It started with a nursery rhyme…

Sometimes, my mouth moves in mysterious ways. And so it was this week when, walking in the cold March wind, I caught sight of my new friend. I say new – we’ve been friendly for half a decade, but this was our first time we’d taken our friendship to the next level. With chips.

Because after five years of saying we must, I was finally going out for lunch with my favourite librarian. My librarian girl, as Michael Jackson sort of sang.

When I spotted her loitering on the pavement, waiting for me, an unbidden, unprompted smile nearly split my face in two. It’s only when you smile like that you realise how fake most of your adult smiles are. It was so wide and joyous I felt as if my mouth might hinge open and all my teeth would pour out and do a joyful little jig on the pavement in front of us. And I wouldn’t have cared, I really wouldn’t.

“Is this our first date?” I blurted out, giddy with euphoria. She laughed. We looked at each other with complete delight. Woman to woman with no children around to distract us. It was just us, and her rather stylish grey coat. I couldn’t have been more delighted than if a passing bus had stopped and spat out Ryan Gosling holding a plate of home-made truffles.

I first met my friend when my daughter was a tiny month-old prawn-baby in a cardigan. Tired, lonely, isolated, I’d taken her to the Rhyme Time session at my local library in a bid to get away from the voices in my post-natal head. This librarian was running the sessions, and I liked her on sight. Since then, we’ve gone from singing nursery rhymes to swapping book recommendations before going on to conversations about my arduous path back to work, depression, her daughter’s divorce, one daughter’s mental illness, her son’s death. She’s told me about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s books and ‘The Children’s Act’ by Ian McEwan, I’ve raved about the Lego Movie and ‘Burial Rites.’ We’ve spoken bad French to each other and complimented each other’s shoes. She’s seen my daughter grow from prawn to baby to toddler to school girl, and always welcomed her with a massive smile. She gives her Playdoh on her birthday.

Finally, it was time to take our chats out of the library and onto the street. She suggested meeting at our local greasy spoon because it was close to the library. She called it grotty, apologetically. I thought it was awesome. I had an egg and sausage roll and a cup of tea. She got the ham and egg and let me eat her chips. We grabbed the ketchup, sat down, and got straight down to the business of Life. Libraries throughout our city are being restructured, closed down, and ‘revised.’ Hours are changing and staff are being asked to re-apply for their roles, often by impersonal emails. Panicked and undermined, she’d handed in her notice, convinced that she wouldn’t be successful with her re-application. “I’ve got a degree,” she marvelled. “I shouldn’t be feeling like this.” It’s not been an easy time for her, and to my surprise, she was asking me for advice about her work and what she should do.

“I’m going to be 59 in two days time,” she sighed. “You would have thought I would know what to do with my life by now.”

If she had been the mother of a pre-school or Reception child, like me, it would have been a completely different story. We would have talked about our children, or probably had them with us. We might have swapped tips about local cafes, talked about our plans for the forthcoming holidays, all the while keeping an ongoing dialogue with our kids, making sure they were okay, fed, and topped up with an endless supply of crayons, love, and attention. We would definitely never have met in a greasy spoon and been served by a man in a vest. It would have been flat whites, comfy gentrification, and cosy catch-ups all the way. Which I’ve got nothing against, by the way, but occasionally I do want more.

Over our fornica table I finally got the chance to tell her how brilliant she was with children, how, with no family nearby, the attention and affection she showed my daughter had meant the world to me, and how her sessions had been the highlight of my early motherhood, while I slowly pieced myself together again. We talked about how motherhood can interfere with your ambition, while at the same time you would never, ever, hand it back. At the end, we walked back to the library and blew each other kisses before she disappeared into the staffroom. She only had one more day left before leaving. Mother to mother, waving at each other across the decades. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I just wish it wasn’t the end of an important and essential job.

 

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Why I love my Christmas tree

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I bought my first Christmas tree when I was seven months pregnant and couldn’t bend over. My husband comes from a family which happily decorates two massive 10 feet high artificial Christmas trees every year. For those reasons, I was more than happy to buy a fake Christmas tree, way back in 2011, and thought nothing more about it, apart feeling vaguely smug that I didn’t have to hoover up pine needles every winter.

And then something changed.

It might have been the dementia that gripped a relative this year and the ongoing pain this has caused her family. It might have been the subsequently vindictive neighbour who kickstarted an ongoing legal battle that two loved ones are currently right in the middle of, losing sleep, happiness and sanity. It could have been watching people I love experience separation, anxiety, panic attacks and cancer, not to mention the bombs, airstrikes and generally pointless bigotry, pain and death that fill my newsfeed every day. 

This year, I watched my husband and daughter take a fake tree out of a bin bag and I knew it was time for something more. As my brain pounded with tiredness and panic, we piled into our van and set off on a late afternoon shopping tree spree. We bought our tree from the Arnos Vale Cemetery, a place of peace. It was way too expensive but we got it anyway, found a tree stand, stood our tree in it, decorated it, and switched the lights on.

That was two weeks ago. The tree has exerted its own magic over me. What my mother calls my ‘weltschmerz’ (world-pain) has lifted. I’ve wrapped presents underneath it, drunk red wine close by it, and stretched out on the sofa next to it, a beautiful cat purring on my stomach and read my book, an almost inconceivable luxury. (The tree made me do it.) It’s brought a sense of calm and optimism in the house. I feel it in every room.

The tradition of bringing a tree into the house for Christmas dates back to Germany in the early 1500s, although the Pagans were massive fans of worshipping and celebrating trees. And I can see why. When the rest of the world is dead, rotting and dark, filling your house with green mistletoe, holly and trees is the most audaciously perfect solution. This would never be decided on in a focus group. Who else but the pagans would decide that trees were the solutions to everything?

And I’ll tell you what else is bloody great about Christmas trees. They don’t really work on sunny winter days – they need darkness all around them to shine. And there’s probably a metaphor in there somewhere about how we need pain and darkness to help us find our own happiness, but I need to go and water my tree again so I’ll leave that one with you.

Just get in the water

 

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You can’t make me. Source: Terry Whittaker

 

The argument has been going on for weeks now. Long, tortuous, repetitive weeks. I fear we have reached a political standoff we’ll never recover from.

‘After school today, shall we go to your swimming lesson?’ I’ll begin.

‘Will you get in with me?’

‘No. Parents aren’t allowed in.’

‘I don’t want to go Mummy, please don’t make me.’

 

There’s been a lot of things, in her short life, Polly’s said no to. Trampolining. Ballet. Carrots. Waterproof trousers. Her school jacket (“it’s sleeves are fat.”) Mostly, when it comes to her attending extracurricular activities, I’m pretty open to saying no too.

I’ve written before about not being a huge fan of organised fun. Plus, anything that means one less hour standing about with a bunch of other parents all staring intently at their phones is fine in my book.

If Polly were to decide that between now and her 18th birthday the only thing she wants to do is enjoy the collected works of Roald Dahl and master making a white sauce, I like to think I’d be down with that. Learning what you love to do takes time and sometimes silence.

But when it comes to swimming, I’ve got this weak pulsating Achilles heel, and I hear myself giving her the shittest pep talks ever.

‘You have to learn to swim, so you don’t drown,’ I’ll try. But in reality it’s more than that. It’s definitely a type of one-up-man-ship. I see other kids her age and younger without armbands in the pool, and I worry that she’s falling behind. I’m entering her into a race she doesn’t know about. I’m a (gasp) pushy parent. Gaaaaah!

Plus – I love swimming. I can’t think of anything nicer than doing a perfect tumble turn. In my old blog I once waxed lyrical about them for quite some time – that was a good day.

So, when it comes to upskilling my daughter, I’ve realised that I want her to love what I love. It’s shallow and wrong, yes. But it’s why we returned to the local swimming pool today for her weekly lesson.

It was a crowded time of day. There was a group of parents, all clustered about at one end. There were loads of kids, all a bit older than her, and three teachers that she hadn’t met before. In short, it was bound to freak her. She clung to me like a limpet and stroked my boobs for comfort. I tried not to snatch her hand away. I was hot and flustered and acutely aware of standing out like a sore thumb by the poolside. When the teacher took the register, he took one look at her and said:

“Well you look terrified.”

Then he took one look at me and said: ‘Don’t worry.’

She didn’t want to go in at all. He said she could stand on the side, and then went above and beyond the call of duty in involving her in the lesson anyway. He asked her to throw in the floats, got her moving her arms about like a traffic controller, and told all the girls and boys in his class to lift their arms “if they want Polly to join their class next week.”

(Yep – one of life’s good guys.)

I spent half-an-hour following him and Polly around the pool, feeling self-conscious and sweatily gawky. But at the end, I managed to tell Polly how proud I was that she’d gone to the lesson. The teacher came up to me. “Well done for being a realistic parent,” he said. “You’d be surprised by the number of people who want me to throw their children in if they don’t want to get in.”

That made me feel a bit better. Let’s hope I’m not tempted next week.

 

THE BEEB v THE INTERNET

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They’re here. Surrender. (Source: BBC)
Today, CBBC broadcast the first episode of their new show, ‘Meet the kittens’.
From the teaser I’ve watched more than once, I’ve deduced the following. The show follows Coco and Cleo, a pair of 8 month old real-life cats, on their journey to motherhood. They’re both about to have kittens. THAT’S RIGHT. TWO SETS OF KITTENS. ON YOUR TELLY. 
Coco and Cleo have been given Yorkshire accents. They live in the countryside. And, according to the evidently besotted woman providing the voice over, they “do what they like.” Yep. This show is going to break the telly.
The BBC knows we spend all our time watching cats on the internet, and it’s FIGHTING BACK WITH THE MOST POWERFUL WEAPON KNOWN TO MAN.
These kittens will bring the productivity of Britain to a juddering halt as we all stop working, leave the dinner to burn, and let world leaders fight it out amongst themselves while we surrender to the celluloid crack that this show will undoubtedly be.
Like you, I now have a whirling maelstrom of questions. Questions like: ‘Why are Coco and Cleo from Yorkshire?’ ‘How will they deal with the inevitable sibling rivalry as they passively aggressively compare notes over which kitten starts walking and drinking babycinnos first?’ ‘When is a reasonable time to stop all pretense of working and watch the first episode?’ and ‘Why have you waited to now, CBeebies?’
Oh why are any of us pretending that you’re actually reading this? Just watch the first episode already.
You are welcome.

A heartwarming solution for all lonely A-listers

Jennifer Lawrence has given an interview to Vogue where she’s said that she is lonely every Saturday night.

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Sorry? KATNISS, LONELY? Oh right, she’s not Katniss. But still. This is one of the best, most loved Hollywood actresses right now, with the world at her feet. And although, for a brief second, I was sucked in to her confession, now, chiefly, I just feel a bit pissed off. Can we have a bit of a reality check please?

There’s a massive difference between not having plans for the night, and real, gut-destroying, life-scorching loneliness. The kind of loneliness best summed up by Barbara Covett’s sinister spinster in Zoe Heller’s ‘Notes on a scandal’, when she muses: “People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new… But about the drip drip of long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing… I have sat on park benches and trains and schoolroom chairs, feeling the great store of unused, objectless love sitting in my belly like a stone until I was sure I would cry out and fall, flailing, to the ground. About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.”

If J-Law is finding it hard to cope with the nano-seconds of singledom she endures in-between killing it at the box office and sweeping up Oscars, my heart goes out to her, really it does. But if she really wants to talk about loneliness, or can’t find companionship, then I have the solution for her. In Britain, over 1 million people haven’t spoken to a friend, neighbour or family for at least a month. Recently, an elderly couple dialled 999 and pretended they’d had an accident because they were so desperate to have someone to talk to. That’s loneliness, J-Law, right there.

I used to volunteer for a charity called The Bristol Film Unit. We would visit old people’s residential homes and show them films on projector screens. It was a life-affirming experience for me; not only did I get to see some right old classics: Whisky Galore, Now, Voyager, and Genevieve, but I also got to see how much just human companionship meant to the residents at each home. Often, at a time judged mutually convenient by us all, they would share round ice cream and red wine which we would enjoy companionably, while I soaked up tips on how to flirt in your nineties. It was probably one of the best times of my life.

So J-Law and all you other sad and rejected A-listers, why not fly over to Bristol sometime? I’ll hook you up with Bert and Phyllis and we can sort out your aching loneliness once and for all.

39 ways to be a modern lady

Country Life has published a new list on how to be a modern lady. Some of its suggestions aren’t as hideous as you’d think. But in my opinion it’s missed out on quite a few essentials, so here are my suggestions to make up the deficit.

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My kind of lady…

  1. Doesn’t check her mobile or look at a screen during any meal (but isn’t afraid to look at it in the toilet.)
  2. Can do basic first-aid.
  3. Swims like a trout in cold streams and rivers.
  4. When really fit workmen come round to her house, refrains from sending ‘OMG I have a stud in my house come round nooooow’ type texts.
  5. For at least an hour. And then she shares the joy.
  6. Arranges for guests’ favourite newspaper to be delivered if they’re staying for the weekend.
  7. Isn’t afraid to confront people for throwing litter.
  8. In a passive aggressive slightly mad way. YOU DROPPED SOMETHING. etc
  9. Knows when to leave the fast lane but also stays put if someone is trying to bully her out of the way. When this happens, will use the power of hand gestures to indicate her sympathy for the fact that said driver is unfortunately underrepresented in the trouser department.
  10. When it comes to the behaviour of her friends’ children, knows when to keep her mouth shut.
  11. Thinks that Annie Hall is one of the greatest people that ever lived, even if she wasn’t real.
  12. Speaks up for the underdog.
  13. Uses the library.
  14. Has a brilliant voice on the phone.
  15. Donates at museums.
  16. Gets past the small talk.
  17. Can shrug off a shitty day with a really inappropriate solo grindy dance in the kitchen, even when sober.
  18. Doesn’t post selfies where she is pouting. Ever.
  19. Never moans about jetlag, dust from extensions, or au-pair or nanny difficulties.
  20. Can name trees, birds and flowers and helps children learn them too.
  21. Knows that an elegant eye-roll, when executed properly, is a thing of joy.
  22. Can quote stuff – proper stuff. Poems, sayings, lines from films, Maureen Lipman adverts.
  23. Plays board games.
  24. Gives good hugs. Proper, strong, squeezy ones.
  25. Knows how to complain properly.
  26. Doesn’t give a shit what state your house is in, in fact can sink into a big pile of squalor, pick off some empty cat food tins from your sofa and say “god, you really need to do less around the house.”
  27. Drops round for coffee without being asked.
  28. Has got at least one favourite category on Youporn. .
  29. Can talk about TV shows with enthusiasm and expertise.
  30. Says: ‘Can I help you?’ if she catches anyone leering at her.
  31. Eats like a horse.
  32. Can be a bit feral.
  33. Breaks the rules.
  34. Fully accepts that, once you’ve had children, you’re always working, whether you have a ‘job in an office’ or not, and gives all mums the respect they deserve, rather than saying: ‘How can you be tired, you’re at home all day?’
  35. Knows when people are sad, even when they’re pretending they’re fine, and does something about it.
  36. Doesn’t say ‘sorry’ automatically when she cries.
  37. Gives herself secret pep talks.
  38. Still gets misty eyed when talking about a pet she had a few decades ago,
  39. Has at least one slightly unhinged laugh that you can’t forget.

To thane own self be true

In an attempt to write the shortest film review of Justin Kurzel’s new film adaptation of Macbeth, I’ve basically come up with the one pun. And you’ve read it already. Feel free to wheel it out at parties.

But it does make a tiny point. Watching this glorious reincarnation of a story that never loses its horror, I finally realised what Macbeth’s problem was. It’s the weight of expectation. He was totally fine, pootling around battlefields with a bit of badly applied eyeliner, doing battle. Totally fine, in an ancient, killing machine type of way.

It only goes horribly wrong when the witches tell him he’ll be king. He’s not king, but he will be king. They don’t tell him how, and they don’t tell him why. And unfolding the riddle, and forcing his will behind their words, is what drives him mad. I came out of the auditorium determined to ignore people’s predictions, especially about my life. From how many children I should have, to what will make me happy, to what will make me unhappy, to how I should run my life, to what should matter to me, to the sad and lonely death I’ll suffer if I don’t get a pension. (Okay, that one might actually be true. But answer me this. How sad and lonely can a death be, if one has ten cats and the entire box set of Curb Your Enthusiasm?)

No one can tell me my fate, and if they try to I’ll stick my fingers in my ears and run away.