Thursday, 31 January 2013

Oh, go away January.

I'm fairly sure there comes a point in every January where I become completely eye-swivellingly maddened by the ambient murk and the constant undercurrent of everyone's snot and the daily feeling like I've been sitting in the same place without movement for 87 years, but simply knowing it is an annual event doesn't stop me going absolutely STIR CRAZY. I am mad. I am hours away from some kind of slaying rampage. For the moment I am turning it in on myself by picking strips of dry skin off my lips, but I don't know how long I can hold out. The dog is first in my sights, since he has spent the morning pacing and whining, jumping up on my knee only to jump down again two seconds later.

This, this is my life this week. Dog bollocks in the face, savaged lips, red nose, facial leprosy, double chin, dog haired bosom and being used as a stepladder.

God knows why he's so twitchy. He's not lacking exercise: I took him out for such an intense, speedy walk yesterday to work off some of my lunacy and frustration that I ended up with a huge blister on the end of my big toe. This came shortly after an inglorious scene during which I dropped my phone, then flailed wildly trying to pick it up and ended up sending it right under the dishwasher. Things that you cannot use to retrieve an iPhone from under a dishwasher: broom handle. Spatula. Magazine. Hand. Unrolled length of masking tape (ok, yes, this was a stupid idea). Things that you can use: an untwisted coat hanger, but it will take you over 40 minutes lying on your stomach. Also, there is a lot of horrible shit under a dishwasher. After that I drank nasty wine from the corner shop (the label just reads "Vin blanc". No further information necessary).

F and I are on day three of our confinement. He is ratty and sick and the most bored it is possible for a nearly-nine year old to be without literally setting fire to the house (though this too may be imminent). His brother loves these kind of sick days when you're not too poorly, and can hole up with a hot water bottle and a duvet and a pile of comics for hours on end, but F is fretting about missing school and learning his ghastly poem and wandering around silently, radiating ennui. I, being a delicate flower capable of drawing on almost infinite excuses not to work, am unable to achieve anything due to the mournful figure appearing at my shoulder every half hour and the sountrack of "Are You Smarter Than a Ten Year Old" emanating from the telly ("NO" I mutter to myself involuntarily every five minutes). I click fretfully between pointless open documents on my computer, waiting for something amazing to happen, or at least for someone to remind me what on earth I am supposed to be doing. In half an hour we get to trudge through the rain to the doctor's (F is required to provide a doctor's note for school absence), where we will sit in the waiting room for seven and a half hours and contract all the other illnesses in Belgium. So that will make a change at least.

I feel like we need to break out of this rut but I don't really have any ideas and also, you know, F is confined to the house because he coughs like he has swallowed a live seal. I've already baked all the things and the bath is broken so I can't fill it with gin and lie in it all night muttering. I want to whisk us all off to Acapulco, but realistically, I think the best I can manage is whisking us off for a pizza. In the kitchen. From the freezer.

Hmm. I need to put something uplifting in here, don't I?

(There is a very long pause whilst I try to think of something uplifting)

(The pause continues while we spend 7 hours in the doctors with a gang of people suffering nineteenth century illnesses and then, having taken €23,20 from me, THE DOCTOR SIGNS FINGERS OFF FOR TOMORROW TOO, OH GOD WE WILL DRINK EACH OTHER'S SPINAL FLUID IT IS THE END TIMES)

Ok, fine. Five uplifting things since it's good for my shrivelled soul:

1. Tropicana Blood Orange & Blackcurrant is very delicious.

2. The baker I was desperate to include in an article I'm writing has said yes to an interview (date not fixed and proving tricky, but thank fuck and also YIPPEE and fingers crossed, yes, mainly that actually).

3. The telly is quite good at the moment. There's The Good Wife, and still a little bit of Borgen, and André Manoukian is back on Nouvelle Star, which reminds me of the glory days of 2008. My love for him is undimmed. He is still talking utter nonsense in collarless jackets. One day I will meet him, yes I will, this must happen. Sinclair is still there too, but somehow, my love of him has been slightly dimmed over the years. Which is a shame since Tom recently reminded of this picture of Sinclair he had photoshopped some years back, in which he was wearing armour and riding the weepette and fighting a capybara with fiery eyes, thus:

In and of itself, this picture would be sufficient to cheer me, actually.

4. I have been on a framing bender (as benders go, surely the least rock 'n' roll? Hmm - how about a handwashing bender? A VAT bender? A cavity wall insulating bender? Choose your own) and now 2 things (amazing photographs by this lady) I have had since 2008 are FRAMED and HUNG. Framed, bitchez. Two more are still at the framers but imminently returning and I definitely feel a puny sense of achievement.

5. B has sent me many darkly amusing materials this week, including an eagle owl savaging the residents of Inverness. The picture on this article is pure gold and I know it is not actually funny to get savaged by an owl, but I AM SORRY IT JUST IS FUNNY, FINE SEND ME TO HELL, also, the man with the net, I think, knows he is really not onto a winner with this cunning recapture strategy.

How has your month been? Any triumphs, major or minor? Or merely Scandinavian levels of gloom?

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Pork is cheap

1. Support your local ironicraftsman

My younger son - who is sick today, leaving me time to update my weblog as more serious work is almost impossible, what with the frequent, if exquisitely polite, requests for drinks and snacks and the imparting of a constant flow of diverting factoids from the pages of Science et Vie Junior (the world's largest bicep is 74cm in diameter! Once a Lego tower is taller than 30 metres in height it is impossible to keep stable!) - has just bought himself this:

I especially like the glimpse of one ear as he quietly reads his Astrapi magazine in his ostrich. Respect. "It's his fortress of solitude" someone commented. If you should ever wish for your own fortress of solitude I can tell you that it is extremely comfortable and that the ostrich manufacturer's customer service was absolutely excellent. I have neither been paid, nor given a discount to say this: younger son paid full price for his FoS. What with this and the shark sleeping bag, he and his brother are at least keeping struggling artisan designers in moustache wax and rare vinyl, I suppose. M spent a significant proportion of yesterday trying to persuade me to get into the shark whilst wearing the ostrich on my head, but obviously I cannot do so until I have the house to myself and even if I did I would never tell anyone, ever, but I can't pretend the idea doesn't have a certain appeal. Would I ever be able to get out again, is the real question? What possible appeal can real life hold compared with becoming half ostrich, half shark?

2. 50% whippet, 50% kangaroo, 100% trouble
Meanwhile this video throws new light on the dog's counter jumping, Toblerone stealing proclivities.

You might conclude that we have only ourselves to blame for any opportunistic food theft, and you would be entirely right.

3. Poke 
I have also found myself a fancy dress costume (not that I have any particular need to wear fancy dress that I can think of, but if I did, imagine!):

It is only available in child sizes which seems to me a massive oversight on the part of the manufacturers. Adults want to dress as chips too, indeed I would argue our need is far greater. F is wholly decided on his outfit for Carnaval: he is planning to dress up as "Verdi"; which I am sure will go down a storm with the tough eggs in 6ème.  Actually, I quite fancy trying to crowbar myself into a ten year old's poke of chips. How hard can it be? There must be some give in there. It would look lurid and alarming and faintly sexual, with the point of the cone between one's legs and really, what more can you ask for in a dressing up outfit? NOTHING. Well, a tail would be nice, I suppose. There are people who just sell tails, aren't there? The world is an increasingly puzzling place.

4. Further Texts from Prog Rock 

A propos the villain in the York pantomime (who was a no-show this season):

"His pelvis bearings have seized. Get him up on the ramp grease gun and he'll be fine next year".

A propos flooding:

"Still well below 2000 levels. Will gaze on mighty Foss this evening".

A propos nothing:

"Want a dozen penguins?"

Then today:

"Cheerful cyclist, yellow jacket blazened 'inefficient solutions'xx"

5. Language skills
This week I have learnt:
- "veal and beef are expensive, but pork is cheap" in Dutch.
- "The dog's face is brown and white and black and grey and pink" in Chinese. I am the boss of Chinese colours, well, apart from my pronunciation which is apparently atrocious. But at least I know which word I am supposed to be mangling.
- "the watch is 5000 yen" in Japanese.
I am now totally prepared for something, but I am not at all sure what. Suggestions? Perhaps I could run an exotic market stall? Tour guide? I could describe the local fauna in luxuriant, poorly pronounced detail!

This is all I have for you. Well, I am working on something long and involved and horse related, but given I currently write as if English is my fourth or fifth language and at the speed of an arthritic sea cucumber (I believe my earnings in the last ten days total approximately £100 gross), breath should not be held. I feel a bit like the tortoises in January, all my critical faculties and get up and go packed away in a box stuffed with newspaper until the sun comes out. Given that this is likely to be around mid May, there is some cause for concern. But NEVER MIND. That is precisely what the ostrich is for, surely?

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

I feel I should say..

... I haven't actually been reading NW for the last 3 months. I started it too soon after May We Be Forgiven and it didn't feel like I was giving it a fair crack of the whip, so I have plunged into an orgy of CRIME. It feels right in this weather, somehow. That's a lie, I always want to read crime. I don't really understand why, but (a) it's genetic, both my parents like(d) murder too and (b) so, it appears, does a huge swathe of the population, so perhaps resistance is futile.

First I read the full set of archeology thrillers by Elly Griffiths, then The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh (eh?), then The Blackhouse by Peter May, because someone recommended it and someone else said it was utterly dreadful and I was curious (verdict: slightly heavy on the seabirds and leaden, brooding menace for me), then I read Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton even though it has ghosts and I don't normally hold with that kind of thing, and In the Woods by Tana French which was really great but I felt slightly cheated at the end and now I've found a Denise Mina I hadn't already read (even though, having read the subsequent ones, I know whodunnit).

Problems with reading too much dark detective fiction:

- Wake up every morning with a steel band tension headache from a night of tooth grinding.

- Twitchy, bug eyed, anxious.

Advantages of reading too much detective fiction:

- Would have been anxious anyway, and now twitchiness/anxiety can now be ascribed to reading habits, not real life.

- Instant perspective: have I been dismembered, or accused of dismemberment today? No? Well then. Also, I think real life takes on a sort of benigner hue due to the absence of disgusting, senseless, violent, sadistic crime in my front room. The pigeons in the back garden fight a lot, and the bastard dog jumped onto the kitchen work surface and ate my last three triangles of Blue Toblerone today, but that's as bad as it gets.

So: what next? I have done quite a lot of the Scandis in varying quantities/quality, but none but Asa Larsson in the last two years. Am I missing out on further opportunities to grind my horse teeth into tiny stumps and get palpitations? What crime do you recommend? My tastes run particularly to gritty/realistic-verging-on-profoundly-gloomy/Aga saga gone bad, and much less to PIs with 'pieces'. Alternatively, what have you read recently that is good and that you recommend to wean me off this run of autopsies and dark childhood secret misery?

In other news, M and I have had a disagreement about those Shetland ponies wearing Shetland jumpers.

E: I'm not sure about the jumpers. I am concerned that they adulterate their essential pony-ness.

M: There is something wrong with your side of the brain.


M: This is like the Bartlet campaign all over again.

E: YES. YES IT IS. And yet I am still not in love with Josh despite your assurances.

In other, further, other news, my life as a Tiger Mother malgré moi continues ingloriously, but with intermittent high points of comedy. F dropped his rental violin, denting it, during an over-enthusiastic rendering of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and we have entered the dark, dark world of Learning Chinese Characters By Heart. Bugger all that encouraging stuff about forging new neural passageways of two posts ago, my brain finds this process physically painful.

"HANG ON. I thought this one that looks like a picnic table was 'ma'?

"Naaooon, that's huan".

"And since when are there TWO that look like small stick people? AND WHY DOES ONE OF THEM HAVE A FAT LEG??"

F is totally on top of it.

He can also sing you a Chinese song about tigers with no ears, and do some kind of eyeball massage. He is quite the renaissance man. My very favourite of his new skillz is listing huge numbers of animals in Chinese, which has enabled me to learn the following composite creature expressions:

Panda is "Bear cat"
Turkey is "fire chicken"
Goat is "mountain sheep"
Owl is "cat head .. something". (I think it is bird. F is unsure)

Fire chicken! I want to make up my own now, but unfortunately my brain is still cowering in the corner, licking its wounds. Weepette's composite name is "chocolate bastard neurotic scrawny fiend" and soon my youngest will be able to write that down for me in beautiful calligraphy. I have tried gently querying with him whether all his self-imposed extra-curricular activities make him feel like the sister in Mr Stink who has jousting lessons and plays the trombone and so on, but he claims not so, so on we go, towards imminent ruin.

Final other news: I just have discovered this (after nearly 10 million other people, I am quite the early adopter) and now I cannot stop muttering to myself "fuck your Toyota Yaris, I've got a horse outside" even though sadly this is not at ALL true. More on the subject of horses soon, however, even though they do not have an entertaining composite name ('ma', but not the same 'ma' that looks like a picnic table, because it has an uppy-downy accent instead of a straight across one I TOLD YOU IT WAS HARD).

Monday, 21 January 2013


Right, let me shake off my damp tweed slanket of self-pity (and a heartfelt thank you for all your thoughtful and heartening and frequently fascinating comments on the previous post), which is starting to smell like wet sheep and mildew.

Actually, and I feel I should state this for the record, today is WONDERFUL. There's a proper snowstorm outside, tiny insistent flakes buffeting around the garden, drifts against the back door and on the tables (dead cactus collection now obscured by aesthetically pleasing whiteness), pushy gangs of finches arguing over our really quite unpleasant looking homemade fat balls. The fire is showily enormous and crackling and it hasn't gone out for about ten days, which has the benefit of making me feel like a particularly assiduous Russian peasant stoking the hearths at someone's dacha. I'm semi-gainfully occupied making my fifth baked good of the weekend (bagels, after fluffy pancakes, buttermilk scones, a chocolate fudge cake and some rather dubious looking bread rolls that look likely to join the notorious bread gargoyles of oversalted doom in the roster of Food That Is Better Forgotten): my Kitchenaid has overheated and is making a plaintive sound, a bit like the dog when he sees a Herta sausage. The children are out sledging and between bagel wrangling phases, I'm sitting at the kitchen table drinking Kusmi smoky Earl Grey tea in a happy fug. For the first time in ages, I don't have to work this weekend and I just want to bottle this feeling up, the intense, delicious cosiness of it. Of course, soon they will come back and L will be in his current sulky pre-teen fug of resentment and F will slink away silently to spend 4 hours playing DS in the dark and we will have to clean out the rats which is enough to fracture anyone's wintry idyll. But just now, right this instant, it's perfect, the kind of day I'd Instagram the fuck out of if I actually knew what Instagram was for.

(Updated to add: in the latter half of the day I fell over and banged my arse barely 2 feet from the back door, stood in some toxic woodworm solution, the binbag exploded all over me, and the dog peed on all three of our snowmen, so normality was indeed restored).

That means I have time to contemplate the fundamentals; the very essence of life: refuse collection.

There has been a tremendous hoo-haa in Brussels about the new refuse collection arrangements for 2013. Oh yes. You may feel that perhaps this reflects an absence of real problems to think about and you may be entirely right. I watched Belgian TV news accidentally three nights in a row this week (unwise) and 80% of each programme was devoted to the burning issue that is: The Snow. My particular favourite evening featured a hapless reporter sent out to tap on drivers' car windows and ask them what they thought of snow ("ben, ça va, tant que ça roule" "c'est beau, on ne devrait pas se plaindre, hein?", etc etc etc), a woman with a microphone on a lightly snow-dusted motorway bridge trying to find something to say about perfectly fluid traffic, followed by an in-depth interview with an eight year old on how to make snowballs. You think I'm joking, I'm really not. My favourite Belgian TV show, C'est du Belge, which is a delicious mixture of obscure royals and artisan crafts had a long, lovingly filmed report on a manufacturer of door handles this week too. I enjoyed every second of it.

It is, thus, not entirely astonishing that the bin collection changing has caused seismic waves of distress to reverberate around the capital. The first, ominous rumblings came before Christmas, when a leaflet was delivered, communicating the distressing news that the blue bags (plastics, tin cans) were getting divorced from the yellow bags (paper, cardboard). It was literally expressed in these terms: "Entre nous, c'est fini!". No counselling, no last ditch attempts at reconciliation, nothing. It's not as if we even knew the blue and yellow bags had been having problems. They kept it very quiet. It just goes to show how little we know about relationships between other, er, bin bags. The heart of the binbag a ses raisons. 

Later, as the various teams of bin men came round to collect their Christmas tips ('but I've paid you already! Three times!' 'Non, madame, we are the green bags'), we took receipt of a more detailed account of the terms of the blue/yellow separation. And when I say detailed, I mean detailed.

These are the rules:

Then these are the exceptions to the rules:

Then this is a strange, lengthy explanation of what you can put in each bin. The pink section is the DANGEROUS HAZARDOUS MATERIALS.

Which I was happy to see included chip fat.

This document was the main subject of discussion between Brussels residents for the whole of the first fortnight of January. Need to make smalltalk with a taxi driver or shop keeper? Awkward school gate silence? Talk about the bin bag polemic.

I suppose I can see why it has proved challenging to the good burghers of Brussels. I mean, the leaflet is clearly a prize winning work of obscurantist nonsense in two languages, but the actual rules when you get down to it (when you, for instance, ask one of the many men who are tapping you for €5 in the run up to Christmas) are very simple. Blue bags one week, Yellow the next. How hard is that? Not very hard. If remembering - or gauging the level of your two recycling bags and using deductive reasoning - proves insuperably challenging, there is always the wild, spontaneous option of looking outside your front door to see which bags your neighbours have put out. And if, by any misfortune, your neighbours are idiots, the magnificent people at Bruxelles Propreté (Brussels Cleanliness!) have a site where you can print out your own personalised colour coded calendar for your very house. I have just done precisely that with a glow of intense satisfaction. A whole year in rubbish! Just for me! There is also a freephone number. And a team of gentlemen who walk round the city slapping warning labels on the bags of anyone who has got it wrong. You can see why my tax bill is so impressively gigantic now, can't you.

The many and various ways of elucidating the potential confusion have not stopped Belgian TV news adding to it with a variety of alarmist coverage. I watched a lengthy report (no, I have no idea why I am watching so much Belgian television at the moment. Some version of hibernation, perhaps? I watched an hour long programme on "the treasures of Wallonia" too, we must never speak of it) where bin men went round knocking on doors to explain things. They were knocking on doors during the day, and were thus faced with a mottley collection of shifty looking freelancers in pyjamas, elderly people very keen to talk, a large number of non-French or Dutch speaking cleaning ladies in the posher areas and a light spattering of lunatics. Poor bin men. I will give my €5 even more readily in future. The beleagured journalist tried to interview some of them. "I get easily confused" said one grinning man they cornered on the street, his eyes swivelling erratically. "But I think I understand it now".

Do you know, I don't even know why I am telling you this any more. I apologise. Oh, maybe it was this: I am now very clear that I do not wish to work for either Brussels Cleanliness or Belgian TV news.

(It's blue next week. I've totally mastered this)

Friday, 18 January 2013


I have been somewhat haunted over the last few days by a section of this New Yorker piece I read which said - and I paraphrase, and more importantly, I leave out huge swathes of inadequacy distilling narrative about clubbing in Reykjavik and so on - that one's brain, and habits of working were definitively formed in the third decade of life. Your wiring was reset at this point, thus, if you weren't busy, active, challenged, stretched, in your twenties, you were fucked, basically: destined to bumble along ineffectually, without ambition or direction or the mental tool kit for success. "Survival of the busiest", the piece called it.

"Don't slow down yet! In professional life, a few lost years or lousy, aimless jobs could come to haunt you. 'Late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier'"


I read this, thinking about my twenties: law school (8 hours teaching time a week, the rest of my days spent wandering dreamily around the streets of London, reading and occasionally baking a cake), trainee solicitorship (a degree of focus here, though the focus was mainly on trying to time my exit each evening so as to leave the highest possible degree of doubt among my superiors as to whether I might in fact still in the building), then about five minutes of half arsed pregnant lawyering before having a baby. Baby. Five more minutes of work (part time by now), then another baby and whoops, you've turned 30, time's up. I didn't really know what I wanted to do and I certainly didn't have the gumption or the drive or whatever it would have taken to say 'no, the law isn't for me, thank you'. Lucy Mangan did exactly that, and I occasionally look at her career and berate myself for spending all those years spent doing Herfindahl-Hirschmann analysis (I got some good shoes and some nice pictures out of it, I suppose, and I don't have the pretension to think I'm as good as she is, not at all. It's just .. what an idiot, doing a job I was dreadful at for ten long years of my short life).

By this account, then, I should probably accept that I am destined, by habit, by learned mental unfitness for purpose, by neurology never to make anything of myself.

What a grim idea this is. I'd like to think that this kind of neurological determinism is wrong, obviously, I hope it is, I believe it is. Surely it must be bollocks? People do extraordinary things later in life and I can't believe all of them spent their twenties wrestling with whiteboards full of equations or dreaming up start ups. Surely, too, there must be something to be said for a slower, more circuitous route, a more human way to finding out what you love and want to spend your life doing?

Even so, it definitely preys on my insecurities. Viewed from some angles, my last two years seem to have been a shambolic, halting, half-arsed procession of things half done and still unfinished, promising opportunities that came to nothing, connections lost. Viewed from other angles, I should stress, they have been surprisingly calm and happy and reflective, a time without life-shortening drama or sadness. Sure, there's a recession on, and times are tough, but my brain's been in a kind of slump too. It lost the ability to be funny, and swift, and sharp and brave and it its place there was just anxiety and repetitive, empty self-sabotage. I would love to be acid and irreverent and stupidly insouciant again, but I can't seem to do it. I've been strangely scared, intermittently: irrationally, uncontrollably scared like a child seeing terrible monsters in the corner of the bedroom; tiny problems looming vast and uncontrollable. Not all the time: sometimes the fear just slips away, gloriously, unpredictably, and the monsters turn back into a heap of clothes on the back of the chair. But when it's there, it paralyses me. It feels a bit like alopecia of the brain: there's nothing hideous happening externally, so my brain has turned on itself, gnawing holes in its fur, as Antonia once called it.

I don't really believe I can attribute any of this to being a feckless loser in my twenties, and even if I could, regretting my youthful aimlessness is sterile and pointless and self-indulgent, but .. I don't know. That piece did sort of chime with my feeling I have some steely core of determination and graft missing. I keep hoping that the iron will enter my soul, the sense of how terrifyingly finite time is will spur me on and win out over all that pathetic fear, but what if it doesn't?

Lord, this has to be the most pointless, introspective piece of nonsense I have written ever, I'm so sorry. It's like my brain has pinned you against the cash point in a shopping centre and is muttering incoherently at you about aliens and medication and its bus fare to Runcorn, fixing you with mad starey eyes. I'll stop now. God knows, it was probably even worse reading that if you're actually in your twenties in the midsts of the worst recession for decades being told that if you aren't gainfully occupied in challenging, difficult, satisfying work now, your brain is pretty much buggered. Thanks, neuroscience.

I think the point of this when I first started writing it, was firstly that I wanted to try and defend the aimless and the half-arsed and the confused. We'll get there! Eventually! Perhaps? And when/if we do, we'll be far more tolerant, rounded, forgiving people than the ones with the single-minded gimlet ambition. And if we don't, we'll be quite the nicest hobos you will ever meet.

Then in order to bolster my 'argument' (ha), I was wondering if you had any jolly stories about later life success to tell me. "Success" need not be defined as fame and fortune, obviously. Just, you know. Contentment. Doing something you enjoy. Tiny personal triumphs. Anything to challenge this crackpot theory. Was your wiring set in stone your twenties? Really? Say it's not so.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Educational Outings for Disobedient Children

Have naughty children? Wish to instill in them a lifetime of primal dread?

Take them to the MUSEUM OF CARNIVALS AND MASKS in Binche.

First you must get there.

The road is long, and filled with ghostly vistas of industrial decline and urban decay. There is also some really shit graffiti, glimpsed across misty deserted station platforms.

Do not fear, because you are going to need ALL THE FEAR IN THE WORLD when you get there.

You have arrived! The grotesque figure of the Gilles de Binche greets you, ostrich feather headdress glinting in the weak winter sunshine. He looks almost jolly, doesn't he?

No. No he doesn't. The Gilles is as creepy as all hell. See his creepy twig switch and his expressionless wax mask! Recoil, recoil!

Of course, the Gilles is merely the warm up act for a smorgasbord of nightmarish primitive terrors from across Europe.

Thrill as you find yourself in an empty, echoing corridor filled with your hitherto nameless fears!

Explore, fearfully, the chilling folklore of Mitteleurop!

Marvel at the ingenious use of animal pelts to create a nightmarish atmosphere of primal terror!

Feel a stirring of some unfamiliar emotion as you recognise the creature who has come to STEAL YOUR SOUL.

Then run. Run as fast as you can. And never turn off the lights again. Because this guy will be sitting under your bed for all eternity.

Yes, I had a lovely time in Binche.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013


Oh, god. I promised my friend Irretrievably Broken (ha, that sounds ridiculous) not to update my blog until she did, but I am going to break my promise (well, I did ask her first) because someone did sad pleading and also because one of my deadlines in this WEEK OF HORRIBLE JANUARY TORMENT has gone away. As a result, I now feel like I am luxuriating in a warm eucalyptus scented bath of free-ish time, when I had expected to be running around Brussels crying, trying to find graffiti that no longer exists whilst also writing about leftovers and children and visiting possibly the smallest and least Internet friendly Belgian town I have ever had the misfortune to be hired to write a guide to. Perspective is wonderful. I still have to visit the town and write the leftovers, but you know, I no longer feel the need to hitchhike to a remote cave in Turkey and grow a beard and burn my passport and eat moss and thrushes I kill with my bare hands for all eternity. Though actually, I wrote that paragraph yesterday and the urge is already returning.

So Happy New Year! How are you? We are very well, by which I mean, we have mainly vanquished the Persistent Christmas Pestilence and have not yet succumbed to the January Gastro which is reportedly sweeping the Gulag, ô bonheur. I am not sure what has happened since we last met on these pages, nothing of any great note, in any event, but I shall attempt to ferret around in my hazy, Toblerone and gin silted memory for a few highlights.

First there was Craftacular, where I accidentally got into a disagreement with Rob Ryan about the Messiah (and made up over a packet of arses) and where M taught - or rather attempted to teach - me how to do Hermès approved gift wrapping.

I love how elegant and demure M looks here in her beautiful vintage dress and pearls. I was letting the side down in a Cos sack, as usual. However, more of the time it was like this:

Note the scene of scrabbly chaos, I kept dropping stuff and being caught by customers with half a spinach pie trailing out of the corner of my mouth like something on a David Attenborough programme.

We did not sell very much, but Rob Ryan (who is like a lovely, jolly, hobo Santa) was giving away beautiful Christmas decorations from his magical grotto for free (I got a large smiling star, M a Christmas tree),  and we had a good laugh at the enormous numbers of ironic East London Christmas jumpers, and lots of lovely people came to talk to us, and one of them even brought us snacks, and I met Grace, so it was all worthwhile. Afterwards M discovered mulled mead which was possibly not a good thing, because  it turned her into an angry Hackney Viking warrior.

There was F's Gulag Traviata, which definitely deserves its own post. I have video. I cried a little. The headmaster gave a speech about courtesans.

There was me being a colossal dickhead and getting my wallet stolen on the tram, with attendant ugly street crying and chaos. This made for an unexpectedly cheap run up to Christmas as I was thrown on the mercy of my nearest and dearest for cash. I do not recommend this approach to seasonal economising, however, and I still have to run the gauntlet of the incredibly painful visit to the police to declare my ID card, driving licence and social security cards stolen, before I start the equally prolonged and painful process of attempting to replace them. Oh, the tedium. Also, the uneasy sense of having done something wrong that settles upon me whenever I enter the police station. What with my recurring dream about having buried a body in a basement I can no longer access but which someone else is about to enter, it's all too unnerving. I CONFESS, OFFICER. THE BODY IS BURIED IN MY SUBCONSCIOUS.

There was Christmas, spent in a windowless hut in Normandy decorated with extensive and mysterious signage on how to deal with blood clots and strokes. I will draw a heavy, tear-stained veil over Christmas, haunted as it was by the Jellied Quails That Kept Reappearing and with its high point featuring a half-hour afternoon nap in L's shark sleeping bag in a Kyriad hotel room, but I did get some excellent presents.

Presents of excellence in no particular order:

1. Ridiculous Lakeland teabag squashing claw that fills me with delight.

2. Aromatherapy Associates mini bath oils.

3. Chanel nail polish in Lotus Rouge, in your face dead mouse beige.

4. 2 bars of Dime chocolate from my eldest son. This is the first time he has expressed an interest in the giving side of Christmas, so it was quite touching, and even the fact that he made me pay for my own present did not entirely spoil the effect.

5. Posy Simmonds Mrs Weber's Diary Omnibus.

6. Much-coveted Barbour jacket which proved extremely resistant to discovery, but was finally tracked down in Robert Smart's Old Buffers' Outfitters in York, home of all the tweed and shooting requisites the landed gentry could possible require. I am now joining their ranks with my many pockets for cartridges and hip flasks and dead game birds. Say goodbye to dog walking shame, though say hello again to January dog walking misery, because even a smart new jacket can't make that fun. Not even the dog enjoys it.

There was also a long overdue trip to my ancestral lands. Yorkshire was excellent and delightful on very many levels, even though I was sick the whole time. We went to the magnificently nonsensical York panto (of which more here), had breakfast in Betty's and fish and chips in Petergate and "Yorkshire Pizza" from Thomas the Bakers, and sat around in bovine teenage fashion whilst  Prog Rock lavished many of his greatest hit meals upon our unworthy forms. We drank this, with some trepidation:

We also trailed around the designer outlet feeling uneasy about the human condition, got lost on the Clifton Moor industrial estate with a brooding ten year old sulking histrionically in the back of the Yaris and finally - and I may well expand on this later - went to my father's largely abandoned house in the Yorkshire Dales, scene of the darkest years of my teenage holiday incarceration. Oh god, I loved being in the Dales and that confuses me. The weather was on its very best behaviour (the briefest half hour intervals of horizontal rain lashing up the valley only), I found the total lack of phone reception very restful, the landscapes were even more beautiful than I remembered, and of course I AM OLD NOW and thus more receptive to nature and so on. Even so, my most very favourite bit was sitting in bed looking out at the hills with the electric blanket turned up to "extra steaming cosy like a sauna that smells of mildew", drinking tea out of my favourite giant blue cockerel tea cup and reading a pile of my childhood pony books under my childhood patchwork quilt.

I am not sure what the children were doing while I was reliving the rare rose tinted scenes of my early years, playing DS probably. They were astonishingly patient about my self-indulgent trip down Painful Memory Lane, and actually seemed to enjoy scrambling around the various vertical bogs in the neighbourhood, admiring dead creatures, eating crisps in cold pubs and getting buffeted by the unforgiving Dales wind. My father's excellent collection of stuffed creatures helped, probably, L slept under the watchful glassy eye of a 1908 pike, F with some kind of exotic and slightly mangy duck in a box I remember with great affection from our own period of cohabitation. We spent New Year there doing absolutely fuck all and went to bed at ten (woken only briefly at midnight by a 7 second firework "display") and it was bloody lovely.

Also enjoyable: sorting out Prog Rock's bowl of crap.

We managed to coax him into parting with about 700 pieces of carefully preserved unidentifiable random plastic. The rest we organised into small piles: treasury tags, single earrings, elastic bands, keys to unknown doors that cannot be thrown out just in case, kirby grips, buttons, safety pins, obscure bicycle fixing ephemera, radiator bleeding keys, right-on badges for York causes...

Then when we finished, Prog Rock cheerfully gathered up the whole lot in his cupped hands and dumped it all back in the bowl. Never let it be said that we don't know how to have seasonal fun in our family.

I think that will do for now. Still to come: horses/fear, the enforced confronting thereof. Anvils. The return of Nouvelle Star and my undimmed crush on André Manoukian. Possibly the tedious Brussels saga of refuse collection. Almost certainly the sorry tale of my trip to Binche.

What was your best Christmas present? What family ritual did you particularly relish over the holiday season? Amuse me, please, there will be no internet in my Turkish cave.