Wednesday, 13 September 2017


The night before I have to direct a shoot in central London, Middle One tells me he's preparing to say goodbye to people before leaving for university. He tells me he has to say goodbye to his fencing coach, who has been teaching him for ten years, and he has to say goodbye to his guitar teacher, who has been teaching him for eleven. I remember how he didn't like to say goodbye to people when he was little and after dropping him at nursery he would make a run for the window to watch me walk away. He didn't like change, either. When we moved house when he was seven and we had to leave the apple tree behind in the garden, for obvious reasons, he was furious. And he still hasn't forgiven me for having the blue sofa reupholstered in orange fabric, and that was eight years ago.

Funnily enough, I also don't like change or saying goodbye to people. When the first two boys were tiny and the youngest was nothing more than a conversation I kept having with my husband, I made friends with another mum nearby with babies the same age. We hung out all the time with our children, mostly in each other's kitchens serving fish fingers and peas then watching them fly from highchairs to floors as we drank wine and swept up the mess afterwards, and laughed. For five years we supported each other through tears, teething, toilet training, and tantrums - some of them the children's - until one day she told me her husband had decided they should move to the country. I woke at 3am for weeks after that, unable to get back to sleep, often giving up and going downstairs to stare out of the window at what passes for darkness in south London. For a short while after she left we kept our friendship intact between south London and Ditchling using the A23. I sang a lot of nursery rhymes in the car, lobbing rice cakes and packets of raisins to my small children in the back, until her husband decided to move the family to Australia, and I knew I didn't have enough nursery rhymes or sugar-free snacks - or pounds for that matter - to make that journey palatable for my children.

I watch Youngest's face as Middle One talks about preparing to say goodbye to people, and it occurs to me that having a sibling leave home for university must be a lot like losing a cherished friend, especially if you are the youngest one left behind.

Next day I'm up at dawn to go to the shoot in central London. Over nine and a half hours I direct eight different scenes in seven different locations with a ten-year-old girl, and when we wrap at the end of the day a prop belonging to the little girl is missing. It will probably turn up, somebody tells me, and I'm troubled by the word 'probably'.

That night I have a horrible dream. I'm in my grandparents' old house which is transformed into my boys' old primary school, urgently searching from classroom to classroom for precious objects covered in a fine layer of dust as someone unseen, a step or two behind, attempts to throw them all away. I find my grandfather's hairbrush with fine strands of his silvery hair still on it, then wake with a start at precisely 3am. I get up and go downstairs and stare out of the window and remember doing exactly the same when my friend moved to Ditchling and then Australia.

When I go back to the location next day the missing prop is still missing. "We'll just have to buy another one," somebody says, but I know that buying another one won't be the same for the little girl. I have her sit in the middle of the frame and look straight at the camera, then up to the top left then bottom right, then up to the top right then bottom left, so I can edit a sequence together later that might look a bit like the opening titles of The Brady Bunch with the mum and the dad and all those siblings.

After we wrap and I get home from the shoot I go up to Middle One's bedroom. "How did it go?" he says.

"Good," I say. "Do you think you could tidy this room? It's a tip."

"No point," he says. "I'm packing it all to take with me soon anyway."

Love E x


P.S. Thankfully the prop did turn up.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Bleeding Canker - the movie.

Toy Story.

Imagine life as a three-part film franchise. The first film is childhood and adolescence: fresh, original, with twists and turns, you don't know what to expect but it ends up a big hit, especially in retrospect. Then comes the sequel, tricky to follow a box office smash like that but there are some of the same characters and this time there's a love story too, plus it ends with a marriage and some kids. Bit predictable, maybe, but everybody likes a happy ending. 

Except it's not, they bring out a third and to be honest it's not a film you'd normally go and see. Night At The Museum 3? Don't think so. The Hangover Part III? Nah. The Godfather Part III? Best glossed over. Now only a few of the original cast remain, those who didn't scarper after they made a mint and a name for themselves; the writers are definitely the same, though, because it's work, init, and it's a tried and tested formula. Thing is, when they reassemble to brainstorm the third plot they've used all their best stuff in the first two and frankly they're knackered. Sometimes in the late afternoon one or two of them nod off. 

Get the picture? Movie number three is middle age and beyond and it's not something I ever dreamed of as a girl. I don't think anyone does. You can foresee a bit of college, friends, travel, love and marriage, babies, who then turn into cute children. You can see your future self as part of your own little family, going on bucket and spade holidays, pushing children on swings. Maybe, if you're particularly imaginative, you can envisage your forties with teenagers, still a bit cool, perhaps sharing a spliff or accompanying them to a gig. But beyond that, as a saggy-skinned empty nester falling asleep on the sofa in front of The Great British Bake Off? Nope. Never imagined it, definitely wouldn't go and see it if it were a movie.

But hold on a doggone minute, because there's always hope in the form of an exception to prove the rule and in this case it's... Rocky III. Only kidding, although that was a massive hit, with a massive hit song to go with it. No, for me it's Toy Story 3 because that is a brilliant movie. I defy anyone not to be moved by the bit where the gang link hands as they edge toward the incinerator's fiery abyss... and the denouement when Andy gives his toys away when he's about to go to university, that always makes me cry. And that's pretty much where I am now, plot-wise, with another son about to leave home. In a little less than two weeks there'll be only one boy left and so far the only thing the writers have come up with is that mum goes back to uni.


But there are some advantages to midlife. If you're lucky you might finally hit the jackpot property-wise, that damp flat in Streatham with the negative equity is a dim and distant memory. Now you find yourself in a beautiful house watching The Great British Bake Off, and in my case that house is - and I can't quite work out how this has happened - in one of the world's coolest inner-city neighbourhoods. "Uber-cool" in fact, according to Lonely Planet.

Not so long ago I told people I lived "near Balham" because they'd never heard of Tooting. Not anymore. Now I shout the word across rooms at parties just to watch hipsters turn their heads. It's all true what they say. We do have a Turkish 24-hour shop from where we buy warm pide for 70p. We do have a gentrified pub with craft beer round the corner. We do have a mile long "curry corridor" from Tooting Bec down to Tooting Broadway. And then there's our pièce de résistance, the Common, with its Lido and its stunning avenue of mature chestnut trees, and you know where I'm going with this, don't you. There's trouble brewing in our "gritty urban" paradise.

If this were a movie here's Wandsworth Borough Council stepping up to play the villain. An evil and intractable force hell-bent on felling 54 of these stunning trees, many of them more than 150 years old, turning this much-loved shaded pathway into a Chernobylesque wasteland despite not a single arborist recommending it, not even the ones employed by the Council itself. So why are they doing it? Because they have a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, that's why, and it's less expense and hassle than maintaining the trees to make sure the bleeding canker they suffer from, which most are surviving, doesn't cause one of them to suddenly and expensively shed a branch on top of a person.

I love that avenue. I got a bit involved in the campaign to save it. Well, I went to some meetings, manned a stall at a fair, put a poster in the window. Now news arrives that the campaign has failed, the avenue is to be felled over the next few weeks. It's going to go from looking like this...

To this...

So I suggest to my friend Kay that we tie ourselves to a tree when the men turn up with chainsaws. Always one to up the ante she counters that we do it naked. I guess it could make a good story. We might even occupy a tree in the manner of Lisa Simpson in that episode called 'Lisa the Tree Hugger.' We'll be the rebel alliance striking back against the evil empire. All of a sudden this movie has real plot potential. It's Shirley Valentine meets Educating Rita meets the Empire Strikes Back and Calendar Girls, up a tree.

Love E x


P.S. The third in a worn out old franchise.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The Voice.

It takes me a month to fill in the online form. "It's a sign," I tell anyone who will listen, "if I can't even fill in the form I'm not meant to do the M.A." But all the people who will listen tell me I can fill in the form, especially my parents. I manage the bit about uploading some writing, I even find someone to write me a reference, but when I get to the section entitled 'personal statement' I nearly have a nervous breakdown.

"Ha!" say my two older sons, "now you know how we felt when we applied." But I already know how they felt when they applied because I was there.

My dad sends me encouraging emails. In one he suggests I check out an open evening at Kingston University, so I drive all the way over to Kingston University on the hottest June evening for 40 years and sit talking to an academic while wearing an inappropriately heavy dress, drenched in sweat.

As she describes the M.A. to me in more detail, a voice in my head keeps interrupting. "You are not good enough," the voice says. "You are a failure. You are an idiot. You definitely cannot do an M.A." It is a voice that has dogged me and many other women I know for years. Possibly forever. It is a voice my husband has never heard, or any one of my sons, because it's a voice reserved for women who had children and then mislaid their career like it was a beloved old handbag at the back of the wardrobe. But then something she says gives me hope: "have you ever written anything?"

I go home and research the Creative Writing M.A. at Goldsmiths. I nearly went to Goldsmiths once before but on that occasion when I turned out of the station on my way to the university to attend the interview - a skinny little kid from York, who once briefly lived in the beautiful city of Vancouver - New Cross in south east London terrified me.

Somehow I manage to complete an online application to Goldsmiths and while on holiday in the States I receive an email inviting me for interview. You cannot go to an interview, the voice says. You will not know what to say at an interview. At an interview they will discover you are a fraud and an idiot. In any case, you cannot make that date for the interview, so, phew. I reply to say I can't make that date for the interview and immediately receive another email with another date for an interview. 

When I get back from the States and the second date arrives I walk up to Balham Station and from there catch a train to New Cross Gate. Upon leaving the station I turn left towards the university, exactly as I did 33 years ago, but this time something about the kebab shops and the graffiti and the inner-city smell of dog shit and exhaust fumes seems right, because now I live in Tooting.

I'm early. I search out where the interview is due to take place, passing students sprawled on steps in the summer sunshine, then retreat to a cafe where I find a table in the window, and there, with my feet beneath it and my elbows on it, spend a pleasant hour looking things up on my phone. I realise I must have met the woman who is to interview me at a Voice Box event at the South Bank in the early 90s.

I go to the interview and this time I'm not drenched in sweat; I'm wearing my favourite blue dress, and when we get to the bit about why I want to do the M.A. I say something about my sons and how the second one will soon be going to university and that I'd like to do something for myself and have to wipe away tears, again. She asks me about reading: what books have been important to me? and my mind goes blank. This is when she discovers I'm a fraud, I think.

"Oh, you know," I say, delving around in my memory and finding the usual stuff there by Jane Austin and the Brontes, but then I hit a seam. "Madam Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Ruth, The Dubliners, particularly The Dead, Atonement, Birdsong, Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy, The L-Shaped Room, The Bell Jar, although when I reread that recently I couldn't believe how silly it was, novels by Margaret Forster and her biography of Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and..." The voice in my head interrupts. You do realise, it says, that all these books are about being trapped in one way or another, so I say this out loud.

When I get home I find an email offering me a place. Wow, I think, so perhaps the voice will be quiet now.

Love E x


P.S. A week later I receive a reading list and the voice shouts - what the fuck have you done!

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Back in the UK.

North America.

"It's like a parallel universe where everyone is just a lot fatter," says Eldest. That's one of the things I jotted down during our trip to the United States and Canada. I tried to make notes as we went along so I could write a 'what we thought of it' blog but didn't get very far. Here's another, "I thought I'd love the food and hate the people," says Middle One, "but it's the other way around." I know what they mean.

There's a mother and child in the lift down the cliff face to see the sea lions on the Oregon coast who are so large I'm worried the cable might snap. And genial is the word for the 'folks' we encounter along the way, particularly the men. One said 'Howdy' to me in Walmart for absolutely no reason. A group gathered to offer assistance as I was putting fuel in our RV. "We only have small cars in my country," I said, and they fell about laughing like this was the funniest thing they ever heard. I could get used to this, I thought, trading on being foreign and having a cute accent.

Some more observations - gas is cheap, roads are in poor repair, campers are quiet and orderly, cheese is horrible and comes out of a can, a small coke is huge, in fact food portions are so large we order for four instead of for five and still there's too much, you can get bitter black coffee everywhere, tipping is obligatory, service in restaurants is fantastic except for in McDonalds in Banff, which isn't half so good as House of Nanking in San Francisco, and Yosemite on a July weekend is as crowded as Westfield on a Bank Holiday Monday.

There was a large group of teenagers on a small inflatable dinghy on the Merced river, all with enormous tits - the boys as well as the girls - drinking coke, listening to loud rap music, laughing and filming themselves on their iPhones as they blithely floated downstream. There's a handy metaphor for America right there, I thought.

Hot Water.

It's a dismal homecoming. We step off the plane to a message from the plumber. "Bad news, I'm afraid," it says, "my mother-in-law died so there isn't any hot water but it'll be sorted tonight." Great. Awful about the mother-in-law, obviously, but not what you want to hear after a eight hour overnight flight without sleep; although on the plus side it was Air Canada and I did get to watch When Harry Met Sally again.

At the house we hang around waiting for the hot water to come on. The plumber was meant to fit the new boiler in its new position in the three weeks we were away but didn't get it finished. To my untrained eye it looks like he hardly got it started. "Don't you need to move it from the middle of the cellar to back against that wall?" I ask. "And attach the flue?"

"Er," he says, shiftily.

"He told me it was his grandmother who died," says my mother when I ring her to say we're back. Kindly, she called him while we were away trying to hurry things along.

Six o'clock comes and goes, then the plumber disappears when we're not looking sending a text to say he's coming back later, and doesn't. 

In the ensuing week his visits to the house are infrequent and fleeting. This is because his grandmother died, again, Worcester Bosch has sent the wrong part, he has to get more copper piping, which takes him four hours and he returns without it, he has to pop out for dinner/lunch/a break and doesn't come back after any of them, he has to take his son to A&E because he split his lip and that trip to A&E takes him the whole of Thursday, and Friday, and still there's no hot water. I take to showering at a friend's house or the gym, forgetting to take a vital piece of kit with me on each occasion.

"He's the unluckiest plumber in south London," I say to my unwashed sons, standing several feet away from them. "And we haven't had the funeral yet, either of them."

On Saturday, when he eventually turns up at lunchtime, we make him leave his van keys on the kitchen table. "You're not going anywhere until the hot water is back," I say. 

Miraculously this works and at 10pm it comes on and I have my first hot bath in weeks.

Love E x


P.S. And that's not a metaphor, it's just a relief.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

2668 Memory Lane.

Nine hundred and fifty miles from San Francisco and I'm outside the house in Vancouver where I lived when I was a child. It's all coming back to me. The view of the bay and the mountains, the tree my brother and I used to climb from the deck down to the garden, the basement we played in for hours making brick towns on the floor, squashing the shiny black beetles that scurried about down there when they threatened to encroach on our game (in hindsight they were quite possibly cockroaches), the snails I used to gather in the garden and name and keep in jam jars on my bedroom window sill, the transistor radio my parents bought me for Christmas 1975 through which I first heard Abba's SOS and The Hustle by... who the hell was The Hustle by? No idea.

There was no plan, just a taxi to the address and then once disgorged onto the pavement I wasn't sure what to do next. "The house was blue," I tell my family as we approach from across the road, "but of course it might not be blue anymore." I peep round the hedge. It's not blue, it's grey, and it's even prettier than I remember.

I knock on the door on the off chance that someone is in and a nice lady opens it. "Excuse me," I say, "I used to live here in 1975/6 and..." I don't get to the end of my explanation before she invites us inside. No sooner have I crossed the threshold than I burst into tears. I had no idea that would happen. I didn't expect to cry but then I didn't expect to be invited inside. I don't know what I expected. I just wanted to see it again.

"Stop trying to recreate your childhood through us," one of my sons said a few days ago when I bemoaned something not being exactly the way I remembered it.

Is that what I'm doing? Maybe. Or maybe some places have a hold on us we can never shake off and this house is one of those places for me. No wonder, now I'm back here I understand its grip - it's beautiful, in a beautiful place, more beautiful even than I remember it, improved upon and extended with an additional storey on the back.

"Your parents probably had this room," the current owner says, showing us into the first room we come to on the right. "It's the den now."

"They did!" I say, and then I'm overwhelmed by tears. The whole thing is too incredible. To be transported back in an instant to another world, a world in which I am nine-years-old and living with my parents and my brother in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, 5000 miles from where I've spent my life since.

"I think you need a big hug," she says.

We walk on through the living room to the deck outside. Despite the smoke hanging over Vancouver from the forest fires burning in the east, you can still tell that on a clear day there's an incredible view, all the way to Vancouver Island. "Such a shame," says the owner, "that you can't see it today."

She takes us on into the dining room. Suddenly it's 1975 and my parents and brother and I are sitting round that table having Sunday lunch (we might have been living in Canada but we were still British) seagulls are flying down to the window, landing on the wooden platform the owners we rented the house from had erected for this purpose. Chairs scrape back as my brother and I rush to feed them with scraps from our plates.

After a comprehensive tour and swapping contact details with the lovely owner, we walk to my old elementary school using Google maps on my phone. "So," says one of my sons, peering in through a classroom window, "Canada, how many provinces?"

"No idea," I say. "They didn't teach us stuff like that. I was in a progressive classroom. I had to plan my own timetable so I wrote stories about witches and warlocks for nine months."

On the bus back to downtown Vancouver I hum The Hustle to Middle One.

"Van McCoy," he says.

Love E x


P.S. Ten provinces and three territories. I looked it up. 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The tide is high.

I'm lying on a beach in Washington State near a place called Willipa Bay with my eldest son. As we drove here deeper into the wilderness across a vast bridge that spanned the inlet, with the setting sun turning the water silver and the forest black against the sky, I thought it the most beautiful place I'd ever seen. Now the sun has gone and the moon is high and the waves are lapping gently against the shore, and it's even more beautiful.

He builds a fire on the sand, expertly using cardboard pieces and bits of barbecue briquette he brought with him to the beach. Once these catch he adds driftwood lying nearby, selects music from his phone, and lights the spliff he bought earlier.

Buying cannabis from one of the many legal cannabis stores we passed along the highway in Oregon was one of the things he wanted to do on this trip, so when the rest of us were hitting Safeway again - for yet more food supplies for the RV - he asked if I minded him nipping across the road to a store he saw as we were parking. "Of course not," I said. "You're 21, an adult, and it's legal here, it's your choice." Then I added, half in jest, "I might even join you."

When dinner was over and washed up and the others hit the hay or quietly crept off to a corner to read, he called my bluff. "Do you feel stressed?" he asked. 

"I do, quite," I said, because driving hundreds of miles in such a short space of time in a hot metal box with four men was taking its toll. So he suggested I go with him to the beach to smoke the single joint he had purchased in the cannabis store for six dollars; called Pineapple Express. I haven't smoked marijuana since I was a student and I didn't like it much then, but I reckoned it would be nice to tag along and maybe have a few puffs.

There's no one else on the beach. With the fire flickering and the music playing he lights the joint, takes a drag, then passes it to me. My first puff is a baby one and the second, by the third I inhale deeply, and cough a lot. "You did it right that time," he says.

It has no effect at all. I will have to lie and pretend I'm stoned when I'm not, I think. Then I notice something. "Have you seen the waves?" I say, "they're almost up to our toes in no time. The tide is higher and it wasn't before."

"I don't think so, Ma," he laughs.

"No, really." I say, "look at the waves."

White waves are rolling towards us, whiter than they were before and fuller, much fuller, and a lot closer.

"Those waves are definitely coming right at us," I say, taking the joint from his hand and puffing away on it several more times. "In fact... they're quite sinister."

He laughs again.

I lie back on the sand and look up at the stars. They're so beautiful. The whole night is so beautiful -  the stars, the beach, the music, my son. It's all unbearably beautiful.

"How are you feeling now?" he asks, and for a moment I can't answer for the tears, which I wipe away quickly.

"Fine." I say, "I feel fine."

Later we walk back through trees to the RV and I stop dead in my tracks to look up at the sky. A buttery moon is silhouetted against spindly pines turning the whole wood into something like a scene from a Tim Burton movie.

"Oh my God, have you seen the moon?" I say, "and the trees, look at the trees! The moon is the mooniest moon there has ever been and the trees, the trees are so... treeish."

"You're high, Ma," he laughs.

When I get back to the RV, I lie on the bed in my clothes, not remembering that I was just lying on a beach and so getting sand everywhere and then when I get into bed properly later, unclothed between scratchy sheets provided by the RV rental company, it's like being exfoliated by two pieces of sandpaper.

I can't sleep. I'm wide awake thinking about the fire and the music and the spliff and the walk through the wood with my boy and most of all the waves that were coming straight at us up the beach, closer and closer.  

Love E x