Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Art of Waiting

The bus is late. I stand at the head of a lengthening queue outside the 99p Shop. Three lanes of traffic roar past us and a beer can rolls round our feet. 'We spend half our lives waiting,' says a tiny old man behind me. 'It is not good'.

I reflect on this this. The greater part of parenting involves waiting. Waiting in playgrounds, waiting at swimming lessons, waiting at the school gate. It's the aspect of child-care that the uninitiated find most challenging and it's the aspect, a mother of independent teenagers warns me, that she most misses.

Waiting, it strikes me, gives us time out of the rush and clamour to collect our harrassed thoughts. Time to wonder where that man with the yellow shoes is headed with that aspidistra. Time to rationalise a hurtful slight; to draft the next blog post; to ponder elusive cosmic mysteries. Why should flapping a J-cloth or lunging for fashion bargains be more valid activities than the rare stillness of time suspended.

Behind me there is a sepulchral moan. The old man is scanning the horizons from under his woolly bobble hat. I joke that the delay gives us a lull for philosphical thinking

'My head is full of philosphical thoughts,' he replies unexpectedly. He tells me he once lectured in Greenwich on astronomy and marine science. He tells me of tides and constellations and the relation between the waters and the skies. Briefly we stand there on the mucky pavement with our heads in the heavens. His small shabby figure seems for a moment a colossus.

Then the bus comes and he shrinks back into a stooped old man with a mini-mart carrier bag and I am once more a stressed mother who is late for the school run. But I am resolved to look forward to the next time that my bus is delayed.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Guilty Parenting

This week's 100 Word Challenge at Julia's Place requires us to incorporate the words: I'm exhausted. Shut the door behind you... Easy peasy. I say them every day!

I have begun to neglect my children. For every two hours of their company, I crave 20 minutes of silence. When a storybook is finished or Scrabble lost and won, I scuttle to the bedroom to breathe freer air. There sits my laptop, a portal onto a virtual world which seems, after a day of juvenile bickering, more real than reality. When my twosome erupts after me I banish them: ‘I’m exhausted. Shut the door behind you!’

Lately my craving has coincided with bathtime and, miraculously, the children have learned to organise themselves. I’ve muffled my guilt for I’ve realised that careful neglect is favour; it hastens priceless independence. 

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Fairy Godmothers' To Do List

In the Disney film of Sleeping Beauty, two fairy godmothers bestow their gifts on the infant princess before the witch blasts in with her spoiler. For this week's listography, Katetakes5 has been pondering what blessings she would wish to be bestowed upon her children, were a passing fairy to take an interest them. And that set me to wondering too. My daughter, if I asked her, would plead for a Juicy Couture tracksuit; my son for the extinction of school. And I? If I could wish for them gifts to carry them through adulthood, I would choose:


An essential tool that allows you to conjure a stallion out of a roll of carpet, to plan an Eden in a rubbly back yard, to invigorate a wet Saturday and walk in the shoes of a stranger. Imagination helps empathy and empathy fosters charity and charity is the root of all virtues.


I always hope that if I wait long enough the gift of patience will be bestowed on me. But, two minutes into a childish altercation I am shrieking louder than my offspring. Patient people play seven games of Guess Who? on the trot, think beautiful thoughts in a motorway jam, coax small talk out of an unappealing party guest and wait for a pip grow into an apple tree. Patient people usually master the art of counting their blessings.

Decent Gums

I’ve always thought that the Almighty took His eye off the ball when creating human teeth. My gums are shrinking faster that lambswool on a hot cycle. My smile in the bathroom mirror resembles a predatory yak. And a smile, however benevolent, is marred by lengthy fangs so I would wish for my children’s life path to be eased by dainty white pearlies.

A Moderate Income

Excessive wealth is a burden. The weight of it is liable to kill off imagination, the pursuit of it stunts patience and I never heard that it did gums much good.  A blessing is to have enough money to buy essentials and a bit over for Bendicks Bittermints and the occasional naughtiness from Boden, but too little to fund every dream. Impossible aspirations are energising. But I have no objection to them acquiring an old Cotswold rectory with a wing in it for me!


Whether their aim is to grow the largest marrow for a flower show, to compose a symphony, run a pub or to relieve the dispossessed in Chad, I wish for them a sense of purpose to give direction to their lives and protection from the debilitating blight of apathy. 

What do you wish for your children? 

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Unofficial Citizenship Test

For fun I decided to take the official practice citizenship test - that government interrogation designed to check whether immigrants have absorbed enough Britishness to merit a UK passport. 

I am born and bred British and so were three centuries of my family tree.  I scored 53 per cent and failed the test.

Briefly I was stricken. I love warm ale and the sound of hard balls on cricket bats. I own a box set of episodes of Are you Being Served?. I thought I was British to the core. But, according official criteria, I am an imposter.

Then I started to ponder and it struck me that the problem is not with my imperfect national identity but with the questions. You could know how many days a year British schools have to be open, the difference between Hansard and Speaker’s Notes and which year women won the right to divorce their husbands and still nurse a murderous hatred of the British way of life. But noone who sincerely loves Marmite could look an Englishman in the eye and wish him ill.

Something needs to be done about this flawed view of identity and it looks as though it’s up to me to do it. And so, to celebrate impending St George’s Day and with the aid of some oracles from Twitter, I propose to submit a new set of criteria to the government. Being English, I would not presume to speak for the Welsh, Scots or Northern Irish, so my test is purely to test the Englishness of foreign nationals seeking to become One of Us.

Noone should be granted a UK passport unless they can prove that:

1.They accept that the emotional and medicinal solution to all crises is a tea bag.

2. At least one person in their family has bequeathed a sum to a donkey sanctuary.

3. They know what to do with a jar of Branston. Extra points for possession of at least three of the following: Heinz salad cream, Colman’s mustard, HP sauce, Worcestershire sauce, tomato Ketchup, pickled onions. ‘We are,’ says one tweep, ‘a nation defined by our condiments.’

4. Pleasure is crouching behind The Sun in a rain-swept wind-shelter in Bournemouth.

5. They prefer sausages without any recognisable meat in and chocolate without recognisable chocolate in.

6. They keep a minimum of three pairs of Wellington boots in their hallway for emergencies and for putting the bins out.

7. They can discourse fluently on the weather of the previous, current and coming weeks for a minimum of ten minutes.

8. For solemn social occasions they must be able to discourse with equal fluency on the shortcomings of the NHS and provide details of least two family case studies, real or borrowed, to back up their argument.

9. They strip their bodies and clothe their washing lines upon the first chilly ray of spring sunshine.

10. They demonstrate appropriate reverence for the throbbing, thrusting proof of English male virility – a Black & Decker power tool.

11. They gather for the sacred ritual of the Sabbath, appropriately equipped with a chamois leather and a car vac.

12. They agree that no pint of warm beer is palatable without a loudspeaker blasting quiz questions about the US Open Championship and the 2010 finalist of The X Factor.

13. They can plant red and salmon pink begonias in symmetrical lines.

14. They can taste, blindfold, the difference between an Oreo and a Bourbon Cream.  

15. They own at least one domestic item bearing a Kath Kidston design.

So are YOU fit to be called English? Register your score below. Warning: candidates who achieve a score of 12 or less may be required to surrender their passports.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

A Worrying Discovery

The dead, I discover, no longer wear shrouds. Probably everyone knows this, but I didn't, and I find the news strangely disturbing. A while ago, I was at the funeral of a school-gate friend (where I discovered too late that mourners no longer wear black). It hurts more to think of her laid out in her casket in her familiar plaid skirt and knee boots, rather than transfigured in white linen.

Later a dismaying notion strikes me. I struggle to decide what to wear to the office, to church and for our occasional wild nights at Bella Pasta. Now I must ready a costume for the Last Journey. Just in case. I do not wish the Vicar to have a hand in this: I would spend Eternity in a boiled wool cardie.

And so I ask the church sideswoman whether tweed or tulle would be best. She says greens are nice. We discuss my wardrobe and ponder my Boden notch-neck-knit dress with my patent Mary Janes. These don't get out much because they torment my left bunion. The sideswoman says that, under the circumstances, that needn't concern me.

She starts to worry about her own sartorial destiny and I suggest stripes. Briefly we feel satisfied that our fate is safely ordered. But, when I next climb into the notch-neck-knit dress, I shiver.

Death, ordinarily, is an implausible notion negated by the vital business of child-rearing and Boden catalogues. But when it's clad in my best wool day-wear it is ominously real. The sideswoman suggests a gap in the market for a posthumous fashion advisory service, but I have lost my nerve. I'm going to sleuth online for a shroudmaker.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Voice Within

The latest torment devised to force bloggers to humiliate themselves requires us to disclose ten things that we say to ourselves every day. Random Pearls of Wisdom is the kindly culprit in my case.  It was hard to narrow it down for I mutter to myself all day long and, although much of it is certainly random, none of it, unlike my tormentor, contains either pearls or wisdom. Below, however, is the verbal framework, that supports me through the daily grind.

Sock it to me, junior! I emit this upon awakening and rearing bolt upright on my pillows each morning. It makes the coming day seem more malleable, but the Vicar, for some reason, dislikes the habit and asks, mildly, if I could devise a different salute to the dawn.

Let’s get this show on the road! Another ritual motivator, usually uttered while still prone in bed, and which also seems to exasperate the Vicar.

HatemyselfIhatemyselfIhatemyself! This I mutter at intervals throughout the day when I realise that I’ve confused the lay reader’s infected bunion with the verger’s irritable bowel/forgotten to pack the school lunch bags/dispatched a sultry email intended for the Vicar to the Guardian’s editorial assistant by mistake.

There must be a middle way. My daily response to life’s conundrums, from disentangling the Sunday School rota to George Osborne’s fiscal daring.

I’ve just got to send a quick work email. Cunning child-proof code for ‘Clear off while I surrender to an urge to idle on Twitter/Blogger’.

In a minute… Invaluable catch-all phrase which permits me to extend said Twitter and Blogger idling for half an hour instead of cooking supper/checking homework/mediating infant brawls.

A bit of a rest should sort it out. My scientific solution to all domestic hiccups, be it an obstreperous child or a recalcitrant ink-jet printer.

It’s good for you! My irrestistible argument,  whether it’s to compel my son to choose bran flakes, my daughter to walk to school, or the Vicar to forsake his Lenten alcohol fast.

This is nice! breathed in marvelment by me to the Vicar and by the Vicar to me as we settle of an evening under our sofa rugs with Gardener’s World (me) and an erudite theolological exposition (him), as though the indulgence is a rarity instead of a nightly routine.

I’ve run out of phrases but my daughter remarked recently that I’m always using the words pond, obtuse, bugger and Wyche Cutting.

Now your turn. What do you say every day Melksham Mum, AlwaysARedhead, Reluctant Housedad? And, anyone else reading this, what do YOU say?

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Blight of Beauty

Earlier this week a 40-something blonde journalist called Samantha Brick wrote an article for the Daily Mail about why the world resents her beauty. I have watched the fall-out from her candour with appalled fascination. Hate campaigns have rippled through Twitter. 5,000 mocking comments were left on the Daily Mail’s website. Columnists in rival newspapers have lined up to condemn her delusions.
I am a lone sympathiser. For I too am a 40-something blonde journalist and I too know how it is to be condemned for your looks. This is my story.

Fifteen years ago, as I hurried for the morning train to work, a voice hailed me urgently. I turned and saw a handsome young man in hot pursuit. As he drew close he held out a flaccid parcel. It was the egg mayonnaise sandwich that I’d packed for my lunch and which I’d dropped on the pavement in my haste. I knew, though, as his eyes met mine, that the favour was a pretext and the alacrity with which he moved off after handing it over confirmed it. Overpowered by my appearance he had beat a hasty retreat before his feelings betrayed him.

I am used to this. My singular looks have brought me tributes and invitations all my life. In my first week at university, my pigeon hole was crammed daily with fluorescent invites from the Christian Union begging me to enjoy Jesus with them. Throughout my three years there, they refused take no for an answer.

I am called on an almost weekly basis by a gentleman from the Indian sub-continent pretending an urgent reminder about my payment protection policy. He knows as well as I do that I have never possessed such a thing. And when the Archdeacon came to dinner at the vicarage recently he handed me a bottle of Pinot Grigio. I was embarrassed, but not surprised. This mute affirmation happens to me all the time – so much so that the Vicar finished the bottle without rancour while I washed up.

I am no Claudia Schiffer, but I am slim and blonde and my post-natal Mr Whippy whorls are pleasingly subdued by my up-and-over spandex. And yet I bet if you are woman reading this you do not deem me desirable. Throughout my life, my looks have formed a social barrier between me and the sisterhood because of resentment and fear – resentment that I do not look as they do and fear that one swish of my corduroy hem will unnerve their husbands.

At school I stand apart because my contours are so strikingly tweed-clad amid the throng of Juicy Couture tracksuits. The other mothers are cunning at disguising their envy but I can see it simmering as they pretend to discuss Embarrassing Bodies.

I am not smug about my appearance – I rejoice in my looks as a God-given bounty and I truly sympathise with those not blessed with my physical attributes. But it is not easy looking like this.

Over the years, my success has been stymied by countless people I regarded as friends.  As a Brownie I was the only one not asked to do a reading during the church parade services. When my mother complained, Brown Owl blamed excessive shyness, but I knew better. 

In the decades that followed insecure bosses have barred me from promotion at work. Given my 14 years on The Guardian I should, by right, be editing the paper by now, but Alan Rusbridger’s spectacles were regarded as less as a threat than my blonde tresses and so, instead of taking my place among the movers and shakers of Fleet St, I am writing back-end features on health and safety in the workplace.

But it’s not just jealous bosses who have blanked me because of my appearance. Only last week, as I was posting Holy Week service sheets through parish letter boxes, I waved at the blind woman who lives down the road. She blatantly ignored me, even though I’d helped her out with the coleslaw at last autumn’s barn dance buffet.

Someone I thought of as my closest friend held a dinner party the other week. I wasn’t invited. She claimed that she’d thought I wouldn’t want to face the eight-hour drive to Edinburgh for sausage casserole, but I knew the real reason was her fear that my presence in her kitchen would be a siren call to the husbands present.

So, now I’m 43 and I must be one of the few women who is longing for my similarly ageing friends to embrace tweed and cardigans like I do so that I can blend into the background. Perhaps then people will stop marvelling at how I look and judge me instead on the beauty of my character.  

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

The Puzzle of Pocket Money

My children love money. They make minute study of the Queen's head and of the date of minting. They rejoice in coins released during their birth year and in coins with an extra polished sheen. They squirrel their riches in a mysterious system of purses, pockets and money boxes and occasionally, after grave reflection, they take a few coins out and spend them.

Ever since my mother handed my daughter a quid and informed her that, at six, she was old enough to receive pocket money, I've sacrificed a portion of my weekly earnings to my babies. For two years it was 50p each. Then, when Haribos caught up with inflation, I recklessly doubled it. Since few of my friends had begun the habit back then, I had no benchmark against which to calculate their dues. I worked on the premise that my 10p a week income in the early 1980s funded a bag of sweets and so my children should be enabled to afford the same.

Swiftly they learned that they could blow their weekly hand-out on a chocolate bar, or else save it for grander thrills. And their prudence could have spared the Greek economy. Small Son, when he can resist temptation no longer, treats himself to packs of J-cloths, lip salve and Post-it notes. My daughter makes an occasional trip to Claire's Accessories and buys hair bobbles. Mostly, though, they bide their time until something large and irresistible in Toys R Us inflames their fancy.

I, meanwhile, congratulated myself on the fact that they are learning the value of money and that my weekly bounty absolves me from random requests for treats on shopping trips. This week, though, I read that the average child receives £350 a year in pocket money. Does this make the average parent irresponsibly indulgent or does it make me a scrooge?

I consulted Twitter and I learnt the following: all of the parents who responded give their children at least £2, apart from the two whose offspring, enviably, expect nothing at all. Teenagers pocket sums ranging from a weekly fiver to £20, with extra usually added for phone credit. One ten-year-old's income is based on the going rate for a hotwheels car; others depend on whether or not they've fed the family chickens or unloaded the dishwasher. For, crucially, almost everyone either added a supplement for chores successfully completed, or deducted sums for inadequacy - 10p per misdemeanour in one household and total withdrawal of funds for slummy bedrooms in another.

There are two revelations here: one that I am a confirmed scrooge; the other that I'm missing out on the opportunity to use the weekly pittance for enforcement.

And so, while the working nation endures a pay freeze, my pair will rejoice in a newly doubled income. Only this time they must earn it. Rooms must be tidied, beds made and cats fed. I shall put my feet up on bin night and overcome the hosepipe ban by sending infants round the borders with watering cans.

An extra £2 from my purse each week is small price to pay for the leisure I shall enjoy and I shall not permit guilt to interfere with this vital scheme for their development. After all, as tweep whose six-year-old does not yet receive pocket-money declared, 'They get food and lodging. What more could a child need?'

Advice please! How much money do you think children should receive? Does your bounty come with strings attached? When did you start doling it out?

Monday, 2 April 2012

War of Words

My seven-year old son is unwillingly acquiring literacy. He loves the spoken word. He hoards unusual nouns and adjectives that strike his fancy as he hoards chocolate coins and cotton wool buds and he emits them randomly at startled visitors.

Written words, however, are enemies to be wrestled into submission or mangled into a new, less intimidating form. 'Children' looms menacingly at him off the page of his school reading book. He stares at the word in fright for a moment, then 'Trees' he pronounces, and hurries on to the more biddable conjunctions.

I am thrilled, therefore, when he announces that he is going to take up novel- reading in bed. His sister and his cousin are digesting Enid Blyton's Secret Seven adventures on their pillows and so my son decides he is going to read the Secret Seven too. He begs a copy from my high-brow book shelves and disappears upstairs.

Five minutes later he is back, moist-eyed and aggrieved. 'The others are saying I'm not really reading it,' he laments. I am annoyed. 'Don't listen to them!' I say. 'How far have you got?' 'Six pages,' he says. This is unexpected. It takes him five minutes to plough through five lines of large print in the Oxford Reading Tree.

But we do not wish to dampen a budding literary appetite. 'What's happened in the story so far?' asks his uncle kindly. My son pauses for a while, his brow wrinkled as though rehearsing a tricky synopsis. 'Well,' he concludes eventually. 'There are a lot of 'e's' in it.'

Very many thanks to anyone who voted for me in the Brilliance in Blogging Awards. Thanks to you, I have made it as far as the Lit category shortlist. Any further prods to win me cyber-stardom would be hugely appreciated. Just click on the badge thingy above and then, I assume, the process becomes obvious. Oh, and if you have the energy to add to my nominations for the MADS awards by clicking the other icon I'll let you try on my leopard-print leggings!