Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Help mee

The clip called "man met rat" here (click on that title to the right of the screen), is two minutes of the most universal 'male tries to placate moody pregnant/roosting female' scenario imaginable. How I laughed. Please watch it. 1m52 of realising that owls are JUST LIKE US (with a bit more dismemberment).

Male arrives, proudly, brandishing limp offering.

"I brought you a rat!"

Silence. Passive aggressive feather grooming.

"Look, it's really fresh"

"I don't want a fucking rat"

"Come on, it'll do you good. You know you love rats".

"Oh my god. It's like you don't know me at all".

"Shall I just put it down over here for when you feel like it?"


Male dangles rat enticingly in front of female's averted beak, and wheedles. "Mmmmmm, rat".

"UGH. Can you take that thing out of here? The smell is making me sick".

Male, deflated, sort of hangs around, goes out of the room, comes back in, hangs around again, uncertainly.  Female continues silent passive aggressive feather grooming.

"Are you sure? Come on"


"FINE. You can be a right mardy cow you know".

Male flies away, with rat.

I'd like to imagine there's a coda to this clip several hours later, where the female turns to the male and says, in all innocence "is there any of that rat left?"

Yes, we have entered this phase of the year:

Help meeeeee.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Stuff you could have learnt more succinctly from Twitter

1. My children have been fighting pretty much solidly since I said how lovely they were. Inevitable. Serves me right. Actual punches were thrown over the weekend (unusual, they tend to confine themselves to psychological torture) and electronics were confiscated. Deprived of all stimulus, I forced them both to watch the Crufts final with me instead on Sunday night. The finalists were disappointingly normal, though there was thankfully one dog that looked like a very slinky pull along hoover with Yoda ears. They are my favourites.

2. There was a brief, tantalising appearance from SPRING last week, which was both wonderful and unnerving. Did you have that? We sat out in the garden with ice cream from our local ice cream shop, Penis (well, Zizi, but that is what it means and I am easily amused). F muttered unhappily and slunk along in the shade of the wall because he has decided he cannot stand sunlight. The windows were shown up in all their smeary horror, as was the general squalor of the rest of the house and the decrepit state of my person. I went out to a party (worthy of mention because obviously THIS NEVER HAPPENS) squidged into my poor-woman's-Roland-Mouret-style-dress with bare legs smeared with some l'Oreal version of gravy browning. The hairdresser updated his distressing window display:

Five brave crocuses appeared in the garden. The birdcam returned, condemning me to zero productivity for 2 months (I felt quite emotional seeing Mrs Oehoe the eagle owl back for the third year, like she is in some very small way "my" owl. No sign of Ted and Sylvia slechtvalk yet, the emotionally delinquent, neglectful peregrine falcons who live in an unadorned windswept box of pebbles, a sort of bird Wuthering Heights). Children played in the Parc du Caca (unwise), cats sunned themselves on the pavement, and a wind of optimism blew briefly through Uccle. Now it is -1°C and there is obnoxious tiny snow and a sort of howling wind type thing which is definitely not the wind of optimism. I no longer know what to think.

3. This does mean, however, I can solidly turn my attention to this:

Yet another sadistic innovation from Milka, inventors of the Daim mini egg, and winner of the Belgian Waffle award for "Company Most Likely to Ensure I Never Wear A Swimsuit Again". I hope you have noticed I have matched my nail varnish to my chocolate, like a boss. I am not sponsored by Milka, but really, Milka, surely we could work something out? I am totally on brand. Call me. Have varnish, have no shame, will eat chocolate for money. Indeed, might even dress as a purple cow for money (I have done worse).

They have been advertising this new work of satanic genius on billboards near the house for several weeks and on Thursday the weight of purple persuasion was too much for my weak, suggestible spirit and I went and bought some. I am not made of stone, ok?

Look, it is DOUBLE SIDED. A TUC on each side. Salty, crunchy, pure evil.

Presumably I do not need to tell you that it is absolutely delicious. It is the work of Beelzebub and it was placed on this earth to destroy me utterly. I have bought five of them and placed them in a high cupboard out of the children's reach.

4. In distasteful self-promotion corner, I am in Red this month wondering whether I had my kids too young. I even got a cover line ("one mother's reality check", it says, hahahaha), which is a first. It features a very nice picture of me and said children (you cannot see my face at all really, which is why I think it is very nice) taken by a really excellent Belgian photographer I met before Christmas. If you are in the Brussels or Antwerp area, he does portrait sessions a couple of times a month and they are astonishingly cheap and brilliant. We did the picture for a Christmas present for family and very good it was too though he had to tell me to stop making faces quite sternly at least 4 times.

5. Oh. Also, I need your help. After my failure to organise F's birthday party, and the shaming realisation that all forms of child entertainment are now booked up until mid-May, we are condemned to having the party HERE. In the HOUSE. The thing I swore I would never do again, when that disturbed boy with the thousand yard stare dropped a tortoise on the floor back in 2008. Nevertheless, here we are. Do you have any ideas how we can occupy a small group of nine year olds festively? I am thinking perhaps treasure hunt in the Parc du Caca if the weather is good, but what if it isn't? And what else can we do, because that's plainly not going to be enough to keep them from finding my Milka stash? Brrrrrr. HELP.

(I want this in my party bag)

Friday, 8 March 2013

Next week will be all lipstick and biscuits, I swear

I was about to write "I decided to do something about one small aspect of my incredible crapness", but then I realised it was a lie, because I was in fact coaxed, chivvied and lovingly FORCED to do something about it. That is what people who love you do, I suppose: put you in a position where they take away all your feeble excuses and if you want to entrench yourself in continued crapness, they're going to make damn sure you have to make yourself look absolutely ridiculous doing so. I took the line of least resistance and faced my fear.

My fear was: riding horses. Three years ago I had a bad accident and until last July, I had not got back on a horse. Famously, of course, this is A Bad Thing. Getting straight back on the horse is the traditional preventative remedy against developing that kind of fear, but there weren't - aren't - many horses in my daily life waiting to act as a convenient balm to my psyche.

You may think that I have more debilitating fears, failings and character faults and you would be absolutely right. This was not, in itself, hugely problematic in my daily life. I would have been better advised to conquer my inability to look at my finances straight on, or my phobia of the telephone, or my general doormattishness (I bet that's a word in German, even if it isn't in English, füssarbtretereschischkeit, perhaps). I mean, one can go about one's daily life very satisfactorily without encountering a horse, I have it on good authority. But the thing is, I wanted to encounter horses: I love horses, and loving them was part of who I was. My fear wasn't the horses themselves, it was more a (doubtless belated) realisation how dangerous riding could be, the fear that I would make a catastrophic mistake, or something would go wrong.

More problematic than that, was the way that fear, that lack of confidence in my own judgment and ability, leached into the rest of my life. I've said it before, but I feel like my prevailing emotion for the last few years has been fear, and it's a sterile and grey and uncomfortable way to live. Goodness knows, there were many and far more important causes of that than the accident - it has felt like a period when I simply can't do anything right, work, personal life, the lot - but the accident seemed symptomatic of what I had come to believe about myself: that I couldn't be trusted, that my instincts, my judgment, were all messed up.

I really didn't want to go on like this, and in a small way, this seemed like something I could address, when the big fears were too shapeless and vast. And I missed it: not in a desperate daily way, but with an occasional sadness that it wasn't part of my life any more. I was one of those pony girls growing up, my walls covered in posters of horses, my wardrobe lined with hay for my toy horses (I wish this wasn't true, but it is), my grooming kit carefully maintained and carried with nonchalant concealed pride, Pony Club tie, hairnet, subscription to Pony magazine. I grew up and away from it, not through any falling off of interest, but for a lack of opportunity (horses do not line the streets of Soho, though once a week or so, early in the morning, the Royal Cavalry would clatter past, brilliantly incongruous, in the direction of the BT tower and Regent's Park). I missed having horses in my life, the comfort of the smell of horse sweat, velvety soft whiskery muzzles, a big strong shoulder to rest your head against, all those things that I fell in love with so completely as a child.

Perhaps what I missed most, though, was the person I used to be back then. I wonder if that's what motivates so many of us to go back to, or think wistfully of, the things we did when we were younger, what moves the friends I have who have gone back to dancing, or sport, or playing an instrument. Wouldn't we all want to be effortless, fearless, certain again? Perhaps, probably, the memory is flawed, softened and warmed by nostalgia, but in my mind at least I was fearless - sometimes concussed, often thrown, straight back on and galloping on. I know I can never get back the cast-iron confidence, the idiot, cross-country jumping sense of invincibility I had at 18, that unshakeable belief that I'd be just fine - we all seem to get more frightened with age, as we see and experience human vulnerability, the devastating impact of blind bad luck on fragile flesh and bone - but I wanted to see if I could find at least a pale shadow of it again, a sliver of self-confidence.

So, chivvied and poked, as I say, I have gone back.

First, in the summer, I went for a very slow ride around the Ardennes on a sweet, slow Camargue horse, feeling what it was like to be in the saddle again, patting a warm neck.  Then, confidence slightly increased, I went back in the Ile de Ré this summer. I was quite scared: I talked a good ride, told them all the experience I had and didn't mention the accident, and then I had to grit my teeth and not show myself up. There was galloping along the beach, and cantering around the rough, wild dunes and in the forest and my heart was in my mouth most of the way and when I got off, my legs were jelly, but it was ok. Then I went back to the Ardennes in the autumn, a bit blasé by this point and expecting to be fine,  but my horse got very spooked by something in a bush and I was terrified again, that blank, primal terror. I didn't say or do anything though, because there were other people and I was embarrassed, so on we went, and there was more galloping in the forest and it was all alright in the end. It was definitely progress of sorts, but I was a bit of a wreck: it always felt like catastrophe was inches away.

And now I'm back, going once or twice a week to a new stables, for lessons. It hasn't been easy. The experience is a perfect storm of things that frighten me: driving to strange places (atually, let's be honest, driving anywhere), meeting strange people, situations with lots of rules I don't know and which are not clearly explained leading to the unbearable possibility that I might inadvertently DO SOMETHING WRONG, God forbid, plus the horse thing. God, I sound pathetic. I am pathetic. Anyway. I have soldiered on with these frightening to me if not remotely frightening to sane people activities and it is strange and absorbing, and ocasionally really joyful.

I think those outings previously had a sort of inherent drama - I was out in wild, unfamiliar environments with an unfamiliar horse, would it end in disaster? - whilst a regular lesson is quite mundane, really. After the first time, the strangeness, the social anxiety, it becomes quite ordinary. It is a lesson, where you do things repeatedly in the hope of improving the way you do them, small adjustments in your hands, your ankles, exercises, repetition. Having things to work on, techniques to perfect is both soothing and normalising: I want to improve, get my ankles lower, my back stronger, I'm not thinking about disaster when I do that. I've been anxious about getting things wrong and looking like an idiot. I've been ashamed at how out of shape I am, shocked at how much I've forgotten and how difficult things that used to be instinctive have become. Occasionally I have been tired and frustrated and despaired of ever making my body do what I need it to, but I haven't been scared, mainly. It's quite instructive to feel myself forgetting that reflexive, immediate fear gradually, my fist unclenching slowly, my breathing becoming more regular. The fear dissipates as I get absorbed in the rhythms of practice, the concentration, the subtle adjustments. I find myself wondering how I could apply that to the rest of my life. It's not the 'look no hands' wild confidence of childhood, but it's good.

What I really love best, though, is the absolute simple animal joy of being around the horses. I love the dark quiet spaces in the stables, the rustle and the scent of straw and hay, the horses warm under their rugs with velvety soft winter coats, the shockingly cold water. I love running a soft brush along a warm shoulder and watching the clouds of warm breath rise and I love getting nudged preemptorily in the back, and used as a scratching post. If anything can keep me going through the wobbles and discouragements and peaks of anxiety, it's that. So thank you to the horses.

To Sonia:

To Diego:

To Kheops:

And especially to Noblesse, my spirit animal, threadbare and neurotic, but still lovely to me.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Dream at the End of Uccle

Prog Rock and I had one of our intermittent text exchanges recently in which I asked him to go and look for a book of mine I was desperate to reread and he confessed cheerfully to having taken it to the Oxfam Shop (Prog Rock is basically working towards the point where his only possessions will be a giant sack of lentils, Madhur Jaffrey's Eastern Vegetarian Cookery and a library card), so I retaliated by forcing him to send me some Cream of Tartar. I love our correspondence, no one else in my whole extended family is saintly enough to do my arbitrary and imperious bidding. We had another good exchange recently where I tried to get him to remember the title of a children's book we used to have when the only information I was able to convey about it was:

(i) the phrase "the light classics" (ii) possible mention of Rimsky-Korsakov? (iii) tentative appearance of  a tiger (might be elephant).

He has not yet worked out what it was, but I still have hope.

Anyway. I have my cream of tartar (what is that anyway and why do so many scone recipes demand it?  More on this gripping topic as we have it) but I did not have my book. I had been reminded of it by a discussion with Mrs Trefusis about the feasibility of running away to Morocco ('running away' is a recurring theme in discussion with many of my friends, particularly the ones that have children or an uneasy relationship with HMRC), and replied to one of her messages with 'we could be like Paul and Jane Bowles and live on gin fizz and maintain a complex network of lovers', remembering precisely this book.

The book - The Dream at the End of the World - is a sort of dark, salacious romp through the lives of the renegades and exiles that congregated around Paul and Jane Bowles in Tangier in the 1940-60s. It is an extraordinary tangle of art and debauchery, an inordinate number of gin fizzes, doomed affairs and the odd exotic pet. I first read it when I was about sixteen and it had a deep, lasting - and I suspect very unhelpful - effect on me. I honestly thought that adult life would be like that: a convenient bequest from an aunt, a life of travel and literature and sex, pet parrots and spiking Robert Rauschenberg and Christopher Isherwood's food with a potent form of cannabis called majoun (ok, maybe not that).

I could not rest until I had it in my sweaty grasp again, so I ordered a copy from some obscure source for approximately three quid (it's out of print, which is a crime) and NOW IT HAS ARRIVED. I have been immersed in it every since.

On rereading it, I find I am repeatedly struck by the difference between my own life and that of the 'Tangerinos'. I know they mainly ended up alone and mad and broken, but they had a wild old time before they did, and my god, no one could say they didn't live. Does anyone still live like that? I like the idea of it, but I am plainly constitutionally unsuited to that kind of abandon. I would have spent the whole time wondering how I was going to get home safely and worrying where my passport was and probably suffering from excruciating prickly heat.

This week, whilst I have been scrabbling around anxiously in a dusty box file from 1994 for information to complete a form for HMRC, Paul Bowles was getting into trouble with the natives in the Sahara for bringing his pet Amazonian parrot Barbarhio to the tiny desert hotels where he is finishing The Sheltering Sky. While I was reviewing 610 European Court of Justice judgments in the heavy industry sector, Paul Bowles was forced to relinquish his lover to torch singer and actress Libby Holman after the two met during an avant-garde film shoot in Libby's Greenwich mansion swimming pool (the liaison that later ended with Libby suggesting a suicide pact, Ahmed cutting up every piece of clothing she had given him and throwing it into the bath and calling her a "camel"). While I was worrying about my chin blemishes, stomach fat, poor teeth, and having forgotten to buy washing powder, William Burroughs was prevailing on Paul to try his "orgone energy accumulator", a coffin like device that he has installed in the garden ("almost froze to death"). I'm not even picking out particularly good bits here, it's all like this.

Also, I greatly appreciated this excellent description from Alfred Chester of his behaviour at his leaving party on the way to Morocco:

"I learned today I did the following things... "bit Muriel's finger nearly to the bone, smacked Jay, bit Dennis' upper arm so hard he's been in pain since, smashed Walter's precious tea cups, then tried to jerk off Jerry, threw a Bloody Mary at D. then threw him on the floor and later tried three times to push him out the window.. put my hand on the cunt of a girl named Sally (and) squeezed lime juice in everyone's eyes .. After the party I went out and picked up a gorgeous Puerto Rican". 

Hmmm. I did, unusually, go to a party last night, but I had two small glasses of cava and took the metro home. I'm fairly sure I didn't bite anyone and there were definitely no gorgeous Puerto Ricans.

I really, really want to quote you whole pages of the bloody thing, it is so full of brilliance, but I will confine myself to this extract from Phyllis and Charles della Faille's road trip to Egypt to acquire more animals for their sordid menagerie, do enlarge, I entreat you, it is well worth it.

I don't know, it's not like I really want to be bitten on the nose by a desert fox, but it would nice if there were still people out there doing things this unapologetically lunatic. Are there? I do hope so.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013


My younger son, lover of Verdi, secrecy, biscuits and Mario 3D Land, child with long, pernickety fingers, turned 9 on Friday ("I share a birthday with Frédéric Chopin!" he told me, rather gravely. "And Justin Bieber" snickered his brother, cruelly. Both these facts are true) and we are now in the two month period during which my children's ages are only a year apart and I imagine uneasily that people will be viewing me as sexually incontinent and feckless. WOULD THAT I WERE.

I made a cake that looked like a ghost (and incidentally also quite like me by the end of this week) which I think was a slight improvement on last year's. Do you remember last year's really unfortunate cake that looked like a tapeworm or other dangerous intestinal parasite-slash-sex toy, with jelly snakes that looked a little like penises round the outside? I had managed to scrub it from my consciousness entirely but F reminded me yesterday, reminiscing about how 'chouette' it had been. My children are very forgiving, or very strange. Actually, both. This was the ghost:

I wouldn't have thought a birthday cake could be supposed to look quite so traumatised, but I followed the Australian Women's Weekly decorating instructions to the letter, so I suppose this must be the desired effect. It was quite dry and stodgy, though this was somewhat attenuated by it being composed of 87% buttercream. Not one of my better efforts, in summary. This was combined with: F having no idea what he wanted as a present and us entirely failing to organise a party, so it was a solid catalogue of parental fail. There were Old El Paso fajitas though, because some traditions are sacred and now my scant balding hairpiece smells of MSG, and I got really ratty making 30 fairy cakes for school, and every surface in the house is coated in edible glitter, so all is as it should be.

It feels like I ought to have some insight into being a parent by now after nearly eleven years ("nineteen years!" said their father in wonder as we wrapped F's Incredibly Boring Accountant's Watch. "Yes, but sentences served concurrently" I said waspishly, not meaning it at all), but I still find it bewildering, still get it wrong, still worry constantly. There they are, all big and mysterious and able to do things like have a bank account and do long division with decimal points in and ski down nauseatingly dangerous hillsides and even go over fecking SKI JUMPS (I am not given to worrying about their physical safety much, if at all, It's not one of my neuroses, but watching a video of the pair of them ski jumping did give me a little fizzing jolt of terror). The eldest regularly uses a hoover (is, indeed, far more proficient at this than me). The youngest can give you brusque instructions in Chinese "come in!" "eat carrot" "be quiet!". If I were to abandon them at the Porte de Hal metro station on Wednesday afternoon (I would not do this, although I am sometimes sorely tempted), they could find their own way home, I have tested them on the route, they'd be fine. Recently, the eldest has been taking the dog to the park with his mate Liam. They are revolted by picking up dog shit, but otherwise wholly, astonishingly competent. He can do so many things by himself now, it blows my mind.

What have I done in this time? What have I learnt? I'm still an idiot, a moron, scared of the telephone, still tying myself in psychic knots of my own making, financially incapable and earning less than I did at 21. I know the eldest still worries about me, I feel his big soft brown eyes upon me when something goes wrong, or I'm upset or anxious, and it feels like a failure: you should be able to feel cavalier around your parents, not give a thought to their inner lives and their worries, surely? They should be as solidly reliable as bricks and mortar. I think your vision of your parents' solidity fractures pretty conclusively when you have a baby (if it hasn't before) and the reckless fools at the hospital just let you take it home and you have no idea what on earth you're supposed to do. Then, haltingly, you try and reconstruct that illusion of solidity for this baby you're apparently in charge of, however implausible it seems. I haven't managed that with my eldest, or perhaps I did briefly, and then it fractured over all the times he saw me sad and desperate after mum died and things lurched off the rails. I hope we'll get there again, but I don't know. I think we're better; I'm better. Young pernickety fingers seems a bit more oblivious and that comforts me.

I tell you what I do seem to have learnt, though. You know how when you first have children and people tell you it will go so quickly and you're living through the golden, halcyon days of your life as a parent without even realising it? And you roll your eyes and jiggle your brick-faced angry, sticky toddler on your hip and wipe a little more sick off the neck of your jumper? At the moment, the one thing I feel I do get right is realising. Of course, now it's easier. They are more or less rational, continent, reasonable: I am no longer, basically, negotiating with terrorists with no impulse control. And even so, I'm not saying I don't get bored looking at their scrawly homework or listening to the bing bong beep of Mario and Luigi or refereeing their maddening circular arguments, or picking up their pants tangled inside their trousers thrown behind the rat cage. I'm not some kind of ludicrous Pollyanna, hardly that. Life isn't magical all the way through like a stick of rock. Life is much as it always is - humdrum and uneventful and sporadically filled with small anxieties and big existential dread and the looming fear that I will never make anything of myself, ever - but this bit of it, being with these boys in the most ordinary ways, seems tinted with an unexpected wash of pure joy.

It's just the ordinary stuff, really: try and pin it down and it sounds flat and predictable. The sharp-eyed, dark-hearted observations on teachers and kids and neighbours, the skinny arms snaking casually around my waist, the slightly self-conscious perching on my knee, the jokes, the nerdy obsessions, the exhortations to look at hideous extracts from the Grand Livre de l'Incroyable ("this man is selling advertising space on his chin goitre, maman!"), evenings slumped on the sofa watching boring Come Dine With Me reruns and YouTube clips. The weird momentary passions for food or music and the lasting one for things outlandish and scientific, the wild turns of energy and the soft, floppy stillness when they're tired. How could I not enjoy that? How could I not want to squeeze every drop out of being with them? They are good boys: brilliant, brave and kind and irreverent and thoughtful; everything you could conceivably wish for. I love the ages they are now, love their careful - not bloated, puffed up - pride in the things they do well, love how much affection and reassurance they still want and need however big and tough they are, love the balance of serious and very silly, grown up and babyish, hard and soft.

I don't think I ever expected to enjoy it this much, ever realised that having children could be such very excellent company. I'd say I want this part to stretch out indefinitely, but it's such a fucking adventure watching them get bigger, watching their brains expand and crackle with connections and cognitive leaps and new ideas, watching as they become more separate, have more and more complex lives away from me. I'm a bit awed at the things they can do that I can't: speak other languages, do sport, understand astronomy, pronounce 'rouille'. It's strangely thrilling watching them at the moment: it reminds me of the perhaps six month period when your toddler learns to speak - the incredible way that language, comprehension, communication, develops almost exponentially for a short while.

Of course, I know it won't last. This very process will take them far away from me alarmingly fast and things will become hard again and I will be extravagantly bad at it, and lose my temper and my bearings and we will have to find new ways to be together (and indeed, apart). But somehow, for the last couple of years, that very realisation that this time is finite has made it very very easy just to enjoy them, chin goitres and lost coats and mess and all. Perhaps that's the only thing I've learnt in nearly 11 years (19 served concurrently), and even if it is, I'm pretty OK with that, actually.