Friday, 23 December 2011

Totes Emosh*

In the car yesterday with the twins on the way to our six-monthly check-up with the dentist (how's that for a festive warm-up?), they suggested that they should get me a t-shirt with the words 'Totes Emosh' on the front. Without boring you with my views on wearing things with words on one's chest when one is over 30, obviously this is a non-starter. But they are absolutely right about the sentiment at this time of year.

Already I have been T E about number 1 child reading a lesson in the Ripon Cathedral Carol Service, something, if you know number 1, you will realise I never thought would happen. Ditto, child 3 playing the trumpet at the same venue three days later. Not on his own, but carols played by a brass band get me every time.

Actually lots of Christmas carols and songs have that effect on me. The schoolgirl in me still wants to sing the descant in 'Oh Come All Ye Faithful' and of course, I sing the inappropriate words in 'While Shepherds Watched' and a real favourite - 'Most highly flavoured gravy' which doesn't get enough exposure these days. My chosen favourite songs this year have been Chris Rea's 'Driving Home to Christmas' which I am listening to as I type and the Military Wives which I have been crying along to for weeks.

Last night, we bumped into friends whom I shall call Udder Cream and the Bean without any explanation (because I am threatening Udder Cream who is a fellow blogger with a whole blog-expose in the New Year!) and we were talking about how excited we are at the return of all our offspring tonight. Did we ever realise that we were having that effect on our parents when we were in our teens and twenties? Or were our parents less totes emosh than we are? Anyway I am already ridiculously over-excited and can't wait to have them all here together (gritting my teeth whilst they make a most Biblical mess!) for a few days at least.

So wishing you all a Totes Emosh Christmas (in all the nicest possible ways) and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

PS My other Christmas favourite this year is 'Walking Round in Women's Underwear' which I heard on the radio yesterday for the first time and really made me laugh - excellent! Enjoy!

*Totes Emosh was coined by the otherwise forgettable Two Shoes on X-Factor this year and was probably the best moment of the entire series - and I can't believe I watched nearly all of it!

Thursday, 1 December 2011

It's all about tradition

I am not a great one for change and I admit to liking routine and being comfortable with things as they are. Surprisingly, my children (who at their young ages perhaps should be less change-averse than I am) also seem to like things to follow their traditional pattern and Christmas and the run-up to it is probably the most important time of all.

Firstly, to set the context, I have been berated (only mildly) for failing to buy pumpkins this Halloween for the first time, thus inadvertently cancelling the annual pumpkin carving competition in which children 3 and 4 are teamed with either children 1 and 2, or failing that, the Barnsley lodger if she is in residence, to produce the best Halloween pumpkin. In years gone by, I have expected to be dashing a small child to hospital to have fingers re-attached but this has never happened and, now that the danger has lessened with age, I completely forgot about the whole pumpkin thing until too late. Bad mother! When I have been the really-on-the-ball mother, I have kept all the pumpkin seeds and threaded them on to cotton and draped them onto the Christmas tree but I think I'm turning into Kirstie Allsop and that would never do!

So on to Bonfire Night... now I am married to a would-be arsonist who loves Bonfire Night best of any night of the year. However, this year he went to Valencia to the MotoGP on a work mission (ha! I have seen the pictures and it doesn't look like any work mission I've ever been on!) and so no fireworks here. One year, we had a group of parents from school including our illustrious headmaster and the chair of governors both of whom at the time we didn't know as well as we do now. Towards the end of the evening, apparently a box of fireworks was inadvertently (I am told...) thrown on to the bonfire. I wasn't alive during the Blitz (really!) but I imagine similar scenes. I am pleased to say that no-one was hurt and my beloved remains some sort of folk hero to the children who were here that night.

And now to Christmas... four children, two in their teens and two in their twenties, demand chocolate advent calendars (sorry not the religious sort, I have tried and I have failed...) which have to be delivered to the older two who no longer live with us (though that doesn't stop them bringing their laundry home periodically!). My first Christmassy thing tends to be my Christmas lunch for my girlfriends. Girls, we work so hard at Christmas to make it a lovely day for everyone in our wider families (and wider they definitely are by the time they've consumed all the Christmas fare on the table!) so my present to my girlfriends is to have them over for lunch which we are doing next week. Unfortunately, I can't shoehorn them all into my house so mostly it works in some sort of rotation because that's the only way I can do it.  I shall be cooking them a nice lunch and if my beloved hasn't had all the pot holes in our lane filled, he will be cleaning the mud off their cars.

Then there are the various dinners... we've had the tennis club dinner in the pub and very good it was too and yes, after a modest amount of red wine, I made a speech but... I did not stand on a chair this year and my beloved described it as "fairly coherent and mercifully short" - bit of a result in my book! We also have the cricket club dinner coming up which involves more wine, much better speeches and a spot of dancing. This year, children 3 and 4 are coming - child 3 because he comes every year as he plays for the adult teams, and child 4 because she wants to. She will be sitting on a table with 11 boys and I am sure they will look after her... I think!

After that, more excitement as we 'spend' our winnings from the pub quiz nights which we have accumulated over the last few months and then we have the big charity bash in a tent which I have helped to organise.

So a quiet few weeks in the run-up to Christmas but mostly it follows the same pattern year-on-year and that's how we like it. No doubt I shall feel the need to update you before the big day - after all, we have two birthdays, two carol services, a party or two and a Christmas lunch and, (I am really excited about this...) Newcastle v Toulon with my most favourite number 10 in the world playing for Toulon to look forward to before then.

Happy Advent!

PS Just in case you are wondering how the X Factor sweepstake is going, I was annihilated when Jonny and Craig got ousted, ditto child 2 who drew The Risk and Sophie, though the Barnsley lodger has made a re-entry with Amelia Lilly and my beloved, child 3 and child 4 are still in the running with Little Mix, Marcus and Miss Mischa B respectively. Will keep you posted...

Monday, 14 November 2011

Lest We Forget...

It seems to me an extraordinary thing that we can, on the one hand, regard ourselves as the most sophisticated and advanced species on the planet and yet, on the other hand, still be fighting with each other all over the world. That said, at this time of year, I think a lot about the soldiers who have fought and died for this country since the Great War to the present day.

Usually on Remembrance Sunday, a group (I know, there will be a correct technical word relating to the number etc) of Army Cadets from the Apprentice College in Harrogate come to our village church. We look at them - their incredibly shiny boots, their immaculate uniform and most of all, their very young faces. I always wonder where they will be in twelve months' time - Afghanistan, Libya...? And my heart bleeds for these young men that they may not come home to their families, their mothers, their girlfriends. And when they read Laurence Binyon's words: "They shall not grow old..." I pray that my son will not hear the call to arms in his lifetime.

They read out the names of the fallen soldiers of our village. The numbers from the Great War are heart-breaking. Our village must have been quite small then, and every family will have lost someone close to them. How hard for that generation to pick themselves up and move on only to offer up their young men again just a generation or two later. Not young boys who wanted a career in the army but farm labourers, butchers and bakers who never thought that another war after the Great War could happen.

This year, there were no young cadets with their shiny boots as their commander had deemed it too expensive to transport small groups all around the area. We missed them and we thought of them nonetheless with their short hair and scrubbed young faces.

For the last four years, since child 3 was 11, he has played the Last Post on his cornet at the service. The first year he played, he was terrified. Afraid of messing up in front of soldiers and congregation, playing those extraordinary poignant notes that capture the emotions, playing the notes into the silence. Now he is still nervous on the morning but, I think, considers it an honour. And this year, without the young cadets, he no longer looked the small boy amongst young men but a young man himself.

When I sat down to write this, I looked up the whole of Laurence Binyon's poem. It still holds good for today and perhaps, those warmongers with young soldiers' blood on their hands should read this:

For The Fallen
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 
England mourns for her dead across the sea. 
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 
There is music in the midst of desolation 
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 
They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 
They sleep beyond England's foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 
To the end, to the end, they remain.

Postscript: Last year, my beloved and I went to Washington and it was hugely moving visiting the Vietnam Memorial. To see name after name after name etched on the stone only reminds me of the futility of war. How little we have learnt.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Sunday Night Club

Sometimes, weeks in this house are so hectic that I often say a prayer on a Sunday night before I go sleep that I will survive the week ahead without dropping the ball. Packed with commitments - work, school, sports, social - and all the time, I am somehow keeping a diary for everyone, ensuring that the resident children have the necessary kit for each day ahead - swimming things, tennis things, trumpet - with fingers crossed that they have assembled the correct homework.

When we get to Friday, exhausted, I think, 'ha! made it through again' and look at the commitments for the weekend - ours and the children's who still require ferrying about to work, cricket, golf, extra maths and their social lives. Each week, I promise myself that at the weekend there will be all manner of jobs done - in the garden, clean the car (actually that's not true - car cleaning, I would like to remind my family, is not and never will be in my job description), in the house, decorating and all the other stuff. Sometimes it gets done or at least part of it generally does but jobs are never finished which is why my house is like the Forth Road Bridge - always a work in progress.

And then Sunday comes, and once the ferrying about is done, weeds pulled and other jobs started (but not finished) and the ironing pile becomes less like Everest and more like Almscliffe Crag, my beloved cooks a very excellent roast and Sunday Night Club begins.

Now here are the constituents of what we now call Sunday Night Club - fabulous dinner (not cooked by me but probably involving Biblical amounts of washing up ... by me), red wine (no apologies for this, there is no Sunday dinner without it), children - resident and otherwise, a selection of friends and lodgers and games. There is also excellent and undemanding Sunday night television but we are a little confused at the man from The Post Office (as child 3 called Larkrise to Candleford) leaving his wife and a ridiculous number of snotty-nosed children to turn up as a hobbling valet at Downton.

A proper Sunday Night Club always includes games. This means that we have to be feeling not too tired and emotional from the Saturday night - this week I was just looking for a pile of leaves to sleep under until springtime but that's what being surgically removed from the dancefloor at 2am does for you. In the summer, we play outdoor games - croquet being a particular favourite. Of course, we don't play the conventional version; this is 'extreme' croquet with molehills, slopes, flowerbeds and water hazards. Child 3 is especially proud of his skill at attaching a hosepipe to a garden implement so that if your ball comes within five yards you are almost certain to get soaked. Croquet is particularly brutal and my beloved goes from mild-mannered and charming to a complete bounder the minute a mallet is put in his hand.

Now that the evenings are drawing in, we are playing perudo which, for the uninitiated, is a dice game unsurprisingly involving lying. Recently we were selected to play in the World Championships (at a lovely house near Bolton Abbey) so much practising has been taking place. We have a league table on a blackboard in the kitchen and child 4 is currently topping the rankings. You wouldn't know, of course, unless you understood that we renamed the children recently before England disgraced themselves in the World Cup. Child 1 is Shontayne (can't accuse her of disgracing herself as she scarcely played), child 2 is Courtney (suspended during the Cup for an illegal tackle - must speak to her about that), child 3 is Alfonso (I know, he plays cricket for Somerset but actually he probably would have been as good as some of the team we took to New Zealand) and Manu is child 4. Other key players are Uncle Max - my beloved and a keen fan of the Sound of Music and Arlidge - the Barnsley lodger. Arlidge is my favourite player in the World Cup so far as he played fly-half for Japan and looks every bit as Japanese as me! Anyway, he scored all Japan's points against the French and frankly I think he should try being English - like Manu.

So all are welcome here on a Sunday night, provided you don't want intelligent conversation. We'll be playing games, shouting at the television (well, X Factor and Strictly do call for a lot of shouting) and enjoying a big feed with lashings (as Enid Blyton would say) of red wine. Oh, and we recently had an American here for SNC proving that we are not just two countries divided by a common language to quote Winston Churchill but two countries divided by the knife and fork! I think I'll stick to our way.

Friday, 30 September 2011

"A time of innocence, a time of confidences..."

Over a year ago, I took the train to London and, in trepidation, met up for the first time in over thirty years two of my best friends from school. It was, in anticipation, a terrifying ordeal. We had been in touch on and off over the years but the three of us probably had not been together since our early twenties which, in case you don't know, is a very long time ago.

I heard something on the radio the other day about how, on the day you leave school, you really can't imagine never, never seeing your school peers again. I can't clearly remember my last day. There was no great hurrah for the leavers and I seem to think we just drifted away ... into town to shop or onto buses. We were uncelebrated and already surplus to the school. How unlike today with leavers' balls and special assemblies. We just disappeared into the ether - some of us (not many and not me, to university), some to college (quite different and for the educationally under-achieving - ie me) and some to the world of work. In the early 70s, all most of our parents hoped for was for us to marry well - as opposed to marrying often, but that's another story. A girls' school in the seventies was a very different beast from today with girls fast becoming the master race.

Anyway, we met, my lovely friends and I, in London and spent twenty four hours together reliving those years at school - the friends, the less-than-friends, the teachers, the pranks and the punishments. I left, feeling, well, relieved that I had survived the mini-reunion. I was, like most I suppose, not entirely happy either at school or at home in those years. And it was very stressful being a short, flat-chested teenage girl surrounded by what looked to me at the time like superwomen.

Since then, we have kept better in touch, shared jokes and experiences over the internet and become proper friends again. We know quite a lot about each other's lives now and how differently things have turned out for the three of us - all having our share of happiness and tragedy. And we are scattered across the country so we can only get together when a proper effort is made.

This year, and the point of my ramblings, is that we met at my mum's house and went to see our O level English play performed at Stratford which is, how appropriately, Macbeth. Now this production does not have witches per se, but for one night only, we three were there in the audience - if only they had known!

The other things we did included a very nice dinner at Lamb's on Sheep Street which I had booked, unconsciously, in my name - cue for animal impressions - and which seemed to cause amusement and, more importantly, we went back to school.

School was bigger but smaller, much, much smarter, the same and very different. Everywhere was carpeted which meant that the thundering of 300 girls down the main wooden staircase probably doesn't have the same ear-shattering effect. But as we recognised the old bits, sometimes not in the places they used to be, the memories tumbled out and we laughed at our old selves. Standing outside what was the headmistress's office (feared but not loved) I remembered word-for-word the Horatius poem I had been made to learn, aged 12, for being late for a Latin lesson. I still know it. The terror of the time has embedded it in my memory for ever.

We have grown up, we three, very different and yet, when we get together, the years ebb away and we are as we were then - old friends.

With thanks to Simon and Garfunkel:

Thursday, 8 September 2011

"Let's Roll" - Todd Beamer RIP

This time last year, my beloved and I were on a plane to the US on our way to what turned out to be a fantastic weekend jam-packed with meeting friends - English and American, sightseeing in New York and Washington and watching the men's semi finals at the US Open Tennis at Flushing Meadow. I have been similarly gripped by the tennis this year - at least I have, when it hasn't been raining.

But I've also be gripped by the documentaries about 9/11 and particularly moved by the immense courage of the passengers of United Airlines Flight 93 who gave their lives to prevent a further air crash in Washington on that fateful day. What brought it home to me at the time were the last words of Todd Morgan Beamer who, like many of the passengers on the plane which had been hijacked by terrorists, was using his phone to contact family and loved ones before certain death. His last call had reached the operator Lisa Jefferson and he reported to her that the hijackers had killed one passenger and had taken over the cockpit, wounding a member of the crew. He, like many of his fellow passengers, knew that the plane had turned south easterly towards Washington and he and the others also knew by then that the World Trade Centre had been hit by two hijacked planes.

Todd Beamer was just 32 with a wife and two young sons, Drew and David and his wife was pregnant with their third child who was born four months later - a daughter, Morgan Kay. He and his wife were Sunday school teachers in their spare time.

There were 37 passengers on the plane that day and 7 crew. Four of these passengers were terrorists. Flight 93 was due to take off at 8.00am which would have been at a similar time to the other 3 aircraft hijacked on that day. However, the airport at Newark was experiencing some congestion and the flight actually took off at 8.42am with all four hijackers seated at the front of the plane in first class. As news came through of the other hijacked planes, air traffic control informed the crew to be especially vigilant against passengers trying to get into the cockpit. The message was acknowledged by the crew and that was the last transmission made by them at 9.27am before the hijack took place at 9.28am. By this time both planes had crashed into the World Trade Center and Flight 77 was about to crash into the Pentagon.

The passengers and crew were moved to the back of the plane whilst the terrorists instructed them that there was a bomb on board and to remain seated. The remaining passengers made calls on their mobiles and on the air phones to family and loved ones and to airline officials on the ground. Then they took a vote on what action to take and, probably led by Jeremy Glick, a 31-year old sales and marketing executive, they decided to "rush the hijackers". Todd Beamer's last words were: "Are you ready guys? OK. Let's roll." and those were amongst the last words heard from any of the passengers before the plane crashed into a reclaimed mine at 10.13am at 563 miles per hour. All 44 passengers, crew and hijackers were killed.

The extraordinary courage of this group of passengers who did not sit back in their seats, hoping that by some chance a miracle would happen and they would be rescued, is so powerful.  Would we be as courageous and chose certain death over the smallest possibility of survival? I only hope that if we were ever called upon to do so, we too could find this sort of courage.

Todd Morgan Beamer, 1968 - September 11 2001- RIP

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Practically Perfect in Every Way?

So far this week (and it's only Thursday morning) I have been to the chiropractor and the chiropodist. The chiropractor because I did something to my back when I was cycling on Sunday morning and it had been given the usual 48 hours to sort itself out and it hadn't, and the chiropodist because I have the most horrible feet in the known universe - ask any of my children and they will tell you this is true. And I realise, just as I am preparing to encase my entire body in thermals for another six months, that if one took the whole body maintenance thing seriously, there would be no time to do anything else - from a woman's point of view anyway.

When you are young, children take note, you have far fewer issues in terms of maintenance. Yes, I know that lovely (and definitely p.p.i.e.w.) number 2 daughter does all the hair, nails, going to the gym, fake tan stuff and when I say, and only if I'm feeling daring, that I think she looks a tad orange, she will tell me that by tomorrow she will be the perfect shade. She always is, but only because I think all the residue has come off on my sheets. As you get older, there are just more and more things that need attention. For example, if you really were to do the job properly, you would be (starting at the top) having your hair regularly cut and highlighted, having a facial and waxing, paying proper attention to your eyebrows, checking on nose hair (I'm not sure about ear hair although I know for a fact that this is a man problem. Will someone tell me if I have hairy ears?), going to the optician and the dentist regularly, more waxing, manicure, pedicure and so on. And that's before you go to the gym, tennis, pilates, cycling, golf, running (not doing that anymore since my knees starting to make their presence felt in a big way) and so on. So it could be a full-time job and I am sure there are ladies out there who do all these things. How do they find the time?

It wouldn't be so bad if the issues didn't get worse as you get older. For example, take hair, it grows on your head, then it goes grey and the grey hairs are not the same as the other hairs, they have a whole twirly, wiry quality all of their own. Then there's all the other hair which grows in places where you don't want it and if you don't keep on top of it, then the only job option will be as an extra in the remake of Planet of the Apes. My doctor friend says he often sees ladies of a certain age with rather hairy faces - nice! But in defence of the hairy-faced ladies, when your eyesight starts to go, it's hard to see the hairs and it makes plucking/waxing even more challenging.

Which brings me to the issue of the eyesight. Last winter, the optician said to me that I would soon need glasses for driving. I told him I thought he was barking up the wrong tree - I can see a tennis ball perfectly well so why would I need glasses for driving? Anyway, I had a spare set of frames and we got lenses put in them and I ignored them for several months. But in the last week or so, I have felt the need to wear them and much as I hate to admit it, he is right. In fact, the whole eyesight issue is perhaps the most worrying of all. I can't see where I have hit the golf ball (unless I have dribbled it about 12 feet along the ground - which is most of the time).

Yesterday I did quite a lot of writing (writing chums, please note!) and by the end of the day my eyes were so tired that I couldn't see to do the crossword. Who made those numbers so small? Don't they know that older ladies with occasionally hairy faces like to tackle it in the early evening with inadequate lighting?

Then there's keeping fit. Whatever exercise I do for one bit of me doesn't seem to have any effect on the other bits. As I write this I am pilate-ing with various muscles in the certain knowledge that it won't help with my fitness for cycling up hills or my golf swing. I know I am somewhat obsessive about sport but each year, I am slower and less fit and it feels like pushing an avalanche up hill. However, I have promised to start zumba in the village hall next week and I daresay that might do the trick - ever the optimist!

So feeling more Nanny McPhee (complete with warts) than Mary Poppins -p.p.i.e.w. but soldiering on and waiting for the odd-job man to come and sort out the damp - which is a house maintenance issue, you'll be pleased to hear!

Sunday, 14 August 2011

View from the Pointy Bit

A few days ago, I was standing at the end of the world. Or rather, the end of the world so far as Portuguese chaps in doublet and hose a few hundred years ago were concerned. And having stood there, I can well imagine why they might think that the point on the horizon where the sky meets the sea should be the end (after all, it's a long way to Boston, Mass. from there). We were at Cape St Vincent at the most pointy end of Portugal on holiday with our extended family (extended, that is, apart from the absence of the very lovely number 2 daughter who had to stay at home and work and look after the dogs). The team for this year's holiday was my beloved and myself, daughter 1 plus boyfriend (a very good sport in every sense of the word and therefore fitted in well), children 3 and 4, my beloved's brother and his two boys. An excellent mix of foodies, sporties and smarties!

The great thing about the pointy bit is that you can do gentle beaches and little waves on the south coast or you can go for the big waves and watching the surfing fraternity on the west coast and the mix of the two is, for us, a winner. Now I must at this point explain that we (the beloved and I) have been down this end a few times as we have dear friends who own a villa down there and have kindly invited us out to see this very special bit of Portugal which is as different from the Yorkshire-by-the-sea, golfing bit near Val and Quinta as the Dales are from the centre of Leeds. These dear friends were also there during our holidays with part of their extended family and the whole melange of brothers and sisters, half brothers, step children and sundry boy and girlfriends which we amounted to in total is magic.

I do, as you will know by now, love the big family thing. And the pleasure that we get from being not just with the ones we live with all the time, but the ones we love and don't see very often is something that cannot be underestimated. The brother in law and his boys also live in a pointy place. They live at the furthest corner of England where probably similarly doubleted and hosed gents looked across and thought they were at the end of the world (clearly they would discount France on the grounds that in those days we owned large chunks of it - or thought we did anyway). So we don't see them often enough and it's a joy to get together and share months of experiences and humour all packed into a short space of time.

So that's it for another year and I sense that what lies ahead for me anyway is a series of challenges and changes for which I may, or may not be prepared. We'll see, but change is in the air and I shall be embracing it. And in the meantime, I am sustained by my lovely, big family and our gorgeous friends and all that they bring to our lives. Slushy perhaps, but true nonetheless.

And here's a picture of our own pointy bit - the amazing pyramid of this year's holiday team. Rather proud of this actually...!

Postscript: We had one very sad bit of news on holiday... The amazing Uncle Bill Hook passed away. The most modest gentleman who regarded his life as so unimportant in the grand scheme of things and yet was, amongst his many other achievements, the English translator in Colditz. He told us tales of meeting Rommel and his life in Colditz as a prisoner of war before he came home to marry the equally formidable Auntie Margot and become a Sheriff in Edinburgh. He was especially fond of number 1 daughter who was at university in Edinburgh and they became great friends including the daughter taking her 90-something great uncle on holiday! Amongst our many memories of Bill will be his attendance of number 1's graduation. We were only allocated two seats for me and the beloved but Uncle Bill said not to worry, he could get in most places. We were sitting in the gods of the McEwan Hall with the other parents before the graduation started waiting for number 1's arrival. No sign of Uncle Bill. Then the dignitaries arrived including a member of the Japanese royal family who sat in a magnificent chair like a throne. And in the next throne-like chair... Uncle Bill. Unforgettable and very much loved. RIP.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

I think I may have blown my cover ... part 2

I’ve just read the blog I wrote earlier in the week which is not yet posted because I am still on my writing course and, as part of the isolation process, there is no internet access. If you’re reading these two blogs back to back, then you may be pleased to hear that things have moved on.
My fellow students are, as I surmised earlier in the week, terrifyingly brilliant. They are also very supportive and friendly with only one or two exceptions. I won’t write anything about the exceptions as I suspect that there will be a mass-sharing of email addresses and they might track this blog down.
Without naming names, some of them have been absolute heroes to me this week. The isolation, combined with the pressure of having to read stuff out to the assembled brains trust, creates huge pressure and earlier in the week, I cracked. I’d had a couple of occasions in the workshops where, like the Psammead in the Five Children and It, I would have dug myself a hole in the sand and disappeared without trace. Writing stuff about work is easy compared to this soul-searching process and the feeling of being judged was overwhelming. Also I blame my natural competitive instinct. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s that creative writing courses are, like Pilates, not for the competitive.
I’ve also learnt - big cliche coming up, no pun intended - not to judge a book by its cover. My breakthrough moment was sharing my sense of humour with the four chairs lady. Although she had unwittingly started the downward spiral into Monty Python-esque farce (to which the rest of the room were oblivious), when I told her, she roared with laughter and she then spent the next meal-time attempting to establish whether people in HongKong like Monty Python to see how far she could wind up the lady who lived in a cubicle. We were off and Four Chairs and I have shared some very unlikely moments of sheer hysterics - laughing at things that the rest of the crew have no idea about. Naughty, naughty. But the laughter has released me and I can now look at the rest of them without terror and even contemplate my reading tonight with only a slight fluttering in the stomach.
The last two nights (last night and tonight) we each read something we have written, up to 10 minutes in length. Last night, various people read things, most of which had been written before they came and some already published. The standard is phenomenal. Tonight it is me. I am reading something which I have written here and which is a part of one of the two stories I intend to write before the Alzheimer’s sets in. My effort, which I stayed up until the small hours writing, is not just new, but scarcely off the delivery table in the entirely medical sense of the word.
Wish me luck.
Postscript: the lady from HongKong is called Doris. My brother, who is currently between marriages, refers to his prospective girlfriends as Dorises. Why I felt the need to tell the assembled group this at lunchtime I have no idea. I may have to buy Doris flowers by way of apology. (Actually she offered to go out with my brother, making her the Doris Doris but that’s way too much to consider!)

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Think I may have blown my cover...

I am away on a creative writing course this week. Why? Because my beloved says he’s fed up with me talking about writing the great novel and would like an instant transformation into J K Rowling. Anyway, in case you are wondering, I suspect that I won’t be ratcheting up the tone of my blogs any time soon...
I am in the wilds of West Yorkshire on a residential course in what was the home of a renowned, now dead, poet. That’s enough detail on location. There are sixteen of us here with two published and award-winning authors to tutor us. 
The mornings are spent in workshops where we discuss various fiction techniques and do writing exercises. The rest of the day is spent writing, walking (me because if I don’t go outside and get some fresh air and exercise I’ll have cabin-fever), and cooking and eating supper and clearing up which we do in turns. My turn to cook hasn’t come yet but I am getting to the point where if I don’t get a proper meal with meat I may bite someone. And then in the evenings, we have readings and more discussion. All very hard on the brain and there are some seriously mighty brains here. In fact, I must be the only person here without a degree, or multiple degrees, apart from the two girls who are studying at UCL and Cambridge. So you see, academically so far out of my depth that I can’t even see the bubbles on the surface.
Anyway, my strategy on day one was to volunteer to be the first to read a piece of work out to the assembled formidable audience of my fellow students. The reasoning behind this gung ho approach was that if I waited till everyone had read I would have been so terrified that I would have bottled. So off I went, it went ok and all was far.
Day 2 and my strategy failed. We were asked to write about our childhood home. We had about twenty minutes so lots of adrenalin and writing to a deadline which is, of course, what I am all about. I wrote and returned to the barn where the workshops take place and sat in my usual place. Bad news! The tutors decided to go round the room and I was alarmingly near the end of the queue.
Each student read out a childhood memory - these guys are amazing and all have so much more experience and word skills than me. The oldest of the students talked about being evacuated to the country during the Second World War - it was like Goodnight Mr Tom but captured in about ten sentences - awesome. Then gradually the process moved round the room, and I noticed a theme emerging. One had grown up in a house with seven people and only 4 chairs so that she never had a chair until several of her siblings had left home. Another lived in a Scottish tenement where washing was hung out on a communal green. The lady from HongKong had grown up in a cubicle and slept on the floor. Could I re-write my piece so I lived in a shoe box? (“We used to dream of living in a corridor” Monty Python)
My brief memory of moving to the country and the fulfillment of my childhood dream of having my first pony went down... well, what can I say? Lead balloon doesn’t cover it really. Someone asked me if the pony had died - obviously looking for a bit of tragedy in my nice middle class childhood. “No, the pony was fine.”
So you see, cover blown. Perhaps I am really here to write about this surreal experience and not the great novel after all...unless I can turn this into a novel - now there’s a thought. 

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Blown away by the girls...

Sometimes when I look at my daughters I am completely blown away. Not just by my daughters but other people's as well. I simply cannot conceive that we were, in our teens and early twenties, anywhere near as gorgeous, confident and poised as the current crop.

My oldest spent Monday morning here chatting to a features writer from the Yorkshire Post and having her photo taken. She looked so beautiful and hopefully the pictures will reflect that. They won't, I hope, show that as well as wearing a tie-dye dress (aah, I remember tie-dye!) and my cardigan, she was also wearing her father's socks. Anyway, there she was, telling her life story and looking as though she had spent her life dealing with the media. Later in the week, she gave a speech at the school prize giving and held a hundred and something 11-14 year olds in her spell for fifteen minutes. She is, in an email I got from one mother, 'a beast' according to her teenage boys. Not sure what that means but apparently it is very good!

Unlike daughter 1 whose dress style can only be described as 'shabby chic', daughter 2 is the epitome of power dressing. I gaze in awe when I see her in her work clothes complete with very high heels which deal neatly with the vertical challenge issues she has. I couldn't wear those heels for an hour, let alone a day but she tells me they're comfy and who am I to argue? I can imagine that in that dress and those heels she is formidable in the workplace.

Daughter 3 is my style guru. I now require her approval before leaving home if it is an important event. 'No, you can't wear a jacket with that.'... 'It might rain.'...'Tough! It won't look right.' And so it goes. She has her own style and is fully up to speed on Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in a way that she probably isn't on chemistry and biology.

When I was the age of my daughters, it was the 1970s. How could you be a style icon in the 1970s? The other day, my friends and I were discussing the fashions of the time. I had, no word of a lie, lilac hotpants. On the other hand, the older sister of my best friend had turquoise loons - now they were a thing of beauty. She wore them with a pink mohair jumper and she looked the business. She also went out with the most good looking boy of all our friends. No more about him as he now lives rather near me these days and someone might tell him... One of my other friends admitted that every pair of jeans she possessed had a tartan stripe down the side in homage to the Bay City Rollers. See what I mean about how hard it was to look good in the '70s?

Anyway, on a positive note, my daughters presumably don't think I am such a dinosaur as they all borrow my clothes - daughter 2, I'd like my boots back please! I certainly wouldn't have dreamt of borrowing my mother's clothes - but then her wardrobe didn't extend to hotpants! It is flattering when I see them rifling through my wardrobe looking for various items (usually the newer ones that I have hardly had time to wear). Though it is equally annoying to find the same items either on the floor in their bedrooms, or worse still in either Leeds or London where daughters 1 and 2 live.

Their friends are equally lovely and glamorous. Do they realise how immensely powerful they are with their long hair, fabulous clothes and all that confidence? Boys of similar age must be in a permanent state of anxiety - they look so completely outgunned by these amazing creatures. The two daughters of a friend of mine regularly arrive at cricket matches looking stunning - I'm surprised the players can concentrate on the game, so lovely are these two.

I hope all these girls are really enjoying their moment in the sun. Looking back, I can only remember being so lacking in confidence that I scarcely realised this was my time. But, if I knew then what I know now ...

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Big One!

Village life is punctuated by various annual events but the Big One is undoubtedly Feast weekend. This annual celebration has just come and gone, and the curious mix of the traditional and the modern brings out the best - and most quirky - elements of village life. Regardless of the age of your children, they seem to start looking forward and planning it as soon as the last one is over!

The first signs are the arrival of one of two trailers for the fair on the village green and the strategic hanging of the bunting up and down the village which stays there until after the Fun Run later in the summer - and this usually happens on the Monday or Tuesday before the big weekend. Children coming out of the village school or getting off the school buses outside the shop remark on what fair rides might be coming. Will there be dodgems  - or The Edge - so terrifying and brutal that I am obviously never going on it. In fact, my favourite ride hasn't made an appearance since a few years ago when I spent half the afternoon sliding gleefully down the helter-skelter!

My children make a point of returning to the village for Feast weekend - that is daughters 1 and 2 who don't live here all the time. They all bring friends so that usually makes the total number staying to well over 10 on the Saturday night. The older ones love to regale their friends with stories of previous feasts. This, I have noticed, usually takes the form of what embarrassing costume I made for them to wear in the fancy dress competition which is one of the main features of Saturday afternoon.

The event kicks off with a parade down the hill accompanied by a brass band - this year, excitement abounded with men in kilts! There are few things which can buck a girl up like a man in a kilt - and there were several to choose from! All the children parade from the village hall down to the bottom green and then into the show ring. Then they are herded out and divided into age groups, boys and girls, for the judging.

Judging is a serious thing. The first Feast after we moved to the village, we were invited to judge. Not realising the serious nature of the task, we turned up slightly late and slightly tipsy. We sat ceremonially in a row next to a senior lady of the village (sadly no longer with us). As we chose winners from each group, we were politely corrected, as, in those days at least, who won what was a matter of politics as well as standard of dress.

For years after our not-very-spectacular judging of the event, I dressed my own children in various costumes - unicorns, pied piper of Hamlyn (complete with recorder and rats), bats - with the excellent and very successful recycling of umbrellas from the charity shop - jellyfish, sheep and Bam Bam and Pebbles! One year, when the twins were small I customised the enormous family Silver Cross pram as the night sky complete with solar system and pushed it - because it was so huge there was no other way to transport it - the mile into the village only to be beaten by the local architect who had obviously spent the entire winter turning his son's pushchair into Bob the Builder's digger.

After the judging of the fancy dress, the band plays and everyone makes their way back up the hill for village tea. Village tea is a serious tradition. A committee of senior ladies of the village meet before the event and discuss sandwich fillings and numbers of cakes and where the top table (for the aforementioned judges) and the band should sit. Rather a lot of years ago, when my children had told me firmly that they were too cool to dress up, I offered my services as a washer-upper (not on the committee of course - I know my place!) and so I now spend a couple of hours each Feast day in the smallest sub-kitchen ever devised washing up the same cups, saucers and plates over and over again. I have long ago established myself as the lowest form of human life in this once-a-year food chain and I seldom leave the sink except to scuttle back and forth filling giant tea pots and milk jugs. But I never cease to marvel at the  diverse methods each of these ladies employs to seat, serve and clear the hungry, thirsty, rather harassed (parents) and rather scruffy (fancy dress abandoned but face paint still in evidence) children of the village.

Once tea is over, the children find their way across to the school field where the races take place. This year I failed to make an appearance at this event but I still think that my annual cameo in the three legged race may live on in the memory from previous years. I have definitely been more successful in this race (with either a daughter or the Barnsley lodger) than in the obstacle race when year on year I managed to get tangled up in someone's strawberry netting only to emerge much later than the rest of the competitors with rather challenging hair.

The main event for the teenagers is, of course, the raggle taggle fair which lands on the village green with a selection of rides for small children and something dangerous for the big ones plus the dodgems for everyone which becomes significantly more daring as evening turns to night and the alcohol kicks in. Whether the fair work out their charges based on how well-to-do the village remains a mystery, I only know that large amounts of cash disappear and if we are on hand in the village, children return again and again to have more money handed over. One year, in fact the first year we let the twins loose on their own, we went to the pub for supper with several like-minded parents with similar aged children. During the evening, each of the little treasures trouped in for extra pocket money until finally ours delivered a goldfish which spent the rest of the evening in the wine cooler on the table before having a long and happy life at home.

Feast is a rite of passage for teenagers in our village with early experiences of alcohol and probably other things as well. It is, perhaps, one of the safest places to experiment in the way that teenagers must. What is so special is that even when they grow up and go to clubs, bars and restaurants all over the world, they find their way home for Feast. And long may they do so...

Friday, 24 June 2011

It's all about the Craic

My beloved and I have just returned from a long weekend in one of our favourite cities, Dublin. We have been sloping off there for a weekend, mostly sans enfants, for the last fifteen years or thereabouts - and we love it.

I know some people don't 'get' our love for Ireland, and Dublin in particular, but to us, it's not just another city. There is something magical about Dublin and although I love the architecture, the great shops, the green space of St Stephen's Green, the rough and tumble of Temple Bar, what I love the most is the people. Everywhere you go, whether they are propped up next to you at the bar in McDaid's, driving the taxi, sitting next to you in a restaurant or squashed up next to you at a concert, the people are so friendly. However much I try, I simply can't imagine that tourists in London get the same warm glow of hospitality that we get every time we go to Dublin.

One of our favourite things to do is to catch a concert - indeed, that is generally our excuse for a trip to Dublin these days. This year's offering was Take That, supported most ably by the Pet Shop Boys. We 'darted' across town from our hotel to a station about 10 minutes' walk from Croke Park and, armed with some top info from friends who'd seen Take That in Manchester, we headed across the hallowed pitch to the centre stage rather than the stage at the front. Standing three rows from the stage in an arena where the women outnumber the men by ten to one requires strong elbows and a sense of humour. By the time Take That came on, we had formed a close band of six - the two of us, two girls who had driven down from Belfast and a couple from Bournemouth and we repelled all boarders who wanted to edge their way to the front! It was a great craic!

We've also seen Phil Collins, Robbie Williams, George Michael and latterly Eric Clapton in Dublin. The Eric Clapton concert at Malahide Castle was in torrential rain and our friendly hotel gave us bin liners to wear - not just bin liners, but wheelie bin liners which not only covered us, but were large enough to have a party in! When we got to Malahide, number 1 daughter and the Barnsley lodger went off exploring and my beloved went for beer (well, it has to be Guinness) leaving me standing in a seething mass of humanity somewhere close to the stage. By the time they all re-appeared, I had made friends with a delightful couple with dreadlocks and an interesting whiff about them. They had kindly offered to share the source of their interesting whiff - I refused, of course, but the rest of the team were vastly amused at my bonding with the local drug culture. Harmless perhaps, but catch one of mine doing a little experimenting and I'll be going through the roof!

On this trip, we also met two sets of brothers who were sitting next to us in one of our favourite restaurants. They were in their fifties and had not played golf together for twenty years but had had a day's golf and a great day and were happy to share their celebratory mood with us. They carted us off to the bar at the Shelbourne for more celebration and we really felt a part of it all.

So now all we need is another concert and we'll be off again - and I shall be more than happy to spend the money we would have spent on Olympics tickets - if only we'd got any - on the craic in Dublin.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Like Father, like daughter

It's a long time since my dear old dad was with us - some twenty years - and the world has changed in so many ways - I just can't see him dealing with a mobile phone or a laptop. But he's been in my thoughts a lot recently and it is one of my wistful regrets that my lovely husband and children never knew him in his heyday. Of course, my beloved knew him but he was getting on a bit then and the older two children, knew him briefly but probably can't remember much about him.

In his sixties, which is the time I remember best, he and I were continually at loggerheads - he because he was always right, even when he was wrong - and me for exactly the same reason! He was not tall in stature but a huge character - an orator (so that's where number 1 daughter gets it from), ambitious (number 2 daughter obviously), charismatic, charming and stubborn. He was intensely physical - my strongest memory of this is when he held my hand, his grip would be so tight that the bones in my knuckles would grind together.

Sometimes I think he was probably rather disappointed in his children - no Olympic sportsmen, no England rugby players, no captains of industry or famous actors. You had the sense with dad that he could have been all of these things if he had so chosen - or perhaps that's just a child's simple worship of her father. He wasn't tactile or affectionate but we all strove to achieve his good opinion which, when received, you wore as a badge with pride.

He was ill for quite a long time in the last couple of years. It was heart-breaking to see him lose, first his ramrod-straight physical presence, and then his razor-sharp mind. The last holiday we went on together was to Ibiza where he and mum had been going since I was six. We were there with our two little girls and it was a special but very sad holiday. Dad's favourite place on earth was a tiny cove next to a much larger and more popular beach on the island. He loved this little cove which deterred all but the fittest as the route down to it from the cliff required the sure-footedness of a mountain goat. We drove the car as near to the cliff edge as was possible so that he would have the shortest walk. He struggled out of the car and wanted so, so much to clamber down the slope to the hot sand and the glinting blue of the Mediterranean. He stood and looked and then shook his head. He knew, and we knew, without words that he would never make it.

I hadn't thought about this for a long time, but now, I wonder how will I be when I have my moment on the cliffs which must come to everyone who makes it into old age? Will I be able to regather myself and find things that will make the continuation of the journey worthwhile? I don't know but I suppose we can only hope.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Lionesses for our Children

This week I was touched by the kindness of a stranger. Someone I didn't know who was on the outermost reaches of my cyber network (you know, the people who you only 'sort of know' on the business internet networking sites) very kindly helped number 1 daughter.

Daughter number 1 lives in London and is an actress ( yes, I think you know that but just in case ...) and is up for an award which, unlike other awards that she has been on the very long, long (as opposed to short) list for, this is an audience vote. So I emailed the stranger and asked him if he would contact his network of Yorkshire business folk to vote for her - because his network promotes all things good from God's own county. I wrote and told him that my excuse for being so brazen as to ask was because we are all lions/lionesses for our children. I can't claim that line as my own, incidentally, as it was once said to me by number 1 daughter's speech therapist who I hope is now very proud of her pupil.

I told him how I had been the mother at the school gates, wishing that my child was like everyone else's - because she wasn't. I think before you have children, you think that your child should be wonderful and extraordinary and the envy of everyone else. The reality is that what you really want is one who is just like everyone else. Daughter number 1 is wonderful and extraordinary and she is also deaf. I can still remember the moment we were told. I can remember refusing to believe that this could happen, that somehow it would be a mistake, a case of late development, a clerical error, anything. It took us a long time to adjust and we made a whole host of decisions about her future, and most especially her education, based on no knowledge at all.

One day I took her to a group of deaf children and their parents at York Hospital. It was terrible. I looked at all the other children and all I could think was that we shouldn't be there because we weren't like them. We refused the advice of well-meaning social workers who suggested she should go to a school for the deaf, that we should learn to sign, we should accept that she would never talk. We blindly battled on with no idea how big our task was, how tough life would be for her.

Every hurdle we conquered was immediately followed by another... and another. A kind friend, no longer with us, said that he thought we had succeeded when she was sixteen and doing all the things that other sixteen year olds do. He had no concept of the trials we still faced - imagine learning to drive when you have to look at the instructor when he speaks in order to lipread, rather than looking at the road. She used to say that when boys would try to whisper romantically in her ear, she would tell them exasperatedly that she had to see them to hear. She struggled through hearing in lessons (when she was little, the teacher wore a microphone linked to her hearing aids but they often forgot to leave the microphone with her at the end of the lesson, providing  my daughter with a handy information stream from the staffroom). Chalk and talk was a nightmare - how can you read a teacher's lips when they have their back to the class? And so it went on.

Perhaps being a lioness for her has helped to make her a lion. She has conquered and excelled at every challenge that she and life have set for her. I think she must have forgotten that I once said that she could do anything except be a racing commentator - I thought she wouldn't get the words out fast enough. If she knew, she'd probably give that a try too. She has not let anything stop her. She is, at best and worst, absolutely terrifying.

I hope with all my heart that she succeeds in her acting career - not just because I am her mother and lioness extraordinaire - but because no one should ever be limited by the prejudices and the expectations of others.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

My Big, Fat Biking Blog!

Another Acorn 100k Bike Ride has been and gone. My main feeling, now that most of my body parts have returned to normal: relief! The biggest thing I notice year on year, this being the fifth annual bike ride, is that I no longer do anywhere near sufficient training beforehand and consequently, not only do my legs ache by the end but also shoulders and other body parts not appropriate to mention here. Rest assured, when my beloved took the bike from me in the car park after the finish line had been crossed, I really never wanted to see it again - till next year!

It's funny how the whole event has evolved over the years. The first year we organised it (2007), it was designed as an Acorn Challenge in the same way that we had trained and run the Great North Run and walked the Lyke Wake Walk (42 miles in 24 hours across the North Yorkshire Moors). We had run a half marathon (most of us not even having jogged in the park until we started training), walked through the night and day in horrible wet conditions on what is known as the Coffin Walk and now we were going to cycle.

Some of us (well, me actually) hadn't swung our leg over a bike saddle since 1975 - thinking about it, I expect that is only true of me as I strongly suspect I am the old lady of the Acorn Committee (feel free to disagree!). Anyway, bike borrowed (in my case), extensive training done and off we went. At this point, I thought that cycling was nowhere near as hideous as walking in the dark and the rain with a guide on the moors who admitted at about 4.00am that he thought he might be lost!

The first year of the Acorn Bike Ride, we had some fabulous non-cyclists who donned (or not) the lycra and rode a selection of bikes from tandems to ones with baskets at the front, to mountain bikes to swish road bikes. Some of these non-cyclists raised a phenomenal amount of money - mostly, I suspect, because their friends simply did not believe that they would finish!

Since then, the Bike Ride has evolved into more of a cyclists' event with lycra-clad musclemen and women hurtling round the 100k route at high speed. There are still plenty of enthusiastic amateurs who trundle round and enjoy the day - or at least till the pain really kicks in just after the very bumpy bridge at Aldwark.

Anyway, we had a great day on Saturday and we raised (we being the cyclists, marshals, sponsors, technical and medical support and everyone who cooked, served, washed up, car-parked and registered) £28,000 which is indeed an amazing amount of money. The only thing for me which would have made it even better would be if everyone wore a helmet. I know they're hot and uncomfortable and they give you 'helmet hair' but the roads are dangerous and everyone on the organising team is conscious that one accident involving a rider without a helmet would be one too many.

So back to practising the golf (getting worse), playing tennis (probably getting worse) and doing pilates which I still don't really understand in the 'is-this-really-exercise?' sense. Till next year...!

Sunday, 15 May 2011

It's Murder on the Dance Floor

Last night, my beloved and I went to a ball. Actually it was rather special, not least because we went with dear friends, but also because we went in evening dress - he in black tie (rather than blacked up!) and me in a frock rather than the ever-increasing supply of fancy dress costumes we now own. We were both relieved we could still get into the appropriate gear as we haven't worn black tie for a while and once zipped into my frock, which hasn't had an outing for a couple of years, I suggested that I might try the other frock but my beloved wasn't up to the unzipping and rezipping task so - decision made! The skin-tight fit of my dearest's evening shirt, coupled with various stains (not sure if this is black make-up or red wine or a combination of both) suggested that this wardrobe item might have to be replaced before further outings and, indeed, one of the studs on the shirt gave in during the course of the evening. He claimed it had taken refuge in his underpants but later examinations proved that not to be the case, so new studs too.

The setting for the ball was fabulous - a spectacular marquee in the grounds of a castle, pink champagne, amazing food and a great, great band. I love a bit of brass and all this band lacked was a jazz trumpeter which obviously we could have provided had child 3 not been under canvas doing his Duke of Edinburgh expedition with child 4 and friends.

We love to dance. If there's music at a party, we are up for it so a great band and a disco and we want to be on the dance floor. And although we tend to embarrass our children at every other opportunity, the dancing can't be so bad as even they will dance with us. So as soon as the music started we were on the floor. Now at this point I need to explain that we were slightly older than many of the guests but we can generally hold our own, but once on the floor, I realised that we were dwarfs in the kingdom of very tall people. When my beloved and I got married twenty seven years ago, I didn't think, 'I've married a short bloke", but it would appear that either we have got smaller (a distinct possibility in the vertical though not the horizontal sense) or people have got much bigger. At one point, when I was rocking and rolling round the dance floor with Harrogate's finest dancing solicitor (don't know how good he is at the legal stuff but he is a top dancer!), a very tall bloke commented favourably on our moves so I took the opportunity to ask him how tall he was - six foot seven! And later we bumped into the son of one of my tennis playing friends and he is six foot six. And this is just the men.

On the female side, the physical enhancement may well have had some help. There was a moment when I thought we had landed in silicon valley and I don't remember certain parts of my body ever achieving the sort of right-angled jutting that some of these young ladies were demonstrating. Ah well, gravity will get them in the end and I suppose, as in boxing, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Anyway, great party, great company and this morning my knees are reminding me that no amount of tennis, cycling and pilates prepares them fully for a night on the dance floor in stilettos - till next time.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Golf - or beware of what you wish for!

Each year before Christmas, when I am dashing around buying presents for children - mine and other people's - and wondering whether we can accommodate all the people I seem inadvertently to have invited to stay over the festive season, I write on the blackboard wall in the downstairs loo things that I think my children might like to buy for me. The original idea behind this was that when they were little (rather than nearly all taller than me now!) they could chose something like a tea-towel or tennis balls and know that they had bought me just what I wanted.

Over the years, the blackboard list has evolved somewhat and as the children have got older (and some of them even off the domestic payroll), the Christmas suggestions have moved onto a larger scale. The blackboard list was the reason that child 3 and I have supported Newcastle Falcons for the last few years. The Christmas wish was to see Jonny Wilkinson play and child 2 got us tickets to see the Falcons at Kingston Park and we have been hooked ever since. The fact that it took us two and a half seasons to see the most famous No10 in the world (because he was always injured) and then he decided to move to Toulon (now there's an idea for next Christmas's list!) is neither here nor there. The sound of the crowd singing the Bladen Races when they score a try (so not actually that often) gladdens my heart.

For the last three years, amongst the list of 'Mummy's Christmas Wishes' was golf lessons. There are a number of reasons for this - child 3 plays golf, granny (yes, she of Coco fame) plays golf and one day my knees will finally refuse to career round a tennis court and I might want to take up something other than bowls. I freely admit that I was not really expecting to get golf lessons but the children decided to take me at my word and bought me a course of lessons.

The golf pro who is teaching me has the patience of a saint. I don't find ball games easy although I seem to have spent rather a lot of time playing them and it is sheer determination and stubbornness that makes me refuse to give up. Anyway he is a kind man and compared to the tennis coaches I have paid over the years, unbelievably tolerant. The tennis coach is an altogether different beast. From the churlish red-headed coach who taught me when I first took up the game in my early 30s and announced that coaching housewives was his idea of hell (thank you!) to the feisty, furry Frenchman who is the present incumbent, they are generally short on patience and long on putting you in your place; as in, "Why are you standing there on the court?" Actually the FFF usually suggests that if it is a nice day we could just forget the tennis and have a nice glass of rose and he does have a point!

Back to the golf: lesson 1 involved me learning to hold the club and I can do that now with all my fingers and thumbs in roughly the right places, and attempt to hit the ball. The first lesson also included a video of me next to (though only on screen) Ernie Els. The differences in our swing were pointed out but all I could think was 'when did my bum get that big!' Lesson 2 (golf pro was late and I thought he must have decided to pull a sickie rather than teach me - quite understandable in the circumstances) and I can now hit the ball about 75 yards, but only sometimes.

Each lesson is interspersed with me practising a lot in the garden. The bit of lawn at the front is now full of divots but I have inadvertently dug up a few dandelions in the process so it's a sort of golf/weeding multi-tasking. I hit balls from the front of the house towards the field gate and then back again in the certain knowledge that I can only hit the ball so far. .. until I managed to sky one over the house narrowly missing the conservatory... now that could have been very bad.

Lesson 3 was a marked improvement but of course, subsequent practice with the full swing allowed on some shots demonstrated that actually I was getting worse. So lesson 4 which should have been chipping (no idea what this means but nothing to do with potatoes, I am thinking) was putting right all the mistakes which I couldn't self-correct. Now he has told me that next time I have to come not wearing jeans and with a full golf bag (child 3's not mine) because we are going on the course. I am feeling out of my depth on all sorts of levels - the number of shots it will take me to get anywhere near a hole means we probably won't get on a green in lesson time, I don't know how to chip, putt, get out of a bunker or anything else, and I don't have anything to wear in the trouser department and I don't want to look like Ian Poulter... Help!

Anyway that's the current state of the stationary ball game and updates will be available as we go along - five more lessons booked. Incidentally, I have been tweeting about my golf and people as far away as Australia have felt the need to comment on my remarkable (!) progress. Thank you!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

A Bit Fuzzy Round the Edges

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine emigrated to Australia and, although she lives in a stunning house overlooking Sydney Harbour and has a most wonderful life there, once a year she feels the tug of Blighty. The time of year that makes her go fuzzy round the edges for life in Yorkshire is when the crocuses are in bloom on the Stray in Harrogate.

For me, now is time of year of year when I go fuzzy round the edges. I hate the winter (as you may know by now) and the autumn makes me sad - although it is usually such a hectic time, crashing headlong from Halloween to Bonfire Night to number 1 daughter's birthday and then Christmas that I don't have too much time to be maudlin. I do love the summer when the children can be outside all day but the absolute best time of year is now and if I could bottle it and keep it for those dark days in each New Year, I would.

Without being too Fotherington-Thomas ('hello clouds, hello sky!'), our village green has been ablaze with daffodils, the woods down are lane are blue with bluebells (well, obviously) and my tulips are out in the garden. I am a sucker for tulips and dig most of them up after they have finished flowering, and then bag them up in separate colours so I know what I am replanting in the autumn. So why in my most tasteful flower bed do I have lavender coming up next to double white tulips and three orange ones? Anyway we also have the national collection of dandelions in the lawn so we will be addressing that problem this week - again. However, if we remove all the dandelions, will there be much grass left in between? They never ask that on Gardeners' Questions!

So it's very early on Easter Sunday and I have just been to the dawn service on the green in the village (not the most regular churchgoer but I like this one) and now I will hide the Easter eggs in the garden for what is the highlight of the children's Easter. If egg-hunting were an Olympic sport, this would be a national centre of excellence. Visitors look on amazed as my children (and anyone else's who are here) put their running shoes on and line up at the front door, ready for the dash into the garden. Handicapping is based on last year's performance which usually means that child 2 goes last (eagle-eyed sprinter with 22 years of experience under her belt - don't bet against this one!) Anyway it takes me ages to hide the eggs and a ridiculously short time for them to come back with their collection. But they never find them all and it makes weeding the garden all the more rewarding when you find a random egg weeks later.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

A Strange Tale from Cornwall

We (my beloved, child 3 and I) have just returned from a brief trip to Cornwall. My lovely brother in law lives in Penzance with his two boys who are similar ages to my twins so an excellent time has been had by all including much beaching, eating and drinking and even some rather haphazard tennis.

Cornwall is a treasure chest of memories for me as it was where my earliest holidays took place - at a beautiful - and unspoilt, in my day - resort called Carbis Bay. My brother in law was happy to indulge my need to reminisce by taking me there - on the tiny train line that runs from St Erth to St Ives, the idea being to have a morning and hefty lunch in St Ives with a visit to Carbis Bay either on the way or the way back. As chance would have it, the train refused to stop at the Carbis Bay station and so our first attempt at reliving my childhood holidays rather failed to get off the ground.

Our second attempt was an early morning trip there by car, leaving three boys in their beds until a more civilised hour (actually their idea of 'civilised' differed somewhat from ours but anyway they slept on and we were on the beach at Carbis Bay at 7.30am.) The trouble with going back is that often the reality does not live up to the childhood memory. But Carbis Bay beach did not disappoint and it was as long and stunning as I remembered.

My last clear memory of Carbis was March 1967 when we were staying at the hotel (which is considerably larger now and full of Saga residents) when the Torrey Canyon went down on the Cornish reef. We went down to the beach every morning to pick up the dead gulls and guillemots which were washed up on the beach covered in oil. At the time, this was the biggest vessel ever to be shipwrecked on the UK coastline.

I looked up what had happened that fateful day in March and really, you couldn't make it up! The master of the tanker decided to take a shortcut on his route to Milford Haven with 120,000 tons of crude on board. His plan was to cut through between the Cornish coast and the Scilly Isles. When he realised he was too close to the reef, he instructed the helmsman (who was actually the crew's chef) to change course, but the helmsman was very inexperienced (probably better at cooking than steering) and couldn't work out whether the tanker was in its equivalent of manual or automatic. By the time, he had worked it out, the Torrey Canyon was on the reef and leaking its cargo of crude oil into the sea.

The prime minister of the time, Harold Wilson (who had a holiday home on the Isles of Scilly and therefore perhaps a vested interest) decided to call a cabinet meeting at Culdrose, the Royal Naval station in Cornwall, and the decision was taken to bomb the oil in order to set it alight and burn it off. This plan had two fatal flaws - firstly, even though it was bombed with 42 1,000lb bombs, 25% of them missed their target proving that the Armed Forces can't even accurately hit a stationery target, and secondly, the high seas kept putting out the flames. In the end, 120 miles of Cornish coastline were seriously polluted along with 50 miles of French coast.

Some time later, the British government decided to sue the owners of the Torrey Canyon for the desecration of the coastline. The only way they could do this was by serving a writ on the Torrey Canyon's sister ship which happened to be in Singapore. So a British solicitor working in Singapore was instructed to get on the Lake Palourde (the sister ship) and attach a writ to the ship's mast. He was allowed on the ship by the crew because they thought he was a whisky salesman and so the writ was successfully served. The French government tried to do the same thing but only succeeded in chasing the Lake Palourde by speedboat.

Anyway, Cornwall is as wild and beautiful as I remembered and, although it is very different in some ways from my early childhood, it is a most wonderful place and I hope that child 3 has some good memories banked from his first trip.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

'That's where the music takes me...'

When I'm sitting at my computer I don't usually listen to music as I find it too distracting but, if it's a really mundane admin job, there's nothing like a trot round YouTube for some good tunes. And what I find is that music can transport you to some great memories like nothing else.

Interestingly, it doesn't seem to matter whether a particular song is by a favourite artist or genre, if that was the song playing when something great happened, it stays with you. And playing it again takes you right back there.

For instance, I can't listen to 'Fly Me to the Moon' without remembering a certain group of would-be Rat Packers including my beloved blacked-up as Sammy Davis Junior (after he had eaten all the pies, obviously) giving it their all with some very dodgy words at a party a couple of years ago. Likewise, I realise I don't look like a regular fan of The Cure but, finding ourselves in a restaurant in Temple Bar in Dublin a couple of years ago, I felt the need to stand up and duet 'Friday I'm in Love' with a dreadlocked waiter. Of course, when I have had a drop or two of the black stuff, I totally believe I know all the words which when sober, strangely, I don't! Eighteen months or so later when we were back in the same restaurant in Dublin, daughter number 1 spotted a short-haired waiter who looked familiar and asked him if he had once had dreads. He had and yes, he did claim to remember the painful duet with her lunatic mother - or he said he did, which was very polite! At Christmas, the same daughter bought me a t-shirt with some of the lyrics of 'Friday I'm in Love' on the front and even though I strongly believe that women over a certain age should not have things written on their chests, I wear it - though never on a Friday.

I suppose I should be glad that I didn't stand on a chair on that occasion, unlike my recent birthday when I felt the need to stand on the chair and make an emotional speech on the wonderfulness of my family. Luckily I didn't go on too long and everyone's attention quickly turned to the aforementioned Rat Pack group who sang their latest single (!) 'Sweet Caroline' - which is another song I shall remember for perhaps not the reasons that Neil Diamond intended!

So in the words of the tall blond one in Abba, 'thank you for the music' - and the all great memories it brings.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Singing for the Brain!

Sometimes my life takes me to interesting places and events, but sometimes the most memorable are just on the doorstep. I was asked to write an article about the following and I was so moved by the experience that I wanted to share it in my blog...
If you walk past Christchurch on the Stray on a Monday afternoon, you will hear the sound of joyful singing. Step inside and you will see a group of men and women, neatly dressed, singing well-known favourites with such enthusiasm that you might think that you have dropped into a rehearsal for a performance of a singing group. But this group is not rehearsing, they are singing for fun and this is a weekly singing session organised by the local branch of the Alzheimer’s Society.
About forty people are sitting in a semi-circle around pianist and conductor David Andrews, who was for many years director of music at Harrogate Ladies’ College. David keeps up an easy banter with his ‘choir’ and they listen and laugh along with his jokes. Looking round the room it is impossible to tell the carers from those who have dementia - really. Once the music starts, everyone is singing, tapping their feet, clapping in time or whistling. One lady tells me how her husband, who was once a professional cricketer, has forgotten how to sing but whistles perfectly in tune, which he does for me to demonstrate!
David leads them in a selection of songs which are familiar - ranging from wartime favourites to popular folk songs and showstoppers. They sing wonderfully and it’s impossible to listen to their voices soaring in ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ and not feel uplifted. 
I am introduced to the group and it is explained that I am going to write an article about them. They are invited to tell me their experiences, to come and talk to me. And they want to do this. There is no shyness - both carers and their partners want to talk to me because their voices are so rarely heard. One lady tells me how her husband has just moved into full-time care rather than be at home with her. She explains that because her family don’t want to be involved, she is unable to continue to care for him on her own. “I had hoped for another six months but I just can’t manage anymore,” she says with obvious regret. Another tells me how, as soon as her husband had been diagnosed, her best friend cut off all communication with her. Dementia is not a condition where friends and family rush to your door to help. 
“Sometimes I’ve had a bad day before I come, but the singing really lifts my mood,” says one carer. One of the important aspects of the group is the opportunity it gives carers to share their burden and talk about their problems with other carers - people who really understand. “You can’t explain it to other people,” says another. The loneliness of the carers is something they bravely bear. Very little conversation with their partner at home, friends and family reluctant to get involved - “It’s wonderful to see a friendly face.”
David tells me how he was surprised by their extraordinary sense of humour. This is repeated again and again in the conversations I have that afternoon. There is laughter and a desire to enjoy every minute of the session. One carer tells me that, for the gentleman she looks after, all the days of the week are the same but singing is Monday and his face lights up when he knows he is coming singing. After the sessions, he can visualise the faces of the other members of the group and he loves to see the younger people who come along to help. Others talk about how they sing the songs when they get home. One gentleman treats me to a word-perfect solo of “Roamin’ in the Gloamin’” - a song he has known since a boy in Scotland and when the session ends, two gentleman sing a duet - spontaneously and perfectly - and with such pleasure.
One lady who has early onset dementia and is in her fifties tells me how proud they are of their group and that people from other branches of the Alzheimer’s Society come along to see and hear them in action. There is a really good feeling in the room - from the people with dementia who relish the opportunity to sing and enjoy the music and companionship, to the carers who also find a release in the singing and respite in the sharing of their experiences with other carers who understand as only they can.
I come away from the session lifted by the mood and the music, aware that I have been a part of something very special and joyous. As we leave, one lady whose coat I fasten, tells me that when she first came along, she was afraid and really thought she couldn’t sing and now every week it’s the best day of her life. Whatever the magic is that makes this so special, I know that I will never hear the poignant words of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” without remembering the wonderful ‘choir’ at Christchurch on that Monday afternoon.
“If happy little bluebirds fly above the rainbow, why, oh why can’t I?”