Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Big Adventure - Christchurch Earthquake

24th December 2011

Three weeks ago the skies were blue as we flew into Christchurch and, as we descended for our landing, I was struck by how you could see the flat green Canterbury plains stretching out to the south of the city until they hit the high mountain ridge of the Southern Alps to the west, beyond which you could then glimpse the wide blue ocean again.

New Zealand's south island is effectively long but relatively narrow which makes crossing from one side to the other reasonably easy and offers up some spectacular mountain passes. All looked so beautiful and tranquil in that afternoon sunshine, but as we have travelled around New Zealand in these recent weeks, we have come to understand so much better what a volatile piece of land this country is. From its formation in ancient times when it broke from the supercontinent of Gondwanaland and drifted west across the ocean, was then almost submerged before rising again with the deep forces within this mighty planet of ours, New Zealand is a land under constant physical tension from the tectonic plates which grind and shift far far below it.

As we came to the end of our campervan adventure yesterday in Auckland, we learned of the earthquake which had again rocked the city of Christchurch in the south island, already damaged beyond repair in the massive earthquake of February this year. The doorman who greeted us at our hotel comes from Christchurch and had just confirmed with a telephone conversation that his family were all ok. He still owns a property down there and was just about to get his insurance hand-out from the February quake, but the new quake means it will have to be re-assessed and he will have to wait nearly another year before he may get some compensation.

The residents of Christchurch are tiring of the quakes - the fault line which no-one realised Christchurch had been built on until relatively recently. Many are moving south towards Dunedin, others are choosing to emigrate to Australia where wages are significantly higher for the blue collar worker.

Watching the news coverage this morning, there is something rather unGodly about the fact that this has happened so close to Christmas. Having suffered up to 15 aftershocks all through the night and now dealing with the liquefaction which happens after a quake (when liquid silt bubbles up from underground and floods the streets and houses), it surely must be testing their faith. Not such a Happy Christmas for those poor folk who, as they waded through the grey sludgy mess around the base of their Christmas trees, announced quite simply, in world-weary voices, how they are sick of it.

The financial and economic implications of the situation are of course obvious. It is a city truly in crisis.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Big Adventure - Bangkok, Thailand

'One night in Bangkok' as the song goes. Well, actually it was two...

Bangkok: big, busy, brash and boisterous. Less polluted than many Asian cities, despite the motorised three-wheel tuk-tuks, but also a little less exotic than we were expecting. The 'haves' and the 'have nots' juxtaposed as they so often are the further you travel east: smart high-rise next to low-rise shabby chaos; pockets of sophistication side by side with basic existence. A city, inevitably of contrasts; changing its identity, losing its identity? Who knows what the future holds for Bangkok with its population of 11 million (although many of whom are now moving out to the northern provinces to avoid the increasing risk of flooding). A city where tall neon towers light up with 'Long live the King and Queen' and where shrines bedecked with yellow flowers where incense gently burns sit side by side with temples of materialism such as shopping malls and fast food chains. A city in flux as globalisation sweeps the world.

We had just one full day to see the sights but were keen not to try and cram in too much. The humid heat was intense and exhausting and, of course, you need to wear appropriately modest clothing for the temples - especially the Grand Palace, the main tourist attraction in the city. All of this is not conducive to staying cool. After a hearty breakfast at the hotel - a feast of Asian, European, Indian, Japanese and Arabian choices - we squeezed into a pink metered taxi and headed to the older part of town, stopping at a temple (Wat Trimitri) on the way where a man took our photos without us knowing and slapped them onto badges which he then tried to flog us. They made me laugh, so I persuaded The Accountant to get his wallet out. Then another taxi, hailed easily on the street, to take us to the Grand Palace where we experienced our first ripp-off by an official-looking bloke who told us it was shut until 3.30pm and 'helpfully' suggested we take a tuk-tuk (which materialised miraculously by his side) to take us to the river to do a private trip on a long boat along the river and canals. This was all good fun until we arrived down some grotty back street and were met by some mate of his who was pleased to be asking an exhorbitant price (twice what we had been advised at the hotel), for the boat ride. Much negotiation from The Accountant ensued (you can imagine...). Got the price to something more like we were expecting and off we set.

We spotted an intriguing temple (Wat Arun) looking like a tiered wedding cake on the other side of the river and asked if we could pop off to see it. We were told we had five minutes, which was just enough to go and have a closer look. Back on the boat, the heavens duly opened and inadequate umbrellas were brought over to us as we sat getting soaked. The choppy brown river was a good metre higher than normal and, as we went down one of the back canals, we could see house after waterside house sadly ruined by the recent floods: abandoned terraces, once bedecked with flowers and chairs; confused cats climbing on roofs; pumps still pumping out gallons of water. As riverside home owners across the globe know, this is always the risk with waterfront locations, especially with our increasingly unpredictable climate. You take your chances.

The river was awash with broken greenery, sometimes with a flock of birds sitting smugly amongst it as they were swept effortlessly downstream. Colourful, golden temples sprung up from time to time amongst the riverside rhododendrons and the ramshackle abodes. Friends of the longboat owner came over in another boat to sell things - unspeakable tourist trash, of course, and cold beers. I was tempted by some colourful little elephants, but we went for the beers and it was suggested we get one for the 'driver' which we duly did. There gets to a certain point where resistance is hopeless...

At the end of our hour on the river, the longboat driver manoevred us swiftly and skilfully onto a wooden quayside where, in the surrounding alleyways, the floods had barely receded. We made our way through the quayside cafes onto a street packed on both sides of a wooden walkboard with stalls offering street food in all shapes and sizes - fried fish and other unrecognisable bits; thai curries; noodles; soup; sweet delicacies, freshly squeezed pomegranate juice...the choice was endless and enticing. We stopped at one with yellow table cloths over metal tables with faded pink plastic stools serving up the most delicious beef and noodle soup for about a quid as we watched the world go by. An elderly lady with a walnut-brown wrinkled face lay next to us on a delapidated old sunbed beside the pots and pans and the washing tubs having a nap in the heat of the day. Behind her a guard in smart grey uniform stood erect and stern in front of the gates to the naval academy.

Replete, we then walked the short distance back to the Palace only to be told by a more official looking gentleman than the previous one we'd dealt with that, at 3.30pm, it was now closed for the afternoon. We'd been truly had. So, resolving to get there the next morning instead (and to be honest, I was glad as I was suffering mightily with a bad cold I'd begun as we left the UK), we headed back to the river and waited for the next river boat to take us down to the overhead metro stop that we needed to take us back to within shouting distance of the hotel. The train was modern and efficient, packed with tourists, English language teachers, locals and the occasional serene-looking monk swathed in orange cloak. It was fascinating seeing Bangkok from on high, such as the green, elegant racecourse and golfcourse, which was otherwise hidden behind high walls from street level. We got off at Siam, the happening young shopping district of central Bangkok where a live band was pumping out music at an impossible volume and there were huge shopping malls boasting Vera Wang, Gucci, and so many other designer labels. From here we grabbed a tuk-tuk and as we settled down for the white-knuckle ride, I did think that we should have checked the price first. Sure enough he wanted 400 baht for having driven like a lunatic and done a U-turn in a hugely busy four-lane highway which had G turning pale and seeing her life flash before her eyes. (To put this in context, the air-conditioned taxi which took us to the Grand Palace that morning, about five times the distance, had cost just 70 baht.) More embarrassing arguments ensued with The Accountant, so in the end the girls and I just slipped quietly into the hotel and left them to it. It was going to run and run and the pool beckoned!

I had a fancy that evening for finding somewhere local to eat. We walked the long street outside the hotel in search of something typical until we gave up and took a taxi to somewhere the taxi driver recommended offering fresh fish specialities. Ten minutes or so later we stepped out into a minor horror show of strip lighting, fake flowers, fresh fish and over-attentive staff. A pretty good meal followed, however, of freshly fried calamares, prawn cakes, spring rolls and a couple of noodle and meat dishes. Too much food, of course, but all good, if a bit pricey (despite the decor). As we left, the French couple next to us were busily disputing the bill (having ill-adviseably chosen lobster) and declaring it the most expensive meal they'd ever had in Bangkok and that they weren't going to pay...(would love to have seen the outcome of that one - probably ended up in one of the tanks with the lobsters in question...).

And so we finally made it to the Grand Palace the next day as the sun shone out of a blue sky, sweltering in head to toe trousers and shirts, but in awe of the buildings we encountered. Gleaming gold rooves, sparkling mirrored and coloured glass mosaics, exquisite wall paintings, shaded collonades, green expanses of lawn - a pristine, eye-opening spectacle of Thai history, authority and opulence. Not to be missed.

On the way back, we dropped into the flower market - a wonderfully heady mixture of flowers and vegetables, Bangkok at its teeming, honest best. Thence a quick cool off and lunch beside the pool at the hotel before taking our taxi to the modern splendour of Bangkok airport - an airy, light-filled glass and metal construction putting Heathrow and Gatwick to shame - and as the golden sun set on Bangkok our plane wings reached up into the wide blue yonder and bore us off into the night and the next destination on our Big Adventure.

Bangkok Highlights:-

Street food
Grand Palace
Low life, High Life, River Life, Street life
Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks side by side with bright yellow flower-bedecked street shrines
Neon signs saying 'Long live the King and Queen'
Poverty, wealth
Materialism, buddhism
A city changing its identity, or losing its identity?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Big Adventure

Years ago N and I talked of how one day, were we to get married and have children, we would love to bob around the Mediterranean on a boat with the children for a year. The idea was inspired by a family we came across one evening on a beach in Rhodes over two decades ago. There was a yacht moored out in the bay on a milky evening as the beach was emptying. A small dinghy was launched from the boat and as it came towards shore we saw three little blond heads rowing their way towards the sand. They were sun-tanned and sun-kissed on that golden evening and we learnt that their father was retired from the RAF and they were taking a year out just sailing around the Med. I held that idea in my head for all these years, urging N to take some time out so we could do something similar with our three girls before it was too late.

I persuaded him to pencil some extended time out in his diary just over a year ago, he having decided that December and Christmas was the best time for him to be absent from the office. And then I held my breath. I kept waiting for the excuses to start, for this special time to be eroded by the pressures of work. Sure enough he came back from our summer holiday (having worked almost every day of it) and declared that it would be much better for him to take the time out next year rather than this. I said no. It was now or never. Next year wouldn't work for the girls, because of educational commitments, and that it was going to get even more difficult the year after that. I was quite forceful and said a whole lot of other stuff too about perspectives and priorities, health and happiness. I didn't think it would make any difference. Yet he went to work the following day and came back with provisional flights booked with Trailfinders. So something I said must have hit home.

The next few weeks was spent finalising hotel accommodation and other bits and pieces - and now here we are: bags packed, taxi to the airport on its way. Our plans may have morphed over time from a year out, to six months, to three months to six weeks - but we're finally off to the other side of the world on our Big Adventure. We're heading to New Zealand, via Bangkok and Sydney, for some fabulous new experiences and, perhaps most importantly, precious time together as a family.

Can't wait!

Sunday 27th November 2011

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

We Need To Talk About Dad

We Need to Talk About Dad, Channel 4, 21 November 2011

This film left many questions unanswered about what had happened to cause a loving father in a 'perfect' family to smash the wife he had always adored over the head with the blunt end of an axe. Most unfortunately the eldest son, Henry, who was 16 at the time, witnessed the immediate aftermath of this atrocious act and has been trying to live with the impact of it ever since, including protecting his little brother who was then just ten.

The whole of the film really boiled down to one conversation which Henry had with his estranged father, now living in Germany (he came back into the family after his release from prison, but in the end his wife asked him to leave). Henry finally confronted him, seven years later, in an effort to talk about the incident which had changed his young life forever, but which everyone seemed reluctant to confront head on. His father's explanation, as far as he could explain it at all, was that he was under such pressure to live up to the image of the 'Sunday Supplement Family', as his own wife dubbed them, where all in their world was perfect and secure, that he wanted to burst the very bubble which he had helped to construct. The psychotic episode which resulted in this assault on a person who he had loved and held so dear was potentially brought on, he felt, by the death of his own father - a father who had never given him anything meaningful (emotionally I presume) and who he clearly blamed for the suicide of his sister at the age of 18. And yet in the months before his death, he had felt the need to still appear to be the loving devoted son. He summed things up as feeling as if the world was just taking from him all the time and giving nothing back.

While feeling deeply for Henry who had borne his own pent up feelings for the last seven years with no-one in a position to share them with (including his own desire to burst a similar bubble that had been built around his younger brother to carry on and pretend that all was all right with their world, despite their father not living with them), it was this last admission by the father which really struck a chord with me. Furthermore, this new knowledge encouraged his son to reflect on the fact that, if nothing else, he had learned that life is rarely genuinely perfect and even the people you most trust and who most try and protect you - your parents (when they are good, loving parents) - are as vulnerable as any other human being on this planet.

I will never forget, in the depths of my depression, the same feelings of the world and everyone just seeming to take from me without apparently giving anything back. I felt I was just giving, giving, giving in every area of my life and that I was having the lifeblood sucked out of me. Everyone hits rock bottom in different ways and we all have different levels of tolerance and fortitude. And it is a sad truth that if you are one of life's givers, someone who just 'copes' and stoically gets on with things, then people just continue to take. Until finally you collapse under the strain. Mercifully I never took an axe to anyone's head, but I have come close to some alarmingly fierce moments of anger and potential loss of control. I also remember thinking about my girls and their tender years and innocence - that they had no idea what a terrible state their mother was actually in, barely able to get up in the morning to feed them breakfast. If there was anything which drove me to get better, to learn how to mend and what steps to take to make sure I never end up in that bad, bad place again, it was the desire to be a good mother to my girls. I didn't want them to remember me as a basket case, yet I wanted them to know me as a real human being - with weaknesses and imperfections - and to understand that life is not always easy or indeed does not always turn out as you might expect. Most of all I wanted to be there for them - totally present in mind and emotion, not just physically.

It was interesting to note that both the parents in the film tonight had suffered at the hands of their parents - parents who had let them down. It was this that drove them so relentlessly - and ultimately unrealistically - to be the perfect parents, living the perfect family life, for their boys. And it was ironically this which led to the collapse of the castle in the clouds which they had built for themselves. There was much to reflect on in this sad, sad tale where a young man was still struggling to come to terms with the isolation he feels as a result of that one horrific day when his world and all his preconceptions of family life and relationships, of love, trust and respect, crashed around his feet.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

New 'Fridge Food' Post

Where's the Town Crier when you need him? Oh yey! Oh yey! I have just written my first new Fridge Food in 8 months!

This appalling neglect is not through lack of interest - merely, as ever, lack of time. I am so often cooking at the end of the day when the girls are around and wanting help with things and questions answered and forms filling in that by the time the next day comes I have already forgotten what, exactly, I put in the meal. I often take a photo if I think it's turned out ok - my cameras and phone are littered with shots of tempting little meals thrown together from the fridge - but that's no good if I can't pass on how I put them together!

Anyway, last night I was determined to remember and today you have the result.

Cottage Pie is hardly a new creation - in fact it's as old a the hills - and it is certainly an old favourite of mine. However, normally I start it from scratch, but this time I was true to its origins and made it using up some leftovers. Jolly satisfying, jolly tasty and much quicker than cooking it all from a zero.

Click here and all will be revealed...

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Lest We Forget

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the eleventh year of the 21st century, I was watching two veterans share in silence the experiences and memories of war. As Doug dabbed with an age-warn hand at the tears dribbling down his cheeks with his perky checked hanky you could not help but weep with him. Mike stood stoically alongside him, both so smart and proud in dark suits, white shirts and red ties. They had been helped up from the squashy sofas of the This Morning studio just before the chimes of Big Ben rang out eleven times; but now they were standing tall. When Doug was asked what the eleventh of the eleventh meant to him, he replied, quite simply 'Freedom'. When Mike was asked what got him through it he replied, equally simply, 'Willpower'. As they quietly shook eachother's hand you could feel the shared weight of memory between them.

These marvellous men deserve our greatest respect. They will never forget the horrors they saw, the hardship they endured and the friends and comrades they lost in the fight for freedom. And neither should we.

Sadly war continues even into this new century. It seems that Fallen Man will never learn to live together amicably, despite the ultimate sacrifice that men and women are making across this globe on an almost daily basis. Will the Age of Enlightenment ever really bear fruit? I fear not.


Related links:-

The Royal British Legion:11-11-11-11
Henry Allingham
D-Day 65 years on

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Golden Days

Only 10 days ago, as we started some tree work in our garden and as I drove around the highways and byways of Cheshire and Derbyshire going about my business, did I think to myself 'Gosh, how the autumn colours haven't really appeared yet'. And then, suddenly, last week I became aware that there was much that was golden around me. The deep reddish gold of the beeches and the cherries, the startling reds and oranges of the acers, the yellowing of the horse chestnuts and silver birches, the red berries in the rowans were all suddenly warming the world around me even as the cooler winds came and the nights were growing longer. 

And so, this week, I now feel that summer has truly said goodbye and those memories of beaches and long evenings have slipped to another part of our world - even though, just two weeks ago, I was still basking on golden sands in southern Spain and bathing in clear Atlantic waters. 

Yesterday was Hallowe'en where the Autumn colours glow orange with pumpkin lanterns and the fruits of apple bobbing bounce red and russet in the bowl. I am reminded of our wedding day, on 31st October 1992, where the reception was dressed and adorned with all things Harvest and Hallowe'en. Food was served in hollowed out pumpkins and spread on broad autumn leaves. The air outside was sharp and chill, the sun soft in a sky of intense autumnal blue - a precursor for so many good things to come in the approaching festive season and in all the years to come. I can hardly believe it was 19 years ago.

Last night I had planned a lovely meal at home. We were going to eat and finally sit down to relax and watch one of the many programmes that are recorded and unwatched on our television. A quiet night in, of which we have so few. N promised he would be home in good time after a very early start that morning. The girls were going to carve pumpkins and do apple bobbing. As ususal, though, things did not go according to plan: L came home from school, burst into tears, got into bed and was later sick. So at 9 o'clock when I'd hoped to be eating with N, having shared the bottle of prosecco I had chilling in the fridge, I was actually running up and downstairs with buckets. N was still in Leeds and the beautiful, romantic table setting that E and G had so lovingly prepared - full of nightlights and confetti and wedding souvenirs - was haunting me in the kitchen. I did not know whether to go ahead and cook the meal I had planned or just settle for warmed up leftovers from yesterday. N was in a crisis meeting and I couldn't get hold of him. The tears welled and all the disappointment of so many times like this which have peppered our lives in his dedication to his work came flooding over me once again. E picked up on my vibe and she sobbed as she said 'I just wish I was little again when Hallowe'en was fun and we bobbed apples and ate red spaghetti and went trick or treating'. It broke my heart that she has got to that age where she sees and understands so much more of the world around her. She is no longer oblivious to the things that go wrong in adult lives, or the things in the world around her which are less desireable. It is called growing up. I hugged her hard and wiped away her tears and told her that I promised we would do another Hallowe'en when L was feeling better and that we would do some apple bobbing too. She chuckled and smiled through her tears and I was just glad that I was still able to reach the child in her and that she could draw comfort from some motherly reassurance that 'all would be well'. 

In the end I decided to press on with cooking the meal - and I'm so glad I did. I sent E up to get ready for bed and had just said goodnight to her when N came bursting through the door. I said she could come back downstairs with us and share in our little celebration for a few minutes as she and her sister had so wanted to do earlier in the evening before it all went wrong. So despite the late hour, she watched us drink our prosecco (with all the memories it brings of our fantastically happy times in the Italian Veneto at the beginning of the 90s and, indeed, her birth in Milan in 1999) and her father opening the present her mother had bought for him: a large black and white framed photograph of the Grand Canal in Venice, taken by a photographer local to us here in the High Peak. It was a photo which I thought evoked the misty wistfulness that is Venice - until N peered at the people in the gondolas in the middle distance and saw that they were crammed with Japanese tourists. Suddenly the magic dissipated but best of all, N had made us laugh. We giggled till E was wiping away tears. It was lovely that she was there to share the moment with us. Our eldest daughter, on the cusp of her teenage years, witnessing a special moment in her parents' lives. Two people who have stuck together through thick and thin, who have tried to stay true to their wedding vows of 'for better for worse' and who, despite life's continued adversities, still find togetherness through laughter which was where it all began nearly 29 years ago. Golden days indeed.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Indian Summer

Monday 26th September

I read in the newspaper this morning that we can expect an Indian summer this week with temperatures reaching the low 80s farenheit. This would certainly be very welcome at two levels: one, because it has been almost relentlessly grim since we returned from France; and, two, because G has a camping party in the garden this weekend as a belated birthday treat. When I was out paddling around in soggy grass and cool, dank, drizzly autumnal air last week I did wonder as to the wisdom of the project; but if it is going to be warm and feel like a last taste of summer, then all should be well. With any luck the campfire will glow and the marshmallows will melt - and they may even stay outside under canvas the whole night. But I'm not holding my breath.

Meanwhile I can hardly believe that it has now been four weeks since our return. Frankly, it feels more like four months. We had a rushed few days getting sorted for school as they were back on 1st September, and then I went into a sort of zoned-out mode for a week when I really couldn't get geared up for normal life again - a sign, at least, that I had had a more restful summer break than perhaps I had realised.

Looking back over my diary there have been a smattering of events: I have caught up with a friend in the village over coffee, another over lunch, and another over tea; I have had a dental appointment, done the car M.O.T. , been to a charity afternoon to help a friend raise money for a walk along part of the Great Wall of China, been to a work dinner in Manchester, run a fell race, been to a barn dance and a drinks party; I have planted new plants in our garden, re-started the Infant School gardening club and re-enroled for the second year of my gardening course; I have counselled four friends all suffering in life right now; I have had my brother-in-law and his dog to stay, been to see Alan Carr at the Manchester Evening News arena and gone to a Brian Wilson (ex Beach Boys) concert at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester; I have been to a country show and climbed a climbing wall; I have taken one daughter to the dentist, supported another in a cross country running race, been to a Beer Festival and done all the usual running around after children, household chores and broken lawn-mowers.

On a broader scale, I have organised for someone from John Lewis to come and help me re-do the curtains in almost every room in the house; we have planned and largely booked a sabbatical in New Zealand for six weeks at the end of November and....we have got a dog.

I suppose, when you look at it like that, I have done quite a lot. It is not surprising that the summer holidays seem a supremely distant memory - a sunny blink of the eye in the tidal flow of life.

How are you doing?


Monday, 12 September 2011

Memories of 9/11

I will never forget where I was for 9/11. We were with friends on a beach in the Western Algarve, a favourite place. E was two and a half and G was crawling around on the sand as a13-month old. L had not yet made it into the world and our friends had a new baby.

We wandered over to the restaurant for some lunch and were vaguely aware that something was going on inside. There was much talking, but there was no television. We could never have imagined the news that was clearly filtering through somehow to this remote restaurant perched under the rich red cliffs of this idyllic curve of sand.

Eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I asked one of the waiters what was going on. He told us what he knew of the horrors which were unfolding in New York, that cloudless blue September morning across the very sea which we was lapping at our feet. From the western tip of the Algarve, the next stop is America. Suddenly our happy family session on the beach was turned on its head and instantly transformed into a world where, in the matter of a few moments, all had become utterly surreal. It was almost impossible to believe that we could be fortunate enough to be on a beach holiday with loved ones and friends while thousands of other people were being submitted to unthinkable trauma across the water. There was an extraordinary sense of bewilderment, grief and guilt. Walking back to our little camp, we tried to get a handle on what on earth was unfolding across the water, but we had no television or radio to help us understand. Instead we just had a picture of our three little children sitting chubbily on the sand with big smiles and shiny eyes, innocently oblivious to the hatred and horrors which exist in the world in which they had recently arrived.

We have often returned to that villa and that beach, but I will never forget that September lunchtime.

Where were you? I would love to hear your stories of the moment you witnessed one of the most extraordinary, heartrendingly awful events of modern times.

I will leave you with a story I heard on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2 on Friday. It was the story of a firefighter who, before leaving home to start his shift the day before 9/11, left a note for his wife saying:

Dear Stace
I can't believe that I still love you so much even now. Can't wait to come home and see you again.

He never came back.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Golden Girl

What better present could you give a child about to have their 11th birthday than have their best friend join them for a beach holiday?

G has known M since infant school. They moved to a new school for Juniors, made other friends together and now they are about to start Seniors. It is sometimes hard to believe how quickly the time has passed from sitting chubbily cross-legged learning their A,B,Cs to becoming long-limbed beauties with golden hair and sparkling eyes striding confidently towards their teenage years.

G, though, is still a child despite her quiet confidence and her insouciance. She still loves playing imaginary games with her younger sister and building in the sand. It may be her younger sister who still physically skips, but G is still skipping in her mind.

I look sometimes at her long jaw, her full mouth, her wide smile, her flaxen hair and her large soft blue eyes framed by dark giraffe lashes and think of the day she was born - the day I nearly lost her before her life had barely begun. This bundle of positive life-force who brings sunshine and strength to all she does - the smile only collapsing when the batteries finally run out - could so easily have been lost to us. It is impossible to imagine her not in the heart of our family, yet sometimes life hangs on a thread, doesn't it? Or an umbilical cord.

I will never forget that hot August day in London: bright blue skies, a morning appointment at the hospital, a new home (moved into just days before her due date), a new garden by the river, a 19 month old toddler to think of too. I nearly went to do some shopping in Habitat (ah yes, when they were still in their heyday), but decided that, actually, since it was such a beautiful day and I now had a lovely garden, that I would do better to go home and rest on a lounger by the willow tree.

I could not have made a better decision.

It must have been about 4pm and I had been resting on my lounger for half an hour or so, with E tucked up in her cot having her afternoon nap, when the first pains came. I thought they might go away for a while, but half an hour later they suddenly hit hard and fast. I just about managed to bring a freshly woken E down from upstairs, and change her wet nappy, but that was where the attention to others stopped. Suddenly I could barely speak, nor certainly walk, the contractions were so intense. With great difficulty I tried to phone N, who was pleased to tell me he was in an important meeting and could I ring him back in half an hour? I meekly obliged until five minutes later I called him again and just about managed to get out the words that, no, it could not wait. The baby was on its way and could he please come home QUICKLY!

E had, with perfect timing, pooped in her nappy, but there was no way I could go back upstairs to change it, so the poor little mite had to live with it. I was alone with my toddler, in a new part of town, miles from my appointed hospital with a baby about to drop. I phoned the midwife who had been newly assigned to me just that morning (the other having gone on holiday) who I didn't even know: again, I could barely speak, yet she suggested I get in a taxi (with my toddler) and travel to the hospital (that whole process would have taken a good hour in rush hour traffic on a Friday from Isleworth to Ravenscourt Park). I dismissed this as an option and then, through E's crying and my own agony, decided to try and call the local doctors' surgery where, mercifully, I had signed up just a few days before.

By now every breath was an effort but I just managed to get out the words that I was alone with a toddler, I was having a baby any minute and that I was scared. They told me they would send an ambulance immediately to take me to the hospital around the corner. Meanwhile the phone was going every five minutes with my midwife from Ravenscourt Park asking me for directions of how to get to me which I was physically incapable of articulating even if I had understood where the hell she was (somewhere on the A40). Didn't she have an A-Z for crying out loud?

And so the doorbell goes at about 5.30pm and a nice ambulance man is there saying he's come to take me to hospital. I reach down for my (previously prepared) overnight bag and, with that, my waters break. I could feel the baby coming. He says he'll get a wheelchair but I know I can't possibly sit down, so I lie down right where I am, on the sitting room floor, my head pretty much under the grand piano, and get on with the job. He realises there is no going back, and brings me gas and air instead of the wheelchair. E is still crying. N is on his motorbike hurtling from central London, not knowing whether I am in Ravenscourt Park or home or somewhere else completely. My right arm goes numb from the gas and air. A kindly faced young doctor arrives from the local surgery, concerned by my phonecall. The two ambulancemen have contacted the local hospital and told them they need a midwife here urgently (they are clearly phased by childbirth in action). There are two ambulancemen, a doctor and a toddler now in the room. N arrives with a throaty roar at 5.55pm having decided to try home first before trawling hospitals for me. He scoops up the smelly, distressed toddler, and comforts her, instantly removing a huge area of distress for me too.

A white-coated midwife from the local hospital and a male student nurse burst through the door at 6pm. There are now seven people watching me perform but I have other things to worry about. All dignity lost, it is simply about giving life to this baby. The room is silent apart from the midwife who gives a running commentary of what she is doing for the sake of the student nurse. I hear that the baby has the cord around its neck. It has meconium in its respiratory passages. It is not breathing. They have to act quickly and decisively. The baby is delivered, but all is silent. An interminable amount of time seems to pass - a baby cannot surely not breathe for all this time and still be ok? Thoughts flit through my head that, after nine long months and all this effort, the baby is dead or brain damaged. It is an unemotional thought. I am simply hit by the irony. And then, suddenly, there is a cry. The blissful screeches of a newborn baby hitting the outside air from its warm, liquid cocoon. The relief is indescribeable. I lie there with her on my chest (thrown completely that it is a girl when I was convinced it was a boy) and thank God. She is alive.

With that the 'Somewhere on the A40' Midwife bursts through the door, triumphant that she has found me at last, albeit rather after the horse has bolted. She tries to make amends by running me a hot bath. I am pathetically grateful.

But my gratitude lies wholly with the local midwife who, thanks to her skill and experience, gave life to a little lifeless bundle. Had I been in a taxi on the way to Ravenscourt Park, or footling around in Habitat, it could all have been very different....

And so, at 6.05pm on 11th August 2000, my beautiful, feisty, huge-hearted, strong-willed G arrived in this world in a bit of a hurry. She hasn't changed. She does everything at full speed. It took a while to come up with a name, since a boy was expected, but in the end she was christened Georgina Jane Allegra Boden. All the girls have a third name which reflects something about their birth: Allegra represents the 'quick and lively' way in which she popped out under the piano (the stain on the carpet bore testimony) but which, in her haste, nearly went so horribly wrong. And, with true harmony, this lively, light-hearted, positive spirit is what she carries deep within her soul.

Her joyful, sandy, surfy, sun-filled 11th Birthday ended perfectly in colourful Biarritz on the terrace of a favourite restaurant overlooking the sea, her best friend at her side, the setting sun suffusing their soft features with golden light.

My flaxen-haired girl with the wide smile and the big heart, I couldn't imagine life without you.

Monday, 8 August 2011


Sadly the only skies under which we have ever arrived at St Malo have been resolutely grey and usually raining or with a thick fog. This year was no different. I had planned to make the journey down south more interesting by incorporating a little detour through Brittany - one of the few parts of France that I don't really know - but the weather dictated otherwise. We did a quick meander off the motorway to take in some D roads which I had a fancy for, but everything seemed against us. Gone are the days, it seems, when you can potter endlessly through emptiness and quaint sleepy villages - even these now seem victim of the new 'progressive' French thinking on road sytems and town planning: you find yourselves either negotiating myriad chi-chi little roundabouts 'decorated' with scenes which are supposed to evoke the essence of where you are driving through (thus you find yourself suddenly distracted as you watch for any fools still believing in priorite a droit by cunning little montages of rocks and shipwrecks or, down here in the Landes, sand, deckchairs and surfboards). And if not that, then you have to watch your wheels on the enormously high curbs, sleeping policemen and indented trottoir of 'traffic calming' schemes on which it is all too easy to burst tyres or scrape your alloys if you happen to be trying to navigate at the same time (believe me, we've done it - at 1 o'clock in the morning, moreover, with three exhausted small children in the car, let alone the parents).

Your eye will also be caught by the extraordinary banks of street lights, often painted in bright colours in the mistaken belief that this makes them attractive. Au contraire, it merely draws attention to a functional item which should be encouraged to recede into the landscape rather than dominate it. And if you are spared all this, then you are probably being directed on the by-pass road (which even small towns seem to have these days) which are pleased to take you through the ubiquitous zone industriel or zone artisanal which basically means they have ruined the approaches to any nice rural town or village with the most hideous collection of enormous industrial sheds crammed with sofas or lamps or DIY or cars or agricultural equipment or food or any of the endless stuff which modern-day society seems to demand (even if no-one can actually afford to pay for any of it).

And so our little excursions off the tedious autoroute engendered anger and frustration more than pleasure, to such an extent that we nearly turned round on our way to La Rochelle which we thought would be a nice detour for lunch. By the time we finally got there I was pretty much ready to slit my wrists having been forced through the arse end of nowhere on endless ring-roads cutting ugly swathes through what might, once, have been reasonably attractive arable land. An equally frustrating time was had trying to reach the old port and a vista of sea and boats as the town planners had seen fit to create such a set of absurd one-way systems that if you took just one wrong turn you'd be trailing through endless suburbia before being spewed out onto the ring road again. Thus, by the time we finally found the wretched port (let alone a parking space), we were fairly ready for a drink.

Tables and chairs spilled from hotels and hosteleries along the quayside, presenting a tempting array of options. We chose one on the simple basis that they had a table free on the front row in a momentary burst of sunshine. We ordered drinks and food and sat back, finally, to relax and enjoy the passing scene.

And a very busy passing scene it was. Within moments of our arrival, one of those people who think it's a good idea to spray themselves in silver and stand motionless for hours decided to set up shop in front of us. This of course attracted a crowd which then blocked our view of the boats. He was swiftly joined by his rival 'The Clown' who was, indeed, most foolish, yet attracted another enormous crowd who clearly had nothing better to do on a Sunday in La Rochelle.

As people wearied of Mr Statue, we regained a slight vista of boat masts until it was just as swiftly blocked by a large black people-carrier vehicle which decided to come and park on the road (where you weren't meant to park), right in front of our table. There's nothing like a waft of diesel with your moules marinieres. Beats seasalt and seaweed any time. Much more evocative.

Meanwhile a group of three English blokes in their thirties and clearly rather pleased with themselves (and I suspect slightly hung-over) came and sat down on the table next to us and provided me with a good half hour of amusing eavesdropping.

Slightly smug one with tan and short dark hair and sunglasses to slightly twitchy shaggy haired blond one with sunglasses:
'So do you like cooking?'
[Much awkward shifting in chair as Shaggy had to admit to not really having a clue with a short run-down of some uninspiring dishes which he sometimes forced on his long-suffering girlfriend - which basically amounted to steak, chips and salad on the basis that it was easy and quick to do when you come home late from work. Fair point. Oh, and he liked dauphinoise potatoes - M&S ready-prepared, I imagine]

Clearly feeling un-threatened, Smug then enlightened us with a full run-down of his foolproof dinner party turn of, funnily enough, moules marinieres (with a twist, I think it's fair to say). It went like this:

Finely chop an onion and some garlic and fry them in a pan with some olive oil and butter. Add cream and a glass of white wine. Then some curry powder, some sliced red peppers, chopped parsley blah blah blah and - of course - the mussels. Apparently it's a stunner, incredibly quick to do and everyone oohs and aahs and thinks you're marvellous and presumably you get laid. Oh, and as a brief aside, he happened to mention that all his girlfriends of late had very nice names but none of them could bloody cook. Too posh, presumably.

Smug then turns his attention to The Quiet One and asks what he's like on the cooking front to which he gets the reply 'Well, since I haven't got a girlfriend I can't really be bothered to cook'. Short and to the point.

Smug then sat back smugly in his chair as his moules marinieres a la La Rochelle arrived - only to be truly disappointed. There followed a detailed critique, much questioning of the long-suffering waitress as to the exact ingredients of the moules marinieres, to which she was unable to come up with anything more illuminating than: mussels, onion, garlic. She forgot to mention the white wine (possibly because Chef had forgotten to add it) and the dish was then subjected to intense scrutiny from Smug and Shaggy (Quiet clearly couldn't give a shit) as to whether or not they could find any onion in it. They found one piece, sneered, and Smug then followed with a diatribe on how appalling it was to be in the land of moules frites and have such a poor example of the signature dish. I should have suggested he gave Chef his recipe....

Replete with slightly sub-standard food, we wandered back through the stone porticoes and narrow cobbled streets of old La Rochelle, being reminded, somewhat unexpectedly, of many a northern Italian town. It was very pleasant, really, and we came away satisfied enough with our little detour but happy in the knowledge that we might not be troubling its road systems again any time soon.

Saturday, 30 July 2011


Saturday, 23rd July 2011

It was with an overwhelming sense of relief that I finally got into the passenger seat of a car packed to the gunnels on Saturday afternoon. The last job was done, the last thing thought of - and for anything else it was too late. I was officially on my way to holiday.

The journey down to Portsmouth was mercifully unremarkable - free of the dramas of flat tyres and broken down cars or horrific traffic jams all conspiring to make us miss the ferry. No, we managed to get to Portsmouth with half an hour in hand in which to enjoy a quick drink at a sun-kissed bar and write two important birthday cards (to my parents) and get them in the post. Finding a letter box around the absurd set of dual carriageways and one-way systems which beset the area around the ports proved more testing - another scraped alloy wheel as I pointed to a red pillar down a side road and N attempted some sort of emergency stop in two lanes of traffic. Much squabbling later we finally found our way back to it, having abandoned that first attempt; it was sited outside the Naval Acadamy which was looking decidedly shut and deserted up the dead-end street, rather like the post box. It also said on the little plaque that the next collection was, somewhat inexplicably, Tuesday. Still, I threw caution to the wind and chucked them in anyway before we missed the ferry.

Safely on board, we then found we couldn't open the boot any more. This was going to make unpacking the car at the other end somewhat tedious, but we left that as a problem for another day and went, under slight pressure from the crew to leave the car deck, to find our cabins. Needless to say, we always book too late to get any with a window but since we go straight to eat when we get on board, and in St Malo it's always raining, this does not strike us as a loss.

So, overnight bags deposited, we headed off to the 'posh' restaurant, always citing the first time we used this ferry crossing four years ago when we had the blow-out on the motorway and caught the boat by the skin of our teeth, falling on the maitre d' of the restaurant with a certain lingering desperation in our eyes. He responded and found us a table and it was one of the best meals we've ever had - purely because of the relief of being there, eating good food and drinking good wine, after the stress we had undergone to reach that point. This being the fourth year running, of course it doesn't now hold the same thrill, but nevertheless it marks the start of the holidays and it is always good to go out on deck and watch Portsmouth recede under a pink-hued sky. Such fleeting freedom from domesticity is always a moment to relish.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Tyring Times

Monday 18th July

So here I am again at Selecta Tyre in Buxton, seemingly my second home. Tyres are a bit of a theme in my life at the moment. I was here just a few weeks back getting my snow tyres removed (safe to say that even here in the High Peak the risk of snow had passed by June!); I was meant to go back and get the bolts checked after 50 miles (didn't) and am now here instead with N's car which always bowls us a googly just days before we are due to travel long journeys in it, fully laden with luggage, children et al. We've had blow-outs on the fast lane of the motorway down to catch the ferry; we've had collisions with motor-cross bikers on our lane as we've set out for holidays; and on Saturday we managed to hit the blasted pot hole that's been on the main lane out of the village for nearly a year (a foot wide and four inches deep, right on a corner) and knackered the tyre. (Mercifully the wheel didn't get cracked which was what happened just a few months back, if you remember, and would have meant another emergency trip to the welders.) The tracking, of course, has also been thrown and has had to be sorted. The same pothole has also thrown the tracking on my car, so I need to come and have that sorted at some point, but in the meantime I am also purchasing a further new tyre for my car too because, the other Friday, I managed to burst one reversing out of my own drive. How so? you may rightly ask...

Well, with the usual extraordinary bad timing which rules my life with a rod of iron, I had four tree surgeons and four builders who had been swarming around house and garden all day causing mess and chaos and who all decided to leave at 4.30 on the dot. So just as I was meant to be getting in the car to collect four girls (four seems a bit of a theme here too) from the bus stop, I was suddenly and pressingly required to discuss the works, write cheques and God knows what (not helped by the fact that one of the tree surgeons is an ex-babysitter of charm and good looks and a well-honed body who I was catching up with - he was a favourite with the girls, no surprise, and is also a fantastic yachtsman who is winning left, right and centre and has been up for young Derbyhire Sports Personality of the Year - but I digress). Two of the girls I was meant to be collecting were not even mine - extra responsibility, therefore, to make sure no-one got crushed crossing the busy and rather dangerous main road (the bus stop is rather perplexingly sited on a sweeping, fast corner which is a little odd in this world of Health and Safety madness: I think it would make more sense to allow me to take a not-even-wet umbrella into a shop and have the bus stop sited somewhere considerably less dangerous than confiscate my umbrella - an incident which happened in Zara in Manchester on Saturday - and have a bus stop pouring out young children on one of the most dangerous parts of a main road. But who am I to say, eh?).
Sorry, digressing again. Back to the story. I therefore left in a bit of a rush and N had left my car in a ridiculous position, wedged up against the side of the house in the corner of the courtyard, and I had to perform about 20 manoevres (and I'm a good driver) to get it out. However, because I was now all stressed and in a hurry and concentrating hard on the left-hand side of the narrow exit from the courtyard (which you have to reverse out of) where the rough dry-stone wall cunningly splays out at it's base (and has claimed many a victim), I completely failed to pay attention to the other side where there is a stone plinth which people used to use to stand on to mount their horses; and because the wheel was at an angle which it isn't normally because of the ridiculous position which N left my car in (so it's all his fault of course!), I managed to completely burst my front tyre. So, four girls, probably already splattered on the tarmac at the bus stop, now had their Responsible Parent with a burst tyre in her own drive. Stunning. Now, this is where the absurd luxury of a third car (sorry - it was going cheap from N's work, if that helps to justify it), comes into its own. I at least had another vehicle, wheels intact (albeit with bald tyres, it now transpires - another trip to Selecta beckons before it will pass its upcoming MOT), in which to go and scrape bodies off the tarmac.

Thus I arrive hassled and apologetic (as ususal) and pathetically grateful that they are all intact and playing happily on the swings and climbing frames at the pub opposite the bus stop (and at least not in it ordering pints). Now, one of the great things about living in this village is that I have a lovely garage mechanic at the bottom of my lane. Given that my car is now 10 years old, and that N's has always got something wrong with it, this is very handy indeed. So I bobbed in there on my way back home and waved my female-in-distress flag and got a promise out of him to come and change the burst tyre for me (so that I could conceal the evidence from N) when he had finished what he was doing. And needless to say, the poor man pitches up and blocks me in the drive again just as I was rushing out to get L to her ballet lesson (late again). So just as he'd opened up the van and got all his tools out (so to speak) I had to ask him to move. (There were people who didn't buy our house before we did because of the drive situation and I am beginning to understand why!).

Now, I didn't drive my car all weekend, but N did. And he put it back in the same ridiculous position in the courtyard. So on Monday morning I go to take the girls to the school bus stop (late) and have to perform same silly manoevres with same silly levels of mounting stress and frustration and am concentrating so hard on the left hand side of the drive (sound familiar?) that I failed to pay attention to the right and CRUNCH! Yep, that will be the wing mirror then. Smashed to smithereens. I could have wept. I simply couldn't believe that, after eight years of rushing in and out of this driveway, I had inflicted major damage to my poor old car twice on the trot.

I kind of thought that that would be the end of the bad luck, bearing in mind that I already have my work cut out for me getting the family away for five weeks to France and all the sorting, packing, organising, laundry, ironing, admin, fridge clearing and garden panicking that that task entails - let alone the hair appointments, the optician appointments, the entertaining children in the holidays activities which also accompany it. But no. Last Friday (a rare sunny day) I passed through our back hallway only to notice a puddle of water on the floor. I looked up. Huge crack in ceiling, plus drip. Oh. Can't leave that for five weeks. At which point the doorbell goes. Woman to read the Water Meter. How serendipitous is that? So I take her down to the cellar where the meter resides, only to find water dripping there too - from the main stop cock which the plumber had 'operated' (Water Board Woman's word, not mine) just the day before when he was fixing a broken tap in the girls' bathroom. So I now have leak in hall and cellar (which may or may not be being caused by leaking loo). Good. Call to plumbers again, burst into tears (rather unexpectedly and embarrassingly - think I'm rather stressed) and get someone booked in to come and check it all out on Tuesday. So, just as I have rid myself of 16 weeks of builders, I now am about to have my house ripped apart by plumbers while I am trying to pack and sort and organise for going away. And, of course, just as the children are on holiday, the weather has turned unspeakable and is doing nothing but piss with rain (that wind-swept slanting kind which you should really only get in winter) with the clouds touching the fields, so I can't even kick them outside.

On the same day that I discovered the leak in the hall, I also found myself peering into the washing machine wondering why I couldn't open the door. I turned the whole thing off and waited the requisite few minutes for the door lock to release, only to be met with a flood of water and a very wet kingize duvet cover. My faithful Bosch had suddenly decided it no longer wanted to spin and drain. So I remove sodden linen and wearily ring up appliance engineer who, mercifully, had left his details on a helpful little sticker on the top of the machine from when he came to fix the dryer. The dear man said he could come on Sunday morning to fix it and that is indeed what he did (cause of malfunction = numerous shreds of something hard and unknown, highly likely to have been lurking in youngest's school blazer pockets). But you just don't need it do you? Why do these things befall you just when you are at your most squeezed?

So that was five things, could there be any more? I hope to God that I have been punished enough. And to the villager who saw me UTTERLY lose it in the lane after the pothole incident on Saturday (you know who you are), I can only apologise. If it had been caught on camera it would have seemed like a scene out of Fawlty Towers where Basil rants and raves and has steam coming out of his ears and froth from his mouth with his blood vessels bursting out of his head and neck and goes into irrelevant Nazi goose walk. Well, that was me. On full display, the talk of the town no doubt. It is completely humiliating, yet it has happened so often of late that the girls seem unaffected. It is just Mummy being normal. God help me. My husband does not think it normal at all and we are having big problems trying to communicate. He is stressed and over-tired; I am stressed and overtired. It is not a good recipe and sometimes the pot simply boils over, as it did then. And I was bursting for a wee and had to stomp off into a field with NO-ONE in it when I settled down, but hey, before I knew it a black dog had appeared from nowhere with its owner and was running over to me and barking while I had my bottom open to the four winds. Quite unbelievable.

Safe to say that all dignity has now been lost.

Meanwhile, everyone says to me, reassuringly, 'you'll be on holiday soon'. I know I will, but N won't. He has two major transactions going on (why do the b****d clients always have to choose August to do this?) and will be spending most of his time travelling backwards and forwards on a plane rather than having much-needed and certainly deserved down time with his wife and children. And the knock-on effect is that we don't relax either because we are sad and irritated and inconvenienced by all his comings and goings and troubled that he is not getting the holiday that he desperately needs. Added to which, he pushed through a project (much discussed and agonized over) which I was broadly against, to have a pool put in in France. Everyone waved hands waftily (including the pool people) saying it would all be done in a few weeks, sans problemes. I envisaged problems and problems there have been. Electricity cables running in just the wrong place (unmarked on the site map), water table being much higher than expected (by all except me) which meant the hole was flooding, so the depth of the pool has had to be reconsidered and gallons of underground water pumpted out. Oh, and the bit which, for me, was most predictable and most understandable - the neighbours. They hate us. One lot have been to complain to the Mayor on a daily basis (despite having a pool herself which presumable must have been constructed at some point rather than fallen from the sky) and our immediate neighbours with whom we have until now enjoyed an easy relationship with who are pissed off and are being obstructive. And someone's nicked the wood from the tree that was cut down and which we were going to re-use in the landscaping. The pool people and the electrician have had their own Basil Fawlty moment in the garden, screaming bad language at eachother, just to further upset the neighbours. Because of the problems encountered, it will not be finished before our arrival and instead I will have another building site to live with.

There is no peace for the wicked. Or, looking at it another way, I always said that too many possessions were a burden. For years and years I have been trying to advocate a simpler life, in a well-chosen place close to sea and mountains and good state education; a place where you do not have to spend a fortune on holidays just to get away from the endless English rain, or the madness of the rat race; a place where Nature is on your doorstep offering you all that you could need, in a political system and society which works. This is of course Utopia. But, there are still better and worse lifestyle choices and I have to say that Italy came very close (if you ignore the politics!) and we are still toying with a year living in Bordeaux, with the girls in French school, just to see if it is any better...

I think though, my energy reserves are a little low for more major upheaval. Perhaps it should go on the back burner for now.

Footnote 1:-
N and I were sitting eating supper late and exhausted tonight when he came out with the bombshell that the awkward neighbours in France have indeed managed to get the building of our pool halted. So we now have a huge unsecured hole in the ground and no garden. They will begin work again on 1st September, three days after we leave. It is possible we will not be there next summer which means we may not get to put a toe in the wretched thingl until 2013. More disappointing and frustrating than any of that is what I was hoping for my mother who is coming out for a week with my father and brother. Since her stroke she is not very steady on her pins and she is worried about walking across the large stretches of sand at the beach. She also still gets very tired. So I was looking forward to being able to offer her the chance for some real rest and relaxation, some quiet time by the pool, and the chance to do some gentle water exercises to try and help her regain some strength. Now she will probably just fall into the hole. I think I may join her.

Footnote 2:-
Since writing this, the shocking massacre in Norway has happened and put all my irritating troubles into perspective. Wherever you look, there is always far worse happening to other people. I am alive, I am loved, I love and I am very lucky.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011


A week or two back, while I was revising for my final gardening exam, I took a break out in the garden. This is what I noted down before turning my mind back to Weeds, Pests & Diseasess:-

Monday 4th July 2011

The garden never ceases to enthrall and frustrate. Just a week ago, I went to the top of our plot to look at the reducurrants, spurred on by the copious berries resplendent on a friend's bushes in Staffordshire. I have just one rather pathetic offering, but it was full as it will ever be with berries just the week before. I curtsied to my pruning efforts in February. Yet returning to view the harvest, with reducurrant jelly in mind, I was dismayed to see the whole lot stripped. Not a berry left. Pigeons, the buggers. I made a note of it for my pests & diseases paper. P for Pigeon, P for Pest.

Picking myself up from my disappointment, I was pleased to see that the raspberries were flourishing. I picked and ate and enjoyed, and even found some in the hedge alongside the main lawn. How on earth did they get there? Pigeons I presume. I suppose they have their uses.

As I strolled back towards the house the delphiniums were filling the herbaceous border with an inky blue of startling intensity, while purple Nepeta released her minty, musky scent underfoot. Roses of red, yellow, pink and white - all shades and shapes and tones; aphids gathering, rocket rocketing, cabbages struggling, bees buzzing; wasps munching anything wooden for their nests God knows where; a dead bird, a decapitated rabbit; chicken shit and Alchemilla mollis everywhere. Tomatoes in the greenhouse; sweetpeas in pots; nettles and cleavers creeping through the borders, hungry for light and moisture. The birds sing, the midges fly, the grass grows.

Nature, in all her myriad forms, casting light on an otherwise dull day.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Demanding Times

Sunday, 10th July 2011
Today is the first day in many weeks where Time (always my enemy) has deigned to loosen her sturdy chains around me just a tiny bit. As I write, two small girls (one not mine) are downstairs watching Amercian rubbish on telly, blisfully happy in pyjamas and dressing gown with a small bowl of biscuits at their side, while a clearly exhausted husband still snores in his bed. The cup of tea I have just made and brought up stirred him briefly, but he has returned happily enough to the Land of Nod. He was up at 5.45am (having got to bed at 1am) to take E on her Year 7 trip to France, the highlight of the school year (more anticipated for the reunion with the boys, their former classmates, rather than for the cultural experience, it has to be said). Last night he made bravado talk of not returning to bed after the early morning drop off but cracking on to deal with the mountain of issues piled up on his desk. I for one was pleased that, when it came to it, he took the decision to catch up on some much needed rest instead, and went back to bed. Meanwhile, middle girl G, our living dynamo, is away on her Year 6 Leavers Acitivity Weekend, climbing ropes and abseiling, crawling over obstacle courses, canoeing and hiking. Oh for the energy of the youth: I have woken with an aching back and as much energy as a deflated balloon. Just enough, it seems, to move fingers over a keyboard, at last.

The garden through the window is dappled in gentle sunlight, reflecting on the Happy Birthday banner which hangs forlornly from the summer house, the sellotape losing it's battle with the wasp-chewed wood. Three balloons, equally deflated, hang in a now desultory fashion from the Public Footpath post opposite our house. I must remove them forthwith as there is nothing more depressing than deflated balloons or a vase of dead flowers. Beyond this, there is not too much evidence of the party which took place here for little L yesterday afternoon. Nine friends came to celebrate the imminent arrival of her 9th birthday (12th July), an event far less daunting than in recent years when G and E have also shared the party (G because her birthday is on 11th August when we and everyone else is away, and E because you can't have a garden party in January, which is when her birthday falls) and we have had upwards of 30 children screaming around the place. It was a strange feeling not to feel completely stressed as you attempt to meet and greet, organise party games, get food out on time, provide endless drinks, mop tears, find plasters, light the candles on the cake and sing happy birthday before parents come to take children away, and make sure everyone leaves with the right towel and swimsuit (the party relies heavily on good weather and the water slide) and party bag. No, this year was calm and controlled. We did all the usual races in two teams - running, sack, egg and spoon, skipping - as well as pass-the-parcel, painting plain china mugs to take away, apple bobbing and a treasure hunt. There was swing ball and netball and badminton and a good time was had by all. Certainly as far as L was concerned who, as we waved the last people away, two hours after the party officially ended, she burst into uncontrollable sobs at the idea that her party was over. She had been planning it and looking forward to it for weeks. It is part of the summer ritual. I picked up her skinny little frame, wiped the tears from her hazel eyes and hugged her tight, trying not to think that in a year she probably won't seem like this little girl anymore as Time marches her inexorably out of this blissful stage of childhood into a new era of self-consciousnes and dissolving innocence. Catch it while you can.

It has been a hard few weeks and the passage of Time has left its mark in many ways. The day after I last wrote here it was indeed my own birthday. The day was passed at college (we managed some Prosecco out of plastic cups under a tree at lunchtime) but come the evening we went out for a lovely meal with friends at a favourite hotel in the Peak District, The Cavendish at Baslow. A few years ago we went there for the first time on my birthday and now it has become a bit of a tradition. The drive over is 30 minutes through beautiful countryside and on a warm evening you can sit outside and contemplate a bucolic vista of trees and hills while sipping a glass of champagne. The food is excellent - more refined and skilled than the ubiquitous yet competent pub food so prevalent these days. We are often the only ones in the restaurant, arriving later than most other guests, but we make our own party with animated chat and raucous laughter with the great friends we have made since our move up here eight years ago. It is always a special and memorable night.

Shortly before we left for the restaurant, I had taken a call from my parents. We were in a rush to leave so the conversation was short and a little chaotic but somewhere in there I thought something was perhaps not quite right. I couldn't put my finger on it beyond the fact that my mother didn't seem to be hearing what I was saying however many times I repeated it. It was if she was in her own little world, kind of going through the motions. It was two days later, on the Saturday afternoon that my father phoned, just minutes before we had guests arriving for the weekend. It was the call I had long dreaded, the one where you are told that something is wrong with one of your parents. He was clearly choked and in shock as he told me that my mother had had a stroke. She had not been feeling 'right' for about a week (we had been with them on return from half term holidays, just a week before, and it seemed that all was well then; but she had deteriorated slowly through the week and her behaviour, as witnessed at an event she attended with my mother-in-law the day after my birthday, was a little bizarre. Time suddenly had no meaning to her, she was walking incredibly slowly, she seemed distracted and disconnected to the world going on around her. This is so not my mother, always sharp as a pin and fretting and worrying over the next job or commitment, firmly rooted in the minutiae of her daily environment. By Friday even my father had noticed that 'Mary was not herself' and, spurred on by the observations of my mother-in-law and their trusted cleaner, he took her to hospital. She had had a small stroke of the kind that depletes the brain of oxygen over a period of days rather than one that wipes you out in one fell swoop. Damage has clearly been done - she has lost much strength in her legs (I had to help her out of the bath) and she cannot write like she used to. She has lost interest in reading (she was an avid bedtime reader) and she feels exhausted much of the time. The drive and motivation are gone for the time being. It seems she has had another small stroke at a previous date on the other side of her brain - a fact which, looking back, makes sense of some small changes I had noted in her (oh, the frustration of living so far away). Her cholesterol is through the roof (stress induced) and is now being controlled. She, the woman who told everyone else how to look after themselves but would never apply (or heed) the same advice to herself, has had a wake-up call. It could have been far, far worse and I am at least glad that now she is being looked after too. I had always muttered that, despite being the youngest of the remaining parents, due to her inability to relax and sleep and her endless worrying about things, that she may well be the next one to go. Literally worrying herself to death. It has been a hard lesson for her to accept.

So I went down and spent a weekend with them, my brother having been down the weekend before, and helped and supported as much as I could. Leaving again to head back north was one of the hardest things I have had to do. My father, at 83, has been doing a marvellous job of looking after her but I could see the strain and worry was getting to him. How I wish I could be closer to spend precious time with them and help relieve some of the burden.

The next two days were filled with a desperate cramming for an exam I had on the Wednesday, my concentration and energy fuelled solely by adrenaline. The day following the exam I was fit for nothing. I tried to do some desultory jobs around the house, a domestic wasteland abandoned in the heat of other pressing matters. I have been living with builders since the beginning of April, a situation I am deeply weary of. The whole place is a filthy mess, almost no room untouched by plaster dust, filth and unfinished jobs. Our possessions are piled up in every bit of free space so the whole place looks like a dump. I live with bad language and Radio 1 at volumes that make my head spin. I have to plan my movements around the movements of the builders, unreliable at the best of times. Their van continually blocks my drive and I am forced to leave my car in the lane while my study (a teetering pile of unlooked-at paper) remains a hideous monument to my lack of time to get on top of things. I tried to treat myelf to a bit of Wimbledon - the highlight of my summer - but again, circumstances conspired continually against me. But you know what, dear Reader? I will stop there for now, before this post becomes wearisomely long, and I will pick up the threads another day.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Gift Bag

I have been musing gently on the subject of The Gift Bag. When I was a child (to coin a phrase), such luxuries did not exist. Crepe paper, yes. Tissue paper, yes. Cheap wrapping paper from WHSmith, yes. But not gift bags. No, these are an invention of the late 20th century, nay, even the 21st century. In fact, does anyone out there know when the Gift Bag became de rigeur?

As some of you may know, I have three daughters. That means lots of parties. Either their own, or those of their many friends. And girls seem to go on having parties longer than boys. And girls love girlie stuff and making things look pretty, and so do their mothers. I imagine many a boy would have long ago ditched any notion of pitching up at a mate's party with a poncy present in a bag. But girls, well, they just love it. The more expensive the better, of course. And preferably with shredded tissue and/or shiny 'confetti' in the bottom of it too ('confetti', by the way, being the invention of the Devil, especially when it lurks unexpectedly inside a card which you rip open with gusto only to have thousands of tiny coloured sparkly things engrained into your carpet and stuck behind your radiator grills for ever more).

Now I, thanks to my three daughters, have an enormous supply of Gift Bags in my cupboard. They lie with the saved bubble wrap, the padded envelopes and the jealously hoarded cardboard (for those 'Please do not Bend' moments). Every summer, to date, they have shared a big summer party where swarms of children come and run around the garden causing chaos and havoc and a huge pile of Gift Bags. I feel I am almost more excited by the Gift Bag these days than the present inside. This, I also feel, is quite sad. But what joy - think how much money I have saved! They don't come cheap, after all, do they, these Gift Bags? They can sometimes add disproportionately to the cost of the present (a fact I find myself struggling with, and frequently find myself attempting mental equations along the lines of Outrageous Cost of Bag versus Time and Fiddle of Wrapping Paper and Ribbon). I usually come to the conclusion that I should bite the bullet and buy the bag and then end up elaborately wrapping the present anyway - and then popping it in the bag for ease of transportation and the added delight of the recipient (who will probably like the bag more than the contents anyway). At which point the whole process becomes predictably ridiculous, time-consuming and expensive. But at least you have the small pleasure of a beautifully presented gift which has the desired effect of making the recipient feel suitably special and loved. Well, that's the general idea, at least. Unless you're a boy, when you don't give a shit.

Hence, dear bored reader, my delight at the pile of 'free' Gift Bags which arrive to replenish my stocks every summer. It almost makes the horror of the party worthwhile.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Mid May. What an exquisite time of year. Not long ago the lanes were lined with yellow daffodils and gaudy forsythia and then just as soon dotted with yellow dandelions. Now they are more subtly laced with blousy drifts of cow parsley, the precursor to all things good. The chestnut trees have been carrying their white candles with all their usual majesty and the hawthorns have washed the landscape with white. Laburnums are now the only splash of yellow on this natural canvas, the sweet-scented yellow gorse also having passed its prime. The pink blossoms have dropped, swept away in sharp May winds, while in the garden the yellow pom-poms of kerria are now absent and the sweet perfume of the yellow azaleas, their delicious perfume hanging heavily in still air, is fading fast. How quickly Mother Nature changes her clothes. It is like a game of grandmother's footsteps: turn away at your peril, or before you know it each fragment of the ever changing season will have crept up on you and, in the blink of an eye, it will have left as swiftly as it arrived, leaving you yearning for another year.

Friday, 29 April 2011


What have I been doing these past few weeks? Well.....

....I have been entertaining friends in the hills of the High Peak and the flatlands of the French Landes;

I have been plunging through aquamarine Atlantic waves;

and wandering the streets of Bordeaux;

I have been visiting family and celebrating Easter and N's birthday in Sussex;

I have been chugging down the Thames on a boat in the sunshine with a glass of red wine in my hand, good food in my stomach, and sunshine and bunting all around;

I have been walking through Cornish gorse and granite, picking wild garlic, feeling sand between my toes and the warmth of friendship in my soul;

I have watched the Royal Wedding;

I have been packing and unpacking; cleaning and cooking; gardening and studying.

I have been slowly recovering after months of lingering illness; I have laughed, I have cried, I have comforted and cajoled.

But most of all, I have had special times in an April filled with sunshine.

Hope yours was good too.
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