Has anybody seen those appalling posters on Facebook about the wonders of being British? Something along the lines of how we’d rather walk a mile in tight shoes than complain about our restaurant food, or how we’d probably describe a nuclear strike as a ‘bit warm’? About how marvellously modest and unassuming we are?? I mean, has the person who wrote that ever heard of Jeremy Clarkson? Boris Johnson? Brian Blessed? Or the fans of any football club you care to mention? (I suppose you could make a case for the modesty of Millwall supporters, whose motto is ‘no one likes us, we don’t care’ but only if you’d never heard them in full cry).
Anyway, I have been thinking about Britishness lately because I have just come back from France. And my topic du jour is kissing. We are all kissing each other’s cheeks in Britain now, and I blame the French. Time was, and I’m not that decrepit, when you only kissed your mum and dad. And, possibly, whiskery aunties. And then just a swift peck, mind you, none of this random face pressing that we all seem to be going for these days. No. Back then, we British (if I can get all Facebook postery) made do with a swift handshake and a mumbled hello. In fact, that probably counted as rather imaginative foreplay back in the day.
When I was 17 I was taken by my sister in law (French) to stay in Bordeaux for a week. When we got off the plane an entire phalanx of relatives were lined up (some actually wearing berets) and we all solemnly kissed each other. Took ages. (I have to say at this point, although it is somewhat off piste, that during this visit I was taken to meet some great uncle who was in hospital. He was a lovely, ancient man, aged about 804, tucked tightly into a spotless bed; and he too was wearing a beret. And, naturally enough, we all kissed him. Took ages.
Years later I went to see a friend in France who had teenage children. And get this, when they brought friends home, they all came up to us and kissed us. I was charmed, and somewhat staggered. I could, in no circumstances, think of being approached in Britain by a strange teenager who wanted to kiss me politely on the cheek and wish me good day.
And yet, that day may not be far off. Even now, in the South East, people who’ve known each other for quite a long time are kissing each other when they meet (except my friend Deborah, who refuses to give in to any of this continental canoodling and is hoisting the flag for traditional British circumspection). Brothers and sisters are kissing each other when they greet (yes, really) and er, quite a few other people in situations I can’t think of at the moment. The disease has certainly reached the midlands, but the jury is out on whether it will sweep Yorkshire (it’s the way they stare at you there which kind of brings you to a halt before you properly get to grips with your intended target, and the only way you can alleviate any possible embarrassment is to stop before you get any closer, lift your arms really expansively and say, ‘fancy a pint?’)
Still, think on this. A couple of years ago I was sitting on a train in a French railway station watching out of the window as an inspector tried to pacify a surging crowd of people whose train’s departure had been delayed. Suddenly, down the steps on to the platform came the boss of the whole shebang. Big hat, gold braid, the lot. He marched up to the inspector. The people gesticulated. (As they do.) I thought there was going to be a riot. The inspector turned to his boss. His boss looked at him. And yes. They kissed. Both cheeks. And suddenly, everything was fine. The people got on the train, the inspector got on the train and the boss waved them off as it hooted down the track.
Maybe if it has that kind of effect, we shouldn’t be so uptight. Anyone up for a kiss? Mr Clarkson? Boris?
Picture by Banksy, courtesy of Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/leonsteber/1154551362/
Exactly 18 years ago today, I punched my husband. I was past speaking, but I hit him hard enough so that he fell half under the bed, with a muffled ‘Ow!’ At this point the midwife, who was a cross between a sergeant major and girls’ school hockey captain, told us both to behave and that she would not tolerate fighting on her labour ward. Quite what she was going to do if we continued, I don’t know, considering I was in the last gasping stages of giving birth.
Steve, in his defence, had been told to make himself useful by dabbing my lips with some damp cotton wool on the end of a stick. Being a technically minded kind of guy he set out carefully to poke every square micron of my mouth. I’m sure I told him to stop. He’s sure I didn’t. Whatever. The pethidine was wearing off and I was in no mood for being shakily dabbed at.
Shortly after that, everything changed entirely because Rose was born. We had waited so long for a baby that, even when she arrived, I couldn’t believe it. I remember looking at her and saying wonderingly, ‘It’s a baby.’ Honest to God, if she had been a puppy I would have been less surprised.
And now, as I say, it’s 18 years on and Rose is officially grown up. We’ve watched her grow from an intensely absorbed, imaginative little girl to a beautiful, generous and kind young woman. I know you don’t really like me mentioning you on my blog, Rose, but happy birthday, and thank you for being you.
Daughter was sewing her costume for a Hallowe’en party. Yards of green cloth festooned the kitchen, the dogs were paw deep in pins.
You have to realise here that daughter is 17 and a fashion student. So she has Ideas. And is, like, creative. It was obvious, this year, that the gothic witchy look was being sidelined, for something more, well, green.
Ages later, she stood up and put the costume on. It was kind of like a sweeping toga with a hood. But, it has to be said, she looked pretty good.
‘What do you think?’ she asked, twirling in an emerald haze.
‘Great,’ said husband. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s elven, dad,’ she said patiently. ‘I’m going as an elf in Lord of the Rings. What do you think?’
Steve looked at her thoughtfully. ‘Have you got a High Vis Jacket?’ he said.
‘Because then,’ he said. ‘You could go as Elf and Safety.’
Pictures via Creative Commons, courtesy of:
When I was about 16 or 17 I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. Failing that, I wanted to spend my afternoons in faded bedrooms making love to matadors (ok, maybe just the one, darkly handsome matador) and lounging about in bars smoking Gitanes and drinking red wine with, well, Ernest Hemingway, who of course would be writing about my fantastically interesting life.
Coming home from school, I would practise flamenco dancing in my bedroom, although I could never rattle my castanets; or dodging imaginary bulls (which, years later, came in very useful when trying to get served in crowded pubs).
I began to write my schoolwork in short, repetitive sentences.
Farms are very big in Australia. In Parramatta, Gweea, Cameera, Cadi, and Memel, there is not much water, but they have many sheep. Often the sheep die. That is because of the water problem.
Napoleon was unlucky that year. He had stomach problems. It was not good to have stomach problems when fighting with Wellington. Wellington did not have stomach problems.
My teachers didn’t care for it much. I went to the staff room a lot in those days. To see my teachers. But I was not persuaded. If only everybody could write like Hemingway. (Stop it now, ed).
But, of course, the madness passed, and I began to develop a taste for other authors, and copied their style shamelessly too. I loved the way John Steinbeck described things, and discovered if I used his clear, step by step method, that I could put over what I meant really effectively. I tried hard to emulate PG Wodehouse’s effortless style and humour and I was completely seduced by the world weariness of Ian Fleming. And, naturally, being a moody pretentious teenager, I spent a lot of time wandering about casually with Dostoevsky, although we never actually got along.
Bit by bit, all these other authors and many more, have taught me how to write. I’ve taken what I liked from them and mixed it all up until I’ve found a method I’m comfortable with; that is my own voice. But I’m still learning. Still reading, still borrowing.
Who are your teachers?
Picture: Flamenco Gold 1998. Finished painting after a series of preparatory studies. Oil and gold leaf on canvas and glass by Fletcher Sibthorp.
From Creative Commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/76/Flamenco_Gold.
Summer is over and the days are growing shorter. Quiz night at The Red Lion in the village has started up again, the kids have gone back to school and, like starlings massing for (get on with it, ed)…actually I don’t know what starlings get together for, and I don’t really care, but what I was trying to say, in a measured, poetic way, was that it’s time once more to go down the chippie on a Friday night.
Our towns may be studded with McDonalds and KFCs and Burger Kings, but do they serve those ridiculous limp stringy things they call fries with a pot of mushy peas or curry sauce? No. They do not. Do they sell whacking great portions of haddock and chips? No. Ditto. Hear that strange rattling sound? That’s the ghost of McDonalds founder Ray Kroc gnashing his teeth. There are about 10,500 fish and chip shops in Britain and 1,200 branches of McDonalds. Your happy meals are all very well, Ray, but you can’t beat a good British chippie.
Fried fish was apparently introduced to the Brits by Jewish refugees from Portugal in the 16th century. I love to think of Shakespeare and Kit Marlowe going out for battered haddock on a Friday night, but they would have had to wait for nearly 300 years to get chips with it which, even in Britain, is quite a long queue. Chips came along in the 1800s and got a mention in A Tale of Two Cities (published in 1859): ‘Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil’. It was left to an enterprising bloke called Joseph Malin to put the two together and open the first fish and chip shop in London in 1860.
There is a strange tradition in the UK, common to chippies and hairdressers, that they have to give themselves ridiculously punned names: for example, the rather common Jolly Fryer or Frying Scotsman, the imaginative A Salt n Battered (Sheffield), and the frankly wacky A Fish Called Rhondda (in South Wales, natch). (This is going off the point slightly, but my favourite hairdressing salon title is Scissors Palace in west London).
You can always tell a good chippie, by the length of the queue. Ours, on a Friday night, has people lining up on the pavement outside. Which means you don’t get fish that’s been waiting about for several centuries. It’s straight out of the frier, all golden and crisp and lovely. And when it’s cold outside there is nothing nicer than edging into the shop’s steamy warmth, leaning on the hot aluminium counter and listening to your fellow humans. My favourite overheard quote so far was from a young lad who announced: ‘There’s a boy in my class from South Africa, mum. His family came here because somebody stole his curtains.’
So there you go. But if you really want some food for thought, get this. Remember at the start I mentioned the Red Lion quiz night? One of the questions was, ‘Which is the most climbed mountain in the world?’ We scoffed at our daughter for insisting it was Mount Fuji. We put down Snowdonia. (On the grounds that it’s easy to climb).
Answer? Yep. Mount Fuji.
Pictures from Creative Commons, courtesy of
Well, I’m back from my hols. The suitcases are spilling their guts all over the house, the dogs have come back from the kennels, and I’ve thrown away the orange I found mouldering on the kitchen counter.
I’ve been to the supermarket and stocked up on beer and bread and jammy dodgers and such fare as you lay before the faces of husbands and teenage children, and I’ve put away my shorts for another year.
I’ve got some nice pictures, including one of a beauty salon in Bordeaux, that my cousin Douglas seems unaccountably to have given his name to. We spent the day in the city, shopping and farting about in the sunlit squares and generally behaving like happy tourists.
But the best memory is of our first night. Son, 14, who was in rather a giddy mood, decided to wind up his sister by thrusting her hairbrush down the front of this pyjama bottoms. ‘Look Rose,’ he crowed rather disgustingly. ‘Look what I’m doing with your hairbrush.’ To which his sister witheringly replied, ‘That’s not my hairbrush. That’s dad’s.’
I was going to see an old friend of mine this morning, but last night his wife phoned me to say he had died.
Bob’s death was a long time coming, he had been attacked by a virus which reduced his body to a wreck, but left his brain as sharp as ever. Imagine being in a prison like that.
I knew him since we were teenagers in the 70s. I always thought he was like Ritchie in Happy Days. Ritchie with a very dry sense of humour and an ability to neck a pint in one easy go. He was best mates with my boyfriend and we all hung out together. We went to see the first Star Wars film together, and laughed all the way home on the bus to his student house in Acocks Green listening to some bloke in a Brummie accent giving a low down of the plot. I can’t write it down. It doesn’t work on paper, 40 years later.
We all went to America together too, in 1980 on a Freddie Laker bargain flight. Bob nearly fell down the Grand Canyon and then got taken in hand by some weird Californian girl on a greyhound bus, whose entire luggage was a child’s travelling cot, and who kept announcing she was going to get pregnant by artificial insemination. And I remember on some plane trip during that journey, when all the other passengers were either chucking up in sick bags or looking with fierce concentration out of the window, because the turbulence was something terrible, Bob teaching me how to sing Paddy McGinty’s Goat. I wrote down the words. I must go and look for them.
And then of course, we grew up, and Bob found Eve (or rather, she found him, lucky boy) and they got married and they had two kids, and lived very happily, and I heard from them at Christmases.
A few years ago, Bob came to see me, right out of the blue. He was staggering slightly, but it was nothing serious, it was a hangover from him getting pneumonia and he’d be as right as ninepence in a few months.
He didn’t get better. He just got worse. Eve and their sons had to watch him being taken away from them piece by piece. They had to struggle with incompetent bureaucratic twits to get the help they needed, and finally he had to go into a nursing home. I visited him, not a quarter as often as I should have done, and it didn’t matter that he couldn’t speak any more, we could still communicate; we still, unbelievably, had a laugh.
I’ve been meaning to see him for the last few months, but, I suppose, I was too scared to go. I didn’t want to see what new low he’d been brought to. But Eve said he was getting worse, so I arranged to see him today.
And it’s too late. He’s gone. And all the jokes we shared are gone too. So, here’s to you, Bob. It was really, really nice knowing you. And I’ve still got the dog biscuit you gave me for my 18th birthday.
There is one more thing I want to say. If I am ever incapable of looking after myself, or standing up for my rights, I want Eve in my corner. She is one strong woman. She didn’t just stick with Bob all the way through those nightmare last years, she fought for him every single inch of the way. She didn’t shout, she didn’t threaten, but by God, she made sure Bob got the best care that could possibly be got. They loved each other to the very last second. They still love each other. And that’s something no stupid virus can take away.
I am editing something at the moment that has a bibliography so long it stretches out like the explanation in Star Wars, to some galaxy far far away. I have to check every entry, and so far, on my way to Betelgeuse Minor, I’ve only got to Basingstoke. (Metaphorically speaking, because everybody knows that if you get to Basingstoke, you never get out again).
So naturally, I have turned to cake. Fellow blogger Naptime Thoughts was so astounded by the fact that I didn’t know what a Twinkie was, that she sent me a packet. In return I sent her Cadbury’s mini rolls and Jaffa cakes (which are what God has for his elevenses).
The Twinkies arrived yesterday, after a two-week journey, but there are no worries about them going off because, according to Naptime Thoughts et al, they are:
It was a hot day, and we were all in the yard lounging about, drinking tea and watching husband and son-in-law mending bicycles, when Julia the post lady arrived. The parcel caused the kind of excitement not seen, I suspect, since the people on Hawaii looked at Captain Cook, saw past his gaudy wrappings, and thought, hmm, dinner.
Everyone watched as I wrestled open the packet and extracted the brightly coloured box (containing 10 individually wrapped golden sponge cakes with a creamy filling). There was writing on the box next to the sell-by date, saying ‘LIES’ and an arrow pointing out the Twinkie cowboy (some kind of cultural icon?) and a note saying, love from America.
The reactions were roughly:
Julia the post lady – ‘What’s a Twinkie? Oh, cake. All the way from New Jersey? That’s a lot to pay for postage. Still, that’s America for you. You’ve got two bills and some junk mail. No. I can’t throw it away before I give it to you.’
Husband (swallowing one whole) – ‘Mmmph. Nice. Bit sweet. Can you put the kettle on?’
Son in law – ‘Nice but they’re not as good as I thought they’d be, considering how people are always going on about them in films. I thought they’d be orgasmic. Like chocolate hob nobs. Is there tea?’
Daughter – ‘The inside is just like a Tunnocks Tea Cake. Do they have Tunnocks tea cakes in America? Shall I put the kettle on?’
Teenage son – ‘This is what they eat in that zombie film.’
Teenage son’s best mate – ‘They’re lovely. I love them… I’d love another one.’
So, thanks, America, (and Naptime Thoughts) and here are my conclusions on the cultural cake exchange:
And Captain Cook, this advice is probably a bit late, but you’d have been way better off not landing on the beach looking like the Twinkie cowboy.
Picture of Captain Cook via Creative Commons, courtesy of
On Sunday we went to the Hollowell Steam Rally. Hollowell is a beautiful village in Northamptonshire, and every year steam enthusiasts – that is grimy cheerful men who like driving steam engines very slowly – converge on some fields near the church and show off their darlings to all and sundry. In fact they travel so slowly, that they probably get home from the previous year’s show, just in time to turn round and come back.
We’ve gone every year since the kids were small, because what else do you do on a July afternoon in England but eat hot doughnuts, admire the heavy horses, have a ride on a steam driven bus and enjoy a pint of Sam Smiths/Greene King/Marstons Pedigree in the heaving beer tent? (You could have cider, if you wanted, but really, why would you?). It was one of the high points of the year, and there were times when the kids insisted on going on Saturday and Sunday. There were even plans to camp over.
But time has passed, and our kids, as kids do, have been getting older and steam engines no longer cut the mustard. This year only our youngest, (and he’s nearly 15) came with us. He wasn’t going to. His verdict on the whole prospect was ‘But it’s so boring’. Then we mentioned the doughnuts, and he got in the car.
And it was lovely. There were the usual bizarre overheard snippets of conversation, ‘He said, you can’t come in here; you’re not wearing white trousers.’ ‘He’s so like his father, such an arrogant looking head. Mind you, he’s a lovely boy.’ And, ‘I came round to borrow your wobbelator but you weren’t in.’
Husband had to be physically dragged away from the stationary engines, the parade ring was a stately mass of motorbikes, Victorian prams and dogs and heavy horses. The doughnuts were fab. Husband and son moved among the motorbikes like judges at a cattle show. ‘Look dad, a BSA Bantam; mm that’s a beauty, look at the stainless steel exhausts on that one; Norton, fabulous frame.’
As we were leaving a Spitfire and a Hurricane flew over, and everyone stopped to follow them across the blue, cloud spattered sky. It was, as Lou Reed would say, a perfect day. And next year? Of course we’ll be back. But our kids may have better things to do.
I’ve always been rubbish at sports. If you gave me an egg and spoon at primary school I would drop them; enter me in a race and I would come in last, complaining of a stitch.
And I suppose I would always have been rotten at anything energetic, if it weren’t for the fact that when I was 12 my dad got a job in Jamaica. Everybody is good at sports in Jamaica. Even the cats there can swim. So I swam. Boy did I swim.
But even though I learned how to swim enormous distances, I remained scornful of anyone on dry land using their legs just for the sake of it. I mean, what was the point? Why jog anywhere, when you could catch a bus? Why pay money to walk on a conveyor belt in an airless room when you could just go for a walk? And why walk when you could sit down with a mug of tea, a packet of chocolate digestives and a decent book?
Sport was for earnest individuals who all overdid it and died young. As a journalist I was forever doing stories about squash players and joggers who had multiple heart attacks. Exercise was obviously really, really bad for you. So, naturally, I spent most of the eighties clubbing, drinking and generally behaving outrageously. Years passed, I got married, had kids and then I saw a video of myself at a party. OMFG.
There’s a field next to us with a farm track running through it. One day, while walking the dogs, and just out of interest, you understand, I thought I’d see how far I could run. I got ten steps. Ten! And I was wheezing like I had lung cancer. Maybe I had lung cancer!!! The next day I tried again – 12 steps. Hey hey! The next day I couldn’t be bothered. And so it went on. I began to run every day. Badly. I didn’t move my arms up and down because I reckoned it wasted energy. So I looked like a flapping zombie. My son found out what I was doing and told me, ‘Mum, nobody runs like that. Seriously. You look weird.’ Tah!
Came the day, my chest on fire, I got to the gate at the bottom of the field and hung on to the bars as if they were a life raft. The dogs, who had raced me all the way, hoping that I was going to do something interesting like throw a ball, sat for a second watching me, and then ran off with no effort at all, while I tottered home.
So then I started going to exercise class. It’s horrible. I have to make lots of physical effort, and my legs hurt, and my arms ache, and there is always a point where I am amazed that I haven’t died. Seriously. I mean, Sue who runs the class makes us run on the spot for at least three minutes to warm up. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, isn’t it? And then we have to do more stuff. Jumping up and down and stretching and press ups and so forth. For a whole hour. It’s really not natural.
But afterwards, I feel so bloody marvellous the rest of the day is a breeze. I might as well have a bluebird on my shoulder and seven dwarves juggling the crockery in the kitchen. In fact, it makes me feel so good, I’ve started boxercise too. A few weeks ago, Sue looked at me thoughtfully and said, ‘You could do a 10k run, you know.’
Pictures courtesy of Creative Commons, available at: