Monday, February 26, 2007

Another Birthday, Two Hangovers, and a Whole Lot of Cooking...

This week it was Spouse's turn for birthday festivities, so I had invited some friends and family for dinner. As it was the start of Lent last week, I had decided to forswear alcohol for the duration. Less out of any spiritual reason and more out of the feeling I need to dry out somewhat.

I should have known this was a non starter, as I think this every year and every year Spouse's birthday inconveniently falls on the wrong side of Lent.

It didn't take me long to break my vow of abstinence, as on Friday night my lovely luscious sister arrived to see us. Lovely Luscious Sister, really is that. When we were growing up we used to joke that she could wear a black bin liner (indeed she probably was, it was the era of punk) and look good. And the same still applies today. I should of course hate her for this but I can't because she is far too lovely and luscious to be hated, and if I did I wouldn't be party to her very entertaining and erudite discourse. So of course as she is so lovely and luscious I love her without a hint of envy (oh, ok maybe one or two, but I can live with it.)

LLS being a fully paid up member of the drinking red wine elite that is my family of course brought some with her. When I feebly suggested I shouldn't be drinking both she and Spouse chimed in with, but it's Friday. Which was enough for me to shed principles to the wind and dive in there. And as Spouse has a healthy supply of a rather nice 1996 rioja that he bought cheap from Majestic, it did seem a bit of a waste not to join in.

As a result I was not unnaturally soon pretty wasted myself. As luck would have it I had gone on a cooking blitz the previous evening and made soup, a chicken dish and a fish pie, so my lack of cooking ability didn't matter, as I could just produce the chicken dish from the fridge and put it together with some couscous. Instant cooking. Easy when you know how...

What was not so easy, was focussing the next day. By the time we hit the sack, far too much red wine had been consumed, we had all watched V for Vendetta through an alcoholic haze, and then Spouse and I had insisted that poor LLS stayed up to watch our favourite moments in film. What you haven't seen Last of the Mohicans? we cried, you MUST see this - quite what she made of watching five minutes of one of my top five films (mind you it was the best five minutes, when Daniel Day Lewis exhorts Madeline Stowe to stay alive whatever she does), I don't know, but being lovely and luscious she was of course very polite about it.

Luckily for her, we couldn't find the Thirteenth Warrior - an obscure (and some might say rightly so) film about a bunch of 9th/10th/ who knows? century Scandinavians who rope in Antonio Banderas who plays an Arabic scholar, as their thirteenth warrior in the fight against evil bastards who want to destroy them. Much murder and mayhem takes place before the epic ending (and arguably again the best five minutes of the film), in which all the Norseman stand up one by one at the start of the battle and repeat a litany that begins, Lo there, I see my father. Lo there I see my brother, and my mother and sisters, and all the warriors that have gone before. etc etc. The last line belongs, naturally to Antonio, who gets to follow up the penultimate line about all the warriors going to join their ancestors in the halls of Valhalla, where they will stay, (and here comes Antonio's ine) "forever". I'm sure it's a direct lift from some Norse poem, but who cares...

However, LLS was spared that and politely declined to join us for the end of Plunkett and Maclaine (another fairly obscure but wittily brilliant historical Restoration drama). I love it not only for how fabulous Robert Carlyle is (and let's face it when isn't he?) but also for the fact it contains the Earl of Rochester who is one of my literary heroes. He's more effete here then in Johnny Depp's brilliant portrayal in The Libertine (another obscure and underrated film), but he's joyously wickedly corrupt nonethelesss. Having watched Robert Carlyle rescue Johnny Lee Miller from the gallows (if you haven't seen it, it has to be one of the best gallows rescues you're ever likely to witness), Spouse and I eventually staggered to bed at 2am. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Saturday of course is our day of purgatory, when we are punished for all our sins by dragging the children out to their various classes. So much as I longed to lie in bed, I did get my weary hungover self out of the sack, and feeding children at a reasonably civilised time, and then set off for the ballet run. LLS very kindly came with me to keep my company and I managed neither to keel over of be sick while we watched no 3 (who was having a severe attack of nerves about the show and didn't want to come) skipping about.

Once back from ballet, I cooked pizza for the children while starting to prepare a cheesecake. This as it turned out was a very good move, as my reactions were dulled to the point of ineptitude and I had to reread the instructions several times over. I should of course have been following the recipe my mother had given me over the phone in Sainsburys when I rang up to enquire what ingredients I was likely to need, but sadly I was lacking a pen at the time, and my memory isn't what it was, plus I'd knocked out several more thousand brain cells from my non abstinence the previous night, so I doubt I'd have remembered anyway.

The cheesecake recipe was luckily fairly easy to follow, but I made the mistake of using a rather shallow dish, so when I poured the filling in, most of it ended up on the kitchen table. Still, at least that bit was done.

I thought about cooking the duck I had bought the previous day, but decided it was too soon. So I left it till later. A nearly fatal mistake....

At 3.15 it was time to toddle off to take no 3 to her next show rehearsal (cue more wailing and tears), say goodbye to LLS and head into town to buy Spouse a birthday present. It is an interesting fact about the way relationships change that, in times of yore, before we were sprogged up, I would have spent many hours thinking what to get him, and devoted even more to buying him the precise thing he needed. I was never late with presents, and always had a card. Spouse on the other hand took years to remember that my birthday was in July not June, frequently got to the day empty handed with a promise of good things to come, and on one occasion even made me a birthday card out of wood, with hinges which bore the merry legend, Happy Birthday you old Bat.

As time has gone on, however, the roles have reversed somewhat. Now it is more likely then not Spouse who has gone out scouring the clothes shops (usually with no 1 &2 in tow to veto his choices) and lavishing me with the sort of gifts I had hitherto imagined were bestowed on more worthy huswifs then me. And as for my efforts - particuarly since no 4 has been on the scene, they grow yearly more pathetic. I did get a card with the sprogs, and they all bought him presents at the British Museum, but other then that I was completely empty handed come 4pm on Saturday. I was also right out of ideas, which didn't help much either.

I had agreed with bil and sil that we would get both series of The Green Wing between us - but I kept forgetting which ones we'd agreed to buy. Cue my third phone call to them while in HMV to try and remember. And as soon as I put the phone down I forgot again (it's those bloody brain cells I lost on Friday night, I knew I'd be needing them).

In desperation I also got him Life on Mars (probably more for me then him to be frank, I could watch John Sims for hours...) plus a couple of CDs and some books, although the book I was after Mark Gatiss's follow up to his brilliant (but probably obscure if you don't like the League of Gentlemen) Vesuvius Club, seemed to elude me rather. I did track down one copy in Waterstones but they said it was in the stockroom and then let slip the paperback was coming out in June, so I think he'll have to have it for Father's Day instead...

My shopping done, it was back home to start preparations for our guests. Given that the children had spent all of Friday night/Saturday morning playing with their cousin, which entailed taking out not only all the clothes in the dressing up box, but also all my posh dresses which were worn, swapped and then discarded all over the house, I was fairly disheartened to see the amount of work required to make the place vaguely acceptable for dinner party guests. Fortunately they happened to be bil and sil and our best friends, and they all know that a domestic goddess I am not. However, I do like to at least pretend.

So at 5.30 while Spouse had gone out to pick no 3 up I was desperately trying to make some order out of chaos, and throwing things at the children to take upstairs. Most of it has ended up in our bedroom - the repository of all things that belong nowhere else when you have guests arriving imminently - where it all still remains until I finish this blog and get on with sorting it all out.

By 6.30 things were looking somewhat better, but the table wasn't set in the dining room and I suddenly realised I didn't have an ironed tablecloth. Trying to work out if I a) had time to iron one and b) could still dress the cheesecake with blackcurrants (from the garden natch, and frozen months ago), and deciding I didn't, I cheated and grabbed a cloth which has definitely seen better days and covered up its deficiencies with a non iron one, which wasn't quite big enough for the table but served brilliantly as a cover up.

As Spouse set the table I got on with the important business of decorating the cheesecake, before he pointed out that I had forgotten to top and tail the blackcurrants before I froze them. So they all had to come off and Spouse did it while I got on with preparing the duck. First bit was easy - simply shove the pieces of duck into a roasting tin and leave it to cook. However, the orange sauce I was after took some doing, and as usual I didn't have all the right ingredients.

My first error was to peel the oranges and chuck most of the peel out before reading that I needed to use it in the sauce. Damn.

I then realised that having used duck pieces rather then a whole duck I didn't have giblets to make stock - an apparently vital ingredient in the sauce. I improvised and poured off the juices that had come from the duck. Of course they were enormously fatty, so when I put them together with arrowroot for thickening I had a terrible moment when I thought I was just going to be serving everyone lumps of fat. Fortunately I was able to pour off the worst excesses, but then was left with minimal amounts of sauce, so I had to fall back on that old favourite, aah, Bisto (which I should have used to begin with) to bulk it up. The final touch was supposed to be curacoa, but we didn't have any, so I shoved in some brandy instead. I have no idea what it was supposed to taste like, but it seemed to go down ok, so I think I got away with it...

Despite our efforts to turn the evening into a disaster, remarkably everything after that worked very well and I was even able to overcome my principles (and hangover) one more time to join with the bachanalian fest that ensued.

We had invited mil for lunch on Sunday, so asked bil and sil if they wanted to come too. At 12.30 as we waved them off in a taxi, full of bonhomie and good cheer, this seemed like an excellent idea.

At 7.30am when Spouse woke me, bright breezy and still drunk on birthday cheer, l lay in my pit groaning and wishing for the second day running I had practised abstinence.

As the kids had gone to bed far too late, no one was up in time to do the usual birthday breakfast in bed routine, so Spouse was reduced to making his own breakfast, and me a cup of tea while I festered in the bath till I guiltily remembered I had forgotten to wrap his presents. AND all I had to do it with was Christmas wrapping paper.

After we'd opened presents, drunk tea etc, I went back upstairs to find Spouse's moment of bright breeziness was but that, a moment, and he had retired to bed again. The children were all safely doing.... something.... so I thought it seemed like a good idea to join him, as the room was still spinning somewhat uncomfortably.

I lay there for half an hour before I suddenly remembered I hadn't put the joint in. Or peeled the potatoes. So reluctantly I stirred myself once more and did both before crawling back upstairs again.

I managed to doze off, but then woke up in a fit of guilt coupled with the sudden realisation that no 3 had a party to get to by 3pm and I had better get my skates on if she was going to get fed by then. Mil was due round at 12.30 and I was still peeling the rest of the veg when she arrived.

As I had left over egg whites and lemon from the previous evening I decided that lemon meringue pie was the thing. It is years since I've made it so I was squinting through my hangover at the cookery book for inspiration. It all seemed way too complicated to follow after a heavy night, especially as I suddenly realised I was supposed to cook the pastry base first - the pastry base, you understand that I hadn't even prepared yet.

While I was getting that underway and making yorkshires, bil and sil arrived - having decided that faced with the prospect of marking or having lunch with us, there really was no contest. Sil very nobly offered to help clear up - such was my bewildered state I was rendered completely incapable of clearing up the chaos I was leaving in my wake. Unfortunately in her enthusiasm she chucked out the lemon juice I was saving for my filling. Never mind, the boys cried, we'll go hunter gathering and get some more. Not to worry, I responded I think Spouse chucked out my saved egg whites as it happens. No I didn't he said. Ah, no he hadn't - I discovered them hiding at the back of the fridge. So he was allowed to go hunter gathering after all. The downside was that as our fridge has gone a bit mental of late and is behaving like a freezer, said egg whites were frozen, but I did manage to overcome this difficulty and make the meringue.

Eventually, and somewhat miraculously, given my hazy grasp on reality, lunch was ready, and for once even my yorkshires worked. We also got to the table just before two, so no 3 could go to the ball too. I shoved the lemon meringue pie in the oven just before we sat down, forgetting to check the temperature required. Bearing in mind our oven gets very hot, and I recently had to chuck some flapjacks as they were on too high, you'd think I would have learnt by now wouldn't you?


It will come as no surprise to hear that as sil helped carry plates back into the kitchen, she said Is something burning?

Oh shit. It was the lemon meringue pie.

Fortunately, we rescued it just in time - the meringue was fairly brown, but not too cinder like.

Someone somewhere seems to like me.

Even if I can't keep my promises...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Birthday greetings

It was no 4's fifth birthday on Sunday. Blimey. When she was born, I dreamed of her being five, and there being no more nappies in the house. And suddenly, here I am. I feel that I've blinked and all that time spent with babies and toddlers which seemed so endless at the time has simply vanished. Now I have a child nearly at secondary school and my youngest is well settled into infant school. An era is well and truly over. Not that I'm complaining mind, but it does feel slightly odd.

This feeling was borne out all the more as one of her birthday presents was a new dressing gown. Which means it is time to pass on the spotty dressing gown she has been wearing for the last two years - a truly momentous moment as it was the first one no 1 ever wore, so it's been knocking around the house for seven years or so. Why is it, when I quite happily parted with heaps of baby clothes without a tear, I feel so ridiculously sentimental about a dalmatian dressing gown? Maybe it is that realisation, that my time as a mother of very small children has finally come to an end, and with it my youth seems to have vanished too. This year I will be 42, Spouse has had the snip, there will be no more babies in our house till the children have babies of their own. Not that I want anymore, but still... There is a pang in realising a door has closed behind you.

We celebrated no 4's birthday with a party at a local venue mysteriously called a Lifestyle Centre. I have no idea what one is either, but it consists of the local library, our GP, two gyms, a cafe and several rooms you can hire.

Normally I like to have parties at home as I detest this modern habit of providing kids with more and more extreme activities - she's five? Give her a karoake party. Eight? Take her to a restaurant? Ten? Give him a lazer quest party. Eleven? Take them to London in a big limo... Whatever happened to a few party games and some cake to go home with? When did it all get mental? I'm sure the MadMuthas have a few ideas, don't you girls????

However, no 4's best friend had a party at this venue, where you could hire a bouncy castle, toys and dressing up clothes, and she had a ball. More importantly, her mother reported it was dead easy. As my home run affairs generally involve me coming up with a theme and a treasure hunt (with clues that I usually insanely end up writing in rhyme five minutes before the guests arrive), I have to say easy appealed. So I took the lazy option. And boy was it worth it, as we really did very little apart from feed them, mop brows, and rub banged heads. There was one bad moment after tea when I suddenly debated the wisdom of letting nine five year olds full of e numbers run riot on a bouncy castle, but apart from a few bumps we got away with it (and it was somewhat less stressful then watching nos 2&3 climb over the lions in Trafalgar Square the previous day).

The only drawback to the day was that no 3 had a rehearsal for a dance show she is going to be in. I may have mentioned the Fame School where my children go dancing before. It is a quite insane place and I only keep them there because, bugger it, they all enjoy their lessons, it is five minutes from home and I can't honestly be arsed to go looking for new classes. But they are so up their own backsides it is unbelievable.

The rehearsal time clashed with the party - a fact I had been unaware of as I thought no 3 could be spirited away at around the time the party started. She was not unnaturally disappointed because she wanted to attend the party. But knowing the Fame School of old, I know they are just mean minded enough to say she couldn't be in the show at all if she missed this sodding rehearsal (adding insult to injury she is likely to be on stage for ooh, all of two minutes!). I did ask her teacher the previous week and was told to ask the head of ballet in the week. Last week being half term, I didn't get round to ringing up to enquire (and to be honest even if I had, I know from bitter experience that the Obergruppenfuhrer who runs the office would have been less then helpful), so I asked her on Saturday morning as she teaches no 4 ballet.

Well it is a very important rehearsal, was the response, but you'd better check with her teacher. I checked with her teacher, and got sent back to the head of ballet. No 3 then came out of her lesson and burst into tears at the thought that she was going to miss her sister's party. I saw the head of ballet again and begged with her for some sensible response, but no, I had to take her, or check again with the teacher who I knew was going to say no. Furious doesn't enter into it. I wish to god I hadn't bothered asking, but having asked I knew they would throw the, she can't be in the show crap at me.

Net result was I bribed no 3 to go her rehearsal with party bags for her and her mates, and loads of snacks, drinks and sweets. She also got to play with her best friend beforehand, so in the end all was well. But boy was I cross about it...

Was also slightly disconcerted as nos 1&2 had invited their best friends to the party in a time honoured tradition which started when no 4 was a baby and she had no friends. I mistakenly thought that they might all help me. But, no. They were the biggest kids of the lot, playing on the bouncy castle, chasing each other on toddler toys which it was a miracle they didn't break and even dressing up in the dressing up clothes. No 1 put a wedding dress on over old clothes and for all the world looked like an 80s popstar.

However, good fun was had by all, no 3 got over missing the party and was pacified by the promise of a birthday lunch the following day - which I only just about survived having been out till far too late playing bridge and drinking too much wine with our neighbours.

No 4's birthday is a slightly odd event in our house, as though of course we celebrate it every year, it is also the same day fil died, when she was just a year old. The kids have no problem with this now - in fact they are ghoulishly fascinated, and neither do we especially, but we do always think about him.

Now I am not given to fanciful notions particularly. Or think terribly that it is possible to communicate with the dead - with my own father I have had no sense of where he is ever since he left us - but with fil it has been slightly different. Being a keen gardener, he bought us lots of spring bulbs for the garden and (failing to understand at the time that having small children wasn't terribly conducive to keeping up with the gardening) berated us for not planting them. We did eventually get round to it, and have had lovely daffs every year as a result.

The year he died it was a coldish spring and we had a fair amount of snow. The daffodils dallied and took their time to come out. Yet the day after his funeral, blow me down the first daffodil flowered. Somehow it seemed to me he was saying hello. The feeling stayed with me the following year, when the first daffodil flowered on no 4's birthday, his first anniversary.

For the past two years the daffs have been a bit more patchy - and last year thanks to the late spring they came at the end of March. So I've stopped thinking I'm getting messages from the dead.

But this year, when I've been thinking the odd weather was mucking their little systems up and we wouldn't get flowers for ages, what did I see when I looked out of the window yesterday morning, but a daffodil in full flower, nodding and smiling at me in the breeze.

It was a day late, but fanciful as it might seem, I do like to think it's his way of keeping in touch.

And maybe he too was marking the passing of the years, and acknowledging that his baby granddaughter, isn't such a baby anymore...

Maybe, maybe not.

But it's a nice thought...

Some nutritional advice

Waking to the news that the majority of women aged 17-34 are unhappy with their bodies and want plastic surgery (another sure sign we're all going to hell on a handcart), I thought it appropriate to post these very wise words that someone sent to an egroup I belong to... Read on and learn!

In the beginning God covered the earth with broccoli, cauliflower and spinach, with green, yellow and red vegetables of all kinds so Man and Woman would live long and healthy lives.

Then using God's bountiful gifts, Satan created Dairy Ice Cream and Magnums. And Satan said,
"You want hot fudge with that?
And Man said, "Yes!"
And Woman said, "I'll have one too with chocolate chips".
And lo, they gained 10 pounds.

And God created the healthy yoghurt that Woman might keep the figure that Man found so fair.

And Satan brought forth white flour from the wheat and sugar from the cane and combined them.

And Woman went from size 12 to size 14.

So God said, "Try my fresh green salad".

And Satan presented Blue Cheese dressing and garlic croutons on the side.

And Man and Woman unfastened their belts following the repast.

God then said, "I have sent you healthy vegetables and olive oil in which to cook them".

And Satan brought forth deep fried coconut king prawns, butter-dipped lobster chunks and chicken fried steak, so big it needed its own platter.

And Man's cholesterol went through the roof.

Then God brought forth the potato, naturally low in fat and brimming with potassium and good nutrition.

Then Satan peeled off the healthy skin and sliced the starchy centre into chips and deep fried them in animal fats adding copious quantities of salt.

And Man put on more pounds.

God then brought forth running shoes so that his Children might lose those extra pounds.

And Satan came forth with a cable T.V. with remote control so Man would not have to toil changing the channels.

And Man and Woman laughed and cried before the flickering light and started wearing stretch jogging suits.

Then God gave lean beef so that Man might consume fewer calories and still satisfy his appetite.

And Satan created McDonalds and the 99p double cheeseburger.

Then Satan said, "You want fries with that?" and Man replied, "Yes, And super size 'em".

And Satan said, "It is good."

And Man and Woman went into cardiacarrest.

God sighed ......... and created quadruple by-pass surgery.

And then Satan chuckled, and created the National Health Service.


After an exhaustive review of the research literature, here's the final word on nutrition and health:

1. Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.

2. Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.

3. Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.

4. Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.

5. Germans drink beer and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than us.

CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Happiness, happiness...

Ah me, the little things that make my heart sing. Particularly at this dull time of year, when I have been feeling like going into enforced hibernation.

A little while back, no 3 took part in a school assembly on the subject of Happiness. She was very keen for me to come, and being the dutiful mother I am I duly obliged, although I have to confess after six years of attending Infant School Assemblies I have more then had my fill. What was all very cute when no 1 did it, and I was happy enough to sit with a babe (no3) on my lap and a toddler (no2) at my side, in order to put off the evil hour when I had to go back home and tackle the housework, now seems like an unwelcome distraction designed to stop me working/running/playing and generally interfering with Project: Get My Life Back.

To add insult to injury, every single time I tip up the assembly seems to go on, and on, and on....

And, so it was on this occasion.

First off it's the birthdays. All the kids who have birthdays that week get up and have the birthday song sung to them. For a school that is notoriously pathetic about Elf and Safety, they bizarrely allow the children to light the candles on the birthday cake. I've never worked that one out...

The birthday song goes:

A Happy Birthday To You
A Happy Birthday To You
Every day of the year may you feel Jesus near
(it is a CofE school after all)

A Happy Birthday To You
A Happy Birthday To You
And the best one you've ever had.

It's quite sweet the first time you hear it - but I must be on my millionth odd listening, and I can tell you - IT PALLS....

After that, all the children who've done Good Work get up to proudly show off their pieces. This can take some time, and my heart always sinks when I see the number of books in the pile.

On this occasion one of the year two classes who had been studying poetry, also had to show off their alternative versions of the Ning Nang Nong. Inevitably the word "poo" crept up quite a lot. And in the interests of equality every kid in the class had to be represented - luckily they were working in groups - so this too, took some time.

By the time it was no 3's turn I was itching to get off. She had been most insistent that I came, so I had fondly imagined she might have a starring role. Uh, uh. Her sole contribution was to hold up a picture representing what made her happy.

And, knock me down with a feather. She'd drawn all of us.

Aah, how sweet.

Of course, this made me very happy indeed - her best friend drew her ballet lessons - but I was less then sanguine when I realised she was looking weepy and was feeling so ill I ended up taking her home. Another day of : running/working/Project Get A Life lost to the endless duties of motherhood.

I was pleasantly surprised again when I took them to church on Sunday (I'm an infrequent and semi-lapsed Catholic, but figure they can't reject something they don't understand, so occasionally in a fit of enthusiasm I drag them all out with me on Sunday morning when Spouse is at the gym) - and the subject of their childrens' liturgy was also happiness. Again, no 3 drew all of us and no 4 drew her sisters. A more notable sign that I am doing something right in the parenting stakes I have yet to see...

Nos 1&2 are now too big for such things, so I have no idea about what makes them happy. (Though I would hazard a guess that it's being nowhere near her parents for no 1 and having everyone tell her how wonderful she is for no 2).

However, I was pretty pleased to discover at their parents' evening last week that not only do they seem to be doing pretty well at school (actually no 2 like her dad is incredibly lazy and needs a good kick up the backside - if she gets to it, she could actually do really well), but better than that, their teachers seem to find them funny. They both post little cartoons into their work and create characters with speech bubbles commenting on what they are learning about. No2 did a hilarious one about Jesus' birth and No1 apparently introduced a space man into her talk on the planets.

I don't know why discovering that other people find my children as funny as I do makes me feel like I am floating in a great big bubble of happiness, but for some reason it does.

I can't think where they get it from, I remarked to Spouse when I got back. Easy, he said witheringly, they live with us.

My sister was of the same opinion. Of course they're funny, she said, both their parents are barking. Spouse with his constant DIY (current project: clearing out the garage, building shelves to put all the junk away so he can make the kitcar he's been wanting to build ever since I've known him), and me with my running/writing/blogging/trying to pretend I'm a proper huswif, when quite frankly I'd rather be doing anything else.

So there you have it.

Happiness is having two children who think their happiness is dependent on you. Two who think it isn't.

When the reality is, your happiness is dependent on and entirely due to them. Even if it means you're completely barking....

Oh, and as of yesterday, happiness also included clearing the border outside the front door which has been home to a hideous sprouting triffid like grass, which I have finally dispatched and sent to the great green grass in the sky.

Easily pleased, me...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Everyone Needs a Harry

I had the most wonderful compliment paid to me the other day. I'd given a copy of Pastures New to my neighbour (who's a nurse) as I wanted to check that I'd got medical details right. She very kindly liked the book, but best of all she said, of my character Harry, "Everyone needs a Harry in their lives."

Harry is a pivotal character in the book, and based as he is on my two dads, (he's not the same, but I've drawn on aspects of both their characters) I was dead chuffed. The other nice thing she said was she thought the character had been drawn with love. I hope so. As I genuinely love him too.

I didn't tell mil that Harry was based partly on fil when she read the book, but afterwards, when I mentioned it, she did say she found him familiar. I had actually thought he was more like fil then my own dad, as I've made him a keen gardener and, like fil, he goes to lots of army reunions (my own father was in the navy). However, when Mad Twin read it, she immediately spotted likenesses to my father, which I hadn't even noticed were there, but once she'd said them I realised immediately she was right.

I have just been writing an acknowledgements page - I hope I'm not going to sound like a gushing actress at the Oscars, but I have heaps of people to thank and I'm fretting I'm going to have forgotten someone.

And I also had to provide a dedication.

I've thought long and hard about this. Really, in truth, my first novel ought to be dedicated to my husband, for his stonking support over the years I've been an aspiring writer.


I did dedicate the marathon book to him, and my next novel concerns a dentist, so that has to be his too.

And this one is really so much about love and loss, and moving on.

My neighbour is right. Everyone does need a Harry.

I was lucky enough to have two, though sadly they didn't get too see my name in print.

So the book has to be theirs really.

I agonised about what to say, as I wanted to say something meaningful but not corny.

In the end, I decided simplicity was the key.

So this is what's going in the front of the book.

For Joseph Henry Moffatt and John Douglas (Roger) Williams, for sharing their wisdom

I hope they can read that in heaven...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Big Snow

So it's finally happened ... The predictions of the weather forecasters were right and we do actually have big snow. And there was me hoping for them to be wrong.
Particularly as the schools in their wisdom decided yesterday that they were ... probably, but not certainly ... going to close in case the staff couldn't get in. Two weeks ago when it snowed, no one knew what to expect, plus there was a major incident on the M25 so all the roads round here were choc a bloc, so when we arrived at school only four teachers were there. On that occasion enough of them eventually pitched up to stop school closures.

Yesterday the letter that came back said that because last time the path was a bit slippery (puh-lease!! I walked four children a mile to school in the snow and they all had a ball and not one of them fell over) and due to the difficulty of staff getting in school might be closed. They couldn't tell us this till 8.30 (inconveniently after Spouse has left with the kids).

I'm not unsympathetic to the difficulties of getting about in the snow. And I appreciate this is the worst we've had in ten years. But, really. Do these people have no backbone? They are after all meant to be providing a public service. Spouse does too, and he's made it in. As have most of his patients. Mil attended a chiropodist's appointment this morning. At NINE o'clock, and her chiropodist had managed to get in.

I do think the message it's sending the kids is wrong. As soon as we have a little difficulty, we just give up. No. No. We bloody well don't. We do our best to get to where we have to be and fulfil the expectations that other people have of us.

As it happens I don't go out to work, but if I did, and my livelihood relied on not letting people down I'd have been in a hell of a fix this morning.

Sooo. When we looked out this morning and saw the weather, I knew that school was going to be in all probability shut, but sent them anyway. I did ring at 8am but no one could give me a definitive answer. I could have not bothered and kept them away, but I wanted to teach my children, even if their bloody schools don't, that you always make an effort whatever the circumstances.

Lest you think I'm totally unsympathetic, I say this as one who has at time taken three hours to get to work as a result of snow/strikes/bomb scares. I think it is utterly pathetic that as soon as we have a bit of snow the country stops. They seem to manage across the continent ok. Why the hell can't we?

I admit I am mainly peeved as having lost three days in the last week to fluey children, I now have another lost day and it's half term next week.

But... on the upside, the kids wouldn't be allowed to enjoy the snow if they were at school (last time they were made to stay inside EVERY playtime), so at least at home they can indulge in dangerous things like snowball fights - and if I have my way and the weather permits, we might even go for a bit of sledging on the downs later - plus I get a legitimate reason to join in too. So it's not all bad news...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Love, Love, Love...

... As we all know makes the world go round. It is also the stuff, the very heart (scuse the pun) of which my writing is made. And as it is Valentine's Day next week, it seems appropriate to talk about the fluffy stuff.

For you see, dear reader, I am that pernicious thing, a romantic novelist. There. I've come out, admitted the shameful fact, that I write about love. And, oh look, the sky hasn't fallen in, you aren't all bombarding me with pearls, and I can assure you, I'm not wearing pink.

On Saturday night I watched a film which made me go, aaaaahhhh, in that lovely gooey way you do, when after much travail and tribulation the guy gets the gal and all ends up right with the world, and you know, you just KNOW that somehow because you've seen it in a film, it is more acceptable then seeing it in a book.

Because for reasons I can't quite fathom, the most shameful place to be a writer is the corner of the literary genre that encompasses romantic fiction. And yet a romantic comedy is big box office material and never seems to get the same stick. Why is that I wonder? Apart from the obvious fact that most of ours successful rom coms appear to be directed by Richard Curtis aka He Who Can Do No Wrong, I think perhaps it is the fact that in a film we don't have to work so hard as we do in a book to fall into the characters' lives, so we can get swept up in their story, in a way we can't in a book. Or not so easily.

Take, for instance, Four Weddings and A Funeral, a film I really love (apart from Andie Mc Dowell whose character I find intensely irritating). Something that has always puzzled me however, is how all the characters actually know one another. They all appear fully formed in the first wedding and apart from pitching up at the subsequent ones and the funeral, I never get any sense that these people actually have a proper connection with each other except on state occasions. You could never get away with that in a book where you need to give your characters depth and background. Admittedly the depth does come in Four Weddings at the funeral, but only because it's John Hannah reading that Auden poem. I don't think another actor would have carried it off.

So maybe that's it, perhaps it is the actors that make rom coms acceptable to a cinema audience in the way they aren't to a bookish audience. But I blame that Barbara Cartland meself. Her reach is so long that even Matt Lucas has to impersonate her (though I am not so churlish that I don't find that character very funny). But as anyone who knows anything about romantic fiction is aware, it is a very broad church.

I am hugely proud to be a member of the Romantic Novelist's Association, whose members include: Mills and Boon authors, like Julie Cohen, Penny Jordan and Sophie Weston, saga writers like Benita Brown and Anna Jacobs, chick lit authors like Kate Harrison , historical authors such as Elizabeth Chadwick, bestsellers like Katie Fforde and Jill Mansell. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

The point about romantic fiction surely is that we are writing about an aspect of human experience that surely everyone has some form of empathy with. If you've never been in love/found that perfect someone, for most people that really is the ideal, isn't it?

Which takes me neatly back to my film. I love watching rom coms, and I think I can always learn from them - Richard Curtis is just a genius at creating romantic tension. I laughed like a drain all the way through the last Vicar of Dibley, and loved the conceit that everyone kept saying that Richard Armitage was a boring accountant and why was she marrying him, which totally diverted from the fact that, let's face it, in real life he wouldn't have been marrying her.That's what the best romantic stories do - take us to a place we know isn't real, but gives us such a warm afterglow it makes our dull lives just that bit brighter. Margaret Atwood refers to it in Lady Oracle, where her heroine who writes Gothic Romances in secret, talks about building castles in the air for the girls she was at school with, now chained to the kitchen sink, their romantic ideals long since worn away.

The film I watched on Saturday pressed all those buttons to perfection. It's called Confetti, and I think it should be required watching for anyone who wants to write rom coms.

The basic premise is that Confetti, a wedding mag run by Jimmy Carr is running a competition to find the couple with the most unusal wedding.

The three couples who are chosen to compete with each other are:

Josef and Isobel - an insanely competitive tennis couple played by Stephen Mangan and Meredith McNeill

Michael and Joanna - a naturist couple who plan to get married naked, played by Robert Webb and Olivia Colman

Matt and Sam - who want to have a musical wedding, and are played by Martin Freeman and Jessica Stephenson.

The magazine hire a couple of wedding planners, called Archie and Gregory who inevitably are gay, but boy do they subvert expectations, which is another thing I think all good romantic stories should do.

To begin with you think they are taking control - one of them says at one point, it's our wedding. But gradually you realise, that actually they are giving control to each of the couples. So they subtly tease Matt and Sam away from the overbearing influence of Sam's mum and sister who want to organise the dancing to suit them (Sam's sister dances in cruise ships and is trying to overrule the choreographer hired by the wedding planners). At another point Michael and Joanna discover that the magazine doesn't want them to be nude, and Archie says, that despite what other people think it should be Archie and Gregory's job to give them what they want. In another glorious scene, in which Stephen Mangan (who has anger issues) is trying to beat up his fiance's tennis coach in a jealous rage, Gregory leaps on top of him, gets him in arm lock and says, you don't get to be the only gay at a public school without learning something.

From having thought they would be stereotypes at the beginning, Archie and Gregory actually steal the show, by producing three glorious weddings which are immensely touching. My favourites was the nudists, which I thought would be funny, but instead brought a tear to my eye, even though the poems they read to one another could have come across as naff and corny. The tennis wedding was brilliantly staged, and Stephen Mangan performed the same trick he did in Green Wing of making me hate him, and then end up feeling sorry for him, and even at that particular moment liking him. The musical wedding inevitably won (though wonderfully the DVD does offer alternative endings), just because it was so dazzlingly shot and cleverly executed. And I loved the ending of the song Jessica Stephenson and Martin Freeman sang one another, where he sings I do, and her response is Me, too.

The icing on the cake as it were, was in the outtakes when Gregory proposes to Archie in another immensely affecting moment.

If I could ever ever produce a book which engendered the emotions that that film has created in me, I would die a very happy woman...

In the meantime, the bar is set high, I have a lot to aim for, and a novel to get on with.

Best get to it then...

Friday, February 02, 2007

The First Step Along the Road

.... Well, I've finally done it. I've broken my duck and written 1122 words today. 1122 words that are crap no doubt. But it's a start.

The trouble with this writing malarkey now that I am committed as it were, is that all seems incredibly daunting this time round. And I am terribly conscious that I am very lazy and where in the past I have got away with fudging issues and not describing things in detail, I can't anymore.

So now I am angsting about my heroine, who I have just sent to a London night club, and thinking, should I go and visit a dive like I've described - being so old now I don't tend to hang out in these places. Her career choice as a lawyer I know is going to give me a headache, unless I do give her an office life that bears more resemblance to lawyers you see on TV. Best start watching that new programme with all those twenty somethings in then.

I should also go out and buy copies of Heat and OK so I can get the lowdown on how zedlebrities really operate (with thanks to Danuta Kean for that fabulous word) - as the bete noire of my hero is one.

Why oh why do we do it? I thought this book was going to be easier then the last one.

I fear it is going to be more difficult...

Still it was satisfying to meet my characters at last. And I did enjoy giving my zedlebrity a rather dubious claim to fame...

Maybe by next week I might have got up to a couple of thousand words....