Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Thought That Counts

A pal came back from a nice trip to Holland and presented me with a carrier bag full of stuff. She's too generous and wonderfully good at getting decent presents.

I snatched the bag gratefully. It's been a while since I got a prez.

“Ooooo. What's in here?” I plunged a hand in, feeling quite jolly excited. I hardly ever do cool, except with strangers.

I was hoping for cannabis cake. My fingers felt something round - a bit like a muffin but rather more solid. Maybe it had gone stale. I didn't mind if it was a week old.

It turned out to be cheese. Paprika gouda cheese. Oh well.

“Go on,” she urged. “There's something that'll make you laugh. Just your thing.”

My fingers found two little objects that clanked together.

A tiny pair of china clogs on strings. Kind of cute but not exactly hilarious and so far, no cannabis. I'm an ungrateful cow sometimes.

“It's probably in the bottom of the bag. Keep going” she said.

A tube of something.

“Oooh cannabis chocolate...???”

“It's just white chocolate, you noggin. You like white chocolate.”

Yes I do but sometimes I just crave an illegal substance. Never had one, but that doesn't stop me craving one. Chocolate is ok though. It contains nil calories as long as you don't pay for it personally.

I groped further in the bag. My fingers felt something knitted. A scarf. A scarf with a pom-pom?? Probably not a scarf, then.

Oh. A hat. A hat like the hat in the film “About a Boy.” A hat to engender sympathy from the soft-hearted but much more likely to attract raucous ridicule from those of sound mind.

You could have cut the anticlimax with a knife.

“See. It's funny isnt it? Do you like it?” she smiled.

“All the cyclists were wearing them in Amsterdam. They're really warm apparently.”

Subtext: “You're completely indiscriminate about what you wear so here's something to make grown men weep and small children roll in the gutter with mirth.” Bee-atch.

“Well, it looks warm,” I said. I pulled it on. From nowhere there were at least four phones produced so the owners could eagerly snap amusing pictures.

I did look completely ridiculous. The hat is grey and cream knitted woolly hat with a grey pom pom on top. It has ear flappy bits and woolly extensions like plaits dangling down past both ears.

I simply can't imagine what kind of woman would look good in it. I certainly don't. It makes me look like a Greenham Common woman with special needs or a Swiss weather clock girl who had been kept in a cupboard by her dad for so long that she lost all her fashion sense.

“Oh yes. It is warm. I'm glowing already. Thank you.” I doubt it sounded very convincing but at least I tried.

“You can wear it on your bike under your helmet or something.”

She means well and usually has impeccable taste but has revealed nakedly that she knows nothing about cycling or helmets or hats. Reminded me a bit of my Aunty Gerty who bought me a cap gun for Christmas when I was five. Dad thought she'd got the labels wrong and it was meant for my brother but he was incensed to find she had bought it for me. She worked at the toy factory and was ahead of her time, staunchly resisting sexist stereotypes. Dad gave it to my brother anyway.

I have accepted it in the spirit with which it was given – as a joke hat. I'll wear it on Bonfire Night, to a firework display at least thirty miles from home where no-one knows me. I'll wear a pair of dark glasses to make extra-sure I can't be identified.

Thereafter I will save it for my eccentric old age and wear it, along with a fur coat, while pedalling along on the Oxford bicycle I've promised myself with a big basket on the front carrying two Tibetan spaniels.

It will be clear where the hat originated. People will see the "Amster" knitted in large cream letters across the back of it (the dam is out of view over my right ear).

People might assume I've been at the tea and cannabis cakes. They might even be right.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Curlers talk.... costs lives

I'm going to visit Aunty Ivy soon in Wales. She's in her eighties now, still lives in the same council house she's lived in since she was married and you know what? If I get there before midday, I bet she'll be in her curlers.

She used to tie a nice flowery satin head scarf over them if she popped down the road to the shops in her housecoat and slippers for a pack of Capstan or whatever she's smoking these days.

It makes me feel a bit guilty actually. I don't smoke and I don't use curlers. I don't even have a housecoat.

I'm failing in my duty to keep alive these proud family traditions; traditions which were alive long before Hilda Ogden was even a twinkle in a scriptwriter's eye.

I'm at that age where, by rights, I should have been in curlers for at least a decade and in nylon housecoats for five years.

All my aunties used to wear curlers – overnight and definitely for the morning. They smelled of setting lotion. Some of my aunties used to enjoy going out on the town, ballroom dancing, so the hair was an important part of going out.

My life is infinitely more boring then theirs. I work and cycle and DT man is not cut out for tripping the light fantastic so there is no call for glamorous high-maintenance evening hairstyles.

Mumsie was of the old school – although perhaps with the advent of Strictly Come Dancing it's a school that has built itself a glitzy extension for the millions of extra enthusiasts – she was a ballroom dancer so there would be an early bath and hair wash and the rollers would be in from 4pm.

She kept them in an old Roses chocolates tin – yellow, pink and blue for different quantities of curly volume on different parts of the head. I used to do the back ones for her, marching down the head to the nape of her neck. It was a kind of privilege, bring allowed to help with mum's curlers; one of those peaceful, intimate little gestures that re-enforce the bond.

Come to think of it, I'm probably the first woman in my family not to use curlers. My favourite nan didn't go for curlers often – preferring an intricate system of metal hair clips and clamps like miniature man-traps to seize recalcitrant waves and force them into position. I have a hazy memory of using one to inflict minor bodily harm on my brother but I carry not guilt. Low-risk torture in the home is merely preparation for life and anyway, isn't that what big sisters are for? Nan's head was so heavy with metalwork that a half-decent magnet situated out in the back yard would have held her firmly against the wall. That and the metalwork in her substantial stays.

My posher nan did curlers too but she went in for perms and wash and sets for the big occasions like funerals or when her church choir did a gig in another church further up the valley.

Long, straight, unfeasibly shiny hair (yes the hair models in magazines have “shine” solution ironed on to it) still seems de rigeur these days. No-one much wants the shorter waves of the incomparable Sophia Loren, the soft longer style of Lauren Bacall or the ditzy blonde curls of Lucille Ball.

Except in Liverpool, that is. According to the Post earlier this year the trend which Aunty Ivy has been keeping alive for all these years is coming back big-time.

Girls are once again going out in their curlers.

“There’s no shame in going out into town shopping in rollers; in fact it’s almost a status thing. It announces the fact you’re going out that night and intend to have the biggest, most gorgeous hair possible,” said Andrea Daley, a stylist at Barbara Daley Hair and Beauty in Lime Street.

“Putting curlers in gives the hair body and bounce, rather than make it curly, and it will give your style longevity helping it last through the night.”

Maybe it's time for me to eschew the hair straighteners and do battle with the styling lotion and some big fat rollers.

Then I just need to get a housecoat. Cerise nylon, I think. With a big patch pocket full of pegs. Oh and probably a plastic rain bonnet – in case I get caught by a shower as I'm popping to the shops in my fluffy slippers.

I have a responsibility not to let these traditions die – besides, Aunty Ivy will be proud of me.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Dear Diary

Everyone has a book in them. I wrote my book when I was about thirteen. It was a chunky A5 size garishly-floral five year diary which I kept at the back of the bottom drawer.

I recorded my life. There were no statistics, no graphs, no pie charts. I don't do numbers. I do words and pictures. It was the roller-coaster of teenage emotions; as much a cliché and more so than that last phrase. Home life, school life, personal life, very personal life, meals, music, friends, enemies (there were none, actually but I was very afraid that psychotic first year Mandy Phillips who I saw every morning on the way to the school bus would one day catch my eye, take some mysterious offence and duff me up thoroughly).

I wrote in it every day and shared my innermost thoughts. It might have been a publishing sensation. I was a diarist of the Wilde school.

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensation to read in the train,” he said.

Mine was no-holds-barred. No point otherwise. I wouldn't have taken the risk of reading it in public, mainly because it was so obviously a diary with its yellow orange green and black padded flowery cover.

So it was with some interest that I noted the review of a new book out today – Cringe: Toe-Curlingly Embarrassing Teenage Diaries, Letters and Bad Poetry, edited by Sarah Brown – a brilliantly simple yet amusing collection of teenage diary extracts.

This, from Pip Hawkes(14) rang a few bells. "I’ve just decided —– well — not decided — but found out — I’m nihilistic! God – Dad’s just come in and told me to tidy my room — it is BLOODY TIDY!! He must have had a bad day at work — WANKER. "

Liz Banks, at 15, was a little old to have written this, but I completely sympathise about Rob Andrew. "Why am I unhappy?

Because mum and dad row Because I have school work to do

Because Rob Andrew [England rugby union fly half] and Graeme Hick [England and Worcestershire batsman] are married Because I have GCSEs next year

Because I am ugly

Because Adrian didn’t fancy me

Because I’ve done no art [I was referring to art homework, rather than art generally. I think.]

Because I have no friends I like

Because my room’s a mess

Because there’s a Conservative government."

I like a lot of the extracts from this book, which is odd because I don't tend to have much empathy with other people's diaries. I didn't recognise the Adrian Mole thing. Similarly I couldn't relate to Bridget Jones (although I did enjoy the film) and the singleton's obsession with control over cigarettes and chocolate.

But I did recognise some of my old self – or should have been young, only partially developed self? - in these extracts.

The blindly polarised black-and-white emotions of my teenage years are all there, albeit expressed differently.

This, from Jo Wickham is a perfect textual strop. “I hate Mum. She said I can’t have a coat as I still fit in my old one. I’m gonna feel like a prick if I wear a coat everyone was wearing last year. She’s such a bitch. It doesn’t cost that much and I need a coat. She’s such a slapper. She’s only doing it coz I get most things I want so she wants to say no, so I’m not spoilt. She’s such a bitch. And I’ve lost my keys and she’ll have an eppy if she finds out. Oh I hate her and I hate myself for losing them. God I’m pissed off — I know it’s only keys but if I’ve lost them I’ll go mad — I hate losing things but I do a lot. Oh I’m soo mad.”

I was too much of a bolshie control freak to ever smoke or try drugs but Claire Bateson (18) illustrates the breathtakingly self-obsessed dream-world of LSD: “I am writing this on acid, the tail-end of a trip. I need this time alone with pen and paper to express myself. I feel really happy to be me – more gorgeous and beautiful than ever before, me in all senses. Feminine – oh so feminine – and the prettiest, most beautiful girl that ever lived. I am so pretty tonight, in the red light and the flickering of the candle. I am a goddess, and only James has truly seen and appreciated this.”

My diary was much more likely to have read “I hate my dad. It's so stupid having to be home by 9pm. It's sooo unfair. My brother is an idiot. I keep telling mum I hate kidneys but she keeps making me eat them. I saw Alison being bullied today and didn't do anything about it. I hate them smoking on the bus. It makes me smell terrible. Roger P. looked at me today, I'm sure he did. He is still wonderful. I wonder what his voice sounds like. Mr Davis has never heard of Bigbury. Mr Cross leaned over me again in Eng Lit, too close. I could smell his breath. Wrote a love letter to Roger. Finished my portrait of Elton John..... Steve gave me Enigma Variations. We were on the phone later for 94 minutes. A new record. Just as well it was free.”

I don't keep a regular diary now but if I'm emotionally fragile, the first thing I do is reach for a pen or the keyboard and write great wodges of stuff. Seems to work and I leave these scrolls hanging in cyberspace like so many Serrano hams – tasty chunks of perfectly expressed consciousness never to be found.

Distance, instead of lending enchantment, lends a particular ludicrousness. Reading back a month later always reveals the pathetic cow. There are still lingering traces of the bolshie teenager but I argue more with myself these days.

I was fond of writing in code for a while - code as recommended by the I-Spy Book of Spycraft. It held up the writing though so I reverted to plain old English.

The raw undisguised, uncoded truth proved to be my undoing. My sainted mumsie did the one stinky, misguided – and subsequently regretted - thing she ever committed in her life; she read my diary.

I got home from school one day and she confronted me, white as a sheet, zombie-starey-eyed, shaken and ranting incoherently. I gathered she had found the diary but she was unspecific as to which bits had particularly shocked or offended her.

It could have been one of several things. She'd led a sheltered life up until then and had mistakenly presumed I was doing the same.

She hadn't told dad, which was just as well. I asked for it back but she announced “I've burned it.”

I believe she did. It was that good.

All for the best though, probably.

This was back in typewriter days when a computer would have taken up the entire first floor or the house.

If it had been now, I would have been spilling my guts all over the internet. Oh what a foolish and regrettable thing to do...

And lastly, his sweetly illustrates the tribulations of the romantic cyclist:

Andy Foster (15) Sunday, February 23 [after church youth club]
"There was no push away when I put my arm around her. But ahhhh I didn’t get a kiss off Gemma at the end because I was on bicycle and couldn’t get off in time before she’d disappeared"

Veggie trouble

Why bother to eat weeds then there are so many perfectly pleasant vegetables?

To stir-fry nettle tips, toss dandelion leaves in salads and munch fat hen from the woods (can't recall it's Latin name but it's definitely edible and salady) just seems unnecessarily esoteric when you can tuck into lovely pile of steaming runner beans and a jolly good King Edward-based champ, buttered swede and carrot or brilliant shredded Savoy cabbage.

And it must be said that sprouts are an absolute joy.

But who, in their right mind, would want to eat a thistle?

People around Roscoff love them. There are hectares of them growing in the fine sandy soil. Artichokes along with rose onions, are the local speciality vegetables.

Artichokes are outstanding architectural plants thrusting those proud green global heads skywards. The stems are enormous. They could have been designed to be Oberon's mace but Oberon would have to be a pretty beefy king of the fairies to hold one up without getting a bad back.

The leaves remind me a lot of acanthus, beloved of William Morris and used often in his designs.

So as I was taken out for a birthday supper in Roscoff, it seemed only fair to try the local produce and go for the artichoke starter before the seafood platter and (and I was hoping it would be good and it was) that gorgeously custardy Far Breton tart.

Of course I'd had previous artichoke experience. From memory, they were an inch or or long, a soft kind of leafy thing pickled in some kind of vinaigrette. I'd had them from various delicatessens. Tasty. I imagined they must be extracted from deep within the giant heads that we'd seen in the fields.

The artichoke the waiter placed in front of me was bigger than anything we'd seen growing outdoors. They must expand when they're cooked because this baby filled the entire plate; a substantial round of green bracts that looked like a half-closed water lily.

There was a small pot of mayo-type sauce alongside. DT man tucked into his “safe” choice of fish soup, much amused.

I cast a furtive look at the nearest diners. No-one else had a giant green vegetable in front of them. I would have to experiment. I gingerly picked at one of the bracts. It came away easily. It was far too tough to eat but there was a fatter bit at the base which was quite nice if dipped in the sauce first.

Mmm. Not unpleasant. I continued until there was a pile of greenery to one side and my diligent plucking had revealed a central boss that just looked odd - like I'd revealed a small alien craft which might fire up, lift vertically, laser me in the eye and shoot out of the window.

Think about it. If aliens are among us, vegetables would be a damn good place in which to hide. Especially if their craft can withstand boiling water.

By now, I'd lost interest in green things and was thinking about langoustine and another glass of fizz. I pushed the remains to one side.

I had sent a pic of the artichoke from my mobile to no 2 son in London. We send each other food pics to make each other envious. He was still at work. He was much impressed and even texted some advice on tackling it.

'S'ok.' I replied confidently. 'It is done. I have eaten it.'

I could have sworn that I had eaten it. The waiter had other ideas when he came to clear the plates.

“But madame...” he cried in consternation.

“...you 'ave left ze art!!”

Bloody drama queen, I thought. It might be art to you sunshine but seventeen leaves is enough for anyone. He was taking the Pissarro.

He shrugged and made one last desperate effort with me.

“But ze ART....ze art is ze best part!”

I waved it away and he took it, rolling his eyes (men have been doing that at me a lot lately but he was the first) and muttering Frenchisms under his breath.

“He's cursing you,” grinned DT man. He loves it when I upset other men. It helps him feel less victimised.

“E is saying 'ze bloody eeenglishwoman she knows nuzzink.'”

Wrong on both counts. I'm Welsh and I know when I've had enough thistle. Thistles are tricky.

Much easier to ask for a plate of onions next time I want to try the local veggie without getting into trouble...


There have been developments on the fffffridge fffront. That chap who was so contemptuous of my interest in his fridge has capitulated and revealed all.

That just demonstrates the power of a blog. The depth of curiousity about fridge contents and the solidarity shown by my brothers and sisters here persuaded him that it would be churlish to withhold access for a moment longer.

He still thinks it's quite sad of me to want to know but hell, I can live with that. I'm quite looking forward to a visit to the Johnny Onion Museum very soon so that will represent new depths of freakery, according to the friends who have vowed never to come on holiday with me. But that is their loss. They will never know the joy of diving for the purple sea urchin.

So the contents started normally enough with UHT milk (Yuch!!!) and eggs "Unidentifiable date" - pretty well guaranteed salmonella, then.

He fished out something solid of irregular shape in a plastic bag. He dropped to the floor. It didn't even crack. He had no idea what it was.

"Quite dense," he said. "A bit scared to try that."

Tellingly (though obviously I didn't say a word) he put it BACK in the fridge!

Course, if he was a serial killer, he would say something like "a bit scared to try that" wouldn't he? Ah-haaaa. It would be quite a convincing cover story if the object was in fact a body part that he'd air-dried like serrano ham. I could just imagine him hacking bits off and devouring them if he gets the munchines while watching a movie.

An empty bottle.

Sugar. Peanuts. Precisely. Who would want chilled sugar? Just imagine your builder "Oh four sugars for me darlin' - not too warm thanks."

The sugar thing completely fits in with my theory that people who aren't really interested in food fill their fridges with other things like boxes of matches, packets of screws or in this case, an empty bottle and sugar.

The freezer was no better. A weird lump of leaves in cling film. An opened ice lolly and a bag of what looked alarmingly like babys' testicles. Dozens of small, opalescent white orbs.

"They are for soup."

Yeah right. Serial baby killer. Definitely. That could be the only explanation. There was absolutely nothing in fridge or freezer, apart from the ingredients for a hideously smelly and possibly fatal omelette.

Fortunately I won't be invited for dinner. Especially now if he reads about the "serial killer" thing. My curiosity is satiated but when it comes to appetite satiation, I'll go elsewhere.