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?