Sunday, 31 October 2010


Hallowe'en confuses me. There are lots of things about it that I just don't understand. Mainly, what happened to the traditional English Hallowe'en of my childhood? No knocking on doors - that was for Mischief Night a few days later. Dressing up involved sheets and black sugar paper and activities revolved around apples. Simple, harmless, cheap pleasures. Lovely.

Then when my children started at the local Church of England primary school I was confused again.  I discovered that some Christians had a huge issue with it as a celebration. This was entirely new to me and took me completely by surprise. No hint of Hallowe'en would be tolerated at school and instead the children were asked to dress in bright colours and attend a Light Party. No one ever really managed to explain to me what was wrong with what I had always understood to be a Celtic festival to mark the end of summer. Perhaps that was connected with the celebration moving away from apples and towards terrifying latex masks. I don't know. It confused me.

Then adults and Hallowe'en. What's that all about? As far as I knew it was something for children but apparently I'm wrong. As I walked my children round to parties last year I was the only one not dressed up. Party hosts entering into the spirit I can understand. But dressing up just because it's Hallowe'en is not really for me.

Three of my four children have been invited out tonight which has delighted them as they will be able to go trick or treating, an activity that is banned here. I banned it when the big ones were small. There were no children where we live and I didn't think my neighbours, who we didn't know, deserved to have my children, who they didn't know, begging for sweets at their front door. Different if you live in a neighbourhood with lots of children but we don't so that was that.

But trick or treating they go and come home with mountains of sweets. We don't do sweets here either. I know. I sound like a real killjoy and they do have sweets sometimes but not by the bucket load and not regularly. So instead of being  a treat, they devour sweets from their stash every day until they are all gone. Not really a treat anymore.

Last year, horribly aware that I was fast becoming the Scrooge of All Hallows I did think about joining in, maybe even having a party. But as the date approached and the supermarket filled with orange and purple plastic I just couldn't do it. I think it's because what was an ancient tradition has been hijacked and turned into an excuse to make money. If I were to have a party I would like it to be like those of my childhood and the children would go home feeling terribly robbed.

I'm sure I'm missing out by not participating and one year I may surprise the children by arranging a giant do with spiders webs and glow in the dark skeletons. And then again...

Saturday, 30 October 2010


I had an idea earlier in the week. Take That announced a tour and I decided that it would be a lovely treat if I took my two big girls together with my first ever friend and her daughter, who also happens to be my god-daughter.  I rang my friend and she agreed that such a trip would be fun and as it was my idea I volunteered to get the tickets.

I did my research. The tickets would go on sale at 9.00 on Friday. I checked out the approved ticket agencies, made sure I could remember my ticketmaster password and waited.

I like Take That. I always have done. Not in a mad, passionate, fan kind of way. I was 24 when they formed so a bit old for all that. But I liked the fact that they didn't take themselves too seriously and Gary Barlow writes a jolly good tune.

Friday dawned and I was up with the lark, unable to sleep for that feeling of excited anticipation that you get before a holiday. I got myself showered and dressed and was ready at my computer and logged into ticketmaster at 8.55. I watched the clock tick round not daring to nip to another page in case I missed my moment. 9 'o clock. I went to the appropriate performance, clicked 5 tickets....and it crashed.

This wasn't entirely surprising. The gigs were well advertised and almost every woman in the land seemed to want tickets. I persevered. I loaded, it crashed, I refreshed, it crashed. I sat there, with two computers refreshing pages, for four hours. I despaired as messages popped up on facebook telling my who had been successful in their quest. I tried other approved sites with no success. I kept at it.

But it was half term. My husband had a day off and we had planned a family trip to Harewood House. So I turned off the computers and went out. I reasoned that if I couldn't get on to the site then neither could anyone else. At Harewood I had ticketmaster on speed dial but with no luck. All the talk in the adventure playground was of tickets and tips as to how to get them. Most people seemed to have theirs already.

Home again and my campaign began with renewed vigour. The congestion had lifted a little but whilst I could get tantalizingly close, the page would crash at the crucial moment. And then, finally, after thousands of attempts I  got as far as putting my credit card details in. The on screen timer counted down and my hands shook as I typed, terrified that it would crash before I could get my details in accurately or that I would run out of time.

And then suddenly, there it was. A message confirmation. Five tickets for Take That were finally mine. I'm sure they could hear the whoop of delight in Manchester.

The whole experience reminded my of something that I had forgotten about myself - my sheer, bloody minded, determination to get something if I want it enough. It wasn't even that I was so bothered about the actual  tickets. The world would not have ended if I hadn't got them. It was more that I would not be beaten and give up when I had invested so much time in the fight. It's not a quality that I have had to use for years but I see it regularly in one of my children. I know that it's slightly ridiculous that I am reminded of  my  determination  in the context of something so trivial but I'm glad that it's still there, lurking deep. You never know when it might come in handy.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


Hormones. Who'd have 'em?

If you're a bloke reading this then you can either go and check some sporting results instead or read on, smug in the knowledge that you will never have to experience first hand the affliction that is female hormone swings.

So there I am merrily getting on with my life. I'm busy. I'm happy and, apart from shouting at the kids occasionally  I'm reasonably even tempered. Life is sweet.

It starts with the need for chocolate. Not a little "I fancy a bit of chocolate if there's any in the cupboard" kind of need but a "If I don't get chocolate in the next thirty seconds I may be forced to tear the arms off anyone that gets in the way of my pursuit for it" kind of way. It's a tell tale and fairly consistent sign of a rush of hormones but I regularly fail to spot it and recognise it for what it is. I indulge myself with something sweet and continue with my life.

Next I get a bit cross. This is nothing unusual. As already confessed, I am wont to shout at the children if they don't do as they're asked. Again, no alarm bells ring. Then I explode for no easily identifiable reason. The girls metaphorically dive for cover, exchange knowing glances at each other and try to steer their brother, who can't yet spot the warning signs, from impending disaster with frantic hand and facial gestures that they think I can't see.

Now, it's starting to register. I have not turned over night into a confectionery guzzling ogre. Well, I have as it goes but there is a rational explanation. Hormones.

Sometimes the prevailing mood is not anger but melancholy. Suddenly life is all too difficult. I don't have the energy to shout and I slink off into dark corners and feel self indulgently sorry for myself. And again, despite the fairly consistent effect on me for the greater part of my life, my hormone wobble always takes me by surprise. I feel hard done to and uncherished despite knowing neither to be the case.

I imagine that it could be challenging living with a woman who is a martyr to her hormones. But just consider for a moment what it must be like to be the woman. One day you're skipping along, happy as Larry and the next. Kaboom. Straight into a brick wall of unexplained emotion.

They come. They go. It passes. We move on. But if I had been in charge of blowing life into that spare rib, I think I would have given greater thought to precisely how the side effects of a reproductive system that most off us only use a handful of times in a lifetime might impact on the human race's daily lives.

Now, where's that Terry's Chocolate Orange?

Sunday, 24 October 2010


I am buzzing. As you know, I have just embarked on a degree course and yesterday it was the first Day School of the academic year. With my timetable printed off and my bag packed, I headed off for Leeds Met with a sense of nervous anticipation, not quite knowing what to expect. I found my way to the lecture theatre - no mean feat - and then sat as a desk at the front. The room was full of eager faces from all walks of life and I listened to and participated in all the sessions with great gusto, fully immersing myself in everything that the day had to offer.

I came away brimming with enthusiasm for my course, for the Arts, for life really. Last night, I sought out alternative modules that I might like to take as I make my slow but steady progress towards a BA (Hons), in subjects that I never previously had any interest in but suddenly seem fascinated by.

But my underlying feeling as I dip my toe in the clear, bright waters of academia is relief. For a while back there I did wonder what had become of me and how my future could possibly offer me anything cerebral.

I had always loved knowledge and learning. I was recently rather affectionately called a 'girly swot' and it was a fair description of my days in full time education. My the time I qualified, I was somewhat jaded by formal learning but the mammoth task of becoming proficient in my chosen discipline stood before me like Mount Eiger and on I went, collecting knowledge and squirrelling it away.

And then I had my children. Four pregnancies in seven years left my memory a laughable shadow of what it had been. My powers of concentration dwindled to nothing so that even sitting through a film to the end became a challenge. But most frightening of all I had no interest in anything outside the confines of my busy family home.

To start with this was fine. I barely had the energy to stand up straight, let alone consider the state of my cerebellum. But as the years rolled on I began to fear that my thirst for knowledge was gone forever and that felt like a huge and unanticipated sacrifice. Perhaps, I, like Faustus, had made an exchange, albeit unwittingly in my case? My brain for my children.

And then, out of the blue it reappeared. It started in small measures. Reading more than just the book club novel in a month, tentatively doing a little legal work, scribbling in my blog. And now a degree.

I should have been more patient, had more faith. My need to know had not gone anywhere, it was just taking a back seat whilst I focussed on other, more important tasks. And now I feel like I have to make up for lost time. I am sure that my enthusiasm must be palpable and I'm sorry if it's irritating. I'm sure it will wear off a little as I progress. But for now I am just so delighted that what I believe to be a major part of my psyche is still there, that you will have to forgive me the old, self indulgent skip down the corridors of learning whilst I regain my composure!

Thursday, 21 October 2010


So, my book is almost finished. Note the optimistic use of the word 'almost'. There is still some work to do. I have a character whose fate I have not yet finally fixed on. I also need to decide whether to give it a happy or more pensive ending which sounds like a big job but really just depends on how I close the final chapter.

After that it will be a case of proof reading and tidying up and then it will be complete. It's taken me the best part of a year, written in snatched hours as and when. There have been lots of early weekend mornings when the house is quiet and a fair bit of thinking as I walk around fetching children. I have never taken my laptop to a cafe as I dreamed I might and it has always come second to the other calls on my time but I've got there in the end.

I have to say that writing a book has been an extraordinarily interesting and enjoyable process. When I started last January, I had the bare bones of an idea and a couple of jumbled characters in my head. The plot has chopped and changed and morphed itself into something quite different from the one that I began with. The cast of characters grew and then shrank and whilst they have, in the main, ended up doing what I thought they would, they have not all got there by the means that I originally intended.

At various points I got stuck and had to come up with a new angle to start the process up again. Some of the ideas have been left along the wayside to pick up  if I ever pass by that way again.

The strangest part of the whole process for me has been that my book is not a bit like I imagined it would be. It has been said that we all have a book in us but until you try to release it you can't tell what yours will be like. The way the words have come together for me is quite different in style to other things that I've written. This surprised me. I had assumed they would all be pretty much the same. I also now know  that I am not a literary genius and will never pen a Man Booker winning tome. But I haven't enjoyed the task any the less for discovering that.

And so, when I finally put the last full stop on what I have written, what will I do with it next? Do you know, I really have no idea. Most of me wants to put it away in a drawer and get on with the next one, the plot of which is already building in my head.

But a tiny part of me, and I do mean tiny, has to wonder whether I should send my manuscript out into the big, bad world to see if it can make its fortune. We'll see.

I think that the most important part to me is that when my book is totally finished, I will be able to say that I once wrote a novel. And then I will place a big, fat tick next to that particular life's ambition and move on to the next one.

Monday, 18 October 2010


I'm no spring chicken. I'm hardly past it but I think it's fair to say that the first bloom of youth sailed over the horizon quite some time ago.

Every so often, I have a good, hard look at myself to monitor the gradual but inevitable slide in to middle age. Overall I don't think I'm doing too badly. I still have all my own teeth for example! I feel fairly fit and can cartwheel across the lawn should the mood take me. I can't quite remember what colour my hair is but I don't suppose that really matters.

But the place where the tell tale signs of ageing really matter to a woman are on the bits that  are on show the whole time - her face, hands and neck. It doesn't matter how spritely the rest of me is feeling. If if look in the mirror and all I see is wrinkles that I swear weren't there the last time I looked, then I can't help but feel age creeping up.

I have reached the stage where, whilst I long to keep my laughter lines ( don't you just love that little euphemism?) at bay, I am old and sceptical enough to know that wonder products are a bit of a con. In the end, how my skin ages is down to a few factors, not all of which are within my control. I drink a reasonable amount of water, I take care in the sun and I don't smoke.These things I have a say over. I can do nothing about my genes. Whilst they don't appear to be doing me any disservice so far, they are what they are and I can't change them.

So, I'm not about to spend the housekeeping money on expensive creams and lotions, hoping against hope that one of them might actually manage to hold back the sands of time. Instead, I have decided to help myself. I have abandoned sparkly make up and heavy foundations which emphasize the creases. And I smile a lot, so you can't spot the lines that are there when my face is in repose.

As the winter plods closer and the sun kissed tan of the summer becomes a memory, I have to accept that each year the position is slightly worse than it was the year before. The eyelids are lower, the wrinkles deeper, the skin tone patchier. If I think about it too hard, I mourn my lost luminescence which no amount of miracle make up seems able to recover. And I really don't like the thought that this is as good as it's going to get and that it will only get worse from here.

I don't like it so I don't think about it. It's not about what you look like but how you feel  apparently and I feel great. Yes, it takes the skin on the back of my hand a disconcertingly long time to 'spring' back when I pull it but how often do I do that in my daily life? I truly think I'd rather have the wisdom that I've acquired along with the wrinkles than go back to when my forehead was smooth but life was a mystery. And I have my beautiful daughters around me so that I can see clear, peach smooth skin every day - it just isn't mine.

I have reached the conclusion, as with many other things in my life, that I can't do anything about it so I'm not going to worry about it. Yes, it will continue to get me down from time to time but so do all sorts of things that I can't control. Better to make the best and carry on. How very British!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


Have you noticed how the things people say sometimes stick with you for years? Somebody once told me never to fall out with friends over things our children have done. Wise words indeed and ones that I return to regularly.

Today I was thinking about the thought provoking words of another friend. It was when I still had children at home and we were having that conversation that stay at mums often have about the likelihood of ever returning to the workplace in any meaningful fashion. Her children were older than mine and she said that she did not intend to return to work. However, she commented, you have to work really hard at not working.

I have thought about that a lot over the subsequent years. Whilst I do have a job of sorts, things are so quiet at the moment that it doesn't really count. In essence I am a busy, stay at home mum. I run the house and the kids and fill the rest of my time with things that I enjoy.

Sounds a doddle doesn't it? Take today for example. I have nothing particular on my agenda so this morning I have done some washing, laid the fire, tidied up and made some brownies. Then, as my treat I have a had a bit of a bash at my book. This afternoon I have a couple of errands to run in town and I would like to push on with the book I'm reading. Sounds lovely I'm sure to all you working people. And it is.

But actually, spending day after day with no structure and no boss requires a massive amount of self discipline. There are days when I can find absolutely no motivation and it's all I can do to make my own lunch. This is why I take on so many other things. It is an attempt to maintain some sense of self worth for it doesn't matter how many times your husband tells you that you are doing a wonderful job. It can be soul destroying staying at home all day

And that's what my friend meant about it being hard work not working. How easy would it be to slip into either a malaise of boredom and stagnate or get swept up by fun and totally ignore the dull stuff? What would happen if I didn't do the ironing? Eventually my husband might complain that there were no clean shirts but to be honest he is more likely to get the ironing board out himself. If there was no dinner on the table then there's always beans on toast or the chippy. No one is going to sack me for having a poor attitude - or at least not immediately.

I remember a while ago talking to someone who had lost their job. A few months into their new lifestyle, they were confessing that they would have to find something to do or they would go mad. But that is my life you're moaning about, I thought and has been for ten years. The lack of daily structure and the endless list of mundane tasks is how I fill my days. Having no job is not always the soft option that people think it is.

Of course, I love that I am in the incredibly fortunate position of being able to stay at home and I really wouldn't choose to do anything else. I fill my time with a wide variety of things both fun and not so fun to make sure that I feel fulfilled at the end of the day. But in the end, I have to agree with the wise words of my friend. It's hard work not working.

Monday, 11 October 2010


This weekend one of our guinea pigs died. Having looked a bit out of sorts for a few days, it chose the day of my eight year old's birthday party to finally shuffle off this mortal coil. This resulted in its having to spend a night unceremoniously dumped in a shoe box coffin on top of the wheelie bin until a more auspicious day could dawn for the funeral. Said guinea pig, Jojo, has now been duly dispatched with appropriate levels of solemnity and the matter is dealt with.

Or is it? Those of you who have been reading for a while will remember that I have stated quite unambiguously that when the current pets, said guinea pig and his brother Nibbles, die there will be no more,  bringing to an end the tradition of pet keeping in this house.

Nibbles is still looking pretty sprightly so the issue could be pushed to the back of the cupboard for a wee while yet except that my eldest already has the bit between her teeth. As is generally the case in my experience of the death of animals, Jojo's blood had barely turned chilly but she was asking whether I would change my mind and allow a replacement of some description.

And now we get to the issue. Guilt. Again. In its many and varied guises it seems to haunt my life. It forces me to analyse why I have made this ruling and see if it stands up to scrutiny now that the hour of its enactment is approaching.

I'm sure you know how it is. The kids get a pet. There is great excitement whilst it is named. It gets manhandled ruthlessly until it nips someone and then it lives a solitary kind of existence in the garden. The children feed it only when reminded and moan incessantly when it is time to clean it out. Every time we go away I have to beg favours from my ever generous brother to do the honours. So what is a pet really adding to our household?

On the other hand, do I really want my children growing up remembering that they didn't have pets because their mother wouldn't let them. I can just hear the dinner party conversations in thirty years as my children recount tales of how they begged but their cruel mother was unwavering. A pet isn't really that much hard work if it's a small furry one. It's just that my life is complicated enough and one less thing to factor in would be welcome.

Nibbles is in mourning. As I merrily go anthropomorphizing his behaviour the guilt builds. Not only is there the issue of his being the last ever pet but now he is all alone with his brother from whom he had never been parted gone. It's enough to bring a tear to my eye.

Hopefully, Nibbles will get a grip and snap out of it and the issue will be put to bed for a while longer. Or perhaps I should just throw caution to the wind and get a new cat, my secret wish when my practical head is off duty. Answers on a postcard please!

Friday, 8 October 2010


We have a Literature Festival in Ilkley. It's in full swing as I type. It was launched by WH Auden in 1973 and since then has gone from strength to strength, attracting writers and visitors from all over the country.

Each summer, the programme is published with great trumpeting from the local rag. Those organised enough to have become a friend of the festival the previous year get priority booking. This is a prerequisite to acquiring some of the more sought after tickets. Everyone else queues up, in very British fashion, outside the book shop and the tourist information office on the appointed day to snap up what they can.

There then follows an entertaining few weeks of chopping and changing whilst people barter with their tickets amongst their friends and relations. 'I'll swap you two Ellen MacArthurs for one Alistair Campbell.' 'Anyone got a spare John Simpson?'  On it goes. Someone is always left with extra tickets that they can't shift and texts fly backwards and forwards so that nothing goes to waste.

The visiting writers seem to me to fall into two distinct camps. Firstly, there are the people who make a living doing something other than writing but then write a book ( or get someone else to write a book ) all about it. In the main these seem to be the big hitters of the festival. Worthy politicians, political commentators, sports people. Tickets to see them fly out of the door and they fill the big venues with no difficulty.

 But I'm not really bothered about them. If I could attend everything without having to arrange babysitters then I would probably go but as my resources are more limited, I keep my powder dry for the second type of writers.

These are what I like to to call the real writers. The ones who actually make a living from writing books. Endlessly fascinated by the actual process of writing a novel, I go early, sit myself right at the front and invariably ask the incredibly dull question at the end about how they plot their stories or what their working day looks like.

I love it. I can't get enough of it. I would be happy if they dispensed with talking about the actual book entirely and just talked to me about what it's actually like to be a real author.

But this year it's slightly different. I still ask my questions but now the answers are even more fascinating to me because  I too am having a go. My little book is almost complete. This adds a whole new dimension to my interest. I can nod sagely as the eminent, talented and, most importantly, published authors before me talk about the frustrations of plotting and characterisation.

Now,  having dipped my toe very gingerly in the water, I am able to appreciate how very difficult writing a book is. In many ways, it is awfully disheartening knowing that my meagre little offering will never stand up against the greats. Everyone thinks they can write a book. Actually discovering that the book that you write does not to turn out to be what you expected is slightly peculiar. I will never again be able to think of myself as the next Hilary Mantel or Sebastian Faulkes if only I got round to putting pen to paper. I  now know that it will never be. My book is not like that at all.

This time next year, I will take my seat in the front row, surreptitiously following the rover microphones, knowing that my novel  is finished and tucked away somewhere and that I can place a large tick next to that particular ambition. But this year I can still pretend that I too am a writer  and I'm having a ball..

Tuesday, 5 October 2010


My book for Book Group this month is Shappi Khorsandi's "A Beginner's Guide to Acting English". It's an autobiography which covers the comedienne's life between the ages of three and eleven. I enjoyed it. It was an interesting look at Iran and England in the 1970s and 80s through the eyes of a child and some of her stories were so poignant that they brought tears to my eyes.

Reading autobiographies always leaves me pondering the same puzzling thought. How do these people remember their lives in so much detail?

I suppose that Shappi will have had help focussing her memories from her immediate and extended family. She was very close to her elder brother who presumably would have a clearer recollection of certain events than she would. Sometimes, my brother and I will reminisce about stories from our childhoods and I am always taken aback by how differently we remember something that we both experienced together. So, such conversations may be the trigger for a memory but it won't necessarily result in a memory that is entirely yours.

Her parents will have told her things too. Stories get passed down a family like folklore. Do I remember my brother falling out of the back of a moving car or is it just that I have heard the story so many times? I'm not sure.

Photos assist of course. I have lots of dim images in my mind which I suspect are as a result of hours spent looking at images in an album rather than a true memory of the event.

What struck me particularly about the book is that she writes about how she felt when various events both happy and sad happened around her. Now I might be able to dredge up odd snippets of my early childhood - a holiday here, a show there. But they really are snippets. I could not give you any details of my day to day life and I certainly have absolutely no recollection of any feelings that I might have had. It may be that she can't either and that, with the benefit of hindsight, she has imagined how she must have felt at the time. But the book  reads like the true memories of a child. Grown up emotions superimposed on someone young stand out a mile, like a picture drawn by an adult in a childish hand.

I wondered about this for a while. I have never thought that my memory was particular poor and yet I appear to have lost whole tranches of my life. After I had fretted for a bit, I reached a conclusion. The things that I can remember are the out of the ordinary events. The rest of the time I was happy and loved and just getting on with being a child. Perhaps when your life is made up of the out of the ordinary, it sticks firmer in your mind together with how you felt at the time? So, moving from your home and your friends and family to a country where you knew no one and could not even communicate, would  not be something easily forgotten.

So I stopped worrying about it. The reason why I can't remember my childhood is because it was happy and safe and secure and nothing ever made me feel in danger or frightened. The bits and pieces that I can recall are enough to remind me how life was and as I cannot imagine why I would ever need to fill a book with the details then that is enough for me.

Friday, 1 October 2010


I have recently had a rather unsettling spat with someone. It was over the internet with a man that I don't know and am never likely to meet. Had we met face to face I would probably have decided that he wasn't my type of person and moved on. As it is I have come across him on a forum in which I wish to participate and so will have to continue to run into him.

Like most people, I am not naturally confrontational. I would rather drink a glass of warm white wine than trouble the waiter to change it. I rarely row with anybody, even my family, preferring instead to steer around potential flashpoints than confront them head on.

But I have had two rows in two years which is probably more than in the whole of the ten years before. Both were conducted by electronic means and this makes me wonder. Is it that as I get older I am more prepared to say what I think rather than sweeping it under the carpet and chuntering in private? Or does the fact that the other party is not there in person make it easier to say what you think without fear of the consequences?

I'm not sure which is true- maybe a little bit of both - but, in this age of electronic communication, it is immediately obvious how easily petty arguments can brew up. Unless you know someone incredibly well and can actually hear the words they type as if they were coming out of their mouth, then it is worryingly easy to misinterpret their comments. An exclamation mark carefully placed to suggest that the comment is made in jest could  accidentally indicate sarcasm. It's not surprising that we have developed a whole language of expressions crafted from punctuation marks in an attempt to ensure that our comments are not misunderstood.

And the speed with which such conversations take place sometimes mean that very little consideration has gone in what has been said. I can honestly say this does not apply to me as I generally think pretty carefully before putting pen to paper but it is easy to fire a response off in anger and much more difficult to retrieve it.

I think I probably do still give confrontation a wide birth but I'd like to think that had the recent conversation happened in the real rather than the virtual world I would have dealt with it in the same way. But we'll never know will we?