had been a ferryman on the Tyne. There were some hard years ahead for the family, although they didn’t know it in 1912. The little girl celebrated the armistice of 1918, on her sixth birthday, and as a young woman witnessed the Jarrow Marchers, which included one of her uncles by marriage. Her parents believed in education, and she was a clever girl, but she couldn’t stay in school long, with so many other little ones at home to take care of, and less and less money coming in as the 20’s went on. She worked hard, with the spirit and enterprise and determination that she became well known for. She worked at home, of course, looking after infant siblings, so many of whom they had to bury, with few funds available for funerals. She also worked in a milliners and a dressmakers, and learnt good skills; she was a striking figure, apparently, in her neighbourhood, with her long back hair and piecing blue eyes, and a penchant for wearing red. Music was her passion, she had a lovely voice and could play anything by ear. Musical evenings were the norm in her family and she grew up knowing, and singing, all the old border laments. She married a man twenty years older than her, who also worked at the shipyards, a man born in the late Victorian age, who could remember the old Queen dying, and who had fought in the First World War. She had twins, a boy and a girl, followed by two more sons, and carried on working. Mostly domestic work, of course, and hard work it must have been too, with twins, little money and few appliances that we consider essential today. She would never have left her children all day, except occasionally with a neighbour or family member, but needed to ensure that more money came in, so she cleaned pubs in the evening, and began to sing in them too. She and her brother were well known for their voices and apparently the pubs would be packed when they sang.

In due course her daughter passed her 11 plus and she was allowed to go to the grammar school. Permission was tacitly needed; her daughter remembers the stares and comments and – sometimes - jeers she got from many in the community, for she was ‘set apart’ by that; her twin brother, who’d also passed, refused point blank to go back after the first week and went, with all the neighbourhood boys, to the secondary modern. Her daughter remembers with gratitude her mother’s energy and determination, and the way that she would shine in any social situation, however uncomfortable she felt. The headmaster, no doubt appreciating the shining black hair and the inevitable red dress, would always talk to her mother for the longest time. Her husband died early, and she remarried twice, but both subsequent husbands died young as well. Life never got her down, though; she continued to work, and even in her sixties she embraced new opportunities. She learnt to drive at 60; travelled to Australia for the first time at 64, and learnt to swim, in the warm Australian ocean, at 66. At 95 she still reads a couple of newspapers each day and completes the crosswords. She’ll discuss anything, from books to current affairs to Coronation Street, and has amazing recall. She is one of the brightest people I have ever met, with a restless, striving energy which I, too dreamy by far, didn’t inherit, although I see it strongly in my daughter, her namesake. She owns her own little bungalow, bought in her seventies, and is fiercely proud of her acquisition and her independence. Owning her own property was an impossible dream when she was young, and she said she was talking in her head to her parents and dead siblings non-stop on the day she moved in. She felt their astonishment too, she says.

But she is increasingly frail, and often lonely, and reliant on help from carers. Her siblings and eldest son are dead. Her surviving sons live in Australia. Her daughter lives 300 miles away and is in her seventies, with poor health. She has grandchildren scattered across the north east and abroad, but none are in much of a position to offer her a home, although the more local ones do their bit, helping with shopping and cooking and visiting often. She could, conceivably, move in with me, another of her grandchildren. It would be hard on us all, but we could do it, and have offered, but she can’t bear the idea of leaving the area where she has lived all her life. But here’s the rub. If she moves into a home, or sheltered housing, the bungalow will have to go, to pay for her care. And the thought of this tears her apart. To be able to leave something, anything, to her grandchildren is her greatest desire. To be able to leave a house – “look, see what I was able to buy, look what I worked so hard for” – is a given for many people, but has never lost the sheen of a miracle for her. She still can’t believe, sometimes, that she owns it. And we want her to keep it too, if possible. Not because we’re mercenary – even if we were, there are twelve of us grandchildren, a score of great-grandchildren, and the house wouldn’t raise six figures – but because it means so much to her. She remembers her own parents dying, and the indignity of having to borrow money for the funerals. There were few possessions worth keeping, and even those that were kept for sentimental reasons haven’t lasted. That horror has never left her. It doesn’t matter to us – our memories of her are burnt into our DNA – but it matters to her, to leave evidence of a long and hard-working life. Her oldest friend married a man from just across the border, and they went to live in Scotland. Her friend is widowed and also 95, but nursing care is freely available to her, and she doesn’t have to sell her house. Not many miles away, my grandmother sits and worries. An accident of birth and geography ensured she had a tough life, with few opportunities to pursue her talents. It seems that an accident of birth and geography is ensuring she has some tough decisions to make at the end of her life, too. Happy birthday anyway, Grandma. We love you.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Spirits and Places

I’ve been suffering lately from blogstipation. Not too dramatic an illness, and one that can be explained away by general ‘busyness’. Yet despite really having been busy, I’ve had a general sense of being sort of, well, stalled in some sense. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing, but despite trying to move things up a gear in all aspects of my life, I feel like I’ve been treading water instead.

Anyway, since it’s Hallowe'en, and to stop myself thinking about the dozen or so small children who are going to descend on me at 4.00 pm for ‘fun’ (I’m horribly unprepared, and will no doubt adopt my bad witch persona), I’ve been thinking about hauntings. Not ghosties and ghoulies, but hauntings of place, the sense of presiding spirits or genius loci all around us. I’m reading Sea Room by Adam Nicolson, (I know a blogging friend of mine is reading it too – I’m on the last chapter Mags!) and am captivated by his evocation of a place (the Shiants in the Western Isles) which, to us now, are on the limits of our world, geographically and politically. Of course remoteness is all relative, and for many people these rocks in a turbulent sea have been the centre of the universe. It’s a beautiful and imaginative and passionate book, and as I near the end I’m struck by how strongly the inherent spirit of these particular islands comes through the pages. Nicolson describes it as a tutelary, sometimes frightening, spirit in a place of inherent sanctity. I think we all have an innate sense of the spirit of a place, urban or wild, whether or not we think there is something external and unseen among us, or if we put it down to a sense of history, or a psychological reaction to landscape brought about by our own unconscious memories and feelings.

I remember being very aware of the link between landscape and feelings at an early age. We moved around a lot when I was little, and ending up, for a brief while, in Buckinghamshire, after the north east, I can still vividly remember the greenness and softness. I used to dream of a ‘greeny-white lady’, drifting through fields, something damp and wistful about her. No doubt I’d heard a ghost story which had stuck in my head. Moving on to London, as we did shortly afterwards, was less strange, in a way, as I’d already lived in a city and immediately recognised the pulsing energy, like constantly having a half-tuned radio on in the background. Suffolk is different again; I often think of a ‘Green Man’ here, something half-wild and shy living in the hedgerows, something ancient and fertile and linked to agriculture. On this beautiful green, gold and russet morning, late in the year, I’d love to know what others think, and if they think that a sense of place, a sense of presiding spirit, is important to them, on this day of hauntings. Happy Halloween.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Pets, Partings and Petulance

It’s been a week of small losses. The sort of week where you hold your breath, cross your fingers, and trust that the planets will re-align themselves, or the wind will change, or that your wicked alter ego, the one that slams doors and swears a lot and has a nice line in acerbic put -downs, will disappear. It started with a death, of a fat and contented and really quite fetching hamster (and I say this as one who hitherto hated all rodents). I guess it’s the lot of hamsters, to spend a really quite short amount of time crazily spinning on their wheels, then to shuffle off this mortal coil and so help our children to come to terms, in a not too horrifying way, with mortality. Well that was our general idea, anyway. We didn’t think he’d inveigle his way into our family, with his pink eyes and plump albino body. (My son chose him. He wouldn’t have won any beauty contests). And as is the way of things, the long expected event was more sad than we’d anticipated. My boy had been telling a friend, with great excitement, about his very own pet, and went to get him from his cage. It’s always a shock to find a little body stiff and cold, and the timing was bad – bravery needed in front of said friend. We gave him a good send-off though – a coffin lined with cotton wool and bedecked with flowers, a cross with dates engraved by my son, a garden candle lit by the grave. I do realise how cosseted my children are, in global terms. How fortunate they are to have only faced the death-of-old-age of family pets, how lucky to be able to give vent to their feelings and come to some sort of an understanding of death (or dull acceptance, which is all any of us really do, I guess), without their parents falling apart too, without the horror of human death leaving indelible marks of grief of their childhoods. Yet of course, as their mother, I wish they didn’t have to face it at all. I know I can’t wrap them in cotton wool, I know I shouldn’t want to, but sometimes I do. And sometimes, when my patience is at a low ebb, I want to stop answering their innocent questions, all too well aware that there will be future occasions when I’ll have to answer them whilst poleaxed with grief myself. My daughter, never one to be fobbed off, was instantly suspicious of my explanations, despite my reading and re-reading of the wonderful story ‘Goodbye Mog’ by Judith Kerr, which helped my son so much when we lost a cat. She wanted to go straight out the next morning and dig up the hamster, to see what had happened to him in the night. I told her that eventually bodies become grass and flowers, whilst the spirits fly off to heaven. She thinks that heaven sounds rubbish, and that the hamster must be bored and cross because he can’t be with her. Oh for the egocentricity of youth. My son just misses a little creature that shared our house for a couple of years. But he’ll probably get another one. And so it goes on. ….

We also lost a car last week, thanks to my husband wrapping it round a tree, and thankfully and miraculously, emerging unscathed. My daughter wanted another funeral for the car. But she didn’t get one. What else was lost? Well, my temper, I’m ashamed to say, on a couple of occasions, and my general joie de vivre, due to a whole host of small and irritating problems raising their annoying little heads. The wind will change though, and the planets will right themselves, and we will all be bouncy and Tigger-ish again. In the meantime, I will cheer myself up by writing down a list of my favourite novels, given that I was tagged by Jan, and haven’t yet responded. For those readers from Purplecoo, it will be very familiar, since we’ve been posting about our top books already, so do look away now, but since I am an inveterate list maker, here is my choice:

1.So many childhood favourites, from Little Grey Rabbit to Enid Blyton to Noel Streatfield and all those school and/or horsey authors. And Lucy M Boston … I’m cheating, I know, and if I have to pick one, I think it will be Teddy Robinson by Joan G Robinson. I still remember the magic of my mother reading me the adventures of this growly, funny, all too human bear, and the gorgeously cosy yet magical world inhabited by him and Deborah. A must for all little girls of about six, I would think, and there’s some really clever writing that made me alert, I think, to a nice turn of phrase.

2.The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I read it as a teenager, and was bewitched by the haunting atmosphere and ghosts of celtic mythology. A great writer.

3.The Catcher in the Rye. Probably my all time favourite. Just love it.

4.To Kill a Mockingbird. Loved the film too. A heartbreaking and heartwarming book, and Scout reminds me increasingly of my own hot tempered girl.

5.Emma. I came relatively late to Jane Austen, thinking it was all a bit mannered and precious for me. How wrong I was – I love the subtlety and humour. There’s something about Emma that gets me every time; so much that isn’t said but that we work out for ourselves.

6.The Code of the Woosters, PG Wodehouse. My Dad first got me into PG Wodehouse – again, I’d thought it was just farce. Well, it is farce, but genius farce. The above book never fails to delight me.

7.The Edible Woman, Margaret Atwood. I love anything and everything that she writes, but this was the first one I read, and it’s one I go back to time and again. She has herself described it as an immature work, and it’s true that some of her later novels have more depth, but it’s so fresh, so funny, and so modern, despite the fact that it was written before I was born.

8. The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald. Sublime writing.

9.Wuthering Heights. Ditto. I love Jane Eyre too, but in the great debate, I’d choose Wuthering Heights. It’s got it all – the passion, the wildness, the grotesqueness, sometimes, of the characters contrasted with the lyrical and poetic writing – beautiful.

10.Le Grand Meaulnes, Alain Fournier. I did read it once in French, (I’m bragging now) but lately I’m only up to reading it in translation. A haunting tale of youth and dreams and loss.

So many more. I'm bound to think of another five that I should have included the minute I post this. But I'd better stop there.

Monday, 24 September 2007


I have been ‘MeMed’ by the lovely Crystal Jigsaw, and, having been completely floored at first, (never the quickest to catch on), but having eventually worked it out, I think, here is my attempt – and the lesson learnt is, don’t give yourself a long cyber name.

S is for Suffolk, of course. As I’ve probably written before, my love for this unassuming yet beautiful part of the word happened late in my life. I had no connection with East Anglia, or so I thought, and barely knew it before moving here seven years ago. At first I missed London and thought the countryside unexciting and too demure for my tastes, the pace of life too quiet and slow. But then I learnt to slow down, and I looked around me properly. Beyond the vast swathes of corn lay low gentle hills, remnants of ancient forests, and some of the most beautiful medieval towns and churches in the country. Looming out of seas of grain, the vernacular really takes your breath away. I am spoiled now and used to half-timbered, colour-washed houses, empty countryside and villages that time forgot. I love watching my children growing up here and enjoying a rural childhood that seems to be disappearing across swathes of this country. I loved discovering that my great great granddad was born close to where I now live, unbeknown to our family, who’d never known where he’d come from. I love putting down roots.

U is for uplands. At the risk of seeming a little contrary, given what I’ve written above, I still admit that my heart lies with mountains. I can live – and happily, too – in the lowlands, but give me a taste of northern moors and hills and I’m refreshed again. Apart from Northumberland, I love the Lakes, the Scottish highlands, Dartmoor and Ireland. I’m sure I’d love Wales too, if I ever get there. “Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen” – that’s me on my perfect holiday.

F is for food. I used to be secretly proud of my inability to cook, or to care much about food at all, given that I thought I was a terribly important career girl who existed on diet coke, red wine and restaurant meals. Me and the kitchen eyed each other with suspicion. Then I had children, and realised I wanted to nurture them. What they – and we – put into our bodies suddenly gained the importance it should have had long ago. I can’t say I pureed organic food exclusively, or that I am even now a slave to the Aga. But I try, and I enjoy it, and food has become central to the rituals that we as a family love. The kitchen table is used for chatting, for homework, for drawing, and for arguing, as well as for eating. Please don’t get me wrong – we’re not the Waltons (though I always quite fancied that house). We’re far more like the Simpsons (especially when it comes to Doughnuts). But, just to jump on a passing bandwagon, we do grow a lot of our own food, and we all have a go at cooking it, and plan our meals for big occasions with huge relish. I hope it makes my children healthier then me. And just as greedy.

Another F – this time for family. Not just my husband and children, but the wider lot – and particularly those no longer with us. I’m lucky in that I have always loved the company of my parents and sister and cousins etc. But like most people, and as is entirely natural, I was quite happy to form my own ‘new’ family from friends in my teens and twenties. My closest friends are still hugely important to me. But as I’ve got older, I’ve found that you really can’t escape your family. They turn up in your children, in the expressions that come out of my mouth, and probably the expressions on my face. They’re always there, in the background, the ones in the sepia photographs, and the ones still at the other end of a phone. After all, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.

O is for Oak. It’s hard to choose my favourite tree – I love so many, and for so many different reasons. Beeches and willows and rowans and birches and maples leap into my mind, and there is the most beautiful ash tree that I can see swaying in the wind as I write. But I’ll settle for oaks – I am English, after all – on the basis that I live in a timber framed house, made mostly of oak. So I feel extra protected by this most protective and paternal of trees, and marvel daily at the huge thick timbers all around me that creak and shift in a high wind.

L is for Lad’s Love, the old name for the herb Southernwood. My fingers were hesitating over the keyboard, not sure whether this was a bit heavy, a bit maudlin, for a blog post, but I can see its feathery leaves from where I’m sitting, and it won’t leave my mind. For there was someone once who meant the world to me, and who died when he was little more than a lad, and although as far as I can recall he couldn’t tell a herb from a lettuce leaf, I think of him when I see this tall, gentle, beautiful plant, and remember its old name.

K – A hard one this. Kite, kettle, kitten? My daughter, whose name begins with a K? But if I choose her, then what about my boy, who’s initial isn’t in my cybername? Anyway, I’m sure I’ll get them in somewhere. So having talked about old loves, I’ll move onto current loves, and K is for Kent, where my husband comes from. The word brings to mind the North Downs, and apple orchards, and weatherboarded houses, and market gardens and blossom. And of course my husband, who is apparently a Man of Kent, rather than a Kentish man. It matters. It also stands for Kelpie, the old name for a water sprite, because our cottage is bounded by a stream, and even this little, insignificant stretch of water weaves its very own magic.

M is for motherhood (I told you I’d get the children in somewhere). It still amazes me that my identity as a mother, which is so vital, now, to my sense of self, is still so recent. Nine years ago I had no clue, and although I’d always wanted to be a mother, ‘some day’, I didn’t really know why. I just thought I’d have a go, a bit like taking up a new sport. The laugh was on me, of course. In many ways, I am still astonished, when I stop to think about it, that I am somehow old enough to have responsibility for these vibrant things that I helped to create. I mean, of course I know I’m plenty old enough – I was no spring chicken when I had my first. But like most of us, I muddle along, crossing my fingers that I’m doing OK, still feeling about twelve, and constantly bowled over by these beings who I’ve known for such a short time, and who now dominate my life.

Another U – I’m running out of inspiration, but think I’ll plump for Umbria. I’m not sure that I can pinpoint an exact time when my love affair with Italy started, but certainly studying for a few months at the vast university in Perugia didn’t get in the way. Softer and greener than Tuscany, perhaps a bit less endowed with architectural wonders but no less lacking in natural beauty, Umbria doesn’t need me to sell it. But what stays in my mind most of all isn’t the baked earth or the hilltop towns or the sun, or even the food, but the cold winter nights in the town, the smell of roasting chestnuts, wandering through medieval arcades, pressing my face against the most fantastic chocolate shops, Italians muffled elegantly against the cold, steaming cappuccinos in tiny, noisy cafes.

And last, another M – this time for the moon, and mystery, and magic – all the things, along with love, that make my heart beast faster.

Hell, that was hard work. I guess I’m supposed to pass the baton on to some others now, but I’m never sure who’s already done it, or who wants to, so I’ll leave it at this – if you’re reading this, and haven’t yet had a go, be my guest!

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

We Plough the Fields and Scatter ....

It’s a bit of a cliché, I suppose, to talk about the first whispers in the air of autumn and the effect it has on me, but since it is by far my favourite season, I’m going to mention it anyway. I just love this time of year. The light is softer, kinder, there’s the merest hint of parting and melancholy, and a blue autumn sky is one of my favourite sights. It feels as if there is a new energy taking hold as the year races on and we strive to catch the last of the light, before the long night falls. I always feel as if I’m in a bit of a race against time, that I have to tidy, sort out, put things to bed. I get far more of an urge to clear out now than I do in the spring. The garden, having reverted to wilderness because of the neglect it always suffers in late summer, teases me with delights hidden behind mountainous weeds – late-flowering roses, borage appearing again, dahlias and nasturtiums peeping out from dense foliage. I don’t even want to think about what needs doing to the house, but inside too I have this pressing, insistent need to organise and sort. I think of it as a late flurry of activity before the desire to hibernate takes hold; I could cheerfully sleep in front of a fire all winter, I’m sure I was a dormouse in a previous life.

Yet for the children it’s a time of new beginnings, a new year far more significant than January 1st. I watch them setting off, my son twice the size of my daughter, calm, protective, dependable. A quiet and thoughtful boy, I get flashes of the man he may become, and almost cry. Seeing my daughter trot alongside him, pleased as punch with her new school uniform, reminds me of the lyrics to one of my favourite Bert Jansch songs: “Fresh as a sweet Sunday morning, like a high-stepping pony, trotting and prancing, ah she’s so full of life, sparkling with tiny red roses”. There’s heartbreak at the classroom door, but smiles at playtime as she’s reunited with her brother, and a beaming face greets me at pick-up. Fourteen more years of going to school every morning; an era is over, for her and for me.

Yesterday I was wiped out with a migraine. Not fun. Blind spots in my vision heralding the agony, then jagged bright lines ripping the world apart. The throbbing pain, when it arrives, is as instantly familiar and unwelcome as the contractions of childbirth, and I’m just as powerless to stop it. No gorgeous babe to suckle at the end of it – although today the pain is reduced to a dull thud, and I have the prospect of pain-free sleep tonight – I told you I was a dormouse.

A long time ago as I was asked to write about the sounds and smells that might reach me, were I to be in a coma. I promptly forgot all about it, and am now, as ever, just about the last to complete the task. I fear mine will be repetitive, but just to ease my conscience, and in no particular order, here goes:

1. Birdsong, preferably the evening chorus which always seems to be more contented, more replete. If I were to pick a favourite bird call, it would probably be the lone cry of a curlew, high on the moors, but I’m also partial to the mellow cooing of a wood pigeon on a summer’s day, and the melancholic hoot of the barn owl on a winter’s evening, as he circuits the house.

2.Possibly a bit of a strange one, this, but I’ve already instructed my husband to play me a tape of the football scores, should I ever be in said coma (cheerful thought). Not because I will particularly want to hear how Newcastle did – I’m not that devoted – but because there’s something reassuringly familiar and cosy about the ritual of reading them all out. It reminds me of being a small child and falling asleep on the sofa late on a Saturday afternoon, with my Mum in the kitchen and the men all gathered round the TV, the printer on the television whirring in the background. I’m not Scottish, but for some reason it was the romantic names of the Scottish teams that penetrated my subconscious – Queen of the South, Heart of Midlothian, Motherwell, Hibernian.

3. Of all the flower smells I love, including lilac, sweet peas and freesias, I think I’d plump for Lily of the valley. The scent of the perfume Diorissimo always gets me right in the solar plexus.

4. The Kinks singing Waterloo Sunset. Reminds me of being young, ambitious and in love with life and London.

5. The scent of Christmas trees. Never fails to inspire me with the magic of Christmas

6. The smell of Rosemary, crushed between my fingers. I love all herbs, but Rosemary can transport me in an instant to star-lit Mediterranean nights, and mountains sweeping down to the sea.

7. The sound of crickets, for the same reasons.

8. The sound of water rushing over stones – so fresh and clean sounding, so joyful and impatient.

9. Either of my children calling Mummy – but preferably in their happy, loving, voices, not the imperious yells that sometime penetrate my subconscious at 4.00 am.

10. The smell of clean sheets. I suppose I ought to say fresh and wind-blown from the line, which is lovely, but actually fresh from the dryer will do just as well, and reminds me of the excitement of going to the launderette with my Mum as a tiny child (we didn’t get out much as toddlers in those days!)

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The North Wind Doth Blow ....

… but brought with it only sunshine. I’ve just spent a happy week in Northumberland, my favourite part of the UK, and my home when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. I could wax lyrical about the beauty and grandeur of Northumberland - those windswept, empty beaches, the haunting calls of the sea birds, the sense of mysticism, of history, of holiness, that permeates those northern shores. Not to mention the river valleys with their rushing water and purple hills, where often your only audible companions are the bleats of sheep and the lonely calls of curlews. But there are other bloggers who make their lives there, who know it all much better than me, and who are perhaps less prone to the romantic view I hold of the North East, as is the wont of exiles.

So what impressions can I share, that won’t make any readers yawn? It’s quite an emotive journey for me, that long drive up the A1, as it brings back so many memories of heading ‘home’ after we’d first moved down south. The mounting excitement felt as roadsigns appear announcing The NORTH. (Funny to think that my children will feel ‘home’ when they see The EAST). The sense of relief at being among people who talked like my sister and me, who said spelk for splinter and clarty for muddy, and who didn’t think my Mum, with her strong Geordie accent, was foreign, and who wouldn’t laugh at my flat ‘a’s (that was before the need to conform took hold of me, though my ‘a’s still change from sentence to sentence). Memories of family gatherings in Newcastle and the villages of the Tyne valley, at Christmas and Easter, then our annual two weeks on the coast in summer. The smell of seaweed and fish and chips. Making sandcastles that mirrored the imposing fortresses that loom over the beaches in this part of the world. Rough grey seas with tiny fishing boats bobbing madly on bad weather days, blue green sea with white sand to rival the Caribbean on good days. Heading back down south, to what eventually became a much loved home, but which for a long time was a foreign land. Listening to my Mum crying at night, when she thought we couldn’t hear, because she was so homesick for the north. Sitting in assembly one day at primary school in the South East, singing Jerusalem, and the headmaster explaining that the line ‘dark satanic mills’ apparently meant the area around Newcastle, where it was ‘grimy’. The other children tittering, and my big sister putting her hand up to explain, politely, that there weren’t any mills there, but being ignored.

But I digress, as ever. Back to the week we just spent, and the pleasure I get in seeing my children playing, each year, where I used to play, discovering the same things, feeling the same wind (sometimes cutting, it must be said, though not this week) on their faces. Seeing them wander around the limekilns at Beadnell, digging with their bucket and spades in the shadow of the castle at Bamburgh, watching and listening for the seals on Holy Island, eating fish and chips at the harbour in Seahouses, flying kites at Alnmouth, hiding in the dunes at Embleton. Playing on the stepping stones at Ingram in the Breamish Valley, and falling in, as I always used to. Taking a picnic to the heart of Coquetdale, and for once not have to wrap up in a fleece. Standing in silence looking out over Whittingham Vale. We didn’t get as far as the Roman Wall this time, my son’s favourite bit of England, but still, a perfect week. And Michael Owen even started scoring again, just for us, it seemed.

But what was different, this time, was making new friends. Meeting people who I’ve got to know from the internet, via blogging. Not something that I would ever have thought I would do, and how weird it feels to write that I did, to have travelled a few hundred miles to meet perfect strangers. And yet strangers were the last thing that they were. It’s funny to think how long it can take us to make new friends, once we’re past our sociable teens and twenties. The first espying of someone who looks like we might like them; the gradual building up of acquaintance, seeking out opportunities to meet, the delight in finding mutual likes and dislikes. On meeting these two Northumbrians, it felt like the groundwork had already been done, that we were just picking up where we’d left off. Fabulous to meet two such warm and friendly people, fantastic to think we might all meet again. Thanks again for your hospitality to me and my children, you two, and my heart soars whenever I think of you both in your beautiful part of the world.

I don’t stay on the A1 all the way to London any more, but turn left and east to get home now. Funny how I’ve made my home by another eastern shore, in another sparsely populated, quiet land, with the same vast, vaulted skies and lonely farms. We have ancient hedgerows instead of dry stone walls, timber-framed houses painted mellow pink instead of fortified stone bastles, and stunning medieval churches soaring from the prairie fields, instead of purple hills. My heart always breaks a little when I leave the hills of the north, but starts to mend as I come back to this gentle, verdant land. It’s good to be back.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Of Four-Year-Olds and Ninety-Four-Year-Olds

My girl is now all of four years old. For less than fifty months she has existed outside my body; in less than fifty months she has certainly made her mark on this family. So small in some ways, in other ways so grown up, possessed of such assurance and self-belief. I marvel at her bravery in standing up to the world, in frequently taking on both me and her Father, hands on tiny hips, blue eyes glaring. She fell over, on the morning of her birthday, grazing her knees and bruising her dignity. A few hundred miles to the north, her great-grandmother, for whom she’s named, and with whom she shares a feisty nature and an intense appetite for life, has also fallen. She is 94, and my calculator tells me that she has lived for 1,128 months. She is shaken too, and her dignity is also bruised, and her fragile bones are hurting. They talk on the phone, commiserating over their stumbles, and my daughter’s tones become confiding and conspiratorial. Extreme youth, mired in the frustration of waiting for it all to begin, allied to extreme old age, terrified that it’s all about to end.

I don’t know who’s more exhausted by the birthday celebrations, me or my girl. I’m not quite sure when last year’s calm and sunny tea-party in the garden, with little three year olds in floaty dresses, got replaced by this year’s hiring of the village hall, complete with bouncy castle and seemingly half the local pre-school in attendance. But I am probably weird amongst mothers in that I actually enjoy my children’s parties. Don’t get me wrong, I do my fair share of whingeing during the build up. Whining at the cost, at my own inability to be the Mum who stops the ridiculous party-bags charade – what was wrong with a slice of cake and a balloon, for heaven’s sake? I am ashamed of my equally ridiculous charade of chopping up endless carrot and cucumber sticks for the tea – rarely eaten, of course, but presented as an apologetic sop to other Mums – yes, I know its all jammie dodgers and chocolate fingers, but we do really know about healthy eating, don’t we? I groan at the sea of plastic Disney –themed tat that features high on the wish-list of presents, and tell my children, with a grim face and stern voice, my grandmother’s tales of a doll made from a wooden spoon that had to double as a Christmas and birthday present. They don’t listen, of course. On the day, the noise gets to me, as does the spilled juice and the sticky faces and the invariable tears from some little soul. And yet, and yet … I get lost in the moment. The building excitement, the memories of party frocks (long, in my day, though not quite the Victorian pinafores that my son thinks I must have worn) and patent party shoes. Maybe it’s because I know there’s an end in sight to the tears and mayhem – my son has graduated to civilised trips to the cinema, or pizza and bowling.

I think what I love most about birthdays is the sense of anticipation. That feeling that I get from the house, when, dead on my feet with fatigue, I sit up late wrapping presents, and the air tingles with suppressed excitement. The ether seems to thicken, as it does on Christmas Eve, with the memories of other birthdays, other Christmases, and the family ghosts crowd silently around the stairwell, stiff with expectation. And what I always forget, and then always remember on the day, is that it’s not the presents, or the party, or the food that really counts. It’s the ritual; the fact that my daughter, even though she can hold no real memory of previous years, knows with absolute certainty that it is her brother who must wake her on her birthday morning and bring her into our bedroom. It’s the family tradition of that naughty slice of birthday cake in bed, and the knowledge that the presents will be piled high in the dining room – the poky, cold room that is ignored all year, and is, for some reason, chosen by both my children as their venue of choice for the present opening. These are the things that make a birthday, and that I treasure along with their shiny, excited faces, and it is these things, I trust, that she will take with her through her years – until she reaches the stage that I’m at, when she stops asking, with longing, when she’ll be another year older.

One last thing; a picture of a present that truly stood out, placed up at the top right corner of this blog, because I am too dumb to work out how to get it into the main text. A present that was hand-made, with care and attention, by a fellow blogger, and represents true value for money. A present that arrived with beautiful finishing touches - its own night bag, with identifying initial, and exquisitely wrapped. Made by talented Jane of Snapdragon: see If you see this, Jane, thanks again, she loved it.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Blogging, Boden and Injured Egos

I was somewhat disconcerted to be cyber-name-checked in a national newspaper at the weekend, and not in flattering tones. Apparently some of my fellow bloggers and I represent a twee, Boden-esque world full of Cath Kidston prints and pony club picnics. Blimey, news to me. I moved through shock – never expected to see my name, even my blogging name, in lights – through outrage – how could she have got me so wrong? – to a sort of weary humour. I was going to do the mature thing and rise above it, but my inner child was crying to be released and shout ‘not me’ and stamp my foot. I’m far too apologetic a person to do hissy fits well, but I’ll have a go. So my cyber-name is twee. Well, maybe, although I thought it was just boring. I came up with it in a panic, having decided to enter an online writing competition (and no, of course I didn’t win, though that’s a whole other story), and realising at the last moment that I needed an internet alias. My brain was devoid of inspiration, so I went for the logical – well, I live in Suffolk, and I often write about being a Mum. My husband tells me it’s dull, but I’ve got rather fond of my alter-ego, to the extent of almost responding with ‘Suffolkmum’ when asked my name recently. At least it’s fairly short; just as well we didn’t move to Dumfries and Galloway.

Still, that ill-fated writing competition made me a lot of cyber-friends, and with them I began blogging, out in the big world. I don’t think I would ever have had the courage to do it alone. I wonder if professional writers could ever understand how nerve-wracking it is for those of us who love to write but have never shared anything before, and how easy it is to knock us back. The perils of blogging, I guess, though it just makes me want to retreat from the fray. I clearly never had the guts, never mind the talent, to make it as a writer.

And do I live a mellow country life, pinched from the interiors shots of Country Living and Coast? Do I hell, though I have to admit, there are worse looks. My country life is more about the dull thud of my heart hitting the floor as the bills come in, frustration at rural isolation and a glimmer of understanding of the very real problems that face the damaged, last-gasp rural industries. In a sort of parallel association with the rural world at large, money – or lack of it – has been a leitmotif running through our lives since we moved out here. I don’t have the luxury of fretting over school fees, as the journalist in question implies. Ironically it was economic necessity which drove us out of London in the first place, via Hertfordshire, in search of a simpler, cheaper way of life, of a smaller community – a reverse migration to that which my ancestors had taken, from the uplands of Northumberland and Ireland to the coal pits of Tyneside. Country lanes, sadly, aren’t paved with gold, just mud. Like many families opting out of the madness of city living, we seem to have got worse and worse off, though I admit we’ve traded materialistic comfort for quite a lot of other things, and a lot of it has come about through choices we made. But I bet our income wouldn’t cover a London journalist’s expense account. Broke or not, however, I’m rooted here, impecunious not in a shabby-chic sort of a way, more in an oh-my-God-how-are–we-going-to-pay-the-mortgage sort of way. So no, I don’t wear Boden, though my kids do, often, usually in the form of hand-me-downs and presents, and I really like a lot of the children’s clothes – and they don’t shrink, which is a plus in my book. When you live a forty-mile round trip from the nearest children's department of Next or H&M it's convenient, too. Poor old Boden seems to have become shorthand for middle-class fantasy land, for showing your middle-class credentials without making a statement, and despite liking the children's clothes, I suppose I am as guilty as anyone else of rolling my eyes and recognising it as a kind of uniform.

Suffolk also seems to have become one of those places that journalists like to knock, which makes us laugh, since when we moved here 8 years ago people looked blank when we told them where we were going. We don’t live in the fashionable coastal bit of Suffolk, but you know what, I like going there. I have a vivid memory of my husband and I, the first time we went to Aldeburgh, standing in amazement as mothers called out to their offspring – Arabellas, Hugos, and even an Octavius were heard. We didn’t even know, then, that it was so fashionable. It was just our nearest bit of sea. But it’s fashionable because it’s a lovely old place, and, just to re-ignite a little Norfolk/Suffolk rivalry, it’s not nearly as braying as Burnham Market. But you don’t have to travel very far away from those places to see rural deprivation and towns that North London forgot. You can escape the enclaves very easily, although they’re nice for a while – just as when I take my children back to Northumberland, my childhood home, we play on the wide beaches and explore the limitless countryside, rather than trudging round the industrial heritage that their forefathers helped to create. Doesn’t mean we don’t know it’s there.

But maybe I’m protesting too much; it's all relative. After all, I do live in a very ramshackle cottage, which came complete with an Aga, much to the amusement of my city friends, and I have become obsessed with gardening, that apparently most middle-class and middle-aged of pastimes. I grow hollyhocks and old roses, and only lack of space (we didn’t get the rolling country acres, unfortunately) stops me having chickens. I quite like Cath Kidston and Emma Bridgewater, in small doses . And I think The Waltons and Little House On The Prairie shaped my childhood more than I care to admit. Maybe the vision of children in pigtails and smocked dresses running through fields stuck in my subconscious and shaped my future life. My Mother has a deeply embarrassing recollection of my childhood which she likes to share. Apparently when I was eight I announced that when I grew up, all I wanted to do was be on that cult daytime TV show of the seventies – Mr and Mrs (showing my age now). I have a vivid image of my right-on, city-living, liberated twenty-one-year-old self scowling fiercely at both the child I was and the adult I have become. So Boden blogger, my a*se. Derek Batey, anyone?

Monday, 30 July 2007

Trials, Tribulations and Mood-Busters

The school holidays are so far mimicking the summer; doom and gloom interspersed with bright sunshine and the faint promise of settled days just around the corner. As some of you reading this will know, I have a friend who was seriously injured in a horrible accident last week; a driver going far too fast in atrocious conditions - and having had a fair few drinks – took a corner too quickly and ploughed into her as she was walking towards her car. I feel a sense of outrage – of sheer affront – as I look at my friend – my strong, capable, funny, dear friend – lying broken in a hospital bed. Her brain is slowly starting a long process of recovery, but will have to re-learn how to speak and walk. My throat constricts as her five year old daughter announces that it isn’t Mummy lying there, and as her seven year old boy screws up his face against the world and punches a wall. I hold my outrage in my mind at the same time as I feel sheer relief and gratitude that she is, in fact, lying here alive.

We can feel so many things at the same time; I feel deliciously lazy as I spend all morning in my pyjamas with the children; mild panic as I realise that another precious day of holiday is hurtling past us with little focus or purpose; joy as we come across a young hare, gazing silently into the distance, sitting by the sundial among the herbs. I feel giggly and childish when I take the children roller-skating and my son and I collapse, again and again, in a heap on the floor, while my three year old glides by effortlessly. Our rhythm has slowed, and since picnics and parks and beaches have been a bit of a wash out, so far, we’ve just, to coin a phrase, hung out, and it’s been great.

I did promise a fellow blogger, ages ago, to come up with my top five mood-busters, and having read many other sane and sensible ways to beat the blues, here are my own idiosyncratic, but usually failsafe, ways to come out on top. I’m lucky that I’ve never suffered from deep depression, although I worry for Britain, and anxiety can often catch me unawares.

1. I indulge myself. Shocking, but true. I wallow in my own misery – but with a strict time-limit. When I was younger, and, say, mourning the break up of a relationship, I’d allow myself a whole weekend of sobbing to girlfriends, re-reading love letters, playing sad music. These days if I’m feeling down it’s more like half an hour in the bath and a quick cry before getting the tea. But I always have to acknowledge how I’m feeling and have a short burst of self-pity before I get stern and get on with phase two.

Things that help me get through phase two include:

2. Cleaning, or more often, clearing out. I am a terrible horder and attacking a room or a cupboard helps me re-direct all my negative energy. I am the world’s most inefficient and, frankly, slobby housewife, but cleaning the kitchen floor has the same effect.

3. Reading, by a real fire in winter, or in the garden in summer. If I’m feeling low, I re-read old favourites, particularly children’s books, which instantly transport me back to a safe and cosy world, where there was often someone else to sort out the problem.

4. If I’m feeling low and have that empty, nothing-new-happening feeling, I plan little tiny treats for myself, to give myself little things to look forward to. They’re rarely anything big or expensive, but it’s astonishing how the promise of a new book or a new lipstick or a trip to somewhere I haven’t been before can make me feel rich, and gives me a little marker on the horizon.

5. Gardening. My passion for gardening appeared out of the blue, and has a miraculous effect on my mood. I love walking too, but although I live in a really beautiful part of the country, there aren’t actually many good options for walks nearby – we’re mostly surrounded my farmland. So in lieu of a bracing walk along a beach, I get digging and staking and pruning and planting. I used to suffer from the January blues – now those dreary late-winter days are filled with seed catalogues and plans and promises. Anyone who loves gardening will know what I mean – I feel reconnected to the life-force, to the pulse of the earth, just by digging a little hole in the ground. Magic.

Monday, 16 July 2007

What I Did On My Holidays

I was asked to write about the above, and, ever the class swot, I of course complied. So what did we do? Nothing different, probably, to millions of other families in the summer months. We stood in long, weary lines at airport security, no-one daring to moan (except littlest, natch) and all grimly aware of why the extra precautions are necessary. I forgot to take my nail scissors out of my make-up bag AGAIN, and lost yet another pair, and we drank too much coffee and got hot and headachy in the weird micro-climate of Stansted. We sat on the plane for an interminable 2 1/2 hours before we were cleared by air traffic control, and quelled those reminders that we should have driven that popped into our heads – we were seduced by the cheap tickets, as ever. The children ate too much chocolate and felt sick; we all got fractious and cross waiting for the air-con to kick in in the hire car, and got lost on the ring road of a strange southern French city. We spent the odd morning driving around aimlessly, having taken the wrong road to some out-of- the- way destination, spent too long stocking up in the Intermarche and keeping the children from their swim. We blew a tyre on a track that forded a stream and while my husband did the manly thing, the children and I counted fishes in the water and watched a heron. We listened to the crickets and drank too much cheap and robust local wine (the adults) and ate too many pain au chocolat (all of us). We swam in rivers that came straight down from the mountains and should have been ice-cold, but were deliciously warmed by the sun and felt like a tepid bath. The children played under a baby waterfall and made dams and spotted lizards. We sat out in restaurant courtyards lit by fairy lights until far too late, and were awakened by warm sun in the morning. We lay in hammocks and read, we took a steam train into the mountains and wandered round markets in fortified renaissance villages. We sat out under the stars, opened another bottle of wine and talked about the property we’d seen in the local estate agents. We watched with pride as J said ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci’ to everyone and even asked for an ice cream with the most perfect accent, and cringed when K announced, with her usual loud 3 year old assurance, that the French were very silly for not speaking English.

One memory won’t leave my head, however, and wasn’t anything that we captured on camera. On the way back from a trip one day, we took a detour down a dusty track, interested to see what the monument was that was signposted from the road. We parked the car in the hamlet and walked off down a path, surrounded by stone garden walls with hollyhocks peeping over. The day was hot and still, though with lengthening shadows, orioles sang in the oak forest around us, inky-blue dragonflies and sulphur-yellow butterflies darted above our heads. We came out into a meadow, fringed by oaks and horse chestnuts, neighboured by olive groves, overlooked by a few ancient stone houses which felt private and watchful. The small monument was in the far corner, with a brass plaque telling us how in 1944, with an SS division quartered in one of the old Mas in the hamlet, a resistance group had tried, and failed, to launch an attack. As a reprisal, the Nazis had taken everyone in the hamlet that day, some 25 people in all, including the children and the old people, and shot them, in the meadow. You couldn’t hear the click of the guns being loaded now, of course, though I’m sure that somewhere, preserved for eternity, the horror of that day is played out over and over. We could only hear the drone of the bees and the sound of my children swishing through the long grass, not really understanding the actions of years ago, intent on the present. The war seemed boring to me as a child, a long way back in the past, the preserve of grainy black and white footage and endless repeats of The Great Escape and Bridge on the River Kwai (which I adore now, of course). Yet now, sixty three years ago seems less than a heartbeat in time.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Tears For An Unborn Child

I took K along to our local toddler group one day last week. I’ve got lazy with regard to chatting to other parents I barely know, which I suppose it’s inevitable; its hard to enthuse about baby ad toddler milestones when you’ve done it once, and, given that my first child is four and a half years older than his sister, I had an established group of ‘Mum’ friends by the time she came along. There is usually the same old crowd there, anyway; people I’ve known for years now, and with whom I can share a coffee and a biscuit without much need for small talk. Last week, however, my daughter made a new friend. Usually shy, her eyes lit up when she spotted a little girl there, one we’d never seen before. There seemed to be an instant chemical reaction between them, and they were holding hands after two minutes, embracing after three, and, inevitably, squabbling over who got the pink beaker after four. I guess that’s the way friendships are often formed – on the basis of gut reaction, a sense of mutual recognition. I had never seen the girl’s mother, either, and started some desultory chat with her. Within five minutes, I too, had that pleased, excited feeling that I’d found a new friend; although, guarded as we adults are, our thoughts were no doubt laced with ‘maybe’s’ and ‘possibly’s.’ It’s thrilling to connect with someone instantly, and as anyone who’s lived in a deeply rural area will know, new friendships can be a long time coming. They had moved in to a neighbouring village a couple of weeks ago, and were clearly expecting another baby soon – she was visibly and heavily pregnant. She was a little reticent, though, when I asked all the usual questions, and eventually told me that the baby boy she was carrying was very poorly; he has only a 50% chance of surviving the birth, and that, even if he does, his condition is not compatible with life beyond the first year. I won’t go into details, it doesn’t seem appropriate; almost an invasion of her privacy, somehow, but it’s a reasonably well-known condition. It was a strangely shocking thing to hear, amongst all the rumpus of small children and toys, and I was reminded again of how removed we are, in these days of choices and medical interventions, from the raw and savage lottery of childbirth. My eyes filled with easy tears and I fiercely willed myself to stop, to emulate her quiet composure. She wanted everyone to know – her daughter is due to start at the local preschool next week, people will be interested to see the baby, to know where he is if he doesn’t come home. Much better to be open and matter of fact, but horribly hard for this to be your introduction to a community. Horribly hard to be in this position at all. Such a contrast, between her swollen, fertile belly and the talk of imminent death, between the kicking visible beneath her maternity top and the hurt behind her eyes. We all carry an entire life cycle within us when we’re pregnant, but we only celebrate the beginning; few of us expect to even be present at the end. I asked his name, and it felt good to say it out loud, to roll the traditional, solid English name around my mouth. I hope I get to say his name to him, to hold him, to welcome him.

I know the deaths of babies and infants used to be part and parcel of everyday life, and not so long ago, either. My grandmother was one of fourteen, of whom only four survived. I’ve had experience of losing babies in early pregnancy; I wouldn’t seek to minimise the trauma for anyone else, and each loss is a little scar on your heart, but I know that, in my case, what I mourned was in no small part the anticipation of a life. To have to say welcome and goodbye in a small space of time seems unnatural and cruel. I think she’ll need a friend, I thought, as I walked home across our ordinary village, suddenly reminiscent of a Manhattan street with steam rising after another ferocious downpour. I hope I’m up to the job.

Monday, 25 June 2007

A Week In The Life

It’s been a week or so since I last blogged; nice to take a break, sometimes, but strangely hard to get back into the habit once you pause for breath. I don’t want blogging to become another chore; the guilt at not catching up with all those I love to read becoming bigger each day. I think weekly blogging may be the way forward, but then again who knows; some days the words flow and the desire to communicate is there, other days it isn’t. Anyway, a snapshot of my week lies below.

Thursday 21
A friend came to lunch today, and brought with her a large pack of chocolate cookies for the children, the speciality kind which negates all the benefits of their healthy home-made status by having extra-large chocolate chips – slabs really. I told the children about them when I picked them up from school and pre-school respectively. They arrived home hungry and expectant, and headed for the cupboard. No biscuits. No biscuits anywhere, in fact. The children soon got cross and bored with the game of hunt the biscuit, and I could hear my voice becoming strained and manic with forced jollity as I brightly declared, for the thousandth time, that they must be somewhere. They were, of course. In the bin. I looked there in the end, reluctant to believe I could have put them there, but relieved no the less that they’d turned up and they were still unopened – just a little wipe was all that was required to remove the salad dressing and cat food that stuck to the surface of the packet. They had a biscuit each, then later, after tea, asked if they could have another. I agreed, and off we went again, on what was fast becoming a family ritual of hunt the biscuit. It didn’t take me as long this time – there they were in the bin again. I recognise that look of exasperated irritation mixed with amusement on my children’s faces; I used to give the same look to my mother when I was a teenager. My children aren’t teenagers, though; they’re eight and three.

Later, I found the toothpaste I knew I’d bought …. in the fridge. I called a friend to wish her happy birthday, and chatted away merrily, only remembering when I’d put the phone down that I hadn’t mentioned her birthday. I have memories of my former self, striding be-suited across the City, from power meeting to business lunch. Surely I was mega-organised, always on top of things? Memory can be a false friend. When I probe those memories a little deeper, I suppose I can remember rather a lot of hanging around by the water cooler, too, and holding forth in the office kitchen, making yet another cup of tea to break up the day, and endlessly forgetting where I was supposed to be next. I wasn’t this bad though. I suppose it must be my age. Or the fact that I have, with grim inevitability, turned into my mother.

I did remember, though, that it was the longest day (too often I am like Daisy from The Great Gatsby, only in forgetfulness, sadly, with none of the breathless charm: “Do you always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it.”) and proudly uncorked my elderflower champagne. I am having a ‘dry’ fortnight before going on holiday next week, in a vain attempt to become fit and healthy and toned before unleashing myself on the beaches on France. The children, ungrateful little wretches that they are, spat it out, but R and I sat in the garden and watched the clouds – heavy and rain-filled though they were.

Saturday 23rd
I didn’t forget, either, to make a picnic for the school midsummer fun day, which had been planned with meticulous care and attention; the only thing not factored in was the British weather. A quick recce in the morning confirmed that the school field was a mudbath, and the bouncy castle people were cutting up rough. Whack the Rat would have been more like whack the puddle, and the tug of war would no doubt have descended into mud wrestling. My friend and I had both made huge picnics, so we decided to have a big, messy indoor picnic at our house instead. Her four and my two were mollified by the thought of eating on the sitting room floor and not being chastised about crumbs, and the grown ups decamped to the kitchen and ate ourselves stupid, and talked too much, and watched the afternoon slip into evening. Much better than standing on a muddy field.

Sunday 24th
I spent the greater part of the day entranced by an old gardening book, dating from the 1930’s, that I’d picked up once in a second hand shop and promptly forgotten all about. It was amazingly informative, with some gorgeous illustrations. It was written in that brisk, military style so redolent of that era, and which seemed to bracket gardening as a patriotic duty, along with keeping a tidy house and being punctual. There were some outrageous comments – apparently the reason that the English (not the British, of course) are so obsessed with gardening is because we have a greater sense of aesthetic pleasure than other nations, who tend to prefer gaudy, bright colours, the poor fools. Never trust a foreigner who doesn’t appreciate a garden, is the stern message, any more than you should trust a man who doesn’t appreciate dogs. Don’t get me wrong –the bigotry and arrogant prejudice makes me gasp. But I sometimes feel the tiniest bit nostalgic for the confident certainty of past times. I know, I know, that need is what dictators prey on. But just occasionally, I’d like to be sure of myself.

Monday 25th
So here we are, the end of June. Wimbledon starts today. I’m going on holiday in a week. I’m freezing. I want the aga back on. In fact, I want the heating on. The garden is ravaged by too much rain and high winds; the plants are bowed and bruised, petals and leaves everywhere. My strawberry crop was a bumper one; now they are rotting before they’re ready to pick. The herb garden looks like a jungle. I’m on lifeguard duty for after-school swimming at the school pool today; no doubt once again the children will leap in, only for a flash of lightening and an ominous rumble to signal the end of the fun. Everything feels dishevelled and streaming. I’m British. I should be used to it. But I’m not.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Overwhelmed Children, Pi**ed Off Mothers

I’m feeling defensive today. Defensive in the face of my children’s fragility. Why is our society so obsessed with our children becoming independent? Is it so that they can stop hanging onto their mother’s work-jacket tails and allow them to scurry back to the office unencumbered? Is it because, as a nation, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief at not having to deal with the time-consuming little tykes any more? Why is it that the outgoing, confident, striding-forward-hopefully children are applauded and their parents congratulated, while those peeping out from behind their mothers’ legs are somehow seen to be letting the side down? Both my children have struggled with the big bad world at times. Both have had periods of being happiest at home, where they know they’re loved, and both, as babies and young toddlers, were hugely sensitive – to emotions, to noise, to any kind of over-stimulation. I say this not as an over indulgent mother, (‘my precious children are so sensitive, they need special care’), but as a mother who accepts them as they are but who has seen the downside of this; the babies who wouldn’t be left with someone they don’t trust, the toddlers who were terrified of the bigger brasher kids, the children who need extra encouragement, affection, love. My son was an anxious toddler, and I lost count of the people who would exhort me to ‘throw him in at the deep end of life’. I didn’t. I held him close. At eight, he is gregarious and sociable, happy and confident; he looks adults in the eye, he’ll address the whole school quite happily in assembly. My daughter won’t speak to the two new teachers at her pre-school. She’s not sure of them yet – why should she be? One of them told me “She needs to say ‘yes’ to her name at register time instead of putting her hand up. It’s a health and safety requirement. If there was a fire we’d need to know she was there”. I suggested, mildly, that if there was a fire, they’d soon know she was there. I think, at three, that you should reserve the right to speak to whoever the hell you like. I think, at three, that your world should be cosy and familiar, your limits small, your horizons close. I think it’s weird that we’re so keen to push our infants out of the door, yet we’re overprotective and won’t let them out to play when they’re older and ready to explore. Above all, I think that you have to advocate for your children at every opportunity. I don’t think that you should have to apologise for shyness. My dear friend has four independently minded little souls - the sort who charge into school on their first day, who beam at strangers, who never cling. They’re gorgeous children, and I love their fearless feistiness. That’s just the way they are. But children are different. We don’t expect them to all walk at the same time, after all. “I just want to be with you”, my daughter explained, refusing to take her coat off one day when I dropped her at pre-school. “I love you so much, so I want to be where you are”, she added, with touching reasonableness. “She’s manipulating you” said the brash, gum-chewing Mum, whose opinion I hadn’t sought, and who grins in mock exasperation and not-so-secret pride as her offspring push and fight their way through the throng, ‘cos that’s what boys do (if they’re real boys, is the sub-text). “She’ll get a shock when she has to go to school every day”. Oh yes, school every day. At four. SATS at six. (She’s a summer baby). Her path has been carved for her – and she’d better be walking down it alone. Can’t have her holding ME up now, can we?

Monday, 11 June 2007

Eight Things About Me ....

Having been tagged by @themill, I have been thinking all weekend of eight things to reveal. This was horribly hard – but then perhaps everyone has more interesting lives than me - and I couldn’t start; then when I did, I found I couldn’t stop! I clearly have some sort of compulsion towards disclosure. So here we go:

1. I’m a die-hard and ever-hopeful Newcastle United fan, who by a tragic quirk of fate is married to a Chelsea supporter. My gorgeous son, however, has chosen blood and family loyalty over money and fame, and has probably doomed himself to a life of disappointment.

2. When I was sixteen, for some bizarre and to this day unknown reason, my school was asked to enter the schools version of the European finals of ‘It’s A Knockout’ (remember that, anyone?!). My little ‘gang’ all put ourselves forward, as it involved a five day trip to Belgium, and we duly experienced one of the more surreal episodes of our lives. We were all set to win, but were pipped at the post by the Germans. It was later announced that they’d cheated and we got the trophy, restoring honour to our glorious nation.

3. I fell in love for the first time when I was 15 … with a Spanish waiter called Manuel, from Barcelona. I’m not making it up.

4. I have an inappropriate (given he’s 17 years younger than me) crush on Lee from Any Dream Will Do.

5. I’m sometimes slow on the uptake – I used to have big crushes on George Michael (back in the eighties) and Christopher Eccleston.

6.I speak French, Italian, and Spanish, but probably very badly by now, given that I don’t get out of Suffolk much these days.

7.I won a poetry competition at the age of 11 – unfortunately, I have a horrible feeling that that was the peak of my literary fame – I still write lots of poetry, but generally rip it up the next morning.

8.I would describe myself as outgoing, communicative and open (and hot-tempered, according to my husband) – but am occasionally beset by the most horrible anxiety and ridiculous over-sensitivity. Hence my family and my garden are my greatest refuge.

I’m not sure what to do about passing the tagging baton on, as most people have already been tagged, as far as I can see. If you haven’t, and you’re reading this – then please go ahead!

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Prophecies and Playful Birds

Other people’s dreams are rarely that fascinating, so I’ll try to bear that in mind as I write. I dream vividly, unlike my husband, who claims to remember nothing, apart from the occasional surreal adventure, involving, wouldn’t you know it, car chases and shoot-outs! I remember atmospheres more than incidents – sometimes spooky and disturbing, sometimes joyful. Sometimes I awake with a sense of deep loss, although for what I’m not sure. Recently I’ve been dreaming of kingfishers (well, twice). A stretch of shimmering water, a close-up flash of a bird, all jewel colours and bright eyes. I’ve duly read up on the mythology of the kingfisher, that harbinger of the eponymous Halcyon days, when the bird breeds in the calm waters and the world enjoys respite from winter. I’ve read the myth of the original Alcyone, changed into a Kingfisher and forever swooping plaintively over the waves. I also read with interest that there is a link with my favourite constellation, the Pleiades, as one story has it that the original seven sisters were changed into kingfishers before taking their appointed place in the heavens. Cait O’Connor, (why can't I get a link to appear?), told me that Kingfisher in Welsh is Glas Y Dorlan – blue of the river. How beautiful. Maybe this all has some significance to me; I have been feeling mellow lately, with my husband no longer constantly away from home – I feel like the family is back in shallow waters, after the storms, paddling happily.

Yesterday K and I saw a kingfisher by the shallow stream that runs through the village, as we were walking back from dropping J at school. I saw the sudden, unexpected flash of colour and grabbed K, willing him to reappear. He did, this blue of the river, diving in to catch a fish, showing off. My daughter acknowledged his beauty nonchalantly, but was disapproving; censorious by nature, she thought he shouldn’t have snatched the fish. I just smiled at him in delighted recognition.

Unfortunately, last night I dreamed of a tiger – huge striped flanks appearing through the roses in the garden, a cruel velvety death awaiting us if we dared to step outside. I woke sweating and terrified to the imagined sound of it’s roar. I hope my foray into prophecy isn’t repeated.

Friday, 1 June 2007

School Stories Save The Day (and the half-term)

What a dismal, dreary, deluge of a half term it’s been. Cubs camp was a wash-out; the picnic planned for Tuesday was too. My daughter lost her voice (I take my blessings where I find them, ashamed though I am to admit it), and I finally succumbed to the full-blown flu bug that I‘d been fighting off for a week. The silver lining in this case was that R was able to take a day off, instead of breezily waving me goodbye, passport in hand, so I did what I haven’t done in years – allowed myself to be ill and went to bed for the day. I wanted to read, but couldn’t face anything that I picked up; I had the concentration span of a gnat and even a paperback felt too heavy. Magazines didn’t work, either; I wanted to be totally taken out of myself, and their focus on celebrities/current affairs/home make-overs smacked too much of the real world. So I lay there feeling sorry for myself, and then suddenly remembered the boxes of books that I’d brought back with me when my parents moved and I had to clear out the cupboards which held the detritus – and treasures - of my childhood. I dug out a pile of puffin paperbacks, whole series of school stories with dazzling, heroic titles full of exclamation marks: “Henrietta Saves The Day!”, “The Best Term Ever!”, “The New Tuck-Shop!” I was lost to a world of lacrosse sticks, butch games mistresses and hopelessly inefficient French Mam’zelles, just as I had been as a 10 year old. The lightest of reads, I was able to get through several in one afternoon, and I marvelled – I really did – at what writers were allowed to get away with over fifty years ago. The plots are predictable and paper thin - though I remember them, of course, as utterly compelling and gripping – and usually centre, in a slightly sadistic way, on some schoolgirl getting above herself, coming an inevitable cropper, and being saved/taught a lesson/reprimanded by the heroine, whose British character and schoolgirl pluck ensure her inevitable triumph. Anyone showing a modicum of originality or talent is slapped down; the girl with a beautiful voice who breaks bounds to enter a singing contest gets pneumonia and loses the beautiful voice – for ever, natch. The girl who’s too good at games and wants to go professional (how very un-British) swims too far against the current and gets her legs dashed on rocks (I know, quite savage, but as a girl I lapped up all this divine retribution). The worst scorn is, of course, reserved for the foreigners; there is often a wild Spanish girl, usually half-gipsy, who’s parents run a circus, but she can never settle down to the rigours of school life and generally runs back to the circus. The French are continually sending their daughters to English boarding schools, it appears, in the vain hope that they may develop the prized English Sense of Honour, but of course they can’t – they’re too French. A direct quote: “But Suzanne was French. She would never have the same sense of responsibility that the British girls had”. They’re universally hopeless at games, too, standing shivering on the side of the pool until a hearty British girl shoves them in – teaching them, of course, to lose their idle foreign ways. The working classes are magnificently ignored, on the whole; wonderfully sweet, with their funny accents and willingness to labour for the school, so long as they know their place. If any of them dare to send their daughters to the school, having got rich quick in some shady scheme, they are destined to failure; the Headmistress will avoid them on speech day or enquire who the funny little man is; the girls usually leave after a term, because of course they can’t learn ways of the British upper class, either.

The funny thing is, is that I remember seeing all of this as a child – my sister and I used to giggle at the treatment of foreigners, and at the ludicrous and never-changing speeches of the Headmistresses – but I devoured them all the same. In fact I used to beg my parents to send me to boarding school. Perhaps I felt I needed to learn that sense of honour and fit in, too. And what’s even stranger is that I devoured them all over again the other day, too. Maybe it was just the sense of nostalgia that they evoked, the memories of reading them with a torch under the bedclothes, the recognition of their place in my childhood. I had a great afternoon, though, and was immensely cheered up. I’ve got all my old pony stories too, though they will have to wait for another day. Freud would have had a field day with those.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Things That Go Bump In The Night

I was such a baby before I moved to the country. Terrified by anything remotely ‘supernatural’, unable to watch horror films (I can jump when watching Scooby Doo, to which my children will attest) and secretly still scared of the dark, my worst nightmare was to be on my own at night in an old house, with creaking floorboards, strange rustlings, and owls hooting. Well, guess what? I was obviously meant to overcome those fears, since from day one of moving to the country and living in the old, creaking house with the owls on sentry duty outside, my husband started his mad job involving lots of travelling, which he has only just given up. But because of this, the dark, the owls, the creaking floorboards and me have all slowly, gradually, become friends. Part of my new robust attitude to the middle of the night comes from the mere fact of having young children; as every parent knows to their cost, 2.00 am becomes shockingly familiar once you have a baby. After the first few weeks, when the sense of outrage at actually being expected to get up again and again and DO something at some ungodly hour wears off, the house at night starts to become an old friend. Not one you particularly want to see, admittedly, and one you greet with little enthusiasm, but comfortable and familiar nonetheless. The furniture doesn’t loom out at you in such a menacing way, the mutterings of the house become like the chattering of your family, instead of something vaguely malevolent. Tripping over the cat on a pitch black winter night no longer gives me heart failure (although stepping on something small and squidgy that she invariably brings in still does, but that’s another story). I can wrap the dark around me like a velvet cloak now, and greet my old friend the silvery moon with pleased recognition as her beautiful, spherical face peeps in through the window.

I was surprised, when I first moved here, at the endurance of local legends and superstitions. I’ve lost track of the number of haunted houses that have been pointed out to me in the village. It’s not only old places that can apparently be haunted, of course, but the sense of the past that lingers in these quiet villages, the thatched cottages, the old wool churches, certainly helps to build the atmosphere. As does history itself; Suffolk was prime ‘witch’ country, after all, and has its fair share of trials and burnings. As with many rural areas, there’s something secretive about the hedgerows and fields, too, a sense of something slightly hidden and reluctant to come out into the light. Fanciful imaginings, probably; like most people, I’m quick to disassociate myself from accusations of gullibility, and I always look for the rational explanation first, as when a close friend rented a cottage for a few months while their house was being renovated. The cottage, a picturesque pink-washed dream of a rural retreat, is ‘known’ for being haunted, and my friend was terrified for the four months that she was there. She was the only one who ever felt or saw the presence of a shadowy man, however, and she had very recently lost her baby son, and was obviously in a state of acute emotional distress. Did this distress attract the supernatural, or was the supernatural just a projection of her distress? Who can say, although I’ve always tended towards the latter view.

Yet despite my proclivity for psychological explanations, I think we have a guest in the house – or more probably, it’s us who are the guests. We get a fleeting glance of something in the dining room, a sudden impression on of something flitting past, a change in the texture of the light. It doesn’t always happen, and it’s not in the least scary, yet we’ve both noticed it. We’ve reassured one another that it’s a tick of the light, it’s to do with something passing the window, it’s all reflections and refractions. Maybe. What’s strange is that I really don’t mind - and I never thought I’d hear myself say that. Whatever it is doesn’t bother me at all. This house is my best friend, I love its energy, its 300 year old history, its cheerful shabbiness. Maybe we’re just dreaming – or maybe it’s just the house, not us, that’s dreaming.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Daydreams and Ruby Slippers

18 May

This week was going to be all about living in the now. You know the kind of thing – recognising the moment, accepting the present, not letting a single moment of life’s rich tapestry pass me by. I was going to really listen when my son speculates – again – on the likely plot of the next Dr Who episode, and not do my own mental time-travelling and wander off into the past. I would really pay attention to my daughter’s games and readily accept the subservient role as patient/café visitor/pupil that is usually assigned to me. I wasn’t going to gaze off into the distance when the small ferocious café lady tells me I can’t have any of my chosen food preferences, but can have cake with an egg on and hot chocolate, except there isn’t any chocolate. I won’t be somewhere else in my mind when the people I love the most are chatting to me, or let my mind form endless associations so that I inevitably leave to long a pause and give too blank a stare before answering a question. But why is it that everything these days reminds me of something else? What will it be like when I’m eighty, when there’s a whole lifetime of connections and memories to assail me, when the dramas of human experience seem to be permanently on rewind? Naturally, my good intentions fell by the wayside this week. There I go again; what lovely imaginings spring to mind as I write the word wayside. Verges rich with scarlet poppies, with campions and cornflowers. Old men with sticks in days gone by, tramping in the moonlight down lanes filled with traveller’s joy. Words of a hymn I thought I’d left behind in early childhood “He paints the wayside flowers, He lights the evening star”.

Yesterday my son told me about his science lesson, and how they’d learnt about oxygen. No helpful discussions about gases, no pouring over the encyclopaedia together for my poor child; just a mother who’d mentally absconded, again, and was trying to remember who’s sung that late seventies hit ‘Love is Like Oxygen’ (got it in the middle of the night – The Sweet). My daughter is currently obsessed with ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and is nursing a huge grudge that we didn’t name her either Dorothy or Glinda. She asked me to find her special ruby slippers this morning, and I was gone again, hit by a powerful memory as I searched fruitlessly under her bed. I remembered working in a company which was headed up by a terrifying and all-powerful boss. (Yes, she was a woman, but no, that wasn’t why we had trouble with her – I’ve loved many of my female bosses). A whole crowd of us young 20-somethings worked there, the social life was brilliant, the office banter exceptional. A new man joined one day. He was Asian and hadn’t been in the country long; quiet and shy by nature, he seemed to struggle sometimes with our colloquialisms and humour. I remember him having to attend an appraisal with the terrifying boss, and the rest of us crowding around him in the office kitchen when he reappeared. “What was it like, what did she say?” we all wanted to know. “Oh, I think it was something like: Gimme the ruby slippers!” he replied in his soft shy voice, giving the most perfect imitation of the wicked witch of the west. He broke through his shyness that day and I like to think he liked working with us. He died a month or so later, killed in a road accident while on holiday in Spain. So in memory of a quiet man I barely knew who really made me laugh one day, in homage to Eden (of Under an Eastern Sky blog) and her red mary-jane’s, and for all of us daydreamers who can never get anything done, I’ve enclosed a picture of my girl’s ruby slippers, scuffed and worn, but still magic to her (and found, luckily, before she left for pre-school). Buying them gave a little girl her heart’s desire, and she didn’t even have to click the heels. Who say’s dreaming is a waste of time?

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Frayed Mums and Jagged Edges

Sunday was a streaming, sodden day which either caused or reflected my mood, I’m not sure which. We went to a christening; it’s a convoluted story as to how we came to be there, since we don’t really know the parents very well, but it’s enough to say that we were obliged to go. I’m usually seduced by the ritual at such events, charmed by the welcoming of a new life, the family celebrations, the future all bouncing and rosy. This time, I felt uncomfortable and out of place; one of those social events where you don’t really belong, can’t relax with accustomed ease into old friendships and family groups. I’m adept at using my children as a shield on such occasions – babies are the most useful, since you can sit and feed them, change them, gurgle at them in privacy, safe in your charmed circle of two. Older children are a bit more tricky – I had no hopes for my eight year old, who was immediately swept into a crowd of children with no nod to the niceties of small talk, but I’d hoped my three year old and I could have a mutual cling. She who snakes herself around my leg whenever I’m feeling chatty and confident, however, had a sudden and unwelcome taste for independence and ran after her brother with a toss of her head, leaving me trailing pathetically behind. R got involved in one of those male conversations that was all about numbers; "how much? how fast? how many?" He normally hates conversation like that – the jostling, the back-slapping, the one-upmanships, the sly digs. But he’d got drawn in, somewhere along the line, and I was confronted by a sea of broad backs in the kitchen, so I headed off towards the cluster of new babies and their Mums in the sitting room. But this was all sharp edges and bright lipstick, the babies all accessorised beautifully, the Mums somehow managing postnatal power dressing. They all seemed so certain, so confident, so seemingly unfazed by these tiny kicking interlopers into their lives, although I know that can’t really be true. I didn’t have a clue, in those early weeks after my first was born, I remember being almost pathetically pleading towards mothers with older children, sucking up reassurances like a drowning man seeks oxygen. Not so these women, although maybe they were still in denial, still confident that they could return their lives to normal by sheer force of will. They were discussing work, all adamant that a four day week would allow a perfect work-life balance until their children were more independent and they would return full-time – when the kids were, say, 2. It doesn’t work like that, I was silently saying, it’s not so cut and dried, it’s all messy and fluid and your tidy compartments will run into one another with alarming frequency. Children have their own rhythms which won’t always fit into a corporate timetable, their needs will be greater than you can yet know. Maybe that was just my experience, and won’t be theirs, although in my defence I have met scores of women who feel that work gave up on them once they had children, not the other way around. And those friends who have managed to stay firmly on the ladder whilst raising their children have had to grip harder than they could ever have imagined.

Occasional words from their conversation gave me a jolt and reminded me that I was once part of this world – not the milky twilight zone of new babies and night feeds, but a world of business trips and meetings, blackberrys (not the picking kind) and laptops. I can join in, I felt like saying, I’ve got office stories too, I thought I was a player, once. But I’ve become invisible, now, to people who don’t know there’s another world out there, and instead of joining in I could feel myself becoming all fluttery around the babies, like a nervous grandmother. I reminded myself that I gave up social visibility for a softer life of depth and richness. I’ve got to put my toe back in the water again, soon, before the black hole of the overdraft swallows us up. But this time I’m prepared for chaos and mess; straight lines and sharp focus and steely ambition are a thing of the past, now. I’ve never been so happy to get home and sink onto our worn and shabby sofa and shut the door. The world’s still out there, waiting. But it will have to take me as I am, slightly frayed and blurred around the edges.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Ode to Purple
11 May

It’s one of the regrets of my life that I’m rubbish at art. I’ve never been able to draw a thing, and still remember the shame of art lessons at school, still at the stage of drawing stick people while everyone else was producing a still life worthy of Van Gogh. What is particularly irritating is that many people in my family, on my father’s side at least, have the gene. Two cousins went to art school, and both my Dad and Uncle are accomplished amateur painters. Sadly, neither my sister nor I have the eye. It must be about the way you look at things, I guess, as much as the ability to send messages from your eyes to your hand. R is a pretty good draughtsman, and when he looks at things, he sees them in relation to everything else. He sees shapes and forms, structures and geometry. I just see colour, and am often really disappointed when it has to be pointed out to me that an idea I’ve had for the house wouldn’t work, that the dimensions or all wrong, or something similar. Interestingly my passion for gardening is helping with this; I’m starting to see the need for structure, that a swathe of colour needs bare bones behind it. And yet, like most people, it will always be colour that pulls me into the garden. I can’t do minimalist inside, either; our house has lots of strong colours in it, and lots of bright fabrics, and, let’s be honest, lots of mess. I can go into someone else’s house and feel soothed by their off-whites and beiges, but it doesn’t seem to suit me when I try it myself. R is often intrigued by my instinctive preference for dark, masculine colours, and often I have to be reminded to soften things up, to lighten them. I don’t why that should be, since I love dusky pinks, misty blues and sea greens – aquamarine being my favourite colour. But in art I usually find myself drawn to midnight blues and inky violets, and walls of sheer, rich pigments.
I’m constantly amazed by the ingenuity of nature, how with even the most casual planning the colours come together and rarely clash, unless you intrude too much in an effort to stamp your own schemes on the natural world. Being inherently lazy, I’m often happy to just see what happens, and am rarely disappointed. The synchronicity has been a little bit out this year, the hellebores nodding shyly to the roses, the plants startled by the dryness. Yet suddenly, in the flash of an eye, my garden is all about purple. Only a few weeks ago it was all green; so many different shades, so much depth. Then the green was broken up by deep red tulips and early forget-me-nots. But now the alliums have taken over from the tulips, the lavender is out, my lovely deep blue geranium is breaking out beneath the fragrant, heavy lilac, and the sage is about to show off its lovely purple flower heads. Purple brings to my garden its echoes of royalty, nobility and spirituality. All this symbolism makes it important and mysterious – psychedelic purple, deep purple, gracious purple, proud purple (I hope my prose isn’t getting too purple). It seems you can’t explore anything arcane or magical without tripping over purple. I recently learned, (courtesy of an evening out with a telescope which I blogged about a few weeks ago), that one of the pleiades, my favourite constellation, is known as purple pleione, because she has a purple hue. I see her as Queen of her little group of stars, now. My gardening books inform me that purple has both warm and cool properties, which is why, presumably, for a short burst in spring, my garden can look tasteful and decorous, before my love of warm and earthy tones sets in for midsummer. I was gazing out of the window, open mouthed, as usual (never a good look) when my daughter appeared clutching a picture she’d just drawn of me. I tried to ignore the huge gaping mouth she’d given me, the short stumpy legs and enormous feet, and concentrated instead on the wild cloud of hair that she’d taken ages over, blithely disregarding the fact that my hair is straight and blondish. In her picture, it was, of course, purple.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

8th May

Sunday was a mellow day, filled with friends and family, food and drink (too much of both), fires and sunsets. It was the seventh birthday of the daughter of some good friends, and they always manage to combine a child’s party for her with a grown-up party, and like all the occasions which mark their children’s births (they have four), it has become a fixture in our calendar. The girl’s mother, my friend, is one of those really extraordinary cooks who finds it soothing to whip up a dinner for 24 or, as on this occasion, feed about a dozen children and about fourteen adults simultaneously - different menus, moreover. They have a tiny brick and flint Victorian cottage, which looks like something out of Beatrix Potter and has no room to swing a cat, but which does have a large and astonishing garden. The predicted torrents didn’t arrive, so we glued ourselves to garden chairs and just, well, ate. Red lentil and goats cheese puree to start us off, followed by the most gorgeous ham with mango salsa, roast potatoes, salad, fantastic spicy coleslaw. The best apple and almond cake I’ve ever tasted with lashings of jersey cream. The poor children had to make do with hot dogs and pizza, chocolate birthday cake followed by more and more chocolate as the day progressed, but they bore up well. Reading over this, I know it sounds so middle-class country, so perfect, so Cath Kidston, all the things that we know aren’t true about real country living. But sometimes, just sometimes, it really is like that. Only fleetingly, of course, and always punctuated by small irritations - the child who gets stung by one of the first bees of the season (mine), the child who sobs uncontrollably at losing musical statues (mine again), the one who stripped naked and fell into a pile of nettles (at last, not mine). Nothing’s ever really glamorous, is it, when you know the hidden stories; the financial problems, the almost-break-ups, the health worries. There was plenty of baggage, as there is at every social occasion, all safely stacked up somewhere out of sight, but always there to trip you up should you stumble upon it by accident. For once I didn’t stumble, nor did anyone else; we just laughed and ate and lazily watched the children through a haze of wine and cake and sun.

We staggered home, replete and contented, and built a campfire in the garden, down by the stream. The children were up late, but were unusually calm after a frenetic day, and we were all mesmerised by the flames and the quiet, broken only by the evening songs of the birds and the crackle and hiss of the fire. K was particularly tranquil; she has come through a bit of a rough patch, lately. It’s a funny expression, that, it makes me think of the rough patch in the garden, all thorns and spikes, so maybe it’s apt, after all. Storms and dramas have always been meat and drink to my feisty and determined girl at the best of times, without the added complications of being almost four. It’s funny how you know it’s just a phase, how you’ve seen your elder ones come through similar times, and yet when you’re in the thick of it you can’t see the daylight. One of those little developmental milestones swooped down on her, however, and the roses and the sweet-scented things are peeping out now.

I’ve always loved twilight, and have always been glad that I don’t live in one of those tropical places where the darkness descends in a heartbeat. We sat in the gloaming, wrapped up warm, and watched the moths and heard a frog croak. Yet I still always miss that moment when dusk turns to proper darkness – it still catches me unawares, and surprises me every time. Bed called, along with the owls.