Thursday, 29 July 2010


I take the chicken out of the oven where it's been roasting and set it on the counter.

Mustard, I think, perversely, as I know it's going to be like eating a washcloth despite the herbs and garlic and apricots I've stuffed it with.  And so I reach into the cupboard crammed haphazardly with condiments thanks to my heedless kids and - whack - out falls a bottle of Fish Sauce which smashes on the hob, shatters into a million pieces and drenches me, my silk dress, and the floor (that I just cleaned, along with the rest of the kitchen when I came home to find it messed up, despite or rather, because  my daughter being on school holidays).  I'm awash with the scent of putrefied fish.

Darn and double darn.  I peel off the dress.  First time I've worn it and now it's gone straight into the washing machine on a cold cycle.  My legs and stomach are still distinctly fishy.  The floor is a sea of dead fish with shards of glass floating in it.  I'm also barefoot.  I start swabbing and knock over all the breadboard, which in a domino effect, knocks over the expensive olive oil that I keep mostly for show, which glugs and disgorges £25 a litre Sicilian lemon oil in a huge spreading slick that then drips on to the floor to mingle with the fish sauce.


There's glass in the cloth.  Glass in the sink.  Glass on the floor.  At least one sliver in the sole of my foot.  I can't use the dustpan without it stinking of fermenting fish and so I pick little bits out, sticky and unctious, one fragment at a time.  And I still reek of fish.  The chicken is cooling and turning to string.  The salad is wilting.  The avocado has gone as brown as my feet.

I get on my knees and soak up cloth after cloth full of the pungent, pongy liquid.

Eventually, however, the place is mopped up, if still stinky, and I wash myself down with a flannel and throw it into the machine, add detergent and turn my attention, finally, to my unappetising supper.  I've lost my appetite somewhat.  And I still didn't find the mustard.  A plate in one hand.  A glass of fish tainted water in the other, I go back into the sitting room just as the No 7 bus idles on the street beside the closed bottom shutters, and as I stand in the middle of the floor, making my entrance, I glance up I see the entire top deck glancing back at me.

It's only then, with no free hands, that I realise I am still in my Luke influenced underwear from which various parts sit attentively at 3.15 (yeah I'm old but we're not at twenty past eight yet) like a dalek in exterminate mode.  Billingsgate in Lingerie

I just pray nobody has a camera phone.

No Virgin

In the post Virgin have sent me a new, what I feel sure is inaccurately named, smart card.  I follow the instructions which, predictably on step 3, fails and the television freezes.  I wait the requisite 20 minutes and call the helpline.  Listen to two messages that have absolutely nothing to do with me since I don't want HD channels or live in Warrington where the internet is down but  where I'm assured there will be an update at six pm.  It's now six thirty.  I then press two, then three, then one, then two, two, two, two and hold.  And hold.  And hold.

Eventually I am connected to a call centre outside Glasgow where my accent twin takes me through all the things I've already done on her script, then resends a new signal, and after ten minutes of waiting for things to reboot, once again I now have 300 channels of rubbish on a television set I rarely switch on.

This sets me thinking.  Why am I keeping all these services I don't use and so I ask to be transferred to someone who can help me tailor my package.  More lengthy music, and a chap called Dan comes on the line who seems to be somewhere in the Midlands.  His voice is a monotone.  I explain that I want to cancel my V+ service that never once in the two years I've had it, has worked, my second telephone line which doesn't even have a phone plugged into it, and downgrade my channels to the minimum they offer.

He can do that.  However it will cost me £44 per month while I'm currently paying £35.  Apparently I get a discount on the package.  That's ridiculous, I say.  You're telling me that for a severely curtailed service it will cost me more money?


Okay then I'll just cancel the whole thing.

I'm bluffing but I know they have to try to keep your business and I want to see if he'll come back with another offer.

You can't.  You're not the account holder.

I am the account holder.  Check your records.  I have full authority to change and amend this account.

No, only the account holder can cancel.

We repeat this dialogue into about the twenty seventh circle of hell before I ask to speak to his supervisor.

I hang on for three songs, one of which is Pink and not a favourite.  Not keen on Paolo Nuttini either.

He comes back and tells me that he's just spoken to his supervisor and been informed that the policy has changed and I can now cancel the account if I wish.  No apology.  No regret.

Are you now the supervisor?

No, I just spoke to her and she...  The man is a tape machine.

I interrupt and remind him that I asked to speak to his supervisor and would still like to do so.

Another play of Paolo Nuttini (same one) and on comes a girl.  Are you sure you want to cancel?  She asks.

I repeat that nobody watches the television and so I really just want to simplify my package.

She tells me if I lose the second phone line and go from extra large to medium (ah if only), give up the Virgin Plus, it will cost five pounds less than I'm currently paying.  Everything I asked for originally.  We have a deal.  But first she has to transfer me. Again.

If I have to listen to Paolo bleat once more I may wind the telephone wire round my neck and pull, except that it's a cordless.

Another man comes on the line.  A bit further North - Yorkshire, mibbe (sic - I'm going for the accent here).

He's incredulous that I want to do without all these lovely extras for a mere saving of 'only' £5 a month.

I don't subscribe to HD despite the telly being ready.  Hey, I'm ready for summer but it doesn't mean I'll ever wear a bikini. The V plus does not and has never worked. I repeat. And there's nothing I want to pause or record. Look at my telephone bills.  I haven't used the line once in the last two years.  I don't watch Kerang, or Bollywood Extra, or the Playboy Channel, or, in fact, anything.  The remote hasn't had batteries in it for a week and nobody noticed.  I just don't want a whole load of options that I don't need.

Grudgingly he switches me off.

I now have a mere 60 channels of crap (there is only a medium package, no small or extra small) and think longingly of those far off days when your only television worry was getting a damn picture at all by holding the aerial near a window, and Channel Four showed a train running down the tracks because it didn't have enough programs to broadcast full time.

It's now half past seven - more than an hour being passed round call centres.  And then the oven pings.  This is when it all really starts to go downhill.


I'm in work with what looks like a blurred tattoo on the inside of my arm, at about the point where people cut their wrists before they get in the bath.  Not that this thought has ever occurred to me before, I hasten to add.

Marion, you're too cool for school, says Nessa, who sits opposite me and who, by that last statement has just outed herself as being almost as cool and hip as me.  In about 1965.

Where have you been?

The Borderline Club, I mutter, into my chest.

To see what?  She is struggling to try and look impressed instead of laughing in my face.  As I said she sits opposite me.  Laughing is not a good option.  I can make her life hell.

Holly Miranda, I mumble.

She fails to register any sign of recognition.  I can sing all the tracks thanks to Luke Warm's music addiction and his propensity for turning up armed with bundles of CDs culled from NME, with which to drown out the sound of my voice (which is probably another reason why gigs are so popular, it suddenly occurs to me).

American band, I say.  And I wasn't the oldest person there, I add, hastily.

Any good?  She asks, quick recovery, despite the twitching lips.

Yeah, really good.

First support band was a teenager in heels she could hardly walk in, looking like one of the clones from Robert Palmer's Addicted to Love video (what? you who weren't even born in 1986, might well ask).  She spent half an hour pouting at the audience in a mirror-studied sultry fashion, whilst executing long, pretentious guitar riffs, and then breathing incomprehensibly into the mike, accompanied by another girl in a flamenco dress, energetically playing a squeezebox which seemed like a lot of hard work for a sound that was totally obliterated by the drummer.  Second support band featured a gorgeous, pouting blonde Barbie for real girls with amazing smooth, golden thighs like Beyonce and too much hair that she seemed just to have realised she had, and so needed to spend a great deal of time ostentatiously scraping it back and tossing it out of her eyes.  Too late in life I realise I have natural heavy metal hair - just when I can't do the head toss for fear of dislocating my shoulder.  A curly-topped chap amidst a group of what could have been Christian missionaries, with more than a passing resemblance to 118 (or 118) nodded his head so vigorously in time to her foot stamping in which everything jiggled that I thought it was going to fall off and roll across the floor.  Even I fancied her.  Whatever your musical taste, it really does make you wish you had stuck at the piano lessons.

The audience, mostly women, many of whom were in plaid, and FF cup bras (or not.  Actually some of the men fitted into that category - especially the granddad in the black shirt ensemble) and you could see their breasts coming down the stairs a full two seconds before the rest of them.  Luke Warm was transfixed.

I would have said I stood out due to my advanced years and chlorine treated hair, but I'm glad to say I was invisible.  It's a mercy really.  I often wonder about the popularity of novels and films in which being invisible is the plot device.   Be female and over forty and big wow.  Unless you stand out because you are wearing a pair of kitten ears and an unwise boob tube and tutu (not to be encouraged) you could probably walk into Tiffany's and leave with three necklaces and nobody would be able to describe you afterwards.

There must be a way of turning this to one's advantage.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Two novels on the Booker Longlist... Great excitement at Pedantic accompanied by popping of corks and surge in Booktrack figures.

The Slap by the lovely (and I mean this, it's not just gushy Pedantic, we-have-to-love-our-authors speak, he's a really nice guy) Christos Tsiolkas and In a Strange Room by the equally charming Damon Galgut .

And I mean that too.

Congratulations to both authors, and long may the Prosecco (it's a recession, so no champagne) flow...

Monday, 26 July 2010

The Hammer House of Horror

‘It’s beautiful,’ he insists. ‘A really, old fashioned, overgrown wilderness. You’ll love it.’ And so we sit on a bendy bus and go North, something that I don’t usually do without a car and a dinner party as incentive, to a place they call Stoke Newington.

It looks fairly normal, even – and though I’m loathe to say that estate agent word – it’s true, villagey. But not beautiful and not, by any stretch of the imagination, an overgrown wilderness. More of a suburb with too many young people with too much disposable income. But then gloom descents, mist falls someone presses the switch on the dry ice machine and we turn off the high street into a tangled, gothic, Vincent Price, high-Victorian railing-ed, honest to god neither of us believe in, graveyard.

We have arrived at our destination.

As Luke’s daughter told him wryly as he set off to meet me. ‘You really know how to show a girl a good time.’

I pick my way through the concrete path, crazed as old earthenware pottery, with weeds growing through the cracks and nettles and brambles spilling forth from what once would have been, I imagine, a neatly shaved lawn, planted with tombstones, but for now, if I were to use my imagination (which I’m trying hard not to) is just like being in a stadium of the dead, choked with ivy. There are ancient graves everywhere, leaning to the right, to the left, to the front, slumped to the side, collapsed in the undergrowth, covered in vines and creepers, lines and lines of them, like tired spectators, and we’re the show, picking our way silently through the tiny paths that feed off from the wide, main one. We walk in single file and pass a young chap in a three piece suit wearing a trilby. Weird and weirder. It’s in the high eighties and he’s wearing tweed. He gives us a conspiratorial smile. We smile back, not sure why we’re in collusion. Maybe there’s a satanic cult holding a ceremony outside the deserted church with blank , hollowed out windows that lurks in the centre of the cemetery and we're the sacrifice?

I flip flop through fingers of thorns that scratch at my feet. Something stings my elbow.

‘Look at that. It’s amazing,’ says Luke of a huddled angel, tied with thick ropes of ivy to a cross that commemorates Ruth Anne Hope who went to sleep in 1866.

‘Amazing, I agree,’ but I’m a morbid sod, and all these tributes to the dead. to me. say sorrow that the sun fighting through the thick trunks of the trees strung up like a Japanese S&M enthusiast with tiny violet flowers on the vines of deadly nightshade, cannot quite dispel. I see a century of people burying their loved ones, and now all that’s left of them are psoriatic tombs, itchy with overgrowth - each a tragedy.

There’s a picket fence of tiny urns alongside the path that I immediately assume are for tiny people, lost babies who perished in some black bombazine winter put in the icy ground by veiled, consumptive mothers who are doped on laudanum (Sarah Waters has a lot to answer for) but on closer inspection, at which Luke excels (of insects, graves and wrinkles) they are just more modest funerary tributes for those who can’t afford the family mausoleum.

We pass an old guy reading a newspaper on a bench. Further on there are two blokes with a bottle of wine having a picnic. Funny place to have lunch, but hey – I’m on a date, I’m in no position to scoff while they quaff.

A woman with a baby in a stroller crosses the path.

Luke is not pleased. He wants isolation, neglect and atmosphere.

‘Let’s go deeper in,’ he says and goes through a track thinner than my waist, which isn’t that thin, but still involves a sharp intake of breath as I lift my legs like a prancing pony to try and avoid the nettles.

I’m reminded of Scotland when we ran into a very English man of a certain age in socks and sandals who wanted to show us some orchids and who we followed politely through the undergrowth. ‘You know he’s going to kill us and eat us,’ I told him. ‘Well he’ll start with you first.’ Luke replied. The orchid, when we finally found it was tiny, inconspicuous and underwhelming. ‘Creeping, lady’s carpet-slipper,’ or something, the man announced in a hushed voice as though a loud noise might scare it away. ‘Wow, lovely,’ I said kindly while thinking – ten minutes through bog for this? Last time I follow a man into bushes, I thought.

And yet, here I am again. Unaccountably, though, now I’m leading the way past slate and marble and limestone and weeping cherubs and draped urns and crosses and, no – wait a minute, over slate and marble and limestone and draped urns reaching out of the earth like fat forearms as I realise I’m actually walking on gravestones.

Argh. I shudder. And then, phew we reach a clearing.

It should be lovely with dappled sunlight and the spread out branches of a shady oak tree dripping tiny orange butterflies – if you discount dead Archibald and Theodora Cullen who died a week apart and went to God, and their neighbours - but it’s not. It’s full of litter and wet wipes and….

‘Condoms,’ remarks Luke.

‘Lovers,’ I say, incurably romantic, even in the presence of ankle deep sex debris.

‘Prostitutes, probably,’ Luke counters. Not a man who calls a sh*g a sea bird.

I walk quickly and very, very gingerly out in the other direction and dust myself down free of imagined grime when I reach the path. There’s another bench. Another man sitting on it. This time a young black guy in a very tight white t shirt perched on the back rest, feet astride, and as we turn to walk towards where we think the church might be we meet a group of Japanese students, one in costume and made up like a baby doll carrying a camera bag and a light reflector who are obviously going to do a shoot beside the Hammer House of Horror, and yet another slim-hipped man in tight jeans who swaggers towards us without making eye contact.




It seems to occur to both of us at the same time that we are, in fact, sightseeing in a gay cruising area.

I give Luke a very hard push.

‘Something you want to tell me?’ I ask trying not to think about those too-tight for a straight guy black jeans that he wore to Fran’s wedding and which then I admired.

‘I didn’t know,’ he protests as we pass yet another bench with, this time, an older man, and then another who walks off purposefully up the more solitary paths. ‘It wasn’t like this the last time I was here. I must ask Len if he knows anything about it.’ Len, fyi, is his gay best friend. Friend, I repeat reassuringly several times, to myself.

Luke gets his camera out. He wants me to pose in front of an angel with her head in her hands looking bored. I grimace obligingly. The last time he took a photograph of me he deleted it without showing it to me which should give you a clue about how dire it was, especially if I showed the picture he didn’t delete where I’m walking ahead of him. My best points don’t follow the rest of me.

He then walks off holding his very large telephoto lens erect like a divining rod and I perch on Millicent Agnes Oliver, who joined the angels in 1903.

‘Don’t you be long,’ I call after his retreating back.

And then nod to a chap in a wife beater who gives me a tight, fairly smug little smile and sashays past with his mobile phone in his pocket.

At least I’m assuming that’s what it was.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Grim and bear it

Back home and the house is empty.

For the first time in our 24 year occupation of the place there is no 'our'. It's just me - wandering through a succession of abandoned rooms where only the dust has settled. The back bedroom, recently vacated by first one son, who has gone to live with his girlfriend in Wales, and then the other son, who has left for 8 months at university in Florianopolis in Brazil, has been stripped. The walls are dotted with a constellation of tiny blue warts - blue tac that once held a hundred snapshots of leering teenagers, now taken down and put in a shoe box. The doors of the wardrobe hang knock-kneed, swinging open like Sharon Stone to reveal a line of empty hangers and more shoe boxes, stuffed with papers and old Chelsea Programs that didn't make it the final ascent to the attic. The closet has a few clothes that the eldest hasn't taken to Wales which he has left behind, along with, I notice with a pang, the photograph frame I made him for his 21st birthday of the family. There are no glasses, no stalagmites of loose change, no convention of shoes in a companionable huddle under the bed which is also neat and tidy, the covers as smooth as an airbrushed forehead.

The front bedroom is equally tidy, though fuller. There are a dozen boxes and crates piled in front of the chest of drawers containing skyline of lamps and pot-handles, books and CDs, all refugees from my eldest daughter's last flat in Oxford, stored here while she stays with her boyfriend for a few weeks before he bravely goes forth into the Swiss Army for a year, armed with only a pen-knife with tiny retractable scissors and a nail file. Her books from childhood and a swotty adolescence that turned into an even swottier BA, MA and PhD still line the bookshelves, as do a hundred DVDs that nobody will ever watch, and a similar number of videos which nobody can watch since the only television with a tape player is sitting outside in the front garden at Her Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea's convenience.

In the middle bedroom, my younger daughter's clothes have all been collected into a laundry basket, waiting for their sisters to come back with her from holiday in Barcelona, and the carpet, newly hoovered, turns out to be red.  Who knew?  Her bedcover appears to have had plastic surgery, so tautly have the sheets been drawn over the frame.  It doesn't even smell of cigarettes since she has been gone for a week.

There are no hairs in the shower.  No upside down bottles of shampoo dripping into the mouths of the open drain.  No towels dropped like a starlet's knickers on the floor.  Indeed, no knickers.  Period.

Downstairs in the kitchen the sink is empty.  The dust of the icing sugar I spilt on the chair a few days ago is like pristine snow, untouched and undisturbed.  The mail is sorted into piles on the hall table for people who don't live here any more.  I've turned my study into a walk in closet and all the shoes have been repatriated to the boxes they arrived home from the shop in - missing two odd sandals (so there is a lopsided, one high-heeled, one flat, sandal thief with two right feet around the streets of North Kensington).  Every single dress has its own hanger.  I found clothes I didn't even know I had and some I had forgotten so that I'm currently reprising my summer wardrobe from 1998 when I had money and wore labels - and so what if they are the wrong length.  High waisted trousers are back.

The garden has been clipped thanks to my neighbour and his chainsaw who took pity on me when the trellis collapsed and I looked at him helplessly.

The whole house is like a theatre set for a show that has been cancelled.  The garden table with its eight chairs,  the dining table that extends to sixteen, which is 11 more friends than I have, and the mismatched Designer's Guild sofa cushions all wait attentively, like me, for the performance that never starts because the actors have all left.

All I have now are props.  Cartons and boxes and plastic crates and shelves and cupboards and trunks and suitcases and bags, all full of stuff that nobody wants any more (I hesitate to include myself in this category, but nevertheless, if the packing case fits...)  As I walk through the rooms in which the only sound is next door's washing machine on its spin cycle, I realise that I've gone from having a home to living in a fricking warehouse.

I'm not a mother or a wife but a ruddy caretaker.

Younger daughter is back from Barcelona soon and so, temporarily, it will be back to normal, but only until September when she heads off for Leeds and the final curtain comes down on me as full-time mother.  So the hiatus is temporary.  But no less terrifying for that.

Ex husband comes round to wave goodbye to the Brazil-bound son who, carrying a rucksack bigger than a motorcycle side car, is driven by a friend to the airport, leaving his malaria pills on the table.  Ex and I look at each other.  We don't share much of our feelings these days.  His face looks as bland as though his son had just gone out for fags, which since he doesn't smoke, would probably elicit more surprise, while I'm struggling not to run down the street after the taxi and scream.  I know he is also wretched but he's had more practice at leaving than I have.

Let's go to the cinema, he suggests.  Better than sitting here moping.

I agree and we set off for Westfield where he persuades me that Toy Story 3 got great reviews and is just what we need to cheer us up.  Against my better judgement and remembering the Great Lake of Tears that was 'Up' which he chose for similar reasons on, I think, Valentine's day, I allowed myself to be persuaded.

Now have you seen Toy Story 3?  Do you have any idea what the plot is?

Nor did I.

But picture an adolescent boy, going off to college and his mother telling him that everything not in the attic would be thrown out (no it wouldn't, she just didn't want the corkscrew in the heart every time she looked at the mausoleum of his empty room) and all the toys forlorn and abandoned, not having anyone to play with any more.

That flocking man - why do I listen to him?  Two hours and about ten Kleenex later, having watched Woody wave a poignant goodbye to Andy, I came home where, despite one hundred and fifty quid of Homebase storage boxes stuffed into the attic, there on the bedroom shelves still sits a row of teddy bears (Dubbie one, two, three and four, Bernie and Lambo) each with their throats ripped out and badly resewn, undone by decades of over-cuddling, their dejected heads drooping on their fat little bellies, slumped in a wadded line, covered with a thin film of dust.

Reader, words fail me.

Even vodka failed me since I'm currently not drinking.

My one thought was that thank god I'm not living with my husband any more.

There are many consolations for an empty nest even if, at the moment, I am struggling to see merit in them, but the main one is just about to ring the doorbell.

Ding ding, ding...

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Shifting sands

The sun is shining.  Scotland, the tart, is putting on a show for the visitors, tossing her golden barley tresses that ripple in the wind like something sung by Sting, and lifting the skirts of her clouds, showing off her lush green landscape, soft with ferns and moss tantalising you with notions of warm, balmy days that are still light long into the evening.  Just when you've made up your mind that it's a wash-out, you wake up to beauty and are seduced into thinking that you might, possibly, maybe could just buy yourself a little pistachio coloured cottage beside the broad smile of beach in Elie, get a dog and a loom, or a kiln, and start wearing an anorak.  Forget the kilt.  The Scottish national costume is the Anorak.  On a nice day, you celebrate by wearing it unzipped, and to really express delight at the weather, you whip it off to sit on.

We're on the beach - a swathe of sand as broad as my accent at the mouth of the Tay, fringed with dunes and fragrant pine forests that moan gently in the breeze, with the occasional sharp crack, like an ice cube dropped into a glass of water, that makes you hold your breath and wait for a tree to come crashing down.  The sun will make an appearance in the afternoon, but for now it's boiling, bruised skies with the occasional glint of blue. We're in a nature reserve called Tentsmuir where Luke is squinting through binoculars at the seals playing in the ocean who, less flirtatious than the countryside, refuse to come out on to the sandbar and bask.  There's a wind, persistent as a toddler in a sweetshop blowing off the sea which occasionally gusts, tugging at your legs and the hem of your clothes but still leaves you standing upright, anorak flapping like a superhero's cape behind you, or wrapping itself around you like a lover depending on whether you're walking up the beach or down.  The few families who have braved the sands have sensibly come with windbreaks and small half-moon tents in which the adults shelter while the kids romp around heedless and possibly heel-less since the sea would freeze your feet off.  It's absolutely stunning - Scotland with the safety catch turned off.  If it wasn't for its disobligingly damp and dismal climate this beach would be ringed with hotels instead of spindly trees and carpeted with litter instead of pine cones and white shells.

There's nothing but the tread of our trainers and the occasional tripod of gull footprints, and then the wind starts to wail like a cartoon ghost sending my hair, crazed, across my face and the sand dancing ahead of us up the deserted beach and the distant cow lick of the surf.

It's deafening.

But even if you spoke the words would be torn out of your mouth and filled with sand.

So I just shut up.

For once.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

I'm not golfist

Some of my best friends are golfers.  Or at least some of my met-once-at-party acquaintances, and one of my glamorous girlfriends who often parks her husband and strides off to an exotic location with five other clones (thin, neatly coiffed short hair, tanned athletic limbs, good but discrete jewellery, Tod's equivalent footwear, RP and a fondness for Chinos) on a golfing holiday. 

In her, I can see the attraction.

Unfortunately, I'm not her.

Monday, 19 July 2010

In the rough

You sort of know you're in trouble when there's a branch of Jack Wills in a town, and sure as golfers have very small white balls, if it wasn't enough for St Andrews to be the bad fashion capital of Britain where style goes after it's dead (and heaven is one great, big fairway), there - on a side street populated by heavy men with florid faces wearing loud diamond sweaters and pastel polo shirts with necks wider than the Tay Estuary - is a whole store devoted to the teenage wannabe.  Ugh.  Furthermore, the floppy haired and belted youth with the collars of their shirts artfully asymmetrical who haven't yet gone back to mummy and daddy in Weybridge or left for France, are still yah-ing away in select hostelries.  Prince the-one-who-looks-like-his-mother (as opposed to Prince the-one-who-looks-nothing-like-his-father) did Scotland a great disservice by choosing to go to university there, though - to be fair - it was probably already a lost cause because of the whole golf thing.

It's good to have a hobby.  Especially one that gets you outdoors in, albeit neatly manicured, artificially manufactured and often detrimental to the local ecosystem, nature, walking for miles in the fresh air, swinging a club around like a Neanderthal in spiky shoes.  It's also good to belong to a club, not just a golf club, but a group of like-minded people who all share your obsession with swatting tiny objects off into tiny holes at a distance you can't see without your varifocals.  Furthermore, as with any form of collective madness ranging from the boy scouts to Hitler youth, you gotta have a uniform that reassures you that you are safe, and amongst friends.  So baggy trousers, long shorts, sleeveless v neck in colours seen in Angel Delight desserts,  lots and lots of logos of which the normal person lives happily in ignorance, and big sticks handily gathered in a large bag that can be slung over one shoulder as you strut through the streets fancying yourself as an athlete.  This works even better out on the course if you can persuade someone else to caddy for you and carry the bags, so that you underline your own supremacy at the same time.

You can see I'm not a fan.  I blame my father for this.  He tried to teach me when I was eight.

Not a success.

So I do try to give people in Pringle a wide berth since there is always the risk that they will trigger an episode of post-traumatic stress disorder as I relive those golf lessons where, just like Charlie Brown and Lucy, someone always seems to move the damn ball just as I tried to hit it.

Sadly, therefore, St Andrews is the equivalent of Vietnam for victims like me.  In the hotel room opposite us there's 'George Cunningham from Dayton, Ohio' and his outstretched sunburnt hand as he introduces me to his wife Mitzi, in their his 'n hers knitwear and matching, aptly named, slacks.  Another group of four Swiss men are encountered in the dining room.   In the restaurant that evening there are all-male bonding 'boys' weekenders', none of them a day under 55, with purple faces and day-glo Aertex shirts as colourful as a row of seaside houses in Crail, and about the same size, each wearing tassles on their shoes.  There are two pairs of women who seem to have had sex appeal beaten out of them in a bunker at the same time as the weather was beaten into their faces, in long shorts and stout ankle socks, and a miserable Dutch couple with expensive watches and sour expressions who watch their national football team kick the turf out of the Spanish but leave before the winning goal. 

A very drunk South African at the next table who has had three bottles of Cider and has now started on a bottle of wine, is shouting tactics at the television, and is, predictably given his possible genetic heritage, supporting Holland.  He's with a boy who I hope isn't is son, though the alternative would be more worrying, who is on coke and embarrassment. 

South African dad is wearing a waterproof jacket and a thick fleece zipped up to his neck, trainers and no socks.  His eyes are bloodshot.  He stands up in front of the only television in which there is a clear picture and then turns to provide a commentary to the table behind him - a mother and father quartet with their daughter and her boyfriend.  It's easy to see who the non-family member is - three are blonde and pasty, two look surprised, and one is Chinese.  And drinking pints of water.

Luke sniffs distainfully. He's no fonder of the golfers than I am, though if they were all wearing Chelsea football shirts he'd be in his element.  He's just in a different club - not one hugely popular north of about Hammersmith. 

Meanwhile, I've discovered that I'm in the least select club of all - one to which I'd forgotten I even belonged and yet have rejoined with alacrity.

I'm 'disnae'ing and 'wisnae'ing and saying 'naw' instead of 'no'.  I've reclaimed that state of permanent indignation at which Scottish women seem to excel and have my arms metaphorically crossed, eyebrows raised, shoulders squared and lips pursed ready to be offended by almost anybody.  It occurs to me what those bags of sticks and nail gun shoes are really for.  Probably self-defence.

Poor, totally clubless Luke is sitting eating his vegetarian pasta in blissful ignorance of the monster I am slowly turning into.


See me bristle.

I open mouth as our waiter reels of the ice cream choices  (vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, cranachan, irn bru, vinegar, stovies...) and just as I begin to speak, Luke interrupts to suggest that maybe we go back to the hotel for the final half hour of the match...

Bad move.  Very, very bad move.


Sunday, 18 July 2010

Where the kiwi went after 1976

Indian restaurant, St Andrew's.  Vegetarian Balti.  I kid thee not...

Friday, 16 July 2010


We swish up the Msomething, the windscreen wipers scissoring as manically as the legs of a Red Bulled anorectic on a treadmill, barely keeping up with the water from the clouds that sit weeping on the roof like a bad case of depression. 

Oh yes it's July in Scotland.

This is how I spent my childhood, I tell Luke who is counting off the exits, by braille I hope since with the visibility of about 5 yards, sight isn't going to do us much good.  There is so much spray in the air that we could be sitting in a sauna, except that I don't generally get that arthritic pain in my right thumb unless it's below about 45 degrees.  The dashboard tells me it's just this side of freezing.

London, meanwhile, is having the hottest day of the year.

What do you mean?  He asks.

I mean, it's summer, so if you didn't make yourself scarce on the weekend and there was a break in the clouds anywhere on the horizon, my father would announce - 'We're going on a run.'  and out would come the essential components of a Scottish Picnic - the plaid, for wrapping yourself up in; the rolls filled with whatever anodyne ingredients happened to be in the fridge - surely about as unnecessary a kitchen appliance that was ever invented north of York; the primus stove for making tarry tea on the battered camping kettle in the boot; and the golf umbrella for keeping off the torrential  rain while making the said tea  in a lay by on the godforsaken edge of an Asomething beside a field, usually freshly manured 'good country smell, my dad would say as the ammonia threatened to overpower us). It was a stroke of luck when they started manufacturing hatchbacks.  Then you only needed the umbrella for the dash between the boot and the passenger seat where my mother would dispense the egg mayonaisse (with a scent that went particularly well with that of the farmyard ordure) and the back, where I would be huddled in the plaid with a book.

Those books saved my sanity.  Even if the mist didn't cloud your vista, the contant fug of my mother's Embassy Regal and, on occasion, my father's pipe (indeed second hand smoke blotted out most of my childhood) made sure you didn't see much of the passing landscape so reading was the only escape.  Since the passing landscape was most commonly an articulated truck, there wasn't much to miss.  After you'd peeled your thighs off the double sided Sellotape of the leather upholstery, you only ever got five minutes at the destination beauty spot - with public conveniences (one way or another you got ammonia) - and then it was back inside, dad jingling the car keys impatiently, and off again.

Back to Jane Eyre. 

Old Jane et al also came in handy for the hour and a half when I sat by myself in the car park of a local hostelry with a bag of crisps and a bottle of lukewarm orange juice waiting for my parents to come back with a copy of The Watchtower, and the drive home.  I particularly remember The Children of the New Forest in Everyman Classic while abandoned in a car park on Lock Lomond when they were away so long I got two rounds of drinks and a packet of cheesy biscuits.

Happy days.

Luke laughs.  He disnae believe me.  But, now honest (Edwin, back me up) that's how it was...  Well for the plebs anyway.  The plebs with cars.  Otherwise you'd be sitting in a bus with a box lunch and obligatory sing song of Wait 'till the sun shines Nellie (particularly ironic) but still doing, more or less the same thing, and probably on your way, if you came from my area of Scotland, headed to more or less the same place, albeit Burntisland in Fife, rather than Kinross where we're going today, intent on taking the ferry out to the islands and seeing the castle and the monastery.

Luke motions to the exit and we wind our way past people drinking lager at 11 o'clock in the morning, wearing wellies and bin bags (must be English as no Scot can pretend he doesn't have a waterproof) on their way to T in the Park.


Not us though.  We're hugely sane.  Och aye.  We've a castle to see and we won't be drinking any lager until we watch Spain beat Holland in the World Cup in a tartan wallpapered bar with twelve television sets, of which only one has a decent picture without snow (does it get any more nostalgic than this...  my childhood is just self replicating in front of me) in St Andrews 36 hours later.

We drive down a rutted, puddled, pit holed lane to a wee asphalt car park beside a grey wall where the world just stops and goes on to nothingness that turns out to be the loch.  My trainers are wet before I'm even out of the car.  I zip up my festival Mac (in England you don't need them for anything else) and Luke does likewise, except he's brought his wife's (yes - 'his wife's' but don't ask, it's all perfectly legit...) which comes over the bones of his wrists and half way up his back.  He looks, frankly, retarded.  Cute but simple. I am fat, broad beamed as the mac cuts me off at the most unflattering point in my pear shaped physique, in wet shoes that squelch, have my hood tied up to keep off the wind and a tear in the crotch of my jeans after I unwisely tried to turn a walk in the park into an extreme sport by climbing a tree, and am wearing a pair of misted up glasses with only one leg because they're my spares and I forgot the good, sexy librarian ones (in my dreams).  I had thought that I was the one who looked like I had special needs so that people would think that Cute Luke was taking his differently abled aunt out for a jolly ('How old is he?  My sister asked when I paraded him for the family inspection.  He looks awfy young.  Yeah, thanks sis...)  But no, now we're a perfectly matched couple.

We slurp up to the loch side like two people with 'a want' on day release from sheltered housing.

The water is the colour of misery and the air seeps moisture.  It's like being inside a big gray lung with a chest infection.

We walk out on to the little pier where a sign says:


What else would you do?  Swim?

We smile at each other.  Heroically.  And wait like Vladimir and Estragon.  In the fog.  With rain like a child's drawing pencilling down on us.

There doesn't seem much point in going to see the castle when you can't actually see anything, says Luke.

Eventually after a suitable pause.

Maybe the ferry isn't even running?  I ponder...

It would be lovely on a good day, he adds encouragingly.  A nice stroll around the lock...

Loch, I repeat.

Yeah lock, he says making it sound like f*ck with the off implied.

It would be lovely.  I agree, giving up on the Stanley Baxter Parliamo Glasgow lessons.

We try to get excited about the tight lipped water lilies that may or not be pond weed, and then five minutes later we're disrobing and back in the car.

He puts on the Smiths.  (We've already done Belle and too fricking jolly Sebastian - how can they possibly be Scottish.  They must have gone to private schools.)

Heaven knows I'm miserable now....

Aye.  Radiator on.   Just like old times.

Falkland here we come.

The village.

Not the islands.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

In my bad books

I love books.  So says everyone who ever applies for a job in publishing (note - it's not the qualification you might think it is).

Sometimes though, they are not the benign objects of escape and pleasure I previous found them to be but instruments of torture cluttering up my life.

Books furnish a house my academic husband used to say when he was still my husband and the house still his to furnish.  And so every wall at home was lined with them; tatty Penguin classics from the fifties that had once belonged to his parents, multilingual and diverse reference books, dictionaries, encyclopaediae and all his set texts from college - so that our children learned to spell out Lenin and Stalin from their spines and toddled over to pick off Belloc's Cautionary Tales for bedtime stories.  He read the reviews and bought hardback fiction and popular science, exhibition catalogues and shiny coffee table books (before we even had a table to display them on) and eventually, I too caught the book-buying bug.  From the odd airport purchase in the summer I became an avid consumer of new novels until our house was well and truly furnished.

And then he left.

Without the furniture.

Now what the heck do I want with his dead mother's French novels?  They've both gone!  Why do I still have the Hachette paperbacks?  When am I going to need Clausewitz on War or Trosky's History of The Russian Revolution?  Am I ever going to pick up Zeldin's The French or flick through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations in a quiet moment between the tennis and the world cup?  It's telling that there have been several milimetres of dust nestling on top of all these books since the ceiling fell in at about the same time as the marriage - all, that is, except for the slim volumes of poetry, many decorated with a lover case f, that for me has nothing to do with Faber - which are miraculously clean and unfelted by plaster.  Forget all those cliches about lipstick on the collar and furtive text messaging - the way you really know your husband is having an affair is when he starts reaching for the John Donne and suddenly develops a desire to reread Rilke. 

So the books stayed while the husband didn't. And though they taunt me from the shelves with the taint of our collective obsolecence I'm loathe to get rid of them.  They are part of the landscape of my kids' life and when I once suggested packing them up and sending them off to furnish their father's new bachelor pad they reacted with horror.  The disappearance of Jane's All The World's Aircraft 1973-74 would further underline the disappearance of dad and they want some things to remain the same.  So I edit them out when I look at the walls and try to see them exactly as my husband intended them to be - literary wallpaper, albeit to his taste not mine.

My own books are closeted away upstairs in the cupboard that used to be my study.  These, I need not be so precious about.  It is time, I have finally decided, to further declutter my life.  I need to clear some space, to reinvent myself post marriage.  I've done away with the bed and am about to revamp the family bathroom.  Now that my eldest son has gone off to live with his girlfriend I'm going to occupy his vacated bedroom and rent my ensuite to a student.   I'm also going to move into my ex husband's study that I've always covetted and and turn it into mine though currently it's still full of his previously indespensible books that, like me, proved not to be.  Some selective shuffling is called for.

And so I climb on a stepladder and begin.

Out go the several different versions of my own novel - now it's been published I don't think that the British Library are going to be clamouring for the original marked-up manuscript. Easy, this. Out go the ancient restaurant guides for places that no longer exist in capital cities I will never return to.  Relief to get rid of the darn things.  Out go the copies of Gourmet magazine from 2000 onwards, some of which I've never opened, let along cooked from.  Sod it, I can make macaroni cheese without a recipe.  Out go all the old FT magazines in which my restaurant column appeared for three years – I wish I could get rid of the calories I accumulated just as easily. Ancient history.  Out go guarantees for electrical appliances I haven't owned for a decade. (Why couldn't I find them when the bloody things broke down?)  The art supplies I've been collecting for years are boxed up and relocated to the new office where the fantasy me will finally make fantasy hand-bound, illustrated journals in her new fantasy oh-so-creative life.  (Mmn, yes, my studio, I can call it...)  And finally I throw out a sofa and one child to accommodate a map chest.   Now that's what I call furniture.  So what if it takes up half the room?  While my husband compulsively shopped for books I confess that I bought decorative paper as if fearing an imminent worldwide shortage of gift wrap but now the many reams are tenderly laid to rest with the contents of my art school portfolios. I arrange candles on top of it.  I am a woman who lives in a house festooned with candlesticks.  At least in the gloom you can't see any of the books on the Middle East.

Finally my very own colour supplement double-page spread  is developing on the page with me standing, airbrushed in the midst of it.  And then I get to the books.  More of the husbands' stowaways are cluttering my shelves like spores.  Humph.  The Go-Between, yellow as a heavy smoker, with frail crumbly paper.  I loved this book. On the Beach.  I gave this to my son after seeing it on his summer reading list, reread it myself and was up all night crying.  God knows what it did to the child. And then my hand lights upon Nectar in a Sieve. This was the first book my husband ever bought me. And next to it there's 100 Years of Solitude.  I read this in his Oxford bedsit while he wrote up his thesis, then moved on to Midnight's Children, which still keeps it company on the shelf thirty years later, the two of them bound side by side in a more enduring partnership than we managed.  This is when I get the first little pang.   But I am on a stepladder.  It is no time for sentiment.  I move on and left them happily alone in their union.  Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.  My ex brought this to me when during a serious illness I had just before we were married and I fell in love with it, as did each of my kids when subsequently, they read it as teenagers.  I had a little flashback to the BBC series with Brian Blessed which we all gathered like a 1950s TV advert to watch in the days before we all sat in our own individual rooms with our own individual laptops immersed in our own individual worlds.  Ooooh pain.  Molly Keane - another gift, this time when I was pregnant with our second child and on bed rest.  A twist of the guts - real PAIN.  And then come the travel books.  Rough guides to everywhere except where we eventually ended up - apart.  Venice - we went there in 2001 with all the children.  Michelin guides to France, Italy, Spain - more family holidays.  Maps of the Barcelona, Madrid, Rome - all trips we took alone while my parents babysat.  The 'let's save our marriage' holiday in Marrakesh. A Hundred freaking Places to Stay In Britain and the only place I want to stay is in the past.  But the past isn't a very comfortable resting place.  I want to throw them all away so I don't have to remember,  but instead I just line up their spines with the end of the bookshelf and tidy them up in the way I can't quite tidy my emotions. Especially when I see all the guides for Portugal that he mysteriously bought for a trip he never took.  With me, anyway.

And then, like Pandora, I open the box jammed into the shelf underneath.

It's full of ephemera -  on top is my son's letter to god, written when he was about fifteen judging by the handwriting, or five by the sentiments.  A tsunami of emotion almost knocks me off the ladder.  My knees buckle.  AGONY.  A card from my daughter telling me to please be happy making me realise, ten years too late that I mustn't have seemed so, and a note urging me not to throw the card away because it had her favourite sticker.  No sign of the sticker.  Sensibly, she must have reclaimed it later.  Dozens of Valentine’s cards elegant with statements of enduring love from my husband that failed to live up to their promise.  Cards from bouquets.  ‘You are the love of my life.’  He says in his loopy handwriting.  Why am I keeping these - the defunct guarantees are more useful? I find other children’s pictures drawn with increasing degrees of skill, and hand made birthday cards, baby bracelets and programs from long past sports days, and then there are the photographs.  Staring up at me - young size 8 me who ridiculously thought she was fat and an impossibly young, handsome husband.  My thirtysomething effigy has short red hair and she and her happy partner are smiling delightedly at the camera, their arms hooked around each other's necks.  They're everywhere - surrounded by children, carrying children, hugging children, pushing children, dressed up, undressed, thin, pregnant and smiling, smiling, smiling.  Always bloody smiling.  Idiots.  What did they have to smile about, locked perpetually in the celluloid world of Kodak moments?  I can't look.  And yet I'm still lifting photograph after photograph and feeling my heart squeeze like it's being pressed under one of those Alessi lemon squeezers and all that's dripping out is acid.

'Why do you get upset?' one of my sons once asked me seeing me crippled with nostalgia over a family photograph album.  'We're not dead.'  'But you are, in a way,' I replied, because although I have four fantastic, wonderful adult children who are the joy of my life, those four little gap toothed kids who painstakingly wrote ‘I love you’ on coloured cardboard and hung on to my knees like neurotic koalas are as gone as their father.  And the memories, far from warming me, sear into my chest.

I resolutely close the box and put it back next to the travel books.  My eyes survey the rest of the shelves, defeated.  Pedantic long for our demographic.  We were a publisher’s wet dream: Hardback after hardback book - each with its own story that has nothing to do with the plot.  Some I can't even remember if I've read, but like the little match girl, memories of my lost life are vividly rekindled with every one I look at.  I'd like to put them all on a bonfire and burn them to ash.

Working in publishing and having such a huge number of in-house novels to choose from, I hardly read a physical book and I certainly don't own them any more.  Though the arrival of ebooks is being welcolmed in the publishing industry with the enthusiasm of an outbreak of bubonic plague by a ship full of immune suppressed sailors, every one of us at work has been issued with a handy e-reader.  Mine sits in my handbag and has quickly become an essential on my checklist for the day:  phone, wallet, oyster card, ereader, and with it I'm never alone.  At the mere turn of a switch I currently have the choice of 17 novels, some speculative, others that we're publishing imminently, and yet more the choice jewels of our list.  But until recently, I loved books as covetable objects. Nothing beats the pleasure of going into a bookshop, stroking the cover, and flicking through the first pages of a new novel on the 3 for 2 table.  One of the many things you can't do with an ereader is flick, those machines are slooooooow and clumsy, with none of the sensual pleasures of a book.  However, with a virtual copy, there's nothing to sit on the shelf and haunt me with memories since they don’t physically exist.

No, you don't get your heart broken by an ebook.

Thank god.