Wednesday, 19 December 2007

The greatest gift that I possess

Bonus points (as ever) to anyone who can identify the header (it sounds oddly Christmassy, somehow; but isn't). I've been meaning to write about the nature of happiness for sometime, but have actually been handicapped by not being able to get that bloody song out of my head every time I so much as thought of the word. Arrrgh!

Several different ideas milling around in my head. One is that I've always made a point of giving an honest answer when people ask me how I am. So not necessarily (ha! but pretty inevitably) giving all the gory details, but if they say "How are you?" I say "Crap!" if it's crap; I only say "Fine!" if I am fine. But conversely, if I'm blissfully happy, I say "Blissfully happy." One of the only things in the whole world that so much as faintly annoys me about A is that when I ask how his day has been, he'll often say "Not too bad." Even when I'm fairly sure it has actually been pretty good. And I really dislike the cynicism of that (most kinds of cynicism I'm fine with, obviously; just not that one). I suppose my view is based on honesty: I dislike communication by rote. I don't like it when words lose their literal meaning: I think it's dangerous when you start saying things without thinking about what they really mean. That was one of the things that put me off religion: all that insincere chanting of liturgies.

But I digress. It seems to me to be so grudging to refuse to say that you are fine, you are well, you are happy. doesn't it also rather insult the people with real problems? Another example: In his notes on the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'Once more with feeling', Joss Whedon (yes, I am about to blaspheme against my god) says, to conclude his introduction, "Very occasionally, if you really pay attention, life doesn’t suck." This really quite offended me, in a way I don't expect Joss ever to. Why? Well, here is a guy who loves writing,who gets to write all day, who has been sucessful, even lauded, for his writing skills. So he's respected in a field in which he wants to be respected. And he's making money. And he's living in an affluent, civilised society, and what's more he's near the top layer of it socially. What the heck has he got to complain about? To put it brutally, what right has he to be grumpy?

I feel the same about myself. Here I am, in a well-paid job, with interesting hobbies, in a nice house, with a nice man, a nice baby, and a nice cat. Oooh, and lots of lovely secondhand paperbacks. I might be me but with health problems. I might be me with not enough money and horrible credit card debts. I might be me with A dead in a car accident, or Sasha with health problems. But that's only the tip of the iceberg: I might be still in this lovely civilised society, but with debts or illness or a dead-end job. I could be in lots of places in the world where being left-wing and outspoken would have got me shot by now. I could be in a country, or at a time, when a 41-year-old having a baby would have very little chance of surviving it. I'm sure you can see where I'm going. We have such privilege that we can barely remember what it might feel like not to have it. And we're not even just -- just!!! -- well-fed and well-housed. We have centuries of literature and music at our fingertips. We have it all!

I keep remembering a lovely column by Andrew Brown, who writes a very interesting blog (I've linked to the blog, not to the article, which was aeons ago). The gist of it was: he was at home, sitting by the fire, with a very nice book and a glass of rather good red wine, thinking how splendid this was. But also relecting that he might have been in much the same situation a hundred, two hundred, even three hundred years ago. Good book, good wine, good fire: these things have been constants. The difference was that three hundred years ago, those pleasures would have been yours only at the very top end of society. Now they're actually pretty modest; easily attainable. It's the old old story: we'd be so happy if only our aspirations didn't always increase to match our achievements.

So, I've been thinking about how wonderful everything is. But I've also been thinking: if I'm so happy,why don't I feel it more? Because things are pretty damn blissful: why aren't I higher than a hawk? Or deeper than a well? I began to wonder whether I was somehow failing to engage with reality: whether I'd somehow detached myself. But the more I've thought about it, the happier I've been feeling; a glow of content has started to permeate me; and so I wonder: are we afraid to be happy? Do we just hate to admit to it? Does it make us seem smug? Is it naff? Are we afraid that if we tell someone we have it all, they'll want to take something away? Maybe it's an English thing, not to gloat. But it's odd, isn't it?

Thursday, 29 November 2007


Well, I've been dissipating my creative energies on Facebook, as everyone warned me I would. But like everyone else, I'm finding that the initial thrill wears off pretty quickly, and you're left constantly infuriated that Scrabulous only succeeds in loading once in twenty attempts.

So much I meant to write about... Most recent first. We went to see The Turn of the Screw at ENO. The balcony seats were smaller than I remembered, and I realised that the price of day seats has quadrupled since I started going -- weren't they £3 not very long ago? The opera was splendidly sung: Rebecca Evans as the governess was terrific, and the boy playing Miles (sorry not to remember his name) was astonishing. It was all rather gloomy -- dark sets, black clothes, lots of fretting, and things didn't (I don't suppose this counts as a spoiler) turn out well. But then there aren't that many cheerful operas.

But life has been hectic: I'm now back at work two days a week, and one of them in London. And this week Sasha has had a bronchial infection which led to an alarmingly high temperature and a lot of wheezing, plus a cough that woke all of us up through the night. Then there was last week's carol concert, which went really well -- even my debut as a conductor -- but was a huge amount of work. And photocopying (legal copies only - Company of Musicians policy!). So I am shattered. But it's good to be busy and doing stuff. I haven't had time to look at Facebook.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

That lovely weekend

My wonderful baby is sitting happily shoving a plastic toy around, and has been for the last hour or so. Some of that time was spent holding up lego bricks and cooing to them. That was so lovely I positively choked up. I'm so glad Sasha is self-reliant: it's a great gift, I think, to be happy in your own company.

A lovely birthday weekend. I went to Little Quavers with all three children -- the big kids have learned the songs from me: they can pretty much memorise anything on a single hearing. Actually, all the women at the groups seem to learn things with very little trouble: I suspect it's only classical musicians who get so used to the dots that they can't do without them. (Come to think of it, one of the many very impressive things about I Fagiolini is that they can sing huge pieces -- not just (just!!) Monteverdi madrigals but weird contemporary pieces -- from memory.) Anyway, we all walked back from Stapleford, which was just the right distance (though I'd forgotten to double the time to allow for dawdling, sniffing flowers, etc), to lunch with all the women from my NCT morning. Seven mothers and babies all stuffed into our living room, occasionally all crying at the same time. It was a riot. Luckily, A volunteered to make the spag bol as otherwise it would have been pretty hectic.

Close friends for dinner, and A made his famed pea and garlic soup, which I keep promising to post the recipe for here -- but I want to write about the Naming Day too. Then next day our Elgar workshop, with Berty. This had been a delight to fix, so for once I wasn't too grumpy. The music was a revelation: we went from opus 18 to opus 72, and covered a huge range of styles, from faux folk ballad (My love dwelt in a northern land) to fervent godliness (Go, song of mine) to a weird mock-Russian thing (Death on the hills). We all had the tunes on the brain for the next few days. Good stuff. Sunday was late breakfasts and pub lunches and a nice time with the kids.

Also got quite animated because I was asked if I'd like to organise an Advent and Christmas evening in the church. We decide we could do half-and-half Company of Musicians and Come and sing, with me directing the first and A the second, thus usefully dividing the childcare. I'm really enjoying putting a programme together. Partly because I don't seem to have sung at Christmas for a few years, and the music is so fab: Britten's Hymn to the Virgin, Howells' A Spotless Rose, Byrd's Laetentur coeli --- oooh, yummy yummy...

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Knocked up

Went to see this movie last week as it got a stunning review in the Guardian. It wasn't quite as good as all that, I thought, but I couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. It did manage to avoid a lot of cliches, but actually I don't think it replaced them with anything, so remained rather hollow.

I can see why the reviewer thought it was sweet, but the sweetness needed a little more substance. There really wasn't anything (minor spoilers here) to show why the female character would decide to make a go of it with the geeky guy. If we'd seen some evidence that she'd had a hard time with a couple of smart-alecky media guys, say, it might have made more sense for her to go for someone she perceived as sweet but dorky. But I suppose I did like the way that his sweetness wasn't overplayed.

The sexual stereotyping seemed to slightly patronise both sides, as it often does (yes, I know that's a split infinitive, and I see no reason to avoid them -- if you disagree, tell me why). It seemed odd that neither female character had any other female friends. But that explained why the sister in particular was jealous of her partner's relationship with other men, though what wasn't clear was why the writer seemed to think this was reasonable of her. Ooh, she was horrible. Is it really all right for someone to love you so much that they want you to be with them all the time, and regard time spent with other people or even time spent on your own as a betrayal? If this had all been the other way round, she'd have been demanding 'me time' (loathsome phrase) and that would have been just fine, wouldn't it?

It was certainly thought-provoking in a way one doesn't expect a slushy romcom to be. And that has to be the most realistic childbirth scene I've seen. Ouch.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Good places to eat in London and, er, Pampisford

Fellow fenlanders might like to try out the Chequers, in Pampisford: quite a nice walk from Sawston. They've revamped their menu, and it's pretty darn good. A had the sausage and mash, which was okay but lacked onions. I had a jacket potato with smoked bacon, mushrooms and gruyere. Just the right degree of ponciness, and they didn't skimp on the cheese. Excellent stuff. And a good range of beers. Much better than the Red Lion in Ickleton, where we went a week or two ago because it had been recommended: definitely over-poncified, and our home-made burgers were really quite nasty.

In London next to Farringdon tube, and nipped into a new place called St Germain. Turned out to be pretty packed, but they said they'd see what they could do. When I said apologetically that we also had a pushchair, they were all smiles. I was waiting a minute or two for the manager and three different members of staff came over to say he wouldn't be long... gosh. The manager himself managed not to make "You haven't booked?" sound like a snub, and was as helpful as a human being could be. We also saw that they have a set menu at two courses for £14, three for £17, which they do *all the time*. We will be back! (89-90 Turnmill Street, EC1M 5QU)

As we couldn't get a table there, though, we set off for Exmouth Market. Everywhere was either packed to bursting, or completely empty. Then at number 55 was a place that looked good. Again, super-friendly staff, pushchair no problem. In fact,this time the manager came over with a lime and a cork for Sasha to play with. And the guy at the next table spent ages talking to Sash. And the food was *fab*. The starters we chose were foie gras parfait, mmmmmm, which they recommended a glass of dessert wine with, and it was an especially gorgeous one. And scallops, which were cooked to perfection -- tricky, as they take less than a minute -- with fennel, which was beautiful. Main courses of beef something, lovely again, with polenta to die for (no idea how they made it so tasty), and a fantastic puree they said was parsley, though I don't usually like parsley and this was yummy. And a red wine risotto with goats' cheese and beetroot that was pure genius, and possibly the only time that a vegetarian option has actually competed with the carnivorous stuff. Puddings were a divinely squidgy chocolate pudding with marmalade ice cream, yum yum, and a very tasty cheese selection. All that, and every person in there -- customers and staff -- was lovely. Starters were £5-8, mains £8-14 or so. Do go: The Ambassador, 55 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QL.

Under attack

As well as eating my shirts in the loft, the mice have also chewed through our phone cable (they're trying to cut us off!!). The moles in the garden have dug another hole in the lawn. And the moths in the clothes room have nibbled another two of my favourite jumpers, despite there being so many mothballs scattered around that a recent guest refused to sleep in there.

It's been that kind of week. For the last fortnight.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Hurrah (again) for Libby Purves

I've just been re-reading Libby Purves' Holy Smoke, subtitled Religion and Roots: A Personal Memoir. A wonderful book: very affecting. I suppose in essence it's a defence of religion, and in particular Catholicism, but it's so very well written. I think it's partly that Purves is intellectual, so there's nothing sloppy about it: she knows her doctrine and her CS Lewis. But she's also not afraid to have, and to declare, moral standards, and rigorous ones at one. It impressed me, and made me cry.

The bits of autobiography in it made me realise that Love Songs and Lies has quite a lot of her own life in it, and I think that may be why it doesn't quite come off as a novel: the first-person narrator doesn't quite convince, being a mixture of fact and fiction. Given the amount of thought I've now devoted to this novel, though, I have to admit that it made a strong impression. In comparison, the last Joanna Trollope I read, Second Honeymoon, I looked at the spine of a couple of days later and found I couldn't recall a thing about it: not characters, not plot, not nothing.

Libby Purves has always cheered me up. Even when I had no intention of having children, I would read How Not To Have A Perfect Child just to be cheered by its good sense and decency: it restored my faith in human nature. Later, it made me realise that bringing up children might be more interesting -- in an intellectual sense, I suppose -- than I'd ever thought.

Holy Smoke is a really convincing defence of religion. It makes me feel that it would be a lovely thing to be a Christian and do it properly: it would make life both simpler (in terms of moral choices) and more rich, and be rewarding; a source of comfort. A counsellor once told me that her happiest patients were Christians, and that seemed perfectly logical.

I could never overcome my Darwinist principles enough to truly believe, but if I can't accept Christianity intellectually, I think I can understand it emotionally. Having been a Catholic helps, of course, but mostly it's the music, and the words. Some hymns still choke me up. (Singing on Sunday with a not very musical congregation and an effortful organ, I still choked up at the lines 'A thousand ages in thy sight/Are like an evening gone.' I like the grandeur of those sentiments. The modern liturgy seems to have somewhat neglected grandeur. Possibly in favour of Relevance, which is almost always A Bad Thing.)

It's time to go to bed. I've been stacking all my books into alphabetical piles, but there are still lots of them. Maybe double-shelving them is the answer. As it took me two years in this house just to get them all out of the boxes, I don't know that shelves are going to happen any time soon. How long, how long?

Baby vampire

Sasha has more teeth! But instead of two top front ones, the ones outside those have come in. So our little one is going to look like a vampire. What fun! And how very suitable... I've been trying to catch a demonic grin on camera, but I really need an assistant to jump around.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Why I like shagging

It's just such a good word for it. In my opinion. But not in everyone else's...

"Think of the transitive verbs for sex ... screw, hump, ball, dick, bonk, bang, shag, pork, shtup," says Steven Pinker in his new book. "They're not very nice, are they?"

Well, much as I love Steven, I have to disagree. I think some of them are much nicer than others, to the point of being -- well, pretty nice, actually. The f-word (first in his list, but edited out to make this more respectable) is a horrible word for the act. It's more useful as a swear word than anything else. (I am trying to give it up or at least cut down, since A said he thought it might be Sasha's first word. Oh dear.) But 'bonk' -- well, that's sweet, isn't it? And slightly crazy: associations with 'bonkers'. And I like the onomatopeia (gosh, that's hard to spell -- I'm not going to double-check, it's 1am here). 'Shag' is definitely my favourite, though, and A's. But a friend recently objected to my use of the term here, and as she's reserved but definitely not prudish I was startled, and gave it some thought.

First of all, to me, it sounds much less like something that somebody does to someone else than words like 'poke'. (I Speak As One who, as a feminist undergraduate, used the term 'make love with' to avoid such connotations.) Secondly, it's self-deprecating. It implies fun and slight naffness. I think the associations are with 'shaggy' (and therefore Scooby-Doo, if you're the right age) and 'shag pile'.

Because of this implicit humour, it makes the act sound fun, which is to be commended. 'Bonk' sounds fun too, but I suppose it has a suggestion of force, which we don't want. Not very much, though. Perhaps it also sounds just a bit too silly, whereas 'shag' has the hint of smut that's needed. 'Shag' also somehow connotes relaxation, casualness. You can say 'Fancy a shag?' in a very unthreatening way, and none of the others quite works like that.

Actually, looking at the list again, is 'dick' really a euphemism for sex? I thought it meant willy. Interesting how many words for sex and the make organ end in '-ck'. And 'shtup' ( why shtup when it's schmaltz not shmaltz and so on -- or isn't it Yiddish?) is too hard to say.... Imagine trying to ask "Fancy a schtup?" when drunk, as you almost invariably would be.

My favourite Steven Pinker joke: A linguist is giving a lecture. The linguist says, "Although there are many examples of the double negative in many languages, there are no examples in any language of a double positive." A rival linguist at the back of the hall says "Yeah, yeah."

Joss, oh Joss

I've just discovered that number one on Joss Whedon's desert island book list is A Little Princess -- how sweet is that? I would love to ask him why he thinks the recent movie changed the ending. SPOILER if you think you're going to read this Victorian children's classic by Frances Hodgson Burnett... in the movie, Sarah's father is lost but comes back to be reunited with her. In the book, she suffers through adversity but triumphs; he dies and stays dead. Someone apparently couldn't cope with the whole death thing. Isn't it rather the point of the book? Sarah survives by imagining things are different, but I don't think she ever conjures up her father. Gosh, it's more interesting than I thought...

Next bit is for kidlit fans only. I've just checked the spelling of Burnett on Wikipedia, and discovered that Sara Crewe (1888) was rewritten as A Little Princess (1905). I've always been puzzled by the bit in Antonia Forest where Nicky finds a book called Sara Crewe: it looks as though this explains it. It's the one where Marie Dobson dies, isn't it.... and Nicola has won the form prize but may have to leave Kingscote... aha, must be Attic Term?

I've just joined Facebook. I seem to be the last person to arrive at the party.

PS Joss's list:
"Assuming they're books I've already read: 1) A Little Princess 2) Dombey and Son 3) Dune 4) Hitchcock by Truffaut 5) Pride and Prejudice." Joss Whedon IS eclectic!

Monday, 8 October 2007

First person singular

I was thinking about the Libby Purves novel again and realised that the real problem with it for me is that the first-person narrator is so self-conscious. This only works, I think, if there's an explanation for the first-person narration. If it's unexplained, too much intrusion from the narrative voice can destroy the whole illusion -- after all, a first-person narrative is intrinsically artificial. ("Odsbobs! I hear him just coming in at the Door. You see I write in the present Tense," as Fielding says in Shamela. There is nothing new under the sun...)

What I'd have done -- and this may only make sense if you've read the book -- is address the whole novel to the daughter, so that the story is the mother's explanation. That would also avoid the problem that if it was real -- which you are by implication being asked to believe while you're reading it -- there's no way the daughter would let it be published.

I read Espedair Street again, to compare it. What I like most about it is the physical sense you get of the protagonist: Banks is very consistent about it, and I like that. Purves's narrator was a bit too generic, in comparison. Hmmm. Need a close textual analysis, really. I'll stop there. Oh, but yes, I have read The Business: I've read all Banks's fiction, but not all the science fiction, which I think it's fair to say is more variable. I started one that was purely about robots and was obviously a bit of an experiment, and it didn't really grab me. My favourite, which I suspect I share with a lot of people, is The Player of Games. Also re-read Complicity. It was nastier than I'd remembered. I wonder if Banks's politics are going to make the books date really badly?

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Lies and Love Songs

I read Libby Purves' latest novel last night. Love Songs and Lies: an interesting one (and wouldn't Lies and Love Songs have been more mellifluous?). I think it's the first of hers with a first-person narrator, and it's quite awkwardly done: the first twenty or so pages were so self-reflective that I almost gave up. She's an interesting author: some of the novels, particularly More Lives Than One, are obviously written with a particular issue in mind, but they're often none the worse for that. I should be able to make an intelligent comparison of Purves with Joanna Trollope, but it's tricky (I am rubbish at analysing novels -- wish I'd realised this before I did an English degree...).

They both focus very much on families, which presumably is what gets them pigeonholed as 'for women's'. This one was, in fact, partly a chick version of Espedair Street. (By Iain Banks, and terrific stuff if you don't mind a large does of his usual wish-fulfilment: it's only really bothered me in Dead Air, where it seemed to take the story beyond the bounds of reasonable possibility -- perhaps because it affected both the narrator's job, and his love life.) The idea that you could write pop lyrics by paraphrasing great literature must be one that occurs to lots of English graduates -- I'm reminded of the narrator in Martin Amis's The Rachel Papers writing a letter persuading a girlfriend to sleep with him, based line by line on Marvell's To His Coy Mistress. But it was nicely done here.

As usual, some sloppy sub-editing: possibly not at all, of course. What is, for instance, 'a Burne-Jones Ophelia'? Is she thinking of Millais or Waterhouse? (Or is there a Burne-Jones I don't know about? I can't think of any Shakespearean subjects in his stuff.) And why does she think that Durufle's motet Ubi caritas starts with upper voices, when in fact it begins with divided altos and no sopranos? And, oh dear, on the penultimate page it suddenly goes horribly rhetorical. I'd have been getting out the red pen as soon as I saw "Life!". But I'm nitpicking. I enjoyed it.

Also read Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant for our book group. Really liked this -- the narrative voice was so unobtrusive and understated. It seemed to me a sign of great confidence to write so subtly: in my experience it's the worst writers who feel the need to over-describe. Nothing conventional about the story or the plot, either. I'd only previously read The Accidental Tourist, so I'll definitely be reading more of her work.

Hurrah for Blogger's automatic draft saving: I managed to press some combination of keys that shut down the PC. Very fat fingers indeed.

It's that time of year again...

... and my mum has given me a flamethrower for my birthday.

It's a little more tame than I was envisaging. I'd thought I'd be striding through the vegetable patch in my combats torching our eight-foot nettles, but, sadly, it's more like making a crème brulée. There are lots of fun-busting instructions on the packaging about how you don't need to incinerate the weeds, just warm them up enough to damage the cell walls. Bah. Having followed all this to the letter, though, I notice that the clumps of grass on our drive seem largely unaffected by the stipulated light toasting. I figure that gives me licence to be more vicious next time.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007


Or however you spell it -- I know how you say it. Spellings for some of those vocalisations are very weird: I was quite old before I connected 'tut tut' and the tongue-clicking sound, or 'ahem' with throat-clearing. Presumably, the way these end up written is by some kind of implicit consensus.

(Anyway: oh-oh. Sasha has discovered the compost bin as a handy source of tasty, partially decomposed snacks. I turn away for thirty seconds and the child will be sitting in a heap of yesterday's cold pilau rice, ancient banana skins, and week-old peelings, tucking in with gusto. I prised a tiny hand off a cold tea-bag as it approached the ever-gaping maw. Bleargh. How d'you spell that?)

Thursday, 13 September 2007

There's glory for you!

Glory be. Sasha has finally started having an afternoon nap, just as normal babies do. For two days it was twelve-thirty to two-thirty, then just as I was getting complacent it was summarily changed to one-thirty to two-thirty plus half an hour of screaming. Today, it's been an hour since four-thirty. So not exactly Gina Ford, but fab nonetheless. Finally I can type with both hands and have semi-coherent thoughts.

I have finally repaired the bathroom door handle so that the door can be firmly shut. This is so that certain people cannot have the fun of dropping things down the toilet, including brand-new toilet rolls (docked from future pocket money! You have been warned!!) and their sister's toothbrush (rinsed and replaced -- she'll never know...)

Forgot to add to my book list a novel by Lynne Truss, Tennyson's Gift. Like her other two novels (and incidentally I do wish that people would stop writing 'as with' in that formulation -- it's no less wrong (or informal, I should say) than 'like' is, but it sounds stupid), Going Loco and With One Lousy Free Packet of Seed, this was a comic romp that teetered of the verge of being very silly indeed but was redeemed by thoughtful characterisation. Golly, that sounded poncey. The other two had plots that got really preposterous, and then there was a twist that made sense of it all -- cleverly done. TG was also stuffed full of quotations from Alice, which is always a good thing. I read some crummy piece of journalism the other day (I've had some free subscriptions to women's magazines, and boy there's some dross out there) by some idiot woman who thought the White Queen went around saying "Off with his head!". Not only the wrong character -- it's the wrong bloody book. Gah! And where was the sub-editor? Double gah!

Truss also had an interesting take on Dodgson (that's Charles Lutwidge, who translated his first two names into Latin and switched them around to make his pen-name, Lewis Carroll), which I much appreciated. While depicting him as extremely eccentric, and his relations with little girls as rather peculiar, she didn't have him pegged as an outright paedophile. I was pleased about this, as it seems to me to be an essentially modern interpretation of his behaviour, and one that doesn't allow for the notion of innocence, or of a strict morality that would know just what boundaries could not be crossed. I also think that some people are genuinely asexual. And that Dodgson was one of them.

Bother -- screams from above. Unless it's someone else's baby, in the High Street. Many books say that the Mother can recognise her Own Child. They are wrong. Sometimes I can't even tell whether it's Sasha or the cat.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Oh, nuts!

So much for a diet diary. So far, my circumference before breakfast has not once been as little it was on the day I started eating less. Bah! A plague on slimming. I have even eaten some of my midget gems, so there. A didn't believe I could distinguish one from another, so we did a blind tasting test and he has had to eat his words. It took me one gem to attune my palate, and then I was almost infallible. Green ones are the easiest.

Hot news on the Sasha front -- we have babbling! We went for our eight-month checkup last week and as the doctor pointed out, not going till you're ten months old is a good way to pass. But then she asked if Sasha was saying dadada and bababa and I had to say that the only sound the child makes (excluding screams, of course) is "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah". Fabulous breath control, but you couldn't call it babbling. Then yesterday we had an "App....rrrrr" (that's the first bit of 'apple' followed by a raspberry) and suddenly we're babble central. Lots of silly noises too -- it's a shame English doesn't have raspberries in, really.

We are also very concerned about our hair. We fuss with it while we're breastfeeding, to make sure it's tidy. then this morning we got a lot of butter on our mitts and tried a bit of styling. We've chosen the mad professor look.

Monday, 3 September 2007


Very well, then. I have grown out of all but my two most elasticated pairs of trousers, so it really is time to lose some girth (I can't lose weight as there aren't any scales here). My friend N told me very firmly that I was Not To Diet while I was breastfeeding, so this will just be an attempt to eat more healthily and get more exercise. Perhaps I should keep a food diary? Would that be too dull? Would it stop me eating the odd handful of midget gems? (Such a pain that I have just discovered the perfect gems: Woolworth's budget brand -- only 39p a packet! -- have lovely chemicals and a perfect consistency, bother it.)

Am already poleaxed by torpor. I can't possibly type in every meal: that would be sooo dull. Anyway, had healthy lunch of bowl of sweetcorn: have discovered that tinned stuff is much better than frozen as not all mushy. Plus needs only two minutes in microwave. Only 68p a tin, too. Why does mere thought of dieting force one to write like Bridget Jones? Aaargh.

Camp fun

Gosh, time has galloped by. We went to Sizewell last week, camping with all three children. The weather was wonderful -- it only rained at night, just as in Camelot. It's all thanks to Grandma Pam, who gave us money for a family holiday a couple of years ago which we invested in the kit. I was used to the technical stuff -- lightweight thermarest, down sleeping bag, and all that, but for family camping in summer with a car, the cheap kit is amazingly effective. A's top tip was to get a six-person tent even though there were four of us. Since the manufacturers expect you to pack in like sardines, this has worked out well. Those red and blue inflatable mattresses are very comfortable too. The sleeping bags are a bit flimsy, but as they are £20 for two we've just bought another pair (they make cheap cushions for the garden loungers). We got it all from Argos.

I spent two years dithering about a gas hob for my kitchen, and during that time we cooked on a meths stove -- eventually upgrading to two meths stoves. So getting them out again is all very nostalgic. My top recipe for camping is corned beef hash. In its simplest form, you can just put a standard sized tin of baked beans (other brands don't seem to be as good as Heinz) and a half-sized tin of corned beef (otherwise there's too much beef) into a pan and stir them till they turn to sludge. (A half-sized tin of corned beef is almost the same price as the full size, but there's no point keeping a half tin in the fridge because you won't eat it, will you?). That will feed two people; for four it's easier, of course: two tins of baked beans and one tin of corned beef. A dash of Worcestershire sauce makes it even nicer. Or you can grate cheese over the top. For the poncey version, start by frying an onion: A uses olive oil but I prefer butter. Is there a more glorious smell in the world than onions frying in butter? Anyway, there you have it: a spendid dinner or a really fabulous breakfast.

Other top tips: wherever you go on holiday, whatever you're doing, take a headtorch. It's as useful as a swiss army knife. By the way, I got mine as a present when I did a concert in Switzerland, from Mr Victor Inox himself. I always thought it was a brand name, but it's not.

I read an Agatha Christie, The Seven Dials Mystery, which was really rather silly. Also read recently: Swallowdale, the sequel to Swallows and Amazons. Really lovely, and so wholesome I felt cleansed by the experience. Also Wolf Wing by Tanith Lee, which was pretty inconsequential: a series that seems to have run out of steam, especially when the novelty of the diary format has worn off to leave it just plain irritating. Steaming on with Lois McMaster Bujold, I read Memory, which was a stonking tome and immensely enjoyable. Also a story called 'Winterfair Gifts' in an anthology called (can't remember, I'll fill it in later). I'm sure an Amazon review said it wasn't worth bothering with, but after Komarr and A Civil Campaign I loved having this to tie things up. I also read Diplomatic Immunity, which was a nice uncomplicated detective mystery in space.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Nine months in, nine months out

Oh dear, it's been ages. Ah well. Sasha is now nine months old, which is nicely symmetrical. Our little prodigy has now been introduced to Shakespeare: we went to see Othello at the Globe last week. Slightly fraught, as you really can't prevent the occasional squawk and it's really quite a quiet, domestic play: lots of scenes with only two or three people in. [Info added much later - you can take babes in arms to the Globe, which is brill and authentic of them, so I took Sash in a sling. Which did, after a bit, hurt. Quite a lot. But it was worth it.]

Very good, I thought: I was interested in seeing Tim McInnerny as Iago as I only know him from Blackadder. He was certainly a change from the simmeringly evil Iagos you sometimes see: very obviously making it up as he went along rather than having some fiendish masterplan, which makes perfect sense when it's pure luck that he gets his hands on the handkerchief. As ever, the strangulation scene was absolutely vile, though not quite as awful as a Cheek by Jowl production I saw years ago in Cambridge, where Othello was really huge and Desdemona tiny, and he lifted her right off her feet. Urgh. I don't think I'd quite clocked before just how far Othello falls: he actually tries to protest his innocence to Aemilia after she's found him with Desdemona's corpse. At that point he really has lost every ounce of his integrity. A nasty, nasty play: A and I were both in tears afterwards.

I really must try to write about things while there's still time to encourage you to go and see them, though.

A few bits and pieces I've been meaning to post... If you're interested in creative writing, and particularly if you're writing spec scripts for TV (no, I've never met anyone who is, either), check out Jane Espenson's blog. She's a writer for Buffy (yes, and I found the link to her site reading footnote number 62 of the Wikipedia article on Buffy, so how sad am I? (Very, very sad, I know, what the hey.) She's very sweet and very funny, and a lot of what she says is interesting even if you're not writing spec scripts.

Also an article in The Onion which I think may be my second favourite of all time. Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does. It's so bloody true. "Shopping for shoes has emerged as a powerful means by which women assert their autonomy," says an expert... If you've never come across the Onion, do give it a try: It's very American, and very funny: really cynical, and very well written. Oooh, look! They still have my favourite article of all time. Isn't the internet jolly? This one is possibly the most over-the-top bit of prose I've ever encountered. Love it to bits. It's called This New Toilet Paper Is So Soft And Absorbent! Don't read it if you have an aversion to toilet humour is all I can say. Sample line: errr, actually, it's just too disgusting to quote, and the cumulative effect is a large part of it. Still I can assume you're not easily offended if you've read my birth story, right?

Thursday, 12 July 2007


Two interesting articles in last weekend's Guardian (the weekend before, now I'm finally finishing this). One is by a woman who got amicably divorced and found that all her friends expected her to be rather more devastated than she was. "Someone writes [to me]: 'There are no words for a catastrophe of this magnitude. I am thinking of you.' And it begins to seem as if my husband has, in fact, not moved five minutes away but died." In many ways she's enjoying her newfound freedom, and is coping just fine, but people just won't accept this. "At no other point in my life have so many people tried so hard to convince me of how miserable I am," she says.

The other is by a woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby. Gut-wrenching. But in stark contrast, she found that her friends were mostly embarrassed, and desperate for her to 'get over it' and get back to normal. They advised her to take anti-depressants, but she wasn't depressed: she was grieving. I wonder why that's something that's not allowed any more?

Maybe we can cope with divorce because it's comprehensible: anyone who's even been dumped can empathise to a certain extent. We all know about rejection. But death is the great mystery, and getting more mysterious all the time. I watched both my father and my grandmother die, in their own homes. It wasn't terrifying in any of the ways you might think, and both of them had huge reserves of courage and dignity. Especially with my father, who I'd been very close to, I really believe that seeing it happen made it easier to cope with. If I hadn't been there, I'd have found it difficult to believe that it had really happened; that he'd really gone. But the number of people allowed to die at home must be getting less and less. I proselytise for home birth whenever I can, but I begin to think we need a campaign for home death too. Maybe if death was closer, and in a familiar place, we'd cope with it better?

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Si ch'io vorrei morire

To London yesterday evening, feeling very odd without a baby anywhere on my person. We went to see the last UK performance of The Full Monteverdi by I Fagiolini, and had the pleasure of taking along a friend who didn't know what was going to happen.

Everyone is sitting at little tables, with drinks and nibbles, talking amongst themselves, some more earnestly than others. There's no stage or obvious area where anyone can perform. So you sit down, chat amongst yourselves. Then someone starts to sing. Someone sitting next to you joins in... soon there are five or six voices weaving in and out of each other. It gets louder and more passionate... someone stands up, and you see that each singer has a partner, and six miniature dramas are enacted. The music, from Monteverdi's fourth book of madrigals, is sublime, and the harmonies unbelievably dissonant at times.

As a friend said, the singing would be pretty stupendous if they were reading from music standing on a concert stage. In fact, they're singing from memory while acting out a scene that's designed to follow an emotional arc within the music, over the course of an hour or so. It's amazingly intense. I was almost in tears at some points, and A definitely was. The singers are just fabulous (we both have a crush on the mezzo, who's got the sexiest low notes you've ever heard). They've just finished recording a DVD of it, which will be out "in time for Christmas". From the trailer, it looks fascinating -- a long way from just a live recording of the show. There's a trailer if you're interested. And if you ever get the chance to go -- I think they're doing three performances in New York, which may be the last ever -- then go, and take all your friends.

Do have a look at the Fag's website, too: other people have written about this far more poetically than I can.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Sumer was icumen in

This is odd: I though this blog couldn't show pictures. Now I spot a huge button to add a picture. Duh and double-duh. Anyway, here's a reminder of the glorious summer we had back in spring -- and a touching cross-species relationship too...

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

How pleasant to know Dr Greer

Oooh, ooh, I am starstruck. I just met Germaine Greer in Budgen's. Actually, I passed her in the High Street and took too long to recognise her, then dithered for five minutes before going in, running her to earth next to the cat food, and introducing myself. She was extremely nice, cosidering how weird it is to be accosted by a stranger (I know this because I occasionally meet someone who knows me because they've seen me sing, so I don't know them.): friendly to Sasha and quite chatty. She was buying a Guardian because she's got an article in today about the Australian Aborigines, which sounded suitably polemical.

I just wanted to tell her that if there was one book that changed my life, it was The Female Eunuch, which I read when I was about fourteen. If nothing else, it makes other feminist writing pale into the shadows, being both logically argued, fiercely polemical and in places very funny. I stopped buying Spare Rib (yes, cast your mind back to the eighties...) when it started carping about Victoria Wood not being radical enough and I realised that they had missed the point. Which is that humour is a far better tool for changing people's minds than aggression can ever be. Proven, in fact, by comparing the longevity of the magazine, and Wood, who seems to be turning into a female version of Michael Palin and therefore quite a national institution.

Anyway, we talked about The Thorn Birds , as she is writing about it, she said. It has interesting comparisons with Gone with the Wind, which -- in my opinion -- has interesting comparisons with Vanity Fair. Dr Greer (except I bet I'm years out of date and she's Professor Greer by now, isn't she? Rats) said she's never been able to get through Thackeray, which surprised me as I think compared with, say, Dickens, he's easy to read. And Vanity Fair is a fabulous novel: Thackeray has a wonderful narrative voice, generous but cynical, and there isn't a two-dimensional character in the book. And it has one of the most devastatingly written deaths in literature. And of course Becky Sharp is an incredible creation.

I haven't read any of his other books, mind you. Someone once told me that the others are more populist, since he felt that VF didn't make him enough money. I'll have to try one day, though.

I wonder if there are any phrases in Bunyan that haven't been used? Could you have a magazine called Slough of Despond? I suppose not...

Sasha is wrestling with a banana skin and now has a facepack of brown slime. The child seems to get rather more fun from the skin from the banana, but hey, this is a household that eschews petty convention, no? A recent visitor warned me solemnly that banana skins are poisonous. It's odd how people will do that.

And larger conventions too, of course. Apparently some people *did* object to my breast-feeding at a parish council meeting. The comment was (I'm told): "Who is that woman? And is she married?" Priceless. I told my informant I hoped he'd let them know that I most certainly was not...

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Requiem for a concert

Phew. It's taken me three days to recover enough from our local music festival to write about it. We ended the festival with a performance of the Brahms Requiem in a transcription he did himself for piano duet -- we used two pianos, as we hadn't been sure which it was meant to be and the hire charges turned out to be almost the same. It should have been one -- or was at the first performance in 1871 (done because the venue wasn't big enough for an orchestra) -- but the editor of the score had made suggestions for extra octaves if you had the luxury of two.

I left choosing an outfit till an hour before the start time so as to have something to panic about other than my solo. I'm back to how overweight I was before I got pregnant, which is as much as I've ever been. As I buy all my clothes second hand and aren't too bothered about a snug fit, I generally have a range of sizes, and so it proved. A quite liked the look of the one I had to pour myself into, but my mother pointed out that the zip was straining and sanity prevailed. Sequins have amazingly little give, you know. I didn't want anything hampering my lung capacity -- that opening phrase demands every ounce of oxygen if you're not to snatch a breath in the middle (it's a sublime tune, 'Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit'). Anyway, it was all worth it, because I Did It In One. I was really quite pleased, as I didn't even always manage it in rehearsal. What with thinking about breathing, mood, a wide domey shape in my mouth (Berty speak), relaxing my tongue and not sticking my chin out, I fear that once again singing it in tune may have been pushed out by lack of memory capacity, but the people I asked who I expected to be candid said it hadn't been flat. In a week or so, when the buzz has worn off, we'll listen to the recording. I'm still not sure I woulnd't rather have the warm cosy glow of a memory happily distorted by the adrenalin rush, though.

An excellent group of singers, too: it's so lovely to listen to the exposed entries and not cringe. One needs all those choral society memories of fuzzy basses, histrionic tenors, wispy altos and strangled sopranos in order to appreciate really good singers. We did it with thirteen -- three to a part, plus an extra soprano to spare my blood pressure. They really were rather fabulous.

What can we do next year, though? Does anyone know of any good stuff that can legitimately be sung with piano or two-piano accompaniment, or have we exhausted that category? (We've done the Rossini Petite Messe Solenelle (piano and harmonium) and Carmina Burana (two pianos and percussion).) I guess we'll have to start thinking about a small orchestra, whether modern or baroque. Oh lord, it's going to be hell to organise. Ah. And there is one other requirement: if I'm going to fix the thing, it would be nice if it had a soprano solo. Wouldn't it? (Sniff.)

You read it first here! (errr... probably)

Baby-lead weaning has hit the media by the looks of it: there's an article about it in last Saturday's Times. As well as saying that purees are a waste of time, there's a new tide saying that the advice not to give solids at all until six months is wrong: it's based on research with third-world babies, which grow more slowly as they're less well nourished than ours.

All the women I know have started weaning before six months because it was clear that the babies wanted solid food. But health vistors are still laying down the law about it. I wonder why? I don't quite see why one has to look for governmental guidance in these matters anyway.

But then I've always had a low tolerance of food experts' advice: I've been eating butter steadily since the fashion for margarines -- and early lab experiments such as Outline, YEUCH! -- right through until they realised that maybe all those mad-scientist chemicals weren't such a good idea after all.

I'm going to write about BLW for the next issue of the Cambridge NCT magazine, anyway, and have been taking pics of Sasha reducing broccoli to its component molecules with which to illustrate it. Hurrah!

Friday, 22 June 2007

Oh, bloody hell

Oh lord, I so hate fixing concerts. Well.... certainly at this point of maximum stress when you get to the end of your list and you still haven't got enough singers and the date is getting closer and closer and you send out increasingly desperate emails to increasingly distantly known people and some of them still just don't answer at all and and and. It must be grim to do it professionally, where you do all the organising and don't even get to perform -- which at least you do, when you're an amateur, and fixing things you can sing in yourself. At which point it does at last seem worthwhile. Thank goodness.

Professional music really does sound like a dog's life a lot of the time. Well, I suppose in essence the perks aren't much better than those you get as an amateur, and the cons are very large cons -- the endless travelling, the constant pressure, the scrimped rehearsal time, the uncertainty... Yuck. Anyway. One of our tenors -- and we only have three, because of only having three each of everything -- has gone down with this week's nasty throat bug. What a bugger. Actually, it's probably worse for him: when you look forward to these things for ages, it often turns out that you get six months in peachy health and then some disgusting lurgy strikes just as throat-related fun was on the horizon. Yah, and boo, and sucks.

I've got behind with my book listings: it's actually quite hard work to write down everything I read. If I simply zap through a children's book in an hour or so, I don't mention it here, but I suppose, actually, a reading diary would be illuminating as a food diary if I didn't mind finding out what an addict I am. I'm currently reading a book online, which is wretchedly inconvenient: it's by the unwieldily named Lois McMaster Bujold, who seems to be recommended by most of the other people on the couple of mailing lists I'm on. Going well so far, but I'll post when I'm done. A couple of weeks ago I read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which had some fancy reviews. It's essentially a fairly stream-of-consciousness account of how she felt when her long-term partner died suddenly of a heart attack (this is on the cover blurb and therefore Doesn't Count as a spoiler). It was honest and candid and all that, but not, to be brutal, terribly interesting. Maybe I don't bottle up my own feelings enough to admire someone else for unbottling theirs. The fact that struck me most -- callow youth that I am -- was that she'd named her daughter 'Quintana'.

I've just reread Scoop for the umpteenth time, having recommended it to our reading group. It's one of the funniest books I know, and doesn't pall with re-reading. Amazingly, the satire has dated very little. It has a lot more heart than earlier works of Waugh's such as Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, I think: Boot's relationship with -- have I got this right? -- Katryn is really rather poignant. But the sheer number of things the novel takes digs at is really pretty remarkable. It's in my list of my top ten books, which admittedly has never managed to shrink below fifteen and currently stands at twenty or so, but there you are. If you want to give Waugh a try, I'd also recommend A Handful of Dust, which has the distinction of being both very funny and one of the saddest stories I know (I'm deliberately quoting from Ford Madox Brown's The Good Soldier, which touts inself as 'the saddest story I know' and rather overplays its hand, I thought -- it's rather fusty, and never worked at all for me.).

I can't remember whether I said: we solved the last-minute alto crisis by going back to the top of the list and starting again. Genius. That was A's suggestion, of course: I was in too much of a flap to think straight. What's especially unhelpful, you know, is that it's never the same voice part twice. I've had a soprano crisis, an alto crisis, a tenor crisis and a bass crisis, at different times. Aaaargh. Imagine fixing a whole orchestra. (No, actually, I can't. Or mustn't. It makes me hyperventilate.)

Thursday, 21 June 2007

And the third bowl was just right...

I'm sitting here shovelling porridge into the gaping maw of the infant as quickly as is physically possible -- feeling very much like a tiny sparrow slaving over a cuckoo. Sasha is pebbledashed with porridge from eyebrow to ankle, and the adhesion of the stuff is impressive. We have bypassed fancy-pants baby porridge and only-for-wimps Ready Brek and gone straight to hardcore porridge oats (which coincidentally is about a tenth of the price). Funnily enough, changing from finger foods to spoon feeding doesn't seem to be a problem: Sash is grabbing the spoon out of my hand and shoving it in, then removing the contents with a hearty suck. We were sharing a bowl, and I swear I got less of it to eat.

Just getting into full panic mode for Sunday's concert of the Brahms German Requiem, not helped by someone pulling out a week before, which meant lots of running around. Unfortunately she was singing in Tuesday's concert too, which was extremely awkward -- I just didn't know what to say, so said nothing, which was interpreted as conveying extreme hostility. (I obviously don't do neutrality, but am as ever hampered by not knowing what my face looks like: that's why I'm such a rotten actor.)

The amateur singers' code of conduct is a very simple one, which for most of us actually reduces possible stress: you don't chuck in something you've said you'd do, even if something better comes along. I assume that pros go by the same rules. I wonder if other fields are similar too, or if, say, in sports it's okay to chuck a match if someone more impressive challenges you? The event has really soured this week for me, though -- and the person who did it was a very good friend, so I'm not sure how we retrieve things. Possibly by never referring to it again. Which will be tricky.

Sasha is doing that thing where they get up onto hands and knees but can't work out how to move forwards, so just rock forwards and backwards, as though revving up to go. Reversing is on the menu, as is going round in circles, and rolling over, particularly on scary restricted areas such as the changing mat (suspended above a cast-iron bath, so not a good platform from which to nose-dive). We feel that crawling is imminent, and have been thoughtfully providing mats and rugs as there's only one carpeted room in the house and the downstairs floors are all tiles and bricks and hard on knees and elbows.

It's time to cook some more porridge...

Friday, 8 June 2007

To patronise or not to patronise

I was just wondering... My comment about the 'O' level was essentially saying 'Look, I'm only quoting this because I happen to know it, not because I'm frightfully intellectual'. Is this terribly patronising? I'm never quite sure whether it's worse to assume that people do know things, or assume that they don't. People on the Dorothy L Sayers mailing list sometimes get very worked up about DLS putting chunks of French into the novels untranslated, and even having a short story that hinges on one knowing one's genders -- and of course you miss one whole vital denouement if you don't know Latin. Is this patronising? If it's assuming greater knowledge than readers actually possess, then presumably it's the opposite.

I've been re-reading the sequence Strong Poison, Have His Carcase, Gaudy Night, Busman's Honeymoon, which ends the Lord Peter Wimsey saga with the Wimsey-Vane relationship. It's rather beautifully done, and the last of these is particularly satisfying in taking things on much further than one ever hopes for. I did wonder whether Gaudy Night doesn't flag a little in the first two thirds in which Wimsey hardly appears, but in fact I think on reflection it jogs along nicely but then accelerates when he turns up: the romance and the mystery gather pace in tandem. The whole love story is immensely satisfying. It does seem to me that DLs must be unleashing her own fantasies, but she controls them beautifully.

Most of my copies are a 1970s edition by the New English Library, with just a few typos, but rather jolly cover illustrations (except one that I think if you studied it closely would actually give away the plot), but I have two books in a new reprint, also NEL (except, now, of course, it's in lower case (welcome to the noughties)) which is apparently Hodder & Stoughton. They've been reset incredibly badly, with laughable typos that an infant could spot (double commas; words that even Microsoft's spellchecker would know were wrong) and some real idiocies (a Latin telegram that someone has obviously thought was meant to be in English). They've also got a truly ghastly introduction by someone called Elizabeth George, who obviously thinks she's the bees' knees and is prepared to patronise DLS in order to prove it.

Ooh, I've come around in an elegant circle. That doesn't often happen. In fact, I loathe the way it's almost ubiquitous now as a journalistic technique. It's rare to read an article, or at least a light-hearted one, that doesn't feebly hark back to its opening paragraph. I can see why it's a useful technique, but not every time. Please.

A rose by any other name

Mmm -- presumably the novel The Name of The Rose gets its title from this quotation (which is from Romeo and Juliet, for those of you who didn't do it for 'O' level. (I went to a Catholic school and had a delightfully fusty English teacher, and still remember with pleasure his protestations that this was a sweetly romantic play without a trace of smut. I'd look at lines such as 'The bawdy hand of the dial/Is now upon the very prick of noon' and think, "Well, I don't know why it sounds rude," (yup, I was a very late developer) "but it definitely does."))

Anyway, my point is that I've been meaning to put a link here to a very nicely written article in the Guardian recently, which says pretty much everything I want to say about changing one's surname and giving surnames to children, without ever getting as horribly strident as I do when I have the discussion. I only know one other woman in the world who has, as I have, given her child her own surname, and I find that odd. When I put the list of new members into the Cambridge NCT (National Childbirth Trust) newsletter, I always look to see how many couples have different names. Considering that this is an 'intellectual' town, terribly middle class, and full of bolshy women (unless it just happens that those are the ones I know), it's usually amazingly few. Most disappointing. Actually, the really daft thing seems to me to be when the woman takes on the man's surname as well as her own. So they still have different names, the kid still gets his name, and she's lumbered with a whole pile. Seems ker-azy to me. If you're going to have both, why doesn't the chap have both too? But there, I'm starting to rant, and the whole point of this was to avoid that.

A said he was surprised at the whole thing too, but he was proud to be a torch-bearer. What a sweetheart. I never quite know whether the other chaps feel it's a challenge to their masculinity if a woman doesn't want to subsume a part of her identity in him (yes, inflammatory language, I know, I know, but honestly, your name is your identity and I don't see how you could dispute that), or if it's some kind of weird girl thing that the women want to, and as incomprehensible to me as a whole load of other weird girl things. I think at the root of this whole feminism thing for me is the fact that I'm really not more than 50% feminine...

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

BLW -- it's, like, totally the new trendy thing

No, honestly, look at me in there with a hot new trend. Unbelievable. Well, at least on the cusp. Look, anything's better than finding out five years after everyone else has got over it, all right? Are you looking at me?

Ahem. So, yes, for those of you who aren't totally hipped up daddy-o, BLW is baby-led weaning (some of you may want to turn off now, obviously). It's a new thing that's really an old thing, of course, but hey -- and (this is the good part) it is LESS WORK. Hear those cheers. Put out more flags. So instead of all that Karmelling around pureeing food into a gruesome mush, then spooning it into outsize ice-cube trays so as to defrost it in little bowls later, then in a few weeks doing special puree-with-lumps-in to get the infant used to textures, you simply bypass the whole process and give the baby things it can hold in its hands and put into its mouth. Anything it can't chew off with its gums, it can't eat. Simple, huh?

I found an excellent website with loads of info -- and wittily written too, which was nice. We started straight away. Banana would be the perfect food if only it didn't somehow spread itself over a baby from top of head to ankle (including the insides of ears, backs of knees and so on) and then set like concrete. I couldn't believe the first two bibs I pulled out of the washing machine still caked with the stuff. We've now dispensed with dainty little bibs and use old tea-towels fastened with a clothes peg at the back of the neck, and Sash still manages to get banana on any bit of ankle that might peep through.

It does wonders for their hand-eye co-ordination, too. And it is *such* fun to watch. Sash eating a banana is part porn, part slapstick, part gross-out. And it's great fun giving them new things: the first taste always prompts a huge pantomime-strength grimace, then by the third suck they've decided they love it. We've tried pineapple, mangetout, buttered toast, French beans, strawberries, Weetabix, unsalted bread sticks -- anything you can nibble a chunk of, really.

[Footnote - I wrote a huge article about it for Cambridge NCT magazine, if you'd like a copy.]

It finally happened (happened)

You remember that a friend told me that everyone drops their baby on its head at some stage? Eek! It finally happened. Poor Sasha was on the sofa and I was playing the piano with B, working out the tricky bit in 'Doe, a deer' (crossed-over fingers and everything -- by the way, does anyone remember that competition in The Independent to find a better line than 'La, a note to follow So'? Apparently on the grounds that if that lyric wasn't so feeble it would be the best song ever. The winning entry was 'La, it's Arabic for "No" '.) but completely forgot that I'd left Sash on the sofa, propped up between cushins - this is our fancy pancey new sofa, which is brown leather and not terribly infant-friendly. Next thing I know, there's a horrible clonk and the baby is on its back on our brick floor. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod but actually, the screams weren't even as loud as last night's NoIamNOTgoingtosleepEVEREVEREVER (full-throated, dial-turned-to-eleven yells and shrieks), so it was pretty obvious that no damage was done. It was a useful reminder, though, that my multitasking capacity is absolutely zero. I can barely walk at the same time as carrying a cup of tea.

Now I've typed my subject header I've got the rest of the song running through my head. (At least it'll get 'Do-re-me' out of there). My favourite line is 'I'm one wave short of a shipwreck'. Do you like Queen? I do, lots: I have a feeling they probably appeal to classical musicians. If you are one, give them a try. I played an organist friend of mine a few videos (she turned around wide-eyed after a few minutes of Freddie cavorting in a sequinned leotard and asked "Is that rock music, then?" -- so sweet) and then bought her the first greatest hits album for her birthday, and she got really into it.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

A nasty taste in the mouth

Have you ever read a book that lurks unpleasantly at the back of your mind through the next day, so that you feel grubby? The book was Wideacre, by Philippa Gregory. She seems to be quite a varied author: I've read a post-modern, feminist-slanted Mills & Boonish one of hers called Perfectly Correct; a thriller that didn't grab me at all; and several historical novels that seemd very well researched. The first was The Other Boleyn Girl, then The Queen's Fool, then The Virgin's Lover and The Constant Princess -- they seem to be coming thicker and faster, which does make me wonder whether they're as carefully researched as they seem to be. Anyway, last night's was a great doorstop of a thing: 622 pages of rollocking eighteenth-century nastiness.

The heroine wanted to go on living in her childhood home, and was prepared to do pretty much anything to achieve that. It just went on getting nastier and nastier. I read it in a single sitting, which I think compounded the effect, and it was also a first-person narrative, which I think made me feel more implicated. But it really was horrid. Fairly well written, too, which made me wonder why, with that sort of talent, you'd want to do this kind of thing. Anyway, yuck. I finished it at about four this morning, delibeately not looking at the time so I wouldn't know exactly how silly I'd been. Sasha was suitable confused by being woken up by Mummy instead of the other way round.

I knew I'd do something daft while A was away: staying up all night reading was rather predictable....He's in the US for a week, and set off last Tuesday (I think) at an ungodly hour, and did the half-hour walk to the railway station as getting the car somewhere it could be left for a week was just too horribly complicated. Sasha and I went along to help with the luggage and have a nice walk. This is the kind of thing that it simply wouldn't have occurred to me to do a few years ago. In fact, it's exactly the kind of thing A does: he seems to be just naturally nice. It's even rubbed off a bit: I feel he has upped my game. This is a real cherry on top of the icing on top of the chocolate of the relationship...

The other book I've read in the last few days (I don't list re-reads, as sitting here typing all the names would cut down on valuable reading time) is March, by Geraldine Brooks. This is so clever -- it's the bit missing from Little Women: what happens to the father while he's away at the war. I thought she did a splendid job of making it provocative and dramatic without contradicting anything in Alcott. I remember some outcry on the mailing list I'm on for people keen on children's books, but I don't really think it was warranted. There aren't any cosy little references for real fans of Alcott, but on the other hand it's a lovely complement to the books.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Ooh la la

We're just back from four days in Paris -- what fun. A had fallen off his bike (trying to carry two rucksacks and then braking one-handed: if your one hand is on the front brake, you might just as well cut out the middle bit and hurl yourself over the handlebars...) so manoeuvring (what a pig to spell) the pushchair around was fun. Luckily I'd already just about mastered it, having traversed London solo. Going down the escalators isn't too bad, but going up requires a deep breath and a will of steel. The three Londoners who grabbed the bottom of the pushchair to help me up and down starcases were all black, intriguingly; including one teenager in a hoodie. Just goes to show there's no point whatsoever in making assumptions about people based on generalisations.

Paris was a little frustrating, through no real fault of its own. I made the mistake of letting A look up the weather forecast, which showed four blazing suns and promised daily temperatures of 24-25 degrees. Left to myself, I'd have taken my usual layers, but bamboozled by the confidence of this prediction, I packed linen trousers and flimsy tops and deck shoes. It was cold and rainy. What is the point of forecasts? And golly, I do *hate* to be uncomfortable because of wearing the wrong thing. The up side was that the worst weather was the most spectacular: an amazing thunderstorm that left us trapped in the Orangerie. Monet's Nympheas was spectacular, though I think it'd be worth seeing them in natural light (we got there too late for that).

The other mistake was not taking a guide book: I just plain forgot. My old Paupers' Paris was revised rather charmlessly in 1997 but by now is almost completely out of date: the only place we found that was still going was Polidor, at 41 rue Monsieur-le-Prince, 6e. They still do a Monday to Friday three-course menu at 12 Euro: unbleivable. We went on a Saturday, when it was still pretty economical, and not bad at all: carpaccio of beef, a very fine white lentil soup, slightly stodgy boeuf bourgignon and - actually, the other main course I can't remember. Hmm. The best meal, recommended in the Time Out guide, was a place called Le Petit Marche whose address I'll add later, where the daily menu was 14E for two courses plus 7E for a third, and really stunning stuff: a salad of green beans and parmesan with a delectable dressing, very rare beef with a wonderful teriyaki-style sauce and the most luscious mashed potato you can imagine, then caramel ice cream drizzled with chocolate. Yum and double yum. But we really need a good guide book: the Time Out one is oddly uninspiring, and the Rough Guide always seems to be out of date when we go (the current edition is 2005). And WHY, since the Mini Rough Guide is available on Amazon, does no branch of Smith's at Waterloo sell the thing? Hasn't it occurred to anyone that next to the Eurostar platfrom might be -- duh! -- a good place to sell Paris guidebooks?

Typing the subject header reminded me that it's a common exclamation of A's six-year-old: heaven knows where he picked it up from, but it's most endearing. He last uttered it while wearing a golden crown and a long strand of pearls twined flapper-style around his chest, plus a pink tutu. There are no petty gender distinctions in this household: tutus all round, for them as wants 'em.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

The shackles of religion

Well, well, who'd have thought it? I'd been grouching a bit to A about how I'm permanently slighty grumpy about never getting much done. Life is a long round of breastfeeding and laundry, now punctuated by bouts of banana-mashing. But I also spend a fair amount of time in front of the computer, so it's not as though the time isn't there.... Anyway, A wrote me a very sweet email, partly telling me I was doing a great job -- it's funny that however confident you are, this makes a HUGE difference -- but also suggesting that, as a time-management solution, I try to think of childcare as my primary task and other stuff as secondary, rather than the childcare being something that gets in the way of what I should be achieving. He also suggested only attempting one secondary thing per day.

Now, I thought I was doing this all before -- all the books and websites say not to be be too ambitious and not to be too hard on yourself, after all. Also, because I'm naturally very lazy, I've always thought that it's only guilt about being such a slob that motivates me. (It's a Catholic trait, they say.) But I was wrong. It turns out that it was guilt that incapacitated me. I'd get up late, then spend the rest of the day mentally berating myself for having made a bad start, and get too glum about it to feel energised to do anything. Now I'm still getting up late, because I'm tired, but free of the guilt, I'm achieving huge amounts -- windows cleaned, people phoned, emails sent. Gosh, it's terrific. What a genius my lovely man is.

Monday, 30 April 2007


I ran five miles yesterday. Coo, it didn't half hurt. At least I could walk home afterwards: today I'm mostly shuffling. It was the annual Sawston Fun Run, a very jolly village event: someone's designed a course that winds round all the streets -- so you get to know the village -- and everyone comes out to cheer -- so you see all the people you know. Every year I swear I'll do some training, and every year the only training I've done is the previous year's Fun Run. Oh well. The only sour note this year was that the police had refused to police the roads, so some consultants had to be paid several thousand pounds to do it instead. Which doesn't really reflect terribly well on the police, or the consultants, or the sort of society where it seems to be almost a crime to prevent cars going anywhere. Pedestrianise the high street, I say -- get rid of the buggers!

Mysterious Voice of Doom Chainsaw Person turned out to be a friend who does a lot of woodworking with other scary tools. He has certainly put the fear of god into me: I haven't yet got the beast out of its box. Shudder. It has huge pointy teeth.

Re-read The Eyre Affair for our book groups -- A's choice. It was fun, if a little inconsequential. But a lovely book for book-lovers. (I remember going dowstairs to read a friend the bit about the audience-participation Richard III, and she loved it.) Or so I thought: in fact, a few people didn't like it at all, and for the first time ever I was one of the highest markers; I gave it 7.5 out of 10. It's hard to remember what else I've been reading. A little bit of trash: I cruised by the skips for recycling magazines behind our local supermarket, and liberated a few copies of Sunday magazines, plus two In Styles and a Tatler. At least one friend thinks this is truly eccentric behaviour; but it seems to me that if nothing else, it's much more in the spirit of true recycling than sending the things to be pulped after a single reading. Presumably the law against reselling magazines exists purely to bolster publishers' profits?

Also went delving at the jumble sale -- there's one almost every week here. Possibly the only event that lets you entertain a four-year-old and a six-year-old for a total cost of 20p. Well, pretty much the only place where you can buy something worth having for tenpence. Though of course C has an unerring ability to find the single most revolting object on the toy stall and come home with that. We've had a feather and sequin-encrusted mobile phone holder; we've had a very large and very nasty My Little Pony, in pink. This time round I found some gorgeous bean-filled dolls with lovely hair and cute expressions, then sorted through everything to find a few clothes for them. "Are they a collector's item?" the stallholder asked. Good grief, can't you buy anything just because you like it? I just think dolls are fun for kids to play with, and I like anything that isn't bloody Barbie, the gormless overglanded dork. Oh, and there was one with dark skin, and one was a boy. It's pretty damning that otherwise the only male dolls you can buy are muscle-garlanded actionmen, some of which come with their weapons welded to their hands (and no willies -- it's all Terribly Significant, really).

Sasha is still experimenting with sounds: the results make me laugh surprisingly often. I think I underestimated the entertainment value of children.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Mystery caller

Oooh, a comment -- and from an anonymous caller. (See below.) How very odd. Surely somebody with strong opinions about chainsaw use hasn't just stumbled upon my humble blog by chance? What could you have been looking for to end up here? Or is it a shy friend? Come along, say hello!

Well, as my dear wacky ex-neighbour said recently, we are after all WORLD FAMOUS now we're out in the blogosphere. Except that of course everyone else is world famous too.

We're just back from a gorgeous weekend in Aldeburgh. Highlights of conversations included a rumination of A's during which he concluded that I was not, in fact, a control freak; I just look as though I might be. Is it pathetic of me to be extremely flattered by this compliment? Actually, my favourite thing about A (oh no, hang on -- my favourite PG-rated thing about A) is that he takes the piss out of me in exactly the way I take the piss out of myself. Perhaps it's all to do with having a very similar sense of humour. Although I watched the end of an episode of Ricky Gervais's Extras the other evening and realised that that's where we part company. That continual cringing that that kind of writing elicits from the viewer doesn't denote comedy, for me -- I find it too uncomfortable. And actually, I find it rather monotonous too: it seems to me it's the same joke made over and over again. In different colours, perhaps; but essentially the same joke.

Monday, 16 April 2007


The only downside to all this fun: Sasha hasn't realised that eating solids means you're supposed to breastfeed less. I could be spending all day mashing bananas and pushing root vegetables through sieves, and still get sucked dry every two hours. Sigh.

Oh what fun to be in England

My mum has bought me a chainsaw for my birthday. I am quite excited about this, and keep thinking of things I might chop up. Rrrrrrrrr! I suppose it's not the kind of tool one should just rampage around the garden with, looking for stuff to dismember... I shall start with our three years' worth of dead Christmas trees. Last year's one doesn't seem to have lost a single needle. I hate to think what they did to it.

We've started solids. I'd been dithering over reference books, poring over weaning spoons, delving into Annabel Karmel's extensive oeuvre, and generally procrastinating, and then we went to a friend's house. Her baby is three months older than Sasha, which is really useful, as she's enough ahead of me to know the stuff but not so far that she's already forgotten it and moved on to the next thing. She had a vegetable soup that both of them were having for lunch, so we tried it out on Sash, who pretty much grabbed the spoon out of my hand to shovel the stuff in. We then had pear for tea, and a bit of baby rice, and have since tried potato, and some plums from the garden, frozen last year. And I'm sitting here covered on mashed banana. The two fun parts are: squirting your breast milk into the bowl to mix with the baby rice (much more fun than using a pump), and then shovelling it into the infant, who hasn't yet learned to swallow.

Sasha gets more appealing by the minute. I am besotted with my baby. But I think this is very much because, as babies go, ours seems especially charming: good-tempered, cute-looking, smily and gurgly and generally fun. And they definitely get more appealing as they get older and therefore more interesting. I really don't think anyone should agonise over not having an instant bond when they're born. I certainly didn't. I was glad to have produced something, but after nine months of building it and five hours of labour, I was just glad it had come out: I'd have been perfectly happy with a litter of kittens. But I didn't feel my life had changed, and I didn't feel a surge of affection. Mild interest, combined with slight shock at how *very* ugly the baby was.

It's been quite hard to write much in the last couple of months. Stuff has happened, but I just haven't felt the urge. I seem to have been mildly depressed -- or perhaps I'm still feeling the shock of the after-birth euphoria wearing off. I was high as a kite for about a month, so coming back to 'normal' feels very flat indeed. And a side-effect of euphoria is that it makes me creative: I'm full of ideas and plans and stories, and digress all the time because the thoughts just pile up and spill out. I think a counsellor has identified exactly this problem in the past: because you've had the highs, normality doesn't feel neutral: it actually feels a bit of a low (until you have a real low and remember just how low those are). I don't even have anything approaching 'real', clinical depression: mine's based on circumstance (and I usually feel down because I'm bored at work). In many ways it feels quite valuable to get an insight into a condition that for some people is completely incapacitating.

A gorgeous week with A's kids last week (should I stop using aliases? It seems a bit silly. It was based on the premise that this was in the public domain, but seems a bit unnecessary when only my mum reads it.). There's nothing like an English spring, which absolutely requires to be preceded by the sort of English winter that makes you feel it'll never be warm again. Glorious. That reminds me of how much I loved Margaret Forster's biography of Elizabeth Barratt Browning. Which presumably inspired Lady's Maid -- a wonderful, radical book about Barratt Browning's maid: do read it. I've finished lots of Claire Tomalin's biographies, now, too: Dora Jordan, Nelly Ternan, and Jane Austen, which I acquired after getting the Pepys one and living it to bits. It's such a a good way to learn history, getting thrown into the context of someone's daily life. In my 'O' level history lessons, all we did was copy down what the teacher wrote on the blackboard. Re-reading The Eyre Affair this week, for our local book group. It's great fun but doesn't thrill me with its novelty so much on a secodn read, which I suppose is inevitable.

Oh, I also read Francis Spufford's The child that books built, which I've been waiting to pick up secondhand for ages. I got very excited when he name-checked Diana Wynne Jones (and acknowledged her genius) early on, but he never actually referred to any of her books except indirectly. There was good stuff about the Narnia books, but not enough about any others. I suppose I really wanted it to be about the books that built the child.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

How kind of you to let me come

We've started to get woken up in the mornings by the child doing elocution practice. This is in fact quite charming, consisting of long-drawn-out diphthongs followed by cheeky smiles. But Sash also makes a nappy-filling sound which is very similar, consisting of a sort of roaring grunt, and I think has realised that this could also be integrated into the conversation. Which means I can't tell whether a nappy is being filled or not. It's also a little disturbing to wake up to growling. (My reply to all this, by the way, is to enunciate "How now, brown cow" at appropriate moments.)

Glorious, glorious weather: there's nothing quite like an English spring, eh? Especially -- or perhaps only -- when it follows an English autumn and winter. The forsythia is blazing and the buds are bursting forth. And we still haven't sent out our thank-you cards. They have become a great, looming, invisible elephant in my life: always at the back of my mind as something that needs to be done. I can't even think 'We must send them soon or it will be Silly". It's already silly.

We had to read A Short Histoy of Tractors in Ukranian for our book group. I really dislike novels that are named as though they're non-fiction: there's just something bollocksy about it. (The only other example I can think of is The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing, or something similar.) Didn't like it much at all - how did it get such glowing reviews? It seemed terribly mediocre: predictable plot, stereotyped characters, hackneyed ethnic 'charm'. Ho very hum.I return to my endless rereads of Noel Streatfeild. (I still remember the shock when I realised how her name was spelt - I must have spent a decde assuming it was Streatfield. Half her books on eBay still have the wrong version.) Looking forward to getting Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built (now that's a lovely title) through from eBay: it's so rare to see anything interesting written about children's books, unless they're new publications. Apart from sodding Harry Potter, of course, but who wants to read about that?

Friday, 30 March 2007

Total trivia

Did you know that Lalla Ward was introduced to Richard Dawkins (whom she's now been married to for quite some time) by Douglas Adams? Cool.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Home Chat

Oh what bliss. I’m sitting here in blazing sunshine, editing copy on a laptop, with the cat stretched out on the table next to me, clean washing undulating gently on the line, and Sasha in a pushchair gurgling and squawking happily and pushing brightly coloured toys back and forth (the pink and turquoise Tinylove monkey is a creature of nightmare, I feel, but presumably they tested it and found that babies didn’t mind it).

We’re just back from a long weekend in Italy, where the weather was just as good but it wasn’t home… the only blots on the horizon, almost literally, are the seven enormous molehills in the lawn -- and the two audacious ones in the herb garden. These aren’t tiny picturesque mounds left by the black velvet gentlemen -- they’re gigantic, almost frightening. They are also working their way steadily towards the house. If they’d only go in the opposite direction, they’d be in the grounds of Sawston Hall (yes, we abut a stately home) and nobody would give them any bother. Not that I’ve done much more than jump up and down impotently raging. Bastards.

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’. Thoroughly enjoyed it -- it was actually very pleasant to read a book that simply set up a situation and then followed it through. I thought there might be a tiresome twist in the tale that would end by making the whole thing less credible. This may be because I’ve just reread a novel by Christopher Priest, ‘The Glamour’, which has exactly one of those tricksy mucking-about-with-the-narrative-voice denouements. In Priest’s case, though, I haven’t read a single one of his books that doesn’t do exactly the same. He likes to switch back and forth until he reckons he’s got you confused. The snag is, I often feel that he’s more confused than I am -- or at least, I’m never convinced that he’s kept track of things: I suspect that he cheats by simply making a mess. ‘A Dream of Wessex’ does this, and so does ‘A Quiet Woman’ and ‘The Extremes’. After those I got bored and gave up, so I haven’t tried the more recent ones. ‘The Glamour’ has a more interesting premise -- it’s another take on invisibility -- and the mess isn’t quite so messy as in some of the books. I must see what Amazon readers have to say about him. I have a feeling that he was once the Great White Hope of British science fiction, but I’d be surprised if people hadn’t been disappointed.

Audrey Niffenegger, eh? What fabulous names some Americans have. Actually, Audrey is a bit tame for a first name. Gates. DeForest. Imagine!

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Random thoughts, from home

Good grief, it's been a whole month. I've just finished typesetting the NCT newsletter -- a misnomer as it's more like a magazine: forty-eight pages of ads and editorial, and I did the lot. It was fun, in that obsessive way that page layout is, for me at least. My poor baby has had very little attention these last six days. I also got a brand-new PowerBook delivered this morning at 10am, and haven't even opened the parcel yet. My darling A was suitably gobsmacked by my ability to delay gratification waaaay beyond what he would find feasible or certainly humane.

We had a very good weekend with all the family, including the usual compulsory Healthy Walk on Sunday. The kids always whinge hugely at being dragged outdoors, however glorious the weather, and then of course make just as much fuss about being dragged home again. Golly, but it was cold. I was walking around the green behind the new health centre with the pushchair while A and the kids went on the swings, and felt all nostalgic as I followed the same route when nine months pregnant and trying to get the baby out. I'd made a very new friend, Philippa-from-down-the-road, and we went out with her dog, a completely deranged pug that ran along at tremendous speed looking like a mechanical toy. I'm sure it was laughing so much that got me started. Philippa moved house just before Christmas, and I do miss her: I never pass her old house without a pang. She wrote to me recently saying what long words I used in my blog... It's nice to know someone's reading it, anyway. Hello world! Hi, Philippa!

Sasha gets ever more smily and gurgly and flirtatious. Also occasionally squeaks very high, like a dolphin -- or at any rate like Daryl Hannah in Splash when she demonstrates fish language and shatters all the televeision screens. The exemplary child has been dozing while I did last corrections and is still obligingly snoozing as I write this.

I have joined the Parish Council. A sign of incipient middle age, surely. We leafleted the village and trounced the opposition. Tonight I had my first meeting: the cemetry committee. To the victor the spoils! One can only hope that the election campaign won't turn out to have been the most exciting part.

We (meaning me and the infant) have taken to walking to the next village whenever we go to Cambridge, to save £1.90 on the bus fare. A thinks I'm deranged; I think it's a good example of how stinginess engenders good habits, as if by accident. One of the reasons I'm fairly fit is because of the amount of time I spend walking to save bus and tube fairs. Last time we went it was a glorious day, crisp and sunny, with views for miles. I do like the fens. If you're going to do flat -- and I don't see why you shouldn't -- it might as well be truly, absolutely flat. Actually, this is the first relationship I've had since 1991 that isn't with someone who pines for mountains all the time. This is good.

I have discovered Green & Black's Organic Chocolate with Butterscotch. It's the first time I've ever got really obsessive about chocolate: I have to ration my intake and might easily finish a packet in a single sitting if feeling sufficiently sorry for myself, I feel (for whatever reason -- or perhaps I'd invent one...). Is this how other (normal, feminine) women feel all the time? The stuff is ruinously expensive. And I am, I suspect (there are no scales in the house) not losing any weight. I don't really want to have to give up all the jolly pairs of trousers I've collected. But I've discovered that any attempt to modify what I eat just makes me blazingly cross. I'm not one of nature's dieters, obviously. It's somewhat chastening to realise that my former slenderness was based absolutely on good luck and not at all on strength of character. Bah!

Monday, 5 February 2007

Urgle burgle

So people keep asking if I feel completely different, and I don't -- I feel just like me, but with a baby. So much so that I quite often forget I've got one and am slightly paranoid about leaving it on the bus... The main part of my life that's changed is not having to schlep to London four days a week to do a job that I really should have left three or four years ago, when the company got taken over and the clients got bigger and the projects got ever duller. I was paralysed by ennui. Dear oh dear.

My gorgeous baby is currently lying on the bathroom changing mat gurgling with delight at goodness knows what -- oohs and ahs and little squeals echo from the room. We had the first smile a couple of weeks ago, and it's true what they tell you: their whole face suddenly lights up. Amazingly rewarding. The gurgling sounds so close to speech that it seems odd to think that proper talking is going to take so long, but I suppose it is *quite* tricky...

I think I'm suffering not so much a low as a post-high: the memory of that elation is still so clear that everything feels very flat now. I was so full of confidence, too: stopped worrying about money, stopped worrying about work; even stopped worrying about singing.

The gurgles have subtly changed to complaints -- time to go!

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Red and yellow and pink and green, purple and orange and blue...

We've been going to post-natal classes. At which I have discovered that our child is a non-conformist: when surrounded by screaming babies, stays silent; when all is quiet, starts to yell. Of course, I quite like this trait.

The health visitor running the thing asked for our top tip. I repeated a Useful Thing that a friend had said to me many weeks ago: "Remember that everyone drops their baby on its head at least once." Luckily nobody was horrified. Actually, my own top tip would be for night-time breastfeeding: for handy low-level, easy-access light, use your mobile phone. It also means that you can check the time. I've got so used now to feeding the infant without really waking up at all that I don't really know, come the morning, whether it woke up and ate at all, or how many times. When people ask you if your baby is sleeping through the night yet, they somehow don't expect the answer "I don't know"...

All the babies at the post-natal are boys except Sasha, whose sex we declined to reveal as part of our ongoing experiment. A thinks they'll all have me pegged as a kook, but I like to think we're just charmingly eccentric. When the babies got weighed we got a lot of attention as they all had to be stripped. However, they all seemed to HATE it, so it seemed to me a bit pointless: I'm not obsessing about the child's weight, so why make it miserable by stripping it? We bucked the system and got weighed fully clothed. He he. Apparently a full nappy could weigh about a pound. Oh well. I don't know what I weight either.

I can't decide whether I'm overweight at the moment, or just a bit blubbery. My stomach went down impressively quickly, but has stayed a smallish paunch, squidgy to the touch. Fingers crossed that the answer *isn't* pull-ups. I do hope I'm not just fat. I've discovered in later life that denying myself any food at all makes me enormously cross: presumably the result of a lifetime of not dieting and never having to worry about my weight. Or it may mean that self-denial simply isn't of any interest...

A's aunt asked me to take the child along to the nursery she works at, to show it to the children. This was fun. There were about ten kids there, all very bright and appealing. All the girls except one had long fine hair that kept falling in their eyes. All but two were dressed in pink. At least one was in tights and a mini-skirt. A's aunt was saying that it made quite a difference to the group when there were more boys. But I was thinking that it's just too easy for people's observations to match their preconceptions. If all the children had sensible short hair and practical clothes and pink and blue were banned, you wouldn't know instantly which were girls and which were boys. Would you be able to tell by their behaviour? I'd like to try this. I would bet that actually, it's like horoscopes: you notice the bits the confirm the stereotypes and ignore what doesn't.

So the problem with the sexist clothing is that it lets people confirm their stereotypical expectations. But it's also wretchedly impractical, which gives you a vicious circle: the girls can't see past their trailing locks, can't climb because their skirts hide their feet, and are struggling with the ever-descending crotches of their tights, and footwear that's chosen for prettiness rather than functionality. No wonder they're less good at physical activities than people who are allowed short hair, flat shoes, and trousers.

The boys lose out too. They're practical, but they're so *dull*. Blue is often the brightest colour they're allowed to wear. Brown, grey, black, beige: it's a monochrome world if you've got a willy. No flowers, no frills, no fun. Who decides that all this would threaten their fragile masculinity? Who decides that the girls need to be swathed in pink impracticality? Most children seem to have their clothes chosen by their mothers. But their mothers have benefited hugely from feminism and are mostly - in the circles in which we move - competent middle-class professionals. So what are they up to?

Thursday, 4 January 2007

To talk of many things

Hmm... it's easy to get out of the habit. But I only write when I'm feeling cheerful, and the last few weeks have been a bit gloomy. I'm not really very fond of Christmas, and having a four-year-old and a six-year-old around really emphasises the vacuous materialism of it all. Actually, it was interesting watching them opening presents: they nagged for along time beforehand, but when they got their way, the focus was much more on ripping off the paper than on finding what was inside. And they certainly aren't interested in who gave them what: I got so jaded I never actually wrapped what I'd bought for them, and they didn't notice. I suppose I'll produce the stuff when there's a lull later in the year. But does this mean you could give them a satsuma beautifully girft-wrapped and produce the same thrills?

The infant has also been a lot less good-tempered. Frustratingly, it's not at all obvious why. A always says wind; I normally try feeding, with the disadvantage that the child seems perenially ready to eat more. My nipples have been hurting for the first time in seven weeks of breast-feeding, and I'm getting sucked so dry I never seem to know which side to start on - they both feel empty. Heck. It's the rhythm of the screaming that's so horrible, and how penetrating it is - oh, and the technique whereby they scream themselves hoarse so as to sound even more pathetic. Aaargh! During the day we don't get much of it, but somehow nights are much much worse. Why should this be? I suppose sheerbloodymindedness *could* be heritable...

The best Christmas card I saw said 'Baa...' and had a picture of a sheep, then at the bottom said 'humbug'. Ho ho ho.

We've started watching Angel, the Buffy spin-off. The first two episodes were rather lacklustre, and the tone is all over the place. Still, when you think how bad 'Encounter at Farpoint' is... I also found a fab interview with Joss Whedon on The Onion, of all places. He really is a lovely man. It's in two parts: one and two.

Another find, which I don't think I posted: someone has written a cross-over between Bertie Wooster and Lord Peter Wimsey which is really very good - just a few lapses in idiom, which are interesting in themselves in illustrating the differnces between US and UK English. Good stuff. I see that the author also likes Diana Wynne Jones, which means she must be a Thoroughly Good Egg. If anyone reading this is a DWJ fan, do read her autobiography, which is hilarious. If you haven't come across her, she's the thinking person's J K Rowling but can actually write. My favourite book is Fire and Hemlock, but to start with I'd try, ooh, Dogsbody, which is half about what it's like to be a dog and half about what it's like to be a star, or Cart and Cwidder, or Eight Days of Luke (which when I read it was out of print and had to be ordered from the US. At least now she's in print, even if she's not nearly as famous as she ought to be).

At about quarter to twelve on New Year's Eve, A started a conversation about what we'd achieved (or at least done) in the year, which was sweet. We've been a bit useless about holidays, but we've seen lots of plays and operas, read quite a few books, and of course watched the whole of Buffy. And had a baby. And had a few other firsts he said he was glad I hadn't mentioned here, which I suppose means that I have to continue to not mention them. (Yup, I know that's a split infinitive. I have never ever heard a convincing reason why they should be avoided.) This year's big first is A once again starting his diet. This may well be an annual event, but hey. His technique is to eat dry bread while I'm wolfing curry, until I feel guilty and stop reminding him that he said he'd lose some weight. As strategies go, it's pretty effective, really.