Thursday, 29 December 2011

Since I met him

Last night I made the Boo’s birthday cake. I knew exactly what he would like best: a Star Wars R2-D2 cake. And I thought: how very strange that two years ago he was still inside me, and in such a short space of time has developed such specific tastes. Then I thought: only four months ago I had no idea what ‘R2-D2’ was. I would probably have guessed it was something to do with Star Trek or Dr Who. Yes, already the Boo has taught me a thing or two.

So there I was, up to my eyes in butter cream, sternly concentrating on my piping as if it was the most important thing I had ever done in my life. And here he is today, blowing out his two candles:

A year ago he could barely say a word, but nowadays we talk about everything. Like all two year olds, he is pure will. But he holds very firm opinions on matters. He tells me all the things he likes and, with greater force, all the things he doesn’t. ‘Get off you cheeky rascal!’ he says now when I try to change his nappy. And he struts around the house tutting ‘Oh for goodness sake.’

At nursery he is described as ‘our little legend’ on the days when he’s behaving, and ‘the ringleader’ on the days when he’s not. He is suited to this environment because he has to be in the thick of things. He is naturally happiest when surrounded by lots of people, and his enthusiasm for life, his extreme joie de vivre, means that even older boys like having him in their party. Today, he was in his element:

And at the end of the party managed to find himself a nice quiet spot to enjoy an ice lolly:

Of course I am biased, but the Boo is unusually easy to adore. He is sharing and forgiving, and last night when I banged my head on the medicine cabinet, he said ‘Poor mummy, I kiss it better.’ And so he did and so it was.

Naturally, he is always up to mischief, but is quick to apologise. And then he’ll give me a look, with that triangular right eyebrow which he can move independently, and that smile that lights an entire room like the Blackpool illuminations, and before I know it I’m smothering him in kisses and giving him a chocolate biscuit.

So how is it that in just two years he has learned so very much about how to live? And how is it that, since I met him, I have learned so very little? What have I been doing with my time? I haven’t learnt a new language. I haven’t developed any new motor skills. I haven’t even learnt how to deal with people any better.

Being a grown up sucks sometimes. But I will say this for it. Once in a while, you can give birth and fall in love.

Monday, 26 December 2011

What Christmas looks like

Thursday: a man is walking towards me as I run down a muddy track. He is dark and thick set and he looks like he wants to kill someone. Then around the bend appear four children walking with their mother. She looks like she wants to kill someone. Oh dear, I think, Christmas holidays.

Friday: my beautiful goddaughter is hanging a gingerbread family on our tree (a few limbs go missing). My children are playing a raucous game of 'touching the ceiling' with her father. Outside on the drive K's car is drawing up. He is home early and we are all excited. Oh good, I think, Christmas holidays.

Saturday: a little sequined angel is standing at the front of the church, holding hands with a littler shepherd clutching his toy lamb. The angel is singing Away in a Manger and is protecting the shepherd from stampeding wise men. A young couple steal a kiss as they leave the church. Oh good, I think, Christmas love.

Sunday: four wide eyes, sparkling with excitement as wrapping paper is ripped open and presents are shared. K is carving a five bird roast, symbol of generosity and greed. Oh dear, I think, for what we are about to receive I feel horribly guilty.

Monday: two people standing by a fire on their allotment, which gives me a warm cold feeling as I run past. The owner of a local wine bar walking his dog waves hello (and I resolve to drink less next year). More people walking in ever stranger familial formations. A waterlogged nature reserve, with up-tailed ducks searching for morsels. Two planes flying overhead, uniting and dividing a couple of hundred families. The world's coolest parents on rollerblades, teaching their youngest of three how to skate. Darkness descending as I reach home, but on the front lawn two bright white doves shine out. Oh good, I think, Christmas peace.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

The littlest things

I've been making little mistakes, like forgetting to attach the email attachment, and bigger mistakes like wrapping up the wrong present. I don't usually make mistakes like these but perhaps its not surprising. I am exhausted. There are also six birthdays in December and I have been up until one wrapping.

During the wrapping session I am also on the phone finalising birthday party preparations.

'I've got the parental champagne,' I say, 'and I just need to sort parental nibbles.'

'Great! I've hired a helium canister,' says my friend.

'Goodness,' I say, 'You've thought of everything.'

'Actually I feel like my head is about to explode,' she says.

This is exactly the feeling I have. This is Christmas.

'I'm sorry to sound like a moaning 70s housewife,' she says, 'but I think men think that Christmas just happens.'

When I was a child, my mother drove us insane. She'd make three puddings and complain about all the work she had to do, and we'd say, 'But you only needed to make one,' and she'd say, 'Well I like everyone to have their favourite.'

Looking back, I think she achieved the miracle of Christmas by never sleeping. The house was always full of happy people and wonderful cooking smells and a matriarch who had been making lists for a month and had thought of everything.

This year I only started feeling Christmassy yesterday. I like to be in the kitchen cooking, I like a houseful of people (lots of whom must be chocolate-stealing children), I like to have choral music in the background, I like a church service, I like lots of fairy lights, I like the smell of a real pine-needle-dropping tree, I like lots of booze, and giving beautiful things.

Christmas is a million little things. It's the things that make your head almost explode. But as my mother taught us, it's the thought that counts.

Sunday, 18 December 2011


Take my hand.
Hold tight never cling
Even when we're scared.
Squeeze to ease intensive pain,
Or as a secret sign of your affection.
Casual care became
Handwritten love
Wrapped neatly,
Fingers tracing 
Felt affection.
Touched together:
This is our handmade love.

I love the sense of freedom and unity that holding hands gives. This is about my family. About marriage, about giving birth, about holding the Boo's hand to help him down the stairs, about the Impster reaching for my hand today in the Christmas shopping crowds, about walking along the South Bank with K, about holding my grandmother's hand as she lay dying. Small acts of love which mean everything.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Running to keep it up

‘Frustrated?’ he says.

‘Always,’ I say.

‘Come on then, start a fight,’ he says. And I try to beat the sh*t out of him.

I have recently become a convert to boxing. It never fails to exhaust me, so it surely must burn some calories, and it never fails to satisfy either.

If I want to process things I like to walk. If I want to forget things, I run. I love running, because I love the comfort of its rhythm, but it doesn’t allow me to think - my head seems to work slower the faster that my legs move. If I want to vent, then boxing is the best therapy. If I’m bursting with happiness, then trampolining gives me an even greater high.

There was a moment after I’d had the children when I looked at myself naked in the mirror and wondered who was staring back. That’s not my body. Where have my boobs gone? Where has my waist gone? Bloody hell, where is my arse going? I knew I needed to get a grip before gravity did, so I started commando training at the Rugby Club under the tutelage of the rather wonderful Simon Weatherall. Without whom, I wouldn’t know a hook from an uppercut. Without whom, exercise would be something other people did.

As well as training the odd world championship boxer, and running GetFit121, Simon is on a one-man mission to give everyone a personal trainer, which is why he launched the free Oobafit website and app earlier this year. Not only does it give you a tailor-made exercise plan, but it will also give you a personal nutrition plan, and at a click Tesco will deliver everything you need for the week direct to your door.

This week’s blogging activity has proven extremely bad for my state of health. Firstly because I can only blog while eating chocolate. And secondly because half an hour spent blogging is half an hour not spent running.

Alas I find myself growing in direct proportion with this blog. So here, thankfully, endeth the last post of the week.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Scary fairies and evil angels

The Impster is employed in the task of colouring in her Christmas cards (better early than never), while I am simultaneously cooking the tea and taking a work call.

‘Mummy,’ she hisses in her loudest whisper, ‘I’m making the angels all wicked and evil.’

I enlarge my eyes in the attempt to communicate that perhaps this output will not be suitable for sending to Great Auntie Jean or her friends from Sunday School:

Over tea we discuss the semiotics of colour, and the tradition of angels taking a godlier complexion. ‘But I just love everything that’s scary,’ she says.

I know. I’m still getting over the horror of the ‘scary Disney princess’ birthday invites, with the appearance of each card more terrifying than the last. ‘Are you quite sure that Sleeping Beauty wouldn’t look prettier in pink?’ I asked. ‘No, she looks really wicked in black and green,’ came the reply. And indeed she did.

Nor has her poor friend Georgina recovered yet from the shock of the face painting episode at a fairy party event they attended. There were butterflies and flowers and pussy cats and all manner of delights on display, but as you see, the Impster’s brief to her make-up artist was quite clear: ‘I want to be a scary fairy please.’

So when Halloween arrived this year, the Impster was in her element. She had been counting down the days since April, and no child’s face could have been more enraptured by the appearance of the Halloween aisle at Sainsbury’s in early September. But to her eternal envy, I was the one who had been invited to a Halloween party that weekend, which required full fancy dress. Wicked outfits are something of an Impster speciality, and no personal shopper could have bettered her efforts that afternoon in the search for my costume.

Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that Halloween has become sexy these days (though even I could not have anticipated the quantity of latex on display that night, thanks to the wide-ranging stock of a designer of bondage gear who happened to be one of our party.)

So I explained to the Impster what we were after – red fishnet tights, red hotpants, devil horns etc – and she leapt upon the task with alacrity, cross-questioning each and every shopkeeper in Winchester about whether they stocked said items. ‘My mummy’s going to a party tonight and she’s going as a really scary Devil,’ she told them, dramatising just enough to make them take a step back.

Her attention to detail was quite astounding: she thought a big scary ring would look good (it did), and what about scary purple glowing eyeshadow (good call), and had I thought about my nail varnish (no I hadn’t, but again...). This was the final result:

(The red hotpants had to be exchanged for the leather skirt, mainly because I felt the need to curtail the Impster’s retail enquiries, but also because K remembered just in time that the Devil wears Prada.)

But why am I telling you all this so long after the event? Well today I attended a ‘stay and play’ session at the Impster’s school - a very ardent Church school as it happens. The idea being for parents to get an insight into the school, though I strongly suspect the reverse is true.

Apparently the children had been asked after half term to draw a picture of what they had done over the holiday. Apparently the Impster drew a picture of our house, with me at the door in full Devil regalia, looking ‘very wicked indeed’.

I did not see that picture. Apparently it has been taken into the care of the Headmaster. I await a call from the child psychologist. Or a summons to the Headmaster’s office...

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Crap restaurants

When we were in Cornwall on holiday in August we made a last minute booking at The Driftwood restaurant. I went with low expectations and was highly delighted. So much so that when we got back and discovered that our friends had booked to go, I built it up to such heights in my enthusiasm that they were inevitably disappointed. If they keep a list of crap restaurants The Driftwood is at the top. (Apparently the food is too wanky.)

And yet it was these self same friends who had enthused to us about 36 On The Quay and you can read about that unfortunate experience here.

We all know that the best dining experiences are the ones where you go along with poor to reasonable expectations, only to discover that the food is divine. And there is nothing more guaranteed to disappoint than having your expectations raised and dashed.

Choosing a restaurant might be a personal thing, but there are some things, like not being offered tap water as an option, or having the discretionary 15% service charge already added to your bill, or having to flag down inattentive waiters to place an order, that deserve a universal crapness accreditation.

Well last Friday we went to Nobu London (admittedly about 14 years too late) because I love Japanese food. I could bore you for hours about the virtues of Tosa (King Street, W6) or Mai Food (Kenway Rd, SW5), or Roka (Charlotte Street, W1), or Tokiya (Battersea Rise, SW11) or the fabulous Japan Centre (Regent Street, SW1). I’d never heard a bad word said about Nobu, so what could there possibly be to dislike?

As soon as we walked through the door we could have been anywhere in the world. When I’m in London I want Londonish places (or at least Japanese), but this was as unique as a Starbucks. We were squeezed onto a table far too close to a party of American business men, and it felt as if nearly everyone there was dining on expenses. I presume this was probably the case given the eye-watering prices (the infamous black cod in miso will set you back £50 by the time they’ve automatically added on 15% service). It was certainly not the place where you expect to see the fattest man you’ve ever seen in your life. How is such girth possible on a raw fish diet? At Nobu it would surely cost him somewhere in the region of £24,000 to maintain his day’s calorie intake.

Nobu is greatly proud of its fusion approach – Peruvian Japanese – so we had high expectations of piranha sashimi and the like. But in reality it means that everything just has a tiny bit of chilli in it and they can put chocolate on their pudding menu.

There is an upside though. Since very little is actually cooked, they can turn your table in just over an hour, so you can beat a hasty retreat.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Men from whom I would not recoil

Well I promised you juice and juice you shall have, but just in case my father’s eyes are already wide with alarm, then I shall take the precaution of subtitling this post ‘How to Stay Happily Married’.

It was our wedding anniversary on Friday - Remembrance Day, lest we forget.

Fidelity, being the highly prized moral quality that it is, seems to have got the better of us both. Six years after exchanging our vows we staggered along Regent Street, a bit wiggly from too many cocktails, reminiscing about how we might have lost our fidelity along the way, if only we could have been properly tempted. I cross-question K on the women from whom he has recoiled. ‘Too litigious.’ ‘Too horsey.’ ‘Too dull.’ ‘Too...not you.’

What virtue, I ask, in lack of opportunity? For as the existentialists would have it, morality lies only in choice. After all, is it not self-evident that:

Fidelity = opportunity x self-restraint

(Doubtless my father will correct my maths homework if it’s gone a bit wobbly.)

After six years of marriage I think we can be perfectly honest about this whole equation. There's a head thing, and there's a heart thing, and then there's a groin thing...

About three weeks ago I fell deeply in lust with a certain wine merchant. He shall remain nameless, but knows who he is on the account of my ordering three hundred quid’s worth of wine from him the next day. Alas, mine was not the only groin stirred that night. My friend E reports feeling equally unusual, and although our husbands still roll their eyes at the sound of his name, we can’t help but believe that they must at least have sympathy with our plight. Possibly a slight affection for him too, if truth be known, on account of his Château Lamothe Cissac, Cru Bourgeois 2005. Wares like that can win you a head, a heart and a groin.

Sadly he slipped neither of us a hastily scrawled note with details of an assignation. And neither of us recollects being ravished over a late night glass of Botrytis Semillion. But let us imagine for one idle moment that this had been the case....

Sorry, where was I?

... let us imagine that had been the case. How might a respectable married woman have found salvation in such temptation? Because if we are to have learnt the lessons of a certain Emma Bovary, not to mention Anna Karenina, we know these things do not end well.

It doesn’t take too much imagination to foresee that in a couple of weeks, the whole affair would have become the biggest, time-wasting, heartbreaking, pain-in-the-arse imaginable. Or more worrisome still, had the relationship run its own six year course, who is to say that another delectable wine merchant wouldn’t have eventually appeared on the scene, requiring us to run yet another weary lap on the course of true love.

To avoid such exhaustion, we must acknowledge the truth of how these things begin. Not in a premeditated fluttering of the eyelashes, nor in the heat of grand passion with an irresistible wine merchant. No. It happens in a flicker of a moment that passes so quickly you don’t catch it, yet it writes itself gently and imperceptibly into your heart. Where it lies unread, until sometime later another such moment arises and it feels warmly familiar. And then the trouble begins...

We may have made the ultimate choice six years ago, but it took us eight years to make it. I liked the idea of living in sin, of waking each day knowing ‘I choose you.’ It was high moral ground. And it seems to me that this is the fundamental problem with marriage – it gives us a sense of having chosen, rather than of choosing; a past tense instead of a present tense.

So we should look upon opportunity as our friend. For it is our chance to say again ‘I choose you’ and to hear the resounding echo ‘I chose you:’

I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you I choose you I chose you...

...all the way into the future.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The liberal vegetarian

Oh dear, have I really not posted since August? Then like it or not, I shall give you post a day for the rest of this week, and hereby I pledge you my troth. Time dictates they will be written breathlessly, and pithily (dearest G, who will probably be the only one who reads them, tells me I am better when I’m pithy). So I shall give you pith today and juice tomorrow, and hopefully will draw the line before revealing too much flesh and skin.

Let me take you all the way back to August and our dining room table where we are having tea. The Boo has just reached across the table and has swiped all the ham from the Impster’s plate. Now he is greedily shovelling it into his mouth with obvious haste and pleasure. ‘Naughty!’ I exclaim in my angry mummy voice, trying to get the reprimand in quickly before the first blow is struck, ‘That’s not your ham and you shouldn’t steal it.’

‘Don’t worry mummy, he can have it,’ says the Impster, and with a slightly superior tone declares, ‘I’m a vegetarian now, so I don’t eat meat.’

‘What? Why? Since when?’

‘I don’t eat any animals. Just like the twins don’t eat animals. I need a special vegetarian option.’

Of course - the bloody twins at nursery. Well, she’s only four, and if I ignore it, perhaps it will go away. Admittedly though, I had not expected her to enter a vegetarian phase for another ten years.

‘Presumably you eat fish?’ I ask as casually as possible.

‘No fish. Or lamb, or chicken, or duck. Or anything that’s an animal.’

Ah ha! Perhaps this only applies to meat that is clearly named after its origins. ‘What about pork?’ I enquire.

‘Pork is from pigs,’ she says, ‘I don’t eat pigs and I don’t eat lambs or anything else that is roasted on a spit.’

Of course – bloody K. Back from a party at the weekend, elaborately regaling us with tales of Patch’s giant spit roast. Last year a whole pig. This year a whole sheep.

‘No surely not,’ says the mighty carnivore when I later hold him responsible for her ethical stance. ‘She was very interested, especially in the photos.’

Yes, dear reader, this is what she saw. K and Patch rotating the impaled beast like a scene from Lord of the Flies.

These phases pass, but not that quickly with the Impster. I recall only too well her purple phase, in which she would dress in no other colour for a whole 15 months. She has nothing if not resolution.

We go to a friend’s for Sunday roast, and she politely but firmly refuses the chicken, on the grounds of vegetarianism. ‘It’s a vegetarian chicken,’ explains our host. But the Impster is not to be won over.

And so the weeks go by, until one day towards the end of September I have the good fortune to be cooking sausages and make the helpful discovery that processed meat is so far from its animal origins that she hasn’t worked out it is meat at all. I pass this useful tip onto friends and family trying to feed her.

October dawns, and I arrive home from the deli with pastrami. The Impster would like to sample it. ‘What is pastrami?’ she enquires having eaten a plate full.

I take the brutal approach. ‘Meat. From a cow.’

‘Oh. Well I’m a vegetarian except for pastrami.’

She has done extremism. Now she is moving onto her liberal phase. As long as it comes from an expensive deli, it can be accommodated. Chorizo, salami, prosciutto, pastrami. All these can be tolerated. I pass this useful tip onto friends and family who take grateful note.

But the end of the month sees the Boo tipping my venison sausage casserole on his head, and the Impster refusing to eat it on ethical grounds. Perhaps it was the word venison that alerted her to the fact that not all sausages are vegetarian. But she can’t help loving food and her resolve is clearly wavering.

Tonight I cook sausage and mash. I can see her deliberating. ‘They’re only 50% pork,’ I lie. ‘Why don’t you just eat half?’ And she does.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Dark Side

It is well past her bedtime and the Impster has been crafting a spaceship out of two chairs, a table, a frying pan, her tricycle and a load of cushions. We have friends over which is making her somewhat excitable. ‘It’s still not working,’ she says. ‘We need more cushions!’

‘Ah, a typical woman’s solution,’ says our friend H (who is typically male in many ways, and not least in his antipathy towards soft furnishings).

‘Han, Han,’ continues the Impster, tugging at my trousers, ‘Get in, it’s time to go.’

At the moment our family exists in a parallel universe where she is Princess Leia, K is ‘my brother Luke’, I am Han Solo, and the Boo is rather unfortunately characterised as ‘Chewie’ (aka Chewbacca), perhaps on account of his nascent speech abilities. You have to keep up with these personas at all times. For example, ‘where is my brother?’ counter intuitively translates as ‘where is daddy?’ and it can all get a bit confusing. Especially if it’s the middle of the night.

Anyway, you might imagine my discomfort yesterday when she kissed me passionately on the lips, looked intensely into my eyes and whispered ‘I love you’.

‘Good grief,’ said I (with more than a hint of alarm), ‘where did you get that from?’ For I always make a point of trying to track down the primary source of any ‘highly original’ behaviour. 'The Empire Strikes Back,' came her unhesitating reply.

Now tell me if I’m overreacting, but this occurred on the same day as the Boo requested a ‘Jabba the Hut pictch [picture]’ to colour in. He is 19 months, has only just learned to talk and yet within his limited lexicon the following expressions are crystal clear: ‘Em-piire Strike Back’, ‘Yoda’, ‘Prince Leia’ and now Jabba the bloody Hut.

And worse still, every day when I pick him up from nursery now, he runs towards me, arms outstretched, beaming from ear to ear shouting ‘’tar War DD’ [DVD]. Goodness knows what the professional carers are thinking but I imagine it runs along the lines of ‘as soon as she gets that dear little boy home she must just sit him straight in front of the television.’

Well this is a cautionary parenting tale. For our shift to the dark side occurred not as a result of us parking the children in front of age-inappropriate feature-length films, but while sitting down on the floor playing with them. While I was swimming with the Boo, K was at home constructing a Lego Star Wars Snowspeeder with the Impster. And then (strictly for contextual purposes you understand) he showed her the Battle of Hoth scene from The Empire Strikes Back, which, like some supernova explosion, has obliterated life as we know it. Never having watched Star Wars myself, I am now an outcast, an alien in my own house.

Mothers, I implore you, beware your husbands spending quality time with your children. Find a fence that needs repainting, or a shelf that needs erecting, but do not let them prejudice vulnerable minds. Before you know it you will find yourself beset daily by requests to make a Death Star out of a dozen left-over Lego bricks and to recreate a Princess Leia hairstyle from a few curly locks. Inability to perform these miracles will only lead to tantrums which will only be calmed by recourse to half an hour’s viewing of Return of the Jedi.

Right now, here I sit at the computer, poised to make the best of the situation by the ultimate comfort act of ordering more cushions.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Study in grey

The self-evident benefits of decisiveness bring to bear the more knotty question of what advantages (if any) may consol those of a more fuzzy-brained disposition. I write as one whose grey matter feels overwhelmingly grey much of the time, and therefore have more than a little interest vested in resolving this particular quandary to my own resolute satisfaction.

I have a theory that the reason we British love polite conversation – no religion or politics please – is the result of a bizarre contradiction. We feign apathy to disguise our strength of feeling. Look at the passion with which we support football teams in this country - obviously we are a nation with a deep-seated psychological need to take a stance.

All the same, I can’t help but find too much certainty painfully irritating. Everyone must have a friend who is so confident of their own opinions that they have no idea how to converse, no idea how to explore the views of others. Such people have a complete inability to either acknowledge life’s complexities or to take delight in them. They are very likely to say things like ‘there’s no such thing as luck’ – a phrase that so revolts me with its idiocy that I have an unfortunate tendency to respond like a lunatic, shouting out things like ‘have you never played snap?’, ‘tell that to the last lottery winner,’ ‘let’s hope you never get cancer or have your house destroyed by an earthquake,’ ‘where is your compassion?’ and so on and so forth, with everyone looking on concernedly in case I’m about to have a seizure.

Shortly after such an outburst there are usually polite mutterings about the time of night, or someone kindly sees to everyone’s glasses as if to indicate that if that’s the kind of evening we’re in for, we may need some liquid relief. Usually the no-such-thing-as-luck chap looks slightly baffled to encounter someone who can be bothered to challenge his opinions, and later enquires concernedly as to whether either of my parents is French.

Of course, there is more than one irony to being resolutely indecisive. When you are not being an accidental Ambassador for Chance, you may be accused of being an Ineffectual Liberal or an altogether Hopeless Case.

Well here’s the comfort. How we deal with life’s uncertainties, its shades of grey, is entirely illustrative of our psychology. People who are ‘ambiguity intolerant’ as psychologists call it, view contradictions, inconsistencies and uncertainties as worrying and threatening. Those infuriating black-and-white thinkers simply have a delicate psyche, a deep-seated need to create their own certainties.

And the grey-minded need not feel inferior in the work place. On the contrary, psychologists have shown that you don’t need to be a black-and-white thinker to be a good leader. The no-such-thing-as-luck chap, who prefers to ignore or deny life’s ambiguities, tends to be risk averse, and were he let loose to run the country, would (almost certainly) be a dictator. Those who can deal with a little bit of uncertainty but prefer to minimise it, would operate an oligarchy. And those inveterate committee types, who like to get the group discussing everything until a consensus emerges, would probably run a very satisfactory democracy. Finally those lovers of ambiguity, who thrive on it and use it as a source of creativity and innovation, they are life’s anarchists – disorganised, explosive, and proven to be more adventurous. They are also more likely to indulge in excessive drink I’m told.


Friday, 6 May 2011

Study in black and white

It’s been a while since I last posted, and I blame work for getting in the way. There have been some difficult decisions to make of late, and I find it very damaging to my head space when I have a decision to make. I simply keep thrashing it out to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Instinctively, I feel the need to debate matters properly, explore the shades of grey. And I am ever sceptical of those who make their decisions easily, assuming they are somehow weak-brained, and haven’t properly grasped the problem. But, as T.S. Eliot puts it, there is ‘time yet for a hundred indecisions’. So I thought I should rightly write about the business of decision making.

Broadly speaking we tend to make our decisions using either our reason or intuition. But if you have a conundrum that you just cannot decide upon then you might like to try the following ways:

1. Listing all the pros and cons, and giving each a weighting. Then totting up. This is a slightly more scientific way of:

2. Tossing a coin. Very handy in settling disputes among squabbling children, but chance seems an unsatisfactory method for resolving anything that matters.

3. Prioritize the options , because – as a well-known psychologist once explained to me – most people actually make their decisions based on a very limited criteria of the two or three things they care about most. (K is a master at this reductionist method of decision making, which tends to be a quick and infuriating process.)

4. Ambivalence test yourself, by asking ‘what are the benefits of doing x?’, ‘what are the benefits of not doing x?’ ‘How will I feel if I do x?’, ’How will I feel if I don’t do x?’ and so on. This seems to me a deeply tedious way of going about solving a problem, but I expect it might come in handy if you’re thinking of leaving your husband or something (see 3).

5. Look to your motivation. Buddhists believe that there are three undesirable motivations: raga (passion or lust); dosa (hatred or malice) and moha (delusion). The desirable motivations are basically the absence of these, or put another way, caga (renunciation), metta (loving kindness) and panna (wisdom or understanding).

Well, it would seem that even in writing this post I have failed to reach a conclusion. But my instinct tells me this is a decidedly good thing.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Silent weekend

It's been a funny old week. Having nursed everyone else through the lurgy, I finally succumbed and ended up bedridden myself. Then on Wednesday, I completely lost my voice. But I started a new job three weeks ago and thought it would be bad form to look like an ill person who always takes days off, so I hauled my sorry self in and whispered to everyone. Which made the voice worse (and, frankly, made me look like an ill person).

Well, yesterday was my birthday, and because last year it was disastrously eclipsed by our house move, K very thoughtfully arranged dinner an a room for us at 36 On the Quay, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Emsworth. We had planned to go there for our anniversary in November, but as readers of this blog will know, our travel plans are generally foiled. And so it was that on that occasion, the Boo was too ill to be left. So the whole expedition was rescheduled to my birthday weekend, when, inevitably, we were foiled again, this time by the ridiculous situation of my not being able to speak.

But this was our first night away together since the Boo was born and I was determined that a lack of words was not going to fail me. (After all, the queue of volunteers willing to lose a night's sleep on our behalf is not long.)

We arrived in good time and were taken to our room, entitled 'Clove' and fragranced accordingly to give the off-putting impression of being at the dentist's. Style-wise and size-wise it was rather like spending the night in a caravan, but no matter: it was clean and child-free.

K explained our predicament. Could they please seat us in the quietest corner of the restaurant, so as to avoid the ridicule of the other diners while I played out the necessary charades? But of course.

And indeed much thought and attention was granted to the seating arrangements, but unfortunately none whatsoever to the evening's timings. I imagine that they put their staying guests on the most leisurely serving schedule. New diners arrived and left while we waited. Very quietly. An hour after being seated we got our amuse bouche. Two hours after being seated, we finally got our main course, by which time - conversation being a sore point - I had drunk fifty quid's worth of Chablis. So I ask you: what the fuck did they think we were going to do for an entire evening when we were unable to converse? Eating seemed to be off the menu.

So when the main course arrived, it was subject to the kind of great expectation that carries its inevitable disappointment. The food may have lacked balance and flair but so did I, and feeling decidedly queasy I abandoned my fish and poor K, and beat a hasty retreat upstairs. And thus, I am sorry to say, it was not the happiest of birthdays.

But there is a happy ending and it arrived in the form of breakfast in bed. Breakfast is my absolutely favourite meal of the day. Perhaps it's because I am 'a mornings person' (which is not to say that post-midnight revelling and gluttonous consumption are pleasures unknown to me). But if you have an enormous breakfast, you have a whole day in which to work it off. If you have an enormous lunch, you lose a three-hour chunk out of your day and feel as if you need a sleep afterwards. If you have an enormous appetite for dinner, chances are you won't have an enormous appetite for sex afterwards. Yes, breakfast works for me.

So I will say this about 36 On the Quay - they serve a mighty fine breakfast. A Continental breakfast that is (which always brings out a kind of xenophobic disgust in my beloved, who never fails to find room for a Full English, in the same way that the children can always squeeze in a pudding, even when they are 'fully up for veggies'). Delicious homemade muesli, hot toast and jams, warm and perfectly-formed pastries, sweet fresh raspberries and pineapple, and not-too-gelatinous yogurt.

Enough of poncy dinner reservations. Have a break, have a breakfast. I now intend to launch a very thorough investigation into the finest places to breakfast. And you know the best bit? It is socially acceptable to breakfast in silence.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Déja vu

Have you seen Episodes starring Matt LeBlanc, Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan? There have been four episodes so far and it’s just about the only thing on British TV at the moment that leaves me wanting more rather than less. But as I sat down to watch the first episode I realised it was strangely reminiscent of Moving Wallpaper (which to my mind was just a teeny bit better.

I hardly ever watch TV these days – mainly because I’ve developed A-list fatigue. I simply can't bear to see any more of the likes of Jamie Oliver, Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, Alan Titchmarsh and Graham Norton. I'm not saying they're not brilliant, and of course they are national treasures, but it's a bit like having visitors that stay too long: however fond of them you are, sooner or later you just want to see someone else in your living room.

And it's not just the talent, it's the formats. Peter Kay's hilarious parody Britain's Got a the Pop Factor and possibly a new Celebrity Jesus Christ Soap Star Superstar Strictly on Ice revealed Saturday night TV for precisely what it is - the same programme shown over and over and over again. And they go on forever. I mean how many more series of The Apprentice and Strictly Come Dancing will they foist upon us? Big Brother is a genius concept, but has now run to 11 series (not to mention all the celebrity series), which surely makes it rather tired in anyone’s eyes. Several people have asked me if I’ve been watching Michel Roux’s Service and the answer is ‘only the first ten minutes of the first one’. I’ve seen Raymond Blanc’s The Restaurant and I’ve seen Jamie’s Kitchen – I get the idea and am bored now.

To be equal handed, I won't limit my derisory sniping to reality shows, because so-called factual TV has been driving me bonkers too. The same old tedious A-listers making documentary series about things they know nothing about. For example, Alan Titchmarsh on nature (British Isles: A Natural History), David Dimbleby on British architecture and art (A Picture of Britain and How We Built Britain), Jeremy Paxman on history (The Victorians), Sophie Dahl on cookery (The Delicious Miss Dahl)... I'm find myself so embarrassed watching it that I have to peep out from behind the cushions. I mean, it would be like me commentating on the tennis - sure, I like tennis, but that hardly makes me qualified to comment on it.

Of course they can't make new things all the time, and with so many channels now they have to fill the schedules with something. And it's fair enough to say that I probably don't know about many very good new shows because I don't like watching TV any longer (and because it was my New Year's Resolution to stop buying the Radio Times). But the unfortunate truth is that in the UK we have the BBC and we actually believe that our creativity and media are pretty much the thing we do best.

So are we quashing that creativity with a risk-averse media culture, or have we just run out of ideas? Is the golden age of TV long past? Long live the internet!

PS For what it’s worth, here (in no particular order) are a few things past and present that I’ll never say a bad word about:
Cracker, The Street, Lost, 24, Mad Men, Sex and the City, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Shakespeare Retold, Jeeves and Wooster, Cold Feet, Sopranos, Yes Minister, Moving Wallpaper, Outnumbered, The Trip, Grass, Gavin and Stacey, Blackadder, Teachers, The Green Wing, Grand Designs, Simon Shama's History of Britain, Andrew Marr's Making of Modern Britain, and pretty much anything by Louis Theroux (which is why I must stop typing right now - Ultra Zionists is just about to start).

Friday, 14 January 2011

The necessity of failure

As a P.S. to my previous post, I happened to be listening to Howard Jacobson talking about his book The Mighty Waltzer on Radio 4’s Book Club . Having just won the Man Booker for his latest novel, The Finkler Question – and receiving the biggest ever sales boost from the prize since records began - he had this to say about his success:

‘All my books have been about failure of some kind and I’ve always argued success is not interesting. It’s not interesting to a writer, it doesn’t make a story, it’s not what a writer is; if a writer were a successful person he wouldn’t be a writer. I actually say to all of you in the fondest way, if you are readers, as I am a writer, isn’t that because we are all in a sense failures together? Failures at being worldly - we read because we want the world to be somewhat another place, we write because we want the world to be [another place], we do not feel the world is satisfactory to us, or that we have made our way in a satisfactory sense...I mean this in the most complimentary way. For me to be a failure is the highest haven’t been a banker, you haven’t become a footballer, you’ve gone into the imagination, to remake and to relive the world....Even in success, a man of imagination can find failure.’

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Manic obsessive

Something has been bothering me this past week. Yet again I am beset by that morale-sapping anxiety of not having made much of myself. It tends to sneak up in January, when the year lies stretched out in front of you like a crisp white page waiting for the next chapter of the story to be written. That familiar internal conflict arises: on the one hand a sense of aggrandisement that allows you to imagine yourself achieving self-realisation and leaving a valuable legacy in the world, and on the other hand a bitchy self-sniping about your own limitations that forces you to conclude that writing a novel, or composing a symphony, or discovering a cure for the common cold, or growing a beard, is work best left to humanity's more talented pool.

I'm talking about success, but not the sort measured by happy homes, good friends and getting through a week without recourse to prescribed medication. No, I'm talking about old-fashioned, traditional success, measured in terms of fame, fortune and 'reaching the top'.

Getting there, of course, has less to do with innate talent than with knowing what you want and being sufficiently committed to get it. But it has now dawned on me that there is another ingredient still more relevant in the recipe for success: obsession. Think of anyone you know who is a shining star in their area of operation and I will bet you that they are a total obsessive...

...which brings me to the nub of the matter. A man who is obsessive is, frankly, just a normal man. The well-known 'men and their sheds' scenario: women have hobbies, men have obsessions. Men do obsession naturally and they do it brilliantly (a psychologist would probably say that as hunters men are biologically designed to focus on the target without distraction). But an obsessive woman is distinctly noteworthy, as in 'God woman, you're obsessed!'. So I ask you, who wants to work with an obsessive woman, or date an obsessive woman? They're way too weird. I mean, 'just get some perspective!'.

Typically, a woman will allow herself to do the thing she really wants to do only after she has done everything she has to do. Take this blog for example, which is only ever written after the children are both asleep, my paid work has been dispatched, dinner has been shopped for, cooked and eaten, everyone has the things they need for the next day, and all social engagements have been fulfilled. Compare and contrast Mr London Street who is my very favourite male blogger. I have no idea where or when he writes, but I notice that in 2010 he wrote 178 posts and I wrote 11. My energies, I fear - like those of a cave woman foraging all over the place while keeping an eye on the children - are simply too diffuse to ever amount to much.

So are men pre-destined to be more successful than women? Perhaps my New Year's Resolution should be to get a bit more obsessive. But now I come to think of obsessive women I have known, it didn't end well. Helluva story though...