Friday, 17 December 2010

Rate your Santa

Dear Father Christmas

It isn't often that I write letters of complaint - and perhaps my thirty-something years should have made me world-weary enough to let this pass - but I can't help thinking that it's not too late. With a few pointers there is still time before Christmas to keep the magic alive for hundreds of other girls and boys.

You might think that I'm not your target audience, but as one who paid your £5.50 entrance fee on Tuesday you would be wrong. I don't expect you to be RADA trained, just convincing enough so that a three year old can't see right through you.

It has to be said that you've got a lot going for you – the willing suspension of disbelief has already been created. Most performers don't have the benefit of such a receptive audience, but unfortunately this comes with a certain level of expectation. I've spent a long time building you up, and you've got a great back story, lots of magic powers (always sells), a warm and jolly persona and a fine intellect to match. You can break and enter into any house without chimney, and best of all, you are the image of selfless and bountiful giving. What I'm trying to say is that you're trading on an elaborate cultural lie and your job is to enhance it. The last thing we want is to tell our children the truth, or who can say where it will end?

Allow me to enter into specifics:

1. Your 'grotto' was frankly grotty and your 'elf' was entirely without any elfin features (a hat and rosy cheeks really would make all the difference. The diet can wait until January).

2. £5.50 for a five minute interview and a tube of bubbles did not leave me feeling bountiful and full of festive cheer.

3. I didn’t see a list of your convictions pinned up outside, so you really didn't need to discuss your CRB checks with us at such length, nor launch a tirade on taxi drivers the world over who do not require such paperwork. The Impster was totally befuddled, but mercifully on this occasion was sufficiently distracted not to request her customary chapter and verse explanation.

4. Your parting shot should not be 'Goodbye! If you liked it, Merry Christmas, and if not you can see Santa at Debenhams.'

5. Don't ask a three year old the kind of question that would fox an adult. They are probably feeling rather shy and in awe of you (particularly in light of your passionate feelings regarding the necessary police checks) so starting a conversation with 'Now how many reindeer do I have?' won't put anyone at their ease.

6. I know that in this era of globalisation it’s probably harder to get your story straight, but you really should decide on where you live and stick to it: is it the North Pole, Greenland or Lapland? It doesn't help to give the impression of being hazy about geography when you have to cover the world in a single night.

I don't mean to be picky, but it is clear that you are not a man who enjoys his work. Perhaps you dislike children? Or consider parental expectations to be wildly excessive these days?

Anyway, you can take heart from the fact that the Impster still thinks you were 'better than the Father Christmas with the bell' who was outside the cathedral last week. I, too, was unconvinced by the cut of his jib. There is something altogether wrong about a skinny Father Christmas (though that is one accusation I would not lay at your door).

Well, I wish you the very best of luck for the remaining festive season, and let us sincerely hope you find more satisfying employment in the New Year. Should you wish to persevere with this career path, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I am now actively engaged in launching The Father Christmas Consultancy in time for next Christmas.

All best wishes

This Father Christmas was found in his Ice Cave at the Winchester Cathedral Christmas Market. If you've had an encounter with a good, bad or indifferent Father Christmas this year then please leave a comment about it.

By the way, as long as you’re not too fussy about where your letter ends up, little people can write to Santa Claus, Reindeer Land, SAN TA1 and the Royal Mail will try their best to deliver it in a timely fashion. (Just for the record, the real Father Christmas lives in the mountains of Korvatunturi in the Finnish province of Lapland but then you have to rely on the chimney method of delivery which is somewhat fraught with hazards.)

Also, don’t forget you can track his movements around the world on Christmas Eve here (they need Disney or Nintendo on the case with their animation but it’s clever enough to impress a three year old).

Merry Christmas one and all!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

May cause offence

It is bath time. I am kneeling devoutly by the side of the bath, engaged in the ritual practice of extracting the Boo’s fingers from the tap. Suddenly the Impster pops up holding her watering can and sponge. ‘Blood of Christ?’ she asks proffering the watering can.


‘I’m playin’ churches,’ she explains. Then picking up the sponge, she hollers loud enough to shame a barrow-boy, ‘Anyone want some body of Christ?’

The Boo looks suitably impressed and flaps his arms as if to say, ‘Don’t mind if I do.’

It started one evening way past her bedtime. K told her she could choose ‘just one’ book for her bedtime story. So she chose the fattest one she could find: The Bible. They embarked on Genesis and she pointed to the picture of Noah on the opposite page: ‘Look daddy, it’s the Fat Controller.’ It was clear that we had a little explaining to do.

Or at least someone did. The following week she started Sunday School and came home full of it: ‘I thought it was horrid. I wanted to draw pictures of wicked witches.’

Perhaps it was the post-Sunday School chocolate digestives that eased the way, or possibly her recent discovery that Holy Communion contained edible goods: ‘Daddy, did you get something to eat?’

Six months later, she has started spreading the word. ‘I like Church,’ she said trudging along the other Sunday. ‘I wonder if granny knows about Church?’ And lo and behold as we are taking our leave of my parents she says, ‘I’ll watch out for you granny, and God will watch out for me. God is at Church.’

No evangelist, however good, can match the charming yet obsessional fervour of a three year old. How otherwise could Disney and Barbie continue to practise their strangulating hold on families the world over? Yes, children spend their days greedily consuming everything they see and hear, only to throw it back up when you are least expecting it. Like my friend’s four-year-old niece, who sent shockwaves across her family last Christmas by yelling ‘let’s open the fucking presents!’

Childish enthusiasm knows no abstention, no tact, no diplomacy. It is boundless, heartfelt and unbearably honest. Just don’t ask for an opinion on your haircut.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Rational fears

It had happened once too often. After the Roundhouse debacle I insisted he got therapy. In the middle of a very enjoyable piece of art theatre there was a spurt of fake blood and the thump of a bullet meeting its fleshy target. And there was K, passed out on the floor: limp, palid and clammy from the shock. It wasn't so much that they believed he was on drugs that marked the turning point. No, my outrage was at having to miss most of the play.

Now, as far as he can recall, the first of these faintings - and probably the root cause - was watching the Oberammergau Passion Play. This vivid rendering of the crucifixion of Christ was made particularly ghastly to his six year old mind by his belief that they had crucified a real criminal. So there he lay, perfectly unconscious, while his mother summoned a local doctor to diagnose the problem.

Alas his fear of blood was to resurface on many a public occasion. There was the production of King Lear at university, during which, at the moment when Gloucester gouges his eyes out, he began flailing wildly with his arms before falling unconscious into the lap of a young lady in the seat next to him. Then there was the convincing self-harm scene involving a pair of scissors in a play at the Royal Court (same reaction, different lady). As for films, he was out cold during much of Scream 2, Face Off, and Highlander as far as I recall (and believe me, I've tried to blank these occasions out myself).

So when I was expecting the Impster, it was clear that if he was to attend the birth without detracting all medical attention from the main event, then something would have to be done. 'But it doesn't bother me,' he said. 'It's a perfectly rational fear and passing out gets away from the problem nicely.' (He always has been immune to social embarrassment.)

So now he is cured of his phobia, but I have a rather debilitating one of my own. This weekend I am going to stay in Dorset. The house is surrounded by beautiful countryside. Do I intend to go for a walk? No. In the city I enjoy nothing more than walking for miles at a time. But faced with the Dorset countryside I become gripped by a familiar terror. Perhaps I will be abducted by a raping murderer and no one will hear my cries. Perhaps just around the next bend a dog is going rush out of a gate, barring its fangs and - as the Impster once put it - 'woofing its head off.' Oh yes, all might seem calm, but there is a very unsettling unpredicability about the countryside.

My feelings towards dogs are pretty much the same as my feelings towards children. That is to say I like the ones I know but have a deep suspicion of strange ones. I'm more than happy to observe them at a safe distance and if they don't interfere with me then I won't interfere with them.

As for ominous men, I've walked past hundreds of drugged up, drunk and mentally unstable sorts while living in London, but have never felt particularly threatened. Yet the raping murderers of my imagination, who crouch unseen within the Dorset undergrowth are a far more terrifying possibility.

The Imspter is at a natural disadvantage in having two bonkers parents on top of all the common neuroses of childhood. She has taken on board my canine phobia, along with a deep-seated fear of the dark. And as readers of this blog will be aware, she does house a rather lively imagination. So at night she will wake screaming about all manner of things, from being abducted by magpies because of the silver embroidery on her pyjamas, to falling down the crack between her bed and the wall.

I would venture that if you know someone who has no fears, you probably don't know them well enough. K has a colleague who has an irrational fear of wet wood. Poor bloke can't even bring himself to look at a lolly stick. And my friend Sarah suffers from a supposedly irrational fear of holes. In her case even I can see that there is a perfectly rational explanation. When she lived in Earl's Court there was a sizable hole in the floorboards of her bedroom, which - given that she used to return very late and very pissed most nights - must have presented itself as a considerable demon to overcome.

Of course knowing the cause of your fears is helpful because it rationalises them. I know my doggy anxieties are due to a particularly terrifying childhood experience. But what K learned from his cognitive behavioural therapy was that his subconscious would respond to an imagined situation (such as a play or film) more strongly than if he cut himself with the kitchen knife. In other words, the further a bloody scene was removed from reality, the stronger his imaginative response, and the more extreme his physical reaction.

Being without fears then must suggest an immense failure of imagination. I would go so far as to wonder whether you can have imagination without fear? Fears are what occur when our belief in reason is suspended. They come crowding in to challenge our rational sense and join the carnival of the imagination. So this Halloween why not celebrate your fears, however rational you like to believe they are?

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Which Disney Princess Are You?

Every time we want the Impster to do something she finds disagreeable (such as putting on her shoes) she gets all huffy and shouts: 'I'm sixteen years old, I'm not a child anymore!' She's actually a three year old with an overactive imagination and a Disney addiction. This line comes straight from The Little Mermaid and she is currently styling herself in the leading role, drawn here:

It has some advantages, being a useful way of keeping strangers at arm's length by lying about her name, and also a way of getting her to put her shoes on if you only remember to address her correctly.

But on balance the advantages are outweighed by the disadvantages, as we discovered on holiday last week when she told the man at passport control, 'my name is Ariel'. Then later (much later as it turned out) when we were characteristically lost in search of our destination, a little voice from the back of the car chirps merrily away on a pretend phone call: 'hi Sebastian, it’s Ariel. We are very lost. [Pause for response.] Well. Well, we are in the middle of the dark with French words all around us. [Pause.] No, we don't know where we are going.'

When we did finally arrive at the gite it took her about four and a half minutes to sniff out a whole cupboard of bloody Disney films, which goes to prove yet again that there is no such thing as a holiday with toddlers. As if to reinforce the theme, what should be in her a bedroom but a full-scale underwater sea mural, which (along with the Little Mermaid) I hold responsible for her terrifying insistence on only swimming underwater in the pool. Most embarrasingly of all, she has a bevy of imaginary mermaid friends and spent the week VERY clearly telling anyone who would listen: ‘I’m not interested in lady love.’ That surely can’t be more Disney scripting can it?

Anyway, in the style of Just Seventeen , if the Impster is Ariel, which Disney Princess are you?

1. You meet the man of your dreams. Are you likely to:
a) have met him once upon a dream
b) dance all night with him but have no idea of his name in the morning
c) be grateful he's over 4ft tall
d) admire his mode of transport
e) think he's a bit ugly but hey, looks aren't everything
f) find yourself speechless

2. You're currently seeking professional help to overcome your:
a) narcolepsy
b) lack of assertiveness
c) claustrophobia
d) anger management issues
e) terrible eyesight
f) laryngitis

3. Your family set up is:
a) muddled. You were adopted by three eccentric old women, and didn't discover your true identity until you were 16
b) absent father, abusive stepmother and two hideous stepsisters
c) both parents deceased, pathological stepmother
d) absent mother, doting father
e) absent mother, hair-brained and grossly incompetent father
f) absent mother, tyrannical father

4. Your best friend is:
a) an owl, a squirrel and a rabbit
b) a family of mice
c) an assortment of woodland creatures with domestic prowess
d) a tiger
e) a teapot
f) a stripy fish and a lobster

5. On your sixteenth birthday you are given:
a) a spinning wheel
b) a glass slipper
c) a poisoned apple
d) a magic carpet ride
e) a rose
f) a pair of legs

Congratulations! You can now live happily ever after. If you have answered mostly:

A's, then you are Sleeping Beauty. With three good fairies and a heroic prince to look out for you, you can expect lasting happiness (provided that your husband isn't sent down for murder).

B's, then you are Cinderella. For true happiness, just do yourself a favour and get a cleaner.

C's, then you are Snow White. One day your prince will come, but you'll have to work your way through seven unsuitable men first.

D's, then you are Jasmine from Aladdin (coloured in with much enthusiasm below). Watch out that class differences don't start to ruin your marriage (or that your tiger doesn't eat his monkey).

E's, then you are Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Ah, c'est bon. He may not be a beast any longer, but you're still left with a frog.

F's, then you are Ariel from The Little Mermaid. Consider investing in an outdoor swimming pool to make family visits easier.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Aunt Sally's bucket

'Have you seen my white White Stuff top anywhere?' I asked K this morning. The sleep deprivation is seriously beginning to tell - the Boo at seven and a half months shows no sign of sleeping any better than a newborn - and I am permanently befuddled. 'You've already asked me several times. You're getting as bad as her,' he says, nodding in the Impster's direction.

Worryingly, our new house has a Bermuda Triangle quality about it. So far I have lost my watch, my favourite Chanel sunglasses and now a very useful White Stuff top. But the Impster is on the case.

Anyone who has come to the house since early July has been greeted with her baffling inquisition: 'Have you seen Aunt Sally's bucket and Promra's earrings?' And having had no luck in turning up a satisfactory response, she has now branched out to the general public with her enquiries, so that wherever we go, shopkeepers, old ladies, and car mechanics alike are accosted for routine questioning.

Aunt Sally and Promra are the Impster's two eccentrically named and peculiarly attired Barbie dolls. Aunt Sally came complete with a wetsuit, a dolphin, a belt full of fish, and a bucket. She might have been wearing blue mascara but otherwise pretty much deserved to have a somewhat singular name bestowed upon her. Promra on the other hand, is uncannily named because although the Impster has no notion of what a prom is, this Barbie is properly bedecked for one, with full-length ball dress, corsage, tiara, and - as the Impster informs us - 'a white shrug and purple earrings'. The only thing her Barbies have in common is their purple outfits, which is quite enough for the Impster to adore them (they were both given as gifts for their special purple qualities and I simply can’t remember how I got by without seeing their cheery fixed grin and enormous boobs each day).

This recent chain of events reminds me of the time my friend Nicky kept losing her belongings, only to discover a few months later that she was living with a kleptomaniac. But the Boo is the only newcomer in our midst, and while the Imspter has already condemned him as guilty until proven innocent, I hardly think he has it in him to make away with a ladies Tag watch, however fast his crawling skills and discerning his taste. Come to think of it, he may have eaten them. After all, he did try to consume the entire Yellow Pages yesterday.

No, the Boo suffers a far worse lost property conundrum himself. Yesterday his first tooth appeared, and I have an independent third party witness as well as the Imp to verify this fact. This morning there is no sign whatsoever of the tooth. I kid you not - it has simply disappeared without trace. Hmm, maybe I should check in the Yellow Pages...

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Just write (now)

Because I’m so impossibly slow at posting, it has now been nearly a month since I was working at the 30th Winchester Writers' conference. This is the problem you see. I'd love to write, but life keeps getting in the way. The original writer's block. In my case, I'm usually too busy editing other people's books (which is what I've been doing more or less day and night this week).

Terry Pratchett gave the plenary address at the conference, which he entitled 'Why are You Listening to Me When You Should Be at Home Writing?' Deliberately provocative you might think. Oddly enough, in his speech he didn't refer to the title he'd given it, and he didn't try to convince us that we'd all be better writers for listening to the wisdom of a multi-million copy, bestselling author. Rather, it seemed to me that the question was a genuine piece of advice: don’t prevaricate, just write.

It’s hardly an original suggestion. Every other week someone or other seems to complain (as if for the very first time) that creative writing can't be taught, and that universities offering creative writing courses are somehow sapping our originality. Instead we should just get on and write 1,000 words each morning before we switch on the radio or speak to another soul.

At Winchester, people came to me - and to many other editors, agents, writers and publishers - to get advice on how to improve their chances of publication. Some would say that they were looking for a magic solution. On the whole I expect they received sound advice, but three things became apparent.

Firstly, many people who attend writers' conferences are more interested in being published than they are in writing. It is common to have the desire to publish a particular book. It is far rarer to meet someone who loves writing, does so profusely, and will keep doing so for their whole lives, published or unpublished.

Secondly, you just can't get away from the need for a brilliant idea. If you're writing a novel, you need great characterization; if you're writing non-fiction, you need a stellar proposition. As Lorella Belli put it, 'writing is like singing: we can all do it, but to be successful you've got to be good enough for other people to spend money reading or listening to you.' Just about everyone I’ve ever met has a book idea that they think is a corker, and people will always point out that if Wayne Rooney can write a book, then surely so can they. (Actually only the very weak-brained make this argument. It’s perfectly apparent to anyone with an iota of sense that Wayne Rooney does not spend his time writing (happily enough), but is paid a staggering amount to be published because he’s famous.)

Where was I? Oh yes. Thirdly, I'm better at dishing out advice than I am at following it myself. (This is nearly always the case with people who dish out advice - why else would books with titles like 'How to Write a Bestseller' always have an author one has never heard of?) This blog, for example, has no clear proposition. But that's the glorious thing about blogging, you're not asking anyone to pay to read you, so I say it’s fair enough to write what you damn well like.

If on the other hand, you are lucky enough to be paid to share your random preoccupations, then you are probably a bona fide ‘Me Columnist’, which is how The Independent terms ‘Self-obsessed witterers who occupy prominent corners of the national press to tell us about their doings’. To be honest, those columns are usually the only reason I buy a weekend paper.

Well, if I'm ever to write anything, I need to start by repressing the editor within. And I need to get over the fact that writing takes up time which could be spent earning money. This is where I think writing conferences and degree courses have real value – they seem to legitimise time spent scribbling.

Deep down I suspect the main reason for writer’s block is familiar to all of us, writers or not. It is the fear of failing at the thing one’s dreams are made of. Nothing ventured, nothing lost. A sense that our expectations so often triumph over experience. So I wonder: how often are all best wishes no more than fictions?

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Little green dress

A few weeks ago, the Impster popped the question. 'Granny, where was I bought?' My mother, appalled by the venality and vulgarity of one so young promptly explained that not everything in life is bought, and that many of the best things are made.

I have to excuse the Impster's love of shopping (though not her insistence that we take the Boo back and exchange him for a girl), because it's probably genetic. And who can say that they've not been perked up from time to time by a successful shopping trip?

Last bank holiday weekend was spent at a wedding in Ripon. K was carrying out his bestmanly duties on the morning of the wedding by writing his speech, in his head it would seem, whilst strolling around the city. But he was not so focused on the task that he failed to notice a dress in a little boutique that he thought was made for me. Isn't that nice? And a useful reminder that while he might not be one of life's planners, he can pick out a good dress at twenty paces. Where a shopping trip with a girlfriend is my personal hell, K has that kind of endless patience for clothes shopping as rare as hen's teeth in a heterosexual male. He also matches it with a stunning tenacity for sourcing desired items on line (which is how we end up with a house full of so much stuff).

As soon as I saw it I agreed, it was the most exquisite dress known to womankind. So despite said boutique being closed on Sunday and Monday, the following weekend I took delivery of the lesser-spotted little green dress.

Did I tear it open with excited anticipation? Did I hell. Since giving birth to the Boo, I make a freaky little figure of a woman, still pixie like, but with a tummy resembling Mr Greedy's. Aside from saving us a fortune in new clothes because nothing ever fits, the singularity of my shape has led the Impster to point and ask, reasonably enough, 'Is there another baby brother in there?' 'No, I'm just a bit fat.' 'Oh good.' Hmmm.

Discovering that the dress you love actually loves you back, that it disguises your fatal flaws and brings out all your best points, is just about as hard as finding a man who can perform the same trick. So on the occasions I pull it off, I'm on a high for days.

The dress has made me insane with delight, and as I whooped around the house, aglow with love for both dress and husband, even the Boo knew it was a special moment. Here endeth the first lesson of his boyhood: girls love to shop, and boys who encourage them can do very nicely for themselves.

Monday, 31 May 2010


Are any of us getting enough? As if I'm not already obsessed by the matter, earlier this month journalists reported that you are 12% more likely to die prematurely if you regularly get less than six hours sleep a night (or more than nine hours, though sadly this is unlikely to ever worry me). Sleep turns out to be surprisingly like sex: inevitably ruined by the onset of children and at its most addictive when you're not getting quite enough. Well, it's official. Your children not only prematurely age you, they might actually kill you.

As if you can't guess, the Boo doesn't sleep. K emerges each morning as if he's spent the night in the trenches (presumably why he's taken to sleeping in Beijing these days*) and I exist in a semi-permanent coma. My mother sagely points out to me that in his nearly five months the Boo has been to a rock concert, a hen weekend, an upmarket stag weekend, a 40th birthday party and a wedding. And has concluded that nighttime is for partying and that sleep is for wimps.

So far this year I've had somewhere between no sleep and five broken hours a night. In desperation I considered a night nanny before realising that I'm already too guilt-ridden a mother to employ one. It's the old parenting spectrum: at one end are the parent-led routines beloved of Gina Ford and nannies everywhere, and at the other end are the baby-led theories (much in the news of late) beloved of Penelope Leach, Oliver James and hippies everywhere.

The 'parent-led' lot have made a fortune by writing instruction manuals for the clueless, with much talk about 'good habits' and 'routines', and 'sleep training your baby' as if it were a dog. Of course, they are responsible for instilling the myth that as a parent you should be able to maintain cool control over a 7am-7pm sleeping baby and solve all your problems (hence The Baby Whisperer Solves all your Problems). Hell, the Boo is not a problem, he's a baby...and the last thing I need is to be made to feel like a poor excuse for a mother because having a baby has disrupted normal life.

On the other hand, the 'baby-led' camp believes in giving yourself over to the needs of your child as much as you can: breastfeed them until they wean themselves, let them sleep in your bed until they voluntarily get into their own, carry them everywhere until they walk, don't leave them to cry in case they grow up to be emotionally stunted. But the Boo is just a baby, and really it's neither fair nor sensible to eschew all the tricky parenting decisions of when and how and leave it up to him instead. And I'm highly suspicious of any parenting theory that proves its unassailable logic by pointing to the fact that this is what cave men, or Amazonian tribal folk, or our impoverished ancestors have always done. (Believe that, and I'll gladly relieve you of your hoover, washing machine, TV and car for a week or two. Then we'll see how you cope.) No thank you - I won't be made to feel like an inadequate mother because I frequently run out of the energy and patience to meet my baby's every demand.

Isn't it time we were honest and admitted that we all parent according to our own tolerance level? We all have a breaking point at which we have to say Enough, and start trying less hard. Mine was at about 12 weeks of serious sleep deprivation when I reached the point of realising the Boo had actually 'sleep trained' me. When you've had Enough, then treat yourself to a read of Tom Hodgkinson's The Idle Parent. It is every bit as comforting as a chocolate bar, with the rare benefit of making you feel much better about yourself.

The Real Contented Little Baby Book isn't published, but every baby has read it. Let's take a sneaky peak at an extract:

7pm - the tiring parent will put you in your cot. Do not make it too easy for them: it is very important that they do not grow complacent in their parenting skills. Wait to observe their first yawn and then begin your protest.

7.30 - appear to give in and get yourself 30 or 40 minutes kip to recharge your batteries for the next stage

8.15 - scream inconsolably. Typically the parent is just sitting down to eat, but you must train them to serve your needs first. They will probably blame wind or colic and start endlessly patting your back. No matter - they will almost certainly get you out of your cot in the attempt to find a cure.

9pm - provided you've kept up the grumbling they'll believe that you must be hungry. It is very important to take this feed quietly as then you'll probably be allowed to have it in front of the TV.

9.30 - poo explosively (complete change of clothing preferable). The parent must not be allowed to rest for long or you'll miss out on your evening's entertainment.

10pm - the parent will repeat the 7pm procedure and put you back in your cot. It is very important that you protest at this time in the evening, or they might start having sex and the last thing you want is a sibling to usurp your place in their attentions. Wail with all the strength you can muster.

10.30 - you will probably be taken from your room for fear of waking elder siblings or neighbours. We call this 'pick up put down'. The parent must be made to learn that only by picking you up will you be quiet. You may have to do this 128 times on the first night, about 57 time on the second and probably only 23 times on the third. Be reassured by the knowledge that most poor parenting behaviour can be reversed in about three days. The key is being consistent: start as you mean to go on, and don't be afraid to show them who is younger and has the most energy.

11.30 - by now the parent will be tiring, and should soon give up and take you into their bed. They will believe that if they give you a large bottle of milk at this point you'll sleep, so make sure you take it all, otherwise you'll lack the energy for your 2am feed...

...Aaarghh. And so to bed.

*Note to self to avoid any enterprise involving husband + air travel. The man is a proven travel jinx (see On Destiny and To the Hermitage by Ambulance). This time, he was involved in a motorway car crash on day of arrival, and then overslept and missed his plane back.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Happiness (of epic proportions)

Whenever I write to thank someone for something these days, I always seem to do so ‘belatedly’, as in ‘A very belated note to say thank you so much...’. You’d think that a mother of two on maternity leave could take time off from drinking lattes in Starbucks to write a blog at least once a month, but sadly no. (Though as well as the lattes, I’ve had no internet or computer for four weeks due to the house move and a hard drive explosion.) So it’s without surprise that I’m starting this blog with a belated apology to Mrs Trefusis who so kindly tagged me on her blog back in January. The idea is that you write ten things about yourself (presumably without boring the pants off your readers) and then tag seven blogs yourself.

The task of finding ten moderately interesting things to say about oneself induces a strange form of writer’s block in itself. But then I was reading The Happiness Project by Gretchin Rubin, whose blog and one-woman mission to make each of us happier, inspired me to tell you ten things which have made me happy this week. After all, what makes you happy defines who you are. So here are a few of my favourite things:

1. ...starting with music. On Thursday night K, the Boo, and I went to the launch party of the new Scouting for Girls album. Here is my little rock legend at the end of the evening, totally rocked out:

He met the band, had his T-shirt signed by all of them, and I stole some POS material for posterity. I wholly recommend taking babies to unsuitable occasions because everyone wants to meet them, making mingling with strangers so much easier. (If you can’t manage a baby then try a puppy – it would probably have the same effect.) The new Scouting for Girls album, out tomorrow, is just as upbeat and happy-making as the last, so check it out, along with their blog.

We had to take the Boo with us because he’s still not touching bottles (strictly draught only). Combined with his party-all-night spirit, this is altogether proving to be very tiring affair because I never get a break (just deleted the caps...really need to get my rage under control). However, all the calories from breastfeeding (an alleged 500 a day) is allowing me to eat lots of chocolate, which brings me onto...

2. ...the subject of Montezuma’s truffles, which are a divine creation. A belated thank you to my mother for giving me their dark chocolate Eclipse truffles for Easter – they have been making me very happy this week. Their yummiest truffles of all time are Far Cape, which have a hint of Orange and Geranium - sound hellish, but taste heavenly. (By the way, if I was writing about ten very wrong things, then I’d include chocolates with alcohol. They make me want to spit. Chocolates should taste of chocolate and alcohol of alcohol. End of.)

3. Naturally, alcohol consumed in the manner intended makes me happy. Last night I was drinking a bottle of local wine from the Wickham Vineyard, at nearby Bishops Waltham. It was their 2008 Special Release fumé dry white, which goes particularly well with curry. Perhaps that’s why Michelin starred chef Atul Kochhar opened the Vatika restaurant at the vineyard. The Wickham vineyard is the first English vineyard to buy a chain of shops (they bought thirteen shops in Hampshire). Doubtless they remember the heavily pregnant lady who passed out after the tasting whilst paying for a case of wine. Low blood pressure (that's my story and I'm sticking to it. One day I'll tell you about my other passing out pregnant episodes.)

4. Hampshire really is a treat for foodies and has some fab restaurants, made all the more pleasing by one having to make the effort to find them, unlike in London. My discovery of the week is The Thomas Lord pub at West Meon, near Petersfield.

5. And when I’m not eating I’m probably cooking, especially if it involves chocolate and is in anticipation of friends coming to stay. This week I’ve made a delicious chocolate cheesecake from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook, and some scrummy gooey chocolate brownies from a recipe I got from a cookery demo on a friend’s hen weekend in February (the Boo came on the hen weekend too. He really is a party animal.)

6. So as well as breastfeeding to burn off the chocolate calories, I spent most of this morning bouncing on the Impster’s trampoline. No one can be uncheered by bouncing on a trampoline (especially when you’ve just had a baby and it proves there’s nothing wrong with your pelvic floor muscles). But equally, I loved the boxing lesson I had on Thursday morning. I’ve warned K that I now have a mean right hook, which I think is how I persuaded him to take the children out so that I could write this blog. The only thing that would beat these is a round of bouncy boxing. We tried it at an army ball a few years ago and I can vouch for its happiness-making properties.

7. I was also connecting with my inner child, as well as my actual child, when I took the Impster to see The Gruffalo at the theatre. It made both of us happy for an hour, so I recommend it unreservedly.

8. Although it’s far from a new discovery, the Times Alphamummy blog is one of my absolute favourites, combining as it does the themes of working and mothering (not that I’m doing much proper work at the moment). This week though, I was made happy by being asked to write a book. As you’ll see from the lack of blog postings, it was clear that this was not likely to happen, so I politely declined. But I do have an idea for writing a children’s book, so must work on that. One true alphamummy is Maeve Brabury, mother of five (yes five), who must start writing her utterly fab Happy Housewife blog again.

9. And while we’re on the subject of books, I’m currently reading The Children's Book (and probably always will be), but I was made very happy this week by my friend G sending me David Nicholls book One Day. And then by noticing it gets a mention on one of my blog recommendations: Read Like a Writer.

10. A new pair of shoes can raise the heaviest of hearts, as no doubt Mrs Trefusis will attest, so I bought a new pair of Jimmy Choos this week. They make me happy some of the time. Here’s the story: I bought them, and realised even as I was paying for them that they weren’t entirely comfortable. So I took them back to the shop. But then I missed them. So this week I bought them again. I love looking at them, but am resigned to wearing them for only short periods, mainly when seated. One of my favourite blogs, Tollipop, which you must check out, has a very convincing argument against this kind of vanity. She asks ‘what kind of little old lady will you be when you grow up?’ and I’m sure to be one with bad feet. And finally, on the subject of fashion, I am decorating our new bedroom with a beautiful Vivienne Westwood wallpaper, which is enough to guarantee that I’ll always be happy in bed.

Oh dear, yet again a post which is rather too long. I hope it doesn't read like The Diary of a Nobody. I've lost count of how many blogs I've recommended now, but here is a final one: the diary of self-styled modern day Charles Pooter.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Of butter dishes and daleks

On days when I'm in a particularly dark mood, nothing lightens my spirits more than the thought of selling some of my husband's possessions. Were I suicidal, I am quite sure that K agreeing to divest himself of all his belongings would resurrect in me the will to live.

I feel I can write with honesty on this subject, given my strong suspicion that the feeling is reciprocal. Only last week I bought a Cath Kidston butter dish to replace one the Impster had broken. K looked offended at its appearance and muttered something about hoping she might break this one too.

It is common house-sharing etiquette not to clutter communal living spaces with your belongings. Dirty tea cups, empty yoghurt pots, discarded coats, stinking shoes, a dubious taste in poster art...all these would induce siege warfare among friends living together. When you are married though, it seems that totally different rules apply. Somehow there is a sense that because you are living with a loved one, it is basically the same as just living with yourself. Or possibly, that all your beloved possessions are simply an extension of yourself to be at least tolerated if not embraced and admired by your other half.

Now, I'm not overlooking the virtues of K's hoarding. For a start, being a cluttery kind of person suggests to me a certain rootedness which might increase the chances of fidelity. I figure this on the basis of there being too much stuff for him to move, too much attachment for him ever to leave it, and the impossibility of any other woman in the world being willing to take it on.

But next week we move house (with the seven week old littlie), so at the moment I'm frantically trying to declutter, or at least impose some order on the stuff we've managed to accumulate. We've long had a house rule that it doesn't matter what stuff K has, as long as I can't see it. Otherwise I get such a vicious attack of claustrophobia that I struggle to breathe and begin to hallucinate that the walls are marching inwards towards me.

That's why when we moved into our present house, I insisted upon him having a room of his own. This has served remarkably well as a great invisibility cloak, hiding vast quantities of consoles, games, Dr Who merchandise, DVD box sets, amps, subwoofers, and home cinema kit.

But now we have the children - and are no longer just two tall children ourselves - Virgina Woolf's entreaty to have 'a room of one's own,' of which I had been an ardent supporter, now seems too antisocial and exclusive. Suddenly I find myself fixated on the importance of NOT having a room of one's own, and preaching the virtues and necessity of integrating our possessions in a caring and sharing kind of way. Perhaps the time has finally come to admit that we do actually live together.

This could easily prove to be the kind of ghastly mistake which leads to a state of perpetual snipping and sniping. Every time the postman delivers another CD, DVD or magazine, and I threaten to instigate a 'one in one out' policy, I'm reminded of the infamous 'soup line' imposed by a friend's mother in her perpetual battle against her husband's incorrigible stockpiling of tinned soup.

I dare say that moving house could result in the tragic loss of a remote controlled dalek, the breakage of an overly twee butter dish, and the eventual (much longed-for) demise of the Impster's 'Noisy Noisy Fairies' book. If in this brave new world of sharing we are still all speaking to each other in a few weeks I shall report back with jubilant satisfaction.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

My little superman

You’ll forgive the lack of recent post perhaps if I explain that I’ve been giving birth and things recently.

At precisely midday on New Year’s Day, my little one whooshed into the world, arm outstretched over his head like Superman. Midday, 01.01.10: a very tidy birthday and no doubt one that portends something or other. According to my discharge notes, the birth took 2 hours 24 minutes, though at best this must be a good guess, for he was born on the antenatal ward with a midwife turning up only just in time to catch him.

After all the hooha about my so-called 'high risk' pregnancy and no less than 18 mornings spent attached to a grotty old machine being monitored, the hospital lost my medical notes and left me totally unsupervised and unmonitored for the whole labour. The most surprising part is that having insisted on having him out, and inducing the whole process by breaking my waters, the possibility that I might, in fact, have a baby pretty soon apparently didn’t occur. So ladies, the moral of the story is do not give birth on a bank holiday if you want some moral (or rather medical) support.

After the birth I hemorrhaged, and to be fair, they very competently stopped me bleeding to death. Which is why I can type with such speed and vigour now.

Since I have become a mother of two, something peculiar has happened. For the first time, I feel as if I’m a proper mother. If your first child is a kind of practice run, in which you discover with distressing suddenness that you know absolutely nothing about babies, cannot control anything and have alarmingly neurotic tendencies, then in comparison, your second child makes you feel almost competent and possibly even fit to call yourself a parent. This is the wonderful thing about second children. They seem easy peasy and really quite a treat.

What is not so easy is the business of simultaneously looking after the toddler as well. The Impster, who permanently inhabits some sort of ‘second life’ these days, refers to her younger sibling as ‘Sizzles’, the dog from Charlie and Lola. Naturally, she has assumed the role of Lola (in case you’re not a seasoned CBeebies viewer, Lola is an infuriatingly chippy little brat). Unfortunately, this means that Sizzles is regularly patted, sometimes with startling enthusiasm, and must on no account share a bath with her ‘because I’m scared he’ll poo on me’ (which is fair enough and pretty well reasoned). She frequently insists that I ‘take him off the breast’, particularly when I am instructed to ‘watch the telly’ (quite literally – it is not turned on, because the Impster likes to make believe her own programmes and talk you through the action). On the whole she is indifferent to his wellbeing, but has been the happy recipient of numerous ‘big sister’ gifts.

Well, even Superman can’t be entirely super. To be frank, he is somewhat needy and his current wails suggest not wholly appreciative of this blog, so I must away.