Thursday, 20 December 2012

A Christmas Tale

A bit of a self-indulgent post, this one, and I'm grateful to anyone who endures to the end of it! Each year, after the Christmas festivities are ended, we strip the Christmas tree we chose with such care and haul it to the Christmas tree graveyard to be ground down by the Council. It's a sad sight seeing all those trees, once so cherished, abandoned in a heap, shreds of tinsel still hanging off them. My children were so grieved we decided to write a story about it. My 10-year-old was the creative director and illustrator and I was the scribe... 

Deep in the dark cold wood stood a tiny fir tree. Its towering neighbours cast their shadows all around it and blocked out the sky and the tiny tree never saw the sun.

It grew colder. One day something wet and white landed on the tiny fir tree. Another followed, then another. The fir trees stood knee deep in the snow and their branches drooped beneath the weight of it.

The tiny fir tree did not know it, but Christmas was approaching. In the towns and villages the shops sparkled with tinsel and fairy lights, carols sounded across the frozen streets and people hurried home with bags of presents and special food. When dusk fell, a bright moon rose over the wood and made silver streaks across the snow. Suddenly voices broke the silence. The little fir tree strained to hear. Then three children danced between the tall trunks of the trees, shouting and laughing and calling to the tall man who walked behind them carrying a spade.

'How about this one?' cried one.
'Too tall!'
'This one?'
'Too bare.'
'We need a tree that's small enough to fit into the sitting room and strong enough to hold tinsel and chocolates and our new Christmas fairy,' said the tall man.

The little fir tree felt excited. How it longed to escape the dark cold wood. To hear laughter. To see the sun. To feel warmth on its frozen limbs. 'I hope they choose me!' it thought and it tried to fluff out its snowy branches. The smallest of the children came nearer. She put out a hand and stroked the soft bristles of the little fir tree. 'This is the one!' she called. The others tramped through the snow to join her.
'Perfect!' said the middle child. 'Not too big, not to bare and not too wispy.'

And so the father took up his spade and carefully dug round the little tree. With one hard pull he heaved it our of its snowy bed and slung it over his shoulder. Back through the wood they went, the moon beaming down on them through the branches. They reached the furthest rim of trees and the little fir felt a thrill of joy. The whole world seemed to lie before it down the hillside. The lights of a town prickled in the valley and the light of the starts matched them overhead. But the brightest light of all streamed from the windows of a small square house half way down the hill.

The door of the house flew open and a woman came down the path smiling. 'Did you find one?' she asked.
'The best ever!' the children shouted.
The little tree was carried into a warm bright sitting room. A fire leapt in the hearth, lamps burned on the tables and curtains shut out the night. The snow began to drip drip off its branches. 'It's so pleased to be here it's crying!' said the smallest child.

The children fetched boxes from the hallway. Colours as bright as jewels glimmered inside them. Then they fetched a bucket of soil wrapped round with gold paper and tied with a scarlet bow. The little fir was patted snugly in the warm earth. Then ropes of twinkling gold and silver were wound round its branches. Shiny balls dangled from its tips - red balls, blue ones, green, gold and purple with silver piping. Then came painted wooden birds, lustrous angels, ribbons, sugared fruits and tiny animals. Lastly a fairy with pink and silver wings was perched on top. The father pressed a switch and tiny rainbows blazed out from the top of the little tree to the bottom. The children cheered and the little tree thought it had never felt so happy.

When the children had been put to bed presents in gaily coloured paper were heaped round the tree. 'I don't think we've ever had one so beautiful,' sighed the mother.

The next day was Christmas. The little fir watched joyfully as the family tore open their gifts and reached down chocolates from its branches. The children sat round the golden bucket to sing carols and the scent of roasting potatoes filled the house. Outside the windows snow fell, but the little Christmas tree was warm and snug by the fire.

Days passed. Each afternoon the children played around the branches of the little fir. Each evening the parents read books and watched the television beside it. Then, one foggy chill morning the family began to take the golden ropes and coloured baubles from the branches. They stripped off the chocolates and the animals and the rainbow lights. The fairy was packed in a little box. The little tree began to feel shivery and bare.

As before the father heaved it out of its bed and slung it over his shoulder. But this time they passed from warmth to cold. From the cosy, fire-bright sitting room to the frost and fog outside and back up the hill to the wood which stood darkly against the sky. A great black shape loomed near the trees. As they drew nearer the little fir realised that the shape was a mound of Christmas trees. They lay higgeldy piggeldy on top of one another. Some were still fresh and green. Some had lost nearly all their needles. Some were already turning brown and some still had shreds of tinsel clinging to their branches. With a great heave the father flung the little tree onto the top of the pile and strode back down the hill.

The little fir lay wedged between a tall fat tree with silver glitter stuck to its needles and an old stumpy tree with bare twigs. Rain began to drizzle over the pile and drip like tears from the branches. Down the hill the lights from the house glowed and the little fir tree shivered.

Suddenly there was a sound. A torch flashed onto the soaking heap. 'Which one is it? whispered a voice. It was the oldest child.
'That one there!' replied his sister. 'Can't you tell? It's the sweetest, prettiest one of them all.'
Together the children clambered onto the pile and hauled the little fir out of the tangle.
'We couldn't leave you there when we'd spent such a lovely Christmas together,' said the oldest child. 'We're going to plant you back in the wood so you can grow big and strong.'

And so they hauled the little tree deep among the shadowing firs and they dug a hole and bedded it in snugly among the fallen pine needles. And there it stood, the little fir, while the winter turned to summer and back to winter again. The years passed. The little tree grew bigger and bigger until it was as tall as its tallest neighbours and could feel the sunlight on its topmost branches. Fir cones swelled along its twigs, ripened and fell to earth. And one day a seed spilled out of a fallen cone and buried itself in the soft ground. A tiny shoot grew. The shoot became a sapling and the sapling became a little fir tree.

Winter arrived and snow began to fall. One day voices sounded in the wood. Three children danced between the tall trunks shouting and laughing and calling to the tall man who walked behind them carrying a spade.
'When I was about your age, my sisters and I found a perfect little tree somewhere round here,' said the man. 'It was the best Christmas tree we ever had and we were so sad to see it thrown onto the Christmas tree graveyard that we rescued it and planted it back where we first found it.'
'Can we have it for our Christmas tree?' cried the children.
'It would have grown far too big now. I'm talking of years ago,' their father said.

One of the children spotted the little fir growing in the shadow of its parent. 'I like this one,' she said. The others gathered round to look. 'It's perfect,' said her brother. 'Not too tall. Not too bare. Not too wispy.' The father lifted his spade and the mighty fir that had once cheered him through Christmas watched proudly as its baby was heaved over his shoulder and carried away through the snow.

© Anna Tims 2012

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all you beloved readers!

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Round Robin II

Dear [Name to be supplied. Note to Vicar: check your address book for anyone we've left out],

Well, would you believe another twelve months has gone by and we are all a year older (and wiser, of course!!) than we were this time in 2011! And that means it's a whole year since I tried my hand at the art of the round robin, inspired by so many wonderful newsletters from dear friends I'd forgotten I had! As a raw beginner, I only managed a few pages of my own because ones lunch dates and the little successes of ones children all tend to merge into a golden haze over the course of a year, but this time I've kept a detailed daily diary so I'll be able to share properly with you the highs and lows family life in 2012!!

As the Vicar and I were only saying to each other last week, our children never cease to amaze us! The year began well for the 8-year-old. He came home from school to tell us that he had come second in his class! It turned out that he was on the second table of ability! Out of two!! As you can imagine, we were so proud, because if there had been three tables, he might have been on the third! And he wasn't, which is testament to his stalwart attitude to learning! As his teacher said, there's never a peep out of him in class, even when she tries to catch him out with a question!

February was a month of bins! Every week on bin night foxes strewed our Tesco Value meat wrappers over the highway!! If I'd known our provisions were going to be on public display I'd have gone to Waitrose! Luckily, we discovered that we could stuff some of our kitchen bin liners into our neighbour's wheelie and thereby ease the pressure on the council litter pickers. Should she realise, I know she'd be grateful because if the council discovered how much bigger her bin was than her needs they'd have it off her. That's the thing about vicarage life: one always has to have a helping hand at the ready!

February merged, as it always does, into March and brought with it our new fridge! It was a gut-wrenching farewell to our old friend - every stain was a gastronomic memory - but life, I've learnt, is full of painful partings and brave new chapters. Our brave new chapter was delayed because John Lewis had forgotten to mention that the fridge we'd ordered wasn't manufactured any more!! I had to wait in two days for the delivery, but it's so energising to wake up with a purpose and it gave me a wonderful chance to become good friends with Adil from customer services who had a very sick mother-in-law!

Hot on the heels of March came April, and, while those poor people in Syria were fighting for survival, our own life and death battle was being waged in the vicarage garden! My beloved herbaceous perennials sat huddled like refugees on canvas sheeting on the lawn while I battled the menace of creeping buttercup which had invaded my borders. Now I shudder when I hear the headlines of some new atrocity driving people from their homes for, although, of course, their plight is in many ways worse than mine was, it brings back painful memories of what I and my poor leafy babies had to endure!

Summer, of course, was the season of sporting glory and both children won gold medals during the Olympics - for 'gold' panning at Willows Farm children's activity park! Apologies to all of you who didn't get a postcard from our fabulous week in sunny Cornwall! I'm enclosing a picture pull-out of highlights so you can enjoy it retrospectively for yourselves! The 8-year-old proved himself to be a champion underwater swimmer! Every time we put him on a surf board he'd topple off backwards so comically - he's a born clown! - and remain submerged for fantastic distances before emerging howling with excitement! He wept when we praised him, but that's our wee man all over - he's inherited the family modesty!

September saw the church fete as usual! I was the one chosen to put my head through a hole at the Soak the Sunday School Teacher stall and it was amazing the alacrity with which the parish paid to hurl sponges at me! They told me the attraction had never been so popular!!

October was a month of culture. There's nothing more invigorating than hearing West End musical hits belted out on a London stage - yes, the Mothers Union singing group is going from strength to strength in the church on Friday mornings!  And come Winter, the 10-year-old was also treading the boards! Yes, after a year of drama fees she was finally honoured with a part in the annual theatrical extravaganza - as a Christmas cracker! Sadly, tickets were limited so only her proud parents got to hear her recite her line, but you can watch my video of the three-hour show here on

Our social life was as busy as ever! Really, I don't now where the time goes! It's hard to believe it was way back on the 5th March that I had a mocha latte with Jacqueline and Miles.....

PTO six pages

But enough of us! We often think of you and your lovely family/spaniel/villa (Note to Vicar: delete as appropriate) and wonder how you are getting on! I do hope to meet up with as many of you as possible in the New Year and fill you in on the titbits I didn't have room for in this short letter!

Happy Christmas and may your New Year be as blessed and successful as I know ours will be!

Anna xxx

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Doing What I Want

'You', says my 10 year-old as I march her a mile to school instead of defrosting the Skoda, 'only ever do what you want!' I point out that I only ever do what is good for her, but my words evaporate in the chilly morning air, for children only acknowledge that a thing is in their best interests if they enjoy it. Thus, in my daughter's eyes:

My sitting for an hour on the floor of a leisure centre corridor while she learns gymnastics is good for her.
My sitting for an hour on a cupboard ledge while she reluctantly learns to swim is doing what I want.

Browsing T-shirts in Hollister is good for her.
Buying supper at Coop is doing what I want.

Submitting to an iPod for her birthday is good for her.
Barring her from Facebook is doing what I want.

Crumpets in front of the TV is good for her.
Wholemeal sandwiches is doing what I want.

An afternoon of Diary of a Wimpy Kid at the cinema is good for her.
Making her walk there is doing what I want.

Clean sheets and laundered clothes are good for her
Transporting them herself from bedroom floor to laundry basket is doing what I want.

I know that in 30 years time she'll see things my way. She'll be inflicting wholegrain on recalcitrant offspring and hectoring them on the health benefits of walking. But 30 years is is a long time to wait for enlightenment and I am battle weary. Maybe just this once I'll take the car to school pick up.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Shrinking Horizons

'Why,' asks my 8-year-old, 'does Monday come before Tuesday?'
'Who has the longest toes in the world?'
'Does anyone in the world have no coins, only banknotes?'

My son dislikes silence. He'll fill any gap in the din of family life with a question and these questions bother me; not because I don't know the answer, but because I don't care.

It's not that I don't have an enquiring mind. I wonder why facial moles sprout bristles, why my cakes never rise, why the Vicar hates spinach and why Uggs became fashionable. I ponder things of consequence, you see, and my son's unthinking enquiries are a frivolous interruption.

But at night sometimes, when the incessant voice is stilled, I ponder the mind of an 8-year-old. A mind in which men caper on toes like Savaloys or wait helplessly beside slot machines with wallets burdened with banknotes. I require beer or unconsciousness to achieve such surrealism and, in those night hours, I wish I'd tried to share more in his liberated world view.

And, amid the peace of my pillows, it strikes me that his mind delves deeper than my own. He probes science: 'Am I blood-related to myself?'; economics: 'What would you rather have - £100 or £1m?' and ethics: 'Would you rather eat a pudding or for me to be dead?'

When these sleepy insights hit me, I conclude that I have a son of misunderstood brilliance. I resolve, in future, to engage with his questions, instead of grunting replies without listening. I pledge to celebrate his inquisitiveness and learn what the infant mind has to teach me.

But, come morning, the merciless voice resumes while I'm busy on Twitter: 'Mum, have you ever been cremated?' And my good intentions flee for, by day, the infant mind is merely bothersome babble when I am wrestling far greater cosmic queries - chief among them, what day does the milkman next come?

Have any of you, by the way, been cremated?

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

When the Proof's in the Pudding

My ten-year-old is a rock-chick, but she still wants to believe in Santa. I field her technical enquiries with carefully-worded half-truths, but something still troubles her.

'Why,' she asks, 'does Santa forget some children?' I consider reference to the Human Poverty Index then grab my stock response to her profounder theological questions: 'Some mysteries are beyond our understanding!'

Her brother intervenes: 'If Santa exists why didn't he eat the mince pies we left out?' Damn! I hate mince pies. Then I'm inspired. 'Because Santa prefers chocolate,' I reply. 'This year leave a brownie and I guarantee it'll be gone by Christmas morning!'

This photo is the prompt for the latest 100-Word-Challenge and as usual Julia timed it perfectly!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Business Magnate

Ten years ago I decided to become the boss of a small business. The staff was minimal – just me, one part-timer (the Vicar) and a couple of advisors. The overheads, however, were enormous. Eye-watering figures were spent investing in infrastructure and researching core strategies. But what I hadn't bargained for was the emotional cost: the sleepless nights; the anxiety when projected deliverables failed and the fear that storm clouds would scupper my blue-sky thinking.

I wonder why it has taken everyone else until this week to realise that parenthood and corporate management are the self-same thing. Mothers, some expert has belatedly acknowledged, are essentially CEOs of a small business – it's just that the assets are infants and the core product body fluids.

Why, (also this week) it was calculated that over seven days during Christmas we CEO mothers perform £2,500 worth of work, ranging from chef to chauffeur. What a triumph it is for the sisterhood to know that their notional pay places us almost on a par with the British prime minister!

There are many souls, of course, who are not born with the entrepreneurial spirit and who fear the cut-throat world of family management. And there are yet more who have taken the plunge and feel adrift in a competitive climate that demands year-on-year yields alongside sustainable human resources.

My advice is to trust your own instincts and to master the jargon. Once you're fluent in corporate lingo, noone will point out that you, like they, haven't a clue what you're doing. Here, to get you started, is a brief glossary of essential terms: 

First-mover advantage: get your baby in before the rest of your social circle so you have first dibs on the best girls' names/godparents/trust funds before the pool runs dry.

Assess core competencies: do you possess the patience of a prophet? Can you rise unflustered in the small hours and simultaneously change a soaked cot and soothe a soiled banshee? Can you put in an 18-hour day on four hours of sleep? Can you vacuum a hallway while latching on a newborn?

A paradigm shift from high-level to drill-down mode: stop dreaming over the JoJoMamanBebe catalogues; it's time to focus on how to disengage body parts from the breast pump.

Update your go-to-market strategy: nip out and buy a bumper box of Thorntons to safeguard cherished friendships when you discover that no known chemical can shift the residue of baby poo from your neighbour's seagrass matting.

Think mission-critical: learn what matters. Which is an unimpeded evening of Strictly Come Dancing; three nights a week in a bed without a baby in it; Pinot Grigio in the medicine cabinet; Tena Lady.

Leverage the propisition: persuade your partner to accept the urgency of the above.

Gain traction: elbow a route into the outstanding primary school in the next town. 

Enable Push-back: oblige a recalcitrant toddler/tweenager, through threats or bribery, to engage with spinach/algebra.  

Upskill: Train your partner to detect a full nappy with a forefinger, change the bucket of Napisan, locate the TV off-button at feed time, operate the Hoover and put the bins out so you can hoof off to All Bar One.

Multiply your assets: have another baby while the going's good.

Experienced household CEOs are bound to have more technical insights. Share them here...

Monday, 26 November 2012

In Memoriam

Grey is the prompt for this week's 100 Word Challenge. Some twenty years ago, when I wandered through a Richmond cemetery, I came upon a grave that stopped me in my tracks. I visited several times over the following few seasons and I know I shouldn't have peeked, but I'm glad I did for the memory of it has inspired me ever since.

She was 14 when she died. A letter, taped to the headstone, told of teenage grief at the loss of a soulmate and pictured teenage revelry at discos in Heaven.

For two years the letters continued. As earthly adolescence brought rows at home and trouble with the police, the dead friend lived on as a confidante. The world would have seen tough young troublemakers, but it was bewildered souls with an innocent faith in the afterlife who unburdened themselves to the 'angel' who empathised.

And I, who had read despair in that grey tombstone, now, through their certainty, gained hope.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Fashion Guru

Children, I read, are hogging appointments with personal shoppers at posh department stores because their mothers are too busy to keep abreast of the latest wardrobe must-haves.

Now I frequently fear that, when it comes to motherhood, I'm a failure. I rush to check my blog stats before I greet my children. I shout at them when they're obtuse about decimals and supper is often a panicked improvisation with the Vicar's breakfast leftovers.

But deficient as I am, my daughter does have a personal shopper. Me. And I am expert in the latest wardrobe must-haves. In winter I am tireless in my pursuit of insulating thermals. I steer her knowledgeably away from kitten heels in Barratts to the supportive rubber soles of Clarks. I can sniff out a polyknit from a hundred yards and my sartorial savvy allows me to guage, at a glance, the most durable pyjamas and the most washable wools.

But does my ten-year-old appreciate this personal service that unluckier children have to pay for? Not a bit! Her uninformed eye is distracted by leopard-print wisps and confections of spangles that would be murdered on a hot cycle. She teeters on metal studded heels in New Look and lusts after £40 T-shirts in Hollister that can be got for a fiver in Marks.

Her childish ignorance confirms just how vital is the expertise of a seasoned pro like me and I am therefore relieved that juvenile demand for personal shoppers has doubled in the last twelve months.

As I fold the sensible knickers from an M&S multi-pack, I can feel the dismay of my watching daughter. But when she hears that personal shoppers are the latest wardrobe must-have I know she'll thrilled to realise that, for once in my life, I've started a trend!

What do you think about parents recruiting personal shoppers so their offspring can keep abreast of fashions? Would you let yours do it?

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Devil Child

The prompt for this week's 100 word challenge is I really tried not to laugh. Which means I had no choice but to write about what happened after the Sunday service this week. 

My son hurried to the church hall to snaffle Oreos. His blond head bobbed angelically amid the faithful and I watched with pride as he beguiled a bevy of rapt ladies. Then I glimpsed the iPod. The ladies were posing for portraits and waiting expectantly for the results. I darted forward, but too late. With five finger taps he'd deprived the churchwarden of her hair and aged her twenty years. The ladies from the choir had gained ten stone apiece and grown moustaches. And the Vicar? I really tried not to laugh as I realised that for 13 years I've been sharing my pillows with this:

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Growing Pains

'You'll come to my parenting session on sex?' begged the headteacher grabbing my tweed elbow and steering me into the school hall. The lady sent from the council to make us face up to our anatomies scrawled biological terms on a white board then addressed the captive mothers.

'What,' she asked, 'is the average age that girls reach puberty?'
'12?' ventured the bravest of us. '14?'
'Eight!' said the lady triumphantly and wrote 'eight' on the white board.

There was a bewildered murmur from the audience. Only I was unsurprised. Puberty, I've learned, is not heralded by packs of Bodyform Ultra or incipient bristles. It begins with a rash of equally unnerving symptoms, none of which biology guides warn you about. And in our vicarage it commenced around the age of seven.

It's taken me a couple of years to realise what these symptoms signified and I was about to share my wisdom with the anxious mothers in the sex session. But before I could find my voice, the lady from the council had started sketching aspects of puberty that I do not yet feel mature enough to cope with and, with shrill excuses, I fled.

Here, though, for the benefit of those with small girls, I intend to reveal all. If you realise that your own infant daughter is showing any of these signs, then don't panic. It's a natural biological process - it's just that it starts so darn early in modern Britain.

You know your little one has reached puberty when:

You find metallic blue nail varnish smears on the bath tub.

Leopard print creeps into the house, like said nail varnish, by unidentifiable processes.  

She becomes physically incapable of walking proper distances unless it's down a shopping mall. 

She starts borrowing your shoes.

You start borrowing her jewellery.

She asks when she may start shaving her legs.

£1.50 pocket money becomes a £2.50 'allowance'.

'Will you do my bath, Mummy!' becomes 'Wot you hanging round the bathroom for, Mum!'

Her bedroom chaos morphs from Barbies, shoe-box castles and rolled-rug 'ponies' to Matalan catalogues, lip salves, clothes purloined from your wardrobe and mysterious twirly gadgets to perform mysterious twirly functions on hair. 

You need a torch and ear mufflers to browse T-shirts in her preferred mood-lit high street supplier.

I'm bound to have left some crucial symptoms out. If you can think of any please add them here. And don't be disheartened. Puberty is a painful process for a parent, but there are plus sides: my 10 year-old still almost believes in Father Christmas

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Function of Mothers

Compliments, say researchers, are a sounder currency than cash when it comes to motivating people. 
I read this with interest. Efforts to bribe my children to perform basic domestic functions have failed. A carnage of Barbies obscures my daughter's carpet and flung socks and sweet wrappers track my son's progress through the week. 
And so I changed tack. 'Your hair looks like Emma Watson's,' I told my 10-year-old, 'and you sing like Adele. Now will you wash up your supper things!' 
The silence was deafening. 
'You're always telling me not to act older,' she retorted at last. 'Well, washing up is what mums do.'

This week's prompt for the 100 Word Challenge is the silence was deafening. As you can see I am accustomed to this phenomenon. If 50p extra pocket money a week and fawning flattery don't work, what else do you suggest I try?

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Daily Mail Columnists Should Wear Burkas

Daily Mail columnist Liz Jones has provoked the ire of Twitter with by declaring that mummy bloggers are blinkered dimwits whose lives are spiced by Napisan. I'm afraid I have to sympathise with her, for all of her prejudices echo my own:

Writing about my life has pretty much ruined it. Supper last night was an elderly carrot glued to the fridge shelf by a pool of brown mucus and the floor was flooded when I left the bath taps running because Blogger has diverted me from domestic essentials. I've had to shut the children in front of the television when a new post has assailed me and some family members no longer speak to me because Twitter interactions leave me no time to reach the telephone.

But there is a big part of me that thinks writing should be hard: you should cringe whenever you press that 'publish' button. Artists – and I'm sorry, I do consider myself an artist – have to wrench the dirtiest, most disgusting part of their inner soul and show it to the world so that others can make of it what they will. I shed anguished tears before deciding go public about the shredded tissues that emerge from a hot cycle with the vicarage smalls and, if I were not burdened by artistry, I would never have found the courage to tell the world about what I did to the Vicar's Le Creuset. I am aghast when people say they will stop writing when it comes too hard for others, or too exposing. My confession about the business with the nipple tassles after the Sunday service left me feeling naked, but writing is only interesting when things go wrong.

Occasionally I raise my head from the cut-throat world of blogging and find myself confronted with Daily Mail columnists. I've not been a columnist's best friend over the years, not because I don't like newspapers, but because I'm the one left taming toddlers and scrubbing the lavatory rim, while columnists disappear on eight-hour stints in air-conditioned offices - or as I like to call them, holidays. 

It appears that Daily Mail column-writing has become the new powder room, enabling women to hog a desk in the workplace writing things like, and I quote, 'I was still smarting from the fact I'd discovered, via a casual remark on Twitter of all places, that my boyfriend had been to London and had not even bothered to get in touch with me. He'd been out to dinner and not invited me!'

Every Daily Mail columnist I read says pretty much the same thing. These women whinge about celebrities who show their faces without make up and ponder the relative merits of Strictly Come Dancing and The X-Factor. 

I have queasy feelings in my exhausted womb about all of this. The most influential tool we have - namely campaigning journalism - has been turned into a giant gossips' coven with women being PAID to sit at their desks, ignore mass annihilation in Syria and celebrity paedophile rings, to write about the vices of their ex husbands.

Questions raised in Daily Mail columns, and by God they are bitchy and competitive, range from ' 'How dare a greasy, tasteless chef insult superstar Nigella?' and 'Who'd have thought the sexiest dress ever made would be so demure?'.

Suddenly, rather than feeling I'm following a group of women who want to change the world, I am in a cage of lemmings ranting about traffic jams on Home Counties trunk roads and the pain of stiletto heels, so that they can remain in their latte-scented offices.

I had no idea that column writing could be so lucrative. I wonder too what their husbands (those of them that have managed to retain one) think of them and their rantings. I imagine it makes them feel like  proper men with little women who, instead of raising the next generation of tax payers, offer opinions on Kate Middleton's dress sense and how to look after ear piercings.

As I close my Daily Mail I feel the hand of patriarchy on my back. Women have again been duped into thinking that the world exists in their safe, open-plan offices and revolves around bitching.

Columnists might just as well don a burka and shuffle, so narrow is their vision.


It is the Sunday service and the Vicar is preaching about mementos. We all gaze appreciatively at his late father's qualification from the Royal Institute of Chartered Accountants and his certificate from the Royal Life-Saving Society. Then he draws out a large framed photo of his sister's old school friend.

Note to self: find where the Vicar keeps this photo and substitute a portrait of
the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

The friend, he tells the assembled cubs and scouts, had raven hair and filmic cheekbones and, on a family trip to a fairground, he made sure that he shared a pod with her on one of the rides. Unfortunately the ride was a fast and furious one and unfortunately he had just eaten a large portion of chips. The vicar-to-be threw up all over the school friend's shapely knees.

The memory, he says, came back to haunt him last year when he saw his sister's old friend in the national newspapers - and he draws forth another framed photo:

If it hadn't been for those volatile chips, he concluded, he, not Daniel Craig, might have become Mr Rachel Weisz.

The congregation swivels to watch my reaction. I smile serenely in what I hope is a filmic fashion, but I regret the knobbled woollen tights that buffer me from the cold of the pew and I regret the used tissue that has just slithered from my sleeve.

Then, suddenly, I'm seized by joyous enlightenment. Every good man deserves to have his fantasies realised and I shall sacrifice myself to embody the Vicar's. I shall decline to make chutney for the  Christmas bazaar and leave off baking for the weekly church tea. I shall swap my M&S polyknits for Stella McCartney and bed down nightly with Dr Colbert's Facial Discs.

I'll need an allowance to fund my transformation, of course, so the Vicar will have to divert a portion of his stipend to lay in some L'Oreal. And he'll have to make other adjustments. I doubt Rachel Weisz would accommodate his afternoon nap and he'll need to clear his diary to babysit while I'm night-clubbing in Soho.

The Vicar places the two photographs back in his father's old brief case and I stuff the tissue further up my sleeve. I am agog to get back to the vicarage and Google Jimmy Choos. For I intend to start my reincarnation immediately - just as soon as I've finished Hoovering the Vicar's study.

Friday, 9 November 2012

More than a Mother

My name is 'E and G's Mum' and I am a mother:

Stimulating my children through public indignity

I don't always look like that, obviously. Sometimes I look like this:

Nurturing my children with Fairy non-biological

And on occasion, when I leave the house, I look like this:


My main place of work, as many of you have already seen, is here:

Hub of the house

My evenings are spent reading bulb catalogues under a woolly tartan rug in an armchair while the Vicar sits under a woolly tartan rug on the sofa and plays Angry Birds.

It was not always like this. No, once upon a time I answered to Anna. I read the paper over hot tea in at breakfast time and I thought a wet wipe was a killer cocktail. In those days my place of work was an ergonomic chair in a glass office with a latte machine. And in those days I could sweep men off their feet:

My two-day body guard training course

And transport them to heavenly spheres:

High life in Bavaria

Sometimes when my feet are mired in cat litter and my thoughts assaulted by infant demands, I think wistfully of those days when I was myself. When my sofa rugs were edgy stripes, not tartan, and when only my nose blew into the tissues that swelled my handbag.

But then I imagine a house without my babies and a glass office without school runs to recall me and I realise that despite snot on my sleeve and an enslavement to Hoover, motherhood still allows me to fly high:

Katetakes5 wants us all to show the world through a long-ago photo that we were once more than just mothers. You can see how very much more others once were here. And tell me, how was it for you?

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Miss Malaprop

‘Mummy,’ announces the 10-year-old, ‘is too tired to exclaim her consequences!’

As her ambition outstrips her vocabulary, her conversation becomes rivetingly surreal. She admonishes the Vicar for nitpicking: ‘Don’t be so nutritious [pedantic]!’ She sympathises with a friend who has been insulted. ‘I’d feel very bedraggled [dismayed] if someone said that to me!’ and exclaims in disgust when her brother exhibits a half-chewed Malteser: ‘That’s a bad privilege [habit]!’

I love this fearless manipulation of language. My children, armed with a handful of primary-school nouns, can make themselves understood more confidently in France than I can with my university degree, because they are oblivious to grammatical embarrassments and inventive of expressive alternatives.

Only children could converse with the profoundly deaf teenager in our first parish, because they were unfettered by self-consciousness. They talked and gestured normally, whilst we adults smiled uneasily and scarpered. Ignorance of official sign language prevented us, we assumed, from communicating.

In her struggle to articulate, my daughter invents words that don’t exist but ought to. She prefers the Vicar to take her to school because he drives the Skoda, while I march her a mile through mud. ‘What I like about you,’ she compliments him, ‘is that you’re not very walkative.’

Her good opinion is short-lived. The Vicar nags her about her slack tie and her bling school bag and he won’t let her substitute her school shoes for plimsolls. She eyes him severely, pondering the ultimate put-down. ‘You are,’ she decides triumphantly ‘getting to the drive with me, Dad!’

Are your children linguistic experimenters? Share your favourite malapropisms here:

Monday, 5 November 2012


The picture is the prompt for this week's 100-word Challenge. The orange spot daubs trees that are to be felled to make way for the rest. It's an apt choice as our ash trees are incinerated, but it made me think of a worn leather album that records my family through the 1930 and 1940s.

There's the woman in uniform beaming in a field, a teenage Hercules posed in a loincloth and a girl in a garden with dramatic tumbling hair. 

Each died young and violently - the woman crushed during wartime training and the teenager electrocuted at work. The flowing-haired girl slit her throat. 

I gaze at their smiles and hunt for a portent - a sign in their eyes that they knew Fate had marked them. But they gaze gaily back, vitality frozen in sepia.

And now I fear future eyes finding my albums, studying the smiles of my children with the awful benefit of hindsight.  

Saturday, 3 November 2012


Kate on Thin Ice has kindly offered me a Reader Appreciation Award. I don't fully earn it, however, until I have faced down an inquisition. I'm not sure my readers will appreciate wading through my mental trivia, but I'm always greedy for gongs so, with multiple apologies, here's my life story:

Where do you do most of your writing/blogging?

At a desk by the spare room window so I can keep an eye on the Vicar as he paces the parish and watch passing drivers discover the council's vicious new speed bumps.

What books were your childhood favourites?

Dostoevsky saw me through my first years of primary school. Oh, all right - it was Enid Blyton! I refused to read anything else until I was 15. Then I discovered Anne of Green Gables and Tom's Midnight Garden and have yet to find anything to match them.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Anne of Green Gables, obviously. And the murderess in My Cousin Rachel (Daphne du Maurier).

Have you ever Googled yourself and been surprised at what you've found?

Yes. First up was the lunch menu at Tim's on Lake Anna. Their torch-lit tiki bar is apparently an unforgettable place to eat pulled pork.

What is your favourite time of day and why?

Mornings when my freshly-brushed children come down to eat my freshly cooked breakfast and swap loving confidences about the day ahead. Actually, I'm lying. Mornings are a pauseless banshee wail and invariably involve a catastrophe in the cat litter tray. My favourite time of day is 8.15pm. Because that's when I open my bottle of beer.

Who would play me in a movie of my life?

Whichever Hollywood mega star is prepared to have three bristles latexed to their chin.

One material possession I could not live without.

My daily journal. Or rather all 30 volumes of them. Haven't missed an entry since 1983 so if they ended up in a skip I would, quite literally, be throwing my life away.

Have you ever been naked in public?

Are you kidding? I've never appeared without at least three thermal layers in public (although I have developed a strategy for discreetly shedding my vest when it gets hot on buses).

What is your dream car?

I'm quite happy with the family Skoda.

What/who/where was your first proper kiss?

I thought this was supposed to be a literary quiz...

Is that it? Yes, seems that's it. Except that I have to tag some others whose literary achievements I appreciate. Are you up for it Sahdandproud, Random Pearls of Wisdom and Bibsey?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A Halloween Tale

I used to hate Halloween. If I'd wanted kids to practise extortion with threats I'd have steered them towards a career in banking instead of sending them forth to wrest sweets from old ladies. And I'd never believed in ghouls.

Then came my comeuppance. At nightfall, while trick or treaters roamed our streets, I was ambushed by a monster. It was a scrawny, slimy monster with purple flesh and scaly legs. There was a dripping hole where its face should have been and two pulsing bulges for eyes.

My tranquil nights became hellish. The monster roared through the darkest hours. It seeped toxic mucus and it gnawed at my flesh. The more it gnawed, the larger it grew and slowly I realised that it wasn't my flesh it was gnawing, it was my heart.

My monster had enslaved me and, in doing so, he had turned me into a monster. I would have vanquished any soul who prevented his flourishing and felled any predator who caused him harm.

And he had turned me into a paragon. I would surrender my last morsel for his nourishment and lay down my life for his own.

In the eight years since, I have tamed my wee monster and he has transformed me. The terror, if anything has grown. That long-ago night it was the threat of the unknown; now it's the fear that I might fail him.

But these days, though I still hate trick or treating, I embrace Halloween with gusto, for I've learned that life without that terrifying arrival would be monstrous.

Happy Birthday to my little boy!

Friday, 26 October 2012

It's a Dog's Life

I do not, as a rule, like shopping unless it involves a stationery department or soil conditioners. Today, however, my 10-year-old begged to visit Harrods. She wanted to sketch out her future living spaces for when she realises her ambition to be a primary school teacher/hair-dresser/Burberry model. The 7-year-old was also eager. He hoped for fragrant lotions in the in-store lavs.

And so we trudged among Egyptian pillars and, when we reached the fashion-wear, I began to be interested. For amid the designer plaid, taffeta and leopard-print loucheness I could have bought a £95 pilot's uniform with a cap, a French maid's outfit for when the Bishop comes calling or, in readiness for Halloween, a fetching green witch's disguise.

In furnishings, furred sofas are so much more 'Now' than leather and everyone's accessorising their bespoke four-posters:

The patisserie, for a three figure fee, will cater for parties and there are delicacies in the wicker hampers that would definitely defeat Delia.

I'd hoped for more leopard-print on the push chairs and travel cots, but found it among the cuddlies in the toy room:

But it wasn't until we passed the spa that I began to covet wealth. My blocked pores ached for a blueberry and vanilla facial and a thalassotherapy mud bath. In the gym you can watch Hollywood films on a plasma screen while pounding to nowhere on the treadmill. A young woman, watching me peer at the price list, said she brings her companion here twice a week. 'Why not walk in Hyde Park?' I marvelled. ''You wouldn't get the films,' she replied patiently. '101 Dalmations is his favourite.'

After a glance at the glass jewellery cases and the matching designer luggage we were weary. Back down among the Egyptian pillars we hurried agog for our MacDonald's Happy Meal. Seems a shame, thinking back, that we never saw the splendours beyond Pet Kingdom!

PS Yes, all of the above are aimed at our nation's pooches. It's a comfort to know, in these times of austerity, that the beribboned pets of Knightsbridge are doing their bit to boost the economy. 

PPS Yes, they do sell four-packs of Converse-style lace-ups  and designer sunglasses for poodles.

PPPS I have it on good authority from the church stonemason that his taxi-driver brother conveyed a dog solo from from Mayfair to Belgravia for a canine fancy dress party. And back again. 

Warning: the cakes and pastries in the 'pawtisserie' may contain liver.  

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Braced for a Bishop

The Bishop, announces the Vicar, is coming to lunch next Sunday.
I am worried. Sunday lunch is always chipolatas and cornettos in our vicarage and this may not be suitably episcopal. What, I wonder, do bishops like to eat? 'Bread and wine!' retorts my scornful 10-year-old.

The Vicar is worried. He too fears that his Sunday morning schedule will expose the Bishop to chipolatas. Even more, he fears that I might Rise to the Occasion and ruin his social standing with my attempts at proper cooking.

The 10-year-old is worried. She suspects that small talk with a purple-frocked prelate, if word gets out, would be deemed an uncool weekend leisure activity by her school peers. And she knows that she might not get her Cornetto.

The 7-year-old is, however, serene. His talent for ingratiation should one day earn him a job in the Foreign Office. If his sister is in disgrace he'll curry favour with his father by voicing a religious vocation. If she rejects her dinner-time peas he'll fake wild joy in his greens. Now he senses an opportunity.

The 10-year-old has decided on rebellion. 'I'm going to wear my chavviest clothes!' she announces.
Quick as a flash her brother moves in. 'And I,' he lisps, 'am going to make sure I bring a Bible!'

PS What fail-safe, easy-cook meal can one feed a Bishop?

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


The latest prompt from the 100-Word Challenge wants us to add 100 words to and winter will bring. You can tell from my crusted nails that I've been preparing tirelessly for what the coming season has in store... 

When, with creeping years and budget cuts, life seems full of endings, I seek refuge in the soil. From seeds, frail as dust, rainbows unfurl and beauty lies dormant in the ugliness of bulbs. Gardening is the art of patient hopefulness. We plant saplings we won't live to see mature. Amid the dying leaves of autumn we bury bulbs for a radiant spring. Ordure, too, has purpose. The days may darken and winter will bring its chill, but dung shields the sleeping life and nourishes when it wakens. When parents decline and recessions bite, I must recall the resilient hope of the gardener. And buy seeds!

Thursday, 18 October 2012


The government, this morning's news tells me, is launching an apprenticeship scheme for would-be spies. Until now I've assumed that, should redundancy claim me, my future will unfold behind a Tesco check-out. How else is a middle-aged mother, who no longer recalls what an isosceles triangle is, to earn the mortgage repayments?

But today middle-aged mothers must have jubilated, for who could be better qualified for state espionage than our nation's parents? We've spent years outwitting our children, decoding body language, sweet-talking officials and suppressing our  pre-parent identities. Who but a parent could secure unquestioning co-operation with a jelly bean? Glean, through deft reconnaissance, the contents of other children's school lunch boxes? Infiltrate the closed ranks of a toddler group?

I've been hastily redrawing my CV to highlight my requisite skills and I suggest that you all do the same for when the secret service comes calling.

Adaptability I react unfalteringy to my official pseudonyms - 'E and G's Mother', 'Father's Wife' - without ever betraying my true identity.

Cunning I can sneak spinach undetected into every known culinary dish bar Cornflakes.

Planning With an invisible sleight of hand I can alter the vicarage clocks so that the children's bedtime arrives an hour-and-a-half early.

Discretion Monthly I infiltrate my offspring's bedroom armed only with a black bin liner and remove, untraceably, possessions that could lucratively be sold on eBay.

Memory I can store in my head three dozen vital pieces of information, including the date of next week's netball match, the price of patio roses at Nottcutts, the number of Haribos left in the oft-pilfered bribery tin, the sum of years until my kids will leave home, the digits of my overdraft, the next three months of the Sunday School rota, the start times of Strictly Come Dancing, the birthdays of twelve key 9-year-olds, the Vicar's blood pressure readings and the expiry date of Waitrose's special offer on Bendicks Bittermints.

Sleuthing Confronted with a stash of sweetie wrappers inside a Co-Op bag inside a shoe box inside my 7-year-old's wardrobe I followed the trail to the depleted contents of the aforementioned bribery tin and laid appropriate traps.

Courage I knew one explosion had gone off and another was imminent. Yet, steely-nerved and oblivious to the toxic gases, I knelt down and prised off the laden knickers of a friend's toddler last week. 

Manipulation I can persuade my recalcitrant children to master their weekly spellings/endure a muddy hike/swallow a portion of peas with the power of a single word: MacDonalds.

Poise I can balance a lager, shaken, not stirred, in the midst of a vicious infant brawl and not spill a drop on the parquet.

Commitment Ten years of unreasonable demands, unpleasant threats, lengthy overtime and toxic substances have not quelled me. I remain unwaveringly devoted to my small charges.

PS Right on cue, the James Bond 007 fragrance has been launched which should convince your interviewers of your suitability should the fumes of Napisan skew their judgement.

So what skills can you offer MI6? Any disclosures will be treated with strictest confidentiality.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Thief of Time

It can't be that time is the sentence that must be incorporated into this week's 100-word-challenge. I believe I was uttering those very words as I read the prompt and realised I'd forgotten to scavenge the freezer for the children's supper.

Parents, says new research, need 27-hour in a day. This is clearly absurd – I need 32 to be the woman I'm meant to be. 
Lately my days have been shrinking faster than woollens on a hot cycle. I've shed superfluous distractions like dusting and cooking.
For essential activities I've learnt to multi-task: I can draft a blog-post whilst manuring my flowerbeds and dial Boden while helping my children through their Haribos.
Nevertheless, 'It can't be that time!' I panic as school beckons when I'm busy with my nap. Age eats into flesh, we know – but, with far greater ruthlessness, I realise, it devours Time.  

Sunday, 14 October 2012

One Year On

It was a year ago this Tuesday that an anchoress in Alaska unwittingly launched me into the Blogosphere. The Vicar, having read her latest theological wisdom, clicked a tab on her blog and propelled my own musings - on how to stand trendily at the school gate - onto the Worldwide Web.

Back then, before I'd heard of mummy bloggers and before my aged laptop permitted me onto Twitter, I blogged about the tooth fairy, my daughter's quest for biological enlightenment and the knitted breasts in the vestry. Twelve months have matured me. Now I write of swabbing midnight vomit, my daughter's quest an iPod and nipple tassles in the nave.

This cyber-journey has taught me many new truths:

that every domestic setback, from shredded tissues in the hot cycle to the embarrassing moment with the Bishop, has an underlying value - as a blog post!

that blogging accelerates children's mastery of life skills. Yep, ever since I began spending hours in isolation with my laptop my helpless pair have learned to bath themselves, make their own sandwiches and fathom the three remote controls required to switch on our TV.

that there are many more kindred spirits in cyberspace than in real life. Real-life mothers are never bored by childcare, never imbibe in daylight hours and never sleep in month-old sheets. Cyber mothers, on the other hand, stand shoulder to shoulder amid domestic mayhem - and are prepared to admit that they don't know where their iron is.

that my habit of peering through strangers' lighted windows is legitimate. Because that's what blogging is all about isn't it? I used to deem it nosiness; now I realise it's a cathartic sharing of life experience!

that you can have good friends that you've never met. The bloggers who propped me up when I took my first blundering steps, the tweeters who helped clean my burnt Le Creuset before the Vicar saw it and who turned forward rolls for me when I was bored once last week and all those who have bolstered my stats and my ego with comments. Each one of you would earn the highest token of my esteem - an inked entry in my address book - if I knew you in real life.


Thursday, 11 October 2012


I am perched on the rim of the boiler cupboard talking of cat food brands with a row of similarly balanced mothers. It's a weekly ritual. Before us a flotilla of heads bobs in pool which is loaned by a secondary school for swimming lessons. The chlorine smells of vomit. Possibly it is vomit for there are sinister scurf marks on the changing room floor. And all of a sudden it hits me that I shall look back on this unlovely routine with nostalgia when my children are grown.

So startling is this discovery that I consider other tedious childcare fixtures with new eyes. The Saturday morning battle over the Coco-pops in the mini-cereals selection pack, for instance, and the fractious pelt through the park to school. When, in my bath chair, I look back, I'll excise my shrillness and their complaints and remember only sunlit hopscotch over the dog turds. From my bath chair, in fact, even nit-combing will probably come to seem desirable.

When I am no longer indispensable, I shall mourn the fact that noone requires me to:

Manipulate deformed socks onto damp feet after swimming.
Write coded messages on serviettes to kill time in slow restaurants. 
Steer flailing legs along monkey bars in playgrounds.
Be hung with coats, book bags and toppling art work as they erupt past me out of school
Wait on frigid pavements for cubs/netball/drama/choir/riding to finish.
Flap instinctively behind me, whether or not they are with me, for two sticky hands whenever I cross a road.
Trick them into two miles of country walking with a randomly improvised treasure trail.
Conjure Albus Dubledore's facial hair out of bath foam. 
Explain thrice hourly why they can't get a bunk bed/iPhone/iPad/iPod/Facebook account/pierced ears/pack of pastrami sticks/pony/baby sister/baby rat.

I know this because, with the passing of toddlerhood, I already miss:

Nightly reading of The Tiger Who Came to Tea. 
Baking for the weekly birthdays of two dozen fluffy toys.
Eating flaccid cheese sandwiches on flaccid plastic chairs while making flaccid conversation at drop-in play centres.
Enduring the soundtrack of Disney Princesses shrilly avowing to be true to themselves on the M25.
Buying ten minutes of good humour with a jelly bean.
Explaining thrice hourly why they can't get a baby elephant/flying carpet/bedroom slide/wishing chair/candyfloss machine.

I decide, when we return from the swimming pool, to rejoice in the weekly shampoo ritual because one day they'll manage it without me. Twenty minutes, four stinging eyes, one pair of soaked jeans and an unswabbable floor flood later I am longing to be expendable. I may battle nostalgia in my bath chair, but I sure will enjoy the rest!

What do you most miss as your children grow? What mundane routines do you reckon you'll miss most when they've flown?

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


The vandal who defaced the £50m Mark Rothko painting at Tate Modern this week did so, he claims, in the name of his one-man art movement, Yellowism. I do not agree with daubing art works, but I too have made great sacrifices for Yellowism.

The £60 of school dinner money spent on sacks of poo, for instance. That summer of pick-axing that has unstrung my back. The hours I've spent wandering garden centres instead of filling my trolley at Co-op and the nights my children have gone hungry while I've been crouched in the London clay.

Today the morning sun spot-lit my autumn border and this was the view from the breakfast table. The money, the hours and the seized-up shoulders have fused finally into a hymn to Yellowism and my children can have their mummy back again. For a season!

This is my contribution to The Gallery at Sticky Fingers which requires photos on a theme of yellow. 

Monday, 8 October 2012

The Worst Thing About Motherhood...

The prompt from this week's 100-word Challenge  at Julia's Place is I woke with another headache which effortlessly reminded me of two nights last month - and innumerable nights before that.

It's probably the worst thing about motherhood. And it's a thing they don't warn you of – those upbeat parenting manuals. 
The knock drags you from slumber in the small hours. 'I woke with another headache,' they wail. The wafts on the landing tell you the rest. Turgid with sleep you prioritise. Fill a bath for the vomit-soaked invalid; fill a sink for the foul-clotted bedding. You shampoo. You launder. You tuck them up, soap-scented, in clean sheets and you soothe them into serenity. 
Then, irreversibly awake, you return to bed and you realise: the power to relieve childish grief is probably the best thing about motherhood.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

How to Be Happy

Now that austerity has deflated national economies, governments are switching their attentions to that elusive asset: happiness. David Cameron plans an official assessment of the nation's spirits, China has launched a happiness index for local government officials and deep in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan a Gross National Happiness Centre is under development to teach its disproportionately suicidal citizens how to count their blessings.

The secret to happiness has, however, already been cracked by a housewife in a Manhattan penthouse. The Happiness Project, in which Gretchen Rubin set herself a 12-month deadline to achieve bliss, planted her at the top of the New York Times' bestseller list and now, after all that questing, she's found the darn thing - it was lurking in her own flat all the time.

Yours could be festering in your home too, unnoticed under the sofa cushions. To find it, according to Rubin in her latest DIY manual Happiness at Home: Kiss more, Jump more, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life, you have to start with 'redecoration of the self' (sorting out your cupboards). Then you are ready to create 'areas of super engagement' (a mantel of family photos/heirloom silver/grandad's collection of significant champagne corks). After that it's simply a case of drafting a kissing schedule to prove your love to your spouse and offspring, raining down gold stars and compliments, particularly on men, jumping about and going to bed early.

It's a relief to know that I'm on the right track. Dinner guests are always dislodged from our vicarage by 10pm. I jump on the children's trampoline whenever it rains violently and family and cats get a kiss each bedtime. The 30 volumes of my daily diaries occupy two shelves of 'super-engagement' in the dining room and I am ruthless in my binning of other people's possessions to make way for my own. I'm more into Samuel Pepys than Samuel Johnson but I'm expert at abandoning projects and my kids receive gold coins, one up on gold stickers, when they've accomplished their weekly chores.

It's not enough, though. Contentment, yes, and pleasurable smugness are induced by the above, but I've been experimenting for far longer than Rubin and I can exclusively reveal that complete happiness is impossible without these essential ingredients:

Achieving your desired slipway just as traffic grinds to a halt on a motorway.

Unblocking the sink. If your sink isn't blocked you can easily rectify the fact with a bowl of old porridge and some coffee grounds. Then treat yourself to the visceral thrill of pumping the rubber plunger over the plug hole and watching as, with a fulfilling belch, last week's washing up water suddenly swirls away. For some reason, the more regular task of picking dead slugs out of the kitchen drain, while prompting the same result, lacks that nameless joy. 

Nicking gum. You may not even like chewing gum. I don't. But stealing a piece from your children's illicit stash while you're dusting their bedroom mayhem gives it an unexpectedly enjoyable flavour. 

Creating a leaf pile. Don't worry if you don't have your own leaves - you can import them in bin liners from a neighbour's front garden. This is one of the few thefts they'll thank you for. Rake them into a large mound (this is in itself a peculiar pleasure) then take a running leap and bury yourself inside. It can be squidgy and you can often find the back of your neck becomes intimate with molluscs but it gets you under the skin of that most thrilling of all seasons, Autumn.

Removing the lid of the lavatory cistern. This is a joy I discovered early on in life and, nearly four decades later, it hasn't lost its potency. There's something wondrously soothing about watching the ball-cock sink as the cistern empties then rise with quiet majesty with the water level. Efficient sewage disposal suggests that all can be well in a disordered world.

A CD of John Rutter. Step 1: wait till dusk gathers and put on the lamps. Step 2: pour yourself a lager. Step 3: pile beside your armchair a decent detective story, a frivolous magazine, a woolly rug and the Boden catalogue. Step 4. Unleash Rutter.

A stationery drawer. This needs to contain a sheaf of Basildon Bond for the letters you mean one day to write and a couple of handsomely bound notebooks for the Great Thoughts you may one day have. It doesn't matter if Great Thoughts elude you. The fact that you have a worthy repository ready should one ever take you by surprise is enough to make you feel good about yourself. 

A utility room. I owned one of these for eleven months and it's fair to say I tasted bliss. Mr Sheen sat decorously beside Mr Muscle on the cleaning shelf, instead of rolling louchely together under last year's ironing, and I could reach for a lightbulb without summoning a child to haul me by my ankles from beneath the tower of homeless possessions flung into the under-stairs cupboard.

I too would like to top the New York Times bestseller list so spread the word and I'll share the royalties. And tell me - what tips can you add for DIY happiness in the home?

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Marital Mysteries

The latest prompt for the 100 Word Challenge requires us to add 100 words to suddenly it was in my hand. For some reason my tax return sprang to mind, but as I tried to wrestle this into appropriate prose, I recalled a disconcerting revelation at the start of my marriage: 

It must have slithered somehow from its moorings for suddenly it was in my hand. My mother had warned me that marriage exposes many mysteries, but I hadn't anticipated this. In those early days it would unfurl in the most inconvenient places and, frankly, I was disappointed. It was thin, short and slippery – not the imposing specimen it had looked from afar. Nowadays, of course, I'm used to it. If I spot it where it shouldn't be I restore it reverently to its place. But I remain disconcerted by its measliness – the plastic dog collars that roam modern vicarages are shadows of their starched-linen predecessors.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Agony Aunt

A stranger has sought me out in the blogosphere hoping for advice on 'wearing my wife's shoes.' I'm quite happy to oblige. Wait, dear, until she's out shopping and have a trial run in the bedroom before flaunting them down at the Working Men's Club. You wouldn't want to make a fool of yourself - stilettoes, you see, can topple a man faster than a crate of Bishop's Finger.

I'm less confident that I can steer the surfer questing 'elderly man in his jockstrap'. I'll keep a look out, for sure, but, you know, with so many pensioners cruising the aisles of Asda in posing pouches you might need to narrow the search down a little.

When I began blogging nearly a year ago I was acutely aware that I had no wisdom to add to cyberspace. I love gardening, but the blogosphere is crowded with far more expert amateurs than me.  I'm pretty well schooled in consumer rights, but government websites have already done a thorough job on the Sale of Goods Act. I had no idea that the world would embrace me as an agony aunt.

When people want to discover more about 'dentil molding with post and lintel' or 'evil schoolgate mothers' where do they turn? To me! Google's search engine deems me an expert on 'middle-aged plumpness', 'wearing a raincoat with a quilted vest' and 'eustreptopondylus'. 

I confess that I am humbled by the confidences of strangers; by the glimpses of lives less fulfilled than my own privileged existence. An early post about the arrival of my two rescue kittens has, over the  months, prompted a heartwarming response from loners wishing to share their hearth with 'aged pussies'. And I sincerely hope, whoever you are, that you found your solution to 'middle age squirts on machine'. I would offer to experiment with the lawnmower, but the vicarage garden is so damnably overlooked. 

I'm less inclined to volunteer for 'matron shaving' until I know a little more about the process and purpose and I'm afraid I have no reliable expertise in 'mongering adventures'.

The surprise has been how great is worldwide zeal for matrons, a species I'd thought woefully neglected when I became one myself. Not that everyone's intentions are entirely kindly. 'Strict matron judicial caning' is no way to treat me. There's no grievance that can't be solved peacefully over a nice cup of tea. And it's a little hurtful that 'Japanese matron nipples' should be so especially sought after. But to the lady who asks 'Can I still study to be a matron at 50?': you can start any age, sweetheart and formal qualifications are unnecessary. All you need is a husband, alive or dead, and a couple of sturdy tweed skirts.

My influential knowledge of washing machines, sharks, Oreos and juggling has been well documented by Klout, yet parenting is the subject that brings many a lost soul to me. If you're the mother that wants to know if any of the rest of us w**k our sons, lady, you need specialised help and so, even more so, does your boy. Please don't visit again.

There are, regrettably, some questions that my four decades of life experience cannot answer. 'How to be a better mother' is the one that taxes my visitors most often. It just happens to be the one that I most frequently ask myself and to which I can offer myself no practical reply. Should any of you stumble upon the definitive answer, make sure I'm the first to know and in return I'll tell you all you were wanting to know about 'decomposing horse web template'.

Has blogging turned you into an agony aunt or uncle? If so what which areas of your expertise are in particular demand so I know where to turn in a crisis.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

What Lies Beneath

This week's prompt for the 100-word challenge is a picture.

Last night a ripper was on the loose. Guts lay in slimy pink piles in the corridors. Last night also a friend's toddler plunged head-first down a stairwell while in my care. And then I lost my teeth and my daughter.

Why should a mind, placid in daylight, unleash such horrors at bedtime? By day we are anchored by deadlines, smalltalk and teabags. At night, when darkness swallows the reassuring props and the mind is uncaged, we are reminded that the comforts we cling to are frail ones and that we are all perched perilously above the unknown.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Capturing Time

Today my daughter turns 10. She rejoices in her new seniority. I lament her ebbing childhood. Once birthday lists contained dolls clothes and magic wands. Now she requests Hollister hoodies and an iPod Touch.

We get out the albums and watch her morph over the pages from a blurred foetus to a lanky schoolgirl.

She questions me closely about the forgotten years. For her, the mop-haired toddler is a stranger. For me, sometimes, it's the tall pre-teen beside me, who is unfamiliar. In my mind's eye, she is small enough to lie on my lap and biddable enough to stay there. In clothes shops I unthinkingly head for garments that are five years too small. In reality she is big enough to borrow my shoes and cool enough to lament my sober heels.

I regret now all those years I wished her older so that I might gain quiet nights, civilised meals and the luxurious liberation of school days. I'm worried that I didn't make the most of what I had, while I had it. And I'm nervous, as she poses in her hoodie, of the teenage struggles to come.

But then there is sudden activity on the landing. Pandas sprawl across the carpet. Elephants block my bedroom door. My shoe boxes are pressed into service as thrones and my tweenager, hot with zeal, distributes invites to a teddy bear coronation.

And I realise, as her favourite bear receives royal medals, that she is still my little girl and that however much the years change her, there's a lifetime left to make the most.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Home Truths

Middle-age is an underrated condition. Those who have yet to reach it fear it; those who have, deny it. A survey by that matchless celebration of mid-life endeavour, Saga, shows that its customers reckon they pass from youth to old age near their 70th birthdays, bypassing middle-age entirely.

I am an expert in this field. I entered middle-age in spirit in my early teens and in body a good half decade ago. It's a stage that brings many comforts - a thicker skin, maturer children, guiltless nights on the sofa and an extensive collection of cardigans. But its greatest gift is wisdom.

While the young continue their blundering pursuit of their true selves, we mid-lifers have found ours, absorbed the shock, made some necessary adjustments and resigned ourselves to what we cannot change.

And so, from this enviable perch, I'm contributing to KateTakes5's collection of Truths as divined by women. Younger readers like Kate - this list of enlightenment could save you years of stress and experimentation!

A fountain pen. This is one of the most effective weapons against stress, confusion and cosmic disorder. There are, in fact, few woes that ink cannot help soothe, whether it's taming a day of heavy deadlines by listing and ticking them off or rationalising a crisis by venting on paper. Biros don't count.

Laundry. It's a mysterious truth that the amount of dirty linen in a laundry basket increases in inverse proportion to the amount that you daily take out of it. No matter how many cycles you fit in to a day. If this sounds preposterous, answer me this: when did you last see the bottom of yours? Which brings me to...

Ironing. Millions of modern women are enslaved to it, yet of all household chores this is the least necessary. Pressed linen is only an obligation for weddings, job interviews and a visit from a bishop. Creases subside from clothes after a couple of hours of wearing and are engraved into bedlinen after half a night's sleep, so what's the point? I used to excavate my iron once a year to smooth the Christmas tablecloths; now I use bigger place mats to disguise the crumples.

Gossip. Scurrilous gossip is more invigorating than charitable smalltalk. This is a very distressing truth and one I try hard to disprove. Daily do I resolve to suppress opinions of other people's child-rearing methods/lunch box contents/wardrobe combinations/marital challenges. Daily do I resolve to air opinions on their virtues. But the fact is that dissecting folk's shortcomings over a plate of Bourbon Creams makes us feel better about our own ineptitude and there's something unaccountably exhausting about company of finer souls who abhor it.

Security. You can withstand most routine slings and arrows if you are shored up by fleecy slippers and a block of Pilgrim's Choice.

What have I left out? Add your cosmic insights here: