Tuesday 28 September 2010

We have a pit (literally and metaphorically)

They say that your house is a metaphor for your life. At present the Bonkers House has a very large hole. A yawning pit in fact. This bothers me. Mainly, it must be said, because it’s only a matter of time before someone falls into it, but also because my rather fecund imagination is worrying (terrier style) at the metaphor bit.
What does the pit signify? What am I lacking, what is the gaping hole of my psyche? The pit of despond? Maybe it’s more like a grave? The graveyard of my hopes and ambitions? Or a black hole... The black hole of school fees and, indeed, the paying for all this pit-digging?

Oh for pity’s sake, Jane, get a grip.

Actually, turning it around in a revoltingly positive Louise Hay sort of way, the pit is really the solution. There is something rotten in the House of Bonkers, you see – as in literally rotten, as in smelling distinctly bad (not quite as foul as the stench of fox poo on wet dog, but getting up there). Drains. Not to mention Damp.

We have tried, for the last three years, to pretend it simply isn’t there; to forget we have a front door and a bottom level of the house (home of the Haunted Cellar, the Loo of Doom and the Ludicrously Grand Staircase). If someone does venture to the front entrance, we huff and puff and moan before stomping down the stairs and heaving open the door, accompanied by impressively gothic creaking and groaning (from the door, not me). But the mould has also been bothering me. I watch enough House (as in Hugh Laurie playing grumpy US doctor and - worryingly - being incredibly fanciable) to know that mould can cause any number of seriously weird medical conditions. I am now quite convinced that the mould is to blame for Adrian’s hayfever, James’ cough and my being fat and not getting a book contract. So, long story short, we called in the builders to Fix It – hence the hole.

Thus it is back to making tea and sticking earplugs in so I can’t hear Asbo throwing himself against the window in blind fury at the trespass. It’s back to piles of ‘stuff’ everywhere. It’s back to drills going off the moment the phone rings and I need to have a reasonably professional discussion with someone.

And, of course, it would be this week that I get not one but two bouquets of flowers. Absolutely stunningly gorgeous but (wails quietly) nobody will see them apart from me (Adrian doesn’t count – he simply doesn’t see flowers).  So I will (in my best therapy speak) share them with you.  Now then, interesting this, one was from Paula Pryke and the other was from good old Interflora. Wonder if you can tell which is which?

let's call this one bouquet A (so original)
and let's call this one Bouquet B (because to call it anything else would be simply way too random)

Tuesday 21 September 2010

We are teddy bears

Last night I was driving the Car of Great Grumpiness, performing the Taxi Ride of Gloom. Adrian had been in London at some do with Princess Anne (well, they’d been in the same room). Meanwhile James had stayed late at school as a salve. He wants to weekly board (actually in his heart of hearts he’d like to full-board but he is smart enough not to push too hard) – we’ve said it’s not an option.  Partly (okay, majorly) because of cost but also because, for pity's sake, he's only eleven.  We haven't had him five minutes and already he wants to move out?  
James was tired and grumpy – so was Adrian. Not that much difference between males really, whatever their age: when they’re tired or hungry they become revolting. By the time we got home the mood was positively festering.
‘Oh God, welcome to our happy home,’ said Adrian, dripping with sarcasm.
‘Well don’t worry; you’ll get rid of me tomorrow for the night, won’t you?’ lashed back James.
Cue hurt look from Adrian and stair-stomping by James. The SP hid behind the sofa and Asbo turned his head to the wall.  Jeez.
‘I wouldn’t mind but he isn’t even pleased to see us,’ said Adrian after we’d navigated bedtime and slumped at the table in the penumbra (half the light bulbs have blown).

Ah. Here it is. The Gulf of Parental Expectation. I had had lunch with a friend earlier and we were talking about just this. How, as children, we just accept our parents, we take them for granted. Sure, if they left or died, we’d be devastated. But generally a child’s view (if they even think about it) is that parents’ jobs are to be there, like giant teddy bears (albeit with open wallets and car keys) in the background, solid and comforting but ultimately to be grown out of, to be set aside and patted fondly from time to time.

But as parents, the whole thing turns on its head. Our children are The Most Important Things in the World, objects of endless interest and fascination. I can remember my mother wistfully asking about my day when I was at school; about my life when I was at university. It used to amaze me that she was so interested in every last detail. Now I understand, all too well.

‘Bottom line, we’re not as interesting to James as he is to us,’ I said to Adrian as we walked the dogs through the early morning mist by the river. He had just been relating a long story about the brewing industry in Burton on Trent. He looked suspiciously at me.
‘That was a boring story, wasn’t it?’ he said.  Aaaghh. ‘It’s not about you, it’s not about us.’ I paused. ‘See, you have to understand.  We’re teddy bears.’

He looked extremely puzzled and scratched his fur.

Monday 20 September 2010

Saved! At the very last minute

Wow, so there really are such things as last-minute rescue plans and fairy godmothers? There I was, contemplating WeightWatchers, like a doomed prisoner in her (thickly padded) cell. I was desperate but my hopes for success were not high. WW worked a treat the first time but second time round was an unmitigated disaster. Maybe it was something to do with our ‘leader’ (always love that phrase) – a solid girl with a Tango tan and anklets (no value judgments there, btw).

‘You know what?’ she told us, very seriously. ‘These points are amazing. This diet is SO flexible. You know what I did yesterday? I had four pints of lager and a bag of chips. I did! And all within points.’

But anyhow. I was thinking about the lager and chips diet and about how WeightWatchers makes me feel like a naughty schoolgirl when my friend Sheena got in touch. ‘Don’t do it!’ she wailed. ‘You’ve got to try Pete’s thing.’

Pete turned out to be Pete Cohen, the GMTV life coach and general gung-ho guru and his ‘thing’ turned out to be an online weight loss course. Sheena, in her usual irrepressible way, had chatted him up on Twitter and made friends. She’d been doing the programme for a month and lost “tons”. ‘I told Pete all about your problem,’ she said. My problem? Oh yes, the four stone I need to shed and the total lack of willpower that prevents me from doing it. That problem. ‘And he’s going to get you on his programme.’ He is? He did.

Ten minutes later I got an email saying I was signed up and then another one the next day telling me it was time to start. But hang on!!! Help!! I wasn’t ready. I’d just taken ownership of four boxes of Fudges’ biscuits for cheese (total utter foodie heaven). I needed...ooooh....at least four days to get through them (a packet a day? Hmm, maybe make that two days.

But no. Seems it’s okay to eat whatever you like really (within reason). And Fudges aren’t stuffed with sugar so really they could be considered a pretty healthy snack (maybe with hummus rather than that gorgeous oozing Stilton).

I’m now on Day Three and have to say it’s really rather clever. No lists of forbidden foods (though he does try to nudge you away from sweets and alcohol), no wagging fingers, no points, no prescriptions. The visualisation is really rather lovely too. I don’t have an MP3 player so had to listen to it on my PC in my office (hardly ideal). ‘Make sure you won’t be disturbed,’ said Pete, so I came up with the bright idea of doling out pigs’ ears to the dogs. Hence I spent the next twenty minutes with the sound of vigorous chewing and the slow release of aroma de pigs’ ear. By the time Pete’s dulcet tones were bringing me back to reality I had both dogs squirming on my feet, soggy pigs’ ears being dragged over my ankles.

Anyhow, it’s early days and I shall keep you posted.

By the way, I know that, for many of you, the main point of interest in this post will be the Fudges’ biscuits. So, for your delectation...  We tested four new flavours – cheese and black pepper flatbreads; stilton and walnut buttery flatbreads; oat and thyme squares and mature cheddar cheese and buttery flatbreads. I'm a bit of a fervent fan of their Cheddar wafers so my first thought was that these weren't cheesy or melty in the mouth enough for me (but then, as Adrian pointed out, they are intended as a complementary canvas for cheese).  Interestingly James was the number one fan – eschewing cheese and eating them totally nude. Adrian said he wasn’t entirely convinced (yet ate his way through two packets in a disgustingly short period of time). And my final thought? Very nice  – particularly when nibbled twenty times (to get the digestion going in the mouth).

Look here – and drool....

Thursday 16 September 2010

In the real world.....

Oh dear. So much for all my good intentions. Nearly a week later and the clutter has crept back, my mood has sunk down and I am sitting metaphorically banging my head on the table.
‘I think you need a break,’ said Adrian. ‘Let’s raid the funds and send you on a week at a spa or something.’

Oh dear, dear soul – what a lovely thought but really it’s not the answer. The funds are stretched to the point where they will soon ping back in our faces and, anyhow, a week wouldn’t even scratch the surface of my malaise. I’ve been reading about Eat, Pray, Love – the bestselling book now a film with Julia Roberts (note I say reading about – I’m not sure I could actually read it without getting Extremely Cross). If you don’t already know it’s about a woman who falls out of love with her life (and her husband) and wafts off for a year to ‘find herself’ – in Italy, India and Bali (as you do). Well bloody great for her. Whoop-di-whoop. But oh, just COME ON. Get real. How many of us can afford to take off for a year? How many of us can even take a year off (even without the wafting round the world bit?) It’s so bloody unrealistic it makes me sick.

Okay, rant over. But seriously, if I’m going to make things change, I’m going to have to do it right here, within my normal everyday life. Like the rest of the world.

I’m not going to go into All The Things That Have Gone Wrong this week. Suffice to say it’s been pretty crap (literally as well as metaphorically) as the Soul Puppy has decided that his favourite poo place is right in front of the bus queue. Yes, I poop scoop. No, I don’t really mind doing it. But doing it in front of a line of people who make helpful comments like, ‘Ooh, you missed a bit over there’ or ‘He’s a bit loose this morning, isn’t he?’ is not ideal.

However, on a cheerier note, my talk to the Brushford Ladies (a splinter group of the WI – ‘we broke away – it was very liberating’) went down better than I expected. We went a bit off-topic and got caught up in a debate about alpacas humming and why men like the colour red. I had a nice cup of tea and they gave me a gorgeous bunch of flowers.

Then I came home to find an email from my friend Gill.
‘Hey, wanna come along to fatties’club?’ she said cheerily. It seems WeightWatchers has just started up meetings in Dulverton.
‘Do we get to go for chips and red wine in Woods afterwards?’ I replied.
She didn’t answer so I’m guessing the answer is no.

And you know what? I’m going to go. Because in the real world, we don’t have the option of wafting off to a fancy spa to lose weight and sort out our heads. We do it at WeightWatchers and with our mates, right here, right now.

PS - Haven't read anything fabulous this week, I fear...
PPS - you can read my blog for The Lady here: 

Sunday 12 September 2010

My Big Fat Mid-Life Crisis - and what I'm going to do about it

So here I am. Daring at last to take a long hard look at my Big Fat Mid-Life Crisis. Thinking that, finally, it’s about time I took action. Because it’s all too easy to think about giving up altogether. I’m battling that feeling that this is the fag-end of the party; that all that’s left are a few deflated balloons, the cheese and pineapple that nobody (quite rightly) wanted – and a lot of clearing up.

I need to find the party bags.

Then it dawned on me, rather sheepishly, that I really should pull myself up by the bootstraps and get my life out of cruise control and into a higher gear (okay, so that’s a tortuous metaphor, but you get my drift). I’m not quite ready to put on my house-coat and let my roots grow out. I’m not quite ready to drop the aspirations and settle for coming second in the jam competition.

I’ve written over twenty self-help books, for pity’s sake – so how come I’m not helping myself? Because I’m all too good at dishing out the advice; all too crap at taking it. Do as I say, not do as I do. *whistles quietly and has the grace to look abashed*.

So, from now on, I’m going to take my own advice. I’m going to do all the stuff that I’m always telling everyone else to do. And I’ve made a start.

‘Clear your clutter’ is one of those irritating phrases I trot out with monotonous regularity. But really I live in a tip. So today I’ve cleared out several bags of stuff (clothes James has grown out of; books I really didn’t enjoy remotely; bits of flotsam and jetsam that can go to the charity shop and clutter up their shelves instead of mine). I’ve shifted my office round (again) and this time put myself in the ‘power position’ (cater-corner to the door). Why didn’t I do it before? Why didn’t I do it three years ago, come to think of it? No idea. Maybe I’ve been scuppering myself.

Anyhow, it’s done and by heck it feels better.

I think that’s probably enough for today. Baby steps.

What I’ve been reading this week:

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan (Vintage): how can I describe how much I loved this book? It’s been a large part of my wake-up call actually. It is a fairy story for people who hate fairy stories; for those who don’t quite understand that they explore the deepest parts of our psyche. I almost don’t like to use the phrase actually as I just know it will put many people off. Think instead of Alice Hoffman maybe, of Joanne Harris but way way deeper and more thought-provoking.
What would you do if you lived in your heaven? A perfect, safe haven? Would you stay? Should you stay? Should you keep others there with you? Or should you, after a period of healing, come back and engage with the rough, tough world? Isn’t it funny how synchronicity works? How we find the books we need often at exactly the right time? This one really gave me a nudge up the backside.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman: this dark fable of life in the flipside of London gave me major déjà vu – maybe because it has huge similarities with China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun – but I much prefer Gaiman’s take. Interestingly, it offers a similar message to Lanagan’s – should you settle for a life half-lived? Or should you take risks; live a little recklessly; push the boundaries?  Hmm, my book choices are not pulling their punches, are they?

The Ice Bear by Jackie Morris (Frances Lincoln): beautifully illustrated and rather poetic book for children. Again, a book that touches on the myth of who we are – the split between our “civilised” and instinctual natures (and how the two should ideally be in balance). I rather loved it and James enjoyed me reading it to him (love that he still loves being read to on occasions) but I am not entirely convinced younger children would get the subtleties.

So.  That was my book therapy this week.  Do you always read the same type of book? Do you listen to your psyche when you browse the bookstores or slither around on Amazon? Sometimes the most surprising books can lead you to interesting places of the soul.... Do let me know any books which have made you shift your way of thinking; that have nudged you into different life choices. 

Friday 10 September 2010

I'm having an affair (shush, don't tell!)

I have to confess that, right now, half my heart is several hundred miles away. I love Exmoor to bits but have been a bit unfaithful over the last few years – ever since I met that big hunk of manly gorgeousness Northumberland.

There is something so generous and warm-hearted about it somehow. Maybe it’s that east wind that just blows all the crap clean away? Maybe it’s that there is space, loads and loads of space, so people don’t get crabby about being piled on top of one another. I adore the North Devon beaches but we barely went over the summer – because my heart sank at having to queue to pay five quid to park and then wriggle onto a crowded beach. In Northumberland, we just pitched up, parked (free) and wandered through the dunes to be confronted with endless sand and sea – and a few stray people off in the distance.   They don't have hangups about dogs so the SP could frolic too.

Last time we went we stayed in Seahouses which is about as bold and brassy as it gets up here (the locals roll their eyes but it always seems just fine and dandy to me). This time, however, we were in deeply civilised Embleton and made our home in just the most gorgeous cottage. We’ve stayed in a lot of self-catering cottages over the years and (bar one in the South-West of France which was used part of the year by its madly civilised Canadian owners) rarely find one which really does cater for all your needs and has good taste to boot. This one has the lot.

But best of all was spending time with Fred again. For those who don’t know her, I met Fred (@themill) many years back through blogging. We drank way too much tea and far too much red wine and fizz and talked far, far too much. James was also happy as Larry – he thinks Fred and her family are ‘way cool’ as they are, variously, fans of rugby, cricket, racing, bacon sandwiches and animals. He had love-ins with their new Labrador pup, rode out on the combine and slouched watching TV in Fred’s to-die-for kitchen (archetypal Jilly Cooper style – massive Aga, even vaster table, armchairs, dog baskets etc).

We also acted as official ‘tasters’ and ‘unpackers’ for Fred’s new shop, Eleanor’s Byre. Honestly, if you’re within two hundred miles of it, you simply have to drop by. They’re serving stunning coffee, ‘real’ tea (loose, in pots, with cosies) and (OMG) hot chocolate that is simply Out Of This World. Then you can stock up on all those vital things you really can’t live without – like tweed handbags and soft stripy scarves; seaweed soak and hearts made out of old maps.

Ah, sigh, I am gazing off into the distance again, feeling those little flutters in my heart. This really must stop....

The website for Eleanor's Byre will be up and running soon:  http://www.eleanorsbyre.co.uk/

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Back to school

Oh weirdness incarnate. Two days into the new term and it feels as if the whole axis of my world has shifted. James has moved up to senior school and has started boarding (he’ll do one or two nights a week). In reality, he’s only moved down the road to the big school and is still surrounded by all his old friends. Yet the shift is seismic. He has been desperate to start school all through the holiday and has slid into his new life like an eel sliding into a pool. Not a pause, not a jitter, not a backward glance.

He loves boarding; wants to be there more; wants to immerse himself in this new, more independent life. And I should be glad, I am glad. It’s what I have always wanted – my boy to be his own person; to be free; to fly. But he is changing, it’s inevitable – and I can feel the ties loosening. He phoned me from his dorm room just before lights out and sounded totally different. I could hear his friends in the background, laughing that he was phoning home, that he was saying goodnight to his mother. Bless his soul – I hadn’t asked him to, he didn’t have to - but he did. I could hear the split in his voice – the pretended nonchalance, the little boy sliding away. I am fading into the background. Still loved, still needed, just not so much, not in such a central way. It's right, it's proper but by heck it's unsettling.

It struck me that this is a new start for me as much as for him. For the last twelve years I have not been my own person in any way. I have been Mother – a role, to be honest, I wasn’t ever sure I would fulfil. I’ve never been natural mother material, never felt particularly maternal – I can appreciate babies in an aesthetic way but keep my arms firmly pinned by my sides when they’re around. While loving James was the easiest thing in the entire world, packing away my own needs and desires was harder. To say my career has slid in the last decade is an understatement. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Time flies so fast and it never occurred to me to go down the nanny route. So I scrabbled and made do and had to turn down work that conflicted with mothering (the kiss of death in journalism). And so, here I am, sitting at my desk thinking "now what?"

I can feel, so strongly, that it’s time for a change, for a shift. I need a new start, a new pencil case, a new pair of shiny Clarks T-bar shoes. There’s that whiff of autumn in the air which, for me, is always a kickstart to the psyche. I need to get back in touch with who I am when I’m not being ‘James’ mum’.  I can feel it, like a song whistled quietly into the wind, but can't hear it clearly yet.

I hope, I really hope, that my teenage fiction works out. I love sinking into that wild, hopelessly romantic, endlessly exciting world. And teens seem to adore the book - their enthusiasm and puzzled fury that it's not published is so dear.  I just hope I can find an editor who feels the same way. If not, then I will need to discover something else. All suggestions very welcome...