Wednesday, 29 June 2016

What Is Life.

Grandpa Mac.

It was as the first few bars of Kathleen Ferrier's What Is Life started up at my paternal grandfather’s funeral that I finally lost it. That, and my grandmother breaking into sobs. So it is at my father-in-law’s funeral on Friday. It’s the music, specifically the aria O Isis Und Osiris from The Magic Flute, together with hearing his partner crying. 

Maybe we shouldn’t have music at funerals, I think, as I clench and unclench my fists in a bid not to cry myself, which doesn’t work. Music makes it so much harder to hold it together. But I guess that’s the point. I remember at my grandfather’s funeral What Is Life was followed by the duet Au Fond Du Temple Saint from the The Pearl Fishers. I gritted my teeth and focussed on the EXIT sign over the door, reading those four neon letters again and again, and still I fell to pieces.

We're in Sunderland, which feels strangely apposite, because today is also the day we learn of Britain’s death in the European Union. The people of Sunderland in particular have made their feelings on the matter crystal clear. It's a day of endings then, in more ways than one. A day of mourning, of letting go, a day for Mozart’s Requiem to be played through loud speakers on railway station concourses, perhaps.

Our family is mourning ‘Grandpa Mac,’ as he was known to the boys, publicly at the funeral, privately within hearts. We're also here to be reminded of his life: that he was a bright grammar school boy, the only one in his class who could spell chrysanthemum at the age of eight (I had to use the spell check), and who knew all the kings of Scotland in the correct order so he was able to point out to the astonished guide at Holyrood Palace on a primary school trip that one of the portraits was missing (turned out he was right, it was being cleaned). That he went on to Trinity College Cambridge in 1957 to read French and German and then worked as head of the German, Dutch and Afrikaans Acquisitions section of the British Library. That he twice appeared on the television programme 15 to 1, and once won it. That he loved classical music, Brahms and Mozart especially, and the two sons he didn’t get to see enough of because he was divorced from their mother in 1973. That in retirement and after the death of his second wife he went back to his home town - Sunderland - to visit his friend Lynn, and never really went home again. They knew each other as teenagers. She had been married to his friend, and was now a widow. She meant the world to him. And I think it was Lynn he had loved all along.

Standing at the entrance of the crematorium waiting for the coffin to be lifted from the hearse, I saw something moving in the bushes: a hedgehog. It walked directly past us toward the crematorium door, exposing its surprisingly long legs, one with a limp, for all the world as if it was going in to pay its respects. At the last moment it curled into a ball right there. It could have been a boot scraper, except that as we filed past, it suddenly flared its prickles.

Second Hand News.

Rewind to a crazy couple of days in the run-up to the funeral, trying to source suitable clothing for three boys who mostly wear jeans and t-shirts day after day. Because who has funeral clothes hanging ready in the wardrobe? Turns out, not us. 

A charity shop visit at the eleventh hour saves my bacon. Two dark jackets, one of them from Paul Smith, trousers in various sizes, four tops, a dress, shoes for me, (okay, so the shoes are from Clarks), I haul it all back home.

“That will never fit,” says Eldest, trying on one of the jackets in the kitchen, and very much proving his point as his skinny frame disappears inside. 

"I only saw one size," I say, "try this." And I hand him the second jacket, as Middle One tries the rejected one. Both miraculously fit.

We go to York by train; three hundred pounds for five of us because it's booked last minute - scandalous - but we don't have a choice. We stay with my parents before and after the ceremony. We catch an early train home on Saturday morning so Middle One can play at a local school fair (sorry, rock festival). We collapse at home, tired, so tired, in part because of the funeral but also because some of our party foolishly stayed up late arguing about Brexit the night before. The roundheads and the cavaliers had nothing on this for dividing a family.

“Don’t think I can play at the fair, after all," says Middle One, "feel knackered, feel like lying down.” And he drops his bag and acoustic guitar in the hall (he won't leave home without it).

“Oh, you can,” I say, “and you will, you’re committed now, you promised, and a musician needs to keep his promise or he will look unprofessional.”

I feed him lunch when all I want is a cup of tea, because being hungry probably has something to do with it, probably a lot to do with it, and he comes round, fortunately, (there’s nothing like feeding a man to get him to do what you want). 

His performance is a pleasure to watch. In particular I like to see the way his hands move so expertly across the frets. He ends up being introduced on stage by our lovely new MP, Dr. Rosena Allin-Khan.

Afterwards he bumps into friends from his old school in the playground. “Could you possibly take my stuff home for me?” he asks, "in your car?" Meaning the heavy electric guitar, the even heavier amp, the leads. Not for the first time I’m turning into a roadie. "Then can I go out with them for a bit?”

“Okay,” I say. “And yes, of course you Khan.”

Love E x


P.S. Not my pun, second hand, Sadiq had it first, but let's do it one more time for our new MP.

Middle One on stage with new MP Rosena Allin-Khan.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


The air has turned blue because I want some shelves putting up. "Fuck," and "bollocks," and "fucking bollocks," are flowing thick and fast from upstairs. It's Saturday, and I’ve asked Husband to hang the old kitchen shelves in Eldest’s bedroom. And although he's always happy to knock up a Victoria sponge, or stuff a batch of scones in to bake - and his tutti frutti marmalade is frankly legendary - I think it’s fair to say that he’s not fond of DIY and would rather not do any, ever. Hence the swearing.

He comes into the kitchen where I’m clearing up from lunch. “Where is the drill?” he says.

“Over there,” I say, “in the cupboard where we keep it, unless you didn’t put it back over there in the cupboard where we keep it after the last time you had it.”

“You didn’t have to answer that,” he says. “It was a rhetorical question."

The drill is not in the cupboard where we keep it so Husband goes to look for it. When I find it for him he comes back into the kitchen with it and tells me the job is a nightmare. The shelves are heavy, and the wall I have chosen for them to be attached to is a stud. 

"I have to go and get some fixing attachments,” he says, “from Russell's.”

"Okay," I say.

Russell's is the DIY shop down the road. When he gets back from Russell's he goes upstairs and the words "bollocks," "fuck," and "fucking bollocks," start up again. Only louder. I think it might be a good time to walk into Balham to collect something from click and collect in Waitrose, buy some plants from Hildreth Street market, and get some special beers from the special beer shop for the boys to give their father on Father’s Day. 

Hildreth Street market, a few years ago.

On the way back from Balham I call in at a café. “Hi,” says the guy who runs the café, who is lovely, and Irish, and has a brand new baby.

“Hi,” I say. “Latte, please.” 

"You're the one with the son who needs a job, yes?" he says. 

"Yes!" I say, "it's me, definitely me, he's totally broke, I was asking the other day. He wants a job for the holiday, to the end of August, if you need anyone."

"I do," says the lovely guy, who is Irish and who has a cute baby. "Send him round. I’m usually here all day.”

“I will!” I say, and I drink my coffee and then I set off again in high spirits, with the parcel from click and collect, and the plants from Hildreth Street market, and the Father’s Day beers from the special beer shop for the boys to give their father on Father's Day. 

A strange guy in a raincoat who may or may not be trailing me suddenly appears, as if from nowhere, and tries to make eye-contact. I take out my phone to make myself look busy. Then I decide I may as well be actually busy, so I text Eldest: “I think I might have found you a summer job!”

The strange guy in the raincoat overtakes me and looks round. “Hi,” he says.

I smile vaguely, but I do not answer because I’m remembering another guy in a raincoat I once encountered in Battersea Park.

“Aren’t you going to answer me?” he says.

I don’t say anything.

“I bet you get into a lot of trouble,” he says.

Well, you bet wrong, I think. Apart from that time with the guy in the raincoat in Battersea Park.

My phone beeps. It’s a reply from Eldest. “Why would you do that!” it says. “Stop trying to run my life!”

I turn into our road and the strange guy in the raincoat doesn’t come with me. Thank God.
When I get home I hide the special beers in the cupboard where we keep the drill, figuring Husband will never find them there, and carry on with the clearing up.

Husband comes into the kitchen. “So, where do you want these shelves, exactly?” he says.

“Is that an actual question or a rhetorical one?” I say.

“Funny,” he says.

"By the desk,” I say.

“They can’t go by the desk because there isn’t a stud behind the wall there,” says Husband.

“Okay,” I say. “Why don’t we put it where there is a stud then."

We go upstairs to find where there is a stud. I do the holding, while Husband screws the shelves into the wall. 

“Lift it higher,” says Husband.

"I'm trying," I say.

"You could try harder,” he says.

“It’s so heavy,” I say. "I need to let go."

"Just wait a minute," he says.

“I'm tired of waiting," I say.

“Those shelves aren’t straight,” says Middle One, from where he's standing in the doorway.

“They aren't straight yet,” says Husband.

“Hey,” I say to Middle One, from where I'm waiting under the weight of the shelves. “Would you like to have a job in a café over the summer?”

"Would I!” he says.

"Great," I say, "then come and hold this."

Love E x


P.S. Shelves - looking great.

Marmalade - even better.

Flowers in Hildreth Street market this morning - 23.06.16.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

A Tale of Two Queues.

Friday morning, Piccadilly.

“The great thing about the Summer Exhibition,” I say to my friend, “is that it combines art with shopping, or at least the possibility of shopping.”

“Mmmm,” she says.

“Every piece has a price, you see." I say. "The fun is in guessing what that price is, roughly, before you look it up. Also, it’s fun to work out which painting to buy. Not that I ever do buy one. And you can’t buy most of it because the prices are daft.”

Earth, going for a song - (amendment) £98,000!

“Mmmm,” she says.

"But," I witter, "there's always the odd thing you could buy. Maybe. At a push. If you took out another mortgage.”

We are at the Royal Academy of Arts, waiting in line at the members’ desk to collect the tickets. They used to mail them out, but now you have to ring up to find out what date and time you’ve been given. I know my date is today, but I’m not sure of the time. My iPhone diary says 10.30am, but my iPhone diary is unreliable, because I input the data.

"I think our slot is 10.30,” I say, looking at my watch, which says 10.25.

“I hope so,” she says.

Toast - £300. Almost reasonable. Should have bought the whole loaf.

"Your slot is 1.00pm.” Says the guy sitting behind the desk, handing us our tickets.

“I can’t do 1.00pm!” says my friend.

“We can’t do 1.00pm,” I say to the guy behind the desk. "That's ages away. Could you possibly let us in, like, right now. Please.”

“No,” he says, “sorry.”

"Say something,” says my friend, sotto voce, because she knows I’m quite good at blagging my way into stuff.

I can’t think of anything, which is unusual. Then I think of something, which I later think is stupid. Of course. 

“We have a train to catch,” I say. “We really have to go in now, if possible. Please.”

“No,” he says. “Sorry. You can’t go in now. You can only go in at 1.00pm.”

Off we go to have a coffee and take stock. I look at the tickets.

“We could be surreptitious," I say. "We could try and get in anyway. We could have misread it. We could have thought it said 11.00."

“Hardly,” says my friend, “because there's also that bit where it says pm.”

“True," I say. “Still, worth a go. We might get in. Nothing ventured... Carpe diem… You only live once… Live and let die... Blah, blah.”

We go to join the queue upstairs. There are two queues actually, so we have to choose. One has a scary-looking woman at the front, who is carefully examining all the tickets and turning people away. The other has a gentle-looking guy in a wheelchair at the front, who is smiling.

As we approach the guy in the wheelchair I start to feel nervous. 

"Shall we just come back later?” I say to my friend. "Or never."

“No,” she says. “We’ve come all this way. What have you got to lose? Do it. If he challenges you, just tell him we got the time wrong.”

"Hi," I say, smiling at the guy in the wheelchair (actually I may have forgotten to smile) and handing him my members’ card to scan… He zaps the card and I hand him the tickets… and he waves us through.

"Cool!" says my friend.

“Did you like that?” I ask my friend.

“Yes!” she says.

“With my hand over the time,” I say.

“Yes!” she says. “And with the tickets upside down. Good work."

Adam Ant - we stood and he delivered.

Friday evening, Brixton.

“The great thing about Adam Ant,” I say to Middle One as we stand in the queue outside the Brixton Academy, waiting to go in and see him in concert, “is that he’s totally bonkers. You can see it in the video for Stand and Deliver and for Prince Charming. Handsome, yes, but mad behind the eyes. Now he’s not handsome anymore, but he’s still mad behind the eyes.”

It’s the weirdest queue of people I've ever seen in my life, and quite a contrast to the people in the queue at the RA that morning. There, they were generally tall, elderly, slim, silver-haired, wearing a pale linen jacket (him). Or, short, elderly, tanned, blow-dried hair, wearing a floaty dress (her). Here, they are generally short, elderly, fat, pale, tattooed (him), and short, elderly, fat, pale, tattooed (her). And in many cases dressed as Adam Ant circa 1981, the Stand and Deliver video (both him and her).

Adam Ant is good, and surprisingly energetic for a man considerably older even than I am. And he really reminds me of someone: camp prancing, hand in air, floaty scarf in pocket. Who is it?

He plays his famous hits, of course, including Stand and Deliver (number one, April 1981, stayed there for five weeks) but the best song of the night is his version of Get It On by T-Rex, which is played at full blast by three guitars, one bass, and two sets of drums.

Half-way through the gig I queue up for a drink. Middle One wants a coke. I want a beer, a nice beer. They don’t have coke or a nice beer. They have iced tea in cans and Carling on tap.

“They only had this iced tea,” I say, handing Middle One the can when I get back. “And I had to get this wife-beater beer.”

“You are so special," says Middle One. "Carling isn’t called wife-beater, that's Stella.”

“Oh,” I say, feeling silly. And then I remember who Adam Ant reminds me of: Johnny Depp, in Pirates of the Caribbean.

Love E x


I still have my copy of the original single.

P.S. It was Middle One’s idea to go and see Adam Ant. He loves music from the 1980s. He reckons the best year ever, music-wise, was 1983. When I looked it up I found all these artists had albums released...

Van Morrison
Roxy Music
Paul McCartney
Bob Dylan
The Kinks
David Bowie
Bryan Adams
The Doors
Dire Straits
Earth, Wind and Fire
Def Leppard
Eric Clapton
Smokey Robinson
Thin Lizzy
Pink Floyd
Frank Zappa
ZZ Top
Meat Loaf
Donna Summer
Bob Marley
Elton John
Crosby, Stills and Nash
Rod Stewart
Stevie Ray Vaughn
Bee Gees
Robert Plant
Killing Joke
Elvis Costello
Billy Joel
Moody Blues
Kenny Rogers
Carly Simon
Gary Numan
The Jam
Lionel Ritchie
Hall and Oates
The Carpenters
Willie Nelson
Culture Club
Brian May
Paul Simon
Billy Idol
John Denver
The Who
The Stranglers
The Cure
Aretha Franklin

Plus many more. Those were the days.