Friday, December 12, 2008


I have felt for some time as if the land has opened up and swallowed me entire. Not smothering me, or drowning me in darkness in its soily belly, but taking me within, knowing I am there, holding me safe inside. I knew it again today as I walked on chips of ice fallen from the branches of the etched and wintered trees - the melting blossom pattering still to ground.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Cheese Gromit

School Christmas play last night. Positively one of my favourite nights of the year. All tinsel wings and tea towels. My five-year-old son was an angel (glorious) while the seven-year-old was cast as a man who worked in a garden centre (of course). I was relieved to see the seven-year-old on stage at all. He hates performing, so started the day buried in the boot of my car refusing to get out. "I don't want to be in the play. I'm not going to be. I'm staying here." This scene in the school carpark involved various mothers walking by pretending not to notice. Luckily, the teaching staff are a lot more persuasive than I am.

The play began as a nativity complete with floppy-eared donkeys and short, resplendent kings, and then segued brilliantly into Wallace and Gromit (hence the garden centre. What can I say? You had to be there.) It featured scenes in the local cheesemakers, garden centre and second hand bookshop. At the finale, as the children sang out the nativity story, Wallace finished his cheese and biscuits and opened up a large cardboard book entitled "Life in the North by Y Eye". (I'd buy it.)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Don't mention the war

Thirteen and a half hour journey to Germany. Ready to shoot myself on our arrival at friend's house. I could blame the snow which delayed us in the UK, and meant we had to divert to an airport 230km away from our final destination in Germany. But fundamentally, I am not sure travelling with children is worth it.

Driving conditions were desperate - icy sleet and rain, darkness and no speed limits. The boys kept turning on the lights in the back of the car which would make my husband start yelling "Lampen Auf! Lampen Auf!". ( I do not think he will ever consider himself a true European.) To ramp it up that little bit more, my three-year-old daughter refused to wear her seat belt, preferring instead to crawl through the gap and drive the car herself. We ended up pulling off the autobahn, hauling her out and doing that "If I have to get you out again I am leaving you here, OK?. I am not kidding." It was really nice to see my friends whom I love, but you do think sometimes - "What does it take?". We had a massive snowball fight, the kids went sledging, they went to a Christmas market and round and round on a gilt-painted carousel, the boys were bought tickets to a big football match, our friend's daughter has a WII which they played on, and oh yes, our visit happened to coincide with St Nicolaus day which meant they left out their shoes and in the morning "St Nicolaus" had mysteriously filled them with sweeties and toys. On the other hand, I had night after night of broken sleep courtesy of my daughter's refusal to consider the travel cot, one of those silent rows you have with your husband when you are staying with old friends and can't shout at each other, a missed US radio interview (courtesy of my communication problems and general incompetence) , and a bad cough, sandwiched between journies from hell. We got back last night and Granny rang. She obviously asked my eldest son how was the trip to Germany. "A bit good, a bit bad," he said. She should have asked me.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Alice through the Looking Glass

Am in steamingly bad mood:
a. snapped glasses. This required trip to nearest city (one hour away). That would be inconvenient but OK; I did, however, have tonnes I should have been doing, bearing in mind we are all going to Germany tomorrow to visit a friend - providing, of course, I can find everybody's passports tonight.
b. decided to "make the best of it " and drove down to said city listening to my German CD, (can now count to 10 and say "I am from Wales".)
c. spent 40 minutes getting lost and trying and failing to park. Forced to invent own German curse words as yet to reach that section in course.
d. parked.
e. bought new glasses (at huge expense. Realised will now have to "hand-craft" Xmas gifts for anyone who is not a blood relation.)
f. drove one hour back (part of journey through darkness and freezing rain and snow.)
g. realised gauge judging miles left in petrol tank flitting between 115 and 31 (not-to-be-trusted) and filled car with petrol.
h. arrived home with new glasses.
Me to husband: "Do you like my new glasses? Do you think they make me look like a librarian?" Husband to me: "That, or Eric Morcambe."
Me to husband: "***** off. No, I mean it. Go away."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Aga saga

Horror. The aga has stopped working. Understand in the country this is worse than your husband leaving you for his horse. The kitchen is cold. In fact, the entire downstairs of the house is cold. Only noticed when it took 20 minutes to boil the kettle. Will have to wear more jumpers and drink wine instead of tea. I can do that. Perhaps not for breakfast though. Or maybe I can - providing I put milk in it so the children do not notice.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Country Life

So friends (real not Facebook) came round to supper last night and brought a small gift of a two-foot sprout stalk. The girl walked in and I could see she was clutching something. I thought for a moment, it was a bunch of those ridiculously over-priced flowers you buy in London that look like small red cabbages. I thought: "I know I will make a joke of the fact she has brought me a flower that looks like a cabbage." So I said: "Golly, you've brought a cabbage." At this point, her partner coming in through the door behind her, said: "That's not very nice. You did invite me." We came out of the dark entrance hall into the kitchen and I realised she had not so much brought me an expensive bouquet but a walking stick of sprouts with a particularly large sprouted knob. I said: "Ah. It's not a cabbage. You've brought me sprouts. How lovely. For a moment there you had me fooled...Did you grow them yourself?" She shook her head. "No. I tried to buy you flowers and they were yellow and horrible so I bought you these instead. They're from the grocer's." I said: "Right. Well, they're lovely, I'll just go find a vase." (I counted them later, there are 68 of them.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Facebook envy

Decided I might have a bit of a catch-up with modern technology and joined Facebook. For anyone living in the past, Facebook is a device which means you never have to talk to anyone again. You log on, have a look in your email account, email a few people to let them know you're on there and away you go.

There are a couple of problems though. The first is Facebook envy. I have cobbled together 22 friends. I was quite pleased - they are a mix of old friends, former colleagues, online contacts, writers and someone I once spoke to on the phone. It was a wrong number but still, they seemed nice. The thing is though, once you get a "friend", you have a window into their life and you can check out how many "friends" your friends have. They have many more. Many many more than you do. One of the people I know has 2,074 friends. Another has 1,041. You also begin to ask yourself whether their friends are more glamorous than your friends, which would of course mean they were more glamorous than you. You enter a state of permanent need. You cannot just appoint friends, you have to ask them to be your friend. And horror - not all of them say yes. You enter a purgatory for holy cyber souls. You forget. You ask them to be your friend again and the system tells you that you have already asked them to play with you, and they are still thinking about it.

I'm trying Second Life next.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Play on

Took the boys to rugby training this weekend. We have only been once before a few weeks ago when my five-year-old had a go but my seven-year-old refused. That evening, my five-year-old came down with chicken pox so I was slightly leery about turning up again in case he had infected all of his playmates but I decided to brave it anyway. Managed to persuade both of them onto the pitch this time though my seven-year-old looked highly sceptical throughout. As soon as it was over, he came off and said: "I'm never doing that again. Ever." The thing is, up here, rugby seems to be one of the key ways the boys make those friends which last a lifetime. I do not blame my seven-year-old. He is probably wired like his mother. Admittedly, I never played rugby but the only time I went on a hockey field, I got ordered off it as a danger to myself and everybody else. At netball, I would actively avoid the ball. And, I can still remember what it is to try and hit a rounders ball while your team looks on resigned to the fact it is never going to happen.

My five-year-old is a different fish however. He managed to score four tries and whipped off a fair number of tags.( Below the age of seven, it is non-contact. Instead of ploughing each other into the ground, they make do with ripping off each other's plastic tags that hang from a belt around their waist.) At one point, I even saw my five-year-old hunker down with his hands on his knees, leaning over his body, for all the world as if he was about to do a haka. Sheer, muddy instinct. I talked to a father at the sidelines about why he thought rugby was such a good idea - apparently, it teaches boys sportsmanship. Duly at the end of the match, the teams cheered each other's efforts and shook hands. Average age - six. It is also, I suspect, about teaching boys to be men. Not just any sort of man. But the sort who will take a knock and carry on without complaint. Every now and then, one or other boy would take such a bump, they would spill a tear, a coach would have a quick look, perhaps wipe the tears away and play would continue. Made you proud to be British.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remembrance Days

Blogging is dead then. Thought about proving it. Twitter? Facebook? Silence even? Decided against. Wifey is back in the building.

Situation update.
Mood: miserable
Explanation: anniversary of first son's stillbirth tomorrow.
Possible solutions:
1. wind back time. (Difficult)
2. sleep through day. (Impossible. Other children do insist on being fed.)
3. grit teeth and stagger on. (Probable pick.)
November is so not my favorite month. Some years are better than others - this is not a "better" one. This November is wet and sorry for itself, embarassed by its fallen leaves, its damp and gusty corners. So it should be.

Thought I'd run the piece I wrote for Marie Claire. Misery and company and all that. Readers of a nervous disposition might want to look away...

I do not think there is anything worse in the world than the loss of a child. Sometimes I watch my seven-year-old play or smile, count the freckles on his nose, or admire the curve of a cheek. I think: “He’s seven. How did that happen?” Then I think: “He’s seven – that means his brother would have been eight.”

My family looks pretty good from the outside. Handsome husband, two rampaging boys of seven and five and a beautiful girl of two. An attractive package all told – complete, you would think. But we are not complete, entire and whole. I have a lost boy. He is tucked away in my heart, my poor battered, stitched together heart, and I cannot hold him as I do my other children, at least not in the way I hold my other children. I cannot feel his warm, small hand in mine. Instead, I hold him in my heart.

My husband and I were together 10 years before we got married and we were lucky because I fell pregnant within a couple of months of trying. I was 35 and had a good pregnancy - ate organically, quit drinking, took up pregnancy yoga, avoided blue cheese, prawns, liver and bad influences. I bloomed with happiness. The only problem: I could not sleep. Instead, I surfed sleep. One night though, I slept well and late. Almost at the moment of waking, I realised the baby was not moving. I had a hot bath, ate vanilla ice-cream - an instinctive part of me already knew but the rational woman decided: “I must be wrong – such a thing could not happen this day and age to me.”

When we arrived at the maternity unit of Guy’s hospital in London, the midwife took me straight through. The room was dark as she cold-gelled and then swept my pregnant belly for the heartbeat on the ultrasound machine. I waited for the grainy pulse, for the baby to move. In vain. She disappeared to fetch a colleague and my husband gripped my hand. An older woman with a kind face and efficient manner came in. Silent, she watched the screen as she moved the scanner across and over my stomach, pressing it to find a scrap of life. She leant in to me and said: “I’m very sorry to have to tell you…”. When she left us, I sat up awkwardly on the hospital bed and my husband wrapped his arms around me. I remember holding onto him in the darkness and screaming.

When you have a stillbirth, you have to give birth. I had presumed there would be a caesarian section, but the consultant insisted on a vaginal birth because of the risk of bleeding and complications with future pregnancies. They started the induction process, gave me morphine. I thought “There have to be some perks” and 60 hours later, I gave birth to a son. He felt warm and wet and wonderful as I pushed him out; and then I was glad they had refused to section me - labour seemed the least that I could do for him. We washed him with soft cotton wool balls and dressed him in a tiny white new-born’s romper we had brought in with us. We were encouraged to collect mementoes – if you are not taking a baby home with you, keepsakes can be hard to come by. We took inky footprints and endless photographs of a subject that never moved. Our parents arrived and a couple of our closest friends. More would have come, but I was selfish with him – had I been able, would have set a three-headed dog at the gates of our personal hell. He was mine for these few hours, and I was reluctant to share the little I had.

Eventually, those who loved us best went away and the hospital staff disappeared into other dramas, leaving us with our beautiful dead boy and grief. That night, as London slept, I stretched out my hand, resting it against his body, insinuating my little finger and thumb into his cold and tiny clasp. I told him about Christmas and birthdays, jungle animals and Northumberland where we holidayed each year. I told him I loved him. You feel guilt when your baby dies inside - as if you have failed him in the most extraordinary and catastrophic way. Words like “suffering” and “crucifixion”, a simple word like “pain” carve themselves into your already mangled body when you lose a child. I can tell you how death smells and how a heart sounds when it breaks – like a wolf. My heart hurt – not metaphorically but physically - and lunacy beckoned. I was not safe to leave alone; where I had once nourished another life, grief and despair filled me brimful.

I know I was not alone in my tears – I was a reluctant conscript to a bloody army of women who know what it is to cradle their own dead child. In the UK, there are around 3,500 babies stillborn each year. Each one, a tragedy that affects not just the parents, but family and friends and colleagues. Technically, a baby is stillborn if the baby dies after 24 weeks of pregnancy – before that, it is termed a miscarriage. The baby will not have breathed or shown any signs of life during delivery. In my case, my baby died two days before his due date – he weighed nearly seven pounds. Sometimes a cause emerges such as pre-eclampsia, congenital malformation or infection. In around 10% of cases, such as my own, it is entirely unexplained. Doctors told me at the time that in the case of a middle-class woman going to term who has had an unremarkable pregnancy, a stillbirth is virtually always unexplained.

We were at all times treated with immense professionalism and sensitivity by our carers in the hospital then and during subsequent pregnancies. Without my husband, I would not have pulled through. A lot of the published advice warns of the damage a stillbirth can wreck on your relationship. We became frantic it would not have that effect on ours. We did everything together – carrying our son’s tiny white wood coffin complete with brass handles, registering his stillbirth and taking back the new buggy. The horrors knock one against the next when your baby dies – a coffin at the foot of your marriage bed where there should have been a crib. We made a pact with each other to keep talking about how we felt. We had bereavement counselling through the hospital and private therapy - I am convinced that talking is the only way back to sanity. I cannot count the times I wept over friends. They listened with endless grace and patience to my black and desolate ravings. Even as the years pass, they remember the anniversary of his death and will send a card or call or simply say later that they thought of us. Eventually, I eased back into work helped enormously by sympathetic bosses at The Sunday Times where I was a journalist. They let me work at home part-time at first, and only when I was ready, did I go back into the office. It was hard at first. One of my first assignments was to interview the then Chief Inspector of Schools, Chris Woodhead. After the meeting, standing on the platform at Holborn underground station, I fell apart; I staggered onto a tube, bowed my head and wept for the entire journey back home. No one said anything to me, but a space cleared around me – the consolation of strangers. As I hung on to one of the handrails, I felt not fear or discomfort from fellow passengers but sympathy. What words could they have used to comfort me?

For me, the consequences are endless. Am I an angrier person?(tick). More depressive? (tick). Wiser (possibly). Funnier (probably). One obvious consequence was how tense my subsequent pregnancies were. I also believe it contributed to spells of post natal depression after my three other children were born. I cannot guess what sort of mother I would have been otherwise. My children would probably be sounder sleepers. Sometimes an inconsiderate child will sleep so quietly, they scarcely seem to move; I have to tiptoe in and check they are still drawing breath. Occasionally, I poke them. As for my relationship with my husband, his touch persuaded me not to die. We have shared many things together – two decades, a home, our three bright and beautiful children and we share the glorious love of our first born and the universe of pain that went with his death. Losing our son was like a bomb going off in our lives. It nearly killed us – didn’t quite, not quite - and we are stronger because of it. We made another pact – this one to strive for happiness together. Most recently, this shifted our lives away from London where we had spent 17 years together to Northumberland – somewhere he had always wanted to live. Had my son not died, I do not think I would ever have agreed to such a move.

Another effect I have noticed, is that it has sensitized me to other’s pain. If someone confides a sadness or a loss, I feel for them in a way I do not believe I would have done before. I try to use my own experience to help if I can - to listen over a coffee, to hear the anger and say that it is alright to rage against the stars. I was immensely angry at my son’s fate at the time, and irritated by the most trivial of comments or happenstances - by the friend who never sent a letter, by the shop assistant who insisted on a receipt when we returned the baby’s car-seat. In the long game, it is not the irritations or disappointments that stay with you, but the kindnesses and the glory of humanity – the tears in the eyes of the midwife who susbsequently became my friend, the listening silences of old friends who let me weep and weep again, the consolation there is in love. There are no rules when you lose a child, you survive however you can: drink wine; avoid those who are unhelpful; abuse the good will of those closest to you; a very black sense of humour helps. “Let’s think outside the box,” I would say to my husband and my therapist would cringe.

It does not go away – a mother never forgets her child and does not stop loving him however far from home he travels. If you are lucky, you reach an accommodation with tragedy. You swallow it up and take it inside yourself. If you are lucky, you have more children – other children. You do not so much “get over it” as get through it. People ask: “How many children do you have?” I say: “Three.” I think: “Four.”

Monday, October 06, 2008

Doing your bit

Have done a couple of speaking engagements - a small book festival where I spoke after a very nice man called Nobby, and a luncheon for a local hospice trust. After the book came out, I volunteered to do a reading for the cancer charity if they wanted me to and when they came back to me, they wanted me to speak at a lunch. Speaking after lunch means sitting through the meal too nervous to eat and unable to even have a glass of wine incase you start slurring your words and get a reputation as a lush. The reading went OK, but the chairman made me laugh because when I had finished taking questions, he told the 77-strong audience that 2% of men would think I was great and 98% would run a mile. He also used the word "granite" to describe me. He said some nice stuff too, but for some reason the compliment train went straight through my brain without stopping. It took me a few minutes to realise he must have read my recent blog-rant, in which case he had probably sat through my own introductory words, reading and subsequent Q and A, waiting for me to say "fuck" infront of all the nice hospice friends and kindly donors. The organiser told me later that the lunch made £1,224.35. The only problem (apart from the revelation I am the polar opposite of catnip to men) was that I picked up a five-day migraine driving home. I blame a combination of acute nervous anxiety prior to the "event" and my mother's "outfit" - more particularly, the gold sequined scarf which she had draped stylishly across her shoulders. Unusually, it was a sunny day, and driving back across the autumnal moors - my mother sitting in the front passenger seat complete with scarf - gold spangles tattoed the sunvisor, the windscreen glass, and apparently the inside of my skull.

Also appearing on the newsstands this month is a desperately depressing article on stillbirth I wrote for Marie Claire.(Do not read this without a large brandy in hand - damn the neighbours thinking you are a lush. You are a lush. Embrace your fate.) The magazine kindly agreed to donate the £1,000 fee to a pregnancy research charity. That makes over £2,200 for charity this week. I rarely allow myself a feeling of achievement - I am far too superstitious and dark a creature. But courtesy of the fact speaking is an ordeal, and writing the article left me wrung out for a week afterwards, (and despite the pain-wracked distraction of someone attempting to file the sharp edges off my eyeballs), I allowed myself the suspicion that actually, this week anyway, I did alright.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dancing girls

I went down to Yorkshire for a silver wedding. My cousins were renewing their marriage vows, and afterwards, a party in a church hall with cold beef and a hot band. They played Irish folk while the diaspora danced. I love to dance. When I was a girl, I would play my one Irish folk record, vinyl and black, in my gran's bedroom. The room at the front, the only room large enough to hold a small and dancing girl. My mother would climb the stairs and say: "Don't play it so loud - the neighbours will hear." Hear rebel laments, she meant, which would never do. Hear too of unicorns that missed the ark, and of a beautiful girl with diamond eyes and a black velvet band holding back her hair. The fiddler struck up the tale of the boy bound for Van Diemen's Land because of her. I said to my own child: "Shall we dance?". She nodded. I scooped her up, all tartan and lilac tulle, and we walzed together. She watched the swirl around, my elderly aunt holding her sister in her own arms close by. She wanted down, and held up her hands for me to hold and move her still, turning her under, around and away, reeling her back. My dancing girl looked up at me - a beat - and smiled.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Faintheart never fucked a fat pig

Occasionally, I stumble across stuff written about me in the blogosphere. Sometimes, it makes me giggle and sometimes, I think "Cor blimey - you should get out more." When news broke of the book deal and cyber heroes "had a go", I thought "Fair do's". Every now and then, the anonymous bully-bore lopes on to the blog, loathes it, sniffles, snipes, carps and witters, and you think: "Everybody's entitled to their opinion." That, and: "If you waste your time reading something you hate, more fool you, mate." Today, I ambled onto someone's blog, followed a link, allowed my curiosity to get the better of me - and, if you didn't know, already, let's say the blogosphere is no wonderland. Boy, people can be mean.

You know what - here's a message to the meanies. I don't care what you say. (Kills you, doesn't it?)

I am a journalist. I spent 20 years writing for national newspapers and working in TV. I got to write a book. It is officially a bestseller. I may well write another. I earned a lot of money. (Shedloads - makes it worse, doesn't it?) I did not get the book deal because I know shorthand and the number for the Buckingham palace switchboard - I got the book deal because my blog is better than your blog. Yes it is. A fuck of a lot better. A fuck of a fuck of a lot better. (Everybody is entitled to their opinion, remember.) Blogging gave me an outlet, readers who "get" what I am doing (sometimes, it might even make them laugh, sometimes, it might make them cry and sometimes, it might make them think: "This woman needs to get over herself." ) It also gave me friends who travelled oceans to meet me and friends who are never going to meet me. And you know what - my blog is my blog. That means I do not have to follow your poxy, witless, fucking rules, you sad schmucks. I do not care if everybody you know in your circle of blogging penpals thinks you write better than I do. I do not care if you think I am shaggable or not shaggable, if you think I am a witless girly pop-tart or a pompous middle-class loser. Know me - I am all of these. Suck it up mate. I got the book deal. Get over yourselves and move on. You sit down and write a book. Stop fannying on commenting on each other's blogs about quite how bad I am. Walk the walk. Blog the blog. Write your own fucking book.

Just thought I might clear that up before I start the next one.
(By the way, Northumberland Tourism has a nice competition you might want to enter. The air up here is marvellous.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

After the rain

Have not felt like blogging much lately, frankly have not felt like doing much at all. I have been ticking the boxes, just enough to get by. I do go through these blue spells. I wish I was a dimpled, sunny-faced, cheery sort of gal - someone life-affirming who makes you feel better just to be with. Not the sort that thinks: "I could hang myself in the coal shed if only I could find the key." It is overdue but I have decided to get a grip. I need a plan. I do not function at all well without a plan. I shall invade Russia( - though that has been done before and never proves to be a good idea.) I shall lose weight (- though that would mean less cake.) I shall find the key to the coal cellar (- perhaps not.) I will sit down and see if I can do it all again - by which I mean write another book, and who knows?. Maybe I cannot write another book? Maybe "That's all folks!"? If so, I resolve not to complain. I have little excuse (other than my naturally maudlin disposition) for feeling lost. UK sales have gone well and the book is now out in the US. I got to write a few pieces for The Times and even more importantly for the Farmers Weekly. Who knew I would get to write a piece for the Farmers Weekly? The book also prompted an old friend to get in touch. I last saw him 20 years ago. It turns out he is trying to find a cure for stomach cancer and was over from Canada to speak at a conference. Over coffee in a London cake shop the conversation went: "So what have you been doing with yourself for the last 20 years?" "Trying to find a cure for cancer. And you?" Pause. "Umm, I set up a blog and winge a lot on it." And he was happy and married and had children, and there infront of me was the man when all I had known was the boy.

What else happened? Well, it rained. A farmer told me of 1,000 sheep and 250 cows drowned. Land too is waterlogged with crops sprouting again in the fields, and combine harvesters idle in their barns. For some, the rains have been a domestic and financial disaster. The other evening driving back from the city with the three kids in the car, we could not make it home. The country roads around here dip and rise and swerve. The sodden fields were bordered with lakes, spilling through the hawthorn hedges to fill neighbour roads. We drove round as dusk took the day, trying first one lane, then another; each time, the road plunged into bleak stretches of wrinkled water. At one point, I pulled on my boots and waxed jacket to push through the flood to judge how far the water came up, and whether we could make it across. Too high. Defeated, I turned back towards the car. I stood and in that moment, it seemed too far away, the headlights on, the wipers smashing the rain haze away, rising up and away again. Still a mile or so away from home, we knocked on a friend's door and her husband got us back in his 4X4. That night, I dreamed I drowned.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


The other day, I took my three children round to a friend' s house for a play and lunch. We settled into her enormous kitchen alongside her four children and two of their friends to mould clay pots and paint small statuettes with immense concentration. At a certain point, my two-year-old announced that she needed the loo. My friend's house is magnificent, her downstairs toilet tucked into a large cloakroom with a smooth stone floor where the family leave their boots and shoes.

My book. My best, first and probably only book, was lying next to the toilet, on top of two gardening books and opposite a glossy celebrity magazine boasting the diet tips of the famous (which presumably includes the startling information they do not eat very much). I was not entirely sure how I felt about my book ending up in the toilet. On one hand, it is well situated as most guests are likely to use the loo, may glance through the book and decide to buy their own copy rather than miss the second course of dinner. On the other hand, cor blimey. “My Book” - which took me the best part of a year to write and in which I have laid bare my soul - is in the toilet. My seven-year-old and five-year-old sons were nonplussed when they went in later to wash their hands of grey clay gloves. My seven-year-old said protectively: “Mummy your book is in the toilet. Why are they keeping it in the toilet?” I smiled brightly, pressing down the plunger on the rose pink liquid soap and said: “So that everyone can see it before they leave darling.”

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Picture This

When I was a television producer, the cameraman I worked alongside, swore blind that I attracted life’s eccentrics. He believed I used a silent whistle. We would draw in to park, the cameraman would wind down his window and call out: “Where should we park mate?”. A uniformed, bespectacled attendant would ease himself out of his sentry-box, waddle over to our car, grab for an airguitar and start singing “Only the Lonely”. The super trooper off, he would explain: “I love Roy Orbison, I do. That last bay over on the right.” My cameraman would turn to me and say: “This only ever happens when I’m with you.”

I thought of him the other day. I was sitting with my laptop at a café table in York, having taken refuge from the rain, and attempting to pull together a guest column for The Times when an elderly man called me over to him. He said: “You there! Would you like to buy a picture?” The man was tall and stooped, wearing a dark raincoat and holding a sheaf of paper in his hands. As I walked across to him, he said; “Would you like one of these?” He looked down at the papers clutched in his hand . I said: “Why I’d love one.” He handed me a cheap piece of A4 paper with some ceremony. He had used the side of an orange wax crayon and then a black one in arcs that spread out from the middle of the page. My five-year-old does similar work. He said; “I sell them for charity.” I said: “Do you? Well that’s great. Let me go get some money for you.” I went back to my table and dug out a £20 note. A ridiculously extravagant amount of money for a crayon scrawl. He obviously thought the same. He took the money and said “Here have this one” and handed me another - this one in blue and orange. “And take this.” The last one was a stamp of a dog or a horse in spotted mustard yellow paint.” I said: “Well thank-you. I will treasure them.” He gave me a small, dignified nod and shuffled out of the door, back into the damp Northern day. The maitre d’ came over. He said: “He’s the half-cousin of the late Queen Mother would you believe?.” I looked down at the pictures. In the bottom right hand corner the noble painter had scrawled his name “The Lord …” and an indecipherable address.

He told me this peer of the realm had spent years in a psychiatric hospital and now lives in sheltered accommodation with a warden. He said his pictures hung all over the city. Any money he got for them he immediately handed over to volunteers in one of the charity shops near the cathedral. The café gave him coffee and a place to sit. The plump and pleasant maitre d’ shook his head regretfully. He said: “Some people don’t want him around but he does no harm, and he is always so grateful for anything you do for him, always apologising.” A Countess would take him for lunch the following week.

I have always believed that on one page, there are characters living normal humdrum lives in sensible, grammatically correct sentences. Turn the page - the spelling grows confused, syntax shameful and lines runs off into oblivion, all meaning lost. On a vacation in South Africa, we lay in our hot bedroom in the grounds of a country club. All I could hear was a woman calling a man’s name, over and over. Then calling: “Come back to me. Come back.” Then the name again and again. It went on. I dragged on some clothes and my husband groaned in the darkness as I went out.

I could see a woman at the door of a neighbouring cottage. Overalled staff were edging the deep shadows of the garden, watching her, troubled by her trouble, reluctant to become part of it. It was almost midnight. I said: “What is it? What’s happened? Are you alright?” I walked up the path to her cottage. She was hanging over the bottom half of the stable door to better broadcast her woes. You could see in to the lit-up bedroom; a wheelchair, folded and tipped, against the wall. She had a top on and underwear; elderly white legs bare and shocking. She named the man again. “I want him back. I want him back.” I caught a vague breath of alcohol. “Let’s sort you out,” I said and she tottered away from the door, leaning on the wall to cross to the bed. I picked up her skirt and helped her into it. “Let’s make you decent,” I said. “We’ll find him for you. Where is it you think he has gone?”

At that moment, an elderly bearded man scurried into the room. Her husband. She gripped my arm. Now he was back, she was not at all sure she wanted him. The whites of her eyes were a watery greyish pink, the blue irises cloudy with confusion. “He’s a terrible man. Don’t go. He hits me. He hits me,” she told me urgently. Her husband was not happy with her but I thought: “He looks like he would fall over if he hit anyone.” Staff had fetched him from the bar. I said; “We will make you a cup of tea and then you will feel better. Would you like that? A cup of tea?” I am British. She was Irish. The situation demanded tea.

I said: “I have the children next door asleep, let me go tell my husband where I am and I will get some fresh milk for your tea.” When I came back, she was calmer; her husband had made her the tea. The couple were staying at the club while their house was being renovated; the housekeeper who helped him care for her had stayed behind to supervise the builders. He shook his head, his shoulders bowed. He said: “I thought this would make a nice change for her, a rest.” They had eaten dinner with their daughter; he had put her to bed and gone back to the bar to pay the bill. She was once a consultant in an African hospital but had caught Legionnaire’s Disease from the air conditioning, then scepticaemia. He said doctors were still trying to understand what was happening with her. He boasted sadly: “She was brilliant - a consultant.” I stroked her cheek gently. I said: “I will see you tomorrow? I will look in on you tomorrow.” She swallowed a mouthful of tea. “Yes, that would be nice,” she rested her cup in the saucer and I slipped slowly and entirely from her mind.

Monday, August 18, 2008


Dear Wifey,
Holiday season so far slightly disastrous. A week in France. Hmm, well, on the upside there was one day when nobody vomitted or wept courtesy of strange viral headache. So that was good. Seven-year-old's vomitting into tupperware box (luckily we had a lid) so extreme we were forced to divert into Accident and Emergency en route home. Finally arrived back in Northumberland on Sunday night, only to come down with bug myself Monday. That marks the end of holidays abroad until the children are teenagers and refuse to go with us anyway.

Week back working including pre-recorded appearance on the Steve Wright In the Afternoon Show. Steve Wright was very nice. Think I may have seemed utterly scatty on account of being in the grip of a protracted spell of insomnia. Arrived at London hotel around 1am, got to bed at 2am, got to sleep at 5am, woken up by hotel fire alarm 7.30am. Consequently so zombied out, I had to drink entire pot of tea with hotel breakfast then staggered into a cafe for a double espresso and a cappuccino chaser, followed by a BBC black coffee. This was not a good move. I pogo'd into a place where I completely lost my short-term memory. That is to say I would answer a question and, seconds later, be entirely unable to remember both my answer and the question itself. Later, over lunch in a dark Soho basement with my agent, he said "Pass me that bottle of water", pointing at a bottle of water slumped on the bench between me and the man sitting next to me. I shook my head slightly and said to my agent: "That's his water." I thought: "Why would you want to drink a stranger's water?" My agent said: "It's our bottle of water." I said: "It's his water." He said slowly: "It arrived on the table at the start of the meal and you put it on the bench. Can't you remember doing that? I am so not buying you any more coffee." That was the point I started worrying about what I might have said during the interview (time code o2:39ish on Wednesday, 13th).

Third week then - a wet week in Yorkshire. Despite various media attempts to paint me as a Cockney sparrow, I was born and bred in inner-city Leeds. When I was growing up, we would take the Jack Russell for a walk in the countrypark at the top of the hill, and whirl him round and round as he hung by his teeth from a slavery yellow rubber ball. Why would we drive to the Dales or the Moors? It was never thought of - watching Emmerdale was as close as we got. Now I am all grown-up, I thought: "I know we will go to Yorkshire for a holiday." I do not find staying in a hotel or holiday cottage with three children entirely stress-free so we decided instead to swap houses with friends. It is quite strange living in someone else's family home. It is as if you have woken up in someone else's life. Someone who has travelled more than we have (lots of mementoes from far away places), someone who is more musical than we are (three guitars and an electric piano), someone who doesn't watch as much TV as we do (no Sky). I thought: "Next time we do this, I am laying a false trail. I am hiding the widescreen TV and leaving lots of really heavyweight books on the state of the economy lying around the house. I am buying in health food that needs to be sprouted, and leaving a sex diary out in black leatherette all marked up with red asterisks and acronyms." That is, if I ever go away again, of course. I think I would have been more relaxed had my insomnia still not been so bad. My husband has started to complain that at the point I wake up (which tends to be around 1.30 to 2am), I have started beating a tattoo on his head (till I go back to sleep about three hours later). I do not mean to beat a tattoo, I am merely thinking about everything I have to do and occasionally I gesticulate. I need to turn off the narrative, but I wake up and the voice starts. Not voices. I do not hear voices. Just one voice - my own, talking about what it is I should be doing or have been doing or have entirely forgotten to do. I am incredibly dull company and outrageously persistent as dull company often proves to be.
best wishes

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Next week, Agatha Christie

I have suddenly become acutely self-conscious about walking into bookshops. If I do it with anyone else, you can guarantee my book is either not there or stashed on a dusty shelf on the third floor under the heading "We've put it here because we don't think you're going to want to buy it." I walked into a London store for a signing and my Penguin minder told the assistant behind the desk: "We're here for the author signing" and the assistant behind the desk said: "What's the name?" and the nice girl from Penguin said: "Judith" and he said: "Judith who?". That gave me a nice warm feeling. (Infinitely better was the shop we went into which said one of the books had been stolen.) If I am left to walk in on my own, I am forced to wander the shop till I see the book on a table or a shelf; then I have to look at it for a long time to make sure it will not disappear into thin air. When I find a copy, I have been known to move it around to a better place in the bookshop which is a bit sad and apparently what Jeffrey Archer does with his books. The other day I was in a bookshop in the nearest city and was standing next to two women. I was trying to take a photograph of my book because the bookshop had kindly put it in their chart (I know it's not a cool thing to do but hey what do I care? Next time I go in, there will probably be the history of the SAS or a TV cookbook in its place.) The problem was, the two women were right infront of it. I manouvred my mobile phone infront of them by dislocating then telescopically extending my left arm, and just as I pressed the "take-a-picture-complete-with-flash" function, I realised one of the women actually had a copy of Wife in the North in her hands and was saying to her friend something along the lines of "I don't know how she did this." Now, it could have been a prelude to a conversation along the lines of "...set up a blog while being sad and wrote a funny book and had kids and got this shop to sell it. Good on her." Or, it could have been a prelude to another conversation completely which would have sounded more like "...persuaded someone to pay her good money for her wittering, moaning-minny, geek diary." The flash went off at the exact same moment I realised what was happening leaving me no time to scurry away between the 3 for 2 summer reads. I did that breathy laugh thing that announces you to be an utter tosser as they turned around, and said: "That's my book. I wrote that book. Heh, heh." How sad did that look? One of them said: "Really this is your book?" It was definitely one of those moments where you think: "Oh my God. Can I get any more uncool here?" It turned out the girl who was about to tell her friend exactly what she thought of my book (little knowing writer-polizei stalked the shop waiting to pounce on shopfloor critics) also used to live in London and moved to Northumberland. Her friend made me sign the copy. I said: "If I sign it, you'll have to buy it." She said that was OK. I signed it with my name. I felt like signing it: "Walls have ears y'kna."
(On holiday for a week. Back in a while.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Richard and Judy

I think maybe I was destined to get the train and not the plane because in the taxi, I realised that the red skirt I was wearing is in fact a very old one in which the elastic has perished. I have been wearing it for publicity purposes because even if I am talking about death, tragedy, isolation and depression, if I wear a red skirt and say the book is funny, people seem to believe me. Sitting in the front seat of the taxi though as we swung round the hairpin bends en route for the train station, I looked down and the skirt was around my thighs. I had this sudden vision of me walking onto a live studio set with my skirt hobbling my knees and my magic knickers on display for the nation. Fortunately, nothing seemed to phase my cab driver. Arriving at the station, she dug around in her first aid box and came up with two of the biggest safety pins I had ever seen, thereby saving me from YouTube "wardrobe malfunction" posterity.

The train made it in time and there was even a car to meet me at the station and take me to the studio. It turns out you get your own dressing room when you are on TV. I would have been quite happy at this point just to stand outside the dressing room door reading my name over and over again, but an army of attractive, no-nonsense girls wearing headsets with microphones, and carrying clipboards keep coming to tell you things. While I was in make-up (sitting next to the undercover journalist Donal Macintyre - I just about resisted saying "You're that bloke from the telly arent you? You are, aren't you?" over and over), the assistant producer came in to get me to sign a piece of paper. This could have been a legal disclaimer, or it could have been a mortgage application form for a property in the Algarve Richard and Judy have their eye on. Who knows? By this time, I was too petrified with fear to focus on the words long enough to read them - I just signed it. She said: "Please don't swear. Really. Please don't swear." I had already been told by another girl with a clipboard and headset not to swear. My mind immediately filled up with every obscenity I had heard since the age of five. I said: "Oh God.I swear a lot." Her pretty face tightened. She looked away and said: "Well, please don't." The make-up lady finished and then the hair lady took over transforming my hair into something vaguely reminiscent of a Charlie's Angel (the first series). Then far too soon it was time to tiptoe into the studio and await my turn on the couch. What I wonder is so scary about appearing on TV? Is it the thought millions of people might meet you for the first time and decide you are an idiot? Would that matter in the scheme of things? I looked so striken with nerves, I think even the girls with clipboards were beginning to worry for me. I watched the tail-end of the appearance of the guest infront of me - a silver-haired, urbane and charming Italian historian. He gave Richard grappa and Judy chocolates; in the darkness, I felt like I was nine years old again, arriving at a friend's birthday party without a birthday present because I forgot to bring it to school that morning. As Richard and Judy moved from one sofa set to another, I concentrated on trying to regain the use of my tongue. I thought: "At least my skirt can't fall down." And then I was on.

Judy asks about the book and I look into her eyes which are a piercing sapphire blue, and two words come into my head "Wise woman." I attempt to answer her while thinking: "Oh my God, Judy Finnigan is the reincarnation of a wise woman from the 17th century. And I don't even believe in reincarnation." I cannot shake this thought out of my head for the rest of the interview. At one point Richard fires the question: "Would you describe yourself as a housewife?" If you say "No", it implies you chose not to align yourself with women who do not earn a wage but work themselves to the bone 24/7 as wives and mothers. If you say "Yes", it is disingenuous because I am earning money writing a book and as a journalist. I mutter something about being a working mother and working at home. He won't let it go. He is determined to see me as a housewife. He says: "Do you think you are a very modern edition of a housewife?" I am thinking: "You really are Richard Madeley aren't you?" Their previous guest had undertaken "an epic journey" sailing from Venice to Istanbul over a three month period in a 19th century schooner. According to publicity, his journey "is a fabulous fusion of history, culture and travel as he takes us around the Mediterranean Sea – in the wake of his ancestor, the explorer Alvise da Mosto – to discover the cities and islands where Western civilisation was born." Richard liked him. He is less impressed when I tell him I moved to the country and ran out of petrol five or is it six times? He said: "That's stupid." My behaviour has officially been declared "stupid" by Richard Madeley on national TV - if only he knew I was wearing safety pins to keep my skirt up. He wouldn't think I was stupid then. Judy defends me when he asks why I do not carry a jerry-can in the boot - she even tells him to "shut up". I explain I did learn to fill the car with petrol and he laughs and says "You are funny." I say that in London I used the Tube and the Tube never ran out of petrol. That's the joke. The Tube never ran out of petrol. He says: "No it won't - because it runs on electricity." I think: "I know that." Pretty soon it is over; I go home with a goody bag of Molton Brown toilettries and a thank you card with a lovely picture of Richard and Judy on the front. And you forget the terror - you just think: "They're very nice. I could do that all over again" and "I wonder if Richard Madeley knows he is married to a wise woman?"

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Wifey in the twilight

Am feeling rather nervous about writing anything again in case I am exposed as a big fat fraud who should never have been allowed to write a book. Anyway, here goes - the last fortnight has been a ride.

At any number of points, it would not have surprised me if my husband had shaken me awake and said: "You're snoring again and it's half past eight."

Weird moment number 7: travelling to the launch party on a double decker London bus. This particular bus normally ferries golfers up and down the Northumberland coast, and is called Kenny after the former London mayor who sold him. I clambered up the steep stairs and collapsed into the seat. The bus was full of friends and family; oh yes, and we weren't going to Trafalgar Square despite what it said on the front, we were heading to the local market town and my book launch.

Weird moment number 13: wore the plain black silk frock.(Not weird in itself.) I meant to wear high heeled vintage(that is to say my very oldest, worn-down-to-the-nap) black velvet and glitter rose shoes with it, but forgot to change. Consequently wore beaten up, buckled biker boots that smell if you get too close. We ate haggis balls and ham and pease pudding sandwiches, and I had to keep telling my 80-year-old mother to sit down because I was worried she might keel over with excitement. I said some thankyou's and signed my first books. The whole party was like a cheese and cracker dream where your kindergarten teacher appears with your first acne-smacked boyfriend, and the woman down the road who never liked you, and your driving instructor who had the drink problem. That is to say, the party was a mix of my family, my old London life and my new Northumberland life. Oh yes, along with a smattering of customers from the second-hand bookshop where the party was being held, who stayed on past closing time. These people smiled incredibly warmly at me across the room, then very sweetly bought four copies of the book and asked me to sign them. It took me fully 20 minutes to realise the chap in the waterproof coat had not taught me geography when I was a teenager and come to wish me well.

Weird moment number 26: lying like a lady and her crusader in our marital bed with my husband late last Monday night. Obviously, we were not having sex because we were listening to Radio 4's Book of the Week, and they stop reading if you do that. The episode we were listening to involves my husband and I standing at the window in the self-same bedroom. In it, he wraps his arms around me and says "Don't worry. This is not the thin end of the wedge. I'm not going to ask you to live here." I turned to him in the bed and said: "You heard that right?" The actress reading out my diary is also not me. That is to say there is a woman reading out my diary on national radio. And it's not me. And it's my diary. This Radio Wifey is also much nicer than me, infinitely sweeter and more patient. In fact, if I had ever spoken to my real children the way she spoke to her radio children, they would accuse me of being a green-blooded clone of their bad-tempered, infinitely grumpy and dark-spirited real mother.

Weird moment 39: now this one was straight out of the sitcom pilot loosely entitled "My world has a ragged tear in its space-time continuum and my life is now lived in real time and in an alternative universe which is both the same and not the same at all". Otherwise known as "My appearance on Richard and Judy". An invitation to appear on Richard and Judy when you have a book to promote is huge. So huge that you might be slightly reluctant to admit you have a bad case of laryngitis when "the call" comes from "their people". "Your people" then keep calling you to talk about the fact that it is critically important you stop talking and rest your voice. You think: "Well if you stop calling me, I'll do that." The Richard and Judy cameraman who travelled up the night before for some local filming, warned the very nice Richard and Judy producer about the bad throat. When she rang me, I asked her what Richard and Judy did when they had laryngitis. "Polly" said she believed Judy gargled with salt water. That night I gargled with salt water. It made me vomit. I thought: "Thanks Polly." I suspect I was the guest from hell. Not only was I flirting with the idea of doing my half of the interview with a combination of mime, jazz hands and charcoal sketches, I also missed my flight down courtesy of the fact my husband confiscated my passport a week and a half before. He took it from me saying "I'll put this with the others so you can't lose it." I realised in the taxi due to drive me to the airport that I did not have the passport after the nice cabdriver said: "Have you got everything - got the passport?" (Needless to say, I do not have a photocard driving licence.) I tore out of the cab, ran into the house and ransacked the study and the bedroom. Nothing. I called my husband's mobile several times to no avail. (It turned out he was asleep on the train down to London). After 25 minutes of CID standard searching, I decided it had to be a dash to the train station for the last possible train which would just get me into London in time providing there were no delays. I rang the production team on the mobile. I said: "Slight crisis." It was poor reception and I still had a really bad throat - all she caught was "shhhhhh..crisis." I said: "I couldn't find my passport so I can't get the plane." (I am not sure this has ever happened to the Richard and Judy production team before judging by the intense listening silence on the other end of the phone.) I said: "But the good news is I am on the way to the train station and we think there's a train."
(more follows)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Making do

Have been shopping for "an outfit" for "the do" - that is to say, Saturday's launch party. The problem is I need to commit a day to it rather than doing it in snaps. I gave it an hour and a half in London which included walking into a couple of designer shops where instead of a cheery "Hello," you get that sweep down-and-up-again of mascara-heavy eyelids to see if you really belong. My tactic when assistants do this is to stand very still and wait for them to meet my eye, then smile as if to say "I may not look it but in reality I am the wife of a Russian oligarch and enormously, hideously, obscenely wealthy - do not be fooled by the Marks and Spencer's handbag." In the past week or so, I also checked out a boutique sale in a hotel in the local market town where you had to try things on between the sales rail and a frosted window and a man gazed at me in blank horror as he appeared round the end of the sales rack with his small child to find me undressing (20 minutes - bearded spectators do not encourage you to linger in your lingerie thinking "Shall I try that just once more?" ). I have also scooted round a department store in the nearest city (1 hour) and yesterday visited a store where silvery-haired ladies obviously go if they fancy "a run-out" (long enough to start seriously considering wearing feathers on my head). I am not entirely convinced I will end up wearing it but I have now bought a plain black silk frock and a buckled leather belt. My mother will complain because it does not shout "Look at me" very loudly. My mother likes me to be looked at, which is possibly why I spent a substantial part of my adolescence in knitted jumpers with pictures on the front - these included a tiger, cherry blossom, an entire willow pattern design once. It is amazing I ever went anywhere.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Doing lunch

Am stressed to point of insanity by imminent publication of the book. This has shown itself in spots, the fact I counted them (there are 15), a chronic inability to make a decision about anything at all, insomnia and the conviction something really bad is about to happen. Why would I feel like that when in reality something really good is about to happen? I am trying not to let the insanity show, but I am not sure I am doing a very good job. Apparently, there is now "interest" from TV. I had lunch with "my agent" and "someone from TV". As you do. In Soho. As you do. I had thought about getting my hair blowdried for the lunch but since I am now a registered lunatic, I decided I could not do that in case the hairdresser found nits. I did get rid of the nits (which also meant I could not get my hair cut for the recent photo shoots). But when you are insane, if you think about the fact you had nits not long ago, your head starts to itch.

The girl from TV said she loved the book. I thought: "I wonder if she can see my spots." She said: "I think it should be post-watershed." I thought: "I'm sure I just felt something crawl across my head. " She said: "It has some really big issues." I thought: "Maybe I shouldn't have ordered the spaghetti. I'm so tired I'm not sure I have the energy to keep twirling the fork round and round." She said: "Do you have any ideas who might play you?" Suddenly, I woke up. My ideas were as follows: Dawn French, Helena Bonham-Carter and Emma Thompson. Of course, the latter two are film actresses not TV actresses so the girl from TV nodded politely and started lobbing names across the table - Sarah Parish (from Mistresses and Cutting It, haven't seen them, couldn't comment); Lesley Sharp from Afterlife (in which she plays a medium who points her finger a lot and shrieks "dead person" - a programme so scary I had to stop watching it); finally, Hermione Norris, the blonde girl from Cold Feet and Spooks. She was an alcoholic in Cold Feet - experience-wise, I don't think that's relevant.

We had to grope around quite a bit over who might play my husband because I liked the idea of the guy who played Soames in the Forsyte Saga. But if he was interested, we would have to beef up the part because he is a big star and my husband was away a lot. She went on: "I love your mother." I said: "I love my mother too." She said: "I love your mother's character - any actress would want that part." (I told my mother later - she wants Dame Judy Dench.) The thing with having lunch with "someone from TV" is that you basically get to play that game you play with friends over dinner when you are drunk, but you play it sober and nobody laughs.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Spent much of yesterday with a journalist from the Daily Telegraph. I picked her up from the station at 12.31 and dropped her back around five hours later. OK, there was a bit of driving around, but that's a lot of talking. It is very disconcerting to think what you are saying is being taken down and held as evidence. You can see across from you on the kitchen table, a small black box sucking in all your thoughts and feelings ready to spit them back at you later. The real problem though came at the end (by which time even I was getting bored of hearing myself witter on). The journalist went up to the bathroom and did seem to be a long time up there. The nice PR girl from Penguin had also come up from London for the day. She realised before I did that the journalist was in fact locked in the bathroom. The door does not quite shut. Well, it does shut with a protesting shriek but there are no door handles either side. Once we had realised she was effectively locked in, I thought briefly about whether to keep her there, tell her that I was her number one fan and feed her spaghetti through the hole in the door where the shaft of the door handle should be - not forever, just until she wrote and filed the feature. Unfortunately, she had her mobile phone with her which she was using to rap on the door. I did not think she could break her way out with it, but I did think there was an outside chance she might call the police to report me. There was also the small matter of the PR girl or "crucial prosecution witness" as I began to think of her. I did not know where holding a journalist hostage came in her media handling file but I doubted it was in her list of "Wife in the North- Immediate Priorities". I do have a large suitcase I could have bundled the PR girl into, but it all seemed to be getting a bit complicated. Eventually, I let the journalist out.

Monday, June 23, 2008


In between the whole book thing, I have been making cakes. That is to say, I helped to make a parsnip, lime and ginger cake. I do not do a lot of baking - well, I can manage buns and once tried a Victoria sponge. (Then there were the choux fingers, but I try not to talk about the choux fingers.) I realise that many other women up here bake a lot. It is not that I do not want to bake - I do. The Aga sits there burning up the environment; I only wish I was the sort of woman who could "throw something together". But I am not. I buy my cake. Friends of a friend had me round to show me what to do - hence the parsnip cake. Since I do not bake, I did not feel I could point out the fact that maybe parsnip was not what you usually put in a cake, especially since their alternative recipes were for chocolate and beetroot, and sweet potato, coconut and honey. I was glad I didn't put them right, because actually they taste rather yummy. They certainly leave a better aftertaste than the kind offer I had yesterday from Take a Break to run the piece that appeared in The Sunday Times. The message was passed on from my publishers through my agent, offering £500 for an 800-word extract from the book - the thing is, they would like a photograph of me holding my stillborn son. Apparently, the journalist who made the offer is happy to ask me for it herself.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Watch the Book

Have pulled together a promo for the book with the help of a friend who used to be in advertising and is now a farmer's wife, and a fantastic design company who do a lot of work branding cheese, honey and local attractions. The company is based in converted farm buildings outside a market town which has its own taxidermist, complete with animal skulls in the window, as well as a podiatrist. (Both occupations with their own charms, I always think.) I do not know if they are what attracted the design agency to the area or whether they just like the fresh air. My friend and I drew up a script at the kitchen table, and the graphics guys did whizz-bang things with their electronic crayons and here it is. For anyone who wants to watch the book. Obviously reading the book would take a lot longer than watching the promo but a lot of people do not have time to read books anymore and like to cheat. So the promo will be good for anyone with a really bad case of time poverty. The nice people at New Writing North gave me money towards making it, and I am paying my friend for her time. I do not know if it will help with sales of the book or not, but what is the point of having a book deal if you do not have fun with it? I do not think they made me look too much like a cheese.

(Anyone wanting to run it on their site just needs to copy and paste the "Embed" code which should bring up the player; for an-e-mail, just copy and paste the html link to the YouTube page.)

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Pretender

Had to have more photographs taken. This makes me feel as if I was a small girl again when my mother used to stand me in the corner of our living room for photographs. "This is me behind the sofa". "This is me in front of the sofa." "This is me on the sofa" sort of thing. This went on for years - you have to be an only child to fully appreciate how tense a camera can make me.

As an adult though, I have been allowed out from the corner of the living room. Now it is a case of: "This is me in front of Bamburgh Castle." "This is me on the beach" sort of thing. We went to Alnwick Garden. I wore a red and pink flowed silk dress, empire line, three-quarter sleeves and lipstick. I marvelled at the spurting fountains and leant closer to admire them - across from me, the photographer snapped away. When she had got what she wanted, I tripped up the stone steps to the ornamental garden at the top watched by a band of happy pensioners. I smiled in that way you do when you have been making a spectacle of yourself but had been hoping no one had noticed. The girl I was with informed me one of them had come up to her to say: "That's the Duchess of Northumberland isn't it?" She told him I was no such thing. Why did she do that? What harm would it have done? Those pensioners would have had a much better day out if they thought they had seen the Duchess of Northumberland in the flesh.

I actually met the real thing last month. I was invited along as part of a tour for eight people, which was a prize bought by a friend at an auction at a Conservative ball. The staff at the garden are very efficient. When I arrived, they started talking to each other on walkie talkies because they were expecting us. I felt like telling every gardener and guide we met, “Look, I’m not really a Tory you know.” I felt like telling the Duchess that too, because she immediately informed us that the creation of the garden was only possible under a Labour government and could never have been backed by a Conservative government because it would have looked bad.The genuine Conservatives I was with, smiled politely and tried to look non-committal. I had wondered if she would be “frightfully, frightfully” and expect us to curtsey regularly. I just about managed to stop myself calling her “Your Majesty” when she introduced herself. I also had to tamp down those feelings of acute resentment I harbour towards any woman married to a man whose personal fortune is estimated at £300m according to The Sunday Times Rich List. Where do you meet a man with a personal fortune of £300m I want to know. And why didn’t I meet one before my husband-to-be ambled along dragging behind him several mortgages and a walloping great overdraft? She told us that at one point, the Duke had not visited the garden for two years. I wondered whether he plugged his fingers into his ears and sang “La-la-la-la…I can’t hear you…la-la!” when she strikes up about her latest whiz-bang wheeze of an ice-skating rink or an adventure playground. He doesn’t - she said they don’t talk about it. He may be curdled with debt, but at least my husband encourages me to talk about my work – mind you, the conversations don’t end with "…so is it alright if I spend another £10million then?” Anyway, I am thinking of offering myself as a body-double. I will waft round dressed in something floral and pose for pictures with trippers, and she can concentrate on bringing in the extra £28m she needs for the next stage of the garden.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Tea and sympathy

I went round to my little old lady friend for tea. I told her and the neighbour who was with her about the shock I felt at my former colleague's suicide. Well, they had their own death toll harvested over the years - the woman who walked up from the village to a particularly pretty, stone bridge across the railway line, cut down a grassy path to the track and threw herself infront of a train, and the young girl who did the same. Two men who shot themselves - one of them "cleaning the gun" and the other with money troubles. A lost soul who tied a plastic bag over his head, and another who walked into a pond. I felt like saying: "I'll have another shortbread, but enough with the dead already."

I might not mention the rural death toll to Northumberland Tourism who are backing my book. They are planning a downloadable map with excerpts which highlight tourist atractions such as Bamburgh Castle or Alnwick Garden. Disturbingly, the map will also include photographs of me. This cyber-map on a proposed "micro-site", required a day trailing round with a photographer and a nice woman from Northumberland Tourism looking for sunshine. Obviously, there was lots - Northumberland and sunshine are synonymous and we certainly did not abandon the shoot several hours early because of the sea fret that came in from the North Sea, nor did we delay the second day of the shoot for a week. Certainly not. (At least though, the photographer did not tell me to "relax your forehead" like the make-up girl did when I had my photograph taken for Marie Claire a few weeks ago when I had to tell her: "My forehead is relaxed.") All in all though, I do not think I was looking at my best what with the corrugated forehead, the extra weight I am carrying at the moment (I so wish I had thought of a gastric band) and "the nit situation". (When my daughter came home from nursery with nits and lovingly shared them with me, I had to abandon plans for the pre-shoot cut and blow-dry.)If tourism goes through the floor in the next year or two, I am moving to Kansas.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The man that got away

Had this really funny post I was going to write - ho hum half term-horrors sort of thing. Two days travelling to West Wales with three children; three days there; two days back again - I might have threatened divorce somewhere around the Lake District. It would have been a really funny blog. I would have mentioned "that hotel" where they told us we could have interconnecting rooms but when we arrived they didn't have any. That was funny. Then the snippy receptionist informed us that we could still have two rooms across the corridor from each other, but that I was not allowed to put the seven, five and two-year-old in one room while my husband and I slept in the other. Which was obviously just what I was thinking of doing. That was funny. It was funny too when we ordered sausages for the children's lunch and they arrived pink and I sent them back to be cooked for longer and the waiter brought the three plates right back out again and told me the chef had told him to say: "That's how they come from the butcher." That was funny. It is funny too how much it rains in Wales. Oh yes and I discovered my daughter had nits, and had passed them on. To me. Getting back home would have been such a funny story what with more rain and the fact another hotel told us the children were not allowed to "run round the restaurant" if we brought them down after 7pm. Which is obviously what I encourage them to do when we are out. It would have been such a funny blog. Probably a classic. Then what happens? If someone didn't go and send me some story about someone I used to know - a colleague I used to sit next to on The Sunday Times - going out and killing himself. Clinical depression. I had heard he was depressed last year. I got his address and everything. I meant to write. You know the way you do.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cut and print

Travelled down to Suffolk to see my book being printed. Had to get a grip of myself before I went in to the printworks because I felt slightly teary and thought I might just lose it completely and find myself weeping over the conveyor belt if I was not careful. It still felt special even though the factory prints 160 million copies of books a year. That is a lot of books. Most are reprints but 8,000 of them are new titles. There are only two big printworks responsible for most of the bookprinting done in the UK and mine was one of them. They print several million Bibles a year (- it is always good to have God on your side) and had to bring in security guards for the latest Harry Potter. The other thing they did with Harry Potter was to ban mobile phones from the factory in case anyone snapped the pages. For some reason, they still take your phones off you. I felt like saying: "Actually I know what happens at the end of my book."

Sections of the book queue up, shoot onto a conveyor belt and are then gathered into a pile, the back is trimmed and the pages flip onto their side to roll over hot glue. The pages are then clamped together and the cover put on. Up to this point, the book - or rather books - have been travelling round the factory like a pair of siamese twins joined together at the skull with one copy the right way round and the other copy standing on its head. The end-to-end books are guillotined and the remaining sides trimmed. Eventually, when the glue is dry enough, the completed book drops into a stack of seven which are then wrapped alongside other stacks in white plastic. There are 30,000 books out there with my name on them - now all I need is someone to buy them. Sometimes famous authors go round the factory. Apparently Eoin Colfer, author of Artemis Fowl, cried; Quentin Blake drew a cartoon of Matilda sitting on rolls of paper; Michael Palin signed lots of autographs and Sandi Toksvig was lovely to everybody. None of the printers knew who the hell I was but I still insisted on shaking people's hands over and over, muttering "Thank you so much. Really - thank-you." At one point, one of the chaps on the belt broke the back of the book, pulled out a clump of pages to show me how they are glued together, then said: "Don't look" and lobbed the ruined copy into a large black dustbin. I thought: "Bastard."

But they say - as one door opens, a window closes. I got a guest column in The Times on Thursday which was cool but on the same day I was finished as a columnist by the local paper. Budget cuts means they are firing their columnists - or at least three of us. I don't mind too much - it was nice while it lasted.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mother time

Took my daughter for a walk on the beach yesterday. We paddled together in the water which spills across the sands and out to the sea. Barefoot, she jumped splash and splash again and took up small fistfuls of dry and golden sand to carry over and empty out into the rippling spill. I scooped up my own handfuls of sand and watching her play, held out my fists, released a little and then more till they were empty. Time passed.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Fish and sicks

OK I am blaming the goldfish. My seven-year-old woke up about 6.30am and started puking. "Ah, the dawn chorus, " I thought. I was up anyway. I could not sleep last night waiting for someone to start retching (my five-year-old was sent home from school yesterday because he also felt ill.) It was not too bad, the puking only lasted till about 10.30am. I think it was the careful way I medicated with Lucozade. My husband is away - naturally. The children are sick - of course he is not here. He has some biological impulse to get on a train - I think he must be able to smell the germs on their hair. Still, I did not have to cope alone - help arrived mid morning and I eventually managed three whole hours of work. I even thought I might escape out to some fundraiser at the local nursery which has been arranged for weeks and which I was supposed to provide the quiches for. The only problem was my help got sick just before I managed to slide out the door and had to call her own father to drive her home. Now I too am feeling sick. I hope it is not what killed the goldfish - we buried one under the rose bush having kept his corpse for a while in the freezer hoping for a scientific breakthrough. About a week later, the second one died. We have not got round to burying him yet - he is in an Anthisan box, bottom shelf. The third one is still with us (in the aquarium that is, rather than the ice tray.) I am beginning to wonder whether it is something which has leapt across the species divide - you read about this sort of thing all the time. Like avian flu - with more scales and fewer feathers. If so, my prospects of survival cannot be good.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Do you have an appointment?

Am feeling so stressed, I think I might cry. Maybe it is just the contrast with the weekend. Had rather a lovely weekend - fog flooded the shoreline then the hawthorn hedged fields till even the sound of the lambs disappeared but I like the fog. It was my tenth wedding anniversary on Friday and my husband arrived back from London at 11pm with louche pink peonies and tiny orange throated narcissi, the smell so sweet it ate up all the air. And champagne of course. He said: "Remember our wedding?" And I did remember - how could I forget? Then yesterday we went for a walk with the children into the round green hills, to the last English village before Scotland and no one said: "Do we have to?" and "Can we go back now?" Not even me.

But Monday came around as Mondays will, and I am suddenly pancake flat under a Post-it mountain of appointments, deadlines and expectations. And it is all my fault because I made the appointments and agreed to the deadlines and the expectations too, are all mine. Why though? Why do that to yourself? Why not say "Y'know, I don't think I can manage that, so guess what - I'm not doing it?" Is it because I am Thatcher's child? Or a working mother? Or is it a case of "Look at me and marvel as I drive myself entirely insane". If nothing untoward happens, I stagger on, but life itself is untoward - stuff does happen.

The only downside to the weekend was Saturday morning when the printer was not in when I went to pick up invitations to my book launch party. Did I laugh ruefully and say: "Golly, that's a bit inconvenient." I did not. I wrote a petulant note and pushed it through the letter box, wittering on that I had come three times and where exactly was he when he promised to be in. I then sulked for an hour about the fact I would miss the weekend slot which I had alloted to filling them out. My seven-year-old boy ran a crazy temperature last night and was too ill to go to school this morning. Did I think: "Ah well, a few snatched and precious hours with my beloved boy child"? I did not. Usually on a Monday morning, I go shopping with my daughter. I dropped off my other son at school then agonised about whether to do the right thing and go home and put the sick moppet to bed or whether I could drag him round the shops. I am Catholic - guilt fills up my soul. I calculated that if I took him shopping with me I might be stopped by a policeman or a truant officer and made to explain myself. That is to say - if he was well enough to take shopping he was well enough to go to school surely. Then again, I had no food in the fridge. What happens? I decide he is after all "not that ill" and drive to the local supermarket rather than trail round the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. I run into, not one mother from school, but two. I then have to explain why my child is filling up my trolley with groceries rather than his head with facts.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Dying for a coffee

Drove across the heathered, gorse-addled moors to a market town gripped around by hills this golden morning. I arrived early for a meeting so parked the car and ambled up to a cafe perched on a steep slope for a coffee. Could not get the door open. "Half day closing" the woman appeared to be mouthing at me through the glass. I think that is what she was saying. She could have been saying: "I am being held hostage by a stalker who has just smothered the other waitress with a giant buttered teacake". I nodded and turned away. A mistake bearing in mind where I ended up. I mooched down the slope into a shop and bought my mother a scarf I thought she might like which had caught my eye in the window. I said to the assistant behind the counter who was wearing the most startling green eyeshadow I have seen outside the seventies: "I want to get a coffee - where should I go?" "Try the place next to the undertakers," she advised. Never trust a woman with green eyeshadow.

I edged into an unpreposessing little cafe with a small window, cheap wallpaper and those varnished chairs you only see in cafes like this one. I said to the girl behind the counter: "Could I have a bacon sandwich?" She said she would see and disappeared into the kitchen. I am pretty sure the woman in the kitchen's words were "I suppose so." I should have left at that point but you do not want to rush into over-hasty judgment. I ordered a cappuccino. I really must stop doing that. In my defence, there was a machine with its back to customers with a whole list of coffees and what they consisted off - frothed milk, a shot of espresso etc. I took the cup over to a table and sat down with it - it smelled of the boiled milk I used to have to drink as a child when I was sick. It was also sweet. It was without doubt the worst coffee I have drunk in Northumberland so far - frankly, that is saying something. Despite the fact I did indeed get my bacon sandwich complete with crisps and spread, I went back to the counter, waiting patiently for the pensioner customers in front of me to be served. They shuffled off with their scones and tea and I lowered my voice; God forbid you are overheard making a complaint. I said to the very pretty girl serving: "Do you think I could have a filter coffee instead, this coffee is terrible. I've got to know how you make it." She handed me a little silver packet which I examined. It had to have real coffee in it - not a lot but a bit, and I imagine a little plastic tap thingy. I said: "Well there is probably coffee in there. What about the milk?" I was genuinely intrigued. She said: "It's granules." Why do people do that? Why not just save yourself the cost of a machine and stick to tea? I handed her the money for the filter coffee and she took it.

Monday, May 05, 2008

May Day blues

I seem to have spent the the entire bank holiday weekend worrying. My seven-year-old keeps beating up on my five-year-old on the grounds "He is annoying". In retaliation, my five-year-old has developed a cry so piercing it clears the trees of rooks. My husband took time to draw up a chair, sit down and complain that none of the children wanted to do anything with him and constantly refuse to do what he tells them to. I suggested he make this complaint to them and not to me. Finally, my mother (who is staying with us) is in the throes of an arthritis flare-up and keeps breaking down in tears. Oh, and I had to make an expedition to the A&E in the local hospital because I thought my seven-year-old had broken a bone in his foot having (accidentally) kicked his brother in the shin playing football. As it turns out, he is just badly bruised but it did nothing to alleviate my mood.

The seven-year-old beating up on the five-year-old drives me to despair. It is difficult because the five-year-old effectively stalks him which is in one way charming and in another a bit much in terms of personal space. I have decided to give the seven-year-old a bit more one-on-one and see what happens. What will probably happen is I will begin to irritate him instead of his brother but hey, I'm your mother - get used to it kiddo. The problem with my husband is one of expectations. He is a very good father and would spend his whole time taking them on cycle rides and down to the beach but I expect they have a big dollop of my genes which means they would rather do the boy equivalent of drink coffee and read a book (that is to say snack while watching endless manic cartoons). Regarding my mother, this is a difficult one because all I can do is hope the new anti-inflammatory medication kicks in and tell her to sit down. I walked in yesterday and she was virtually horizontal over the sink trying to wash a few cups up, weeping into the water. We had one of our usual exchanges whereby I said "I don't need you to wash up mum", and she said "I need to wash up", and I said "You need to sit down". I ended up bundling her into her blazer and putting her in the car for "a run down" to the shops to buy nothing in particular.

On the up side, we went out for dinner last night with the nice people who live in the house with the box room. The conversation involved Agas and poachers (who come into the countryside from Northumberland towns after deer, bring them down with dogs, hack off their hind legs and leave the carcass behind). For the second time in three days, it also involved a conversation with someone (a fellow guest) whose family have lived in Northumberland for 500 years. The same thing happened the other day when we went for coffee after the election count and one of the Conservative activists told me he could trace his family back 500 years to a particular house in the sands and a mill on a local river. I have been trying to recall if I ever had a conversation with anyone in London who told me: "My family have lived in London for 500 years you know". I cannot recall one.

Friday, May 02, 2008


Went along to my friend's count. Intense council officers shuffled, tapped and pegged the ballots; they all had their own style. One liked to lick her finger, turn up a corner and count the ballot papers as if she was counting her own money; another preferred the steadier approach of lifting each paper from one pile and transferring it to a second pile. Whichever style they adopted, my friend still lost. He picked up 790 votes compared to the Liberal Democrat incumbent's 949. Irritatingly close for him. The Labour candidate who would normally have picked up my vote got an astonishing 74. Seventy-four votes - and it could so easily have been 75 had I not been inveigled into voting Tory for the first and last time ever. This same Labour candidate - one Carol Griffiths - did not appear at the count. Or maybe she did and she was so humiliated by the fact Labour only got 74 votes, she could not bear to make herself known when the results were announced? Call me old-fashioned, but if people have done you the courtesy of voting for you, at least turn up at the count to hear the result. Was she unavoidably detained on her way into the sports centre by Gordon Brown calling for consolation? Even the independent candidate (who stood as an independent shortly after not being selected as the Conservative candidate) did better with 258 votes. Why there is a feeling Labour has been taking its support for granted, I just cannot think.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The black hand gang

I did it. I am only surprised my hand did not blacken, shrivel and drop off in the polling booth - I voted Tory. There may be some election thingy going on in the US, the metro-centric nationals may be drenched in Boris versus Ken but here in the real world, there is an election for a new unitary authority for Northumberland and I had to vote Tory. Yeah Gods. Just to remind me my friend had scattered big posters throughout his "division" with his name and the word Conservatives in big white letters on a blue and green background. He might as well have had the words "Remember - you promised" on them. I did promise and I have advised him on his electioneering leaflets etc as I said I would, but God - friendship has a price. He has had quite an interesting strategy of not asking anyone for their vote on the doorstep - I wonder if this could catch on? He believes that householders do not want a stranger with a rosette begging for their vote when they are trying to watch Emmerdale. He was prepared to deliver countless leaflets and to traipse round, introducing himself but not to directly and explicitly ask for a vote. In fact, having spent some years reporting on politics, I have to say it was really quite strange advising someone who has played such a straight game all round and insisted on saying only what he believes. But then, he is entirely new to the political process.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

It's a killer

Seven-year-old desperately brave but sad this morning when I broke the news about his fish. He curled up on the kitchen sofa under the ocean creature duvet he had pulled down the stairs with him and said: "I knew he was going to die." I am now convinced both the others are goners and it is merely a matter of time. I took a friend's advice and rang the garden centre where we bought them. I explained we had done everything according to the book and asked what the problem could be because we did not want it happening again. The assistant explained that fish "get stressed" travelling from the garden centre to their new homes. "Fish get stressed" - try telling a two-year-old her pet is about to die. The seven-year-old might have been phlegmatic, the two-year-old was hysterical when I tried to soften her up for the fact hers is probably next. Apparently, at the garden centre they put something called "Stresscoat" in the bag of water they travel in which is supposed to keep them calm but he agreed "It doesn't always work" and there can be subsequent problems in the immune system. If they have lost a scale along the way then they can indeed end up dead. He offered me three free fish when we were ready - three free fish and family therapy is what he should have offered.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Something fishy

Well on the up side I got better but on the down side the fish just died. I mean "just" died - I found the body about 40 minutes ago. Yuk. Yuk. Yuk. Little fishy eyes staring up at the surface; its silvery body huddled up against the pump and resting dolefully against the rainbow gravel. I am traumatised and I am in my forties - what is it going to do to my seven-year-old? It had to be his fish of course when he is the one so desperate for a pet. This is so why I did not want pets. And what is worse is the length of time it has taken. First, one fish got sick, then this second one got sicker, the third one is OK (so far but you have to wonder). The first fish is still sporting what is apparently a bacterial ulcer but the second fish looked like its fin was thinking about coming off. I thought pets were supposed to make you feel more relaxed and at one with the world. I knew its chances of survival looked slim. This afternoon, it had taken to swimming but not moving forward, either at the bottom of the tank, at the top or hiding in the green stuff. It looked so bad, I had decided to set the alarm early to make sure the seven-year-old did not make it downstairs and find the corpse before I did. As it is, I am still going to have to get up early because I had to put a plastic bag on my hand and pull it out the tank and he will come down to find the damn thing is missing. There is no getting around it - I am going to have to tell him it died . Unless I tell him it escaped.

I do not know whether he will want to bury it. At first, I pulled it out, wrapped it in another plastic bag going "eeeeeurgh" and put it in the kitchen bin. Then I thought: "What if he is really upset and wants to bury it?" So I had to "fish" it out of the bin, dig out a plastic box from a bicycle repair kit, cover it with silver foil, line it with a baby wipe and lay the fish in there (still going eeeeeurgh.) I also had to make sure it was lying with its good side up because I really do not want him getting a close look at the other side. I then wrapped it in a third plastic bag and put it in the freezer. (Perhaps I could hold out cryogenics as an option?) It certainly has not had what you would call an ecologically sound death so far. God. Now all I want is for the next one to die and the waiting to be over.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ask not for whom the bell tolls

The fish and I are really ill. That is to say I have a chronically sore throat, so painful I do not want to speak and cannot shout - even when provoked. As for the fish, they are in an even worse state. Obviously they cannot speak either so there is a possibility we have the same disease but then again they appear to have chunks of flesh falling off them and, according to the book I just read they may have a "threadlike parasite" hanging off their nether regions which I definitely did not have the last time I looked. This is really bad. Not only am I in agony but I think the fish might just die on me. Already. And we have been so careful. Washing hands, adding chemicals to water, waiting for the water to heat up to the appropriate temperature, regulating feeding, etc, etc. Even worse, I have begun to care about them - I quite liked the way they appeared to have their own little personalities, my daughter's fish infinitely quicker and pushier than those of the boys. And now they look like they might die on me. Life sucks. I thought the biggest problem was my seven-year-old had been so desperate for a pet, he wanted to net one and get it out to stroke it. This afternoon, we made a trip to the village pet shop for advice. The woman in the pet shop had the biggest, fattest goldfish I had ever seen. Fifteen years old, she told me. I said: "What's it called?" She said: "Fishy". I thought: "I bet that took a lot of thinking about." She sold me a little pot with a pipette and I had to pour more than 16 capfuls into the acquarium. This is why I did not want fish. I am going to come down one morning really soon and there is going to be a silvery bell tolling, an aquarium with a temple from the Lost City of Atlantis on the kitchen hearth and three corpses floating in it.