Tuesday, 30 July 2013

That's not my prince...

Readers who know me in person will know that I have a little obsession with the royal family. Not that I wouldn't prefer a republic of course, but until that day comes I'll enjoy analysing pics of the Duchess of Cambridge (I like her, I'll shoot her last!) and judging Charles for his silly outbursts.

Nevertheless I am not sure where my daughter's constant demands of "Where's the handsome prince?" came from during the seemingly interminable coverage of the outside of the Lindo Wing while waiting for the birth of Kate and William's baby. Jokers among you will suggest she could have asked the same question once William did appear but that is not the point - the point is that I don't believe I have ever used the phrase 'handsome prince' in front of her. I blame nursery.

But the desire to make little girls want to be princesses and to find handsome princes is absolutely ingrained in our culture. I thought we'd avoided it - my mum reported that she took my daughter into a shop recently and when the shopkeeper asked my daughter if she was a princess my daughter replied 'No, I'm xxxx' and gave her full name - but just a few weeks later and a trip to an English Heritage shop at Portland Castle while on holiday in Dorset led to an insistence on wanting a pink princess pen as her souvenir even when I tried to steer her towards a rather excellent girl pirate pen in the same range

So I wasn't necessarily convinced by the That's not my Prince offering from Usborne, though I love the series generally. I needn't have worried - I was sent a review copy and it's ever so witty, though I'd have liked one page to say 'That's not my prince, his hair is too thin' in reference to William's balding pate. Instead the princes have hair that is too fluffy, sashes that are too silky and cloaks that are too velvety. If my daughter continues to insist on talking about handsome princes, I hope she does so in as irreverent way.

The same week we were given a copy of That's not my Pirate. I was ever so pleased that one of the pirates featured was female, though a few more wouldn't have gone amiss. It was a missed opportunity though, as she's not the right pirate because her shirt, which is pink, is too silky. I'd have liked her patch to be too rubbery or her false leg to be too long or her parrot to be too fluffy. 

We love the series in my house though - so simple yet so clever. We've also got monkey, car, bear, kitten, santa, penguin and snowman, though I rather fancy the monster and dinosaur ones. They've not yet done a Grandpa one yet though, so for my dad's birthday we had to make our own.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Because it is my name!

John Proctor:  Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name! 

I studied Arthur Miller's The Crucible for my Literature A Level and to be honest, compared to the splendour of Under Milk Wood and Richard III, my other set texts, I just didn't take to it. And what I particularly didn't get was John Proctor's refusal to sign his name to a confession of witchcraft in order to save his life. Surely, I thought at the time, it is only a name.

I've not given The Crucible too much thought since then. But it came into my head again this week when reading about the use of dead children's names for undercover officers in the Metropolitan Police. I've been surprised by how horrified I am by this, not least because I thought the country suffered a mass over-reaction to the Alder Hey organ scandal

But I feel very strongly that the names we gave our children were a gift from us to them. As the language of the reporting of this case suggests, it is not just a name that has been stolen, but an identity. Their given names reflect their cultural heritage, their religious heritage, the age in which we live and our own taste and,  no doubt, our class, and that's before their surname has been taken into account. 

I don't buy into the need to choose a unique first name for children. Not for me made up names or unusual spellings. But I would be very very surprised if they shared their whole name with anyone else in the world, given they have an unusual surname with my surname as an extra given name. For it to be used by anyone else, be it a fraudster or the police, would be theft of something most precious. Add to that the fact that it's not just identity theft, but theft from dead children, and I find it all hugely abhorrent. Why? Because, as Arthur Miller knew, and I now know, it is their name.

Related post: What's in a name?

I just emailed someone I used to know through work this week. She was convicted of a criminal offence that she says she didn't do. I asked how she was and whether her career was back on track. Her main concern, she said, wasn't her career or friendships, it was to clear her name. 

Monday, 15 July 2013

Interview with Viv Groskop

In 2004, casting around for something new to do with my time in the light of all my friends having partners, I decided to take a comedy course run by comedian Logan Murray. I was having a pretty hard time that year - new job, moving out of the flat I shared with my best mate, heart break, a family bereavement, a new job I hated - and needed something new. The comedy course was so good, and something so new to me, that I think of it as one of the best choices I have ever made. I didn't want to be a comedian, but I did want to improve my microphone skills for the broadcast appearance I was occasionally making and I wanted to make new friends. And, of course, I wanted to see whether I really was funnier than all the terrible comedians I have seen over time.

The course was brilliant and I took another straight after, on comedy writing. Was I funny? Ish. Funny enough not to die on my arse at the few open mics I did in London and in New York when I spent a summer there and where, surprisingly, the comedy was far less sophisticated than it is in London, but nowhere near as funny as some of my classmates, particularly Rob Broderick and Judy Batalion, and from the writing class, Holly Walsh.

So I was particularly interested in the journalist Viv Groskop's adventure in comedy in which, after taking Logan's course, she decided to perform 100 gigs in 100 days. I wanted to know how such a challenge worked alongside being the parent of three children (I have two and frequently struggle to find time to brush my teeth) and its impact on her relationship, as well as how the actual gigs went and where her career, already one I admire journalistically, will go next.

Can you briefly tell me about the 100 day thing?
In the middle of 2011 I was trying to decide whether I should take stand-up more seriously or give it up completely. My third child was not yet one. I had done maybe 20 gigs, if that, over the course of 18 months. One morning I woke up and thought, "I know. I'll do 100 gigs in 100 nights. And then I will know within 3 months whether I should go on or give up." And the thought would not go away. So I waited for Jack (youngest child) to turn one and the day after his first birthday I did it.

I did Logan's course myself in 2004  and I really credit Logan's course with saving me emotionally - opening up a new interest and challenge and introducing me to new people. I wonder whether everyone who does it is searching for something new or running from something - it certainly seemed that way on my course. Was there any emotional impact for you?
I stumbled onto Logan Murray's comedy course almost by accident when a careers counsellor asked me the question, "What do you most want in your life that you don't have at the moment?" Without particularly meaning to say it, I answered, "Stand-up comedy." And I suddenly remembered that I had read about Logan's workshop. It seemed an incredibly stupid waste of time but I had paid the careers counsellor a lot of money and that meant I really had to listen to her advice. I signed up and the first day I came back and my husband said, "You are the most relaxed I have seen you in five years." You shouldn't really use those courses as therapy (if you need therapy, you should have therapy). But they pretty much work as therapy whether you intend them to or not. 

Lots of comedians milk their own lives for jokes. Do you do this and do you worry about privacy issues for your kids? The same question goes for your journalism too.

I suppose I believe in being open without putting everything on display. I do write about my family and talk about them on stage but I try to do it in a controlled way. I think you can be honest without doing the full Liz Jones.

Do you think mothers often hide away their ambitions, either because their confidence is knocked or they just can't see a way to achieve it, and what gave you the impetus to actually go out and do it?
For me motherhood had the opposite effect. It boosted my confidence. Possibly the birth of my second child, my daughter, Vera, played a role in that. I had her in the kitchen at home next to the dishwasher and the midwife was only there in the last twenty minutes. It wasn't like I chewed through the umbilical cord with my teeth whilst holding the placenta aloft and screaming "I am the source and the power". But there was an element of that. After I had done that, I didn't really care that much about anything anymore. I think I realised pretty quickly after having children that if you are going to spend time worrying what other people think about you and the way you raise your children, you will not have a lot of time to actually do anything. So I made a decision to do what I wanted to do according to what I thought was right -- and let other people think what they want. It helps that my husband does a lot. There is no primary parent in our household. I know a lot of women who would never give up being the primary parent.

What did your husband think? And your children?
A lot of the book is about the challenge that our marriage faced as a result of me doing something that was pretty selfish that took me away from the house for nights on end. Even within a limited time frame (100 nights), it was tough. It wasn't so difficult for the children because I would usually be able to put them to bed and then go out. There were times during the experiment that I almost abandoned it because it was really awful for Simon. 

Was it worth it?
It was worth it in terms of improving my comedy and getting an idea of whether I wanted to continue with it or not. (Spoiler alert: I did continue and am doing a solo show at Edinburgh for the first time this year -- at Funny Women Pop-Up Fringe on 18 and 19 August.) But whether it was worth it in a wider sense… It's hard to say. It was a massive challenge for any marriage. But I think sometimes you need to do something extreme in order to work out exactly where you stand.

I feel now I am a mum what happens at work is less important, because whatever happens I get home and I have my family. This actually makes me feel a bit invincible in the workplace - I don't care about office politics any more. Does that help when you die on your arse on stage?
Yes and no. I don't walk away from a bad gig thinking, "Oh, well, at least my children love me." I walk away, thinking, "Please let me just die quietly now." Maybe I should focus more on the love of my children…

What next?
I'm still plugging away on the amateur circuit, trying to get better at stand-up. I do a lot of MCing and I love that. I'm also in Upstairs Downton: The Improvised Episode, a cross between Downton Abbey and Whose Line Is It Anyway? in full period costume. (Also at Edinburgh -- at The Hive with Heroes of Free Fringe, 5pm, 1-25 August.)

I Laughed, I Cried: How One Woman Took on Stand-Up and (Almost) Ruined Her Life 

Monday, 8 July 2013

More than memories

I've been sorting out baby clothes to be stored in the loft just in case we are crazy enough to try for a third. The everyday vests and babygros and buy on a whim Primark outfits (made by children for children?) I'm happy to pass on to anyone but the posher John Lewis dresses bought via eBay I'm saving to bestow upon favoured friends after my family is definitely complete. 

I have however come across a couple of things that have tugged the heart strings and been put in the 'don't give away, ever' pile. 

One of those is a bunny rabbit vest a friend bought my daughter as a present when she went into hospital for an operation as a baby. It says I heart Mummy on it. I say she bought it for my daughter, we both knew it was for me. And though I am usually resistant to slogans, any slogans, this one was just the right message at just the right time. I am not sure I could ever put another child of mine in it, it's so bound up with that time for me, but I don't want to give it away either.

At the other end of the spectrum is a yellow cardigan I bought for my son, though it has the opposite emotional tug and as soon as I found it I just needed it out of the house. I bought it full price, something I rarely do, in Mothercare, in a fit of concern that he'd only ever have hand me downs and never know the thrill of new clothes. As if his three month old self cared. I was also thrilled to find something for boys so bright and cheerful without a lion, dinosaur or car on it. 

The first time he wore it he had a choking incident. It was over quickly, before I could ask my friend to call an ambulance I had held him upside down and was thwacking his back until he threw up monumentally and the colour drained back into his face, but all I can see now when I picture that cardigan is the bright yellow against a purple face struggling to breathe. 

I don't even want to see that cardigan again on a friend's child, let alone my own, lovely as it is, so it's gone to a charity shop far enough away that I shouldn't bump into it again. 

When my daughter was born my mum gave me a dress that had been my own as a baby. She had kept it in her box of special things. I took it out of the drawer one day to put it on my daughter and all the elastic had rotted in the intervening thirty-two years. 

There are people online who make 'memory quilts' out of baby clothes for sentimental saddos who can't let go. You send them your fifty favourite items and a three figure bank transfer and they send you a bedspread covered in teddies, ducks, Breton stripe and knock off Scandinavian prints. I'm so going to get one made in due course, I just know it, with fabric from the one my mum passed down to me at the centre. I know it's vomit inducing and a little pathetic and will take fifty good outfits out of the hand me down circuit (perhaps it's even funded by clothes shops keen you buy as much new as possible), but I know too that I'll love it.