Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Here it is. Merry Christmas. Everybody's having fun.

Well that's that then. Am I the only one who thinks "Thank God, it's over".
I was quite keen at the start but frankly I am just relieved that is it for another year. I try my best. I really do. But by God, it's an effort. I think I hide my occasional desperation quite well but as we left the 11 o'clock Christmas morning mass even the priest whispered in my ear as we left with the 5-year-old, 3-year-old, babe in arms, elderly father and blind mother tip tapping down the aisle with her white stick: "May God give you the strength to get through this day." Amen to that. I go into it with the best intentions. This year, I say to myself, this year I will make my own cranberry sauce, remember what it was exactly the children asked Santa for in their letters (mental note, don't forget the camera next year), and establish those traditions which my children will remember when they too are adults with children of their own. Those very special moments, that in 40 years time, my daughter will remember and ask herself "Why did my mother do that?".
It all started to go wrong really on Christmas Even when I spent 20 minutes storming round the house looking for the literary classic "The Night Before Christmas." I eventually found it under my 5-year-old son's bed but I do wonder whether my fury outweighed the cosy few minutes of festive domesticity under the duvet reading the damn thing. I can just imagine: "Yeah my brother and I had this bet each Christmas. We would hide this old book she was desperate to read to us and we'd see how long would it take her to say the "F" word when she couldn't find it. Dear old mum. Ofcourse she is in a home now for the criminally insane. She did love her Christmas though."

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Clap your hands if you believe in fairies

A New Mate came round with her kids for tea and ham sandwiches and we started talking about Father Christmas. It emerged that her children know that their presents come from Mummy and Daddy. No white-bearded icon, ho ho hoing, for them. If, out and about at a festive event, they glimpse the fat guy sitting in a flickering corner hung about with electric icicles, they know he is just that - a fat guy in a red suit who could not be described as having a career ladder. This family does have a Christmas tree (not sure how that one got in under the net)but there is no "magic of Christmas" as the retailers would have it. Actually, that's not entirely true. To be exact - "The magic is Jesus". These are children, by the way, who are getting cows and goats (to pass onto the poor Africans) for Christmas. Part of me thinks "Good on you turning your back on all those lies and the terrible excess" and part of me thinks "God, what a shame." I love all sorts of things about Christmas. I love the fact you can blackmail the kids into half-decent behaviour by reminding them how Santa Claus is watching. When it hits December, my children effectively live in a police state, under constant surveillance and aware that the least transgression is recorded in a big, red leather book by a red gloved hand. I love the idea too though that if you look up at the sky, you might just catch a glimpse of something whizzing behind a cloud trailing only a whisper of jingles. My friend justifies the fact her children do not believe in Father Christmas with a sad tale of how, at six, when she saw her mother planting out easter eggs one Easter Sunday, she was outraged by the lie and stopped not just believing in the Easter Bunny but in Santa Claus and Jesus. As an evangelical Christian she is presumably unwilling to run the same risk with her children. But I want to believe in Father Christmas. I would always clap my hands to tell a dying Tinkerbell I believed in fairies. My atttitude is - just don't get caught holding the bunny's basket.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner

I escaped to London for a couple of days with a toothbrush, a large wad of disposable cash and a certain amount of guilt. But it was worth it - seeing friends, an exhibition, a movie, a haircut, a bit of shopping. Amazing what you can fit in - and how much money you can spend for that matter - when you are on a tight schedule. The best bit was probably the dusking view over a darkening Trafalgar Square complete with sparkling Christmas tree and distant Big Ben. Lovely. Made me homesick. But where is my home now? Will we stay in Northumberland or will we come back? If we did come back could I cope with the crowds, the squalor you glimpse out of the corner of your eye, the "body on the line in North London" which delayed my travel. Talking also made me realise that maybe I should open up and let some people up here in. Get them one of those red enamelled badges prefects used to wear when I was young. Instead of House Captain though, it could read in gilt lettering "New Mate". I wonder if anyone up here would want one.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Just call me Pollyanna

A friend told me my blog made her cry at her desk and that I have become a "victim". Oh dear. Maybe I have been too gloomy about my life up North. So this is my Pollyanna list of everything that is good about living up here: the beaches (which are empty), the skies (which are glorious), the village school (my son kissed the building like some pint-sized pope when he got back from a recent holiday), the "community" ( there is one, really), the opportunity to make new friends (who says you should put up a "No Vacancies" sign just because you are 40-something?). The garden (bigger than anything we could have in London), the gardening(I grew leeks. You have to or they won't let you stay here). The happy husband (he'd better be.) The opportunity to think creatively about life(this one I am working on.)
Anyone of a tender disposition should look away at this point - here is my list of things which are bad about living here: the absence of my old friends, the silence which falls when I talk sometimes (not a good one. More of a "Oh my God. I can't believe she just said that," sort of a space). The fact I had to leave behind not just the friends I had acquired and cherished over years but my hairdresser, my beauty consultant, my nutritionist, my masseur, my homeopath, my osteopath and my therapist.(I never said I was low maintenance did I?) Then there is the career I am probably waving goodbye to along with the galleries, the films, the bookshops, the shopping and the cafes. Even watching TV can make me feel homesick if the camera pans across the London skyline. I think I will stop there. It might be time to dig up a leek and go marvel at the passing clouds.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Karaoke in Soho

My husband has wafted back to London for his office Christmas party. I no longer have an office so I am saved a trip to a smoke-filled Soho den, the cringemaking Karaoke and annual haka "God we were good this year. Really, really good. Be proud of yourself. Really, really proud because God we were good." I have yet to forgive the young toe-rag who volunteered me to be one of The Cheeky Girls three years ago - an experience it took the rest of the year to recover from. But my husband's departure leaves me alone again. The amount of time he spends in London he might as well live there.(Oh yes, that's right we used to. Until he decided to stick a pin in a map and move us all to the back of beyond) and his complaints while he is there frankly just serve to irritate. "God, I've had such a bad day," he tells me from a friend's house where he enjoys his child-free shaved truffle supper. "I don't want to be here you know," he moans from my favorite Covent Garden patisserie. Really? Neither do I.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Happy Birthday Jesus

I have just been to the school nativity to witness my three-year-old as a solemn-faced star and the older boy as a Scotsman. Not sure quite how Christmassy a five-year-old in a kilt and tam o'shanter is but you get the picture. Tinsel, an anatomically correct baby Jesus and a refusenik shepherd who threatened a sitdown protest at one point - in other words, the usual nativity plus a few racially stereotyped stop-offs for the jet-set angels hunting out the best place for the messiah to be born. (Scotland being one of them complete with cabers, sworddancing and Irn-Bru.) The Japanese, by the way, are very polite and do a lot of gardening while in India apparently the smell wafting across the stage was of chicken tikka massalla. At our previous London school there were more black and mixed race children than white and Black History week was a major event. The very thought of dramatising chicken tikka massalla would have given its politically correct teachers the vapours. But there are no real ethnic minorities at my children's charming village school. About the closest you get to an ethnic minority is a red head. Anyway, it was utterly lovely and quite lifted me from my pre-Christmas doldrums. The parents may have been smiling at their beloved celestial tourists but religion at the school is a serious business and not just for Christmas. Even the tots were expected to sing "Happy Birthday Jesus" to a candle stuck in a mince pie the other day at their Christmas party. I admit clap-happy enthusiasm like that brings me out in a cold sweat. I struggle hard to believe in God and other people's certainty impresses me but when they "Praise the Lord" in public - sometimes they even wave their arms while they do it - I am swamped by the thought "Not infront of the little donkey."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Who made the builders? Tell me.

One of my acute frustrations living up here is the lack of space. Outside it's all glorious green rolling acres everywhere while the beaches are empty, endless stretches of silvered sand. Inside my particular country cottage though, it is hell. Five of us squished together (six if you count the nanny) in what is effectively a two-bedroomed, toy-strewn hovel in which three adults are working full-time. It is like something from 18th century pre-revolution England - all cottage industry and screaming children with a little less smallpox. Needless to say, it wasn't supposed to be this way, we were supposed to buy and then knock through into next door's rural idyll to create a perfect domestic environment - full of living spaces rather than rooms and positively bursting with agas, en suite bathrooms and underfloor heating. Instead it is a sorry tale of planning delays and overpriced tenders from merciless builders. We waited eight months for planning permission without which you can't even put the job out to tender. Frankly I could have built a house in the time it took Berwick planners to give us their reluctant tick. But they begrudged us our dream. First they turned us down because of some ridiculous caveat about sewage. Then they started getting precious about bats. This meant getting the Batman of Embleton out to listen on his little black receiver for the screams of the common pipistrelle. If there was any screaming by this point, it was mine rather than any bat's. The boys got very excited at the prospect of the arrival of Batman but were less impressed when a pleasant chap arrived from the the National Trust. Luckily we didn't have bats in the arches we want to convert into a lounge, bedroom and shower-room. This was a difficult one to play. Ofcourse, we didn't want bats anywhere near our arches. Indeed the prospect of bats circling overhead as we slept, scuffling as they roosted with their leathery tinies and pooing furiously was appalling to an urbanite like me. But the Batman, naturally enough, was a fan and we didn't want to make him cross so we did a lot of fascinated nodding, took his leaflets and tried not to look too relieved when he said we didn't have them. He did manage to find a nesting wood pigeon though which we couldn't disturb until after September. I mean - a pigeon. I admit my sympathetic nature-loving smile slipped slightly at that one. But believe me - over the past few months as we waited for our planning permission, there have been times when I have envied that pigeon and its egg their des res. And as for builders. If I practiced voodoo I would be completely out of wax and pins by now. The knock-through we were told last November would cost us around £75,000 according to an estimate from our cheery chartered surveyor. By February, that had gone up to around £100,000 according to the architect (and don't get me started on him). Unfortunately, noone told the builders and when it went out to tender, the estimated cost had climbed to £240,000 - including VAT (that's alright then). Even the Polish bloke we got in amidst much teeth-sucking from our architect gave us a price of £193,000 (before VAT). Apparently, we managed to find the only Pole who does not know that the reason you employ a Polish builder is because he is cheap. As we speak, I am waiting for a man called Bill who has a mate called Dougy who are coming to have a look, go to the pub, get totally drunk, write down the biggest figure they can think of and attach a pound sign to it before they pass out.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Women firing blanks

Among the new people we have met is one woman who really wants you to know how busy she is. So busy that she really does not want to waste her time making eye contact with you when she could lock eyes with your attractive husband and talk about how full her life is and how many demands there are on her time. Despite or maybe because of working in male-dominated newsrooms, I have never come across a woman who blanks another woman in this way before although I have ofcourse been aware they are out there. It's not sexual - my husband is attractive but it isn't pheromones I smell, it's power. This woman with her gushing "Gosh, did I tell you just how busy I am?" manner apparently thinks she has more in common with my husband because he is a "busy, busy, busy" man and I merely a simple, simple woman. When she happens across us out and about, she gazes only at him, addresses her comments only to him and makes a connection only with him. In her virtual reality power game, I am less important than her, less intelligent and unlikely to understand what she is saying. I have a similar status to a dog or a child as I stand by them, probably lower, thinking about it. I am definitely expected to keep quiet and not interrupt. An unsisterly sister if ever there was one.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Apocalyptic horsemen and friends

Life in London was simpler in many ways. Cafes knew how to make a decent skinny latte with an extra shot, muddy wellies weren't de rigeur and most importantly I had friends. Quite a few of them. Often in the media and certainly in work. Those who had children, juggled their responsibilities, adjusted their career expectations and got on with it. Those who didn't, tried not to talk too much about the exotic holidays and how long they spent in bed on a Sunday. I had things in common with my friends, an office, children of the same age, an outlook.
When we moved to Northumberland a year ago, I gave up on the friendship I had once known. There is, for instance, noone I feel I could immediately turn to in a crisis - I simply don't feel I know them well enough yet to impose. During my husband's absence in London for three weeks, I was left with my five year old, three year old and a teething baby. One Saturday, after four sleepless nights on the trot, I was desperate. I hated my husband, myself and my children in about that order. I spent the day on my knees. When Sunday dawned, I crawled onto the phone to confide in my absent husband that I simply didn't know how I would cope, what to do with myself or what to do with the children. "I know," came the reply. "Why don't you go to Alnwick garden, gather autumnal leaves and make a collage." "I know," I replied. "Why don't you just come home and you can make the f***ing collage." I know there are people up here who would have welcomed me if I had 'fessed up to a crisis but I just didn't feel I could. I was too low and my children too ghastly to inflict them on anyone. In London, I would have shown no such scruples. I would have thrown everyone in the car and expected my friends to welcome me into their homes even if I was insanely grumpy and my children monstrous.
Without a job to go to up here, my main route into friendships is through school. To start with the village church school is tiny so the potential pool of bosom mates is small. In any event, one of the perks of rural living is a free bus for the kids which cuts down the number of mothers you see. I was desperately disappointed when I realised one particular mum was now bussing her son in. Unlike me, she didn't consider the 40 minute round schlep twice a day worth a few minutes of chirpy banter and who can blame her? Well, me for one.
A substantial number of the other mothers I have met are married to farmers. Even if they aren't, they often have pet horses or sheep. I mean why? Don't they get enough mucking out to do at home already? If they don't keep something with four legs, they often keep chickens instead. For the eggs. Which makes their life a perpetual search for egg boxes. And they don't buy eggs, so you see their problem. Hardly any of them work outside the home. Some of them do some teaching on the side. They aren't news junkies. Few of them talk about books. All in all this town mouse struggles sometimes with her country cousins. Not least when religion comes up in the conversation - which it does. A lot. One couple have been immensely generous and welcoming but I can't say it' s not disconcerting when someone you had previously thought entirely sane admits, he is waiting for Christ to return to earth. He told me: "I believe the world will end, the four horsemen of the apocalypse will come among us, death and destruction, the whole package you know. I would only say this to another believer," I shift uncomfortably in my seat at this. Evolution he dismissed as "a theory". Homosexuality an "abomination". Even slavery was Okayed providing it met the biblical caveat of justice within it.
So take your choice. Do I remain a Billy-no-mates or do I ride with the apocalyptic horsemen and his friends, chickens perched jauntily on our saddles , my inhibitions scattering to the wind.?