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.