Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Wednesday Whatever

Everyone in this house is behaving oddly, as if the interminable, terrible rain has dissolved our last scraps of self-control and rationality. The dog is the worst of the bunch (though the dishwasher is a close second).

Things that currently make the dog lose his shit:

The words:
"Right", "Ready, steady, go", "One, two, three" or "Ok".
Either of the children's names, shouted up the stairs
Opening a cardboard box
Blowing down a cardboard tube
Raspberry noises
Board games
Card games
Bees
Flies
Anyone running
Anyone going into the cellar
Anyone lifting anyone else up
Hugs
Balloons

Fun, basically, in any form. He's the whippet Oliver Cromwell. LAY DOWN THE CARDBOARD TUBE OF VANITY AND REPENT YOUR SINS.


British
I am writing this while I watch possibly the most British programme ever. It is some kind of Springwatch (basically enthusiastic people in sludge coloured Goretex standing in a field trying to show you footage of small sludge coloured birds) spin off and a middle aged lady in a pink rugby shirt is describing the behaviour of three birds in the back garden of her 1930s semi. She has given them all names: Marge and Marvin the Magpies. Jeremy the jackdaw. Marge and Jeremy are engaging in some kind of unusual inter-species courtship behaviour. Marvin is displeased. Back in the makeshift studio (mugs of tea and exceptionally plain biscuits clearly just out of shot), a woman professor from Cambridge in wispy scarves and sensible shoes gives a tango demonstration with a colleague then talks about the insights her research on cognition in a colony of rooks give into the Marge/Jeremy situation. I am pretty sure this would not be considered televisual entertainment in any other culture but I am enjoying it enormously.

Cultural exchange

Speaking of cultural specificities, My friend F (who lives near New York) and I are discussing sending each other a shoebox parcel of highly specific treats as a mood enhancer.

F: I want Marigold bouillon powder.

E: Ok.

F: And any magical beauty creams you have left over.

E: Ok.

F: And a live owl. Smallish.

E: Fine. I'll pack it tight in a snug box. Would you like the Manneken Pis? Or a Breughel? We have some nice ones.

F: Oh yes. What do you want from America? Would you like some kind of restrictive immigration policy?

E/F simultaneously: HANDGUNS.

E: I hear good things of your "Shake Shack". Send me one of those.

F: Would you like some more sons?

E: God, NO. NO MORE SONS. I want tooth whitening strips for my horrible British teeth.

F: Anything else?

E: Optimism. Self-belief. Better teeth.

F: Empire. Arrogance. Obesity.

E: Nah, we can get obesity over here now. In specialist shops.

What would you send - in a box or otherwise - to a friend from your country on a cultural exchange?

Monday, 27 May 2013

Listing

I am having a disgustingly unproductive day and have mislaid a vital piece of paper. Don't tell anyone. Let's have a list as a sort of facsimile of efficiency.

1. Prog Rock




Prog Rock came for the weekend, bringing three Eastern European novels, a packet of dried crickets (salt and vinegar flavour), one of those impossible wooden puzzles in tiny pieces you have to assemble into a 3D shape, some Horrible Histories playing cards and an economy sized packet of dog shit bags, inherited from the sadly deceased Whiskers. We talked about:

- the origins and uses of distaffs in feudal Russia (my contribution: nil)

- Kandinsky's philosophy of painting (my contribution: nil)

- Richard Cobb's essays on Ixelles (nil)

- My sister (some contribution)

- Carl Rodgers and child-centred education (nope)

- Learning Polish (very limited)


The rest of the time he played chess with L (every two minutes I could hear him saying "You really don't want to do that, L", mildly) and a wide range of really stupid card games with all of us, took the dog for walks or sat in the corner reading Hard Books. It was LOVELY. I increasingly wish my family lived round the corner (well, sometimes), but they seem astonishingly and selfishly disinclined to move to the south Brussels suburbs.


2. Parental guidance

L walked into the kitchen on Saturday morning, dangling his library book. It was a French language biography of Dickens, a slightly eccentric choice, I feel. I had a look for curiosity and the very first page I read was this:



Let me translate approximatively for non French speakers (my emphasis).

"In any family aspiring to respectability, one needed to have a maid, whom one could go and collect from the orphanage. They did not cost anything. Mary Weller was thirteen. She must have missed her vocation as a midwife, because she was fascinated by labour and birth. She took Charles to visit young women who had just given birth, and even to visit a woman who had just had quadruplets. The babies, all dead, were displayed side by side on a clean sheet on top of a cupboard, and were reminiscent of pigs feet, laid out in a good butcher's".

I don't think I can really add anything to that.

3. Cowardly lit crit. 

I have just deleted a rude review of this book under point 3, because it seemed unnecessary. I think it's probably sufficient to say that it was very much not for me. Someone else read it, so I can discuss with them, please? Or have you read it so we can discuss?

4. Music, maestro

F continues to learn the violin, slowly and querulously. It was his idea in the first place, I often remind him huffily and he doesn't want to give up, but he certainly doesn't want to hear my helpful ideas on the desirability of regular practice, or where his fingers should go. He would very much rather I went and boiled my head. His glittering expression of hate makes this abundantly clear every time I encourage him to get the violin out. Anyway. Next Sunday he is scheduled to 'perform', along with other students of his violin teacher and his violin teacher's friends, at a .. well. Recital, I suppose. Very much a beginner's recital. The violin teacher presented it to me thus. "It is going to be in a Senior Home. There is a piano .. the room is nice .. there are maybe twenty seniors. It could be ok, or it could be weird. It's up to you". I got a feeling that he was emphasising the "WEIRD" option, but that might be my natural reticence. Worse, I am supposed to accompany F on the piano.

I am far, far, better at the piano in my head than I am in real life, which is a feeling I am familiar with from eg. riding horses. Or a bike. Or running. As long as I don't play the piano, I am still, in my head, the person who can play Chopin Preludes. When I sit down, I struggle to play a chord. Unless it is from one of the three Chopin preludes I still have the muscle memory to play. I am concerned I will mess up and let F down. Or that regardless of whether I mess up or not, he will blame me if anything goes wrong. Whatever. I am going to woman up and practise the ludicrously easily accompaniment until I can be trusted to perform stolidly through whatever combination of 'senior' activity and scree-scree-delicious-torture violin confusion ensues. It is my parental duty.

5. Help

Can you help me with one of two things? There is a choice, see.

(i) Suggest an easy family meal I can cook. I have asked this many times before, I suspect, but yet again, I am monstrously bored of my 'repertoire'. My children are not particularly difficult, except they don't eat cheese, the freaks. Peter, you are not allowed to answer this one unless you suggest something REALLY easy. Tonight it is the Old El Paso fajitas of despair. Heeeeelpp uuuuuusss.

(ii) Help me with something I am trying to write about family holidays. Have you tried to replicate your own family holidays as an adult, or have you been determined to do the polar opposite? Were you trailed around on city breaks, marched up hills, baked on a beach? Do you have warm, happy memories of family holidays as a child, or is it a grim, unhealed psychological wound (THE ISLE OF EIGG I AM LOOKING AT YOU)? Any assistance gratefully received. I am taking my children to Yorkshire this summer, to enjoy the horizontal rain blowing down the valley and taste the peaty despair, so you know where I stand on this. Somewhere wet and boggy.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Bruxellisation/Goop

The non-summer continues, trench foot is imminent and I grow fat on consolatory wine and indolence, though my skin is vastly improved for no clear reason. Perhaps I am at the stage where Catherine Deneuve says you have to choose between your face and your bum? If I could just look haggard, I would totally choose my body, but the scaly patches of dehydrated skin rather tip the balance. Also: greed. Especially that.

Speaking of things very tenuously beauty related, can I ask you if you would be so kind as to go and click here, which is Facegoop's new Secret Project, finally revealed. We are part of the new Guardian Fashion Bloggers network (ahhahhahaah. "Fashion". I am not really sure how we fit into this, really but when they were asking for applications I saw a throwaway reference to beauty and insisted we apply) and since it is a sort of profit share arrangement based on page views, the more clicks, the more fractions of pennies we accumulate, possibly adding up to enough for a KitKat after 6 months! I will put a sidebar link in when the network is really up and running and if you can ever find it within you to go and click, I will be very grateful indeed. I am a bit scared about the Guardian commenters, with whom we are encouraged to engage, but they can't be as terrifying as the rabid defenders of Lush, who still come and shout at us, years after we posted about how much we loathe it.

The News from Belgium

A moderately entertaining grudge match is currently playing out between foreign journalists resident in Brussels, several of whom have written disgruntled articles about how disgusting the city is, and the Belgian media whose response has spanned the spectrum from "well, yeah, you have us bang to rights" to "if you don't like it, fuck off home". Libé correspondent Jean Quatremer's piece which started this whole thing off again (it was already rumbling a year ago) is actually quite an interesting analysis of the structural and institutional origins of Brussels looking a bit shit and also on the catastrophic urban planning disasters of the period of 'bruxellisation', 1950-1970. Lots of papers have challenged some of his factual propositions, whilst more entertainingly, La Dernière Heure set out to prove that Paris was equally chaotic, with a "Paris Pourri" dossier and an editorial concluding "casse toi, petit con" (piss off, you little shit, approximatively), which was measured of them.

My own high powered contribution to this debate came in a prestigious (hem hem) interview with the local paper where I flatly refused to be drawn into criticising Brussels. What don't I like about the city? Nothing. It is perfection. It's sens d'humour, its autodérision, its gourmandise, the life-affirming gaiety of its chaos. The ice creams of Chez Zizi and the Librairie Candide. Je suis fan. "Son nom ne vous dit peut-être rien" starts the article, flatteringly (you may not have heard of her). YOU MIGHT. (You won't).


I have just noticed that this also mispelled my name. "Son nom ne vous dit peut-être rien" indeed.

On the substance of the debate, I give you these striking images of one of the city's main shopping axes today:


Nice, nice. As we walked along a man stubbed his toe very painfully against a rogue length of hardboard and had to hop the next 100 metres of, well, wasteland, cursing. Would this happen in a more litigious culture? I suspect not.



F is posing quite inadvertently in the manner of 'angry people in local newspapers', though he should have his arms folded, really.

This is the fourth week of works, I think. There is little sign of any progress.

Better still, this GIGANTIC CRATER which has opened up outside the royal palace, right in the tourist heart of the city, with a policeman in a reflective tabard apparently taking a picture of it on his phone. How could I not love this city? Clearly I have been Bruxellised.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Echo

Did you read the wonderful Irretrievably Broken on her grandmother? It's a brilliant, raw piece of writing and I commend it to you, even though it will leave you limp and drained. Persephone has been writing exceptionally beautifully about the death of her father too recently (that one I linked to is extraordinary. I went back and read it and it floored me again). And talking to IB, I was sent back, in search of anything that captured those feelings, to Matthew Parris on his father's death: on embracing the hard edged and durable nature of loss.

I love these kinds of writing, difficult as they are to read. There's a clarity, a sense of emotions pinned down and powerfully expressed. I read them greedily, greedy for insight or catharsis; because I wish I felt, or had felt, something, anything, that clear. It will be ten years this year since my mum died and I can't shake the sense that I did grief wrong, somehow: that I didn't really allow myself to feel anything. The abrupt, shocking finality of an accident - far away, in another country - is quite a different experience (not better or worse, just different) from an expected death of someone nearing the end of their life, or after illness, but I'm not sure that accounts for my reaction. That whole period - and I've been trying to write about it for this stupid cake project - feels grey and small and tired. You expect grief to be operatic, unbearable, an emotion equal to the love and the loss. Instead I was left with something pinched and suffocating, frightening feelings suppressed under layers of constantly-reapplied sponge cake (hence the cake theme) and the humdrum rhythms of looking after small children.

I was scared, I know: scared to think of her; scared to conceive of a world where this had happened, unsure of my ability to process those thoughts. My stepfather would try and talk about her, and I'd shy away, hide behind practicalities. I even went to a grief counsellor for a while and managed not to talk about any of the things that frightened me, filling the hours with tiny worries to distract her. Instead I had dreams: horrible, angry dreams where my mother was dying and things or people were stopping me from seeing her; dreams in which I'd shout and shout and from which I'd wake with every muscle clenched with a desperate, confusing fury.

Very occasionally, something would penetrate - usually music, once my stepmother's beautiful eulogy at her own mother's funeral a couple of years later - and I would cry "properly", real blinding floods so I'd have to pull over driving, sit down, surrender. They were a rare relief, compared to the stuttering half-strangled hiccups, the fatigue and the emptiness. Clearly it's pointless to fret about how you could have done bereavement "better": you do what you can with the version of yourself you have at your disposal at any given moment. People react differently, of course they do, and rationally, if I am still here and still functioning, I can't have done anything catastrophically 'wrong'. These feelings of unease aren't constant or paralysing, more an occasional background twitch; the dreams are far rarer.

But now I find myself in one of those strange, angsty periods where I'm constantly beset by Big Thoughts. I can't lie down to sleep, or go for a walk, or spend a quiet twenty minutes in the bath without the Big Thoughts creeping up on me. You know, the 'what is it all for' thoughts, the terrors for an imponderable future, the dread. The sense of time slipping away. The inevitability of more loss. Perhaps it's because of spending my days trying to dredge up the time just after my mother died out of my memory, perhaps it's just mid-life, I don't know. They're not big thoughts in the sense of being even remotely lucid or penetrating, I'm no Mary Midgley, there's no philosophical clarity, rather a grey fog of confusion, a sweaty-palmed panic.

I hate it, hate the big thoughts. Bleurgh. I don't want to think about death, thanks. I want to think tiny, comfortable, ordinary thoughts; thoughts as mundane and satisfying as tidying the kitchen cupboards. Lipstick. Sandwiches. Should I start drinking green tea? Are there any bagels left? Do I need to get that unsightly stain on my front teeth removed again? What new foundation will I buy? What kind of cake shall I make for L's party this weekend and will it rain? (please, no) (yes) Will I ever own a fat pony? Why is there an ant farm on the landing?

But perhaps the only way not to end up pinched and suffocated and grey is to actually look this stuff straight in the eye from time to time? And if that is the case, I actually feel very lucky and grateful we have the Internet to help us explore the Big Questions. Personal blogs, with their immediacy and their concern with the quotidian, are a good place to explore the day to day business of loss and grief and death as much as they are more joyful things.

I think, initially, I felt uneasy with my own motives for reading blogs about death and terminal illness - it felt voyeuristic, unnecessary - but ultimately I reasoned that if people were putting it out there, they were doing so in the hope and on the understanding that it would be read, and it wasn't disrespectful or prurient to do so. People seek out and want to know about the extremes and the universals of human experience in all kinds of art forms: fiction, film, the graphic arts. It's perhaps not surprising we seek it out online too, and I do think it helps. Sometimes there's that answering echo (Alexa talks about this very eloquently) - someone expressing a feeling you barely knew you had until you see it in someone else's words - sometimes it's just a way of getting a wider, deeper, more compassionate sense of the world and human experience. Sometimes you see how incredibly much more shitty things could be and you're chastened and thankful to your bones for your lot in life. As well as the wonderful Persephone and Irretrievably Broken, I have gained huge amounts from reading about other types of loss, raw, reflective, anticipateddistinct: they all have something universal, something to teach.

So this, I suppose is a thank you for everyone who allows it out there, who trusts in the compassion of distant digital strangers at their darkest times. It's appreciated, really it is.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Fête

This is just a tiny post because God, it's been ages and it is a terribly poor show. Speaking of poor shows, I recall I had promised you details of the school fête. It has now faded to a merciful blur, much in the manner of this photo, where the Manneken Pis appears to be micturating on the heads of the 5ème primaire as they reenact the Battle of Waterloo.


Mine is in the middle, in the red jacket. I was VERY PROUD of that all-expense-spared outfit until I saw Napoleon's lieutenant who was wholly superior in every way. Next to Wellington, in yellow, stands the Lion of Waterloo holding an inflatable beachball, which I believe represents the world, thus:



Also visible: To the far left, Lucky Luke, the cartoon cowboy and half of one Smurf. To the right, possibly Charlemagne. Or, hmm. Maybe Charles V? I forget. There were several tepid plastic beakers of white wine in the Siberian schoolyard, where we huddled together for warmth, like penguins. It was late. It all got a bit fuzzy. Shortly after this photo was taken, the whole cast started dancing to ABBA's Waterloo, as one might hope. As we left, the class above was just starting a hearty rendition of "chef, une petite bière on a soif" which is the essential accompaniment to all such festivities (click that link at your peril. Actually, no, go and watch it. It, and its intepreter "Le Grand Jojo" - who is, I learn to my astonishment,  not merely still alive but going strong and signed to Universal - are an essential facet of your Belgian cultural education. Yes you do need one. It's pub quiz dynamite).

I do not have any better photographs, which is probably a good thing. I do not have any pictures at all of F and his class performing their extensive Jacques Brel medley. He told us very confidently that he would be on the left hand side of the stage, and then was on the far right and barely visible to the naked eye. If you craned your neck in front of twenty seven camcorders and squinted you could occasionally see him Very Clearly Enunciating in the back row (it's the opera training, darling). It was very moving nevertheless.

I also (i) did not contribute any baked goods; (ii) avoided any unseemly fights over the duck fishing stall by not volunteering my services; and (iii) won a small wooden spinning top in the raffle, which is better than the free with purchase purple fluffy Milka slippers of two years ago. I also managed to sneak away for a considerable part of the middle of the day, so I consider this a highly satisfactory fête experience.

In other news I have:

- interrupted a pickpocket in flagrante delicto with his actual hand in my actual pocket ("What was he after?" asked M, cruelly. "Dog poo bags? Lint? Twigs?")! Today! I greeted this with British embarrassment and a slightly huffy stare, which has totally taught him.

- tolerated about 73 Belgian bank holidays. There are more to come. Pray for my mortal soul, with especial mention for a dispensation from ever playing Battleships again, please.

- Made a fairly sub-standard cake for my enormous child's 11th birthday:


(High quality photobombing there from the other one)

He actually asked for a watermelon but I just .. couldn't. Too much going on, not enough red and green colouring. I'm not proud. 

- Visited the Scary Bat Caves on one of the innumerable bank holidays and stroked a bat's claw and a lemur's tail.

- Also at Scary Bat Caves (truly, they contain multitudes), acquired a kit to crochet a tortoise without acquiring any of the skills necessary to crochet a tortoise.

- became unreasonably angered with the poor crochet instructions:



Which I believe to be Google Translated from Korean.


"That" opined someone "Is the most complicated way of describing a slipknot I have ever seen" and I can only concur.

My own commentary ran something like:

"No YOU knit a little turtle! And what on earth do you think a 'patrol under the sea' is anyway? WHO PATROLS UNDER THE SEA? LOBSTERS. THAT IS WHO, NOT TURTLES"

"'To the proper length make the stitch line to be a chain?' YOU ARE ON CRACK".

"IT WILL NOT STAY ON THE HOOK WHY IS THE HOOK SO SLIPPY"

All the while accompanied with angry flailing at green wool. It was a bad scene.  Can you crochet? How do you ever move on from "making some knot things in a line" to "attaching the knots to each other to form a shape"? Can you explain it without recourse to Google Translate? I am all ears. Ears and cheap wool and the rage of total ignorance.

There is doubtless more to be discussed, but it is late and I am going to bed with the dread strains of "Chef une petite bière" chasing the last dribbles of sentience out of my brain.

Monday, 6 May 2013

On outside and childhood and freedom

It's beautiful out, the air heavy and honeyed with lilac and cherry blossom, catching in my throat and making my nose itch, filling me with skittish energy. There are insistently trilling blackbirds and  and strange cats lying in improbable, random places as if carelessly dropped there, fat puddles of dusty fur and indifference. As the sun fades and the sky turns a lazy pink at this time in the evening, drifts of charcoal smoke billow over the wall from the neighbour's barbecue. The first bluebottle of the season has found its way into the house and is bumping, manically against the window, over and over again, about half an inch from the opening that would allow it to escape. It's that time of year when you remember what it feels like to lie face down in grass that still has a ghost of winter damp and a smell of damp earth about it, when you roll up an experimental trouser leg, revealing the vulnerable greyish hospital pallor within. It is, definitively, a time to be outside, now, quickly, while the brief glorious flash of warmth lasts. For all we know, this might be it: summer. It's happened before. I've lit a fire in July some years.


I've been thinking about outside a lot since reading this article over the weekend. It's about allowing your children more freedom, allowing them "unstructured play in nature". You know the kind of thing: letting them loose to climb trees, run and jump, make fires and cook on them, live their own lives and roam free, like the Famous Five or Swallows and Amazons. This makes children happy, runs the author's argument; it makes them competent, and responsible. This is the way of the tribal and indigenous societies she has observed and approves and moreover, it ticks all our nostalgic buttons. It sounds right: it sounds beautiful and natural, and Rousseau-ian. It's also sounds completely impossible.


That's not a criticism of the piece: the author doesn't suggest any of this is particularly achievable for those of us who don't live in remote tribal societies and since it was an excerpt from a book, I don't really know where the rest of her argument, or lament, goes (this suggests it doesn't go anywhere very coherent). Even so, it's an interesting idea, and a nice ideal. Rather, I suppose, I want someone to tell me how it's achievable, and what's ok when you live in a city in 2013 rather than in a close-knit nomadic community in Paraguay. When is it ok for your kid to go to the park round the corner and poke some bushes with sticks? To the shops? Where is he even going to find a place to set a fire without getting arrested?


We're lucky, really. We live in a city, but it's a diminutive one, and our corner of it is more provincial town than scary 21st century capital. There's the tiny park in the next street, the grotty kind of place where teenagers sit around on climbing frames in the evening smoking and and half-heartedly kicking balls as disapproving grandmothers walk their daschunds. It's a place where you see the same faces every day, where my children have mates who live a few doors down who come and knock on the door and ask to play.  It feels dozy and provincial, familiar to me: it's a fair match, actually, for the kind of place I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. I lived in the Groves, in York, which sounds rather posh and is now, but wasn't specially then, a network of streets of small terraced brick houses punctuated by a warren of back alleys and lanes, a car park - largely deserted in the evenings - for riding your bike around, a square of open un-walled grass outside the old ladies home at the end of the street, three or four corner shops of varying levels of desirability, sweet and owner fierceness wise.


It's tempting to give your own childhood the sepia tint and Dvorak soundtrack of a Hovis advert and of course, that's nonsense, but it is true that I was allowed out to play, all the time, even though my mother was one of the most anxious people I've ever met. I marvel at this, sometimes: how I walked to school alone when I was 7, walked my rabbit on a lead (oh yes) to the old ladies home to nibble the dandelions at 8, played out and roamed the streets at ten, me and Alice Gladwin buying Cowan's Highland Toffee and trying to poison the neighbours with Baby Bio plant food that we left on their doorstep in shampoo bottles, alluringly labelled "Delishus drink". The streets were, in a tiny way, ours.  I wonder how attitudes shifted so hard and fast, that what was completely normal even for my dreadfully anxious mother, seems unthinkable to me. Wasn't she scared? A kid was killed in a hit and run in our street when I was growing up. It was Yorkshire in the 1980s, in the long shadow of the Ripper. Why wasn't she terrified, and why am I?


I don't really have an answer. Flippantly, I said recently to someone that the chilling Public Information films we watched at school in the 1980s had a lot to answer for in the way they made the world seem a terrifying, violent, dangerous place. Nothing before or since scared me as much as those films, watched in terrified silence in the school library: the terrors that lurked in rivers, building sites, farms. For weeks after we watched one, my daily routine seemed fraught with imminent peril: crossing a road, innocently poking a bush, making toast: any of a hundred mundane daily activities might at any minute reduce me to a blood soaked shoe and a succession of minor chords. That's not it, of course it isn't, but I do wonder if the terrifying and ever-present narrative of 21st century news has had a similar, but far wider effect. We know that statistically, those unthinkably terrible crimes against children are no more common now than they were 30 years ago, but the stories are told so often, so widely and in such visceral detail that there's no escaping them. Your very worst nightmare, your coldest late night terror, is laid out in front of you: it happens.


I have tried, recently, to give my children a tiny bit more freedom. I didn't think it would be a struggle: I like watching them grow up. I don't (yet?) feel wistful or regretful or panicky as they get more independent; it seems like proof that they are fundamentally ok that they should seek to have more freedom, to do more ambitious things. I'm on the robuster end of the spectrum, I think: the youngest went away on an 8 day camp at Easter with his science club; they both spend several weeks a year with their cousins and their very relaxed grandparents, on a campsite, fairly loosely supervised: their grandfather cycles round to check on the gang of four of them every half hour. The little one is nine, and my eldest just turned eleven. Eleven is a proper age, an age at which you might quite reasonably start taking a bus on your own, I think. The boys walk the paltry couple of hundred yards to school alone (well, together, sullenly, a resentful few paces apart), and it seemed time for a little more. He's dreamy, my elder son, and easily distracted but surely, by analogy with those eight year old Inuits carving caribou with deadly sharp knives, a little more responsibility will sharpen his instincts, deepen his common sense? And since there are two of them, surely that's safer?


Last week I sent both of them down the street - probably three hundred yards, all told - to get an ice cream on their own. It's only a little bit further than their daily trip to school, it was bright daylight, they took the dog, they were to stay together, buy an ice cream, come home. It seemed like the logical, appropriate next step. I hadn't felt more than a mild frisson of anxiety, but when the doorbell rang a few minutes later and there was only my eldest son, I felt I hadn't been scared enough.

"Where's F?" I thought they were playing a joke on me, but the eldest's face froze.

"Isn't he here?"

I grabbed my keys and ran straight down the street, the eldest following, panicky.

"You were supposed to stay together!"

"But .. he wanted an ice cream from the first shop and I wanted one from the second and.. "

The three hundred yards felt sickeningly long, enough time for a thousand scenarios, a thousand anticipated regrets to play out in my head. By the time we reached the ice cream shop, the eldest, picking up on my panic, was crying. F wasn't at the ice cream shop counter. Another eternity as I scanned the quiet early evening street. "Where did you last see him?"

"Just here!"

I looked the other way and there he was, finally, strolling along the pavement to the second ice cream shop, cone in one hand, dog lead nonchalantly draped over the wrist of the other, untroubled, confident. The street was his; he was king of the road.

"There he is".

By some kind of tacit mutual accord, we didn't really tell F how scared I had been. I told him - both of them - quite strictly that they had been told to stay together, and that if they couldn't follow instructions, they couldn't do that kind of thing alone. That seemed enough: I didn't want to let them anywhere  near the horrible imaginings still vivid in my head. We walked home slowly together and I held the eldest's hand tightly. My heart gradually descended from my throat and I started to feel the burn in my chest from running the adrenalin had masked. We were all fine.


Is this how it's going to be, then, my children growing up? A succession of episodes of suppressed dread, irrational tiny terrors, anticipated catastrophes, worst case scenarios? I don't want my fear - fear I didn't even really think I had, particularly - to taint their growing up. I want to believe I can allow them the freedom and the fun and even the occasional fear that comes with getting independence. I want them to engage with the world without taking on some learned superstitious dread from me. But how do you really do that, whether you're the Yali of West Papua, or concerned of Uccle? Can you learn not to be afraid, or as seems more probable, can you only learnt to live with the fear?  I don't know. I guess that's the next challenge. I think I might need some Xanax.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Listful, listless

(Apparently, I learnt recently, lists are good for your SEO. I don't think this is the kind of list they had in mind)

I have been absent for a long time, a combination of:

1. Ongoing hospitality industry based farce. I cannot fully air my amusement/impending nervous breakdown about this workstream because it would not be Professional, suffice to say, copywriting continues to fill me with hysteria and I hold firm in my belief that 'nutritious' is not a good word to describe a boutique hotel.

2. Trip to London on semi-secret Facegoop business (how loathsome is this kind of coyness? All the loathsome. Soon, I can tell you all and you will doubtless think it is wholly tedious). It was GREAT to be in London, which was looking extremely fetching in a thrillingly grubby way, and to see other live humans (delightful ones!) I had not given birth to. Speaking of grubby, however, Professor Voffle, my father, had left an interesting life-form in his microwave for me to discover and slay. His house is notorious for never containing more than one shrivelled Spartan apple (complete with mummified earwig), four dried cranberries and a walnut (he does not even have soy sauce, I know because I tried desperately to find some), so this was a new and alarming departure. Never one to allow a good deed to go un-broadcasted, I texted him to let him know I had decontaminated his kitchen. "Possibly chicken stew, but probably best not to further explore origin" he texted back from La Fenice, where he was watching Don Giovanni, because he has a vastly more glamorous life than me. When we were staying at Chateau Tetanus over Easter, he casually mentioned whilst gloweringly suspiciously at The Voice that he had met Will.I.Am ("interesting chap"). He moves in august circles.

3. Resurgence of work in one ludicrous rush this Tuesday, after ten days of mainly thumb twiddling, alternating with panic and Eyeoreish sulking. I should really be used to this now and not don the weeds and commence the ululating of imminent doom when there is a slackening in workload, but rather go for long, thoughtful walks, and drink leisurely cups of coffee in congenial cafes and read proper books in which no one is murdered in an icky, but compelling way. Sadly, I am an idiot and committed to shortening my life in as many cortisol and adrenalin based ways as possible, so I don't. Fool. I will have earned the ulcer/heart attack when it comes, at least.

4. Extensive child wrangling, complicated by (i) public holiday on Wednesday; and (ii) L's 11th birthday, today. The children have not been particularly cooperative. Yesterday evening, for instance, after a long trying day at the adjective coalface, I was up to my elbows in Mary Berry's chocolate fudge icing (veritably the king of all the icings: 60g butter, 30g cocoa, melt together, stir in 3tbs milk, remove from heat and add 250g icing sugar, then apply whilst still warm TO YOUR FACE), when F came in to harangue me about his shopping/hardware needs.

"Can we buy a padlock now?"

"Not really, no"

"I really need one now"

"The shops are shut. I am making 36 cupcakes at you and your brother's urging. I see no padlock based emergencies. No".

"Can we go tomorrow?"

"F, why do you need a padlock?"

Lengthy pause. "Des utilisations variées".

"What kind of utilisations variées do you have in mind?"

"Variées"

"I see".

When he is not demanding hardware he is in the garden trying to set fire to things, as evidenced by that picture of the dog in the sidebar. It's a hobby of sorts, I suppose.

I left them to their own devices on Wednesday for about 40 minutes and when I was dragged from my bed, where I was stealthily describing things as "blissful" and "thoughtfully decorated", by sounds akin to some kind of Viking rampage, they were both soaking wet, F was crying and the dog was covered in pipecleaners. Borstal beckons.

When I emerge from this, remind me to tell you about the day of the school fête, which featured giant cardboard stovepipe hats, the lion of Waterloo dancing to ABBA whilst carrying a mystery beach ball, a brief cameo by Charlemagne, Asterix losing his moustache, much Jacques Brel and a brief and entertaining interlude at a science fair in the middle of nowhere. Tune in, er, sometime.