Friday, 26 June 2015

Candle in the Wind.

Saturday morning. A car parked outside our house. A large learner sign on the roof. I can see it from our upstairs bedroom window, where I'm standing with a pile of washing in my arms. Eldest gets into the car. I watch. I wait. Nothing happens. The instructor is talking. Two vehicles approach in the road, from the opposite direction. They drive past.

Cut to another car. Another day. Me driving. Eldest in the passenger seat. It's sunny. Beautiful. Hot. Windows down. Eldest puts Elton John on the stereo. "Do you like this?" I say.

"Love it!" he says. "They play this at the end of Life On Mars, as the cop car drives away."

"I had no idea Elton John was cool now," I say. "I love Elton John. I used to dance to Crocodile Rock in the basement of my friend Stacey's house, when we lived in Vancouver. When I was a girl."

I'm dropping him in East Dulwich. He likes a particular barber there. He wants his hair cut short, for the trip. Usually he goes on the bus but this time I said I'd take him. He can get the bus back. It's a favour. I'm doing him lots of favours at the moment. 

I drop him on a corner, just before Lordship Lane. I wave goodbye. "Thanks!" he calls. He is smiling. He walks away. I turn the car round, get to a junction, traffic lights, scroll through the tracks, Candle in the Wind, click. It's loud, the volume Eldest had it. "Goodbye Norma Jeane… and it seems to me, you lived your life, like a candle in the wind."

Eldest is getting his hair cut because he's going backpacking, to Vietnam and Thailand, with two friends. He's going on Sunday. I'm going to drive them to the airport.

I used to play this on my car stereo, when I drove home from the BBC late at night, after directing a programme, when I was young, before I had a baby, my first baby, the baby I just dropped at the street corner, who is getting his hair cut, before flying to Vietnam.

Suddenly there are tears streaming down my face. Lots of tears. I'm wearing sunglasses so I let them flow. Silent tears. Elton John. Driving. A beautiful day. Past Brockwell Park. My baby having his hair cut on Lordship Lane, before flying to Vietnam and Thailand. Before going to university. 

Cut back to Saturday morning, the car on the street. After what seems like an age, but is probably only a few minutes, the right indicator begins to wink. The car starts to move. It pulls out. Slowly. Bit faster. Faster still. Eldest is driving. The car is gone.

I am alone, standing at the window, a pile of washing in my arms.

Love E x


Friday, 19 June 2015


Sometimes fathers can get pushed a little into the background. In families where the children are grown up and long gone, often they are not on the telephone front line, or adept at the small talk necessary to oil a mostly telephone-based relationship. Sometimes fathers need an extra bit of attention, just for themselves.

This is why I instigated an annual outing to the Chelsea Flower Show with my father, some years ago now, when I bought him a year's membership to the Royal Horticultural Society for his birthday so he was able to access advance tickets for members' days. I think it was for his 60th birthday. He kept up the membership and we have been going ever since. He's 75 now. So that's a lot of Chelsea Flower Shows.

One year - it must have been 13 years ago because it was just after Youngest was born - we went to the Hampton Court Flower show instead, because we were able to take the baby. You can't take babies to Chelsea. HCFS was okay, but we never went back. Too far away, and not rock and roll enough for us.

I'm not all that fussed about going to Chelsea anymore. I reckon if you've seen fourteen Chelsea Flower Shows you've probably seen them all, and if there was ever a world shortage of salvias, or alliums, the whole thing would have to shut down. But I do still cherish that one day out a year with my wonderful father all to myself. It's very special. More special than I can put into words.

We now have a routine. We go in the evening, grab a couple of Pimms, sit by the bandstand and listen the band. For the last few years it's been The Hound Dogs and they're really good, Middle One in particular would love them. Then we take a look at the show gardens, paying special attention to the little artisan ones in the lane round the back of the bandstand, where our favourites are usually the Japanese garden, always with all that extraordinary round moss, and the one from Yorkshire (land of my birth). Then we grab some tea and cake and chat, usually about writing - what he is writing, what I am writing - before tackling the Grand Marquee to look at the stands. 

My favourites are foxgloves and all things cottage garden. My father favours ferns and hostas and vegetables. Like his father before him he's a keen and knowledgable gardener. He now runs a community orchard in his spare time, when he's not writing and teaching still (he's professor of sociology). I've learnt all I know about plants and gardening from either my father, or my grandfather before him.

I still associate the earthy warm smell of tomatoes with my paternal grandfather. I used trail around after him in his garden as a child. He would name all the plants, and the tour would always finish in the greenhouse, where red-green tomatoes and tall green beans grew in pots in regimented rows. Hence my memory of that closed-in, glass-warmed, smell.

I adored my grandfather, and he knew it, because a couple of years before he died I wrote him a detailed letter telling him so. Apparently he stormed up the road to my parents' house (my grandparents moved to Yorkshire to be near us in retirement), bursting in through the front door with the crumpled letter still clutched in his hand. "This is what makes life worth living!" he said. 

For my father and me, gardening and gardens have continued to provide a similar meeting ground. I'm always happy pottering about with him as he cuts and prunes and weeds and I tidy up after. And so it has evolved in my own family that I am the garden person. I plan, I plant, I tend to it all, and I mow the lawn most weekends too, something traditionally regarded as a 'dad's job'. While Husband, the best father you could imagine to our three sons, who would walk on broken glass for those boys if it was asked of him, tends to do a lot of baking. Go figure.

My little bit of cottage garden in south London.

Last weekend, when it was Eldest's birthday and Husband was busy making a lavish chocolate cake for him as I was out in the garden cutting the grass, I stopped for a moment, resting my arms on the handle of the push mower, looking back toward the kitchen, and thought: this is an interesting reversal of roles.

One thing is certain, whether rustling up a chocolate cake for his eldest son, or taking his only daughter out for the evening to the Chelsea Flower Show, fathers everywhere are amazing, and they are to be valued and loved and admired. 

So - Happy Father's Day to my father, to my Husband on behalf of his boys and, if it's allowed, to my grandfather's memory too. Here's a picture of him below.

Love E x


My grandparents, with my little brother and me, in the garden of their house in the Malvern hills.

P.S. My daddy really is cool.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The pram in the hallway, and the skateboard, the book bag, the blazer...

"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway," as the famous quote from Cyril Connolly goes. He should have mentioned the skateboard/book bag/trainers/sports kit/blazer. It doesn't end with the pram. And what about the cooking, shopping, washing, lift to the maths tutor/football/friend's house? Wanting to write when you are a parent, and especially a mother, can sometimes feel like an insurmountable task. 

As the author Ali Smith, winner of the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize For Fiction, a competition featuring only women authors, judged only by women, recently said, "Women make art against the odds". And by the way I was fortunate enough to witness Ali, along with the five other finalists, read an extract from her book, How To Be Both, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank the other week and she seemed lovely. Hers was by far the most appealing performance. And I'm including Stanley Tucci reading Anne Tyler here, which was good but no comparison to seeing an author at the top of her game, reading from her own work.

I'm no maker of 'art' myself but I want to write and have written in some very difficult circumstances. With children literally hanging off me, shouting questions, demanding snacks. And on one particularly memorable occasion when I was suddenly asked to write for the Thunderer (column in The Times) and given a two hour window in which to do so, with a small boy lying next to my desk on a makeshift bed on the floor, periodically vomiting into my wastepaper bin.

Of course there are mother-writers who shut themselves away behind the office door, expecting their offspring to be neither seen nor heard. Enid Blyton springs to mind (using the term 'writer' loosely). But I think even writers without access to her sort of 'privilege', recourse to nannies and boarding schools and such, even those who don't want to shoo their children away at all (like me), find a way, eventually, to overcome the obstacles and write.

Didn't JK Rowling, struggling and living on benefits in Edinburgh, enrol her child in nursery and sit in a warm cafe to write Harry Potter? When an author is compelled to work she will find a way of removing herself, if not physically, then certainly mentally because writing is a singularly private affair, a place to go to in your head. Which leads to the next obstacle the mother-writer faces, having surmounted the one of the pram/skateboard/book bag in the hallway, namely isolation and loneliness, a professional hazard, and especially a problem if you are a social creature, like me.

I've dabbled with libraries. I've imagined myself surrounded by like-minded keyboard-bashers, heads down in unison, tapping like fury, stopping occasionally to exchange whispered grown-up banter or request the right word. But fancy library memberships are expensive. And you can't pop a wash on between paragraphs at the library, or answer the door to the postman, or make a quick banana and choc chip loaf for your hungry boys who will soon be home from school. So I have given up the idea of libraries and turned instead to Twitter.

Twitter? I hear you say. What's Twitter got to do with any of this? Twitter is my water cooler, where I go to meet people who are not my children, to find out what's happening, to make friends, to exchange witty and/or flirtatious banter. 

I read two things this week which helped me feel marginally less grubby about hanging about on Twitter: 1) Gossip is what makes us human, in evolutionary terms it's what's enabled us to sort the wheat from the chaff, to work out who we can trust and who we can't, and pass on that information to others; 2) Twitter may not be nearly so successful in numerical terms as its rival Facebook, but it's enthusiastically embraced by journalists because it's less about bragging about your kids and your holiday, and more about what's happening in the world right NOW. Plus I've discovered you can flirt with strangers you admire on Twitter. Here's one of them. 

I discovered Stephen Mangan on Green Wing a few years back and have seen him at the theatre in The Norman Conquests and Birthday, and very nearly in Jeeves and WoosterHe's that guy who by his own admission looks a bit like the donkey from Shrek (actually I think Anna Maxwell Martin said that). These things happen. It's a crush off the telly. What more can I say? I don't get out much.

So there you have it. I entertain myself while trying to write away from my children, from the isolation of my home-office, by Tweeting strangers, who sometimes tweet back, in order to stave off the inevitable day I shall be found alone, calcified, my gnarled fingers gripping the computer keyboard, by a team of handsome paramedics (one of them a Guy Secretan lookalike from Green Wing), who will snap off my crusted digits one by one, in order to prise my rigor-mortised body away, as our three sons lark about in the skateboard-ridden hallway, demanding that I find them a biscuit. 

A grim and somewhat fanciful image, I grant you, but then I'm a writer. Or at least I'm trying to be.

Love E x 


P.S. Yes, Stephen Mangan did tweet me back, twice, the last time with an actual kiss.

Links to cut and paste - 

Ali Smith - The canon is traditionally male -

Gossip is what makes us human -

Friday, 5 June 2015

A Hindu Wedding.

"Should I wear a sari tomorrow?" I ask the boys on Saturday morning. 

Husband and I have been invited to the Hindu wedding of our neighbour's daughter, on Sunday, which is tomorrow. When I saw two friends for a walk in Richmond Park last week and mentioned this - and that I hadn't worked out what I was going to wear yet - they were scandalised. 

"That's leaving it a bit late!" said one. And that was then.

"No," says Youngest. "You can't wear a sari, that would be racist." 

"And you'll look like a try-hard," says Middle One.

"How is it racist?" I say.

No explanation is forthcoming. To be honest the boys say everything is racist nowadays, ultra sensitive to causing offence.

"They are very difficult to put on," my mother adds.

My parents are staying for the weekend, so with my mother's help I root through my wardrobe and sort out a dress, from Whistles, from a few years back. It's silk, colourful, quite modest...

"Perfect," says my mother.

"Perhaps I could dress it up if I get a shawl and some gold jewellery?" I say. Because I'm told gold jewellery is a must at Hindu weddings.

"Yes," says my mother, "and we could take a look in some of the sari shops on the high street while we're at it." She's as keen as I am to take a proper look at some saris.

So later that afternoon, Husband drops us off in deepest Tooting and we head to Primark first, to buy tights, because the forecast is cold for Sunday and I don't want to freeze to death with bare legs.

Primark is a revelation. I haven't been there in years. You can buy two pairs of tights for £2! You can buy earrings for £1! I buy all sorts, bangles and earrings for me, t-shirts for the boys, and the whole lot comes to less than 20 quid. My mother and I are giddy with excitement, and guilt.

"SO cheap!" (Me.)

"Yes, but why?" (Mother.)

"I know!" (Me.)

We both know why. Little children in India slaving over hot needle and thread and sequins, probably. Rather more offensive than a white lady wearing a sari to a Hindu wedding, you might say.

We start the march up Tooting High Road back towards Balham and home, finally making a start on the sari shops, and it's absolutely fantastic to have an excuse to push open the door and actually step into one of those colourful emporiums. Wow. The silks! The sequins! The sparkle! 

I know I could have pushed open any one of those doors at any point over the last twenty years, since we have lived on the edge of Tooting, but I never have because I've never had cause to, and because I've always felt too shy, plus those shops always seem empty, if I walked in on my own I would feel so... conspicuous. 

But now I have a secret weapon: my mother, the ultimate ice-breaker, guaranteed to take the lead and talk to people while I can hover in the background if I want, and even if I don't want.

My eye is immediately drawn to a fabulous sari at the back. £800. £800! No sweatshop involved in the making of that one then, I assume. I hope. Then we look at some salwar kameez, much more reasonably priced, around £30/£40. They have some sequins on them, but not much. 

"Would this be dressy enough to wear to a wedding?" I ask the smiling proprietress.

"Oh no!" she shakes her head, "not for a wedding."

I think of my understated little Whistles number, hanging on the wardrobe door back at home. Oh dear.

In the end we buy a gold trimmed silk shawl, which the shop-owner assures me will dress up my outfit perfectly, and I go to the wedding the next day in the Whistles dress with gold jewellery and the shawl, which my mother fashions to look "Indian".

"What do you think?" I ask the boys, twirling in the kitchen.

"No sari then," says Middle One.

"No," I say, "I'm going Hindu-lite."

"Mummy!" says Youngest, "That's racist!"

I don't have a photo of me but here is the happy couple, with some of the family. And my outfit was fine.

Love E x