Thursday, 29 March 2012

Five miles south (2)

Here's another thing I'd understand if I lived on the other side of that Border...

When the holidays are.

No-one tells you this when you move to Scotland.  No-one says to you:

Yeah, well, it's pretty much the same: most of the people are lovely, but some are not. Most of the food is great, but some isn't.  Most of the weather is the same: iffy, but then you'll randomly get the most utterly gorgeous week when you're not expecting it.  They drive on the same side, they speak the same language but their holidays are utterly different.

Here's a thing.  Easter Monday's not a bank holiday here.

That has totally and utterly flummoxed and confused me.  B told me and I didn't believe him. I googled it, but of course everyone knows you can get the internet to prove any point you want, so that wasn't nearly reliable enough. But there it is, in black and white, on the calendar. Bank holiday (UK except Scotland).

Ah, and I was rather relying on him having that day off.  Whoops.

There's no August bank holiday here either.  Or there is, but it's at the other end of the month. 

I'm not complaining about this - we actually get an extra bank holiday compared with England and Wales (nine, compared to your paltry eight, should you care) - but I am finding it very hard to get my head around.

You don't realise how much you take certain things for granted.  The school year, for instance. Starts in September, as any ful kno.

Except when it doesn't.  Mid-August here.  Totally scuppered our holiday plans this year that has.  Won't be making that mistake again.   Turns out that if you want to go on holiday with English friends there's a pretty small window when you're all on holiday together and you need to book those weeks pronto.

What's the logic behind all this?  I rather thought the religious holidays would be universal, especially as Scotland has a reputation (which I'm not sure it deserves) of being more godly than England.  Clearly not though.  As for the others, I understand why we get St Andrews Day, but I don't understand why we get an extra day off on 2 January.  Are they really codifying the fact that Hogmanay's a bigger party?

And why the beginning of August and not the end? Or indeed the end and not the beginning?   My understanding on the school year point was that it started in September because that was after the harvest and when farming families didn't need their children so much any more.  Is that not true? Or is it true but not true in Scotland that isn't so predominantly arable?

And how doubly confusing is it to get my head around the fact that bank holidays are not only different (they are, in fact devolved, interestingly) but that they are also discretionary.  Your employer gets to choose.  So when the rest of the country, both North and South, is enjoying its extra Tuesday off for the Jubilee, spare a thought for the employees of the Scottish Borders Council, who aren't getting it.  Suspect there'll be a lot of empty schools round here that day...

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Books at Blogtime: the orange version

I'm feeling quite pleased with myself.

I've been trying to improve my reading, and I have just studiously read my way through last year's Orange Prize shortlist.  I didn't realise that's what I was doing, if the truth be told. Somehow I got it in my head that I had all of the shortlist except the winner.

But that's not true. I had the lot, and, even more pleasingly, I think the judges got it right.

Because The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht was (in my opinion clearly, and what do I know?) far and away the best of the lot.  I loved this, although I'm not quite sure why, and maybe it was only because it was the one I read last.  I loved, a long time ago when I read them, the magic realism of Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel, and this somehow had that same ethereal, mythical feeling, while also being a very real story of loss, grief and the aftermath of war. 

It is set in an unnamed Balkan country before and during and after the wars that broke up Yugoslavia (which is also unnamed), about which I know, shamefully, very little.  Yet I suppose I had imagined that most of the residents of those now several countries would consider this dissolution a good thing and what struck me most forcefully about this book is how much it seemed also to be grieving for a lost unity that transcended ethnic or religious differences.

It made me, as we contemplate the possible dissolution (though hopefully with less violence) of our own union, think.

 And what of the others?

Room I really didn't enjoy. It is the story of a woman and her young son held captive in one room, told in his voice.  It made me cry, and it involved me, but I thought it felt too exploitative of the real people, such as the Fritzl family or Natascha Kampusch, who have suffered like this.  If you want to read about them, read their own stories. Somehow fictionalising it felt glib and unnecessary.  Misery literature by proxy.

Which is odd, because of course making stories out of real suffering is what fiction does.  The Memory of Love fictionalises life during and after the war in Sierra Leone, about which I know absolutely nothing.  I loved this, in the sense that I was appalled and horrified and sickened by some of it, and enraptured and grasped by the rest, right up until the last twenty pages, when it all, for me at least, fell apart.  It was as though she had a fixed word limit and got to the end and realised she had to end the story and only had twenty pages to do it in. So she bunged all the rest of the plot in at the end, dusted her hands and sent it off to the publishers.  A mistake, in my opinion.

The end of Annabel also seemed weak to me.  Again, I enjoyed the vast majority of it, and then felt let down by the last few chapters although I loved the fluid style of Kathleen Winter's writing and her evocation of life in the Canadian wilds.    Annabel is about a hermaphrodite and so, in my head anyway, was immediately comparable to Middlesex.  I'm afraid I preferred the latter.   Oddly too, and I only finished it a couple of weeks ago, I can't now really remember anything about Annabel, possibly because throughout it, so much is left unsaid, unspecified, that when you put it down all you remember are the gaps.

There aren't so many gaps in Grace Williams says it loud.  It's all there, spelt out for you, in open, trusting detail by the internal voice of Grace Williams, polio victim and (I think although these are, in the 1940s, not the words used) cerebral palsy sufferer.   Grace can barely speak, only ever stringing two words together,, yet Emma Henderson gives her voice as Grace tells the story of her life, first with her parents, and then in the Briar Mental Institute, where she meets Daniel.  Parts of their story are heart-rending. I wept, copiously and obviously on a train, at some chapters of this book, and at others I felt manipulated, as though Emma Henderson was deliberately pulling my strings.  

I'm not sure, either, how I feel about Great House .  This felt, and still feels, like a book I will need to, and will, re-read.  It is four separate stories about four separate families and individuals, all linked by a desk: a great, ugly, dark desk with nineteen drawers, one of which is locked.  The novel is awash with a sense of loss and longing.  All of the characters have lost or are losing something or someone, and all are trying to find their way back to it, as the reader is trying to find the link, the missing key to the story.  The characters are all also linked by Judaism, and I wondered whether there was also an underlying search for an understanding of what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world.  I'm not Jewish, although my father is, and I felt, sometimes, as though there was a layer of this book that  I didn't, or perhaps couldn't understand as a result. Perhaps I will on re-reading.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The minute that never happened

Does birth order matter?  Are you the oldest? The youngest? Or somewhere in the middle?

And what about the age gap?  Is it a year that separates you from your siblings? Or ten?

How much do those two facts make us who we are?  How much do they inform our personalities, our status within the family, our lives?

Is L who L is (and am I who I am when I parent her) because she's the eldest?  Because she was nineteen months old when she stopped being an only child?

Am I who I am when I parent her (and when I don't) because I'm the eldest too?  Because I was two and a quarter when I stopped being an only child?

And if that order and that gap matter, what about when the gap is only a minute?  Does it matter who's the elder then?

What about these two?  Who's the younger here?

One of these pictures was taken at 10.10 am on Thursday 11 December 2008; the other at 10.11.

They may, or may not, be in the right order.

I know who's who.  I know who's older.  I know who's the "big (and little) sister".  They, as far as I am aware, don't.

Should they?

My father is nearly 71.  He is ten minutes older than his brother.  As a fraction of their age, that difference is *reaches for calculator and one remaining brain cell* 0.000019 (I think).

Does it matter?  Oh yes.  You hear them, on the telephone across the Irish Sea, bickering like my three year olds.  And the clinching argument? 

I'm the oldest.

Here's a fact.  My girls were born by c-section.   In theory, therefore, the surgeon could have just grabbed the nearest one.  Birth order set by convenience.  But she didn't.  They don't. They go, deliberately and by choice, for "Twin A".  The lead twin.  The one whose head, unchanging (I am told) from your earliest scans, is nearer the cervix.  The one who would have come first however they were born.

You can say it doesn't matter.  But if that's true, why do they go to that trouble? It's not as though we've got a title to inherit...
So should we tell A and S?  It's not a big secret.  It can't be. It's on their birth certificate, as it is legally required to be. (In England.  In Scotland time of birth is on the birth certificate for everyone.).

They will find out, anyway.  Either when they see their birth certificates or because someone (probably L, and no, I don't know how she knows, will tell them).  And at first, I wasn't that bothered.  I felt it was just a fact, and not one to get het up about.  But as they have got older and as they continue to jostle for position, to find a level with each other and in the family, I find I don't want to give them a fixed hierarchy, an immutable fact that makes one, whichever one, "better" or "worse".

I find, now, that if adults ask, which, occasionally, they do, I bristle.  Why does it matter? I want to say,   although what I actually say is mumble or Oh! Look! A thing!   But I find myself increasingly reluctant to answer, which I would have done, and did, quite happily when they were tiny.

My brother and sister-in-law, who also have twins, claim they can't remember who was born first.  Now clearly that's nonsense (it's on their birth certificates too, after all), but I wonder whether it's not actually quite a good line to take.

Age gap?  I will say. What age gap?  You were born at the same time.  You're twins.  That's what twins are.

And when the biological confusion that will create all gets too much I will tell them that in France they (apparently) say that the second twin to be born is the elder.  After all, he or she must have gone in first...


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The small stuff

In the Times, the Saturday before last.  A list.  A list of small stuff Robert Crampton likes.  

The small stuff, he says, that you think is the small stuff,  and then you get older and realise that the small stuff is what actually matters.

Me? I like stories about how people won the lottery.  I was, once, on the lottery panel.  I got to advise lottery winners. Just once each, a no-obligation, first names only, couple of hours with a lawyer (me) and an investment manager.  The first question was always:  So, tell me how it was?  How did you find out?  Even though you know how the story ends, the anticipation, the excitement, the joy, is infectious.  I like those stories.

I like other stories too.  I like stories about how people found out they were expecting a baby.  Love those.  Everyone's story is different and everyone's story is just as important and life-affirming. Literally, I suppose.

And jokes. Silly jokes more than rude ones.  The sort of jokes my children tell that aren't funny, because they don't get the point of jokes, but that become so with repetition. 

Why did the cat cross the road?  Because it had mittens.   That sort of thing. It's not funny; they made it up, but I like it.
Strangers doing kind things. Stories about strangers doing kind things. The nice people you meet doing freecycle.  Freecycle itself. What's not to love about an organisation that will put me (owner of a hedge I don't like) together with a bunch of people who want to come and dig up my hedge, take it away and give it a new life somewhere else?

Clean sheets, especially ironed ones. Having the bed all to yourself.  Having someone to share the bed with.  Just being in bed really.

Cold mornings on sunny days.  The sound of rain on a flat roof. The sun coming through the shutters.  Snow.

What else?

I like people watching.  I like people, mostly.  I like finding out about them, what they like.  I like famous people (Roger Federer, Marcia Cross, Madeleine Albright) who have twins.  I like the Australian girl who married the Prince of Denmark (she has twins, too).  Nothing to do with twins, but I like Rupert Penry-Jones and Jonathan Davies (for different reasons).  I like Judi Dench and Maggie Smith.  I like Cranford.  And Wives and Daughters.  And pretty much any BBC costume drama really.

I like puddings, cakes and biscuits.  Brownies and cookies too. Making them. Eating them.  And sharing them with other people.  

I like donkeys, hedgehogs and pink fairy armadillos (just the name really.  I'm not sure I'd actually recognise a pink fairy armadillo if I met one). Ducks.  The Overture to the Marriage of Figaro.  Pipe smoke, cashmere socks, really old cars.  De Dion-Bouton.   Radio 4.

The noise of ropes against masts at a harbour.  Mint tea with real leaves in it.  Having my hair cut.

Conversations about Children's TV.   Conversations about nothing.   Conversations that leap from crag to crag, so that you touch on forty eight different topics, seamlessly, and get to the end, four hours later, without pausing for breath, except to catch it from laughing, with no idea how it all joined together, but a certainty that it did.

B in a grey suit. My children in the bath.  M giggling at L.  A and S holding hands.

Pregnant women stroking their bumps, absent-mindedly.  The quads who were born on 29 February.

Bookshops, proper ones.  New books of any sort.  Books that make me cry.  The magazines that come with the weekend papers (thank you, Bob Crampton) 

Gipsy caravans. The old GNER livery.  Waitrose own brand packaging.  Blossom and daffodils.  London.  The National Gallery, Garbo's salary, cellophane. Cole Porter.

Bridges and causeways (but not tunnels). Maps, but not satnav.  Big skies.  Purple hills and green valleys. 

I like the sea, whatever the weather.

I like the small stuff. 

What's yours?

Guest Post: Food tips for family car trips.

What do you feed your kids in the car?  In our car, with horribly carsick L, the answer is, normally, nothing.  But sometimes that's just not an option. Even for us.  

So how to manage?

Over to my guest, Jeremy Chapman, brought to you by Sainsbury's:

Providing the right food for the different members of your family on a car journey is a real challenge. But it is a challenge worth taking, because a few well-fed tummies can mean smiling faces and contented passengers.

How much food to pack?

No one likes waste, but it is always a good idea to have more food than you should need. Don’t go overboard on perishable goods. Instead, stock up on anything that you can still use once you get to your destination.

What sort of food should you bring?

It is a good idea to avoid sweets, chocolates and fizzy drinks, as a car full of excitable children is very distracting for the driver. A few sweet treats are fine, of course, but try not to go overboard with the sugar.

Try to bring healthy snacks that will keep your children full and help to maintain their normal, varied diet. Fruit is always a great option – you could take bananas, grapes and apples, which tend not to make too much mess.

For food that you can keep beyond your car journey, think dried fruit and cereal bars. These are healthy snacks that children often enjoy. If they aren’t eaten, you can easily put them back in the cupboard when you get home, ready for the next car trip.

Where should you eat?

If possible, it is a good idea to stop and get everyone out into the fresh air. It’s worth having a look at your route before you set off to try to find suitable places to stop on the way. Sometimes you can even find picnic areas at service stations.

If you go off the beaten track you can often find even more interesting places to stop. The Via Michelin site is an excellent tool for this. You can map out a route and select the ‘green guide’, which will point out interesting historical sites along your journey. The chances are you will find a suitable place to have a picnic nearby.

If you have to eat in the car, make sure you are organised with your food. A cool box or two will keep everything fresh, and it also means that all the food is stored in one place. Bring a few plastic bags with you for the rubbish – you will be amazed how much can be generated in a few minutes when a family eats in the car!

Be prepared

Before setting off on any journey it’s always worth asking yourself a few final questions: have you packed everything you’ll need when you arrive at your destination? Have you got enough activities to keep the kids entertained on the road? Do you have the right car insurance policy in case something goes wrong? Answer yes to all these questions, and you should be ready for anything.


Jeremy Chapman writes for the Sainsbury’s Money Matters blog on all manner of subjects from animal advice to car insurance. When he’s not working, you’ll probably find him hunched over the wheel of a very muddy stock car!

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Why should I pay for your holiday?

I got one of those emails the other day. You know the ones:

Hi!  In June I'm going to be cycling round Europe/climbing the north face of the Eiger/walking the Great Wall of China in aid of threadbare cuddly toys.  As you all know, this is a very important cause so please give generously.

And I, old cynic that I am, think just one thing:


Why should I pay for you, whoever you are, to go on holiday?  To do something that you want to do anyway?  Even if it is for a good cause.  Because that's how it (normally) works.  You raise a minimum amount for charity and the charity pays for you to go and do whatever exciting adventurous thing it is you want to do.   Out of its funds.  Funds that could be used for whatever good cause it is you claim to be supporting while having your lovely challenging time

Why don't you, instead, if you really want to help cuddly toys, or the homeless, or desperately ill children, shake a tin, or volunteer in a hospice, or just write a cheque?

And, of course, the simple answer is: Because it doesn't raise enough money.

But isn't that wrong?  Why is it that we will willingly pay for our loved ones, family members, friends, colleagues and acquaintances to run marathons, or swim lochs, or walk backwards up a mountain in a pair of false breasts and a wig, at the charity's expense, when we won't just put our hands in our pockets for one of any number of really worthy causes. 

Why is it, when I ranted at my sister about this (she wants to climb Kilimanjaro for Parkinsons UK - and in her defence she would pay for the trip herself) getting cross about the pointlessness of it, the environmental impact of the flight, the sheer stupidity of people carrying water up a mountain for her convenience, and ending, "You should just go and volunteer in an old people's home for two weeks instead and get people to sponsor you to do that" I had to admit defeat when she said, "But they wouldn't"?

Why is it, that my brother, who runs marathons for fun (we're not really related) and who has got a place in this year's London Marathon through his running club, is still going to ask people for money? 

Because he can. And because they'll give it to him.

So I know, really, why I should pay for your holiday: because that's what works.   But wouldn't it be lovely if the dull, but useful, stuff worked too?  Just think how much more money we could raise then.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Win a children's gardening set, seeds and more!

It's been beautiful up here recently.

We spent all of yesterday and most of today running round the garden with not very many clothes on. (Ok, that last bit might apply only to those of us under four foot, but still, it's March.  In Scotland.  The fact of being outside at all is pretty amazing: this time last year it was snowing.)

We have tidied the garden, got the trampoline out, turned the wendy house back into somewhere the under four foots might like to spend time, and planted some seeds.

Lovely, pretty, easy-to-plant seeds courtesy of innocent.  Which they sent us together with a watering can, a trowel, a fork and some vouchers which will go some way towards satisfying this family's very expensive smoothie habit.

And, what's more. They want to send one lucky reader of this blog the same stuff too.

And all, dear reader, you have to do is to work out where we've planted our seeds.

Here's a little photo story.  We obviously start off in the garden (I'm not stupid enough to let my children play with compost and water in the house),

but then we move inside, to a particular room, in a particular way.

And if you can guess where they are, or indeed work it out,  because more clues and photos will be added to every post over the next wee while before they all die germinate, you too* could be the proud possessor of the same set (to plant somewhere sensible, probably).

Where are they (or one of them in particular)?  What's the well-known word or phrase that most accurately describes this place?  Leave a guess (or two, or three) in the comments or come back for more clues over the next few weeks (she says, vaguely, having no real idea how long it will take for them to germinate). 

*Clearly, if more than one person gets it right, my favourite random number generator (probably the four year old) will pick a winner.   Or if you can't be bothered, you can get your own seeds included with innocent smoothies and tubes in shops now or visit their website for child-friendly gardening hints, tips, games and more prizes.

Obvious disclosure: innocent sent me the seeds, vouchers and gardening kit, and they will also be providing the prize. I haven't paid for any of it.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Giving up.

I am still feeding M.

He likes it because it's easy and cuddly and warm and tastes good. (I presume, he's nine and a half months old, he can't tell me any of this).

I like it because it's easy and cuddly and free and it doesn't involve boiling kettles at the last minute and then desperately sticking them in the freezer in the hope they'll cool down, or midnight trips to the all night chemist, or washing up.

But mostly, this time, I like it because he's my baby.

I never had this with any of the others.  I stopped feeding L at about eight months because I was fed up of nursing bras and I wanted some new ones. (B obliged with a Christmas trip to Rigby & Peller).  I stopped feeding S and A at about seven months because they'd got too big to feed at the same time (they kept bashing their heads) and there was a wedding I wanted to go to to which they weren't invited.

That's it, incidentally. The last feed.  It was also the last day they woke up in the middle of the night.  I still try not to take that personally.

(Can I also take a moment to point out that I am not a werewolf? That's L's head just out of the picture, and her hair on my hand. Not a major hirsuitism problem.)

Anyway, the point is that neither decision was difficult. Neither decision was, in fact, much discussed or thought about. I simply decided to stop and stopped.

But M's different, somehow.  He's my baby.  My last baby.  The last time I feed him will be the last time I feed anyone.   I wouldn't say I particularly enjoy breastfeeding. It's just a thing I do, like cutting my fingernails or blowing my nose, not remarkable enough to be enjoyed or disliked.  Yet despite that I find myself very reluctant to stop, to move on from the baby stage.  To accept that this is the end.

I said, half-jokingly, but safe in the knowledge that my children get teeth late, that I would stop when he got teeth.

His first came through today.

I also said, half-jokingly, that I'd stop when I got the chance to do something else.

We are away for two nights at the beginning of April (another wedding), and I am trying to work out if I can fit a pump in my luggage.

I said I'd stop when I got fed up of nursing bras and breast-feeding clothes.

I went back into those Rigby & Peller numbers about three weeks ago.   I have perfected the art of breast-feeding contortionism.

I said I'd stop when he stopped.

And so I find myself in a position of willing my baby to reject me, while knowing I will be terribly upset when he does.  Because then it isn't my decision and I don't have to make it.  It's up to him.  And if he doesn't want it then there's no point in wondering whether I should give it to him or not.  I won't be able desperately to hang on to my baby because he won't be a baby any more. Right?

Really, I know I should just give up.  Move him on to formula (which he'll take quite happily in extremis - crisis moments such as me going to the theatre, or someone's birthday drinks), let him grow his teeth in peace and enjoy the wedding without worrying about unsightly leakage, my supply drying up or just being highly uncomfortable.

Yet, somehow, it's still not a decision I'm ready to make.

Sometimes I think I should just get over myself.