Sunday, 27 February 2011


It's my son's birthday party today. Being a Leapling, he doesn't actually have a birthday this year but we are pretending that it is as usual. But with the party comes the requirement for a cake. I cannot tell you how stressful the whole cake business is for me. I lie awake at night fretting about it, I dream of being chased down the street by rolls of fondant icing. Well, not really. But I do get myself into an bit of a tizzy.

Now I know what you will say. But cakes is your thing. You have been going to classes for years. How hard can it be? And this is all true. I have been going for years but we make flowers, fine, life-like flowers for wedding cakes. The work is precise, neat, in fine petal paste or porcelain. We don't do any novelty work.

It was fine to start with. When my eldest was little, almost nobody decorated their own birthday cakes. I had a couple of very simple books left over from the eighties and I just picked something out of them that had a vague relevance to their life and Bob was very much my uncle.

And because it was unusual, my cakes were generally met with oohs and ahs by the attending parents. Of course the kids didn't bat an eyelid. But over the years I felt a slight sense anticipation build up. A few people began to ask what the cake might be this year. I started to bow under the pressure.

As the years have gone on things have changed in the birthday cakes world. Firstly, I have four children. That's a lot of cakes. They don't like to repeat each other's choices and I have far less time and inclination to spend the best part of two days before the party crafting a cake. But for weeks beforehand, they sit poring over my books, now expanded in number, choosing the perfect cake. I try and guide them towards the ones that I anticipate will be the most successful based on my past experience. The pressure builds.

Secondly there are now lots and lots of people all making fabulous cakes. People have even gone into business just doing novelty cakes. I can think of half a dozen in Ilkley alone. As a result, the whole cake expectation thing has racked up a notch or two. More pressure.

The trouble is, I'm just not very good at it. The execution I can just about carry off as long I steer the children towards something that I know will be within my capabilities. But Madeira cake and butter icing just don't behave themselves like fruit and marzipan. Things don't go to plan. I get frustrated and grumpy. And also, because my powers of imagination and creativity are truly limited in this regard, I can never think of things to make or how it might be done. So I slavishly copy from books with results that I find disappointing.

Of course the kids are generally delighted. They don't notice the wobbly icing or the heads held on with  cocktail sticks like I do. But I have to admit to being guilty of steering them towards away from novelty sugar paste and towards things that I can do and that I enjoy - chocolate ganache, gateaux or plain Victoria sponge liberally coated with sweets.

At the end of the day, all they need is something to stick candles in that tastes nice and I should stop worrying about it because it's only a cake! But fretting is what I do. ( Here is this time's effort, Notice the shot is taken from a distance!)

Wednesday, 23 February 2011


There are lots of positives about writing a blog. It started as a way of expressing myself but now, 290 posts later, it's beginning to look like a pretty accurate record of my life and that of my children. A diary of sorts then. And that's good.

Also, it makes me think about my world as I search for the next subject matter. It makes me question my decisions and helps me laugh at myself when I'm over sensitive or too po-faced.

And it's a great discipline. I have a deal with myself that I will post something not less than twice a week and I try hard to comply. I have to take time out of thinking about what to make for tea to consider what I might write, organise my thoughts and then put pen to paper, so to speak.

But there are some negatives and those have been haunting me recently. There's the guilt of course - guilt permeates every aspect of my life and snakes its way around my consciousness most days. In this case, it's the guilt of being in breach of my own deal, not having kept to my side of the bargain and penned what I hope to be erudite and interesting posts. Of course, if I tried to eliminate everything that made me feel guilty from my life there would be next to nothing left - and then I'd feel guilty about that. So I suppose that doesn't count as a 'Blog Specific' disadvantage and more just a bi-product of being me!

The main downer is that trying to think of things to write about makes me realise how very narrow my life is. You can imagine that in 290 posts, I have covered most of the stuff that happens to me quite comprehensively and some of it more than once. Every so often, I will try something new or there is a thought provoking parenting development which sends me scuttling to my screen. But most of the time, my life is routine, conducted within the four walls of my house and just a bit dull.

I wouldn't notice this distinct lack of excitement if I weren't trying to write about it twice a week. However, in that context it's really quite depressing! Where are the exciting tales of intrepid travels, the witty anecdotes of interesting family life? Even the odd mild disaster might make an diverting addition. But no. It's STILL winter and I'm here in my square metre (see picture of my square metre in a thinly veiled attempt to pique your interest) waiting for life to do something extraordinary.

I see some potential blog topics peeping their noses over the horizon so all is not completely lost. But if I resort to listing all my CDs or books that I've read in the last five years then you'll know that I ( and consequently you)  have finally fallen into a dungeon of terminal boredom and that there is no longer any hope for me! At that point you can stop visiting Imogen Clark at Home and I'll archive the whole, bally lot!

Monday, 21 February 2011


It's Options time in our house. I cannot believe that my eldest is about to have to make a real decision about something that matters. It is, of course, just the first in a long, long line of decisions and it's unlikely that any fatal or irreversible errors can be made but even so I feel that the situation has to be given due deference.

When I chose my O level subjects back in 1981 there wasn't much choice. Two Englishes, Maths, French, History or Geography and a Science were all compulsory. After that, you were either arty or sciencey. I did three languages and dropped all the science that I could. As I already had my eyes on the prize, I didn't bother with anything that wasn't traditionally academic. No cookery or sewing for me!

I don't remember it being a difficult decision. Maybe this was because I already had a clear direction mapped out or perhaps there was relatively little choice? I just picked the subjects that I believed I had the best chance of doing well in and that was that.

These days the whole system is entirely different to the one that I battled my way through and is changing almost year on year. There are fewer exams and it does seem that success is far more formulaic than it was in my day. Of course, we all like to think that they are easier to pass because the results are comparatively so high. I don't actually know if that is true but in any case it doesn't matter as my children have to succeed in today's system and not the one of thirty years ago.

So now my eldest has three weeks in which to choose her GCSEs and I know about as much about it as I did when I was 14 and choosing my own. I still have all the same prejudices against particular subjects which I assume I picked up from my own parents. It's that whole middle class prejudice against anything that isn't a 'traditional' subject. I look at some of the things that are on the list and immediately disregard them as not being suitable. I would always prefer academic subjects to non - academic. But am I right? Is it still as important as it was or do they now just need to show good marks in a broad range of subjects but it doesn't really matter what?  She has to do at least one creative subject from a long list  of choices. Should she go with what she enjoys or what she's best at? Is Music a better option that PE? Does it really matter?

The whole thing is a bit of a minefield!

When push comes to shove, these are decisions that she has to make for herself. I will try and give guidance and make sure that she doesn't close any doors for herself at this stage although I'm not sure you really can get it terribly wrong. I suppose she needs a balance of subjects, preferably that she enjoys and that accord with the school's recommendations.

It's still scary though for me, the first time parent. All I want is for my children to be happy and successful in whatever they choose to do but if they have a sound academic grounding so many more options are available to them. And so as she steps out into the big bad world of public examinations for the first time, I am biting my lip and hoping that she's got it right and that all is well.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011


It's been a while since I mentioned my course so I thought I'd give you a bit of an update.

For those that don't know, in September I started an English Literature degree with the Open University. It's always been a bit of an ambition of mine. I would have done English had I not needed a Law degree to be a solicitor and last year it crossed my mind that instead of dreaming about it, I could actually just get on and do it.

At the outset, I teetered between wild excitement at the prospect of being able to spend all day reading books and deep trepidation about the whole madcap scheme. Where did I think I was going to find sixteen hours a week? Could I really take on a commitment for six long years? Would I be able to concentrate long enough to read my books let alone come up with anything sensible to say?

I calmed my nerves in the stationery department of WHS as I salivated over lever arch files and highlighters and suddenly it was October and I was off!

It's a slightly peculiar experience to be studying with the OU. Last time round I sat in lecture theatres scribbling frantically and had lots of people to chat things through with over coffee in the Union bar. With the OU it's just not like that. I have a pile of course materials, a book of assignments and a timetable of tutorials. The rest is up to me.

And so far so good. This year's course (AA100) is the foundation for all arts based courses and is designed to help learn the skills needed to complete a degree. It does this by introducing the students to a huge range of subjects. From Plato to Irish independence, from Cezanne to Christopher Marlowe we have scooted about the subjects spending a week on each before flying off at a tangent. It's fascinating and most of it has been completely new to me.

Every five weeks or so, I hot foot it to Bradford University for a tutorial. Whilst there are twenty people in the group, only eleven have ever put in an appearance. We know absolutely nothing about each other, our tutor being a gruff Lancastrian with no time for small talk. I have no inkling why any of them are studying, what they are aiming for or how well they are doing. It's all slightly strange. Still, I suppose they know nothing about me.

I am managing to keep up with the timetable by trying to keep a week ahead of the game so that I have time in hand for unseen eventualities - sick kids, work, half terms. And now, with the end of the first year in sight, I am starting to look at what to do next. There is so much choice that it's hard to know which direction to take. I could choose to study virtually anything I want. It's so exciting.

 Next year it all steps up a gear - less hand holding, higher standards and an exam. It's a bit daunting but not as scary as taking that first step was. In the meantime, I shall continue to follow my timetable  religiously and enjoy getting a discount at the cinema with my NUS card!

Friday, 11 February 2011


The Tiger Mother is all the rage. Brought into sharp focus by a recent book with a serialization on Radio 4, this style of parenting, favoured by the Chinese, has been causing a media storm.

In case you've missed it, the essence of the idea is that you focus all your child's energies into their education and perhaps a musical instrument, although only the piano or the violin are deemed acceptable. Any other distractions are forbidden so no sleepovers, parties, friends' houses after school or other frivolous activities.

At first glance, this is so different to how most Western households bring up their children that it seems cruel.  To hot house your child in this way deprives them of what everyone else takes for granted and what may seem like the essence of childhood. I suspect your average Western parent would baulk at these methods because it is generally believed here that children need to have fun, time to relax, be happy.

I would say the same. I chase my tail fetching and carrying so that my children get every opportunity to try new things. I hope that I am helping them grow into well rounded individuals with a wealth of experiences to set them on their way through life. However this approach will almost inevitably lead to them being Jacks of all trades and masters of none. Would I have been better, I wonder, channelling all their energies down two paths only - school and music- as is suggested by the 'Tiger Mother' of the book? Would they have a better chance in life if I narrowed their outlook?

The results of the system seem to speak for themselves. Chinese children achieve whereas British children seem incapable of getting five GCSEs. So why don't we all do it the Chinese way? Well, we don't like it. We want children to be happy and to have their self esteem boosted way beyond what can possibly be realistic.

But what does being happy involve? Children, like adults, are happy when they get their own way, when they do what they want. However, doing what you want often isn't the best course of action. I have to question whether a child is really in a position to make that kind of decision for themselves. And constantly being told that you are the best when you patently are not must lead to disappointment once you step outside the cosseted world of your home.

 I encourage my children to do their homework but I don't stand over them whilst they do it. I like to think that I am teaching them to be self motivated and independent. But if I am brutally honest with myself, I know that I could spend more time with each child helping them with their school work but I am busy with other things.

To hot house a child in the way that the Chinese mother has done takes huge amounts of stamina and determination. It is tempting to decry it as a strategy and say that it's an inappropriate way to parent but actually I'm not sure that it is. If you can devote your life to ensuring that your child reaches their potential then surely that's a good thing? And I suspect that a large part of the reason that I don't do it myself is not because I don't agree with it as a strategy. It's more that I couldn't actually do it. I just don't have it in me.

So hats off to the Chinese mothers. Through their sheer hard work and determination they produce children who know how to apply themselves and succeed and are then able to enjoy the fruits of their labours in their adult lives. I wonder how many British children will manage that?


Wednesday, 9 February 2011


A couple of weeks ago my fourteen year old went away for a week's residential trip with school. The kit list came home and in block capitals across the bottom was a missive warning of the consequences of taking alcohol or cigarettes. It took me by surprise. I suppose that because it never crossed my mind that my child would pack alcohol in her bag I hadn't thought about the possibility. But of course it is totally possible and presumably packed by children just like mine whose parents' minds it never crossed either.

So here it comes galloping over the horizon into full view - my next parenting dilemma. What do I do about my children and alcohol?

As with all things parenting I tend to start with my own experiences as a child. I don't remember booze playing much part in our family life. As far as I recall, my parents didn't really drink in front of us. I don't know if that was a considered policy or just the way it worked out. And I really didn't like the taste, being able to detect a whiff of sherry in the trifle at a hundred paces. The result was that alcohol didn't really feature in my life until I was 16 and I still think that's an acceptable age to start experimenting with the demon drink.

 So that doesn't really help me. I'm going to have to formulate my own plan of action.

I have been taking note of how other people seem to be preparing for the inevitable. So far I have observed four different approaches.

1. The total denial. 'They are only 13 and 14. Of course they aren't drinking yet.'
This is going nowhere. I may be naive but even I know that it's happening and pretending that it isn't won't help.

2. The total ban. This is, of course, what many people would like to do at least until they get a bit older but banning things is rarely the answer so I have disregarded it as an option.

3. The turning of a blind eye. 'I'm not sure where they're getting it from but it's only a couple of bottles. It's just what I did.'
The trouble with this approach is that you can never be entirely sure exactly what it is that you're turning a blind eye to. A couple of bottles of Budweiser or a litre of vodka. And what is it doing for parent child communications?

4. The controlled introduction. 'I'll provide a bit and then they can learn about the effects of alcohol where it's safe.'
This seems to be the most sensible idea. A little wine with a meal, a bottle of beer at a barbecue. All controlled, in appropriate social settings and with the emphasis on a drink as a pleasant experience and not a means to an end.

But..... they are only 14. As far as I can see they are just too young. It's like everything else. Phones at primary school, make up at 11, heels at 13. It's all far too soon. They are, or should be still children at 14. On the cusp, I accept but there's no need for us to go pushing them over the edge so that they fall, headlong into the dirty, dangerous adult world.

So I'm trying to follow approach number 5 and gently suggest to my daughter that it would be preferable to wait until she's a bit older when her young liver will be better placed to deal with the onslaught. I don't know if it will work. With this approach, I am pretty much at the mercy of her ability to make the right choices. It depends on mutual trust and her understanding of the reasons why I feel the way I do. I don't want ban alcohol. I see little point. If they want to drink then they will no matter what their parents say. I just want her to hold back for a little while until she is better equipped to deal with the consequences.

Have I got it right? Who knows? Time will tell.

Sunday, 6 February 2011


It has been said that I am determined. I think that is probably true although I'm not sure that it's a characteristic that reveals itself in my day to day life. As far as I am aware, there have only been two things in my life so far that I have pursued with dogged grit and unstinting resolve.

The first was my desire to be a solicitor. This idea, born in a music lesson when I was 14, shaped my life for the next two decades. It was the one goal that I valued above all others and I single-mindedly followed the educational path necessary to reaching it. The second is my wish to be married and remain married to my husband which I defend, terrier-like, from all dangers and peril and would fight to the death to protect.

Now suddenly there is a third. It will come as no surprise to you to know that I dream of being a writer. I've said it before. And I meant it. But something has changed. My ambition has transformed from a nice idea to a driving force pushing me on, just like the one that I had for my exams 25 years ago.

But being a writer is much easier written than done. Yes, I can string a passable sentence together and that's a good start but it's only the beginning. What I need is a little bit of help and an awful lot of practise. So, as a starting point, I am conducting a couple of experiments. If I don't lose my nerve, which I have to say I do on a daily basis, then my Book Group will read my first stab at a novel later this month. I am hoping for honest and gentle feedback as to whether they think I have something worth pursuing. The book itself probably isn't. It is, after all, a first attempt and not really what I'm aiming for. But my well-read friends should be able to give me some idea whether my quest is, in truth, a hopeless one or not.

In addition, I have taken to posting stories written in different styles on a writers' website. The first was a bit of a cheat as I wrote it on the little writing course that I did last year and so had an idea of what they might say. They liked it. The second was written in about the time it takes me to blog, with very little editing and in a totally different style. It has received no comments, has not been cherry picked and significantly fewer people have read it. Style one is considered better than style two then? I will continue with this game until I have a better idea of what is considered 'good' by them. It's an interesting exercise.

This is a long term plan. I am under no illusions that results will be had quickly. But I'm only 44. My life is just beginning. I have plenty of time to find my voice and offer it up to others. After all, the literary world is scattered with late bloomers - Mary Wesley, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Kenneth Graham and Raymond Chandler were all considerably older than me when they found success. And anyway, in the words of the man with the beret, "You've got to have a dream, If you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?"! Happy Talk

Thursday, 3 February 2011

WHAT IF......?

Do you ever wonder what if? What if I'd not come home from inter-railing and got a job in a bar in Florence? What if I'd stayed in London after Law School rather than going to Leeds? What if my husband hadn't been in the Trav that night? ( Apologies to all my readers who do not live in Ilkley and for whom that reference will mean nothing.)

On Sunday morning, I was flicking through the colour supplements when out slipped a Kuoni brochure. Unable to resist, I had a sneaky look. It was filled with fabulous holiday destinations in far flung places now all  beyond our means, totally impractical and relegated to the realm of dreams alone.

And then the heinous thought crossed my mind. What if we hadn't had the children? I can hear you tutting from here. How could I think that? How could I even let the merest shadow of such a thought flicker across my consciousness? I know. It's appalling - but actually I do it quite often.

Life BC (Before Children) was very different. At least I think it was. I can't actually remember. I had a thriving career and was talking to the powers that be about promotion before my waistline expanded in a tell-tale manner. So without children, with two incomes and no dance school bill, we would have had considerably more disposable income. We could have lived in a house with fewer bedrooms and far less lawn. I could have had matt white walls and impractical carpeting. I imagine us taking weekend breaks to interesting destinations off the beaten track and holidays to places that don't serve chips with everything. If something whetted our appetite, we could spontaneously explore it.

"I fancy the theatre tonight darling."
"Oh, do you really. Let's see what's on."
"Or perhaps that new restaurant in town? I'll meet you there when I've just closed this deal."

But it's no good. No matter how hard I try, I can't imagine my life without  the planning and complication that the children bring. I can't remember making decisions that just impacted on me. I have forgotten what it's like to not worry about the ramifications of every yea and nay.

What I can imagine though is how life might have been if we had stopped at two children. That is easy because all I have to do is scrub the little two away, erase them from my day to day life. If we just had the big ones, we could be enjoying meals where everyone sits still, trips out to see grown up films without the guilt of leaving two behind and great tranches of time when there were no children here at all. But it would be so quiet and dare I say it, a bit dull by comparison.

If I can't properly remember the minutia of life BC, I can remember being far too exhausted after the working week to go to the theatre on a whim. I recall quite clearly plans regularly being cancelled at the last minute because a deal had gone pear shaped and there would be no getting away from the office. As in all walks of life, the sudden removal of the rose coloured spectacles brings the reality into sharp focus and it's not always quite what you'd hoped.

As it is my life is noisy, chaotic and very organised. The children and their constantly changing requirements mean that there can rarely be a spontaneous excursion either for them or us and the simplest of arrangements takes forever to achieve. But would I swap? Of course not. My life without children might have an attractive gloss but my life with them is rich and deep. I am still exhausted but in a rewarding and satisfying way.

And maybe one day, when they have all gone to make their own way in the world, we can dig out those Kuoni brochures and pick somewhere with the most spectacular infinity pool and the whitest beach. But until then it'll be Centre Parcs and pantos for me and, do you know, that's just fine.