Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Joy in the afternoon.

"Why don't we do it in the middle of the day?" says my friend.

"What!" I say, "We can't do that."

"Why not?"


I can't really think of a reason not to, to be honest, so we did. Sod it, I thought, it's tricky in the evenings because I always have to cook the dinner, as you know, like Cinderfuckingrella, and it means leaving the boys and Husband home alone, so we went midday, mid-week. Proper naughty. Joy in the afternoon, you might call it. Well, it wasn't on in the evening, lunch time was the only time it was still showing at Clapham Picture House, and we really wanted to catch it.

I have to say there wasn't a lot of Joy in it, but maybe that's the point. There was rather a lot of downward spiral and not enough on the up and up. I got a bit fidgety and impatient, starting muttering things to my mate, which I wouldn't normally do for fear of disturbing other audience members but there were only half a dozen silver surfers in there, who were probably hard of hearing anyway. (Is that ageist? Mildly ageist? No doubt someone will tell me if it is.)

"Can something go right for this stupid character! She's a disaster! Oh great! At last! Her invention is a success and she's going to get laid by Bradley Cooper!" were some of the things I said.

But it wasn't, and she didn't. Not that I want to give too much away in case you see the movie yourself, and I'd recommend it, it's good. A bit over-long maybe, but Jennifer Lawrence is mesmerising.  I loved her in Silver Linings Playbook, which is a much better film. She's reason enough to see it by herself, her and Robert De Niro. Bradley Cooper? Not so much. He's okay. I've said what I think about him before. Bit young. I like older men. Grumpy ones. Like Bill Murray. That's my niche.

Then, less than 48 hours later, I see this same friend again at a dinner party one of our mutual friends is throwing, on Saturday night. "We'll have to stop meeting like this," I say. There are no husbands, women only, so we all get drunk and talk about sex, of course, as women do, and then about sheets, in some detail. I'll come to the sheets in a minute because it's interesting (well, I think it's interesting) but obviously not as interesting as the sex, which interests everybody. 

So a few friends say they know married people who have separate bedrooms.

"Don't be stupid," I say, "who has separate bedrooms in this day and age?"

"Oh loads of people do," they say. "It's a modern thing."

"You're thinking of Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter," I say, "who had separate houses, next to each other, and bragged on about it for years, about how fabulous it was and how it worked really well, and then split up."

"No, no," they say. "We're not. Separate bedrooms. Loads of people do it now. They have snoring rooms."

"Get away," I say. "How would they... you know... So, how would that work?"

"They'd make a date," they say. "Take a little trip down the corridor. More romantic."

"Really? That's romantic?"


"But what if you wake up in the middle of the night," I ask, "wanting... you know, joy in the middle of the night?"

And everyone stops talking and looks at me. If there was tumble weed to be had in deepest, darkest Streatham it would have tumbled right across the middle of the table at that very moment, like in Thelma and Louise, and there are definitely not separate bedrooms in Thelma and Louise (okay, there are, separate motel rooms as I recall, only rather too well).

So then the conversation turns to ironing (listen, don't scoff, these are things women genuinely talk about when they get together) and it turns out that a lot of my friends iron their sheets - so that's two sets to iron if there's a husband down the corridor. I'll just repeat that in case you missed it. They IRON sheets. And they spend a fortune on them too. £100, one person said. £100? On a sheet!  So that's £200 on two sets, with one for the husband down the corridor (great at maths, me, actually not: 9 O'Levels plus the 1 CSE, in maths, probably verging on dyscalculia, can't get my silly little head round numbers at all).

If life's too short to stuff a mushroom (and it is), then it's sure as hell too short to iron a 5000% percale cotton sheet (and what the hell is percale anyway?). They also iron tea towels... and pants! Who irons pants? I don't even put pants away. What would be the point of that? Who would see your ironed pants? Apart from your husband… and not even him if he's in a bedroom down the corridor, then he'd only see your pyjamas, if you were a big enough loser to own pyjamas, and wear them. Mind you, if you're the sort of person to keep your husband in a bedroom down the corridor then you're bound to be the sort of person who wears pyjamas. So what is the point of ironing pants? And what if your pants are not from Marks and Spencer or Primark, but from Ann Summers or Agent Provocateur? They'd melt under the iron.

Any road up, as they say where I come from, and where they most definitely buy pants from Marks and Sparks, and iron them as well, this brings me to Part Three of my tale, when the next day - Sunday - we go to see Youth at Clapham Picture House. Husband and I go in the afternoon, again, (getting to be a habit, must be our age, rehearsing for an empty nest) and we're there with two mates, and one of the mates is the one I saw Joy with, and bumped into the night before at the dinner party. "We'll have to stop meeting like this," I say, again, and the four of us watch an ageing, brilliant and slightly reptilian-looking Michael Caine do an impression of a guy who is ageing, brilliant and slightly reptilian-looking. Brilliantly. A grumpy old man, in fact. Not that I fancy Michael Caine, just to be clear.

Husband actually stays awake because it's the afternoon and because there's light humour and some spectacular female nudity (brief). And afterwards I'm sitting in a toilet cubicle, drinking beer and eating processed meat, thinking: someone pulled down his ironed or un-ironed pants here, in this exact spot, and took a dump, or worse. Realising that despite my best protestations last week, I’ve somehow ended up in a basement bar (called WC, site of the old public loos below ground at Clapham Common tube). And the husband of the mate I keep bumping into tells me it's a thing that when women get together they only have conversations about men and sex, in real life, and in films.

"Really?" I say, "in films?" Because I'm not able to deny that first part, so I am keen to have a go at denying the second. "Are you sure about this?"

"Completely sure," he says, several times. 

"And who thinks this?" I say, "Men perhaps? Self-absorbed ones?"

"Film crit people," he says, "feminist ones."

"Okay," I say, "so what about in that suffragette movie?" Before realising the whole film is women talking about men: how mean they are, how capricious they are, how they like to control women. Blah, blah, blah.

And he says, yes, really, name a film where two strong female characters sit around talking about something other than men. 

"Thelma and Louise!" I shrill, before realising that whole movie is a conversation about men: how mean they are, how capricious they are, how they like to control women. Damn it. (Great film.)

So then the waitress rocks up while I'm trying to think of a better example (I was half expecting to be served by Ron Davies, to be honest, or Kevin Spacey) and lays on a bountiful array of carcinogenic charcuterie, and beer, and the four of us proceed to get very nicely stuffed, and intoxicated also, while unsuccessfully trying to think of a movie that doesn't have female characters talking about men (I honestly do not have an alcohol problem, despite the impression I am giving on this blog) and then the lovely waitress comes back with the bill. 

"Jesus," says Husband, studying said bill, and going white as a 5000% percale cotton sheet, an ironed one.

"But it's so great down here," I say, "whatever it cost, it's been worth it." We all say this in fact, not just me.

It might be an abandoned, low-lit toilet, full of fragrant swinging sausage, where they charge a fortune for the pleasure of hanging out, but also it's flatteringly dark so we all look our best under the glow of the candlelight, and we somehow manage to turn into fabulously fun, witty people down there, as loud and lewd as you like (briefly), without worrying that we're disturbing anyone because we have our own booth, and we're below ground. So, all in all I think I'm coming round to the idea of life as a troglodyte... just as we're heading for the stairs.

“Yeah," says Husband, as we climb up to street-level, and daylight, "only in Clapham. If this place opened in Hull it wouldn’t last a week,” and we all laugh, because that's a joke.

Love E x


P.S. If you can think of a film where two strong female leads have a conversation NOT about men, or a man, or sex, or ironing, do let me know. I'm not going to have one for a very long time, if ever, just to prove a point. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

Teen Stress.

Below - The piece from The Times on Saturday in case you missed it, about teen stress. As Eldest so tactfully put it moments before the photo was taken at Christmas, "What the fuck has she done to your face!" (It was full hair and make up, never again.)

Above - what I actually look like at my desk today. Wrong eyeline, but appearing slightly less of a lunatic, I hope!

Love E x


P.S. Thanks for reading. Proper blogging again later this week.

How to de-stress your teenager.

From exams to social media, young people have stress coming at them from all angles. What can parents do to help?
It’s exam season again and it’s only February. This time it is mocks for our middle son, who’s 17 (we have three boys, who are 13, 17 and 19). He’s “vibesing” them, rather than revising for them, which I think means he’s going with the flow, not killing himself doing flat-out revision. That’s fine by me.
From where I’m sitting, here at our family kitchen table surrounded by GCSE and A-level study aids, teenagers in 2016 have stress coming at them from all angles. First, there’s the pressure to do well at school, to achieve outstanding GCSE, AS and A-level results, to bag multiple offers from Russell group universities, while also being accomplished in extracurricular activities such as sport and music, and trekking the Atlas mountains for the DofE Gold (Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, for the uninitiated). Then there’s peer pressure and social media pressure heaped on them as well.
I went to my middle son’s school sixth-form awards evening recently. After the event, I quizzed my son and some of his friends. “Life is stressful,” said one 17-year-old girl, who didn’t want to be identified, but let’s call her Issy. “Literally all anyone cares about at school is your results . . . I burnt out doing my GCSEs, and I’ve never really got it back. I feel anxious all the time. I find it difficult to sleep. I never really switch off. I went to the doctor about it and I told him I don’t even know why.”
It’s not just the teens who are stressed, it is their parents as well. A mum of three teenagers I was moaning to recently came out with the exact same thing, calling her daughter “a Duracell Bunny”, who never stops. “I can see it all simmering under the surface, all the time. I wasn’t prepared for how relentless the work was going to be, from GCSEs right through to A levels, constant pressure for four years.”
I don’t want to come over all “in my day” about this, but in my day (the 1980s), being a teenager just wasn’t like this. We muddled along, somewhere between swotty and New Romantic. I spent my youth down the village pub, drinking rum and black, dashing off A-level essays in registration on Mondays, seconds before “Sir” arrived.
Most of us did a bit of work, acquired a few half-decent A levels, which was more than adequate to get into a half-decent university, then went on to get a half-decent job. There was very little pressure. No university fees in those days, which now turn the future into a massive gamble. And no internet, social media or mobile phone either.
“Even when she’s studying, the phone is there next to her and the texts and alerts are coming through,” the mum tells me. “Sometimes I feel the phone is an extension of her hand. She’s always on social media, there’s no let-up, even on holiday.”
Issy, too, admits to finding social media stressful and a distraction, getting into arguments on Twitter late at night in her bedroom when ideally she should be winding down, or finishing that essay. “We get into arguments about politics,” she says. “The bombing of Syria vote was a big night. And then there’s such a culture of degrading women on Twitter. It’s quite subtle, but so prominent . . . slut-shaming. I don’t know why we have the word slut. Showing flesh, sleeping around, I don’t know why people care about that.”
So why don’t you leave Twitter, I ask. She looks aghast. “Because then I wouldn’t know what’s going on.”
Of course, hand in hand with constant posting on social media goes the risk of making a mistake. Unlike an ill-judged remark, or a snog with the wrong boy at a disco, which is about as far as it went . . . yes, “in my day”, a mistake on social media has the power to haunt publicly the sorry, underaged perpetrator for years.
Could it be academic pressure, combined with peer pressure, exacerbated by social media pressure, that’s causing so many teens to buckle? The number of young people with depression doubled between the 1980s and 2000s, according to the children and young people’s mental health charity YoungMinds. And besides depression, or possibly as a result of it for some teens, there’s risk-taking. Which parent of a teenager doesn’t have a scary anecdote concerning sexting, parties out of control, legal highs, or binge drinking? (I’m not allowed to mention my sons’ transgressions here, of course, so let’s gloss over the traffic cone/sink full of sick in the bathroom incident.)
“I recently took a blade off a girl in PE,” says Issy. “She’d made it from a pencil sharpener. She had cut marks all up her arms.”
About 25 per cent of young people self-harm on at least one occasion, most commonly by cutting, according to statistics supplied by YoungMinds. Boys are as vulnerable as girls, they explain, but tend not to turn their emotions in on themselves in the same way. Getting into fights, deliberately getting hurt, these can all be manifestations of self-harming.
So what can we, the loving and concerned parents of teenage children, do to help to manage all this stress? I don’t pretend to have answers, but I do have, at the time of writing, three pretty chilled-out children. In part, I think this is because they’re boys and not much worried about what other people think, not so eager to please, as girls appear to be. But also, perhaps, it’s about what I, and their father, don’t do. We don’t nag them about work. We don’t try and live our lives through them. Their successes and failures are their own. Above all else, I think it’s important to talk, talk, talk. Maybe this is the key. And talk comes cheap, we can all do that.
Sitting in the audience at that sixth-form awards evening, waiting for my son’s turn to go up, I had to resist the urge to shout out: “Just grab the stupid award and run! And keep on running, like Forrest Gump, as far as your impossibly skinny pubescent legs can carry you, until you flop down exhausted somewhere far from school and weep for all the innocent pre-internet, pre-selfie, pre-A levels that take over your whole life, fun you’ve never had! Then go off and find a nice little village pub and order a rum and black.”
Except obviously I didn’t because I hope my son knuckles down to his A levels when the time comes, gets good grades and goes on to university, like his older brother did. And, more importantly, I hope he manages to get through it all without cracking under the stress. Fingers crossed.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @doesnotdoit and on her blog at

The expert guide for parents

Avoiding stress is all about building mental resilience, according to the clinical psychologist Tanya Byron. “It’s a life skill,” she says, explaining that high EQ (emotional intelligence) is a stronger marker of success, both professional and personal, than high IQ. Here are five ways to help teenagers to develop emotional intelligence and become less stressed.

Remember that emotions are contagious
“Remaining calm yourself is vital,” says Janey Downshire, the parenting expert and author of Teenagers Translated. “So be a safe haven psychologically for your child.” Emotions are contagious and children will mirror yours. Don’t let their stress get to you so that you end up in a mutual spiral of anxiety.

Turn off screens an hour before bed 
“Sleep is incredibly important,” says Byron. Teenagers nowadays are often engaged 24 hours a day with work, screens and mobile phones. Looking at a screen late at night interferes with melatonin and keeps the mind from switching off. There’s a temptation to overwork and over-revise, especially for perfectionist girls. However, a good night’s sleep is vital for laying down memory, so encourage them to go to sleep at a reasonable hour. “No screen time for at least an hour before sleep,” says Byron.

Get high on exercise
Sport and exercise are helpful because the dopamine released when we play together — with the regular deep breathing that results — counteracts the effects of stress and produces a “feel good” or high. Downshire explains that exercise is not just about endorphins, but also a form of mindfulness. “Being aware of yourself in that moment, putting breathing and the body into something regular rather than working at a mental level.”
Byron recommends downloading a mindfulness app — Headspace — on to your teen’s phone to help them to switch off, find balance and learn how to regulate their emotions. “When we’re anxious our brain becomes our bully,” she explains. “We don’t have to believe everything we think.”

Work in 45-minute bursts
When it comes to revising, Byron suggests tackling tricky subjects early in the day and leaving easier ones until later, when energy is low, and encouraging lots of breaks. “Forty-five-minute bursts of revision are long enough,” she says. “And make sure there are periods when your child switches off completely.” Downshire agrees, emphasising the importance of other activities, such as going out with friends, having a long bath, reading, listening to or playing music (music has the power to numb psychological pain, she says) or just going for a brisk walk, are great ways to relax if undertaken without a mobile phone to hand.

Beware perfectionism
Byron and Downshire warn about the drive for perfectionism, which can lead to a defeatist mindset. Phrases such as “I’m bad at . . .”, “I can’t do that . . .” and “I always fail at . . .” should ring alarm bells. To combat this, help your child to set their own realistic and achievable academic goals, rather than having them set by others (eg, school or peer pressure). Then be sure to praise your child when these goals are achieved or exceeded, which more often than not they will be.

Here's that terrible photo...

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Gordon's Wine Bar.

It's Saturday, and we’re planning to meet some French friends in town for an early evening drink. They're in London with a party of school children, from Arras, and they have some time off.

“I thought we could meet them in Gordon’s Wine Bar,” says Husband, as I’m making the lunch.

“I don’t like Gordon’s Wine Bar,” I say, cutting slices of avocado to put in bacon sandwiches (not mashing them, and that’s not a proper recipe, Nigella). “It's a basement, there's no view.”

“Yes, but French people like old pubs,” says Husband.

“You met them in an old pub for lunch yesterday,” I say.

“Where do you think we should meet them then?” says Husband.

“The Skylon bar,” I say, “on the South Bank.”

“Not the Skylon Bar again?” says Husband. “Why do you like that place so much?”

Why do I like that place so much?

“Because of the view," I say. "Because it's cool, with a lovely bar, because of the service, because it’s in the Festival Hall, because we can get there and back easily, because then I can get home quickly to cook dinner, because…”

“I don’t get it,” says Husband.

“That’s because you have a different set of priorities," I say, "with good beer at the top."

At the Skylon Bar I scout for a table in the window, but all I can find is something set back a bit, with low stools, so I sit there.

“What are you doing?” says Husband. “We need a table for four."

“I know," I say, pointing to a couple who are reaching for their coats and bags. "That table over there might become free in a moment."

It does, and it's perfect: the perfect table, in the perfect position, looking out at the river. There’s Hungerford bridge and the London Eye over to the left, a Waterloo sunset to the right, lights coming on all across the city as the day fades away. It's beautiful. 

Husband studies the wine list. “Have you seen these prices?” he says. 

“It’s beautiful here,” I say.

“I think it’s provincial,” he says, still looking at the wine list.

“Provincial?” I say. “It's on the South Bank.”

Our friend arrives. We’ve known him a long time, since Husband was an English assistant in the same school where he was a History teacher. I lived in France with Husband then too, briefly, for the whole of one freezing February. All the young teachers hung out together, and we hung out with them. There was a lot of drink driving (not by us, we couldn’t drive). Husband rented a tiny garret room at the top of a narrow town house. Really. There was no hot water. In lieu of a shower we heated pans of water and threw them over each other in the bath. But I’m digressing wildly, that's a whole other blog. Or possibly a French film I once saw.

Our mutual friend has another teacher in tow. She's ludicrously young, with a wide-eyed innocence that makes me feel like Mae West to her Judy Garland, especially when I suggest she orders a champagne cocktail (I tell her Husband will pay) and she replies that she’s never had one.

“I only had champagne by itself,” she says.

Of course you have, I think, you’re French, and young, and I press a raspberry and lychee Bellini on her, feeling like a crack dealer cornering a teenager on a housing estate.

Husband and our friend speak in English for my benefit, as the young teacher quietly drinks in the atmosphere, and the raspberry and lychee Bellini.

Years of living with a fluent French speaker - and dossing in a garret in northern France for a month - has hardly left a French scratch on me, although I can usually follow the conversation if I know the context, and I get very animated in the language after a couple of drinks. But who doesn’t?

The view from the Skylon is so beautiful I find it distracting. My mind floats free, far away out of the window and down river, as our friend starts talking about British politics. Where has Ed Milliband gone? he wants to know, and will Britain stay in the EU? I realise he’s addressing me.

Me? My head has drained. I have no opinions. And why does everyone keep asking me about the EU?

“I really don’t know,” I say. “In particular I have no idea what’s happened to Ed Milliband.”

He looks taken aback, I guess because I usually have a lot to say, even (especially) on topics I know nothing about. He turns to his young female companion for in-put but she’s still awestruck, gaping at the room, so he looks to Husband.

“He won’t know anything about Ed Milliband,” I say, answering for him (we've been married a long time), “and he thinks we should leave the EU. Nowadays he reads the Telegraph online.”

Our friend looks even more surprised. He wears a lot of home-knit jumpers, this friend, the wool dyed in socialism, and he hates Germany, all to do with what happened to both his grandfathers in the war. He'd like Britain to stay in the EU and Germany to leave it. 

He swivels back to me. “You don’t read the Telegraph online as well, do you?”

“Not habitually,” I say.

“Ma femme refuse de coucher avec un Conservateur!” says Husband, genially, because that’s a joke, an old one, of mine. And everyone laughs, including me, because I get that.

The young female teacher suddenly snaps into
life. “I love it here!” she says, to me. "What is it called again?"

"Skylon," I say.

"The sky's the limit!" says our friend, which, I think, is very impressive English, for a foreigner.

"It's beautiful," says the young teacher, "thank you for bringing me here.”

I try not to look smugly over at Husband, but I fail.

They all decide to go on to Gordon’s Wine Bar for one more drink before parting ways. I don’t much like Gordon’s Wine Bar so I head home to cook dinner. Plus ├ža change.

Love E x


 P.S. It was a curry. 

Gordon's Wine Bar.