Monday, December 5, 2011

 Killala in the snow last year.
The world looks better when you look outwards.

In any case, I have discovered a fabulous new anti-ageing trick. It involves removing half of the mirrors in my house. There is one of those annoying skin-cream ads on the TV at the moment featuring Claudia Sheiffer talking about what a struggle it is getting older and she actually uses the word ‘heal’ – the implication of course being that if you are getting older you are ill in some way. Wrinkles are called “damage” in this new world where women must fight, fight, fight against getting older. Ageing is the new disease. It has to be cured, or “reversed” and, at all costs, made to go away.
If there is one thing that you can be sure is going to happen to you in your life it is this: you will get older. Then, at some point down the line, you will die. That’s the only, the only certainty there is.
So, as if my life isn’t hard enough – with kids and work and having to have a perfect house, and a perfect wardrobe and enough groom time to keep my highlights up to speed – now I have to actually defy nature and not get old. Or at least hide the process from the outside world with every bit of energy I can muster.
I’m sensitive about this subject right now because in the past few weeks I feel I have crossed some kind of threshold visa-vi my physical appearance.
I do try not to be overly neurotic about what God gave me. I would like to be slimmer and brave enough to wax, but you can’t have everything. I achieve a certain level of laissez fair about my looks – or lack of them – because I have always been able to rely on an ability to put myself through hair and make-up and come out transformed at the other end.
I can happily push myself forward into the public eye knowing that once I have whacked on the slap and thrown in a few heated rollers I will come out the other end looking fresh and groomed and ready for my cocktail – if not my close-up.
However, the last few times I have gone out, there has been a point in the evening where I have caught sight of myself in a mirror and gone “Rah! Who’s that!”  
I have never gone in for the no-make-up-make-up look. As far as I am concerned if you are going to go to all that effort, you might as well go the whole hog. But as a woman who has been sauntering through her forties, happy and confident – I have suddenly hit the brick wall of looking like somebody I don’t recognize. When, exactly, did I become a middle-aged woman in too much make-up? Or a jowly bag lady? There does not seem to be any middle ground. When I am not made up, I look like my brother in a wig. When I make an effort these days I just seem to look like mutton dressed as lamb. When I tone down the cleavage and the big hair and the smoky eyes and the glitter, I look tweedy and old, like Angela Lansbury.
I suppose the real truth is, I’m fighting against glamour more and more as I get older. I am a sensible old-lady novelist trapped in a Joan Collins make-up routine. I want to be Angela Lansbury. I want to wear high-waisted beige slacks, and nice blouses and tweed jackets and have my hair blow-dried into a solid “do” and take my lipstick out of my bag in taxi’s, slick it and pucker it without looking in the mirror. I want to be slightly portly, and rather clever, and have young people defer to me in a mystery-solving, amused but respectful way. I want to be my favorite aunt, and wear smart-casual jeans to prune my garden, and sensible shoes, even when I am out and clip a nice broach onto my lapel and go for lunch in hotels and shrug my shoulders and say “this is lovely.”
What I do not want to do is have to go to the gym every day and slather myself day and night in “serums” to try and make myself look twenty years younger than I am so I can go out late at night because I am the new breed of “cougar”.
When did female role models for women of my age become such hard work, and frankly - so undignified. Madonna? Now there’s that ghastly U.S. drama Cougar Town where Courtney Cox and her co-horts go around clambering over teenage boys. Looking, and acting your age has become synonymous with “Letting Yourself Go” when it should be Copping Yourself On.
Getting older should be an invitation to embrace dignity, wisdom and the experience of a life full of adventure and education.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Letting the kids out

I let Leo and his friend Fin go to Killala’s play park on his own recently. It’s a fantastic new facility with all manner of mod- con, slidey, swingy things, as good as you’d pay good money to keep them happy for an hour.
It was Sunday morning, and the day seemed mild enough and they were harassing me. The two lads are sensible 9 year olds, and know everyone in the village. Leo is at that age where is starting to crave a bit of independence, we send him down to the chip van at the end of the pier on his own once a week, although the convenience factor is diminished slightly by my standing at the front wall craning the two hundred yards to check on his progress there and back. Pete, (my beloved supplier of the best fish and chips in Ireland), knows Leo and keep an eye out for him, and if it’s lashing with rain and there’s a wait, he will send him home and drop our dinner down himself. It’s not much of an adventure really. Leo and Fin go up on outings to the local garage the odd time for sweets, but the play park is a good walk, there’s a couple of roads to cross – and, well, I wasn’t sure. I rang Fin’s Dad for advice and permission and he said, “no problem,” so we compromised. I would drop them down in the car, go and pick my mother in law Renee up from Crossmolina, twenty minutes away, and collect them on the way back. Don’t talk to strangers, get bullied, bully anyone else, go outside the confines of the play area etc.
The park was empty, “Hooray! The place to ourselves!” they shouted and I drove off. On the way up the hill through the village I almost turned back. It didn’t feel right leaving them there on their own. But I trusted them and I had promised. I kept going but by the time I reached the half-way mark to Crossmolina my head was buzzing. What if I went back and they weren’t there? Supposing they were abducted? I would never see my son again – how would I explain myself to Fin’s parents. Perhaps some evil paedophile had seen me leave them there, small, vulnerable, unaccompanied children – and was at this very moment drugging them and putting them into a van to be trafficked. I pulled over to the side of the road, the sweat pouring off me, and rang Niall. “Go and get them,” I said, “I’m having a ‘moment’. At least go and check on them on your way into Tesco’s.”
I felt slightly better for another five minutes but before I reached my mother-in-law's, it started to rain. They’d get wet! Fin has a bad chest this could bring on an asthma attack! Did Leo’s ‘hoodie'; have a hood?
Then I remembered. I spent my whole childhood getting soaked through to the skin in unsuitable clothing. In winter I can clearly remember, at eleven years of age, standing frozen solid in the snow, wearing flimsy shoes and a school blazer, waiting hours for one of three buses to take me home, alone from first year secondary school. From as far back as I could walk, we played out on the street with the other kids, regularly calling into each others houses, and often the houses of lonely adults for a chat and a biscuit. We were told not to talk to strangers, but we didn’t really understand why. And when I acquired a middle aged male stalker – a mysterious man in a grey coat and astrakhan hat who followed me to and from secondary school every day from the age of thirteen to fourteen – I didn’t quite know what to do about it. I certainly couldn’t tell my parents, and, while his presence sort of unnerved me, when he sat next to me on the bus one day, I still chatted politely to him although, I said, I really didn’t think it was a good idea for us to “meet-up” on our own.
Although I was young and vulnerable, I was also capable of keeping myself safe.
We had a play park near our house in London where played, unsupervised every day from as far back as I can remember. The parents didn’t come and sit on benches and read the Sunday Papers and drink Starbucks and make sure we weren’t being abducted. They had got on with their daily lives and came looking for us if we weren’t back in time for tea. Play-parks were for kids.
We now live in a culture where childhood independence is taboo. A father in the U.D recently took his eye off his 5 year old in a play park for two minutes and the child ran into the road and was killed. In addition to the appalling grief and guilt – this man is now serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter. He was only as negligent as any parent is from time to time in taking their eyes off a toddler for a few seconds. The tragedy was the kind of appalling freak of fate all parents dread, yet our fear-mongering society is holding him responsible. In actual fact crime in the Western world is actually lower than it was when most of us were growing up. So there is no reality-based reason that children today should be treated as more helpless and vulnerable than we were when we were young. 
We are so overprotective of our children that an American journalist Lenore Skenazy who was accused of branded as being America’s Worst Mom In The World after allowing her 9 year old boy to ride the New York subway alone. The freedom she allowed him in doing so was not an act of neglect, but a deliberate, carefully considered act of parenting to acknowledge her child’s growing desire for independence, and encourage him to see the world as a safe place to live, as opposed to “the world is a dangerous place” culture depicted by the media seemingly to no other end but to put the fear of God in parents. In reality, Skenazy argues on her excellent website
“Mostly, the world is safe. Mostly, people are good. To emphasize the opposite is to live in the world of tabloid TV. A world filled with worst-case scenarios, not the world we actually live in, which is factually, statistically, and, luckily for us, one of the safest periods for children in the history of the world.”
Skenazy’s parenting ethos makes a lot of sense, based as it is the idea that is a parents job to teach our children how to get along in the world rather than coddle them; “because the coddled child will not have Mom or Dad around all the time. Adults once knew what we have forgotten today. Kids are competent. Kids are capable. Kids deserve freedom, responsibility, and a chance to be part of the world.”
Amen to that. Looks like Leo and Fin might get another outing to the play-park soon. Just as soon as I have his electronic abduction tag fitted!

Monday, October 24, 2011


“Any fool can get married and have a baby,” I remember my mother saying to me as a teenager. “Work” was the mantra of my mother’s generation as they drove the ideal of independence into our skulls from birth. Our careers were our mothers holy grail. Proof that generations of oppression was over, the women’s revolution complete and women were finally “free”.

Lady GaGa said this month; "Some women choose to follow men, and some women choose to follow their
 dreams. If you're wondering which way to go, remember that your career will
 never wake up and tell you that it doesn't love you anymore.” Her comments caused a blog-storm as women all over the world asserted that you can most certainly wake up and find that your career doesn’t love you any more, and to put career ahead of love and family can be a treacherous mistake.

 In a recent survey it was revealed that young mothers between the ages of 18 and 34 consider homemaking the aspirational lifestyle choice as opposed to ‘career woman’. Luxury is no longer a four thousand pound handbag, but the time to stay at home and decorate cupcakes, pot up jam for the farmer’s market and spend quality time with their children. Like our grandmothers, but without the scratchy woolen underwear and mangles. Bluntly, the lifespan of the “Amazing Juggling Woman” is over. We made it look too hard. And that’s because it is hard.

 Our mothers wanted us to be independent from men – but they equated independence entirely with money. So while we no longer rely on men for cash, now that we are working, we need them more than ever in so many more ways than before. The monthly wage packet no longer buys them their slippers by the fire. We need them to empty the dishwasher, and forgo their Saturday sports to take the kids off our hands. Men have gone from being the petrol that fuelled the household machine, to being an essential cog in the wheel.

Except now it only works when it is prodded and pushed and now we have to provide half the petrol ourselves. Did our mothers honestly think that men were going to step up to the plate and take fifty percent of the fall out from a battle that was, frankly, not theirs? My parents were both teachers. My mother worked locally, my father in the city. So every morning he would leave the house an hour earlier than my mother with his paper tucked under his arm and get the tube to work. My mother had to wash, dress, and feed and transport three of us to school, leaving the baby at home with her mother. After school she had to take us all home, feed us and do our homework and by the time my father got home, less one hour after she did, have a hot meal ready on the table.

 The truth is she was so thrilled to be allowed to work (her own mother was a trained teacher who had to, by law, give up work in Ireland after she got married) that she didn’t take all the other ‘work’ into account. The unpaid, thankless work that women had been doing since time began, so low was the self-worth of our mother’s generation that they barely noticed that they were now bringing home the bacon and cooking it.

 The drudgery of cleaning and cooking and child-rearing that had trapped women in their houses until the 1960’s it has now transpired was actually very important, and very skilled labor. So skilled, in fact, that we now need television programs to show us how to clean our toilets, and rear our children and cook our dinners. The most basic housekeeping skills, like working out how much money you have to spend each week and sticking to it, seem to have completely eluded us. Debt? Our grandmothers did not know what that meant. Could they have ever imagined their granddaughters would be stupid enough to spend half a month’s wages on a handbag and the other on Marks & Spencer’s ready meals? Or throw a perfectly good blouse out because of a missing button, or not know how to bake a batch of buns without looking up a lavishly illustrated cookbook.

 Our mothers wanted to go out to work for all sorts of reasons. Independence, freedom, fulfillment – but mainly they wanted to do it because men did it and their work was more valued in society. In actual fact, men were not valued because of the work they did outside the home, but simply because they were men. And they were valued and respected not because they deserved it, but because they set the rules and the men need to be valued and respected otherwise they won’t do anything! So we set a new rule saying, we’ll go out to work too (if you do fifty percent of the house and kids stuff. Ok – do thirty and I’ll pretend it’s fifty. Hell – I’ll pretend it’s eighty!) and in one generation we have reversed the situation so that a man who allows his wife to stay at home and keep house is doing her a favor.

Economically, the woman who has time to stay home and cook her kids a dinner from scratch is not down-trodden but privileged. Menu-planning and having the time to steam clean your upholstery is a luxury ladies. I remember my poor, emancipated mother looking on aghast one Saturday afternoon as I modeled my new Anthropologie apron and discussed brownie recipes with my sisters. “I wanted you educated so you’d discuss Proust – or at least current affairs!” We reminded her that as full time working mothers, we barely have time to read the newspapers never mind discuss them. Our homes and children have become our recreation. Our aspiration is not longer to be more intelligent, or accomplished but to become more “homey”.

Money has outlived its promise as a means towards independence or even a designer handbag. What we want money to buy us now is time, the time to sit around our perfectly managed kitchens discussing current affairs. The time to not feel guilty about the amount of time we’re not spending with our kids. The time to give our cutlery drawer a good clear out without eating into a precious Sunday afternoon. Enough time to feel that being a good mother and earning and income is not an either/or decision. Our mother’s told us we would need to learn to “juggle our lives”. You’ve got dishwashers now, they said, today’s young men are great – they’ll help out. You can cook a dinner with one hand tied behind your back, microwave some chips – that’ll do them. After a generation of trying to hold it all together frankly, we’ve already dropped a few balls and now we’ve discovered they were the one’s marked “cup cakes” and “cuddle baby all day”. Balls marked “2 Hour Commute” and “Midnight empty-dishwasher” we’re still endlessly throwing round, and round, and round. We’re not fighting for our right to work any more, we’re fighting for our right to knit.

 What our mother’s neglected to tell us was that women had been keeping the show on the road for centuries. That our skills as homemakers were important. Nourishing our children, managing the money, the traditional crafts of knitting and sewing – these were not simply things we had to do, but creative occupations that added as much value to family life as they money the men bought it. Or, as we are discovering now, more. The pressure of the modern working mother is turning the next generation into aspiring Stepford Wives – and nobody wants that either. Maybe instead of passing the values of working independence to our daughters, our mother’s would have been better placed in validating the importance of being good homemakers to their sons. Although with our macho TV chef-culture it looks hopeful that, before long, men will be convinced that at home growing vegetables and pottering around the kitchen, baby in one arm, roulade mould in the other is where they truly belong.

 The problem for women might be – can we get back in there first before men discover the joys of knitting? More terrifying a prospect than that is what are we going to tell our own daughters having got it so very wrong ourselves. We’re certainly never going to allow ourselves go back to the Jane Austen days of simply marrying a rich man (not least because there aren’t enough of them to go around and more!)

Perhaps what our mother’s mistake has taught us is that when it comes to living a truly successful life there are no absolutes. Women do have more choices, we just have to make sure we help the next generation make the ones that will help them fulfil their dreams – not ours.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Crossing the Road in LA

I'm in L.A on research and trying to cross the road. I do not know which way the cars are coming from, and they all seem to be going really fast. I do not understand the whole pedestrian lights/crossing thing and neither, I suspect, do many of the cars. I shadowed a woman across a pedestrian crossing yesterday and she stopped in the middle of the road to argue with a revving truck driver about right of way. I cross the road like I’m on crack cocaine, ducking this way and that, hopping from side to side, jumping with surprise and raising my hands in apology as a car I didn’t see suddenly appears behind me. All the roads are two way and very wide and treacherous for pedestrians. It is truly terrifying. Now that I come to think of it, there are very few pedestrians, and many of them are homeless. Which is kind of how I feel right now.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

dust-gathering kitchen utensils

I came out of my weekly shop in Lidl this week and the sun was shining. It is always raining in Ballina Lidl car park. I have come to think of it as a sort of punishment. I go in on a perfect sunny day, get my trolley, fill it – go through my impressive high-speed bagging routine. (I often attract an audience as I can separate frozen, fresh and larder goods at the same speed the uber-fast checkout workers throw them at me.)
I love Lidl. It’s cheap, has a limited and regular selection of stock – so you are not loading your trolley with foie-gras-in-a-tin and ingredients you are never going to use or forget you already have. (I have about five complete sets of sushi ingredients in my larder and every time I want to make sushi, like - once a year, I go and buy more.)
However my real motivation for shopping there is that I have a weakness for Lidl lifestyle offers. Camping gear, workshop benches, scuba diving equipment, oil-painting kits. Wonderful hobby-enabling stuff that inspires me to take up a new activity with impressive Germanic confidence. “Why, if I buy that harness and hat in Lidl, I shall be horseriding in no time!” “A complete sets of oils in a box that turns into an easel! Well, if that doesn’t get me painting a masterpiece, I don’t know what will!”
It is the curse or the gift of a peculiar sort of optimism, depending on how you look at it. If only I had a surf-board, crepe-pan, bread-maker, compost-making kit – everything would be better. Everything could be so different. I’d be the sort of person who’d have crepes for breakfast and go surfing and make-my own compost. Whatever that means. It’s an escape from oneself, of course and yet – sometimes it works, and when it does, it’s wonderful.
My father in law Joe, who passed away in 2009, was my Lidl-buddy. Joe and I clashed horribly at times, but on that one thing we were agreed. Lidl rocked. While my husband and mother in law raised their eyebrows in frustration, we formed a sort of Lidl support group. Joe was a generous man and a great man for buying gifts. He was the person who gave Leo his pocket money every week, and he always had the eye out for bargains that he could pass on. The key to Joe’s gifts was they had to be something that you didn’t know you needed until he arrived up “da-daah!” and presented you with it. A car cover, hose attachment kit, a pasta-making machine. Most of them went straight into the cupboard with a curt thank-you. Joe didn’t mind - he was wiser than that. He knew his stuff would come in handy one day.
And it almost always did. The car cover got dug out and used to cover Niall’s vintage jalopy the winter we did the garage up to house his office. A few years ago when Niall’s brother Fintan came home from Australia for my husband’s fortieth bash he decided to teach me how to make pasta. Joe’s pasta making machine was in the very back of the cupboard under the sink. Covered in that mysterious sticky dust that gets inside my kitchen cupboards, I honesty never thought it would see the light of day. Fintan was thrilled with it and, after a short lesson in making home-made pasta, so was I. It has become one of my kitchen staples, serving all sorts of culinary mood. I use it for kids cooking when the cake icing runs out and if I want to impress guests with home-made ravioli – out it comes.
Since that afternoon when my jovial brother in law broke eggs in my kitchen, and the two of us wondered at the miraculous compulsion of his father to buy me a pasta maker in Lidl, both of those men have died. Tragically and unexpectedly, insofar as all death is both.
Joe’s gifts have outlived him. The car polishing kit is still in the cupboard under the stairs along with the baseball mitt Leo has yet to use. Niall had to fix a burst pipe in the garden the other day and broke open a multi-purpose hose attachment set which has been in the shed for years and which I am certain has Joe’s stamp on it.
It’s the small details of ordinary life that sometimes put us in mind of lost loved ones. The memories they made for us are the real gifts.
I’ll never make pasta again without thinking of Fintan and Joe.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Polytunnel

A co

Aspiring to country living begins with looking out your townhouse window at your fat neighbour getting out of the shower and vowing to replace your current view with one of devoid of other people.
That done and a couple of years pottering about the village, boasting to city friends about the quality of local schools, tinkering about making jam for the farmers market one has finally had the last of the Cath Kidston sale fabric made into cushions and it is now time to get serious. The next step is self-sufficiency, the ultimate badge of the nouveau country wannabe – I speak of course of the polytunnel.
A couple of years ago we were out of our minds trying to score a bit of fresh coriander in the village shop and coming home from the supermarket bemoaning the price and quality of slimy bagged salad leaves. This year the asian herb has already bolted and there is a veritable field of mixed greens for us to choose from. Am I feeling smug? Frankly, if I wasn’t me – I’d hate myself.
Recluctantly I have to admit the polytunnel is not an entirely sole achievement. We share it with our neighbour Steve although, that was my idea. I knew if we invested on our own it would quickly become one of our great family failures. Like the platinum gym membership a life-changing lifestyle choice that came with great intentions and turned out to be a waste of money. My husband used to be one of those men who would edge himself out the patio doors for the odd fag, shrugging himself cautiously against the bit of rain, doubtless still wondering just quite how in God’s name he had come to live in Killala, County Mayo when he had signed up for a life in Dublin’s city centre with a media chick. Steve, on the other hand, is one of those energetic outdoorsy types, always mowing his lawn and calling to the door with hand-picked mussels and going mackerel fishing so I hoped he’d be something of a driving force.
As with most of my ideas I had sold it to my husband as a no-big deal thing. I have a terrible tendency to understate the amount of work involved in any outdoor activity I commission of him - my complete ignorance overtaken by unreasonable expectation. “It’s only a tree babe – how hard can it be to trim a tree? Look, I’ve borrowed you a ladder and everything….” So, having booked the tunnel men to come and erect it for us, (and having cleverly absented myself from all real work by falling pregnant) all the men had to do was dig up a patch of land. Easy. Or not at all, as it turned out. It seems that the scrub grass growing on our narrow field was, in fact, an obnoxious weed whose roots had reached down into the earth’s core. They hired every shape and type of man equipment from the man equipment hire store to no avail. Strimmers, rotivators, killer-grass cutting machines – until eventually they found somebody with a digger deep enough to wrench the triffid a few feet from it’s bedrock, and stop it growing for long enough to get the tunnel up.
Steve had, of course, already seeded his lettuces and planted them all in a neat row on his side. So, I had to quickly run to the garden centre and stock up on seedling greens, sprinkling a bit of compost over them so I could make them look convincingly home-grown. Other veg enthusiasts gave us various plants which I threw down willy nilly with great enthusiasm, labelling nothing and hoping that every salad contained actual lettuce and not a roving, poisonous weed.
A year later it’s a different story. My rain- reluctant, urbane husband has transformed into a Monty Don pin-up – all Hunter wellies and Barbour Jacket – out there every night watering and weeding and keeping evil slugs and weevils at bay. Every time I see him leave our back door, trowel in hand full of stern intent to plant another lettuce, or attack a chard that’s grown too big for it’s boots, I get a quivery feeling of marital contentment.
I remember sitting in a married friends kitchen in my early thirties and watching her husband mow the back lawn. I wanted what she had so badly - a kind man and a shed for him to potter about it – yet, at thirty three I thought I would never find it.
I assume, like everyone that life is short, yet my life suggests it is long enough. I look back on where my life was before I met Niall twelve years ago and it looks so different now.
Day by day, step by step in small un-noticed increments, my dreams have come true.
I’ve got a sexy outdoor-man in Hunters and a polytunnel full of fresh veg. Life doesn’t get better than this.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My not-very adventurous spirit.

“I’m not a ‘Big Traveller,” I used to say to my friend to try and persuade her against dragging me off on another one of her adventures. Beautiful, with long dark hair and a mysterious, captivating manner Gai’s hunger for exploration and adventure made her the worst possible person for me to leave the country with. I like to be in control, have a plan, be punctual and guard myself against the unknown. Gai likes to wake up each day and see where it leads her – especially when she is on holiday. She is notoriously unsettled, often moving from one Greek island to the next following the good weather. There is always a more comfortable place to stay around the corner, a more authentic restaurant that we have yet to find, a hidden-away hammam, a camel ride into desert, a bar on the 80th floor of a skyscraper, an unexplored island. I, on the other hand, like to stay in one place – even if it’s a kip – we’re here now lets just hunker down and get on with it. I’ll eat when I am hungry – and I don’t care if we are “abroad” – if I pass a McDonald’s and it’s gone my dinner time – I’m in. I am not prepared to go the extra hour in a taxi in search of legendary paella in an obscure mountain-top restaurant. Somehow Gai always persuaded me into situations that filled me with a mixture of exhaustion and terror. Her desire for excitement and drama was greater than my need for safe, dull routine – even on holiday.
The first time I remember feeling genuine terror on holiday with her was when she persuaded me to go to a deserted beach on the small island of Skyros. We were on a Writers Workshop week – perfect for both of us as, although it was on a remote, hard-to-access authentic Greek Island - good for her, it was a routine based week with workshops and set mealtimes, which we had already paid for. This, I comforted myself, would put pay to any off-schedule activities on the part of Gai and keep us out of trouble. When she begged me to find this secluded beach some locals had told her about, I felt it was the least I could do. Needless to say, it was accessed by a treacherous vertical slope “path” made of loose rocks and sand and I suffer from a terrible fear of heights, and dodgy feet and knees which means that unsteady “cliff walks” leave me petrified. While Gai basked blissfully in the sun, swimming and enjoying the extraordinary view, solitude and privacy, I sat crossed legged in my large swimsuit afraid of strange insects interfering with my unmentionables gazing in blind terror at the path back up which we had to climb. Gai was very kind when she saw how genuinely petrified I was, and assured me that she would go back herself and organize a helicopter rescue for me, if needs be. She wasn’t being sarcastic, but deadly serious. Me being airlifted by the Greek Coast Guard was just about the perfect holiday anecdote to bring home.
The Italian Brothel was my idea. After spending a week stuck inside the apartment of the non-touristy Italian seaside village recovering from an allergic reaction to three horrific mosquito bites on my first day – one of which was on my face – while Gai tripped solo down to the local Italian family beach, I suggested that before we left, we should have a night out. On the end of the holiday promenade there was a building, separate from the restaurants and small bars that confidently announced “Discoteque”. “Come on,” I said with uncharacteristic verve, “lets go dancing tonight!”
We got all dressed up, and wandered down there after dinner, at about ten o’clock. We walked in through a dark front bar which was empty except for a few girls sitting on a row of stools, and into the quieter back bar. The back wall was painted with a huge, ecstatic female nude. Gai went to the bar and ordered two drinks, where the bar tender, strangely, refused her money. When she came back, we sat for a few moments before I said; “I think we’re in a brothel.” She laughed; “Don’t be ridiculous.” “Look,” I whispered. “Women sitting in a line – check out the tarty clothes – the mad shoes!” “They’re Italian,” she said, “Italian women are sexy. Relax. Don’t be so stiff.” The bar tender and his older female colleague were looking over at us and pointing. The girls in the front bar were also checking us out.
“I don’t like this,” I said. “Look at the painting….and there’s no music?” “Oh for Gods sake,” she argued, “Finish your drink – the music has just probably not started yet.”
Just then, an older man came in through the door, picked a girl out from the line of women on stools, nodded to the couple behind the bar and disappeared with her through a door in the middle of the wall with the nudie painting.
“Now!” I said.
Gai, of course, thought this was hilarious and wanted to stay and see what happened next. She looked so thoroughly delighted with herself I thought, for sure we be lynched by mob men for muscling in on their territory or as my grandmother used to say in hushed tones, “worse” and we all knew what that meant.
I stood up assertively, and, with my best Miss Marple “come along young lady” face marched out – throwing some money at the barman, who seemed most anxious to have a conversation with us.
Marriage and children have put and end to my annual “single girl” travels and holidays are now rather benign affairs that happen in hotels with set mealtimes and kiddie’s pools. We spoke again this week and she reminded me that some ten years ago I had “promised to go to Seville” with her. She might have to wait another ten years, but I can’t help quite looking forward to it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Musings on looking like a ghastly sleb

They are too rich, too thin and they are living uninvited and rent-free in my head against my will. I have decided that celebrities are, in fact, alien life forms who have been sent to take over the world. Their mission is to make us look like them: glossy-haired, orange-skinned, glittery toothed, big-breasted, bubbly clones with obviously made-up non-humanoid names like “Jade” and “Jordan”,“Holly” and “Bez”.
Then, in the year 3000 the mastership will land from the planet they call Big Brother and whisk us all off to ……okay so that last bit needs a bit of work - but is there any other explanation for the insidious way that celebrities creep into your subconscious so that even when you do not care in the least about any of them – you find that, in actual fact, you do? We have become so saturated with celebrity culture that it is no longer enough to simply ‘not care’. I do not care about “Posh Spice”. See? I even write her name in inverted comma’s to illustrate the extent of my aloof, superior disinterest. And yet two weeks ago I sat in front of my hairdresser and asked for a bob. “With long bits at the front – you know – like……” Ouch! And there it was. I wanted a Posh Spice haircut. Did knowing that deter me? No. Because despite my better judgement my little celebrity gremlin was whispering: “Posh Spice has bob – bob goo-ood haircut ”.
Ditto teeth whitening. My dentist has been badgering me to have my teeth whitened for ages. Last year I almost had an excuse to travel to L.A. and she lost the run of herself altogether insisting that I could NOT travel to the west coast of America with ‘ordinary’ teeth with the urgency more suited to an emergency root canal. Eventually I gave in, but deep inside I know it’s not her insistence that got to me. It’s the pearly-white gnashers gleaming from the stack of Hello! Magazines in her waiting room. Gradually, after years of fillings and drillings I decided – dammnit – I want teeth like Paul McCartney, and Billie Piper and the woman who won herself a job working for that angry looking man who does the ads for Prize Bonds.
As I was leaving her surgery with several hundred pounds worth of tooth-bleach and my set of see-through inverted dentures – she coolly informed me that I wasn’t to drink anything that would stain, especially tea or coffee, for a fortnight. I am completely dependent on both – and yet I did manage to salvage a germ of comfort from reassuring myself that in all probability, Eva Longoria from Desperate Housewives was also going to bed that night with her mouth crammed full of bleach and plastic.
And then I thought - this is how it begins. This is how a normal woman starts to morph herself into a footballer’s wife for no better reason than she can. All it takes is hard work (the gym), courage, (Brazilian wax), creativity, (skilled application of make-up), endurance, (the constant diet), a sense of humour, (spray tan) money, (a designer wardrobe) and a surgeon for everything else. What it does not take a great deal of is brains. So while there are people we admire greatly for their wit and intellect, sadly few of us aspire to look like true idols like Alan Bennett, Germaine Greer, Vincent Browne or Melvyn Bragg (except, his smile suggests, Melvyn Bragg himself).
I’m afraid of where it might lead. Teeth bleaching is the middle ground in ‘commitment vanity’ coming somewhere between the ability to apply mascara in a moving vehicle and hard-core liposuction. Should I get my forehead injected with botox? Or perhaps I’ll get my bob readjusted to incorporate a fringe instead. Make me look like Juliette Binoche. She’s a French celeb: that’s got to be posher than “Posh”.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

can't do candy

My aunt and health guru always speaks of sugar as if it is some kind of awful drug. And I am beginning to believe her. Several weeks ago a large bag of miscellaneous “Sweet Factory” sweets of various types appeared in my house and such was the ferociousness of the various textures and colors and the vastness of the quantity there-in, I decided that, for the greater good of my son and any of his fellow hyperactive buddies that might be knocking about, I would hide the bag on my office desk. The jelly babies were the first to go. I like jelly babies. They are soft and, like talcum powder, they remind me of childhood. Everything else in there was stuff I didn’t like. So the bag just sat there among the other forgotten debris of my desk – cheque books, half packets of stick-on nails, sewing kits, out-of-date stamps, the wrong sized light bulb I keep meaning to change and really important documents that I think I have lost because I couldn’t possibly be sensible enough to file them on my desk. Like said documents the bag of sweets became something that I stopped seeing any more. Until earlier today.
Earlier today I was on the phone on the other end of a boring phone call. Someone telling me the gory details about their non life-threatening health “issue” of theirs. I won’t judge, we all do it, but as my brain was zooming out, looking for something more interesting to occupy it, it fell upon the bag with renewed curiosity. I opened it half-hoping to locate a missed jelly baby. There wasn’t one and somebody had opened the wrapped sweets put there for adult benefit and put the empty wrappers back in the bag (I will hunt you down). I mooched about for a bit while making soothing cooing noises about my friend’s bad back or bunions or whatever, until my hand came to rest on a jelly bean. I’ll give it a go, I thought. I know I don’t really like jelly beans but it’s only small. No harm.
It wasn’t bad at all and so, adventure having pricked my taste buds I decided to chance a mini-egg. One of those cheap chocolate ones they coat in a wafer-thin layer of speckled concrete. My friend was feeling depressed now – overworked – giving me the full lowdown on some woman in the office that had been giving her jip, so I decided to try the two together. Jelly bean, mini-egg – at the same time. I’ve got to tell you – it was fantastic. Well, not Gordon Ramsey fantastic, but fantastic enough to be getting along with. Fantastic enough for me to power my way through a Sweet Factory sack of them until my head was buzzing and my teeth fizzing. My phone companion had moved onto the general ennui of not really being sure what she was doing with her life. She was worried that hadn’t really reached her full potential. I mean, she was a creative person you know? Really, she should be writing, or acting, or painting or something? My stomach hurt a bit. A bit, but not enough to stop me from hoovering up the pretend fruit pastilles and plastic fried eggs at the bottom of the bag.

As I put the phone down, I felt terrible. At having eaten the sweets, not at my friend’s personal life crisis. Like blaming your parents, whinging about not being ‘fulfilled’ has a shelf life of about thirty. Having said that, the cut-off point for eating bags of sweets you don’t really like is ten.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Reformed Domestic Goddess

‘Domestic Goddess’. It sounds good yes? Thank you Nigella – for the aspiration you gave me to become a food loving, cake-baking, voluptous, sensual woman. For encouraging me to find my own, inner goddess – the very essense of my femininity and encouraging me to share it with my friends and family.
Now lets take a reality check – and what have we here?
Harassed Housewife? Oh dear. Can’t manage to lemon-ice forty five cup cakes for your childs birthday party? Didn’t have the right oven dish for that beef and guinness pie and had to stay up half the night scraping encrusted gravy off your oven door? Poor you. Maybe you’re better off just sticking to your ‘career’ and leaving the ‘goddess’ business to those of us who can handle it.
That self-satisfied bitch was me. I’m ashamed to admit it but up until relatively recently I was holding the whole “domestic goddess” thing together. I got about a year out of it. During a twelve month period I baked – and iced - birthday cakes, I ironed napkins, I made potato cakes while weekend guests sat at the kitchen table (arranged with mini-bouquets from my garden) and gazed adoringly at me buttering and spreading their traditional Irish breakfast fare with my very own, and most gob-smakingly impressive of all, apple jelly. Halycion days ladies – gone forever. Because, I have finally snapped and it is the apple jelly that has did it to me.
Brief backtrack. We have an inordinate number of apple trees in our back garden.
Last year we picked them all and I filled the freezer with crumbles and pies. So far, so reasonable Goddess. With the windfall apples and the over ripe that were too “bad” for crumbles, I made jars and jars of jelly. I got my own recipe going, everyone collected jars for me – I was getting texts from neighbouring counties saying “you still want jars?” Everyone loved my apple jelly. I made so much of it that people I know still have a pots of it from last September sitting in the doors of their fridges politely waiting for me to pop around and check if it needs replacing. The zenith of my jam success was when I was invited to supply the local café bookshop, The Big Read, who serve it with their morning scones. I was thrilled that now members of the actual, real-live public were sampling and enjoying the fruits of my labour. That fact alone surely elevated me beyond the realms of mere goddess into that of domestic genius. In the eyes of all, including myself I was just fantastic. How on earth did I have the time to do a job and make apple jelly for the local café? The answer to that question last year was a smile and a shrug. This year it is a howl that shivers through the twelve dozen empty jars sitting in my hallway; “I DON’T KNO-WWWW!”.
Last year – for some random reason apparantly beyond my control or understanding – I had the time and the inclination to boil, strain and pot jelly. This year I don’t have either. What I have is an enormous number of other people’s unwashed glassware cluttering up my hall and six bin-liners full of rotting apples stinking out my office and the constant stress-hum of somebody who while she is writing to a deadline/feeding her child/cleaning her kitchen feels that in fact what she should be doing is making apple jelly to sell through the local farmer’s market. I even upped the ante on myself by making a half-dozen pots of chutney which everyone agreed was wonderful and the Big Read have now ordered and are expecting to serve with their ploughmans. So this is where all this Domestic Goddess s*** has got me. There is no medal, no badge that brands you as one of Nigella’s special-ladies. She won’t be coming around to my house to congratulate me for ‘services to confiture’ or anything like that. All there is is pressure and expectation. Not from anyone else, you understand. Just me. I did this to myself. My husband doesn’t even eat jam. Whether it’s a takeaway or four course meal sweated over by his wife in low-cut evening frock – it’s all the same to him.
All I ever wanted to be in life was a writer and a mother. And having achieved both goals I have raised the posts and have added “Recognised Maker of Magnificent Jam” to the equation. This is the insanity of modern womanhood in action.

Friday, May 13, 2011

annoying diets. again

The whole diet thing reached a new low point for me with the launch in an English newspaper of the No Diet Diet. This is the diet that means that you don’t have to go on a diet to do-it. Diets, according to the No Diet Diet, make you fat so that the best thing you can do it if you want to lose weight is simply not go on a diet. Which is where the No Diet Diet comes in. Eating too much is not just a bad habit in itself, they say, but a culmination of all of your bad habits combined. So that if you stop watching too much TV/ picking your toenails/ shouting at your children – like the archetypical nacho-chomping MacDonald’s-frequenting trailer park white trash diet books assume all overweight people to be – then you will automatically eat less.
It made sense to me. I once spent four whole days of my life on an extreme supplements diet that shall, for legal reasons, remain nameless. First I shelled out rather a lot of money in the chemists on powdered sachets and bars wrapped in sparse white plastic that made them look like something one might get on a prison spaceship. Then I spent a week stocking up my body for the oncoming famine – gaining four pounds. The four days, which I lasted on this diet, rank among the four worst consecutive days of my life. And trust me. Without slipping into self-pitying memoir, I have had some pretty bad days. The gloopy drinks tasted like MacDonald’s milkshakes laced with a tablespoon of salt. The “bar” smelt and tasted, quite literally, of dried animal dung. No, I have never eaten dried dung but – frankly – I would be more likely to than eat one of those diet bars again. In those four, painful, mental days all I did was lose the four pounds I had put on the week before.
It was due to this experience that the No Diet Diet seemed like such a thoroughly good idea. All I had to do was buy this English newspaper seven consecutive days in a row to get the “next stage” – then stop watching so much TV, go for a little fifteen minute walk every day and I’d be thin in no time. “Good news,” I said to my friend Helen who came around to help me finish the last of the Christmas Pannatone, “we can go on a diet without even going on a diet!” and I waved the No Diet Diet in front of her face. “Clever eh?” “Genius,” she said, a tad sarcastically for my liking, “show me that…” and she grabbed the pamphlet off me. “What a load of old nonsense,” she said, (except she didn’t use the word nonsense).“Eat less, exercise more – now where’s that cake I was promised?”
She is right of course. I am so bored with thinking about my weight. I am so bored writing about it, talking about it, caring about it. There is nothing about weight loss, weight gain, wobbly thighs, cellulite, exercising, not exercising, the guilt-guzzle-guilt-guzzle cycle that does not bore me to the very core of my being. All I can hope is that before I hit fifty, I will become so bored by the issue of being a thinner more lovely version of myself (why, why, why do I still care!) that I will stop being so obsessed with what I do and do not eat that I will give up on the whole thing entirely. Then I might actually lose some weight. Or not care about it, which, frankly, amounts to one in the same thing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

the deep fat frier - just in time for summer

Just in time for my high cholesterol diagnosis, it has finally happened. I have succumbed to my husband’s request for a deep fat fryer. Now it is sitting on my worktop, dwarfing all the posh accessories and generally emanating an aura of menance. “Deep fried bread and butter pudding,” I said to my mother in a ‘family style restaurant’ in a suburban mall on my last trip with her to America. “That’s appalling. No wonder so many American’s are obese,” I said, stuffing the final mouthful with same monstrosity and wondering if, as it was the last day of our holiday, I could feasibly justify inhaling my son’s leftover knickerbocker glory when I’d finished.
Of course, I didn’t want a deep-fat fryer. It was his idea. “We’ll use it for tempura,” I said, as we unwrapped it from it’s box and sat the fat, white monstrosity on the worktop, “and onion baajis. We’ll have Japanese and Indian themed dinner parties. Yes that’s what it’s for. It’s not just for chips. ”
No. Not just chips. It’s not like I’ll feel like eating deep-fried frozen food for dinner every night. That would be awful. I’m a ‘salad’ person. Fried food. Yuk. I much prefer salads – yum – freshly picked salads at this time of year, what could be nicer?
Well, home made chip butties in white bread slathered in butter for a start, accompanied by a cup of tea you can stand a spoon in with a generous splash of full-fat milk and two spoons of sugar. Fresh fruit for dessert? I don’t bloody think so – pass me a Magnum.
Maybe I am just a girl who does not know when to stop, but I think that men and women eat differently and it is just not fair. Before I got married I just did not own a frying pan and never ever had chocolate in the house. Then I got married and having aquired a husband and clearly caring somewhat less about being thin, I began to buy biscuits so that my husband could enjoy one with his cup of tea. And like every man in the country, two days later when he goes to the biscuit tin looking for another, single biscuit with his after dinner cuppa, he finds they have gone. Down his wife’s gullet, en mass, in one sitting in a frenzied sugar attack for no other reason than they were just there! My husband wanted a deep fat fryer because he would like to eat home-made chips occassionally, a dozen perhaps once a week, as an accompaniment to a nice chop. He is a civilised eater and he can be trusted with one. I cannot. Rather in the same way that I cannot be trusted to shop sensibly in Marks & Spencers or walk through the Lidl ‘sweet things’ aisle without throwing myself arms-apread onto a display of hydrogenated-fat bars and grabbing them by the armload into my trolley. What does not help people like me is the misinformation that gets bandied around about food. The most henious of these is that chocolate contains anti-oxidants which are good for you. There I am in my larder ¾ of a way through a catering sized bar of Green&Blacks reassuring myself that, in actual fact, I am eating spinach. Not so. Apparantly. What would be infinitely more useful would be if somebody could identify the societal dysfunction that has resulted in so many people being obsessed with food and teach us how not to be weird around it in schools before our obesity problem reaches American proportions and we start deep fat frying our puddings. Except that would be Jamie Oliver and he is too annoying. Alright then - lets have a blanket ban on chips. And chocolate. And husbands who can, infuriatingly, eat them in moderation.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mum, Leo and I in Paris.

“Do you know where we’re going?” my son asked as we pottered up the tight Marais streets towards the Pompidou Centre. It was his first trip to Paris – a gift for his ninth birthday, three days in the city of his choice with his Mum and Nanny.
“I used to come to Paris a lot,” I said, “on business.”
How I used to love that phrase. I first fell in love with Europe’s most beautiful city when I went there on a French exchange trip at fifteen. I became instantly infatuated with the ambience of the place, the ancient boutiquey quirkiness of the backstreets, the seductive café lifestyle, the grandiosity of the architecture and history – but mostly the groomed, stick-thin elegance of the people. To me, Paris has always been about style. From that first trip I decided that I was a moody, pencil thin fashionista trapped in the stout body of a gauche Irish teenager. I came back speaking a little more French, but wearing a lot more black eyeliner and smoking cigarettes, wanting to be a good deal thinner than I was and aspiring to go back there at the earliest opportunity and make myself ‘French’.
When I became editor of a young woman’s magazine in London, I used every available excuse to go to Paris ‘on business’ – sometimes meeting advertisers from cosmetics houses but as often as I could manage it on fashion shoots. These trips were rarely without stress. The models were poutier and thinner, the agents more fierce and discerning and the photographers more temperamental and precious than I was used to. Each trip generally involved a good deal of my trailing in the wake of some “fabulous” photographer as he waved aside model after stunning model in search of a “visage” worthy of his art, until I feared I’d be going back to the office with an spent budget and no pictures to show for it. When we did eventually get around to ‘the shoot’, hair and make-up would barely be started when we’d have to stop for lunch. No such thing as bringing in a few sandwiches and eating them on the hop, as we did in London. Each studio had a fully functioning kitchen and chef. Lunch was a three-hour affair – three courses, wine – the lot – all on my magazine’s tab of course, and all eating into my precious working day. After gulping back my grub in about five minutes, I’d have to sit and marvel at the models decimating their plates of salad before allowing themselves to suck on the daily single square of chocolate that was keeping them alive.
I would come back from the ordeal with a wonderful set of pictures usually good enough to justify another trip in a few months time. For my next trip, I resolved, I would be more Paris-Fabulous. I would be a few pounds lighter with a better handbag, and thinner thighs, a sharper haircut, a fiercer attitude and less of a propensity towards street vendors selling crepes smothered in chocolate. Invariably, with each trip I became chubbier, and more dishevelled and stressed out until eventually, I realised that the Paris fashion shoot just wasn’t worth it. My commitment to fashion waned over the coming years dissipated with motherhood, a couple of extra stone and a change in career. Although my love for Paris remained, the two things remained intertwined in my head and my heart and, as a result I didn’t return there for years. Not because I didn’t want to, but because somehow I still felt I would be letting Paris – or perhaps myself down. I wasn’t fabulous enough, elegant enough or sophisticated enough for Paris – until my nine year old got it into his head he wanted to come here and maternal loyalty meant I had to put my fears and prejudice aside. Although the last burning embers of caring what is on the catwalk this season has long since burnt out, I still found myself shuddering with shame over my first Paris fashion shoot. My bare fat, white Irish legs marching up through the Marais, my wheelie suitcase of clothes clacking loudly along the cobbled streets, elegant Parisians glowering at me, their lunch offensively interrupted by the sight of this inelegant ‘tourist’. I couldn’t find the bell for the photographer’s apartment hidden as it was behind one of those massive ornate Parisian doors so I stood on the street and yelled up at the windows until, burning with shame I sat on my wobbly case and waited for him to casually emerge an hour later.
My son was starting to nag; “Are you sure you know where we’re going?”
I had stopped outside a huge wooden door and was looking up – astounded. This was the building. The photographer’s apartment had been on the top floor, completely shielded from any sounds from the street. I had invited me to stay with him on my first trip then when I refused to sleep with him. had shrugged with almost insulting indifference. God – I was so self-conscious back then, and so utterly lacking in confidence. I had been so stunning and slim and fashionable in my twenties – and not even known it! I should have enjoyed my Paris adventures more, taken the whole thing less seriously.
I briefly told my son my fashion shoot story – about how I had stood here and shouted up at the window in front of all the posh Paris people.
“Mum,” he said closing his eyes for dramatic effect, “you are so embarrassing!” He smiled widely - he loves hearing how I’ve made an eejit out of myself, but mostly he was just thrilled to be there, in Paris, with me. In my MBT walking shoes, leggings and M&S cardigan.
“Come on,” I said, “I think I can see another crepe van over there, if we hurry we’ll get in before the Pompidou opens.”
“Can we have chocolate again?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied, “after all chocolate crepes is what Paris is famous for isn’t it?”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


This is a piece about me and my amazing brother Tom who passed away in 2009. It's from a memoir I;m writing about him.

I took Tom to see Bow Wow Wow at the Camden Palace when I was sixteen, and he was fifteen. Small and baby faced, I knew there was no way he could have got in without me. Already working, I carried myself like an adult and with the heavy New Romantic eighties make-up I easily passed as in my mid-twenties.
I put some of my signature black kohl on Tom’s big blue eyes, and dressed him in a torn safety-pinned T-shirt and skin-tight jeans and gave him instructions on how to act as we travelled on the tube down there.
“Don’t smile – let me go in first, just stand close behind me and DON’T make mess about and make me laugh.”
He had insisted on trying to get into Saturday Night Fever with me when I was twelve at Hendon Classic Cinema for a matinee performance, and I was still convinced that they would have let me in if it hadn’t been for my childish looking brother. Tom carried himself like a man, but at not much over five-foot, he was always self-conscious about his height. As a teenager he survived the jibes by casting himself as the joker and as an adult his charm and intellect compensated for it amply.
A Saturday night, the queue to get in shuffled briskly with bewilderingly fashionable New Romantics. Tom was mad into punk: driving us all mad with it’s tuneless pounding and worrying my mother buying frightening-looking singles and T-shirts with names like The Slits and Discharge emblazoned on them. He wasn’t a pop music fan, and was disgusted with his sister’s love of bands like ABC and Heaven 17, but punk seemed to reach his very soul. It was anti-music – so his love for it confused us doubly – but I think now that punk began to grow at the same time as Tom was reaching puberty. He was angry, but unable; to express it in the same was as many of his peers – on the football pitch or scraping in the schoolyard. Punk gave voice to Tom’s pent-up masculine anger in a way that nothing else could. Plus it was all about safety pins and vomit and snot – we girls found it disgusting and tuneless and faintly frightening, and our horror always amused him.
I was wearing a voluminous white frilly blouse – and my maroon-dyed hair has been streaked with white blonde that day in a hairdressing experiment at work, and scooped up into an enormous, fluffy quiff. Tom had gelled his hair into spikes and had safety pins stuffed into the side of his mouth, hoping that nobody had noticed he hadn’t pierced them through (he had tried several times but always got horrible infections). He did an impression of a depressed zombie and I had to restrain myself from laughing. He was determined to get in.
We passed by the enormous security men unnoticed, and when we got inside, it was all I could do to stop him running up and down the stairs of the enormous, gilded amphitheatre with excitement.
“Calm down!” I kept telling him, “We could still get chucked out!”
We didn’t even go the bar. Drinking wasn’t the point then. It was the music and just being there.
From the top balcony we watched the band. Tom said they were crap. A Malcolm McLaren invention – but we danced wildly, mimicking the ludicrous sway of the fake pirates. Neither of us feeling truly a part of that scene, we were too young, and too suburban – but we were together. We watched the crowd posing and preening, and celebrated the fact that we were apart from it – safe and happy in our little twosome.
After Tom went to university and started drinking I stopped going clubbing with him. I found it too stressful when he got into a state, especially as I wasn’t drinking myself. Our relationship stayed in the safe environs of our mother’s house, or the various flats I shared with girlfriends all over London.
My first flatmate was an impossibly pretty little rich girl called Sophie. For two years I was her chubby sidekick. Men flocked to Sophie, an aspiring actress she was petite and ladylike - all highlights and eyelashes, but as her gauche hairdresser friend, all I could ever hope for in romance was her cast-offs who occasionally took to me as a consolation prize. We lived in a one bedroom flat in Fulham, and were often courted by Chelsea Hooray types. Tom found my lifestyle, a suburban Irish reared hairdressing apprentice trying to keep up with all these posh kids, hilarious. One night Sophie invited two particularly arrogant young hoorays around for a meal - Tom agreed to dress up as our butler to freak them out. He played the part of our Jeeves to perfection, looking disgusted when noting that neither man were wearing hats or gloves for him to take at the door. Between courses Butler Thomas serenaded us by playing the flute and violin, and Sophie and I held the joke that this was how we ate every evening. Tom was magnificent and after we saw off the two idiots, we sat up all night eating and smoking and having a laugh.
The last time Tom and me went clubbing was when he visited me in Dublin in the mid-nineties. Single and editing a monthly magazine, the buzzing, boozing Irish capital was my oyster.
Tom was teaching in London at the time, and it had taken me months to persuade him to come a visit me. He hated flying, and was threatening to take the bus and ferry over for just two days. I eventually nagged him onto a plane and as he came through the arrivals gate at Dublin airport he looked harried and confused. He had no luggage with him whatsoever.
“Before you have a go,” he said, “I bought a pair of socks at Gatwick,” and he held up a tiny Sock Shop bag.
His eccentricity was beyond annoying. I was worried, of course that he was drinking again. In my mind Tom was either drinking, or not drinking – there was no middle ground. I made a conscious decision that weekend not to ask him, just to let go of what he was or wasn’t doing with his life. I wanted to bring him into mine. Show him was a great time I was having in my adopted city – make him a part of it.
I was renting a cool Georgian flat on a historic strip off Baggot Street, within ten minutes walk of the city centre. He followed me around Dublin like a tourist in my life. This is where I live, this is where I work, this is where I have lunch most days, and this is where I buy my groceries. It had become hard just sitting talking with Tom. Our conversation always had such a different focus. I was old for my years – rushing towards a settled life, full of my next goal, an apartment I was thinking of buying, rearranging my life so I could write a novel. Tom still thought and lived like the teenagers he taught. While he was teaching at a girl’s school in Hackney, I was working as the editor of Just Seventeen in trendy Soho. My job gave his music department huge status with the student, he’d call me up with daft requests; “I’m just here in the music room with Shaznee and the other girls in B4 – they wanted to ask if you could get Michael Jackson to come and play with the steel band at our Christmas Concert?” “No Tom,” I would say, “I can’t. But I can send you out twenty J17 goodie bags and a signed Brother Beyond T-shirt. Will that do?”
“Brilliant!” he’d say. I was never quite sure whether, like his girls, he half-believed that I really might have the clout to organize a private Michael Jackson for them. Tom idolized me. He wrote me love letter all the time telling me how talented, how glamorous, how clever I was. He thought I was extraordinary. I never felt anything reading them beyond an overwhelming desire to pick him up and shake him and scream “You are the extraordinary one Tom – if only you would (a) believe in yourself and (b) stop drinking and get your life together. I knew I had a good life, but I wanted it for him more than I wanted it for me. At that time the life I had built myself meant little to me because I believed Tom deserved a good life too, and wouldn’t get one. As the years progressed I felt unable to enjoy it because Tom was not able to share it with me.

That weekend in Dublin is one of my happiest memories of Tom. He celebrated my life, and through his enthusiasm I experienced the glamour and vivacity I had been blessed with through my situation as a magazine editor. Every weekend in Dublin was spent trawling around the nightlife searching for love – a partner to share my life with before I turned thirty. That weekend with Tom - it didn’t matter. We walked and walked all over Dublin. I was going through an understated, lots-of-black elegant phase, but Tom persuaded me to buy a Starsky and Hutch T-shirt at a market stand Georges Street Arcade market. That night he made me wear it clubbing, with a pair of hot pants and enormous ravers trainers. He kept laughing at the T-shirt, and I kept asking “Isn’t it too small across the chest? Does it look stupid?” It was, of course, both, but he begged me to wear it out clubbing that night. “It looks great,” he said, stifling giggles. “You evil troll,” I said. “Hen!” he’d say back. I can’t remember what Tom wore, except that I am certain that it wasn’t what he travelled over in and I must have bought him something. I bought Tom clothes all the time. Being clueless was part of a ruse to get gear out of me. We went to The Pod nightclub where MTV were filming that night. As a magazine editor, I was club royalty, no queuing or questions. We were taken straight into the VIP area. Tom was buzzing. We spent the whole night on the dance floor, raving and throwing our hands about like teenagers. Tom laughed at my boobs straining beneath the tiny T-shirt and tried to manoeuvre me in front of the MTV cameras. When we wore ourselves out we went back to the VIP enclose and Tom, self-consciously, drank a single pint. I held myself back from letting it ruin the night. He was making a point of having just-the-one, proving he could; I recognized the gesture as denial and let it go without comment. We walked home at four am, stopping at an all night café where we stuffed our faces with an enormous fry and talked, for the first time that weekend. Him with a pint inside him, me too tired to argue and my hunger for his company sated, it felt safe.
I told him how brilliant he was and that I loved him and he said the same to me. Perhaps it was the other way around but with Tom that important distinction never mattered. One of us always said it first.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Mothers Day 2011 - Falling in love with my mother

I OFTEN (but not too often) joke that if I ever left my husband it would not be for another man, but for my mother. I fell in love with my mother again in my early 30s and we are markedly close.

Through my 30s and 40s my mother has become a companion and friend as well as a supportive and nurturing parent. One of the things that surprises me about our relationship is how coveted it is among my friends. Not just our relationship, but my mother herself.

"I wish my mum was more like your mum." "I wish I could talk to my mother the way you talk to yours." "Your mum is so much fun . . . I wish my mum was as openminded as yours." And bizarrely, "I want to get your mum around so that some of her will 'rub off ' on my mum."

And yet I think this says more about the attitude we have towards our mothers than it does about the mothers themselves.

My mother . . . while she does have exceptional qualities . . . is not so different from her peers as my friends perceive. It is the fact that I have made an effort to treat her as a woman and not just a mother that has allowed our, in the past, often fraught mother-daughter relationship to flourish into a deep friendship.

Throughout my teens and right up to the end of my 20s I held my mother responsible for everything that went wrong in my life. My inability to form a satisfactory relationship with a man, my bad teeth/feet/legs and fluctuating weight. I once lost my passport the night before an important business trip and rang her in the middle of my panic to blame her for being a hoarder herself and not training me to be more organised.

The biggest thing I blamed my mother for was the gap inside me that craves love. That hole which is just part of the human condition but which we try to fill with drink, or food, or sex or therapy . . .

seeking the satisfaction of complete fulfilment which we will never find. The only love that is big enough to fill that gap is surely a mother's love. However it's not until you become a mother yourself that you realise the hard truth which is that no matter how big your love is for your child, ultimately they will have to make it on their own.

My turning point with my mother came when I was 31. I was staying in my mother's house in London. I was unemployed, single and childless and my youngest sister had just become pregnant by her boyfriend. I would like to say I had conflicted feelings, but that would be too kind. I was furious and bitterly, bitterly jealous. My mother came into my room early one morning and found me howling, pounding the wall shouting, "It should have been me!"

She gathered me into her arms and comforted me. I realised then that there was no other human being on earth who would ever love me enough to sympathise with such ugly feelings. And crucially, I realised I still needed her as a mother. I made a conscious decision to let all of the past go and form a new relationship with this person. This woman who had all this love towards me: how would it be if I didn't dismiss her love as a given but took it on afresh? What would happen if, instead of the immature expectation I had always had of this cure-all love, that my mother should be able to intuit my every need otherwise she had failed, I started to ask for her love, ask for her advice? And crazier still, actually listen to it and perhaps even, from time to time, take it on board. I have traced the most successful, the happiest and the most secure days of my adult life back to the moment I started to do that.

One such occasion was in Yamamori on George's Street in 1997. I asked her what she thought of my, relatively new live-in boyfriend.

"I think you should marry him."

I was taken aback . . . this was the woman who told me never to get married. Why this one? I asked.

She took me back to an incident that had occurred a few weeks before. A friend of mine from London was staying in our apartment in Dublin along with Niall and my mother. My mother and my friend were both en route to somewhere else, and I got called away for work. I was nervous about how Niall would deal with these relative strangers as none of them knew the other very well. Tragedy struck during the night when my friend got a phone call from London to say his mother, whom he lived with, had died. It was a terrible shock.

My mother described to me how Niall had handled the situation calmly, with strength, sensitivity and great compassion.

"He stayed up all night talking to the poor man, " she said. "Now that's the sort of person you want to be married to. And oh, " she added, "he's a hard worker."

My mother had always actively discouraged her daughters from getting married, saying the institution was outdated and designed to tie women down.

What was this turnaround all about?

"I've changed my mind, " she said. "I know I have always said the opposite but now I would like to see you married with a child. I can see that's what you desperately want and I think it would make you happy so I want it for you too."

An English journalist, slightly older than me, recently interviewed my mother and I and was astonished at the cultural differences in our respective lives.

The journalist had grown up at the same time as me, in London, but her British baby-boomer parents were living the '60s dream. Doing the whole dopesmoking, nudie flowerpower popsongs thing while my mother, and her emigrant peers, were still held in the cloying, guilty grip of the Catholic church.

They wore the long flowery skirts and the platform shoes but they left the free-love principles behind. They eschewed contraception but remained loyal to wedding vows, even through being battered by alcoholic husbands, and stayed at home cooking and cleaning and minding their children because they didn't have the confidence to avail of the education and the work opportunities now available to them. While the world around them partied, the majority of my mother's generation of Irish emigrants spent the '60s and '70s picking rusk crumbs out of their Draylon-covered sofas in the London suburbs, cooking big 7dinners for tired husbands, feeding babies and taking their daughters to Irish dancing classes in chilly church halls.

Joan Baez was singing on their kitchen transistor about revolution. Erica Jong, The Female Eunuch, Gloria Steinem, free thinking, free love . . .

it seemed like everyone was free except them. The revolution was happening on their doorsteps but not in their homes, they could smell the freedom but they couldn't taste it. So they drummed into their daughters these messages of independence. "See the world, have your own money, don't worry about getting married and having children. Any fool can get married; don't sell yourself short."

They bred a generation of independent career women with aching ovaries. Like Bridget Jones, it seemed finding a good husband and having children later in life was not as easy as our mothers told us it would be. For those of us who managed to squeeze it in, "having it all" became "doing it all". As Germaine Greer recently said, "When we said we 'wanted it all' . . .it seems what we got 'all' of was the work."

I think our mothers' generation have straddled the widest gap in the culture of women's personal and working lives than any other.

The gap between my life and my grandmother's life is culturally colossal, yet I hope my generation does as good a job of bridging the gap between our children's lives and our parents.

I also think my generation of women are particularly hard on our mothers. We urge them to be more liberal, more like us. And yet they have witnessed and weathered the almost complete disintegration of their value system whilst still managing to fling their daughters forward into a new era, fuelling us with their dreams as well as their disappointments.

What I have discovered through my mother and her friends in the past 15 years is that these women, with a tremendous amount to offer, often lack the confidence to achieve their potential. What makes them more hard-done by than the generations before them is that liberation was within their grasp . . . but their arms were not long enough to reach it.

My mother could have been a novelist and the confidence she lacked to do it herself, she made sure she gave to me. That has been her gift to me as a writer: not just her encouragement and support, but her unfulfilled writer's permission to mine her life for the stories she could have told if she had grown up in a more modern time.

The man my mother 'chose' for me was also sexy and funny and I was in love with him. But ultimately the foundation of the happiness I have experienced being married to him has been down to the qualities she saw in him straight away, strength of character, kindness and a powerful work ethic.

My mother isn't always right, but then, neither am I. However she is always older and often, very often, much wiser than I am. And she loves me. Surely they are the best qualifications a good friend and mentor could have.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

clearing out the shed

I cleared out my shed at last. We were having new doors built for the back gate and our dreaded Shed of Shame. Our friend Joe – a craftsman and carpenter - made them on sight, so his wife Rose came along. “I need to clear that shed,” I said, “but there’s no way I can face it.”
The large concrete shed is where we throw everything that we cannot bear to deal with. It is the denial corner of our home.
The horror is layered. On the top layer are the things we just want kept out of sight because they remind us what we should be doing, but aren’t – never ridden bicycles, leaf-blowers, strimmers, spades, and plastic car covers. Underneath them are the failures – the enormous and expensive marquee that ended up in the top of a tree, broken furniture that will never get fixed, a child’s tractor that simply ran out of batteries then was forgotten about – and beneath that again is the unspeakable carnage of mud, and insects and filth that time and complete lack of responsibility creates. Things that should have been thrown away, and dealt with properly at the time that, over time, have transmogrified into a sludge so unspeakably awful that we would rather not just think about then. We are talking half-used bags of concrete and sand and compost spilling onto a damp floor that had stewed over years of neglect with old gardening gloves and never-planted bulbs and rotting boxes of recyclables that we moved from the house, to the patio, to the shed instead of just taking them to the dump when the box was full. The bottom layer of gruesome sludge has just been too terrifying to face, so for years we have just been opening the door and flinging stuff into it without even looking.
“I’ll wait ‘til the book is finished,” I said. “Then I’ll tackle it.”
As Joe took off the old door, Rose stood on the threshold of my mountain of miscellaneous rubbish.
I went inside to make tea. I was thinking – sausage rolls from the garage, a pot of strong coffee while Rose counselled me over the shed. She’d put her arm around me, pat my back while we stood in joint horror at the enormity of the task ahead. Eventually we’d agree I should wait ‘til the Spring then find a couple of nice Polish men to come and put it all in a skip and take it away.
When I came out with the mugs of tea Rose had half the shed emptied and stuff sorted into recyclable, keep and landfill. “The dump closes at half-twelve,” she shouted, “we have three hours – so start bagging up that pile of rubbish!” I put on my outdoor work clothes (a “distressed” jumper and jeans, christened as such because I am invariably distressed when I wear them) and a pair of work-gloves and got on with it.
Rose is a strong woman, with long, curly red hair and a “can-do” attitude – which is just as well as she can do, and does almost everything she sets her mind to. She was the first female blacksmith to qualify in Ireland, and with her talented husband Joe, virtually built their gorgeous house, and everything in it, from the ground up. She is currently working full time in an accountancy firm and due to qualify in the next couple of years. Oh – and she has a son at Trinity studying medicine and the other son looks set to follow him. In their “spare time” the family run an animal-rescue sanctuary at their home, and come and help friends clean out sheds!
Even if I had wanted to put her off, I couldn’t have and so, in less than three hours we had filled the van to bursting point and Rose and I rushed down to the dump in our work gear, the damp stench of indiscriminate “stuff” for disposal emanating from the back of the van not to mention our mulch-covered jumpers.
Not to embarrass myself in front of Rose, I picked up pieces of wood heavier than myself and hurled them into sunken skips, wiped unidentifiable slippery gunge from my hands onto my jeans before picking up another double-bag of trash and throwing it in for landfill.
Back at the ranch we hosed down the filthy shed floor, and wiped what was left and put it back into place. Joe hung the new doors, and after my heroes left I flopped, soppy with exhaustion into a chair – and I thought to myself; “The shed is cleared.”
My friends had made me a mehil, and there was no way I could have done it without them. The experience reminded me that there is no problem too big to tackle – and we all need a good clearout from time to time. It’s scary, it’s hard work, but boy - it feels so good when it’s done.