the frailty of our human clay

Sunday, 14 November 2010

This morning's two minutes' silence happened at the beginning of Freddie's Sunday League Under 11s football match. It's been hotting up recently; they are unbeaten so far this season, and are through to the semis of the Shire Cup. So there was quite a large crowd of parents and grandparents huddling under huge brollies along the touchline. The promised rain lashed down on us and the car boot sale with which we shared the field.

The goalie for the opposition, who were also unbeaten, was wearing a black armband. His Grandad was just down the muddy touchline from me. "His dad didn't come back from Afghanistan last year," he said quietly. The two teams lined up to observe the silence. The car boot sale was like a frieze - ordinary people in waterproofs and soggy fleeces stood with bowed heads in the rain. Two rows of small boys, napes bared poignantly to the elements, looked solemnly at their boots. The referee and the opposition manager stood protectively behind their goalie, a hands each resting lightly on his skinny damp shoulders.

There were no medals. No hymns, no bands, no wreaths. Just ordinary people respectfully remembering. The most genuinely moving two minutes' silence I have observed in years.

And we're through to the next round,

Prophesy, prediction and puke

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

My lovely friend Markus rang me at the end of August. "We are all very bored of your attention-seeking. I'm having an actual proper crisis and I need you to drop everything and come to London for the weekend. I will feed you and water you and take you to an antiques fair. I've painted the sitting room and it's got a pinky undertone not grey. Doing the woodwork and trim in Pointing simply will not work." Now that's a real emergency, so I dropped the bots and dog with Edward and jumped on the next train. Markus made chocolate martinis and we ate plates of delicate Asian fish stew poring over paint chips and fabric samples and moving furniture about till the small hours. Bliss.

The next day was gorgeous so after the antiques fair, we went for lunch in Chiswick. Next to the restaurant was a chalked sign 'Psychic Readings this afternoon only'. Markus' eyes lit up. "Bloody no." I said. "Bloody yes" said he. "Nooooo," I wailed. "It'll be crap and what if she says I'm going to die?" "They can't say that and anyway, she might forsee some good stuff. Come on."

After losing the sort of unseemly scrap we used to indulge in as students, I presented myself to the psychic, a nicely dressed lady called Clarissa. I felt like the bots at the dentist - resentful, afraid and praying it wouldn't hurt too much.

I think when a fortune-teller is faced with a middle-aged woman wearing no rings other than black ones under her eyes, it is fair to make some pretty obvious assumptions. I sat opposite her in an empty room while she shut her eyes and held my hand. She smelled of wine. She urged me to relax. What she said absolutely blew me away.

"You are thinking about your dog and how much you miss her. She is teaching you the real meaning of love and you must let her have as much of your heart as she needs because the more love you give her, the more will come back to you. She's on her favourite hill right at this moment and she is running and happy." I was stunned and tears ran down my face. It's true, her unconditional waggy glee at everything and her head pushing tenderly into my hand night after night have brought me untold comfort.

I was thinking about this today as I nagged the dog to hurry at the end of a walk. I was in heels and velvet coat and late for a meeting at Rose's school. She ran into the woods. I stood on the path and bellowed. When she finally appeared, there was a plastic bag on her back. She ran up to me and rubbed her head delightedly on my coat and into my hand. I pulled off the bag. It had contained, it would appear, a regurgitated Indian. The dog and I were smeared with magenta-coloured, vomit-smelling rice. I put us both in the shower and missed the meeting.

Didn't foresee that though, did you Clarissa?

Time for a Bath

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

I believe it was Aristotle (though with my half-cocked education, it might also have been Churchill or Buzz Lightyear) who defined happiness as the complete and habitual exercise of all one's functions. Which is fine if you are an Ancient Greek who needs only exercise his need to scamper the hills of Athens in a Dionysian fashion, enjoy the odd orgy, some shotputting and running and heaps of olives and Nana Mouskouri albums.

For a long time, I have felt overwhelmed to the point of mania by the myriad of functions I am expected to exercise. So in the spring, when the Colonel left after several years of false starts, I had the time and space to examine my functions. Like Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters, I did a lot of beetling about in baggy cords, muttering at the pavement and tilting at priests. It was an improbable acupuncturist, a former Chelsea wine dealer turned shaman healer who countered the Greek with some ancient Chinese wisdom. Something along the lines of "you need to have nothing before you can claim to have anything at all." I may have got that wrong - I was distracted by the copper forest of needles bristling along my Gate of Hope.

However, in the last nine months, I have distilled my roles to one: Mummy. I have baked and walked the dog, read books in the afternoon and stopped trying to make things happen. Just existing has been enough. Emptying my life has been frightening and liberating, but silence, it turns out, has its own sweet music.

Last weekend, Edward and I went to Bath, which glowed in a late autumn Georgian ochre. We walked through damp piles of pungent oak leaves and thawed hands and hearts over hot coffee and hazelnut cake. We are giving our marriage a second chance. Slowly, privately. Just the four of us. And the dog. And bloody Aristotle.

Cells of madness unconfined

Friday, 5 November 2010

George: Ripping Cornwall, hurrah for the hols. I DO hope we have a topping adventure.
Dick:I fancy getting lashed in Rock and pulling a posh tart.
Anne: I wonder if Matalan in Truro is open
Julian: I bloody LOVE the feel of tweed on naked buttocks

Over the summer, Edward rented a mini stately in Cornwall. The owner, Lady Charlotte, had refused to use email or mobile, so several cars’ worth of our guests ended up very confused in the car park of the Jamaica Inn, trying to work out her loopy posh hieroglyphics. It added quite some time to the journey, so the welcoming scones had atrophied in the Aga by the time our covoy rolled up the drive through overgrown rhododendrons.

Lady Charlotte was mad as cheese. Millimetres short of Edward’s 6 foot 5, she was a full-sail galleon of mid-Eighties electric-blue eye make-up, huge stiff crackle of frosted hair and shoulder pads like bungalows. The bots were transfixed. She spoke in a breathy ingenue voice, which, coming from a tight-head prop-sized body swathed in black and fuschia, was completely wonderful. Rather than the traditional "Here’s the airing cupboard, are those children house-trained" traditional spiel, she spied the champagne being unpacked and settled down, sparking up a long More, to share her thoughts on what bastards men are.

Her ire was divided equally between the rental agent and her most recent ex-husbands. The agent had shown remarkable insubordination in asking her to deal with the trailing wires, falling-down beds and mouse-infested pantry. He clearly had no idea how Proper People lived. The two exes had had lucky escapes; one had run off with a trollop from the taxi queue at Paddington and the other had taken the back of his head off via a mouthful of shotgun. I brightly skipped the saucer-eyed bots off for a swim and left my friend Maria to enjoy the show.

The bots were prune-wrinkled by the time we saw her weaving up the hill and I judged it safe to return. The rest of the party were still at the table, shaking with mirth and surrounded by empty bottles of pop. Rather a decent way to start a holiday, I reckon. The house was, au fond, very beautiful, but, like its owner, plastered in decades-old frills and furbellows. The bedrooms were each a trellis-and-tiny-rosebud nighmare of matching Laura Ashley wallpaper, bedspreads, tart-knicker window ruffles and frilly bedside table covers. Even the (empty) tissue boxes and wastepaper bins were covered in matching wallpaper.

Most bonkers of all, though, Lady C had moved into a little caravan for the summer which was parked behind the house up a steep hill. From which vantage point she surveyed her guests from a plastic picnic table surrounded by glass pyramids of empty bottles. Like a Molly Keane heroine via a David Bowie album cover. She popped up from time to time with suggestions for activities. Some were clearly ridiculous (open-air opera?) while some were just fantastic ("I’ll telephone to my great great chums who’ve cleverly opened the most wonderful restaurant in a tiny little bay and they can look after you. They’re from New Zealand. What fun.") They did, and it was. The elusive sun burst suddenly forth to light up the rain-twinkling headland and blind the hardened surfers. We sat on the balcony watching the dog tear up and down the beach, ate plates of seafood tapas, caught up on London gossip and all remembered how special Cornwall can be.

Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Drama and chaos are the perfect accessories for youth; when one's skirts are short and the nights are long, tortured tears and eliptical, unending conflict are absorbing, exciting, vital. Limping into my mid-forties, though, I prefer peace, stability and an impeccably-edited wardrobe.

After a year of brick-wall-head-banging and misery-induced skinniness, I am celebrating the impending arrival of winter with a spare, verging on monastic wardrobe. Bag after bag has gone to charity, on E-Bay, to friends. The walls and wardrobe doors in my room are now a flat violet-grey. Less than a dozen garments hang aesthetically from matching hangers. The resulting closet space has given the rattling skeletons such acres that many of them have fled in fright.

The hard-won lightening of my heart I am enjoying was matched yesterday by Freddie who was off school with a 40-Woodbine cough. After exhausting the surreal offerings of every obscure sporting channel, some God TV and the unmissable opportunity to buy a set of coloured chopping boards, he bounced into my room where I was arranging three t-shirts on an otherwise empty shelf. He sprawled on the bed next to the dog who was perched with elegantly-crossed paws.

"Pliz," I sneered. "Leaf de showroom. We sell clothe only to rich customer. Not peasant in mis-match pyjama suit with sticky-out hair."

"You know clothes?" he interrupted, rolling his eyes. "Well, can I get some nice ones? All my jeans are soooo flared and I hate pants. Now I'm ten, I should be wearing boxers. Cool ones from Top Man."

I segued seamlessly from Snooty Shopnazi to Cricket Mummy. "So is that why you went on a six-day tour with six pairs of pants and came back with five clean pairs and one pair missing?"

"Oh Mummy, he dimpled, shameless. "I love your funny voices. Do it again."

So later, we drove into town and conducted a skinny-jeans-cool-boxers commando raid, creeping about with a lot of scarves on in case any teachers were loitering in the 9-14 Boys department of H&M.

When we got home, he put on enormous headphones and listened to some bloke boasting that the club couldn't handle him. I held up his entire wardrobe item by item and he gave thumbs up or down like a gangsta Roman Emperor between admiring glances down at his lanky denim legs.

I filled a lot of bags with summery Boden checks and Gap pastels, remembering his once-chubby thighs and sartorial malleability. When the car was full, he inspected his own sparse shelves, the jumble of sweet colour replaced by a few neon T-shirts, a lot of nylon sports tops and some reverently-folded Top Man boxers.

"Cool. Please don't do that gay voice again though."

I wish I could grow up in one afternoon.

Vulgar vulgar vulgar, but by God, we've missed you...

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Occasionally, when the blood sugar is low or they've just had double maths or cross-country, the bots will work themselves into an indignant home-time back-seat fury that they weren't born American. They see it as a huge waste that I went to High School, had a locker and a boyfriend with a letter jacket and STILL act more Penelope Keith than Irene Cara. With all my advantages and all.

On less angry days (lost trackie bums, lost hymn books), they content themsleves with whining 'Why did you leave London, Mummy, whhhyyyyy, we love London, whyyyy can't we still live there, all the cousins do, it's not faiiiirrr.' And sometimes, as I stand in Morrisons with more teeth in my head than the rest of the shop put together, I wonder the same thing myself.

However, they went off happily this weekend for a metro-fix and I stayed here thinking, for the second time in 16 years, that however bleak my life may feel on waking, at least I am not the Duchess of York. God Almighty, woman.

The cousins the bots are staying with have a friend whose dad used to Play For Chelsea.and now Manages A Team. Freddie hyperventilates just going over the threshold, even though he has never met him and is also furious that I have. 13 years ago when babysitting the cousins. Before he was born. Anyway, Freddie rang me this morning. 'Daddy's got something to ask,' he squeaked in a big rush. 'Well,' drawled  Edward, 'the bots have been invited to go swimming with the cousins at you-know-who's place. If we go, we'll be back too late for supper, so we were just wondering.. He paused. I imagined Freddie, sturdy legs and sticky fingers pretzelled in prayer - I heard him breathe 'pleasepleaseplease.'

'No bloody way,' I sputtered, 'I've been slaving over the curry all damn morning, how dare you even ask?'

Just kidding.

I said yes, and heard the shriek all the way from south west London. I'm going to put aubergines and courgettes and other hijus vegetables in the curry and when I've eaten it, I'm going to fall off the wagon into three bottles of burgundy, spark up a Silk Cut and stagger down the Rotary Club to see if anyone wants an introduction to Edward. Fifty quid'll do it.

Confused readers click here for the whole fabulously funny intrusive gutter journalism at its worst story.

talk of situations, read books, repeat quotations

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Yesterday, I took my imaginary black dog and my very real taupe dog to a meadow close to my house. The taupe dog leapt about like a March hare, pausing suddenly, stock-still, in hunting pose. Her ear pinkly folded back, paw cocked, nut-brown nose quivering before dropping her haunches and charging madly off in the opposite direction to the ball I had launched.

I lay in the grass and thought about how long it felt since I'd been warm. Fat, mauve clover and leggy eager-faced buttercups have carpeted the ground in a matter of days. The sun was so strong it almost throbbed. I could smell the lacy drifts of hawthorne, heard bees, boats on the river, distant shouting. From my prone pose, I threw the sopping ball, then tensed as I heard her thunder back to throw herself heavily on top of me, panting delightedly and proudly.

I am alone for the weekend. The sun has been blazing for hours, mocking my pitiful gloom. The roses from my birthday party are soft and wilting. I am making a flask of lattte to take to the beach with the dog, the paper and a grisly murder on my i-pod.

Later, I'm making a complicated curry for the bots coming back tomorrow night. That's when the sun will really come out.

When all other pleasures fade...

Thursday, 20 May 2010

About three million years ago, Edward paid a few guineas and we ran off to Spetses, an island which I think is somewhere off the Greek coast, most famous for not allowing cars and forcing poor hot tourists to get off the hydrofoil and pile their stuff on picturesque but slow donkeys.

While we were there, it was Black Wednesday. Edward spent a lot of time reading days-old Daily Mails (pre-pre-internet, in fact pre-mobile phone) to work out if we could even afford to get home as clearly the global money markets had waited for the second we left London to go into freefall.

We had an apartment above a wicked old East End chap who was clearly on the run. He was walnutty brown and wrinkly and had a filthy temper. He lay in the shade grumbling endlessly about the sodding heat and the dirty Greek germs. We played Scrabble on the wrought iron balcony above him, shamelessly and gleefully eavesdropping on him barking angrily at the busty bird with him. 'Ave yer washed them tea-tahls aht yet? I don't wanna catch nuffink nasty. Get us a cuppa if you got time to lie abaht in the bloody sun all day.' We concocted a gloriously violent and blood-soaked history for him, scaring ourselves stupid. When the Scrabble tiles fell down onto his terrace, we shot into the shadows of our room, eyes huge and hands clapped to our faces, listening to the stream of furious sweary threats he directed at the source of clattering alphabetical rain. We didn't dare ask for them back.

I also read AS Byatt's Possession that holiday; cold glasses of rose washing down salads made of great mis-shapen tomatoes, pale creamy clouds of taramasalata piled on thick sweet bread and warty, intensely-flavoured cucumbers. I struck up so many conversations about the book; everyone seemed to be reading it or just finished. Impromptu book groups sprang up on the jetty; we women swooning over the clever parallel love stories and sumptuous descriptions of Victorian mourning jet jewellery. Overhead, lines of squid and octopi dried and the English men watched the wiry Greek fishermen slither their catches onto the cobbles, choosing what they would eat when the sun went down.

It was an odd juxtaposition, but a strangely pleasing one, and when, years later, I ended up living in Richmond a few roads away from where a crucial 19th century denoument took place in the book, it seemed a logical and fitting reason to re-read it, this time across smoky autumn twilit afternoons. I highly recommend it, sun or gloom, and mention it because I am now reading her The Children's Book and have been suddenly reminded of the fabulousness of her writing. Never condescending, always scholarly, her stories combine credible Victorians and a dense domestic detail that draws you deftly in to witness coversations, fires, meals of long-ago times. There are also several wonderful secrets and glimpses into the Victorian cellars and storage areas of the V&A museum, one of the most wonderful places on earth. I am revelling in it.

We can all learn from Alice

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

'Dahling Alice, this is all very well my deah, but is this really the right time to swan about off your face on morphine, seducing all the neighbours, banging away at your ukelele, swathed in jewels and keeping a black panther when the country doesn't even have a Prime Minister?'

Loyal readers will remember the obsession I have with the mystery surrounding the murder of Lord Erroll in Kenya in the first half of the last century and how unspeakably dull and hectoring I can become on the subject at the drop of a pith helmet. Well, it would appear it was Alice de Janze wot done it - portrayed with glazed and dirty elegance by Sarah Mills in White Mischief. For the past week or so, I have been glued to this book every waking minute. She was riddled with madness and style, abandoning her sons and adopting a baby leopard. The writing is a little wooden, but her fascinating story is gripping and well overdue.

Which is a shame, because while I have been hiding in Happy Valley, we have elected a schizophrenic Government, Greece is in economic and civil meltdown and Freddie's school swimming trunks are now budgie smugglers. He told Edward 'Mummy bought them three years ago and they're so small now. I'm worried I might hurt myself.'

So I need to get my maternal finger out and save his manhood, my professional finger out and go to Wales for two days and organise training on some hijusly dull bit of obscure legislation then my culinary finger out for two lovely weekend houseguests.

Then I am shoving my cloche hat on, parking my arse on the verandah, under a leopard, shouting at the houseboy to bring me gin and opium and shooting dead anyone that annoys me.

No changes there, then.

To sit with a dog on a hillside

Monday, 10 May 2010

I've had a skip parked in the drive for the past two weeks. No, thanks for asking, I haven't been trapped under it. Nor has the Colonel buried me in it. Nor have I thrown myself from the attic window, half-pike-tuck-and-twist to land perfectly in the rotting cardboard, ancient ladders, heartbreaking outgrown and loved-to-bits-toys and piss-smelling flops of brown swirly carpet. The man who came to get it said with evident delight 'you clearly never read the agreement, Modom. Them fridges will have to come out, I can't take them.' So the skip has gone but two fridges and a freezer stand in a pikey way on the drive and are more annoying than the fact he claimed 'Health & Safety' as his reason for leaving them rather than the truth. Which was clearly: let's see if we can make a grown woman cry when she gets home from work.

Anyway, apart from looking like Kizzy's gaff from the outside, great strides are being made indoors Sorting Things Out. The Colonel, between assignments, has turned his gimlet eye to domestic matters. There is now a regimental order to pretty much everything, from wooden spoons to lingerie. The bots and I are road-testing the sytem to destruction: 'where are my blue shin-pads?' 'the notebook I wrote the Twighlight pre-quel in?' 'my wits/patience/sense of humour?' He is doing a great job; however, this is the payback:

He thinks the dog should be out of her cage and sleeping in her basket on the upstairs landing. I am nervous that she will abuse this freedom and double her opportunity to find something wildly expensive (feather curtain tie-backs, silk bed throw, anything with a La Perla label) and chew the shit out of it while we are all asleep.

The bots are, understandably, enormously pro this plan. Of course, she never eats football boots or M&S pants and they know that she will sneak silently onto their beds in the dead of night and curl up with a bone-breaking sigh in the crook of their knees, slither a silky head under their chins and breathe sweetly and heavily in their ears and they will all pretend she had JUST arrived when I thump in to wake them and grumble about hairy beds and muddy paws.

I think I need to learn to pick my battles.

Spells for Skivers

Monday, 26 April 2010

'Freddie, love, Mummy's just landed in the playgound; she says have you got your ESB speech stuff with you?'
'Fuck, someone cover my arse while I dig my way to Australia with a ruler. Pete, can your parents adopt me? Anyone got the Childline number? Quick, over the the woodwork room and I'll saw my leg off for sympathy.'

The minefield of choosing a Godparent is, unless some crass cosmic joke occurs, firmly behind me. In my Schiaparelli-pink-tinted retro-vision, I gaze fragrantly into the cot at the sleeping bots and bestow gifts in human form. A children's book editor (imagine the presents). A brace of titled/well-connected good souls (one eye on the Gap Year). A drummer in a rock band (swallow the feminist cant - son, meet the groupies). A French rugby player (no justification necessary). A staunch Catholic (hedge those bets). In the Pampers-panicky reality that was my life all those years ago, I provided exactly this because they were all people I knew would say 'yes', could be counted on to turn up at the church on the right day, fuel me with champagne at the party afterwards and exchange delightful conversation with the assembled starchy grown ups.

The ensuing decade has proved an interesting one. Almost all of the above are still in birthday-remembering play. But they have been joined, incrementally, by several others. Official and Unofficial Gods who bring gifts I never thought of. Cricket obsession. Adoration of velvet. The love of spending hours cooking an Indian feast from scratch. The art of lolling about on a bed disecting one's wardrobe and sneakily adding unsuitable items to it behind mummy's back. The talent for inapropriate smells during a private tour of Tennyson's library.

Rose's Godmother is dropping in this weekend to share her love of historical novels, gossip magazines and Petit Bateau. I will send them out together to wander the sunny harbour and drink hot chocolate. Freddie, the Colonel and I will be at home. Working on the speech-with-visuals he is giving to the English Speaking Board examiners next week. That he has NOT been 'working on' since before Easter. That he didn't even get out of his bag when he was at Edward's last week. That remained untouched this past weekend when he was winning a football tournament. He will be somewhat surprised when I get him after school today as he thinks he's at a cricket game.

Might need a silent spell for my gob.

Munters in Hunters

Friday, 23 April 2010

Just cock off, I'm not bloody well coming back. She's got every episode of Pineapple Dance Studios on SkyPlus, she's bought me bloody legwarmers and body glitter AND she's replaced my Eminem CDs with the Cabaret soundtrack. Jesus, Rose, get the mad bitch to start drinking again. I'll call you from Australia.

The bots had an Easter week in Wales at Edward's family farm. They rang me where I was battling elements of all types up in the Lake District: 'It's fab, we saw loads of these small lambs.' 'Oh, darlings, how wonderful, there are masses here too, aren't they adorable when they leap into the air?' 'Not these ones, a fox ate their brains and all their livers have come out.' 'Oh, and we went on quad bikes. With no helmets.'

Meanwhile, ignoring rising panic, I revisited the lovely house I grew up in on a cliff, climbed the wall I have scaled in my dreams for over 30 years, spied on the children who live there now and discovered that a middle-aged heap of sobbing nostalgia stuck on a very high wall is statistically more likely to frighten than enchant.

Like a Hobbit, I stumped about the fells and cliffs in attractive waterproof trousers, fuelling up on heavenly coffee and walnut cake from the WI in Cockermouth (which name still, pathetically, makes me snigger), being uplifted by and warbling tunelessly along to this and working through the first series of this on my laptop each night. I walked and climbed for miles and my poor old wellies have finally given up the ghost. So, in time for summer, I have discovered this amazing website and my new-dead-cheap-technically-I-have-saved-money Graphite Gloss Hunters arrived this morning. I'm rather pleased with them, but suspect I am rocking less of a Kate-Moss-British-summer-festival vibe than a Lego Lady Policeman.

Either way, they are hideously shiny, so I am taking the dog into the fields now to get them covered in lamb's brains.

Me an' Jem

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

So, other than the obvious - thick, tawny hair, endless elegant limbs, eye-watering personal trust fund and the fact we've both kicked Hugh Grant out of bed more times than we'd care to remember*, it would appear that Jemima Khan and I have even more in common than ever. Her offspring too have eschewed Mini Boden for Top Man (though Freddie wouldn't dare describe it as 'gay'. Yet.).  See this month's English Vogue for the full story if you can be arsed.

Which is how I found myself in Tweenieland in London over half-term. The bots smirked and did slidy eyes when I suggested Hamleys and ice-cream. They had checked out the website and press releases and were set on Oxford Circus Top Shop, where we haggled in hisses over the suitability of denim shorts that wouldn't cover Barbie's plastic arse and a T-shirt saying 'Screw You.' I told them that people who needed to show their bottoms and swear in public were losers, not amusing hip young folk and that I was not very impressed with their choices so far.

We agreed after what felt like several strip-lit thumpy-music hours on some bright stuff for Freddie and some pearl-encrusted stuff for Rose and then I played my trump card - the theatre! I had returns for Legally Blonde, knowing Rose would adore it and Freddie would be super-excited at just the whole Savoy-theatre-London-treat experience. Well apparently not. He took one look at the huge pink billboard, gaggles of schoolgirls also in pink and a blow-up chihuahua and rolled his eyes backwards in his skull. His shoulders went down and he was incapable of speech. It wasn't helped by the mincing torch-bearer who showed us to our seats asking him why he wasn't going to see Kick-Ass instead.

Rose and I had a great time. The court-room number 'Gay or European' is one of the wittiest things I have ever heard, marred only a tiny bit by my clearly wildly heterosexual nine-year old son slumped as far down in his seat as he could looking everywhere but at the stage and shooting off for the exit before the curtain calls had started.

We had what the bots have started calling one of Mummy's Awkward Conversations in the taxi about being grateful and not spoiling everyone's treat by being unimpressed and cynical. 'Like you were in Topshop?' wondered Freddie, all huge-eyed and over-the-top-interested in what I was saying.

Wonder how Jemima would have handled that one.

*Some of this might just be bollocks.

Hello from up my own backside

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Thanks for the lovely messages and amusing speculations...

Sorry to be MIA for so long, am a little preoccupied with some stuff but we are all OK here and will be back to resume normal service as soon as I can.

Happy, peaceful and daffodil-filled Easters to you all.


Getting Out (More)

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Spot! Move your fucking arse, stupid dog. How in God's name can I career down the hill in an attention-seeking-out-of-control-cry-for-help if your stupid canine carcass is in the way?

I haven't forgotten you all, but am taking a much-needed break to concentrate on being a good and organised Mummy and not resorting to prescription (or even whatever I can score in the car park behind Iceland) drugs, fags, domestic violence or booze to pack sports kit, stuff for bot overseas trips, go on work trips, watch concerts and tournaments, deal with visitors and get some bloody work done.

Roll on Easter. Or more precisely, the great big G&B dark chocolate egg I am going to inhale.

Seeing Red

Friday, 26 February 2010

'Ooh, lovely, year Five Mummies, good to see you. Assembly this way, dunno where you're going to put your hymn books though...'

Hurrah, another one of Freddie's assemblies this morning, made all the more exciting by the fact they had to wear ONE item of red clothing for Heart Week or something else that any Good Mummy would be up on. We had under six minutes between them telling me and me exploding before we left the house, so Rose was verging on St Trinians in a spray-on red t-shirt and thigh-length grey socks and Freddie wore her red Hello Kitty dressing gown, which trailed along the ground behind him. He was like a hammy Sunday afternoon costume drama thesp, swishing it about camply while he was mobbed in the playground by all his mates in cop-out red football shirts. Apparently we parents were supposed to wear a red thing too - I managed a red bulldog clip on my lapel - pathetic. The vicar's wife had a hand-made red scarf and two other mummies were in football shirts. Gits.

In Assembly, they did a great long mumbly thing about how, if you did a good deed, you'd get it back in spadefuls. They lost me, I'm afraid. Last year I found three hundred quid in a cashpoint on Picadilly. Louboutins? Ha! I handed it in to the bank. Not because I am a seething mass of morals, but because I thought it was so bloody unlikely to happen, there had to a camera there somewhere and how would the bots bear the humiliation of their Mama being nationally outed as a fashion-obsessed petty thief. As I slumped regretfully, and empty-handedly, toward the big Jigsaw next to Charing Cross, an Irish navvy flew after me and flung his rugged arms about me, thanking me, Mary, Joseph and all the saints for my honesty and kindness at saving his old mammy from certain death and other Angela's Ashes type nonsense. About an hour later, I was having a drink in a pub on the Mall and some bastard stole my bag. I know what the moral of that one is.

Anyway, afterwards the Head, a West Country lad, peered at us over his specs, Paxman-style. 'Isn't it lovely, everybody, all this red? Though I must say, year five, a bit less of the Arsenal tops, eh? Year three, all those Man United supporters, you'll have minus house points. And Mummies. What a shame not to see a few more Bristol Cities.*'

I had plenty of red nail-marks on my palms from trying, and miserably failing, not to laugh.

*For American readers: Cockney Rhyming Slang for 'titties.' Which frankly, I suspect he knew.

Short temper, exploding irons, calming blogs.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

That blissful, chic, charming and silver-tongued lady over at Femme D'un Certain Age has very kindly passed on a blog award to me: I have to name twelve blogs that "we admire and who bring rays of sunshine into our lives every time we visit."


Only I am still beyond furious that my 'cleaner,' who never cleaned, but broke six irons and three washing machines in five years, who remained in my employ through the goodness of my soft-give-a-struggling-single-mum-a-break heart chose yesterday to deliver a torrent of abuse and storm out to take up the many other offers she has apparently had for her unparalleled tea-drinking, moaning, dust-avoiding, implement-busting and swearing skills.

So I had a look at this morning's cache of reading. Not a pretty sight. There are some blogs that I visit, in the first caffeine-fuelled rush of morning in order to pass a few happy moments while the bots are farting about losing PE kits and suddenly remembering they have to go in today dressed as Egyptian slaves. There are the dullest blogs in the world where we are treated to literal blow-by-blow accounts of the colds being suffered by the entire family. There are mimsy doily-folding 'ettiquette' blogs. There are dense wear-my-learning-heavily pseudo-intellectual blogs that make no sense however much vodka I throw at them. I won't go on for fear of offending...


In honour of the real cleaning agency I am interviewing later, I will make these ones lovely drool-worthy house-porn. This is the stuff that I was glued to this time last year while seven shades of shit were being knocked out of my downstairs rooms and choices of kitchen handles, brushed-nickel-tap-questions, bot-fuelled doubt over the dark wooden floor filled my nights. I pored over these lovely sights sitting in my Hades of a building site while the plumber and electrician fought over who would salvage the old range and the painter despaired over my dramatic choice of grey-green heritage paint and lobbied bluntly for a nice sunny yellow. Had we even met?

Anyway, here are a selection of talented and delicious men and women who kept my sanity and whom I will be pulling up later when the agency cleaner asks what my house looks like inside My Parallel Life.

Eddie Ross - my first true design blog love, even though he doesn't know I exist. His makeovers are stunning and I adore his new place in the country. I dreamed that one day I'd have a cocktail with him in the NYC apartment before nipping off to hunt flea-market bargains to make over. He shows you how to tart up old crap, how to arrange flowers like a 50s prozac housewife and is, in My Parallel Life, my absolute bff.

Belgian Pearls - I fell in love with belgian interior design when I was about 17 and it stays firm as my first love. The drop-dead clever simplicity of neutral natural material - linen, wood, pewter. Artfully arranged antiques and nothing superfluous or jarring yet amazingly easy to live in. Nobody, in my little opinion, does it with more verve and charm that the delightful Greet, whom I am also honoured to call a blogmate.

The Lettered Cottage - Layla is very sweet and talented and Kevin is like an angel with a power tool. Her place is stunning and I love the inspiring how-it-happened photos that accompany each transfromation. I love her taste and she does all sorts of amazingly clever things on a shoestring. Gorgeous.

Simply Seleta - all sorts of stuff, not just her yummy all-white beach house and incredibly photogenic children. I head over here for calming eyefuls of pretty stuff she has spotted. Sometimes I even buy it. She was where I first learned the prase 'fo shizzle.' That's a lot to answer to in my house.

Cote de Texas - Learned and erudite but never speaks down. I have learned so much from this lady and am always enchanted and diverted by the different styles she discusses and the mouthwatering pictures she delivers.

Velvet & Linen -  Isn't it stunning? I adore this lady's taste - so elegant, so cleverly neutral and always perfectly executed. Very clever at finding interesting stuff too. Dangerous late at night if you have a credit card handy. Do you think that Brooke and Steve would notice if I quietly moved in and perched permanently at the bar in their kitchen? I'd bring my own vodka and would be terribly amusing if clients came round.

Greige - yes, there is a theme here; calming, pebbly coloured rooms; this blog is wall-to-wall beauty. I would like to live in every single room featured. I would like the writers to know they are responsible for the avoidance of several ire-fuelled rants as I float off into serenity scrolling through their fabulous images.

Blue Remembered Hills - who funnily enough is also a blog-mate a fellow Lucia-phile. He looks at interior design in a historical context and writes engagingly and knowledgeably about his subject. His posts are impeccably researched, full of human detail and always always erudite and beautifully illustrated. When I grow up, this is the type of blogging I aspire to.

Dear readers, skip on over and soak up some stunning words and pictures. Those featured, over to you - Blogs What Bring Sunshine is tonight's prep. Meanwhile, I've got to go home and start the sodding ironing.

Shovelling and Schadenfreude

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Bot: "Grampa, how do we address the second cousin of a widowed Bishop who is also the first son of an heriditary baronet?"
Northern Socialist: "Tosser."

Half term and my lovely nephew's birthday always coincide and over the years we have built a tradition of nice-dinner-sleepover-and-decadence. The last bit comes from a grandmother's arch remark many years ago on seeing the four bots in my bed watching a Disney film with bowls of Hula Hoops and juice. Anything fun and likely to be disapproved of is now known in our house as decadence and I think that's probably about right.

Anyway, being on the cusp of teenhood, Oscar requested a visit to our favourite Indian, the Arsenal game on TV and everyone to wear neon. The owners of the restaurant are delightful and kind and treated our colourful party like royalty.

This followed on nicely from the conversation the bots and my sister had been having in the car about good manners and etiquette. They had been (surreptitiously) taking the piss out of their grandmother for banging on about manners at lunchtime and the Pretty One had tried to explain the difference between the two.

In our family, we think that good manners are vital and a way of welcoming everyone, duke to dustman and treating them the same. We don't have much truck with etiquette and think that it's more about exclusion and making those who don't know the form feel awkward and left out. She tried to explain this to the four bots. Freddie, being a fair bit younger, cottons on eventually, 'Ah, is it like shovelling?' 'What?' 'You know, helping up a lady when she falls over in the street like the Colonel is always saying.' Silence while they all wonder what sort of female company the Colonel keeps that is likely to be so unsteady in public. 'Oh, chivalry you mean.' 'Yes, that's it. Helping her up and not laughing.'

After a feast, the bots settled down to watch footie and the Pretty One and I holed up in the kitchen with tea and fancy chocolates. We hacked my brother's account and invented Facebook Schadenfreude. It's a hilarious game for adults based on spite, bitterness and nerves of steel. Look up people you really should have got over after 20-odd years. Check out as much of their lives as they've posted in the ether. Award yourself one point each for divorce and redundancy. Take away one point each for photos of a ten-year anniversary party and second homes (second homes on another continent, minus five points). Award yourself two points for each child that is boss-eyed, scowling or otherwise unappealing. Deduct two points for each child that is playing sport at an international level under the age of 16 or well-dressed and smiling. Profile pictures by Demarchelier, school reunions at Fouquet's you weren't invited to and a Porsche for a 21st birthday (I am not making any of this up, sadly) are just Plain Bad Manners.

We laughed ourselves silly. But I think chivalry may have died a tiny death at my kitchen table last night.

Au reservoir, how tarsome.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Every other term or so at University, my mother would fly in from Belgium bearing gin, duty free Marlboro, tins and tins of sardines and eye make-up remover. Somehow, this was always exactly what I needed and I would take a train from Durham to Newcastle to meet her and get the loot. This had the dual advantage of keeping her away from the shocking pigsties I inhabited (knowing she'd do tidying and washing and uncover god only knows what under the silt of squalour) and the awful possibility that I might have to introduce her to any boys whose names escaped me (or more likely, those whom my name escaped).

Anyway, we also used to go to the huge bookshop near Grey's Monument. My mother has always encouraged us to read widely and voraciously, replacing Enid Blyton with Jane Austen early on, a literary sleight of hand for which I will always be grateful. Browsing round, I'd give her edited highlights of my debauched existence; she no doubt reading between the lines and shuddering. A constant theme was how much work I had to do, having stupidly agreed to read dull and difficult modern languages instead of wonderful, fascinating English Lit. So it was probably out of guilt and a desire to provide some light relief that she suggested I try the EF Benson Mapp and Lucia series. It became a lovely tradition; every other term we'd meet up, catch up and go and choose another book and somehow I still have them all.

One chapter and I was hooked for life. Almost 25 years on, they are as fresh to me as a not-so-young mummy as they were to a cosmopolitan-if-not-sophisticated 18-year old. They chart the rises and falls and rises again of Elizabeth Mapp and her arch-rival Lucia. Set in English towns in the 1920s, these six little books have travelled a long life with me. Their sherbert-coloured spines are soft and frayed; the elegant line drawings on the front faded by desert suns. The inhabitants therein are as familiar as my own family; their petty jealousies, triumphs, pranks, plots and scheming a constant backdrop to my years in exile. I travelled with the social climbing mayoress, quaint lesbian painters, patriotically-divided padre and card-playing, gin-swilling major for decades.

Lucia, for whom we named our graceful Weimeraner, is best friends with Georgie, confirmed bachelor and collector and fervent polisher of bibelots. They mess about on the piano swooning at Mozart and pretend to speak Italian to each other; both pissing off and making jealous the bossy, dumpy Elizabeth. Their adventures are secondary - what I love is the dangerous stilletto-like writing; the spare cruelty with which Benson sketches and dispatches pretensions and snobbery.

Our Lucia, like EF Benson's, is haughty and of impeccable lineage. Watching her stalk her prey with elegant, single-minded ruthlessness is like seeing a character come to life. We were going to get a small, yappy West Highland terrier and call her Mapp. She, like her literary namesake, wouldn't have stood a chance.

If you can't be arsed to turn pages (and God knows we all have those days), watch the stories on dvd. I think the Geraldine McEwan, Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne triumvirate is as close to heaven-on-a-freezing-February-afternoon as you can get. Large gin and sardines-on-toast and you're there.

The dullest post in history

Friday, 12 February 2010

'Yes, young man, what can I get you?' 'It's for my mummy, can we have a bucket of gin with a Guinness top. Only she's on a coffee drip at the moment and she's boring as f*ck.' 'Yup, we've just read the Ikea post. Try a Blue Stratos chaser.'

Very emotional old day today - Carrie The Radio One Sports Presenter is off to have her baby and, given that she has been a huge part of our morning routine for five years, we are all a little damp about the eyes this morning.

I took the bots to Ikea last night, eschewing maths prep. We were supposed to be looking at wardrobes but of course passed immediately into that twilight land where things you never knew existed never mind needed suddenly fill your basket, and all sense leaves your head.

They were enchanted by the tiny-flat-you-could-kit-out-for-50p. 'Look!' shrieked Freddie. 'This is exactly what my first aparkment will be like.' He sat somberly at the teeny desk looking tenderly at the photos of random gorgeous people decorating the bookshelves. 'I can turn the telly on from bed and there's a coffee machine for when you come to stay. It's perfect.'

We came home with coloured clips-for-bags, a heart-shaped cushion with arms, some espresso cups, a new blanket for the dog and god knows what else. I thought very seriously about getting the built-in espresso maker for the kitchen - what utter bliss. I could just lie under it, mouth agape like me and my mates used to lie under the optics at college.

Of course, we didn't get near the wardrobes. We laughed a bit about that in the car this morning until the enormity of Carrie leaving hit us. I dropped them at school sniffing and gulping. I'm not much better myself. I have promised Indian takeaway for supper and a lot of games at the newly-painted library table. In the meantime, I have a billion emails to answer and a mountain of work that all needs to be dealt with before half term next week. Am thinking about getting in the stationery cupboard and not coming out.

I wonder if I could get a coffee machine installed in there.

Sometimes it's a good job I don't carry a weapon.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

So yesterday, between school and club netball tournaments, I dashed into town with Rose and a little friend to get some blood-sucky girls' fetish books and a staid Diana Mitford collection for old me. We had 30 minutes in hand so they asked for hot chocolate. The lady piled on marshmallow and squirty cream and I had to go back to the counter for spoons and a million napkins. While I was up there, in came a larg-ish lady about my age with two teenage girls.

As she passed Rose and Annabel, she wagged a finger between them. 'Naughty, naughty.' They looked at her, bemused, then stuck their noses back into the dark gothic tales. I followed her to her table. 'Is there a problem?' She did a great big 'what, ME?' face. 'I'm with those girls over there.'

'Ah.' She smiled - 'All those calories...'

I was dumbstruck. 'Not that it's any of your business, but they've just done two hours of netball and they're about to do another three. They're eleven years old. I cannot believe you think it's appropriate to chastise two little girls, who you don't even know, for enjoying a hot chocolate. Do you even read the papers...'

Her smile grew frigid. My voice trailed off. I snapped shut my mouth and went back to the table. The girls didn't even look up. I was shaking with anger.

I woke up at 4 a.m. still furious and thinking of all the things I wish I had said.

However, today we have taken the dog for a very very long walk, painted a coffee table for the library and thrown away a ton of clutter and I have a little perspective. Another hour painting and listening to Lisa Hannigan's ethereal Sea Sew and I might even let the Colonel change the subject.

"He's in the attic!"

Thursday, 4 February 2010

"Sweet baby Jesus, say it ain't so." "Yup, gals, 'fraid Ah have it on the best authoridee." "No! Those college-type fellas that blahg about fancy clothes dress like that?" "Shore do, hun." "Why, Ah jest feel so cheap."

Two words: Dorian Gray
Two more: don't bother.

As the bots say, hijus.

Ben Chaplin delivered the perfomance of a Mme Tussaud escapee, but with less range. Colin Firth, popping in from Improbable Pointy Beard land en route to the lockjaw doctor, delivered every line as though he had the runs and needed urgently to dash off set. With smirking. As for the rest of the stellar British line-up, all completely forgettable, apart from Rebecca Hall inexplicably reprising her role in the lovely Starter for 10, contemporary sneer, Doc Martens and ciggie included.

The dog rather enjoyed the special effects.

It did, however, set us up perfectly for the amazing Up in the Air. Do see it, whatever you do, and especially if, at the moment, you feel you don't do much. It was thought-provoking and impeccably acted and just went to show that all the usual British suspects plus fabulous costume department do not a watchable film make without a half-way decent script and some commitment.

Also, if someone who smells stale and looks shiny creeps out of a cinema doorway and offers you free tickets for Have You Heard About the Morgans, run away fast as you can, screaming at the top of your lungs till you find a policeman or a nice family to look after you.

"...ceilings fantastically clouded by smoke and dust..."

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Your gracious Majesty will need to lay right off the penny buns and pints of port and lemon is she wants to avoid getting stuck in my new bath again. Here is your new menu list. Yes, that says two Bath Oliver biscuits a day, your regal tiny-bottomed Empress of India, and no, I'm not taking the piss.

About twelve years ago, my parents retired. The Northern Socialist had grown weary of globetrotting and morphed into a devoted old grandpappy, hanging up his ruler-for-walloping-wayward-kids and football boots and swapping bellows for lullabies. They sold their place abroad and started looking around Down South. The NS wanted a bungalow - years of restoring houses had tried his patience and wallet and he felt that spare bedrooms would encourage his sodding offspring to darken his doorstep and outstay their welcome.

He was roundly ignored - my mother and sister found an old tumble-down gothic Victorian pile in an ivy-clad, slightly gloomy village. It was enormous - cellars, attics, a bottomless, vertigo-inducing well in a room downstairs, peeling old paper with ancient horse-and-carriage scenes, windows on the outside with no correlating rooms and many many ghosts. An old lady put it up for auction on the understanding it would be restored to a family house and that she could come and visit twice a year to see children play on the wickedly neglected lawns. My mother and sister decided to buy it together and split it into two parts; a full-time one for the olds and a holiday house for the Pretty One and her family.

My parents and the Pretty One and the Professor put in a sealed bid and won. The NS was furious. The rest of us were delighted. Work began in earnest. My parents camped for six cold, filthy months in the butler's pantry, living on fish and chips and wine, oil lamps strung up and a paint-spattered wireless crackling Radio 4. The Professor, by contrast, stayed in London, sending down teams of artisans who has worked on the restoration of Hampton Court.

They had their work cut out, all of them. The place had been neglected for years, but from the damp, dirty, dingy rooms, the bones of a home emerged. The house had been built for one of Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting, and, hopeful and career-minded as these types are, she had high hopes of a Royal visit. Dashing of hopes as the royal types are, it never happened - the specially-built porch to screen her arrival from common eyes; the blank stone shield on the side wall all ready to be inscribed with the details of her Majesty's visit; the new bathroom with a thunderously flushing loo and huge wide bath, all for nothing. Royal sceptics and suck-ups alike may draw lessons from this bathetic scene.

The artisans were briefed to replace all the rotting cornices around the tops of the walls. They studied Victorian domestic design books and archives; blueprints were found and pored over. Many moulds were cast before the correct plaster shape emerged, then the job started of casting the cornices, carefully removing them from the moulds and mounting them on the walls. The Northern Socialist and my mother went to B&Q and bought tenner-a-metre polystyrene cornicing in a Victorian style. Over the past twelve years, not a single visitor out of the hundreds who've passed through the shielding porch has ever been able to tell where the precious plaster ends and the polystyrene begins.

The joke has worn exceedingly thin with the Professor.

Lionel the Lollipop

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Christ, what is Mummy doing to the vicar? Dunno, perhaps his zip has broken. She only said she needed to speak to him about parking. Golly, that could put someone's eye out.

So for the last twenty-odd years, Lionel the Lollipop man has safely escorted generations of children across the road from the church car park (where we abandon our huge 4x4s to the utter fury of the vicar - I once left both doors wide open on mine, being late and in a tearing hurry, and came back to find some MOST un-Christian sentiments stuck to the windscreen) across a busy road to the school grounds. Rain and shine, he's there in his hi-vis tabard, cheerful, helpful and just the tiniest bit wistful.

The brand-new Nursery children do traffic projects and a proud, beaming barrel-chested Lionel spends an hour in the upstairs hall explaining his important role to class after class, year after year; then they draw pictures of him and always remember to say 'good morning, Lionel' when they see him. Freddie always signs off his phone calls 'bye-bye Mummy/Daddy/Gan-Gan/Tante, I love you.' One day, unthinkingly, he said 'bye-bye, Lionel, I love you,' and it wasn't till Rose walloped him that he realised what he had done. Not surprisingly, from then on, Lionel always stopped everything for Freddie; flashing ambulances, juggernauts, coppers on bikes. They have also discovered a mutual love of cricket which, especially in the summer months, leaves crowds of little ones stranded on the other side of the road as Lionel and Freddie earnestly discuss batting averages and what their heroes might get for tea at the Oval.

On discovering Freddie's Other Grandparents live abroad, Lionel presented him last term with a special sim card for a mobile which apparently saves a fortune on international calls. In fact, it did and I instructed Freddie to thank Lionel very much indeed. On Monday, he did, and Lionel said 'Oh good. I only ever phone my wife and my friend in London, so I didn't need it.'

By the time we got to the Jeep, Freddie was unable to speak. He and Rose sat horror-struck on the back seat. 'What?' I demanded crossly. Freddie was crying silently. 'Lionel,' he sniffed. 'He's only got one friend to phone.' 'And he lives in London,' sobbed Rose. 'Oh God,' she looked at her brother, 'I bet he stays up all night getting cricket stuff off the telly to talk to you about.' Their crying continued. Freddie said his heart hurt when he thought about Lionel. I suggested he stop thinking about him then. 'The holidays,' they gulped. 'He must be so lonely.' 'And we never even sent him a card from Barbados. He'd have loved that, it's where Brian Lara lives.' They were super-enthusiastic when they greeted him on Tuesday.

I am in London working for a couple of days, so my parents are managing the delicate emotional state of my children. I think I might tell them the vicar's only got one friend and he lives in Heaven; perhaps four huge tear-swimming blue eyes will distract him from my crap parking. It's worth a go.

In which I grow a large moustache and spout the Telegraph.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

What the f*ck? Where the hell is the X-Box? Tell me the mad bitch doesn't think we're gonna play outside with that shitey pile of branches and old string. Get my mobile now. I've got Max Clifford on speed dial.

The bloody dog ran away this morning on our walk. She's still only a puppy but she's also a shocking tart; she will go home with pretty much anyone that gives her a bit of attention and we all know girls like THAT. She charged off to the corner of the field and into the graveyard, following a golden retriever and a tall man in a waxed jacket. I scrambled over the wall and cut them off, grabbing her collar and redeeming her reputation. The man was most amused that I'd climbed a wall. Perhaps he thought I was too sophisticated for such child-like pursuits. More likely he thought I was too old.

On the long hike back, I was remembering the many many walls I have climbed in my time. As children, before the Abdication, the Northen Socialist used to take us walking for miles about the North of England. Sometimes we came across natural obstacles; sometimes he went on ahead and made them for us. We kids then had to make bridges and walkways; the higher and more dangerous the better. Bits of wood, old tyres, rope and haybales. Fording freezing streams, often falling in. Climbing trees and great dry stone walls; inventing labrynth plank-lined passages high above the fields; stalking imaginary lions in the fells.

My own children, and several others, once spent a whole day under the Colonel's command, re-routing a river in the Lake District. They moved tons of stones, ferns, soil. Some of the operation took place up a cliff; some waist-deep in water. There were duckings and grazes and squabbles, but eight filthy happy faces cheered a new torrent through the gloaming as night fell. But it was a rare day; they certainly weren't Macguyvering suspension bridges out of old cardboard and string on a weekly basis. More's the pity.

I know it's fashionable to decry the lack of physical challenges our children face, but I think they are losing out more on the mental and emotional benefits. Not to give up straight away. To laugh at yourself when you can't do something instead of casting about for someone to do it for you. To admire those who quietly don't give up instead of whining, sobbing-in-newspapers arseholes who think that making your lack of spine public absolves you of responsibility. To encounter a challenge and bloody well give it a go, not crumple pathetically and bemoan the cards fate dealt you.

I came home bristling about this. The Colonel is begging me to spend less time alone. And to start drinking again. He's probably got a point.

Bienvenue au Boudoir de Barbie

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ken! Get your plastic arse in here and call Malibu Security. That hideous old dyke Miss Marple is stalking me again and she's in my BEDROOM.

When Rose was four, she dithered around, like most girls of her era, on the edge of the Barbie-Disney-Princess vortex I felt it was my maternal duty to keep her out of. It was April, I thought a trip to Paris would distract us both, so off we flew, Rose getting all the business travellers to shout 'Weeeeee' as we zoomed down the runway and took off.

Paris, in delicate early spring light, is as close to heaven as you can get. In the company of a curious and independent-minded little daughter, it actually is heaven. I love the insouciant rudeness of Parisians; I find it so much more authentic than a greasy insincere smirk as someone pretends to care where I come from before they rip me off. We had breakfast in the 6th arrondissement; Rose looked crossly at the bowl of cafe au lait and croissant. 'Can't I have apple juice?' I pushed through the chic crowd to the counter, trying to keep an eye on the little figure perched at the tiny table with a bucket of hot coffee. She didn't miss a trick; when I got back, she had ripped up my croissant, filled the coffee with sugar and was dipping in the pastry, scattering soggy crumbs and icy smiles about the place. Just like a native.

We walked for miles and miles. In the Marais, we passed a couture shop selling a dress made of rose petals. She popped in to look closer; I watched through the window as she and the skeletal assistants exchanged solemn words, fingered the dress and bid unsmiling farewells. Not a gusher, my daughter. Unlike me. 'What a gorgeous dress, did you tell them your name was Rose, how funny, it was made of roses.' She looked at me pityingly. 'I'm English. I don't know what they said.'

One night we went for a late and grown-up dinner. The restaurant was hushed and empty apart from some bourgeois matrons in fur and matching lap dogs. Rose had something the chef thought appropriate for a four-year-old. It involved a lot of chicken, lentils and celery and she ate every bite. Then the waiter, unbidden, brought her a shiny, dark-as-sin chocolate ganache. She'd never seen one before, and frankly didn't spend much time looking at it either. The squeaks and sighs of happiness from my usually hard-to-impress daughter were fabulous. The matrons laughed and ordered one to share.

The Northern Socialist had taken us to the Louvre when I was six; he showed us the Venus de Milo and warned that that's what happens if you bite your nails. We never did. I thought it sensible to do the same for my daughter. The queues were awful, so I took her instead to the new wing with all the apartments decorated with amazing furniture liberated from fleeing aristocrats and Napoleon's tents.

I must confess to feeling a tiny bit smug as I watched my daughter stalk through the mahogany campaign tables, past priceless vases and pictures, cast an eye over tapestries, ceramics and furniture. In one room, some bow-tied German academics were standing taking notes on a gorgeous crystal table and mirror from the Louis-Philippe period of the 19th century. Rose marched up to it; they smiled indulgently. 'Look, mummy,' she shouted, delightedly. 'They've got Barbie's dressing table.'

Wiped the smile right off my feminist, never-too-young-to-give-them-culture face, that did.

Pass the Bucket (List)

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

So, slumped in a Godiva-and-Baileys-induced coma at some point after Christmas, a DVD was about all we could handle. Only, which one? That toxin-leaking overstuffed feeling is not conducive to instant decision-making, especially when the decision-making process is accompanied by more booze and a Stilton so huge that we ate it with pickaxes.

Much squally bickering and an earnest analysis of Meg Ryan's recent trout pout (conclusion: cry for help. Get a grip, lady) later we decided on The Bucket List. I think it's a lovely film, but then I would watch Jack Nicholson pick his nose. A more cynical guest said: ''Salright. Two old geezers go on holiday then cark it.'

Afterwards, we lit candles, opened another bottle and attempted to make our own bucket lists (in case you live on Mars, this is a list of all the stuff you want/need to do before you die). The chaps had plenty, none of which I can repeat in such delicate company. But you know, I really struggled. I've done so many things and had so many experiences, that in fact what I crave is a few years of just plain old quiet. No drama, no noise, no distraction. Time to grow my roots and my bots. Time to reflect, write, plan. Actually see all the friends I only seem to connect with at Christmas and remember why we are friends to start with. And perhaps, if we've outgrown each other, dump them. Along with the huge amounts of stuff there seems to be cluttering up my days.

So no sky-diving or tattoos for me. What a relief. Just some quiet stock-taking and some mates. And no Stilton for several months. As Edward Cole says in the film, 'This was supposed to be fun. That's all it ever was.' I'll drink to that. For January, in water.

And because I am both a lazy and a nosy old tart, I want to know what's at the top of YOUR list.

“And remember, expect nothing and life will be velvet”

Monday, 18 January 2010

Can we keep them? Pleeease? I promise to look after them and feed them. And look at all the stuff they come with - guns, cuffs, truncheons. Pleeeease? Can I keep ONE then?

Several years ago, the Colonel invited me on my first trip to New York. He had been there countless times shoring up world peace; I was seduced by the dollar-pound ratio. He would fly in from Holland and join our connecting flight from Heathrow to save me arriving alone at 1:00 am in what I envisaged as ghetto badlands, iron-grated graffitied hell. There was a local storm and he missed the connection. Rather a metaphor for the relationship at that time.

So I went alone. The Colonel had arranged limo to take me to my hotel. I locked the doors and sent furious texts. Eventually, the window slid back and the driver suggested I open my eyes. We were emerging from the tunnel into Manhattan. Never in my life have I fallen so immediately and completely in love with a city. The entire hotel window was full of the Chrysler Building, and I spent the night wrapped in the duvet looking out at a view I pretty much memorised.

The Colonel got there in the end. Another metaphor. It was every film, book and song I have ever seen come to life - the pavement where Sally hopes she'll never meet Harry again and drives off with grape seed on her car window; every schmaltzy black and white evening-gowned drive through the park in a horse drawn carriage; nose to Tiffany's glittering windows; Holden's angsty flight through Grand Central Station; Saks, snowfall and drinks in Bemelman's Bar. The NYPD Choir didn't quite get around to singing me Galway Bay but two of their hunky sons peeled off layers of gloves and mended my mobile so I could call home. The Colonel even morphed into Michael Caine and read me ee cummings between dusty shelves in a bookshop.

He bought me a fabulous sea-coloured velvet dressing gown in La Perla. It was the most beautiful thing I ever saw - foam-and-forest-green-depths; luscious velvet lined with silk. The sort of robe you'd wear to feed your Irish Wolfhounds, standing wistfully on your huge lawn watching the Spitfires roar away and knowing it was all that would keep you warm for three years.

It's done some time now; swanking round the table at smart Christmas breakfasts; comforting poorly bots and snuggling puppies; coveted by my girlfriends; warm in winter, elegant and cool in summer. A tiny bit frayed with a few stains it didn't have last year. But still beautiful, unique and makes me happy and grateful every time I wrap it round me.

Like rather a lot of things this January.

... and a heart full of love

Thursday, 14 January 2010

My little sister, the Pretty One, was born to be a mother. All our lives, she has exuded the caring, thoughtful, homemaking gene to which my own DNA is a complete stranger. At ten, she was baking chocolate cakes for the prefects at the boys' boarding school we lived at. When I got my first flat in London, my little sister knocked on the door with a still-warm banana bread she'd baked. All my male friends wanted to marry her. Many of them still do.

She's also a genius house-mender; her renovations have been featured all over the shop, but the pictures can never capture the lovely warmth, worn-sofas-football-boots-in-the-hall-barking-dog welcome she'd give you. Oh, and a bit of cake too.

Thirteen years ago, she was pregnant, belting about being important-in-publishing and I was languishing after having something dull and harmless removed, but bearing a considerable patchwork of stitches. She rang me from work: 'I think I'm having a baby.'

'Of course you bloody are, you're hugely pregnant.' 'No, I mean now.' 'WHAT? You've got eight weeks to go. Where the hell is the Professor?' The sodding husband had gone on a work trip to Hong Kong. They thought it might be a false alarm, so I agreed to leave my convalesence and spend the night with her on condition she made me a cake and talked about how brave I was.

Around midnight, the Pretty One woke me up. 'I'm so sorry, but I really AM having a baby.' We got a taxi to hospital and they confirmed she actually was. Fuck. They put us in a room and took my details as birthing partner. We both sputtered: 'This is nothing to do with ME.' 'She hasn't even read the BOOK.' 'Noooo, please.' They shut the door on us.

I speed-read Having a Baby while the Pretty One stood with her head on the bathroom wall tiles trying to cool down. She asked me to open a window. They were sealed shut, and anyway, it was November. She got scratchy and snapped at me. 'Open it.' I snapped back 'My bloody stitches will burst and it's NAILED SHUT.' A nurse came in and told us to stop squabbling and keep the noise down. The Pretty One asked in a hiss for pain relief. I showed my stiches and hissed for some too. The nurse asked who'd left a bag and coat on the floor. The Pretty One told her I never picked my stuff up. I threatened to leave. The Pretty One had a huge contraction and the nurse ran off to get a midwife. I did a rugby bind-on to her legs to stop them shaking and she leaned her face against the cool tiles trying to breathe the way it said in the book.  From my crouch on the bathroom floor, I read aloud to her all the way through The Delivery chapter. The complete, shit-scary, terrifying enormity of it all hit us both like a train. When the midwife arrived, The Pretty One was doing the breathing and I was making the bed and tidying up like a demon.

They took us downstairs, her on a trolley, me holding her hand reminding her to breathe between frightened giggles. The birth, as they all are, was a miracle I cannot describe. My nephew arrived eight weeks early and was the most beautiful, precious thing we had ever ever seen. As he was born, the sun came up and I found a window that opened. My sister was red, exhausted, elated and radiant. I practically grew a cigar of pride out of my face as I squeaked madly about the corridor telling everyone I could find what an amazing woman she was.

She's still amazing; the kindest, sweetest mummy and the most lovely sister. Happy birthday, darling Tante. I hope that today someone bakes YOU a cake.

Brass Monkeys and Brass Necks

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

'F*cking genius kid, you actually cried. Brilliant. What a dozy old tart your mother is. Now get an arse on before the chippie closes.'

Yesterday, Freddie appeared at breakfast. Not in the warm mufti they are instructed to wear to school until the Polar Ice Cap unfreezes, but still in his pyjamas.

'I've got a sore throat,' he said in a tiny voice of sadness. 'Get dressed. Now.' I countered. He smelled metallic; in our house that is either tonsilitis or morning breath. He cried and felt a bit warm. I felt terrible and bundled him back under the duvet; he smiled bravely at me. I left the Colonel with great lists of instructions about temperatures, how to make chicken soup, the importance of staying warm, which books to read to him if he felt well enough.

About eleven, I called from the office. My cleaner answered. 'Don't worry, Love, 'e was 'avin breakfast watching Soccer AM when I got 'ere. 'Im an' the Colonel's been 'avin a right laugh all mornin'. I think they've gone sledging.'

I picked up Rose after school and we stopped for hot chocolate. 'Is Freddie OK?' she asked. 'Harry really missed him and the Headmaster said to get better soon.'

When we got home, Freddie was under a duvet on the sofa. There were four wet wellies melting ice on the doorstep, two large, two small. I called him into the kitchen where I was sitting at the table supervising Rose's homework. My foot was drumming ominously on the floor. Being nine, he is unable to look at a lady and read The Signs.

'How are you feeling now?' I asked. 'GREAT!' he shouted. 'Me and the Colonel went out for fresh air and I felt SO much better that we went to the chippie and spoke to all the people about who likes vinegar and I had chips and then we went sledging and then I did dog-sledding then I watched football and it's been SO MUCH FUN.'

In a quiet, scary voice I asked him to go and put his pyjamas on. He dropped his jeans enthusiastically to show me he was still wearing them. The Colonel joined us. Being 53, he is well able to read The Signs, he just still doesn't know what to do when he's read them.

'Isn't it GREAT he's feeling so much better?' he gushed. 'You'll never guess, we took a tray and the dog pulled Freddie along SO fast on the ice, AND the field has a REALLY icy bit now that we just FLEW down. Don't worry about supper, we had loads of chips just now.'

There was silence apart from the tapping of my foot and the plop of Rose's tear onto her maths prep.

The Colonel put Freddie to bed double-quick. Rose got to watch Wayne's World in my bed and have three of my secret stash of Godiva chocolates.

Two bots have gone to school today. The Colonel has fixed the bathroom radiator and made pesto for Rose. He has got Wallander lined up to watch on the i-Player and has texted that he'll run me a bath later on.

I should bloody well think so too.

The weather in the streets...

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Soak of rain as taxis swish by you and drench your darned stockings; long walk home in the drizzly gloom; fruitless wait by the shared phone in the hall for your lover to telephone; no milk, no money, no coal, no hope.

... can bloody well just about sort itself out, frankly. It's wet, grey, slushy, icy and downright miserable. After almost a week of feeling like someone in the inter-war years, I am losing my grip on the present. We have been housebound, bar the odd granny-shuffle down the icy hill for bread and milk. The Colonel has a horror of powdered milk, so much of the days have been spent mapping routes to the most likely milk-sources and preparing for lengthy ration-like queues therein. We've had to clear out the freezer and have been eating old-fashioned fare like chops and sausages. The bots are studying the 1930s at school and wondered before Christmas if they could 'try' bread and margarine for tea like the depressive bedraggled herione of their textbook. Ha, they wonder no longer as the butter supplies have dried up since lorries can't get to our shops.

I haven't quite been darning, but I have been making cushions, huddled round the fire. I have also cleared out everyone's wardrobes, de-pilled my jerseys by hand with a razor, turned my shelves into a Bennetton shop, matched every sock in the house and baked scones. We've played board games and read a LOT. We've drunk gallons and gallons of tea, had endless discussions about the weather and listened to the wireless. Now we ALL live in the 1930s.

Despite us all now being back at work and school, I am reluctant to leave my happy gas-lit world of make-believe. So I am re-reading, as I often do at this gloomy time of year, the ultimate feel-ghastly book The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann.

Her own story is pretty good, including an affair with Cecil Day-Lewis, the spineless Poet Laureate. She also wrote the iconic Dusty Answer and Invitation to the Walz, both imperative reading for any girl on the cusp of adulthood.

This one is just for dark, tending-to-depressive, when-will-the-winter-ever-end misery-lovers like me. Olivia, the herione of Invitation to the Waltz, is back. Ten years on with a failed mariage behind her she meets again, in proper Brief Encounter fashion, the caddish bounder Rollo. On a train. With lots of smoking and tea in proper cups. He breaks her heart all over London and in expensive motor cars and cheap 30s motels. She bravely washes out her stockings by hand, drifts about being brave yet teary, eking out her chilly existence shilling by careful shilling while Rollo, shining with Brilliantined hair and too-wide smiles, lives a life of great luxury. It's tragically predictable, but oh, so exquisitely written. It's like spending a week in an early David Lean film; clenched, terse declarations of love, much holding back of tears and gazing blindly out of greasy bus windows.

If you're feeling brisk and modern, stay away. You'll just shout at the book or throw it in the fire.

On the other hand, if you're anything like me, you'll wallow in it and appear red-eyed for tea and bread and margarine, scratching hopefully about for a shilling to put in the gas meter. Bliss.

Icy Surrealists

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sheep! Move your bloody arses or I'll swat you with a BA blanket and flick cold coffee on your wool. Oh yes, I'm prepared for all eventualities.

Several worried texts, a couple of calls and an email had me leaving the office yesterday two hours early to pick up Rose from netball, as apparently it was going to snow. A man down the hall insisted on escorting me to my car through a couple of pathetic flakes and hanging about like a bad smell to make sure it started. My eyeballs couldn't have rolled back further in my head as he approved the blanket lightfingered Rose liberated from British Airways a few weeks ago, that was crumpled on the floor of my Jeep. I sniggered 'half a Starbucks left from this morning, might come in handy too.'

It took me an hour and a half to make the 25-minute journey to netball practice. The snow was coming down pretty fast and furious by this point and the traffic was averaging ten miles per hour. The netball coach was standing outside with a roll-up in his mouth, watching the girls belt about in shorts through what was by now very thick snowfall. I grabbed Rose and her chum Leona and popped them in the car to drop Leona at home.

Leona's mum Natasha is an artist who also makes tiny celebrity pixie shoes, and yes, it is as surreal as it sounds. She said, 'you'll never get home in this, stay here. The radio says it'll get worse. I'll light a fire and make hot chocolate. It'll be like in a film.' Pffft. How I snorted. Rose, disappointed at no emergency sleepover, slumped in the front seat. Off we set.

Two hours and a fruitless, frozen and frighteningly skiddy half a mile later, we were back. Natasha was black-faced and red-eyed. 'I've set the house on fire,' she said. And she had. In the slowly dispersing smoke, a man was pouring water on the rug and brandy into a glass. 'You'd better have one too,' he said and crept carefully off into the white night. 'It's like being in a film,' said the faerie cobbler several times as we ate dinner, watched the girls build a snowman, chatted to a random bloke from New York who was passing the gate, listened to the snow cracking her ancient iron drainpipes, sat on the Aga to warm our frozen arses, popped a bottle of Champagne and made Jerry Hall's miniature cowboy boots dance on our fingers across the floor of her studio.

We finally made it home this afternoon at 2pm. We gave two hitchhikers a ride. They had both abandoned their cars. I positively oozed Dunkirk spirit. Rose had the blanket on her knees and I considered splitting the cold latte with the strangers. The 12 mile journey was littered with abandoned cars and a Morrison's lorry had jacknifed across the big roundabout and sat empty. Tree branches had fallen, and we listened to the local radio station taking calls from pretty much the entire county who had also been taken in by strangers. There were a couple of hairy brake-lock moments, but we made it. There has never been snow like it in these parts. The Colonel was waiting with two bum-shaped rubber sledge things we bought in Denmark on the offchance, and he, the bots and I have spent the afternoon whizzing down a hill and filling each other's collars with handfuls of snow.

Really, it's been just like a film.

Fire-breathing Dragons and Dragon Tattoos

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Northern Lights - shoals of herring, ghosts of slain enemies, fox tails, old maids dancing? Aurora Bollocks. Still, another great titfer.

Last February, the Colonel and I went to the Arctic Circle to look for the Northern Lights. We prepared for the trip with our usual heady mix of military precision and literary indulgence. He spent many hours and even more sterling on a scary website buying, yes this is where it came from, scads of petrochemical schmutter. I had no idea that, since Mallory hung up his soggy, frozen tweeds and fed the last of the meat lozenges to a passing dog, great strides have been made in cold-weather clothing.

We unpacked gossamer-thin leggings which, under the waterproof, snowproof, marauding-Viking-rape-and-pillage-proof matching trousers, could raise your core temperature to boiling point. There were boots that weighed a ton, in which you could stand up to your ankles in snow and feel you were in caressing cashmere socks in front of a roaring fire. The layers of gloves, neckwarmers, vests, fleece body things and hats made me rather grumbly at home - I was made to try them on and felt like a schoolboy in Peter Jones' Uniform Department. Hot, fussed over, incapable of bending a limb and dreading the thought of having to pee. The Colonel snorted at my hopeful, flimsy handful of La Perla and took immediate charge of the packing.

I escaped as fast as possible into every single Wallander book I could find, cooling down with gruesome Swedish murders, solved by the grey-faced, taciturn detective brought so crossly to tortured life in this series.

We went straight to Ystad on touchdown to walk Wallander's streets; tiny winding medieval cobbles and concrete sixties plazas, all soaked in an authentic depressive drizzle. We marked each lane and square with the memories of his cases - victims, interviews, criminal hideaways - and many cups of hot, sludgy chocolate in cafes lit purely with strings of twinkling fairy lights.

But it was the frozen north that called us; both enchanted by the chance of seeing the Northern Lights we had dreamed of since childhood. We took an overnight train as far North as possible, well into the Arctic Circle and jumped out on a wooden station platform in Bjorkliden, where a sign announced it was minus 30 degrees. British Officer sang-froid and stiff-upper-lip took on a literal dimension as the Colonel's moustache actually froze within seconds.

We went out one night onto the frozen lake, riding snowmobiles under the stars. We stopped in the middle and listened to the moaning of the ice, sitting huddled on reindeer skins, drinking hot berry juice and hoping to buggery that the damn lights would show. Did they hell. The Colonel took a spectacular tumble on the ice and snapped a thigh muscle, so we enjoyed a more earthly son et lumiere. There are now Samis in Bjorkliden who can swear like English squaddies.

Which meant that the next day's dog-sledding was not quite as we had imagined. Instead of bundling into furs and skins while he did Dr Zhivago and shouted 'mush,' it was the Colonel wrapped up warmly on the two-man sled, smirking as the Sami driver explained how priceless the champion dogs were that I was about to drive into a frozen tundra. My flimsy sled had some iron bits to stand on which looked like mantraps and were the braking and steering system. Chilling volpine howls drowned out all instruction, as I shook from fear as much as bone-chilling cold. The only thing I heard was 'do NOT let go'. As the brakes came off, the eight dogs shot left up a hill and I, sure as night follows day, let go, pitching headfirst to the right into a drift of snow. The volpine howls did not drown out the Colonel's shrieks of laughter as I spat out mouthfuls of ice and climbed back on.

I remember very little of the climb up the mountain tracks; the dogs' energy was electric, but balancing was surprisingly easy. The driver of the Colonel's sleigh stood backwards shouting instructions to me as we wove upwards through huge drifts under an azure sky. After a while, I opened both eyes, stood a little off the brake and gave them their heads. Amazing. At the top, we emerged onto another frozen lake and he motioned me to go ahead. There was nothing but snow, sky, the whistle of wood against ice and the singing of the dogs, my blood pounding in my ears and the water from my eyes freezing on my cheeks. I felt like a Prince from Narnia. I let go of the brakes and let the dogs carry me at full speed across the ice and snow, my lungs on fire and adrenalin crackling in me like fireworks.

I circled the lake like a frozen Ben Hur before the dogs took me back to where the driver and Colonel were resting their dogs and drinking the hottest, bitterest, strongest, most ambrosial coffee I have ever gulped down. I could hardly speak, other than to pant 'thank you' to the blue-eyed huskies.

We never did see the bloody lights, though Sami lore has it that you must return again and again until you do. In the meantime, I am slaking my Skandi-lust with the phenomenal trilogy by Stieg Larsson; the perfect sharp antidote to overindulgence, overheated houses and overencumbrance of relatives.

Happy New Year.