Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Gallery - Nature, freedom and hope

Some cliches:

Free as a bird
Spread your wings
The ever-rolling sea
Let fly....

But then, perhaps the reason they're cliches is because they're true.

I look at this photograph, which I took at the Cape of Good Hope when L was not quite six months and I see freedom.  And I see space.  And I see silence.  And I feel the sharpness of the breeze, and I feel the freshness of the air and the chill on your skin that makes you feel alive and clean and aware of where your body meets the world outside it.

And the thing is that that wasn't what the Cape of Good Hope was like that day at all. It was hot, really hot; and too still with it, even there, oppressively so.  And it was noisy, rammed with Japanese tourists (that's another cliche but it, again, also happens to be true), shouting at each other to move, to smile, to wave at mum back home, with, in the background, the ever-present white noise of the ocean, stretching all the way from you to Antarctica.

But here, nearly three years later, I see none of that.  I see freedom and silence.  And escape.  The possibility that that seemingly endless expanse of water offers.  The knowledge that beyond you, for thousands of miles, is nothing.  Empty ocean, through which I could float, beyond reach.   

And I look at that picture and I see the birds.  And again I see freedom.  I ignore the brevity of their lives, and the hardship, and the struggle to survive, and I see the possibility of taking wing, of flying away.

And I find it curious, when I am, at the moment, calm and contented with my lot, that this is the picture that I chose... 

I am at my parents' and various other locations at the moment so internet access is intermittent, hence why I am posting this early, but as from Wednesday morning, the rest of the Gallery will be here.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Confessions of a PlayDoh fascist

I love PlayDoh.

I love the yellow pots, with their coloured lids. I love the way it squishes, and squeezes.  I love the softness of it, and the malleability of it.  I even love the slightly odd smell of it.

But most of all, I love the colours.  I love the brightness, the clarity, the range.

Which is why I am a PlayDoh fascist.

Because, let's face it, your average 3-year (or indeed 19-month) old child just doesn't get it. Give them some PlayDoh and what do they do?  They squish it.  They mush it.  They roll it around and have fun with it (damn them) and you end up with a pile of sludge-coloured goo.

And I hate sludge-coloured goo almost as much as I love PlayDoh.

Which is why, I am afraid, I am unconvinced by the PlayDoh Fun Factory they so kindly sent me a while back.

Let's get one thing straight of course.  The girls loved it, especially L.  (S and A weren't so keen, but then they haven't yet quite worked out that PlayDoh isn't for eating, and so tended to get cross when I took the PlayDoh off them to put in the factory.)  It's basically a big PlayDoh press with a dial on the front with lots of different shaped holes in it, so that you can make lots of differently shaped tubes of PlayDoh.

Like this:

It comes with a red tub and a blue tub of PlayDoh, which tuck neatly away inside it along with a spatula for scraping and cutting and poking in your sister's eye (which may not be exactly what they designed it for).

The problem?  It's got lots of little nooks and crannies, where the spatula can't reach, and so however hard you (for which read "I" try) bits of blue stick and then bits of red, and then all the rest of the colours you've found in the back of the cupboard and want to play with too because it's so much fun and before you know it you're back at the sludge-coloured goo stage...

So, anyway, the verdict on the PlayDoh Fun Factory?  Great for kids.  Rubbish for fascists.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Secret Post Club - July

Secret Post Club time again! Yippee!  And, as I've just admitted being appallingly behind on my thank you posts, I thought I'd start with this one.

My secret sender,  Mirel J,  sent me this:

She's a huge Beatles fan, so she's sent me a cd she's made herself of her favourite Beatles tracks, as well as a handmade friendship bracelet.

Thank you to Mirel!  Who, weirdly, I must have walked past a million times in the street (possible slight exaggeration there, but not by much) as it turns out she works in the same London square I used to.  I'm finding it distinctly odd to think that I've seen her, I've probably smiled at her, she's sent me a present, but I still don't know who she is....)


I'm not talking about anyone else.  I'm not talking about someone I gave a lovely present to who hasn't thanked me.  I'm not even talking about the client who when I rang him up to tell him £40,000 was coming his way, told me he was too busy to talk to me...

Nope.  That's me in the title.

I'm an ungrateful so and so.

I blame it on my parents.  It's all their fault.  If I hadn't had a birthday so close to Christmas, I'd have had to write two sets of thank you letters a year instead of just one.  I'd have had twice the practice and would, as a consequence, be twice as polite, twice as effective, and probably, twice as popular.

Which is not to say that I'm not grateful.  I am.  I'm just lazy.

Which is, in fact, a roundabout way of saying that over the last (eek) three months lots of people have sent me lots of lovely stuff*, and I have yet to say thank you for it. Or indeed, tell them (and you) what I thought.

Over the next couple of weeks, that's all going to change... you  have been warned.

* though sadly no free trips to Florida, or indeed W1 here...

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Gallery - Always Winter but never Christmas

For this week's Gallery, Tara has set us a novel idea.  That's it.  A picture inspired by a novel.

And I've found this, I think, the hardest one of all. Which is odd for a girl who takes a lot of photos and reads more books.  I just didn't know where to start.  Do you start with the book, and take or find a photo that represents it? But if so, which book of the thousands I've read, and hundreds I've loved?  Or do you start with a photo and move from that to the book?  But if so, which photo, because they are all, for me, so redolent of the time or place on which they were taken, that it is hard to associate them with anything else.

So I did both, I browsed my pictures and I dredged my memory, and I thought about the books that had stayed with me.  And I found this...

It's not the greatest picture in the world.  It was taken, not by me, clearly, from our roof in February 2008, when London shut down.  The transport, the hubbub, even the birds, silenced under the thickest blanket of snow we'd seen for decades.

And it felt, and still feels, like Narnia.  A world locked in silence and ice.  Where it is always Winter but never Christmas. Words which still give me goosebumps, some twenty five years after they were first read to me.

Because I loved those books, whatever others may think of the dodgy allegory. Every one was a world of excitement: of horses chased by terrifying beasts, of water clear as glass and inhabited by wondrous creatures, of animals that spoke, of lamp-posts that grew, of grown ups who understood.   Of turkish delight (whatever that was), sleeping heros, sea monsters, snakes, witches and knights.  Of evil, good and everything in between.

And when I walked out into that snowy day, with L holding my hand,  and when I look at that picture now, I know how Lucy felt, when she pushed through that wardrobe, past the cold silk of the fur coats, into the purer cold of the frozen world beyond. Because snow is magical, still, even at 33.

And I hope that my girls will feel that same excitement, that same transporting sense of wonder and enchantment, when I open those books with them and take them into that world.  And when they do, that really will be magic.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Losing it

And now for something completely different.

There was an article in the Observer Magazine yesterday about losing it.

Nope, not your temper and not your car keys...  it.


It's an interview with Kate Monro, whose blog collates people's experiences of this, well, experience, which is, of course, nosily and amazingly fascinating in and of itself (seriously, go read).  But what really struck me, reading the article, and before I'd even looked at the blog, was that Ms Monro "believes sharing your virginity loss story is one of the most exposing things you can do".

Now maybe it's because I've given birth, and as a result told all sorts of total- and near-strangers no end of details about my nethers, or maybe it's because blogging has made me, if anything, too open, or maybe it's just because the event itself (unlike lots of those on her blog) was pretty underwhelming, but I can't get that bothered about that particular story.  I mean, if you want to know, I'll tell you*, simple as that.  There are things I'd be worried about exposing, and that's not one of them.

But does that make me odd?  Certainly, reading the blog and the stories reprinted in the article you can see that there are people for whom this is a life-changing experience, but you could also identify at a glance those  for whom the "first time" was only a chronological necessity.

Now, I'm not going to put up a Linky so that you can all post about your virginity loss (and given that most people who read this blog are mothers, I'm going to assume this is an experience most of us have gone through) because that would be stealing Ms Monro's idea, but what I would be interested to know is this:

If I asked, would you tell me?  Or am I odd in feeling totally unprotective of that story?


* It was on my wedding night, the bed was strewn with roses, there was a nightingale.**


**and if you believed that....

If you are related to me and really don't want to know this sort of detail, look away now...

I was eighteen. I was travelling in Australia.  I'd been one of the last people at my (all girls' boarding) school to be kissed.  That was a big deal so I was pretty determined not to go to university a virgin and be in the same position (tee hee) again.  I met a nice bloke.  I slept with him. It was mildly uncomfortable and distinctly unexciting.  End of.  Or nearly; because he stayed in touch and came to see me at university (six hours journey) about a year later. It was pretty clear what he thought was going to happen, and I didn't want to.  The telling him that was significantly more uncomfortable than the original deed itself.

The ironic thing? I was definitely in the minority as being not a virgin at university.  Hence why I read with disbelief all those surveys that say most people lose it at 16....

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


I'd say it comes out of nowhere.  But I don't think that's true.  I think it lurks and broods, breeds and festers, biding its time, waiting like an poisonous shadow, a giant spider, a vicious blackness.

And then it stirs.  It boils. It seethes.  It explodes.  Anger.  Vitriol.  Violence.  Rage.  I want to scream, shout,  swear. I shake with the containing of it. I feel the ice burn of the tears behind my eyelids.  My fists clench with the effort.  All I want is to hurt.  To smash the china, to hear the shriek as it hits the stone floors.  To hurt myself.  To dig my fingernails in. To force my hands through glass. 

I leave. I walk away lest the girls see me like this.  I hide.  And then the tears come.  Shaking, heaving, retching.  I hate myself. I hate feeling like this.  I quake as the storm passes, subsides and calms.

And I am left trembling.  Hungover and afraid.  For days I live in hidden fear. If you saw me, you would not know, but inside I am subdued.  I am anxious.  I worry about the tiniest things.  I cry easily, silently, hurting my ribs with the strain of holding in the noise, because I am still ashamed.  I am afraid to go out, to put myself out there, to write or think or say anything.  I do not want to be touched.

And then it is gone.  And I am back. 

And I am back.  I really am.  But I am frightened.  This happened once, about six months ago, and I had never felt anything like it before, and I did not control it. I screamed and swore and terrified myself and my family.  But it passed, and I wept, and I put it down to stress and unhappiness and exhaustion.  And then, last week, it was back.  Not once, but twice.   Each episode lasting less than fifteen minutes, but leaving me shaken for days after.  And I am not stressed, and I am not unhappy, and I have no reason to be as exhausted as I feel.

So I am afraid.  What is it?  Why do I react like this when I do not even know what I am reacting to?  I am not an angry person.  I do not hate, I do not hurt.  I do not want to be someone who hurts.  Or hates.  I want to be as I seem, as I try to convince myself that I am.  As someone whose emotions are under control.   Who is in control.  Who feels without being seen to feel.

So I move on. I carry on.  I bury the fear.  And I write this post, so that I can look the rage in the face, stare it down, show it that its power has passed. So that I can prove to myself that I will not be judged for feeling like this.  So that I can admit that I have felt this and I have moved on.

And in moving on, I hope.  I hope that this time, it really has passed.  That it will not be back.  That I will be that person.

And that I will never have to write another post like this again.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The girl who read books at blogtime

No prizes for guessing what I've been reading...

Stieg Larsson's multimillion selling Millennium trilogy:

And, you know what?  I'm unconvinced. 

Is it just me or is it all a bit emperor's new clothes?  I can't help wondering that if it hadn't been written in an (oo er) foreign language (and is therefore clever and different) and if the author hadn't tragically died young and shortly after delivering the last book to his publisher, we wouldn't all be thinking of it as the great new literary trilogy but more as Sweden's answer to Dan Brown, even down to the mysterious, unnamed, odd-looking silent killer.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I'm afraid I don't see what all the fuss is about.  Ok, they're jolly exciting and plot driven, but then so are Mr Brown's works, and the critics don't go wild for them.

There were just too many things that didn't feel quite right.  The titles are rubbish, but that's not Larsson's fault. In Swedish they're different.  The first one, for those as don't already know, was originally Men who hate women  and therein lies my first quibble.  There is one, count her, one woman in the first book who is not in some way abused.  In fact it takes until the second part of the second book until you meet another.  Now, I'm not saying that there are not some horrible men out there, and maybe I'm just being naive and idealistic, but not all men are filthy abusive bastards, and not all women are victims, and I found myself, as I read on, objecting, on behalf of both my sex and the other, to the implication that this was the case.

You get a few more lucky (normal?) characters in the later parts of the second, and the third novels, but the stereotypes still hold true.  Incidental characters have sordid secrets, and it's almost always to do with violence and hatred towards women, and even those who iin earlier sections manage to seem relatively, well, balanced, turn out to be on the receiving end of some pretty horrid stuff.

And then I found myself wondering, why did Larsson think this? And, more importantly, why does he have to write it with such relish?  There are only so many nasty scenes of women being abused I want to take, and he rewrites and revists at least one too many time for me.  Similarly, why is there only one couple in all three novels with a half-way mainstream relationship?  Are we really all so twisted? (Or does he just think those of us that are mainstream are just dull, unimaginative, and unworthy of being written about?)

But it's not just that. It's silly too.  I mean, honestly, a solution to Fermat, that conveniently gets forgotten?  Purlease.  (And I'm not just saying that because Andrew Wiles and I had the same primary maths teacher (although not at the same time, for the avoidance of doubt)). 

And that's before I get into the irritations of product placement (too many specifics of computers and PDAs and Ikea furniture for my taste); or the clunkiness of some of the prose (and although admittedly some of that could be put down to the translation, why is it that that same mathematical formula, which is famously understandable by a child, suddenly seems so complicated when Larsson describes it?); or repetition, as though he's found a bit of research, popped it into one book and then forgotten he's already used it when he came to write the next one.

It's hard to know, of course, to what extent the books were finished when they were delivered to his publisher prior to his death. Maybe they were, perhaps particularly the last one, only in rough drafts.  For his sake, I hope so.  Because, for me, that was the weakest one by a distance.  Even the tension, which had carried me through the first two, seemed lacking here, as though he had run out of energy and imagination and just had to tie the ends together as quickly as possible.  

Perhaps I'm being harsh. As I said, I enjoyed them, but I'm just not sure they're as great as the reviewers would have you believe.  Read them, by all means, but bring your suspension of disbelief and your strong stomachs with you.

Teeth and the market economy

I took the girls to the dentist yesterday.  It was an NHS dentist.  It was in a nice modern building; clean and shiny. The dentist, the dental nurse and the receptionist were all charming.  It is less than three months since we moved here and all three of my children are now officially registered dental patients. And I didn't pay anything.

Which is interesting, because it is a truism that Scottish teeth are among the worst in Europe. Even NHS Scotland says so, so it's got to be pretty bad. 

But not for my girls. My girls have a lovely NHS dentist, who gave them splendid ScoobyDoo stickers, and packed us all our way in record time, having confirmed that all is well.

Things are not, however, so white and pearly for B and me.  Do you know how long it's going to take for us to get an NHS dentist here?  Bear in mind that I have never, despite all the stuff you read about NHS dentists being mythical creatures along the lines of Nessie and the uneven-legged haggis, not had an NHS dentist since I took charge of my own teeth aged about 18.  In London there were three, yes, three, NHS dentists, all taking new patients, within a ten minute walk of my front door.

So how long here?

Two years.

Which is pretty rubbish.  But I was kind of expecting it. And I'm lucky. I can afford to take care of my teeth and when I read that a third of Scottish women over 55 have no teeth at all I can make a pretty swift decision to do so.

So, we go private.  Decision made.

How long for a space with a private dentist here?

Three years.


Yup. That's right. There is a three year waiting list to see a private dentist.  Now clearly that's not true if, like poor B a couple of weeks ago, you have a dental emergency.  They'll see you then.  But if, like me, you have healthy teeth and would like to keep them that way with a bi-annual check up and a nice clean with the whizzy toothbrush and the pink gritty toothpaste, you have to wait three years.  And then pay for it.

And I don't get it.  I can see why there's a waiting list for an NHS dentist.  I can't say I've studied the Scottish budget in detail, but I can quite easily believe that they've had to fund free tuition fees somehow and maybe it's the poor old dentists who have taken the cut.  And I realise that funding NHS dentists for children has always been prioritised over adults.  That's ok. I can deal with that.

But private dentists? That I just don't get. I'm not an economist, but surely the whole basis of a capitalist economy founded on the principle of supply and demand is that where there's a shortage of something there is money to be made, and that we are all, private dentists no less, trying to make money. So where are they?  Why aren't there private dentists flocking to the Scottish Borders picking up all those hundreds of people sitting on waiting lists and hoping that their teeth aren't all going to fall out in the meantime? 

And even more odd: how can it be that there is a longer waiting list for a service you have to pay for than one that comes for free?

And if, when you've finished working all that out, you could find me a dentist slightly nearer than the one I'm hanging on to in London that'd be great too...

Digitally re:Masterpieces - An Invitation

You are cordially invited
to an exclusive viewing of 
Digitally Re:Masterpieces by, well, erm....


A week ago, inspired by Tara, and urged on by Iota, I suggested that anyone who wanted to should join me in recreating some fantastic works of art with our cameras, our imaginations, and our ordinary twenty-first century stuff.  You can click here to see the post and the reactions.

To my enormous delight, you seem to like the idea, so as approved by Trish (who's created a  fantastic Van Gogh reimagining) I've added a linky onto the original post, so that you can add your amazing pictures there.   The linky is open until (I think) the 23rd of July (it's round about then anyway) so you've got lots of time, and if you miss it, there'll be another one next month!

Please do join in!  I'm going to be doing this every month on the first of the month and I'd love to get lots of people taking part.  My original thinking was that we'd all do the same one, because I think it'd be fab to see how we all interpret the same thing, so if you're stuck for an idea, I'd love to see your Sunflowers on the first of August.  That said, though, Trish's bed is awesome, and there are lots of other fantastic ideas floating around, so if you've got a better one, do that instead, or if you prefer send it to me and we can all do it in due course.

Deer Baby also raised a copyright issue about using images of the original works.  I'm risking it for the moment, but I have asked a former colleague who is a media and copyright lawyer, and will let you know if there's a problem. 

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Gallery - Holidays from two to five


Ahhh! Holidays.

When we were two, we had amazing holidays.

We had a honeymoon like this (that was our own personal Saracen tower, please note):

We did this:

And lots of this:

We went here:

Having started off here:

We drove here:

And here:

We even took our clothes off and swam here:

And then L came along, and we were three.  But that didn't stop us.  We  saw this:

And did this:

And this:

Only now we are five.

So we do this:

And, if we are very lucky, this: 


These pictures (from top: Positano, Italy; Dubai; Whistler, Canada (actually a bit of a cheat); Las Vegas; San Francisco; Millau, France; Torridon, Scotland; Yosemite, USA; No prizes; Chartreuse, France; Plettenburg Bay, South Africa; Spittal, Northumberland; and the back of our car, here, last week) are in response to Tara's Gallery.  More amazing pictures if you click the link.

Saturday, 3 July 2010


This weekend everyone's going to the ball.

And even though my fairy godmother waved her magic wand and got me a ticket, I'm not*.

So I'm cross.  Not so much about the sessions, although I know I've got lots to learn, but because I won't be meeting all the wonderful people I've virtually got to know over the last six months.

So if you are going, have a wonderful time, and I'm so sorry not to meet you.   I really hope to be able to do so some other time.

*I'm going to a wedding instead, so the Cinderella metaphor's a bit laboured.  I won't be sitting by the fire sobbing, or talking to random small animals, I'll be drinking champagne, and wearing a glamorous hat.  Still wish the wedding had been on any other Saturday this year, though.

Picture presumably copyright Disney.  I found it at 2sugarsplease.wordpress.com  Thank you.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Digitally re:masterpieces

Ok, let's go back a while.

A long, long time ago (about four months), the brilliant Tara came up with the Gallery.  Every week she racks her brains for an idea, a prompt, a theme and she posts it on her blog, and we, the punters, go off and take pictures, or dig out pictures, and post them on our blogs.

Now, precisely one month ago,  she said Still Life.  And I posted this:

which was based on this:

And lots of people seemed to love it.  So much so that the wonderful Iota Manhattan suggested I do more of them, a little series of reworked masterpieces.   And I thought about it, and the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

You see, once upon a time, I used to work with amazing paintings. Not often, but occasionally.  And occasionally I was instrumental in making sure that the same amazing paintings got to stay in this country.  And I would go, every now and then, to our national collections and look at these paintings, and think "I made two phone calls in a year's worth of work that my boss did that means I can stand and look at that painting now, for free".  And I don't do that any more. And a part of me misses it.

So, here's the idea.  Once a month I'm going to set myself a painting, or a sculpture, and I'm going to remaster it for the modern age. And then I'm going to post it on here, and see what you think.  The only limitation?  The original must be in the UK, in a public collection. So if we want to go and see what it really looks like, undigitised, and un-remastered, we can.  I'm hoping that some of you might suggest some (leave me a comment, you know I love that!), but failing that I'll pick one myself.

I thought I'd start with another still life, just because the props are easier to find (we'll move on to portraits of Popes later, shall we?), so ladies and gentlemen, I give you, hot from the National Gallery:

Still Life with Lemons and Oranges (1760s), by Luis Melendez


re-imagined, for 2010, as Still Life, without Melon by me.

And as a sneak preview, I'm thinking Sunflowers for next month, because it'll be August, and the girls have just planted some, and because I think it'll be trickier than it sounds...Oh, and if anyone wants to join in, just say, and I'll try and work out how to stick a McLinky on...

Next day.... due to popular request, Linky below.  Join in!