Sunday, 31 July 2011

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

My given name is Imogen Jane Bromley and so it was until I reached 28, got married and, following age old tradition, took my husband's name. Growing up in the 70s with a name like Imogen was a challenge. It's hard to imagine now that the name is so prevalent but back then it was unheard of. When introducing myself I generally had to repeat my name more than once. Adults smiled politely and then didn't call me anything for weeks. Children just said 'What? That's not a real name.' etc etc. I was 18 before I even heard of another one that wasn't famous and in my twenties before I met one.
 
It was character forming. If someone was talking about Imogen then it was always me. That was just how it was, good or bad. And Bromley was relatively unusual too. Even by the time I was an adult and announcing myself on the telephone at work, the secretaries would only get one name or the other first time. When I changed my name there was less of an issue. Clark is so easy to get hold of that Imogen proved to be less of a stumbling block.

I'd been married for a year when I discovered that there was another Imogen Clark. She is a solicitor working for a City law firm and she works within the same discipline as me. I didn't like it one bit. I wasn't used to sharing my moniker with anyone, let alone someone with whom I might reasonably be confused.

There are, of course, thousands of Imogen Clarks. Imogen has been in the Top 100 names for years now and Clark, even allowing for the rogue 'e' at the end of some versions, is a Top 20 surname. I used to ask my husband how it felt to have people shout out his name in a public space and it not be for him. I think he thought I was mad but to me it was the strangest thing. It's more common now of course but when mothers shout at their own little Imogens I always turn round.

This is all writ large for me these days because of my blog and more specifically my stat counter. The counter tells me how many hits the page gets each day and the links that have been followed to get there. So I know that when people search for 'Imogen Clark' on google, it's not always me that they're looking for. There's an author for example and an Australian indie/folk singer with the sweetest voice. Someone once even posted a comment that they loved my music. I had to tell them that they were acting under a misapprehension and that the Imogen Clark whose life they were reading about was not the one they sought.

I have toyed with the idea of setting up a closed group on facebook for everyone with my name just to see what a diverse bunch we actually are. I might still do it but even though I think it would be great fun, something still holds me back. Somewhere in my head I am still that unique child with the unheard of name and I am unprepared to share.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

HAVING FUN WITH LEG-WARMERS

It's high summer. My garden is in full bloom. The children are playing barefoot on the lawn late into the evening. I wait all year for this. But lo. What is this falling through my letterbox and landing with an ominous thud on the doormat. Could it be the sound of Autumn/Winter catalogues arriving?

I should know better than to look. Instead of anticipating what comes next, I should be enjoying what we have now. But I can't help it. The lure of cable knit sweaters is too much. So I have a little peak. After all, what harm can it do? It's not like I'm wishing away my beloved summer or anything. And what do I see? Girls in jeans and boots with long-length cardigans and tousled scarves. And leg-warmers.

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I've always been quite attracted to leg-warmers. Even in the 80s, when they were only worn by fitness freaks, Fame wanabees and Bucks Fizz, I really fancied a pair. And here they were, in my new catalogue. I want some. I need some. I am absolutely not paying £36 for some.

I know. I'll make some. I can knit. I made fingerless gloves and wrist warmers last winter. These are just the same only longer. I need a pattern though. Whilst they are simple and I am a competent knitter, I need to have success guaranteed or I'll lose heart. I need a pattern that looks like the one in the catalogue.

And so I begin to trawl my way through the knitting sites. I come across hundreds of leg-warmer patterns but none of them are quite right. You see my requirements are very specific. A simple rib is not enough. I need a cable too. But if it's complicated and I have to concentrate whilst knitting then I will go wrong and lose interest. It's a very fine line between looking right and lying unfinished in the bottom of my knitting bag.

After what seems like hours, my vision is starting to blur but I still  have no perfect pattern. And then I find it. Not too complicated, the exact rib to cable ratio. Marvelous. The pattern is free and I click on the PDF file, my heart beating a little faster in anticipation of Autumn walks and kicking through leaves. The pattern is in Japanese. I hit translate which makes the surrounding adverts intelligible but leaves the pattern itself a mass of squiggles. Damn.

Undeterred, I decide to go with my second choice of pattern and visit the helpful women at my wonderful local wool shop Create. They are full of sound advice, won't laugh at my desire for simplicity and the result, assuming that I don't lose count and get disheartened, should be just what I'm hoping for.

This way I get to do something non screen related in the evening and by the time the nights are drawing in and jeans and boots are de rigour, I should be sporting a natty pair of leg-warmers. Or the yarn will be lying in the bottom of my knitting bag. tangled with the mess of other unfinished projects, waiting for today's enthusiasm to re-emerge. It's a hard one to call.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

WHY I HATE FESTIVALS

We went to a festival this weekend, Deer Shed in North Yorkshire. It is billed as being kids and family friendly and I would have to agree with the tag line. When I arrived, the field was full of happy people. There were men doing battle with tents, children playing on space hoppers, mums with plastic glasses of Pimms, rainbow jumpers and lots and lots of smiling faces.

There were oodles of creative crafts for the children to try, interesting stalls with quirky handmade stock to purchase and fabulous food stalls with hardly a chip in sight. There was a circus tent and the music and the beer tents. There was plenty of fresh water to drink and the loos were remarkably clean. The organisers had thought of everything.

My family had a wonderful time. There were plenty of people there that we know from home and the children formed a huge feral pack and careered around the site wallowing in the unaccustomed freedom. The adults found a place to act as the base and spread blankets surrounded by camping chairs so the children always knew where to return to if their nerve failed them or they ran out of cash. Everyone looked happy and relaxed.

Except me. I hated it.

 As far as I am concerned, it had no redeeming features whatsoever. I arrived half way through the weekend and left again before the day was out. Of the two days and nights that my family was there, I managed seven hours but I would have happily left after three.

So what's wrong with me? Why am I swimming so hard uphill when everyone else is happy to grab a rip tide and enjoy the ride. The list of things that I don't like about festivals is so long that to even begin to mention them makes me sound like a fuddy duddy killjoy. Sadly, it seems that I am the only person of my acquaintance who doesn't love it. Despite mentioning my view tentatively to a wide range of people, I have yet to find anyone who replies 'I know exactly what you mean. I hate it too.' I am completely on my own. I did wonder whether some other people didn't enjoy it quite as much as they made out but were happy to go with the flow but I saw no evidence of this.

I'm not going next year. I shouldn't have gone this year but I felt guilty when the rest of the Clarks were so keen. I am hurt and upset that I am incapable of doing something as simple as sitting in a field for a weekend to please others. It is probably just selfish of me not to smile and pretend that I'm having the best time and I'm sure that the others must think that I'm weird or mad or both.

Perhaps I should cultivate my slightly eccentric demeanour, begin wearing purple now rather than in old age? Then people will say 'Oh it's only Imogen. Don't mind her. She always was a little odd!'

Perhaps they already do.

THE POWER OF SUGGESTION

I was listening to a science show on the radio. It was about the relationship between science and the world of the psychic phenomena. It made lots of interesting points about the need for humans to have explanations for things, particularly in times of stress although the existence of anything paranormal was poo pooed.

As part of the programme, they asked the studio audience to conduct an experiment. It was introduced as a way of finding who had the most imagination. Of course, what it was really about was susceptibility. I was at home on my own so I joined in.

So. If I could now do a straw poll of my readership, I wonder how many of you would say that I, self-confessed sceptic and truster in science, would fall for something as simple as that? Alternatively, you may feel that I have some powers of imagination and a tendency to believe the unlikely which might be revealed by such a test. I suspect you could all have a pretty good guess as to which side of the line I fell.

Actually, the key word is 'susceptibility'. With my logical, rational head on I cannot be convinced of the existence of higher powers, ghosts and communications from beyond the grave. But I would like to believe in fairies, am highly credulous, easily deceived and like to think I can be open minded.

Of course I fell for the experiment hook, line and sinker. Even as the instructions were being spoken, I was aware that I was being manipulated but when I opened my eyes it was obvious that some stronger part of my brain had taken over and decided that I was, unwillingly or otherwise, going to cooperate with what I was being told to do.

Of course, this isn't the first time that my susceptibility has been proven. A hypnotist came to the Students' Union one night when I was there. Guess where this is going! We had to lace our fingers over our heads and the ones who couldn't separate them when he'd finished suggesting things to us were judged suitably susceptible and had to go up on stage. There were about twenty of us. Without giving any indication of how he did it, the hypnotist quickly identified those who were pretending and sent them back to their seats. This left me and nine others to make the show.

It's a strange experience, being hypnotised. I was aware of what was going on the whole time. I knew that the things that he was asking us to do were silly or required  a leap of imagination - invisible chairs, dripping ice creams, alcoholic water - but somehow it all seemed perfectly sensible and quite ordinary.

So, from this I must conclude that I am someone to whom things can be suggested and I will believe them. I am Derren Brown's dream audience member. Despite my professed logical outlook and pragmatic approach to life, there is something about the way my mind works that makes it open to things that don't make much sense. But should I be bothered? Does it reveal yet another massive character flaw? I suppose I rather like to think of myself as having imagination but isn't that just a nice way of saying that I'm a mug?

Actually, all it means is that I can be hypnotised. It doesn't follow that I will start attending seances and believe that a woman with a crystal ball can predict my future. It is fascinating though and I would love to talk to a hypnotist about why their powers work on some people and not others and what it is about my brain that makes me susceptible. It's probably just my tendency towards gullibility but I like to think that that's part of my charm!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A MOMENTARY LAPSE

6

            Natasha Blakeman sat at the table in her well appointed kitchen and wept. In the next room the twins were fighting over a toy train or a book or a jigsaw puzzle. She had no idea exactly what. She no longer cared. In a bouncy chair by the table leg Lily was crying. Her little fists were bunched in anger and her screwed up face was squeezing out real tears. Natasha put her fingers in her ears and tried to block out the sound but the piercing cry continued to sear straight through her brain. Hot tears coursed down her cheeks.
            ‘Will you all just shut up!’ she screamed. For a moment, the sudden and unexpected sound made Lily stop crying and she looked with curiosity at her mother but then she redoubled her efforts as the shock of the sound hit her. Natasha, horrified both by her outburst and the effect that it had had on her daughter, knelt down beside the bouncy chair. She struggled with the buckle as she tried to release the screaming child from the straps that held her safe and the unforgiving plastic clip nipped her finger. Ignoring the pain she freed the baby and held her close to her chest, rocking her back and forth instinctively.
            ‘I’m sorry, Princess. I’m sorry,’ she repeated over and over through her tears. Noah and Jacob stormed in to the room, both desperate to put their side of the story before their sibling.
            ‘Mummy! Jacob said I was stupid!’
            ‘ Noah took the tractor and I had it and its mine.’
            ‘No it’s not. It’s mine. Uncle James bought it for me for my birthday didn’t he Mummy? Didn’t he? And you can’t have it. I want it back. Give it to me now.’
With that, Noah hit Jacob on the arm with the length of train track that he had in his hand.
            ‘Boys! Stop it! Can’t you just play nicely? Please.’ Natasha knew that begging her four year old sons to behave would not have the desired effect but she no longer had the energy to apply the strategies that she had read about in her many parenting manuals.
            Jacob, generally the more sensitive of the two realised that his mother was crying and immediately abandoned the fight with his brother to hug her. His small arms were too short to wrap around both his mother and sister and so he focused on Natasha’s shoulder instead.
            ‘Mummy, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?’
            Noah, realising that his brother was about to steal a march on him by showing compassion, came to hug her other shoulder but Natasha could see that he was still pulling faces at Jacob as he did so. Balancing Lily precariously against her chest, she put an arm around each of the boys and pulled them towards her in an awkward embrace. Stalwartly, she tried to regain her composure, hating that she was showing this alien, vulnerable side of herself to her children but there was no stemming the flood of tears now that they had started. Her shoulders heaved and she sobbed, snatching her breath in uneven gasps. Her long brown hair stuck to her damp face but she had no hand free to wipe it away and so she left it there, not caring how she looked.
             Lily had stopped crying, placated by the contact with her mother and the twins, tired of competing for her attention, were struggling to get away. She released them and they scattered, all concern for their mother forgotten in their desire to move on to the next thing.
            A blood blister had formed where her finger had caught in the buckle and it glistened on her skin like a ruby. She knew she would have burst it before too long, not having the self control to allow nature to take its course but for now she would let it be. How had her life got to this? Crying in a heap on the kitchen floor? She was a controlled and competent woman, laid waste by the marauding monsters that were her children. That was not fair. The children were not bad; they were just children. She would cope. All she needed was some sleep and everything would slip back into place just as it had been before. She was pretty sure that every mother had moments like this, when the enormity of the task they had been given overwhelmed them. Of course, you would never tell from the outside. By the time the little family was seen in public at the twins’ preschool tomorrow, all would be calm and a picture of order. The twins, in their matching blazers and shorts, Lily in some adorable but not entirely practical dress and she with freshly laundered outfit and blow-dried hair. It was all a fa├žade really, a conspiracy that all mothers were party to but that no one would discuss.
            The phone rang. James maybe, although unlikely. More probably her mother, or James’s. She let it ring, waiting for the answer phone to reveal the identity of the caller. She heard her own voice, unnaturally bright and cheerful, inform the caller that the Blakemans could not come to the phone right now. The irritating beep filled the kitchen followed by the strident tones of Rosemary Blakeman.
            ‘Hello dear. How are you? You must be out. Bother. I just wanted to firm up the plans for the weekend. We are so looking forward to seeing you all. I’m arranging for Matthew and Kate to come over for lunch on Sunday so that will be nice…’
            As her mother in law got into her stride, Natasha thought briefly about picking up the phone and speaking to her. That would save her having to call back later. In all honesty though, she really could not face the pretence that a conversation with Rosemary at this moment would involve. She left the phone on its cradle and, feeling a little guilty at the deception, listened to the remainder of the message without getting up.
            ‘….so if you could give me a ring and let me know what sort of time to expect you that would be lovely. I’ll put the travel cot in with you and James. I hope that’s OK. We can always have a swap around if you’d prefer somewhere else. Anyway, I must go. Hope you’re all well. Love to James. Bye.’
            A click signalled the end of the call and Natasha shuffled herself and her daughter across the floor so that her back rested against a cupboard door. Lily had fallen asleep. Natasha knew that she should put her down and go and spend some time with the twins but instead she stayed where she was and closed her eyes. The smell of Lily’s feather-soft hair was divine and she breathed it in as deeply as she could, breathing out again reluctantly. It was nearly four ‘o clock. She would have to do something about tea for the boys soon. Perhaps she would just do a carpet picnic and then aim for an early bath. James was unlikely to be back in time to help her so she might as well get the whole bedtime process over and done with as soon as was realistic.
            A weekend in Bath. She could do without it but at least Rosemary would cook and there would be plenty of people about to keep the twins entertained. It would be nice to see Matthew and Kate too. They were such an earnest couple, Natasha thought. Matthew a replica of his father in so many ways and Kate, so serious and focussed. The Blakemans had always had Natasha pegged as the driven career woman of the family but it was obvious to her that Kate was just as determined. You only had to look at the way she was keeping them all waiting for a grandchild to see who wore the trousers there. Rosemary seemed to think that it was a biological issue but to Natasha it was obvious that Kate’s childless state was by design. At this moment she was almost envious.
            Well, she could not sit here all day. Buoyed up by the early to bed strategy, Natasha carefully stood up with the sleeping Lily still in her arms. The baby did not stir and delicately Natasha returned her to the bouncy chair leaving the vicious buckle unfastened. Gently she sidled to the kitchen door and, closing it behind her, went off to find out what the boys were up to.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

THE SUMMER HOLIDAY

'There's no point going to school for the last two weeks of term.'

So affirmed my daughter at the breakfast table this morning. It appears that what, in my day, was the fun run-down to the summer holidays after the drudge of school exams is now a bit of a drag. Without exams there has been no discernible end to the academic year and so it is about to go out with with a whimper not a bang.

'We are playing board games in Spanish.'
'Well that sounds like fun,' I say, brightly. 'Do you have enough of that kind of vocabulary?'
'No mum!' she says, with distinct undertones of exasperation. 'In Spanish. Not in Spanish.'
'Oh,' I say, weakly. 'Well that will be fun as well....'

I give up. I decide against pointing out that even if they had finished earlier, the last two weeks would have been the same. And anyway, they have Celebration Day for working hard all year to come and daughter two won the Super Tutor Group challenge and will be rewarded with an afternoon at the Lido so it's hardly doom and gloom.

Conversations like this though serve to remind me (as if any reminder were necessary) that the summer holiday is almost upon us. Six weeks of long, hot days swinging in the hammock and sleeping in the tent. The days that childhood memories are made of.

I take an extraordinarily hands off approach to the long vac. We  do barely anything that requires a car or organisation. Instead, we all kick around here, occasionally venturing out to town for supplies. Kids come. Kids go. I make food and we all achieve very little. It suits us. We work hard as a family during term time and it's nice to take our collective feet off the gas.

Or at least it is for a bit. Granted the first week is normally a challenge as we all hunker down into our new lifestyles but after that, we generally have a few weeks of unadulterated mucking about. But then I start to twitch. I long for silence, or what passes for silence around here. I dream of having to be up and out before midday. I even start to look at the calendar and work out how the new term's ferrying will work out.

I love having my children at home. Of course I do. I love it when everything stops and we can eat when it suits us and not be constantly watching the clock. But I do miss a bit of structure to my days. With not much to do, I sort of slip into a malaise and before long just walking up to town becomes too much like hard work and gets put off to another day.

I think the problem is that the holiday is just too long. Four weeks would be perfect. Time for us all to relax, recharge and re-engage. After six weeks, they have forgotten what shoes are for or the meaning of the words 'Hurry up!'

This year I have rather cleverly placed our summer holiday in the last two weeks so we will only get four weeks at home. As a result, I'm not quite as daunted as I usually am. I have books to read and things to write and I have drawn up a cleaning rota. But by the time September comes, I will have had enough and will be raring to meet all the challenges of the new academic year. By October, of course, I will be mourning the death of yet another summer and crying out for a break.

Friday, 8 July 2011

HIDDEN PEOPLE

Last week my friend went on a course. Billed as 'Vikings and Volcanoes', it was designed to be a day's romp through the highlights of Iceland but actually they seemed to spend rather a lot of time talking about elves.

This caught my interest. Whilst it flies in the face of what I consider to be my logical intellect, I have always been strangely drawn to magical creatures. Fairies, mermaids and unicorns have resonated highly with me since childhood. I love the idea of there being a parallel world existing side by side with ours which we fail to see either because we aren't looking or because the ability to notice is reserved to special people only, like children. So although I'm pretty certain that there aren't any pixies living in the wilderness at the bottom of my garden, I would be delighted if someone proved me wrong.

And so back to Iceland. What I gleaned, second-hand from my friend, is that in Iceland a belief in the 'Hidden People' is both prevalent and totally acceptable. Elves, seen only by those that the elves choose to give the power, feature heavily in the country's folklore and traditions. You must never throw stones for fear of hitting them and building projects have been put on hold whilst sites have been checked for signs of elf settlements. Apparently, houses like this one are built in gardens to ensure prosperity.

I'm not sure what it is about these ideas that appeals to me. It's certainly not believing in something that I can't see and which defies scientific explanation. I could do that here along with millions of others and be in good company. I think it's more to do with there being a possibility that we don't know it all. I like the thought that something could have slipped through the net and be laughing at us here on earth whilst we fix our attention on the cosmos and ignore what's going on under our noses. I also love the idea of living somewhere where it's perfectly acceptable to believe in elves after you leave Infant school, to have minds so open to the extraordinary that it makes it seem like anything could be possible. If we close our minds to everything that is not supported by rational reasoning then there's no room for the imagination and that would be a very dull place to live.

Try as I might, I know that I am unlikely to see a unicorn in a shady glade or a colony of mermaids in a rock pool. But I would really like to believe that fairies or elves, pixies or sprites happily coexist with us and that this could explain some of the more mysterious questions of life even if I never actually see one.




Tuesday, 5 July 2011

SPEAKING TO STRANGERS

I walked to school carrying a Lego model yesterday. It was an intricate reconstruction of a some scene from a Harry Potter film which my youngest had spent ages building and wanted to produce at 'Show and tell'. And so, I took the responsibility of transporting it safely to school in one piece thus seeking to avoid the inevitable tears that would follow if it broke on the way.

I appreciate that this in itself is not terribly interesting and unlikely to hold my reader's attention for long. However, the response that I got was. I didn't notice to start with. The first few people that we passed smiled broadly at me and, being a friendly soul, I smiled back. After all I do try to engage with the people that I pass on my daily saunter to school. When I noticed drivers of cars smiling at me as well, I began to think that perhaps there was something else afoot.

I was brought up to acknowledge the people that I pass in the street. If my path crosses with someone else's, I will generally smile and say hello. If a stranger waits for me to pass at a narrow place, I try to thank them. This, as I was taught as a child, is common courtesy and costs nothing. I know it doesn't happen everywhere and that if I tried smiling at random strangers in a city centre I might get more than I bargained for but here in my little sleepy town it's what I consider to be the done thing.

Except that it's not. People younger than me rarely make eye contact. They will be texting or plugged into their ipod and it doesn't seem to cross their mind to recognise that they and I briefly share the same air space. Old people will generally speak if they're spoken to but often look so shocked that someone has said  'Good morning' that I fear for the state of their hearts. They clearly no longer expect a stranger to speak and sometimes I do just to challenge them (which isn't really the point, I know).

Which is why it struck me as so unusual when so many people made eye contact and smiled whilst I carried the Lego creation. With me walking with small children and carrying a toy they were happy to speak. Is that because it gave them an excuse to communicate, a point of reference? Was the sight unusual or comical enough to jolt them out of their private world? Did I just look less threatening armed with Lego rather than my ubiquitous phone (which I do always try to stop looking at as I pass people out of some strange sense of decorum.) Do we now need an excuse to communicate with one another? I fear we might.

There are lots of people, mainly those younger than myself to be fair, to whom speaking to strangers would never occur. I consider this to be a break down in manners and is something that needs to be addressed before all sense of community is lost. But  this was different. These were people who were happy to smile at my son and his model. It was as if they had simply got out of the habit of tipping their invisible hat and saying hello.

 Well, I for one, think it's a shame. I am bringing my children up to acknowledge those around them although I am sure there are those that would say that I'm playing fast and loose with the 'Stranger Danger' rules. I want to live in a world where talking to someone new is not greeted with suspicion. I am thinking that perhaps I should amass an array of interesting and noteworthy objects to carry around with me just to prompt a response. And I think that everyone reading this should acknowledge a stranger every day just to appease me! That would be a start.