Sunday, 22 April 2012

Your absolute and utter best

I've just read Beth Gutcheon's Still Missing, having heard a few months ago Rachel Johnson discuss it on Radio 4's A Good Read presented by Harriett Gilbert which I came across by chance when I turned the radio on while driving.

It's a terrifying book focusing on a mother's torment when a child goes missing without a trace (in fact it was turned into the film Without a trace). The mother, Susan Selky, enters a kind of living death in which she must live in order to have the faith that her son is alive, but while he is missing she has effectively died inside. I read it very quickly, desperate to find out whether he is alive, to find out whether the mother might enter the world of the living again. It's ever so gripping, and of course made me think once again of the McCanns and the Needhams and the parents of other missing children.

But it's not just reading the book that made me think. Harriett taught me journalism at City University when I was a postgraduate and I've not seen her for a couple of years. I love it when I happen upon her on the radio, partly because she is a great presenter and was a great teacher, and partly because she has a lovely radio voice - learned, sexy, thoughtful, firm. It's a pleasure listening to her. And when I do hear her voice I often remember her saying to me a few years ago, kindly I think, about one or other article or book I had written, that she wondered when it was I was actually going to try my best at something. See, producing a book was not enough. I should, I think she was saying, produce the best possible book I can produce, write the best possible articles, think the hardest possible thoughts.

And you know what, though I doubt it's the answer Harriett was necessarily looking for, I've finally found something I really do try my utter best at. Yeah it's the kind of answer that might make you want to gag, but it's true anyway. I do try my best at being a parent, because I desperately want my daughter to be happy and kind and the type of person people want to know and for her to make the world a little better and to be inspiring and interesting and interested. It's not a special attribute - I believe (nearly) all parents share this. It's why Still Missing is so powerful, why we can read it and really feel for Susan Selky, and understand that she is both dead inside but must also stay alive. For there are loads of things that we should try our best at, and I intend to do so the next article, the next blogpost, the next book, really I do. But there is only one thing that really really matters, and it turns out I try my best at that without even having to think about it.

I got my copy of Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon second hand on Amazon but have since found out it is currently published by the lovely Persephone books whose website says: "Persephone prints mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women. The titles are chosen to appeal to busy women who rarely have time to spend in ever-larger bookshops and who would like to have access to a list of books designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial."

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Lovely crumbly yumminess

It's amazing how it's not just experiences, but senses, that define your childhood. The smells and sounds and tastes. I walked into the loo at the University where I work the other day and was hit by a powerful smell of bleach that took me straight back to the ladies loo in the Polytechnic my dad used to teach at, where we occasionally joined him for the day to play in his office while he saw students or did work. There must have been a higher education bulk buy in the early eighties for a particular kind of loo cleaner. Then there's the powder puff. I can't have seen one for twenty years but when I opened one in a shop the other day, unsure of what was in the box, the sweet smell of powder and the satiny feel of the puff made me feel all safe and young and, atishooo.

One of the senses that has stayed with me is the taste of a particular kind of cake they used to sell in the bakery on Orford Road in Walthamstow, which was on our walk home from primary school. It's still a bakery, though one selling sandwiches and coffee, rather than iced fingers, bath buns and split tins. For years I have thought about these cakes. I had tried describing them to people - crumbly, sweet, brushed with icing sugar, like a Viennese biscuit in cake form with solidified jam running through it - but no one could help.

Then I was flicking through a recipe book in Oxfam books the other day and found a picture that looked strikingly familiar. Turns out Viennese was a red herring because they're not Austrian at all. Rather they are called Swiss Tarts. And I made some, and they tasted just right.

(There are loads of recipes for these online - just search for Swiss Tart. They are butter heavy and sugar laden and consequently delicious.)

Buggy microwaves and tramps' cocks

Sometimes if I have an idea for something I want to write about, I jot down a note and come back to it days, weeks or months later. I was looking at my list today, seeing if anything that seemed desperately interesting at the time of writing the note, retained interest now. One caught my eye. It simply says ‘Buggy microwave.’

I have absolutely no idea what this means. I’ve wracked my brains and all I can think of is the possibility that at some point I thought buggies (strollers, to foreign readers) should come equipped with a microwave. Or maybe I was musing sterilising our buggy in the microwave as it does smell, as one friend so eloquently put it, of a tramp’s cock, having had formula milk (fresh and regurgitated) splashed over it on several occasions.

Today I start my six months as Writer-in-Residence at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green (London, N22). In fact I am there now, shoes off, sitting on the sofa, laptop on lap. I’m going spend Tuesday mornings here writing, chatting, eating biscuits and scaring the real customers. Come and say hello. And buy books. By the end of the residency, in six months time, I hope to have remembered what I meant by 'Buggy microwave'. And to have cleaned our buggy.

Related post: The nicest bookshop

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The greatest show on earth - and we'll be there

I have a glut of posts that begin 'When we were trying to conceive...' for which I apologise. Here is another.

When we were trying to conceive I often thought about the London Olympics, now just weeks away. I would work out how old my baby would be in July 2012, if we conceived in any given month, and whether they would be old enough to understand the magnitude of the event, to recognise athletes, to play with a toy medal, to wonder at the nature of a competition that includes swirling ribbons around in rhythmic gymnastics and so on.

Turns out we were a bit late for that. Our daughter will be 19 months when it starts. We got her a pay your age ticket for the hockey so she'll be there, but whether she'll be engaged (whether we'll be engaged - it is hockey after all) who knows.

But I am thrilled that she will experience the London Olympics, that we will get photographs of her at the Olympic Park and have some souvenirs in her toy box. Because I am not one of the naysayers who is cynical about the event. You only have to look at the Olympic Park and its magnificent buildings, and walk around the adjacent shopping centre, to think wow, this used to be Stratford, the kind of place you had to suffix with the words 'East London' less anyone think you meant 'upon Avon', and now it's Stratford, the kind of place you can just say by itself and it can hold its head up high and say yes, look at me with my velodrome and aquatic centre and stadium, my destination shopping centre and comfortable cinema and casino for those that way inclined. Look at all the jobs I have created in building and retail. Look at the feats I will host, the speed, the agility, the strength. Look at the tears and beads of sweat. Oh, I'm getting carried away... but you would too if you had grown up a stone's throw away, if you associated Stratford with the 69 bus, if your school theatre trips were to the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

I love that Stratford no longer hides away in East London, letting its 'cooler' neighbours of Mile End and Stepney take the limelight. Now Stratford proudly says 'I am here'. And my daughter, though she may not remember it, will be able to look back on London 2012 and say 'I was there'. I'm so pleased we managed to make her in time.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom

The Guardian's Comment is Free website recently republished a quote by Dennis Potter from a 1994 interview in which he talks about dying, as part of their 'In praise of' series.

It's a beautiful quote:

"At this season, the blossom is out in full now … and instead of saying 'Oh that's nice blossom' … last week looking at it through the window when I'm writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it."

I read this last week, fresh from admiring the blossom on our street and in the park. This time last year I snuggled my four month old baby in her sling and showed her the blossom, the patterns it made in the sunlight and the beauty of a single flower. This time round she toddles under the tree picking up fallen blooms, pointing to the trees and uttering her most frequent word, 'flower', sometimes in wonder, sometimes with excitment, sometimes as a statement of fact.

And Potter's thoughts, seeing blossom for the last time, are, I imagine, very similar to my daughter's thoughts seeing it for the first and second time. I do not know for sure what she is thinking when she points at blossom and says 'flower', but I suspect it is something along the lines of "that is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom what there ever could be, and I can see it." Unless of course, it's pink.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

We all want that

My friend Alison Miles wrote this lovely blog post about the genetic reasons for her children's hearing loss. And has made me think all over again about something that has been bothering me since having my daughter, which is the smug way people say, when pregnant, "As long as it's healthy I don't mind what sex it is."

Why does it bother me? Because we all want healthy children, that's why. I am sure people say it as a superstitious tic, worried that if they express a preference for something as trivial as gender then the gods will punish them in other ways, but to me it comes across as particularly irritating, suggesting that perhaps they think they are the only ones who want a healthy child, that when you ask something that illicits that response you are suggesting other concerns trump health.

Our daughter has some health issues, hopefully now resolved, the detail of which is nobody's business but ours, and the family and friends with whom we choose to talk about it, and when someone trots out the "as long as it's healthy" line I want to say to them "yes yes, that's taken without question, we all want that, do you think we didn't, do you think wanting it makes it happen, do you think you will love a child with health issues any less?"

But one can't say this to an expectant parent of course. Because they mean it nicely. They are trying to prove their suitability as parents, to others and to themselves. And though this phrase is my particular bugbear, I am not beyond superstition myself. Never in my life, before being pregnant and then being a parent, had I saluted a magpie. Now I can't bloody stop.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Egg tattoos

I don't like tattoos. It's a blanket dislike (though I'm sure yours is lovely or discreet or I'd change my mind if I saw it.)

Now I've done a few things I know my parents wouldn't approve of, though usually taking to heart their advice that while I shouldn't need their approval I also shouldn't do anything I am afraid for them to know about. It's sound advice I shall be passing on to my daughter, and that I pass on to my students when I overhear them worrying about their parents finding out they are a smoker or wanting them to enter a particular profession - do not do anything you are afraid to admit, but not feel you need approval.

And perhaps because I know how much my parents hate tattoos, and how upset they would be if I were to have one, for me it falls into the afraid to admit category.

What's more, now I have a baby, a baby with perfect skin and beautiful hair and magical eyes, the idea or her doing anything to change this, be it make up, piercings, a tattoo, even a haircut, is hugely upsetting, though something I will of course have to get over.

All of which is a very convoluted way of saying that I have never ever considered getting a tattoo. Not even a dolphin jumping over my ankle. Not even a suitably ethnic symbol on my shoulder. Not even a celtic design on the small of my back. But nevertheless I absolutely adore this use of the temporary tattoo for Easter.

(Read about them on The Fabulous Mom's Guide

Monday, 2 April 2012

I took her to a supermarket

The baby and I popped to Tesco this morning for a picnic lunch and other essentials (hairbands, Easter eggs, crumpets) and, parking the car, I saw the above notice, saying "It's so much easier when you shop from home."

Now never mind that shopping online with Tesco is not easy, not if you factor in my last order having so many substitutions I sent back more than I kept and the two orders before that being cancelled on the day by the store leaving me with no food or nappies and, on one of those, no money, having taken the cash from my account despite not delivering the goods. Never mind that. Because even if the service had been at an acceptable level, it's sad if people are encouraged not to take their kids to the supermarket.

In my constant patter of chatter as we meander round the aisles, my daughter seated in the trolley, she is introduced to several basic concepts that she needs to know in life. She learns that she can't have everything she wants, that sometimes persistent nagging will get her some of what she wants, that things have a cost and budgets must be kept to, the difference between luxuries and essentials, that lists can be ignored but should always be made, and much more.

Once, when I was a a teenager, my mum played a game. Everything I asked for in the supermarket she said yes to and we came home laden with shampoos and hair mousses. It was a bit overwhelming, getting everything I asked for, but a wonderful memory. I may do the same to my daughter one day, a one off special treat. But how would it be a special treat if she hasn't first had years of having to keep more or less to a list, browse shelves for bargains, evaluate quality and not have every single thing that catches her eye as we go up and down the aisles?