Saturday, 31 July 2010

DREAMING

I have started to dream again - vivid, memorable dreams that confuse and delight me in equal measure. Last night there was a bird in my garden. Not my garden you understand but some complicated composite of all the gardens that I have visited recently. And the bird was not one easily identified from a handy guide but huge and threatening with enormous dark plumage and quite unlike anything that I have ever seen. It was in my garden in a tree, menacing me from its perch every time I went outside and yet no one else seemed to see it or be concerned.

The night before that there was a flood on my lawn, my lawn this time. When I investigated it I discovered the body of a woman dressed in Victorian costume who was blocking a land drain that I didn't know I had.

The night before that my children were invited to a party and when the hostess opened the door all the guests were dressed in purple satin robes that she had made for the occasion and the children all stood at the door in order of size and welcomed my children in like something from The Handmaid's Tale.

I could go on and on. Each night something new, a little soup├žon of reality twisted into something that I cannot pigeon hole. Parts remembered all day, others lost almost immediately upon waking. Some are slightly disturbing, others just plain peculiar but all distinguished by simple virtue of being dreamt.

You see, I say that I have started dreaming again because it was something that had almost entirely ceased. I had the usual stress induced dreams - turning up to events naked, not being to get to where I needed to be on time, losing my children - but those vivid, wake up and you can't separate dream from reality dreams had become a thing of my past. I thought that dreaming was something that you grew out of, reserved for the young who don't yet have the stresses and strains of quotidian life to suppress any imaginative thought.

And then I started to write, tentatively at first with a few gentle blog postings and then with a fervour that I had forgotten that I was capable of and with that came the dreams. It is as if I have flicked a switch in my mind. You want imagination during the day then I'll give you something to really think about at night.

But can that be right? It might explain why children dream so vividly but I don't know enough about adult dream patterns to know if I was alone in never remembering my dreams before I started to think creatively. Maybe everyone around me is having wild and interesting dreams and it's so commonplace that no one has thought to mention it to me.

Either way I don't really care. I am delighted to have my dreams back, even if they are disconcerting from time to time. I relish the way my subconscious is making me think and if nothing else, my newly rediscovered capacity to dream is keeping my family entertained at breakfast!

Friday, 30 July 2010

TO TAN OR NOT TO TAN?

What is it about sunbathing? Like picking a spot or eating a whole packet of biscuits in one sitting, I know I shouldn't but I really can't help it. Some primeval instinct drives me to bare all to the almighty sun god when she graces me with her healing rays.

If I go on holiday I want a tan and I'm prepared to work quite hard to get it. Generally, my holiday relaxation takes the form of lying on a sun bed in the searing heat reading a book. I will recline in a puddle of my own sweat and persevere no matter how uncomfortable it becomes and how tempting the shade begins to look. And when the time comes to lie on my back and work on my front (note my choice of verb), I will endeavour to hold my book above my head to block the sun from my face until my biceps start to shake and I can hold it aloft no longer rather than risk uneven coverage.

But why? I know how much damage it is doing to my skin. Now that I am in my 40s, I can see the deterioration year on year, almost month by month. However, the lure of golden skin today far out ways the promise of wrinkle free yet white skin tomorrow. I look and feel so much better with a tan. It is so much more forgiving than pale skin, making allowances for imperfections that are more difficult to ignore on milk bottle legs.

That said, this is the first year in living memory when having a tan is not the most important thing about my holiday. Yes, I want to go home looking as if I have been away but if I'm not a uniform colour all over I won't consider it a failed effort as I might have done in previous years.

I'm not sure what has driven this shift in attitude but I fear it to be yet another thing that I can put down to my age. I shan't be seeking out my whitest jeans and a pale pink top ( always guaranteed to make a tan appear deeper) to hit the town as soon as I get home. Frankly I'm not really bothered. And do I want to witness, yet again, my skin take on that familiar, leathery texture which screams out that I have damaged it in my quest for the perfect tan? Perhaps not.

It is as if I have taken the mantle of Queen Suntan and passed it down the generations for now my eldest is driven by a need to develop the perfect colour and is monitoring her white lines nightly. Perhaps it is a young woman's game. I have warned her about the perils of tanning but she, like me, continues unabashed.

I wonder if I should buy a hat and retreat beneath a parasol. Hmmm. Maybe next year...

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

LEARNING A LANGUAGE

Why are the English generally so poor at languages? Substandard teaching? Lack of necessity as there will always be someone there who can speak English? Arrogance?

I'm not sure it is in any of those things. I wonder if it's just a fear of getting things wrong, being made to look a fool in front of our friends and family which holds us back. This lack of confidence in our own ability then means that we don't concentrate properly in the classroom and subsequently don't practise what we learn so that our knowledge becomes moribund.

I don't really speak any languages although I can generally get the gist of what is being said to me in French and Italian. But I used to. I did four language "O" levels (if you count English language!)And I did well. A combination of a good ear and an outstanding teacher meant that my French was confident and extensive.

But then I moved house and it all went a bit pear shaped. My "A" level French teacher was not really inspiring and much of the knowledge that I had had was lost through lack of use.

But far more fatal to my French than the quality of the teaching were my fellow pupils. I had been at an all girls grammar school where no one would pass comment at your accent or laugh if you muddled your irregular verbs. The whole learning experience in a single sex environment is very focussed because there are few distractions.

But it was so very different for me to have boys in my class. Suddenly I was embarrassed about speaking French in front of the five or six lads that were in my "A" level group. I didn't open my mouth unless I was sure that I was right and even then I squirmed in my seat as I spoke. I have no memory of anyone actually laughing at me but the fact that they were boys and so might was enough to put me off. I don't know if this is a common problem or something exclusive to me who moved house at the tricky age of 16 but either way it was the death of my French.

I have tried to relearn some language since school. A few years of Italian, attempts to restore my French to something better than ordering food and asking for directions but with little success. I have even been reading a French magazine for the last few months in an attempt to bring my vocabulary into the 21st century. But when it comes to opening my mouth to utter the carefully constructed sentence in my head, I lose my nerve.

I don't really get embarrassed about stuff now that I am in my 40s. Happy in my own skin, I am now prepared to have a go and not fear the consequences as I once did. But even that new found confidence doesn't appear to extend as far as conversing in a foreign language.

I am envious of those few friends with linguistic ability and ashamed when my German pal speaks fluently every time we meet, checking her grammar with me as she goes and asking for unknown vocabulary. But I am now resigned to the sad but inevitable conclusion that there is very little chance these days of me ever managing more than I can currently achieve.

I suspect that I shall just have to concentrate on mastering my mother tongue instead. That should keep me busy for a bit.

Monday, 26 July 2010

FOOD IN FRANCE

So here I am in France. Last summer in Italy I did not have the wherewithal but this year I can blog from my terrace here in sunny Lanquedoc. So you can enjoy bits of my holiday with me. Lucky you. (I must just point out though that Blogger is in French and the spell check throws up everything that is English. So apologies in advance for my spelling.)

I am feeling calm because the main obstacle to my holiday relaxation has been overcome, at least for the time being. It's not the travelling that I find challenging, nor the language issues. It's not even the joys of reminding my husband to drive on the right. It's the food.

We arrived yesterday - a Sunday so no shops were open. I happen to agree with a shop free day but it's not terribly convenient when you arrive with nothing and four children. The lady who owns the villa had kindly left some pasta and sauce, a baguette and a bottle of wine so I wasn't unduly concerned when I was at home planning our trip. However, I had failed to take into account that the airport queues would be so long as to prevent the purchase of breakfast or indeed anything.

Carcassonne airport consists of a runway and baggage reclaim and we only saw a MacDonalds on the way here. Then, when we arrived nothing was open around our villa so the pasta had to do for breakfast, lunch and dinner with wine gums, that I had packed as emergency child soothers, for pudding. Nutritious I'm sure you'll agree.

So this morning we set off to the Carrefour for our first big shop. Now, my dream is to come to France, wander around some small town market with a wicker basket and a head scarf like some latter day Grace Kelly, tasting produce at will and returning home with a cornucopia of exquisite delicacies with which to rustle up a delicious lunch.

In reality, I am standing in a neon-lit hanger filled with plastic wrapped food and four ravenous children. I panic. Like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights I freeze as the dream and the reality fight for space in my head. And then, because I have to do something, I move into automatic pilot and begin filling my trolley with items as similar to what I would buy in Sainsbury's as possible.

I face a number of difficulties with food abroad. Firstly, my kids have a limited palate and there is almost nothing that all four of them will eat with certainty. Secondly, having to produce three meals a day from a standing start means that you have to think of everything. It's not just the main ingredients. You need oil and salt and herbs and foil and, well, all those things that are just there in the cupboards at home. Thirdly, I am on holiday. Food production is a major part of my job at home and I don't want to spend any more time in the kitchen here than is entirely necessary.

So this year I have decided to adopt a new approach. I will purchase two lots of shopping. Endless French bread, Nutella, plastic ham and pizza for the kids. Interesting cured meats, sardines, olives, salads, cheese and wine for us. I simply refuse to spend another two weeks cooking and consequently having to eat the stuff the kids will eat. I know we are supposed to eat together in one big happy family feast but we just aren't there yet. The children will not starve and there is always an outside chance that they will have their interest piqued and try something new. And in the meantime my husband and I will enjoy a little piece of France. Why did I never think of this before?

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

A LIFE IN THE DAY OF......

The alarm goes off just before 6.30. I used to have a clock radio that brought me round gently to the dulcet tones of John Humphries but at the moment it's a rather piercing electronic beep. Some mornings I am already awake and bounce immediately out of bed, others I'm not sure what day it is and have to concentrate hard on what I am supposed to do next. There's no rhyme nor reason to this but I wish I knew what it was that produced those wide awake mornings and then I'd aim for that every time.

First stop - shower. To avoid hot and cold water torture, we have an agreement that only one shower should run at a time and as I'm first up I get first shout. Then, ablutions complete and dressed in what I hope is suitable attire for the day's weather, I make my way to the kitchen.

There's lots of stuff to be got through first thing but before I begin I check my facebook page on my phone to see what happened after I went to bed. I know it's horribly teenage but it helps me to feel connected and reminds me that there is a world outside Ilkley.

With breakfast achieved, the kitchen sorted and the big two already at school, the little two and I race round shouting at each other. I invariably make the mistake of thinking that the last bit of leaving the house takes five minutes. However, this fails to take into account the absolutely must have toy or the lost cycle helmet or the photo that is vital for show and tell. Rarely do I lock the front door without some kind of altercation having taken place.

I fly to school, trying to keep up with whatever is the children's chosen mode of transport that day, wave at other mothers across the playground and then head home, catching up with my twitter page en route. I don't tweet much but I read a lot of articles about things that interest me that have been tweeted by others. I can barely remember what it's like to just walk somewhere without reading on the way.

And now my bit of the day begins. What I do depends on what needs to be done. I have a menu to choose from and I generally pick four or five major tasks giving myself a mixture of chores and pleasure. If I could do exactly as I pleased, I would write all morning and then do everything else in the window between lunch and school pick up. But that rarely happens. I do things the other way around. Housework and paid work first so that I can then reward myself with some writing afterwards.

Most days I don't see anyone from 9 until 3 and that suits me fine. I am very protective of my time and totally at ease in my own company. But I do catch up with a few people for coffee and real human contact from time to time. In September when I start my degree course my day will become even more congested and something will have to give if I am to have any hope of getting everything done. However, I firmly believe that my household duties take priority over everything else because that is my job and what I gave my career up to do. So I will just have to move faster and work smarter to fit it all in.

Ten past three comes round far too quickly and I head back to school with iphone in hand. We walk home together and I listen to the details of the children's day. The next three hours pass in a blur of food preparation, teenage counselling, child ferrying and homework with the odd row to sort out for light relief.

After tea I bath the little ones and read them their story and then, subject to the household taxi service, my evening is my own. I watch tv and mess on the laptop or ( more rarely these days) knit something until 10 and then I go to bed and read. I sleep well and dream vividly.

And the next day is more or less the same. Different things picked from the menu of options but fundamentally the same. And I'm sure this is how it is for most people. Different stuff. Different timings but basically a routine because that's how things work. We all promise that we will be spontaneous and make more use of our time. Work smarter not harder. But actually routine makes the world go round whether you're Queen Elizabeth II or Imogen Clark At Home.

SLEEP, EAT, WORK, RELAX, SLEEP

When I was young I could never understand why that article at the back of The Sunday Times Magazine is called " A life in the day of..." Surely they had that the wrong way round. I even asked my mum about it once but got a non-committal and frankly unsatisfactory answer.

It makes more sense to me now, of course. And I still dip into it from time to time, curious for a peek in to someone else's life. And it has been joined by a whole plethora of similar columns giving the ins and outs of how busy and seemingly important people juggle their numerous business meetings with family commitments, personal trainer and a demanding social life.

Now that I am a grown up, I notice two things about these articles. Firstly, no matter how famous or indeed infamous the subjects are, their days are all pretty much the same. They get up. They eat. They work. They eat. They relax and then they go to bed.

Some things vary. Are they a lark or a night owl? Whether they are at their creative, sparkly best early or late shapes their day. Their need for company affects whether they leave the house for the gym, a meeting, a recording session or spend the morning in their jim jams with tea, toast and laptop in bed.

Food always plays a big part too. Late lunch with friends, dinner with agent, picnic with lover. We are spared no detail, almost as if meals in their many guises are the most notable events of the day.

And so, week in and out, that column has recorded the lives of thousands of well known people and yet their days all mirror each other, no matter what they they are well known for.

This brings me to my second point. The days of the celebrities are more or less the same as mine. It's true that my days do have more of a regular pattern to them and red carpet events, foreign travel and TV appearances don't generally pepper my social calendar. But fundamentally my days share the same building bricks of life. Sleep. Food. Work. Relaxation. Sleep. The only difference is that no one has heard of me.

I wonder if people are interested in reading about lives that remind them of their own existence. Perhaps what they are looking for is a bit of escapism so that they can indulge in a spot of fantasy lifestyling or even take a pop at how the other half appears to live. But I think there is some sort of comfort to be gathered from understanding that there are innumerable other people, all with their noses to the grindstone just like them. And whilst it might not be quite so exciting if lunch is a cheese sandwich shared with the Loose Women rather than at The Ivy with Angelina Jolie, details of someone else's life can still provide a fascinating insight to what goes on behind another front door.

So with this in mind I think I might treat you all to "A Life in the day of Imogen Clark" later in the week and then you can see how much I share with you as well as with all those important and exciting people. I can't guarantee celebrity name drops but it might make you feel a bit happier with your lot!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

FUN IN A FIELD

I'm back. I have been to my first music festival and survived. Not that I didn't expect to survive but you know what I mean. I am told by my daughter, who now has three festivals under her belt, that this one was small, old and not very hippyish. I have to agree. It was all in one field and I felt confident enough to let my 6 year old wander at will. So small then - not like the vast cities of tents that you see at the Leeds festival and the like. Old? Well yes. I'll give her that. It was almost entirely made up of families with children under about 10. And I didn't see anyone that could possibly be described as a hippy.

That doesn't mean that people weren't filled with festival spirit. There were lots of expensive looking wellies. I saw women resolutely floating around in maxi dresses with halter necks and bejewelled flip flops. Contrast this with me looking at my glamorous best in jeans, walking boots, two t shirts, a hoody, a fleece and a waterproof. And it was still pretty parky. Those women, who had clearly read their Sunday Times and so knew that maxi dresses are the order of the day at a festival this year, must have been freezing.

Apart from the music, which fired out from three separate stages around the site, the focus was most definitely on the children. Ours had a go at weaving wigwams from rags with varying degrees of success. My youngest just wrapped randomly which resulted in a wigwam that had a look of a rather badly organised laundry. The two middle girls were more methodical, weaving the rags in and out of the bamboo structure and even leaving a space for a door. Clearly architects in the making!

There were lots of other craft activities for them to have a go at, a circus school with juggling, stilts and the like and of course the bands to watch. At one point a troupe of morris dancers, all dressed in black gothic garb and looking like something from a period drama, tripped on to the field and began doing things with sticks and bells. I have to say that, notwithstanding their costumes, they did look slightly uncomfortable to be performing in front of a field full of bemused festival goers. One had to wonder where they usually performed? Is there much call for Dracula's Dancers outside Whitby - or even there in fact?

For anyone that might be interested in going next year, I can report that the food, in the main home cooked, was delicious and reasonably priced and that the loos were clean and plentiful.

But did I enjoy it? That's a hard one. I didn't not enjoy it. The kids and my husband had a great time and that in itself gives me pleasure. But if I am brutally honest I have to confess that if it weren't for them, I would have left around 3.30. By then, I had seen what it was all about and was tired of sitting in a field. Will I go again? I suspect I will have very little choice in the matter but yes, I will go again, relatively happily, if required.

But I don't feel like I have wasted the last twenty years of my life by not being a regular festival attendee. I suspected that it was something that I could take or leave and I was right. And there's a comfort in correctly anticipating my response to something. I think I know myself quite well really. But perhaps I should buy myself a maxi dress in the sales and put it away for next year?!

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

FESTIVAL VIRGIN

Unless you spend your summer in a cave then you can't help but notice the huge growth in popularity of the music festival. They are popping up all over the place along with countless column inches on which one to choose, what to wear, how to camp glamorously and even on the radio this week how to cook corden bleu style on a camping stove.

When I was 18, the only people that went to music festivals (and that meant Glastonbury) were students or hippies. I never did. It didn't really capture my imagination. I spent a lot of my youth in a tent but I have never been terribly interested in music. I went through the motions - loud stuff blaring from bedroom to irritate parents, NME delivered to door, that kind of thing. But fundamentally I wasn't and still am not interested.

So when, a couple of years ago, my husband suggested taking the two older children off to Solfest, a family friendly festival in Cumbria, I waved them off with a smile, grateful that someone had to stay behind with the little ones.

They had a fabulous time and I listened to the stories and the CDs of the bands they'd seen and looked at the photos and that was that.

Then a couple of months ago my husband said that he had found a new family festival that was near enough to go for the day and should he get tickets? OK I said, although if I'm honest I had not the slightest interest in going. And now it's almost upon us. The festival, Deer Shed, is on Saturday and I'm starting to get uneasy.

There's now talk in the ranks of camping rather than driving home late, which is fine as long as it doesn't rain and I don't have to cook. But I'm not really sure what we'll do for a whole day in a field. The web site says there are lots of activities for the kids and there are three stages and obviously the music. But what do you actually do?

Now I can hear you laughing at me. But I am no good at not doing anything. If it were me I would have done all the activities, heard a band on each stage, had a drink and lunch from a stand and be ready to go by 11 'o clock. Am that is, not pm. I can't just sit there and watch it all happen around me. I'm just not like that. And I have only heard of one of the bands and I don't know any of their music.

Can I take a book?

I shall, of course, do my best. I will endeavour to do nothing for a day and enjoy it. And who knows I might and be scouring the Internet for more festivals to attend before the weekend is out. But even, if I suspect, the whole festival thing fails to float my boat, I know for certain that the rest of the family will have a brilliant time and sometimes that's enough.

Monday, 12 July 2010

A TASTE OF FREEDOM

Last week the press was outraged by the story of parents who let their two young children cycle to school unsupervised in an attempt to recreate the freedoms that they themselves had had as children.

Every parent has a view on a subject like this and each is as valid as the next because the amount of independence that we allow our children varies on an individual basis. Parents take all kind of factors in to account when making decisions like that.

The nature of the children has to come pretty close to the top of the list. Every mother knows which of her children can be trusted to undertake an independent adventure without mishap and which is likely to run into bother.

Secondly there is the environment in which the children are being brought up. I read an article by a mother who said that she couldn't understand the fuss as she gave her children every freedom to assist them in their path through life. But then they were living on a farm in Glamorgan. This might be seen by many as an environment in which children were less likely to run into danger than in, say, a busy suburb unless, of course, you count being run over by a tractor or trampled to death by a herd of cows.

Thirdly, I think parents are very much influenced by their own upbringing. Either they copy their own parents' style or they act in a manner diametrically opposed to how they were brought up. Either way, their own childhood is an important factor in deciding what is best for their offspring.

I wouldn't let my children cycle to school at 5 and 8 but I do believe that now, at 6 and 7, they would be perfectly capable of getting themselves safely to school. It's an easy run on relatively quiet roads with plenty of other people about to keep an eye on them.

But I feel no need to do that. There are plenty of other, less controversial ways in which I can begin to let them explore their independence. Allowing them to play unsupervised at home for prolonged periods might sound like I am shirking my parental responsibilities but actually I think it's quite the reverse. They have to fire their own imaginations, solve problems for themselves and sort out their own battles. A teacher recently told us how well our daughter had performed as Chair in a debate at school as she had allowed everyone a chance to speak. I wonder where she learnt that life skill?

When we walk to places I now no longer worry if I can't see them every second. If they dart behind a tree or run on ahead I don't chase after them. I know that they will not go far. Their own sense of self preservation prevents them taking too many risks. They just push their freedom to the place where they are comfortable with it and generally they share that place with me.

How much you allow your children to do on their own is very personal and I try hard not to comment when people make decisions that are very different to mine, both liberal or controlling. I was surprised by the story in the press and it isn't something that I would have chosen to do but if the parents concerned made the decision after careful consideration of all the options, who am I to challenge it? And what right has anyone to challenge my decisions? Some will say that this freedom put the children in danger. The parents clearly thought not. Who is right? Who can say?

Saturday, 10 July 2010

A CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE

WARNING.
Self indulgent musings follow. Read at your own risk.

So. My book. I know this is desperately unimportant to anyone but me but this is my blog and I get to choose what I talk about. So, if you aren't interested in the progress of my novel ( and let's face it, why would you be?) you might wish to skip this posting and wait for the next!

You still here? Well, I'm writing this book. You know this. I've told you already. At the beginning it was going well. I rattled through the chapters and ideas just poured out of me. I had fun learning about my characters, working out what made them tick. I relished beginning to discover how to move the action along by using things that happened to my four protagonists, planning scenes that would allow me to disclose information that the reader needed naturally and without it appearing contrived.

So far so good. Because my original idea changed so radically as the story hit the page, I decided that I should concentrate on the plot in the first draft so I knew where everyone was going and then go back to work on the actual writing once the plot was in the bag. And now I am about three quarters of my way through the first draft. I know where I'm going, more or less and I just have to build up to my climax and then tie up the loose ends.

But then I made a fatal error. I decided to read my work through and see if there any were pointers that I had dropped in to the narrative but had failed to follow through. I sat down on my sofa with a latte, a chocolate brownie and the file containing my printed story so far and began to read. And that's where it all went wrong.

I have read lots of advice from eminent and incredibly successful authors who all say that a monumental dip in self confidence is to be expected, in fact is de rigeur and that I just have to meet it head on. But that's all very well to say when you have a body of published work behind you. Real writers can have their crisis just like me. But then they can look around them, see their own books on the shelf and say, with some certainty, that people have faith in their ability. Then, when they have finished being haunted by their perceived lack of talent, they can pick themselves up and carry on.

I don't have that luxury. There's just me. If I decide that my book is rubbish I have no one to gainsay me. And because I know this is very much a first draft I can't really share it and ask for honest opinions because I know that it is not as it will be.

I have been reading some Rules for Writing written by a bunch of well known authors (as recommended by a fellow fledgling writer.) Some made me feel better - others didn't but tips from Will Self made me laugh. Have a look if you have time. I particularly liked Rule 10 about having a Christmas party on your own.

So I just have to have blind faith and keep going. After all, my aim is to finish and be pleased with my achievement and I'm not a quitter. I need to conquer my own self doubt and just get on with it. After all what does it matter whether it's any good or not? If I finish I will be able to say that in my forties I wrote a novel and I like the sound of that.

Friday, 9 July 2010

MY IMAGINARY SHED


This time last year there was not a corner of my house that I could call my own. Whilst my home is of a reasonable size, especially following various encounters with builders over the 14 years that we have lived here, every square inch was inhabited by all six of us.

This was of no particular concern to me until I started work and subsequently my OU course. Before then, if I wanted some space I just went somewhere where no one else was. But once I had papers and coursework I began to see the need for somewhere from which I didn't have to pack up as soon as 3 'o clock approached.

And so after some thought and a wander about the place with a tape measure, I identified a space that might, at a push, get a desk in to it. And so my office was born. As you will see from the picture that I have rather cleverly managed to take, download, upload and insert (go me!), I have a table which is a metre square and can open out to 2m by 1m if the need arises. I have three shelves, a chair, a lamp, a pink orchid and a pen pot. My coaster bears the motive "I am quite unusually brilliant" which makes me smile every time I sit down and there is a sign hanging on the wall which identifies it as " Mum's Desk" in case of confusion.

And it's great. It's tiny but it's tidy and it's all mine and the children have even started to respect the invisible forcefield that protects it.

But you know how when you get something that you longed for, the glow that comes from having it gradually wears off and you start to crave something better? Well, my much desired desk is great but now what I really want is a shed!

There's been loads in the press about garden buildings recently. It's the news silly season and since we got knocked out of the football there's not been much to talk about. And I have read these articles wistfully. How magnificent would it be to have a whole room of my own at the bottom of the garden with a desk and a sofa for when I wanted to read and cushions and a coffee machine, maybe a little fridge, with my favourite pictures on the wall and a thick rug on the painted floorboards?

You see, now I'm off on a frolic. In my head, the shed is built and decorated and I have been on a shopping trip to purchase my accessories and I have written my first novel (which is a best seller) and passed my English degree (with a first) and Country Living magazine will seek me out to do an article on where I go to write and Mariella Frostrop will interview me for The Book Show and.....

But I don't have a shed. I have a desk in a space a metre square which, of course, I very much appreciate. And I have my dreams.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

RELATIVE SADNESS

Yesterday I sang at a funeral. It wasn't anyone that I knew. It was just part of my duties as a member of the choir. I was nervous about it though - not the singing part - but because I didn't know how I would react and not being able to predict my own responses in any given situation is not something that I relish.

I wondered whether funerals are still sad if you don't know the deceased. Of course they are I thought but is that because of the loss or because of the occasion itself? The ending of life is immeasurably tragic no matter who has died and in what circumstances. But is it sad enough to prompt tears when you have no emotional investment? This was my real concern. Would I cry when I should have been singing?

Well I did cry. Not much, more of a sniffle really than a full blown weep but enough that it was discernible to those around me. I wasn't alone. I noticed many of my fellow choristers fighting to maintain their composure. When the widower spoke about his lifelong partnership with his wife it was deeply moving even though I had never seen him before let alone known his wife. As his voice cracked my heart went out to him. I put myself in his shoes, imagining how it would be if someone that I loved died. And then I was sad. I just couldn't help it.

I tried to distract myself so that I could focus on the job in hand. I counted the panes of glass in the huge, arched windows and examined the freeze above the altar in microscopic detail until it occurred to me that casting my gaze about the church might look disrespectful. So then I tried to think about something else. I had a go at planning the next chapter of my book but I couldn't concentrate and my mind kept bringing my ears back to listen.

But I had to control my emotions not least because it is almost impossible to sing when you want to cry. Your breathing goes to pot and you can't control the pitch of your voice. I have no idea how those poor women on talent shows sing their final piece when they know they have been eliminated. It's more difficult than you can ever imagine. I had to mime to a couple of verses of the hymns whilst I dug my nails into the backs of my hands in an effort to stem the flow but where it really mattered in the choir's music I was able to play my part in making the ceremony a fitting tribute to an apparently much missed woman.

Overall I'd say it could have been much, much worse but I was glad when we had finally processed out of the church and into the privacy of the choir room. Everyone let out a huge sigh and the pressure lifted. And now I know for sure something that I already suspected. Funerals are sad no matter what. But I cry at strangers' weddings too. That's just the kind of girl that I am!

Monday, 5 July 2010

THE STAGES OF CHILDHOOD

Before I had children, it never occurred to me that some bits would be better than others. I'm not sure what I was expecting motherhood to be. When I was pregnant, it was difficult to see beyond the birth. I assumed that I would spend my days in the appealing little nursery that we had lovingly decorated, cooing over my child and that the years would pass playing peekaboo and building interesting structures out of lego.

The reality, however, is somewhat different to the dream. I am brave enough to admit that I have enjoyed some stages more than others. In fact, I really struggled with some bits. And I think it's OK to 'fess up to that because I'm sure, if they're honest, most people would admit that child raising is not much fun for most of the time.

For me the baby bit was fine. I enjoyed my time incarcerated in that post birth bubble when the rest of the world goes into soft focus. All that was important was when the baby last ate and what was in its nappy. Yes I was exhausted, looked like death and hadn't a polite word for anyone but me and the baby were happy in our world.

Next came my own personal nemesis - preschool. This is the period when your life is completely taken over by the tiny person at your side. There is not a minute when they don't need something or want something or need rescuing from something. I don't have the patience for hour upon hour of dressing up games. I found myself finishing jigsaws myself just to keep my brain awake and was bored to the point of distraction.

By the time they went to primary school, things were beginning to look up. With external influences to contend with, life became more challenging and my babies started to develop interests that were not a direct result of my encouragement. And I finally got some time to myself which was more welcome than a chocolate egg at the end of Lent.

And now we have just embarked on teenagedom and I'm as happy as a pig in muck. My children and I can have discussions about abstract issues. They have views that are different to mine and are often, although not always, logically reasoned. They are witty, sometimes downright hilarious. And the issues that arise are complicated and need careful consideration because the consequences are suddenly so much more serious.

Today the secondary school had a training day and my elder two and I took the train to the big city with a view to spending money on unnecessary frivolities. I had also promised to buy my eldest her first pair of heels for her best friend's 13th birthday party - a rite of passage if ever there were one.

The trip was a huge success. We bought lots of pretty things and along the way we laughed together, or more often they laughed at me. I was so proud to be with them as they tripped up the street joking with each other without a care in the world. And I thought to myself - this is it. This is why I spent all those years doing playgroup duty and making bugs out of play doh. This is what I have been waiting for. To see my beautiful girls on the cusp of their own journey through life.

I know that teenagers are not all plain sailing and I am ready to meet the storms that will inevitably come. But I'm not ashamed to say that this stage of childhood has to be my favourite so far. And long may it continue.

Friday, 2 July 2010

A FINE BALANCE

(Those that passed comment said that I should continue to write, so here I am.)

Yesterday I finished my book group book. This month the book was "A Fine Balance" by Rohinton Mistry - a very worthy and beautifully written book that has received rave reviews across the board. This evening I have been trawling the Internet reading what others had to say about it and hoping against hope that someone will share my view. So far I'm out of luck.

You see, I didn't like it. I can see that it is a masterpiece, beautifully crafted with excellently drawn characters and a clever plot. I can appreciate all its finer points but it just didn't work for me. I felt like it was trying just that bit too hard to be earnest. Tragedy was heaped on tragedy until I felt like the author was just doing it because he could. Of course he had so much material. India with its poverty and its injustices offers huge potential for the well informed writer. The tragedy is just there to be scooped up off the pavement in bucketloads.

So why am I unmoved? Why, when so many people haven taken the time to post reviews praising the book to high heaven can I not do the same? Have I no taste? Have I no compassion? Am I too ill informed to fully appreciate the intricacies of the writing?

I don't think any of those things are true. What makes literature so enticing is that we can all have a different opinion and yet we can all be right which is why book groups are so successful. I suspect that in relation to this book, I may be the lone voice shouting out against it at our meeting. I certainly seem to be in the minority on Amazon, where there are plenty of people crowning the book as the best that they have ever read. But my view, albeit somewhat off the beaten track of popular opinion, is just as valid as those who thought the book a triumph. What readers take from a book is so very personal to them. Whether they can relate to the characters may depend upon their own life experiences or perhaps just where they were in their life when they read it.

Sometimes I wonder whether there is an element of the Emperor's new clothes about it. When I read a book that has been hailed as a masterpiece by the critics but which fails to appeal to me, I have to wonder whether it is them and not me that have missed the point.

In times gone by I would have felt some kind of inferiority as a result of unconventional view, assumed that it was me that was too stupid or ignorant to fully appreciate the finer points of the book. Now I am much less concerned. It's not a competition. If I read a book and don't like it then I don't fail the test. My opinion is just as valid as all those who agree with the critics. Perhaps I am hard hearted or jaded or both that I am not moved to tears by the injustice of the situations befalling the characters. But does that matter? Surely what makes it a good book is that lots of people read it and all take different things from it. That will certainly be what prompts a good discussion at the next meeting of the book group.

So I've moved on to the next in my pile - another acclaimed prize winner by Barbara Kingsolver. I wonder what I'll make of that one.