Monday, 17 November 2014

Switching off.

It's six pm on Friday night, my arm is throbbing from the flu jab I had on Thursday, and from carrying six bags of heavy grocery shopping. 

I dump the bags on the kitchen island. Husband gets in from work and pours us both a beer. I decide to turn my phone off. 

This is a high risk strategy because there is one boy out babysitting and another out on the raz, but if I don't stop the flood of messages and text and tweets and emails and Facebook messages, I think my head might explode. 

There are emails about work still arriving, there is a text from the roofer about the hole in the bedroom ceiling where the rain is coming in and dripping noisily into a bucket, there is a question about Middle One's imminent birthday party (a load of teenagers decending on the house on Sunday night), there is a message about the babysitting assignment, there are offers from GAP and LoveTheatre and (how did that happen?) all mixed up with Guardian news alerts, emails from family members, an offer of a night out with friends, some responses to the minutes from a meeting held at the house on Monday night…

Fixing a hole where the rain gets in.

I reach for the phone to switch off but as I do so it slips from my hand, hits the wooden floor, no more violently than it has many times before, and the screen shatters
. This feels symbolic. 

That night we turn in early. Middle One is back from babysitting. Eldest is still out, but somehow I think I will sleep this time rather than lying awake wondering when he will get back, as usual. I am feeling rather flu-ey.

I do sleep: glorious, deep, sleep, until we are woken by a loud thudding noise at 3.50 am. Is it rain hitting the bucket again? Is it Eldest coming in? 

No, he is back, the landing light is out.

I get up and look out of the window. It's the neighbours opposite, the group of boys who recently moved in. They are having a party with all their windows open. They appear to have reached that, 'we are so drunk and stoned we don't care that we are playing a loud techno-beat with all the windows open at four in the morning' stage of the proceedings.

Husband and I both lie awake. For ages. Finally I get up and ring the local council noise abatement people. Someone actually answers the phone. That someone tells me he can't come out because they finish visits at 3 am. 

I ring the local police station and they put me through to the noise abatement people and the same someone tells me again that they can't come out because they finish visits at 3 am. 

We move into the guest room at the back of the house. 

"I don't think I can sleep in this bed," says Husband, "it's so small compared to ours." 

"Yes," I say, "but listen, it's really peaceful." And it is, wonderfully peaceful and wonderfully dark. 

Finally we fall asleep. Only to be woken what feels like five minutes later by a loud insistent ring at the front door. 

I go downstairs and switch my phone back on. 

There are four text messages, three emails from family members, something very important about work, sent at 11.30 pm, a text from Eldest saying he is going clubbing and will be back later, a text about the babysitting, three tweets and a voicemail from the roofer saying he is going to pop round first thing tomorrow, is that okay?

I turn it off again and go and let the roofer in.

Love E x


Wednesday, 12 November 2014

How to build a boy.

I'm busy with work today so
I'm cheating and pasting my article 
from The Telegraph on Saturday. 
I didn't call it 'How do you raise happy boys?' 
by the way, I called it 'How to build a boy'. 
I wouldn't be that presumptuous!
E x

Wednesday 12 November 2014

How do you raise happy boys?

Sticks, snacks and Sellotape, says Elizabeth McFarlane, who has spent the last 18 years nurturing her three sons – and a husband

It’s a man’s world: Elizabeth McFarlane has survived life with her two younger boys Oscar, 12, Arthur, 15, and their older brother, plus their father Alex, with the judicious use of turning a blind eye
It’s a man’s world: Elizabeth McFarlane has survived life with her two younger boys Oscar, 12, Arthur, 15, and their older brother, plus their father Alex, with the judicious use of turning a blind eye  
Take a mother, three boys, a husband, a brother and a brother-in-law and what do you have? A woman surrounded by males. That’s me. 
I am the only female in a house of boys and men. I don’t actually live with my brother and my brother-in-law, you understand, I’m just emphasising the lack of females in my extended family. I do live with three sons, who are 18, 15 and 12, and a husband. 
The four of them drive me crazy and they make my heart sing, often at exactly the same time. I live in a world of discarded boxer shorts, upright lavatory seats and trails of loose change left for me to follow like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs through the house. 
The boys are mine but I sometimes feel I am only borrowing them until another woman comes along to claim them. “A son is a son till he takes a wife, a daughter’s a daughter the rest of her life,” as the saying goes. 
When my eldest turned 18 a few months ago it gave me cause to reflect. He is now an adult, a man. To me this is incredible. How do you build a boy? 

Mothers of boys must get used to endless reruns of Top Gear REXFEATURES
Well, you will need, in no particular order, love, sticks, Sellotape, interesting stones, firm rules, snacks, outdoor space and judicious use of turning a blind eye. Add time and cuddles and don’t stop giving those cuddles even when the boy towers over you, remarking, “My, you’re shrinking, mother.” Secretly, he still wants them. 
Allow for running, jumping, climbing, even in the house. To minimise this, do trips to the park, followed by trips to the park, followed by trips to the park. “For my birthday can I have a really nice stick?” the eldest said, when he was five. I think that sums it up. Oh, and you mustn’t mind that your house gets trashed. We have whole chunks taken out of our beloved Victorian terrace. 
Be prepared for any or all of the following as they grow up, beginning with: “I can’t find it/where is it?” Then there’s that constant refrain: “There’s never any food in this house!” (You will also spend your entire life making emergency trips to buy more Jaffa Cakes.) 
Wet towels/T-shirts/pants/homework will always be on the floor. Get used to endless reruns of Top Gear and QI. Random plastic bags will be strewn all over the place (why?). No one will notice your new hair/dress/shoes. Don’t expect interesting gossip about school/work (you will become so desperate for conversation you’ll ask them what they ate for lunch). And do expect to be asked questions you are not equipped to answer. A recent example: “What was it like, Mummy, when Space Invaders came out?”
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great bits, too. Our home is loud, loving and emotionally uncomplicated with plenty of “debates”, jokes and music. Both the older boys play guitar, electric and acoustic, and both are brilliant (me, biased?). I love this. Our poor neighbours probably do not. Plus there is little spite or malice with boys, no grudges or emotional manipulation. Yes, there are rows and tantrums (mostly mine), and there was fighting and lashing out when they were younger, especially between the older two who are closer in age, but all is quickly forgotten. 

Boys are judged as hooligans merely on their haircuts or clothing REX 
My friends with girls have complicated emotional issues to deal with. They fret about the pressures placed on young women: to be slim and attractive, that they are sexualised too young by aggressive marketing and the media. I sit and listen and think how sophisticated and sorted most of the girls I know appear to be compared with boys, and I wonder about the pressures on them. 
Consultant psychiatrist Sebastian Kraemer, famous for his notion of the “Fragile Male”, points out: “The human male is, on most measures, more vulnerable than the female.” 
He explains that male babies are more likely to be born prematurely, with disorders such as autism, and more likely to have poorer motor and cognitive regulation leading to misjudgement of risk, encouraging accidents, crime, drug-taking and violence. They commit suicide in greater numbers, and are more likely to be the victim of violent crime; they are even more prone to asthma. Are they then, I wonder, contrary to popular belief, actually the weaker sex? 
We don’t tick many of those scary boxes in our household, thank goodness, although one boy does suffer from asthma and another has been mugged three times. Which brings me to worry. I worry because society is meaner to boys. “A typical attitude,” says Kraemer, “is that they are, or must be made, more resilient than girls.” 
In other words: big boys don’t cry. So when they run for the bus and have to watch it pull away from them once again, knowing the driver saw them in his rear mirror, as has happened to my boys many times, they must learn to shrug it off and walk home, again. They must be prepared to be judged “hoodies” or hooligans merely on the strength of a haircut, or an item of clothing, and to arouse suspicion in shops. 
And they must be wary of other men. “Never make eye contact with a mean-looking man in a pub,” I say. So this is the worst bit about building a boy: sending him off into the world. Because it is then the mother’s fate to lie awake at night, once he has come of age and is out by himself, trusting to luck and good judgment, and that advice she gave him about the dodgy-looking geezer in the pub, until she hears the comforting click of the front door, his light tread on the stair, and knows that he is safe. 
Leave your house-proud days behind you. We haven’t had the hall and stairs decorated in seven years because there doesn’t seem any point. Chips and scuffs all over the place.
Proffer food such as milk, biscuits, fruit or toast the minute he gets in from school. Never try to talk to a boy about something if he has an empty stomach. This also applies to husbands.
Make sure he goes to bed at a reasonable hour and at the same time. A tired boy is the next worst thing to a hungry boy.
Always have Sellotape to hand. It is amazing what a small boy will want to Sellotape to what.
There will be sticks, stones, old drinks cans, bottle tops and interesting dead insects kept under the bed. Try to turn a blind eye because he will become hysterical if you attempt to remove them.
Do bedtime reading aloud. Boys can be slower than girls to read and this helps. Make sure to read Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl to him at least once – if Dad can do this, even better.
And do not pressure him to read too early; leave attractive-looking non-fiction and cartoon-style books, such as Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, casually lying around as encouragement instead. Once they get the reading habit they will move on to other things.
Forget piano or violin lessons. Not cool. Arrange guitar lessons. The boy is far less likely to give these up when he hits puberty. (According to my middle son, a guy with a guitar case is proven to be more attractive to women than one without.)
Sport. Have them do some to run off energy. It doesn’t have to be football. Our boys took up fencing at the age of eight and two of them still do it.
Give up trying to make him look smart. It’s a waste of time. I buy combs and toothbrushes and they are sorely neglected. You can take a boy to water but you cannot make him wash or brush his teeth.

Monday, 3 November 2014


This is a library photograph.

I'm in a large London hospital with my producer/camera man friend filming footage to go with the interviews for this NHS film we're making. 

I already have an interview in the bag with a nurse who works in a neonatal ward with premature babies, so I need some footage to go with it. 

The Comms lady from the hospital says she will ask in the neonatal high dependency ward if we can film in there. We need to get a parent's permission to film a baby, of course. 

A mother gives her permission and so we wash our hands, again, and use the alcohol rub, again, and leave our bags and coats in the nurses' office. 

Quietly we enter the ward and in hushed tones we chat to the new mother, who stands smiling in her fluffy blue dressing gown, while we film her tiny premature baby as he kicks his sausage-pink legs in his incubator. A nurse is taking a blood sample from the baby and we get some good shots, but it's a shame he is so distressed in all of them. 

"I have another mother who has given her permission," says the Comms lady, "her baby will soon be transferring to a hospice". 

"A hospice? Oh no," I say, "we really don't need to intrude upon that particular mother and child, thank you, but that's fine". 

But the Comms lady insists, "Really, the mother has said yes, she wants you to film".

What I see next is without doubt the saddest thing I have ever witnessed first-hand: a baby struggling for his life. He can't swallow. His mother uses tiny suction pipes to syphon away his saliva. The trainee midwife standing by the mother explains that she has been caring for him herself, 24 hours a day. She hasn't left his bedside.

We film the baby and the mother and the young trainee midwife who is with her. All the shots are close ups (the motif for the film is close ups of nurses hands). 

The baby's mother is very young. She wears a headscarf. She is pretty. She has big, dark eyes that hold more pain than I have ever seen. She looks straight at me when I ask the baby's name and smiles when she tells me. Smiles. 

After we have moved away I ask if we have a good clear shot of that mother and child that we might be able to give to her to keep. My camera-man friend says that we don't, so I send him back to film something we can give her. It's the least we can do.

I will never forget the scene by that bedside. The quiet tenderness. The love that mother had for her baby. That beautiful smile.

Love E x


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Fair enough.

Me interviewing a nurse. Honest, he is a nurse.

I climb into a taxi in Cambridge, having just interviewed some nurses for the film I'm making, on my way back to the station, and the person who commissioned the film is talking to me. Just her voice. No actual body. 

She says, it's all about transparency… measurably… what are we doing well? How do we know? 

Yep, I think, I have that recorded, at least one of my nurses said that, and much more besides. Phew. Thanks.

She's talking on BBC Five Live, the taxi driver is listening to it. But I very nearly met her in the flesh last week, we had a meeting in central London but then she had to go and see The Secretary of State instead at the last minute, about that strike, you may have read about it, I ended up meeting her second in command. Fair enough.

People ring in to the radio programme to talk about nursing. I want to join in. I want to say nurses are amazing. I want to say we should all re-train to be nurses because it's the best job in the world. 

This might be because I've just interviewed 12 of them, and a midwife, in the last week or so, for the narrative part of the film, all over the country, and they have been an inspiring, enthusiastic, smiling, upbeat bunch. There has been a lot of laughter along the way, and there have been tears. Both mine and theirs. 

And this is because in almost every case there's been a moment of interviewing gold: an anecdote that bubbled up from the depths that I wasn't expecting, that the nurse herself (or himself) didn't anticipate telling me. 

In these moments the room becomes hushed and I lean in, keeping that all-important eye-contact, nodding like fury so the story keeps flowing, without my own voice chipping in and spoiling it all...

A Polish health care worker who was homeless when he came to Britain and slept on a park bench. He told me how he felt when his baby was born, in the same hospital where he was compassionately tending to his patients several floors below, and when I asked, so what's the best thing about your job, then? a job he clearly loves, he said it is his patients and being indoors in the warm, with a roof over his head. That's also fair enough.

There was a nurse whose own mother died many years ago, of cancer, who told me her mother's last words to her were to be a good nurse, to care for people, to never lose her temper, and so to this day she never has. She lets off steam by quietly creeping away in times of stress and shouting at a wall.

And the nurse from Wolverhampton, with the teary eyes and the tissues, who welled up telling me about her elderly patients, explaining that she wanted to work in elderly care because she nursed her own grandmother when she was a child. 

Dynamite stuff. I just hope I can squeeze all the best heartfelt bits into the film without compromising the message.

And the interview days haven't passed without incident either. One lovely nurse had a car accident on her way to meet me in Leeds. She was shaken up, understandably, she needed to calm her nerves and drink a cup of tea, and then she did the interview nevertheless, like a trouper.

And the handsome male nurse who works in ICU (Intensive Care Unit to you and me). Tall, gorgeous arms like massive hams, dark hair, twinkly eyes, served as a medic in Afghanistan... He was late because his wallet was stolen out of his back pocket on the bus and he had to
 give chase.

"Gosh, how awful!" I said, "So did you manage to get it back?"

"Oh yeah," came the quiet reply.

That one really is fair enough, and yet another reason to love nurses.

Love E x


Friday, 10 October 2014

Let sleeping teens lie.

Could we be part of this study in which 33,000 teenagers are allowed a lie-in, please? Apparently, thousands of 14 - 16 year-olds are to be given the chance of a lie-in and later start to the school day to access the impact on their educational achievement.*

I’ve long thought that we drag children out of bed too early for school in this country, probably in all countries. We’re not all early birds. While small children routinely wake at the crack of dawn (in my experience) things change entirely the minute they hit puberty (in my experience), when suddenly you can no longer get them out of bed for love nor money, or even for a free go on Minecraft. Now I know this is because a teenager's circadian rhythm typically begins two hours after an adult's, which means we are waking them too early. 

I must suffer from arrested development then - a teenager in woman's body - not a morning person at all, never have been. No one on my side of the family is. My brother can sleep for Britain. My parents must be the only OAPs not to know what dawn looks like. 

When I was a teenager I got myself up early on a Saturday morning and a friend’s dad drove my friend and me to our 9.00 am pottery class at the local Art College (stop sniggering at the back, I was good at pottery), where I bought a Mars or a Marathon bar at the tuck shop for breakfast at break time (friend and I ran the tuck shop especially for this purpose), as my parents slept on in bed at home.

For modern parents, Husband and I included, weekends are just another morning when we must get up and run around making children breakfast and looking for items of clean sports kit. However many times I tell the boys not to ask me where things are before 9.00 am, they still do it and I find myself head first in a manky laundry bin looking for a crumpled P.E. top most weekday mornings, and quite a few weekend ones too. “Sort it all out the night before!” I yell at them. That’s what I did when I was a teenager. I had all my things laid out on the chair ready. I would PLAN what I was going to wear. I would PACK my bag in advance. I would even make my OWN packed-lunch the night BEFORE. All from the age of 11.

The boys stare at me blankly. These are very different times, molly-coddle-them-to-death-children-come-first-they-are-the-centre-of-our-universe times. It’s less a matter of children fitting in around the adults, as we did when I was young, and more a matter of are the little darlings okay? Have they got enough to eat? Are they warm enough? Do they need a lift? A jumper? A clean shirt? A new electric guitar because the old one isn’t good enough? They MUST have it all. NOW.

New electric guitar because the old one wasn't good enough.

Husband didn’t have this sort of childhood: he went to boarding school. Consequently he still rises at the break of day, every single day, thankful that he doesn’t have a layer of ice on his bedsheets and a prefect with a redhot poker standing over him. He's very alert in the morning. Preternaturally alert. He TALKS to me. I can’t tell you the number of times he's asked me questions about the day ahead as I stand in the shower lathering up my hair. I need to have the words DON’T SPEAK TO ME BEFORE NINE AM tattooed somewhere on my body to remind him. Full frontal.

Anyway, I don’t begrudge the boys all the mollycoddling, not really. I like spoiling them. I told them that the other day when we were all in the living room watching The Great British Bake Off together: “You boys are the best thing in my life,” I said, before realising I might be offending Husband and turning to add that I was including him in this. But there was no need to worry. He was fast asleep with his mouth open. He wakes up too early.

Love E x


*Research from The Guardian 09.09.14 - £700,000 project involving 106 schools and 32,000 teenagers lead by Dr Paul Kelley at Oxford University's Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Hospital appointment.

I’m in a hospital waiting room reading a book in which the character is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room, just one of life’s little coincidences, I suppose. This is the book…

I’m bang on time for my appointment. I am told there is only one person ahead of me in the queue. I will be next, the smiling nurse says. She is silver haired and solicitous.

I tell myself this is fine. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. I have my book and my laptop and plenty of cash to pay for the car park and the boys have a key to let themselves in at home, so let them take as long as they like - see if I care.

But the thing is I do care because the waiting area is packed and low-ceilinged and hot and after two chapters of my book, a trawl through my emails, and a time check - 40 minutes - I can feel impatience rising up in me like acid up a litmus strip.

There’s a crying toddler to my right and an elderly lady giving her companion a run-down of her current ailments behind. I don’t want to be here. I am not an ill person. I have no intention of being an ill person. I don’t want to be near any ill people: it might be contagious.

The nice nurse appears again, she’s very sorry but someone has had to go in before me even though it is not his turn, this is because he is a prisoner. 

I hadn’t noticed him before but now I see him to my left and I am not really sure how I missed him. He is shaven haired, tattooed, and shackled to a guard with a large pair of silver handcuffs.

I watch the duo shuffle awkwardly past me out of the waiting area, onwards and outwards to the sunny uplands of the doctor’s consulting room.

I briefly glimpse the doctor inside as his door opens and sharply closes again. The glimpse is just long enough to discern that he is young and tall and handsome and possibly slightly sweaty of forehead (well he would be, wouldn’t he?). These are all things I like in a doctor, bar the sweat - actually even including the sweat. 

I hope I get that doctor when it’s my turn, I think. But I don’t. Because after an hour has gone by, when I completely give in and go up to the desk and ask politely when I will be seen, I'm told this is the wrong clinic, that a mistake has been made, I should have been given an appointment for the allergy clinic, this is ENT, so sorry, you will have to come back another day.

And what do I then? What do I do with that bitter impatience? I say, okay, well, that’s quite annoying because I’ve just waited for ages and someone could have told me before but, you know, I know it’s not THEIR fault and, never mind, actually thank you for letting me know and, well…

Because above all I want to appear reasonable, likeable, healthy, something set apart from the sickness around me.

And then I walk out of the hospital building, past the infirm in the corridors, the children and babies and mothers and old folk and those wheeled around on gurnies or wheelchairs, right out of the main entrance, past the M&S where tired nurses and anxious relatives are buying biscuits and wine, past an open window from where a small child suddenly cries out, on without stopping to the car park and my car, where I fling open the door and dive into the driver’s seat and sit for a moment and think: I am so glad to be well, and free. 

Love E x


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Writers have no imagination. Discuss.

“You need to read this review of the new Tennessee Williams biography,” says Husband, walking into the bedroom with my customary morning cup of tea and the Saturday papers tucked under his arm, “it explains a lot.” 

A few nights before Husband and I had attended the live screening of A Streetcar Named Desire, beamed straight from the Young Vic Theatre into our local cinema, and he still hasn’t got over it. He only gallantly agreed to attend because a group of my mum-friends were taking their touchy-feely husbands along with them and there’s a limit to the number of invitations my non-touchy-feely one feels he can refuse.

I loved it. Gillian Anderson was amazing. That woman can act. Hers was an utterly mesmerising Blanche DuBois, plus a triumph of memory and stamina. So much so that when I got home I googled her to see if she has children (surely not) and she does. Three! AND now I know where the line, “Stella!” comes from, which our two older boys have been shouting to each other recently in high-pitched, strangulated tones before collapsing into hysterics. (Referenced from the play in both Sienfeld and The Simpsons, I think.)

Husband didn't enjoy it quite so much. In fact, as the play progressed, with Blanche unravelling inch by painful inch, his fidgeting and eye-rolling correspondingly intensified so that by the time we reached the play's denouement (it was long), with Blanche carted off stage to the looney bin, Husband had assumed the air of someone who needed to be congratulated for having borne a terrible ordeal.

“Congratulations,” I said, as we stood up and stretched our cramping limbs in front of the rolling credits, “you made it to the end without falling asleep.” And then I said I wondered what had happened to Tennessee Williams that he should want to write such a play. But Husband wasn’t listening to this, he was muttering darkly about P G Wodehouse. “Give me any day,” I think he said. What Ho Jeeves! was the last play we saw together in the West End. And by the way I still haven’t forgiven Stephen Mangan for being ill that night.

I don't know anything about Tennessee Williams, despite having an English degree, (it’s surprising how little you can get away with reading on an English Literature degree course and still manage to obtain a degree at the end of it. I can vouch for this), but I was willing to bet that something of T.W.’s own life had found its way into that play. Not that all writers draw inspiration from their own lives. And I can vouch for this too, because when I was about fifteen I wrote a play about a teenage girl with an alcoholic mother and a criminal father, who was left to bring up her band of squabbling siblings alone. There weren’t a lot of laughs in it, as I recall. 

For some unknown reason that play won a competition, probably because there wasn’t much, competition that is, and the prize was that it should be performed by proper actors at the local arts centre. During the rehearsals, which I was invited to attend and where I developed massive crushes on all the male actors who happened to cross my path (plus ca change, see Stephen Mangan), the playwright in residence pulled me aside to inform me earnestly that all writers write what they know, before cocking his head to one side and waiting, presumably for my emotional floodgates to open.

They didn't. I fixed him straight in the eye and I told him I’d made it all up, and watched the disappointment steal across his face. For a moment I thought he might actually snatch my prize from me, cancel the upcoming performance, and escort me from the premises, but he didn’t: he merely dug a little deeper...

Yes, but were my parents divorced? No. Did I have siblings like the character in my play? Yes, but only one younger brother, and he wasn't a cripple. Did my mother work? Yes. Ah! She’s a teacher. Oh. What about my father? He works too. What does he do? He’s at the university. At the university? Yes. He’s an academic? Yes. What subject? Sociology. Sociology! That’s it! The playwright was delighted. Apparently it explained everything. It probably still does.

Any road up, as they say where I come from, I read the review of the biography, by John Lahr, about "a playwright whose work was entirely and pitilessly autobiographical," as I sipped my tea in bed, and it turns out that T. W. came from Mississippi, just like Blanche and Stella in the play, and that his mother was Edwina, a ‘southern belle’, who married beneath herself and was prone to hysterical outpourings and that his sister, Rose, suffered from mental illness and got carted off to the looney bin from time to time. So maybe that writer in residence was right? A bit.

Now, where did I put that manuscript I’ve been working on? The one about the middle-aged mum, trapped at home in South London, blogging her way out of obscurity.

Love E x

Here's The Times review that Husband was referring to. You won't be able to read it unless you subscribe to the paper online so I've also pasted one from The Independent as well.