Monday, 28 November 2011

Let them eat cake

We have just finished birthday season in the Jennings’ household. Three birthdays in ten days, two of them consecutive. A time of great joy and merriment ? A house filled with birthday laughter? No. For me, birthday season over equals sigh of relief.

Don’t tell those involved, but I loathe the end of November. In fact, I dread it. Firstly, I dread the cakes. This might seem strange, especially to those who know me (skinny I ain’t), it’s just we end up with a surfeit of cakes that makes the EU butter mountain look merely hilly. One for daddy - always pink, always sparkly, perfect for the only man in a household/menagerie of 14 (the boy dog had his bits off, so doesn’t really count). One for each child on their birthday, one for each child's party, one for each child to take to school, and then, occasionally, if the grandparents can’t make the mid-week birthdays, another on the weekend. Bejeezus. It’s cake for tea, cake for lunch, cake for breakfast, cake for the dogs’ dinner, cake for the chickens, and when even the chickens have had enough bloody cake, it goes out for the pigeons and squirrels, who, incidentally, also eventually get bored of cake.

And then there are the cards. Oh dear, I’m not good with cards. My husband LOVES cards. In his house, growing up, cards stayed on the mantelpiece, as far as I can tell, for the entire year. In my house they get swept into the recycling bin within a few hours – as soon as the first one blows over when the front door opens. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing cards, and reading cards – though I would say, and here I'll wager I’ll make myself terribly unpopular, if you are going to the trouble of buying a card only to write ‘To X, Happy Birthday, from Y’, don’t bother. You might as well send a text. Please, write a message of love, a joke, or even a simple: ‘I saw this card and thought of you’. I know. I know. I’m on my own here. The lone voice of card-fascism. Fine. Keep writing boring cards, keep them on the window sill for three months, dust around them and spend your hours repeatedly re-standing them. Blame my cynicism on the birthday deluge.

The November birthdays a day apart really was bad planning. Not least because it opened us up to all sorts of inappropriate commentary on our sex life. A few years back my husband had a young and funky assistant who dated a famous DJ. She was the type of girl who sends the rest of us scuttling beneath the nearest rock. When my husband happened to tell her we had both the girls’ birthdays coming up, she smiled indulgently at him, gave him a sympathetic pat on the arm, and said, “you and Amanda are allowed to have sex more than once every four years, you know.” Thanks for that, lady.

This year my smallest daughter coped brilliantly with the birthday bonanza. Being five years old and seeing your two sisters enjoy a pile of presents, and non-stop attention, must be hard. She was great though. Not even the sniff of a whinge. As soon as the last cake-stuffed family member finally left the last party, I took her upstairs to bed, tucked her in and gave her a kiss. She suddenly looked a bit sad.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She stared at me for a moment or two, considering if she should answer, and then said, “I’m just a bit fed up.”

“Really?” I said, stroking her forehead.

“Uh huh. It’s everybody’s birthday right now. Mine is ALWAYS next year.”

Thankfully, I resisted the urge to say 'thank bloody goodness'.

“It doesn’t matter ,” she said then, turning over and pulling up her covers. “It’s Christmas in a few days; I'll have some presents then.”

And that’s the other problem with three birthdays at the end of November. Just as the pigeons are getting bored of cake, Christmas decends on us. More cake. More cards...

To X, Happy Christmas, from The Jennings'. That’s your lot, I’m afraid, and don't be surprised if it comes by text.

Epilogue: I have just remembered my vow to out-Christmas the most Christmassy of them, as stated, in writing, in my blog post dated Novemer 7th. Bugger. I might have to turn to drink to get through this one...

Appendix: My husband has just told me this post is too grumpy. Apologies. Do feel free to re-read last week's post if you need something jollier! Or hold out for next week, of course. *winks and then goes for a slice of cake*

Monday, 21 November 2011

Bum glue

Two days ago something bad happened. My husband got to say ‘I told you so’. These four words form perhaps the single most irritating phrase known to marriage, irrelative of whether that marriage is happy, unhappy or indifferent. It carries a trite smugness about it, designed to make you want to drive a butter knife into your beloved’s heart. So what prompted the heinous utterance? The computer died. It blew up. Literally. Except it didn’t blow up, rather it ppfftted, pathetically, into permanent dormancy, its demise made all the more tragic when I realised I couldn’t remember when I last saved my work.

Cue husband: "I told you so".

Nearly ten thousand words were lost in that wishy-washy ppfftt. Ten thousand words equates to about three weeks work. Not months or years, admittedly, but traumatic nonetheless. Mustering the energy to rewrite those words is strenuous. Even if managed, there’s always that nagging suspicion that these new words aren’t as good as the vanished ones. That somehow the literary genius (oh, how we dream) will never be recaptured, that the one canny observation that might lift my prose above the others has gone for good, in a ppfftt of computer smoke. Losing words feels like walking to the summit of a sizeable hill and rather than finding the view-to-die-for, you find a sign that says Keep walking another ten miles, then do a jig and forty press-ups. View will appear on left. I’m not sure I can be arsed. Sadly, unless I want to curtail my fledgling career at this point, I have to. And this is where that smug I-told-you-so bites hard. He must have told-me-so a hundred times: “Have you backed up your work? Why don't you email it to yourself each night? Here, I’ve bought you a memory stick just for you to save your work.” The more he told me to save my work, the more I thought, bloody hell, stop telling me what to do the whole time, and didn’t. And then, presumably sick of hearing me ignore him, my obviously-male computer, in the spirit of brotherhood, decided to teach me lesson in common sense and pegged it. My word count slipped from 30 something thousand to 20 something thousand. Electronic, suicidal git.

Now, word counts are to some writers (like me) what calories are to some dieters (like me). It can get obsessive. I can live by my word count: 1000 words to lunchtime, 250 before I leave for the school run, 150 while the kids are watching the Simpsons, if you don’t hit x words by 7pm you’re not having any wine. (Shudder at the thought). My ideal would be 1500 words a day. That's quite punchy, but on those days when words spill out of me like water from a tap, when I’m immersed in the book, with my characters sitting in the room beside me, it’s not hard. I’ve been known to laugh out loud or cry real tears when I’m in this place; it’s a glorious place to be, when I write for the joy of writing and the words clock up without me noticing. But then there are the dark days. The blood-from-the-proverbial-stone days. Days when I’ll write ten words then make a cup of tea, march myself back to my desk, write another fifteen, check my emails, force out another twenty, check Twitter, tweet two or three times, tell myself off, close Twitter, stare at the page, start to reread the page, then, evil of all evils, begin to edit, and then discover I’ve reduced the damn word count by a hundred words.

To keep me on track on days like this, I have a few inspiring quotes stuck to the walls around my study. One of these reads: When asked the secret to finishing his 500 page masterpiece, The Power of One, author Bryce Courtney growled, ‘Bum Glue’. I love this. Firstly, I love the ‘growl’. Writing can be a battle, drawing out sentences, bending them into shape, searching for the ideal turn of phrase, avoiding clich├ęs, killing unnecessary words. And though I’m not proud of this, most of the time the growl is how I address anyone who speaks to me while I’m writing. “Mummy, where’s my history book?” In your room, I growl. “Would you like me to lay the table for supper?” Yes, I growl. Of course I would; I’m writing. Phone rings. For crying out loud, what do you want? I growl. You get the picture. The second thing I like about Courtney’s line is the bum glue. I need bum glue. I love the imagery. I love the thought of not being able to stand up to put the kettle on for the fifth time in an hour because I’m stuck to the chair with bum glue. Please, someone, invent bum glue!

Another scrap of paper stuck to my wall is advice from Leonard Bernstein: You can sit there all tense and worried, freezing the creative energies, or you can start writing something. It doesn’t matter what. In five or ten minutes the imagination will heat, the tightness will fade and a certain spirit of rhythm will take over.  

In other words ‘just get on with it’.

This advice, of course, can apply to most things. Staring at the sea, wanting to swim, but worried it looks cold and grey? Come on, man up, jump in. You’ll feel great. Want to get fit? Stop moaning, put your trainers on, and get out there. You’ll probably be signed up for a marathon before the week is out. (Not me, obviously...I’m glued to a chair). The long and short of it is, if you want to finish a book you need to write some words. Then don’t lose those words. So from now on I will be saving my work every day. I advise you to do the same thing. But if you don’t, I promise that when your computer goes ppfftt, I will try very hard not to say those shameful words.

I told you so.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Which Way to 309?

I was at Wimbledon with a friend this Summer. We’d had a glass of Pimm's. It was sunny. We were giggly. We couldn’t find the entrance to our seats. "Don't worry," I said. "I’ll ask that lovely looking young man with the helpful looking badge". “Hi there," I said to him, flashing my best I'm-all-dressed-up-and-without-the-kids smile. "Could you tell me where Gangway 309 is please?” The young man nodded and pointed. “Second on the right.” Then he turned away from me, readying himself to be helpful to somebody else. It felt like a kick in the stomach. He didn’t offer to show me the way. He didn’t suggest we discuss the directions over a drink. He didn’t even wink at me. I stood gawping like a guppy. My friend, who's four years older than me, laughed. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Didn’t anyone tell you? Get to about thirty-eight and to anyone under the age of twenty-two you might as well be wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak. Don’t worry,” she said, with a kindly pat on my arm. “The upside is octogenarians will now find you irresistible.”

We found our way to Gangway 309, which now felt like Room 101. The first match was Ladies Singles. Two women, nubile, tanned and toned, throwing their perfect early-twenty something bodies around Number 1 Court for my so-called enjoyment. I let my mind drift. I thought about those first wiry grey hairs that had appeared a few years earlier. How I used to tear them out with angry fervour, but how, now they came in such numbers, I left them be, content to let them reproduce and multiply. Wrinkles I ignored. Aching joints didn’t surprise me anymore. I’d even grown used to having to stretch my arm out as far as possible in order to read words on a menu. A few years ago I met a passive aggresive American publisher who told me categorically that no person had anything of merit to say until they passed the age of forty-five. I was thirty-three, opinionated, educated and full of passionate aspiration. I stomped home, huffing and puffing, finding her dismissiveness both narrow-minded and misguided. I put her comment down to her jealousy of my comparative youth. Everybody, of every age, has something to say, I grumbled. All opinion is valid. Youth has a voice and that voice has a right to be heard.
But at Wimbledon this Summer I began to understand what she meant. I still disagree with her sentiment; young people have much to say and should always be listened to, from the very first babble. But perhaps until you reach the age where you begin to rationalise your own mortality, until you start to view life from the wider angle that age brings, objectively rather than subjectively, you cannot have the breadth of understanding to fully appreciate a situation. Science has backed this up. White-coats from the University of California found that older people are less affected by the chemical responsible for emotional and impulsive reaction, and hence, as one gets older, decisions are reached more carefully, using experience and knowledge instead. It's called Wisdom. And it comes with age. Of course this was of little help to me at Wimbledon. I just wanted the young man with the I'm-ever-so-helpful name badge to flirt with me. Christ, truth be told, I just wanted him to acknowledge my existence.
To lift my distinctly immature, self-pitying mood we decided on another Pimm’s in the sunshine. And then, lo and behold, a knight in shining armour. My friend was right: 'All hail the Octogenarian!' As we poured our drinks an elderly couple approached us, and the rather dapper gentleman – for this is what he was, my friends – asked if he and his wife could share our bench. “It would make my day,” he said, with a glint. “To sit with two lovely ladies like you.” His wife chuckled and shook her head indulgently. “He’s always had an eye for the ladies,” she offered. “Only the young and pretty ones,” said the twinkly, wrinkly love god. Then he winked and patted my knee. I beamed at him. I was visible. I was back. All was well with the world.
And to those blinded twenty-two year olds? Pah. I am so over you. After all, nobody under the age of forty-five has anything remotely worthwhile to say, right?..
...including, arguably, me. 

Roll on the glorious arrival of Wisdom.  I'm ready for you now.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Remember, remember...

I have not been a great mother this week. Sadly, I have not been a great writer this week either. Or a great wife. It's been a dodgy week for greatness, or even mediocrity to be honest. The annoying thing is that on paper the potential to be a great mother was high: two events in one week. Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night. All I needed to do is facepaint three witches, trek about in the dark and rain for an hour pestering perfect strangers for a tonne of minging Haribos, and then a week later take them to a firework display and buy them a crappy burger for ten pounds and one of those vile plastic light-up things that whizz and whirr and cost another ten pounds.

My middle witch
On Monday the girls plead to go trick-or-treating with their friends. Now, I hate trick-or-treating. I fundamentally disagree with charging around en masse and demanding sweets from people who I know don't want to see us. I hate the sugar-crazed eyes, the gluttonous counting of e-numbers, watching my usually polite children fail to thank the slightly nervy old dear who looks on in undisguised horror at the multitude of hands diving in for grabfuls. So I plead  louder than them. I point out the cold and the wet and the dark. And when that fails I tell them I am tired from not-writing all day. (Not-writing is guarenteed to put me in the blackest of moods, especially if I have sat at the computer to write for hours on end and not-written. They know this, bless them.) But even this falls on deaf ears; the thought of mountains of sweets blocks their empathy entirely. I change tack. "I've got an idea," I say in my most excited voice. "You go and dress up, and when you're ready, go outside, ring the doorbell, and trick-or-treat me!" Three blank faces. "Come on. It'll be fun!" I try a whoop, whoop. And finally they trudge up the stairs.

Is that a face in that scary fire?!!
Bonfire night comes. The perfect opportunity for me to repair the damage and be the very-best-mum-ever. Problem. I hate fireworks (loud, anti-climatic, potentially lethal). And bonfires. The big ones. I actually quite like bonfires of the small and contained variety, the ones you can sit around, a handsome boy playing guitar softly in the background, a glass of wine and gentle chat, and perhaps a long stick to poke dying embers with. But those big blazing ones that look like they might topple over at any moment give me the heebie-jeebies. I manage to suggest a gathering at my parents' house with their cousins, successfully avoiding the massive display with the grubby burgers and the flashing tat-for-cash. The slight problem? My sister, father, husband and brother-in-law are extreme pyromaniacs and love nothing better than rummaging about in emormous fires searching for burning branches to hold aloft to the cheers and screams of our delighted children. So, rather than a friendly fire, we have a ginormous fire. All I see when I gaze on its vastness is two hours in A&E, and I retreat into the shadows to grump, trying not to shriek "please be careful!" every five minutes. Watching from the darkness, however, I can see how much fun everyone is having. Eyes glint in the firelight, sparklers whirl madly about, marshmallows toast on spindly sticks, and then I have a stern word with myself. "Don't be a killjoy. Pour yourself a drink, get a smile on your face, and go and enjoy that towering inferno with your kids." So I pop a Quality Street in my mouth and grab a sparkler, and burnish the following across the darkness: 'remember, remember be more fun in December'. I do this three times. A few moments later my littlest girl rushes up to me and says "mummy, isn't this the best fun ever?" And I can't help but grin at her.

On the way home I tell the girls we are going all out for Christmas this year. We're going to out-Christmas the Christmas best of them, even Delia and Kirsty. Christmas music will play all day every day, there will be gingerbread making, christmas cake baking, and unpoliced glitter shaking. We are even going carol singing on Christmas eve. At which point my husband groans and puts his bonfire-sooty hands over his ears. "Enough! Enough! Please stop," he begs. "Can't we have a quiet one this year? Just us. No fuss. Look, I tell you what, you guys can get dressed up warmly and then knock on the door and sing carols just for me!"

I guess his fun was all used up on November...