Birthday Blog

It’s a year to the day since I published my first blog post. Tomorrow I begin another year’s journey in which I discover whether 42 is indeed “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything”.*

In my first post, ‘Launching’, I set out my reasons for writing and what I hoped to achieve by becoming a blogger. I was optimistic to believe I’d find the time and inspiration to write every week, but my prediction that my subject matter would “meander all over the shop” was bang on. Although – with the notable exception of my post ‘Inspired by Hope’ – numbers of readers have been fairly low, it has nevertheless been gratifying to hear many compliments and lovely comments from people who have troubled to read my random musings. So thank you. (And to those of you who read via Facebook, Likes and Shares are appreciated more than you can know!!)

As far as being mini is concerned, I’ve experienced the usual frustrations when it comes to finding affordable, age-appropriate clothes that fit (roughly a two per cent success rate, on average), but there have been some pleasant, thrifty surprises. I found my favourite non-wired, padded bra (which also sells well as a mastectomy bra, interestingly enough) in the sale at my favourite online shop, Know Knockers. http://www.knowknockers.co.uk The shop’s owner, the ever-fabulous, friendly and empathetic Sheila, also sent me other, no obligation bras to try and buy or return. Other finds included a £2 size 6 swimsuit from Tesco (shape-creating, with padded boobs), and an evening dress, also from Tesco, reduced from £50 to £7.50. I may never wear it, but it is very pretty and I can always sell it on.

I hit this year’s highlight of skint mini clothes hunting earlier this week, however, when my friend Ingrid** took me shopping. We started early at the St Neots market where, unbeknownst to me, there has been a second hand clothes stall for goodness knows how long, before progressing to several of the high street’s charity shops. It took about two minutes for Ingrid to pick me out a Karen Millen skirt for £4, and less than two hours later I had a haul of 10 lovely items for a total cost of £20.50 – including a Principles by Ben de Lisi blouse and a fully lined, sublimely fitting H&M skirt for work with the tags still attached. But the thing that gave me the greatest boost was trying on a size 8 dress in Scope and finding, to my utter amazement, that it was too tight across the bust. “It won’t do up”, I proclaimed loudly, emerging from the changing room so that everyone could see.

My charity shop haul. Loving the retro Karen Millen skirt!
My charity shop haul. Loving the retro Karen Millen skirt!

With my clothes shopping redefined, this year’s target is to do away with heels completely and embrace my 5’ 2” stature. Heels have become a bit of a feminist issue for me recently, highlighted by the case of Nicola Thorp, the receptionist who was sent home from work without pay because of her refusal to wear them. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/may/11/receptionist-sent-home-pwc-not-wearing-high-heels-pwc-nicola-thorp It occurs to me that there’s no pressure on men to walk around in discomfort all day, with their centre of gravity skewed, just to make their legs appear longer. Even some women talk about shorter women “needing” the height (for shame) – for what, exactly!? Getting stuff down from the top shelf in supermarkets is the only thing I can think of, and I’m old enough these days not to feel self-conscious about asking a nice young man to help me with that (and I happen to know one already who works in my local Tesco and is 6’5”, so there).

More to the point, however, heels now hurt me. Even a couple of hours wearing one inch heels causes twinges in my right knee and an ache in my lower back. So either I switch to flats or I can no longer run. There’s no choice really, especially as I’m about to sign up for this year’s Race for Life and intend to set a new PB.

Other signs of ageing are, inevitably, creeping in upon me. Ageing is a fascinating process if you can manage to distance yourself from the sheer horror: fine lines on my cheeks even when I’m not smiling; a subtle slowing of certain mental processes (the late, great Victoria Wood’s “What did I come up here for?” syndrome, and struggling to find the right word when I’m in a hurry – “It’s on the … the … the thing; the table”, accompanied by a frantic hand flapping gesture); and, last but not least, the incongruous decision of my right nipple – just the nipple – to begin to head south (how!? It is the size of a pea and must weigh about two grams … and why is the left one not going with it!?) Still, there are positives. I am healthy and active, and I still haven’t got any grey hairs (thanks Mum – that alone is saving me a packet).

It would take more than one blog post to sum up the past 12 months of mumma-hood, so I won’t even try. Instead, through gritted teeth (as they are both so much younger and more successful as writers than I am), I want to make special mention of two other mums who have inspired me this year. First up is Sarah Turner, the Unmumsy Mum, who posts her parenting advice as a series of lessons with appealing titles such as ‘It’s OK To Lose Your Shit’ and ‘F**k You SuperMum’. http://theunmumsymum.blogspot.co.uk It’s refreshingly honest, cathartic stuff for any parent with littlies. Next up is Jack Monroe, author of the cookbook A Girl Called Jack, whose post ‘Hunger Hurts’ completely blew me away. https://cookingonabootstrap.com/2012/07/30/hunger-hurts/ If you don’t know Jack’s story, you should read it now (and then order her book – it’s amazing and has cut our food bill by £15 a week).

It has been a thrifty year. I have been good. People have been kind. In the summer my family enjoyed a camping holiday in Devon, and my luscious in-laws have given us their old caravan for future trips. Hubby’s side of the family also clubbed together and bought us annual family membership of the National Trust, which I’m finding life-enhancingly wonderful. My work has increased, our debts are decreasing and for the first time in as long as I can remember we are out of overdraft and actually have some money in a savings account. I pledged we would get our heads down, tighten our belts and sort things out, and we are well along that road. I feel proud.

Except now we’ve gone and blown it all by deciding to book another Disney holiday … (Feel free to roll your eyes.) Our reasons are our own, but I’d ask you to trust me that they are good reasons (honest guv!!) And OK, the savings will go, and the knackered old carpets will have to stay a bit longer, along with the hole I accidentally kicked in my bedroom wall when I was feeling cross (in my defence I swear that plasterboard was paper thin) … but the difference this time is that we haven’t remortgaged or borrowed anything extra at all, and by the time we fly out (off-peak) next year the entire holiday will have been paid for in advance. That’s new. It will also keep me nice and skint for the rest of this year, thereby justifying the continuation of this blog – hurrah!

One final thing about this last year is my belated discovery of loads of great TV, including The Big Bang Theory and Lost, so I’m going to leave you with a lovely photo of Sayid. (Well, it’s my blog and it’s – almost – my birthday!)

 

*I refuse to reference this quote! There’s no excuse for unfamiliarity (unless you are young, and in that case I’m still not going to reference it because I’m jealous and churlish).

** Ingrid is a charity shop aficionado, handy with a needle and thread and the best dressed woman I know. Check out some of her clobber here – you won’t believe it. https://plus.google.com/111880931955954985158/posts Ingrid also makes and sells beautiful silver jewellery (see link below); exactly the sort of thing I’d be doing if I wasn’t so busy lacking creative talent and sitting watching Family Guy in my pants. https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/SilverFoxByIngrid?ref=search_shop_redirect

Raging against the dying of the light (at a middle-aged mumsy pace)

There I was, pounding away on the treadmill: 23 years of age, in the bloom of youth and at the peak of fitness, rocking my lycra pants and crop top, while two young guys eyed me openly from across the gym. Yeah, you can look, I thought to myself, enjoying a rare flash of smug pride. It wasn’t until a kind instructor approached me and made a quick, discreet mime in the direction of her nose that I realised the attention I’d attracted was down to a large, crispy bogey I’d had on display for goodness knows how long.

I gave up on the gym soon afterwards. I was naturally slim, after all, so why bother? I was more interested in going out drinking and dancing, and quite enjoyed being on display with my friends (though to this day, while any admiring glances ceased years ago, I still obsessively check the state of my nose). I was in my twenties, and a lifestyle comprised of late nights, little sleep, smoking, moderate to heavy drinking and noshing fry-ups for breakfast with takeaway curries for dinner seemed absolutely fine to me. And it was fine. I was in my twenties.

It wouldn’t be fine now. As the mum of a small child I still manage the limited sleep thing, but my IBS has rendered takeaway curries a thing of the past, I genuinely prefer toast and marmite to a fry-up most days, and I can’t remember the last time I smoked a cigarette. Where alcohol is concerned I tend to alternate between long stints of teetotalism and an uneasy glass or two several nights a week. To me this all signifies getting older and frankly it’s a relief to have an excuse to be kind to myself.

I started at a new gym, my local one, on my 36th birthday. This was because of a specific health reason (one that had mystified doctors), and give or take a few ropey patches I’ve stuck with it. The health issue is completely sorted. And I enjoy going. I’ve found this is vitally important when a) you’re a mum and the way of things is to put yourself last; and b) you have very little available time. Some of my friends blanche at the thought of entering a gym, but I love mine. It’s familiar, people of all ages, shapes and sizes attend, I know how everything works and of course, these days nobody looks at me. For someone who bears the scars of never having been picked for netball or hockey sides at school, and who has developed into a comfortable introvert over the years, the blessing of solo exercise cannot be overemphasised. I plug into my ears and train. Sometimes I even wear my Walmart kids’ t-shirt that reads “Leave me alone”. Being mini, as well as being older, has its upsides.

Everyone has their own reasons for exercising. In my twenties mine were vague at best and shallow at worst. Today they are consolidated into a comprehensive rationale: I want to maintain the gifts of youth I used to take for granted (strength, supple joints, flexibility, energy, the ability to just run) for as long as possible, and I appreciate that these gifts are not going to hang around for long without upkeep. I am ready to surrender the things that do not matter whilst valuing more than ever the things that do. My legs, for example, will never again be pretty with their spider veins and baggy knees, but they are strong. I can run and climb and carry my three-year-old. Not all at once, sadly.

I also want to set my children a good example. As they get older I’ve realised you can get away with less. How can those Converse be too expensive when you can afford your wine every night? Actually, my kids are not that obnoxious: I’m paraphrasing. Adopting a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach to parenting is risky, though. When my 14-year-old daughter or 11-year-old son want to come to the gym with me and train for Race for Life, I experience a flush of parenting success. Sure, they’ll both wipe the floor with me on the day, but I’ll be happy about that too. Needing to be the best is another happy surrender; wanting to be the best I can be is far more appropriate these days. It’s a movable feast, too, which is even better.

As for Little Daughter, she is perhaps my biggest motivation to delay the onset of serious ageing for as long as I can. I am fully aware that I made the decision to become pregnant in my late thirties, and that I will be in her life for a full ten years less than I will be in my older daughter’s. This is a sobering thought, but not necessarily a negative one. So what if I’m ten years older than a lot of the mums at the park? I can still chase my little one around and play with her. And I’m not ashamed to make a spectacle of myself having a bash at the assault courses my older kids enjoy.

I discovered in recent years that I enjoy running, although my speed is glacial and my distance seems to be limited to 5k (despite what Earnest Steve at the gym tells me, loading up my training programme with things called intervals – aren’t they to do with music? – and something else that sounds like Fart Lick Training). As well as keeping me fit, running boosts both my mood and my self-esteem. Every time I manage another 5k I am proud of myself.

Many other mums my age can run further and faster, while some cover less distance at a slower pace. It doesn’t matter. I have one friend who takes part in those crazy superwoman mud-and-electrodes events (she’s also just signed up to abseil off some insanely high tower). I have nothing but admiration for her. I mean nothing. No envy. No sense of failure by comparison. Just admiration, thank you! There’s my friend Anne who cycles all over the place with and without her family while I take the car to the corner shop, and another friend Claire who, at 51, regularly cycles 40 or 50 miles up and down hills on a racing bike. Then there are my wonderful swimming icons, a group of local friends in their forties and early fifties who cover length after length after length, often clocking up half a mile or more per session (arthritis, two knee replacements, another knee op and serious illness notwithstanding).

It doesn’t matter what exercise you choose or how accomplished you are. If you enjoy it and it benefits your health and wellbeing, then it’s a win-win situation.

I’d like to wish all those amazing people taking part in today’s London Marathon the very best of luck. What you are doing is incredible. And to the middle-aged mums who continue to fight for, find and pin down that elusive bit of ‘me’ time to jump on the bike, shake their stuff at a zumba class, go for a run or swim a few dozen lengths – POWER TO YOU!

Getting older is a lot to do with not giving a crap about the things that don't matter (such as the fact that small children can beat me in a 5k race)
Getting older is a lot to do with not giving a crap about the things that don’t matter (such as the fact that small children can beat me in a 5k race)

Inspired by Hope

January 2016 was a cruel month. We all felt it. Too many good ‘uns were taken. David Bowie (one of my favourite musicians); Alan Rickman (one of my favourite actors); that Motorhead guy with the moustache. One of The Eagles. The nation’s favourite Uncle Terry. Hope Harrison.

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the funeral of 20-year-old Hope, the son of a friend. ‘Privilege’ may seem a strange choice of word under the circumstances, but to have been present at such an occasion – to have learned, through the beautiful photographs displayed and the tributes given, about the life and outlook of a truly extraordinary young man – was indeed a privilege. Leaving the church that day, I wanted to tell everyone I met about that young man. I wanted to run up to strangers and tell them.

I barely knew Hope. I remember, from my days as a regular churchgoer, his name being on the prayer list for a long time. I had assumed he, or she, was an elderly relative of the Harrison family, rather than a small boy from Malawi who had been entrusted to the care of his uncle and aunt following his mother’s death, leaving behind his father and sister in Africa. When Hope recovered from his childhood illness and started attending church, I thought once more that he was probably a visiting relative, or perhaps a friend. It was not until later, when I became friends with the family and began teaching Hope’s brother and sister the piano, that I learned a little of Hope’s history.

That Hope has changed my outlook on life is all the more extraordinary for not having known him well.

Inside a packed church, including several ministers and so many young people, I learned of Hope’s nature: whereas most of us grumble our way through our days to a lesser or greater extent, “Hope lived, grateful for everything he had”. I learned of his humour (who would have believed that laughter could fill a church following such tragedy?); of his astonishing sporting prowess on the football pitch and, later, in the boxing ring; of his transformation from “small, lopsided” boy to a stunning young man with “a physique that David Hasselhoff would have envied” and, always, “that smile”.

From his dad and a close friend, I learned more about Hope’s philosophy on life. A person of few words but profound thought, he was popular, but never chose friends for their popularity. Whether making the most of his remarkable talents with dedication and humility, or facing devastating illness with unflinching courage, he stoically played the hand he had been dealt. I was reminded of a line from Kipling’s If:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same

The very morning he arrived in the UK, having lost his mother and left his father and sister, all of six years old and possessing a handful of English words, Hope just assumed he’d be trotting off to school alongside his new brother and sister. Years later, having undergone surgery to remove half his liver, Hope was back in the gym as soon as possible, lifting twice his bodyweight. There are simply no words.

It was both moving and inspirational to hear how Hope “reached out to those on the fringes of society”. Once, on his way into hospital for a chemotherapy session, he stopped to buy a cup of coffee and a sandwich for a homeless person. This was not an isolated incident, his dad told us. This was typical Hope.

I learned that Hope’s Christian faith was resolute all his life. In his last weeks would ask for passages from the Bible to be read to him, from which he gained comfort. He had a holding cross, which he sometimes rested on his chest as he slept, and which was in his hand when he died. Regardless of your stance on religion, you just don’t mess with that kind of personal faith. It is something immense; awe-inspiring.

A family friend wrote “We live in hope, inspired by Hope.” And although I did not know him well, I am making changes to my life – small but significant changes – which have been inspired by Hope. I include items for the food bank in my weekly shop. I buy The Big Issue. Why haven’t I been doing these things for years? I no longer curse my quietness, nor the physical effects of ageing. I try to live rather than to dread and anticipate. Being an emetaphobe I have spent a portion of every day since September 2014 (the last time I had a stomach bug) dreading the next stomach bug. What a profound waste of precious time. I don’t do that any more.

I have also been inspired by Hope’s family. One minister said that to have carried himself with such quiet confidence and self-assuredness, Hope must have “known, deeply, that he was deeply loved”. So each day, amid the routine rush and hubbub, I try to find an opportunity to ensure my children also know, deeply, that they are deeply loved.

My sincere thanks to Hope’s family for permitting me to write this, and to Phil Barrett for the photographs.

Happy New Era (Spoiler Alert)

I was too young to see Star Wars, Episode IV when it was originally screened in the UK, but my family went to watch it when Empire was released. I would have been only six or seven, my brother a couple of years younger, but we watched both films back to back, and although my dad remembers me being terrified by the eeriness of the Dagobah system, I was hooked. My memories of going to see Jedi a few years later are incredibly lucid: sitting in the cinema aged nine next to my best friend Jayne, hugging each other in thrilled anticipation as the 20th Century Fox fanfare erupted, followed immediately by the main theme in the same key. (B flat. Sorry.)

My brother owned an impressive array of Star Wars toys and characters including, among others, the millennium falcon, an AT-AT, a scout walker, an x-wing fighter, Jabba the Hutt (complete with dungeon and trap door), various figurines of Han and Luke (in their original designs, before manufacturers made the absurd decision to muscle them up, He-Man style), and the rancor monster – all of which, I believe, he sold for very little money a couple of decades ago. Deep breaths and moving on …

My first boyfriend (the excellently named Rupert) and I bonded over a figurine of the emperor’s royal guard I bought him for what was probably his tenth birthday; I don’t remember now, but I remember that figurine, resplendent in its flowing crimson cloak. Even my dad was impressed. I read Star Wars comics and crappy novelisations of the films, learning the names of characters seen but not identified on screen: Nien Nunb; Jabba’s gamorrean guards; the enslaved dancing girl, Oola; and my personal favourite, Salacious Crumb.

Then, of course, there was the music. I once watched a so-called celebration of of Star Wars that made not one mention of its soundtrack – can you imagine!? In my considered opinion, no film or series of films has ever topped it. I could write a dissertation on why, but now is not the time (I’d prefer for you to keep reading!) I will say, though, that I have managed to incorporate Star Wars very successfully into my classroom teaching. I am not alone in attempting this: if you Google Star Wars + leitmotifs thousands of results are generated, many of them academic in nature and several aimed specifically at music teachers.

A leitmotif is a musical idea, or theme, identifying a particular character, mood, idea or event, and can be musically modified to suit different circumstances. Luke has his own leitmotif, immortalised in the Binary Sunset scene early in Episode IV, as does Leia (she has two, actually, although one is a love theme, shared with Han). Yoda also has his own theme, and of course the most famous probably belongs to Darth Vader (even most non-fans would be able to pom-pom-pom along to the Imperial March).

Until last week, no cinematic experience had equalled Jedi for me. It was there, with the previous two films, established as a rock of my childhood and embedded in my consciousness for ever. As the years passed, thanks to the power of betamax, arid Tattooine, leafy Endor, icy Hoth, even the creepy Dagobah system, began to feel familiar and safe; John Williams’ beautifully crafted melodies recalled their respective, beloved characters and the bonds between them in a heartbeat; all was resolved and reconciled in the end; and Han Solo became the love of my life.

The force was certainly strong with me.

You may understand, then, my reluctance to watch The Force Awakens. Like most fans of a certain age, I considered the prequels a washout and simply brushed them aside. A sequel, however, would be tampering with material and characters already established and had the potential to twist and damage what I, and millions of others, held dear – and, more importantly, what our innocent childhood selves held dear.

Still, it was a night out with my husband – a rarity these days – so we went.

I’m not sure exactly what I had expected, but my fears of glaring continuity errors, or nursing a growing resentment towards new, youthful, uncharismatic leads, or squirming in my seat at cringey moments featuring original cast members, were entirely allayed. I was swept straight in from the opening chord – although I did miss the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare.

I am not a film buff and know little about cinematography, but it was gratifying to see that so much had been filmed on location. Unlike the prequels, The Force Awakens looked and felt like a Star Wars movie. There was a comforting familiarity about the settings. Jakku strongly recalled the desert landscape of Tattoine, while Takodana had echoes of both Mos Eisley and Endor. And speaking of familiarity, ahh, how wonderful it was to be back on board the now battered, creaking and dusty millennium falcon with fond reminiscences at every turn (my favourite was the holographic monster board game).

Happily – very happily – Han Solo was still absolutely Han Solo. I had been very worried, having seen Harrison Ford in other recent films and thought “Hmm, no, I think he’s lost it”. He was starting to put random, superfluous commas into his lines. (Peter Capaldi does it too, which is one reason I don’t like him as Doctor Who. The other reason is that he is not David Tennant.) But no: Han was back, and he was brilliant. The mock incredulity, the sarcasm, the banter – all so, so good.

Han’s interaction with Leia was well handled. The two characters are pretty much where you might expect them to be: no longer together, but at the point where the pain of the break up is now water under the bridge. It is summed up well when Leia says “You still drive me crazy”. Those of us who know, and probably even those who do not, instantly pick up on the balance of attraction and exasperation in roughly equal measures that was ever thus, but which is now slightly muted; tinged with the sadness of time.

So is the film little more than a nostalgic indulgence for fans of the original trilogy? No, it isn’t. From the outset the focus is squarely on the new leading characters, particularly Rey and Finn, both of whom I found increasingly engaging, intriguing and likeable as the plot progressed. The reason the film (and the die-hard fans) cope with the death of Han Solo is that viewers are, by that point, sufficiently convinced by his new friends to put themselves in their hands. It is certainly a shocking moment, but I didn’t wail and scream “nooooo!!” in the middle of the cinema. In fact, I managed not to cry at all until Chewbacca came to Rey’s rescue some time later, flying the millennium falcon on his own. That was just too much.

The aspect of youthfulness in the film is worked to great effect. Heroine Rey is young, abandoned, craving a sense of belonging; yet she is also feisty, ballsy and practical. She is initially unaware of her potential, and for me perhaps the greatest joy of the film is the gradual, shaky realisation and testing of her powers. Unlike Luke, Rey has no mentor, and apart from a few wise words from Maz Kanata it is all a case of trial and error.  During one magical moment, which left me trembling both times I viewed the film (yes, I went back a few days later!), Luke’s lightsaber rebuffs the outstretched hand of Kylo Ren and flies defiantly into Rey’s, accompanied by the highly emotive Binary Sunset theme.

Kylo Ren is another inspired creation: a gangly, angst-ridden, self-doubting young villain who spends as much time unmasked as masked, and whose fear and spite make him potentially more dangerous than Darth Vader’s assured, meticulous but generally one-dimensional baddie. Kylo Ren is unpredictable. We know he will become stronger, as will Rey, but there is so much more to be played out here.

And what of the final scene, where Rey eventually tracks down Luke? As the hooded figure slowly turned towards the camera my stomach sank and I thought it might not be him … but it was. And the expression on his face: the regret, the sorrow beyond yearning, the defeat, made me want to stand on my chair and shout out to him: “I know! I know! I’ve aged 32 years with you and it’s not how I thought it would turn out either! Life is complicated and difficult! All the idealism is gone!”

It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t.

On the way back to the car, walking in reflective silence with my husband, I suddenly burst into tears. I couldn’t explain to him exactly why I was crying, but it was something to do with having revisited that nine-year-old girl who had sat, wide-eyed, watching Return of the Jedi back in 1983.

Life has been kind to me: I have a loving husband and three children who are my joy and delight. I would not turn back time or change a thing en route if I could. But the absolute freedom from responsibility one has as a child, and the wonder and simplicity of enjoying something amazing as a child … reliving that feeling is potent.

Facing the News

In the 41 years I’ve known her, my nan has been an avid watcher of the news. I can picture her craning forwards in her armchair in front of the television, a pained expression on her kind, world-worn face, as whispered syllables of dismay issue from between her lips: tch; oh dear; no no; ahh; oh dear me.

Why watch it then? I used to think, rather bullishly.

I avoided the news for years. Somewhere between my teenage years and motherhood I lost the ability to deploy empathy boundaries. Anything upsetting – the ill-treatment of animals; children suffering; images of people starving – would cut me to the core and continue cutting for weeks, months or even years afterwards. The news, with its constant deluge of depressing stories, seemed a logical cull in order for me to preserve some semblance of equilibrium.

It wasn’t just the news, however. I clearly remember being reprimanded by one of my house mates at university for refusing to watch Schindler’s List, because I was scared of the impact (on myself, if you will!) of watching so much suffering and, infinitely worse, knowing it had all actually happened.

“You shouldn’t not watch it just because it will upset you!” cried my friend, her eyes blazing. “It’s meant to upset you. Everyone should watch it, to make sure those things never happen again.”

I felt rather ashamed, but how could I explain to my friend that ‘upset’ in my case consisted of sleep deprivation and daily mental torment for an untold length of time? As far as I was concerned, as there was no chance whatsoever of me ever developing or tolerating Nazi sympathies, there was no need for me to watch such a film.

When I became a mum everything was amplified a hundredfold, particularly anything involving children. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have a sense of patriotism where starving children are concerned!” I once blurted, semi-hysterically, when a group of acquaintances were having a moan about donating to Comic Relief while the UK was in a recession. “I’d be mummy to the whole world if I could!” Then I went off and had a good old self-righteous sob.

I subscribed to several of those £2-a-month charities but always changed channel the second one of their harrowing adverts appeared on the TV screen. I know it’s horrendous, I thought. I care. You don’t have to rub my nose in it. And the news continued to be horrific, and I continued trying to avoid it, but the stories and the names kept filtering through, despite my best efforts at avoidance: Victoria Climbie, Tiffany Hirst, Baby P, and the one that utterly broke my heart, caused me to break down in tears several times at work and deprived me of untold hours of sleep, Madeleine McCann.

I spent the days following Madeleine’s disappearance glued to BBC News 24, wishing, hoping and praying for her to be found. I could not comprehend some people’s attitudes surrounding the tragedy. Why should the Portuguese police spend all their time looking for her? Her parents shouldn’t have left her. As if she was nothing more than a camera, or an expensive gold watch that someone had carelessly left in an unlocked hotel room …

I couldn’t think about the police, or even the parents. My agonised mind could not reach beyond that little girl, and what she might be enduring at any given moment. I became obsessive, even though I knew that my inability to function on various levels because of a news story was not helping anyone, least of all the McCann family. All I could do was raise awareness and donate a little money to the search fund. That year I could not bear to celebrate my birthday, and asked for donations to the fund in lieu of gifts. I was not alone. I believe the world became a slightly darker place for many people, the day Madeleine McCann disappeared.

Then, a few days ago, Antoine Leiris posted a message addressing the terrorists who shot 129 people in Paris last Friday and, as one of the 15 million people who read it, my insular, self-protecting outlook changed for ever.

The weather was rubbish. I never like November much anyway (it’s always rife with sick bugs), and I wasn’t looking forward to work. I was in a real ‘can’t be arsed’ mood, to be completely honest, as well as exhausted and slightly under the weather, and was seriously considering rescheduling my teaching for another day.

Then I read Antoine Leiris’ words. I don’t think I have ever felt so humbled. I realised in a heartbeat that my response to suffering had been all about me: its impact on me, and my absurdly petty worry about my inability to deal with it. Deal with what, exactly? My life is utterly blessed. In the wake of the unthinkable, here was this amazing man demonstrating courage, hope, and the profound strength of love. His spirit was undaunted and he knew that he and his small son Melvil would be able to continue with their lives and their happiness despite the presence of heartbreak.

Needless to say, I pulled my socks up and drove to work, wiping away tears en route.

I watch the news now. I make the same sounds as my nan, but I watch. I have decided I can empathise and shed tears without wallowing indecently in someone else’s grief. If people endure horror, then I can certainly manage to endure bearing witness to it. I try to show a greater appreciation of what I have, too; counting your own blessings is not the same as thinking ‘I’m alright, Jack, pull up the ladder’. And for the really tough stories …? Well, some things do find their way into your heart. It’s probably called being human.

As for Melvil Leiris, I will continue to think of him as time moves on, as I do Madeleine McCann, but in a different way. Whenever he pops into my mind over the years, instead of welling up over the poor little boy who lost his mummy, I will attempt – in my own greatly watered-down way – to emulate the positive thinking of his father. I will imagine him at home and at school, with his friends or grandparents or with his dad, the best dad in the world. I will hope that he is happy, and I will strive to feel happy for him.

In the highly unlikely event that you have not yet heard or read Antoine Leiris’ tribute to his wife Helene: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34862437

When Parenting Falls Short

One of the least helpful, and in fact potentially most damaging, pieces of advice parents can give to a child who is being bullied is to stick up for him/herself. Unless the child in question is the type to do so, they’re not going to do so (not straight away, at least) and your increasingly frustrated demands that they “don’t put up with it” will simply serve to make them feel more self-loathing and less empowered. It’s not that they’re refusing to; it’s that they can’t. And they probably won’t be able to explain why, which you’ll find even more frustrating.

I’m speaking from experience here. In my adolescent years I was incredibly vile and mouthy to my mother much of the time (sorry, Mum), so she was genuinely perplexed when my response to girls at school making cruel comments was to freeze, wide-eyed, like a rabbit in the headlights. How could I turn on the vitriol tap so readily for someone who loved me, yet barely manage to stammer a few words in my defence when being picked on at school?

As a parent, I hoped and prayed my children would be naturally confident and assertive, as the tedium and sheer slog of having to acquire those attributes later in life is such an arse-ache (besides which, being bolt-ons, they never sit comfortably). It’s hard to touch wood and type at the same time, but so far Big Daughter has sailed through school academically and socially without many hiccups. She’s not an A-lister (praise be!), but she’s confident in her own identity and for a 13-year-old girl that’s reassuring. She is also both calm and eloquent, a perfect combination for combating verbal taunts, and if required to I have no doubt she would use her impressive karate skills and considerable strength to put an assailant on the floor.

The Boy, Toby, is also pretty good at karate, but the similarities end there. Ahh, the guilt. Before I had children I naively worried about passing on my crappy eyesight or sloping shoulders, when what I should have worried about was the inability to self-defend. By eight or nine Toby had become what most children regarded as an ‘easy target’: different, sensitive, reactive, emotional, musically talented and not at all rational. (You’re welcome, son.)

Blips between friends could be, and were, resolved. Alex and I appreciated that Toby could be high maintenance, with his quirks and his constant singing, and his friends and their parents were very supportive. But not everyone was a friend, and my goodness, it was a rough road. I think I found it almost as rough as Toby did: as someone who does not deal well with confrontation and still struggles to be calmly assertive, I tended to go on the defensive and several times made things worse by taking children to task in a – shall we say – verbally aggressive manner. (“I didn’t stick up for myself, but I’m damn well going to stick up for my kids!! Here I go, off to holler in the street in my dressing gown like a chav. This is bound to help.”) And there is nothing I have experienced that is worse than seeing your children suffer.

I’m happy to say that things are better now, and Toby’s confidence is growing (hand in hand with a healthy dose of pre-teen attitude, but that’s OK). But when I reflect on those years, my inability to help him saddens me. Couldn’t having gone through it myself somehow have prevented a repeat performance? No, it couldn’t, because it wasn’t my fault and it wasn’t Toby’s. There will always be horrible people.

So what did get us through? In my case it was a girl called Ruth.

At 13 I left the local comprehensive (where it was felt I had ‘slipped through the net’, whatever that meant) and started attending a private girls’ school a few miles away. Having been brought up on a diet of Enid Blyton I anticipated lots of jolly japes and everyone being lovely and kind (not like some of those rough, mean, bigger boys and girls from my old school). Needless to say, ‘disappointed’ was the understatement of my life … my pleas to return to the comp were unheeded, however, so I was there to stay, standing paralysed in the new, glaring headlights and reeling inwardly at the torrent of intimidation and bitchiness that ensued on a daily basis.

At break time a few days in, a dreaded trio of tall, poodle-permed girls made their way over to where I was lurking near the music block, wishing away the minutes until the merciful protection of lessons resumed. I remember the terror, the adrenaline, the familiar seizing up. Their taunts were to do with my hair, or my clothes … I don’t remember now. Suddenly someone was standing next to me – someone small, just like me – and she was giving back as good as they gave out, like a scrappy terrier taking on three rottweilers (rottweilers with poodle hair). The gratitude came later. What struck me first was amazement that these three beefy girls did not kick my defender across the school car park. Any moment now, I kept thinking …but it didn’t happen. After a few more exchanges, the girls turned, sneering, and walked away.

They, and others like them, returned many more times, but with Ruth by my side I made it through. We even enjoyed some of the ‘jolly japes’ I had initially envisaged. 28 years later, we still do.

In Toby’s case, he had a group of good friends who had known him since reception and generally stuck up for him but sometimes couldn’t resist teasing him too (he was a few years younger, remember – and we’re talking about boys). During the last year of primary school one of these friends convinced Toby he’d hacked his YouTube account and replaced his avatar with an image of a gay lap dancer, causing Toby such distress that eventually the friend relented and admitted he’d done no such thing. I tried not to laugh too much when Toby told me about this.

But the most loyal of Toby’s friends is a lad called Jack Speed*. My initial impression when Jack Speed first came round for tea was ‘whirlwind’: the boy could not sit still, and several times during the meal he’d leap up from the table to start playing (I use the term loosely) the piano. When we went to the park he dived – as in head first – over the gate and disappeared from view, and my heart sank as I was sure he must have injured himself, but no, he was fine, rocketing up from the tarmac seconds later.

Over the years the boys have visited each other’s houses numerous times, playing on the Wii and later the Xbox and bickering like a pair of old women, but whenever the chips were down Jack could be relied on to stand up for Toby, even when no-one else did (Toby himself included). He didn’t care, and still doesn’t, about Toby not being one of the ‘cool’ kids. That’s pretty remarkable when you consider the levels of peer and image pressure encountered during the first year or two of secondary school.

As time went on, I got to know Jack Speed better. I saw how kind and patient he was with Little Daughter, having younger siblings himself, and have several times overheard him encouraging or calming an upset Toby. “Don’t worry about it, Tobes”, he said at a lads’ get-together at our house a while ago, when Toby was losing sorely to some other friends on the Xbox. “You’ll be be more of a success in life than me. I’m in bottom group maths.” I could have wept.

When parenting falls short (and, with the best will in the world, it always does at some point) it can be a relief to know we are not our children’s only influence. Guardian angels come at unexpected times, in unexpected guises. Whether they’re taking your side in the playground when you’ve done nothing to earn it, or letting you borrow their cycling helmet after they’ve been banned from the bikeability course for being ‘a danger’, it is difficult to express the wonder and gratitude you feel when someone fantastic openly values you at a time when you don’t much value yourself. This is what starts to build self-worth and, in turn, confidence.

* My thanks to Jack’s parents for letting me use his full name, which is quite simply the best name in the world. Toby even named his guinea pig Jack Speed, although guinea Jack Speed was a girl, which once rather confused the vet’s receptionist. 

Parting Ways with the Prosecco Sisterhood

Even in my clear headed contentment, I fall victim to the allure of packaged sophistication that is a glass of red after work or an espresso martini on a Saturday afternoon. Both seem to be romantic symbols of adulthood and reward. If I snap myself with one and post to Facebook, it will surely be an image of elegance and maturity that will attract lots of likes.

Alcohol messaging and advertising has been ringing around my head lately. Each drink means something different. The industry barely has to do any of the work anymore; consumers take the photos and post them with hashtags like #cheekydrinks #thelife #whynot. We’re doing the work of million dollar advertising firms.

HannahG89, HSM

During my two year (or was it three year?) Facebook-free stint, a few changes have occurred that are not confined to the continual irritating layout changes from the powers that be. Most notable is the shift from individual status updates to an endless stream of reposts – many of which, it must be said, are informative or amusing, but as a nosey so-and-so I preferred the days of holiday snaps (or any snaps) and ‘What I’ve been up to today’-type musings. Another change I’ve noticed is a marked increase in the celebration of alcohol – again, generally in postcard form: “One prosecco, two prosecco, three prosecco, floor”; “I went shopping for bread and came back with prosecco!” – that kind of thing. I have even read an article featuring middle class mums who enjoy a prosecco whilst socialising their toddlers. Yep, it seems prosecco is certainly popular, although I did also stumble (hic!) across a very amusing and hugely successful blog entitled ‘Hurrah for Gin’.

If you think you know where this is headed, you may be wrong. Prosecco is one of my favourite alcoholic drinks, the other being Hoegaarden, and I always used to love a gin and tonic or three at Christmas. I have no problem whatsoever with any of these posts on Facebook; it’s just that I no longer happen to be in a place (to use a cringey phrase) where I relate to their sentiments.

I was an almost daily drinker for many years. I rarely binged because of my fear of vomiting, but I drank between three and five units of alcohol per evening for a long time. This wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem if I hadn’t hated the feeling of dependency that developed. I’ve never been very good at kidding myself. No matter how many times I resolved that I’d only have a glass a night, or would only drink at the weekends, or would have a dry January every year, I still ended up chugging back that same amount almost every night.

When I did have breaks – and I had many, though they were completely sporadic – I wasted the time by wishing away the days until I could drink again. I told myself I wasn’t, but as I said, I’m no good at kidding myself. When the designated dry spell was up, I never left it just one day longer – I was straight back on the sauce that night. I even tried a dry year once. That was simply too long a spell to wish away the days and months, and I adapted well to an alcohol-free lifestyle until eight months down the line when, to quote a dear friend of mine, “the world dropped out of my bottom” and I hit the Hoegaarden with a vengeance.

Most people would not have regarded me as someone with an ‘alcohol problem’. I didn’t get drunk; I never drank at work; I could function perfectly well without alcohol and my kids were never neglected. I just couldn’t embrace being a daily drinker. I knew I was dependent, and I wanted it to change. I didn’t want to spend evenings either drinking or yearning to; didn’t want to condition my kids to think that daily alcohol consumption was an inevitability of adulthood. But I had no idea what to do about it. How do you change the nature of alcohol, a substance that has no intention of being consumed just occasionally or in tiny amounts?

Then just under a year ago I stumbled across HSM (Hello Sunday Morning) https://www.hellosundaymorning.org, a totally brilliant social networking site with a difference. The idea is you sign up for a three month or 12 month booze-free stint, follow like-minded folks and let them follow you (if you wish), set goals and tick them off once you’ve achieved them, and use the site for moral support when the going gets tough. I don’t know what I’d expected when I signed up for a three month break, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the eloquence, perceptiveness and devastating honesty that radiated from the people I encountered. Some just wanted a healthy break from drink; others knew they would never be able to moderate and were taking life one day at a time. The warmth, empathy, compassion and support were overwhelming. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

And so I finished my three months, and found to my surprise that I didn’t fancy a drink that day. I decided to leave it until the next big family do, which happened to be the christening of my beautiful nieces. After a few sips of chilled dry white, however, an unpleasant sensation seemed to whoosh through my veins. I felt slightly giddy, oddly aware of my pulse, and fuzzy in my head. I left the rest of the glass unfinished.

What had gone wrong? It took me a while – and several more ‘failed’ attempts at drinking – to realise that my experience with HSM had fundamentally reprogrammed me. The sensation I was experiencing was nothing more or less than the normal effect of alcohol: I just didn’t enjoy that sensation any more. It was as though a filter had been removed after twenty-odd years.

This should have been my eureka moment; the turning point that marked my permanent switch to alcohol-free living. Hadn’t my prayers been answered? I’d never again crave alcohol, because I no longer enjoyed it! Gratitude should have been abundant. But human beings are stupid creatures. I continued making attempts to drink, until eventually my body began once more to tolerate alcohol.

Happily, and very luckily, I seem to have achieved what I always wanted: to be able to drink occasionally (probably once a fortnight on average) without pining for it between times. It’s a slightly uneasy, cautious path to tread – I can only tolerate one or two drinks, and can’t drink for more than two consecutive days or the seeds of craving start to take root again – and I don’t enjoy alcohol as much as I used to (unless, again, I persist for more than two consecutive days … you see the catch 22 here!? I’m having my cake and eating it, but it’s a coffee cake).

The biggest plus, by several miles, is having shaken the feeling of dependence. That makes me happy on a daily basis. I like myself more because of it. I like that I can drive anywhere at any time, and I love that even as a naturally shy person I feel no need for alcohol when socialising (OK, I might choose not to socialise sometimes because I’m introverted, but that’s a different matter). I love living life on its own terms rather than applying any kind of filter or rosy glow; it feels honest, somehow. My husband, who used to drink far more than he would have done without me as a drinking buddy, has settled back into his natural quota of roughly two beers a week. The money saved ain’t too shabby either. I do feel removed from ‘the gang’ … but really, is there a gang? How old am I!?

This Christmas, unlike last, I expect I’ll be raising a glass of prosecco to my lovely family and enjoying quaffing it. Just not quite as much as I used to.

Anne

 

As kingfishers catch fire,
Dragonflies draw flame*
                                                                               Gerard Manley Hopkins

“I’m about to cycle into town and escape to the library while C and the boys bring in the harvest”, reads Anne’s chirpy text message.

A solo bike ride in the early autumn sunshine (virtuous and mood enhancing as well as beautiful), the luxury of even occasional moments alone to do laid back, restorative things, and a hubby who has the time, talents and inclination to tend a well-stocked allotment. Not for the first time, the thought Gaaaaaaah! I want your life!! flashes across my mind.

Anne lives where I would like to live, in a house I would like to own, with a garden that backs on to a nature reserve. She and her husband work hours that I would classify as ‘substantial part-time’. Both talented and professional musicians, their working lives consist of gigging and instrumental teaching in variable proportions. Anne also directs numerous ensembles for both adults and children, one of which used to include me squeaking away on the flute, and is currently recording her second album. This is starting to read like a biog, but I have no need to try to ‘sell’ Anne; listing the facts is enough.

“C and I decided a while ago that neither of us wanted to work full-time”, Anne once told me. Good for you, I thought, perhaps a little sourly at the time, as I considered Alex’s exhausting work schedule and severely limited time at home.

For a while I became slightly obsessive about comparing aspects of Anne’s life with my own, from her intimidatingly impressive musicianship to her well-cut clothes, and wasted a good deal of time in a state of self-pitying negativity: Huh. Why can’t my husband be home more? Why am I in such a crappy house? Why is my family not doing wholesome outdoorsy things every weekend? Why wasn’t I blessed with musicianship like that? (She dances when she conducts a jazz band. Oh yes, she does. It is very cool. When I first joined one of her ensembles I was so in awe of her I don’t think I could do more than stammer “hello” most weeks. She thought I was about 12.)

More recently, it dawned on me (probably to Anne’s relief, and that of several other good friends) that I had allowed myself to spiral into a victim mentality – with no justification whatsoever, of course. Worse than that, I had become entrenched in a bitter, entitlist mindset, continually listing my woes and doing absolutely sod all to try to improve things. It wasn’t just about Anne, either. I had begun to feel envious of other friends: those who had changed careers, built their dream house or undertaken to start their own businesses.

This simply had to stop, and it did (OK, it more or less did), but then I didn’t know where to start when it came to making changes. I felt overwhelmed. I reconsidered Anne’s comment about not wanting to work full-time, and realised it was all about priorities. Anne is superb at prioritising. She does not have everything she would like, but she ploughs her positive, sparkling energy into pursuing her top priorities.

“We’ve always had crap cars”, she says cheerfully, “because I just couldn’t give a shit. As long as they get us from A to B, that’s all I care about. And we rarely spend more than a grand on a holiday.” Conscious prioritising means Anne and her family live as well and as happily as they possibly can whilst keeping within their means. Location takes priority over having a detached house; home-grown and Lidl groceries take priority over brands; family bike rides (free, fun, healthy) take priority over excess tech (expensive and anti-social).

I realised I was actually being greedy and unrealistic, pining indiscriminately for everything. I was also being incredibly ungrateful. There is a great deal to be said for counting your blessings. That’s another thing about Anne: she is appreciative. Not just of her family, friends (even the odd, awkward friends like me) and the material things, but of life’s experiences in general. If she doesn’t always get what she wants, well, then, she is adept at following the old adage of wanting what she gets. What might be to you or me just a hurtful rebuff, or a moment of withering embarrassment, or a crushing disappointment is, to Anne, also an opportunity to reflect, learn, self-improve and move forwards. She doesn’t stew. She never stews. Seen in this light, her take on life is extremely humbling. It’s also pretty ballsy, and the brilliant thing about it is it puts her in the winning seat every time. If you can turn negatives into positives, you’re bound to radiate sunshine.

On a more spiritual level, despite openly confessing to being fiery, impatient and short-tempered, Anne is actually very good at playing the long game. My Nan used to say you should “do your best and pray the rest”, which resonates with Anne’s philosophy. If something feels right to her, she will not give up at the first hurdle, and if there is nothing more she can do to attain it there and then she will give it time and positive vibes, “leaving the way open”. When I left my job to become wholly self-employed I panicked. I set in motion a domino-like chain of mini-panics; ‘what ifs’ that would probably never materialise. It was Anne who was convinced that work would come my way (she even provided some of it!), and she turned out to be right. But I needed to seek it out and be open to the possibilities.

My current project is making my home nicer. (This is why I haven’t written anything in over a month – I’ve been busy painting. Improving my surroundings has been my priority.) Nobody else is going to do it for me. I must say, it already looks a good deal better. Now Alex and I need to decide if we want to stay here or try to move. Time to prioritise again. If we do choose to move, we will need to make compromises because our dream of a detached, four-bedroomed house in this area is out of our reach. However, a detached house further out might not be, and if we want to stay local we could stretch to a four-bedroomed semi. What are our priorities? Looking at things this way clarifies them and offers possibilities. It feels positive, even empowering, and that – for me – is new. I like it.

Maybe my next project will be picking up the flute again and rejoining the band.

Being Anne

“On work:

  • Play to your strengths; I am naturally bossy, so teaching has suited me.
  • Play to your weaknesses; I get bored easily, so teaching has suited me!
  • If you make a mistake at work, then apologise and move on.  If your colleague wants to dwell on it, then they are the pedant – not you.
  • There is nothing wrong with taking a job for the money.  However, if this becomes your permanent and only motivation, then you need to re-assess.
  • Always think about the bigger picture. Which is more valuable – time or money?

“On life:

  • Always have hopes and dreams, but be honest with yourself about where they have come from: do you really want to be a lawyer?  Or have you been checking out George Clooney’s wife and quite like her clothes?
  • You can’t have everything you want.
  • With regard to the above, you can have a lot of what you want if you think, plan, prioritise.
  • If you have been lucky enough to travel, you will know that this country is actually quite a good place to live and work.  Stop moaning.
  • Again, with regard to the above, if living where you are is too depressing, then move elsewhere.  Members of my close family have moved abroad and never regretted it.
  • It is insane to keep children indoors all day.  Unless you/they are ill, or it is actually dangerous to exit your front door, then it is always worth it.
  • It is nonsense to separate mental and physical health.
  • Exercise, preferably in green spaces, makes you feel better.  There is not a single problem I have encountered that has not been reduced or eliminated by walking …”

*This is from one of my favourite poems of all time. Aside from the dizzyingly beautiful imagery, the subject matter itself is also uplifting: all things thriving through doing what they were made to do; being what they were intended to be. Whether or not you are religious, it’s a joyous read. http://www.bartleby.com/122/34.html

Hanna

“What are your treats?”

Pause.

“I don’t really have any treats.”

“Oh, come on – you must have some! Bottle of wine? Holidays? What do you do at the weekends?”

“No wine. A few days away maybe once a year; a friend has a caravan … Weekends are generally taken up doing different jobs around the house together … Dog walking … Going to the park … Visiting Dad … Maybe a car boot sale if I’ve been so very good …”

It’s important to appreciate where Hanna is coming from. Thrift is a popular concept these days, which has to be a good thing, and people from all kinds of backgrounds are jumping on the bandwagon. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s becoming dominated by the middle classes, many of whom now enjoy the addictive thrill of rummaging in charity shops to find the occasional gem (especially in posh areas), or discovering that Lidl’s wheat biscuits taste just as good as the Weetabix they’ve always bought in the past (and they have nice packaging). Why spend more? Why indeed. Quids in – and off to Spain you trot, or up goes that extension.

Then there are those trendy thrift books written by people such as India Knight (whose style of writing, I have to say, I absolutely love) who have a wealth of fabulous ideas but kind of give the game away by including suggestions of “swapping holiday homes with your friends” and “sharing ownership of an enormous jam making pan” alongside the cheapie recipes for vegetarian curry.

thrift book

Despite my slightly scornful tone I am in favour of all of this (and guilty – if that is the right term – of some of it). It should be remembered, however, that there are plenty of people for whom thrift is not a handy, temporary or fun way of saving money but a long term, pressing, 24/7 necessity, with no reward at the end of each month other than managing not to have accrued more debt. Hanna falls squarely into this category.

As a full-time mum of three with a husband earning a steady but low wage, Hanna has had to learn how to be more resourceful than most. It was either that or go under, and sinking just isn’t Hanna’s style. ‘Doing stuff around the house’ for Hanna includes any painting, tiling, carpeting, wallpapering, door hanging or electrics, all of which she learned from her dad who was a builder/jack-of-all-trades. On the rare occasion she does need an expert to fix something, she will ask around for a recommendation, so as to give the business to a friend of a friend. I should point out that as she knows just about everybody in the St Neots area she rarely has trouble finding such a recommendation.

The sheer usefulness of knowing vast numbers of local people cannot be overestimated. When Hanna is on the lookout for something, such as a deep chest freezer (free, from a friend) or an xbox for the kids (£35, perfect working order, plus games) her network of friends and the local Facebook sites will be her first port of call, closely followed by Ebay.

Hanna takes the notions of shopping around and bargain hunting to a whole new level: she once salvaged a bike from the recycling centre and was rather chuffed, on having it valued, to find that it was worth around £270. In the past she has spotted an immaculate double bed complete with wardrobe, chest of drawers and bedside tables at the same centre. “We’re a throwaway nation, therefore there’s amazing stuff at the tip!”

Feeding a hungry family of five on a small budget is a challenge (I can vouch for this), but Hanna makes it work. £450 per month (non-negotiable) has to buy all the family’s groceries and other bits such as washing powder, toothpaste and loo roll, as well as dog food. Hanna does a big monthly shop, using a time-consuming but effective system that involves auditing her cupboards, fridge and freezer, then listing what is needed before comparing prices online at Lidl, Tesco, Asda and Farmfoods and buying goods accordingly. She tops up weekly with fresh fruit and veg, also from the £450 budget, and cooks most dinners from scratch. Christmas is frugal, with a gift budget of £40 per child, and Hanna and her husband don’t buy for each other.

Her three beautifully turned out children are clad in garments sourced from Ebay, car boot sales, Sports Direct and various friends. Like Sarah, Hanna pays it forward. In fact, she is a veritable Del Boy (or Girl). You need it? Hanna’s more than likely got it. To cite one example from many: our 11-year-old sons recently had their transition days at their new secondary school. “Ah, no!” I moaned to Hanna in a text the night before. “I forgot to buy Toby’s trainers in time. Bugger.” “I’ve got some he can have”, she texted back, not missing a beat. “Size 4?”

Quite where Hanna stores all these goods I don’t know, as her home is always uncluttered and impeccably presented, but I do know why she stores them. “I never say no to anything that’s offered. If it’s not good for me, it might be for somebody else”, she says simply. Her ethos of helping others is humbling considering how little she herself possesses, but she has lived through tougher times. “I’ve been there: had a cracker for lunch; had just a tin of tomatoes to last me two days. After our first date, D (now her husband) went shopping and filled all my cupboards.”

Her generosity is not limited to material goods. Hanna gives freely of her time, and is a rock in a crisis. When Toby snapped his wrist at his own birthday party some years ago, it was Hanna who took charge of the situation as I wandered around in shock; Hanna who made sure the paramedics were called, came with us to the hospital and waited for three hours until my husband Alex arrived.

When my daughter’s guinea pig escaped and I went into complete meltdown, it was Hanna who raced round, torch in hand, with a no-nonsense “Now, if I was a guinea pig, where would I hide?” mentality and after two hours (during which I did little other than cry and Alex shouted and threw things out of the shed) emerged wet, muddy and smelling of guinea pig wee with a trembling, cobwebbed Tilly who had somehow secreted herself in a hidden hollow beneath a paving slab. That was on her birthday (Hanna’s, not Tilly’s. I suppose it could have been Tilly’s too. I’m sure it felt like it.)

Hanna lists her priorities in life thus:

  1. To be a good mother
  2. To be a good wife
  3. To always help people less fortunate than herself
  4. To work hard at everything she does
  5. To be a great friend

Her aspirations are to have a career, now that her youngest child is at school, and not to have to “go through my list, crossing off things we can’t afford this month”.

I hope she succeeds. I can think of no-one who deserves it more.

The Hanna Touch

  • Never say no to anything.
  • Don’t be too proud.
  • Get hold of a deep chest freezer and freeze everything! (bread, milk, cheese, etc)
  • Use a slow cooker for most meals; it’s cheap because it only uses a small bulb and food tastes so much nicer.
  • Bulk up mince dishes with lots of cheap, chopped veg. Chop and freeze onion and other veg in bags, then you can just chuck it in.
  • Get to the shops 10 minutes before closing and you can get the cheap stuff they’re about to throw out.
  • Visit Emmaus – they have everything you could want for your home, it’s all good, all cheap, and all for charity.
  • Walk everywhere and make use of your local parks (Hanna’s children are all slim and mega-fit).
  • Check out Facebook sites such as ‘Feed Yourself for £1’ – there are some useful ideas.
  • Use or develop a skill or hobby to make some extra cash. (Hanna and her husband recently started their own business: see http://www.cambridgemedalmounting.co.uk – my husband is one of their many satisfied customers!)

Sarah

‘A show home you can relax in’ is the best way I can sum up Sarah’s house. In over ten years of friendship I have never seen it looking anything other than immaculate: the walls, ceilings and skirting boards look as though they were painted yesterday, the kitchen tiles shine, every scrap of grout and sealant is whiter than white (I pray she doesn’t look this hard at my house!), the windows are always smudge-free, I’ve never seen a speck of dust and everything is in its place. For me this has always been a warm and welcoming home and, thanks to Sarah being such an accepting and non-judgemental friend, I’ve never been made to feel ashamed of my own house. Oh, I do feel ashamed of my house, but Sarah has never made me feel that way. I take comfort in the fact that her job in the care profession means she regularly has to visit homes that are even worse than mine …

Sarah’s organisational skills are devastating: she is uber-efficient, which she puts down to her upbringing. “Mum’s life was lists; she had no greater pleasure than crossing items off a list!” Such is the extent of her efficiency, that although her spotless home resembles that of an obsessive compulsive cleaner, Sarah actually doesn’t spend much time cleaning at all. Really, she doesn’t. She finds it boring, so has devised a routine that gets everything done in the shortest time possible, as well as fitting around her husband’s shifts and her own changeable work schedule. The downstairs carpets are hoovered by Son 1 daily, Sarah cleans the bathrooms on Monday and dusts on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday (schedule depending), and all carpets are hoovered and floors mopped by hubby on Friday or Saturday, depending on his shifts.

When I clarify that she doesn’t have a cleaner, she laughs in a ‘chance would be a fine thing!’ kind of way. “You need to train your kids”, she adds, before openly admitting that she hasn’t (hoovering aside). Any hint that she possesses domestic goddess qualities is quickly refuted. “I am a rubbish and lazy cook! Lots of days I have to cook twice or reheat with a shift work hubby and the kids’ activities. I’m fortunate hubby’s work clothes don’t need ironing, and I do not iron school sweatshirts or trousers if I can get away with it!”

Whether it is modesty or a genuine belief that her beautiful home doesn’t merit any fuss, this dismissive attitude towards her own talents is characteristic of Sarah. Dusting is “a quick flick round”, laundry is done “when it’s there” (and put away as soon as it is dry), and the gleaming fridge gets “a quick wipe round with antibac; nothing major” (I believe her, but can’t help feeling rather grubby about my fridge, which always requires more than a quick wipe: I generally find gunk in the seals and spilt manky milk festering somewhere, and bits of limp lettuce clinging to the vegetable drawers). One major difference between us is that Sarah is good at doing things there and then, at the stage when it is just a case of ‘a quick flick round’. The same principle applies when it comes to avoiding clutter. I regularly clear clutter, but it accumulates again soon enough. In order to change I would need to have a major blitz, then start dusting before things look dusty (or our bedroom carpet triggers yet another of my husband’s asthma attacks), and wiping round with antibac before things look rancid. This would take some doing.

A common trait among the three friends I’m featuring in these posts is their ability to make a virtue of necessity. As Sarah is unable to stand for long periods of time, ironing is done “as it comes” and is never stockpiled. As she can’t vacuum, she has ‘trained’ the boys to do that. Her home filing system is a sleek machine and she knows where everything is. Manuals and warranties are to hand if anything goes wrong, such as Sarah’s last two ovens which unfortunately both exploded. As the most recent one is brand new it is probably no surprise that it looks brand new but, assuming it does not also explode, I have no doubt it will be just as sparkly inside and out five years hence.

I envy Sarah her homemaking skills; the fact that they are second nature to her whereas I try so hard and get nowhere. I envy her the serenity of her surroundings, her calm focus and her uncanny ability to create time. There is, however, something else I admire even more. Through a combination of nature and nurture, Sarah is thrifty in the best sense of the word. She rarely shouts about a bargain she’s found (there are enough folks who do that, myself included), and she’ll buy quality (Next sale rather than Primark, though she says this is down to sizing: “Very few shops do 35” inside leg/32” waist for Son 1, or adjustable school trousers”). What she does do, better than anyone else I have ever met, is take care of things.

Sarah’s boys have always exuded a sense of being loved and laundered, but for years the hand-me-down order was thus: big cousin first, then Son 1, then Son 2, then – and this might be 8 years down the line – I would be presented with a lovely package of sweet-scented, ironed and folded clothes, as good as new, for my son Toby. Talk about paying it forward and making the world go round. One in the eye for today’s disposable culture too (buy cheap tat, chuck it, buy more).

I have never looked after clothes in this way: they vanish and I have no idea where they go. Probably leaving them strewn on the floor and teaching my children to do the same (always lead by example) hasn’t helped. It’s the same with toys. I knew Sarah when the boys were small and they had plenty of toys – they got them out and played with them all the time too. Son 2 went through a jigsaw phase and, much later, a Lego phase. As far as I know, no pieces of either were ever lost. However, on one occasion I remember a Lego kit had pieces missing. At this point I would have put the box ‘on the side’, where it would have remained for many months. Not so Sarah, who identified the code numbers, rang the Lego people and ordered replacement bits. My daughter Francesca also went through a Lego phase. It was short lived, because in this house you open a box of Lego (usually impatiently, by ripping it), bits fly everywhere and that’s pretty much that. What a supreme waste of money.

I think guiltily back to all the times Sarah handed on carefully cherished games and puzzles to Toby, saying she wanted them to go to “a good home”. Gulp. Within five minutes someone would have trodden on the box, breaking it, and five minutes later several pieces would have fallen out and been lost for ever. Could we afford to be so wasteful? No! But even if we could, it was downright shameful. Toys away at the end of the day was one of Sarah’s few rules, and good – as in accessible – storage (not all thrown into one huge container, as in our house) made things easier.

kitchen
Examples of bad storage in my home. Yes, the third one is the shower.

toysshower

 

Taking care of things pays dividends in all kinds of ways. I never took care of the Christmas decorations my children made during the primary school years, and consequently my Christmas tree is a fairly soulless spectacle with colour-coordinated baubles. Sad. Sarah’s, on the other hand, cheerily boasts the treasured decorations that her boys, now aged 17 and 13, made when they were small. Intrinsically happy-making. The same principle applies when it comes to photos. I’m crap with photos. I have old-fashioned ones (many now dog-eared or scratched, and all hopelessly jumbled) in torn packets, which were developed at Boots many years ago and mostly feature Francesca and Toby when they were weany. I’ve got hundreds more recent ones of all three kids on my phone, but I’ve never found – or made – the time to print a load out and fill an album. Sarah has several, carefully compiled, lovingly charting her boys’ progression from cuddly, chubby bubbas to the tall (very tall!), slim, handsome young men they are today.

Sarah says she ‘doesn’t know how I do it’ when it comes to balancing three children with five jobs (well, OK, three jobs but one of them involves three different schools). She says she gets dizzy just thinking about it. And of the two of us, I do seem to be the one rushing around and ‘meeting myself coming back’ (to use one of my mum’s favourite phrases). But I suspect I am like Chaucer’s Sergeant who “semed bisier than he was”, flapping around and leaving things half-done. It’s a false economy of time and energy. It must be: Sarah physically cannot rush around, yet she runs her household smoothly, also works in multiple locations and has raised two sons. Both of us have husbands who work stupid hours, and both of us need to count the pennies.

Having observed, maybe my next step should be to concentrate on each task in hand, and perform it to the best of my ability; to take a bit more care rather than being impetuous and half-arsed. And I plan to make a start the minute I stop procrastinating.

The Sarah Touch

  • Look after things: make them last.
  • Establish and stick to a manageable routine for household chores.
  • Make things accessible and keep them where you can find them.
  • Don’t leave stuff: unpack as soon as you’re back from holiday; put shopping away as soon as it’s delivered; put washing away as soon as it’s dry, etc.
  • Go through clothes twice a year and audit. With kids’ clothes recycle any that are outgrown.
  • Food shopping: keep a weekly routine. (Sarah pays £6 per month for Tesco home delivery, doing the big shop on Thursdays and top-up shop on Sundays.)
  • Check through your favourites online and bulk buy non-perishables when half price. Stockpile your favourite shower gel, shampoo, moisturiser. Plan meals round the half price offers.
  • Make lists! And enjoy ticking off items once you’ve accomplished them.
  • Regularly sort through paperwork and weed things out.
  • Try to avoid p&p. Tesco, M&S, Next are all free to collect from store. Check for voucher codes always.
  • M&S, BHS etc regularly have 20% off everything. Wait if it is not urgent, and you then have a good chance of getting it cheaper in the next few weeks. Sign up for emails.
  • Take a picnic on a day out (made the night before, to avoid rushing – I added that bit!)
  • Prescriptions: if you need more than one prescription a month buy a pre-payment certificate at £104 a year and you can pay by direct debit to spread the cost.
  • Washing machine insurance is worth having because they do go.
  • A homecare agreement for the boiler is also a good idea (ensure servicing is kept up to date to avoid quibbles).

Small, skint skinny facing the big pricey world