Thursday, 27 November 2008

In which the Phantom Pooper attempts suttee (or The Self-Immolating Collie)

Heck it’s cold here. I’ve been trying to work but every five minutes I have to get up and launch into a series of star jumps to get the circulation going again. Those of you with still-functioning memories might be suspicious at this point, muttering that ‘surely she has heating now?’ and indeed we do. Lovely, brand-new through-the-house heating and dead impressive radiators. However Adrian is being stern and unrelenting on the question of oil and, having seen the way the stuff is racing down the tank like juice being sucked out of a glass by a greedy child (or gin and tonic by its mother), I take his point.
My office has a hole where the wood burner will go. There is even a slab of slate waiting to be laid. Only problem, no money for said wood burner. So it’s back to the star jumps.

Now I know I have moaned a lot about The Phantom Pooper (17-year old collie, not ours, generally loathed but what can you do?) in the past but, bless her aged (and still revoltingly sound) heart, she is trying to help us stave off the chill. The other night I was lolling on the sofa (with a thick blanket wrapped, burka-like around me), watching back to back DVDs of Boston Legal. Adrian was sitting next to me engrossed in some arcane classical rendition on his iPod. The fire was burning pretty well (thanks to libations of candlewax) and the PP staggered over towards it. I assumed she was simply trying (like the rest of us) to keep warm so didn’t pay much attention. She then wobbled over the brick threshold into the inglenook itself. Weird dog, I thought, then simply figured she must be really cold. Attention strayed back to the television. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something large and black waving around – with a glowing tip. The stupid dog had obviously wafted her tail over the fire and it had caught light.
‘Oh puck!’ I said.
Adrian carried on blithely conducting. The PP carried on blithely waving her tail and the glow deepened.
‘OH PUCK!’ I yelled.
‘The dog’s on fire!’
‘What did you say?’
If you’re wondering why I didn’t jump up and attend it’s because, in the Bonkers House, certain duties are clearly delineated and the task of Stamping Out Sparks is one of Adrian’s. He does that man thing of spitting on his fingers and then picking up the smut or spark with his bare hands. Let’s be clear here it is the only macho thing he does and so he is inordinately proud of it – it would be emasculating and cruel to take it away from him.
Anyhow, the PP was waving her tail like an Olympic torch, seemingly totally unperturbed by the fact that she was, quite literally fanning the flames and possibly (hopefully?) facing self-immolation. Finally I managed to mime conflagration to Adrian (yes, I’m good at charades, if I say so myself) and he slowly swung his gaze to the fire.
Taking off his headphones he said, calmly:
‘What’s up? What’s that dog doing?’
‘Committing suttee,’ I said. ‘Or trying to.’
‘She’s on fire, for puck’s sake. DO something!’

I could see it in his eye – how tempting just to leave her to go up in a self-appointed pyre. No more endless poop scooping, no more being woken several times a night, no more sick to shovel off the kitchen floor. She would even keep the fire going a bit longer.
Then his basic animal-loving nature got the better of him (plus he probably figured out that burnt collie is probably a very unpleasant room fragrancer) and so he calmly got up and dowsed her tail in the ash bucket.
The smell of singed dog is, indeed, not to be recommended.

When I told Milla the story she laughed (as you might have guessed) and then pointed out that, had the PP really been committing suttee that would imply that Asbo Jack would have pushed off this mortal coil beforehand. I sighed and indulged in a blissful moment’s reverie about a life sans dogs. Then the barking started again.

Changing the subject abruptly (sorry, have to spit this out quickly before my fingers freeze into one solid chunk) I don’t attract a lot of blog bling (another Milla phrase gleefully stolen). So I was rather childishly chuffed when Hadriana bestowed the Superior Scribbler award on this unworthy blog (oh go on, boost my ego by taking exception to the unworthy bit). I now have to do my own bit of bestowing and so, in no particular order, these are a few blogs whose writers have a certain way with words….(there was a prescribed number but I can't remember and my fingers won't last long enough to go back and find out)....

Little Brown Dog – someone give this poor woman a break. Life’s grim but the writing is juicy.
Ladybirdworld – a superior wordsmith – a new find and already a favourite.
Milla – the inimitable - when the puck will someone give this woman a newspaper column?
ElizabethM – lyrical and just luscious prose and pictures.
Ernest de Cugnac (oh, I mean God of course) for the God Diaries. Sure God doesn’t need an award but this is just one of the cleverest, funniest things I’ve read so I’ll bestow it anyhow (he can always pass it onto Lucy).
Edward for Rotwatch – don’t think he’s a blog bling man either but you never know. I don’t really watch TV but this makes me laugh even when I haven’t a clue what he’s talking about.
Cowgirl – fabulous marriage of words and images…
KittyB – a neat turn of phrase, a way with words….and the damn woman is slim, gorgeous and can cook too (how I hate her!).

Oh, there are loads more but sorry, sorry, fingers about to drop off – time for another set of star jumps – or maybe I’ll get a fire going and get as close as I can to it (without setting my hair alight).

PS – apologies for all the brackets – they are becoming the new exclamation marks.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Jungle Barbie and empty coffee cups

I was sitting at a table in Café Nero, staring at the coffee cup opposite me. Two minutes before Adrian had been sitting behind it, gulping down his three shot cappuccino before racing off to catch his train. Strange, I thought, how he’s gone but there’s still steam rising from his cup. I became a little fixated with it, truth to tell, couldn’t take my eyes off it, wondering at which precise moment it would stop steaming. When he would really be gone. My thoughts turned morbid, as they are wont to do. What if this was all that was left of him? What if the train crashed or a suicide bomber hurtled into Old Street? Adrian, just a bit of steam.

I’ve always had a gothic turn of thought. When I was young – and I mean very young – I used to pore over Bosch paintings, fascinated by scenes of torture. Poor Barbie got it something rotten. While my friends primped and pampered their dolls, mine had to battle through jungles, getting her hair snagged out by the roots and her clothes ripped. I drew scars on her cheeks and hauled her through mud. I even poked pins in her on one occasion when she was being pursued by hostile natives. Barbie wasn’t remotely Lara Croft though – she didn’t kickbox her way out or blast three shades of hell out of everyone. She just submitted in a totally craven and rather pathetic fashion. She annoyed me so much that I decided her life in the jungle was really too exciting so I built her a croft in the remote Highlands (otherwise known as the rockery in our Sutton garden). She got a few scraps of tweed to wrap around her pneumatic breasts and a plastic horse for company. There she stayed, gazing mournfully out over the remains of the lavender, picking at her mascara, until she became green with mould. When each of her babies inevitably died, she hauled herself to their funerals and threw herself onto their graves with fits of sobbing, wiping dirt over her (already filthy) face. OK, so the babies were frogs (having managed to get them from spawn to four legs, they sort of gave up the effort – but this could have been something to do with my home-made bin-bag pond). Anyhow they died, in rapid succession and were buried, with elaborate ceremony and arcane ritual, in padded matchboxes to a backdrop of Barbie’s wailing, interspersed with the odd hacking cough (the poor creature probably had pneumonia).

Sorry, that was a long diversion but it is pertinent. I think my main problem is that I’m having a problem with the fact that – unless some medical miracle occurs – my life is more than half over. I’ve never been very good at the second half of things. Holidays are a case in point. I love the first week, all is promise, hope, excitement, new things to try, taste, smell. Then the halfway point is reached and the gloom settles in. Homeward stretch. I start thinking about the return. Have even been known to start packing. There seems no point in making huge plans, chatting to new people because, well, it’ll all be over soon. Same with everything really. I just sort of wilt after the halfway point, want it all over. Can’t be bothered.
Not a good attitude really when it’s one’s own life in question.

I know this is a common theme and I moan on about it far too much but I’m still feeling washed up. Finding it hard to summon the energy for anything really. Ye gods, I’m turning into bloody misery-guts Barbie.

Back in Café Nero, I suddenly realised I couldn’t bear to see the actual moment when the coffee stopped steaming so I jumped up, threw on my coat and hurtled out without a backwards glance in case seeing the moment of death could, by sympathetic magic, cause it. Is that a bit odd? Yes, thought so.
Still, I pulled myself together and went off into town. I haven’t been shopping, as in proper shopping in a town, for about half a year and I thought I’d lost the knack yet I managed to do all my chores in about forty minutes flat. Then, with two hours still on the parking meter, I thought I’d get my annual spot of total degradation over and done with. This is the moment when I decide I should Make An Effort and buy something shimmery or glittery for all the parties I will try to make excuses not to go to. Last year, you may recall, it was the Only Gay in the Village sequinned t-shirt. This year, I decided, it would be a dress. I know. Don’t laugh. I don’t actually have a dress (no, not one - seriously) so this was a challenge.

Why do we do it to ourselves? Maybe there are women who can sliver into something slinky and smile at themselves in the mirror but those women are not me. OK, so I was trying them on over jeans and pointy cowboy boots, with a white (ish) bra – but still. I looked like a home-made Christmas decoration, overstuffed and straining at the seams. Like Barbie I have out of proportion tits and very long legs. Unlike Barbie I go out at the waist rather than in. It’s not a good look. One dress flattened out my boobs into one enormous shelf – the size and shape of a Wii Fit. Another sort of caught them and tossed them out towards the mirror - two vast flashing white orbs intent on world domination. In the end, after half an hour of vehement self-loathing and self-pity, I settled for something vaguely shapeless with spaghetti straps (so it’ll be a large shawl or coat over that then – truly what’s the point?). It’s still too snug (despite being diaphanous) – so that’ll be a diet then (yes, another one).

Ah heck. Maybe I’ll just forget Christmas and go and hole up in a croft and feel sorry for myself there…watching the steam rise from an empty coffee cup.

Monday, 3 November 2008

White nights

I didn’t sleep last night. Instead I spent virtually the entire night tossing and turning. I also read my way through nearly the whole of Jodi Picault’s latest novel, a curiously uninvolving tale of ghosts and love, made deeply syrupy by huge gobbets of quite inappropriate magic realism.

Every so often my eyelids would droop and I’d gratefully turn off the light and turn over. Squash the pillow and snuggle down. Then turn the other way. No, it wasn’t going to work. On went the light again and back to the ghosts (who did very unghostly things like snogging and digging, poking red rose petals in people’s pockets and misdirecting phone calls). I have the strong suspicion that JP has read some Alice Hoffman and decided she could do with a bit of magic. Wrong, JP, wrong. Leave it to Alice, love.

Down drooped the eyelids, off went the light again. Turned over and…
‘Aaaaghhhhh!’ A shriek broke out next to me.
‘Aaaaghhhh!’ I shrieked in reply.
On went the light and James and I both sat bolt upright staring at one another in terror. At this point I have to explain that James has been sleeping in with me for the last fortnight because his arm has been in a cast (following the day when five boys went to play at one boy’s house and two ended up in casualty while another went home with a bloody nose.) What can you say? Shit happens.

‘It’s not right, you know,’ muttered Adrian (about being cast into the desolate wastes of the spare room, not about the War of C*** Cottage). ‘He’s nearly ten.’
But, to be honest, I’d rather have James (snores; grinds teeth; hogs bed but is reasonably small) than Adrian (snores loudly; thrashes; hogs bed; talks total utter nonsense and is unfeasibly large).

‘What are you doing, Mummy?’
‘I was reading.’
‘But it’s four in the morning.’
‘I know.’
‘Why are you reading when it’s so late?’
‘Because I can’t sleep.’
‘Poor you. Why?’

Why indeed? Is it because I’ve been well and truly credit-crunched? Is it because, for the first time in my life, I don’t have a zillion things to cram into a day? Is it because we have spent our way through an extraordinary amount of money renovating the house – and yet still have walls with huge holes in them, ceilings balancing on rotten rafters and something unspeakably nasty in the cellar? Could it be acute anxiety over a whole phalanx of friends going through hell right now? Or simply that I had one too many cups of coffee or one too many glasses of wine? Or both?

‘I dunno. Sometimes it just happens.’
‘Rotten luck. Can I read for a bit too?’
So we lie there, like an old married couple, me harumphing over JP, him reading The Ashes.
‘I’m tired now, Mum. Hope you get to sleep soon.’
So do I.
‘I will. Night, hon..’

I’ll fall asleep at 4.30am. I nearly always do. I know my insomnia like an old enemy – we go way back. I started not sleeping when I was pregnant with James and never really regained the knack of peaceful slumber. At its worst, I would go for weeks, and sometimes months, without more than two or three hours sleep a night. But for the last year or so, it’s been better and I’ve forgotten just how truly miserable it is when the hours tick by and the hopes of a reasonable next day to follow start to vanish.

I remember once staying at the Lowri Hotel in Manchester in readiness for a live TV interview the next morning. My alarm call was booked for 6.30am and I was tucked up in bed by 10pm. At 1am I remember thinking, ‘Well, it’s fine – five and a half hours would be OK.’ Ever the optimist, a couple of hours later, I was reasoning that I could get by with three hours. My magic witching hour of 4.30 came and went. When it was down to ‘Well, an hour would help,’ I knew I was clutching at straws.

Insomnia sucks the joy out of life. It wrecks your immune system, destroys your sense of humour and turns you into a paranoid, grumpy, spotty haggard old crone. So forgive me if I am not witty and sparkling and amusing today. I have missed blogging and felt that, if I didn’t write something, anything, I would lose the knack forever. What seems funny in the moment loses its lustre if you don’t catch it pretty darn quick and all the curious little incidents of the last month I had been squirreling in readiness of a blog or two have grown boring and tarnished.

So, a sorry little blog today. Will try harder next time.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Being Bohemian....

‘We’re Bohemians,’ said Adrian, swigging a glass of something to prove the point. ‘We don’t follow the rules of normal society.’ He crinkled his nose and waved his hand airily in a dismissive fashion as if the mere thought of doing things properly, decently or cleanly was simply too appalling to contemplate. Being Bohemian is shorthand in this house for any poor behaviour – drinking too much; squandering money on duck when we should be eating haslet; wearing uncoordinated clothes with bits of croissant attached; not going to church; not having a regular salary (no, not even one between us); dropping clothes wherever you exit them rather than deigning to put them in the laundry basket (James and Adrian); wearing strange earrings and too much dark eye shadow (me, not Adrian or James).
We’ll haul out the Bohemian excuse book at the drop of a hat - for not joining in, joining up and for running wide-eyed and gibbering from any kind of communal responsibility or anything involving wearing ties and long dresses.

However, while that’s all well and good and I will avoid a committee like the proverbial plague, I find that I lose the laissez-faire attitude when it comes to entertaining. Adrian can’t give a toss. He’s of the school that people take you for what you are (yes, yes, Bohemians, we know) and are grateful for whatever you plonk in front of them, providing it is washed down by enough booze. I (silly fool that I am) happen to think that a house should be warm, welcoming and look vaguely presentable (ie not inch deep in dust with tables perched on joists rather than solid floorboards) and that food should be
a) plentiful (I still cringe at the time A tried to make a small chicken feed eight)
b) hot (he tends to the Greek habit of leaving things a hanging around until suitably tepid) and
c) decently presented (at least without dribbles of gravy over the edge of the plate).

So, I have made excuse after excuse (and I think bare joists - see left - and a Greek chorus of firemen builders are pretty good) but now the man is getting restless and dreaming of cassoulet. It sends tremors to the depths of my soul. Last time we did this it was following a dream of paella which in reality clanged onto plates like cannon balls and ended up with me phoning round the pubs to find Adrian and the other two men who duly returned so drunk that one of the women was decidedly chilly for nigh on a year afterwards.

‘You’re falling into the yummy mummy trap,’ he complained. ‘Keeping up with the school gate bollocks.’ Cruel and unfair. I have long accepted that I have not the faintest chance of looking trim in Boden and that my hair will never flick under neatly into a bob. I don’t do coffee mornings and I will never be invited to join the girls’ trip to Antigua. All my own fault of course as I rarely adorn the school gate and, when circumstances demand that I make the trip, I tend to arrive incredibly early and park in the perfect spot – clear sight-line to the exit gate but tucked away from general view. I slump down, nose in a book, until I see James at which point I shoot out of the car like a greyhound from the trap (the only time you’ll ever see me sprint), mobile clamped to ear to forestall any possibility of chit-chat, sunglasses rammed on to cut out the possibility of eye contact and smile broadly yet blankly in all directions while yanking him back to the car. All within two minutes flat. It’s not that I don’t like the parents. Far from it. But I really truly hate the minutiae of the school gate and the inevitable questions, particularly at the start of term.
‘Go anywhere nice on holiday?’
‘House finished yet?’
The answer to both is, of course, a bald no. The staycation didn’t work, but then you knew it wouldn’t. Adrian got a ton of work in and I got panicky about a book deadline so we did precisely nothing. Our proposed days on the beach or loitering around National Trust garden centres or even lolling in our own garden fizzled away due to the sheer miserable fact of Having No Summer.
So while everyone else was off swanning round the South of France or galloping over the Alps, we painted shelves as downtime inbetween researching unusual forms of divination and Hindu deities and their vehicles. The house is sort of progressing (for those who have asked) – we now have the following:

- a kitchen (stern, Teutonic, vaguely threatening) - see below - floor isn't really day-glo yellow by the way and yes, that's Asbo's basket with the offending duvet cover with the vicious buttons.
- a breakfast/dining room (rather lovely except for the scuzzy fish tank)

- the Oak Room (or, as we should more accurately call it, the dodgy Pine Room) which is looking pretty fabulous - see below but ignore colours which are all horribly wrong - I am SO not a good photographer.

We have scrummy oak floors (apart from in the Oak Room, natch) and radiators that look like industrial art installations and miles upon miles of bookshelves (but still piles upon piles of books awaiting a home). However what we don’t have is a boiler (or even the Rayburn now) and there are still one-inch gaps in the window frames so it’s ploody freezing.
At which point (after a long excursion elsewhere - apologies) I return to where we began and ask you – can you truly inflict Siberian cold on guests? I think not.
Given which, I reckon I've got at least another few months' grace before we can even t hink about dishing out invites - let alone cassoulet. However, naturally we will accept all invites to other homes (better insulated and floored) – after all, we do have a freeloading Bohemian reputation to keep up.

PS -apropos of nothing on this blog - reassure me, won't you - you have all heard of Joy Division? The band, I mean.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Trendy, green and smug

We’re on holiday. This is the week we had set aside for our ‘last-minute break’, smug in the certainty that the credit crunch would leave luscious cottages and villas ours for a snip and a song. The more I thought about it, the more my heart sank: dogs needing kennelling; builders needing elaborate instructions and wiring diagrams; SWCBM needing supplies. Not to mention the whole elaborate pre-holiday trauma. To whit:
1. Trawling in despair around the shops trying to find suitable clothing. I really don’t do summer. I have no natural affinity with cropped trousers (or, heaven forfend, shorts) and dinky tops. With breasts the size of melons (and we’re talking honeydew not Ogen) spaghetti strap dresses and suntops are out. Swimsuits are, frankly, an abomination – eyes water when I dare to brave a public swimming pool. No, it would be yet another amorphous kaftan (and a dark muttering that M&S are making their sizes even smaller this year).
2. The whole ridiculous beauty salon fiasco. The once-a-year cringe-inducing visit to see Emma or Shelley or Donna (they of the iron-straight bleach blonde tresses and uber-long nails). The ritual humiliation of that first appraising look during which you can almost see the pity mixed with sheer horror at the Sisyphean task ahead. The stripping of a year’s worth of cosy fur; the wholesale decimation of eyebrows; the emergence of eyelashes from invisibility; the gouging of cuticles.
3. The attempt at the fake tan. I am the archetypal Celt, pale, red-haired, freckled, genetically suited to lurking in murky bogs and wafting through shaded forests. I’m like a vampire when I hit the sun: heat rash, almost instant sunburn (despite liberal dosing of factor 50) and irritability on a superhuman scale. I have learned, by bitter experience and second-degree burns, that a natural suntan is not for me yet I still crave (pathetically) that sun-kissed copper shimmer. Hence the humiliation of streaked leg and orange face.
4. The packing. Having figured out what husband and child need; not to mention what the dogs need for kennels, I have lost the will by the time it comes to my own holiday wardrobe. Stuff is chucked in with barely a thought, to re-emerge at the other end unsuitable, unpressed and smacking of desperation.

Anyhow, this is all by the by. When we realised that neither of us had actually bothered to look for that last-minute bargain basement break, the solution was suddenly obvious and easy.
‘We’ll be trendy,’ said Adrian (not a phrase that trips naturally off his tongue). ‘We’ll have a staycation.’
So here we are. Instead of burning rubber on the M5 hurtling to throw ourselves onto a plane or lurching over the channel to face 12 hours of French motorways (and our particular pastime of counting the number of men having a pee by the side of the road), we are sitting at home. It is raining of course but do we care? Nope.
Our intention is not to work. We foresee carefree days in the garden, drinking wine and reading books. No matter that the deckchairs have mould and the garden furniture is sodden. We might toss a cricket ball around in a jolly way. We will, of course, have barbecues (in the shelter of the porch) and dutifully get our money’s worth from our National Trust membership by marching purposefully around some pile or other, exclaiming at needlepoint and admiring tree ferns. Hey, we might even get feckless and go to the beach (me cowering in the shade of a cliff). Our carbon footprint will barely indent the sand.
Then again, of course, the phone might ring and we might well find ourselves saying ‘2,000 words by tomorrow lunchtime? No problem.’ to some 20-something editor (as you do when you’re freelance and still have a huge chunk of Bonkers House to save from collapse). But then, given everyone now takes their Blackberries and laptops on holiday, what’s the difference? Except that we aren’t shelling out shedloads of cash for a grim gite and dodgy kaftans and I will avoid that particularly horrible sensation of growing-out bodily hair. Trendy, green and stress-free? I call that a result.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

On being feckless and child-free

James finished school on Friday for the summer holidays. Yup, that’s right – the start of two months stretch ahead of us (and again I wonder why it is that you pay huge fees for less school time than state schools – one of life’s mysteries). More for less, that’s a principle I wish I could apply to my working practice (and my whole life really).
Anyhow, the curious thing is that I haven’t seen him yet. Could he go home with a friend for the night? Well yes, sure. He has fun; we get a night to frolic around town. Freedom! Freedom without the cost of babysitter! Exclamation points surely allowed for this? We had early supper at Woods, bumped into some friends, got chatting, didn’t have to keep looking at our watches for the witching hour. Adrian sank a fair few pints and I sank, hmm, two decaf cappuccinos, one J2O, one mineral water and one ginger beer. God, I hate this not drinking lark.
Unused to being off the leash we trailed home reasonably early and watched American Gangster with a mug of Options hot chocolate (how sad is this?).

The next day was surreal. Vague memories of a life pre-child floated back. The actual reading of papers (rather than skimming the headlines and then putting them in the recycling pile – some days I even bypass the headline bit); the leisurely drinking of coffee; the silence (no PlayStation, no yelling, no thump of rugby ball against wall); the sheer unadultered luxury of a bath uninterrupted by ‘Where’s my (whatever)….’ and ‘I’m hungry’. Then the phone call. He was having a fabulous time and could he stay another night please? We looked at each other, shrugged and said, sure, why not. A whole weekend of feckless freedom. Bring it on. Arms punching air.

But the problem is we’ve forgotten how to relax. We’ve lost the gentle art of childless pottering. One morning was fine but the prospect of a whole other day sans child, sans Playstation, sans incessant ‘what can I do’itis? I went into panic mode. This was my chance to do all the things that normally can’t be done. Panic turned into headless chicken. The list reached such monumental proportions that it toppled over and fell to the floor in a heap.
I got some work done; we visited SWCBM; we cleaned; we tore down half the old kitchen; I washed piles of clothes; sorted out tons of stuff and freecycled a bunch and took another bunch to the charity shop. Then I decided to make an assault on the garden. So this morning there was I, in the sagging fruit cage, picking fruit in steampunk fashion, arms like pistons, fruit flying anarchically – half in the bucket, half out. My back aching, vicious gooseberry spikes stabbing my wrists. A young blackbird hurtled past me in terror and I suddenly wondered what on earth I was doing. How tragic is it that I can’t even pick fruit in a vaguely bucolic leisurely fashion? Instead it’s a manic race against time.
I really truly envy people who can lose themselves in the moment, wobble through life in a gentle manner, smell the roses, seize the day. But maybe I just have to accept that that is never going to be me. I’m always going to be spinning, arms flailing like a demented Indian deity.

Also, I realised that, while childless freedom is fabulous, I miss my boy. Hate having his room empty, find it unsettling that I leave my PC for half an hour and come back to find it still on the same page (rather than being greeted by wild flashing graphics and some new just-discovered game). As I type this, Adrian has gone to pick him up. Within half an hour we’ll be back to the usual mayhem. Have to say I’m pretty glad.

Midsummer Resolutions

I’m making resolutions. Yes, I know it’s not the New Year but that passed by in a blur of family trauma and I really didn’t have the inclination to do anything other than lurch through each day, clutching a bottle. Anyhow, New Year resolutions are a lousy cliché and also it’s a rotten dreary time of year to resolve to Do Better.
Midsummer (ho ho) is a different matter. As I write, the rain lashes down, the wind whips and, to be honest, it could be bloody New Year. Still, never mind. I have put Ray Lamontagne on the CD player (to remind myself that there is always someone more depressed than oneself) and stuck some neroli oil in the aromatherapy burner (to lighten the mood a little and to get rid of the overbearing smell of rancid dog). Now I am sitting at the kitchen table in our new (oh yes, oh yes!) breakfast room deciding on how to live out the rest of the year. So, I hereby resolve:

1. To follow my own advice. I am shamefaced to admit that while I can merrily dish out the wise words to all and sundry, to those who ask and those who don’t, I blithely ignore it myself. Therefore I will:
a) get my feng shui sorted. I know it sounds bonkers but I do believe in this stuff (the proof of the pudding and all that) and I haven’t lifted on finger towards sorting out my cutting chi and the money pit of the Loo of Doom.
b) start eating healthily. Yawn, yawn (the devil’s food is soooo good) but must be done. I am falling to bits and must get sorted. Last night I had a last hurrah of steak and chips and now it’s lentils all the way.
c) call in the experts. As soon as the money comes in (see point 6) I will get me to an osteopath/homeopath/nutritional therapist. I need to clean up my act and need some judicious prodding.

2. To have a makeover. Again, this is dependent on number 6 (as are most things) but as soon as humanly possible I’m going to get a haircut, a manicure, have my eyebrows shaped and my invisible eyelashes dyed. I’ve gone feral and need to remember that I once had self-respect and looked vaguely groomed (as opposed to a shaggy fat hairball). I will stop short of a wax as I don’t want the beauty therapist suing.

3. To blog more often. It really is therapy for me. However please note this does not mean I expect you to read and comment on every dollop of my verbosity (do you reckon one in seven is a reasonable expectation?).

4. To stop being honest. OK this flies in the face of my last post but it truly is the devil’s path. If I’ve learned anything this last year it’s that honesty, naming names and being blunt simply doesn’t pay. So, from now on I’m going to hide behind pseudonyms and trot out polite aphorisms and Not Stick My Neck Out.

5. To stop trying to be perfect. I have, at the last tally:
· a job (sort of – see point 6 again)
· a child (boy, 9, demanding and truculent)
· a husband (not rich, very messy)
· a Greek chorus of needy friends
· a house in the process of being dismantled and cobbled back together at huge expense and severe trauma
· two revolting dogs
· far too many goldfish (whatever possessed me to think that goldfish were easygoing happy little pets?)
· a garden full of triffids and ground elder
· a trail of divers builders, plumbers, electricians, decorators et al in constant need of urging, placating, praising, encouraging, decision-making and tea-providing

I do not have:
· a nanny, child-minder or cheery helpful relatives ready to pitch in
· a cleaner
· a personal assistant
· a never-ending supply of money

Ergo, I cannot be superwoman. You’d have thought I’d have realised it by now but I begin to think I am truly rather dim.

6. To make money. Somehow. I have £100 in the bank and a tax bill 30 times larger. I will rob Peter to pay Paul but it’ll mean we will run out of radiators by the time we get to the bedrooms unless I do something quick. I have been monstrously self-indulgent, wallowing in Poor Me syndrome and it has to stop. I have taken on a book project (nicely timed to tie in with the school holidays which have already started - how did that happen? so wrong - ) and shall actively pursue more work.

I was going to go on to 7,8, 9 and 10 but I think that’s enough to be going on with. Don’t you?

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Six things I must remember in life

Why this picture? Absolutely no idea whatsoever. It's somewhere on the M4.

This has been a week of achieving absolutely nothing whatsoever. I have sat in front of my computer clicking morosely on ‘send and receive all’ in hopes that an email might ping in that will change my life. So far this hasn’t happened but, in the interstices between this pointless total lack of activity, I have come to some realisations.

1. Lying is bad for your work. Yesterday an editor emailed to discuss a project. Could he have my phone number as it would be nice to chat. Er, well, I prevaricated, not really ideal given the horrendous banging noise from the floorboards being put down next door. ‘Oh,’ he replied. ‘You must have a huge floor. They were going down a couple of weeks ago, if I recall.’ My phone phobia is reaching ridiculous proportions.

2. Drinking like a fish has consequences. I relayed my long list of strange and surely deeply abnormal symptoms to the doctor (content in the knowledge that, having been reassured that there is nothing majorly wrong, they would all disappear and life would go on as normal). Stomach was prodded. Blood tests ensued. Stern looks were given. My liver, it seems, is not a happy liver. ‘Do you drink much?’ my GP asked (unlike the last one I haven’t socialised with her, so it was not the stupid question it might seem). ‘Noooo,’ said I, all wide-eyed innocence, then conceded. ‘Well, not compared to most people.’ Given that people round here drink so much that they regularly pass out it was hardly a reassuring statement. I’m being packed off for an ultrasound, more blood has been extracted and I’ve been told to lay off the booze.

3. Drinking like a fish has very serious consequences. A local hardened drinker was found in the river the other day. Dead. An awful, sad, and cautionary, tale. I am going to learn to love my liver. I will not drink. I will detox. This is hugely embarrassing of course as I have written not one, but two books on detoxing (see sidebar). My shame knows no bounds.

4. All beauty is transient. There I was, in a rare moment of peace, sitting on the bench looking at the sheer stunning gorgeous perfection of an iris (or some such – it was deepest indigo and filled my soul with joy at its mere existence, in our pond). This is it, thought I, a transcendent moment. Then a blur of white flashed past, a wave of smelly pond water hit me and within twenty seconds the iris was in tatters and the pond littered with debris. Asbo Jack – Grand Master of the Murder of Zen.

5. Always sit at the back. How did I forget this most important of all rules? How come I found myself (OK, not quite at the front, but solidly in the middle) in the direct sight-line of the headmaster at the school concert, sweating profusely (because had forgotten I had a black bra on when I put on the pale top so had to keep on the thick cardigan to cover it up) and gulping with silent hysteria at ‘Fiddle fun’ (what is it about violins that make me laugh?). Even Adrian was horrified.

6. When in doubt, pass the buck. Too much choice is the scourge of modern living. I’ve eradicated most of it by limiting my purchasing to the local shops but it’s tricky when it comes to paint. I’ve been driving A and J mad with my endless bits of paper painted in various shades of white. What is the difference between Indian White and Wiltshire White? Someone at Dulux knows. In the end I couldn’t bear it anymore. ‘So which white do you want?’ asked the decorators. ‘I haven’t a clue,’ I admitted. ‘What do you reckon?’ Five minutes later it’s chosen. Looks great. Why did I waste all that effort?

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Nearest I'll get to an OSCAR

Crikey, I’ve won an award. This is so rare that it makes me think back to the (very few) prizes I’ve achieved in my life. There was the pink rosette I ‘won’ at my one and only gymkhana (for taking part) which was, for years, my most prized object (pinned to a silver egg cup in the hopes that the short-sighted might imagine it a first prize – the red having faded perhaps? – for showjumping. Then there is Finland – its Land and People, an art prize awarded while on a school cruise with the SS Uganda. Impressive you might think but I feel forced to point out that mine was the only entry. The only other one I ever won was a prize for Effort and Achievement in the lower sixth at school – a really unpleasant version of the Complete Works of Shakespeare printed on loo paper in miniscule print. A bitter memory as it marks the tipping point of my academic career. There I was all, the archetypal Good Girl, diligently practicing my Latin verbs (and due to sit the Oxbridge exams for modern languages) before discovering, a few months later, that there was much more fun to be had with gin, poppers, fast cars and naughty boys. It was all downhill from there and I was a Sorry Disappointment to my teachers.
But I digress.
The lovely and highly talented Zoe (sorry, still no umlat) has awarded me the Arte y Pico award for this little old blog. It means a lot as Zoe has monumentally high standards and her own blog is a Thing of Beauty Unsurpassed (if your soul is harrowed it’s as refreshing as a week in a top-class spa) so this isn’t just some nice pat on the back from a mate. Now, of course, I have to do the really hard bit and pass it on. This always worries me because the danger lies in an award just doing the rounds with one’s nearest and dearest blogging friends. So I have tried to venture a little further afield in the sure and certain knowledge that all deserving souls will eventually be handed it.

Here are the 5 rules of the award (it’s all rather strict)

1. You have to pick five blogs that you consider ‘deserving of this award for their creativity, design, interesting material, and which contribute to the blogging community, no matter what language they are in’.
2. Each award has to have the name of the author and also a link to his/her blog to be visited by everyone (though not sure how you can force everyone to visit, but hey ho, whatever).
3. Each award winner has to show the award and put the name and link to the blog that has given him/her the award itself (once again, it’s a bit bossy but I suppose if you invent an award you can set whatever rules you like – whether you choose to follow them or not is entirely up to you).
4. The award winner and the one who has given the prize has to show the Arte y Pico blog so that everyone will know the origin of the award (aha, so we have a need for recognition here – methinks the poor soul that started this never even won a pink rosette or a grotty copy of Shakespeare).
5. To show these rules.

Oh I don’t like rules. At this point, I’m scratching my head and wondering if it is really fair to burden anyone with all this. But then again, it’s a rather pretty award and there are some blogs that I think deserve wider recognition so, here we go (in no particular order).

1. Milla at Country Lite for making me laugh out loud (and, as regular readers know, it takes a heck of a lot to make me even snigger) at her simply brilliant takes on the minutiae of everyday family life. You Must Read This (she will give it to Rot, so don’t need to do him).

2. Cait at Dear Diary for a multi-media blog that is inspiring and always makes me think (and sometimes makes me cry). She makes me read poetry (which I would never do of my own accord) and reminds me to count my blessings each and every day.

3. Casdok at Mother of Shrek for opening my eyes. Casdok is the single parent of C, a 19-year old non-verbal autistic young man about to venture on a new stage of his life. Her blog is constantly challenging, entertaining, thought-provoking and also very beautiful. You Must Read This too (sorry to be bossy but it has to be said).
4. Sorrow at Walking the Labyrinth of Life. A brand new blog to me (found via the wonderful Bollingerbyrd) but one that lures me back at the moment as there is so much to explore. Fascinating links and deep thoughts.
5. Diane at 60goingon16. I love this blog for its intelligence, humour and breadth of subject matter (I never know what I’m going to find – how lovely is that?). Great book and music links too. Another must read.

So, have fun….. Hope I’ve introduced you to a few new wordsmiths. There were loads of other blogs I could have nominated – you can catch more of my favourites on my (new) blogroll. This is still a work in progress so please don’t be hurt if you’re not there yet… many blogs, so little time….

Monday, 16 June 2008

Bruce and rhubarb bellinis - a dose of the high life

I’ve been a bit bling lately. Feel slightly ashamed to say it after my splurge on vulgarity, greed and over-the-top ostentation but, hey, at least I recognise it – and I do have the grace to be madly grateful for a small dose of the high life.
First it was Bruce Springsteen in concert at the Emirates Stadium. Was I down there getting hot and sweaty squashed up against thousands of smelly bodies? No sirree, I was sipping champagne and dunking Tiger prawns in chilli dip in a private box. Oh yes. The divine Gill from Victoria Health (my totally favourite on-line natural pharmacy – and no, I’m not just saying that because she gave me such a fabby evening out – would I be that shallow? Don’t answer that.) had invited me knowing that I’m a serious fan of The Boss’s live shows. Last time I went I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to Wembley by my friend the Luscious London Lawyer (L3). Bruce Springsteen wasn’t anywhere near cool enough in my book (God, I was a pretentious little twat in those days – all style, no substance). But within five minutes I was tapping my foot and after fifteen I was jigging around. By the end of the gig I was exhausted from two hours’ nonstop dancing. BS is simply The Best Live Act Ever (in my not so humble opinion).
This time round, surrounded by smart businesswomen, film directors and magazine editors, I was determined to keep a sense of decorum. A little gentle foot-tapping would do. Ah but the man hasn’t changed one iota. Maybe a few faint lines but he’s no Mick Jagger and not a hint of grey or the faintest tendency towards portliness). He launched into a blistering set without even a pause between numbers, broad grin on his face, pacing up and down the stage. My feet started tapping, my hips started swaying and, before I knew it, I was waving my arms over my head and all thoughts of decorum went out the window.
Fortunately the rest of the party shed their dignity and it was simply the best night ever.
Then, barely had I got over the excitement of that, than I went shooting off to Babington House the other side of Somerset for a wedding. Michele Knight (the psychic whose book I co-wrote) was getting spliced with her girlfriend Margi. My pal Sarah is Michele’s PA and I hitched a lift in her serious no-nonsense truck.
‘We have to get roses on the way,’ she said and so we hurtled into Morrisons and bought up every last bunch. ‘Not enough,’ sighed Sarah so a quick detour took us into Sainsbury’s where we snaffled another couple of armloads (to the bemusement of the other shoppers with their multi-packs of lager and two-for-the-price-of-one pizza).
We got lost, of course we did (no Satnav here, thank you very much) but eventually barrelled up and spent the next two hours in the hallway turning thirty bunches of roses into five huge bowls of petals. At which point Anne Robinson arrived (looking like a slightly malevolent pixie child), gave us the once over and decided we were definitely staff, hence beneath contempt and whisked by.
Exhausted after our petal plucking we found the bar and I found heaven via a rhubarb and vanilla bellini. Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. So right in so many ways and, best of all, another use for rhubarb (a slight obsession you may have noticed – it’s the only thing I don’t kill in the vegetable garden).
It was always going to be a bit different – after all, few weddings have two brides (both in bustiers and flowing trains) or one bride wearing not one, but two tiaras (‘I liked them both, so why not?’). The pair of pagan priestesses was a nice touch as was the saying of vows under the trees.

As Michele and Margi sipped their first glasses of champagne as Mrs and Mrs Knight, Sarah and I watched as two hours’ worth of rose petals flew up into the air and tumbled to the floor in precisely ten seconds. It was tempting to think deep thoughts about the impermanence of life but the canapé tray was approaching so I dived for a tempura prawn instead and started chatting to a sickeningly glamorous woman in slinky gold lame and vertiginous seventies platforms. I thought she had to be in TV or fashion but it turned out she’s a sheep farmer from near Crediton. Just perfect.

In the end, it unfolded much like any other wedding: that curious mismatch of guests; people drinking too much alcohol too quickly and collapsing in small piles in corners; photogenic children scampering barefoot through the grass; the inevitable delays; the wails of women (and the odd man) whose heels have embedded themselves in six inches of soft grass; the obnoxious guest/s (in this case a gaggle of face-lifted women engaged in a bout of social one-upmanship which culminated in – ‘I used to spend a lot of time with the Queen Mother, of course.’ Well of course dear. Margi’s father made a very moving speech with huge dignity (bet there’s nothing in Debrett’s about what to say when your daughter’s second marriage is to another woman) and Sue Perkins made a speech that was so funny I wondered how come I’d never heard her before.

Sarah and I left as the disco started. The barman was waving his cocktail shaker at me with a knowing look and I knew discretion was the better part of valour. We roared off into the night, Bruce on the stereo, scattering a faint trail of rose petals behind us.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Nauseated and appalled

Warning: if you earn less than £200K a year you might find this blog upsetting, distressing or downright obscene.

I am revolted, sick, beyond queasy to the point of puking – all thanks to the Mail on Sunday. I don’t read papers during the week but on Sundays I love nothing better than lying in bed, vat of coffee at my elbow, flicking through You Magazine (and, yes, having a laugh at Liz Jones’ latest bizarre antics). But yesterday I nearly choked on my croissant over a feature on teenagers having hugely flashy birthday parties. Apparently it’s not uncommon for 16 and 18 year olds to have parties costing a cool £50K. Take birthday girl Jayde Fleming-Smith (seriously) who turned 16 last December with a masquerade themed ball. Money no object – she was given a Corsa VXR Sport (worth £16,995) and a holiday in the Canary Islands with three friends but was the poor little rich girl happy? No siree. Her ice sculpture didn’t turn up and she didn’t like the photographs (glammed up by professional make-up artist, stylist and photographer): ‘I shouted at my parents afterwards,’ she said, as if this were the most reasonable thing in the world. ‘It should have been more about me. You only turn 16 once, after all. I wanted everyone in ‘I love Jayde’ t-shirts but we didn’t have time to produce them.’

Am I missing something here?

· She arrived in Jordan’s ex-wedding coach (OK, dubious taste but scores high on the ‘me’ factor): ‘My boyfriend was waiting inside with a diamond necklace. Everyone was shouting my name, which made me feel famous.’
· She instructed her 250 guests to wear white and silver so she could stand out in her blue frock.
· Male models policed the VIP area (I’m shaking my head in stunned shock at this point – she actually grades her friends into VIP and non-VIP?).
· She stuck up a billboard (with a huge photo of her) outside her school to advertise her bash.
· The invite stated: ‘No present, No entry’ and her friends duly obliged with Tiffany bracelets and Dolce & Gabbana watches. So, no chance of an iTunes voucher if you’re Jayde’s friend then?

Er, could it have been any more about her?

‘I love getting new things,’ trilled Jayde. ‘If I’m not bought something every day I’m not happy. I am very grateful for my party….but my parents will have to try harder next year.’
No doubt her parents smiled indulgently at this foot stamping from their little princess and are already planning to hire a few space shuttles for next year.
As if she weren’t revolting enough there were a further three like her and, by the time I’d finished reading, I felt quite bilious.
So I turned to the main paper, flipped onto the second page and realised that these girls are mere amateurs compared to the monumental greedfest that is Coleen McLoughlin.
£50K? A mere bagatelle – in fact, probably the cost of each party bag for the future Mrs Potato-Head. Her wedding, the paper estimates, will cost a cool £5 million. The figures just fade into meaningness - £250K for Wayne’s stag night; £50K for champagne breakfasts for the guests (see, girls, some serious catching up to do here); £24K for the security team and on and on and on.
Yes, it’s her wedding. Yes, everyone wants the nicest wedding they can have. But am I really being mealy-mouthed when I say that I just find this kind of excess quite utterly revolting? ‘It is excessive,’ says a source (oh, someone’s noticed?), ‘but so is Wayne’s wealth and he wants to share it.’
Yeah right. Poor old Rio Ferdinand, Steve Gerrard and Peter Crouch could do with a bit of wealth redistribution.
On the page opposite, with supreme irony, was a story that put it in sharp relief. ‘Emergency fuel voucher for 200,000 pensioners’ - ‘The vouchers come as households face fresh warnings over the economy,’ says the reporter. Oh yes, that’s right, we’re in a recession. Funny that. Don’t tell Coleen – might spoil the mood.

Friday, 9 May 2008

On avatars

Tricky, this avatar business. Gets you thinking. I mean, how do you represent yourself as an image? I know I’m making a meal out of it, but it worries me. Funnily enough I am far more careful about images than I am about words. Images are potent. Images, they say, speak directly to the subconscious. Sooo, one’s avatar is not only making a statement about who one is to the world, but it’s also making a statement about who one is to oneself. Given I post so much on fora, my avatar is going to pop up and look me in the eye many times a day. It’s going to worm its way into my subconscious and, heck, I could create my own reality from it. It’s the theory behind treasure maps, positive visualisation etc. Bombard the eye with images of a positive reality and the mind will try to make them manifest. So, conversely, you have to assume that if you bombard the eye with negative images, by heck, things could get very nasty.

So my idea of a depressed looking woman with a dog turd perched on her head is a deeply dangerous idea. To date, Asbo and the Phantom Pooper have at least left their offerings on ground level. Well there was, of course, Asbo’s balancing poo on the doorstep and the ones he sort of propels at bushes but they haven’t reached head level - yet.

I liked the images of women with glasses in their hands (and nappies on their heads – could be turned into a turd I suppose) but would that too be tempting Fate? I drink enough already without my subconscious deciding I’m not dressed without wielding a glass of red. Work having plummeted this year, due to Family Matters which May Not Be Discussed, I can’t afford to descend into alcoholism yet.
I love the idea of something spiritual – the maze, the labyrinth, the spiral, the mandala, the Cosmic Piglet – but truly, who am I kidding? At the moment I’m about as spiritual as beans on toast.
Dogs have been discussed but, as Milla pointed out yesterday as we drank Jumpy Monkey smoothies in Glastonbury, I got told off at the Arvon Foundation for my dog point-of-view obsession – so that’s out.

So, this morning I did what I should have done a long time ago – went out shopping for an avatar (classic avoidance technique of course – should have been coming up with ideas for work). I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was) that there are positively bucketloads of sites filled with avatars. Military weapons are clearly popular as are those weird Japanese comic characters with huge eyes and no jaws.
There’s plenty of whimsy and cute and some that are truly odd. Such as…..
· Terry Wogan in a yellow bunny suit
· A man having his face pulled apart by paperclips
· Evil Tinky-Winky, the Teletubby
· An X-ray showing a skeleton with a bottle, er…jammed somewhere.
· A woman sunbathing in an alien mask
· Dogs lying nose to tail in a perfect circle

I often feel like the woman with an axe buried in her face but, for obvious reasons, not sure I want to attract that reality. Nor the girl from The Exorcist (though wouldn’t remotely surprise me if my head started spinning round while I projectile vomited the way I’m feeling lately). I could give you all a laugh by choosing Jordan’s improbably ex-breasts or Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel elf ears. Or I could be mysterious with any of of 78 pictures of eyes.

The more I look at images, the more I think it’s impossible. There is nothing that sums me up in total. It’s an impossible quest. So I plucked several images out because, for no particular reason, they appealed. See what you think and let me know. Or, if you have any better ideas......

Now this, in case you were wondering, is what I really look like!

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Country bling

I’m sick of moaning about myself so, for a change, I’ll have a moan about other people. You know what’s really getting my goat at the moment? Conspicuous consumption. Greed. Bling. Oh, the hell with it, sheer vulgarity. It started off with this house not that far off. Lovely Georgian job, small pile set in the nearest thing to parkland round here. Not too big, not too pretentious, just a drop-dead gorgeous peach of a country house. Two lodges guarded the approach, one to the north, one to the south. Nothing swanky, just honest pretty little cottages, presumably for the gamekeeper/gardener/whatever. The main entrance was low-key too – stone worn soft by the years and the weather.
A few years back it was bought by people from the South-East. Now I can’t talk – I’m a Surrey girl myself – but you just know what’s coming, don’t you? Over the years, it’s been Surreyfied. Gone is the bushy, scrubby, bit of everything native hedge and in comes neat uniform conifers and plastic thingummybobs with reflective strips on them so we don’t (heaven forfend) squeeze up on the verge if a tractor or bus comes by. Down came many trees – maybe necessary, who knows? Up came the wild patches of bramble – and is it just my imagination or is there less birdsong along that lane now? Just before Christmas there was a flurry of activity and huge monumental plinths were installed with the house name carved self-importantly either side. Smaller plinths to either side of those.
‘You watch,’ I said, as we drove (slowly, mouths open) past. ‘There will be huge wrought-iron gates with gold bits up there next.’
‘Noo,’ said Adrian. ‘Nobody could be that vulgar. Not round here.’
Really? He ate his hat a few weeks later as, verily, up went the gates, worthy of Buckingham Palace.
‘YUK,’ we chorused.
Maybe the owners thought, ‘yuk’ too because the next day they had vanished and a few weeks later were replaced by something marginally less bling. But still so pompous, so self-important, so loud. It reminds me of those suburban houses with vast eagles or overbearing pineapples tottering either side of the garage gates. Out of place. Plain wrong.

Poor house. I could imagine it wincing, all its years of quiet well-mannered breeding torn asunder in a flurry of monumental egotism. I lament that old entrance, I really do. It hinted at the gorgeousness beyond, rather than bragging loud and clear: ‘We’re stinking rich and look we live in a girt big house.’ They’ll have a tradesman’s entrance next. In fact, to my total horror, one of the gatehouses has now been demolished. If I’m kind, I’ll conjecture that it was unsound – though it looked right as rain to me. Now we wait, with all the horrified slack-jawed wide-eyed fascination of a car-crash to see what will rise in its place. ‘A folly,’ opined Adrian. ‘A Grecian temple maybe.’
Or maybe they just didn’t want neighbours and plan to leave it open-plan. A couple of Leylandii maybe?

Talking about vulgar and conspicuous consumption, I have bitten my lip over Liz Jones, I really have. I haven’t said a word about how she goes on about living in the middle of Exmoor when really she lives outside the park. Not a peep about how she would need a tower like the Chrysler building in order to be able to see the sea. Not a whisper about how it would be impossible to ride out ‘onto the moor’ from her house. But it does really hurt to hear her bang on about her ‘dilapidated’ farmhouse. I know that house – I’ve collapsed in front of the gorgeous old fireplace and chatted in the cavernous country kitchen. It is stunning, another fabulous old country house that is comfortable in its skin, doing what it has done for centuries, keeping farm folk dry and warm(ish). I just can’t help wincing at the idea of it being turned into a kind of London lookalike, having its heart ripped out for the latest fashion. But that’s it. I won’t say anymore. Not another word.

I suppose, at heart, this is a lament for Somerset as it was when I was a child. A bit down-at-heel, a bit dilapidated, a bit the worse for wear but all the better for it. As a child I loved the wild places, the falling-down barns, the empty houses with boarded-up windows that were surely the homes of mad witches or warlocks. The wildlife loved them too. The countryside was a working place, a ‘real’ place with integrity and purpose. Now it seems to be becoming a playground for the rich. The old barns are all brand-new gleaming homes now. The barn owls have been chucked out. The woodland is torn down for a new development, a new suburbia.
Having grown up in suburbia it hurts.
Am I being selfish? Am I wanting the countryside held in aspic, a romantic ruin for my own delectation? I don’t think so. I love a working countryside. I don’t mind smells and mud and cows meandering across the road or sheep holding me up for half an hour. I can cope with the ugliness of modern farm buildings (while lamenting the old ones that had to be sold off for housing). I totally see the need for new housing (affordable housing) so that as the local teenagers grow up they aren’t forced away. But the housing isn’t affordable, and instead of filling in the gaps, using the brownfield sites (of which they are plenty) it’s always swathes of farmland that are eaten up for the new projects.
It makes me laugh (bitterly). There is a new housing development in the small town not far from the Bling House, not that far from Liz Jones. We couldn’t believe how many houses they squashed into the site. I couldn’t help thinking of the song, ‘Little boxes on the hillside….and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky…and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.
They were all snapped up in a second – not by first-time buyers or locals, but by the people who love neat, perky conservatories and plastic gothic arches. I’m sure a fair few are South-Eastern refugees, running away from the suburban sprawl. How ironic.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Benighted blog

Have you ever had the feeling that life really isn’t playing the game? Here I sit, looking out the window and what do I see? A large rusty radiator propped against the wall; a magnolia blighted by frost after a mere two days of glory; a camellia ditto and a large plump rat jauntily munching on the bird nuts. My feet are freezing cold, my fingers can barely type and the electric fan heater is giving off a strong smell of cat pee. As if that weren’t bad enough, I did the most stupid thing ever this morning. Glutton for punishment, I got on the scales. For months I’ve been comforted by the fact that I had absolutely no idea how much I weighed, as the only scales we have measure in kilos and I have never been arsed to get my head around metric. Then things started getting tight, very tight. The jeans that had always been a bit baggy around the thigh suddenly started hugging in far too intimate a manner. My bra – for Pete’s sake – started pinching and if I’m oozing out of an H cup, what hope is there? So, feeling extremely brave, I borrowed a pair of real scales, in stones and pounds and lumbered on. I mean, how much weight can one put on in a mere four months? Oh. My. God. How did that happen? I knew I was getting porky but I had no idea I had put on a stone since I last looked. I am nearly as large as I was when I was pregnant – only now the rampaging wrinkles will stop anyone making of asking ‘When’s it due’.

Nothing else for it. Went to the kitchen and baked up a batch of triple choc chip cookies and ate about six in one sitting. Although the prospect of summer seems unlikely, if it ever does come I shall be the sad woman in the vast kaftan. Or, better still, a burqa. I think I have just given up. I can’t even be bothered to paint my nails. My toenails are so long they’re starting to snag on my socks (Tights? Stockings? Don’t be daft – wearing skirts takes FAR too much effort). There isn’t a sharp razorblade in the house (maybe Adrian has taken to hiding them out of concern for my mood) so I have a thick shagpile of hair in all the places women are supposed to keep smooth and nude. In fact, if I ever do get around to doing something about it, I reckon I’ll have to go to a dog groomer and get myself stripped.

If my body is no longer a temple, my house is a tip. When the dust gets to a full inch thick, there really is nothing much you can do, other than stick your finger in and prod gloomy pictures of hollow-eyed people in it. I am deeply embarrassed to say my house is, let’s not mince words, a pit of filth. Yes, I KNOW we have builders in and missing floorboards and dangling electrics and free-standing plumbing (including half the radiators in the garden providing a gym for the rats – who, I notice bitterly, are in much better shape than I am). But really there is no excuse. I have become a slattern and a slob.

So slatternly, in fact, that I haven’t ever got around to doing my 7 weird facts. So, better late than never, here they are. Who knows, this burst of activity might spur me into doing something else. Like bake up a rhubarb polenta cake maybe.

7 things you might not know about me.

1. I used to make jewellery – beaded bracelets and wild earrings.
2. I was once arrested in Richmond Park on three counts of reckless riding (but got off!).
3. I have taken courses in past life regression and SHEN therapy, but have never practiced.
4. I’ve done the Ouija Board and scared myself witless when somebody WAS there!
5. I have always wanted a pet mongoose.
6. My favourite scents are amber, neroli and jasmine.
7. I have never been a bridesmaid (and, to be honest, never thought I’d be a bride).

I’m a lousy tagger and tagee so shall leave this to float in the ether….think everyone has done it anyhow…. Now, after this little burst of activity, think I’ll go and stare out the window a bit. Or think up a cunning plan to avoid the mother who’s coming to pick up James actually seeing how bad the house is. Perhaps we’ll sit, nonchalantly on the steps, pretending to be cloud-spotting or, hell, anything really that doesn’t require too much effort.

Thursday, 3 April 2008


my new kitchen - lovely, isn't it?

I’m beginning really to irritate myself. For those endless two years when we were trying to sell the house I had this mantra that everything would be hunky-dory, ‘when the house sells….’ Everything would be wonderful if we could only get our dream house and move into town, back to civilisation. Well, the house sold, we’re here, where we always wanted to be and am I happy? Am I heck. Admittedly 2008 has been possibly the nastiest year on record since 1970 – and we’re still only four months into the damn thing.
Part of the frustration is not being able to write about it all in lurid detail. Writing has always been my means of working things out of my system and blogging has been the most powerful form of therapy I’ve ever encountered. I think a lot of my black dog blues have been created by the effective gagging order on my writing – that and a deep grinding sadness that my motives were so misunderstood. I’m also flipping furious with myself for being so naïve. Heaven only knows, I’ve had enough warning shots that a Blog is for the World to Read. I guess I have never really really thought that anyone much would be bothered to read my ramblings. But people Google themselves (seemingly with monotonous egocentric regularity) and bingo up pops my darn blog. You know, it had never really occurred to me before to Google myself. Yet bung me into the search box and what do you find? Yup, there I am, splattered all over the Internet, like diarrhoea.

Anyhow, enough already. Let’s talk about something else. Like the Bonkers House. Lately I’ve taken to singing a tuneless little ditty that goes like this…..

Ten green acroprops holding up my wall…..
Ten green acroprops holding up my wall…
And if one green acroprop should accidentally fall…..

We laugh nervously at this little joke but I fear there could be a nasty ring of truth to it (just like Ring a Ring O’Roses viz the Plague). Work continues slowly, so slowly. After the first flurry of excitement, the heady joy of Something Being Done, we seem to have hit one of those endless bogs you encounter in dreams – no matter how hard you trudge, you never seem to arrive anywhere. The firemen are working solidly, doggedly, but the poor house is even more decrepit than we or they imagined – timbers are rotten and need replacing so the whole house looks like one of those stilt huts, held up by slender rods and our collective willpower.
We’re more or less living in one room – tripping over dust sheets, getting on one another’s nerves. The phone is out in the (freezing cold) hallway and yesterday my teeth were literally chattering so hard the person on the other end of the phone had to ask me to repeat myself. Given family issues over the last few months I have barely been able to work so money, inevitably, drags heavy on my soul. I have visions of the cash/credit running out and the whole place gently teetering onto its side and collapsing with a sigh.

We now have scaffolding all along the road side of the house, effectively creating a bottle-neck on the way out of town. Which means, of course, that we’re now living in a doll’s house – open to the world, or at least to the firemen.
‘Five minutes to ETA,’ bellows Adrian at 8.10am and an undignified scramble for the loo ensues. Our loo window is so high up that there have never been curtains or blinds in it – only the pigeons could see in. Not any more. You could easily find yourself, happily ensconced flipping through Homes & Gardens and find a cheery face waving at you. So now I tend to cross my legs or plunge down into the subterranean depths of the Loo of Doom. The seat is sub-zero and the walls ooze damp but at least it’s private.

However today the sun is shining fit to burst. There’s a magnolia (stellata, not my favourite but never mind) flowering its heart out and, even shrouded in dust, the house is putting on a tentative smile. It would be churlish not to smile back, wouldn’t it?

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Black dog, red dog, yellow dog, blue....

It’s time, I think, to introduce you to my own black dog. The more we haul these dogs out into the bright light of day, the more control we have over them. Obedience classes for black dogs. Muzzles on, choke chains checked, heel! Sit. Good dog. Except, of course, it doesn’t really work like that.

My beast first appeared at my heel when I was ten years old. My father died of lung cancer – at a time when death wasn’t discussed and counselling wasn’t offered – everyone (children included) were expected to take a deep breath, brush themselves down and get back on with life. My diary page has drawings of tears all down the margin, my writing very wobbly, slanting wildly down the page. ‘My dear Daddy is dead. Poor Mummy didn’t know how to tell me.’
I suppose we cried then. I suppose we comforted one other but I can’t remember any of that. What I can remember, clear as day, was being taken to see Born Free by a neighbour on the day of the funeral. I’d seen it a few weeks before but didn’t like to say anything and politely sat through it, watching the parched plains of Africa, sucking the salt off stale popcorn, cringing away from the neighbour’s kindness. Then I was sent on a coach trip to a safari park (more bloody lions) with some Sunday School kids and I can still see one organiser talking to another, glancing over at me, and muttering ‘Yes, she’s the one whose father died. No, don’t say anything to the children’. But of course it spread like wildfire. They avoided me like the plague, as if by associating with me their fathers might die too.
After that the black dog bit me hard. I developed asthma and would sit in my tiny damp bedroom, staring bleakly at a line of gonks that seemed to belong to another age, to another child. I went from being a bright, bolshy, even a bit pushy, girl to a silent shy ghost. I didn’t mention my father. I got by. I didn’t cry. Not until I was eighteen and at university and I met a girl whose father had died when she, too, had been ten. She spoke about it openly and frankly and that night, in my room, I drank half a bottle of gin and sobbed until I felt sick.

Those were the ‘don’t care’ years – when I would walk around the toughest areas of Manchester, deep in the night, figuring I would give Fate the chance to finish me off. Sometimes the whole world seemed so unreal I would cut my arm or face to feel something, anything – even pain is better than not existing.

I left college but the dog came with me back to London. However I found that, if you pushed yourself hard enough, if you worked hard, played hard, took the right amount of alcohol and the right drugs, you could pretty well kick it out of the way.
But it crept into my dreams. A dark shape, sometimes a dog, sometimes a cat-beast, sometimes just an amorphous shadow. A sick feeling would wash over me and I would just know it was waiting in the shadows, waiting to bite. I had one of those dreams a week or so ago. I was standing at the top of a flight of stone steps leading down into somewhere dark and frightening. I heard the tick-tack of claws clicking on stone and the familiar sinking feeling washed over me. Looking down I saw a small black dog climbing, slowly, in no hurry. It knew I wasn’t going anywhere. It’s always pointless to run. It drew level with me and grew, stretching up and out until it was the size of a Labrador. I could feel its breath on my hand, hear its breathing and then, oh so slowly, it took my hand in its mouth. I could feel the damp softness, so gentle as if my hand were a gamebird, perfectly retrieved. Then with a horrible sense of the inevitable, I felt its teeth sharpen and draw back and it bit, hard, deep, straight through the sinews, crunching the bones of my hand.

As many of you know, I suffered from post-natal depression after my son was born. In retrospect, I had pre-natal depression too – born of moving out into the middle of nowhere when I was pregnant, away from all chance of support. I was working furiously and did so up until a week before the birth. There were complications, I had an emergency section, then got an infection and ended up on a drip with a blood transfusion. Nonetheless I was back working a couple of weeks later. My doctor was pretty dismissive when I told him how low I felt: how I was barely sleeping; how I was so paralysed with anxiety that every time I left my baby I thought I’d come back to see the ambulance with lights flashing outside the house, Adrian’s face trying to form the words that my child had died. ‘Welcome to parenthood,’ he said cheerily. ‘You’ll get used to it.’
After nine months I diagnosed myself and asked a different doctor what she thought. She plonked me on Seroxat and, luckily, it helped. It pulled me out of the hole. I came off it after six months though as I was terrified of becoming addicted. Since then I have battled the dog with a mixture of herbs (Magnolia Rhodiola complex), exercise, positive self-talk and long lists of gratitude. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The last few months have been really hard – life has hit me on several sides at once and the dog has been having a field day.

However, I am noticing something interesting. A psychologist once told me that depression always hides other emotions. That it’s a kind of coping mechanism for when other emotions might overwhelm us. Of late, I’ve noticed that my black dog is being joined by other dogs, by a whole pack. There’s the red dog of anger and pure fury, snapping, snarling, biting back for once….. The yellow dog of fear, cowardly, cringing, sideways glancing. The blue dog of grief, of sudden sobbing tears, welling up like a huge wave threatening to break over my head. Anything can set it off. I was reading Cait’s blog a few days back and Halleluyah was playing. I felt a catch at the back of my throat and that was it. I howled for about an hour, great wracking sobs.

This is written, by the way, not for sympathy or even empathy. It’s written for me (because I can’t write about everything that is happening in my life but I figure I can still write about how I feel about it). It’s also written because I truly believe that keeping depression, and all forms of mental illness, hidden and secret only increases the taboo, the shame, and stops other people from seeking the help they need. My black dog is, like my real life dog, pretty badly behaved – but at least I can own it, stick a microchip on it and a name tag on its collar. What is known is always less frightening than the unknown. Just maybe, if I can own my anger, grief and fear, I won’t need that black dog so much.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

On hairdressers and not using real names

The flu is abating. These are probably famous last words but I am feeling vaguely human again. Helped, in huge part, by braving gale and flood to get to the hairdressers. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said Adrian. ‘You’ll get stranded. Phone up and reschedule.’ No way, mate. The one thing men never understand is that one’s entire mood is affected by the state of one’s hair. If I want to reinvent myself, up my game and so on, I’m never going to do it with hair like brambles (with a solid inch of roots to boot).
No, it was a case of ‘come hell or high water’ (and most definitely the latter). OK, so there was a pretty hairy bit when I had to negotiate through a river that had decided to veer across the road (avoiding the unfortunate car that had been abandoned with water up to its windows) but it was worth it, every heart-stopping second of it.
I love my hairdresser. I found him when we first moved to Somerset – then lost him when we moved out to wildest Exmoor (when there was absolutely NO point in having even vaguely decent hair – a woolly cap was the only way to go). On moving into town I decided it might be a blast to go back. I did wonder if he would still be there – he wasn’t exactly a spring chicken twelve years ago – but, oh yes, nothing changes in the world of…… Hmm, I shall learn my lesson and call him, let’s see - Barry.

Barry is a true phenomenon – and, if you go by looks alone, possibly the man least likely to be a hairdresser. Short, stocky, face crinkled like a walnut, clad in a black suit – he looks like he ought be to a Mafioso or a dodgy car dealer. He is also most definitely Not Gay.
‘Hey, baby…’ he drawled, as I came into the salon, ‘Looking goooood.’
Yes, I know, it sounds unbearably irritating and was one of the reasons I abandoned him on my Exmoor move. But, as one gets older, it becomes amusing rather than predatory and, by heck, he is darn good with hair. His tiny ‘salon’ is fabulous too – polished boards, the most VAST ornate gilded mirror and a stonking great chandelier dripping with crystal – totally oversized, a heck of a lot of style statement crammed into a small package (bit like Barry really).

I don’t think I have ever heard anyone talk about holidays in this place. It has the feel of a club and nine times out of ten, everyone will join in the same conversation – which can range from politics to art to cookery to local salacious gossip (the latter always the best bit). It’s not unknown to be handed a glass of champagne (quite free – no silly overpriced menus here) or for Barry to rush out yelling, ‘I need chocolate’ and come back dispensing Galaxy bars to everyone in sight.
This time I picked his brains on log burners and we had a bit of a gossip about the locals (see, how good am I? Not a name in sight): who had been thrown out for having a love-child; who might be having an affair; who might be selling up and who was spending an obscene amount of money doing up a house they will only use as a second home (grrrrr). Then we got into the juicy rumour that a certain ex-prime minister might be moving down to Exmoor. No, see, his name will not pass my lips – but it doesn’t take Brain of Britain to figure it out.
‘He wouldn’t last a minute,’ opined Barry. ‘They’d tear him apart.’
Maybe. Maybe not. I wouldn’t give much for his chances in Exford (capital of hunting) but elsewhere on the moor, they’re a pretty tolerant bunch. The major problem would be one of security. This isn’t the kind of place you can sink into obscurity. Everyone knows everyone’s business – usually before you know it yourself.
I have to say, the idea of his wife shopping for shabby chic in South Molton has a certain charm, but I can’t see it happening. Still, it’s a jolly thought, one to get us through the dark days of January. That, and my new hair which is shiny and glossy and flicks up fetchingly at the ends. Or as Barry said, with a twinkle and a wink, ‘Foxxxxy.’

PS - the pic is NOT my new hairstyle, nothing to do with Barry (who would doubtless sue if I suggested it was) - but one from many MANY moons ago.....

Sunday, 13 January 2008

On resolving to reinvent myself - and soggy wallpaper

It’s tough to reinvent yourself when you’ve got flu. It’s also tough reinventing yourself when you live in the House of Doom. No, the builders still haven’t come. ‘Why are you surprised?’ says Verity. ‘They’re builders. Their job is not to come. Their job is to drive you to psychosis. Come to think of it, they’re probably getting paid a packet from the local psychotherapists.’ Maybe in Marylebone, but not down here matey. There was only one psychotherapist and we viewed her house. Why was she selling? ‘Not enough custom,’ she complained, ‘Down here, people either get drunk or top themselves if they get low.’ On Exmoor, if you go mad, you go mad alone.

The house isn’t helping. A drawer in the kitchen gave up the will to live and collapsed and then three others decided, lemming-like, to copy it. The cabinet doors thought this looked like a fun game and two dropped off. Copycats. Mysterious holes keep appearing in the walls. Strange stains erupt on the carpet (and not even sure it’s Asbo Jack this time). Huge drafts are blowing through the windows and up through the floors and in through the ill-fitting doors. The fluorescent light in the utility room has started flickering in best horror movie style.
The dehumidifier has been chugging away in an exhausted fashion and we have been frantically emptying it. How much water can one house generate? An entire reservoir, by the looks of it. So much, in fact, that as I was coming up the stairs from the front door I put my hand on the wall and my fingers sank into several inches of soggy wallpaper. I’m one of life’s natural pickers (scabs, peeling sunburnt skin, candlewax, I’m not fussy – if it’s loose, I’ll pick it) and so my fingers naturally tugged and two yards of molten wallpaper collapsed onto my head. Adrian was outside, talking to someone about beer (naturally) and, in the time it took him to debate the merits of Pale Ale over Porter, I had excavated almost the entire lower hallway. I also gained an insight into life in 1963 – as under three layers of thick wallpaper the walls had been lined in the Daily Express.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Adrian, choking on a miasma of dust and mould spores. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’
‘Look at this,’ I said, trying to distract him. ‘There was a time when the Express didn’t talk about Princess Diana.’
He didn’t fall for it. ‘That wall’s going to collapse now. The wallpaper was the only thing holding it together.’
He had a point. We all walk Very Carefully up the stairs now as the slightest heavy clump of a boot sends another pile of dust and plaster cascading down.
Anyhow, getting off-point now. I have realised that, if we ever want to get this house sorted, it’s going to cost a darn sight more than our meagre savings. I am going to have to work MUCH more. Walker and my agent have vanished into the ether together and aren’t responding to emails. I bought two lottery tickets – on the basis that once in a while you have to give Fate a chance - but have somehow managed to lose both and am now convinced of course, that they were the ones that would have made our fortune. So I have to get back to work properly and Earn Money.

This, of course, would be easier had James not purloined my computer during the holidays. My desk is now piled high with notebooks covered in code, test-tube aliens blinking viciously and sweet wrappers. When I turn on my PC I find I the Northern Lights gleaming biliously at me. Every key makes zoo noises and my cursor is blinking yellow. A rash of weird icons litter my desktop and if I gaze out into space for more than ten seconds multi-coloured bubbles bounce mournfully over my screen. Nothing is sacred.
I write a feature on ‘creating a sanctuary in your home’ and laugh hollowly at myself telling people to ‘find a space that can be entirely your own.’ I don’t even have a desk of my own anymore. Hot-desking in your own home? It’s ridiculous.

Summoning the energy to do anything is virtually impossible. I can’t even be bothered to bitch about semi-famous people anymore. Who cares if newspaper columnists lie in print? That’s what all journalists do, right? Maybe that’s why I’m finding it so hard to get back into journalism – I’m sick of bending the truth, making things sound better or worse or wilder or madder than they really are. Maybe I need a new job altogether. Perhaps I could fill the natural void and become the Only Psychotherapist in the Village…. Then again, maybe not.
For the moment, my solution is to lie low, wrap up in a large blanket and sip sloe gin while watching episodes of Ugly Betty back-to-back and thanking my lucky stars I don’t work at a fashion magazine. Reinvention can wait until spring.