Thursday, 30 December 2010


I find it hard to decide what I would like for Christmas. When I was a child it was straightforward. I would settle on something - a tape recorder, a watch, a transistor radio, early and then channel  all my energies into hinting for it and then hoping.

As an adult it's a bit trickier. Presents generally fall into three categories. First are the things that you'd like but that you would probably buy for yourself - books, music, perfume. They are lovely to receive but if hints fall on stony ground then it's nothing that an evening on Amazon can't sort.

Then there are the things that are quite personal and rely on the giver having reasonable taste or at least, taste that accords with yours. Into this category I would place any form of clothing, jewellery, make up. I am lucky that all my friends and particularly my husband seem to triumph in this regard and choose beautiful things for me.

Finally there are those things that you would really like but which are totally impractical. An indoor pool at the bottom of the garden, a holiday home in Bali, a sporty convertible for the rare days when the sun shines. These kind of presents are strictly for day dreams only and barely worth mentioning except in jest.

So when my husband asked me, a few weeks before Christmas, I was at a loss as to what to suggest. Then I stumbled on the idea of an electronic book reader, or more specifically a Kindle. This was not a new idea to me but, in a rather irritating habit that I have, it takes me a while to come round to an idea. I  have generally rejected something out of hand before I have to perform a total U turn and come round to it with enthusiasm.

Such was the case with e readers. The idea of reducing the joy of a freshly bought paperback with its pristine cover and fresh smelling paper to a computer generated single page was anathema to me. I chuntered about how pages were meant for turning and that a book, once read and enjoyed, should sit in pride of place on a bookshelf so you could pluck it down from time to time and reconsider choice passages.

Of course, many of the books that clutter my house did not live up to the promise of the front cover, will never be read again and require weekly dusting. Once I reached that conclusion, other advantages of an e reader began to fight their way through my initial objections. No need to carry a heavy tome with me round the shops just so I had something to do on the train. No need to fill the bottom layer of my suitcase with novels when we go on holiday. No need to try and hold a weighty book above my head whilst I sunbathe on my back.

Suddenly a Kindle began to look terribly attractive. I carried out a mini survey by asking the one person I knew that already had one and he confirmed the many and varied advantages. So I asked Santa for one and then got quite excited about the whole idea and even read reviews and whatnot on Amazon so that by the time I opened my much anticipated gift I was already quite knowledgeable.

I have had my beautiful Kindle in its steel blue leather cover for four days and already I cannot imagine my life without it. I am an instant convert. I love how easy it is to read. I love that I can balance it on my knee without having to hold it and you don't have to change position depending which side of the page you are reading. I love the fact that I can read long books without worrying about having to lug them about or encounter the risk of breaking the spine and having the pages sprinkle like confetti all over the pool. And, rather sadly, I love the fact that no one need know what I'm reading. The third book that I downloaded and the one that I have spent  most time engrossed in over the holidays is the latest by Jilly Cooper - my guilty secret.

Whilst my relationship with my Christmas present is in its infancy, I do believe that we are going to be firm friends and in my book that is what a good gift is all about. So thank you husband for bearing with me whilst I slowly accepted technology and then for picking up my hint so beautifully.

Monday, 27 December 2010


It's snowing. Again. The garden is still white from the last dump over a week ago. I'm beginning to find it hard to visualise the colour green. It's no longer exciting though. Snow has most definitely lost its sparkle for me. Even the children have stopped sledging. The front lawn only has a lone set of footprints to spoil the pristine, white surface and those were made by my husband who I sent in search of holly for the pudding on Christmas Day.

I try to imagine what it must be like to live in a country where it snows heavily for prolonged periods. I know that places that expect heavy snow each year deal with it in a way that means that daily life goes on without the chaos that ensues here. But free flowing roads or not, you would still need to wrap up in an array of warm but fundamentally unflattering layers before venturing out. Footwear must be decided limited. Shoes of almost any description  must be out for months and even boots would have to be of the flat, practical and warm type. Shearling is the height of fashion this year but when spiky heels and butter soft suede are the must haves of the season then it would be no go.

The chalet from which I skied last year sits nestling into the side of the French Alps. You could ski from the top of the penultimate lift straight to the back door. Perfect. Unless you actually lived there.There would be no popping out for milk. The last lift ran at 5.00. Woe betide anyone who needs to get to the village after that time. It is snow shoes and a long and arduous trek down the path that used to be the road. What if it was an emergency? Do all pregnant women confine themselves to the bottom of the mountain for the last few weeks? Are all bar tenders actually qualified midwives on the side?

Not being a cold weather creature, I often imagine living where the sun shines every day. I dream of waking to that light that comes at the beginning of a day that promises heat. What if you could arrange a party in your garden and know that it would go ahead rather than spending all week watching the weather forecast with fingers crossed? Imagine how it would be to pop to the beach with the children after school rather than the park. My favourite part of this particular daydream is being warm. Throughout an English winter, I'm never properly relaxed. My muscles are perpetually tensed against the cold. I don't notice until the spring warmth returns and then I suddenly realise that I am no longer bracing myself.

Of course, It's a classic case of the grass being greener. My Godmother lived in the Caribbean for many years and she once said that the thing she missed most about home was the change of the season. I suppose she had a point. The year in England plods on and it is easy to work out where you've got to just be looking at the trees. At some point in each season the weather does what is expected of it - although rarely for the whole three months. And that brings some rhythm to our lives, some structure. So, now it's winter and it's snowing. And it is rather pretty- in a cold kind of way.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010


It was my Book Group's Christmas get together last night. Notwithstanding the Arctic temperatures, we battled our way to my local pub where a roaring fire warmed our cockles. High heels and sparkly tops were, in the main, cast out in favour of woolly cardigans and sensible shoes and there wasn't a paper hat to be had but we had a lovely time.

As the evening wore on the conversation turned, as it inevitably would do in such company, to books. Specifically, my book. Someone enquired after its health and so I informed  them that it was in tip top condition and probably, barring some careful proof reading, was finished.

You can guess what happened next. It was like when your car starts to slid on the ice. You feel it go, there's nothing you can do about it and you just have to bow to the inevitable and wait until it comes to a stop of its own accord. The skid started gently enough - a few harmless questions about the plot, how and when I had written it, some discussion about real authors.

But then the momentum took hold of my figurative skid. Someone suggested reading it as a book group book.

This was not entirely unforeseen. Indeed, in my brighter moments, I had toyed with the idea myself. But now that someone other than me had suggested it and there seemed to be genuine enthusiasm for the idea, my car was spinning down a hill towards a selection of imaginary primary school children and a very deep river.

OK. Enough of the skid analogy but you get the idea. Not great at talking about myself at the best of time, and with the full attention of the group focussed on me, I floundered until I was ably rescued by a friend who has known me for a very long time and could see my difficulty.

The worst of it, though, is that I know this is a really good idea. My book group is a discerning, well read and open minded bunch of women who almost exactly match the audience that I was aiming at. It makes perfect sense for them to read and critique my book as we have done with so many others over the years.

But I'm not sure I'm brave enough. It would be like opening up my chest and putting my heart and soul on a platter for the world to poke at. And yet I have done this before. For the first nine months or so of my blog, I tapped away in private telling only a very small number of people how to access it. And now people are reading it all over the world.

I know I should do it. It was a genuine offer, kindly made and I should put my fears to one side and accept. And I might yet. But just at the moment it feels like the scariest thing that anyone has ever asked me to do.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


 I know what I want for Christmas. It's one of those clocks that Mrs Weasley has in the Harry Potter books. You know the one. It tells her the whereabouts of all her family at any given moment and she is happiest when each person's little clock hand points to home.

Call me fickle - it's no worse than I call myself. A few years back, when I was besieged by small children, I would have done almost anything for them all to be out. The constant irritation of a toddler hanging off various body parts is enough to tip you over the edge. I longed for a time when they could go off without me. But now that that time is here it seems to have lost its shine.

I think it's the snow that's making me come over all Mrs Weasley. My son is in Bradford, one daughter in Ilkley, one in Harrogate and one, perish the thought, on a tour of World War I cemeteries in Belgium. And that would be fine but I have this really strong feeling that they should all be inside where it's warm and safe and nothing can hurt them. I  fret that they will get stuck somewhere cold. I'm particularly worried about the coaches being able to make their way home through the snow that is falling as I type. I got snowed in somewhere once. I had a ball but it's not so much fun being the one stuck at home, waiting,  powerless.

When my mum used to worry about me it was irritating. I couldn't understand why she got herself into such a flap over the simplest arrangement. I suspect I'm worse because, in this age of 24 hour communication, my expectations are far higher than hers were. I went inter-railing for a month, sent a handful of postcards and telephoned once or twice. My eldest has been gone a couple of days and has texted every day.

I know it's a mother's job to worry but I never thought that I would. I assumed, not being a worrier by nature, that I would breeze through parenthood, taking it all in my stride. And I'm not exactly pacing the floor or anything. I just have this underlying feeling that everything is just not quite right and that it won't be right until they are all safe with each little clock hand pointing firmly at "Home".

I wonder if you can get one of those clocks on Amazon?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


            "Charlotte flicked the switch and the tree burst into life. Tiny jewels of light shone through the branches and looked so tantalizingly pretty that she was almost tempted to pluck one from the greenery and wear it in her hair.
            The tree was a riot of colour. She had toyed briefly with the idea of a theme. The shops had been full of delicate decorations all grouped in accordance with their predominant colour. Wicker baskets overflowed with purple baubles, strings of golden pearls or silver icicles all arranged so that even the least discerning customer could plump for a selection that had half a chance of looking sophisticated and elegant in situ.
            Charlotte had wandered about the displays trying to decide which colour would look best but in the end had been unable to resist the childish draw of a few of each. The resulting tree was hardly chic but it summed up Charlotte and her view on life very nicely.
            She sat back on her heels and gave her handiwork a final admiring glance. Her hopes and dreams for the first Christmas in her flat were all caught up with the tinsel and the trinkets. Years of shared kitchens, stolen food and other people’s takeaway cartons could be swept away – a necessary part of growing up but now forgotten. Charlotte had great plans for her three rooms, four if you counted the hallway.
            She stood up and span round on her heel. Even she was surprised by the level of mess. Shopping bags from that day’s expedition to find the perfect shoes spewed their contents out over the sofa. The packaging from her tights and the new mascara that she had treated herself with were on the coffee table with a lipstick stained wine glass and several discarded coffee cups. Clothes were draped over every surface.   Smiling to herself at the disparity between her dream and the reality, Charlotte picked her way across the wooden floor to unhook her bag from the back of the chair. She checked its contents, ensuring that she had everything she needed for her night on the town. 
            As if awoken by the movement, her phone began to trill loudly and made her jump. Assuming that the call would be to confirm arrangements for the evening ahead, she extracted it from her bag and was about to answer it when she noticed the name on the screen. ‘James calling.’ Her heart plummeted. Not now. Not when she was about to go out. Decisively she rejected the call. James would still be there tomorrow.
            A horn hooted in the street below and, grabbing her jacket from underneath a glossy magazine, Charlotte took a final look at her tree and then left the flat, pulling the door to behind her."

Would you read on? Let me know.

Monday, 13 December 2010


Funny time of year, Christmas. Back in July, when I thought about the festive season briefly from the comfort of my sun bed, I pictured myself in my kitchen surrounded by tins full of baked delights. I knew that I would have a freezer full of tasty morsels for those drop in guests. Each Christmas card would be inscribed with a personal message and the details of the past year in the Clark household. Each gift would be chosen with great care and wrapped in exquisite paper and adorned with coordinating ribbon.

Fast forward five months and here we are again with the dream and the reality clashing noisily. The cake is done but as yet the tins are all empty. There is nothing in the freezer barring frozen peas and some frosty ice cream. The cards have gone but with a typed insert. The presents were carefully chosen but are wrapped in paper from WHSmiths because I just couldn't find quite what I wanted elsewhere. In short, Christmas is in danger of becoming just another trial to be endured and overcome. Again.

I blame the OXO advert. I have a big family and so apparently Christmas should be one long game of charades with an endless stream of food and festive drink appearing effortlessly from my kitchen. After we have hand fashioned our Christmas cards we should be making tasteful decorations out of dried oranges and cinnamon sticks. We should decorate our perfectly shaped Christmas tree whilst singing carols and drinking mulled wine.

The thing people most often say to me when I say I have four children is that Christmas must be fun in our house. Maybe I'm doing it wrong. By the time we get to the end of term the children are all exhausted. Add to that the almost unbearable sense of excitement and anticipation that swamps them and all that remains is to light the blue touch paper and stand well back. It's all I can do to keep a lid on the bubbling cauldron of chaos. I certainly don't have the energy for board games and endless truffle making.

When you're in the thick of the festive season, it's hard to see the wood for the trees. All I want to do is to deliver a Christmas that everyone enjoys and remembers fondly. But what do I have to do to achieve that? Stay calm and don't shout. Don't stress about the stuff that really doesn't matter and relax. Because at the end of the day, there's no right or wrong way to do Christmas. It's never going to be like the Waltons because this is real life. There are bound to be arguments and bits that don't run as smoothly as I'd like but there's no point getting in a steam about it because sure as Rudolf has a red nose that way disappointment lies.

The Christmas that I dreamt of in July and the one that I manage to cobble together in December are, without doubt, two very different beasts. What I have to remember is that it's only one day, that the children will have a nice time no matter what and that it's my Christmas too so I owe it to myself to make it fun for me as well. So I'll take a deep breath, write myself a new list and smile.

Saturday, 11 December 2010


Our bedtime story over the last few weeks has been 'Barkbelly', a charming tale about a wooden boy and his quest to find where he fits into the world (Barkbelly). Like all good bedtime stories, it has been a pleasure for both the child and the reader. It is beautifully written with vivid descriptions and fabulous imagery which brings the story to life with very little effort and it has totally captivated the children when we snuggle down at bedtime to read.

The reason for mentioning it is not only to recommend it to anyone who might be looking for books for youngsters although I would encourage anyone to pick it up. The aspect that has caught my interest is the effect that it has had on my children.

Having been adopted by a caring family as a baby, Barkbelly runs away because he fears that he has done a dreadful thing and is frightened of the consequences. At this point in the story, my children, who had been enjoying it very much, suddenly didn't want to read any more. My youngest in particular was upset by the idea of the boy having to leave all that was familiar and safe. Such was their concern that I almost had to tell them that I thought it unlikely that Barkbelly had done the dreadful thing and reassure them that all would be well. But I didn't.

Having run away, Barkbelly has a series of amazing adventures until he hits upon the idea of trying to find his birth family and then, by piecing together various clues, he finally found his mother the night before last. Last night we settled down to read about the grand reunion, ominously placed more than a few chapters from the end. The child introduced himself to his mother only to be greeted with indifference. He has a father and brothers and sisters but no one is in the slightest bit interested in him or his story. They are polite but unaffected.

Again, my children did not want to read on. They did not want to think about Barkbelly being rejected by his mother. We had a chat about why they felt like this. And they, like me, want a happy ending. They struggled to understand firstly that the boy had left his loving home and then that his birth mother does not appear to be bothered about having him back and because that was too difficult an idea for them to process, their first reaction was to stop reading. Of course, their curiosity about how the story turns out will override this discomfort and we will read to, what I trust will be a happy ending.

 I did wonder, however, whether I should stop. They did not like how the book was making them feel and I, as their mother could fix that and make everything OK just by putting it down and reading something else. But, the book is aimed at their age group and I concluded that it was better to expose them to things outside their comfort zone, albeit gently through fiction, than keep everything rosy in their world.

I understand their feelings. We all want home to be a happy, safe and comforting place and I hope that theirs is. But in the same way that the older two read Jacqueline Wilson, eventually they need to know that not everyone is as lucky as they are. Interestingly, the older two had none of these qualms when their dad read them the book. The difference between children who attend full time nursery verses those who are at home full time might make a blog for another day.

In the meantime, we will empathise with Barkbelly tonight and hope that in the end he too finds where he feels happy and safe and loved.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010


I have to give relationship counselling to my children, particularly the girls, on a fairly regular basis. I don't mean with the opposite sex, although there has been a little bit of that. No, what needs constant help is managing their relationships with their friends.

It's hard being a girl. I remember it all too well. You never quite knew where you stood. Your best friend could become someone else's best friend in the blink of an eye. All it took was an invitation out to tea and suddenly the person you thought was your closest ally was off giggling with someone else at playtime. I distinctly recall discovering that I had been ditched in favour of another when the desk next to mine was empty after we came in from break. So cruel.

And now all my girls are in that same position. They get let down, left out and hurt constantly and I'm sure do their fair share of the same to others. And with texts and facebook in the mix it is so much harder. The shame and embarrassment that goes with being ditched is played out on the world wide web for all to see. I think it is even more challenging for them to deal with than it was for me when I was a child.

Ultimately, it all  hails from the same human failing - the need to be liked. I assume it's the same for boys, but I know that girls crave approval from our peers. We want to be the popular one in school, the one that everyone wants a piece of. We are desperate for our friendships to be strong and secure so that they can withstand the ravages of attack from third parties. We want to show our individuality without being mocked or if the mocking is inevitable have enough courage to stick to our guns.

And so I try to help my girls to steer a course through, pointing out how things might appear from another's point of view and trying not to take sides when all I want to do is to protect my babies from the hurt that I had to learn to deal with.

The funny thing is, that need to be liked never really goes away. Even now as I stand in the playground, often on my own for fear of interrupting other people's conversations, I fret. We all judge each other by what we wear, what we hear, what we say. The look that you inadvertently give and which is misinterpreted. The friendly smile that you do not see until it is too late to reciprocate.

In the end I can advise my children without too much difficulty because it's all so very familiar. I think that I'm a grown up but deep down, just like them, I don't want to be judged. I just want to be liked.

Saturday, 4 December 2010


You want the best for your children. They lie there in your arms but a few hours old and you promise them the world, that you will move heaven and earth to make sure that they are happy. But can you deliver? When push comes to shove, what do you do when what would make your child happy doesn't accord with what you want?

We have a storm brewing in our house. I can see it hanging dark and heavy on the periphery of my world. So far it has sent a few rain showers to spoil the sunshine but I can see that that is only the precursor for what is to come.

As you may have gathered my children like to perform and I have encouraged that. I was the same when I was young so I can understand what drives them and I think it's good for their self discipline, sense of team and inner confidence to be on a stage with a group of people who are all relying on them. My eldest is particularly driven by the smell of greasepaint and the roar of the crowd. She adores acting, dancing, singing, playing - anything that puts her on a stage.

And here comes the conflict. She bounded in from rehearsal for the drama class Christmas show, full of excitement, her eyes shining.

"Guess what we're doing for the Spring Show?!"

My heart is already sinking. She is currently in rehearsal for three shows due to hit the stage in December, February and March.

"I don't know Sweetie. What?" I enquire, smiling weakly. You see, I have already decided that, come what may, she won't be auditioning.

"It's 'Billy Elliot'! My favourite show ever. And it's dancing as well as singing. How fantastic is that!" And then she's off, pirouetting around the sitting room, already in the glare of the spotlights in her imagination.

But we can't do another show. She will have done five this academic year before we even get to Easter. As I've said before, the children do lots of extra curricular stuff and that's fine but rehearsals take up endless evenings on top and precious family time at weekends which means that it's hard to find time to do things together. For example, we do not have a block of time this year when all six of us are in to put up the Christmas tree together.

So I struggle with my conscience, what I want and she wants in direct opposition. I can't even use her school work as an excuse. I received an email from her head of year telling me that she was one of only seven children in her year group to get "Exceeding expectations" in every subject on her report. I am certain she could do the show and still cope.

But what about the rest of us? We have been in constant rehearsals since the end of September. I cannot remember the last time we had a Sunday together as a family. My husband and I rarely go out together as we are always collecting from some hall or other late into the night. Everyone's lives are compromised by her drive to perform. And yet, I promised that I would do everything I could for her when she was a baby. Perhaps that should include ensuring that we have a harmonious home life and time for everyone else to draw breath?

The row will come as soon as the audition notices go up. I will have to stand firm. She will look at me with tears in those big brown eyes and plead and every part of my heart will long to say yes. But my head, for the sake of the rest of us, will have to say no.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


So it's finally December and  we have snow to boot. There was the usual scramble over the Advent calendars this morning and then 'The Best Christmas Album Ever' with our cornflakes. In all the excitement I forgot to blow out the Advent candle and so we seem to have skipped the 2nd and are on to the 3rd already. The great Christmas countdown has begun.

Now that December has arrived, I am allowing myself to think about the big day and its ramifications. Until now, Christmas has been this huge, black shadow lurking unmentioned behind the door. Suddenly, it has stepped out into the light and can be ignored no longer.

Of course I am not totally unprepared. The cake, puddings and mincemeat are made, I have picked up one or two stocking fillers for the children and I have some cards but there's a long way to go. And there is a month until the big day. Or so you might think. Actually, Christmas falls on the 25th, as I suspect you know, so that's 24 days. The older children's schools closes on the 17th so no chance of surreptitious shopping or wrapping after then. By the time you discount weekends ( jam packed with rehearsals, gym competitions, shows, carol concerts and other festive fun) then we're down to twelve days. School is closed for training and or snow for the rest of the week. Ten days.

So now I'm starting to panic. Within those ten days, assuming no illness or yet more snow, I have an essential hair appointment ( if you could see me you wouldn't question this), dentist and optician appointments. Not sure how they all fell now, so close to Christmas, but there you have it. No doubt when they went in the diary I though I'd be curling ribbons and messing about with fairy lights by then. Then there's the nativity at school and a coffee date with someone that I rarely see and am reluctant to rearrange. Three days.  Then I have some work to do and a chapter on Tradition and Dissent in Poetry to get under my belt for a tutorial next week. Two days.

Pass the Rescue Remedy. The thought of what has to be achieved in such a short amount of time is causing some minor hyperventilation.

But of course it will all happen. Somehow it always does. There's the internet for shopping if I could only decide what to buy. I have evenings to write cards and I'm sure we can steal a couple of hours back from the children's weekend commitments to buy a tree trim the house. If I can get to the supermarket, not that big an ask, then I can cook in advance and freeze and if I off load the children on my parents for an hour or so I can wrap. All I need is a comprehensive list and to hold my nerve and all will be well.

Right now, as I look out at the snow and see my available time floating away with the snowflakes, it seems almost insurmountable but as long as we have a turkey ( already ordered) and something to open on the big day I'm sure it will be fine. Gulp!