Friday, 28 September 2012
This year, both the bots were finally old enough to go on the senior school music tour. Two coach loads of singers and musicians, plus overexcited teachers, go for a week every August to somewhere fantastic in Europe. They sing and play jazz and swing in squares, by lakes, in churches.
It was Freddie's birthday while they were away. He was a bit thoughtful about that and so we suggested Edward and I fly out for a week. We would attend the concerts and on his birthday take them, any little chums they cared to invite, out to dinner. Rose immediately asked to be excused; the whole thing would be embarrassing. And anyway, they had a rooftop pool at the hotel. And anyway, it was Freddie's birthday, not hers. And anyway it would just be really, really embarrassing.
By the time we waved off the coach, prior to our dash to the airport, Freddie had also decided that he'd be fine on his birthday, and in fact, we really didn't need to come to any of the concerts. It would probably be embarrassing.
I had made a list of the paintings and sculptures I thought we should see. I organised early-morning bookings at the Florentine museums, googled restaurant reviews and made reservations. We sorted out a hire car and printed maps and directions to the five concerts they were performing.
Our hotel, which turned out to be a castle, was in the absolute middle of nowhere. It dated from the 14th century and was a cicada-filled paradise; great scented bushes of ancient greying lavender and rosemary; crumbling ochre walls; thoughtful spots of shade for the wimpy Inglesi. That dry, throbbing heat for the sun-worshipping Scot. Heaven. That first night, the bots texted - it's fine, don't come. Please. You'll be embarrassing.
We negotiated attendance at one evening concert. The tiny cobbled square was pinpricked by candles; we perched on rickety old chairs and tried not to cry or clap too loudly. The bots muttered 'Hi' as they ran past at the end. It took three hours to drive back to the hotel.
The next morning, we cancelled the tightly-packed schedule of reservations we'd made. We didn't see a single masterly brushstroke. Not a solitary marble rump. Not a shaving of truffle passed our lips. Instead, we spent the entire week reading by the deserted swimming pool. Giddy with solitude and freedom, we played Marco Polo, pushed each other in and did cannonballs. I did yoga and fell over a bit. Edward found an old wooden ladder and scrumped white peaches and tiny pears from the orchard.
How really, really embarrassing.
Wednesday, 26 September 2012
|"McKenzie, sit! Stay! Roll over! A--a--and have a biscuit! Good dog. |
Who comes here through the snow?
Lucy in a bikini and Jim with a bleeding nose. "
There is a towpath near my house that runs for four miles to our main town; on one side, the creek and the other woods and fields. When my dog was a puppy, I took her to the fields and completely failed to train her. Watching her dopey pink grin bounce joyously through long grass, in the complete opposite direction to the ball, is a highlight of every day.
I had long been aware of the unlikely friendships that grow between dog owners. Also of the horrible rivalries, jealousies and feuds. But that's a story better told by this talented tale weaver. Anyway, I was welcomed by this new family and Lucia and I expanded our little group of friends.
Joan walks McKenzie, an immaculately clipped Westie. She carries treats for all the dogs, makes them sit to attention and put up paws and generally elicits the sort of command-and-control that has ever eluded me. She walks briskly, and is aways appropriately dressed. Sometimes, I stand in my flip-flops in dripping rain beside her watching my dog, who will do absolutely anything for food and a tickle (it is beneath you to comment on this), sit ramrod straight and feel a little uncharitable. She is also convinced my name is Lucy and says, between titchy biscuits and one-word commands, "Lucy and Lucia, what a funny pair." After three years, I have lost the will to correct her.
Jim's scowl is etched through to his soul. I like him enormously, he is a proper old curmudgeon Not a twinkly-underneath-Bill-Nighy-via-Richard-Curtis crosspatch. No, he really is the proper thing. He refers to everyone, men and women alike, as 'bastards.' Last Christmas he told me that he loathes his sponging family and planned to get blind drunk for three days to blot them out. He swears like a trooper and his half-blind Collie hates all the other dogs. Lucia's hackles go up and she slinks warily by. He has trained his dog to run in the bushes rather than on the path to stop her attacking them, and he shouts 'You mad bitch, bugger off into the bushes, NOW.' I amuse myself hugely by shouting "Oops, sorry" and leaping sideways when I hear him. After two years, I was rewarded by a solitary barking laugh. It made my day.
Bill, the Labrador walker, is stocky and bow-legged and has spent his life sailing. His dog is grey-muzzled and stays close to the sweet old sou'wester'd man. We amble along, our dogs carrying stupidly long branches and he tells great tales of the sea and races lost and won. It is another language to me and I frequently say "fabulous, what fun" as he's describing a maritime fiasco.
When Lucia and I dashed down between showers this morning, the three of them were gathered on the path. There was clearly trouble. The farmer has blocked the entrances to all the fields with brush, barbed wire and great signs in red paint warning us to stay off his property. He has apparently had enough of the local kids having fires and drinking cider and riding motorbikes round at top speed.
Joan reasonably pointed out it is his land after all. Bill suggested we get up a petition, which he will deliver. He wondered if there should be a committee. Jim said he was going to come back this afternoon with wire cutters and set fire to the piles of brushwood. He said if the farmer stops him, he'll chin the bastard. I might go and help him.
Tuesday, 25 September 2012
A few lifetimes ago, I was in Falmouth, Cornwall, with several hours to kill and so found myself in a small room, looking at some of the most extraordinary and arrestingly beautiful photographs I had ever seen.
In 2004, Anthony Penrose, son of Lee Miller and Roland Penrose, discovered a cache of photographs taken on holiday in 1937; his parents had taken a house at Lambe Creek on the River Fal and invited a bunch of friends - artists, poets, some wanted by the police, others by furious fathers.
The black and white images, some snapped, some carefully staged, were taken mainly by Roland Penrose, and heavily feature his wife, the traumatised, troubled and talented Lee Miller. At that time she was already a successful surrealist and commercial photographer, whose later images as war correspondent for Vogue were some of the most harrowing and important photographs taken during and in the aftermath of World War II, including the liberation of Buchenwald and Dachau. Read this. You will be transfixed.
It was a tiny, delightfully curated exhibition; the photos were simply mounted and I felt as though I were pottering about a sunny house, nosing at the holiday snaps of almost all my artistic and poetic heroes.
For three weeks, with Europe on the brink of war, they ate, drank, slept, quarrelled, took lovers, swam and fished in sunny creative bliss - the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard and his wife Nusch, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, Henry Moore and Eduard Mesens all turned up at some point to join the poets, artists, photographers, sculptors and writers.
They looked like they were having a ball - Lee larks happily in many of them. In one photo she is backlit, her pale hair haloed against the sun as she hangs from an upstairs window, in another she demurely pours tea from a silver pot, dressed in dowager tweeds. The groups laugh; wreathed in smoke, they lie across one another on deck chairs, on grassy slopes, on slumpy chintz armchairs. Max Ernst has wrapped his head in what seems to be freshly-sheared sheep's wool and embraces Lee. They look naughty, silly, frequently drunk, bursting with creative spirt, their love of the surreal and ridiculous evident in every shot.
The most compelling photograph was of an open-air picnic; two topless women and three men - shocking for its time, it is the faces which intrigue me the most; expressing open joy, bashfulness, eroticism, thoughtfulness. The rough low table bears empty plates, bottles, glasses. There are huge cushions to lie on; the sun dapples through the woods. It has become a well-known image, but at that time, I had never seen anything like it. My fascination and admiration for Miller, as I have learned more about over over the last decade, has mushroomed.
I have seen many exhibitions of Miller's work since. I even attended a surreal dinner hosted by her thoughtful, charming son and featuring some of the mad dishes she created in her later years, when food became her obsession. But for me, the images mounted simply on the walls of that simple little room in Cornwall, were the sweetest and most seductive introduction to an artistic movement that I can imagine.
I'm not sure when Paul Eluard wrote the poem below, but I think it captures Lee's essence perfectly.
For the splendour of the day of happinesses in the air
To live the taste of colours easily
To enjoy loves so as to laugh
To open eyes at the final moment
She has every willingness.
Monday, 24 September 2012
When I was a small girl, pedalling furiously about on my sturdy bike, looking for wrongs to right and injured animals to bandage, the weather was usually on my side. Anything below a Force 9 gale warning and I would be belting outside after breakfast, free, off up trees, climbing walls, licking the satisfying blood-like taste from my palms after swinging about on rusty iron poles. And really, in the north of England, you're pretty safe if you prefer inclement times.
But the famed Summer of '76 was a nightmare of glaring sunshine, and I was like a stray dog in a dustbowl depression-era film, mewling unhappily and slinking around to cower in the shade, unmoving. My mother would slather us in Ambre Solaire oil, a smell that to this day spells sticky enforced displeasure. And we would be sent out to Make The Most of It. I hated it. I would be winkled out from behind the curtain, re-reading the bit where Ginger dies in Black Beauty, wallowing happily in great hiccoughing sobs.
That summer was followed by emigration to the West Indies. We had sun every sodding day. I lost the joy of hearing chilly rain splatter heavily against the window, the haunting song of blasting wind and the indescribable pleasure of uncurling your raw, scarlet claws from your bicycle handles and feeling the prickling sting as you shoved them under hot water. But you get used to anything as a child and soon we were berry-brown and barefoot and couldn't remember log fires or twilight or slush.
It came back in spades, though, yesterday. Lamps were on all day, I cranked up the heating, gleefully dug out my boots from the attic. The internet fizzled out, some branches came down. Fantastic. The bots' matches were called off half-way through and they were as navy-blue as their kit as they dripped miserably on the doorstep. I ran hot baths, roasted chicken, lit candles, shook blankets.
They moaned like mad about the cold, the grey sky, the rain coming in under the back door. "You love this, Mum, don't you?" they accused crossly. They did prep, theatrically thumping about and shivering, incandescent at being cut off from
I made gravy and moved soggy mountains of blue stuff about it the laundry room. I made those unconvincing soothing noises that come from a place of unspeakable smugness that never again will I have to do prep or enforced team sport. I could hardly keep the smile off my face. Today it's still slashing down. A man is coming soon to hang great thick blackout curtains over the huge windows in Rose's room. The second they're up, I'm taking the dog, a huge mug of tea, a loo roll and Black Beauty upstairs to road test them.
Thursday, 20 September 2012
Like many Englishmen, or perhaps it's just chaps in general, Edward doesn't see the point in getting new things when he already has a whatever-it-is that is perfectly serviceable. On honeymoon, we stood on the dock at Fort William waiting for the ferry to Iona. We had left London in the hottest August on record and found ourselves standing, with the worst sort of Champagne hangover, in the slate-grey stair-rod rain which usually welcomes folk to Scotland.
Edward squelched off and reappeared in a full-length Drizabone, towering above the crowds like a jackaroo in exile. He was giddy with the thrill of purchase. "It's an amazing coat, look these straps go round your legs for riding and if it snows it just slides off this cape thingie. And the best thing," he fished about in the ridiculously huge pocket. Out came a half-bottle of peaty, oaky Oban single malt, whose smoky scent will forever take me back to that squally day of tilting ferry and a springy heather climb, the sudden sunshine on John Smith's grave, dolly's cottages in colours to shame the ferrous skies and above all, the kind of easy rolling laughter that dances on the edge of everything when you are young and excited and let loose on a bottle of whisky at 11 am.
We moved house later that year, not in an organised fashion. Still young and excited, I was pregnant and prone to sudden narcolepsy and memory losses. I packed all Edward's footwear, (the shoes that had been made for him as a 21st present, brown Church's brogues for Sunday country pub walks, his smart black Loakes for tramping the Square Mile, his ancient wellies that were the only ones big enough for his feet, yards of wooly sock and acres of threadbare corduroy) in a black bin back. The same kind that I was merrily filling with all the crap superfluous to our next house and flinging down the chute into the communal rubbish bins. I will spare you the details of the horrific subsequent mix-up, but you may be assured that the sound of rolling easy laughter was absent for several days.
His phone dates from the last century, just. He has tried to teach the bots to be proud of sentiment and frugality. However, we three all have iStuff. Edward's Nokia has sellotape keeping the battery in and never gets a signal in the pub. It has almost a decade's worth of photos on it and every morning he clicks the noisy buttons to read the papers online in Delhi, Sydney, New York. He says, "This is all I need, look at this, I'm reading papers across the world from bed." The bots say "oh Dad, your phone makes us want to cry."
Last night, in a taxi after a long conference-and-drinks in London, the phone fell out of a hole which has inexplicably appeared in the Driza pocket after a solid 13 years of wear. It was returned, hurrah for black cab drivers, to Edward, but had been sat on by a large passenger and may be beyond repair. The bots have been online before school, squabbling about os-something and does he need a cloud. They cannot wait to help him choose a new one. He is inconsolable. I've just put a bottle of Oban on the Waitrose order.
Monday, 17 September 2012
"Bloody brilliant party, Mr Floyd! And excellent nibbles, thank you. Shit! Here comes that woman with the frightening criminal haircut. Quick! Everyone inside and hide in the cellar. Bring the sausages with you."
Though far from cluttered, it was perfectly furnished with rustic, rescued treasures. Hand-thrown mugs for our coffee, which we sipped in the bright summer mornings, watching the river bustle noisily past the end of the garden and feeling exactly like sleepy animals from Wind in the Willows. The chairs were mismatched and perfectly comfortable in the way a chair can only become after it has borne witness to the theatre of life through a thousand bottoms. The kitchen featured ancient freestanding cupboards filled with a charming, chipped and chic assortment of china, enamel, pottery and copper. I fell completely in love with it and couldn't wait to entertain all our friends whom we hadn't seen in a year, and whom I had invited down from London for some fun.
None of them turned up. I rang them from the call-box on the corner of the lane and wondered why they sounded stilted and distant. Their excuses were insultingly crap and I felt a bit annoyed. I wandered back along a sun-dappled road past an Inn that I realised with star-struck greed was run by the garrulous and hilarious TV chef Keith Floyd. Well, at least we would eat well this holiday. I popped in to book a table and was met with absolute indifference. Added to my mates dumping me and a particularly disastrous haircut I was still coming to terms with, I was pretty narked off. Especially when Edward went off that afternoon in the car to buy logs. In bloody August.
I remember vividly sitting in the garden reading the fabulous Island in the Sun by Alec Waugh, a haunting, salutary tale on the dangers of taking events at face value and believing you know what others are thinking. When Edward got back, I had made Pimms and was lost on a 1950s Caribbean plantation with all its undercurrents of politics, danger and racial tension.
That night, he proposed to me, by firelight. Of course I said yes. The Ceylon sapphire he produced had been hidden in his sock drawer after a business trip to Sri Lanka, about which he had been uncharacteristically secretive, thus getting right on my wick for several weeks. He had called the London chums before we few home on leave and told them in no uncertain terms not to come to Devon as he had other plans which they'd all bugger up, and not to say a word to me about it. He'd already booked the table at Floyd's Inn, and been equally forthright with the staff, knowing I was bound to go in and spoil things by booking another table. We went to dinner there, the food exquisite, the grumpy patron less so. He appeared at our table, bizarrely, with a teddy bear, and told us that marriage was over-rated.
I was reminded of all this earlier this month when I listened to an old interview with the late, much-missed Keith Floyd, who said that during his time running that Inn, he'd been broke, overworked and deeply unhappy in, I think, his third marriage, his TV star on the wane as his producer had dumped him for Risk Stein and was battling bowel cancer. I just thought he was rude.
I am sorry that, as I have done so often, I leapt effortlessly to a quite erroneous conclusion. I suspect it won't be the last time though.
Thursday, 13 September 2012
Blackberry picking in Cumbria in the 1970s was an endurance sport. The cliffs from which we harvested once held a Roman amphitheatre; occasionally, your welly would encounter the russet stone remains of something ancient and you could follow the curved line of centurion's seating through the huge ancient thorns. If you slipped, there would be a split second to decide between saving yourself from slithering down spiky perilous falls or saving your precious berries. If they fell, black beauty winking heartbreakingly in the gorse and coarse grass, the Northern Socialist would be unsympathetic. "Aye. Bad luck. Start again."
The sun would always be out, lighting up the usually murky Solway Firth, and the bucket would fill with a satisfying blue-black heft. I loved it, though of course we kids moaned like mad. I loved the tiny thorns that would catch in my ink-stained fingers; the thrill of silently finding a great cache of huge fat blackberries hidden from view and quickly, greedily eating the biggest one of all in an act of breathtaking defiance. I loved the depths of sweetness that would explode with mellow lusciousness; the shock of the occasional badly-judged blackberry which puckered the mouth and sent me quickly into the damp depths of the bucket for another to take away the taste.
We would come home that week to a saccharine fug in the kitchen; the huge old windows running with condensation; the battered jam pan rattling fiercely, hissing clouds of sugary steam; glossy amethyst smears on cold saucers. Blackberry jam is my Proust's madeleine - one lick of the knife and I am eight years old again, devouring slightly burnt toast with a slab of cold butter and a seed-flecked puddle of complete heaven.
When we moved our little family out of London eleven years ago this week, I went first, staying with my parents in their mad old house. Edward stayed on to downsize our conference company from over twenty down to four, and supervise the house and office moves. I put Rose into nursery school and went with my parents and Freddie up the downs to pick blackberries and fight the feelings stirred up by my little girl's first big steps.
I sobbed silently a little bit, stealing comforting sun-warmed handfuls of perfectly ripe blackberries; the absolute silence we have up the downs throbbing a little in my ears. My Ma and I picked and talked about the stoicism we need in the face of motherhood. The NS had stayed in the car to listen to the lunchtime news and when we climbed back in, eyes red and mouths and fingers stained magenta, he told us how the world had changed in a very new and final way.
Even watching the news, as we all did, all over the world, over and over, that strange and awful day, it didn't make sense. One of our competitors lost 16 employees and 65 delegates, doing exactly what we did every day. And yet, I had to get Rose from nursery school and shrink my world to match her life and somehow, we all stumbled through, as did everyone else - the heroic, the brave and the terrified alike and here we are, eleven years later. I sometimes think of the girls I knew who had never become mothers, whose lives had ended in sudden nothingness on that sunny New York day eleven years ago.
I have just been up the downs with an old colleague, who has become a dearly loved friend. Our girls are teenagers now and are taking even bigger steps. We need the same maternal stoicism as we did for the first ones. I craved the comfort of toast and blackberry jam; we unpacked buckets and dogs from the car.
But the brambles have all been cleared so ramblers can see the sea. I don't understand the role of pectin, and anyway, the bots hate blackberries. We walked for miles instead, under a bright azure sky, watching the buzzards hover and the sun dazzling on the sea. We followed the curve of the downs, emerald patchwork fields falling away below us, fat highland cattle watching lazily through silly long fringes. We talked about being mothers. We cried a little bit but we laughed a lot more. It was just as good as jam and toast.
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
The day the Olympics started, we had a gluten-intolerant little friend to stay. This pleased me on two counts - the bots and Edward would have someone to host and would therefore be less likely to notice that I had wiggled out of watching the Opening Ceremony; and if they did, it would be on the grounds that I was stuck in the kitchen making a gluten-free cake. With Xanthan gum. And Xanax. And spelt flour and carob and chia seeds and Pritt Stick. So I had an excellent excuse to miss it.
Old chums here will attest that I am far from sporty. Also, and I am not proud of this, I could only too well imagine the mimsy little apologetic 'show' we would be inflicting on the rest of the world. A bit of bad hip-hop to show how street and multicultural we are, some cliched old cock-and-bull all-inclusive watered-down inoffensive bollocks that would leave me yawning or apoplectic.
So when they all shouted excitedly at 7pm that it was starting, I enthusiastically yelled back that I would be through in a tick - fingers, covered in gluten-free stickiness, firmly crossed. But they did a sort of Olympian intervention on me and I found myself standing, apron-ed and floury, in front of the most amazing sight I have seen in years. Dark satanic mills, Windrush, Brunel, Poppins, Great Ormond Street and a little ordinary street. I was utterly transfixed and to my profound astonishment, felt, for the first time in my globetrotting citizen-of-the-world life, extraordinarily proud to be British.
Thus it was with a slightly altered mind-set that I began reading The Fishing Fleet, a fascinating account of the women who have left these shores for India over the past couple of hundred years, to seek British husbands in far-flung corners of the Raj.
First the East India Company paid them £300 a year (a fortune in the 1700s) to travel to India, sight unseen and marry a British bachelor. Then, as the word spread, and many marriage-age women were staring down the twin barrels of governessing or pitied spinsterhood, the women's fathers paid a 'bond' of £200 to get their daughters married off.
The politics of being sold (whether your pimp be the EIC or your own father) aside, this is a fascinating read. Anne de Courcy is a cracking chronicler of women's lives in days gone by, and there are gems on every page - the empty cabin filled with your own furniture, the spectacularly mad dressing-up-and-games to pass the long voyages, the astonishing amounts of booze they sank and the squirming awfulness of the cattle market when they arrived. There are funny, touching and downright tragic stories of the ladies of the fishing fleet, and Ms de Courcy has had very special access to original letters and photos which make this book a nosy parker's delight. There are shocking bits of racism and snobbery too, even in historical context.
Jingoism and xenophobia are the shameful cousins of patriotism and I wonder sometimes if we British really know what to feel about our national inheritance. A few short weeks ago, with teary eyes and dough atrophying in webs between my fingers, I know exactly how I felt and it was lovely. In the morning, I bought a gluten-free chocolate cake from Waitrose. I don't think anyone cared.
Monday, 10 September 2012
|"Are you coming in, Ethel or what?"|
"Doubt it, think I'll just dither about on the step attention-seeking and threatening to faint until you all lose patience and pelt me with whelks."
Over the summer, we spent a happy annual week with family in Wales near a tiny seaside town, where the nearest neighbours are sheep farmers with tough, freckled, big-hearted lads about Freddie's age, who are initiating all the cousins in the dark art of jetty jumping.
The trick is to time the jumping for when the tide is out and the leap is stomach-droppingly high. Later on, the tide comes in and the ancient bell below the pier tolls sonorously, announcing time for the small fry and tourist kids in new wetsuits. The coolest kids jump in ancient board shorts, flipping, diving, pretending to fall. Rose and her cousin Annabel have been jumping with the local toughs for a few years now; Freddie has always point-blank refused. Even the high-tide soft-kids-from-London jumps were met with his bare feet planted firmly against the wooden pier edge.
Each day, he would announce over breakfast that he was going in this time, get kitted up, come down to the jetty and greet everyone, and then decide he didn't want to jump after all. He'd then spend an hour being preached at, hassled, counselled and cheered on by the lads, sister, cousins, assorted aunts and uncles, locals and total strangers. He would get thumbs-up in the evening queueing for hot chocolate 'hey, Freddie, did you go in? Never mind, bet you jump tomorrow.' Each evening, he'd listen to the girls' tall tales, see their matted-sea-hair, runny noses and huge grins, and swear blind that, next day, he'd jump.
Edward and I hung about cajoling, bribing, getting the camera out, putting it away again, spending fortunes on flotation devices, goggles and hot chocolate. By the end of the week, neither of us could handle the pathos of the towel-wrapped figure shivering and peering white-faced over the edge for another second, and decided to pursue land-based activities that would leave us all less traumatised.
On the second-last day, a cousin came to relieve me of lifeguard duty so I could take Freddie to the honey ice-cream factory for pride-salving cones. She raised an eyebrow, I shook my head, we sighed and I turned to gather the towels, shoes and resolutely dry boy. A huge cheer went up, followed by a splash and more cheering and clapping. Freddie had jumped in and I had bloody well missed it. He appeared a minute or two later covered in saltwater, snot and triumph.
'Come on then,' he said, grabbing his towel and marching off down the pier.
'Is that it? Don't you want to hang out with the lads? Can I get a video of you jumping?'
'Nope. I told you I didn't want to because I wouldn't like it, I did it and it was just as horrible as I thought. So now can we go and get honey ice-cream and can everyone stop going on about it. I won't be doing it again, I knew I'd hate it and I did.'
I'm not going to labour the point here, but 1. I'm back and 2. some of you might just end up taking me for honey ice-cream. You know who you are.