Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dirty old town


If ever there was a love-hate relationship, it's the one I have with Luton. I'm not a Lutonian and I have only lived there briefly but it's loomed large in my life over the last few years. I instinctively dislike it - dirty, sprawling, dodgy in parts and mainly unattractive, it's never going to win any prizes, except the one it frequently wins for 'crap town'. Yet like a rough friend who you know underneath has a good heart, but doesn't know how to show it, I keep wanting people to see its worth. I feel defensive of the good people I meet in my work who are trying their best to make a go of it, attracted by the multi-cultural vibrancy and sheer brazenness of the place, intrigued by the little pockets of beauty that point to a rather more attractive past when it was the home of hat making and fascinated by its history of righteous insurrection (the people burned down the Town Hall after the First World War in the Peace Day Riots).

Today I went to the profoundly ugly Arndale Centre (recently redubbed The Mall - not that that's made much difference). As I walked down the damp steps from the car park to the market, my senses were assailed by the pungent fragrance of dope lingering in the stairwell mixed with food smells from the market and an unpleasant pissy background odour that never seems to fade. Into the market I went, where I was greeted by a riot of colour, noise and sensation: Caribbean food, Asian clothing, Irish music, tattoo parlours and shoe menders. Wild colours and strong tastes abounded in an intoxicating mix that seemed at odds with the plebeian, municipal setting.

I went from here to work with one of the town's young people.; a young woman representative of the town's extraordinary ethnic mix who was full of hope, ability and ambition. Despite the terrible image, ugly town centre and a certain edgy unpleasantness, there are a lot of good people there trying to make the best of their lives. There lies, I suppose, the root of my love-hate relationship with Luton.

Keep it up, unlovely Luton.

Monday, December 7, 2009

No animals have been harmed....


The weekend before last saw Sara and I travelling like Thelma and Louise in a Corsa up to Shrewsbury for Violet's birthday party. In the weeks preceding the party, Sara and I mused on what we should buy for the birthday girl.

It's a well-known fact among Violet's friends that she fancies herself as a taxidermist manque. So a taxidermic present seeming apt, I went on to the website of a taxidermy supplies company with a view to buying an instructional DVD.

I thought the beginner's guide to stuffing birds might be a good one. People put stuffing into chickens so how hard can it be? The DVD came with a couple of important caveats. The first was that you need another video for owls and ducks as they require specific techniques (this DVD was more for your average pheasant). The other was that you should view the DVD at least once before starting your own specimen.

At least once. So no flicking through the DVD for the best bits and then starting erroneously on your own owl, which at the end would look oddly pheasanty. Visions of Violet mangling a duck because she fast-forwarded to the good bits flashed before my eyes.

I gave up. The DVD was not a good idea. We bought her a book by Nick Cave instead in which a man sucks a lady's knickers. Far less potential for damage there - except maybe to Violet's smalls.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Syrup of figs!

When Mother Nature gave out hair she dealt me a raw deal. All my life I have struggled with baby-fine, flossy stuff that grows incredibly slowly, has a slight and annoying kink and just won't do as it's told. As a child, while my sister had thick, ropey plaits mine just made two pathetic, thin sticks. Ribbons wouldn't stay in my hair as it was so silky and fine that they just slipped out.

The only thing in favour was that until I was in my early twenties my hair was a gorgeous pale blonde (I have to buy if from Toni and Guy now although my natural hair is still pretty light). Indeed my piano teacher dubbed me The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. Even my Dad, not known for dishing out compliments, said my hair was beautiful - until I went out!

I've always longed for long, rich swishy hair which does what it's told and isn't like a small baby's cast offs. As a little girl I used to draw pictures of long-haired princesses whose tresses reached past their knees, while my own hair would barely grow past my shoulders. By the time I was nineteen I'd had enough and had it all chopped off into a funky crop which suddenly made me realise I had cheekbones!

The desire for amazing hair has never dimmed however, so I was quite excited to buy a long black wig to wear to a fancy dress party where I am hoping to look like Vamipira from 'Ed Wood'. With visions of me looking like Winona Ryder or Catherine Zeta Jones, I put on the wig and realised I looked more like a deranged transvestite.Deciding the fringe might be the problem, Iasked Flora to cut it which she interpreted as 'cut it off' rather than 'trim it', leaving my wig with a stumpy fringe that stuck out. According to my mother this modification made me look less like a deranged transvestite and more like Sitting Bull.

A little wig gardening followed and it now look almost reasonable. Well, at least it looks right for the costume but does it suit me? Sadly not a bit. I took if off and realised that Mother Nature gave me my fine, fair hair for a reason - like it or not!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Three little words

I love you. Those three little words that mean so much. One always feel that such iconic words should be said with just a little effort on the part of he/she who proclaims them, which is why I felt a certain sadness on discovering that the careless lover can simply pick a template on his/her mobile phone to say 'I love you'. How galling to discover the one you love and/or are stalking pressed a button, probably with one hand while stirring his/her beans (which is not a euphemism unless you want it to be, in which case invent your own).

Worse still there is another template for 'I love you too'. How low can you go? My charitable side reminds me that these templates might aid the ardent but dyslexic lover but personally I'd rather have a misspelled but deeply felt message than one supplied by Mr Nokia.

Where can it go from here: 'Sorry to hear you're dead', 'Pass the salt' 'How about it?' Soon nobody will need to speak, we'll just blue-tooth our platitudes to one another.



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Monday, November 23, 2009

Feeling the benefit

I was wondering today when it was we started to tell people not to wear their coats indoors as they won't feel 'the benefit' when outside. Is that true? Are you more likely to succumb to pneumonia because you wore your coat inside?

My grandmother believed any number of things would give you pneumonia including going outside with wet hair and not wearing an adequate vest . I suppose in the days of antibiotics we are more cavalier about these things, however I can report that I have ventured outdoors with wet hair and no harm came to me although I had a slightly cold head.

But the old coat chestnut? Is it a testable theory I idly wondered. You would need two groups of people - those that normally feel the cold and those that don't. I belong to the first group and know I would moan about being cold in any situation so it's not really scientific. Then you'd have to have a control group of people who don't care one way or the other. Then there's the coat. Does it only apply to thick or thin coats? Astrakhan or wool? Fleece or quilted? It would not be a straighforward study, that's for sure.

Oh and the meaning of the word 'benefit': what benefits one person might not another. As a permanently cold person, I'm all for wandering about in a duvet with a zip up the front (in fact my winter anorak is essentially a duvet with a zip up the front with the mildest nod to style) but for some a skimpy cardigan affords benefit.

Sod the Hadron collider, this is an experiment that needs doing - now.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

A gottle of geer!

S had bought herself a vent doll? Vent doll, apparently, is what those in the know call a ventriloquist's dummy. He's the real deal too with a square mouth, apple cheeks and a maniacally disturbing expression. Let's just say you wouldn't want to wake up in the night with him looking down at you!

This acquisition awakened in me a desire to learn the gentle art of ventriloquism. I've been looking at a book on magic which, three pages in, hits me with the revelation that the chief skill of ventriloquism is to avoid moving ones 'countenance'. Well glow me gown!

Still I am convinced that I could learn to do it, up to a point. I rather like the Shari Lewis and Lambchop style which involves gritting your teeth and speaking through them with a rictus grin on your face. The magic book says you do this to look as though you are enjoying/responding to what your puppet is saying.

The next step is speaking and this involves replacing some letters with others that sound vaguely like them, which is harder that it sound and more stupid. The book recommends copying the speech of 'uneducated people' or children as this will render your garbled speech more natural. Who doesn't know a child who asks for a 'gottle of geer' after all?

So to summarise, it really couldn't be easier; speak like someone very thick, grin a lot and keep your countenance still.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

D-File!

I am considering offering myself to the Guiding Association as a 'rudeness consultant'. Flora recently joined and was given a very trendy little booklet called The G-File. The name immediately made me flinch slightly, with it's unfortunate amalgam of elements of G-Spot and, er, paedophile.

I imagine people with cleaner minds will now be saying 'I didn't see that at all. It just made me think of 'gee whizz' and nail-file'. Ah dear innocents, you are losing out on a whole world of smuttiness. I recently stopped the car to take a photo of a van belonging to a company called Tracklube who dealt in 'flange lubrication'. Oh how I chortled to myself - it really made my day.

Returning to the G-File, it's clear that the Guiding Association failed to take advice from people with fertile imaginations such as mine. I would have warned them, advising them to choose something slightly less dubious sounding such as The Guide Guide for instance. I like that, it says what it is, the repetition of the word Guide has that ironic, noughties feel about it and most importantly it plays with notions of meaning in a satisfyingly post-structuralist way; it says what it does on the tin but the tin is just a linguistic construct anyway and has no essential tin-ness about it. So there is no meaning which means there is no need to come to Guides and get badges because language is slippery and therefore you haven't got a badge anyway but something that isn't a dog or a kettle..... Fantastic!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The lady's not for turning....


....doing three point turns, parking or reversing. Due to a temporary malfunction on my modest little Su uki WagonR, I am driving my Dad's humongous, eff-off people carrier. I feel like I'm driving a tank in one of those old Soviet military displays.

How do people drive big cars? And how do people drive lorries and the like? Only today I saw a tanker driver do the most precarious maneouvre in a tight space, terrifyingly close to some parked cars. I watched from the window, with a person who owned one of the aforesaid parked cars, my heart in my mouth as the driver negotiated the limited space with the articulated vehicle. How can he do this yet I can't even reverse out of a parking space in my Dad's car without asking someone, anyone, to see me out?

A lot of it's about spatial awareness - something I don't have much of to be honest. The rest I suspect is to do with believing you won't hit anything. I can be miles away from an obstacle and still convince myself I'm going to hit it - which somehow makes my chances of hitting it greater (don't ask me how this works but it's true).

My little Su uki may be mocked (yes, you know who you are cruel mockers) but at least I've got a cat in hells chance of parking it and getting it round a multi-storey car park without scraping it against any walls. Come back Suki, all is forgiven!

Pig headed

Yesterday I was looking through the Observer food magazine when I came across, oh horror, a picture of a pigs head. There it was with its bristles bristling and its piggy nose still slightly moist. Apparently this should have filled me with joyous apprehension for the approaching festive season. Actually, it just made me yearn for a nut roast and nut roasts are pretty awful too.

My repugnance earned me an exasperated reaction from J, the arch carnivore extraordinaire (I swear that if he was desperately hungry that man wouldn't balk at biting a lump out of a passing hedgehog or slow moving rabbit), who told me that my reaction was the result of conditioning and being removed from the process of food production.

He does have a point. My contact with food is mostly via Sainsbury's where meat is packaged and sanitised, with no need to think about where it came from and indeed what happens to the rest of the animal. I can totally see that it makes sense to use the whole animal. To slaughter a creature just to use only a part of it doesn't make sense on any level. Yes, I can appreciate this even if I'm not willing to suck on a pig's trotter myself.


Debates like this always makes me think of the scene in 'Jude the Obscure' where Arabella, Jude's wife, gets him to slaughter the pig. Jude is so 'sensitive' to the pigs plight that he ends up putting it through more distress, spoiling the meat and kicking over the bucket of blood that Arabella was going to put to use. Arabella, who is a viscerally practical woman behind her pert exterior , is furious and reading the book you can't help feeling for Arabella being married to Jude and having to cope with his finer feelings when as she says 'Poor folks must live'.

J's argument is that in the event of a nuclear holocaust he'll be a survivor as he's happy to eat all sorts of animals (not to mention his willingness to embrace Mother Nature as his personal en-suite). There won't be Linda McCartney veggie sausages come Armageddon according to Mr G. I do see that his Bear Grylls type propensities will serve him well should things go badly and indeed I'd quite like to have his company in this situation as I think he'd know what to do (although whether he would take me along with him whinging all the way is another thing).However I do have one major reservation. How do I know that when he's finished dining on all the local wildlife he won't turn to look at me in the firelight and see, not a woman, but a potential juicy snack? Every bit of me!









Sunday, November 8, 2009

What sort of mad axeman are you? The problem with personality tests

I was quite upset the other day to be deemed a 'vain, self-centred egotist' by a personality test. 'You say it like it's a bad thing' joked a friend but actually it is. I suppose I shouldn't take it too seriously as the test was on Facebook and involved a total of five 'searching' questions. This devastating judgement is based on the fact that I take long strides when I walk (I've got long legs for goodness sakes) and look for people I know at parties (c'mon, who doesn't?).

If I had answered that I kick 'lesser' people out of the way as I walk along and only talk to people that admire me at parties, I could understand. Once I'd got over the initial hurt (about five seconds later) , I thought two things; why are personality tests so addictive and can they ever really test personality?

Perhaps I am a bit of an egotist as I can't resist a personality test and have been known to buy Psychologies magazine which is full of the judgmental buggers. I want them to reveal the inner me, to tell me something about myself that will help me cope with the world just a little better. The problem is I also want them to reveal what a really rather wonderful person I am. Needy me? Surely not.

I answer the questions diligently but am I truthful? Possibly not. Not when I am trying to wangle the result so that I come out as super-dooper. You know the sort of thing - creative and sensitive but great to be around and full of the milk of human kindness. Not a vain, self centred egotist anyway! So I try to answer the questions in a way that will show me in a good light. Of course a well-thought out test is supposed to allow for this sort of manipulation but don't underestimate the abilities of the serial personality test user.

The problem for the deeply needy is that personality tests, or psychometric tests as HR people like to call them, have pre-ordained parameters. You can't win really! If there's a test called 'What sort of crazed serial killer are you?', well you're bound to come out as a crazed serial killer of some kind. And while that's a fairly silly example, strikes me the other tests are doing pretty much the same thing but in a, often only marginally, more subtle way.

But will it stop me from doing them? Er, no. I'm still searching for that 'aha' moment where I'll realise what I'm all about. Just so long as it's flattering. I wonder if there's a test called 'What sort of nice, cuddly, great human being are you?'

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Laurie Lee Defence

What, I hear you cry, is the Laurie Lee Defence? Well, it's like this. Occasionally I have a moment of worry about Patrick being brought up surrounded by eccentric women with no permanent father. Will it turn him funny, will he be feminised, is his life lacking a suitably burly role model? My mother and I frequently have this conversation and just as frequently we say: 'Well, didn't do Laurie Lee any harm'. That, in a nutshell is the Laurie Lee Defence.

Laurie Lee you will remember was the author of that book of bucolic wonder 'Cider with Rosie'. He was brought up by his mother and a gaggle of loving sisters after his father deserted the family. Despite being the little darling of a group of adoring women, he went off manfully to the Spanish Civil War, didn't turn out gay, played the fiddle like a fiend and, incidentally, wrote a best-selling book or two.

Yes, it did him no harm at all. He professed himself: 'perfectly content in this world of women'. His three 'generous, indulgent, warm-blooded, and dotty' half-sisters were 'the good fortune of our lives'. I just hope Patrick will be as positive about his own idiosyncratic mama, outre aunty, dotty grandmother and singular sister.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mad, bad and maybe quite nice to know

Why am I a nutter magnet? If there is a nutter in the vicinity they seem to be inexorably drawn to me, like a deranged moth to a flame.

Yesterday I was waiting quietly at a doctor's surgery to see one of my learners. The choice of places to sit was rather limited, involving either sitting next to someone dribbling, grinning inanely, rocking and talking to himself or cheek by jowl with people with alarmingly tubercular sounding coughs.

I found a suitable nook and congratulated myself on avoiding the sanatorium and the asylum. Then in walked a gentleman, who I imagine was once a fine looking man. He had good bone structure and a slender, neat body but a rather sunken face and wild eyes. He sat down near me and started mumbling to himself and staring about indiscriminately.

He managed to catch my eye and made a direct address to me about how he always felt better at the doctors even before he'd seen his GP - at least I think that was the gist of it. I smiled so as not to seem rude and tried to continue my examination of the carpet. However my smile was his cue to tell me all about how his condition would have killed him in the days of the Roman Empire (I didn't like to ask what it was!). I did a bit of polite nodding, inwardly hoped he wouldn't expand on the theme and wondered to myself why it's always me.

I find these situations very difficult. A very big part of me feels that everyone deserves our attention and courtesy and I find I can't just ignore people. However another part of me tells me that being nice gets you into trouble. Like the eccentric old lady I was nice to on the ferry over to the Isle of Wight. There we were engaging in harmless conversation when without warning she stabbed me in the arm with a device she'd produced from her handbag. Turned out it was an item for removing wasp stings but it hurt a bit (I think it was shock and surprise more than anything) and I was a bit concerned she'd punctured me with something more sinister.

On the other hand, being open to people gets you into all sorts of interesting and edifying conversations that enrich your life and expand your understanding of humankind. I would miss out so much if I didn't have an open face (or maybe a gormless and guillible face) and an instinctive interest in people. I'm one of those people who can find out more about a person in half an hour than some people find out in a decade (I think it might also be called 'being nosy').

On balance, I think the benefits of meeting all sorts of people outweigh the risks from meeting nutters. Give me a few years and I might be the nutter in the surgery - perhaps I am already!

Monday, November 2, 2009

Central heating bleating


The kids and I are doing our bit for the environment at the moment. We're not deliberate eco-warriors it's just the central heating has broken down. And it's effing freezing here! Yes the system has given up the ghost just when the weather has decided to turn wintry.

How I long to hear the twanging of a radiator warming up and smell the hot paint. Instead I am sitting here in my bobbly woolly cardigan feeling cold and fed up. I might even go to bed in a minute just to be cosy and it's only twenty to seven!!!

I suppose I shouldn't moan as a friend is currently living in a caravan and he's going to be very, very cold indeed. I suggested he get a dog as Aborigines are said to use them for warmth, even measuring the coldness by the number of dogs required to keep warm. So tonight is probably a three dog night. He replied that a woman might be a good idea , I suggested he invest in a nice plump one who would retain heat. The advert for that position is one I'd like to see!

ETA: I've been keeping myself warm in the meantime by doing domestic tasks such as washing up (hot water) and tumble drying the towels (hot air). But now all is well, warmth has been restored. With the help of some cutlery, Patrick has managed to get the central heating working again. Not sure what he did but he had his head in the airing cupboard and was taking instructions from my Dad. Bliss! You can send back the extra blankets, flasks of hot soup and tin foil capes.


Sunday, November 1, 2009

The shame of the rose


If I was a misery memoir or a chick-lit tragedy book I'd be called 'The Midwives Daughter'. For that's what I am, the daughter of a midwife. In fact I am also the great-granddaughter of a midwife as my great-grandmother in Wales was a lay midwife, delivering all the village babies.

So it's no surprise really that I know an awful lot about women's bits. There's never been any pussy-footing (cough) about lady parts in our family. No, it's always been vulva this, vagina that and labias have forever been majora or minora. I was the only girl at school to have a letter from my mother saying that I couldn't do PE as I had dysmenhorrea (period pains). I'm sure the PE teacher had no idea what was wrong with me but let me sit on the side lines lest my womb (that should of course be uterus) fell out on the lacrosse pitch.

I was also the girl who's mother bought her a copy of Sheila Kitzinger's book,'Woman's Experience of Sex', when she visited Mrs Kitzinger's home for a conference ( which incidentally took place on Sheila's capacious bed among her many uterus/womb shaped artefacts). Not just any copy too but a signed copy dedicated to me by name! The book was full of black and white photos of ladies who looked as if they'd taken a quick break from duties at Greenham Common to inspect their genitals with a mirror or pleasure themselves while sporting a macrame jumper and lush matching pubes. It was enough to put you off sex for life to be honest!

Fast forward twenty five or so years and I am sitting in my mother's living room wearing a recent purchase: a rather boho tunic top with a big print of a rose on the front in purples and pinks. 'Funny top' opines my Dad casually as he passes me. I take no notice, he wears Hawaiian shirts with check shorts, who is he to talk? Then my Mum looks at me quizzically and tells me that the rose on my top looks like - well - a vulva! I cannot gainsay her as she has seen many a lady garden in her former professional capacity and therefore knows one when she sees one.

My sister now looks at my top and decides that there is a certain fanny-ish look about the rose. It's then that my inner Sheila Kitzinger rises up. Why should women not be able to wear tops with fannies on them? Are not ladies' bits things of beauty and potency? No, I shall wear my rose/vulva top with pride? I shall wear it and shout 'vaginas' from the rooftops for anyone and everyone to hear. Anyone who thinks it's a fanny is just weird - or a midwife.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

You silly asses


Donkeys. They are nice animals; a bit smelly, rather useful on mountain passes and beaches and their milk is the nearest animal milk to human breastmilk. However, they really should learn the Green Cross Code. Yesterday I read with mounting horror that a group of our hee-hawing, equine friends had been run over on a road in Mursley near Milton Keynes. You might imagine that they had strayed innocently on to the road but no they were sitting in the middle of the road. Along came an unsuspecting motorist and bang, the eeyores copped it. Why oh why donkeys were you sitting in the road? Was it a protest at the closure of a donkey sanctuary? Were you laying down some ass-phalt (do you see what I did there?), were you just tired and fancied a sit down. So many questions, such thick donkeys!

Wielding rightful English

There was an interesting item on the Today programme yesterday about English as it was spoken pre-Norman conquest. Right that sentence contained about 6 Latinate/French words. So my aim today is to write this wielding only English words.

As you will see, it's hard. What did the folks from across the grey water-way do for us? Gave us lots of new words to wield although I do rather like the straightforwardness of our rightful English words.

Short telling this one owing to lack of Frankish words! Come back William the Conqueror, all is forgiven.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Costume-Drama Affective Disorder

I have been inexplicably weepy this afternoon. It all began with a dramatisation of 'Emma'. It is a truth universally acknowledged that I am a push-over for a costume drama. Yep, I'm an absolute sucker for men in tight trousers and floppy shirts, nice frocks, good English, manners and a bit of nicely pitched melodrama.

I watched the final episode of Emma today on IPlayer, fully conversant with the ending as I've read the novel and seen at least two TV/film adaptions of it but nonetheless enjoying it immensely. I know very well that Mr Knightley marries Emma but I found myself overwhelmed with emotion when he proposed to her. The tears flooded down my soppy face and then everything set me off from there on.

I believe I am suffering from a little known condition called CAD: Costume-Drama Affective Disorder for which the only known cure is back-to-back viewing of Top Gear and Panorama. Of course CAD only affects those who are for some reason susceptible and I'd just said goodbye to someone I care about and was feeling a bit pensive. Not the time to watch people in low cut frocks emoting. I should have known and watched something bracing and slightly annoying like Ray Mears or Location, Location, Location, programmes that elicit more constructive emotions like ire, disdain and irritation.

But no, stupidly I opened myself up and ending up having a prolonged blubbing session about just about anything I could blub about. Feeling lots better now, thanks awfully for asking.

The end is NI!

Last week I received a letter that felt like something of a marker in the story of Patrick. Patrick, I was told, will be issued with an NI number early next year. All I need do to make this possible is send in some details so that he can join the ranks of those of us that pay tax and National Insurance. Hoorah!

I was reminded of his earliest days. When he came into the world new and shiny, it felt as if he only belonged to me and my family. But slowly paperwork accrued around him - birth certificate, NHS card, hospital record, health visitor record; endless bits of paper about him that rendered him part of 'the system'. I remember finding this a rather depressing rite of passage but one acknowledged as necessary unless we were about to run away and live in a caravan somewhere, even then I'm pretty certain the bloody paperwork would have found us.

So here we are almost 16 years later and he is yet again being pinned down. Again I know it's necessary but I feel a certain ambivalence about the whole thing. This young man in the making is being categorised, recorded and numbered before he's even begun.

Still he's just told me his aspiration is to be a NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training) so the NI number will be redundant anyway!!! Hopefully that's a joke and I take comfort from the fact that he knows what a NEET is but it's hardly a lofty ambition. Mmmm, perhaps I will send off that paperwork!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Welcome to the world little Alfie

This morning I received a text at the ungodly hour of 3am. My surprise soon turned to utter delight as I read the text and learned of the safe arrival of a little boy, to be called Alfie. His mother has been on a journey that I know only too well and I found myself blubbing with joy for her when I read that the much longed for baby had been born.

For Alfie's mum, like me, has experienced the tragedy of stillbirth at term. A year ago her little girl Maggie died in the womb just as my William did some 13 years ago. Like Maggie's mum I was soon pregnant again although my first attempt ended in an early miscarriage. However, about a month later I was pregnant again (I was nothing if not fertile!) with Flora.

A pregnancy after stillbirth is no fun. When I was pregnant with Patrick I lived in sunny ignorance of any potential disasters but now I knew that the worst things could happen, that you couldn't trust in yourself or nature. Indeed nature could be indiscriminately cruel.

I tried to enjoy my pregnancy as much as I could but there were awful moments, like the week after I had a Nuchal Fold test when I was called by the clinic telling me the baby had an increased risk of being Downs. It felt as if everything was against me, as if I couldn't rest for a moment, that there was no room for cosy smugness - it was going to be a battle all the way through with myself and with life itself. Worst still I received this news when I was quite alone, with no one to support or comfort me. It felt as though someone was using me in a sadistic game.


Fortunately the hospital consultant put the Downs risk into a statistical context, explaining that the very fact that I had had a stillbirth at term increased the odds, even though it didn't really signify that much. And so I soldiered on, leaving work a little earlier than I might normally have done as the stress was extreme, and eventually giving myself up to an elective section at 38 weeks.

Flora arrived red, roaring and clearly cross to have been turfed out of the womb rather earlier than planned. To me she was unbeliveable, a gift I hadn't dared to expect. Part of me was too frightened to love her just in case she was taken away from me, how could I deserve her after failing so spectacularly before, letting everyone down? Patrick, then about three, was more sanguine, hardly noticing his new sister, far more interested in the Thomas the Tank Engine toys Flo had 'bought' him.

As time went on I realised that despite her delicate frame, this was a robust baby with a strong hold on life. She wasn't going anywhere and I allowed myself the overwhelming maternal feelings that were filling me up.

Even now I look at my children as they sleep and watch to see if they are breathing. Even now I wonder irrationally if 'someone' has seen me being too sure of myself and will take them away from me, telling me I don't deserve them. Mostly though I see that they have their own, individual stake in this life which is nothing to do with me and that's a worry but most of all a joy. I hope that Alfie's mummy and daddy will have the same joy - they really deserve it.

Welcome to the world Alfie. You are a very special boy.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Parenting by Pizza

My children are with their father today. I will never forget the first day they went off with him (and not even to go away from their home town). I felt totally devastated and drove away with tears blinding me, my chest heaving with great choking sobs. I thought I would never get used to it but I did and now when they are away I do things I need to do or things that are just for me (a novel concept at the beginning) and I find I miss them but it doesn't kill me. The important thing is they come back and for them where I am is home.

Today, as on countless occasions, the children have gone to Pizza Express with their father. Pizza Express has become the venue of choice and indeed seems chock full of absent fathers 'treating' their children to some quality time. It's as if all wrongs can be righted by a bottle of Sprite and a Margherita pizza. I wonder that social services or Relate haven't thought of having outposts in branches of Pizza Express, they are so full of part-time dads making a window for their part-time children. Ditto Toys r Us and McDonalds. What a wasted opportunity for the support services.

'That's three Margheritas, two Sprites, a beer and a parenting workshop please'





Saturday, October 17, 2009

Say no to smilies

I've recently changed my email account to a Googlemail account. Not only has this given me a more cumbersome address but it has put temptation in my path in the form of that execrable threat to good communication - the smiley! Writing a message to a friend the other day I was sorely tempted to make my meaning clearer with the use of a smiley face or one of those 'whatever' faces. As my finger lingered over the inane smiling face, something more noble within me cried out 'No, stay your hand!'.

Yes gentle reader, would Charles Dickens have resorted to the angry one to express Magwitch's frustration with Pip in the graveyard? Would Oscar Wilde have inserted a couple of 'whatevers' in 'The Importance of Being Earnest' to let his readers know that a witty bit was coming up? Would George Eliot have used the confused one in 'Middlemarch' when Dorothea Brooke discussed the finer points of religious philosophy with Mr Casaubon? Of course not and not just because they hadn't been invented. No, they used the written word with such intelligence and subtlety that there was no need for buffoonish smiley faces inserted here, there and everywhere.

So I moved away from the emoticons and did this instead. :-) Much better!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Five good deeds


Flora makes her promise at Guides tonight and suddenly realised she had to think of five good deeds she had done. It was a tough call and after a little imaginative thinking we came up with five, four of which will need to be performed retrospectively.

However, I am in no position to be smug or self-righteous. Could I come up with five good deeds myself? Probably not. I avoided running over a pheasant at the weekend - reasonably good but the pheasant didn't care. I washed the kids' school uniforms but that's what I always do so that doesn't count. Er, I loaned two skirts to my friend's daughter about a month ago - hardly Edith Cavell material. See it's quite hard and I don't think any of mine will put me in line for the Nobel Peace Prize or a Victoria Cross.

I am going to have to find someone to do a good deed for very soon but in the meantime I think I'll call in one of Flora's - the dishwasher needs stacking.

Friday, October 2, 2009

My Pemberley moment


Anyone who has read 'Pride and Prejudice' and/or seen one of the dramatisations will remember the Pemberley Moment. It's where Elizabeth Bennett sees Mr Darcy's pile (ahem) for the first time. Curiously attracted to Mr D but put off by his haughty manner, the cynic might wonder at her falling for him completely once she sees his great big gaff in Derbyshire. Jane Austen means us to see the house as a metaphor for Mr Darcy's taste, discretion and suitability for Lizzy but she was never one to balk at issues of money - indeed P and P is fundamentally about money - so I don't doubt that she meant it as a bit of a joke too.

It was as I turned into a field in West Dorset recently that I had my own Pemberley moment. There it stood - a beautiful cream and brown showman's trailer - standing proudly by the hedge. How could I not feel my heartstrings twang as I saw it there in all its pikey glory.

'And to think of all of this I might have been mistress...' I thought. Oh OK I didn't think that at all. However I did think that once the faint smell of wee and rather stronger smell of fags subsides and it's been buffed up and in some places gutted, it could be rather nice.

Fortunately for its owner, my regard is not based on how smart his gaff is being less mercenary than Lizzy (poor Lizzy didn't have a lot of choice really) and a modern woman. However even in the 21st century I felt a certain frisson as he strode 'manfully' around his trailer (well you can only do about seven strides but you get the picture) fiddling with his oil fired heater and thinking about where best to site a Rayburn.

Yes, there's nothing like a man with his own caravan to get you going!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ten questions

Flora has two interesting pieces of homework to do this week - ten questions you'd ask Jesus and ten good things about Dunstable. You might imagine that ten questions for the putative Son of God might be harder, taking in matters theological and metaphysical. But no, believe me trying to think of ten good things about Dunstable is far more difficult.

Once we'd listed the beautiful Dunstable Downs, proximity to London and historic Priory church, we were running out of ideas. I felt a little guilty about this as part of me wants to 'big up' our benighted town centre with its full range of pound shops and estate agents and urine scented night clubs.

There's nothing else for it - make it up! Let's mention the stunning sea views, charming bijou shops and fresh mountain walks. If all else fails we could use one of one of our questions for Jesus and see what he thinks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Basket cases


Some months ago, Flora and I found ourselves standing by the fruit and veg in Sainsbury's adjacent to an Adonis of a man. Be still our beating hearts! Despite the fact that she is 11 and I am in my forties, we both recognised him as one of godlike looks. So we decided to follow him for a bit - like you do - the plan being that I would stand close to him being alluring while Flora would act the role of charmingly beautiful but unobtrusive child.

Having stalked him around the dairy aisles looking at things we didn't need and trying not to collapse into giggles, we lost him around dried goods. However at the checkouts we managed to stand behind him again. Oh the disappointment when we saw his selections! His was clearly the shopping of a happily married man, possibly with children; several two pint containers of milk, sanitary towels (a man who cares enough to buy his partner her STs - swoon), healthy cereal, nice smelly things for the bathroom, a range of healthy fruit. His was clearly not the life of a handsome but scuzzy bachelor in need of some TLC.

Looking in other people's baskets and guessing their lifestyle is one of my favourite supermarket pursuits. Today I stood near a rather too skinny man who had a miserable face and a basket full of Geobars and other wholesome food. He looked in need of some fun and I was tempted to rattle my cheese and onion crisps in his face with a cry of 'Go on, you know you want to'.

Who hasn't seen the corpulent family with litres and litres of coke, huge packets of crisps and lots of cakes and sweets or the person who buys very little for themselves but really pushes the boat out for their pet?

If it's so easy for me to categorise people from such a cursory basket inspection, no wonder the supermarkets do it in such a big way. Indeed this is the reason I'm quite glad I frequently forget my Nectar card or equivalent. I just know they've got me down on a computer somewhere as 'mum who buys school lunches and quick meals who is a bit of a lazy vegetarian and is allergic to milk'. They've seen the fish paste, veggie ready meals and gallons of soya milk on my receipt.

In fact I'm tempted to rush out right now and buy six pints of milk and a big joint of beef just to louse up their system, not to mention confuse those nosy types who look in other people's trollies. I mean, what sort of weirdo would do that?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mile high with Patrick Swayze - well sort of.


So Patrick Swayze died today. I can't say he was particularly my type but I have something to thank him for. Some years ago I had to take a transatlantic flight. I hate flying and get very nervous, scanning the faces of the implacable crew for minute signs of fear and listening to every changing engine sound.

Then Patrick Swayze came to the rescue. There were films to watch and I watched 'Dirty Dancing' not once but three times in an effort to take my mind off the fact that I was flying thousands of feet in the air, with no idea how we were staying there, in a metal tube. I focused my attention on Patrick and Baby dancing away, the anodyne and suitably undemanding plot and Patrick Swayze's undeniably hot dancer's body.

So thank you Patrick Swayze and rest in peace. I will be forever in your debt.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Risk perverse

I spent five hours of my life - five hours I will never get back - talking about health and safety today. I felt as though I had been exsanguinated by some hellish health and safety vampire and frankly started to wish a nasty and unforeseen accident would befall me so that I could escape.

I'm not averse per se to health and safety. Accidents and injuries aren't good and we have to take responsibility for people's safety, especially when like me you work with youngsters. However, it does seem to have become a bit of an industry with leaflets galore, initials and acronyms coming out of every orifice and procedures, protocols and policies in anal abundance. In fact so anal is health and safety that I'm sure you have to have an extra arsehole to qualify as a fully paid up expert.

To alleviate my boredom, I ran my own secret risk assessment today. The risk of me expiring from sheer frustration and boredom was sky high and I was sorely tempted to rush up a rickety ladder and play Russian Roulette with the shredder just for the hell of it. Five hours!!!





Sunday, September 13, 2009

The world is my oyster. Er, no thanks if it's alright with you.


As part of my ongoing campaign to develop a more sophisticated palate, I tried something new yesterday: an oyster. I've never really fancied oysters, having heard some vomit worthy descriptions of the taste that I cannot repeat here. Also I've never really fancied the idea of eating something whole that's, oh horror, still alive!!! Woody Allen puts it pithily: "I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead - not sick, not wounded - dead."

However I was at the Woburn Oyster Festival with J and it seemed only right that I should try my first oyster. J bought me one for the princely sum of £1.50 and I held it with trepidation in its shell container and braced myself for chucking it down my throat. The first couple of attempts were failures as I just couldn't bear to put it to my lips, let alone open my mouth.

Then J suggested I open my mouth and he slip the oyster in. Conscious of the expense and the much vaunted aphrodisiac properties of oysters, I let it slip into my open mouth and then on J's instructions chewed before the swallow. Except I didn't swallow, the unpleasant texture and odd taste was too much for me. Aphrodisiacs they may be but I would hazard a guess that J didn't feel at all turned on when I spat a half masticated oyster into his hand. This was followed by much grimacing and frankly unladylike behaviour.

I keep wondering if my reaction was more to do with the fact that I knew it was an oyster. If someone had told me it was a salty mushroom would I have been so averse to eating it? According to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, oysters are the gourmet's Marmite (I love Marmite but I know what he's saying).

Old Hugh reckons a bit of flattery will get oyster haters to love them, for instance telling them how sexy they are going to look eating them. Right yeh! Furthermore he suggests - well I never - cooking them!

Actually, I don't care if they're cooked or raw, that's the last oyster that's ever going to pass my lips unless I accidentally swallow one swimming in the sea. Oh and for the record, oysters are in the list of top foods for causing food poisoning. I rest my case.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Recreate the Mona Lisa? In pasta? Bring it on!

School projects! They really annoy me. This week I am on a quest to get hold of a restaurant order pad for Flora. Living in a smallish town, the likelihood is that every restaurant you go to has been inundated with children and parents after a pad. So I have decided to branch out - to Luton!

Of course I will do my best for my little darling but I do find some of these school projects intensely irritating. They come home with an edict from school that they must, over the weekend, create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon out of spaghetti and a tube of Pritt or a recreation of the Ten Commandments hewn in Aramaic on cardboard aged to look like real stones.

And we rise to every challenge despite the irritation as we want our kids to do well. Sara has made a Roman head with a very impressive armature supporting the papier mache structure, I spent hours with Patrick and my artistic cousin Helen making an amazing Day of the Dead Altar and we also made a pretty impressive Roman scroll written in your actual Latin and aged by steeping it in tea and holding it over a gas flame (don't try this at home children, oh hang on we are at home). Another friend stayed up all night making a medieval costume out of old sheets and I once put together a 1980s Desperately Seeking Susan look in ten minutes flat.

The truth is that often these projects are the culmination of the parents' efforts and we're often more excited than the kids when we find out what grade we've achieved. Equally there is nothing more galling than getting a bad mark as I know from the 'clarinet' I spent ages crafting from a couple of stuck together kitchen towel tubes painted dark brown and some sticky silver paper cunningly worked with the scissors to look something like the keys. I cannot tell you how cross I was when Patrick returned from school to say the teacher said it didn't look realistic enough. Of course it fucking didn't! It's not a real clarinet! What did they expect, a Stradivarius violin made out of two shoe boxes and a ball of string?

The annoying thing is I know that tomorrow I'll be trudging to Pizza Express in Luton to ask for one of those pads despite all the moaning and if I can't get one no doubt I'll be making one out of newspaper and a rubber band. It's my duty.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Emperors Old Clothes

The other day in Brighton I noticed a display of vintage clothing. Going to inspect further I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find a rail of unpleasant, crimplene frocks of the type my dear old Nan used to wear. My little grandmother gave them a sort of cosy niceness but stylish they never were and no matter how 'vintage' they might be, they aren't stylish now.

So I was rather amused to be shot a 'you're not cool enough to look at my crimplene frocks' stare from the achingly trendy stall owner. God forbid that I should touch their crackly wonderfulness.

I wanted to be like the boy in the Emperors New Clothes (or in this case 'old smelly clothes') and shout out: 'They're fucking horrible crimplene frocks everyone. They were horrible when they first came out and they're horrible now. Get over it!'.

Beautiful vintage clothes can be wonderful, delightful things that are well made and with some sort of provenance that's meaningful for the buyer. But isn't it high time we got over the idea that old things are good simply because they are old? Some old things are just nasty and past their best. Some of the stuff you see on trendy vintage stalls wouldn't pass muster at the scaggiest car boot sale yet the label 'vintage' catapults these objet d'art and chic clothes, or old tat as some of us call them, into the stratosphere of uber-trendiness.

My dear Nan would have been highly amused to see versions of her old frocks selling at a premium in the Lanes. I only wish we'd hung on to them!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The lost zed

At some point in its history, my modest, unassuming little car had a falling out with the letter zed and became a Su uki. This a source of great amusement for the kids and we've had all sorts of fun thinking about replacing the lost zed with an 'f' or a 'p'.

The other thing we've noticed is the other cars that have lost letters and gained new names. We've seen both a Ford A and an Olvo. We wonder if there is a special place where all the lost letters go and get together to make new names for cars. It would explain that car that's named after an ovulation prediction kit for a start.

I rather like having a car with its own 'special' name and don't know if I'd want the zed back if I could get it. My car has little to recommend it but the fact that it is a car, it's mine (well sort of) and it gets around on a teaspoon of petrol, so I feel that its zedless name makes it a bit special and even, dare I say, edgy. Well as edgy as a Suzuki Wagon R can be, which isn't very edgy.

You know what? Anyone who wants to give me a zed can Su uki off as far as I'm concerned. I like it the way it is.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Back to school


My babies went back to school this week but the thing is they're not babies. My chubby little darlings have gone to be replaced by attractive but definitely grown up kids. Patrick is a bloke and no mistake and Flora is turning into a rather sophisticated young lady.

Half of me feels a bit sad that they are moving on at such a pace but the other half feels proud to see them growing up, especially considering the difficult time we've had in many respects. Seeing them grow up happily feels like testament to our overcoming the challenges of being brought up in a home with a single mum such as me. And I mean 'us' as we've been on this difficult journey together and sometimes it's been hard for them too.

I have to say though that being a single mum isn't easy. It's not easy to make all the decisions, takeall the flak and bear any guilt. However you also get the fun, the love, the memories and the pride in their achievements - you can't ask for better than that.

Being a single mum is definitely much better than being in a miserable, soul-destroying marriage and seeing my children grow up into reasonable adults make me feel that for all the grief, compromise and self-doubt, it's been worth it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Is it wrong.....

to eat both the crusts out of a loaf of bread? To put your shoes on without undoing the laces? To rip open an envelope at the top? To whistle like a man? Just asking, s'all.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Deconstructing an unreconstructed townie

Apparently I am an unreconstructed townie. This grieves me greatly. Am I not the woman who knows that yellow hammers say 'a little bit of butter and a little bit of cheese'? Can I not identify rosebay willowherb at twenty paces (and not just because it grows on industrial wasteland by the way) and explain the difference between blackberries and deadly nightshade? Do I not listen to 'The Archers'? Surely this makes me a veritable woods woman, the female Ray Mears but less fat and smug?

My townie-ness is evidenced in part by my taste for glittery berets, lack of ability to reverse down country lanes without hitting the hedge, sniffiness about and total lack of understanding of the significance and use of sticks and a general, nebulous townie demeanour.

Fortunately, help is at hand via the fashion pages of Easy Living magazine, which has a big feature on country living, showing me how to disport myself in the rustic environment. According to this I should be wearing six inch heel Dolce e Gabanna shoes as I pick blackberries and even when tiptoeing through the sheep droppings. The country lady wearing these heels has sensibly brought a nobbly stick with her, proof of her country credentials along with her £136 silk scarf. If all else fails, I can jump on my rickety, 1950s bike in aforesaid heels and some wool trousers which flap dangerously but charmingly in the bike chain. Again rusticity is pointed up, this time by a big lettuce in her basket and the tweedy but handsome chap at her side.

I am now prepared. Armed with Easy Living, I can make a real stab at being less townie. All I have to do now is master reversing.





Thursday, August 27, 2009

A star


So yet again an eight year old has got an A star in GCSE Maths. Here's me , forty ahem and the very word division gives me a headache. When I was eight my main preoccupation was learning to dance like Pans People!

I know it's wrong but, despite being a woman of deeply maternal leanings who loves children, I find myself actively disliking child geniuses and don't get me started on their bloody parents. This particular one has not only achieved an A star but plays half an orchestra's worth of instruments and speaks - speaks mark you - Latin!

In my fetid imagination, I like to picture the child being hot-housed by socially awkward parents who do algebra over breakfast, don't watch TV and file their hair. I'm secretly hoping the father is a weirdo in sandals and a beard and the mother wears skirts with a high waistline and pork pie shoes, just like the parents who appeared on 'Ask the Family'. I need to think this as if they are normal, it raises the bar considerably for we ordinary parents. If they are normal, why can't the rest of us bring up a child genius who can speak Ancient Greek and has Grade 8 piano by the time they are six?

Pans People were good though.












Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When it comes to accents I really am the creme de la creme


We spent the whole of our holiday in Edinburgh trying as hard as possible not to break into our 'Scoortish' accents. Last year we found ourselves using them the moment the train pulled into Waverley, paticularly when saying words such as 'haggis'. I resisted doing my 'Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' meets Alexander McCall Smith meets Wee Jimmy Krankie accent for a whole week until, in the taxi on the way back to the station, I related a story about a nurse I had met the night before and started 'doing' her voice. By the time I realised what I was doing, it was too late. We all sat silently red-faced, hoping our Scottish taxi driver hadn't heard my terribly disrespectful accent.

My problem is that I am a sponge for accents, picking up the speech patterns of those around me and parroting them without even realising. I flatter myself this is a compunction with Darwinian roots. People who pick up other people's accents are, I believe, empathetic and socially intelligent. Although they may not be consciously aware of it, they are adapting to fit in to their circumstances . That's my story anyway and I'm sticking to it.

A good example of this is my father who is an extremely gregarious, socially adept man who soon lost a strong Dorset accent after moving north of London as a young man, although traces remain. I'm also aware of many people who have very different accents for different situations. A friend of my mothers has a special voice for dealing with market traders for instance, saying things like 'paand of taters' with the requisite glottal stop. Similarly, I worked once for an organisation where we sometimes had to deal with callers from South Africa and you always knew when someone was taking one as they started saying 'yis' rather than 'yes'.

Of course the problem is people think you are being patronising or even worse taking the piss! Telling them that you are actually trying to fit in with them isn't exactly going to wash. However I'll leave the final analysis to Henry Kissinger's brother. Apparently on being asked why had an American accent while his brother had a German accent he said: 'I listen to people'.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A week in Edinburgh


I have just returned from a week at the Edinburgh Festival. The Fringe is a wondrous and eclectic thing, encompassing so many different performances with something for everyone, done by almost everyone. Nevertheless, I do feel there should be a a rule that no one is allowed to perform in white face or wear a basque and wiggle about it in it 'seductively' in the manner of an am-dram 18th century trollop. Top hat wearing should similarly be banned. Enough already!

Basque wearers notwithstanding (and they are not all women let me tell you), there's always something interesting to see as you walk down the Royal Mile, where people desperate to get you into their show press their leaflets in to your hand. Or don't! On the one hand I found myself exasperated by the sheer volume of flyers in my bag and felt compelled to thank the giver and make noises about hoping to see their show 'Antiques Roadshow: The Musical'. Yet I also felt strangely insecure if I noticed someone handing flyers to everyone and then not to me. 'What's wrong with me?' I thought. Am I too old or uncool to see their show? Am I not suitably arty-farty? I'm with my kids, am I too mumsy?

On the whole though I spent the day dodging people with flyers. Some flyers seemed destined for ubiquity, particularly that for Bedales School production of 'Oedipus Rex', even turning up mysteriously in our bathroom. Indeed the whole production haunted me as I bumped into the cast on a daily basis crossing the road on their way to the theatre. It is very odd to see a Greek chorus, Oedipus with blood running down his face and his mum/girlfriend waiting for the green light , looking incongrously fresh and jolly. Having perused their flyer however, I decided I would, ahem, rather poke my own eyes out with a stick than see the play.

It's as much fun watching the potential audience as the players and I found myself idly playing 'what production are you going to?' Visiting a cafe I stood in front of a young man in the queue wearing a Jethro Tull T shirt and sporting the requisite pointy beard. I half expected him to produce a flute and start doing a pixie dance and singing about elven maids etc. No surprise then to discover there was a Terry Pratchett play on round the corner (this last is indicative of my prejudiced view of Jethro Tull fans and should not be taken as an insightful remark although I am right of course).

It was a week of contrasts with highlights including Piff the Magic Dragon doing astonishing magic tricks and making us laugh, Pete Firman's suit, a man doing amazing physical stunts using a hula hoop, Colin Hoult's hilarious surreal comedy and John Otway singing 'Crazy Horses'.

The nadir though was being bullied into shouting 'I is a African!' in response to a particularly cringeworthy rap on evolution. I tried to move my lips as economically as possible and was glad when Flora pronounced herself bored giving me a perfect excuse to slip out. This was closely followed by Flora being concussed by a beam that fell on top of her at a venue. Still it wouldn't be fun if we didn't have at least one thing to moan about although potential serious injury is perhaps going a little far.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Let's not read books by their covers


I love going into a bookshop to find a new book. The very smell of the books fills me with excited anticipation. However, the experience has been marred recently by the evolution of what I can only call 'me too' books.

In Waterstones or your local shop you are greeted by books that are signposted with flashing lights as being in the same genre. So you have your ersatz 'Da Vinci Code' books, for instance. I found 'The Da Vinci Code' one of the worst books I have ever read, and I'm not ready to repeat the experience , yet for those who enjoyed it there are a whole range of books on the same lines. They all have vaguely similar titles such as 'The Shakespeare Prophecy', 'The Michaelangelo Conundrum' or 'The Botticelli Files' so that you know exactly what you are getting. Just in case the title doesn't tell you, you are alerted to the book being in the Da Vinci Code group by the cover, usually some sort of faux medieval plan in a washy coloured print.

If 'Da Vinci Code' even lite-er isn't the bag you're into, you can find plenty more in the genres section. For instance the group of women who meet regularly to knit, sew quilts, read books category. You can spot these by names such as 'The Ladies' Club', 'The Herman Melville Club' or 'The Knitting Circle'. The groups are usually made up of one woman with terminal cancer, a lesbian, one woman with marriage difficulties and sometimes a token man who may or may not be gay. They all sit down talking about books, knitting, quilts etc, all of which provide metaphors for the situations each woman (and the man) find themselves in.

If the 'ladies who meet' genre doesn't provide enough tragedy there is always the 'tragic childhood' section. With titles such as 'Don't hurt me Mummy' and 'A Liverpool Punchbag', these can be identified by sepia tinted cover photos of wan and troubled looking children dressed in rags. Springing from the loins of 'Angela's Ashes', these books document the rise from terrible poverty and abuse of the protagonist.

Finally there's the chick lit section. These are usually brightly coloured and feature a cartoonish picture of a woman in high heels, with our without baby. These are tales of women in fashionable clothes trying to have it all. They struggle to be sexy and successful in their amazing advertising job while bringing up their beautiful and precocious children Cosmo and Thea and cooking with sun-dried tomatoes.

It's always a relief to find the Penguin Classics, wth their black spines and donnish cover notes they are utterly enigmatic, like gifts waiting to be opened. They may turn out to be gifts you don't particularly like but at least you have the opportunity to make up your own mind.

I'm just a bit fed up with being herded into the supermarket model of book buying where some marketing executive decides what sort of person you are and what sort of book you would like. For me this is in absolute opposition to what reading should be about - the opportunity to enter worlds you may never ordinarily come across, to challenge your ideas and opinions. It's great that more people are reading than ever but it's also patronising and limiting to implicitly say to people that this or that type of book is for them. No doubt it sells a lot of books but there's a lot to be said for not being able to read a book by its cover.

A meaty challenge


Over the past few weeks, I've been playing fast and loose with my vegetarianism. Only relatively so but after nearly thirty years as a veggie, even the smallest amount of meat is a huge change. First of all I was persuaded to try a small piece of beef. When I say small, I mean absolutely tiny. At first I resisted but then I was overtaken by some ridiculous compulsion to accept the challenge. Added to this was a sort of equally childish need to 'impress' my dining partner with my flexible attitude as I am always slightly ashamed by my admittedly dysfunctional eating habits. So I put it in my mouth, chewed it as quickly as I could and swallowed. Did I enjoy it? Not really but I felt a sense of achievement in that I had challenged myself and found that I was happy being a vegetarian.

Challenge two came in the form of bacon. Throughout my veggie days, I've always had a sneaking regard for bacon. Other meat smells pretty awful to me but I do like the smell of bacon and during my pregnancies had a bit of a yen for it although I didn't indulge. Again I took a small piece, had a chew and swallowed. Quite nice actually.

Challenge three was a piece of salami or prosciutto. Not so nice this one. It tasted and felt fatty and I was glad to swallow it and wash my mouth out with some wine. Bleeeurgh!

So am I converted? I don't think so but I do feel my reasons for being vegetarian are perhaps not the most laudable or worthy. As a teenager I developed a distaste for eating at all and found lots of reasons for not eating this, that and the other. It slowly became a self-fulfilling prophecy which I could justify with talk of animal rights and morals.

That's not to say I don't believe in caring about animals because I do, passionately. I was brought up not even to hurt an insect if I could help it and I absolutely abhor the idea of harming another creature simply for entertainment. It's just I feel that saying that's why I became vegetarian is deluded and disingenuous. I believe my vegetarianism was the manifestation of body dysmorphia and a borderline eating disorder that has became so ingrained that I can't really change now. However I am slim, healthy and have low cholesterol so it's not done me too much harm.

My children eat meat and nowadays I believe that if people want to eat meat that's OK for them and that if they can eat meat that's been produced in a compassionate way then all the better. I don't want to join them, despite my recent meat eating antics, but I'm not so certain they are wrong and I am right as I was at sixteen years old. However, I won't be joining the meat eaters at the barbie - I'd rather chew on a raw carrot than a steak.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My blog of many colours but mainly purple

Ah a week off work - such bliss and an opportunity to mess around with the colours on one's blog. A friend was showing me another woman's blog the other day and I rather liked her black background and the font she was using so thought I'd nick her design. Then I started changing the colours and decided to change the text to purple - Purple Passages, geddit?

My dear friend Sara (aged over 40) says it is now difficult to read while my dear daughter Flora (aged 11) says it isn't. I think it looks nice but I do have to take into account the needs of my - cough - older readers. Eleven years olds can see infinitesimally small specks with no problem while we slightly older people often need help even with big writing. It would be a tragedy if my readership of about three were put off by my new branding. It hurts to think so many would be denied the chance to read my incredibly insightful posts dealing with important contemporary issues such as buying shoes, scarecrows and Horlicks.

So anyway, I intend to road-test the new Purple Passages corporate look with a few other people to see if I need to change it. Can you read this Sara?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I love the NHS because....

Over the last few days a viral campaign on Twitter has been in full swing in which British people are proclaiming why they love the National Health Service. The campaign is a reaction to attacks on our system by American Republicans, eager to discredit Obama's plans for health reform. According to them elderly people are left to die and health care is meted out on Nazi-style lines.

I don't recognise the Republicans description of a system which, although we know it's flawed, is still one to be envied. Over the years I've benefitted from treatment for my asthma and exemplary obstetric care (a couple of times in harrowing circumstances and delivered with great care and sympathy). Recently Flora spent two weeks in hospital with appendicitis, my best friend is currently receiving excellent and dedicated cancer care and my grandmother was given compassionate palliative care towards the end of her life. This represents care right across the age range, all free at the point of delivery with nobody forced to live with concerns about payment.

In my own family's fairly recent history, children died because the family couldn't scrape together the money to pay a doctor. A relative was a friend of Aneurin Bevan and many of us have worked for the NHS. It's a system that runs through our veins, even though we acknowledge it's not always perfect. What decent person would want a return to the days when your chances of a healthy life were determined by the size of your bank balance?

I personally feel a real stake in the NHS, that it is fundamental to ours being a relatively civilised society where the good of the many still holds sway. So yes, I do love the NHS. Long may it reign, warts and all.

Taxidermic Treats at Tring


This week we made one of our regular visits to a favourite museum: the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring. I've been going there since childhood and have taken my own children there many times, yet it never ceases to delight and intrigue me. There's always something new to discover.

Even the finest zoo or most brilliantly filmed wildlife documentary cannot rival the museum for giving you an insight into the scale and physical attributes of the animals on display. The reason? They are all stuffed so you can get pretty close and they're extremely unlikely to move away or attack you!

An Emperor Penguin is much taller than I ever expected, some skates are the width of a box room and you can't help but marvel at the huge size of a gorilla and the incommensurately small size of its gentleman's member!

Today many of us find the idea of shooting and stuffing animals in this way repugnant but if you accept that the exhibits at Tring are of their day, then there's a lot to be gained from a visit. Sir Walter was a fabulously wealthy man, able to buy any animal that caught his fancy and so the collection is both quirky and comprehensive. Some of the stuffing is a little odd, with amused looking polar bears and some rather moth-eaten examples, but it's hard to resist the old fashioned display cases and the general air of being transported back to a bygone age, when being an amateur enthusiast did not imply criticism but imagination and not a little intellectual rigour.

I say hoorah for Tring and Lord Rothschild. Where else are you going to see a flea dressed in a crinoline, a picture of someone harnessing zebras, the most famous racing greyhound of all time and the skeleton of a boa constrictor all in one place?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Wilkinsons and why you can't listen to Joy Division and eat chocolate


Your average musician spends a lot of time trying to conjure an atmosphere. He or she takes into account a plethora of factors including the blend of instruments, dynamics and quality of sound ,all with the aim of evoking an emotional response from their audience. So how galling it must be to hear your painstakingly constructed piece as background music in Wilkinsons.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Wilkos. It's filled the vacuum that Woolworth's left with its pick n mix, cheap and cheerful stationery and useful things like manure, dustpans and toilet brushes.

Yet as I browsed the aisles, I felt rather sorry for the people who had recorded the rather ethereal ditty playing in the background. While the singer emoted delicately, two women next to me discussed the merits of a hair colourant and a whiny voice came over the tannoy requesting assistance in aisle number one, kids screamed and whined and old ladies shuffled about, most of them seemingly unaware of the music.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who can't ignore even lift music. Friday night was a good example of this 'affliction'. As a monthly treat I always have a 25 g bar of Belgian dark chocolate. It's just enough to satisfy me and as it's only once a month it feels special and, most importantly, doesn't turn me into a great chocolate guzzling elephant of a woman.

I bought my precious bar in Sainsbury's and sat in the car for a few seconds to enjoy the moment. On the CD player I was playing a rather challenging Joy Division number and I found that this was marring the experience. Bizarrely I felt I couldn't taste the chocolate properly because my senses were overwhelmed by the music. So I turned it off and went into chocolate induced state of bliss for a few seconds. I don't know if this if this is an example of synaesthesia or just being a bit strange. I will have to experiment with some different music before making any conclusions.

But back to Wilkinsons. I suspect most people in Wilkinson's today weren't even aware of the music on a superficial level. The group who recorded the song did it all for nothing as far as Wilko's is concerned. I only hope the royalties are good!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

My tarot teenager


Saturday saw the kids and I watching the procession for Brighton Pride The rain held off for the actual procession which was just as well as there was an abundance of brightly coloured feathers and game chaps with their bums hanging out of barely there pants.

Not long after the procession, the heavens opened but we were wet anyway so decided to visit the shops. Patrick, perhaps a little traumatised by his exposure to Pride, had his mind set on getting some tarot cards. Seems only yesterday that his goal was a set of Pokemon cards so I was a little surprised.

We found a suitable shop where we discovered that tarot cards come in all sorts of designs, all based roughly on the original design - if there is such a thing. There were fairy tarots, art deco tarots, Lord of the Rings tarots (there would be!), National Trust tarot (alright, I made that one up). However Patrick plumped for a fairly traditional set which cost a princely £26! I asked the rather snooty shopkeeper if there was an economy set and he snorted at me with barely disguised disdain, actually let's just call it disdain; his tarot reading must have been a bit negative that day.

Apparently Patrick will soon get used to his cards which will help his 'reading'. Good. I'm hoping he develops a real talent for it and can earn some money on the side doing little readings. He'll have to tidy his bedroom first and develop a more mysterious persona. When mystery was given out, our family were at the back of the queue so it might be quite hard but I think there's room for a few wide-eyed, chubby cheeked blond tarot readers. He also has a yen to buy a long black coat so that might add to his mystique.

If he does well I might even get him a Pokemon tarot set like the one in the attached picture. They didn't have those in Brighton!

Pimp my filing cabinet


I am the proud owner of a second hand filing cabinet which I acquired from work where a number of pieces of office furniture are being disposed of. I am that rather inconvenient type who is deeply untidy but isn't happy about it. I am hoping my new filing cabinet will bring some order to my environment which so far it is doing very well.

But now the important thing for we form over function types. What does it look like? Well, as filing cabinets go it isn't bad really. It's a reasonably inoffensive shade of cream with contrasting brown trim - OK it is pretty ugly. However it is robust, functional and the drawers are capacious and open and shut smoothly.

Now though I want to pimp my filing cabinet. My plan is to spray it a more fetching colour with shocking pink being at the top of my list. I might buy some nice stickers to put on it or something similarly decorative. In my dreams I imagine studding it with LEDS that light up when I open the drawer or perhaps I could rig it up with fairy lights.

I've found a rather wonderful customised filing cabinet on the web, picture attached to this post,. which is giving me some inspiration. Looks a rather challenging design but you can't deny it's rather stylish, for a filing cabinet.

Having seen what others can do, I feel quite overcome with excitement. When does B and Q open?