Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Credit Crunch Tips for the cashflow challenged

You can take a person out of poverty, but never poverty out of a person. Discuss.

No doubt, having had to struggle financially in life has long-lasting effects on spending and saving behaviour. We all know of two types of ex-poor: those who can't help splurging to fill the yawning, aching gap (and attendant feeling of inferiority) caused by past penury; and those who make stock and darn socks.

My mother is one of the latter. My grandmother, too. I'll tell you a story.

My Grandmother came from what was deemed a 'good background'. She married into a large family with several sons. She married the youngest, weakest, most consumptive son. The one with coughs, faints. The one who didn't want to go 'into the city' or some such profession. The one who wanted to be an apple farmer.

He used up all his inheritance to buy an apple farm in Norfolk. The fresh air and farm work did him good, but the risk wasn't paying off. There was no money left, and no more support from his family. He had a young wife of a year or so and a newborn daughter. They did all the work themselves. The apple trees were blighted. Times, as they say, were hard-hitting. He began to have fits, black-outs. But he had to support his new family. He persisted. He stretched himself to breaking point.

One Christmas eve he came back from a dance with his wife and they readied themselves for bed, turned in for the night. He leant over the pillows to kiss her goodnight, the twenty-two year old wife he loved dearly. And had a heart attack. And died. In bed, beside her. His daughter (my mother) was barely two years old.

My Grandmother tried her best to keep the farm. She rose at dawn and worked the orchards herself, my mother in a cradle beside her. But she couldn't afford to pay the few farm-hands and just as the trees her dead husband had lovingly tended flowered, she was forced to extinguish the dream and sell off the farm, at a loss. The harvest which ripened just after the sale was to be one of the biggest and most fruitful ever.

The young widow, destitute, moved in with her mother-in-law. Her own parents couldn't help. As a child, her father and uncles' jewellery shop had gone bust and, tainted with bankruptcy and shame, they both took a pact, and a rifle to their brains. She'd lost father, uncle, and husband. At her mother-in-law's house, they accepted lodgers to pay the bills. My Grandmother's job was to kneel in the soot and sweep out the fireplaces and coal-scuttles every day at dawn. There was no time to mourn. Just enough time to get on with daily life.

The women in my maternal bloodline have always had to make do and show initiative, never rely on a man to provide. Which perhaps is where I come in (as 'frustrated', and a wannabe entrepreneur!) It's hard to drop a couple of generations of girl-power. Even if they didn't know it as such in the 1930s.

So: here are my 10 Credit Crunch money-savers (which have been working for me for years, incidentally!)

(1) It is never necessary to throw away food. What you don't eat or drink you can quickly freeze raw (fruit juice; bread; all cakes/pastry/bakery products) or cooked (stew leftover fruit and freeze; make vegetable soups and freeze; cooked pasta and rice freezes too, wouldyabelieveit). If you pop spices in the freezer they'll last long beyond their expiry date. Same with fresh herbs, just crumble into cooking. If you boil milk nearing its date it will last for a couple of days past it (and be good for coffee, tea, cooking etc). Blackened bananas are great for smoothies. Soured wine for keeping by the cooker and adding to stews. I've even successfully made fresh cream cheese from 6 pints of milk that curdled when my fridge conked out, but that's real old-fashioned business with cheesecloth, etc.. and perhaps not for the faint hearted (I'm proud to say not a drop was wasted). And this from someone, who in my heyday pre-Credit crunch, happily ate at Ramsey's and The Fat Duck, and who considers herself a bit of a 'foodie'...

(2) Use-by dates and best-before are simply that - best before. And the use-by's have litigation margins built in. You won't get sick if you eat anything past its date unless it smells or looks 'off', has mould or is fermenting. Sue me if you will, but I've always survived! And you can cut mould off cheese (which you are paying good money for in gorgonzola or stilton anyway) and it'll be quite edible underneath. You NEVER need to throw away an egg - printed date or not - unless you crack it and it's obviously 'bad egg!'. And by the way use-by dates on anything sugary are just a joke: raisins, jams, etc: the sugar is a natural preservative! Any biscuits etc which might have gone a touch 'stale' can easily be shoved in the oven and warmed then cooled to regain their original crispiness. Trust me!
Our mothers and grand-mothers never had sell-by, best-before or use-by dates. They just used common sense (if we don't, we'll gradually lose all the domestic wisdom they've spend generations accumulating: throwing away an egg which smells fine is just one example. A friend of mine used to do just that.)

(3) Again, food related - use roast carcasses to boil up and make stock. 15 mins in the pressure cooker with water, a cube, an onion and a carrot. And Bob's your auntie! (sorry, uncle...)

(4) Anything branded costs more. Anything packaged costs more. Anything 'convenience-related' costs more. It's not rocket-science, but you can save a lot. A LOT!

(5) Children love the old-fashioned pursuit of baking. It costs very little in money or work to make your own bread, with flour, those little dried yeast packets, and some tasty additions (raisins? walnuts? chilli flakes for the big people?) And kudos with your guests. Everyone loves a home-made loaf!

(6) Manicures, Pedicures, and eye-brow trims can be done at home. Just look up top tips on the internet if you're not sure. You save a LOT of money and the results are just as good.

(7) Waste not, want not. What goes around comes around. If you are generous with your time and your possessions, others will be generous to you. I pass all my daughter's clothes on to a friend, and in return another friend passes me her (older) daughter's clothes. There's some great stuff going. It's a lovely merry-go-round of saved money. And the satisfaction of giving children's clothes the wearing-in they otherwise rarely get. If not, ebay has mountains of kids' stuff. Designer, even, if that's your cup of tea ( I find Tesco's to be just as good if you choose judiciously).

(8) Don't be afraid to be cheeky. Who doesn't ask, doesn't get. I 'phoned my household insurer and told them my neighbours were paying much less with other names. They promptly cut my yearly premium by almost 50%...FIFTY PERCENT, you scream?! I asked them why they'd hike it up so much in the first place if only to slash it down. "We don't want to lose your custom!" they said. Yeah right. More like daylight robbery to begin with... similarly our builders just cut 15% off a quote for filling in a fireplace. Just because we told them it was a discount or no job. Simple.

(9) Check your bills and reconcile your statements. Computers aren't human. And do make mistakes. We've been over-charged or mis-charged or ripped-off needlessly, at least 4 times over the past 5 years!

(10) Before you rush out for that cup of coffee, invite friends home instead. Before you rush out for a meal, cook your own treat! Before you rush out to the movies, rent your own, or read, or get the kids to stage a show. Before you impulse buy... STOP!... and think. Do you really NEED what you are buying or can you find a (nicer, simpler) alternative? Or are you trying to fill another type of hole with the purchase: boredom, dissatisfaction, greed, habit???

Happy saving! A friend of mine's saving £500 a month just by doing the above, paying attention, being aware, and NOT being ashamed. After all, saving's the new black...

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The politics of envy...

It's that time of year again. When I and the wee lot visited a wildlife park not long ago, we were treated to the sight of peacocks strutting their mating dance, all posh plumage, sashays and swaggers. There were about 4 cocks to one (blase' and indifferent) brown hen (pea-cock; pea-hen's the syntax). The males didn't seem to be in the slightest interested in the female's lack of interest, but more involved in out-posing the other guys.

Likewise, the Sunday Times Rich List came out two days ago, strutting its pound signs in lieu of emerald eyes. However, this year the talk of the farm's all on the plumage that's been lost. Feathers thinned, net worth likewise.

Now, the thing is: do we, mere mortals, REALLY care? Well, for a start, whether or not the man in the street cares, the rich (or dented rich, this past year) obviously do. Because it's not really about money at all. I could now go look up a host of academic research I vaguely recall from college (Frederick Herzberg's Two-Factor theory on job motivation being one), but really, who needs the boffins to tell us what we already know - that if you love your job and do it well, success will inevitably follow. I've read a lot of books on entrepreneurship by entrepreneurs, and the message time and time again is: "I didn't start out to get rich. I just wanted to excel at what I'm good at/wanted to be the best in my arena/wanted to deliver real value/wanted to make a difference/wanted to get my message out there/loved what I was doing...(etc) and am lucky enough to make a great(!) living out of it." And a few between the lines of: "I was poor/teased at school/had a difficult childhood... and wanted to show the b*stards that I can be better than anyone else, despite it all."

It's like my son (soon to be 5) at school, when he got the 'Reading Cup.' Despite the trophy being BIG and SHINY and a CUP, he soon lost interest in showing it to people. But he never stopped announcing: "I got the Reading Cup at School!" It's all about the honour and the glory (read, massage-to-ego), and not really about the shiny stuff. Which is why it DOES surely matter to many of those in the Rich List what position they are in. It's a league table, an indicator of triumph, with ego deeply intwined. Don't tell me that most immensely successful people don't have large egos: they have to, to have taken the risks and knocks they've inevitably suffered as part of the route on the climb up the steep North face to victory. Or, if they hadn't owned a larg-ish ego to start off with, they'd have surely developed one once they got to the pinnacle - it's only human nature.

No, money isn't just about money for the rich. It's more a thermometer, an indicator of how well they're meeting their own internal goals or deadlines as well as their companies' and investors' (or whichever stakeholders are attached). Why else would Richard Branson keep on diversifying?; would JK Rowling keep on writing after the first couple of books (and even now, I'd bet my right (writing) hand that she's still penning SOMETHING...)?; and (insert name of pop artist) keep on singing?; David Beckham keep on footballing?; and so on ad infinitum? 'Cos it's not about the money.

But it is about the money for us, those without. When you've heavy mortgages to pay and the threat of redundancy, how can it not NOT be about the money? Cue, the politics of envy. And resentment. And scape-goatism. So, this year there seems to be a flavour of discussion around, about whether a 'Rich List' isn't, in fact, in rather bad taste, in view of the current climate. People have a nasty coating on their tongues after all the hoo-haa about banker's bonuses etc., and understandably. I'd no longer feel safe driving about in my personalised Bentley anymore (if I had one!). The admiring looks you'd have received two years ago might well be scowls by now (even in my Toyota today a passing cyclist to whom I gave way, coming out of my own driveway no less, mouthed: "bitch!" there are some unprovokedly nasty people around in the world, to be sure).

Positively, there's definitely a new world order on the horizon. People are sliding back towards questioning new values vs. old-fashioned morals. Glitz vs. resilience. Sunshine and birds vs. salon tans and i-pods. Or suchlike. Deservedly so. Money does not equal happiness (only less stress - and that up to a certain point. I'm sure that having millions is in itself a merry source of anxiety: failure, extortion, kidnapping, security, what to do with it all, if/how to give any away...etc)

Interestingly, some of the most humble people I've ever met have been in the ambit of the 'rich-list' realm. A lovely family I know very well keep a copy of the compilation itself on their living room table: out of pride, I suspect, for their daughter's husband tucked away inside its pages. I mean, I would too. And one of the nicest young couples I ever met clocked in at £450(million...) in last year's rich list (or hubby did - as I discovered quite by chance flicking through: "Hang on! ...Don't I know him?!"...) I won't reveal the position or name and I won't check them against the list this year (voyerism isn't my style): suffice to say I visited their (beautiful, truly stylish) residence (only) once for a children's birthday party a while ago. It was the type of mansion you'd design for a millionaire, but a lot more unpresuming than what you'd imagine for a semi-billionaire. And, as far as the birthday party went, bar an entertainer, they'd done it all themselves. And the husband (master of the universe at work, no doubt) knelt on the floor to put (my) son's grubby shoes back on for him. His wife, a lovely, charming and completely down-to-earth mum, has little help at home (not even someone to clean the unending expanses of glass). So, you see, we shouldn't forget that the rich are human too. Some, true, may have got lucky. But a lot, many, perhaps most, have worked their butts off for what they have. Who are we to slate them for that?

And, at the end of the day, who is really richer? Are you poorer by not having to clamber up league tables and not having your wealth dissected? Are you richer when you learn the joy of boiling up your own roast chicken carcass to make your own stock and "best" home-made soup? (no apologies! one of my homely pleasures). Can you pay for that sunset? It's all relative, my friend. (But I still play the lottery...)

Monday, 27 April 2009

Mental processes

7 good reasons to GIVE IT A BREAK AND NOT GO to the gym today:

1) Drunk too much wine yesterday at sunny outdoor barbeque.
2) Feeling tired because of (1).
3) Sitting at computer, not in front of steering wheel.
4) All my daughter's posh-private-school class-mates are wearing summer school dresses today. Have to take hers to the tailor to be altered, or she'll be the only one in her class still wearing winter uniform (cue - guilt).
5) Feel a dry tickly throat, undoubtedly due to (1) and (2).
6) (5) might turn into something worse, then I won't be able to go to gym at ALL next week.
7) Had 5 squares 70% cocoa chocolate for breakfast, in the car outside school, not long ago.

7 good reasons to JUST DO IT AND GO to gym today:

1) Drunk too much wine yesterday at sunny outdoor barbeque.
2) Feeling tired because of (1).
3) Sitting at computer, not in front of steering wheel.
4.i) All my posh-private-school class-mums are wearing summer gym gear today. Have to go to the gym, or I'll be the only mum in the class still not getting fit (cue- guilt).
4.ii) Have been wearing gym gear since 7am to auto-convince myself to go.
5) Feel a dry tickly throat, undoubtedly due to (1) and (2).
6) (5) might turn into something worse, then I won't be able to go to gym at ALL next week.
7) Had 5 squares 70% cocoa chocolate for breakfast, in the car outside school, not long ago.

Conclusion? I feel tired today, maybe some more high-cocoa chocolate might help to give me enough energy to make a decision? And, ummm, how much time have I got left 'til midday pick-up anyway to go to the gym?

Saturday, 25 April 2009

On work and play

Admittedly, I'm squeezing this post in simply 'cause my children are fast asleep and my husband's in the shower. There's a reason I'm loathe to write on weekends, when everyone's about. I want my children to remember me, with floury hands, wiping them on my apron and flinging it off over the kitchen chair, to join running races hand-in-hand down the garden. Or perching the carrot I'm peeling on the wooden board to come and look over a small shoulder and review, with the seriousness it deserves, little spidery hand-writing. I'd break off doing anything if my children need me: REALLY need me, because there's an idea that can't wait... or an impromptu game. I believe early creativity wants nurturing. And that for me means not saying: "Just wait...!", so letting the moment evaporate just at the point support's most crucial. (I do draw the line at tantrumy 'now!'s - but, like most parents, it's easy to differentiate).

But writing...writing's different. When I fall 'into the zone', where images and feelings dance over that inner eye, distractions are irritating. You lose the flow - ZAP! So, I've decided not to combine my children, and my writing. I love them both, but in different ways - like your own blood vs. stepchildren, perhaps? (the simile only comes to me because I have extensive knowledge of a friend's experience in this department, so can possibly imagine...tho'again, probably not.)

My husband, too, is learning. Learning, that is, not to mix work and family. Learning from experience. Learning as he gets older, and the kids get older. He wants his children's memories to be of fresh green cricket games outside amidst family cheers, of little shins dangling happily over large broad shoulders viewing the world from up on high. Of rough-and-tumble, mussing curly hair, swinging in circles. Pulling up rugby socks. The correct way to catch a ball. Propelling the lawn mower in tandem: one mini pusher, one big pusher (no matter if the lines aren't straight...). Of standing on the counter inspecting Mummy's store cupboards, Daddy holding on, and pleased at Daddy's 'yes': "You want a sugar lump from the jar? Well don't tell Mummy!"...

My husband already works a 14-hour and 5-day week. The children rest assured that he kisses them goodnight each and every evening in their sleep. If they wake up to the click of the front door on his way out on weekdays, I have to cry down the stairs - or rush to intervene - so they don't miss a quick hug before he leaves: sleepy half-open eyelids and crumpled 'jarmies squeezed for the briefest moment 'gainst ironed pinstripes. Or: there could be tears. But mostly they're used to it. So, on weekends, when Daddy's NOT AT WORK (HOORAY!) he doesn't want to be a 'blackberry' father: looking up and grunting monosyllabic responses as dials are urgently twiddled up and down. He'd prefer to pick blackberries from the brambles behind the house with them, instead. (My brother-in-law, an entrepreneur, is infamous for being "always on his mobile". Always. He was on it - in charge - when his daughter almost drowned in the pool. But still lives with it connected to his ear. My husband knows, and says, this shouldn't be the way.)

True, ambition is ambition. People want to be remembered for different things. I too want to achieve more than simply being a Mum. But there's a time and a place for everything in life. And priorities... What do you REALLY want to be remembered for, and by whom?... And what's the most important ambition? If you were to breathe out that last, final, farewell breath tommorow, what would be your last regret?

You wouldn't end your life wishing you'd worked more, replied to more emails, attended more meetings, even written more blogs, surely? ... Wouldn't you have wanted more sex? more sun on your back? more belly laughs with the children? Less virtual "twitter" ...and more listening to the birds REALLY singing (my mother used to differentiate a blackbird...who can do that nowadays?)

....I must go now. Hubby's out of the shower, and I don't want him to sit at work in an idle moment (if there are any?!) and think of a wife married to the blue glowing screen of a computer, in the darkness of a weekend evening. Or even lie in bed and think of it.

Friday, 24 April 2009



Our television was born a whopping 30" state-of-the-art Panasonic in 1991. Its wealthy owners (friends of ours in Tokyo) palmed it off on us 10 years later when we moved to Japan and it happily travelled back to the UK with us a few years on from that. But for a while now, it's been deciding to give up the ghost. First turning green, then yellow, then sparkly multi-coloured psychedelia.

We'd decided to wait 'til it really did die (credit crunch and so on). And we don't watch that much TV in our household, or at least, the children are only allowed to watch their mini set upstairs, with carefully vetted DVDs and no weird screen effects. Husband downstairs, meanwhile, doesn't care what colour the sport is...

My mother was visiting when hubby put the kids in front of a DVD DOWNSTAIRS. "How can you let the children watch that screen!" intoned mother-in-law, with carefully controlled politeness. "You wouldn't want to ruin their little eyes, now, would you? Come, children, let's go and read a book before you go blind!"

("Told you not to let the kids watch this TV!" I hissed as I walked in from hanging up my coat, just back from an appointment.)

"I'm going to give your wife a new flat screen for her birthday!" announced my mother later on. "Why?" answered my husband, pride bruised.

He soon warmed up nicely to the idea, though. Mother-in-law promised to match what she'd paid for her new top of the range 35" flat screen. Husband went straight on-line to check prices, then drove off to a local hypermarket with the kids where he (apparently) stood transfixed watching the football on the display screens.

Now, the old set was next to a fireplace we'd ripped out of a load-bearing wall we were planning to take down. Or rather, next to the hole where the fireplace used to be. For a year we'd stuffed furniture in front to hide the damage, waiting to decide what we could or couldn't afford, not wanting to spend money plastering needlessly. The gaping bricks had diven me mad: pretty obvious behind the silly bookcase. Being the one at home all day looking at it, I'd have emptied my last coins to block it up. But we ride on mutual decision-making in this family, so I'd closed my eyes and soldiered on.

Back at the ranch, or the TV retailer, my husband made calculations and weighed up value-for-money, the way men do. As a result he purchased a 50" flat-screen Panasonic display model which had never been used but had 15% off. It has all sorts of fancy acronyms as spec which I don't understand, not least some measurement of how quickly pixels renew the image so you don't blink and miss Tiger Wood's best shot (or something).

"Right!" says my husband, eyeing the mammoth cardboard box propped up in our hall with more than immense satisfaction. "Let's get that fireplace all plastered over nicely so we can get this beauty set up in front! You call the builders?"

...I tell you, MEN!

Thursday, 23 April 2009


On Sunday, a friend who lives a few houses down said: "These old houses used to have really nice wooden parquet flooring in the hall". Or maybe I just heard what I wanted to, she might have said: "Before renovation most of the properties on this road had some really grotty old features, like scrabbly old parquet flooring in the hall." In any case, a lightbulb went on in my head: "Ping!" I rushed home and pulled up the sooty corner of the 25-year-old carpet covering the gleaming intricate pattern of interlocking hardwoods I had laid in my imagination. By the way, I know the carpet's 25 years old because it's exactly the same as the one which was in the 'master' bedroom when we bought the house, which I refused point-blank to keep (it had a label with the date underneath):

Husband (patiently): "I know it's not the best carpet, but considering we've emptied our bank account and nearly bankrupted ourselves buying this house [editor's note: March 2008], and the fact that we AGREED not to waste money doing anything to it 'til we can do our major renovations....can't we just get some rugs to hide it?"

Me (soothingly): "Yes, I understand, and I know we did have an agreement. But..."
Me (vehemently): "...but...There's no bloody way I am going to sleep in this bedroom with that piece of horrible **** on the floor! It's disgusting! I mean, look at it! I'm sorry but NO WAY! I hadn't seen how bad it was when the furniture was all on top of it, but it's almost threadbare! Not forgetting how many horrible cheesy feet have tramped all over it. No! Sorry, but that's final!...."
Me (matter-of-factly) "...anyway, rugs cost money too!"...
Me (sweetly): "...don't they darling? And it IS our bedroom..." (nudge nudge, wink wink)...
Husband (defeatedly): "Well, if you put it like'd better look into it and sort it out yourself, then! I'm too busy at work trying to make ends meet..."

Anyway, back in the hall, I pulled up the corner of the carpet and everything looked rather nice and hunky-dory underneath. I mean, in contrast with the carpet.
Cue following conversation:

Me: "Love, Ummm, take a look at this..."

Husband (sighing): "Oh God. What 'grand designs' have you got now? I thought we agreed we don't have money to do anything to the house at this point in time? I mean that's not a priority...we've got that matting over it!"

Me (all excited): "No, I mean, there's lovely wooden parquet flooring underneath, look! All we need to do is pull this up and bob's your uncle! Immediate renovation!"

Husband (eternally sceptical): "Are you sure? I mean, what about the condition of the rest of it?...and anyway, who's going to do all this?"

Me (resolutely): "I'll do it one morning during the week when the kids are in school. It doesn't take much to pull up a carpet!" [editor's note: I'm the one with the architect/builder father, and used to domestic building-sites, while Husband's the Accountant and, to be polite, more used to accountancy...]

Husband (panicking): "Shouldn't you wait before rushing headlong? And anyway, it'd take you more than a morning!'d take hours to pull all this up and sort it out"

Me (countering): "Rubbish! I know all about this kind of stuff! I can do this little lot in 45 minutes max! including the gripper rods!"

Husband: "What are gripper rods? Oh well, have your own way, you always do...Anyway I'm going out to the barber's with little Mister. We're both going to have a hair cut, we won't be long, they're quiet on Sundays. Listen out for little Miss asleep upstairs...Bye!"

(45 minutes later)

Husband (throwing hands up into the air): "God you ARE THE MOST STUBBORN WOMAN I HAVE EVER MET IN MY LIFE!....what, where did you put the carpet and all the stuff you took off then? Has little Miss not woken up yet? And..[kicking several stray pieces of paper-thin wood sliding around the floor]... this stuff's not in good condition at all! Couldn't you wait?!"

Me: "Well it WAS/IS great around the edges...anyway, anything's better than that grotty old carpet!"

Husband: "I give up! We'll have to put a new carpet down on top now! It'd cost too much to renovate this lot! ...Go and have a shower at least!"

I think my husband is quite long-suffering [really sorry, love!, if you're reading this!]. But then he did sign up for a Type-A-personality wife and a house to do up...

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Practise what you preach, teach what you practise

I was frustrated with my daughter because she was too occupied running around the garden to come inside to pee. So she almost wet her pants. No matter that I'd been rushing around, preparing lunch, getting drinks, answering the telephone, clearing up, dealing with tiffs, all the while with a full bladder myself. "But I'm an adult!" I thought. "I've got an excuse!" Then: "No, I should be consistent".

I'm against physical punishments for kids - of any kind. However, as most decent parents know, it's almost impossible not to have succumbed to a slap at least once on our parenting journey. My daughter had deliberately ignored my warnings and swung a bamboo stick around wildly in the air just that one time too many and hit her brother, who exploded in hot tears. I exploded in frustration too, at the failure of my power struggle with her. And because it was dangerous behaviour.
It was a little stinging tap, on the hand, not the cheek, but I still felt mortified.

She did learn not to wave pointed objects around. But a few days later, cross with Mummy, she came and slapped me on the arm. With kids, you teach what you practise (I'll never slap her again).

Parenting is often a clash of egos, a power struggle, a conflict of interests (literally: when you are interested in paying a bill by phone and they're interested in singing at the top of their voices, or when Mummy's interested in writing on the computer and little miss is interested in playing tea-parties; or when you're standing having a refreshing gossip with a friend and little mister's interested in tugging at your sleeve and going to the park...).

The trick's to keep everyone happy, be a patient listener, make sure everyone feels valued, stimulated; to reward the positives, play down the negatives, dis-incentivise bad behaviour; to build up initiative, decision-making, responsibility and self-confidence; and the ability to share and work and play together. A sure road to good behaviour and productivity all round. Or so my husband says, who's in Senior Management!

...Oh, and it's the same with "little people", too, as I've been discovering since I became a Mum!

No Sex please, we're British!

Rightyho. Having (in the words of a kind reader) 'pimped my blog', let's rev up the ride! Now, on the slippery subject of marital sex I'm simply going to cop out and post you an excerpt from my linked, serialised novel ("The pre-credit crunch diary of a private school mum"). Disclaimer: the characters in the novel are fictionalised, so I don't have to worry about my husband reading it! However, they do say you write what you know (or have known): so there you go. Of course, my real name isn't Helen Romeo either...(dun dun dun duhhhhh.....)

"My husband Martin complains that I have too many new clothes, but the fact is that everything IS new to him. By the time he comes back at 10pm I’ve long changed either into track-pants or into pyjamas...the old 50’s adage, dress up for your husband’s return, just wouldn’t work in our house! Last time I’d put on a naughty silk nightie, thinking it might spice up our marriage a bit, was in the new year. Martin was back at work but me and the kids still on holiday...hooray, a chance at last not to feel wiped out at nine thirty pm. So, at ten o’clock at night, I’d arranged myself artistically over the bedclothes, lights turned down a touch, waiting for the door latch to click and the hall lights to turn on. Meanwhile, I thought I’d get back into that John Grisham gathering dust on my bedside table. I was soon engrossed in the latest evidence; never heard my husband return let alone felt him join me in bed - actually, I must’ve conked out, and the book fell off the duvet and crumpled its middle pages on the floor where I discovered it in the morning when I got up, stood on it, and found Martin had already left for work - he never mentioned the sexy get-up, maybe never even registered it... He really wouldn’t know if I’ve put on half a stone or curves are now a foreign land..."

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Remember what peace there may be in silence...

Today, I planned to provoke any (invisible) readers out there by writing about marital sex, or politics, or credit-crunch-money-saving tips...just to test the waters, poking a stick to encourage a bite. I find it hard to believe anyone's actually reading anything I write...most probably, the 1,000 and counting 'hits' on my little gadget are simply robotic search engines humming: "Exterminate... Exterminate" as they tootle on by my virtual door, simply checking out the facade. Planning all the while to mount attacks on my defenceless computer and knock my hard drive for six. Which would be a family tragedy, as I first begot a child and a digi camera at about the same time. "Take lovely mental pictures and LIVE the moment, instead of viewing the world through a camera lens" had muttered my husband many a time. But when I became too swamped with memory sticks and piles of CD storage marked with indelible pen, I stopped arguing and began to take heed.

And, I admit, my husband was right. Living the moment, or Seize the Day, or Time flies (tempus fu**it, as grumpy Grandpa is wont to say: you work it out...) or taking time out to smell the we do enough of it? Awareness, perception, seeing through the eyes of a child... call it what you will, when the senses take over and the brain's chatter and clatter and clutter subdues. We sat in the garden at dinner, little curly cheeky girl, sweetly serious boy, and me. I was full on: "Eat your peas! Don't drop that...Stop arguing..." Directed, as usual, at my three-year-old daughter. She looked at me, liquid caramel eyes unfazed and innocent, and replied: "I love the fresh air, Mummy. I love the sky and the earth 'gether and the trees. And the flowers." She was zoning out my nagging, but not the beauty around her. My son said: "Look, Mummy. A bumblebee! It's an endangered species. That means there are not many of them." "Look, Mummy! A bee! A 'dangered speeshees!" echoed his sister. The evening's breath flickered apple petals down onto our hair. "Like Snowflakes!" piped one. "Mummy, the sun's going down!" noted the other.
I sat and let my mind flow and expand, for a moment. The evening held a stillness.

So that's today. Tommorow I might well write about marital sex and about credit-crunch-inspired- creativity. Pursuits for which immersing oneself in the moment are surely useful (if not essential!). I'll sleep on it. Remembering to be more 'aware'.
And defer to two great voices on the subject:

"In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you." Leo Tolstoy
(1828 - 1910).

"Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence" (Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, 1952).

Put like that, no wonder the 'bots pass me by...

Monday, 20 April 2009


My garden, at this point in time, between Spring and Summer, is heaven incarnate. The fruit tree (judiciously pruned) is in full lush blossom; forget-me-nots surround our little flower-bed Thai God statue waist-high; the Rhodedendron bush (which hubby got so many brownie points clearing hostile hijacking weeds from last year) has come into its own with beautiful, bigger-than-a-tennis-ball blooms in sexily intense and fluffy dark and light pinks. The grass, speckled with daisies, has regained its healthy coat and from time to time petals flutter down like summer snowflakes from the apple tree flowers. The slash of red crocuses, painterly spread of eye-blue-bluebells, delicate mandarin green of the Japanese elm.

But - stop - this isn't a gardening columnn! No, the problem is, you see, the nasty rack of laundry outside on the patio, spoiling my Chelsea-flower-show-view.

Actually, I am drowning under washing. Piles of which, post-Easter-break and before the start of school, have suddenly mushroomed on every available flat area, bed, even stuffed into those builders' plastic tubs (otherwise used for mountains of toys). There's a whole menu: the yet-to-fling-into-the-machine lot; the already washed and dried but due to iron lot; the ready to put away (in a week when I've had time?!) lot...I HATE washing.

And that's not all. This morning I cursed under my breath as I negotiated a thigh-high pile of my husband's clothes gradually accumulated on the bedroom chair: (to absent husband>) "Bloody Hell! I'm not your bloody mother, you know! (to me, little voice>)I wish he'd put his own sodding clothes away for once..."

Hmmm. I think the holidays really are over.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Eternity's too short...

Back in London, the currently so-called "Important Bank Holiday weekend break" neatly behind us, I'm already harking-back to my bucolic EASTER HOLIDAYS in the Kentish countryside: the embodiment of an old-fashioned English dream. So here's one I wrote earlier: after a delightful country walk with little people stumbling behind (they, for the record, have been fully briefed on Easter, lest the New Labour government take it away from them...)

OK, here we go:

Around here, the countryside's flat, skyscapes stretching out, 20 percent earth, 80 percent sky, to the ratio of a watercolour class. A Turner, Whistler feeling. I used to escape oppressive adolescence jogging down a ribbon of a footpath, a mile or so down through the fields, wheat stretching almost as far as the eye, sky stretching further.

Bank holiday, Easter monday. My first return to this track for over 20 years. The rutted jagged muddy scar clogged with clods I used to struggle my day-glo trainers through has become a smooth slate-grey tarmacked backbone, straight quicksilver cutting through the thick green pelt, swathes of crops crowding either side. Towards a gentle rise, the view drops off. Over, it reaches langorously down the slope once more and..out.

Seven o'clock, almost. Oh joy - that summer feeling! I once penned a teenage poem about this vista, over miles of Kentish countryside, over-arching heavens. A vista nearly obsolete (no factories, no hedgefunder's mansions, barely a road) then, as now. Combined with the langorousness of long summer evenings buzzing with late afternoon gnats and early evening fireflies, and iced with the romance of a first-time love, it made heady reading.

Then, at the base of the hill, beyond the wooden stile (now a metal gate, spray paint absent, thank God) and beside a stream (or was it a dyke? steam sounds better), my young beloved and I had a picnic. Very grown up, quite "Brideshead Revisited", as I'd intended (minus the champagne). Baby sausage rolls, strawberries and cream, mini custard tarts, various other tidbits quietly pilfered from Mummy's larder - that kind of thing. It wasn't the food that mattered, of course, but the feeling of BURSTING promise, a grey version of which seeps back a little as I think back. For who could ever, in later years, truly re-live that emotion? that certainty: of life, youth, love, possibility...stretching out forever into eternity.

As we walked back home, I thought of this. Our lazy steps - big ones and little four year old and three year old ones - were rhythmic through the goldening haze. As we headed back, the layers upon layer of graduated shades of green-to-gray, detail-to-silhouette, the layers of the miles of Kentish view, transfigured as the light changed. Oast-houses, pointed cones ("Madonna"!!) on the boundary between near and far, becoming old windmill, pretty against the frame (now restored and offering cream teas - we'll go tommorow and buy its very own traditionally-milled flour!)...a hot air balloon, miles and miles and MILES away! - ghostly and charming, immobile.

Our shadows lengthened as we walked, biked, scooted. "Look, Mummy!" pointed my daughter. "You're so tall!" "Yes, you take up half the field!" added my son. I checked my watch. Nearly 8 o'clock. How time flies! No stretching out into eternity any more. No more bursting promise, unlimited potential. "Be quick!" a little voice whispered, wistfully. "Or the shadows of your own life will lengthen too! Look out or the flower which bloomed on that romantic summer afternoon will go to seed even as you sleep..! (evil chuckle)". We went home.

At home: "Hurry up! Hurry up! If you don't get ready for your bath quickly, I'll take away all your Easter eggs"...!
Perhaps not what the little voice intended. But, maybe it's a miracle I could remember any of this to write it down at all!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Perception, Reality, Tragedy...

Here in England, Saturday 15th April 1989, a football match kicked off at 3pm. The FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. During the next six minutes 96 Liverpool fans were to die. And it occurred, partly, because of perception.
Police, at the time, were obsessed with controlling football's scourge - hooliganism. Visiting Liverpool supporters to the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield were herded through an underground tunnel into barricaded 'pens'. As the numbers increased and people piled up against old fashioned turnstiles, police opened a main exit gate to allow other fans in from outside the ground. The perception, perhaps, was that the dangerous crush at the turnstiles could be relieved. Next, the police perceived an attempt at pitch invasion, the 'bete noire' of hooliganism. A policeman shut an emergency gate at the front of the pens as it was pushed open. Other policemen shouted to "push back". Perception was, that hooliganism and pitch invasions were to be avoided....and this crowd was trying, desperately, to push out onto the pitch. Hooliganism and pitch invasion to be avoided...
... at all costs?....
BUT: What was to be the cost of this mistaken thinking...?
BUT: this was no 'rush for the pitch'. Instead a crush to the death. Fans weren't wanting to 'invade', to play havoc. They wanted to survive. Crushed against the wire netting, blue faces, tongues were seen lolling out, eyes bulging. People vomited. People hemorraged. People died. Bodies piled against bodies, many were the children and the young. Meanwhile the match continued for six minutes. 96 people perished. Parents went home that day, forever to be without the youngsters they had arrived with.
Even after the tragedy, perception continued to cloud reality, with newspapers falsely blaming drunken fans ("animals"), and fans "rioting outside the gate" (again, all wrong).
Two days ago, on Wednesday, exactly 20 years after the carnage, the city of Liverpool came to a dignified standstill at 3.06pm, its bells solelmly chiming 96 times for the victims of.. Reality vs. Perception...

I tell my children all the time: Things are not always what they seem. Look before you leap, Stop before you think...

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

A matter of life and death

Out here in the fragrant English spring countryside of gamboling lambs with cat-kin tails (another world) I thought of our home back in London today. When I met a lovely woman who's also suffering a house direly in need of refurbishment (and can't). I sympathised. We're in the same boat (boat?!). But let's talk positive. Admittedly, our home can offer one antidote to lovely-Kentish-village-withdrawal-symptoms: ours is a rather dilapidated (but!) detached house with a dreamily mature immense garden (at least for London)...that view from the master bedroom windows stretching down the garden and over the sports field beyond, and beyond, towards the row of elms in the distance.

(That’s why we garotted ourselves with a heavy mortgage right in the thick of real estate overpricing. This view. So that we could feel we’re not in London, but somewhere else in the countryside. The irony does strike me but I don’t care. That view saves me from insanity).

“Master bedroom”, we’re not hedge-funders, FX traders, or even close (and yes they still appear to own their mansions, swishy cars and self-satisfied wives (and I mean that politely, I would be too), lifestyle intact despite the dreaded C/, we...we are just a couple struggling to give ourselves and our children a better quality of life. Struggling being the operative word.

Our home may be detached. It may have a heavenly garden. And re-development potential (lots of redevelopment, that is). But now, let's talk negative. Inside, it’s a nightmare of browns and beiges and...yes, more browns. Not much has been done to it since the 1930’s. Depression era...

Depression era...depression...the holes in the kitchen wall (where I single-handedly pulled off a cabinet to make the area more roomy – and we haven’t had time to plaster)...the olive and brown battered kitchen (my dinner plates in drawers, pressure cookers and pans piled on TOP of cabinets at ceiling level - no space!)...the loo with grey tiles falling off the walls (my son touched one once with a finger tip and nearly broke a toe as it crashed down)...the fireplace we ripped out and haven’t got the money to fill in/plaster over as we really need that wall taking down...the boxy, cramped spaces. The ants in the kitchen. The lack of homeliness, lack of space to entertain properly, or really at all...
For a woman at home all day yearning for a bit of comfort...depression?...BUT: patience...patience...patience...

No, as aesthetically bad as it is, it’s an exercise in positive thinking (and delayed gratification!, see my earlier posting with this title). And, I cannot forget, there are worse things in life. Like the history of our home.

Our home was sold to us by a charming, correct, and old-fashioned old gentleman. A true gentleman. Real endangered species, sadly, nowadays. We didn’t get a bad price, for the overblown year we purchased it. He wanted a family in. Developers wanted it. He stood firm. We offered, cheekily low. Declined. I gave up my dream. Developers wanted it. Dodgy money-laundering-types wanted it. Developers wanted it. Families did not (too much work). He dropped the price and called us, I gasped. We met at the property, me with kid in tow. He was charmed by my daughter. We met in the middle. Documents were drawn-up. A developer tried to gazump. The gentleman stood firm: “I am a man of my word”. Documents were exchanged, completed. The old gentleman was truly grateful to hand over his family home to our young family. Me, I didn’t have much time to contemplate. I had to move our possessions in single-handedly (as we couldn’t afford the removal company beyond the table and the beds at that point!)

A few months later I was chatting happily to the neighbour over the garden fence (lovely neighbours – another reason to ignore the interior!) when...I found out a story. I cried.
I told a friend, she cried too. I told my husband. My husband was speechless.

The old gentleman and his wife had a son who was born, was weaned, learned to walk, to run, to talk. Went to school. Had his nappies changed as a baby, his knees patched as a toddler, his homework corrected as a schoolboy. Went on to University. Came home for the weekend to see his parents, wanted to tinker with an old gadget he was clearing out, set it carefully out on the patio, beyond the kitchen window. Came inside. Two drops of rain fell. Went outside, touched two wires together.
His mother stood at the sink in the kitchen and saw a lifetime of care and love dissolve in a moment. And was never the same again.

I said to my husband: “Let’s hope our two lovely children will bless this house with their happiness, blow away a dark cloud of tragedy, we’ll represent a new beginning!”

So I don’t really think 25-year old carpets in the entranceway and the wrong layout are cause for concern in life. They’re not matters of life and death.

The millionaire, the mansion, and the moral tragedy

A true story.
Chris Foster had always had a fascination with fire. After seeing coverage of an oil rig disaster in which the inferno blazed for days, he invented an insulating material for valves and staked everything on a demonstration. When the flames died down, the valves were intact. He was made.

Over the next few years business boomed and the money rolled in. A £1 million manor in the rolling English countryside, blingy personalised cars, holidays in Mauritius, private school for his beloved daughter, membership of costly hunting and shooting clubs. His transformation from ordinary lad to country squire was complete.

Several years on, his position was unravelling fast. Unpaid taxes backlogged, securitized loans, mounting debts. He loses control of his company. Meanwhile, he's still compulsively spending.
He tells no-one. His wife, his daughter, his own mother unaware.

Fast forward - August 2008. Chris Foster spends time after a barbeque lovingly flicking through family photo albums in his luxury kitchen. His loved ones are already tucked up in bed. He calmly pumps oil into the basement, takes his custom-made engraved rifle and, caught on his own CCTV cameras, paces around his estate. Dispatches his dogs and his daughter's horses with single point-blank shots to the head. He does the same to his slumbering wife, his daughter. Then he lies down entwined with his spouse on the marital bed and waits for the smoke to overcome him. The bailiffs were due barely a few hours later to repossess his property. They got nothing.

His sobbing mother, a stout silver-haired lady, tries to make sense of it all. I think he did it because he loved them, she suggests. He hadn't wanted to drag them down in the fallout, lose the lives of luxury, disappoint his daughter who lived for her horses. But I still love him. You don't stop loving your child just because they do something...awful.

(I won't pretend it's word for word, I don't have the transcript. But you get the meaning).

Chris Foster's story is an extreme case of career, money, power and ego trumping everything else: most tragically, family. Without one, the other became worthless to him. And he forgot that his wife and daughter weren't possessions, on a par with the cars, the pets, the mansion.

1) What lasting value has career, ego, money and power if we sacrifice those we love in the process? This example is the most extreme (and perverse), but we can still apply what we can learn from it to our everyday lives...

2) We don't 'OWN' our children, our families. We cannot control them, dictate their lives in the same way we might lay down performance targets at work. As put by the lebanese writer and philosopher Khalid Gibran: "Our children are not our children...they are the Sons and Daughters of Life's longing for itself...we are the bows, from which our children, like arrows, are sent forth..."

P.S. Kirstie Foster was only 15...

(acknowledgements to Channel 4's programme 'The Millionaire and the Murder Mansion')

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Statistics, oh statistics...

Despite being married to an accountant I'm not great at maths. However, the day I took my 'O' level maths oh so many years ago (25?) my mother picked up a Nun (or rather, gave her a lift as we say here in England - there being a convent nearby and the Nun wanting to get somewhere - no, I really can't think she might have been hitchhiking?! so I think I recall my mother was just being polite and, stopping gently on the little deserted country lane wound down the window and asked her if she'd mind hopping in. Perhaps her robes looked like they would impede her progress swishing in godly manner along down the lane. Besides there was no footpath (yes, I did go to school in the English countryside and not London!) On hearing I had an exam that morning the round-faced kindly 'Mother' said: "I'll pray for you, daughter". My own mother jokes that's the only reason I passed the exam with a decent grade to boot.

So, please explain to me someone, the difference between Visits and Page views on the sitemeter counter gadget a friend suggested I put on my site (not sure what I complied for, if not to become paranoid and/or obsessive?!) Since I installed it yesterday at midday I've had 678 visits and 813 page views. Not really convinced... or sure what it all means, as if folks are visiting they're not leaving any comments! Anyone care to explain? any comments to clarify the difference and what exactly is being tallied would be much appreciated!!

Delayed Gratification

In view of the debate ranging on Penelope Trunks "Brazen Careerist" (thanks for linking me, P!) I've sidelined a nice cosy Easter break ode to the sweet and simple things in life here in green and fragrant England, to tackle the controversy of what's best for kids and parents. Or at least, shouldn't that be the crux of an on-line lynching match between a young female 'brazen career-ist' and a father who suggested that, if she wasn't enjoying her kids, she should send them c/o his family in Ohio?! My, the vitriol! It seems quite a few raw and maybe even primordially instinctive buttons were pressed! Anyway my take on the issue involves: 1) BALANCE=HARMONY in most of life; 2) Our attitude shapes our reality; and, 3) there's such a thing as "DELAYED GRATIFICATION"!! ...Gotta love this expression! For all you guys (and women?!) out there thinking, squeeze certain muscles to delay orgasm, well that's it too, gives you an idea of the benefits! But I'm talking more life in general (sorry to disappoint!)

Not having time to check out the definition in the Oxford Dictionary (with 2 kids you learn to prioritise better than a CEO!), I reckon delayed Gratification's all about making sacrifices in the present in order to reap future rewards. Thing is, you've got to keep your goal in mind and the vision fresh, if you're not to get discouraged and give up prematurely and blow the whole thing. Many business start-ups I'm sure go through this process.

Example 1: We squeezed our credit to buy a house with huge redevelopment potential and a big plot. One day, we'll have a 6 bedroom pad with (still) a large garden, in a prime area of London. All well and good. BUT: For the moment, I live daily for my "Vision": whilst 'camping'(slight exaggeration) in a 1930's-styled home with dark, badly-arranged spaces, holes in walls, ants, and currently no money for these refurbishments! But, isn't patience the way to succeed in the end? - one step at a time, as Confucious said? (Think financial meltdown too, the mess we're in - instant vs. delayed gratification had a lot to do with it...)
And on the way, myself and hubby, we're learning important lessons in life and business: manage cashflow/learn to save/how not to WASTE/how to appreciate the present/how to have vision/how to be strategic/how not to rest on our laurels.

Example 2: My husband and I talk about his going to work for a couple of years in the Middle East (instinctively: ARGGGHHH!...). Watch this space! It's a serious plan. Again, not something I long for, admittedly, but if I think "delayed gratification"... I can focus beyond the immediate nervousness: we'd be able to save up enough to sort out house in Example 1; plus bright son's private school fees are currently paralyzing us rather, which would be all paid for (only if the schools are good in Bahrain, which apparently they are). There are other benefits, too quite apart from setting us up financially for the future: Why not cut the fear, slip out of comfort zone?, and use the 2 years to broaden the mind?/discover a different culture?/ Even open up opportunities for a new career for me (new environment, new contacts, etc?, less time doing boring chores...)

Example 3: Child-rearing is all about delayed gratification!! So here my posting goes full circle. Putting one's individuality and independence in the toy cupboard (and possibly one's career) and shutting the door for a few years or months, out of selfless generosity in order to make one's kids better educated/ happier/more stable/more creative, (add your choice in this space)...human beings in the long run. Not forgetting what the experience might do for the parents (I'm talking productive benefits here!)
But then again, it need not be forever, and, as my father (Grumpy Grandpa!) puts it: "Too much of Anything is good for Nothing!" You need balance, and the right attitude. The choice is individual. I never really wanted kids (type A personality) but they have made me a richer, more patient and more rational person. I've come to a natural hiatus, though, now (after 5 years) that's it's time now to learn where they end and I begin so that I can be the more balanced and happier mum they deserve, living out my potential as well as helping them live out theirs (hence this blog!) But I'm patient.... DELAYED GRATIFICATION IS KING! Blessings to you all, do comment!

Monday, 13 April 2009

I'm an or-fer too, Mum!

Despite repeatedly telling my four-year old son I'm NOT an author, he's convinced I am. Because an "or-fer" is someone who writes? And Mummy writes.

Today he proudly rushed up. "Mummy, you know! I'm an orfer too! I wrote a poem...AND a book! Listen, Mummy, Look Mummy!" Clutching and waving one (of Grandma's) index-cards with scrawls on, and one little book I'd knocked up blank to keep him occupied, of folded stapled recycled A4. He can read now, bless his little brain, and loves to write stuff all on his own - shopping lists, whatever - with inimitable phonetic spelling which his teacher finds "amazing" but I just find a result of our having read to him at home before bed, since birth...

The poem read thus (sic - work it out!): Sharks and fishis
sharks and fishes
Cuming to FiTe
They Fite all niTE
Thiy fiTE all Day
on Minis Bay

Minnis Bay, where we strolled along the shore on Good Friday. Got the "Fishes" right second time lucky!

The book appeared to be a cross between a thriller and Harry Potter (!!) - yes we have a four and a half year old Harry Potter maniac in the house, and a little 3 year old sister who is convinced she's called Hermione.
The book "cover" started off with his name neatly written across the top (as author) and boldly proclaimed, in purple, red, grey and orange felt-tip pen: Harry Potter aNd The HarFF BluD PrinC

(He doesn't know the story as I veto anything beyond the tame first couple of plots in the series, but we read (simple bits) or recount (general plot) and sometimes watch a few choice sequences from the movies: 1 and 2 only. So the Half-Blood Prince has reached mystical proportions - something "Big Boys" can read: "And I can watch when I am 11!"...

Page 1 and 2 read as follows (sic, again I'll leave you to decode):
ONe EVNiNg sumThiNg funNy HappaND
The wiNDO was cract
WiTV Owt
SumThiNg BrakiNg iN
But The ROBRZ Wor Theer

Harry suDaNlee wok up
He JumPT aNd got Hiss Owl Kage

"Bloody Hell!" I thought! "He's got a more gripping opening than any I've ever managed to write!" He showed it proudly to Grouchy Grandpa. "Ha!" says Grouch. "At this rate, the young chap'll burst into print before you!"

The ethics of blogging

My parents are rather conservative, pedantic. My husband's parents even more so, with religion thrown in. My husband, too (his needle inching further up over the 'middling' meter as the years go by. He was wackier when we met). Myself, on the other hand, I'm made like one of those old-fashioned ice-cream tubs: half plain traditional old vanilla, half some shocking pink or lurid brown. An old italian boyfriend nicknamed me "Pazza" (Mad/crazy woman). My mother says: "You're certainly unique"...

In another life, I could throw off my clothes, pole dance, throw paint against white walls and call it art, spy for my country (or perhaps not, who knows). In this life, I prefer to channel my "creative" side to good effect (I hope- with a pinch of opportunism and ambition thrown in, admittedly, at times). Not that I haven't had my day of blagging into launch parties in the company of arty Gay friends or spent a drunken weekend texting a crush so many times with off-the-cuff-come-ons that I autodistructed a budding relationship. Thrown a crystal china set. Had an affair with a married man plenty older (am I now kidding you or not?), sky-dived to cure my vertigo, forged an international rail ticket (and travelled across three countries with it), been hauled up before the powers-that-be at a "BIG" firm and accused of defamation...

Ahhh, the latter. I did a favour for a friend and 'helped' a journalist to shore up her numbers on a (supposedly...) tick-the-box questionnaire for a woman's rag weekend supp. I ended up with a big(-gish) photo in the middle pages of a major tabloid (pic not reduced to a postage stamp as promised) and a whole set of columns, half an article, to myself. Subject: "Why Women With A High I.Q. Can't Find A Man!" (...Today We Interview Two Foxy Vixens With, Yes, A Brain!...or some garbage to that effect). My (vital) statistics were mentioned (how had I ever thought that bra and dress sizes were kosher questions?), the number of languages I speak, and that a former boyfriend had been abusive out of jealousy (exaggeration, though he did resent women having a mind of our own).

Anyway. Shamed, named and allowed to keep my job - just. But made a laughing stock. "Unprofessional". I huddled, crying, at home for weeks as a boyfriend deserted me and colleagues sneered: "Ha ha brain bigger than her boobs or the other way round?" (I was too green to call sexual harrassment, as you might, nowadays. That was many, many years ago and I was fresh out of Uni). Reading about Catherine Sanderson, the 'French Bridget Jones', sacked only 3 or so years ago for a similar breach, I see things haven't changed much. Though she did win her tribunal for unfair dismissal!

My 70+ mother, with whom I am staying, views my blog with suspicion. She's very pixel-savvy (studied programming a couple of years ago, yay, patron saint of intellectual stimulation!) but still appears to expect slugs, bugs and slime to emanate from the screen (or the literary equivalent of them). "Why am I not your target audience?" she asked, when I suggested as such. "So it's all horrible things about me you're writing, then?" (Mum. I'm 40 soon. Christ.)

I've got free access to use her computer but I know she still thinks there's something distateful about her own daughter writing a blog.

So, I ask: is it really a "breach of trust" to document feeling, thoughts, beliefs? To sketch out friends and acquaintances, everyday details? If I believed so I wouldn't be here now. But there are areas where I draw the line (a nice red one!): I also blog a novel in diarised form (there's a prize for first guesses) where the wicked husband is not, I repeat, NOT, my current husband (sorry folks!!). Personally, I wouldn't risk a marriage, a relationship, to toss sordid details over the ether to strangers (but having said that, he DID exist. As does/did most of it. They do say: "you write what you know").

You write what you know. Really, that's my conclusion. Nothing wrong with it, in blogger format or dead trees or whatever. Personally, I don't want to hurt anyone currently dear to me in the process. Other than plain vanilla. Life's too short.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

I'm torn, torn, torn...

I'm a torn, conflicted woman. We went to an Easter barbeque (Bar B Q?). Old friends of the children's grandparents - or my parents, rather - with a sprawling ranshackly manor house in the little village. Far reaching lawn, mature trees, nooks, crannies and vegetable patches. Sitting in the Spring sun south-facing and feeling good as the cherry wine seeps. Too much food and no cares. Bliss.

And friendly chatter. Hello to acquaintances from several years ago, who ask what I "do" now. I'm about to blurt: "Nothing, I mean, I look after the children", but check myself and say "Writer. I mean, I haven't published yet, but I write." ...I'm trying to use a form of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), or you can call it simply positive thinking. It started because I hated scribbling "housewife" on aeroplane landing cards, like a punch to my pride whenever I wrote it (I used to fly a lot, even after my son was born. With my daughter and the credit crunch and mortgage shackles, things changed). In a similar vein, I've always wanted to mark the space "entrepreneur" (at least denoting that I think like one, or would like to) but even NLP'ing myself can't bring myself to be that cheeky.

Anyway, I hate being asked what I do. I know I should be proud of "housewife", but I'm not. I hate the label. And that it could be attached to me. "But there's no more important job than bringing up my children" says Hubby. I agree - but one job's not enough. My problem. My issue. My guilt. I need more than my children's validation. Need to be more than "the best Mummy in the world".

Back at Grandparents' and after a delightful day, my husband leaves shortly after seven for the drive back to London. There are "things to be done back at home" (an overload of work, document sorting, and hopefully not watching the sport on TV). The children, insouciently, hug goodbye. "Goodbye, Daddy!" they chorus, and turn back to other tasks, immediately distracted. They are used to Daddy being "having to work". Then, just after teeth cleaning, an uncharacteristic whimper. My son (four and a half year old) is a bright, calm, rather rational chappie, doesn't cry often, doesn't do tantrums, doesn't shed needless tears. You can usually talk him round any upset when it starts to itch. But tonight he's not only tired, but hyped on adrenalin and - of course - today's astronomical chocolate intake. The tears suddenly intermingle with the toothpasty mouth: "I want to say Goodnight to Daddy!" "But, sweetie,you know Daddy left to go back home. You kissed him Goodbye!" "But why has he gone home? You said tommorow is Easter as well! Why can't he stay? I want him to stay!"
I hug, carry, get him tucked up, comfort cloth and best friend leppy the leopard at the ready. Small eyelashes swept with gooey wet. Puffed cheeks. Exhaustion. Little sister oblivious, already fast asleep. We'll call Daddy tommorow first thing! You eat one of your chocolate dinosaurs after breakfast - which one? - TRex? - tell you what, you can eat TRex before he eats you!

It seems to do the trick. But minutes later, whilst tapping quietly on the keyboard next door, I hear a small wail rising, ebbing. Rising again, higher. Run in. A lump bunched up under the covers. How to explain why Daddy has to miss Easter Monday? How to explain what's so much more important than a son, a daughter, a rare day off at Grandparents (with no distractions, no household tasks)? But my husband's job must take precedence. He's got to justify his position, his (meagre) bonus, as others crash and burn around him. The industry's precarious. Credit crunch means sacrifices.

So why am I a "reluctantly frustrated stay-at-home mum" then, I question myself? What if a career meant I weren't there to kiss away the damp perplexed ache from soft little eyes, to reassure, warm, consoling, a sanctuary. Always there. Mummy. My job. My most important one ever. But still, sadly maybe, not enough. Torn.

10,000 hours of hope...

My four and a half year old son's violin teacher had a chat over the phone. "I think", she said, enthusiastically but carefully, "he's going to be very good". I took a minute to register that good meant talented. A small voice inside me immediately piped: "He'll achieve what you never did! It's early enough! He can be great!" I wondered, is that shocking or instinctive? Should I be ashamed of myself?

He'd wanted to learn (I'd played too, but from nine. I'd been "good" too, but not good enough early enough). They teach the Suzuki method at school and I'd agreed reluctantly, privately thinking: "Isn't he a bit young?"

They chose him to play in Assembly. I crouched in the corner, against the wall, minimising my presence, worried about embarassing him. But he stood, proud, a little figure with ruffled brown hair, brown violin up, tiny bow, and from the waist, tiny bow....there was silence. The notes came, pure, well drawn, rarely out of tune. He stared ahead. A very fixed, very serious stare of utter concentration. Not of a four year old. The pride bubbled up and seeped through. "My gorgeous, wonderful, clever son...I love you". I thought. "My miracle..."

They say it takes 10,000 hours to truly master a skill. I told my son, as a joke. "Can I do my violin practise now?" he asked, in reply. He plays every day. And it's become as natural as cleaning his teeth. I'd never force him or push him. If anything, he pushes himself. He enjoys being able. Being 'good'. Making progress.

And I still can't help thinking: "My sweet boy. He'll achieve what I never could." Only time will tell.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

A faraway view

On a visit to favourite Grandparents at the coast, we went for a family 'Good Friday' stroll along the shore. Calm, unruffled late morning, grey watercolour sea blurred into its identical sky. Gentle intake and sigh of waves, the stark darkened bones of the old groynes reaching out from the beach ("dinosaur spines!"), a young couple in black (black for such a Spring day?!) kissing perched on the newer concrete maritime wall. Seaweed aroma on the breeze. Two dogs reciprocately chasing tails in a perfect circular dance. A mound of stones piled to form a campfire in the adjacent field, the mustard spread of rapeseed blooms across the landscape beyond. My son, small figure resolutely forging ahead on his first wooden bike, my little girl in flowery skirt and leggings progressing in zigzags on her little pink scooter along the path - step, whizz, step, whizz, step step whizzz. I climbed to the top of a mound - tide break - to embrace the view through my designer sunglasses. A young (handsome!) man, cycling past below, smiled and quipped: "Don't jump! It's not worth it!" The seascape hummed in the midday silence. The sun warm on my cheeks. I watched all my loves frolicking, three figures, and thought: "Could it ever get better than this?" And, "Do you need the career, the power, the glory? Is this not enough?" And: "Rhetorical question..."
Then my son waved, my daugher called in her little high sweet voice, and I slotted right back into the day's gentle lull.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Call to arms...

I wrote to a very successful female serial entrepreneur with a hot business , award-winning blogger, influential writer and author, and - yes! - mother of a young son. I wanted advice on... just let's say one of my (frustrated? or frustrating?!) blogging ventures....this is what she wrote:

"hm. i don't have advice. except. okay. i'm just going to be totally honest: you sound incredibly bored and lonely and you should put your kids in daycare and get a job. why aren't you doing that?

i was a stay at home mom for three years and nearly died. some people aren't cut out for it, just like some people aren't cut out for the office.

try going to therapy. really. to figure out what's right for you. it's hard to get perspective when you're home with kids all day.
also, try this site: -- i think it's a lot of people like you."

Yaaaaahhhhhh.....before I ran screaming to cut my veins, I set up this blog. Three minutes later! For MORE people like me. I hope you'll find me over the ether, and we'll help each other to become what we know we can become, even if only by starting to dig up that old initiative and believe in ourselves, dust off that rusty career, or just share past and present experiences to help clarify...what? a predicament? life? - well, anything (and save on therapy costs, if that's how you'd have it!!)

By the way, this is what I wrote:
"Hi, I am a mum-of-two from Wimbledon,London,England. Having been given a place at Oxford University (and never went) and worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers (and never stayed) and been a straight-A candidate throughout my life (and accomplished musician, and artist, but only at an 'amateur' level), speak 5 languages, have travelled the world, I now find myself a stay-at-home mother of two kids under 5, 40 years old this year, and with a horrible sense of frustration and untapped potential...I know I'm smart, savvy and have good leadership skills, a perfectionist who knows how to delegate, and enough patience to set up my own business one day. BUT: with no time, a house to renovate, and a husband who works all hours, for the moment my only creative outlet is writing.
I would love to build up a readership as there is very little in my life to provide me with honest feedback and off which bounce off my thoughts. When the kids are older if I don't end up doing something really entrepreneurial I will disappoint myself, but for the moment I'm doing the little I can!"

Any thoughts? Any other frustrated mums - LONDON CALLING?!!