Sunday, 23 December 2012


In Germany, on the feast of St Nicholas, little children place shoes outside their bedroom doors. In a sort of reversal of hotel etiquette they must be left polished and shiny before being filled with sweets in return. If left dirty, then the children are given the rod, which seems bit harsh. That’s what Husband says anyway and I know someone told him, so it must be true.

Sounds like a strange festive tradition to me but then perhaps what we do in our household sounds strange to the uninitiated: singing a special song as we place the fairy on top of the tree. Never judge another man's ritual, I say, till you've walked a mile in his sweet-filled shoes.

In Spain little children have other ways of filling their boots. They bring in a log from outside - a log from a tree that is, not a special little offering, although it is also an offering of sorts, I suppose - then they decorate it, put a face on it, cover it with a blanket and hit it with sticks until it 'shits' out an offering of its own. Their word. If they're lucky there will be things to eat underneath at the end of the thrashing.

I know this, not from Husband this time, but from watching one particular episode of the Teletubbies over and over again when Youngest was tiny. It's worth noting that hitting is part of both traditions and sadly still is in some families, even at Christmas. I know this from a friend of a friend.

In Poland they keep a live fish in the bath to fatten up before killing it and eating it on Christmas Eve. I know this from my cleaner and I'm not sure I have the stomach for that. In fact, I think I fancy a Swedish Christmas this year, and not because of this Johnny-come-lately fad for all things Scandinavian no doubt inspired by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Killing (I've neither read the former, nor watched the latter, which is so embarrassing I'm now presenting it as a virtue). No, my interest in Scandinavia goes way back to a precocious childhood obsession with the Moomins, the illustrator and artist Carl Larsson and Marimekko fabrics. So much so, that we've already had Easter in Gothenburg this year.

However, I gather from a Swedish friend that a Swedish Christmas will involve refraining from putting the tree up until Christmas Eve, processing to church with candles stuck in citrus fruit and eating pickled pigs' feet and herring - so I guess it's more the look I'm after. I could just buy some candles and a striped rug from IKEA. 

Come to think of it, I already have some candles and a striped rug from IKEA so I'm halfway there. And instead of pigs' feet and herring I think we’ll have beef. 

I’ve steered away from the traditional turkey ever since I accidentally gave everyone raging salmonella a few years back, basting the germ-ridden beast with a pastry brush that I then used on brochetta after only a cursory dunk under a warm tap. 

You see, Christmas tradition doesn't just vary from country to country but from family to family and when you find yourself suddenly in charge of it for the first time, when your children are tiny, it can be daunting - dangerous even. Especially if you leave a stressed-out mother with three sons under the age of six, and the whole family coming for Christmas lunch, in charge of a pastry brush.

Sometimes two families' routines become harmoniously entwined, like good marriages. 
Sometimes one family's formula completely dominates the other, like a bad one, where there might also be salmonella - or even hitting. But from what I've observed it's usually the traditions the mother carries forward that prevail. 

Take my own family; we have Father Christmas presents (we never call him Santa) that can be opened when you wake on Christmas morning and under the tree presents, which are opened much later. Quite separate. This is my mother’s rule, handed down from my grandmother because deferred gratification is a virtue, while having everything all at once would be what my grandmother unashamedly called ‘common’.

This caused problems one particular year when I was a child and we were living in Canada and another family came to stay from back home. I distinctly remember the youngest child sobbing her heart out - Veruca Salt-style - because she wanted all her presents at once, the very minute she woke up on Christmas morning, “like she always did!” as her harassed mother tried to placate her, pointedly repeating within ear shot of my mother, “But that's not how they do it in this house, darling.”

Other routines, aside from strict rules regarding presents, include the aforementioned singing ‘Every Little Girl Would Like to Be' (the fairy on the Christmas tree) as we place said fairy atop and record the whole thing, every year, for posterity. 

Although there was one near-disastrous year, and I only turned my back for a nanosecond to retrieve something from the kitchen, when I returned to find Husband PLACING THE FAIRY ON TOP WITHOUT THE SONG AND BEFORE THE WHOLE TREE HAD BEEN DECORATED, but rest assured he’ll never make that mistake again.

And we always have a trifle, just like Husband’s grandmother used to make, and a row. One year we even combined the two and had the row about the trifle, which I like to think was an efficient merging of two traditions, like a good marriage, except with rowing. So maybe not. 

I was hoping to avoid the row this year but thinking about it now, just like with placing shoes outside bedroom doors in Germany, or hitting logs with sticks in Spain, or keeping fish in the bath in Poland, or eating pigs' feet in Scandinavia, I just don't think it would feel like Christmas without it.


Thursday, 20 December 2012

End of the world.

It's occurred to me that if the world ends tomorrow I’ll never know who won Strictly, which is a pity because I’ve really been enjoying it. In fact husband and I have been enjoying it together, which just like the imminent end of the world has taken me rather by surprise. 

I guess it's because Strictly has the lot: sex appeal, drama, skill, comedy, a well-plotted story arc and - we hope - a satisfying resolution. Plus it's camp as Christmas, which it also embraces this weekend, if we all manage to get that far.

We're so over-excited (by Strictly, not the end of the world) that we’re planning a little finals party for Saturday night, just the two of us. We won’t cook, we’ll get a takeaway and some fizz and eat and drink it all in the living room in front of the telly as a treat. 

You have to admit, we really know how to let our hair down. Although, if the world has ended by then we won't get to do all that, which would be another pity because we hardly ever watch telly together.

Actually, I don’t believe the world will end on Friday according to Mayan prophesy and as widely reported (apparently they didn’t even prophesise it, everyone’s got the wrong end of the stick), but things are ending all the time at the moment - and I don’t just mean Strictly. I was thinking about primary school.

On Monday I went to my last ever primary carol concert at the local church, after eleven consecutive years of it. Then, yesterday, husband and I went to see Youngest in the Early Years Christmas play, also the last time we’ll see one of those, at least one involving our own children. 

As a member of Year 6, at the top of the school now, Youngest had a coveted speaking part, even if it did only require saying “Why?” eleven times before then saying, “Christmas!” we were still proud. Proud as punch actually. It even surpassed watching Strictly.

I got a bit choked when I saw those Year 6 children taking the hands of the little nursery and reception ones. There’s something so very touching and familial about it: the older ones looking after the younger, the visual impact right there on the stage: this is what they once were, so tiny and vulnerable, this is what they are now, they grow, they change, they disappear before our eyes. Childhood, just like everything else, has an end.

I tried to remember all the years gone by. I could conjure Youngest at that age, I know he was a sheep one year, and then an elf. I couldn’t quite remember what Middle One was but I had an image of him up there somewhere near the front. When I searched further back, eleven long years back to when Eldest was five, I couldn’t find the image at all, no matter how much I rooted about in the rubbish I keep there. What was he?

What is left behind are the scraps of an impression: a very blonde little boy, so serious, so beautiful - to me anyway - and so very loved. Back then I would have been pregnant with Youngest, with a three-year-old in tow, so those memories are sadly sepia blurred about the edges from all that exhaustion. That's my excuse anyway.

Sometimes parenthood seems to be all about the loss: the end of things. That last day at nursery, that last baby tooth, that last time they hold your hand when crossing the road, although, of course, you'll never know when that moment is, which makes it all the more poignant somehow. 

And it made me envy those younger mothers in that school hall, even the ones nursing babies with clinging toddlers at their feet, because they still have so much of it before them, while for me so much has already slipped away.

The end of primary school for the youngest in the family, looming so close, seems such a significant landmark. Not the end of the world perhaps, but nearing the end of one for us. 

Plus, what on earth are we going to do without Strictly?


Saturday, 15 December 2012


Youngest has insomnia. You wouldn't think it could happen to a ten year-old. You think childhood is full of instant dreamless slumber, that it's only we oldies who lie awake until the small hours staring at the ceiling, constantly re-winding the day and re-fluffing the pillow.

"I can't switch off my mind," he says, sheepishly returning to the living room for the umpeenth time with that telltale nervous smile. Then he does it again. And again. And again: "I'm hot." "I can't get comfortable." "I'm worried about things."

It doesn't help that his big brother is crashing around. I beg him to be quiet. I tiptoe in there, "I've just turned your little brother's light out," I stage whisper, for emphasis. 
"Please can you stay in your room for a bit. Or come downstairs for half an hour. Just don't move around. Lie low. Whatever you do, don't come out and slam your door, and don't play your guitar, or sing, or play your guitar and sing, or play music, or watch a noisy movie on the laptop, or move. At all. Above all do NOT jump down the stairs. Please." He raises his eyebrows.

Then I go back down and slump before Masterchef. Wow, quite a long time goes by, I actually start to relax. Maybe he's gone to sleep? Then crashbangwallopboom: Eldest jumping down the stairs three at a time, while playing guitar. 

I dash out. I hiss: "For God's sake!" I'm even louder than he was. Youngest appears at the top of the stairs, he rubs his eyes. His distress is theatrical: "What was that?"

"Go back to bed, I'll come up in a minute." That's me.

"You didn't come in a minute." That's him, later, back downstairs. Again.

I go up with him. All those stairs. I feel like I'm a hundred years-old. I lie down beside him. I stroke his brow. I can't believe I'm still doing this sixteen years on.

That was a few days ago. Since then we've tried: no screens before bed, hot milk, a warm bath, more story, less story, later to bed, earlier to bed, no hot milk, standing on my head singing an incantation. Actually, not the last one, that's a joke. At least I can still joke. A bit.

But seriously, I'm almost at the lucky knickers stage. If you're a parent you'll know what I mean. That's how it got when they were babies, if they actually slept through (they never slept through), I got silly about it: superstitious. I'd start thinking it was because of what I was wearing when I put them to bed: my lucky blue knickers. Or because of what they were wearing, or because they had porridge for breakfast, or because it was a full moon, or a heavy dew - completely ridiculous: clutching at straws. But you do, don't you? You're desperate. That's where we are now.

So, I bought this herbal sleep remedy. A friend told me to get lavender and spray it on his pillow but I couldn't find lavender so I got Bach Rescue Night Spray and sprayed it everywhere, like you do with lavender. Youngest was excited. Very excited. Too excited. 

"I'm going to sleep tonight!" he chanted over and over again, jumping up and down on the duvet. "I can feel it! This is going to work Mummy!" and my heart sank. I went downstairs. 

"It's a placebo," said Middle One.

"It might be, yes," I said to Middle One."That's what I'm hoping."

Needless to say Youngest had his worst night ever: up until a quarter to twelve. I was beside myself. He was beside himself. Husband was... fast asleep. 

It was a school night. He got so desperate he came in with me and Caitlin Moran (my book, not the woman). Eventually he nodded off on my side of the bed and I got my kidneys kicked in all night. Still! Sixteen years since the first one was born, and still with the kidneys kicked in. It's a life sentence this parenting lark.

Stupid bloody herbal spray, I think, as I make up his barely-slept-in bed in the morning (fluff duvet). Then I stop
 for a moment to pick up the bottle, to chuck it in the bin, and catch sight of the instructions on the back. I never read instructions on the back, not if I can help it. I am allergic to instructions. Husband likes to read everything twice but I can't be bothered. "Spray twice on to tongue," it says. Oh! Duh.

So I'll try it again tonight, properly this time, and let you know. Just off for a nap.


Sunday, 9 December 2012

A slacker's guide to Christmas.

Last Christmas

Ten top tips.

Christmas is rubbish for women. There, I've said it. Bah humbug and all that. It is we who bear the burden even in the most emancipated households. Buying the cards, writing the cards, buying the presents, wrapping the presents, inviting the rellies, avoiding the rellies, buying the food, cooking the food, decorating the tree, the house, the front door, ourselves, on and on it goes.

This year I can't be bothered with it, but I do have to do something because I have three children. So, here's my slacker’s guide to the perfect mum-friendly Christmas 2012. 

1.) Christmas cards. Don't buy them, or write them. Who's going to know? I haven't done cards for four years now and I'm really not sure anyone has noticed. Well, okay, maybe there are fewer and fewer dropping through the letterbox in our house at this time of year as a result, but do I mind? Not really. Now I don't have to find some arty way of displaying them so that they don’t fall down every time someone opens the front door.

2.) And whatever you do, do NOT write some sort of ghastly round-robin email thing all about how well Veronica did in her GCSEs this year. I will never speak to you again if you do.

3.) Don't go near the shops, ever, not once. Order everything from Amazon (bury your principles, they are too costly) with child standing at your elbow dictating exactly what he wants. Surprises are for losers. They take time, effort and planning and the recipient invariably hates the result. And don't go near the supermarket for food shopping. Get Ocado to deliver if you are posh and like to throw your money around for no good reason, Sainsburys or Tesco if not.

4.) Don't go out looking for the perfect shaped, emerald green, triangular Christmas tree every blinking year, get a plastic one from Argos and stick it in the corner. It's better for the environment and won't drop needles everywhere. You could even leave it there for next year, just push something in front of it, like a grandfather clock if you're posh and like to waste money at Waitrose, an Ikea hat stand if not.

5.) Stuff the turkey. And by that I mean don't get one. I gave everyone raging salmonella a few years back after basting the germ-ridden beast with a pastry brush that I then used on some brochetta after only a cursory dunk under a warm tap. Get beef instead, there is no prep required and you don't have to get up in the middle of the night to put it in the oven.

6.) Crackers! Just don’t invite the in-laws, tell them you're taking the kids to Egypt this year because it will be cheap with all that Tahrir square stuff going on. Oh I see, not that sort, the ones you put on the table. Okay, don’t buy fancy ones that cost £12 each and that still have plastic crap and rubbish old jokes inside them anyway. Remember those ones you bought half price in the supermarket straight after Christmas last year? Dig them out of the cellar/attic and use them for once. And if you didn’t buy them half-price at the supermarket last year, get with the programme for 2013.

7.) School Christmas play. Okay, so you have to skip work and and sit in a boiling hot school hall jammed up against a radiator near the back at 9.30 in the morning, so use the time wisely: for napping. You will need the energy later - see 10.

8.) Wrapping presents. I’m going to be serious here for a minute because this is a serious matter and I can’t think of a way to get out of it, so, I’ll give you my invaluable top tip. Set up the ironing board out of the way somewhere - the guest room is good if you have one, if you are posh and shop at Waitrose and have a grandfather clock - have the paper/tape/scissors all ready and every time you pass that room nip in and wrap one present while standing at ironing board. It will save your back. Obviously the downside is that it will take three weeks, on and off, to get it all done this way so you had better start now. Or last week.

9.) Don’t bother trying to set Sky Plus to record Downton Abbey. By the time you get to sit down to watch it before/after/during Christmas you will be so exhausted you'll  snore/dribble all the way through.

10.) And don’t bother buying/wrapping present for your other half. Come on, we all know what he really wants, and it is Christmas after all, just give it to him. For once.

Happy Christmas!

Not a complete slacker then coz I made this cake last year.


Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Addis Ababa

My grandmother with her sons. My father on the right.

Blood will out, I thought, while watching Celebrity Pointless on Saturday evening and trying to remember which country Addis Ababa is the capital of, I am turning into my paternal grandmother. And incidentally, Pointless is a programme that, had it been around when my grandmother was alive, she would have loved.

We have many differences, my late paternal grandmother and I, but as Middle One endlessly corrected my attempts to answer the general knowledge questions, I felt a sudden affinity - this is what it was like for her having two know-it-all sons.

I will explain. My grandmother on my father's side was many things: a mammoth-bosomed, red-lipsticked, perfume-scented, befurred, oft purple-clad tower of a woman, who stood six feet tall in her stocking feet (or so she told me) and was so adored by menfolk everywhere that when disembarking from a cruise in Naples, the signors on the quayside called out: "Brigitte Bardot! Brigitte Bardot!" (or so she told me). But brain box she was not.

Actually I think she might have meant that they called out, "Sophia Loren! Sophia Loren!" because Brigitte Bardot was - and still is - blonde, while my grandmother was raven haired, especially then, which rather proves my earlier point. 

No matter, I wasn't going to correct her story because even Sophia Loren is a jolly big ask and my grandmother was the sort of woman to travel through life unfettered by such detail, or indeed any self-doubt at all, which must be great. I have not inherited that.

Case in point: she had in fact not been a model in her youth, as she frequently claimed, she had modelled hats - once - in a Birmingham department store. For free. But you can see how the confusion arose. I often say that you should never let the truth stand in the way of a good story (yes, yes, no need to speculate where I got that from). And she didn't.

But there was one thing, at least, that she was fond of repeating that was true, or had a ring of truth about it: that she had kindly given all her brains to her two clever sons, one who trained to be an architect and has since become a writer and the other, my father, who became a professor. So you can see she was generous.

And while she may not have been big in the brains department, she did have other undoubted talents, some of which I like to think I may have inherited. She could concoct a tasty meal without hide nor hair of a recipe (I am known to do this on occasion). 
She could knock out a damn good watercolour, even if they never were quite as genius as she thought they were (I can't do that). She had a flair for creating arty interiors on a shoestring budget (I like to think ditto when it comes to me, but then, who doesn't?) and she really was, as she often pointed out, a very classy dresser (it would be too immodest of me to comment at this point).

As a teenager I liked to wear bright colours (still do), which definitely met with my grandmother's approval. I recall her frequently eyeing me up and down in a quietly studious manner before enquiring where I had purchased such and such an item, and could I remember what size it went up to? Before then hotfooting it down to Dotty P's - or wherever - in the city centre the very next morning to get the same. 

Anyway, I digress from my point, which is this: I now sympathise with her in retrospect and in the clever sons department. It's tricky having at least two offspring (so far) who know more than I do already in quite a few areas, that is to say: physics, chemistry, adding up any two figures above ten and, indeed, capital cities.

So you will understand how delighted I was when I called out "but isn't Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia?" in answer to the Celebrity Pointless question, only to be told I was stupid and that Addis Ababa is in fact the capital of "somewhere in the middle east", when later I looked it up and found that it is the capital of Ethiopia. Ha ha!

You see I am not, after all, like my paternal grandmother in one very important respect: I have kept just a little bit of brains back for myself.

My grandmother, with me.


Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Scapegoat.

Has art replaced religion? Not an original thought, I know, but something I wondered as I stood in front of William Holman Hunt's The Scapegoat at the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at the Tate Britain yesterday.

The painting depicts a sacrificial goat, as described in the Jewish Torah and elsewhere, expelled from the tribe to die in the wilderness as part of a ritual cleansing. If the red crown on its head, thought also by some to represent Christ's suffering, turns white, then the sins of the group are expunged. 

I don’t know anyone who goes to church, no one who admits to it openly anyway, but I know plenty who genuflect to Ticketmaster, booking outings to exhibitions and concerts and theatre in a sort of unquestioning frenzy.

And here I am with my girlfriends, worshipping these paintings with a reverence once accorded to church. Our outings are pilgrimages, the perfection we stand before, our holy relics, the little piece we take away with us, a postcard, a calendar or some other arty accoutrement.

As we stare, our audio guides clamped to heads, the better for art's incantation to be absorbed more directly, what are we hoping for? Enlightenment? Truth? Knowledge? That some small part of this genius might rub off on us? What do we gain apart from a laugh with some mates, a mediocre coffee in the café, and a nice spot of lunch?

Somehow I think we’re hoping it will make us better people. That, as empty worthless vessels, if we pour in a drop of art, a splash of theatre, a smattering of music and a pint of film for good measure, the sum of our parts will increase; we will be full to the brim with loveliness, even able to take a little bit of it home to spread the word, when really we’re just the price of the ticket/tube fare/coffee/audio guide/lunch worse off. I worked it out: £39.50. This art malarkey don’t come cheap.

I read all the blurb. I learnt stuff. I mentally noted which ones I liked and which I didn’t much care for and swapped these invaluable observations with my friends, who did the same. I decided that the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers were an incredibly talented but humourless lot, awesomely well educated with all that self-conscious referencing to Shakespeare and Tennyson and Greco-Roman myth. I resolved to use the word 'accoutrement' the next time I wrote something because it was there in the extremely well written guide.

And finally, I felt rather superior to the woman standing next to me also pondering The Scapegoat, who had apparently made the cardinal sin of not investing in the audio guide, nor reading the well written explanation, and who consequently said, and I quote: “Oh dear, that red thing on the goat’s head… that doesn’t really work, does it?”

Henry Wallis - Chatterton

I really liked this one. Not quite sure why.