Monday, 28 December 2009

Would the real baby Jesus please step forward?

Let's face it, you have to be a particularly abhorrent two year old not to be adorable. Especially if you spend most of the day immersed in a pretend (and much more satisfactory) world. This week I’ve been reminded that things are not always what they seem, and that sometimes this is a decidedly good thing.

I've been reprimanded for stepping on the Impster's imaginary dogs, not hearing her imaginary cats meowing, and accidentally washing up a chopping board with her imaginary olive pesto ('and now,' she hollers outraged, 'I have to start all over again!' Oops). To get her into the bath it is necessary to make believe picnics and train rides, and to get her out again, tents and camels; to get into pyjamas, ball dresses and glass slippers, and to bed a hastily improvised story on a subject of her choosing. I have been allocated the unflattering roles of Ugly Sister and Big Ears, but happily have also been permitted to marry a prince and eat strawberry tart, which seems like a fair enough trade.

It turns out that Christmas time has been specially designed for two year olds. On Christmas Eve I took the Impster to the children's service at the cathedral, dressed as an angel (any occasion which calls for the wearing of fairy wings in public goes down very well with the both of us). Just a few minutes before the service I hastily bastardised her white bridesmaid dress, fashioned a tinsel halo, and accidentally stabbed her with the needle a few times in a fervent attempt to attach the wings. Ta-da! - one angelic child.

But when we arrive, things get kind of complicated. 'Where's the Angel Gabriel?' she asks. To which I point out all the other angelically-attired children. 'No, the Angel Gabriel'. Oh, the real one. I see. 'Well, he's probably in the sky somewhere at the moment. He only pops down occasionally when someone really needs his help.' She ignores this unsatisfactory response and provides her own: 'He's upstairs with the baby Jesus I 'spect.' I nod sagely.

Ditto the wise men, ditto Mary, ditto the shepherds. Yes yes, she can see the children dressed up (durr Mummy!) but when are the real ones going to turn up? 'I can see the stable,' she says, looking up at the wooden screen in front of the choir. And as a baby starts crying mid-carol, she turns to me and says, 'That's the baby Jesus going waa waa waa I s'pose.'

The service, heaving with several hundred barely-continent toddlers does not last long, and there is a rush for the doors. But not for us. The Impster is not leaving until she has located 'the real baby Jesus'.

My explanation of how he lived a rather long time ago and isn't a baby any longer and how we are just remembering the story, suddenly seems fraudulent. You see, only the day before we have taken her on a steam train and she has met 'the real Father Christmas' who has given her presents and everything. Just like the story.

Now, if a two year old indulges in pretend it is a beautiful and charming thing. But somewhere along the line, pretending becomes dishonest and wrong, and we despise grown ups with any hint of 'pretence' about them. That’s why some very dedicated Christians actually refuse to let their children believe in Father Christmas. But without him, surely childhood is a bit, well, serious. If we stoke our imagination when it's young, let it run riot, fuel the furnace with all sorts of fantastical nonsense and whimsy and amusement, then just maybe we are expanding our capacity for belief; to believe in whatever we finally decide is worthwhile believing in.

So right now, as well as being ceaselessly entertained, I'm utterly evangelical about indulging in as much Christmas magic as you can conjure. I will never stop believing in Father Christmas. And if you've spent the week playing charades and feeling all bah humbug, do me a favour and just pretend.

Friday, 4 December 2009

You are where you live (well, maybe)

No one could accuse me of impatience when it comes to housing matters, though one might be justified in questioning whether my tenacity doesn’t suggest a mildly alarming psychosis. Having offered on our future abode no less than 18 months ago, at last we appear to be in danger of actually moving in. The intervening period has taught me the value of waiting for what you want (as if) and (more truthfully) the nature of my housing personality. Now what about yours?

1. If someone mentions moving to the country, you
(a) offer to accompany them for all viewings no matter how far away
(b) lend them your copy of John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self-sufficiency
(c) ask them whereabouts in Surrey
(d) laugh your stilettos off

2. When looking at property details you
(a) know you can’t afford it but can’t resist a peek
(b) book a viewing if it has a family-sized kitchen
(c) immediately check the square footage
(d) only pick them up if the house has serious curb-appeal

3. You know if you’ve found the right place when
(a) you’ve been waiting for it to come onto the market for the last 10 years
(b) you walk in and it feels like home
(c) it ticks all the boxes
(d) you spot the Eames lounge chair

4. You idea of home is
(a) the house where you live in your dreams
(b) the house where you were born
(c) the house where you live now
(d) the house on p24 of The World of Interiors

5. Your partner falls in love with a house by the sea, so you
(a) immediately check out
(b) assume they mean a beach hut
(c) wonder if its insurable
(d) enquire about the view

6. When viewing a house you
(a) look to see how much value you can add
(b) are blown away by the period features (including the original Burlington cistern)
(c) hope to move in without needing to even redecorate
(d) envisage knocking down two walls and moving the staircase

7. For you, suburbia is
(a) regrettably more affordable
(b) lovely if your friends live there
(c) where you currently live
(d) hell on earth

8. When asked the current value of your home, you
(a) can cite three recent agent’s quotations
(b) have no idea, you’ve been living there too long
(c) make a quick calculation based on the national average
(d) ask whether that includes soft furnishings

9. The thing you value most about your home is
(a) its location
(b) its contents
(c) its spaciousness
(d) its interior

10. Your favourite property programme is
(a) Property Ladder
(b) The Home Show
(c) Location, Location, Location
(d) Grand Designs

If you answered:

Mostly As – you are a property Obsessive. You’ve just moved, but you still subscribe to Rightmove updates. You think about property approximately once every three seconds, and never visit a new house without mentally redesigning and revaluing it. Your local estate agent now thinks you fancy him because you unavoidably slow down every time you pass the window.

Mostly Bs – you are a property Romantic. You are hugely attached to where you live and have lovingly restored all the cornicing and architraves. Home is very much where your heart is and a bit of mess just makes the place feel lived in. If you don’t live in it already, you’d like your next house to be your home for life, and you’re likely to pay over the asking price for it.

Mostly Cs – you are a property Pragmatist. You love the built-in storage, double garage, and the fact that the station is just 10 minutes walk away. You’ll move if you’re relocated but otherwise would rather stay put and have more money for holidays.

Mostly Ds – you are a property Stylist. You believe your home and haircut confer serious style and offer a window to your identity. One of life's perpetual worries is finding a decent cleaner. When you have a life crisis, redecorating your house provides instant solace and maximum therapeutic benefit.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Thing About Publishers

I’m still digressing, and doubtless regressing, but here goes.

I just love the business (some would venture profession) of publishing. On the one hand, you have those fresh-faced editorial assistants, with a humungous passion for books and a deeply Romantic notion of the author as solitary creative genius. On the other, you have a few ginormous egos in charge of a powerful marketing and publicity machine, ruthlessly operating under the belief that where we used to have artists living in garrets, we now have promotable celebrities. (Or that even when you come across genuine talent too big to ignore, it can always be made bigger with some help.)

Science long since gave up on the idea of individual genius. In that plain-speaking, objective way it has about it, it seems to have concluded that many heads are better than one. Today, the individuals that shine out like rare gems are ‘entrepreneurs’, not inventors. With ever-increasing specialisation and technological complexity, individual scientists are no longer famed for new discoveries made – it’s all a matter of collaboration.

Well, never was there an industry more slavishly in pursuit of individualism than publishing. So much so that vanity publishing is a term that deserves a broader remit. The literati is full of extraordinary egos: author, agents, salesmen, editors alike all believing in the individual genius (always their own and occasionally their authors’ too). And it strikes me that this has a powerful attraction in our recessionary times. The thought that individuals have unique and irreplaceable talents, offers soul-filling comfort of the rarest kind. With every P45 that’s handed out, another applicant for Britain’s Got Talent is born.

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Thing About Mothers

Here’s a thing: why do we never ask even our closest friends whether their mothers worked? One friend’s mother – Mother Marjorie as we know her – is the wellspring of constant motherly wisdom to all of her daughter’s friends, not to mention the source of rallying pre-party expressions such as ‘tut tut, eleven o’clock and not a sausage pricked!’

It’s a weird thing, but I have no idea whether most of my friends’ mothers ever went out to work (apart from those I grew up with). We just don't ask our friends what their mothers did in the way we might enquire about their fathers – to them and to us the role of mother always seems enough. Simply by existing, our mothers matter to us. Simply by being, we are of mind-blowing importance to our children.

The problem for women today is that we’re educated for the workplace, not for motherhood. Motherhood flies in the face of all we have learned, because it is not about doing, but about being; it is not another project, but a whole way of life. Annoyingly, it’s a way of life that totally undermines and overturns all our former values and assumptions.

Motherhood is a great leveller, but it’s also full of different possibilities. Feminism might have given us choices, but it failed to solve the contradictions they posed. I’m fairly sure feminism would work better if it were designed for men. Men wouldn’t attempt all this multi-tasking and run themselves ragged trying to ‘have it all’. No, men would make a simple choice about whether to outsource the parenting role or the bread-winning role and respect each other’s different decisions. They certainly wouldn’t spend endless amounts of emotional energy on the feelings of guilt and envy and incompetence that mothers do.

In an incomparable expression of writerly genius, Helen Simpson once wrote of 'the deep romance and boredom' of motherhood. Having a child is like having the most intense, addictive, emotionally turbulent love affair of your life. And it's also like having a job where the rewards are great, but the day to day work is as tedious as hell. A bit like banking perhaps (one does get the occasional bonus even when times are hard).

So it’s no wonder that motherhood often doesn’t seem enough to us when we are faced with the mind-numbing tedium of it. But as mothers, we owe ourselves a daily reminder that we are insurmountably important, that our role is totally unique and impossible to delegate, and that even if we’re one day forgotten for everything else we’ve done, we’ll still be remembered for being someone’s mum. To our children at least, that is enough.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

The Thing About Accountants

Work has been much on my mind of late. Guilt at not doing enough of it probably. But I’ve also been having some career counselling, which must be a real drag for my counsellor, given that I arrived at our first appointment great with child and clearly no intention of getting a proper job. It turns out to be brilliant therapy though (a bit like the Priory, only without the pills). Someone is being paid to work out what makes me tick, and then explain me to myself so that I can live happily ever after.

Most people moan a fair bit about their job, while being oddly compelled to continue doing it. It’s an odd thing that most of us choose our career path pretty blindly and then stick to it. The other odd thing is how I have come to be friends with no less than thirteen qualified accountants (and I’m excluding all the ones I’ve worked with, however nice they’ve been).

Thirteen? This clearly exceeds the point of usefulness. But the unequivocal if surprising fact of the matter is that they are really good fun to be with. And the reason they’re such fun is this: they never talk about their work. They know it’s bloody boring so they don’t mention it.

Accountants kind of mess up our current thinking about work. We live in an age where we define ourselves in large part by our work choice, which is why when people meet you for the first time it usually only takes them 60 seconds to establish what you ‘do’.

If you meet someone who doesn’t ask you that question, I’d bet there’s a 90% chance you’re talking to an accountant. By and large, accountants do not work for the thrill of the challenge, or to create something of their own making, or to leave a legacy, or for the glamour of it, or in pursuit of a higher cause. Work for them is not an end in itself, but simply a job that needs to be done, which pays well, in order to make the most of time not spent at work. They take their sense of self not from their work but the things that happen outside it. Paradoxically, accountants value ‘lifestyle’ above all.

So, respect to my opposite-brained, bean-counting friends. They manipulate their excel spreadsheets with a dexterity not short of artistic genius, without cherishing the conventional modern belief that YOU ARE WHAT YOU DO. The rest of us, slavishly in search of self-fulfilment, might do well to consider this once in a while: if life is one big balance sheet, is work really an asset?

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Antidote

Much good cheer to impart – at last I’ve had an utterly divine, entirely successful holiday. All thanks to G for introducing me to the remedy for the Impossibility of Holidaying. Namely, the 24-hour Holiday. There is only one rule: you must be child free for the entire duration.

It’s pure genius. Basically you are so extra specially grateful for the chance to escape for a non work-related purpose, that you get 67 times more excited than you would about a normal holiday. And because being left to your own devices is such a rarity, the day seems like an entire week. So by my calculations it is 67x7 = 469 times more fun than a day spent on any other kind of holiday.

Leaving the Impster in the care of my mother, K and I escaped as early as we could like two overly excitable teenagers playing truant. We spent a day of generous indulgence at the Champneys Forest Mere Spa, and then the night at the deliciously romantic West Stoke House, before returning the next morning to resume normal parental duties (me) and to fly to Buenos Aires for a few days (K).

Strictly speaking, it was a 27-hour holiday. That I pushed the limits of my mother’s babysitting patience no further, is doubtless an indication that she finally possesses a very serious deterrent against any wild or delinquent behaviour. She only needs to withdraw her babysitting services to ground me for life. So here is the new improved me – spirits soared, opulently satisfied, full of gratitude and goodwill to all mothers, stealthily plotting my next great escape.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

To the Hermitage by Ambulance (or, Russian Hospitality)

No, this is not the screen adaptation of a Malcolm Bradbury novel starring George Clooney, but a true and faithful account of how the Impster and I came to be travelling in St Petersburg last Thursday somewhat unconventionally.

With flashing lights and a masterful U-turn, our ambulance driver swings across four lanes of traffic to drop us at the bank of the River Neva so that we might make the next hydrofoil for our day's sightseeing at Peterhof. I offer him many spasiba's, and he kisses me warmly on both cheeks and pats the Impster’s head. Konstantine is my proof that Russians make powerful allies. If they're on your side, they can make things happen and will stop at nothing to help you overcome a predicament.

As a random pregnant tourist with a toddler, however, most Russians wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire (never mind give you a hand with your pushchair). Russian cities are not child-friendly affairs. To attempt them with an infant leaves one exposed to the view that as a mother, one is at best eccentric, and at worst unfit for purpose. Lifts, highchairs, pushchair ramps, baby-changing facilities, and (it slowly dawned on me) children under the age of eight are nowhere to be seen in St Petersburg. And as the week went on, I had a creeping suspicion that mothers might actually be banned from the city centre. For one thing, the women living here of child-bearing age are intimidatingly svelte (possibly as a result of the unpardonable cuisine creating a kind of national Cabbage Soup Diet.)

For another, they have clever ways of making sure children don’t interfere with their cultural tourism, as I discovered when I went to the Russian Museum and was told that only disabled people could use the lifts. To be honest, I’d had better days than last Wednesday, redeemed only by the prospect of seeing a fantastic collection of Kandinsky’s. So to discover that the House of Culture was denying me access, put me in a magnificent rage (‘f-ing Revolution’ etc etc). But the good Book advises to, ‘Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure: fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil’, and being in a pretty murderous temper, I head for the House of God. Unfortunately, St Isaac's Cathedral is closed on a Wednesday. (This is the city that simultaneously made one of its cathedrals the museum of atheism and religion for a time, which is possibly an indication that it shouldn’t be relied upon exactly for nurturing spiritual wellbeing.) In the end I did what any oppressed English mother would do, and contemplated a fag and a McDonald's. But on my way I stumbled across St Petersburg’s answer to The Dorchester, which went a considerable way to lifting my spirits (plus, the Impster still got her chicken nuggets, chips and a toy, because you can order absolutely anything there).

And now, somewhat in the manner of Ronnie Corbett, let me return to the matter of the ambulance. On Monday morning, dear K wakes up feeling, as Withnail would have it, 'unusual'. By Tuesday morning he is off-puttingly pukey and shaking uncontrollably, so I think it best to call a doctor (all the time privately convinced he shouldn’t have had ice in his drink the previous day). Two hours later he’s in surgery with a nearly-ruptured appendix, and I’m harbouring visions of a theatre equipped with vodka anaesthetic and a hacksaw. Turns out we’re in the poshest hospital in the city, and after a brief sojourn in intensive care, K ends up in a private room with en suite, river view, telly, fridge and no hyperactive toddler - so is marginally better off than me. And one can't but admire the Russian method of convalescence, his room being furthermore agreeably furnished with six wine glasses and six shot glasses (not a water glass in sight).

Here he resides at the current time, visa expired, regrettably unable to leave the country due to a faux pas on my part. All I did was to call BA to try to get him upgraded on the return flight. Admittedly I may have laid it on a bit thick, but how was I to know they would take it into their heads that he was unfit for travel?

It's been a curious week all in all. On Monday my brother had his gallbladder removed, on Tuesday K was relieved of his appendix, and on Wednesday I began to wonder how many other expendable organs we might be housing. Perhaps in California one could plausibly sell the idea of getting rid of a few, as a new surgical weight-loss method?

Anyway, being so posh, this hospital does a good line in English-speaking guardian angels. Dear Olga pities my lone-mother-in-St-Petersburg experience so much that she insists upon ambulance transportation to help the Impster and me get about (the charge for an ambulance is £250 an hour, so she can easily find one hanging about the place). A Russian on a mission will go to any lengths.

A few nights earlier, Madonna has come to St Petersburg to do a gig in Palace Square. We get accidentally caught up in the hordes of fans, and then caught in the torrential downpour which follows (Russian rain is really something else). Next day, as Dimitri is driving me to the hospital, he tells me how the authorities tried to break up the rain clouds by shooting things into the sky. Can you believe that? I know Madonna can be, well, prima-donnaish, but they actually tried to move the rain for her. My friends, that’s Russian hospitality for you.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

On Creativity

This week, I’ve been naval-gazing in the hope of gaining some neurological insights (admittedly, there's a chance I've been looking in the wrong place). In a scribbly-brained moment, I had the overwhelming desire to establish once and for all whether I am capable of thinking in a left-brained manner like this:

Or whether my life's work is likely to be the result of right-brained mayhem like this:

So I’ve done lots of online cosmo-style quizzes, some of which judge me moderately left-brained, and others moderately right-brained, from which I joyfully conclude that (contrary to popular opinion) I do have a whole brain after all.

Having worked in publishing for so long, this is a perfectly shocking revelation. The entire industry is predicated on the assumption that people are either organised or creative (the former tending to hit deadlines, the latter tending to have brilliant ideas). So while half the industry is churning out thirty-odd books by Jordan, the other half has a licence to work completely chaotically whilst harbouring Romantic notions of their own genius and creativity. And when the shit hits the fan, a new and over-paid position usually arises for ‘a creative’, as if to say, ‘we don’t know what we need him to do, but he’s sure to figure something out.’ (Unfailingly, he doesn’t.)

Now as every newspaper editor knows, working in non-fiction tends to be a more creative enterprise than working in fiction. But of course brand credibility requires that precisely the opposite impression is conveyed - reliable, factual, blah blah blah. So when HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster recently became the first publishers in the race to release their Michael Jackson books, you’d have thought their publicity would have focused on the new revelations and extraordinary insights their books brought to bear on the life of the pop icon. You might even have reasonably expected a little white lie about how the book had been painstakingly researched for the last three years and was just on the verge of completion when the news of the singer’s untimely death was announced. Not so. One HC spokesperson was heard on The Today Programme boasting of how they had got a book to market ahead of their competitors in a mere two weeks: in summary, thanks to an imaginative writer with outstandingly rapid typing skills, fuelled by a giant crate of coca cola.

To any sane and rational potential purchaser, this insight into the rushed compilation of celebrity hardbacks would be deeply off-putting. But it does at least prove beyond all reasonable doubt that to get there first you need to be both organised and creative. Though whether you need a whole brain is, of course, another question...

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Eat, Drink and Be Merry (unless you're pregnant)

It is generally agreed (in the way generalisations are) that second children tend to grow up to be rather competitive and with an air of having been treated unfairly all their lives. Whenever a cake is about to be served, you can bet that it’ll be the youngest (even if they’re 25) who has the fine-tuned ability to detect any inequality in the size of the slices to the nearest millimetre.

This week I discover that - quelle surprise – this turns out to be entirely due to bad parenting. According to various child psychologists, such is our concern over sibling rivalry and our desire to keep the first sproglet sweet, that we virtually forget we have the second one (especially since it all seems so much easier second time round). The result? A lifetime of in-your-ear ‘me, me, me’ whingeing.

Naturally, I decide to put pay to any namby-pambying of the Impster and focus on the bump for a moment, only to realise it’s already too late. For a start, no one (including fathers) gives a bugger about the second pregnancy. You’re already drained of your reserves from nurturing the first little poppet, so the second time you’re exhausted at the outset. Not to mention fatter. This time round, K was late turning up to the 12-week scan, so I was already lying on the couch slathered in jelly. Then the Impster distracted everyone from looking at the baby on the screen by spilling an Innocent smoothie down herself. Then, the photos mysteriously disappeared, only to turn up a few days later stuffed in a pair of K’s shoes (whoever heard of antenatal sibling rivalry? At least I’m presuming it was the Impster’s doing, otherwise I’ve got more of a problem on my hands than I’d anticipated).

And another thing that totally sucks. As if to make clear the essential undesirability of pregnant women, on holiday in Cornwall I spotted the above picture on a bottle of Grolsch. What can it possibly mean? ‘Pregnant women: piss off’? ‘Pregnant women: singing ist verboten’ (a unlikely event given our enforced teetotaldom in any case)? There is pretty much an endless list of reckless acts that pregnant women shouldn’t do, unless they wish to be held any more accountable than they already are. Such as eating peanuts. I mean, the whole nine months is just total suckitude.

Uh oh, have I just been having a rant? Tcha, I’m a second child - blame it on my parents.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

The Consolations of Sugar Craft

If you had been in Winchester yesterday, you may have seen a slightly tubby lady in badly creased clothes and wet hair, clutching hen-night merchandise, running through the centre of town like an overwrought banshee, trying to catch the London train in order to make a very important chocolate-making appointment. Happily, catching that train gave me (the aforementioned banshee) opportunity to write this blog.

Child-free journeys are the midwives of thought, which probably explains why I have such difficult deliveries these days. And if you haven’t yet asked me why I’ve not responded to your last email or posted a blog of late, then bless you for your impeccable manners and forbearance, and let me summarise thus:

1. Am pregnant and wildly hormonal, so naturally
2. Have just bought a car and decided to move house, then
3. Went to Cornwall on holiday, which was unremarkable except for the fact that
4. My brother was taken into intensive care, resulting in
5. The cancellation of my trip to Vienna tomorrow.

Now all this might sound like the prelude to another moan about the impossibility of holidaying, but as it happens, adversity has instead mustered a creative but somewhat haywire set of reactions. For example, my new asymmetrical haircut (with which I resemble a member of The Human League), and the frenzied organisation of no less than three parties in celebration of the Impster’s second birthday. Not to mention cake.

Last year for her birthday, I bought a cake from M&S and received a very reducing look from one stay-at-home mummy who said 'you know, I simply wouldn't feel right if I didn't make a cake myself'. So this year, rather than suffer a guilty conscience and incitement to murder again, I had a sudden attack of the Annabel Karmels. When my old work buddy, J, phoned and I told her that I was 'in the Entertainer buying In the Night Garden figurines to put on the Impster's birthday cake which I'm planning to fashion into a magical gazeebo.' There was a slight pause, followed by the enquiry: 'Have you had a stroke?'

Only very exceptional circumstances can drive an otherwise sane woman to seek solace in the art of sugar craft. For what can possibly result but yearly spiralling expectations and the potential for significant dental bills? Oddly enough though, taking on such a monstrous task was curiously calming, a bit like making sophisticated chocolate truffles on a hen weekend, when one’s expectations had been raised no higher than half a dozen chocolate penises.

My brother is recovering nicely, and now he’s off the morphine I do wonder whether I might have spent these last few weeks hallucinating in sympathy. All the same, I might knock up a few Viennese biscuits this week. Just as a consolation.

Friday, 29 May 2009

The Big Deal

Time on the clock has exceeded time in the mind this week, which is why I’m so tardy in writing to tell you about my bank holiday weekend. Eighty or so of us were sun-burning ourselves at my goddaughter’s churchless naming celebrations in Deal, Kent. If you haven’t been (to Deal that is) you must remedy this immediately. It is utterly charming and resides on my list of favourite seaside towns, alongside Bamburgh, Porthcurno, St Ives, and Southwold.

We stayed at a place called the Beachbrow Hotel in Deal, which has an alluring enough website and, inexplicably as it turns out, a link from ‘The Best of Deal and Sandwich’. Our suspicions should have been aroused by being asked to pay in full for the whole weekend stay on checking in, but then again, as this blog has already shown, our suspicion-arousing antennae seem oddly defective. Or perhaps even before that, when the attention buzzer played all the Big Ben chimes at 100 decibels (the manager informed me he is deaf, so if you have a problem, you can probably guess at the response you’ll get). The restaurant was closed for ‘lots of reasons’, which momentarily brought to mind the episode of Fawlty Towers with the hotel inspectors – or perhaps I’m thinking of the one with the hamster. Anyway, you get the gist.

Somehow I had managed to book a family room which contained four beds (yes I know, just like a Victorian slum house). But to be honest, by the time we left, we’d had need of them all (for reasons best left unmentioned, but which sadly had nothing to do with any sexual antics). The ensuite, which admittedly was huge, but unaccountably shower-less, had a poo-chopping loo, which was so deafening as to rouse even a sleeping baby. And more curiously, water from the hand basin also seemed to get the chop (presumably as a precaution against any particularly filthy guests), so we couldn’t even clean our teeth once the little Impster was asleep. Really, what I’m trying to say is please do go to Deal, but book yourself in at the Royal Hotel.

Now, for Babe C* (or more factually Day-wood*, as C cannot yet read), here is a little poem which I wrote during one of my two sleepless nights at the Beachbrow. When reading it, you need to take into account that a) I haven’t written a poem since I was 12 and b) I was horribly sleep deprived (but to be fair, both these points are patently obvious). Thus:

Who can say what great events
Await you from afar?
But I am certain you were born
Beneath a lucky star.

Sometimes we get our just desserts
To each her own reward:
Smile and shine through all life’s trials
And you will be adored.

And when the path gets muddier,
If you need another,
I shall try my best to be
Your fairy godmother.

For what is life without good luck
And magical surprises:
Imagine just how dull we’d be
Ruled by our own devices.

So all best wishes, little one
From me to you this day:
For every blessing you can count
May one more come your way.

*So named by the Impster (who I don’t think can pronounce all her v’s yet, given she counts ‘nine, ten, a-lemon, twelve...’)

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Impossibility of Holidaying

I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth. I took my leave of K with a right-minded smugness. He would be working, I would be holidaying on the French Riviera. He would be earning, I would be spending. A pleasing natural equilibrium seemed to have established itself. And Menton lived up to its promise in many ways: I barely had requirement to remove my sunglasses the entire week, there was a frisson of glamour about its yacht-studded shores and heady prices, and the promise of reckless abandon lay tantalisingly within grasp.

Query: when is a holiday not a holiday? Answer: when it is spent with two toddlers. After all, what defines a holiday if not rest, relaxation, and time spent at leisure, free from work? And how to fulfil same holidaying spirit if one is perpetually forced to rise at unsociable hours, appease tantrums, listen to whingeing, get splattered with tomato and orange juice in restaurants, and generally be subject to the relentless repetition and routine of parenting a nearly-two-year-old? No good ever came of believing that a change is as good as a rest. One day you have children, and the next you find yourself in the midst of a dance reminiscent of something from They Shoot Horses Don’t They? Menton has a garish little merry-go-round, which simply thrilled the Impster. Riding round and round and up and down and ‘again again!’ is the perfect metaphor for toddlerdom.

I confess I was greatly relieved to see K after the 9-hour journey home. He was looking remarkably chipper, and dare I say it, had a note of right-minded smugness about his countenance. He’d spent his week in London and Manchester doing that kind of sociable working which involves late nights, Michelin-starred restaurants, unbridled luxury, vast expenditure, lazy mornings and too much alcohol. Is it just me, or is that the definition of a holiday?

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Home Tourist - Part Two

If the art of travel is to recognise why we love a place, to grasp the cause and meaning of its beauty, and to fathom its allure, then it is a gloriously subjective thing, not worth committing to paper. (Rather like this blog. Yet I do, so I will. Is that the same as saying ‘I blog therefore I am?’)

Elizabeth Gilbert , in her book Eat, Pray, Love, says that every city has a word which defines it, and that word is also the word going through the minds of most of the people in that city. Such as, Rome = SEX; New York = ACHIEVE; Stockholm = CONFORM. And she suggests that if your word doesn’t match that of the place you’re in, then you don’t really belong there.

So after my day of home-spun tourism, I got to wondering what makes Winchester, Winchester, instead of, say, Salisbury? And I’ve come to the late conclusion that it might be ASPIRE (as opposed to a spire, which Salisbury most impressively and irrefutably does have).

Edgy is certainly not a word one would use to describe Winchester - it is full of white middle class people, all trying to have something slightly better than the very nice things they’ve already got. Its only edge is a ruthlessly competitive and slightly smug one (people expect their toddlers to get French lessons at nursery).

But while I loathe its provincial smugness, I confess I love the reasons for that: its beauty, its sense of privilege, its boutique shops, marvellous hairdressers and fabulous farmer’s market. Yes, I am perfectly at home here, and no wonder. For I aspire to all best wishes: to idleness, happiness, expensive haircuts and one day being able to write a decent blog.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Home Tourist - Part One

My grandmother has only travelled further than a hundred miles from her home three times in her 91 years: once to London (where she objected to the cars), once to Edinburgh (where she objected to the rats), and once to Ambleside (where she objected to the ghost). Whether she harbours a secret envy of my foreign travels, or whether she sees them as a betrayal and rejection of the familiar homestead, I cannot say. But she is unremitting in her pouring of scorn upon any enterprise involving a journey.

When I return home she will usually say something like ‘so I suppose you’re more tired than you were before you left?’ – which invariably I am – and proceeds to evidence any number of additional hindrances to one’s wellbeing, such as rice-based diets, improper plug sockets, rabies, madcap driving, and over-exposure to midday sun. And while it is always advisable to agree with her, on the matter of travel, she does make the occasional, unassailable, valid point.

To what end do we put ourselves through different time-zones, airport departure lounges, grubby public transport systems, traffic jams, unsatisfactory breakfasts, and endless queues? In our anticipation of new and exotic locations, we somehow selectively overlook the less attractive details. Meanwhile, at home, we linger on such points, believing life to be better just about anywhere else.

Tomorrow, however, an ex-colleague from the US is coming to visit, and I am designated ‘tour guide’ for my home town of Winchester. And the rather appealing thought occurs that if I can only apply her travelling mindset myself as I show her around the city, I may be able to see its attractions afresh. What better way of enhancing one’s own happiness, than to appreciate one’s home surroundings?

So like any good traveller, I will repair to my armchair to plot my course. I might even partake of a nice cup of tea and a biscuit while I do so. Granny would approve.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

On Destiny

You only have to take the most cursory look at history to realise the dubious benefit of having the courage of one's own convictions. I’m thinking Icarus, Napoleon, Hitler, Maggie Thatcher.... Anyway, my dearest K is widely known for his work in the dark art of persuasion, so much so that until we met, few if any had dared to challenge him on a whole plethora of peculiar beliefs, which together constitute certain idiosyncrasies of character that only a wife could love. So it was that, blessed with the appeal which utter confidence inspires, I blithely followed him aboard the flight he had booked, and made the unusual mistake of going on the wrong holiday.

It seemed like nothing less than good fortune when, trying to harness a wriggly one-year old Impster on my lap, the pilot announced that our flight would only take 2 hours. Indeed, I had anticipated the flight to Lanzarote taking a good 4 hours. The only obvious (and dare I say it, logical) explanation was that we were experiencing an unprecedented tailwind (my father is an aerodynamicist – I really do believe such things are possible). And as we came in to land, K pointed to the volcanic mountains and remarked that the island was really much larger than he'd remembered. Then out through customs, more curious yet, was the inexplicable absence of the car hire firm we'd booked. Tcha, what cowboys! Undeterred, we hired a different car and sought a map of the ‘island’. And in the midst of our most creative gesticulations and finest pigeon Spanish, the horror crept upon us. Quite clearly, we were in mainland Spain, aka The Wrong Lanzerote. Yes, if our stupidity is to be believed (and we’ve made careers out of it not being), then we had not the slightest notion that Alicante was on the Costa bloody Blanca. How wise was Robert Louis Stevenson when he wrote that to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.

In short, my beloved had booked flights to Alicante (ALC) instead of Arrecife (ACE). A note to self that late-night use of is a truly hazardous thing – you could end up anywhere waiting for those screens to refresh! But K is so entirely plausible as to be a liability - a reputable member of customer services at Gatwick was actually grateful to him for being told that Alicante was in Lanzarote. After all those years of ignorance!

Looking on the bright side, as far as the little Impster is concerned, she's had a super week in Lanzarote. Well, it seemed a trifle unnecessary to confuse matters when she'd just learned to pronounce the place, and 21 months is far too tender an age to reveal that grownups are fallible (or whither parental authority?).

I must confess, dear reader, that we had a rather fine holiday after all (though an extra jumper wouldn’t have gone amiss). Which begs the question of whether we were not destined after all for our destination? For who can say how often we take a wrong turn in life, only to end up at the exact place we had been headed all along? As the Spanish would have it, ‘Que sera, sera’.