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.