The weekend that was

I love the posts my blogger friend, Chiswick Mum, writes about her family weekends, and as, in keeping with my new policy of dragging myself out of hibernation, I actually have something to blog about, I’ve shamelessly nicked the idea. I hope she will forgive me, and take it in the spirit of ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’.

Saturday was a fairly quiet domestic day, but we still fitted a lot in. Husband popped out to our local shop first thing and bought fresh pastries for breakfast, and then took Anna off to the first of her new swimming lessons. Thankfully, teacher, pool and lesson content all met with her approval. Sophia had her nap while they were out, which meant I had time to shower, wash my hair, condition my hair, shave my legs and apply body lotion – normally, assuming I get time to wash at all, I have to choose just one of the above.

I also managed to make a pizza for lunch, and then while that was cooking we took Sophia for her first ever walk outside. She toddled proudly up and down our street, and was so thrilled to be out in the world. If a baby’s character is any predictor of the adult they become, then I suspect Sophia will be an adventurer, and husband and I will have to resign ourselves to our relationship with her consisting of monthly text messages such as ‘In Brazil now. Going rafting up Amazon tomorrow! Love you, S x’, because she certainly seems determined to explore the limits of her world.

eggsI hadn’t been looking forward to the afternoon, because I had to help Anna with her school ‘decorate an egg for Easter’ competition. I am really not good at things like that, and while previously Anna has been content with slapping some paint in the general direction of a hard-boiled egg, this year she has ambitions to win, and had decided on an ‘under the sea’ theme. To say I was trepidatious about the task of helping her create an octopus, a mermaid, a diver and a fish out of hard-boiled eggs would be an understatement, but somehow we managed it, and were actually both fairly proud of the result. I don’t think she probably will win (for context, on the way into school this morning I saw a pirate ship populated by boiled egg pirates, and a whole football pitch of eggy players), but we enjoyed messing around with paints and sequins and bits of material, and I also realised Anna had never come across the word ‘bikini’ when she requested that I help her cut out the mermaid’s ‘waterproof bra’!nest cakes

In the mood for Easter crafting, we then made Easter nest crispy cakes. And when I say ‘we’, I actually mean Anna, because apart from me lifting the hot bowl in and out of the microwave, my oh-so-grown-up little girl made them entirely herself. My vital role was to test the mini eggs were up to scratch, and I did so exhaustively. Happy to report that they were, and I even managed to save some for the cakes.

I completed the day’s cookathon by making a big pan of veggie chilli for dinner, and a batch of cinnamon buns ready for Sunday breakfast.

Yesterday we were off to Oxford. Despite it being the place husband and I met, and pretty much my favourite place in the world, we’ve only taken Anna a couple of times, once when she was just a baby, and Sophia had only been in utero. I was overcome by the huge wave of nostalgia I always feel in Oxford, but I absolutely loved seeing our daughters running around playing in the beautiful garden where their father and I shared our first kiss, nearly seventeen years ago. A & S Merton

We went to a lovely Thai restaurant for lunch and, once again, I was very proud of Anna and realised just how grown up she is becoming as she was willing to try all the unfamiliar food on offer. Pork belly with Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. Sweet chilli noodles. Beansprouts and bamboo. Stir-fried prawns with chilli. Actually, the thing she liked best was the egg-fried rice, but just a year or two ago she would have refused to try any of it.

After lunch we did a quick tour of Oxford’s greatest hits – Merton Street, a peek into Christ Church meadows (which are sadly inaccessible with a pram), Bodleian Library and Radcliffe Camera, High Street, Turl Street before finishing up at Blackwell’s for a browse and a coffee before we got the park and ride bus back to the new Oxford Parkway station.

We broke our journey home with a twenty minute dash into the Bicester Village retail extravaganza so we could pop into the Cath Kidston outlet for some new cereal bowls. I won’t go into details as to why we needed new ones. Suffice it to say that, a couple of weeks ago, I accidentally left the stair gate which normally blocks off the kitchen doorway open. I was extremely disappointed that we didn’t have longer in Bicester Village as I discovered that the Clarks shop there is doing an exclusive collaboration with Orla Kiely,and the resulting shoes are the stuff of my dreams. I am plotting whether I can manage a quick dash back at some point. I know it’s not exactly on the doorstep, but they really were divine.

Finally the children had a picnic tea on the train home – good old-fashioned cheese and ham sandwiches after their taste adventure at lunchtime – and we all got home tired but happy. It was a wonderful weekend, and I felt that we got the balance between domestic pottering and adventures further afield just right. The only thing missing was a trip into central London, so I will have to put that on my wish-list for another time. merton


Eighth day of Advent: My parents

I came across a re-write of Philip Larkin’s infamous poem, This Be the Verse on Facebook a few weeks ago. Now, I probably have a higher than average tolerance for schmaltz and sentimentality, but for me this poem (below) does manage to be sweet and moving without tipping over into saccharine. It also really spoke to me.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

Three year old me with my mum, dad and very new baby brother.

I had an idyllically happy childhood, thanks mainly to my lovely parents. It was fairly traditional – mum, dad and 2.4 kids. Not sure who the .4 was, but my little brother is pretty nice too. We had family treats and traditions – I remember gazing out of the window with my mum on Hallow’een trying to spot witches on broomsticks in the night sky. Bundling up in every layer of clothes we possessed to go into the garden and wave sparklers around while my dad fought with matches and fireworks on Bonfire Night. Piling into my parents’ bed with our stockings (pillowcases in our house, actually!) on Christmas morning to see what Father Christmas had brought. Unbirthday presents were another tradition – the year my little brother was one, my parents were concerned that four year old me might be jealous at him getting lots of presents and attention on his birthday, so they bought me an ‘unbirthday’ present. When it was my birthday a few months later I wanted to know what little bro was getting for his ‘unbirthday’ present, and thus a tradition was started which lasted until I left home.

When I was very little my mum would save packets and boxes from the kitchen, and then play shop with me for hours on end. Whenever we walked anywhere with him, Dad played a game called Fast Walk, Slow Walk – perhaps you had to be there to fully appreciate it, but it would always end up with me and my brother sprinting along trying to catch up with my dad before collapsing into helpless giggles. The books of my early childhood – Shirley Hughes, Janet and Alan Ahlberg, Helen Nichol and Jan Pienkowski – remain vivid in my memory as they were patiently read to me so often, and I take so much pleasure in re-visiting them now with my children.

When I was ill, however hot and miserable I felt, my mum’s hands were always cool and gentle on my forehead and hot Ribena made by her or my dad undoubtedly had magic cure-all properties. Even as an adult, when I returned home after a minor op a couple of years ago, still woozy from the anaesthetic and sore from the taxi ride, my parents were here looking after Anna, and the relief of my mum tucking me up in bed and my dad making his convalescent special of scrambled eggs on toast for my tea was indescribable.

When I was a teenager, they showed their love in different ways. My dad would pick me up from wherever I’d been out to on a Friday night, but still be up to make me breakfast and take me to the station to get the train into town for my Saturday job’s 8.30am start. My mum made sure we were never out of Dairy Milk when I had exams to revise for. And that is another huge thing I am grateful to my parents for. I didn’t grow up in an area, or go to a school, where going to Oxford was the norm. My teachers felt I had the potential to try, though, and my mum and dad were endlessly encouraging. From spending hours testing me on chemistry formulae or French irregular verbs, to driving me down to Oxford for my interview, to straightforward bribery when they promised me £20 for every A* I got at GCSE, £15 for every A, £10 for every B, and so on they did everything they could to give me ambitions and then help me achieve them.

Since I have grown up and had my own children, I appreciate them even more. I also, perhaps, now appreciate them more as people in their own rights, and not just ‘mumndad’. My mum struggles sometimes with health issues, which makes the time and effort she puts into co-ordinating and volunteering frequently at her local Food Bank all the more admirable. She is also one of the wisest people I know, and my first port of call for advice on any subject from my children’s health (she had an evening phone call just last week as I was worrying about Sophia after her accident), to what colour boots I should buy, to the best approach to pursuing my writing career. My dad is the most selfless person I know and is constantly putting himself last through doing things for other people. His family are often the beneficiaries, but since retirement he has become a volunteer for the Samaritans, also works hard for the local food bank, served as a school governor at a local primary school and does pastoral work at church.

From my mum I have inherited my love of books and reading, and an interest in history. From my dad I get my sense of humour and chronic impatience with any kind of instruction manual.

They are also generous, thoughtful and incredibly loving grandparents, and it makes me very happy to watch them playing with, helping, reading to, teaching and caring for their granddaughters, and seeing the pleasure my girls get out of being with them.

My mum and dad set the benchmark for me. I want to give my children as happy a childhood as my they gave me, and I would love it if, when they reach adulthood themselves, my daughters regard me with as much love, affection, respect, pride and admiration as I feel for my parents.

They Tuck You Up

Adrian Mitchell
They tuck you up, your mum and dad
They read you Peter Rabbit, too.
They give you all the treats they had
And add some extra, just for you.

They were tucked up when they were small,
(Pink perfume, blue tobacco-smoke),
By those whose kiss healed any fall,
Whose laughter doubled any joke.

Man hands on happiness to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
So love your parents all you can
And have some cheerful kids yourself.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner…

This is a month of anniversaries for me. Today is my 5th wedding anniversary, and 16th anniversary of getting together with my husband. As always when I think about my relationship I thank my lucky stars that I have the enormous good fortune to be married to my best friend and favourite person.

This month also marks another very significant event; my 10th anniversary as a Londoner.pearly king and queen Annoyingly, as I am very much someone who remembers and marks special dates, I can’t recall the exact date I moved to London, but I do know it was October 2005. My love affair with London is of nearly as long standing as my love affair with my husband. Six days after getting together, at the beginning of our first term at university, we took the Oxford Tube to London for a day trip. Husband is a Londoner born and bred, and is passionate and hugely knowledgable about his city, so he was thrilled to have the opportunity to show me round the tourist sites, and I think my excitement and enthusiasm for them probably cemented our fledgling relationship.

We were poor students, so I don’t think we actually went in anywhere, or nowhere you had to pay, but we walked our legs off through Westminster and Soho, Piccadilly and St James, the City and the West End. We took a Routemaster bus, and got the Tube to Angel (just because I liked the name), and had a Pizza Hut all-you-can-eat buffet for lunch, before arriving back in Oxford exhausted and exhilarated in the early hours of the morning. During that day I fell irrevocably in love twice, with the boy and with the city. And clearly constance and fidelity are virtues of mine, because sixteen years later I still feel the same for them both.

I squatted a fair bit with my eternally patient in-laws, but it took another six years before we had our own London address – a tiny two-bedroom flat in a converted Victorian terrace in Clapham. One of the most vivid memories of my life is the night we moved in. A friend of ours had taken pity on our pathetic non-driving selves and hired a van to help us move our stuff down from Birmingham. We were renting furnished flats in those days, so ‘stuff’ mainly consisted of very many boxes of books. Inevitably the loading and the drive down took longer than we’d anticipated, and it was already dark when we arrived in Clapham. We parked the van illegally, and I was left with it to charm any passing traffic wardens while the boys carried the boxes in. Slightly stereotypical  division of roles, but there you go. I sat in the front of this van, gazing at the tall, thin Victorian houses with their brightly lit windows and unknown lives within, and thrilled head to foot at the sense of excitement and anticipation and possibility that London always conveys, and which I was finally a part of.

We were only in Clapham two years before putting down our abiding Walthamstow roots, but I know the memory of that October evening will be with me my whole life.

One of the things I love most about London is that I feel confident describing myself as a Londoner, even though I wasn’t born here. The concept of the world in one city has become something of a cliche, but it is that way for a reason. This city of 270 nationalities and more than 300 languages can celebrate diversity whilst achieving coherence. I can be a Scouser, and a Northerner and a Londoner without a flicker of contradiction.

The last ten years has seen me with three different London addresses, two different London-based jobs and a complete career change, a London wedding and two London babies. I have learnt never to stand on an escalator when I could walk, or walk when I could run. I have learnt that 4 minutes is an utterly unacceptable time to wait for a Tube train. I have learnt the spot to stand in to guarantee a seat on stations I use frequently, and that you don’t make eye contact with people on public transport. I have learnt that Londoners aren’t as unfriendly as Northerners think they are, unless you break any of the rules I just mentioned. And I know that, although Liverpool is my home town, and Oxford will always have a special place in my heart, that although I might bemoan London’s pollution and over-crowding and expense, this city and I were made for each other and I can’t see that ever changing.

Paradise Regained

My school days were definitely not the happiest of my life, but my time at university may well be a contender for that position. I read English at Merton College, which is the oldest and (in my opinion) one of the most beautiful colleges of Oxford University. What was there not to love? I met my now husband in Fresher’s Week, we fell deeply and pretty much instantaneously in love and we have been a couple ever since. I also formed some of my closest and most enduring friendships. My ‘job’ was to read, and my workplace was a series of beautiful medieval quadrangles and libraries. And it’s not that I look back now and realise how lucky I was; I knew it at the time. Every single day I realised how blessed I was to have been given the opportunity.merton-college

When I left Oxford it felt like a bereavement. The culture shock of exchanging my 13th century room and days spent in the Bodleian Library studying Chaucer for a 1970s flat in Birmingham and a junior management job in a hospital in West Bromwich was fairly severe. Add that to my close-knit friendship group being scattered around the country, and the usual learning curve of living completely independently with all the food shopping, bill paying and house cleaning which that entails and it isn’t hard to see why I look back at that period of my life as a fairly difficult one.

During my early twenties I visited Oxford fairly frequently – first of all there were friends either taking four year degrees or doing post-graduate work, and then my brother, four years younger than me, also studied there. I went to see the people I cared about, but also because I couldn’t resist; it was basically the psychological equivalent of picking at a scab. It wasn’t particularly enjoyable; always feeling far more bitter than bittersweet. Eventually our visits tailed off as the people I knew also graduated and were debarred from this particular Eden.

Of course, time heals everything, and it certainly cured, in large part, my deep sense of nostalgic regret. I became far more accustomed to the ‘real’ world, my jobs grew progressively more interesting, I made new friendships while realising that distance didn’t have to mean the end of the old ones, and in due course I had all the excitement of buying and furnishing my first house. By the time my daughter was born I had pretty much entirely ceased to mourn Oxford, and there was now a new contender for the position of happiest period in my life. Carrying my baby for nine months, giving birth to her, and being there day by day as she grew is far and away the most intense joy I have ever known. Unlike my time at university, though, it is far from being carefree because it is tempered by equally intense panic and fear – is the baby still moving, breathing, is she feeding enough, why is she coughing like that, is this normal, am I getting it right? I certainly haven’t had time either to visit Oxford or indulge myself in philosophical reflections on the nature of temps perdu. 

Until this weekend. This year, Merton celebrates its 750th anniversary, and as part of the celebrations to mark it, the college hosted a weekend of dinners, brunches, lectures and a family garden party. My mother-in-law generously agreed to babysit Anna on Friday and Saturday nights before bringing her up to Oxford on Sunday for the garden party, so my husband and I were footloose and fancy-free. I almost wasn’t looking forward to it. The closer we come to the arrival of our second child, the more intense is my desire to make the most of this last period as a family of three, and to relish every moment with my precious girl while she is my precious only child. I know (or hope I know) three becoming four will be wonderful in all sorts of ways, and Anna is incredibly excited about her new role as big sister, but our family dynamic will undoubtedly change, and so I want to appreciate what we have now before it does. Clearly accepting change is something I still need to work on…

However, once we were there, walking down the streets which are still so heartbreakingly familiar I was so glad we’d gone. So glad to have the chance to remember who I was before I was Mummy, and for us to remember how we were as a couple before we were parents. We firmly eschewed the lectures. As my husband said, we spent three years avoiding them as much as possible when they were free, it seems ridiculous to start paying for them now. Instead we wandered the streets and the water meadows, browsed endlessly in Blackwell’s, ate enormous quantities of cake and had dinner with a good friend from undergraduate days who is now studying for his PhD.

I went to a beautiful service in the college chapel, giving thanks for 750 years of communal learning and intellectual endeavour. I defy anyone not to feel a thrill as the original, handwritten statute, so many hundreds of years old, endowing the college was displayed and read out. And I couldn’t help but feel proud to have been a tiny part of that continuity of the “House of the Scholars of Merton”. Even though I didn’t go to many lectures.

The formal and  traditional service with its readings from the King James version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and, for light relief, a little T S Eliot, was in sharp contrast to the cheerful mayhem of the next day’s garden party, but it was equally lovely to catch up with many more friends, a lot of them now with their own children, whilst watching Anna scamper around on the Fellows Garden lawn; my past and present coming seamlessly together.

Which is probably in summary what I’ve gained from this weekend. For half the time since leaving Oxford I couldn’t think of it without a sickening thump of regret, the other half I didn’t think of it at all because I was too busy living in the present. Now I feel I can reflect on my time at Oxford happily, as a crucial part of what made me who I am today, and be glad that although I am more than content in my current roles as mother, mother-to-be, wife, writer, unpaid housekeeper and cook, there is a still a place which is a tranquil and tangible reminder that I am also Helen, and that my new identities don’t extinguish my old one.

It’s a Northern thing

One Sunday morning, a couple of weeks ago, we were pottering around the house, and Anna was chatting away to my husband about the sleeping accommodation for her toy cat. “Why not let the cat sleep in this basket?” he suggested.

She gave him a very strange look, and said “Silly Daddy! Why do you say ‘barsket’ instead of ‘bAsket’?”

That’s my girl, I thought, but the battlelines were being drawn.

As I have mentioned before, I’m from Liverpool, and so the way I talk  is completely different to my Hampstead-and-grammar-school husband’s well-modulated vowels. To be honest, accents have always been a bit of an issue for me. Because I don’t really have a strong Scouse accent either. At school I was tormented for ‘talking posh’, which made me a snob, of course. Then when I went to Oxford for university, one Eton-educated young man of my acquaintance claimed not to be able to understand me at all as “your accent is simply too strong”, so I couldn’t win. Too posh for Liverpool, not posh enough for Oxford.

My accent is, in reality, is what someone described to me recently as ‘generic soft Northern’. Some people can detect the Scouse in it, but actually the way I talk seems to owe as much to my dad’s Yorkshire roots as to my Liverpool ones, and of course Oxford, Birmingham and now East London have probably added their own indefinable something along the way.

One thing is for sure, though, I sit on the grAss, never the grarse. When I read fairy stories, my princesses live in cAstles, not carstles, and my cat would only ever sleep in a bAsket. And as I’m the person who spends the most time with Anna, she’s clearly picked up my vowel sounds. I find that amazingly gratifying; my little East London baby, (born in the same hospital as David Beckham, innit), is clinging on to a little bit of her linguistic heritage, and in an age where television is almost obliterating a lot of regional accents this is very comforting to me.

Not so much my husband. He goes round muttering darkly about ‘the Queen’s English’, and ‘BBC English’, and, certainly when I’m around, his current rendition of bedtime stories would actually have the Queen running off for elocution lessons, should she ever hear them.

Of course, it’s all irrelevant. In September Anna’s main influences will become her teacher and her classmates, and, as one of the things I love best about the area we live in is that it is a complete cultural and linguistic melting pot, she could end up speaking with almost any accent at all. But it’s all swings and roundabouts – one of my best friends from school is a primary school teacher, and now lives in Cambridgeshire, where a whole generation of children are growing up with a seemingly random Scouse accent.