A blog recording the thoughts of a mum of one who does a lot of voluntary work because it's more fun than resuming her career and is a bit worried about the state of the nation.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Books I didn't get on with

As I rather fearfully begin "The Kite Runner" I have a bit of a feeling. I am scared that it is going to be another of those books I can't get on with although lots of people think it's marvellous. Here are my top five in that category, although I have probably supressed others:

White Teeth by Zadie Smith – had to stop after about a third of it as I couldn't care less about any of the characters;

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kinsolver – all that laden laboured stuff about Africa and missionaries (but it's not her as I really liked Animal Dreams);

Captain Corelli's Mandelin by Louis de Bernieres – I had to read the first chapter about 8 times and it took months to get through it. Hated Penelope Cruz in the film too although loved her before that in Spanish things;

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – got bored - I just didn't get it;

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie – can't really remember but I think it was written in a funny tense?

This makes me think of other lists I could write eg. the Top 5 books that I liked although lots of other people couldn't get on with them. Step forward Vikram Seth with your big book A Suitable Boy- I loved it!

Then there's the Top 5 books which I read for sentimental reasons knowing they wouldn't be much good because the author had peaked long ago eg. Jump by Jilly Cooper - overpopulated with appallingly embarrassing sex scenes, including one which raises rather serious issues of child abuse that Jilly ducks entirely.

And the most irritating plot twist - Freya North in Pillow Talk where two characters met again after 18 years, fell in love instantly but failed to swap phone numbers. For the next 200 pages they were unable to find one another and didn't think of googling despite the fact that they used internet for other purposes and one of them ran her own business and the other wrote pop songs and had an odd name .

And the Top 5 unreadable books written by people I know? Better stop now....

Thursday, 12 May 2011


I have finally made it to a meeting of the new local WI set up by my friend J after no-showing at the first two.

I find the pub heaving with all sorts of women that I know a bit from various phases of my life in the suburb (play group, school, ballet), and lots that I don't. Apart from having a drink and chatting, we have all come to hear a talk and try to get our heads around what it means to be at the WI really and not ironically.
I tell a member of the committee, who are all wearing hand embroidered name badges, that I grow a lot of fruit on my allotment but don't have much idea how to make jam. She says "I will take your subscription but they have very nice jam in Tescos."

The speaker is semi-famous. She used to present one of those iconic property shows where couples are taken somewhere they've never been before but might just conceivably want to move their whole lives to, and shown a series of derelict barns on a hillside full of goats, or luxury villas with artificial grass depending on their budget. She was unlucky enough to relocate to the suburb rather than to a Tuscan palazzo, and to employ one of the committee's husbands as her painter and decorator. Her anecdotes mainly focus on the celebrity editions of the show which sound entirely rigged, including her mortification when a well-known "It girl" urinated in the open air at the top of the drive leading down to a luxury Greek villa outside which she was standing with the local estate agents. The semi-famous one declares she is so enraptured by the whole WI buzz that she is going to join at some point - but she will be away filming a new show for the next 3 months.

After the talk we have the judging of the funniest holiday snap competition, which is won by a snap of a pair of white ankle socks and sandals. We then have notices. Our first outing will be to a racecourse where Peter Andre is performing. I'm not sure whether there will be any horses around but I'm pleased that being married to Katie Price didn't put him off them altogether. I won't be going on that trip but I'll probably be back to hear how to make a hanging basket with free Pimms next month.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

My Royal Wedding

We were amongst those lucky people who had booked our long weekend well before Wills packed the £28k ring for 3 weeks backpacking round Kenya. In fact we were repeating the same May Bank holiday we had had last year with our pals in a camping barn in the Brecon Beacons. Now we would be able to get away really early instead of having to do the M4 Friday night ordeal (which tends to involve too many grab bags of Worcester Sauce crisps and sitting in the fast lane with the engine switched off for a long time hoping radio Wiltshire will explain all).

But, as the day drew nearer, there was an outbreak of patriotism all around us. There was going to be a massive street party flowing from the pub past our house and down the cul-de-sac opposite. Efficient women formed a committee and posted regular updates through the door using twiddly fonts. They came round with clipboards to find out how many trestle tables we would be lending and whether we had any photos of the last known street party in 1977, or perhaps the one that took place when the siege of Mafeking was relieved?

I began to weaken and say perhaps we could do the big screen, although not the accompanying bubbly and butties. Our camping pals confirmed they would not be leaving the Midlands till Wills and Kate were safely back at Buck House glad-handing the Beckhams. Thus, at 10.45, I bundled R and M into the pub and we took up our positions next to an American couple from the next street with two tiny daughters. "O look" the female was saying as Carole Middleton entered the Abbey "That lady's the mommy of the bride so that'll be me when you get married". I remembered that marriage was not something we really focus on in our little unit, so I concentrated on the genealogical aspects of the occasion, ad libbing about the identity of some of the more obscure royals "O look there's Princess Alexandra and her daughters with Princess Pushy that Austrian one that noone likes". R, who spent several weeks thinking that Princess Anne had died when it was Princess Margaret, yawned and eyed the beer pumps longingly. M, who is well beyond the princess stage, said that everyone looked stupid and become very whingy as she had had no breakfast. I sent them both home again and concentrated, trying to ignore the American couple who had bought a bottle of bubbly and were gazing lovingly into one another's eyes, glasses raised, for most of the religious bits, which was most of it. By contrast the rest of the pub talked loudly throughout the ceremony as though it was a mere Championship league game on a Wednesday night in November. I found myself with noone to discuss my many unanswered questions with, especially about the two nuns who were sitting next to Wills and Kate during the interval.

Back in the street the awnings were going up and the music was beginning. M gazed longingly as more and more cupcakes made their way out of houses and onto the loaded tresle tables. Sadly we piled into the car, feeling like Big Society party poopers who were only hurting themselves. We sulked all the way to the Severn Bridge.

Apparently everyone had a wonderful time and, of course, by the time we got back a copy of the group photo with twiddly fonts had been posted through the door. I am definitely not going anywhere for the Diamond Jubilee and there won't even be a marriage to sit through before we start on the cupcakes.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Family holidays

It's that time of the year again and we are trying to find a holiday that will satisfy us all. My poor daughter has been subjected to a lot of rather strange holidays in her 10 years. My attempts to recreate holidays I enjoyed at her age have been dismal. My parents were always perfectly happy to go to Spain or Majorca and do very little for 2 weeks whilst I ran around with other English children getting covered in sand and pine needles, having flotilla battles on lilos and getting stuck in the lift at least once a day when we overloaded its buttons. It was all very fine so far as I was concerned, although my older sister skulked about in dark glasses and tie-dye looking miserable.

My partner R has very different ideas about activity levels however. Having spent every holiday visiting his mother's relatives in North Limburg (a visit we recreate at least once a year) he doesn't really get the great British slob-out package tour. A couple of years ago I persuaded him to try a week in Majorca and he was deeply shocked to the extent of appearing to feel an elaborate joke was being played on him, when, on the first lunchtime in Puerto de Pollensa, our waitress was English, the menu was English and all the other people in the cafe were English Once he had run up all the nearby hills and spent a lot of money hiring first a windsurf then a tiny sailing boat for an hour he didn't really know what to do. My daughter showed signs of enjoying herself as the ice cream was good, but soon got covered in mosquito bites and turned out to be allergic to the cream that was supposed to sooth them, resulting in a spectacular faint and vomit incident in the main street. So it was a bit of a failure all round.

Then there's our carbon footprint. I feel I've emitted enough tonnes to last a lifetime in my pre-child 90s past when I went on holiday to places like China and Chile. M would love to go to Harry Potter World and Hawaii but it doesn't seem to be happening as I wrestle with my environmental guilt, budget and resentment at the short length of school holidays at the best time of year to go.

R is not at all interested in leaving Europe anyway, despite the outdoor potential of various suggested destinations ("fancy the Yukon R?"). He has a strange interest in obscure parts of the Benelux countries, as witnessed by our recent short break to a non-functioning ski resort where stones for sharpening are produced, and our 2010 damp summer sailing break in Fryslan, the northernmost part of the Netherlands. He is passionate about Germany, Central and Eastern Europe none of which interest me in the slightest. That isn't quite true as we all enjoyed a 79p each way short break in Gdansk a few years ago. I got to see the shipyard where it all started and with which we expressed so much solidarity when I was a student. We hunted for amber on the beaches and had coffee in shiny hotels funded by the EU and went on trams. I wouldn't mind going to Warsaw or Budapest. But his latest suggestion that we should borrow a house from his Serbian friends in Novi Sad, a city on the flatlands north of Belgrade, has finally motivated me to ring our friends in Cornwall and get us invited down there poste haste to recreate the holiday we had there 5 years ago!

Friday, 25 March 2011

Big Soc. Dilemmas Part 3: No Office

We are being evicted from our office. We thought we had negotiated a rent reduction after the Council cut our grant by £10,000 but the landlord has changed his mind as he has had a better offer. At first he said we had to go by the end of the month but he has now extended this to the end of May. So four organisations are looking for a new home. The practical lot have huge amounts of kit, including boxes of muddy boots, electric chain saws and a forest of young trees growing in posts which have become a bit irritating as insects are roosting in them which often fly round the office. The arty lot have an enormous photocopier which doesn't work very well, a 1930s sideboard and a lot of elderly volunteers who can't climb stairs. The posh lot have a polished wooden dining table and lots of display boards with photos of graveyards they have renovated. We are currently the youthful lot (apart from me) as we have 3 young men entrusted to us by a scheme from the last Government called "The Future Jobs Fund". The Future Jobs Fund is now a deceased scheme and is being replaced by the more prosaically named "The Work Programme". The young men are supposed to be getting experience of working for an innovative environmental organisation practising their skills in social media, "nudge" (the Big Soc. name for getting people to do what you want) and "commissioning" (which is all about public sector bodies offering you about an eighth of the market rate to do something but pretending that Tescos and NPower are bidding against you). I worry that our innovative organisation will have to scale new heights when we relocate to the local park because we can't find affordable desk space indoors, but the young men point out that this won't be a problem as they all have "dongles". What a relief.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Census and Sensibility

It's been quite a struggle to stop myself filling in "Gypsy, Scientologist, separated, but still legally in a same-sex civil partnership" but I have resisted the temptation. I am annoyed that if you do one hour of paid work a week you are not also allowed to fill in that you do the childcare and housework. And Question 17 - wild eh!?

I have been deterred not so much by the fact that I musn't be silly when the whole country has to be sensible because of the terrible mess we have been left in, but by the thought of all those eager-beaver family historian sleuths looking me up in 2111 (unlikely I will have managed to leave an autobiography).

I'm afraid I have already caught my ancestors apparently lying on many official documents including censuses, and this has raised a lot of niggling questions in my mind which I brood on in the middle of the night and am unlikely ever to get answered, for example:

Great Great Granny Joyce: you said you were married to George Kerr on your son's birth certificate, but the year after that on the census form you had changed your name to Joyce George, and when you married someone else a couple of years later you said you were "a spinster" and used your maiden name again. I suppose it can't have been easy being a single mum in mid-19th century Worcestershire but was it bigamy or what?

Great Great Grandad Robert: you weren't a Sergeant Major - you were only a Sergeant which I have now discovered is two ranks below and meant you were only paid 1s 3d a day not 3s a day - were you showing off a bit and how did you sort it out financially?

Great Grandad David: your dad was a grocer not a fisherman. Was this a family joke or were you worried that having a petit-bourgeois father would impede your political career? Did you have a presentiment that a grocer's child would one day rise to prominence on the other side of the political spectrum ?

Great Aunty Sue: your real name was Lilian. Why didn't you tell your nieces? You lived in a caravan: maybe I have inherited your gypsy yearnings. Lilian is not a great name for a gypsy but Lily would have been fine.

So don't get too imaginative on that form unless you want to torture your descendants and torture social researchers who will long to interview you but be unable to get access to your name and address until 2111. I can't honestly say that you will skew the ConDems planning process by causing unnecessary services to be set up by the Government, NHS (or private sector top-slicers) to support you, but some Big Soc. type will probably waste their Friday night setting up an unnecessary wiki forum.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Blog Killers

Ten things that have stopped me writing anything much since the thing I half wrote at half- term and have just falsified the date on as a stop gap:

  • Grade 3 ballet exam and its eleven extra practice sessions involving self (as self-not-very-employed mum) in collection of four girls from school many times with consequent hot cross bun toasting and brisk walking to the Methodist Hall;

  • Damp wall of mother's house involving waiting for builders to give quotes none of whom brought long ladders despite being told they were coming to look at a roof so required 2 visits each;

  • Calls to Charity Commission to enquire very politely whether "we seek to respond to your application within 10 working days" now meant 2 months, in a sympathetic voice in view of 21% budget cut, but with wheedling tone;

  • Huge row between fellow trustees of charity resulting in two resignations;

  • Trips to National Archives to read muster rolls of 44th Foot 1840-60;

  • Critical time of year at the allotment;

  • Futile search for holiday cottage in Devon with high ratio of bathrooms to bedrooms that will also welcome "well-behaved" dog, but does not have hens running about outside in photo as dog is not nearly that well-behaved;

  • Insane trip to far end of Belgium to alleged (by partner) ski location which turned out to have one sloping field open about one week per annum, but many many crucifixes all around village and many graves in churchyard bearing name "Lesenfants" (sic) ...

  • Reading "American Wife" by Curtis Sittenfeld;

  • Hamster needing a run: can only be released in my bedroom where broadband signal is poor.