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Okay, so now I get the point

symphony hall

I went to my degree ceremony on Saturday. I thought it was going to be a rather pointless exercise. After all, hadn’t they already sent me my certificate? What was I going to get, some kind of plastic tube with a ribbon on it? And I had to dress up for this? And pay?

Still, my friends insisted. Three of them each told me they’d never bothered going to their ceremony, and they’d always regretted it. ‘You will too, you know,’ said one darkly. ‘If you don’t go.’

So I went. I took my husband, my kids, my mother, one of my oldest friends and her son. Or rather, they took me. I didn’t have to do anything apart from get up and get dressed, and inwardly be resigned to the fact that I was going to get there (late probably), find I’d been missed off the list, my kids would be bored senseless, my mother would fall down the escalators, and it would all be A Complete Waste Of Time.

Okay. So I did get up at the crack of dawn. But I didn’t have to fight anybody for the bathroom. I had plenty of time for breakfast, and the first pair of tights I fished out of my drawer had no holes in them. We got there with time to spare (and this was Birmingham Symphony Hall, mind you, via the M6 with road works on the Aston Expressway). We found a car park (with spaces), we didn’t lose anybody, and when I went off to get my kit, there was a gown with my name on it.

My family, meanwhile, were tucking into the full English (which apparently was excellent) and none of them, at any point, suggested it might be a good idea to go shopping instead.

elaine grad2

Symphony Hall is a pretty amazing place. Enormous and modern and shining chrome and varnished wood, and on this day it was seething with a mass of graduates in blue gowns just like me. All looking inexpressably nervous just like me. And when I looked up into the upper circles where all the guests were seated, there were all the people I love, waving and whistling at me.

So the ceremony started, and the speeches were just what you’d expect, I suppose, except that this ceremony was for Open University graduates, and when the pro chancellor Musa Mihsein talked about juggling family and work commitments with study, we all knew exactly what he meant. It had taken me five years to get to this seat; five years of writing essays with three or four books perched on my lap, while my husband fed the kids and my friend took them to activities. I wasn’t the only onel; the women on either side of me had done just the same. We weren’t all young twenty somethings either. People of all ages study with the OU, people with every single kind of background that you could possibly imagine. We were nearly all middle-aged, and all of us, I realised, were quietly and sturdily proud of ourselves. So when the pro chancellor asked us to stand up and thank our families, not one person hesitated. We all got up, turned round and clapped and waved. And they waved back. And we all cried; even the bloke in the tweed suit across the aisle from me wiped his eyes, and he looked, as if normally, he would rather be found dead than cry in public.

I suppose I ought to say, that when the usher came to get my row she didn’t put a hand out to me and say, ‘No, I’m afraid you’re not on the list.’ Everybody cheered and clapped as I crossed the stage to a beaming Musa, who shook my hand as if I was the most amazing person in the room, and gave me a little card of congratulations. And then, after everybody else had gone up, and we were all clapped out (literally), it was all over. That was it. All that dressing up just to get a handshake and some applause. Was it worth it? I’ll say.

coat of arms

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Embarrassment with a rabbit

pub

I was going through my holiday snaps yesterday and I came across some people that we met in France, in the early 1990s. And I remembered the day they dropped in and the terrible thing we did.

They were a French couple, let’s call them Philippe and Marie, and we had been introduced by mutual friends. They were kind; they fed us copious amounts of delicious French food, and they took us out in their tiny little cute fishing boat and really, how much more hospitality could two strangers want?

So when they turned up on our doorstep, unannounced but most certainly not unwelcome one Sunday lunchtime, we were determined to show them a good time. Unfortunately the first thing I had to do was ring work and throw a sickie. This was not going to be popular as I was down for a really awful shift, and no one was going to be happy about filling in for me. Still, it had to be done.

‘Ill?’ said my boss. ‘You are having a laugh.’

‘No, really,’ I bleated. ‘I am ill.’ And I coughed to prove it.

‘Yeah, right,’ he said. ‘You can come in now, or do late shifts for the next six weeks.’

Cough, cough, cough, I spluttered, and the line went dead.

Still, I had the day off, and we took Philippe and Marie down the pub, a real old English one in a village straight out of Miss Marple, and bought them real English beer, which apparently they had been dreaming of for weeks.

And then we had our second problem. We had decided to treat them to a pub lunch, but by the time we arrived, lunch was over, and they didn’t do evening meals on a Sunday. I have to say now that we live right out in the sticks, and Sunday shopping was, at that time, a happy dream away.

‘What are we going to feed them,’ I hissed at my husband, who was also enjoying the beer.

‘Haven’t we got something in the freezer?’ he muttered.

‘Frozen chips,’ I said. ‘And a bag of ice cubes.’

This was getting serious. Anybody else, and we could have given them egg and chips. But Philippe was a noted cook. And French to boot. Oeufs and frites a l’anglais were not going to cut it.

Then Steve had a lightbulb moment. ‘The rabbit,’ he said.

rabbit

Philippe and Marie looked at him in some puzzlement, and then around the pub. ‘A lapin?’ said Philippe. ‘Here, in the pub?’

Steve cleared his throat. ‘Rabbit,’ he said. ‘My dad goes shooting, and he got this rabbit. He thought we’d like it for dinner.’

I choked on my beer. The rabbit he was talking about had been brought round by my father in law to give to the dogs.

But Philippe was delighted. ‘Have you got mustard? French mustard?’

We nodded. He gave a little gallic shrug. ‘Then I can make you my special rabbit in mustard sauce. This is proper country food.’

So that was all right then. Several pints later we went home, dug the rabbit out of the freezer and stuck it, tightly frozen in a paper bag, in the microwave.

Strangely, a lovely smell of roast beef began to fill the kitchen. ‘That does not smell like rabbit,’ said Philippe.

I took the package out of the micro, and discovered on unwrapping it, that on top of the rabbit, were the remains of my in-laws’ Sunday dinner, complete with bits of trifle, which they had also very kindly donated to the dogs.

There was only one thing to do. I grabbed the beef, opened a drawer at random and shoved the soggy mess under some tea towels. Leaning back against it, I turned to face our bemused guests. ‘Nearly there with the rabbit,’ I said. ‘A few more twirls in the micro, and then you can work your magic.’

Steve poured more wine and handed Philippe the mustard, and I have to say, he cooked it supremely well.

The dogs weren’t very happy though. And after several days of nightmare shifts, neither was I when I remembered what I had done with the beef.

dogs

No singing please, this is a cinema

king kong

Took the kids to the cinema last week. We went to see One Chance with James Corden, not because we particularly wanted to, but because it was the lowest common denominator; the only film we could all agree to see. Husband and son wanted to see Thor: The Dark World; teenage daughter was lobbying for something cool and groovy aka The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Nobody really wanted to see One Chance, but nobody could think of any objections to it, so we went. And you know what? It was ok. It’s all about real-life telephone salesman Paul Potts who has a great voice, but the worst luck and who, deep in debt, decides to audition for Britain’s Got Talent on the toss of a coin.

one chance

The film was a bit long, it had some cringingly romantic moments that had my son squirming with embarrassment, and the script ducked out of nearly all the areas where it could have been truly poignant. Still, it was funny, it had Mackenzie Crook, Julie Walters, Chief Petty Officer Miles O’Brien – sorry, Star Trek actor Colm Meany, and the above mentioned Mr Corden. Husband immediately warmed to it when Potts gave his girlfriend a torch on their first date. Because after all, any bloke that likes torches must be ok, even though he does keep bursting into that bloody awful opera stuff.

If you ever go to the cinema with my husband by the way, do not go to a musical. And especially do not go to one of those Disney jobs where every note is perfect and every song is instantly forgettable. I am thinking here of the time we took our two elder kids to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame. As soon as Esmerelda started singing, Steve got up and muttered,

‘I’m going out for a cigarette.’

esmerelda

As soon as he returned Esmerelda started singing again, and Steve was once more up on his hind legs, his seat banging like a pistol shot. ‘Christ! Not again,’ he muttered, making gloomily for the door ‘I can’t stand that noise.’ Another five minutes elapsed and he was back.

‘Has she finished wailing?’ he asked in a penetrating whisper.

I nodded, but about five seconds later Esmerelda was at it again, and Steve’s seat was merely a thudding blur in the darkness. He was joined, I have to say, shortly afterwards by our eldest son, who also couldn’t take the wailing. That left just me and our elder daughter who, at seven, loved all things Disney. But after about five minutes she too wanted to jump ship.  ‘Let’s go and look for the others; this is awful.’ Shortly afterwards we were all in another auditorium, happily watching Independence Day.

popcorn

I suppose, to be practical, if we wanted to see different films we could split up when we got to the cinema and all go to different screens, but that kind of takes away the fun of going as a family, because sitting all in a row in the dark and having a silent struggle over who’s in charge of the chocolate raisins is one of my small pleasures in life. Especially if I end up with the raisins.

Next week, we are going to the cinema again, and this time it’s something we all want to see:   the Doctor Who 50th anniversary film, of course, what else? In 3D, mark you. But I think I ought to warn everybody now, that if Matt Smith and David Tennant decide to indulge in, say, The Flower Duet, Steve will be off.

drs who

Mothers, pizza and guilt

ironing

How much useless stuff do we do as mothers? I mean, every week, I iron my son’s judo jacket. Have you ever tried to iron one of those? They are hard, and thick and knobbly. Within seconds of putting it on, my son is rolling around on the floor. Really, it’s a waste of time. I know it is. And yet I still do it.

One of my friends decided to go back to work when her youngest child became a teenager. After the first week at work (part-time, mind you), she came into my kitchen and wailed, ‘I used to bake for them, so they’d have something nice when they came home from school, and now all I can do is leave out chocolate digestives on a plate!’ After pausing briefly to blow her nose in the curtains, she left, and I spent a long time with that remark fluttering about in the back of my mind. It seemed so silly, on the face of it, to wail about biscuits, but I think that there are a lot of women (well, maybe most of us, actually) who have a secret ideal of what it is to be the perfect mother, and who are constantly beating themselves up because they never reach it.

digestives

It seems the harder women work, the more guilty they feel about their children. The less time they have, the more effort they make.

Then I read the post How to be a Perfect Father by pieterk515 who talks about how he copes as a dad when his wife is away. His secret of success is pizza. You can cook it in 12 minutes, kids love it, and as Pieter says, you can put it in their lunchboxes the next day, and everybody is happy. Well, we mums know all about pizza, too, obviously, it’s just that, somewhere in our subconsciousnesses there is the feeling that giving your kids such an easy option is, well, copping out. If it’s easy, it can’t be right. Or healthy. It’ll give them heart disease, or attention deficit disorder or irritable bowel syndrome and it will all be Our Fault.

pizza

The funny thing is, that Pieter can’t see why we should feel guilty. After all, job done, everybody’s happy. But another person who posted on Pieter’s page, linbritt, put it really well when she said pizza is a

‘Life saver but guilt-inducer!! Unless it’s topped with copious amounts of veggies and then it’s not fun anymore’.

And do we ever feel guilty for being right but no fun? I don’t know. There’s just so many things we beat ourselves up about. Some of us can even feel bad for going to the trouble of leaving out a plate of biscuits because,really, we feel we should have been there in person.

So for my chocolate biscuit friend, and all the other mothers out there, who do such seemingly daft stuff as worrying about biscuits, ironing judo kits, cutting sandwiches into certain shapes, buying one kind of crisps and not the other, and talking ourselves hoarse with reminders about homework, bedtimes and teeth-cleaning, here is a rather soppy but comforting link from linn’s page:

The Video Every Mom Must Watch On Repeat Until She Gets It

Sunshine award

sunshine-award

One of the nicest, and certainly quirkiest, bloggers I know, Jennifer Windram, has nominated me for the Sunshine Award, which is particularly pleasing, because the rain is battering my window at the moment. Thanks, Jennifer.

To accept the award I must list 10 things about myself and then nominate other bloggers for the award.

10 things? Really?

I went to Vienna once, just because I’d seen The Third Man, and on the way home I shared a train compartment with a coffee filter paper salesman who taught me how to sing The Chattanooga Choo Choo in Hungarian. I can still sing the first verse. I just tried.

My ambition is to write a radio play for BBC Radio 4. There, I’ve written it down now, so I’ll have to attempt it.

Two years ago my kids learnt how to sail, so I went along too, and I’ve got my RYA certificate, but I wouldn’t put me in charge of a boat where I had to change direction in a hurry.

I took redundancy in 2008 and I decided that, at last, I ought to get a college education. I signed up with the Open University and did course after course in a slightly mad, obsessive, no let-up way, and in a couple of weeks I go to Birmingham Symphony hall to collect my degree. I got a first in literature, and I still can’t believe I did it.

I also got a teaching certificate and now teach an evening class in creative writing, which I absolutely love. My students write the most amazing stuff. It really inspires me.

There was a point in my life when I couldn’t imagine doing anything but work on a newspaper. But if I were to do a pie chart of my life, journalism would only be a very small sliver. I think I just let life get in the way of pure ambition, and I’m glad I did.

And some really trivial things: I have a basket full of odd socks, in the hope that their partners will come back one day.

There are some books that I like to read over and over again, even when I know whole passages nearly off by heart.

I like making tea in a teapot.

And now I’d like an Oscar moment when I thank my family, without whom (from the sounds in the kitchen) I would probably be stacking the dishwasher and making tea instead of writing this.

Now I have to nominate up to ten fellow bloggers, “who positively and creatively inspire others in the blogosphere”. (If I’ve mentioned you, you now have to do the same with the 10 things and the nominations, and link back to me) So here goes:

1)      Pieterk515

2)      Reckless acts of punctuation

3)      Loretta Livingstone

4)     My other voices 

5)     with big yellow dogs 

6)    whistles in the wind  

7)   visit jess sanz   

8)   linda vernon

9)  Little write lies

10) Jane Risdon

Spitfire magic

auster

A long time ago, way longer than last Wednesday, which is generally the length of my memory these days, I went out with a guy who owned an aeroplane. It was an old RAF trainer, an Auster, with two seats, one in front of the other and a see-through ceiling, if that’s the right expression.

He took me up in it one day. Made sure I was safely belted in the back seat and handed me a plastic bag (just in case). Just in case of what, I wasn’t quite sure. It was a glorious day in May, when everything in England is bursting into bloom and colour. The sort of day that would make Shakespeare leap out of his second best bed and start thinking of rhymes for May and day, and so forth. Anyway, it was just the dog’s bollocks, and there we were taking off into the blue, and the buildings on the little aerodrome were getting smaller and smaller, and I was wondering whether I should be wearing a parachute, when I realised we were heading straight up, and then ohhhhh, we were flying upside down, and the sky was the ground and the earth was above me, and then we came right round, and everything was the right way up again, and we had done, what is known in the trade, as a loop the loop.

Nowadays I’d probably have a nervous breakdown; on that day I just whooped with the joy of it all. I really did, and we did it again, only this time, coming out of the loop my man turned the plane over in a victory roll and we dive bombed a perfectly respectable bunch of cows.

What a brilliant, brilliant afternoon. (Except, possibly, for the cows). We spun about the sky, with only the birds hearing my screams and, joy of joys, for a few, never to be forgotten moments, I got control of the plane. I’ve read lots of lyrical descriptions of how this feels, but really there is a kind of wonder in the way you can feel the air thrum through the whole plane, especially in one like that; the way that it responds to your lightest touch. It was absolute, total magic. But eventually we came back to earth, literally and figuratively as, shortly after that, we split up. Which was a real shame as far as free flights were concerned.

spitfire

Years and years later, in fact, last Wednesday, my husband and I were indulging in a spot of half-hearted bickering (you know, the sort that goes, ‘well, where did you last see your keys/if I knew that I wouldn’t have lost them/ you should hang them on the little hook/ you never hang yours on the little hook,’ variety when there was a low throaty roar, right over the house.

Steve said, ‘That’s a Spitfire.’  And after about two seconds there was another, unmistakeable neeeeeeooooooooowwwwwrrrrr, which rattled the windows,  and then we both ran outside to the gate, and there, ripping across the pale blue sky was a Spitfire. It was grey and then shining silver as it caught the sun and it flew and looped and fell out of the sky, just as I had done all those years ago.

And as we watched, a car almost skidded to a halt in the layby opposite and a man got out and ran towards us. ‘It’s a Spitfire, isn’t it?’ he panted. ‘I saw it just now as I was driving along.’ And the three of us stood and watched with our hands trying to keep out the sun, as the little plane disappeared into the brightness and then turned and made straight for us, pulling up at the last moment  and then heading straight up and up and up, turning and twirling and just being the next best thing to a natural bird.

We were so taken up in it all, in the pure joy that the pilot was having, that we never noticed the No 10 bus coming up the road, and it buffeted us with millimetres to spare, but none of us cared. We only had eyes for the Spitfire, who eventually tired of playing in the field opposite and flew away, and we watched until we couldn’t see it any more. And then we stood and smiled at each other and the stranger got in his car and drove away.

Magic.

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