Thursday, 8 October 2015

Tory Tandoori

Where once Norman Lamont would chew slowly on a samosa
Where David Mellor, in his 90s heyday, would eye up the King prawn bhoonas
And John Major (sans Norma) would politely order a plain naan and korma.
Now, David Cameron, poised with a poppadom, dipped in mango chutney, 
In the Tory Tandoori,
In Putney
But on week nights its full, of braying broad-shouldered youths
Fresh from the boats
Steal the oxygen from the air with their brash and beery boasts
Of watery outings on the Thames
Of catching crabs
And capsizing
On drunken night-time rows
Blades splashing across the brown depths.

Friday, 24 July 2015

An appointment with the ointment

From unctions to ointments, pomades and liniments; from preparations to suspensions via balms, gels and tinctures...there are so many words for goo. It is a lexicographer’s Lotto win and a linguist’s afternoon well spent. But this is not the only reason I love a bathroom cabinet. They are both a window on the soul of their owner and contain solutions (yet another word for goo) to almost all our ills, both moral and physical. The hope contained within is tangible. The presence of an overflowing cupboard above the sink reassures me that everything might just be all right. Those I have glanced at during brief stopovers at friends’ houses are usually stuffed full - their owners’ discontentment writ large in their Olbas Oil, their withered tubes of Anusol and their efficient-looking bottles of Neutrogena T-gel. The cabinet of the anxious high achiever always contains answers to conflicting problems - Bach remedies to calm you down, ProPlus to pick you up and Vicks to clear your airwaves when your immune system gives way under the strain.
My own cabinet is no different. I try to be a frugal shopper, but clearly something in me can never resist the hope offered by a trip to Superdrug. My instant reaction to discomfort is "Is there something for that?" Any sign of an itch or an ache and I’m sprinting up the high street for some overpriced bottle whose first ingredient is usually "Aqua". Do the makers of these products seriously believe we are fooled by such terminology? It doesn’t matter. They count on the fact that - in the haze of misery caused by the fast-paced boredom of modern life - people will cling to the slight hope offered by the 0.01 per cent 'active ingredient'. My side of the cabinet bristles with evidence of life's endless challenges: tea-tree oil for post-birth vaginal healing, lavender oil for insomnia and four kinds of face cream (I lurch between insanely cheap and stupidly expensive, depending on how optimistic I feel- I'm currently siding with Lidl own brand). My husband's side of the cupboard contains nothing but a single enormous cock-shaped deodorant from L'Oreal. I'm not sure what this says about him but we should perhaps keep him out of this.
I am a tired-out mum-of-three gnawed half to death by a sense that my career has shrivelled and died. My daily grind of scrubbing, mopping and barking instructions at lunatic children does nothing for the self-esteem. It is perhaps only natural I look to Proctor and Gamble. It is easier to exfoliate one’s butt-cheeks with a six pound St Ives body scrub - and enjoy the subsequent short-lived

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Graven Images

A childhood. Nancy, Titty and Roger enjoyed one, and so did Milly-Molly-Mandy. As a society, we idolise the traditional notion of an age of innocence, where children have no greater worry than running out of corned beef on a camping trip. And as the possibility of making this fuzzy pastoral vision a reality appears to become eroded, we worship it all the more. Now, our children are taken from their selfish mothers and sent to nursery care at six months old. Schools leech all enthusiasm from children with endless neurotic preparation for the dreary and ill-conceived phonics ‘check’, and national tests. Roads are too choked with cars to play in or even cross alone. Computer games featuring vivid animations of bloody hand-to-hand combat are the only ‘safe’ option beyond scheduled and structured sports and cultural clubs. Downtime is dead. Long live Call of Duty.  And don’t forget the internet. One minute they are playing a harmless game on the Haribo marketing website, the next they are being devoured alive by a paedophile carnivore from Munich. So far, so scary. Risk has been outlawed and low-level hysteria prevails, as parents long for their children to bask in an endless summer of cornfields, welly boots and picnics wrapped up in gingham cloths. I am fairly typical. I will do anything to drag my kids away from the telly into the garden to look at snails. I am disgusted by their foul, capitalist, homogenised character pyjamas, and long for the day their cheap transfers flake off in the wash. I’ll admit it, I want my boys in flannel shorts fishing for sticklebacks in the local ditch. If only I was brave enough to ever let them out of my sight for a single moment.
Even the activity of simply taking photographs of our children is now laced with neuroses. In an era defined by social media and the ubiquity of the selfie it seems odd that it should be so fraught. I recently received a communiqué from my son’s nursery school detailing why we would not be allowed to take photographs of our children receiving their little ‘graduation’ diplomas. The risk that parents might put a picture on Facebook, and that the picture would be seen, and used as a sex-aid by paedophiles is too great, apparently. If the risk of a pervert seeing a fully-clothed picture is so high, why have the graduation ceremony at all? What if one of the parents at the actual ceremony is a child abuser? What if a paedophile is SITTING IN THE AUDIENCE and looking at our fully-clothed children in real life? Westerners may criticise Muslims for covering their women to 'protect' them from the sexual advances of men but we apparently want a similar thing for our children. Never before have I really been forced to face – through actual experience – the full silliness of this modern-day mania, where paedophiles have a quasi-religious significance. Let your child be seen and they will be snatched away by an unemployed loner who lives in a porn-strewn bedsit and smells of wee. It leaves me longing for the Red Legged Scissorman.
I won’t be protesting, however. If the nursery staff really believe this interpretation of their local authority’s policy, so be it. And I have no desire for some equally crazed stickler from Ofsted to undermine their good work with an ‘inadequate’ rating. But I have found a way around the problem: as in a court of law, there is no prohibition on drawing. I shall be sitting on the front row with my pencil in hand. And putting it on Facebook afterwards.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The Playmobil bus of grief

It is 14 years this summer that my brother died. It seems as if a lifetime has passed since he drowned while swimming off a beach on the Isle of Wight. Our wounds of mourning have healed well in that time and thoughts of him are more fond and nostalgic than grief-stricken. Occasionally, it can feel as if the loss-monster is twisting his dirty spade into my guts - those mornings when I wake up from a dream of him. Or if I hear his voice on a tape recording he has made. Or stumble upon a picture of him as a student, dressed as a horse at Ascot or some such youthful caper.
But generally, it has been ok. Life goes on and we try to remember him without making too much of a fuss.
But watching my two little boys play together, building towns across the living room floor with Duplo Lego and Playmobil (and the odd Spiderman) I am prompted to think about my brother more and more. For much of the day now (bear in mind I am on maternity leave), I think about him and the childhood we shared.
We spent so many hours building cities with Asterix figures and Playmobil, sometimes in my bedroom, sometimes under the big ash tree in the garden, building dug-out houses with roofs of sticks and moss. I remember the total absorption - the ‘flow'- we experienced when we were engaged in these games that came so naturally.
The importance of these memories came to the fore recently when my parents started passing on my own Playmobil sets to my children. Previous kits (a police car, a medieval castle) had been torn to pieces by my not-quite-old-enough offspring and I was not keen to see my beloved 1980s stuff destroyed in a moment.
"Just let them enjoy them, it doesn’t matter if they get broken" my dad had said offhandedly. I try not to be too materialistic, but I found this wanton squandering of my toys painful.
I had to steal my tattered Playmobil school bus away and hide it in the wardrobe, the thought of it being torn apart by a three-year-old was so unthinkable. 
It took me a while to work out why these lumps of plastic were so important to me. Why does it hurt so much when the youngest one tears a headlamp off and loses it between the floorboards? Why do I feel a tear in my eye when I see three figures of schoolchildren with their hair torn off?
Then it occurred to me: the Playmobil sets are among the last few things I have left of my brother. We pushed that little bus around in the dirt endlessly and it became the basis for so many stories and scenarios that we shared. To lose the bus would be to lose a symbol of those happy and innocent times, before life brought us insecurities and responsibilities and grief.
I have resolved to keep the bus in its hiding place - I will allow myself to preserve this little relic. I have started to raid Ebay to keep the children kitted out with Playmobil sets with less sentimental value. I have my eye on an incredible exploding volcano/Jurassic scene, a sweetshop and a playground. I can’t wait to start playing with them.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Babies: The Consolations of Maternity Leave

To ease into my new era of domestico-political ramblings - some notes on babies and maternity leave:

To those who have never been on it, maternity leave is a glorious, self-indulgent holiday. To those who have, (I am on my third bout) it is an intense period of extremely hard home-working which seems to involve a large amount of exhausting lolling around.
Yes, I am in a cafe reading the i newspaper - but my little 14-week-old time bomb will go off any second, demanding me to perform a mini-striptease in a public place.
Yes, I am lying on my back on the rug working on my abs, but with every leg-lift I have to remember the next verse of the Sleeping Bunnies song.
And yes, that is me going for a pleasant suburban stroll in the evening crepuscule. But if I stop to look at a house or tree, or to marvel at the squirrels as they leap across the top of the wheeleybins, I will have 30 decibels of baby fed directly into my ear.
A large amount of time seems to be spent on the sofa, which is slowly becoming encrusted with breastmilk. She snorts and sucks wildly as I stare at the TV remote, so far across the other side of the room. I gaze into the walls for inspiration as the oxytocin washes over me and I forget which way is up, which way is down, and why we are here at all.
So, this period of intense child-rearing - a mere prelude to the reality of ‘going back to work’ and THE REST OF YOUR LIFE- is both a wonderful gift and a hideous prison. Irritations drip one by one onto my forehead until I beg for mercy.
But, as I am clearly a glutton for this glorious form of punishment, there are clearly upsides. For me, it is all in the little details, that keep you going through the sleepless nights and frustrating days, where minutes last an hour and months last a second.
Here are my 10 consolations of early motherhood:

1. The way the baby’s nose-breath cools your hot, gnawed nipple after it slips from her mouth - a much underrated design feature.
2. Wearing your favourite slippers on the school run.
3. The chance to marvel at the multi-purpose nature of one’s body parts.
4. Incredible bicep and deltoid development.
5. Popping into the office seems like a short holiday.
6. Looking into the poppet’s dark, black eyes - which remind me of a baby seal as it looks up at a hunter with a club - and sensing she might love me as much as I love her.
7. The three weeks after the birth, when you feel you are wheeling a miniature celebrity around the neighbourhood.
8. Seeing the sun is out and going outside immediately.
9. Admiring a washing line covered in clean drying nappies (I don’t like admitting this one...)
10. Spending an hour staring out across the garden, hoping for the robin to drop in.