Friday, 28 November 2014

Santa is arrested and I have a nice cup of tea.

I was filming in an old folks home last week. The location wasn't far from where we live so I decided to take the car. Unfortunately the minute I got in it and set off I was stuck on our road between a cement lorry at one end and a Tesco delivery van at the other. I had to wait ten minutes with the engine ticking over and my heart-rate thumping at more or less the same speed. 

As I sat there I watched a very tall, fat Santa, in a vest, walk up the path to the house opposite us and knock on the door. Either it's Christmas come early or that's for the video shoot Eldest is working on this week, I said to myself. 

Eldest and I had just had a row in my office about who had priority over the printer."I'm a runner on a shoot out there and I need to print this off NOW!" He shouted at me. 

"Well I'm the director on a shoot happening very shortly and I need to print this map NOW!" I shouted back. 

I could see the funny side. I'm not sure that Eldest could.

I had a lovely time at the old folks home. I joked to friends on Facebook that it was nice and comfortable and I wouldn't mind moving in myself. I said I was going to put my name down.   

A day or so later I was due to film in the home of an elderly couple in Kent as they were visited by a nurse. As I set off I saw a midget, sorry, a Small Person (Eldest tells me it is not acceptable to use the term midget anymore, this makes me feel like my father) jumping out of a very large be-ribboned parcel on the doorstep of the house opposite.

The house in Kent had that distinctive old folks feel. In the living room there were two companionable chairs facing the telly with a little side table in between for things they needed kept close by: two sets of reading glasses, two coasters, a TV guide, a pack of playing cards. My grandparents had exactly the same. Chances are your grandparents did too. 

There's something about old people that draws me in and makes me wonder. What's the story? What happened? What WERE they? They are walking repositories, full to the brim with past, with history, with anecdotes, with challenges met and unmet, with dreams lived and dreams that will forever remain unfulfilled. 

It's this last bit that gives them a terrible pathos, I think. I suppose they fascinate and horrify equally. Fascinate because of what they once were: fit, able, participating, and horrify because of what they now are and what we will all one day become: decrepit, broken, immobile. If we are lucky enough get that far.

Did you know that nearly half a million old people will spend Christmas day alone this year? That's shocking and very sad. Loneliness has become the blight of our age. I read that in the paper last week and then a day or so later I read about an organisation called Silver Line that offers advice and companionship over the phone to people in their 80s and 90s. A younger Silver Line friend volunteers to spend an hour a week chatting to an older lonely person. I resolved to join. What's an hour a week? What's one extra bit of chatting when I have a degree in the subject ? (Well, in English, but it's more or less the same thing.)

When I got home from Kent there was a flashing cop car in the parking space outside our house and two policemen were arresting Santa. He was still in his vest. As he was bundled into the back of the car he turned and stuck two fingers up at me, and then the director called, "Cut!". I parked down the end.

Once inside the house I made straight for the kettle, and as I sat in front of the telly nursing my cup of tea I thought it would be jolly handy to have a little side table where I could rest my cup. I could even keep a pair of reading glasses on it as well.

Love E x


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