I’m not sure how many times I’ve announced words to the effect of ‘This year I’m going to post every hour/day/week/month!’ – only to find this poor, sorry site languishing in silence. Well, here I go again, except, this year, I really am going to up my social media game, because this year EXCITING THINGS ARE HAPPENING! More details to follow soon, but just to say… there’ll be a book involved. Beams with pride. Watch this space.
Firstly, let me congratulate me on actually delivering the second of my promised monthly blogs, especially after the parenting shock-fest that was half-term. Suffice to say, this post has been written in snatches: while standing in queues for ice creams and buses, sweltering in swimming pool changing rooms, hovering around slide-diving kamikaze 2 year olds, and waiting, lots of waiting, for you-tube clips to load.
Secondly, I guess I should explain the randomness of the title. It’s a writer cliché, I know, but I genuinely do jot down ideas as they pop into my head, mainly to reduce the chance of losing them in the chasm of my forgetfulness. I used to carry a tatty notebook (another writer cliché), but latterly have upgraded to one of those popular fruit-based electronic devices.
I am currently researching and writing about opera for the V&A Museum website, so note-making has been at fever pitch. But whatever I was trying to say in my latest effort, I sincerely don’t think it was: ‘Opera feels like it’s always been like Michael Jackson for biscuits’. What? WHAT?? Effing, bloody predictive text.
As a phrase it’s kind of likeable, but woefully nonsensical and useless to my needs. What’s more frustrating is that I can’t even remember/decipher what I was trying to say. A great(ish) thought lost.
I now dread to look back through the pages of notes and dictations that I have taken over the last few months, that will no doubt have come out awry. Latest novel is not going to pull together on this basis. That said, could it be a way to push the envelope, to introduce an unexpected and surrealist touch to my work, although I’m not sure it would win me many readers.
Anyway, my third point, strangely related (since I blame my forgetfulness, thus need for note-making, on the constant ‘fullness’ of my mind), is how much I love cramming said mind with new knowledge. As I get older, my appetite for learning seems to increase, rather than diminish. When I was offered the opera topic, I admit I winced with a dose of ‘not for me’ suspicion. Within a few hours of research, however, I was enthralled. It seems that wherever there is opera, there is power, deceit, conflict, scandal, money, monstrosity, revolution, riot, romance – everything exciting, all bound up with some of the most extraordinary music ever written. It’s a delight to be able to bury myself in such an intriguing subject and call it work, thus I eagerly anticipate the V&A’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Opera: Power, Passion & Politics’ – if only to find out whether opera really is like Michael Jackson for biscuits…?
I’ve said it before. I know. But this time. This. Time. There will be blogging, as sure as there is half-price Cathedral City cheese.
I will make amends for all my excuses-excuses online absenteeism, beginning RIGHT HERE, with a pledge (yet another) to make monthly – and sometimes bi-monthly – contributions to the community in the screen.
The rhetoric is embarrassingly familiar to me now: a writer needs an online platform, i.e. a blog, vlog, podcast, website, instagramming, tumbling whatsit, in order to publicise their work to the world, in order to raise awareness of their writing, in order to sell more books, in order to make more money, in order to keep their children stocked with fidget spinners for the rest of their damn lives.
Otherwise…said writer’s career will wither and die like so many bad sitcom scripts and THEY WILL BE NOTHING.
I get it. I have good intent. Alas, however, I also have barriers:
Okay, so shyness is stretching a point. I’m actually not a shy person, but I’m definitely an introvert, so the concept of flashing my wares to a vast(ish) public makes the edges of my soul curl and crinkle. But I love writing, so I am duty-bound to make the grade.
It occurs to me that people use blogs for either information or entertainment. Unless you want lists of dos and don’ts on topics such as ‘Fast-Track Procrastination Techniques’, ‘Bubble Guppies Versus Paw Patrol: How to Manipulate Your Child with TV Programmes’ or ‘Writing the 2 Minute Plot Synopsis (…Because 2 Minutes is All You Damn Get)’, then I’ll aim for entertainment. Fun with words – and a few pictures.
A lot has happened since my previous pledge to blog (which perhaps explains the lack thereafter): my youngest shed his sweet baby disguise, to reveal his true identity as Toddler Destroyer Extraordinaire; I married and moved house; some very bad things happened in the political world; while various pop-stars of my youth popped their clogs. I, and this is the significant bit, also had several writing successes, which you probably wouldn’t know about, because I kind of *forgot* to brag about them online. So here’s the gist:
Firstly, my novel, Last Night I Dreamt of You, has been picked up by Goldmann (part of the Random House empire) and will be published in Germany and hopefully other territories thereafter. It is my first adult novel – a romantic mystery thriller set in Cornwall, my ode to Daphne du Maurier – and I’m intrigued and excited to see how it all unfolds. I will promise with all my heart to post updates on here. In the meantime, brush up on your GCSE German…
Secondly, I am delighted to have been taken on as one of the writer/editors creating content for the V&A Museum’s new website. As an Art History graduate, painter, and wannabe interior designer, it’s nothing short of a dream job. Plus, the V&A has long been one of my favourite London haunts, so I sometimes feel a little star-struck by the whole experience, should it be possible to be ‘star-struck’ by a large building (and all of it’s magnificent contents)!
My V&A work can be seen here:
Okay, so I’ve bobbed my head above the parapet and now hopefully you know a little more of where I’m at. I’d like to linger some longer, but a large piece of Duplo has just been flushed down the toilet. I guess I’ll see you in a month…
As much as I admire those committed little 5, 6 and 7 year olds in my daughter’s swimming class, who struggle and splash to keep their bodies horizontal in the deeper water, it’s their parents I truly respect. Week after week, they make the sacrifice of an evening at home, to ensure that the life-saving skill of basic swimming is accomplished.
I see it in their eyes, mostly as they stand by the poolside showers, bottles of no-tears shampoo at arms length, instructing their slippery-skinned offspring to remove swimming hats and goggles and stand fully under the shower, rather than just a tiny bit under. I see it in their florid cheeks and slightly huffy expressions, that they’d rather be sipping a nice Pinot Noir and watching Netflix.
But they’re doing it for their children.
And perhaps for that precious twenty-five minutes of quiet in the viewing gallery, while said-children are gainfully engaged with their swimming instructor. Of course, twenty-five minutes is a meagre amount of time to many, but to an in-demand working parent, its like manna from the gods. Twenty-five whole minutes to answer essential work emails, send texts to neglected friends, find a plumber for a leaking toilet, read the news, drink a coffee, play a few games of Candy Crush, or simply stare exhaustedly into space (I mostly do the latter).
Enjoy your twenty-five minutes, swimming folk, because, really, that little slice of me-time is the calm before the storm. When the swimming lesson is over, it is time to face The Changing Room. Ah, the changing room. Where do I start? A friend recently told me she’d witnessed a full-scale row between two mums. Smart, sweet, normal mums. The cause: one of them was allowing her son to take too long in the shower. Outrageous! Unbelievable! Well, of course it’s not, but that changing room environment does something to the nerves. It’s an annoyance amplifier.
There’s something about the combination of oppressive heat, harsh lighting, loud noise, repeated splashing from poolside showers, and frenzied negotiation of adequate shampoo lathering that pushes parental patience into the crunch zone.
Hence the phenomenon of post-swimming changing-room rage: an outward venting of the inner disgust at being trapped in that hot, noisy, splashy sweatbox. It’s not pretty. It’s not clever. But it’s not surprising either.
And all of this, before I’ve even mentioned the ‘intense’ behaviour of the young clientele. Over-excited children towel-whipping their siblings, shutting each other in lockers, dropping socks in puddles or making nerve-grinding screechy sounds. Then there are the tantrums – the tired, hungry ones rolling on the cubicle floor, screaming about how unfair their evil parents are for daring to ask them to put their shoes on.
And as for those horrid, blue, plastic shoe-covers…
Sigh. A medal for every parent. Although a large glass of something strong might do.
When I announced I was pregnant with my third child, people were suspicious. Really? A third? Are you quite sane? Then came the assumptions. Either it was an accident, ho ho, or we must have been after a particular gender. I already have one of each and I meticulously plan everything, so hey, believe it or not, I willingly walked into a life of nappy-brained chaos.
Many of my mum friends talked about a sense of completion. Whether through exhaustion, career aspirations, finances, or simply feeling satisfied, they knew. Time to draw a line under the baby years. No more sleep deprivation, wee in the face, or soggy rice-cake mushed into the carpet. One friend said she felt liberated the day she went on Ebay and sold her Bugaboo for parts. Another bragged about redecorating a living room that had once been the club of all things bright, plastic, noisy and light-up.
I heard them:
‘You know, I actually have time for myself again. I’m planning to take up colouring. By the way, it’s my fortieth soon. Anyone fancy a late-night bender? Like the old days? Honestly, my pair get up and sort themselves out for breakfast, so if I need a lie-in, I can have it.’
Yes, I heard them.
But it didn’t make a difference.
I didn’t share – or even know – that ‘done’ feeling. I wasn’t ready to give up the annoying toys and all-night feeding marathons. The idea of harvesting a Bugaboo didn’t feel me with joy. It made me feel sad. I wanted another baby, another child, another person in my family. Regardless of whether I had the spare energy or the means, I absolutely had the love.
After such a mixed reaction, however, it struck me that having three children is no longer a common choice. In the good old days, you were only a ‘large’ family if your dad had to drive you to school in a mini-van. Now, it seems three is the benchmark for crazy, oversized rabbles of children that no one wants to invite to play-dates.
It’s no secret that the world is designed for families of four: hotel rooms, tables in restaurants, hatchback cars, and, oh my, lest I forget, affordable three-bedroom semis, they all offer nuclear-sized comfort. Throw another small bottom into the mix and it either gets illegal, cramped or expensive.
Financial comfort, particularly in our current housing market, along with reasonably priced holidays and an intense dislike of screeching, are all good reasons to stick to two. Yet, when that maternal instinct starts to tug, as anyone who’s felt it knows, the power is all-consuming.
Fast-forward a year, and I have my wish, my third, my little prince. Some of the aforementioned struggles have indeed become part of our every day fabric (affordable larger house anyone?), but others have never materialised. I honestly don’t notice the day-to-day stress any more than I used to. What I do notice, however, is the increased happiness. My family feels complete.
Once again, it’s that time of year when local council road ‘improvements’ conspire against me getting anywhere in a timely fashion. What are they fixing and why do they have to do it all at once? This week, the after school rush to swimming lessons became 40 long minutes of fury, as I found myself driving from one contraflow traffic jam to another, with a car full of shouty children, then nearly ripping off my front tyre in a cavernous pothole that I’d prefer to describe as a trench. I have lots to say about the stress of managing swimming lessons with seven and five year olds, but the journey to and from the pool is usually the easy part.
It is the season of the angry local driver. Evidently, I’m not alone in my ire. You only need to type ‘potholes’ into a browser, to discover a gaggle of websites such as fixmystreet.com and potholes.com, where residents can name and shame the damaged tarmac in their area, up and down the country. Hey, if the internet is good for one thing, it’s for venting small-scale frustrations.
Of course, road conditions deteriorate in winter months. It’s understandable that the pothole problem increases around this time, but sometimes it seems as if the cracks are being left to grow and seethe, while ‘other’ mysterious road works are popping up all over the place.
It’s a double whammy: craggy tyre-busting tarmac on highways that are too congested to bear, due to random repairs of seemingly everything but the craggy tarmac. I hear lots of rumours about council tactics, how they aim to spend allocated funding by the end of the tax year, in order to secure future money – hence the plethora of non-essential work in the run up to April. Surely, however, the impact of multiple road closures and contraflows could be better managed?
I don’t dare to presume any expertise in the subject of town planning. Give me a role on the team and I suspect any high-dudgeon self-righteousness would be hastily replaced by a sense of the impossible. And the inevitable. The fact is someone somewhere will always be affected by some roadwork or other, which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fix roads. I do, however, now have a pathological fear of the swimming run and would like a solemn promise that, in weeks to come, it will be more tolerable.
I could always vote with my feet and make the decision to walk. I like walking. All that fresh air and exercise. Ah wait. Now I remember. The last time I took a stroll with two children and a baby buggy, I was forced to step into a busy main road, because the chunk of pavement that the utility service had dug up, blocked-off and abandoned, gave me no room to manoeuver.
On second thoughts, maybe I’ll just hibernate until the work is complete. Or get an avatar on potholes.com and go wild.
Porn Star Martini, anyone? Okay, not the opening line you’d usually expect from a column about mum-related things, but to be fair, porn stars were the last thing I was expecting when walking my children to school the other day. Same walk, same route, same crossing, five times a week. All pretty humdrum and then… whammy! Out of nowhere: a suggestively dressed woman, full-pout, tan-thighs, making eyes at me from a large poster on the wall of a nearby bar/dining establishment.
Said poster also happened to be positioned right in front of the pelican crossing where my children and I stood waiting for the green man, allowing enough time for my 5 year-old son to absorb all the fleshy bits of this puzzling image:
‘Mummy, why isn’t that lady wearing trousers?’
And for my 7 year-old older daughter to practise her phonics on the images’ accompanying tag line: Porn Star Fridays. Cue the obvious:
‘Mummy, what’s a porn star?’
‘Er. Interesting question. I’d say it’s… it’s… um… someone who… um… helps people.’
Pause. Wince. Think quick.
‘Hey, kids, is that a Minecraft-shaped tree over there? You know, I do believe it is. Right there. A lovely square-shaped piece of topiary! Oooo, shall we go and have a look?’
Off we scurried. Now, I’m no Mary Whitehouse, but the job spec for porn-stardom was career advice I really wasn’t ready to hand out yet. Ditto any bird/bee-related discussion.
I’ve since learned that the poster was nothing more scandalous than an ill-judged piece of promotional material for a Friday night martini cocktail. That’s fine. Cocktails with silly, saucy names have long been part of drinking culture (Sex on the Beach, to name but a few). But facing this out to a high street, in an area full of young families and people of all ages and sensitivities? It just felt wrong. Not to mention a teensy bit misogynistic. And, well, tacky,
Unsurprisingly, my discomfort was joined by other school parents who’d seen it and felt a similar ‘Ew! No!’ type of reaction. It wasn’t long before a #takeitdown twitter campaign was hatched. Suddenly, we become the Mumsnet brigade of Essex. Lots of blustery tiger-mum feminist fire, but with bigger bling and hair extensions.
To their credit, the drinking and dining establishment in question has now removed the offending poster without quibble, but hopefully they and other venues will think twice about what they cast to the unfiltered public on the outside of their buildings. It’s fair enough that businesses need to advertise, but not at the expense of local decency.
I have since tried a Porn Star Martini for myself (in the interests of research, of course). It’s a drink too sickly for my tastes and there’s definitely something freaky about all those passion fruit seeds, although they do provide tang. But as for the meaning of the cocktail’s name… on second thoughts, I’d rather not know.
A year ago today, I began editing the final draft of Born Free Elephant Rescue. One of the things I love about writing is that it brings you to knowledge you’d never otherwise get to. I only had the obvious insight into elephants, before working on the book: that they were big, grey, trunky, tusky and famed for having a good memory. By the time I finished, I’d fallen in love with these incredible, complex animals.
One of the things that really struck me, was the elephant instinct for parenting. Adult females gestate their babies for 22 months – the longest of any mammal. As a veteran mother of three human babies, I’d say that’s pretty hardcore! And after such a lengthy pregnancy, it’s no wonder elephants make remarkably gentle and tender mothers. Nina’s story, one of the elephants featured in Elephant Rescue, is absolute testament to this. She had an amazing and moving journey, from being orphaned by poachers, enduring 25 years in captivity, to being given a new lease of life in the wilderness by Born Free. She then did a great job of raising a calf of her own – something no one ever thought would happen.
I will always feel a special connection to Nina’s story. While editing the book, I was going through my own trial of motherhood, looking after my very premature baby in Special Care. Arguably, authors are at their best when writing about subjects that really matter to them. All I can say is that a little piece of my mothering soul is definitely wrapped up in this book.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Born Free: Elephant Rescue is now available for pre-order:
It’s World Book Day, an occasion I love. I frequently tell my children there’s nothing more incredible than getting lost in a good book. Consequently, books tend to get lost around them. Books of all shapes and sizes seem to spread throughout house – on the floor, on the sofa, under beds, in beds, and sometimes actually on the bookshelves where they’re supposed to be. We have a strict household rule: always put the school reading book back in the school bag when you’ve finished. Otherwise, it will be consumed by the bedroom-that-looks-like-a-library-exploded-in-it and mummy will end up with a fine.
In my view, reading is a gift. Hand-in-hand with imagination, it allows a person to explore places, characters, ideas and situations that wouldn’t be feasible in real life. No, not even Minecraft can compare! I like computer games and television, but a great read offers an escapist intimacy that no other form of entertainment can match.
As a children’s author, parents often ask me how their kids can be encouraged to read more. It’s really quite simple: give reading a sense of value. Make it pleasurable. I read with my rabble daily, even if it’s only for a few minutes. And while learning to read is important, it shouldn’t come at the expense of enjoyment. My seven-year old daughter reads competently now, but she still loves being read to, because it allows her mind to relax into the storytelling. It keeps her wanting more. Eventually she’ll be able to handle the big, exciting books all by herself, but it doesn’t hurt to show her the way. I want her to know that there is so much more to reading than the prescriptive logic of letter sounds and blends.
Fundamentally, I’d say it’s never too early to get a child interested in the existence of books. It starts with those squishy cloth books and bath books, with simple nursery rimes and cuddles. Next, come the board books, which tend to be enjoyed more for their chewable quality than their content. Gradually, however, curiosity unfolds. My eleven month old now gets the idea that pages turn and that there’s good stuff on them. He likes to point at things and listen to me repeatedly say the words ‘cat’, ‘mioaw’ and ‘shed’. He has a long way to go before he’s head down in Harry Potter, but I’m pleased he’s started the journey.
All this aside, however, World Book Day has triggered a few cold sweats this year. With two school age children, I now have two costumes to come up with. This means buying on Amazon Prime (expensive) or getting crafty with some fun fur and bubble wrap (lame). My eldest has shown marvellous loyalty by suggesting she goes as one of my characters – good girl! My middle boy is currently deciding between Harry Potter and Ron. He prefers Ron, but in his clear-cut five-year old’s mind, it’s best to be Harry, because Harry’s the hero. And, actually, from my point of view, drawing a felt-tip zig-zag scar on a forehead is far cleaner than messing about with a box of ginger hair-dye…