Thursday, 29 November 2012

It's my party..

Well. I don't quite know what happened there, but my birthday made me completely unhinged. Usually, however shite things are, I will bloody-mindedly insist on birthday high jinks and jollity and treats. The year my mum died (end of October), I put on my best (maternity) dress and insisted my sister and best friend accompany me to Sketch tea rooms for my birthday and we ate silly cakes and had a good old laugh at the poor waitress in her ludicrous huge leg of mutton sleeves and her ludicrous outsize pencil (Sketch is the most sadistic employer this side of a Nigerian sawmill). The year we lived in Paris - my thirtieth - I demanded a HUGE fuss and we went to some fancy Michelin starred restaurant and I had to eat a sea urchin and all manner of ridiculousness. I like birthdays. I like a fuss. Bring on the dancing capybaras, and let them have stopped off at Frédéric Malle and Maje and Ladurée on the way. Let the saddlebags on their furry haunches be filled with miniature bottles of champagne and Patrick Roger caramels and Betty's fondant fancies. I think there should be room for a fuss even if the rest of the year has basically been one long vertical trench of horseshit that you've had to trudge up. Maybe especially if the rest of the year has been like that.

Because this year, everything is FINE, really, but my birthday sent me stark, staring mad.

First, on the day, there was the uncontrollable crying jag that started in the morning and lasted until early evening. Proper, groundless woe. Existential keening. Ugly, in the street wailing. This even though - and slightly because - I had very kindly been given a spa day. Which was lovely, truly, and such a kind, thoughtful present. But I felt ugly and vulnerable and ashamed of my new bizarrely stained front tooth and my foul toe claws and my various facial wounds that I have been picking at like a teenager (which is an excellent new nervous habit I have developed over my thirty eight year, so go me). I was definitely not feeling up to explaining the wig thing. I both felt, and felt I must look, like this:

(I've thrown it out now. The decomposition was sort of intriguing to watch, but when it started seeping I regretfully drew the line)

In the end, of course, it was basically lovely. The masseuse was Russian and stoic and quite kind and understated. She barely spoke. I only cried a few times. There was even a moment of massage comedy, when she selected the background music: rather than the usual unearthly new age whale wailing, pan pipes or plainsong, it was a frenetic techno backing track, over which a male voice would occasionally whisper "sex vibe". Perfect!

In the evening despite much more loveliness - cake, blinis, prosecco, a card of my face composed of thousands of pictures of animals courtesy of L, the first episode of the rubbish French version of the Great British Bake Off, featuring a delightfully incompetent Belgian grandmother - there was the return of some of my absolutely top quality anxiety. The triple A grade anxiety, where I lie in bed and my brain searches with the implacable efficiency of a Google algorithm for every shred of bad behaviour, outstanding accounting anomalies, health worries, work tracas, every argument, grievance and failure I've ever been party to. Then it parades them in front of me, like a never-ending slideshow of my own crapness until I am bathed in sweat and existing in a parallel state where I have bodies piled so high they are fracturing the tiles on my patio and a European arrest warrant out for me and not even the dog will deign to chew my corpse. Then I picked at my face until it bled in 73 places again.

The day after I was irrationally angry at nothing and no one (except possibly myself). I walked the dog in the forest extremely swiftly, round and round like a whirling dervish until he ran away and hid behind a tree and refused to come out. I spent two hours agonising about whether to drive somewhere and finally decided not to. I walked home from where I went in the heavy rain, in unsuitable shoes, because I couldn't galvanise myself to do anything more sensible and when I got in, I broke some blameless inanimate objects. I broke things! I don't normally do that kind of thing, because when you do, you just feel silly and have to clean up the bits afterwards. So I cleaned the bits up, feeling not silly, but completely psychotic. Finally, to top off the day in style, I started vomiting violently.

What the fuck.

I feel a bit better now. The sickness has subsided. I no longer want to rip things apart with my tiny dinosaur arms and stamp on them. There has been no crying today. It was like some kind of disturbing birthday exorcism type event but during, I honestly thought I was going mad and it was quite frightening. I mean, I know lots of people don't like birthdays, but I really, really do and what's left in miserable November if I don't enjoy my birthday? My friends talked me down from my ledge of dread. "You probably miss your mum" said F. "You should just embrace the end of year suckiness" said M. "If the worst thing you can say is you were sort of bitchy and then needed an injection of ketamine, well it sounds to me like one of my Saturday nights at university", a particularly wise man commented, comfortingly. Then sent me a picture of me with unicorns and rainbows superimposed rakishly on it. My friends always know the right things to say and do.

Resolutions for my thirty ninth year, both huge and tiny:

1. Be braver.

2. Stop picking my face until it bleeds.

3. Try not to define happiness/success/fulfillment so narrowly that I do not enjoy my really lovely life.

4. Earn enough (somehow - fraud? Blackmail? Jewel theft?) to cover 2012 tax bill.

5. Buy more nail clippers.

6. Do at least one of the following: join a choir, ride a horse more regularly, get unsightly stain removed from my front tooth.

How do you deal with birthdays?

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The week in Uccle

I have been desperate to write a new post for days now (though once again thank you SO SO MUCH for your many and brilliant book ideas) to get rid of my gurning ridiculous face in the shark sleeping bag, but circumstances keep conspiring against me, and by 'circumstances', I mean my children's insistence on getting fed and clothed and having their sodding irregular verbs conjugated, my desire to sit in a duvet cocoon on the sofa watching ancient West Wing episodes and you know, generally wintry indolence. Mrs Trefusis and I have been hatching a new money making scheme for winter involving a full body electric blanket you wear and a microwaveable gilet. All my creativity is going into that. I mean, who wouldn't want a microwaveable gilet? The dog is getting a prototype soon.

Candidates for most exciting event of this week:

1. Roomba fought a piranha and lost:

Whenever I go downstairs after a long day of staring into space and low productivity, wrapped mummy fashion in a blanket in my freezing attic, I find Roomba stranded somewhere it shouldn't be, battery low, but still putting every last ounce of fight into abusing and trying to swallow some inoffensive item of household ephemera. I could not love it more.

2. L found a way of making a Hex Bug play the ukelele. I have video footage of this, but it's quite boring. If you find you cannot live without it, make yourself known in the comments and I will rectify.

3. Oscar fell in love with a corgi.

4. My friend B discovered that armadillos can give you leprosy (without either contracting leprosy or meeting an armadillo himself) and introduced me to the slow loris eating a riceball (which is amazing, and yet. I feel conflicted. Surely the slow loris shouldn't really be living in someone's bedroom?) and also to the concept of the Fortnums Booze Cracker, from whence I discovered the concept of the Ginvent Calendar, and from then on, Christmas looked considerably more benign. Yes, I know that I said two posts ago that all advent calendars had to be made of PAPER and woven from reeds by deserving Christians and feature psalms and pictures of bells and stigmata, but it has been a trying week and this appears to be a triumph of human ingenuity designed to reconcile many of us with the otherwise trying run up to Christmas. I am making an exception.

5. I behaved like an arsehole for much of the weekend for no good reason (hormones? Work frustrations? Sadness about my picture that got ruined during building works? Just being an arsehole?) and had to do penance by playing (and of course losing) an extremely lengthy game of Monopoly. You wouldn't think Monopoly - a.k.a A Fight In a Box - would be able to act as an emollient on a tense Sunday, but it turns out that if one of you just allows all the others to be total rapacious bastards towards it, it sort of can. Go, Monopoly you depressing bastard of a game.

6. I have been drawn deeper into my children's self-hothousing strategies. My basic parenting strategy is 'relief that benign neglect is once more considered acceptable'. My children have very few extra-curricular activities with the exception of Saturday Nerd Club, sorry Science, and I like to frame this as a "deliberate" (ha) "policy" (ha) to foster their free-thinking and creativity by giving them plenty of unstructured time in which to develop. The fact that this "development" appears to habitually take the form of either sitting in front of The Simpsons or fighting (plus the occasional flash of Hex Bug ukelele) does not deter me from a strategy requiring no input whatsoever on my part except the occasional vague threat.

However. My children seem to have other ideas. Perhaps they have watched every Simpsons episode in existence twice already. Perhaps they have reached some unpassable level on Mario 3D Land. Who knows, but my peaceful existence is over.

For the last two years, L has been begging me to find him Japanese lessons. His interest is, of course, strictly manga related. Who wouldn't want to read rubbery nonsense pirate adventures in the original language? What nuances might he be missing? Even so, he has been very consistent in his nagging and I have capitulated and found him a lovely Japanese teacher called Tomo and he seems to be having an extremely jolly time learning how to say stuff like "my father is not a salary man", "tangerine" and "tortoise". So far so manageable, but of COURSE, then F felt hard done-by. He was already seething with jealousy that on turning ten, L was allowed a ( indeed the world's most boring and joyless) bank account, glaring covetously at L's dreary orange statements and canvas wallet and complimentary "Card Stop" stickers. No further inequities could be allowed.

A couple of weeks ago he presented me with his counter-demands. He wanted to learn Chinese, and the violin. What could I do? I capitulated. I have sadly failed at finding a violin teacher thus far (scree, scree, delicious torture, I can barely wait), but I have found a nice woman to teach him Chinese. Thus it transpires that on Wednesdays, we now have to go on a lengthy, multi-mode public transport odyssey across Brussels for Fingers to learn Chinese from another nice, lively, fun lady. Well, this was our first time. It is a veritable voyage of discovery. I learned that the 38 is a slow bastard and that a vin chaud at 3pm is a good way of preventing murder, L shared a bus seat with a lady who had attached a large comedy klaxon to her crutches, we found a street full of knitted tree cosies and F learnt, well, I am not entirely sure. The hand gestures for counting to ten, certainly. He seemed cheerful and had been given a Capri-Sun pouch, so all was well.

Apart from the cost and inconvenience and the fact that I am wholly incapable of dealing with homework in two new languages at the age of nearly-thirty-eight (I am stranded on "hello" and grateful that "three", at least, sounds broadly the same in both), good on them, I reckon, my delicious dorks. I wonder how long they will keep it up. I know I will be weeping with nostalgia for these days when they are busy smoking mobylettes and stealing bus shelters and sniffing cats, or whatever it is that youth do for kicks these days.

7. M and I have been accepted for CRAFTACULAR again with the Cruel Tea cruelty free two person sweatshop of Tourettes biscuits, cosies and aprons. This is big news, at least for us, because we will have to do things like (i) make things and (ii) make more things and (iii) not let me do any of the pricing and (iv) not spend all our takings on lamb chops. If you are anywhere near Bethnal Green on 16th December and you want cruel crafts, please please drop in and see us. They have a Rob Ryan grotto or something and there will be ridiculous outfits and hip flasks and oh god, I actually can't wait.

How was your week? What would you like on your rude biscuit? Will you buy a microwaveable gilet from me? What's your ideal cracker gift? Do you want to teach my son to play a special silent violin?

Friday, 16 November 2012

Begging letters

It is that time of year. The sinister man in the pointy hat and his super sinister helpers are gathering, checking the Easyjet schedules from Malaga to Zaventem, polishing their enormous child-beating sticks, darning their sacks and stocking up on coal.

My children are ready. Lashes, who has an easier relationship with consumerism than his brother (when they have money to spend, he will breezily decide in 4 seconds, while F spends hours agonising unhappily about the devastating opportunity cost of choosing one colour of Wriggly Finger Worm over another) was first, unprompted, with this highly detailed and slightly alarming missive to both red-suited operatives:

With wholly unaccustomed efficiency I have actually already acquired the "sac de couchage "shark"", because it was only available in America, and there seemed to only be about 4 in the world and, you know, I'd rather not be the recipient of the "puding" threatened by Skeletor Santa. I ordered it online about a month ago from an obscure crafting collective, fretted about my credit card getting cloned, and waited. Some time later, the postman arrived and asked me for €37,75 customs duty (he was carrying precisely no change and card payments were not permitted), and eventually, after much paperwork, the shark was released into my custody. 

I DEFY you to cohabit in a cold attic with an oversized fleecy shark sleeping bag and not .. well. 

You know. 

Yes, I did feel like an idiot taking these picture on M's request, and also, it was extremely tricky to press the Photo Booth button then wriggle into position, which is why they are a bit shit. However: I was in a giant fleecy shark and you still aren't, so I win. It is going to be a terrible wrench to part with him.

After last year's request for a cube of blue felt with eyes designed to his particular specifications:

..Fingers has gone slightly more mainstream.

He told me he hasn't signed off yet - presumably with veuillez agréer, messieurs, l'expression de mes sentiments dévoués - because he is still thinking. I fear what may yet be added.

I am, however, impressed with how polite they both are. I guess that's what happens when presents are dispensed by a terrifying man with a big stick.

In other present news, I need your help. I have been tasked with filling my dad's iPhone with useful, practical and interesting apps that might appeal to a London/Oxfordshire based gentleman of a scientific bent, with little patience. So far I have been recommended the StarWalk thing, BBC News, the National Trust, and a Red Cross first aid app. Do you have any other ideas? Might there be an ornithology or a hill walking related app that is European? Anything else? I cannot imagine him doing games. I can't remember us ever playing a game when I was little, though he has recently been coaxed into table football with the boys. I am open to all and any suggestions.

Oh, and while I am begging your help, I might as well double up and throw myself on your ingenuity. It is nearly my birthday after all. Do you have any clever title ideas for my book project? I am supposed to write a proposal (as is evident from (i) creation of new blog (ii) heavy posting here (iii) extensive TV watching schedule, I am procrastinating like a mofo, in some kind of sombre psychological self-sabotage hari kiri, but write it I must, because otherwise, what the fuck have I been doing for the past 8 months?) and the proposal, and book, need a title. Basically, I am looking for something including the word "cake" or something related thereto. It's a memoir about loving cake, and using it as solace and belonging and a marker of identity and an act of love. Each chapter takes a particular cake, from a particular place and talks about it, then talks about some biographical stuff (you can see the proposal's is going swimmingly from that highly fluent, vivid, clear description). More of the cakes than not are Parisian. YOU GET THE IDEA. I would be hugely grateful for any ideas, to the tune of at least 3 large bars of Côte d'Or Milk chocolate with salted caramelised almonds or my firstborn, whichever takes your fancy.

Begging interlude over. I will return to doing almost anything rather than putting two pages of words together. I believe there may be some overdue invoicing I could get lost in.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Leveraged basement horseshit

You remember how we bought a €20 cardboard box of horseshit in the heady euphoria provoked by an idyllic autumnal city farm open day? A box which was laughably entitled "Mushroom Kit" and featuring helpful instructions like "when the mushrooms turn black, it is time to throw the kit away" and "fly infestation may prove harmful"? Which we opened, raked around a bit, then abandoned to Fingers, the only household member conscientious enough to remember to water it occasionally?

Well LOOK:

Let me introduce you to the least cost effective mushrooms in the history of mycology. We are all unreasonably excited, particularly the majority of household members who do not even like mushrooms.

The mushrooms were the creative pinnacle of today. My brain juddered to a halt inventing copy for nightclubs I never go to at around 2pm and never recovered a shred of momentum. I am thirty eight in thirteen days (though several weeks ago my gynecologist callously decided to round me up to 38. Actually, she sneered at me for telling her I was 37, which seemed a bit unreasonable because I STILL AM, bitch, but I am currently on the wrong end of your speculum, so we'll let it go for now). If I thought I'd live this long when I was little (which I don't think I ever thought about, being far too busy trying to poison the neighbours and organising illegal primary school lotteries), I bet I didn't expect to be writing about nightclubs in an attic for pennies. On the brighter side, however:

- Prog Rock sent us some advent calendars. This is a yearly ritual. Proper, paper advent calendars, none of your chocolatey, Lego, premature gratification, world-going-to-hell-in-a-handcart numbers. Both he and I are a bit Oliver Cromwell on such topics. An advent calendar is made of PAPER and contains pictures of OUR LORD from the SPCK bookshop woven by Christian Aid from reeds, with nary a double-sized door for the 24th. Or if not Our Lord, then at least a traditional "boring goose" or "yet another fucking bell". How is anyone supposed to generate a decent head of anticipatory frenzy when you get a Lego chainsaw to play with on 7th December? Fie, fie.

- Prog Rock has generally been on excellent texting form recently. I give you a few examples:

"In York Library, cheek by jowl Solzhenitsyn Gulag Archipelago and Jeffrey Archer Prison Diary III"

"In Barnitts. 'Have you ever thought how much dust there is in YOUR radiators?'"

"Current Le Monde Diplo includes a 'figure notoire de la Françafrique' called 'Dédé la Sardine'"

"Nine hurt as burger van explodes!"

- I got paid by someone - probably enough to pay my accountant, certainly enough to buy (small) Cake For All tomorrow. Not enough to pay the people who send the purple bills that I don't really understand. Er, half whoop?

- My avocado was not brown and mushy, which is a little Tuesday miracle. Most days, I would settle for this.

Any shreds of Tuesday joy coming your way?

Monday, 12 November 2012


The process of turning into your parents is an insidious one. You don't see it happening, or you catch a tiny oblique glimpse of some alien, older generation behaviour leaking out, uninvited, much as you catch the odd dispiriting glimpse of your sagging jowls in the hallway mirror. Then it recedes again for a while, or you force yourself to do stuff that would disgust them, like owning slippers or voting Tory (well, not that). You think you're ok. But then suddenly you wake up one morning and you realise you like BIRD WATCHING (on the computer) and LENTILS and you force your children to go on an actual WALK on Sunday morning in a cold forest, when all right thinking people are watching shit telly and then quite honestly you might as well just give in and die.

A walk! Voluntarily!

"ISN'T IT BEAUTIFUL?" you bellow at them to try and drown out the voice in your head telling you how incredibly old you are. "LOOK AT THE COLOURS!"

The children do not reply, because they have sloped off into some undergrowth to kick something, or whack something with sticks and are ignoring you. The dog can hear you though. The dog is right behind you optimistically dragging half a tree that it hopes you will throw. It barks hysterically, as if to say "LOOK AT THIS AMAZING TREE I FOUND! THROW IT! THROW IT! I CAN TOTALLY CHASE IT!"

"No" you hiss at it. "Fuck off. Go and get a normal sized stick, you idiot".

Then you find and throw a normal size stick for the dog, who runs after the stick, sniffs it a couple of times, then goes back to its half tree. It staggers down the path under the weight of it, nearly tripping up several mountain bikers who shout at you in Dutch. You put the dog on the lead and look for the children.

They are looking at some moss. Or sniffing glue. Who knows.

You chivvy them onto a tree stump for a photo opportunity:

For a split second, neither of them does rabbit ears behind the other one's head. 

Then you plough onwards, getting lost several times, the dog nearly gets crushed under a horse's hooves whilst dragging another tree, then rolls in some fox shit, and at one point, magically, a deer just walks across the path in front of you, turning momentarily to glance at you with slightly bored appraisal before it disappears into the forest. You regale your children with the traditional Tales of How Much Worse It Was In My Day, tales of Kendal Mint Cake and Dubbin and poorly waterproofed cagoules.

"So, every day of the holidays he would make us climb a mountain and because my legs were much shorter than his, he would get to sit on a rock for ten minutes and have a rest while I caught up. Then when I did catch up, he would set off again. And he had the only food".

"Uncle Frank once got hypothermia halfway up Whernside. Well, he thought he had hypothermia, but Grandad wouldn't stop to check. He's never been north of Luton again".

"When I went vegetarian, the only sandwich filling I was allowed on walks was bread. Maybe a couple of Seabrook crisps on special occasions".

"I've told you about the time he locked us in a barn all day at Christmas, haven't I?"

But then you realise you are talking to yourself again, because the children have run away, bored, and you find your mind wandering back to the other bits of In My Day, like when your father found that dipper's nest at Askrigg Falls and hoisted you onto his shoulder to peep in behind the rocky overhang at the chicks. You think about happening upon wobbly legged newborn lambs, still wet and slimy, then you remember leaping across the otherwordly limestone pavement at Ingleborough, and swimming in the deep shockingly cold pools in the River Cover. You remember the way the rabbits would scatter in all directions across the moor when, bored, you went out of the back gate on your own with a pony book and a piece of Lyle's Ginger Cake, to go and sit by the rope swing.

You think of the pair of kites circling slowly above the long, flat summit of Penhill when you used to scramble up it for fun on summer evenings, over the bouncy heather and the coarse tufts of grass, startling up ungainly pheasants, raucous and surprising. The smell, and the taste, of those tall marshy grasses you used to chew for no particular reason, the ones that grew on the edges of fast, full streams and brown tarns. They grow here too, you've seen bushy clumps of them. You pick one, bend it, put the stalk in your mouth speculatively, instantly feel the peaty familiarity of it. You wonder how hard it would be, at Christmas, to drive up to the Dales for a night or two. You feel the pull of that landscape, the hardy little black faced, white nosed Swaledale sheep, the occasional moments when a shaft of sunlight pierces the cloud cover and turns the fields that supernaturally brilliant green. And you know you're lost.

Eventually you get back and everyone is slightly chilled at the extremities and pink cheeked apart from the dog who is muddy and panting and still optimistically dragging a tree. You light a fire and spend the rest of the day dozing on the sofa under a duvet and reading Ian Rankin and failing to understand the intricacies of that new-ish Spiderman film that looks like the bastard child of Glee and Twilight. The children can't be bothered to fight with each other: one has a proprietary hand on your arm and the other leans a cheek against your shoulder, both absorbed in Spidernonsense. The dog flops onto a beanbag and doesn't bother you for the next 12 hours. Everything is very peaceful. And at that moment, for a little while, it doesn't seem so very terrible, turning into your parents.

Me and my father, on Penhill. I have been allowed an apple! 

Saturday, 10 November 2012


For those of you with the strength of character not to noodle around wasting your life on Twitter like me, and for those of who don't particularly notice what's on the sidebar here (and why would you, it never changes. I've been trying to persuade my children to do a new picture of me for about three years, but neither of them can be arsed, quite understandably), a public service announcement: I have started a new blog.

It is here, and it is supposed to assemble all the good stuff I occasionally get to do, or already know about and like, in Belgium.

I started thinking about doing this about 18 months ago, when I was deep in the throes of sweaty, paranoid anxiety that ate up all my reasoning faculties and left me never more than a bad day or a scary email away from deleting this blog. My thinking was: I wanted to do something that was lighter, less personal, something that I could still manage to write when I was mentally hunched in the dark hollow under my desk, rocking like an orphan in a gritty ITV drama serial. The paranoid anxiety receded slightly, eventually, and perhaps more significantly, I was far too stupid to actually make bloody Wordpress work, so it remained a fantasy, until now.

I'm not sure what kicked me into action: partly the major, terrifying, ongoing drying up of work that started this summer and partly an accumulation of little things that I wanted to talk about, but which didn't really fit here, I suppose. There was also some completely invaluable help from this lady, who I don't know at all other than through Twitter, and who nevertheless gave me some extremely generous help sorting out some technical bits and pieces I was too stupid to understand. Which I suppose shows that noodling around wasting your life on Twitter does have some fringe benefits.

Anyway, there it is. I certainly won't stop writing about Belgium - let alone writing at all - over here, but over there is a place for the more practical, factual stuff that didn't really work on these pages, since most of you don't live, and may indeed never have been to this peculiar country. If you do, someday, happen to visit however (a vanishingly unlikely event in most lives, I concede), do have a peek.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Music, memory

I thought Fingers's encounter with nineteenth century opera would be good for a few cheap laughs, the clash of 8 year olds and nineteenth century consumptive courtesans, but it turns out his reaction has blown every shred of cynicism out of me, at least temporarily: he's mad about it, and you can't snigger at a rather diffident, careful 8 year old falling in love with Verdi, it turns out. Every Tuesday he comes home with a new aria to sing to me, a new set of facts about Rigoletto or Falstaff, and all week he sings, hums, whispers libretto secretively to himself. Whatever they're doing in those classes (and I don't know much, volcanoes continue to be a recurrent theme, and Fingers has been taking on the role of an anvil during some sessions), I salute them, because they've definitely done what they set out to do with my son: he's a complete convert: normally the least demonstrative of children, he apparently stood up in front of the class and sang an aria a couple of weeks ago. It seems like a brilliant and generous gift to give this class of ordinary kids, this exposure to an alien, colourful world of strong emotions, heroism, villainy, sacrifice, tragedy. For the opera company it seems a curiously distant investment, a declaration of faith in the power of music. It makes me quite unexpectedly happy, and very grateful.

In turn, his enthusiasm seems to have catapulted me back into my own long ago, far distant singing past. I find myself walking around the house singing scraps from half-forgotten oratorios, remember responses from masses and evensongs in the shower. I'm back there, in overheated music rooms and draughty chapels and churches, nursing sore throats and waiting for the tenors to fuck up again.

I'm not really sure how or why or when I stopped singing, but it used to be something I did without thinking, without effort. I was quite good at it - not gifted, but competent - but I did all my grade exams, had lessons, and growing up, there was always a choir in my life. Choral singing in particular used to be one of those things that gave me the kind of complete absorption, concentration, and enjoyment that the best hobbies do. Yes, we've been here before. This is probably the third time I've thought about finding a choir in Brussels, but every time I scare myself with worrying about not being good enough, about my rusty sight-reading skills, about not coping if I get rejected.  It's pathetic, I know, but I've had a pretty comprehensive loss of nerve over the past couple of years so I dither, and retreat, and miss out. Grace wrote something lovely recently about being too scared to join a band, and it really resonated.

Singing in a choir, though, was always such a happy, simple thing: I joined the chapel choir in my college in Oxford more or less the minute I got there and it was, I think, the sole extra-curricular activity I ever committed to.  For three years, Sundays had a reliable shape and rhythm when much of the rest felt alien and uncertain. Two hours of practice, dinner, then the strange and beautiful combination of liturgy and music of a choral evensong, wood polish and Brasso and dust and the pervasive, all-permeating chill of bare 17th century stone. Without a shred of religious faith, the act of singing in a group, in that setting, felt like a tiny shred of transcendence, a moment outside my unhappy self.

I've been thinking further back, too, to school choirs. Singing carols in geriatric wards, lunchtime practices, trips across the country in coaches to perform in school halls and parish churches and Quaker meeting houses. Crushes on boys almost as tragically uncool as me. Forgetting all that angst, and self-doubt and the pervasive insecurity of adolescence for a few minutes, a few hours, in music. I feel very glad I had choir for that easy sense of wellbeing, but also for the things it opened my eyes and ears to. When I was about 16, we sang Elgar's Dream of Gerontius, that strange, dreamy oratorio based on Newman's poem about, well, death. I remember whole swathes of it, melodies, words, timing, perfectly preserved in some dusty corner of my brain, all those big ineffable thoughts feeding and expanding the hormonal stew of confusion that was my brain. It was an odd choice for a bunch of teenagers, and that was down to Goblin.

Goblin our music teacher - everyone called him that, though of course he has a name - gave off the friable, taught aura of one permanently teetering on the verge of catastrophic nervous collapse. He was not, I think, wholly suited to teaching - there was some throwing of chairs, a lot of staying in his office and not coming out for days at a time, occasional outbursts of incoherent fury, lots of random disquisitions on subjects unrelated to the GCSE curriculum  - but he was a proper musician, a man of vivid and vividly communicated passions, and he certainly broadened my musical horizons unimaginably.

I think, particularly, of the time when I was probably 13 or 14 when he made us sing Britten's setting of Jubilate Agno, 18th century madman Christopher Smart's rambling, mystical and intermittently very beautiful devotional poem. There wasn't even a performance, I think: we just learnt it, sung it, and moved on, all in the matter of a couple of months, but it has stayed with me ever since. I thought of it for the first time in ages yesterday: I remember trying to find out more about it, half-heartedly, in the days before the internet, and giving up, but of course, now it's all conveniently laid out for me to rediscover. If anything it's an even odder choice than Gerontius,  but it completely captivated me. The poem is recognisably written by one in the grip of intense mania, but it's also full of clever, agile imagery, punning and wit and passion. The famous bit about his cat, Jeoffry, is marvellous, but it's all full of weird, beautiful madness. I like "The mouse is a creature of great personal valour". It's funny and visual and many, many layered. The music, too, sparkles. I don't generally get along with Britten, but singing it forced me to make the effort, to learn to love it and to be blindsided by the moments of glorious harmony. I feel very grateful to Goblin for having the confidence, or the insouciance, or the cussedness or whatever it was motivated him, to expose us to that peculiar, adult universe. I suppose that's what good teachers do, at least in part? They challenge, provoke, stretch. Perhaps he was better than I give him credit for.

Having remembered Jubilate Agno, I put it on, loud, last night as I made dinner and bits of it just poured out of me, note perfect, a thing untouched for maybe twenty five years.

"Euh, tu peux baisser?" said the children, irked, turning up the sound on Spongebob and I ignored them. I was back on the wobbly wooden chairs in the music room and Goblin was bashing out the accompaniment on the wonky music room grand piano (this one go plunk) and I was lost again in the combination of words and melody and the happy complicity of singing as a group.

I love how music can do that, take me to a perfectly preserved cache of memory: a time, a place, a sense of utter, contented absorption. I think of my son, one day, thirty years from now, finding all the words of the Slaves Chorus from Nabucco safely preserved, perfect, within him, and it's a very happy thought. So thank you, Goblin, for my memories, and thank you, La Monnaie, for Fingers's.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Stealth holiday

You may wonder - or more likely you couldn't give a flying fuck - about my absence. It is half term, and somehow I have ended up taking a week's holiday, mainly due to utter disorganisation. We went to Center Parcs, which seems to me a very '90s type of activity; a relic of a more innocent age when people were prepared to pay €5 for a single log.

(Center Parcs, for the happily uninitiated, is an originally Dutch holiday camp concept, where you pay a great deal of money to go and stay in a small wooden chalet somewhere in the back of beyond. There are no cars allowed in this giant field of small wooden chalets, so you are required to go around on bicycles which you must hire for great additional amounts of money, and you can take part in a number of activities, such as standing in a damp wood trying to avoid getting hit on the arse with small, painful paint capsules, riding Segways, climbing trees wearing a harness, etc. All such activities come at additional cost. Center Parcs are most famous for the giant glass covered bubble that festers at their centre, which contains a gigantic "tropical" swimming pool (this is actually FREE, thus crammed), various ill-advised eating options and a small supermarket where you can pay top dollar for a small packet of firelighters)

Resolutely behind the curve, this was my first time, and we spent most of our trip trying to outwit the Center Parcs charging structure, foraging damp tree stumps from the surrounding area to burn, and importing 900 bottles of cheap wine. We ground a certain amount of grim satisfaction out of all the things we did not pay for and there were goats to admire and Shetland ponies and a gigantic, furious turkey, so it was not all huis clos in a purpose built chalet, playing horrible French board games and getting therapeutically drunk*. (*it was mainly, though)

I do not think I am the obvious Center Parcs customer, what with my:

- inability to ride a bike

- intense aversion to water

- and fun

- and the country

- difficulties with living in close proximity to, well, people

- dislike of 95% of all physical activity

- poor balance and co-ordination

- lack of practical skills

- desire for urban convenience

- etc.

Most conversations went something like:

"Will you come on the waterslide?"


"But it's amazing! It's totally in the dark and you circle around seven times before ending up face first in the water!"

"Oh my god. Have you ever met me? No".

"You will really though, won't you?"


Frankly, if I had been in charge of me, I might have just clubbed me over the head with a €5 log and buried me somewhere behind the Paintball field.

Of course, this was a child-motivated trip and between bouts of arguing, the children did a fair job of enjoying the giant bubble of chlorinated death and dressing up like something from CSI Meurthe et Moselle:

I cannot quite decide whether they look more like forensic technicians or operatives in some kind of Sodexo industrial kitchen. We stole the paper boiler suits, so we can explore this further at our leisure.

Also, it snowed which was discombobulating, but pretty. The less said about the poached penis dessert, the better.

The way it is drooping obscenely over the edge is particularly distressing. We ate many variations on crème dessert in packets, but I think this was by far the worst. My attempt at a microwave mug cake was also disastrous though, so I am poorly placed to criticise.

On our return from the Compound, we had two days at home where we tried, fruitlessly, as we do each year, to inject a bit of Halloween spirit into Brussels, the town where placing an unadorned pumpkin to decompose gently in your shop window passes for seasonal decoration (see here). If anything, Halloween was greeted with even less enthusiasm than usual on the streets of Uccle, I thought. Belgium, I sense, thinks it has done Halloween at least once or twice, and doesn't need to do it again. Sadly, my children are not in agreement. Delhaize's pumpkin offerings were limited to four flat white squashes and when we went trick or treating, the neighbours shouted rather querulously at us that they were in bed at 8:30pm. Only 4 people opened their doors and all of them were offering Chokotoffs, which are these hideous, punitive toffees designed by the dental industry to leach all the pleasure out of confectionery, whilst creating a series of complex and expensive orthodontic problems. We sloped home, discouraged, after 5 minutes and ate all our own sweets, which were vastly superior.

Finally, we went back to my favourite place in the Ardennes, as compensation for the rest of the holidays. The weather was terrible:

so we sat in front of the fire and nested, mainly. The children occupied this niche:

occasionally breaking off to fight bitterly with each other, and I retired to the bath, which has a view over the forest, filled it to the brim with Elemis Supersoak and wallowed, mindlessly, staring at the beautiful autumn colours and failing to think Big Thoughts.

Fingers made me take him swimming and quizzed me intensively - but I suspect inaccurately - on the life cycle of the harvest mouse. He claims it weighs 7 grammes and lives in a tennis ball, or something. Maybe I wasn't wholly concentrating.

We also did some thinking about what animal he should have when he is ten. He is hesitating between a ferret and a chicken. I think a harvest mouse sounds perfect, personally.

We did venture out once as far as Bouillon castle to see a baffling bilingual falconry display (Fingers held an owl, Lashes had something enormous and.. talony sit on his head, which, in a minor concession to otherwise disregarded health and safety, was protected with an old saucepan), and once to the pub in the village to eat enormous croques monsieur. Then this morning I went riding over the bracken topped hills on a really quite tetchy and uncooperative, though beautiful, Camargue horse called Aléosse.

I am in serious horse pain, but smell divinely of equine sweat and leather, which is a scent no one has ever managed to effectively bottle, and especially not that weird Artisan Parfumeur scent that is supposed to smell of leather and dung and circuses, but which does not work at all for me. It was all lovely, basically, and felt like a stealthy and wholly unearned holiday. Now I have to work again, and I fear I have forgotten how. I suppose we will see tomorrow. I rather imagine I will be discovered sitting, prunelike, in a cooling bath at 4pm furiously refusing to engage with adult life.

How was your weekend?