Friday, 31 July 2009


I am disappointed. It's not unusual. It happens to me most years but this year is worse than usual because of raised expectations and early promise.

Why is the English summer such a let down? It has such great potential. Give me England in a fine summer and I would want for nothing. But it never really comes off. I'm not much good at the other seasons. I can't understand people who declare autumn to be their favourite. End of summer and head down into five months of misery as far as I can see. I can just about get spring because it is new and has promise of good things to come. Anyone who tells me that winter is their favourite season is truly certifiable and needs to be given a wide berth.

I do find winter a bit of a struggle. The beginning bit is ok. The first few fires and frosts and woolly scarf days are a novelty and I love Christmas. But I'm not terribly good without sunshine. I get a bit low as we slog our way through weeks of grey in January and February. I am cold all time and unable to warm my cockles without actually sitting on a radiator. But I dream. I imagine myself outside in the evening with a chilled glass of wine and a great book. I picture long days out with the children, eking out the remainder of the sun's warmth well past dusk. Or sitting outside a pub with bare arms as if I was abroad. I flick hopefully through magazines and catalogues looking at outside lanterns and wicker garden furniture.

This year I was filled with a strong conviction that the summer would live up to my dreams. Not only did the weather men promise a barbecue summer but simply by the law of averages, it had to be a belter this year. And it began slowly but with great promise. Here we go, I thought. Hold on to your sunhats. But July has been unsettled and August is likely to be the same and suddenly it's September and it's all over again for another year.

I should really move. The north of England is not well served for the dry, bright weather that I crave. Lincolnshire had big skies and little rain and when I lived in London it was much warmer. But here I shall stay, making the most of what little sunshine there is and dreaming of climate change.

Someone suggested to me that instead of being so excited and then disappointed year on year, I should be more accepting of the Northern English summer and just take each day as it comes. After all, I know I am likely to be disappointed so why not manage my own expectations. But I am not ready for that yet. I still love to dream in March that it will be tropical in July. Despite the odds being pretty firmly stacked against me, I still listen to long term weather forecasts with the excitement of a 12 year old, not the cynicism of someone in their forties. And I think that's how it should be. Just because something is unlikely to happen doesn't mean I shouldn't hope for it with all my heart.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009


There is very little more likely to make me feel inadequate than a school holiday. I know I am not alone in this. Somehow I never quite live up to my own expectations. We are just into the second week of a unusually long break of seven weeks and already the world is full of women losing the plot.

The trouble is I always build myself up for the holidays inappropriately, taking no heed of many years of bitter experience and with my rose coloured spectacles perched firmly on my nose. I crave mornings when I don't have to get everyone up, dressed, fed and out of the house by 8.30 with all their necessary bits and pieces. I long for weekends that aren't clogged up with dance classes and birthday parties and sleepovers. But what I always forget is that all that schooling and carefully structured entertainment has to be replaced with something else.

I am lucky. Four children is a team. Nice even numbers so that no one gets ganged up on. Split into two age groups that can be mixed and matched in a wide variety of combinations. They rarely fight and are singularly undemanding in terms of proactive diversion. They can generally find things to do with only a modicum of direction from me and if all else fails there is always the Sky box.

So entertaining the children seems not to be a problem. It's entertaining me where my issue seems to arise. I am happy in my own space and company and don't mind if my social life grinds to all but a stop. I have my phone and manage the odd cup of tea with other mothers who are from the same laissez faire school of managing holidays as me. But when the children are at school, I have a quick tidy up in the morning and then I can please myself until they come home. Well, it's not quite like that but you get the general idea. But in the holidays as fast as I can tidy up one area of the house they move to another and start to dismantle that. Someone did suggest that I didn't have to tidy up all day but could save it all until they have gone to bed. However, anyone who knows me will know that that just will not wash with little OCD me.

And the food! If I am not tidying up I am preparing or clearing up some meal or snack. And the laundry! All four of them insist on wearing something clean every day so instead of a few bits of uniform and some polo shirts, I have literally mountains of ironing.

"So why stay home?" I hear you cry. Well the alternative is a trip out. We do do trips out although, as you might have guessed not as many as others who have fewer children and more enthusiasm. We do both the simple trip to river and paddle kind of trips and the more complicated leave Ilkley, picnic, entrance fee, ice cream, sick in the car on the way home kind of trips too. The kids have a great time (although not so much better than they would have in the garden with a few mates and a hose pipe.) But I find it really hard. No adult to talk to and as a busy, never sitting still or relaxing kind of mum, I get just as bored as I do at home but with no distractions to entertain me. How I long to be one of those mums who sets herself up on a blanket with all her children around her and watches them play til the sun goes down. But I'm not. I can do 15 minutes - tops.

I know all this stuff so I don't know why it surprises me year on year. It has rained on and off all holiday and apart from a couple of wanders into Ilkley we have yet to leave the house as a family. The kids seem totally content and chilled but I am starting to twitch! I do know people with activities planned for every day but I don't hold with that kind of holiday. I don't do kids camps or friends for tea or camping trips or train rides to the seaside. But I don't really want to do self-imposed house arrest either. I think I will have to find myself a summer holidays hobby that you can do in snatches of ten minutes between cleaning and cooking and ironing and tidying up and directing play? Or perhaps I should get on with enjoying the lack of structure and plan some really exciting stuff for when I get my life back.

Sunday, 26 July 2009


I went to a party last night and someone said I was scary. The fact that I am perceived as being scary did not come as a surprise to me. It has been said before. But what is strange is that people have that perception. And it made me think about how often what we think about people and what is the reality don't match.

It's nothing new of course. Austen wrote all about it almost 200 years ago. Based on things said by others, smatterings of misinformation and her own prejudices, Elizabeth Bennet manages to misjudge almost everyone that she meets. And I am the same. I regularly have to reassess my view either favourably or otherwise as some comment or action makes me think that my judgement is skewed. My husband always gets the measure of people quickly and rarely needs to revisit his decision. It is a valuable skill that I do not share.

But clearly I am not alone. I am not good in large groups. I find it hard to hold any kind of discussion with a man - a result of years at a girls' school and I would rather stand on my own than introduce myself into a conversation. I consider this to be social ineptitude. But perhaps it comes across as rude or distant or aloof. I do not suffer fools and am happy to make my opinions known if asked but scary? I would beg to differ.

But if I am misjudged in this way then how many others am I not troubling to get to know because of some fleeting impression acquired with very little basis in truth? Because I have lived in this town for the greater part of my life, some of the preconceived ideas I have about what makes people tick are based on actions taken more than 20 years ago. Don't get me wrong. Some of those judgements are spot on. I don't always get it wrong. But I am sure that there are some people that I would never dream of talking to because they looked at me in a funny way in the pub when I was 17.

Things start anew in September. Many of the mothers that I knew when my children first started school have moved on as our children change schools. I will need to try to forge new friendships with the parents of peers of my younger two who have just started on their progression through primary. Challenging times - particularly if I am scary! Or maybe I will reinforce those perceptions of me by standing on my own looking calm, composed, controlled and controlling and see who talks to me. I suspect that would lead to a lonely six years! As usual I will take the middle ground and confound people's expectations by being perfectly pleasant. I take comfort from the fact that it was the view of those around me at the party that whilst I was scary, I was way too girly for physical violence and would never win in a fight! And on that point at least I suspect they are right.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009


I spent a wonderful evening on Friday. My husband got us tickets to see The Sixteen perform in York Minster. For those not in the know, The Sixteen are widely acknowledged to be one of the best ensembles around specialising in early church music. The music was sublime. Sacred music makes my soul sing. Whilst I don't have a God-fearing bone in my body, an exquisite performance of music written by musicians for whom the church was omnipotent always makes my spine tingle.

I was brought up on church music. This was not because we were a particularly religious family but because I used to sing. My music teacher at school was inspirational and he chose girls from the choir to join a small ensemble that he had built up over the years made up mainly of past and truly loyal pupils. Every summer and sometimes in holidays in between we would make the long journey from Lincoln to Canterbury to sing in the cathedral. The full time choristers were school children just like us and so they got time off from their duties in the holidays. And so we used to take up the mantle for a week.

The first time I went I was 13 and knew little about church music and less about churches. I knew the individual pieces of music but had no idea which service they belonged to or how they all fitted together. I spent a lot of that first week missing my entries because I didn't really know that I should have come in. But gradually I learned what the responses were and how to read a psalter and when the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis fitted in. You see. It's a different language. And it was a different world. Immediately I had to immerse myself in the solemnity of a cathedral. I became an expert at processing around the building at just the right speed to show purpose and yet respect. I learned what was appropriate behavior whilst sitting in the choir stalls. In fact, it would have been difficult for a child like me not to absorb the atmosphere and carry myself accordingly when I was sitting in a building of such magnitude and sheer, breathtaking beauty.

And I was so proud to be part of it. As we processed through the cathedral to rehearse, the tourists parted for us to pass through. The organ would sound the opening chords of that day's anthem and we would raise our voices to the heavens and sing. And there was silence but for our music. The tourists would stop walking about and chatting and just stand and listen. We were very good and the music was awe inspiring and filled that majestic building with its beauty.

That feeling has stayed with me and even though I no longer sing myself when I hear sacred music beautifully performed it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up like nothing else has done before or since. And so the concert on Friday was such a treat, not only because of the quality of the music but for what it gave me the occasion to recall.


Daughter number 2 is on Guide camp. She is somewhere in Derbyshire - I don't really know where and I trust she is having a fantastic time notwithstanding the somewhat inclement weather.

I was a guide in my day. And a Brownie before that and a Venture Scout afterwards. (I skipped Rangers - no boys and no drinking!) I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. I worked hard, won dozens of badges and was ultimately a Queen's Guide but the best bit by a long chalk was camp.

It didn't matter where you went. It was always exactly the same. We had to build unlikely things out of wood. Washing up stands which would support both a washing up bowl full of water and a draining board. Bedding stands that would keep six bedding rolls off the floor in case it rained. And fires. Lots and lots of fires to cook on and sing around and warm our toes by and toast marshmallows in. The main thing that I remember doing on camp is laughing. By the time I got to the top of Guides there was a tight-knit crew of other senior girls. We were all patrol leaders and so had responsibilities but I have no recollection of any younger girls with us. I just recall laughing in that unrestrained and uncontrollable way that close friends do. Everything was hilarious. The poor Guide leaders. We must have been a nightmare to manage.

When I was 15 I went on an international jamboree on Lincolnshire showground which happened to be just down the road. This was a fabulous opportunity as there were so many activities for us to choose from. I did parascending and canoeing and loved every second. But this camp was different. It was an enormous undertaking with thousands of children from all over the world taking part. And there were boys! This put a whole different dimension on camping. Instead of entertaining ourselves with knots or tracking or singing ludicrous songs, we went hunting handsome scouts. And found a fair few. I even had my first scary boy moment there as I found myself alone in a tent with a scout who seemed to have far more idea about what teenage boys liked to do than I did!

Guides in the 21st century seems to be different. Barely any badges and not much singing. Last term's activities seemed to be centred around clothes and makeup which isn't really what it is all about in my eyes although my girls seem to like it. But I am hoping that not much will have changed about camp and that when my daughter returns after her week away, filthy and smelling of smoke she will have learned a little bit about herself, something about life in the great outdoors and a lot about female friendships and how important they can be.

Sunday, 19 July 2009


Daughter number 1 is a performer. She has just finished a run in "Oliver" at the Alhambra in Bradford - fairly serious stuff although her part was relatively minor. I am immensely proud of her and every time she is in a show she grows a little and becomes slightly more confident as she gradually hones her skills.

But this was her third major show in this academic year. Hard work and demanding for her but ridiculously and unbelievably inconvenient for me. Every time she is in a show, she spends at least two months beforehand rehearsing. These rehearsals seem to be on a Friday night or a Sunday afternoon. This means that neither my husband nor I can go out on a Friday night, our night out of choice because it then requires a babysitter for the others whilst we go out to pick her up. And we can't go out as a family on a Sunday because we have to be back for an afternoon rehearsal.

But whilst the inconvenience is one thing, the issue that has been concerning me is the impact on the other children. This last week my entire focus has been, by necessity, on child number 1. But in the same week child number 2 has left primary school - a pretty major event in her life. She has needed and deserved my attention but has really only had what was left. And the little two? Well, they have been pretty much left to their own devices notwithstanding the fact that they are 5 and 6. On top of this dearth of maternal attention, they have had to put up with my being, in turns, either cross or distracted.

I feel inadequate and completely ill equipped to deal with the card that I have dealt myself. How can I possibly give four children the attention that they require? I try to spend some time with each of them individually each day but often I fail. They seem to want a piece of me at exactly the moment that tea needs serving or I am on the phone or am at my wits' end with one of the others. " Not just now." " Just give me a minute." " I just need to...." I wonder if they understand that I am doing my best to fit everything in or whether they just feel let down. I could ask them but fear their answer.

And yet, whilst they can see how the dynamics of the family pan out and where the attention lies at any given moment, they never complain. Is that because their expectations are so low or because they know that the sun will shine on them eventually and they just have to wait their turn? I hope it's the latter because I am trying to make sure that I make things as even as I can. I have a friend with six children. How on earth does she do it? That makes my handful look like a walk in the park.

Child number 1 has been cast in a play which will run for a fortnight in December and has signed up for another two in the new year. I suspect this is how it will be and so the rest of us will have to learn to work round her drive to perform. And in the meantime I will just have to find a few extra hours. Perhaps I can get hold of a time turner like Hermione? Or only sleep four hours a night like Margaret Thatcher? Or resign myself to the fact that I can only do my best and hope that it's enough.

Sunday, 12 July 2009


A while ago I treated myself to a boxed set of the Granada TV production of "Brideshead Revisited" - all four DVDs of it. It took me a while to get round to watching it but over the last few weeks I have worked my way through it as I have done the ironing.

When the series was originally broadcast in 1981, I was 15 and in the fourth form at my all girls grammar school in Lincolnshire. I had not read the book and must have been made aware of the programme by trailers that caught my interest. I settled down to watch the first episode and was hooked. It was a time in my life when I was growing up but thought I had got further than I actually had. The boys that I knew from the school next door were also maturing and most of my friends were one or two years older than me. There was something about the relationship between Charles and Sebastian that appealed to all of us. They were young and carefree but just that little bit older than us which gave us a glimpse of what might be around the corner. They shared this close and yet slightly enigmatic friendship which we all craved. The fact that they were both boys made no difference. Their relationship transcended any sexual element and that was of little interest to us.

After the very first episode it was all we could talk about on the school bus. The boys were divided and either wanted to be the foppish and pretentious Sebastian or the slightly insecure and yet intense Charles. The girls wanted to be lost in a world full of beautiful people with beautiful clothes and a mad sense of extravagance that could not be found anywhere else in 1981.

And so, week on week we tuned in and took our fill of a world that we could never be part of. Of course, the story becomes darker as it progresses and I remember feeling a sense of loss when Sebastian landed in Morocco and all the innocence of Oxford was left far behind him. When Charles began his inevitable affair with Julia tongues wagged on the bus and when the Regiment was billeted at the house, it was all I could do to stop myself screaming at Charles to tell his colleagues that he had painted the murals in the garden room.

The series captured my imagination like little had done before or since. I discovered the book a few years later and was entranced by Waugh's beautiful narrative, which had been brought to life so eloquently by Jeremy Irons.

And now, when I watch it again, I am transported back to that time in my life with a resonance that takes my breath away. Even the theme tune makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and I can smell the fields of oil seed rape that the school bus passed through as we dissected every scene of the night before's episode. But as an adult, I am drawn to different aspects of the story. I see that it is not just about love but about Catholicism and guilt and loyalty, all issues that I missed first time around. Now, instead of being captivated by the beauty I see the sadness and inevitable destruction of the relationships.

And I cried. I cried for Charles and his loss but mainly I cried for myself. Because I remember so clearly how I felt when I first saw it, I can make the obvious comparison with how I feel now and can morn the loss of my youth and innocence. "Brideshead Revisted" was one of the strongest influences of my teenage years and yet it as relevant to my life now as it was then. There are very few things of which I can say the same. Now, where did I leave Aloysius?

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


My girls took part in the dance open day at the weekend. Every couple of years, our dance school hires a stage and spends an afternoon showcasing what each class has been learning. It's all very relaxed. You drop in, find a seat, watch your child's class and maybe a couple of others and then leave.

Obviously we have three girls and the big ones do three types of dance, so I was there for the long haul. I arrived at 12.45 and left at 5.15 having watched my own children and many others perform.

When we first went to one of these shows, the eldest two were 3 and 4. They were excited by the stage, slightly in awe of the audience and delighted in the lipstick. I watched them with pride in my heart and was swept along on the tide of fussing, pre-school mothers. When small dancers skip on to the stage, the whole theatre says " Aah!" simultaneously. There are lots of parents and grandparents all craning their necks to get a better view and there is the whirr of cameras and video cameras throughout the performance. The children either do what they are supposed to do or don't. It doesn't really matter. Some of them wave unashamedly at familiar faces in the audience but as it is not a show it is overlooked. The performance finishes and the parents go home with a keen sense of money being well spent on ballet lessons.

But now I have both older and younger children to watch I see something different. By the time they hit the higher grades, you can see which of the children have a natural aptitude for the dance and who has the confidence to be on the stage without embarrassment. There is also real skill in what they do. I no longer stay to watch dance classes so their progress from year to year always takes me by surprise.

But by far the most rewarding part of the day is watching the older students. Those that are 16 and 17. Their level of competence is remarkable and whilst some have more natural talent than others they all perform the steps with style and confidence. But what is more incredible is that the dance teacher has maintained the interest of these girls throughout the mid teen wilderness years and despite the distractions of boys and make up. The senior classes are as well attended as the junior ones. Anyone can attract little girls who want to wear pink and dance like Angelina Ballerina but it takes a very special kind of teacher to engage with and encourage young women until they leave school.

And so it was with a great sense of awe that I watched these classes on Sunday, hoping that in the fullness of time my girls will attend them and take from them the beauty and poise and sense of belonging and the current students clearly have and that, until then, they will look up to them and look forward to their own time at the top of the school.

Friday, 3 July 2009


As the end of the summer term approaches, the minds of parents with primary school children turn to Sports' Day. Most schools seem to have one in some guise or other and parents appear to be drawn to them by a well acknowledged sense of compulsion even though very few will confess to wanting to go.

I have been to 10 sports' days so far (obviously not including the ones in which I participated as a child.) And if my calculations are correct, I have another 7 to go which is a somewhat daunting prospect. As a complete aside, I once calculated how many more days I would have to do the walk to school, filled myself with horror and have tried to resist the urge to make similar calculations since.

My enjoyment of sports' day seems to depend on which child it is that is participating. My eldest two were keen and involved and relatively successful. Consequently, it was fun to watch them. I could cheer for them and their friends in the knowledge that they would be placed and would leave with plenty of stickers and a sense of having achieved something. I could bask in their reflected glory. It doesn't matter how many times the Headmaster says that each child has a talent and that it's not the winning it's the taking part. Everyone, including the children, know that it is all about winning and succeeding is immeasurably important.

This year was no different. At the Key Stage 2 day ( formerly known as Juniors), my key stage two child romped in first in her events and celebrated without any hint of modesty or decorum with lots of air punching and chanting of " I am amazing!" This really isn't my style, although it is clearly hers, and so I tried to ignore her extravagant display. However, back in Key Stage 1 ( formerly known as Infants), my youngest was entering his first event. He was worried and looked nervous. He has a history of coming last having had a couple of goes at cross country in the winter. And now he knows enough about it to know that this isn't something to be proud of. He came second to last in his running and whilst he smiled as he crossed the line, he held on to me longer than was necessary before he went back to his place. It broke my heart. I can think of little worse than not being able to win on a day that is all about winning.

But more difficult than seeing the children deal with their sporting prowess or lack of it, is seeing the parents in their race. Despite all the guff about it being the taking part that counts, the parents have to do a straight running race. No mucking about with eggs and spoons or three legged races with their kids. This is all about competition. All those issues that have been niggling in the playground all year are dealt with in that ten seconds on the track. This year there were heats, so keen was everyone to run. The determination to win at all costs causes casualties and woe betide anyone who gets in the way of the flying elbows. And that's just the men. The mothers' race has to be seen to be believed. Needless to say, I do not participate. I was pregnant a fair few times and then had preschoolers to look after and now I declare that I am too old. But actually, I am just not competitive enough to want to have a go and risk life and limb.

And so it is all over for another year. My youngest came second in the hopping race (although there was more scampering than hopping) so his day was made and I can put the photos in the album and then forget about it all for another year.