Venetian blind

Sunday, 29 November 2009

'Turn RIGHT', he said. 'Fuck's sake, bloody eyeties.
AND they can't even make a decent cup of tea.'

For complicated family reasons, the Colonel and I are having Christmas apart this year. We are being jolly brave about it as befits a former British Army Officer and a lachrymose gin-soaked gypsy. So tomorrow we are going to Venice for our own indulgent pre-Christmas jaunt. Neither of us have ever been there, and frighteningly for him, every guide book advises one to just get as lost as possible. This will be a far cry from our usual route-planned holidays; no maps to pore over, no tightly-packed schedules to bark out over a quick breakfast at 0700; just a labyrynth of waterways ('What, not even a bloody pavement?'), crumbling old buildings and bridges and possible flooding in the few streets there are. Fabulous.

I suspect he has packed GPS, stout boots, theodolite, flares, dried rations, back-up map and compass. I will not be surprised to see Scotty, his legendarily faithful Army driver, standing smartly to at the airport with an amphibious vehicle and more maps.

I am packing books, towering heels and something sparkly for Harry's Bar and some more books. And a black cloak for sitting morbidly in a deckchair on the Lido. Wish me luck.

Decking in the Halls

'You ever book me for a gig at that bloody school again and I'll push you off the sleigh on Christmas Eve.  Right over Swindon.  Capiche?'

Today was the bots' school Christmas Fayre, an annual free-for-all where disgruntled teachers give up their Saturday to wear antlers and Santa hats and their normally obedient uniformed charges, fuelled up on sugar, get to rampage around the nursery school. Officially, there are adorable little stalls displaying the results of weeks of crafty activity for doting parents and grandparents to buy. Unofficially, it is more Lord of the Flies. The children wear mufti; Rose's year, having left these hallowed halls several years ago, are on a mission to display their new maturity. Tiny denim skirts, pixie boots and curtains of hair, narrowing their made-up eyes in a pretence of having forgotten the names of the devoted souls who steered them throught those wobbly first years of school.

Rose's class had made mobiles from driftwood; some were beautiful and ethereal - silvered slivers and beach glass blew delicately in the wind; others, clearly demonstrating the end of their concentration, were bunged-together lumps of feathers, cork and rubber pipes. The mummy-in-charge, an Artist, had given them all winsome names - 'songbird', 'whistle down the wind', 'glasshouse' and hung pretentious brown paper labels off them. The children were completely pissed off - 'She says they're Works of Art now, it's all RUINED.' Other parents were mutinous that she had tagged them far out of the agreed pocket money range of £1.50, asking up to £20.00 for some. One mummy confronted her - 'It's not bloody Dragon's Den, you know.' The Artist pulled silently on the end of her long plait and refused to budge. Excellent.

Freddie's class were less precious - they were flogging sticky labels. You gave them your name, they printed out a miss-spelled bit of plastic, you offered them a fiver as you had no change, they promised to find you with your change later on and pocketed your fiver. They made a bloody fortune. They were off their faces on a wagon-load of sweets, and for a dare all the lads got their fingernails painted navy. They'll be a bit green-and-pale-at-what-you-did-so-freely once the sugar high has gone - they're all in a football match against a rough school in the morning.

The Dads gathered on weeny chairs downstairs with jugs of mulled wine. The mic broke and nobody heard Santa arrive. A monsoon put paid to the art display in the courtyard. The Senior School Head won the raffle and wouldn't give up the decent bottle of Scotch he scored. Some big boys crashed Santa's Grotto in the downstairs cloakroom and were chased by furious teachers in small green skirts and elf hats. The Dads heckled the elves and then gave them mulled wine. A foxy unmarried teacher who'd left under a cloud turned up with her brand new baby. She was mobbed by the children and tutted at by the mummies.

It took me forty minutes and forty pounds in unsold Art to round up my two and get them through the hail and the dark to the car. I planned to make chilli and post the recipe. Instead, we got fish and chips from the chippie with the life-sized neon reindeer where they play carols very loudly for eight weeks. Freddie slid a sticky, perfectly manicured hand into mine as we were queuing. 'Don't you just LOVE Christmas, Mummy?'

Morbidity, Murder and Mud

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Watson: Was it his constant drinking and unfaithfulness that led to her shoot him?
Holmes: No, my dear Dr Watson, it was him banging on constantly about his crappy peripatetic life
that drove her to blow his self-pitying brains out just to shut him the f*ck up.

Freddie's friend lives on a fantastic farm. Apart from the endless alliterative fun it provides, it gives Freddie the occasional chance to be a boy from the 1950s. Julian is an only child; his mother Rebecca farms and his father is an old-fashioned country solicitor, and they have both lived here for many generations. Julian has a barn where he plays cricket, he fishes in the river and there are thousands of lead soldiers in the attic, where he and Freddie invent wars and battles with glorious and admirable disregard for historic fact.

Recently, one of the farm tenants was shot by his wife who had finally tired of his violent drinking and womanising ways. Bypassing Relate or an ASBO, she woke him at 2am, shouting, 'Look at ME, you bastard,' then blew his head off with a shotgun. I know this because the cottage is close enough to the farmhouse for several people to have been woken by it. I also know because Freddie and Julian frequently re-enact it with grim attention to detail. They also spent most of half term searching for evidence in the cottage garden and sitting for hours in a bush with binoculars trained on the cottage, in case important clues had been overlooked. It was verging on obsessional, and now that the poor woman is languishing at Her Majesty's Pleasure, Julian's parents decided to take his mind off it all.

So Rebecca got her remaining farm hands to build a zip wire, and we went up last Sunday to try it out. It goes all the way down the orchard, ending just shy of a muddy stream. Sensing the inevitable, Rebecca and I headed for the kitchen.

There are two things about Rebecca. First, she makes a cup of tea so mahogany-coloured and so laced with tannin that after sipping it, my mouth makes the exact shape of a cat's bumhole. So now I make my own. Secondly, she lives in a house where she, her father and her grandfather were all born. To a gypsy like me, that is amazing.

So, tea in hand, we settled down in front of the Aga for a natter. I was telling her that it wasn't at all glamorous to have no roots and that I had recently discovered a blog which encapsulated those feelings of un-belonging with more eloquence and bravery than I could. Especially the bit about losing friends and always having the wrong clothes. She countered with the fact that her father, in the one year she was away from home at agricultural college, sold off all her horses and converted the stables. One-all. Then the children trudged in, filthy, soaking and ruddy-cheeked, so we stopped snivelling and got them into dry things.

In the car, I told Freddie that Julian was a lucky boy to have such permanence in his life. Freddie kicked the back of my chair like a metronome and patiently explained the reason for Julian's luck, which in his superior opinion was more to do with bloodshed and zipwires than my soppy old thoughts on the matter.

He's probably right. And tonight is Wednesday, which is Science Prep, hairwash and Rose's choice for supper. Then a half-way-through-the-week glass of wine and Spooks. But there's a lot to be said for humdrum, heel-drumming same-old.

Mother of the Tramp

Monday, 23 November 2009

Don't let my Mum catch you laughing at my uniform.
She's a total psycho and she'll kill you with her laptop.

So today was monsoon rain coming down sideways. The bots have to take PE bags in on Mondays which are so large, a small adult could climb inside. They also have huge bookbags strapped to their backs and we are like a band of sherpas making our way across the West Face of the tennis court. I rely on them to let me know if they are missing or have outgrown any bit of kit. I pretend this is good for their sense of responsibility but the raw truth is that I am, as I have mentioned, bone idle. Delegating Uniform Upkeep and Development to the children frees up the node in my brain that can be put to better use researching upcoming developments in employment law. Or thinking about lunch.

Either way, even I could tell that today, something was very wrong. Rose couldn't actually bend her arms, which is quite a handicap if you are carrying the equivalent of a Mini Cooper in books and sports kit. It turns out that apparently I bought her school coat when she was seven. She's now eleven and as tall as me. I have more chance of finding Narnia then getting to the on-site uniform shop during its ridiculous opening hours, so tonight I have resorted to using the on-line school uniform supplier. I forgot my top-secret password, but luckily both children shouted it through several times from where they are sitting in front of the wrestling. I was then subject to intense on-line interrogation as I have not ordered any uniform in two years, nor updated either child's measurement in three. Eventually, the site believed that I was indeed the mummy of two naked and non-growing children. There are three identical-looking styles of coat, one of which will be correct and two of which will result in immediate expulsion, if not public flogging or death by shocked stares. Anyway, I have picked one, chosen a size, chosen to have it delivered to work, lost all the credit card details and therefore the order as the two addresses didn't tally; I have just re-entered all the previous information and resisted the thought of a colossal vodka as it's only Monday.

The supplier has just emailed me to say that the selected item is out of stock. Please will I allow up to eighteen bloody years for delivery. Rose has just remembered that her school skirt ripped. It is pleated and therefore un-mendable by anyone who is not Yves Saint Laurent. I am going to hang the sodding expense and order her another one online. But I think first I'm going to need a colossal vodka.

Doodlebugs and Threesomes

Friday, 20 November 2009

Razor-sharp mind, filthy mouth, fabulous writer.
What's not to love?

About 15 years ago I was working in magazine publishing in London, an industry and time period not noted for its enlightenment. The token girl, I was also I was the freak who occasionally eschewed lunchtime pub sessions to go to the Royal Academy or fossick about on Charing Cross Road for old books. Pub conversation generally meandered along the lines of who was sleeping with whom and how pissed you'd got with the Saatchi's guy at lunch at L'Escargot. So it surprised and delighted me to join the chaps one day and discover them raving about The Camomile Lawn, which was being serialised on telly. Written by Mary Wesley, who had her first book published at the great age of seventy, it's one of my favourites. Read it. Better yet, get the DVD and see why some boys with expense accounts were glued to it. You'll get the gorgeous Jennifer Ehle, in wartime London, using a Bakelite phone naked in the bath, smoking her head off.

The author, rather surprisingly for one of her ilk, was a most unconventional lady. Related to the Duke of Wellington, she married first to Lord Swinfen, who bored her silly. The war was her liberation. She worked for MI5, breaking codes and having a great series of glorious love affairs, at one time with two brothers, and putting two manicured fingers up at convention. The theme of death's imminence as a sexual liberator runs through many of her novels, as does the idea of taking twins to bed. Years before Hugh Heffner made it trendy. Her lovers were usually intelligent and foreign - she told her biographer 'God! When I think of the time I've wasted going to bed with old Etonians.' In 1944 she married her adored Eric Siepmann and they lived in bohemian poverty until he died. She then finally got published, filling her lucky readers' lives with colourful, caustic characters. Her deep love of London, Cornwall and Devon winds through her tales of those who choose less ordinary lives.

Mary was as tough as old boots and drop-dead elegant. She was also a very private lady; she was interviewed for the Telegraph and decided she rather liked the young journalist, agreeing for him to write her biography on the understanding it would only be published after her death. It is a cracking read: scandal, illegitimacy, betrayal, family feuds. Her books are great - just the ticket for anyone stumped for Christmas present ideas for a slightly sulky fifteen year old girl. Save the DVD for a bloke who has yet to grow into his £1500 suit.

And so it is, just like you said it would be...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

I met an interesting chap at a conference recently. An ex-Army Officer, his job is to parachute into trouble spots and deal with the families of expatriates, getting them to safety, and eventually home. Hugh was wiry and softly-spoken and on first-name terms with pretty much all of the Global Baddies. He was highly decorated, and the most modest guy in the room. His colleagues told us more about the things he had done, and I must say, if I was cowering under an Embassy table in a smoke-filled room, he'd be my first choice of rescuer. In the bar afterwards, he was talking about the stresses of his career. He had been given all the most up to date psychological assistance, debriefings, decompression chambers, the whole nine yards. But what he found the biggest yardstick of his state of mind was his washing pile. He reckoned that if the dirty stuff was piled up everywhere, he needed to stop and take stock - piles of clean kecks, and he was storming the compounds.

I'm reaching that piled-up state myself. I feel ever-so-slightly out of control - work is manic as we try to atone for a two-month lull while the our IT system played silly buggers and we achieved nothing but expanding our repetoire of hate crimes; the children have social schedules on a par with Paris Hilton; I have been up and down to London peddling my wares and sitting in stalled, unheated trains. None of which makes me the fragrant, calm lady who should be presiding over this household.

So. The Colonel has stepped in, and this is his recipe for a de-stressing evening of pre-Christmas peace:
  • He has lit a fire. I cannot think of anything more seductive and primitive than building a fire for someone you love. This is the first of the year, and the first the dog has ever seen. She has a ten-minute window while I write this, then I will be replacing her on the rug to gaze at the flames.
  • He has poured me a gigantic whisky mac. Those dear readers in recovery look away. Warming ginger and an afterburn of peat. Heaven.
  • He is playing Damien Rice's incredible album, O. If you don't have it, treat yourself immediately. It is quite the most beautiful thing you will hear this week. Play it loudly.
  • He has, quite brilliantly, arranged for Episode Three of Spooks to come on while I am eating supper.
  • There are candles lit all over the shop. It makes all hovels look wonderful and the light turns any haggard harridan into (in my case) Cate Blanchet. Excellent.
  • I have the latest Tatler to drop into the bath later.
Hugh, your pants are safe.

French Lessons

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

I think my shoes are somewhere in those bushes.

So when I was eleven we moved to Barbados. There, my mother worked with a lady from Martinique whose niece was my age and they thought it would be rather nice for us to have exchange visits to expand our linguistic and cultural knowledge.

Claudine was instructed to write to me and introduce herself. She wrote that her mother was a housewife and her father a labourer. The Northern Socialist was delighted. My mother less so. She packed lots of old shorts and t-shirts in case I was needed on the land. She put some food in, too.

Claudine and her mother met me at the airport. Claudine was lanky, silent and pale. Her mother was charming - blade-thin and chainsmoking as she led me to their huge Mercedes. We drove into the hills of the island and turned off down a densely-wooded track. Mme LeChef explained very slowly that this was an avocado, sugar cane and banana plantation. She pointed out a series of small mud huts, 'tomorrrrrow, yes, in ze morning, zat iz where bread comes.' I offered to fetch it, as that is what the French kids in my textbook did. I don't think she heard me. Claudine didn't say a word. We drove for forty minutes through the plantation. I worried that I would get lost fetching the bread, and wasn't sure I was ready to live in a mud hut for a week.

The car drew up outside a Great Big House. I was taken inside and introduced to a lady they told me would be my 'Bonne.' Good at what, I wondered? It transpired - unpacking my pathetic clothes, running my bath, splashing cologne on my arms and cheeks, brushing my hair. The LeChefs owned this massive plantation, and I had been briefed to expect a week on a kibbutz. My bedroom at home had curling posters of Scott Baio; Claudine's was lined in charcoal sketches of ruffled old-fashioned children and oil paintings of castles.

I had stepped back into another age. The family, I understood much later, had owned the plantations for centuries and during the French Revolution, had fled France to avoid the guillotine, being about as far from the solid proletarian stock of my father's dreams as you could get. The house was enormous, with wide verandahs on three sides where we had breakfast and drinks before dinner. It had no kitchen, but instead three huts nearby housed fire and range and ice-boxes. I don't think I have ever eaten as well as I did there, nor seen so many servants. One behind each chair at dinner, another tucked me into bed, yet another brought me a tiny cup of ambrosial chocolat before I went to sleep.

Over the next few days, the house filled up, thank God, because Claudine and I, we discovered, couldn't stand the sight of each other. Claudine's two older brothers arrived from school in France and a French Count and his companion came to stay. The Count was 19 and the ugliest man I had ever seen. His companion was a dream. They both thought I was hysterical, stuffed crossly into Claudine's frock for dinner and running barefoot in the day. The Count's face was horribly scarred - his father had wolves which had attacked him as a child and they had done a skin graft from his thigh which left him very disfigured. He was very kind though, and used to make a point of kissing my hot little hand whenever we met.

My favourite thing, though, was the two brothers. 14 and 15, they had the best toys - motorbikes, speedboats, waterskis. They told me in no uncertain terms that I could go along with them only if I spoke French. They were even more crap at English than their mother. I learned French in about two days, along with how to lean on an uphill winding motorbike ride. Barefoot. How to waterski. How to swear in French. Really badly. I taught them bad words in return; anything to avoid having to spend time with Claudine. I never told my parents that bit. She, by contrast, stayed in her room putting on lipstick and changing her clothes.

Another time, I spent an afternoon in Fort-de-France with her ancient Grandmother, who made me translate a whole boxful of old letters she and her own mother had been exchanging with the British Royal Family for decades, trying to get their help in having their French chateau and property returned to them. The letters smelled old and some had crumbled away in their envelopes. She gave me tea. I wore shoes for that visit. I wrote a letter in English to some equerry or other in London asking again for the Queen's help in returning their lands. I didn't tell my dad about that, either.

You asked for it

I have been kindly awarded a shiny blog thingy that means today's post, from what I can gather, has to be ten things about me. I was also privately and anonymously (though I know who you are) castigated for the apparently relentlessly kind things I have written so far, giving the erroneous impression that I am an upbeat sunshine-spready kind of girl. When in reality, I am a sweary old curmudgeon who grumbles about the place pouring scorn on everything. So here are ten things to enlighten you all:
  1. I hate Skiing. It's not fun and it the boots are too tight and they hurt. A lot. It is undignified spending most of the time on your arse surrounded by huge plastic mushrooms and three-year-olds whizzing by your prone, sobbing, frozen form. Getting smacked on the head by an empty ski lift hurts like the bollocks. Being hugged by a giant chipmunk on skis is the final straw.
  2. I was expelled from school at 14 on grounds of religious sedition.
  3. My idea of heaven is a lazy, bacchanalian, dappled lunch in southern Europe at a huge long table with all the people I love laughing til they're helpless, followed by more cheese than you can shake a stick at.
  4. I loathe team sports. My children live for them. I try.
  5. I can read and write Arabic.
  6. I have no time for people who excuse their children's lack of basic manners on the grounds they are sensitive and gifted. The day your kid rocks round to my house and knocks out a perfect sonnet is the day I forgive them for smearing pizza on my freshly painted walls and opening someone else's birthday presents.
  7. I love George Formby and Clinton Ford for their naughty lyrics, hysterical ukelele playing and daft sound effects. I appreciate that I am relatively alone in this passion.
  8. I run my own company - most days, this is a source of pride. Some days, however, I secretly long to find myself swathed in an apron, banging out cupcakes and roast chicken, necking Prozac and vodka and smiling beatifically at my polished silver and gleaming children.
  9. I have a very tenuous grasp of world history and would greatly appreciate suggestions for short, easy books with lots of anecdotes and pictures that will stop me making an arse of myself and give me a chance at the Christmas Quiz.
  10. I can swear like a trooper in over ten languages. Lovely.
I tag A Femme d'un Certain Age because her blog is ballsy and stylish and we could all use some chic advice.

Chicory and Cole Porter

Friday, 13 November 2009

My brother and me. Check out my fabulous titfer.*

There was one redeeming feature of the rubbish international experience that comprised my final two years of high school 'education.' It came in the form of my drama teacher, Mr. McBain. Drama teacher doesn't even begin to do him justice. A great bear of a man, from Maine via Tehran and several European capitals, he was one of those teachers that come along once in a lifetime. His belly laugh reverberated down the hall from his studio at the top of the stairs. It was filled with ephemera from a lifelong love of the arts and a lot of cigarette smoke. (This was the 80s, bear with us.) He looked like Balloo, coated in cashmere and swathed in scarves. He expected, and was rewarded with, professionalism and committment. Woe betide anyone who didn't learn their lines or was late to rehearsal. He wasn't afraid to colourfully erupt and that man took swearing to an art form. Everyone adored him.

He saved my skin on several occasions in those early furious days. He caught me weaving my way to the physics lab having liberated a bottle of Martini from the faculty fridge (like I said, it was the 80s) and hauled me into his cave. 'Sit down, drink this black coffee and learn this song.' 'But I can't sing.' 'If I say you can, you will.' He had no truck with my teenage life-is-shit-my-parents-teach-here-I-have-no-life-pass-me-the-Sartre bullshit. He took the rap on the stolen Martini and in return, I would knuckle down and take the lead in the end of term all-school production of Anything Goes, playing Reno Sweeney, a reformed nightclub-singer-turned-Evangelist.

It was a small school, only twelve in my class and about a hundred all in, all nationalities and degrees of acting ability. Several kids didn't even speak English. He kicked our arses. He brought in the Belgian Army to build sets. He had the hatmaker to the Queen of Belgium design our gorgeous costumes. He wheeled in a Hungarian refugee jazz musician to arrange the score. Someone's mother had been on Broadway and she did the choreography. You'd do anything for him, I told you.

Rehearsals were seriously hard work; we sweated - just like Fame. Including legwarmers. We also laughed till we cried - Mr McBain's trousers splitting waistband to waistband as he demonstrated high-kicking down the staircase still makes me smile. On opening night, he quelled my inner diva with a slug of wine and a Cocktail Sobranie in an elegant black holder, having gone nose to nose with the Head to let me smoke during my torch song. All of us loved it, we had a riot - even the audience.

After I escaped to University, a highlight of every holiday was dinner at his impeccably decorated townhouse. I count myself a lucky girl to have in my memory bank the sight and sound of him, throwing back his head in a huge roar of laughter, candles flickering on the pictures, hats and sketches. He usually cooked this traditional Belgian dish, which must be eaten with lots of wine, reminisces and dirty jokes. Follow with Cole Porter round the piano if you can.

Parboil 6 heads of trimmed chicory. Drain then wrap each one in a slice emmenthal or gruyere then a slice of good smoked ham. Lay in a buttered dish, cover with cheese sauce (the usual way - roux, milk, grated cheese and a scrunch of nutmeg.) Sprinkle more cheese on top and bake in a medium oven until golden and bubbling. Fresh bread and a bitter salad are good here.

*Tit fer tat. Hat. I've still got it.

The men who moil for gold

Thursday, 12 November 2009

OK, joke's over.
Which one of you scruffy bastards messed with the radio?

Pre-babies, I had a job that sent me once a year to Singapore. There was some high-falutin' title to go with the decent salary, but essentially my duties were to babysit drunken bankers, counsel tearful spats among my team and mediate between the egos of grown men. To recover, and taking advantage of my proximity to Oz, I would then fly down to see friends in Melbourne for four days before I went back to London.

My old friend Jane and her husband Charles set the bar for amazing hosting. Always a novel you've been longing to read next to the embracing soft pillows, and a thoughtful agenda to perfectly match your passions. In my case, morbid tours of early-settler graveyards followed by lengthy tastings at Yarra Vallery vineyards. Fabulous.

One visit, Jane took me on the most brilliant adventure. I did not know, though you well might, that between 1851 and the end of the 1860s, Victoria dominated the world's gold output. The population tripled over ten years as the gold rush called its siren song to men desperate to make, and lose, a fortune. Melbourne itself was deserted, run by the old, the infirm and women - 80% of the police force had left to join the treasure hunt. Towns sprang up overnight as immigrant adventurers came in their hundreds of thousands. Many died, digging ten metres below the surface in waist-high water, and many were killed. There was constant tension between the British and Irish and the 40,000 Chinese who battled daily for the chance to transform their lives. As well as squalor, hunger, abject poverty, exhorbitant prices for equipment and crippling taxes, there were also the outlaws. These fabulously-named men - Captain Thunderbolt, Boodong Jack - ambushed the poor exhausted sods who'd actually found gold and relieved them of their loot as they made their way back to civilisation. Fascinating times.

Most of the new towns were abandoned as quickly as they'd been erected. They're still there, looking for all the world like the sets of spaghetti Westerns. We arrived as night was falling, two smartly-dressed Scottish lasses with over-fertile imaginations, passing the long drive scaring ourselves shitless recounting every ghost story we knew. We stopped to use the dunny at a hotel. As it turned out, not a hotel but a knocking shop. And one still doing a roaring trade, thanks very much. It was pleasantly suggested we could put up or get out. At the next town, we were busted spying through the window of a masonic meeting. As shouts rang out, we ran to the car, chased by a probably dog, in cold retrospect slavering dingo and roared out of town. Proper cowboys we were. We drove in shaky silence through another completely deserted town, and as we exited past the graveyard, the radio came on in the car. Quiet, strange music. We looked accusingly at each other.

'Not funny. I know that was you.'
'I swear it wasn't. Did you do it?'
'Why the hell would I?'
'It's the sort of thing you'd find funny. Scaring other people.'

We bickered on and off till we found our hotel, where mercifully we just paid cash for our stay. We bickered through the long night of odd noises and constant visits from the landlord, fascinated by his weird guests and keen for us to try wine and pancakes at surreal hours. We bickered through the Ballarat Stockade, the beautiful Lindsay Museum (I recommend this film about him - Hugh Grant and some topless posh birds) and all the way back along the magnificent Great Ocean Road. On and off through a decade of babies, house moves, great laughs and great heartbreaks, we have returned to the theme, picking at it like a scab, each convinced the other has got away with a magnificent piss-take.

This Easter, on a windswept beach, surrounded by our children, we were still bickering.

Happy birthday Jane. It wasn't me.

A badly-dressed woman with no military training

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

She's about eighteen times bigger than this now.
Her paws are bloody enormous. And usually muddy. And usually on my sofa.
And I love it.

I made the Colonel do the first puppy training class. After all, he's had dogs all his life. And trained them himself, so why would he need someone to tell him what to do? I, on the other hand, had been a confirmed cat lover until May 23rd 2009, when a little Weimeraner puppy crept into my heart and took up residence.

I had stalled as long as I could. I spent several months and a small fortune earlier this year remodelling the kitchen and redecorating the drawing room. The sofas were all recovered in taupe linen and the walls painted a pale yet tasteful Farrow & Ball. A dog, in my opinion, would be smelly, muddy and destructive. The bots and Colonel disagreed.

Continuing to stall, I made the bots write and present a PowerPoint of 'Why We Need to Get a Dog' which featured much clip art of winsome pups and a very complicated poo-picking-up schedule in which we would all play our parts with gusto. The Colonel told me that a Weimeraner wouldn't shed, since it is very short-haired. Also, that they were the most intelligent breed of dog and could therefore be trained to respect my property and probably even appreciate paint charts and picture hanging options. He also pointed out that she would be the exact colour of the sofas, so even a tiny stray hair would be completely invisible.

We sneaked away, he and I, one week day to meet the puppy and be interviewed by the breeder. She startled me somewhat by barking on about 'submissive bitches' but apparently was not referring to me. The puppy we chose wobbled towards us, bright blue eyes shining, from the tangle of limbs and tummies in the barn. Smitten? She was prised out of my arms and I actually cried in the car on the way home. Waiting four weeks until she was old enough to come home with us felt like a lifetime.

When we all went back to get her, the bots had no idea what we were doing; keeping the puppy secret for four weeks just about killed me, but the dawning joy on their faces as they realised we were keeping her and it wasn't just a sick torture I'd dreamed up, was something that will stay with me for ever.

It took two weeks for me to rescind on the not-on-the-sofas rule and just over a month on the no-upstairs-and-DEFINITELY-nowhere-near-the-beds one. The Colonel did the first training class and refused point blank to go back. This is, after all, a former Commanding Officer who had definite views on being reprimanded by a badly-dressed woman with no military training. I went for the second one. After all, how bad could it be? She demanded to know why I had chosen a Weimeraner when I'd never owned a dog before. She walked away in disgust as I got to the Farrow & Ball bit. We tumbled and giggled our way through the class, but were asked not to return as apparently being enchanted and amused by a puppy's disobedience is bad for everyone concerned.

The Colonel now has a rolled-up Property section of the Saturday Telegraph, secured with yards of gaffer tape. He calls it the 'Strumpet Management System.' I'm pretty sure it's for the dog, but he has shaken it at me on a couple of occasions. It'll take more than that to turn me into a submissive bitch.

Sins of our Fathers

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Freud, and where the hell were you when I needed you in 1984?

So one day I find myself living the nightmare of all teachers' kids.  Not enough that I have been again uprooted, this time from a school in Scotland, where I was constantly bullied for being an English bastard eventually pretty happy and settled, and dumped instead in a rich kids' International School in Northern Europe. Now, worse still, my dad, the Northern Socialist, turns out to be my geography master.

My classmates, from what I can gather before the nightmare begins, are a heady mix of Eurotrash, US corporate offspring, children of diamond dealers, Indian princes and South African arms dealers' spawn. I have surmised this from behind my silent veil of chewing gum, gallons of mascara and Duran Duran scarf. This outfit does, I must admit in hindsight, rather tend to differentiate me from my new classmates. They, by sartorial contrast, sported the mid-Eighties uniform of jade green cashmere, frilly blouses and stonewashed baggy jeans. Even the girls. Being an International School meant that, in the 1980s, if you could write your own name and use the bathroom unaided, you would graduate cum laude.

Anyway. Period six, and  I am slumped in the back row, furious. The Northern Socialist is showing uncharacteristic bonhomie. 'Right, I want you all to stand up when I point to you and say where you come from and we can all get to know each other.' 'My name is Dimitri, I'm from Greece', 'Hi, my name is Phil, I'm Californian.' 'Good day, I am Ton, I come from Holland.' The NS is like a cocktail party host, 'Oh, lovely, how interesting, California, are you a vegetarian?' The pointing finger moves closer.

'You. The bovine one in the back row (he is undoubtedly talking to me). Chewing gum in the bin, please.' 'Manish, great to meet you, we'll be looking at diamond mining this term.' 'Susan, you're from Georgia! Do you know what a levee is?' Oh Christ, I know the NS and he can't resist the lure of any tenuous link to song - in this case to a man-made feature.  Just please don't let him sing Don Maclean. Too late. He sings - and I use this term in its loosest sense - 'Drove my chevy to the levee...'. I slump even lower in my chair.

With ominous certainty, the finger alights on me. 'You. Where do you come from?' I lumber crossly to my Doc Martin-ed feet. 'You want me to say where I come from?' Collective gasp of breath at the new girl showing unspeakable insubordination. 'Aye, I do.' I  mutter 'Scotland.' 'What? a JOCK? Well, no doubt you'll be educationally sub-normal. Don't worry, I will use very small words and you can have special colouring-in exercises to do.' This is my Dad, trying to be funny, oh and put me at my ease. Nice one, Dad.

I forget, mercifully, the rest of that lesson. At the end of it, I find myself in the oxymoronic 'study hall.' A kind Dutch girl, who later becomes one of my dearest friends bounces up to me. 'You were in Geography just now.' I burn in shame and nod imperceptibly. 'That was appalling. He really bullied you and showed no respect for your nationality. I'll come with you if you want to make a complaint to the Faculty Board.' 'Leave it,' I mumble, 'He's my dad.' 'No, really, I will support you with the B - what did you say?' 'I said he's my dad.' A long silence ensues as the entire room considers this statement.  Well, what could they say, really?  I like to think that the silence was redolent with empathy at the sheer awfulness of my predicament.  In retrospect, they had spotted a hideous troublemaker and all sidled silently away from low geography marks. They weren't as stupid as they looked.

Me? I'm over it now. Honestly.

Sunday Sonnet

One of the most thought-provoking views on the planet.

O valiant hearts who to your glory came
through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
as who had heard God's message from afar;
all you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
to save mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
into the light that nevermore shall fade;
deep your contentment in that blest abode,
who wait the last clear trumpet-call of God.

John Stanhope Arkwright, 1919

I'm impressed by anyone who can sing to the third verse of this without a huge lump in their throat. Not as impressed as I am, of course, by the men and women, then and now, in whose memory we sing it; my children and I remember you today with pride, admiration, respect and profound gratitude.

"And he commanded the multitude to sit down"

Friday, 6 November 2009

It wasn't the teeniest tiniest bit like this today.

So Freddie's class delivered Assembly this morning; full Junior School attendance, plus parents perched on a row of titchy chairs at the back of the hall. Brilliantly, it is us naughty grown-ups that fidget and whisper the most, pathetically regressing to a time when we ourselves sat cross-legged, shiny-shoed and navy-blazered in serried ranks on the floor.

I think they did the parable of the loaves and fishes, but there was a lot of mumbling from the readers so I could have got that wrong. They have a shiny-arsed new drama teacher this year, who is about sixteen and was wearing very tight trousers. The Daddies listened with unheard-of attention as she explained this was going to be a special assembly and that we were all going to be moving around. There's nowhere to hide when you're one of the parents, so we had to smile in delight rather than sink further down in English silence. There's nothing more guaranteed to clear a room than the mention of God to a Protestant Englishman. You could feel the fear. 'Oh no.' 'Please, don't make me stand up.' 'Bloody hell, if there's any shaking or speaking in tongues, I'm off.' Brilliant. Even the Head looked horrified, though I think that was more on grounds of Potential Untidiness than fear of spiritual choirs and kissing.

A gaggle of them then charged through the swing doors into the hall, dressed in stripy shepherd get-ups and Miss Drama shouted at everyone to 'FOLLOW JESUS!' The parents remained, rictus grins, glued to the tiny chairs; the teachers shuffled blushingly about in arm-folded groups and two hundred seven- to eleven-year-olds, eyes shining in feral glee, bombed about the parquet, boys intent on pushing each other over, girls squealing and spinning about. I think one of the stripy ones was supposed to be Jesus, but it was impossible to tell. It was complete carnage, the stripy ones chucking paper fishes and loaves about hysterically, a complete scrum free-for-all from the blazered ones. We were laughing our heads off at the back, NOT very helpful.

Eventually, the shout went up 'Sit DOWN, School!' and the Head hastily thanked Year Five for a very illuminating and special assembly and moved quickly on to Hymn 362.

Bloody marvellous start to my day, especially as I then drove to work past Starbucks. I landed in the office with three large skinny lattes and two almond croissants. My very own modern-day parable.

"Slightly filthy with erotic mystery, I saw the dreamer in her"

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Gorgeous, sophisticated, talented.
Despised, broken, desperate.

When I was a student, I occasionally stumbled across earnest late-night discussions about that nutter's nutter, Sylvia Plath. I say occasionally, not because the subject wasn't popular, but because usually I was embroiled in far more shallow pursuits - drinking, essay crises, unrequited crushes, laughing till I cried and more drinking, high jinking and larks. I never really got the whole Bell Jar phenomena. That was the preserve of some rather pale types who chewed the ends of their sleeves, pushed salad forlornly about in the dining room and were forever putting on pained expressions so we all knew that they were Fragile or Damaged or some other attention-seeking bollocks.

I am assuming my fabulous readers are all familiar with the story of Sylvia's stormy marriage to the man who then became Poet Laureate, and her suicide in Belsize Park, North London one winter night in 1963. The idea of killing yourself as your two small children slept next door, poignant little glasses of milk carefully left for when they woke, motherless, stirs all kinds of emotion in a parent's heart.

I am afraid I have a grudging sympathy for Ted Hughes. I know he was cruel and unfaithful. I also know that he was a player well before he married Plath, and she was of a suicidal bent long before she met him. I therefore have little patience with those strident man-haters who have defaced Sylvia's grave, attempting to remove Hughes' name and frankly appointing her as a mascot without a single thought for her children or their father attempting to live in the shadow of a ghastly act.

There are several great books on this subject, and one fantastic film, Sylvia, in which Gwyneth Paltrow was superbly cast, if you want to really wallow in her mind.

The character I have long been interested by is Assia Wevill, the woman Ted was having an affair with when Sylvia killed herself, and last Christmas I took to my bed for a whole day devouring a fascinating biography of her: A Lover of Unreason. I couldn't imagine how she must have felt when Sylvia committed the ultimate 'fuck you,' catapulting Assia from glamorous mistress to stepmother of two and keeper of Hughes' sanity. Oh, and the most hated woman in the world for many people. The book describes a free spirit, a cosmopolitan woman who married more as a career move than for love. Her first husband took her away from a stifling life in Tel Aviv; her second, a Canadian economist, gave her an entree into an intellectual world she loved. She met her third husband, David Wevill, on the boat from Canada to England; a 21-year old English poet.

She is reputed to have boasted to colleagues at her advertising agency in London that she intended to have Hughes; she and David were renting the Hughes' London flat while Ted and Sylvia moved to the country. There are several accounts of the weekend they stayed at the Hughes' country house - did she seduce Ted by sharing her dreams? Did she claim love of the myths, lore and landscape he adored? What is certain is that she was utterly stunning, confident and passionate and cared not a fig for convention. Sylvia, introspective, high maintenance, and turned into a shadow after having two children, didn't stand a chance.

However, Sylvia, as it turned out, had played a blinder. Assia moved in with Hughes and looked after the two little ones. Ted was of course wracked with guilt and the spirit of his dead wife consumed them both - he editing her poems, destroying her diaries; she suffocated by the legacy of Sylvia's domestic intimacy. Sylvia used to decorate her houses by painting enamel hearts, twining them around the doors of the children's bedrooms and about her kitchen. Imagine cooking in that. Ted wrote her two pages of domestic instruction ensuring Sylvia's spirit lived on (experiment with cooking! teach the children German!). They slept together in the marital bed.

Ted continued to work; he prevaricated about marrying Assia, worrying about upsetting Sylvia's family and fans. Assia, having already aborted one of his babies, gave birth to their daughter in 1965. Ted continued to leave her to the wolves, gaining at least two more mistresses. It must have been a complete nightmare for the woman who initially saw him as a feather in her cultural cap. She killed herself and her four year old daughter, in a macabre reconstruction of Sylvia's suicide in 1969.

Could you make it up? Isn't it a fascinating and tragic tale? I do love the poetry of Ted, his glorious, granite-like tales of unforgiving Yorkshire landscapes, his fantastical works for children, his bone-deep reverence for nature and all her beauty and cruelty.

For a while when I lived in London, I used to walk to the tube past the flat where Sylvia killed herself, imagining her desperation; the treks to the phone box to call her mother in America, wheeling a pram through the February snow. The frantic writing as she attempted to rediscover her soul, her identity through poetry, her love sonnets to her husband, father and children.  I gave scant thought to the woman who dealt with (and yes, caused) the consequences.

It's been a dark old day. No shit. But I still get to kiss my bots goodnight. And tomorrow we will laugh; high jinks and larks.

Soup to Give You Roots

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Heda, Willem Claesz. (1594–c1680). The Colonel approved of this one.
Stilleven met oesters, een citroen, een roemer, een gebroken glas en een omgevallen tazza
Still-life with oysters, lemon, a roemer, a broken glass and fallen tazza.

There are several disadvantages to starting almost every September at a new school, in a new country and often on a new continent. One of the obvious ones is that the only people who will befriend you are the losers and weirdoes. Anyone half-way well-adjusted will be happily catching up with their equally well-adjusted mates and it will be well into October before you get a look-in.

Another is that it becomes all too easy to forget one's traditions, heritage, roots. I recently worked out that, in my early forties, I have had over 30 addresses. That's a lot of moving. Before this sounds like a whingefest, I have of course had some amazing adventures and incredible experiences, but the older I get, the more I feel a visceral need to belong, to have a home, to know that each September that rolls around will bring tradition, the comfort of familiarity, the same old thing. Food is a very good way to instantly capture and establish tradition, especially for a greedy Taurean like me. 'We always have salmon on Christmas Eve,' 'I always bake lemon drizzle cake for birthdays' are boasts that make me feel very centred.

Right, enough introspective bollocks. The point of all this is that as soon as there is a proper chill in the air, I am reminded of that central heating in a bowl, Snert, Dutch pea soup. I have warmed my hands on this since I lived in Antwerp over 25 years ago, a comfort to my adolescent angst, chain-smoking Gauloise Blondes in the shadow of that City's magnificent Cathedral. I made a meatless version of it as an impoverished student in the shadow of another Cathedral in the North of England. I have slurped bowls and bowls of the stuff in my time, in my greed, burning my tongue on its tobacco-coloured silky depths. It was a stunning punctuation to a hilarious afternoon many years ago, which I spent taking the Colonel ('Modern ART? ART? God Almighty, give me a pot of paint and two bloody housebricks...') round the Mauritshuis Museum in the Hague (he adored the still life stuff, hated the nudes because their arses were too big, wouldn't even go into the temporary Bacon exhibit). We sat for hours afterwards in a smoky old dark-panelled cafe; slurping this delicious soup, sipping red wine, talking rubbish and watching the winter afternoon descend beyond the candles of our red-checked table.

I have had some feedback on the general sloppiness of my recipes so far, so for those of you with an anally retentive bent, here are some proper quantities and precise methods. It is worth putting aside an afternoon to make this, and do make heaps of it - it is truly delicious, a meal in a bowl, tastes even more sublime the next day and just think: you can now say "I always make Snert in November."

510g (1lb 2oz) yellow split peas
510g (1lb 2oz) pork ribs
2 litres (3½ pints) water and 2 litres ham stock – feel no shame about using cubes; I boiled a pig’s foot once. Blech.
a smoked sausage in a big horseshoe shape or six of those little Polish kabanos
2 large onions
2 leeks
1 whole medium celeriac - this is non-negotiable, it is essential for depth and sweetness of flavour
2 potatoes
1 head of celery including leaves
sea salt and peppercorns

Rinse the split peas well. Place in a large saucepan with water and pork ribs. Bring slowly to the boil and skim off any scum, drain and rinse. Return to the saucepan with the stock. Bring the boil and reduce to a simmer. Peel and dice the potatoes and celeriac , wash and chop the leeks and add to the saucepan. Cook for 1½-2 hours, (until the peas are tender and breaking up), skimming if needed. Twenty minutes before the end of cooking, remove the ribs, cut off any rind and de-bone, cut in small pieces. Don’t grumble, it’s a pain but it will mean you can eat your soup so much quicker. Chop the celery and leaves. Add the meat, celery and sausage to the saucepan.Slice the sausage, stir in until warmed through and sprinkle with celery leaves or flat parsley to serve. Adjust the seasoning before serving.

For the full experience, eat with candles, Old Masters, dark beer and pumpernickel bread.

I had a fright in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Baroness Blixen's farm - go if you can, it's full of her spirit.
Down to her jodhpurs thrown on the bed and her boots at the foot of it.
See Out of Africa but don't bother with the rather turgid book.

A few winters ago, when my life was out-of-control chaotic, I was delighted to accept a kind invitation to go to Nairobi and spend a week hiding out at the home of a friend who works out there. I could say all sorts of things about the amazing and selfless work he does fighting malaria, but this is all about me I won't.

One of the reasons I was so keen to go was that he and I have long shared an obsession with the (officially still unsolved) murder of Lord Erroll, a scion of the Happy Valley crowd in 1930s Kenya. Watch White Mischief for the full story (and some great shots of Charles Dance in the buff) or read the book which is just as gripping. Dr Mosquito and his lovely wife wheeled out heaps of Old Kenya Hands for me to quiz on their first-hand knowledge, memories and local folklore about all the protagonists in this classically Colonial murder. All the ingredients are there - sex, booze, money, scandal, screamingly mad eccentrics and an unexpected insight into the Colonial justice system. It's also a fascinating peep into the mindset of those crazy brave souls who took off across the sea to make new lives in strange lands. I just love those long-ago attitudes - harvest ruined by lack of rain? Buck up and start an affair with a neighbour's wife. Husband given you syphilis? Buck up, plant coffee, adopt a deer and ride for days alone round the perimeter of your lands. Lost your entire inheritance in a bet? Stiff drink, buck up and shuffle the cards again. Lover unfaithful? Buck up, follow him to Paris and shoot him in the balls (read up on this wonderful nutter, Alice de Janze. They simply don't make them like that any more.)

I had a lovely time and spent several happy afternoons drifting about the Muthaiga Club which looks exactly as it does in the film. To this day, cameras are banned in case members are snapped with someone they shouldn't be with. No money changes hands - everything is signed for on a chit and accounts are settled depending on the harvests. I shamelessly eavesdropped on a classic exchange between two old boys in the foyer. One covered in red dust, just driven into town, the other in pressed khaki, grasping a large gin, waiting for him.

"Super to see you. How's the wife?"
"Bloody cancer. Doc's not too hopeful."
"Rotten luck, old chap. Kick her up the arse from me."
"Will do. Drink?"

Everyone I met had a pragmatic, almost casual attitude to death. They all had first or second-hand experience of carjacking, shooting, attacks by animals, theft, crazed hippos charging, rape. Mrs MD and I drove her 4x4 up to Lake Naivasha one day to get as close as we could to the Djinn Palace, the notorious setting for several of the parties you see in the film. We hired a boat, took heaps of photos, had lunch at the country club and drove home. That day, two American women were shot dead on the same road we had driven and their 4x4 was stolen.

On my last day, my host had arranged to borrow two horses and hired a guide to take us on a riding safari in the Ngong Hills. (Everyone I know has seen Out of Africa, and if you haven't, do so immediately. You'll love it.) I was very excited, Karen Blixen being a personal heroine and here I was, about to quite literally ride in her footsteps. My horse was bloody gigantic. I am not. She definitely had racehorse blood. Our safari was supposed to take an hour. It ended up closer to four. There was rather more razor wire than I remember from the film. The guide got completely lost as the recent rains had caused sudden growth of the bush, so all the paths had disappeared. My horse jumped a gorge and left my host and guide on the other side as we galloped uncontrollably away, crashing through spiky undergrowth, caught by trailing thorns. My host speaks Swahili. The guide had a gun. I wasn't even carrying a lipgloss, much less a mobile phone. It turned out I was not made of the stern frontier-smashing stuff I once was. Somewhere along the way I had become a small, scared mummy on a sodding great horse who really, really wanted to go home.

It didn't take that long to find me, covered in scratches and sunburnt.  When I finally dismounted in the yard, my knees buckled with either shock or relief and to my shame, I burst into tears. Dr M stuck a filthy great drink in my hand and they all looked the other way while I Bloody Well Bucked Up.

Spooky. But not what you're thinking.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Yes yes yes, I know he got blown up last series.
But really, if you got home and this was waiting on your doorstep...
Are you listening, Santa?

I am hopeless at watching telly. Part of the reason is that I'm bone idle and the effort involved (go to drawing room, argue the toss with whichever incumbent has staked a claim to either sports or Disney, find two TV controls, remember which is which, remove dog from sofa, remember number of channel, name of programme, reason for being on this earth etc) is far too much. The other reason is that I am too easily distracted, and lose focus. One of the Colonel's terribly amusing set pieces whenever we have guests is an impression of me reading, drinking, staring into space while all around me Rome burns. Or at least, supper does. Bots remain unbathed, Important Things are forgotten, including stuff I am supposed to be watching on TV. It's annoying but true.

Anyway. I have discovered Box Sets. Fanbloodytastic. No pesky TV schedules, no waiting until next week for the next episode, portable and perfect. I have smuggled DVDs into conferences and under bedclothes.

The only downside is that such a concentrated surfeit of another world has an effect on my reality, such as it is. Life on Mars had me longing for Phil Glenister to throw me roughly on his sheepskin coat and chuck me a tube of Spangles after. The West Wing? Once Sam was gone, Josh Lyman filled my thoughts and made me daydream constantly about interning for him and influencing US Foreign Policy from the inside. My current crush, Mad Men, reminds me of my bullshit-filled past life as a copywriter and the long-gone days of casually sparking up a fag in the office. In a lift. In the Ladies.

But it was Spooks that really captured me. Based on the work of M15, it is a thrilling rollercoaster of intelligent writing, credible characters and stunning location shots. Of course, the Colonel keeps up a running bark on the authenticity of the storyline, but I can tune that out. Especially if the scene involves Rupert Penry-Jones. Especially without a shirt.

However, this series I have to watch to the BBC's schedule - starting this Wednesday at 9pm, picking up where we left off with Harry-Head-of-M15 tied up in the back of a Russian car. If you're in the UK, make sure you clear all children, supper, PTO activity from your schedule and park yourself down to watch. If not, order the full series from here and live out your latent spy fantasies. You know they're in there somewhere.

Sunday Sonnet

Other loves may sink and settle, other loves may loose and slack,
But I wander like a minstrel with a harp upon my back,
Though the harp be on my bosom, though I finger and I fret,
Still, my hope is all before me; for I cannot play it yet.

In your strings is hid a music that no hand hath e'er let fall,
In your soul is sealed a pleasure that you have not known at all;
Pleasure subtle as your spirit, strange and slender as your frame,
Fiercer than the pain that folds you, softer than your sorrow's name.

Not as mine, my soul's annointed, not as mine the rude and light
Easy mirth of many faces, swaggering pride of song and fight;
Something stranger, something sweeter, something waiting you afar,
Secret as your stricken senses, magic as your sorrows are.

But on this, God's harp supernal, stretched but to be stricken once,
Hoary time is a beginner, Life a bungler, Death a dunce.
But I will not fear to match them - no by God, I will not fear,
I will learn you, I will play you and the stars stand still to hear.

The Strange Music, GK Chesterton (1874 - 1936).
Isn't this gorgeous? I was once sent it by a man on the very cusp of a love affair; I was smitten. The poet was a giant of a man - literally and in terms of literary output, sparring with Shaw, Wilde, Belloc and other luminaries on religion, philosophy and the occult. His poetry is less well known than his books, essays and plays, but are well worth an hour or so's reading out of your life.