Monday, June 29, 2009

The scent of summer

If you come a little closer to the screen and sniff, you'll catch the honeysuckle on the evening breeze.

Perfect, eh?

Who ya gonna call?

Someone overlooked the need to keep this potent mixture (M&S orange and raspberry juice) in the fridge. The ectoplasm got the walls, ceiling, carpet, curtains, duvet cover, sheet, pillowcase and spare blanket. It took 45 minutes to exorcise. But if you look carefully, there's plenty left for later.

Seen in the supermarket, fun-sized version of the fizzy drink called Irn-Bru.

Best comment on it was, "Once you've emptied it, you can fill it back up yourself".
I'd be off to the doctor if I was peeing that colour.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Explaining nothing

Cousin J was fourteen when I was born. She had an older sister, elegant, witty, clever and very grown up. But J didn’t yet have that scary, sophisticated edge. She had plaits instead. I loved the plaits and would try to twist my crop into what I thought was plaiting. When I was six, we went on holiday and she came too. Her fingers must have been out of their sockets by the end of our holiday since I hung onto them all the time. Then she came back from college a teacher. Miss H while I turned into a repellent teenager without her grace and kindness. She developed a talent for teaching children with special needs. ESN as they were called then. Or backward, or retarded, or thick. She found the little special things that opened the doors in their lives. Caring for her own mother, she spent a huge amount of her time looking out for mine as well. A patient and loving daughter and niece. Both of our mothers are gone and we are still good friends. When I’m There, we spend ages together. I never did have plaits, but thanks to my cousin, I did inflict them on Madette.

Thirty-eight years ago, I arrived at university, wide-eyed and innocent. Dumb and clueless, if you like. My parents dropped me off and I stood at the entrance to the Hall and wondered what to do with my evening. Standing there, suddenly feeling not very grown-up, I looked briefly into my future and saw the next three years as lonely, friendless and very studious. Bugger that, I thought. I had met a girl briefly at an open day and discovered that we were going to be on the same floor. Remembering that she was petite and blonde, I set off to find her. There were only a thousand other freshers so needle and haystack comes to mind. Remarkably, I found her. We had a fabulous three years and stayed close friends after we each married but when Madette was born, we drifted apart and suddenly we hadn’t seen each other for half a dozen years and she was in Egypt with a little girl. We descended into Christmas card exchanges with a one year lag between our news. She rang me up one evening but I was in the middle of Madette and Junior Mad bedtime and didn’t ring back. Her Christmas letter told me that her father had died. She had worshipped her Poppa. I wrote but she didn’t write back. Serves me right for not calling her. In 2000, she sent me a Christmas card with a photograph of her daughter, then eleven. Looking at the picture, I realised I had never seen that child. Heart in my mouth, I picked up the phone and called her. “Hi, it’s Mad. Don’t hang up.” She didn’t. We haven’t.

In 1974, I started work in London. In those far-off days, you could live in a private hostel when you started work while you made some friends and found a place to live. If you were under twenty-one, you could have a bed in a dormitory and if you were over twenty-five, you had to have a single room. Falling in the gap, I was given a shared room with a girl I had never met before. After initial awkwardness on the first evening, we started to chat. I think we dropped off to sleep at about three am. I’m a proud god-mother to her son. She and her husband were the only non-family visitors to see Madette in the Special Care Baby Unit. In 1987 we were flooded out. While her husband baled, she took the children and gave them beds. Calm, gentle and re-assuring, she’s given me all the support I needed without asking questions. Thirty-five years on, we live five minutes apart. The nicest Sundays are spent with her and the family, dog-walking.

Spring 1983, was lovely. Junior Mad was due in September and Madette was a delicious little savage. One weekend, I watched two remarkably good-looking young guys moving into the house four doors away. Shame, I thought. Two fabulous looking blokes. What a waste. They toiled all weekend. At the end of the Sunday, a vast pregnant lady billowed up the path. She was married to the older of the two guys. The other one was his brother. The next day, I knocked on the door and introduced myself, Madette and the Junior Mad bump. Our sons were born a few months apart. She is tougher than almost anyone I know and gives her time and love without reserve. Whether it’s Childline, or the growing menagerie of rescue creatures, she’s always there. When you’re with her, you can’t help smiling. Seeing in the New Year is always outrageous. Somehow, while faintly plastered, I agreed to join her on one of her “things to do before you’re fifty”. A tattoo. A bloody tattoo! Mind, we haven’t done it yet … Life’s not fair, is it? She’s a widow.

When Junior Mad was a baby, I went to my one and only National Childbirth Trust coffee morning. It was full of Yummy Mummies with their delightful Laura Ashley and Osh Kosh dressed tots. And then the Stepford Wives chatter started: what did our husbands do? I sat there feeling my teeth dissolving with the acid reply that was bursting to spew out of my mouth. I met the eye of another mother. Red-and-gold-woman is a clever clogs of the highest order and is blessed with the kind of intellect that attracts rather than repels. She is an encyclopedia of interesting stuff, radiating energy and enthusiasm. A wonderful, generous hostess, she also brings a lovely level of chaos into the lives of her friends. She conned us into travelling to Eurodisney on a coach trip together shortly after it opened. Her husband had declared that he would not go. So she persuaded him that it would be a great hoot for the two families. Reluctantly, he caved in. The travel company was about to go bust, the drivers had never left the UK before, the bus (luxury charabanc, huh!) likewise and we had to have a whip round to get enough petrol for the return journey. We loved every minute of it. R&GW sat with me at my mother’s bedside before she died, understanding the terrible course of my mother’s last days. And next weekend, she will be visiting me There and we’ll walk, and read, and visit beautiful gardens. And enjoy a small glass of wine.

In 1990, we had a nanny who was stealing. I sacked the thieving trollop and we had a lovely temp for a month while I found a new permanent nanny. Just as the new nanny was about to start work, something came up in her personal life and we were back in the soup again. Our temp came back for a week but by now we were desperate. Providing she didn’t actually have a criminal record, we’d have taken anyone. The agency came up with someone who, they implied, was a bit out of our league. She had worked as a rather posh nanny but now that she was married, she didn’t want a live-in post and it was hard to find a role for her rather superior skill-set. Gulp. This remarkable, Juno-like creature arrived. She towered over me. But then everyone does. A no-nonsense, officer's lady. She scared the crap out of my husband and most of my neighbours. Madette and Junior Mad adored her. Like Junior Mad, she’s dyslexic and her formidable talents have been channelled into beautiful crafts and cookery. At Christmas, she asked if I would like a gingerbread house. I duly handed over some wonga and came home to find that she and the children had made this beautiful house, dripping with snowy icing. When I came home the next day, it had gone. She just knew that I would have wanted to give it to the local Children’s Centre. However, if I handed over the same amount of wonga, she’d make another one. Ever stupid, I handed over a fresh lump of cash and, the next day, there was another one sitting on the dresser. You just know where this is going, don’t you? When I came home from work the following day, she’d handed that one over to another charity. My revenge is that I am god-mother to her daughter. You wait, Juno.

I always felt that the great high privilege, relief and comfort of friendship, was that one had to explain nothing.
Katherine Masefield

Monday, June 22, 2009

A feast in the cupboard

This post started as a comment on "Not Waving" but by the time it had turned into three paragraphs, I realised I should clutter up my own blog with my rant on food wastage and the tyranny of the "best before" tag. Before I get in my stride, let's be clear that I'm not advocating eating anything that has gone off or is so old that its nutritional value has disappeared completely. But really ...

Home Mum of Two informs us that 6.7 million tonnes of food are thrown out every year and she is passing on a "food wastage tag", where the tagee has to agree to use up all left overs for a week, or suffer the "eat a lemon" punishment.

Well I know where quite a bit of the 6.7 million tonnes has ended up.

Last week, one of my neighbours had their bin bag ransacked by the local foxes, cats and magpies. When I took Spot out for his morning walk I had to haul him away from all the delights strewn over the road. While it's not my normal habit to inspect my neighbours bins (honestly), I was aghast to see how much food had just been thrown away. No wonder the wildlife had found it such a feast. What I saw were their leavings. Meat, cheese, bread, yoghurt, fruit. Lord knows what was there before. Foie gras, presumably.

When I mentioned this to friends, they commented that they had thrown out a cheese because it was out of date. For a start, I can't imagine having food around that I forgot about till it had gone off. And if it was getting near to the limit, it would be put to some good use. Cheese would be grated up and frozen ready to stick on some future Mad special.

"Best before date". Gah. When I had to clear out my mother's house, we found some interesting archaeological finds in the larder. The furry dates. The Nescafe granules that had turned into a small tar-like lump. Madette and Junior Mad were helping and they kept reading the "best before" and out-bidding each other on how old things were. This was 2001 and we found many things that were supposed to have been out of date in the mid 1990s. The prize was won by Junior Mad who had found something that was out of date before he was born. That would be 1983.

But, of course, there were loads of things that had no best before date at all. They even pre-dated "best before". They would have all been out if we hadn't applied some common sense into what we were doing. Honestly, bi-carb (NaHCO3) doesn't really need a best before.

I grew up in a simple working-class home where there was very little cash for luxuries. My maternal grandmother had been widowed with five children to feed so my mother grew up knowing how to stretch the meat and to create yet another meal from the left-overs, combined with a few more vegetables and a pie-crust. My father liked simple plain food and we ate seasonal food and homegrown vegetables. Left-overs were tomorrow's meal.

This was not a perfect world. I had never seen a pepper until I left home. Sometimes food was bland since neither of my parents would have knowingly eaten garlic or much in the way of other seasoning. The only herbs I ever encountered were parsley and thyme. Foreign food was exactly that: foreign. But there was no waste food.

I still remember being sent outside in the middle of the winter to eat my dinner (what we called the meal eaten in the middle of the day). The rule was that if you put food on your plate, you had to eat it up. On this occasion, I didn't eat it up. Then I compounded my error by alleging it was yuck. It possibly was yuck since I recollect that it was a dark green and part of the cabbage family. My mother had cooked it into submission. But out I went and had to stay there until I had finished it.

Socially and professionally, I have been privileged to travel to some of the most amazing places on the planet and eat in wonderful restaurants. From a modest home, I learnt to enjoy the good life but the lessons of the hearth tend to stick. A few years ago, I found myself needing to watch the pennies very, very carefully. As long as I was careful, everything would be ok but I couldn't afford to let anything slip. I set myself a frugal housekeeping budget and planned meals to fit the budget. All the left-over habits all came back. And I've never let them go again.

Having a dog helps ... Spottie Boy and I visited Madette yesterday. Lunch in a smashing pub looking out over the Cam. A lovely young couple sitting opposite failed to clear their plates and asked if he would like the roast beef. And the veggies too!

Between the compost, the left-overs and the wormery, there's nothing to put in the kitchen macerator. It sits there with its evil jaws hanging open, starved.

Yes, I'd be cheating if I took on the challenge too. If you feel inspired to take it on, then I can offer a slightly wrinkled lemon to encourage you to stick with it.

Monday, June 15, 2009


I have just been reading one of my favourite blogs and I had a small, insignificant thought about the kind, gentle and supportive community of bloggers that I have stumbled upon in the last couple of years of blogging.

Occasionally, I read tales of spiteful attacks in the social networking world and this is such a contrast to the bloggers that I read. Some are angry and deeply pissed off with the world and their own situation. Some blog to tell the tale of their daily routine with a wry, sideways glance. Some blog to blog.

Alrightit is twenty-nine years old and has blogged her way through breast cancer. She is so entitled to be pissed off. I occasionally feel brave enough to post a comment but really, what can I say to her? I'm old enough to be her mother and I've still got a complete pair? Why didn't the Bullshit pick on someone its own age?

Not waving is blogging her life in France with family highs and lows. Her highs are delightful vignettes of family life and the joys of her expat life. Her lows are heart-achingly familiar to many of her readers ... women of a certain age, mainly. I am so struck by the honesty of her posts and the compassionate practicality of her readers. I try hard to be one of the latter but feel distant and useless, like someone standing on the far shore.

Henry the Leaphound is blogged by a lovely emanuensis called Catherine. I have been reading tales of Henry and his housemates for ages. He leads a busy non-cyber life and so I'm always eager to read a new Henry post. If you've never seen a dog on a trampoline, you should drop by Henry's place. They live hundreds of miles away but I feel like I've just popped in for a cup of tea.

@Eloh blogs with such a powerful voice that I hear her reading her posts aloud in my head. She's had a much more exciting life than most of us; have a look if you don't believe me. Her mother died recently from Alzheimers disease and the blogs are raw and painful. Should be mandatory reading for anyone with a family member, friend, lover or even ourselves who will live through this. That would be all of us then.

Sixty-five roses blogs through cystic fibrosis. Her blog catalogues the drugs and treatments she has just to plod from one day to another while trying to do all the normal teenage stuff. Yup, sometimes she gets miserable and moany and has a blogging snarl at some of her peers at school. But she's seventeen. She's allowed to be miserable and moany. In fact, it's probably mandatory. Well, it was in 1969. And her cf-supporters post practical comments on how to live with the disease. If you drop by, you'll see a translucently beautiful girl who has just started to run to keep herself well.

Dagenham Dave blogs as an Englishman in the US. His blogs are like sitcoms. Like the very best sitcoms, they have the occasional touch of pathos. The story of the false teeth made me howl with laughter and the death of the Colonel made me weep. If you drop in for a read take a handerkerchief since you'll need it for either the laughter or tears.

And there are all the others: Some Mothers blogs her life with two young sons against a hinterland of divorce, Fat and Frumpy blogs beautiful, elliptical prose, Reasons blogs cheerfully despite obvious reasons not to be, Valleys Mam blogs bring me closer to home, with all its faults, still home.

And, and, and ... all the wonderful, insightful, tender and funny blogs. They're all there on the right. Go and waste a bit of time. You'll have a smile on your face at the end of it.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A love letter

6th August 1950

Dear Eluned
I do hope you arrived safely and without trouble. I was so sorry to see you going by yourself. My life has been terrible without you. If I had not seen you on Friday I don't know how I would be feeling today. I will stick it this time, but never again, darling.
My train will leave Maesycwmmer at 11:43 arriving at Tal-y-Bont at 1:28 on Tuesday.
I will try now to make the remainder of my letter interesting to you. At 8:45 pm on Saturday, I called for your mother, Mair and Irene [sisters].
9:00 pm we arrived in Caerphilly. I parked the car and walked around the Eisteddfod grounds. We also visited the Pavillion and at 9:30 we returned to the car and drove slowly through Caerphilly up to the mountain top.
NOW, at 10:00 pm, coming back down the mountain, I was stopped by MY mother, her sister and Mrs Meade. So I had the job of introducing the in-laws. After getting over this shock, I continued on my way home with your people. I had now promised to return after taking your people home; so I was back in Caerphilly at 10:45 picking up my own crowd. This, I think, is the end of Act One.
When I got near the Royal Oak, I was stopped by a police officer who was holding two men, one on each arm and standing near a Vauxhall 14 hp saloon. He asked me to go to the police station for help. So mother and the rest had to get out for Sgt Davies and another to return with me to the scene of the trouble. Upon arrival, we found that the driver of the car was drunk, so I had to drive the car up to the police station. It was half past one when I got to bed. I think that I may get a few shillings for my trouble when the case comes off.
That is the end of Act Two.
Well darling, I have not much more to tell you except that Dad has won the first prize in the Arts & Crafts Section at the Eisteddfod and he has to attend on Monday to receive his prize so we will not be going to Aberystwyth and, to tell you the truth, I am not sorry.
I have nothing more to add darling except that I love you. Give a little bit of it to Mr and Mrs Thomas [where she was living] if you like, but for my part, it is all for you.
So goodbye for now dear. Hurry up Tuesday.
Your future husband
Eric xxxxxxx

After she had told him to push off and mind his own business, I know nothing of the progress of their courtship. But evidently, he wasn't put off by her brusque manner and she succumbed to his wooing. How could you not love someone who clearly loves you so much? At the end of July 1950, he proposed. She didn't want an engagement ring and persuaded him to save the money since she was set on having a Welsh gold wedding ring.

Despite having grown up in the same village, their parents had never been introduced so my father was horrified to find that he was forced to do the honours on his own.

She was working away from home and they saw each other every few weeks travelling on the remarkable pre-Beeching railway system. In between, they sent each other many, many letters. When he died, I found the collection of letters in a tin trunk. She could not bear to keep them and they all went. Except, a few years ago, clearing out a cupboard, I found an envelope tucked under a drawer liner at the back. In the envelope was this letter. It is the only one left.

The ring is closed. The rolling dice we cast
So long ago still roll but not so fast.
The colours fade that we nailed to the mast.
We lose the future but we own the past.
We own the past?
From our first kiss, a lifetime to the last.

They married in July 1951. I still wear the ring.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

An essay on suffrage

One day a florist goes to a barber for a haircut. After the cut he
asked about his bill and the barber replies, cannot accept money from
you. I'm doing community service this week.' The florist was pleased
and left the shop.

When the barber goes to open his shop the next morning there is a '
thank you' card and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.

Later, a policeman comes in for a haircut, and when he tries to pay his bill,
the barber again replies, 'I cannot accept money from you. I'm doing
community service this week.' The policeman is happy and leaves the shop.

The next morning when the barber goes to open up there is a 'thank you'
card and a dozen donuts waiting for him at his door.

Later that day, a professor comes in for a haircut, and when he
tries to pay his bill, the barber again replies, 'I cannot accept money
from you; I'm doing community service this week.' The professor is very
happy and leaves the shop.

The next morning when the barber opens his shop, there is a 'thank you'
card and a dozen different books, such as 'How to Improve Your Business'
and 'Becoming More Successful.'

Then, a Member of Parliament comes in for a haircut and when he goes to
pay his bill the barber again replies, 'I cannot accept money from you.
I'm doing community service this week.' The Member of Parliament is
very happy and leaves the shop.

The next morning when the barber goes to open up, there are a dozen
Members of Parliament lined up waiting for a free haircut.

And that, my friends, illustrates the fundamental difference between the
citizens of our country and the Members of Parliament.

My great aunt, Jess, was a suffragette. A member of the Women's Social and Political Union, she protested, was arrested, force fed, beaten and humiliated. So that women could vote. Even for the people who need to have their moats cleaned, can't remember that they've paid off their mortgages or even where they live. I'm enormously proud of Jess.

Tomorrow we have elections in the UK. Parish, county and European.

I have voted in every election since I turned eighteen. I'll be voting tomorrow. Don't let the sleaze disenfranchise us.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A little light hairdressing

Ever since I can remember I've spent a fortune on my hair. Shaping, colouring. you name it. Only once did I ever get a perm. The children laughed and mercifully, it fell out after about two weeks. Ever since the grey stuff started appearing, I've become a one-woman supporter of the British chemical industry. And I get to read "Hello" magazine.

I had a shampoo and set once. I got married in 1976 when long curved bobs were fashionable. Yes, before Jennifer Aniston. I wanted to have the long fringe gently curled so that it swept away from my face. The hairdresser picked up strands of my hair and, after sucking in her cheeks, muttered that it was very fine and probably wouldn't take a curl. I suggested that a little curl would do and that she could glue it in place with some hairspray. No, wouldn't do she said. So she trussed my hair up in large rollers at the back and five small ones at the front. And then she stuck me under the dryer. When I emerged, hot and bothered my hair felt crisp . The hairdresser teased the rollers out but my hair didn't change shape. At the back there were four large hairy turds and the front sported five frizzy chipolatas. The hairdresser tried bravely to hide her dismay and announced that it would all brush out. So, she set to work to beat it with a brush. Ten minutes in she had to pause for a rest. While she stood there panting, they rebounded into their respective poo/sausage shapes. Mercifully, it was only the practice run.

My mother was grey by the time I can remember her clearly. It may, of course, have had something to do with my arrival. But anyway, there she was, grey and permed all my life. In between perms, she would have a shampoo and set. She was always horrified by the amount of time and money I spent to end up with essentially straight hair. At least she was paying for it to be curly.

In the early nineties, we were going to a family "do". My mother was staying and we were a houseful for dinner the night before. We had all been to the hairdresser and were sitting at the table beautifully coiffed. My hair was smooth and sculpted; my mother's shiny and curly. A fine example of the art of the shampoo and set. As we chatted over dinner, she remarked about the cost of the shampoo and set and how it was much more expensive than at home. Once she'd started this theme, she wasn't going to let it go. The indignation synapse had been triggered and she was on a roll.

She moved on to the amount I had paid for my not-curly hair. Since there was much less artistry and no curlers, she was aghast that my visit had cost more than hers. By now, she had the attention of everyone around the table.

"Go on," she spluttered, "tell us how much you pay for a cut and blow job"

Madette nearly inhaled her salad. The other guests snorted and immediately sprang into polite embarrassed conversation. Junior Mad looked baffled.

Later, in the kitchen, she gave me a hard stare and asked why everyone had smirked and looked awkward. I shuffled my feet a bit and then muttered "You said blow job not blow dry".

Eighty years of limpid innocence gazed back at me.

"Are they different?", she asked.

Right. I'm off to the hairdresser. A rather lovely Japanese place with a super stylist. I'll just ask them to leave it to dry on its own ...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Guide Person for a Blind Dog

Eleven days of happiness. There. Friends and family, coming and going. Perfect weather, apart from the day that I did have to stay indoors and tidy up. Every day out walking in our wonderful green gold Taliesin bright landscape.

We see the kite most mornings and afternoons. One comes very low over the roof and we speculate that there are chicks to be fed.

The Hay Festival has given me treat after treat. Sandi Toksvig talking about the joys of being 50 something, Alan Bennett telling the story of the mantlepiece, Clive James asking where are Western intellectual women defending our sisters in countries where oppression is still the norm, Jon Snow singing "Do wah diddy diddy", Danny Abse reading Epithalamion.

Morning tea and a book to read. And Spot ... a dog to complete my world.

He is full of energy and affection. When he arrived, I assumed that we would never be able to walk off-lead. Blind dog might go dashing off to who knows where. But in the house, he is very good with commands and has adapted to the Here and There as if he's been doing it all his life. A few weeks ago out on a walk, I took the plunge and bravely let him off the lead. He loves to run and dashes across the field as if he knows exactly where he's going. You can hear the Chariots of Fire theme tune in the background.

When I call him back, he charges back towards me. Heathcliff, Cathy, Heathcliff, Cathy. Crunch. A learning experience for both of us as we pick ourselves up off the ground.

So now I know that I have to remind him to come to a stop. He still bounces off me regularly and I can be heard yelling "Head" at him if we walk where there are obstacles. I started off shouting "Mind your head" but sometimes he's going at such a pace that there's not enough time to veer off if I get the whole phrase out. Heaven knows what people think. That I'm shouting for a lavatory or worse ... Perhaps I should try hollering "Mind" instead.

But there are upsides to being a guide person for a blind dog.