Thursday, 28 June 2012

The Steamy Secrets of Success

Ed Miliband is my age and he's running the Labour Party. James Harding is my age and he's editing The Times. I always assumed that it was a lack of vision, skill and drive that's kept me toiling over features in the vicarage guest room, but now I realise where I went wrong: I was drinking the wrong hot beverages.

Coffee fuels the highest achievers, according to a survey, and 70 per cent of the country's top earners rate coffee over tea. This truth must have percolated through the national subconscious, for 45 per cent of adults questioned by the pollsters reckon coffee has a higher social status than a nice cup of tea.

Now they tell me! Of course, survey's sponsor, the coffee machine manufacturer Nespresso, has a vested interest in these findings. But I am already persuaded.

There is a raw machismo about the modern coffee experience. The team of invariably good-looking baristas operating a wall of formidable machines. The air of urgency as they lunge and thrust, unleashing hot white foam from one nozzle and a squirt of potent black from another. The roar and hiss and suction as those metallic beasts grind into action and the infectious despair should one fail to rise to the occasion.
Coffee making has become performance drama which the moistening of tea bag can never hope to emulate.

It's only natural that the testosterone that went into the making of an espresso should infuse the drinker. A cut-throat financier who brings hot chocolate to a business meeting may be exposing an appealing soft centre, but I would doubt their ruthlessness in storming the world's stock markets. A double espresso, on the other hand, is a power tool.

We women especially should be wary. A herbal infusion is a social adhesive in civilized circles, but the chief executive who delves in her handbag for a peppermint tea bag within London's Square Mile will compromise her pheromones in a Y-chromosone battleground.

It just so happens that Nespresso is plugging a new 'flagship boutique' in London's Regent St, but these happily timed findings are not telling us anything we didn't know already. A colleague admits that he feels embarrassed sucking the straw of his little carton of orange juice while the pin-stripes on his commuter train neck cappuccinos. A friend uses his Rhett Butler mug when he makes his morning coffee and its Scarlett O'Hara twin for afternoon tea. And a respondent to my quick Twitter survey declares that people who order a double-espresso scare her slightly – 'even more so when they actually drink it.'

Small wonder, then, that those who consider themselves ambitious drink 1.5 times more coffee than we gentler souls, according to the poll. Or that 78 per cent of high earners deem strong coffee a necessity to propel them up the career ladder. And you won't fool potential new clients with a lily-livered latte - it's espresso and macchiato for three quarters of those at the top.

There is, however, a malicious comfort. A report by US scientists published in the must-read journal Circulation Heart Failure this week shows that, while two uncool lattes a day reduce the risk of heart failure and Type 2 diabetes, more than four strong coffees a day can be dangerous. 

 So those of us who have not yet sipped our way to the top just need to bide our time. All that espresso-fuelled machismo will burn out early, whereupon we can storm the city board rooms with our packs of PG Tips.  

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

How to Be a Modern Vicar's Wife

Marriage to a vicar is a science. It requires mastery of the hot water urn, for tea fuels parish life. It requires dexterity with chrysanthemums and an encompassing memory for human biology. At the church flower festival I display all of these. I swill glasses, tweak blooms and enquire after a spectrum of parish ailments. I'm balancing a spire of dirty plates when an old lady clutches my arm. 'I'm so glad you're not a typical vicar's wife,' she says. 'Fifty years ago you'd have been a slave to the parish, but you - you just do your own thing!'

The picture below is the prompt this week's 100 Word Challenge from Julia. It reminded me of my weekly rendez-vous with the church tea urn, the power behind the prayer, and, particularly, a disconcerting reaction as I toiled over the buffet lunch during last year's flower festival. 

Monday, 25 June 2012

A Luddite Conversion

I began my blog last October because someone told me that Luddism and journalism were incompatible. I signed up to Twitter in December because someone told me that blogging without tweeting was a voice in the wilderness. I was a cyber-virgin and swiftly I became addicted.

I loved gleaning fragments from domestic tedium to craft into a story. I felt frantic affection for anyone who troubled to comment. Twitter interactions from strangers were more of a thrill than a phone call from an old friend - and an irresistible distraction from dusting and deadlines.

Most of all I was struck by the generous spirit in the Blogosphere. Veteran bloggers were tireless with tips and promotion; comments, unlike online reactions to newspaper articles, were always kindly. If people disliked a post they would pass on in discreet silence.

I was wary, however, of cyber friendships. Virtual hugs tweeted at a stranger's affliction, intimate comments between folk who had never met unnerved me.  I was conscious that we can hone and airbrush and reinvent ourselves in cyberspace to impress those who would never see the reality and that  affection, rapped out on a keypad, was facile.  Twitter relationships were, I thought, a chimera - engaging and enjoyable, but worlds away from real friendship.

Then I went to the Britmums party. I met the flesh and blood behind the avatars. I was as thrilled as a film fan meeting my on-screen heroes, although if I'd predicted this I would have thought more carefully about my cyber identity. 'Ageing  Matron!', shrieked across the party floor, unsettled my attempts to appear a rock-chick Girl-About-Town.

The revelation that astonished me was that these bloggers and tweeters, whom I have tailed for six months, seemed like old friends. That the reason I had followed so faithfully strangers' updates about hangovers, supper plans and their local weather conditions was that their characters and kindredness had seeped through my screen without my fully realising.

All of them were were as delightful as the blogs and tweets that had beguiled me. I returned home euphoric and chastened. Cyber-socialising is a new revolution and, I've discovered, it doesn't replace old-fashioned friendships, it multiplies them.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

A Tribute

The daily papers bear obituaries of great lives newly ended. And, daily, great lives end unremarked by the media. Today my father-in-law died. He was 86. And because he was, without celebrity, a great man, I want this small corner of cyberspace to be dedicated to him.

He was vivid character. His hair, boot-black into his 80s, was rarely cut and flapped in a tall, wild halo when he strode the Derbyshire peaks. He would confound waiters with riddles and break solemnly and unexpectedly into rhyming verse. He had a curious allegiance to Izal loo roll and tinned potatoes. He pedalled a frenzied mile each morning on the exercise bike at the end of his bed and when he opened the front door to us he would perform a sweeping bow.

He was an insatiable intellect. He would court opinions on the Winter War over breakfast. Because his mind was never channelled by a national curriculum or a university degree, it ranged freely over arts and science and he devoured books on mathematics and vintology as avidly as the whodunnits of PD James. He taught himself the piano and played his own composition with electrifying zest, his long hair tumbling as his fingers flew.

He was a generous spirit: in terms of money and outlook. His last action before a stroke paralysed him was to order surprise presents for his grandchildren and his first faltering words when we visited in hospital were to ask if they had arrived. His philosophy, when his children were grown, was that any life decision they made was the right one by him, and his sense of honour avoided gossip. If he disliked someone's deeds or character he declined to discuss them - unless they were politicians.

He was a contented soul. Happiness, I always thought, was something you strove for, or was bestowed on you by wealth or circumstance. He taught me that happiness can be extracted from the here and now. His small flat, his sudoko puzzles, his weekly pint and his beloved Peaks were his bliss. When age assaulted him he refused to complain. He gleaned the best in people and he knew how to count his blessings and those infectious skills are perhaps his most valuable bequest of all.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Courting Controversy

I do not like to be a dissenting voice. A peaceable nature and an idle intellect cause me to go with the flow when possible. But recently there has been a widespread prejudice that has provoked me. I hear it aired uncontested at the school gate, at family dinners, at the Co-op check-out and in the national media. I've tolerated it for as long as my patience allowed me, but now I feel moved to speak out.

I love the rain.

Proper rain, mind. No sane person likes drizzle. Hours, I spend, poring over the Met Office weather maps hoping for those two sturdy rain drops as fervently as others long for the symbol of the sun.

When the real hard stuff sluices down our window panes I feel the sort of euphoria which other people pay a small fortune to achieve. I stand at the front door gazing raptly at the rods of wet scouring our path tiles. I dash suspensefully across the garden to measure the rising levels in my wheelbarrow. And, from my window, I watch soaked people scurrying down the pavements. I don't get so much pleasure as I used to from this last, however, for, as I've mentioned before, my character is improving.

I love the rain because:

It tops up my pond. Weeks I spent with my pickeaxe, hacking the London clay to create this out of a bramble patch. Now word has got out. Newts and dragonflies have moved in and the water writhes with tadpoles. But sun shrinks the level and tap water is lethal to the residents and so I crave rain to keep it brimming.

Leaping about the trampoline in a downpour is a joy that far too few people sample:

It relieves the monotony of the daily trudge to school (and gives me additional opportunity to flaunt my Hunter wellies):

It clears well-known beauty spots of disfiguring anoraks so that you can picnic in wet and windy solitude:

When blown in by gales, it installs thrilling new play equipment in familiar landscapes:

And, come evening, when it's pounding the windows, it conjures inside you a delectable snug smugness that money could never buy:

Go on, admit it here in strictest confidence - you love the rain too:

Monday, 18 June 2012


I like to think my character is improving. I feel sympathy for oncoming drivers stuck in motorway jams instead of Schadenfreude and I derive far less pleasure in watching rain drench pedestrians beyond my window.

My 7-year-old has yet to acquire my moral poise. He rejoices uninhibitedly in the predicaments of others. 'It gives me such joy!' he lisps raptly, eavesdropping on his sister's scolding.

I fear he will develop a destructive nature; become a double-agent for a sinister regime or a newspaper columnist. And I fear my enjoyment of his enjoyment - for in the dark recess of my mind I realise that my self-improvement is illusory.

The latest prompt for Julia's addictive 100 Word Challenge is to add 100 words to the phrase in the dark recess of my mind. The constraining word count doesn't give me room to mention that my angel-faced son insists sweets and sugars, on which he feeds rapturously, fill his invisible pouch of venom and enable him to provoke explosive situations for him to relish. This is a rare and valuable skill, for so sweetly does he stir trouble, that noone, bar his parents, is any the wiser. The picture below shows him stoking up ready for action.  

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Father's Day

A journalist, mourning the golden age of Fleet Street in The Spectator magazine recalled a 'twinkle-toed' colleague, who 'tap-danced on the office desk singing Powder Your Face With Sunshine.'

That colleague was my father.

I, remembering the golden-age of infancy, recall a long-skirted figure with a head piled with bananas, emulating Hollywood's Brazilian Bombshell, Carmen Miranda, during bathtime.

That figure was my father.

My father, in the 1970s, was a pioneer. While my mother went out to work he became a stay-at-home-dad. It was he who devised chase games to brighten the uphill walk home from school and who cooked us suppers of corned beef fritters and home-made chips. He was the only dad in the school who owned an evening gown worn to startle us with impromptu theatricals.

Tirelessly, the man who had interviewed the Beatles and travelled the world for a headline, read us Listen with Mother stories, played London Bridge is Falling Down on the bed and left grotesque faces on our drawing boards to thrill us when we woke.

I do not normally heed Father's Day. I suspect it's a festival dreamed up by big business to boost sales. But this morning I learned that both my father-in-law and my father are worryingly ill. The latter, yesterday, faced a devastating dilemma: whether to take a drug that would protect him against a potentially lethal blood clot, but that could also rob him of his remaining chink of eyesight.

He has chosen to preserve the eyesight. And so I am observing this Father's Day with intensity.

'Mummy gives us love,' a four-year old me once memorably declared, 'But Daddy gives us fun.'

I realise I was only half right. My father has always given us both in unstinting quantities and he and all committed fathers deserve 365 dedicated days a year in tribute.

Friday, 15 June 2012

An Alien Birth

'What did you think when you saw me for the first time?' asks my 9-year-old.

I cough up a cornflake. When my slimed and bloodied first-born was laid on my chest I remember very clearly my reaction: 'Get it off me!' I shrieked to the midwife.

Most women who write of their birth experience describe a transcending bliss. My own mother still melts at the memory of meeting my infant eyes for the first time. I longed for the birth of my baby. I charted her foetal development in a foot-high stack of pregnancy guides. I gazed raptly at the readied cot that would one day contain her. I even gave up lager for six days a week.

But, when the moment arrived, I was terrified by the idea of a separate living entity issuing, sci-fi like, from me. For the first days of her life I fed her and changed her and rocked her with appropriate devotion. I would have leapt from a tower block to keep her from harm. But I could not fully fathom the fact that this self-possessed small person belonged to me.

Two years later when my son was born, I should have been more seasoned. 'God, he's ugly!' I shrilled as they placed a scrawny, scaly, howling scrap of flesh in my arms.

Still now, when I regard my twosome at the school gate, I struggle sometimes to comprehend that they sprang from me. Or that those infant strangers could have metamorphosed into such vivid individuals.

So when my daughter asks me what I thought when I first beheld her, I hesitate. 'It was,' I tell her,' love at first sight.' And hindsight has taught me that that is true.

Am I alone in my unwomanly reaction? Come clean: was your birth moment less ecstatic than it was supposed to be?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Artistic Awakening

If I were ever to come by £1million I should spend it on three things: a canal across my garden, a giant wheel of Stilton and a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw. My youthful bedroom was plastered with greetings card prints of Victorian paintings and a poster of Atkinson Grimshaw's Liverpool now hangs beside our kingsize. I have never, however, managed to make the clergy stipend stretch to an original work of art.

But recently I wandered past the masterpieces in the Tate Britain's art galleries. Among the Picassos, the Whistlers and the radiant visions of Turner were some startling contemporary wonders: an ironing board tethered to a twin-tub, for instance; an Ordnance Survey map of Dartmoor with a hand-drawn circle on it and a long, dangerously bent ladder.

On my return a revelation blinded me. I may only dream of possessing the Picassos, the Whistlers and the Turners, but my home is full of priceless artworks; I just never had the eyes to see them before.

Like this:

Barbara Hepworth: Three Forms (1935) © Tate, London 2012

The palliatives required for the Vicar's man flu
Or this:

Piero Manzoni: Artist's Shit (1961) Photo:© Tate, London 2012 

Treasure harvested from my kittens' litter tray. To think, TO THINK, I used to throw the stuff away! Now I know why our local dog walkers hang their knotted bags of proteins so reverently from trees. 

Or this:

Tracy Emin: 80%-20% Canada (1997) © Tate, London 2012

My directions to get myself and the Skoda to Potters Bar last weekend.

Or this:

Terry Atkinson: Map Not to Indicate (1967) © Tate, London 2012

Map of my local town pared of all detail save for my two most frequent haunts.

Or this: 

Barry Flanagan: Pile 3 '68' Photo:© Tate, London

The family towels

Or this: 

John Latham: Full Stop (1961) © Tate, London 2012

A section of the black mould sprouting along the sealant of my bath tub.

Do you have art works lurking in your home? Go check now! And I can thoroughly recommend trip to all the Tate galleries to help you see the world in a different way.

Monday, 11 June 2012

A Humbling Devotion

Julia's 100 Word Challenge this week requires a report that captures the essence of the words There's a real buzz about this place. I immediately thought of Arundel's Roman Catholic cathedral which I happened to pass last week during a walking holiday. Churches are normally deserted places first thing on a week-day morning, but I was intrigued by the buzz among a throng waiting outside the locked doors. So I waited with them to see what was to be seen and I was awed by what lay through the gloom within. 

A crowd was queuing by 9.15am, expectant as shoppers in the January sales. It was the smell that struck first when the doors opened: the intoxicating aroma of 1,500 flowers carpeting the cathedral nave. It's a tradition observed since 1877, the unfolding events of a century symbolised by patterned petals. For two days each June it shimmers beneath the soaring stonework, then, in seconds, it's trampled by a procession bearing the sacred Host on the feast of Corpus Christi. The marvel is not so much the artistry, but the sacrifice. For the point of this painstaking perfection is, as homage, its destruction.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Saturday is Caption Day

over at Mammasaurus. Although I don't do the laundry as often as I should, yet my washing machine is rarely empty.

The more captions you can suggest the more energy I'll have to put next week's school uniforms through the hot cycle.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Extreme Parenting

At night, shortly before the bedtime stories, my children like to watch people die violently. Often it's witches tumbling off cliffs or the tops of windowless towers. Sometimes it's a schoolgirl slain by a snake's stare or a teenager murdered by a graveyard curse. Once, inadvertently, it was Bill Sykes dangling from a noose. I'd forgotten that there was a darker side to Oliver! than tuneful pick-pocketing.

Tranquilly my pair look on, chewing crumpets, and tranquilly they retire to bed with their teddy bears. Disney and Harry Potter have trained them to watch extinction with a steady eye.

Last night, though, they were traumatised. Night lights had to be improvised and guardian angels invoked. But last night there were no cartoon bodies hurled from heights and no Lord of the Dark Arts felling foe. They had watched a fetching evacuee bond with a fetching old man in a glorious flintstone village in Buckinghamshire.

In one scene in Goodnight Mr Tom, the evacuee's mother had served him a tea of boiled eggs. I sometimes serve my children a tea of boiled eggs. She'd leaned up close and fondly and her son had presented her with a picture he'd painted her, just as my children often do for me. Only the gesture turned the mother into a monster and she raged and abused him and my children looked on, faces frozen in appalled incredulity.

They can cope with on-screen carnage secure in anticipation of a dose of Enid Blyton and a goodnight cuddle. But the notion of a treacherous mother is a horror too hard for them to handle.

I am gratified at this reminder of my significance and frightened by the weight of my responsibility. When I bawl out my babies for bedroom chaos or abandoned peas, and when I harry them to bed because I'm too tired to be kindly, I hear echoes of that irascible mother in me. I worry that one day, through exhaustion, or boredom or inattention I will let them down.

And so I have hidden Goodnight Mr Tom behind 12 espisodes of The Doris Day Show and I have dusted down an abandoned VHS tape of Snow White. I'm hopeful that that murderous, glamorous stepmother is so safely removed from the reality of me that she'll console my terrorised children and bolster my faith in my own mothering.

Friday, 1 June 2012

My Olympic Moment

There's an infectious Olympic meme doing the rounds and Herecomethegirls has spread it to me. Once the gymnastics is over, I have very little interest in the Olympics, but I am a sporting spirit and so here's my contribution to London 2012.

If every-day tasks were Olympic events what would you get a gold medal in?
I am expert in the art of deferment. I can spend so many hours wondering whether I ought to start some cleaning that there's no time left to locate the duster. I neglect my in-tray for cunning numbers of weeks so that the tasks within it become obsolete before I have to confront them and, by the time I've put off hanging the washing out for a day, it smells so funny I have to re-run the cycle and delay the extertion. Heck, I've even found Christmas cards I never got round to posting the previous year so it spares me having to write another batch on Christmas Eve. I also excel at slug-baiting, although I know blood sports are out of fashion these days. 

As a child (or now even) did you excel at a particular sport and if so which one?
I was always dextrous at tree-climbing which must be a sport because it has its own world championships. I can also dangle upside down for long periods from one knee. Does that count as gym?

Michael Phelps (swimmer) or Michael Johnson (runner) – which sport appeals to you more?
Never heard of either of them, but if the sea is savage enough, I always enjoy a swim.

How fast can you get out of bed and ready to go out the door if you miss the alarm and sleep in?
I never oversleep because I have two back-up alarms: one is my children who come tunnelling up the duvet when they feel dawn has started and the other is PG Tips which is borne to my pillow at 7am every morning. If both failed, I could probably do it in about half an hour. I refuse to leave the house without digesting toast and marmalade.

What fantasy sport would you like to see made into an Olympic event?

Claim-to-fame time: have you ever met an Olympian and who was it?
I've never knowingly met one, but here's a mesmerising fact: I used to live 200 yards from the track where Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile. If I'd moved in 50 years earlier I'd have been an eye-witness.

What event in past Olympics can you remember most vividly?
Have there been other Olympics then?

Tuning in at home, or tickets clamped ready in sweaty palms?
I'll be tuning in at home so that I can plant my children in front of synchronised swimming for the afternoon while I go and repot my tomato plants. But not if it clashes with Have I Got News For You?.

Who do you think most deserves a gold medal (any walk of life not just Olympians)?
Carmen Miranda. She was the first person who made me realise that bananas could be harnessed as millinery as well as nourishing energy boosters.

I shall pass the baton to two great sports, Dadandproud in celebration of his new blog and Reluctanthousedad who can has Olympian skills with a chicken carcass and who never lets me down. I shall also challenge Motherventing because I enjoy her exasperation when she's tagged.