Wednesday 24 June 2009

Torture by trombone, and flute, and clarinet and recorder

‘Oh God, it’s the school concert on Wednesday,’ said Annie glumly, swirling pink fizz round her glass.
‘Damn,’ said Sam. ‘I’d clean forgotten. Not sure I can get away with missing two years running.’
‘We went last year – AND the year before. I was thinking that we could pull a sickie this year with relative impunity,’ said Sue, sucking on an olive.
‘Hmm. They look out for that,’ said Joyce, an old hand with her fourth child going through the system. ‘If you want to be really safe, call her in sick at the beginning of the week.’

It puzzles me, this. I’ve yet to find a parent who actually enjoys the school summer concert. Every year we moan and bitch about it. Every year we try to wriggle out of it. Are we really all such terrible mothers?
What makes it worse is that it’s supposed to be ‘fun’. The idea is that everyone comes along and camps out in the marquee and at half-time (sorry, still thinking sport, I mean, in the interval) we lay out our picnic rugs, open up our hampers and clink champagne glasses and generally have a super jolly sociable time.

In theory it’s lovely. In practice it’s hell. Firstly school finishes at 4.30pm and the concert doesn’t start until 7pm. So you’re left batting round town with a bored hungry child and nowhere to go. The only places open are the Wetherspoons (full of old soaks) and the McDonalds (full of fat slobs) – OK, massive over-generalisation but you know what I mean. Secondly the darn thing goes on until about 9.45pm so by the time we get home James isn’t in bed until 10.30pm and is completely knackered, cranky and foul the following day.
Thirdly, it’s interminable and being brutally honest, unless your child is actually playing, turgid to the extreme. Actually, come to think of it, it’s even worse if your child IS playing. I know, I know, I should be more charitable and I should be overcome with gooeyness at small children playing big instruments but by God what’s worse than 7 year olds on violins or the combined onslaught of twelve trombones? Or a thirty-piece recorder ensemble (surely there must be a better collective noun for recorders – a squeal? A screech?).

Thank heavens for Annie who stoically volunteered to collect James and keep him amused until the concert and to save us a seat behind a pillar.
This year I had fully intended to play the game, be a good sport, shave my legs and wear a linen skirt or something. I also resolved to pull together a posh picnic and sling in a bottle of something chilled (in the realisation that most sensible parents get through it by getting totally sloshed). Of course it didn’t happen. Time slurped past and it was too late to defuzz and pluck so on went the black jeans. Clean forgot the picnic so we had a frantic trolleydash around M&S for food. Arrived hot, sweaty and with a grubby carrier bag instead of a nice wicker picnic hamper or a trendy tiffin stack.
Annie was her usual calm collected self (always is, despite having a furiously demanding job), sitting serenely with a batch of saved seats, firing off emails on her blackberry and keeping four boys under control at the same time. Yup, two sneaky mothers had somehow managed to skive off altogether and parked theirs with her (God, I envied their style). She even had a pukka picnic, proper plates and wotnot, cream to go with the strawberries (which were decanted into bowls). We meanwhile hoiked bits of salami straight from the pack.

What can I say? For the most part we simply endured but there were a few moments of pure gold. The pre-prep brass group was fabulous – five and six year olds squeezing farts and burps out of shiny trumpets, tubas and trombones. The clarinets were even better. Just the two boys (friends of James) on one end of a phalanx of girls with one boy visibly prodding the other as he kept hitting bum notes. As the piece progressed the notes squeaked more, the prodding got harder and in the end the protagonist collapsed in hysterics. They had another go but it was a lost cause and after a few bars and a lot of hysterical squeaks they gave up, the girls giving withering looks to the boys who merrily waved and raised their instruments in triumph as the audience whooped and clapped (presumably out of sheer relief for a break in the monotony).

Then it was time for the staff song. They’d gone for Abba’s Money Money Money which came out a little dirgy (and wildly off-key on the part of the men).
Annie raised an eyebrow. ‘Bit ironic really, given the current climate,’ she hissed. Rumour has it that quite a few parents are struggling to meet the fees in the recession (and boy do I sympathise with that). There were lots of resigned nods at the lines: ‘I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to pay’ and a few glum faces at ‘it’s a rich man’s world.’

We hurtled out at the end, relief etched deep.
‘Back again on Friday for Speech Day,’ said Annie as we parted company in the car park.
‘Same deal? Sit together and share the agony?’
I nodded gratefully.

PS - the picture is where I'd rather have been sitting. Ie outside my house with a glass of chilled pinot.
PPS - just HUGE thanks for the incredible support re the Liz Jones blog. It really seemed to touch a nerve but sadly doubt it will make any difference to her stance.

Monday 15 June 2009

Leave Dulverton alone, Liz Jones

‘We’ve had the most wonderful holiday ever,’ said the woman sitting next to me in the pub with the broadest of grins. I’d got talking to her and her husband a fortnight earlier when they’d just arrived and we’ve bumped into them here, there and everywhere in the interim. ‘We tried out all the places you recommended and we found a few more too,’ she said, making my mouth water as she detailed every fabulous supper, every cool glass of pinot. ‘You are so lucky to have such great places to eat and drink round here. And it’s so beautiful. And the people are so friendly.’
She’s right on all counts. We are. It is. They are.

Dulverton is a small town but it’s packed with good things. We are blessed with great small shops – both of the everyday useful variety (greengrocers, hardware, newsagent, chemist etc) and the totally non-essential but deeply delightful variety. You can buy everything from a saddle to a pair of f***-me heels, an antiquarian book to a fishing rod, a set of Sophie Conran cookware to a sack of dog biscuits.

Woods (as many of you know) is a fabulous bar/restaurant which serves seriously smart food (alongside a robust bar menu). The landlord, Paddy, is a connoisseur of wine and beer – and you can drink any of his vast selection of wines by the glass. It’s been feted in every paper and guide going and is always packed. The Bridge offers superior pub grub – home-made pizzas and pies, steaks and salads – and has to have one of the most gorgeous locations – right next to the river. We have a Thai restaurant which is excellent and slightly further afield are other excellent eateries (the Quarryman’s Rest in nearby Bampton is a favourite and my new best friends seriously rated the Tarr Farm restaurant, just up over the moor). OK, it's not London - you can't get a choice of organic vegan cafes or decide you fancy dim sum on a Sunday morning - but it truly isn't a culinary desert.

It’s a lively community too, a right old mix of ages and interests. And yes, people are friendly, very friendly. We all know that tourists are vital for our town’s wellbeing and they are made hugely welcome – not just for their credit cards but for the buzz they give the town. People work hard, darn hard to make Dulverton work and to keep it as a living breathing town. So I do get cross when I hear people running it down. This has been brewing for a long time and I have been sitting on my hands for months, nay two years, but it’s time to say to Liz Jones, enough already.

Liz Jones, for those who don’t read the Mail on Sunday, writes a weekly column in YOU magazine about her life. In the past this has revolved around her disastrous relationship but, ever since she moved near to Dulverton, her favourite gripe seems to be Exmoor itself.

Nothing is right. It seems we’re all uncouth yokels with hairy legs and armpits, downing our flagons of cider and doddering around, crashing into one another as we’re all so ancient and decrepit. Except, of course, when we toss aside our Zimmer frames on Sundays to hurtle out to blast pheasants from the sky. For pity’s sake, someone tell her nobody shoots pheasants on Sundays – they’re taking a pot at bits of clay. Apparently there’s nowhere decent to eat – all you can get in the ‘wine bars’ and ‘bistros’ are chicken in a basket and rum-babas. I wouldn’t mind if it were true but it isn’t. I wouldn’t even be so cross if it were funny or witty. But it’s all just so clich├ęd. So stereotypical. So lazy.

If Liz had come to Exmoor with an open mind and open heart, she would have been made hugely welcome. Exmoor loves mavericks and eccentrics and would have smiled, indulged and probably feted her (and she would have found a mass of material for her column). But all she has done is moan and gripe and poke fun at her neighbours and the surrounding area. Why, people wonder, did she come in the first place? A lot of the locals reckon she’s only here to get a good book out of the place. I am prepared to be more charitable. She clearly loves her animals (even if she does think that feeding rats on organic muesli is a good idea) and she probably fell for that age-old idea that things will be better in the country than in the big city. Well, they can be. But you have to make an effort. You have to meet people halfway, if not more. You have to introduce yourself to your neighbours (not turn them away because you’re ‘in the middle of a photo shoot’). You have to pitch up to things. You have to try things you would never normally do in the city. You have to recognise that country living is entirely different. In the city you tend to mix with your own narrow band of people – when I lived in London, it was all media, fashion, arty types. In the country you meet a much broader cross-section and that is its delight.
Above all, you have to adapt. You can’t expect the countryside to change itself for you. It’s not too late (not quite) and Liz, if I can offer just a few bits of advice…..

1. Ditch the BMW and get yourself a good old Suzuki or Subaru.
2. Stop feeding the rats – truly, people are laughing.
3. Try smiling as you come into the pub. Get chatting at the bar.
4. Accept that you won’t stop people shooting or fishing or hunting or farming out here. It just ain’t gonna happen. Live and let live.
5. Please stop calling hooves ‘paws’. Ditto to 2.
6. Learn how to reverse.
7. Stop going on about Prada, Laboutins and so on – not only is it vulgar but it’s pretty offensive to the hoards of people out here who are on minimum wage.
8. Stop winging about your dilapidated farmhouse. It’s gorgeous. Drop-dead gorgeous. Or it was.
9. Stop with the impression that you live right on the moor (now that really IS another country). Ditto the bits about seeing the sea (physically impossible).
10. Start doing your bit for Exmoor – you’re a journalist with a lot of power. Use it kindly and wisely.

The last is really important. The woman in the pub paused over her glass of wine. ‘You know the funny thing?’ she said. ‘We nearly didn’t come at all.’
‘Why not?’ I asked.
‘Well, I read Liz Jones in YOU magazine and she keeps going on about how ghastly the food is, and how barbaric Exmoor is, and it very nearly put me off. It was my husband who insisted we should give it a go, that surely it couldn’t be that bad.’

So, Liz, if you should ever happen to read this – please stop with the running down. It’s one thing to play fast and loose with your own relationships and friendships in print – but when you run the risk of taking away a small country town’s much-needed income for the sake of column inches, it simply isn’t fair or just.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Blogs I love #1

Sometimes, as I wander around the blogosphere, I come across strange and curious delights. It struck me that rather than just bung them on my blogroll, where only chance curiosity will lead other bloggers to discover them, I could be more proactive and highlight them every so often. So, without much further ado, I take great pleasure in introducing the wonderful Susan Sandford who blogs as Artsparker....
Susan is a madly talented illustrator and artist and you can see her commercial work at this website....
I have been adoring her Alice in Wonderland montages for some time (see a few examples below) but now she has launched on a hilarious series of encounters from the TV series Lost. I would urge you to go over and have a look and a laugh.....(oh and please ask Susan if you want to reproduce any of her pictures on your own blog).
Always had a soft spot for the Cheshire cat......

I think this is possibly my all-out favourite from the Alice series. I once played the Mad March Hare (badly) in a school production.

Sawyer (oh still my beating heart) tackles Bosco.....don't you love the shadows?

Painting the roses......

Oh, btw, have posted new material on my other (serious) blog
about cranial osteopathy for babies, ways to protect yourself from swine flu and how even picky parents can cope with DisneyWorld!

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Favourite children's fiction

Children and YA fiction is my true guilty pleasure. It’s a funny thing but, while I flinch at adult fantasy, I will lap it up when written for a younger audience. Why is that, do you reckon? The children’s books just seem more imaginative somehow and more earthed. I’ve always justified buying a disgustingly decadent amount of children’s fiction on the grounds that I’m merely furnishing a superb library for James. Only thing – he has grown up hating anything remotely spooky or supernatural. So my favourites languish... Well, not really as oddly, I can re-read these again and again while I will never go back to an adult book.
Here, for those who might have children of finer taste and discretion (or share my penchant for marvellously spooky or strange tales), are my total and absolute favourites (for this week at least).

The Old Beloveds
(C S Lewis and Tolkien go without saying)

· The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald – classic up in the highest tower of the castle stuff…just magical. The sequel, The Princess and Curdie is lovely too.
· The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner. But you know this already – the most accessible and openly mystical of Garner’s books, steeped in old magic and folklore.
· The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper – again, folklore and magic entwined as Will discovers he is one of the ‘Old Ones’ born to battle against the Dark. Don't be put off by the (awful) film - the books are stunning.

The new favourites
(Philip Pullman and J K Rowling are, again, givens)

· The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud (The Amulet of Samarkand etc). Set in a modern-day London controlled by magicians, Nathaniel, a young and reckless apprentice gains a brilliant sidekick in the form of 5,000 year old djinni Bartimaeus. Smart, slick, scary with a sense of humour.
· The Wind on Fire trilogy by William Nicholson. Never can understand why this hasn’t been made into a movie – Nicholson is a renowned screenplay writer (Gladiator, Shadowlands etc) and this is begging for a film treatment. A dark alternative world with memorable characters you really care about.
· The Wardstone Chronicles by Joseph Delaney. This started with The Spook’s Apprentice and has gone from strength to strength. Dark and very scary indeed – even I am not sure about reading these after dark. Definitely for older readers - 12+
· Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver (Wolf Brother etc). Oh, for heaven's sake, don't you hate this woman? These are just totally and utterly brilliant. Paver researched intensely, meticulously (some might say obsessively) to recreate an ancient world that is totally plausible. Torak is an outcast in a world of spirits and wild animals, fearsome shamans and elemental terrors. Can't wait for the next one.
· Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen by Garth Nix. Another deeply eerie and scary trilogy. Sabriel is the daughter of a Mage, who has to learn how to cope in a world where the dead won’t stay dead. My favourite character is Mogget, the cat who is not a cat. Oh, and the Disreputable Dog (no surprised there). These are my favourite Nix titles - the others don't quite do it for me.
· Tales of the Otori trilogy by Lian Hearn (Across the Nightingale Floor). Set in medieval Japan this is just fabulous. It’s got the lot – action, magic, mystery, love, romance, revenge, nail-biting suspense. It is hugely atmospheric, beautifully written and totally page-turning.

Now James won’t touch any of these with the proverbial bargepole. He likes a bit of action but with not even the vaguest whiff of brimstone. So his favourites have been, of late:
· The Young Bond series by Charlie Higson – with my critical hat on I reckon these are the best written of the whole ‘young spy’ genre. Cracking yarns.
· The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz – again, great fast-moving thrillers but just a tad formulaic for my taste. I still read them though.
· The Cherub series by Robert Muchamore – these are great – spy stories meet the boarding school yarn. Orphans of exceptional ability are recruited and brought up on ‘campus’ – a secret location from which they venture out on very modern missions (drug trafficking, animal rights extremists, religious cults etc). Violent with some strong language and sexual activity – they’re not - at first impression - every parent’s dream but Muchamore gets across some good healthy messages (don't take drugs, don't smoke, don't bully, don't be homophobic or sexist, don't get pregnant in your teens) without being remotely preachy. I'm hugely in favour.

Right then. Back to the reading chair…

Sunday 7 June 2009

Neck-deep in sludge

Riddle me this. How come I’m on antidepressants and yet I’m still revoltingly depressed? It’s been two months now and I still feel as if I’m neck deep in a monochrome swamp. Thinking is an effort, even breathing is tough – every so often I realise I have been living on the shallowest whispers of air and have to take a huge gasp. There’s a fog in my head and my limbs feel like lead. My immune system has taken a crash and so the weird palindromic rheumatism I suffer has returned and is proliferating, a bit like a Russian vine, thrusting shoots all over my body so everything aches. I just get rid of one pus-laden spot and another one appears. On my face of course.
I sit at my desk, day after day, and watch my life passing by and just want to shake myself. I try all the old tricks – thinking of things to be grateful for; remembering all those who are far, FAR worse off than I am; taking it moment by moment. But sometimes I could slap the people who write the self-help books (and that would include me – the irony doesn’t escape me). Every night I go to bed and think that ‘tomorrow I’ll be OK. Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I will get my act together and get my life back on the road.’ Then tomorrow comes and the day passes and every evening is a fresh failure.

‘Don’t be so tough on yourself,’ people say. They point out that my mother died just six months’ ago (it seems like yesterday) and that the last few years have been extraordinarily tough on many counts. But the brutal truth is that I can’t afford to lie on the sofa and stare at the ceiling (as I would dearly love to do).
‘Oh, don’t fret. Everyone’s on happy pills,’ says a mother at the school gate, bright as a button, neat as a pin (swirling around managing a family and two jobs AND fund raising AND looking gorgeous).
‘Even you?’
‘Yup, even me.’
Yet hers are obviously having the desired effect and mine aren’t.

My doctor phoned up the other day.
‘Hello,’ he said, brightly.
‘Hello,’ said I, bleakly.
‘How can I help you?’
‘Er, I don’t know.’
‘Well, were you phoning about your results?’
‘I didn’t phone you.’
He sounded a bit disgruntled.
‘Well, your liver is fine.’
‘Great. Back on the booze then?’
‘Ha ha ha. Your chest x-ray showed up a little abnormality so we’ll get another one done. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about though.’
‘Oh. Good.’
‘Anything else?’ Still acting like I’d called him.
‘Well, I’m still not feeling great. Pretty grim really.’
‘You’re better than you were.’
Well, true. If not bursting into tears all the time is better. Now I don’t cry but I’m not sure that’s particularly healthy either. Grief has to go somewhere and if you squash it down it lays heavy on the heart.

Instead of crying, I read. All I really want to do is curl up in bed, or in a chair by the window, or lie on the sofa and lose myself in other people’s words and worlds. There is nothing as comforting as a good book and this last fortnight I have read some absolute stunners.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz – which took me right out of myself (a good place to be) and had me marvelling at his imagination and dark humour and use of language. So effortless. So sublime.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh – backdrop the Opium Wars, cast a motley crew. Again, the language is remarkable (if sometimes difficult – a glossary would be useful) – an epic of a book (the next two instalments eagerly awaited).

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry – a 100-year old Irish woman details her pitifully harrowing life, alongside the testimony of her psychiatrist. I struggled with this to start with – and soon realised that its themes of memory, motherhood and betrayal touched particular chords.

I’ve now started Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency (yes, I’m working my way through the Booker shortlist) and holding out great hopes for it. He was one of my tutors on the Arvon course I went on and just fabulous – funny, generous, scary, inspiring. If you haven’t read The Mulberry Empire, grab a copy and give yourself a treat.

I was also sent review copies of a couple of books in the Sookie Stackhouse vampire series by Charlaine Harris (Dead Until Dark is the opener). It seems our appetite for sexy vampires isn’t remotely sated – though don’t expect the dreamy teen landscape of Twilight – it’s far more earthy and tongue-in-cheek, with a bit of crime plot to boot. I rather like the calm matter-of-fact way that Harris handles her alternative reality. Vampires have ‘come out’ and some try to rub along with humans (drinking synthetic blood and keeping their fangs to themselves). The heroine (a small town waitress) has her own ‘disability’ (she can read minds) and it soon transpires that half the town is ‘different’ in one way or another. Total nonsense of course but huge fun and wildly undemanding.

So I sit and read, or lie and read, and let the housework go hang, let everything go hang. Presumably I will surface at some point or another. But right now being inside other people’s heads is a much nicer place to be than inside my own.

PS – I’m not entirely sure that seeing my books (look on the sidebar) being sold for 1p on Amazon is helping my mood. How depressing is that?

If you want to read something a little cheerier check out my other (far more professional, far less self-absorbed) blog –

Chalk and cheese, yin and yang……ah whatever.....