Monday, 26 March 2012

Sleep Thieves

I know, I know, lovely light evenings, barbecues, kids playing in parks and gardens after school and not messing up the house for the umpteeenth time. I get that Summer is grand. What I don't get is why the Powers That Be have to take a precious hour of my sleep?

Did you know there's a sleep bank? And that sleep debt and sleep deficit are actual real-life, honest-to-Betsy terms? The Sleep Bank, hereafter the Royal Bank of Slumber or RBS, works like any other bank. If you withdraw a period of time - for example when you get one of those baby-things that wakes you constantly with demands for food and cuddles - you never get it back, unless you re-deposit the exact amount of time you borrowed. You actually have to sleep back any hours you spend, you know, on those baby-things, or tequila-soaked parties, or, um, the baby-things, or that sleep is gone. Vanished. For ever and ever, Ayawn. Some studies state that if you don't pay the time back and your balance ducks below your over-draft limit, your body and mind begin to suffer.

So what does some bright spark do in an effort to keep the mornings and evenings light in our varied seasonal time-zone? They decide to steal an hour. From me. From us all. Straight out of our accounts at RBS. Sleep is a precious commodity, like gold or oil. I sleep next to a man who is, to say the least, a fitful sleeper. By fitful I mean he will often wake me up, in a disconcerting wakeful sleep, to inform me, for example, that the roof of the coal face is about to crush me and the baby chickens and we need to leave the lagoon IMMEDIATELY!! At which point I thump him, then roll over, harumphing, bemoaning another precious few minutes stolen from my RBS account. I used to be kinder to him, by the way. I used to sit up, stroke his hand and wait for him to wake, reassuring him that everything was fine, there was no tarantula the size of a saucepan marching up the bedcovers, no army of Italian-American gangsters stealing the chocolate biscuits downstairs, but thumping and harumphing ultimately has the same effect and uses up fewer sleep minutes. So forgive me if I huff a bit, if I stand against all you British Summer Time enthusiasts, but stealing this hour upsets me. I mean Monday morning is bad enough without quarter to seven o'clock becoming quarter to six o'bloody o'clock.

There is significant debate over the issue of British Summer Time. I read a bit about it but, probably because I was tired because of the hour taken from my bank, I didn't understand it. Options appear to be: we could switch to a system of Single/Double Time, which sounds like a Thai prostitute's after-midnight rates (Hey Mister, I love you single/double time), but this would apparently plunge Scotland into winter darkness until 10.30am. Or we could keep the clocks on GMT all year round, which sounds sensible to me. Or we could keep time with Europe, but that's probably all together too unified for us Brits. Maybe we should just hibernate from October to April and be done with it? At least we could all get our bank accounts in the black again. [Pauses to daydream lovingly of hibernation...]

Worrying about my sleep bank is a moot point really, because of all the baby-things I have found myself responsible for. There's been such extreme fiscal tightening for the last 14 years that in these harsh times of recession, cutbacks and striking, quite frankly, it doesn't matter how many goddamn hours are or are not taken, one thing remains the same, I'm knackered. So knackered I'm forced to turn to the coffee shark, who rubs his evil, caffeiney hands together, waiting for desperate, sleepbankrupted people to turn to him. If it wasn't for the coffee shark I'd most likely fall asleep all over the place without warning, like River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho or the Dormouse in Alice in Wonderland.

Yep, thanks to the state of our banks, the black coffee market is thriving. Coffee. Black Gold. The second most valuable global commodity after oil. The world's single most traded commodity. Without it there'd be snoring piles of debtors curled up on pavements, in conference rooms, in warm, cosy cupboards. Oh dear me, all this talk of economics and warm, cosy cupboards has me feeling...really...rather sleepy.  Excuse me while I pop the kettle on and crack into yet another jar of pure Gold Blend.

PS As a post-script to this post - added a day after the orginal writing when I'd slept a bit more and had a gallon of remedial coffee - I must add that I know we actually get paid our hour back in October. So it's not thieving in it's literal sense. Merely long-term borrowing. And on this day in October, when I'm snuggled under my duvet enjoying what feels like a free hour in bed, I must admit to feeling total, absolute, blissful happiness.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Tantrums and Paper Hearts

My eldest daughter has never had a tantrum. That's not 'she's never had a tantrum apart from that one in the sweet shop when I said no to the Haribo eggs'. She's never had one. My middle daughter made a few pathetic attempts, but they were really rather useless, more of a wobbly bottom lip and a look in her eye that said I'd somehow disappointed her. They blew over in a matter of minutes - she's easily distractable. I spent the first ten years of my mothering life thinking I was awesome. I thought I had it nailed. I'd look on as mothers hoiked screaming children out of playgrounds and supermarkets, dragged or carried under an arm, kids so angry they were puce in the face. Smugness pervaded. I was good at this! My eldest would ask for sweets and I'd explain, no, not before supper. "Why?" she'd ask, her irritation beginning to rise. "Because, if you do, you won't eat your supper." "Oh, okay," she'd say, nodding sagely, disappointed, but in full understanding, her irritation ebbed, and then I'd give myself a smug little pat on the back.

Oh you foolish, foolish woman!

How unwise to be so very pleased with myself. How unwise to think myself skilled in all matters maternal. When my third daughter hit twenty months I discovered something. I discovered I was never a great mother; I'd merely given birth, by twist of genetics, to two rational, placid children to start with. These two fooled me, lulled me into a false sense of my own capability, left me belly-up and unprepared for the volcano of rage that was to consume our peaceful home. The Beast had arrived. (Mr J and I semi-affectionately call her The Beast behind her back. The Beast or The Tyrant or The Fascist. I wouldn't call her these names to her face. Not yet, anyway - I'm a believer in self-fulfilling prophesy when it comes to telling children what they are and aren't, what they're good or bad at - and frankly I need to play this one down. I can't take the risk of her living up to her own hype). She's a ball of fire, igniting at the slightest thing, and never backs down. She'll storm up the stairs, scream until her throat is sore, stamp her feet, thump the wall and slam a door, and if the slamming doesn't get the desired attention, she'll open it and slam it again, and that's all because I said no to Cbeebies. Don't get me wrong, it's not ALL the time. This same child loves to make people laugh, she chats, helps, and is gentle with the animals. She's angelic at school and loves to please. It's by no means a done deal that she'll end up in Borstal (though I have to say, after tonight's outburst, I might drive her there in the dead of night and deposit her on the doorstep with a label tied about her neck saying: 'Please look after this Beast'. From this point on, like Paddington, she will be adopted by a kindly family called Brown, who will name her after the place they found her, and then send their new daughter, Borstal, to eat sticky buns with Old Mr Gruber next door). She is five and already I'm worried for her husband, a man who might not even be born yet. He's got a whirlwind ahead of him. The wedding list will be plastic plates only - that or a heap of smashed Wedgwood to recycle. Yes, plastic plates, no knives, and a shed with a lock on the inside where the poor boy can take refuge while the cyclone is raging. We will hand her over with a health warning like the cute little Mogwai in Gremlins.

This said, there's something strangely exhilarating about watching this mite fight her corner so gamely. She will take all four of us on if she feels she must. Her courage is admirable. I know she'll never take any crap. I know she won't be walked over. This little fighter will grow up to by one helluva feisty don't-mess-with-me chick. Would it be wrong to admit I'm secretly proud of her? That with every slammed door and screeched: 'You're ruining my LIFE!' I feel a burst of admiration? I was a reasonably placid child. I wonder whether I missed a trick. In fact, I'm wondering whether to have a chat with the other two. Perhaps it's about time they both learnt to slam a door and stamp their feet, fight for what they believe to be right, even if that's 24/7 access to Mr Tumble.

Ten minutes after the final door-slam tonight my daughter appeared. She solemnly walked over to me and handed me a paper heart. Crudely cut out, with a single misspelt word on it. Sometimes the making up is the best bit, right?

Monday, 12 March 2012

Great-Granny Was a Ninja

Last Thursday saw International Women's Day grace our calendar. I have mixed feelings about this. I like that it's an ear-marked moment to celebrate the distance women have travelled on the journey of female empowerment in the last century, but I also find it depressing that in this day and age there are still so many women across the globe who have such a raw deal that we need a 'day' to recognise their struggle against, and the achievements made in the face of, extreme subjugation, oppression, and misinformation. [A sobering fact: 1 billion women globally are the victims of violence against them. That's one in three].

I am fortunate to come from a long line of stellar feminists (and by feminist I do NOT mean crazed ball-crushers intent on the emasculation of men and the toppling of the patriarchy, but people who view women and men as equals in both opinion and worth). My mother, an architect, both worked and looked after my sister and I. We grew up playing on building sites in piles of orange sand and drawing on the floor beside her with fine-liners and cool, curvy rulers. Though she undoubtedly turned her back on large, high profile projects in order to be at home with us, she did so because she chose to. There is a fabulous picture that hangs in her office showing a group of kick-ass women gathered around a drawing board. It was the early '70s and they'd formed a company called Women in Architecture. My mum is right in the middle, beautiful, empowered, bucking the male-dominated system, shouting loud-and-proud that women can do this work shit too. My great-grandmother was the first woman to qualify as an optician in the UK back in the late 19th century. My grandmother - also an optician - worked full-time until she was 84, at which point she lost her sight (oh, cruel irony) and was forced to stop. My sister and I grew up in a feminist environment, but it was never spoken of in those terms, it wasn't labelled. It was a pervasive atmosphere that surrounded us as we developed, an unspoken given that if it was possible for a human to do it there was no reason why we couldn't do it. Application, hard-graft, a little luck, and all things were possible. Gender never came into it. I got a pretty hefty shock, therefore, when I moved from my girls' school to a mixed sixth form and then on to university, and began to hear expressions like: 'That's not bad...for a girl'. There are other statements that grate, of course. Here follows a few of the worst:

"Girls can't throw." Girls CAN throw! You just have to teach them. Children learn by watching their parents. Boys aren't born knowing how to throw. Dads take their sons into the park or garden with a ball as soon as the kid can sit up. They're out there, day-in/day-out, throwing, catching, praising, criticising, giving tips, demonstrating, teaching, if not consciously then subconsciously. Once, a friend of mine - surprised I could throw -  said he thought it was physiologically impossible for a girl to throw: 'Because of their boobs...' WTF?!! Dads, throw a ball to your daughter. If she picks it up and throws it back she wants to learn. Teach her. If she looks at the ball like it's an alien covered in snot it's likely she's not that bothered. Let her go back inside and put on a tutu if she wants, don't force her, but my suggestion is teach her anyway. Even if it's just an hour one weekend, it can't hurt to learn the mechanics of it.

"Women aren't funny." If I hear someone say this I will tie them to a chair, wedge their eyes open with matchsticks, and throw funny at them until they laugh, or I die trying. 'Women aren't funny' because men aren't that bothered about funny, most of them tend to prefer breasts and vaginas, and when push comes to thrust, laughing is low on their agenda. This has been so since prehistoric times: 'Wo-man has va-gi-na, man not care a-bout laugh.' Men clap when women take their clothes off. This is why there are more women strippers than male. But just like men can strip, women can be funny. Women are a more generous audience than men when it comes to laughing. We went to a comedy club recently and there was a man on stage who was dire. The men in our group sat there, folded arms, giving nothing. The women forced out laughs because we didn't want to hurt his feelings. Men have had hundreds of thousands of years of this ego-bolstering. I mean, truthfully, how many times have you sat next to the dullest man on earth and politely laughed at his rubbish? If a man thinks a woman is dull he stares at her breasts. If she's still dull, even with the breasts, his eyes will wander off to find a different pair of breasts to stare at. Keep on with the funny, girls. Even if it's not always top of the list, most men love a funny long as she also has a vagina of course.

"Another girl? Oh...I am sorry." You wouldn't believe the number of people who said something along these lines when our third daughter was born. I cannot begin to articulate how much this kind of comment angers me. A couple of years ago, Mr J said to me: 'Why does everyone keep asking me if I'm upset I don't have a son? What could be better than to be surrounded by four beautiful ladies who love me?' Bless him for this.

"Brazilian or Hollywood?" I'm jumping onto the Caitlin Moran/Anna Richardson (The Sex Education Show) soap-box here, but my goodness I feel blood-boilingly strongly about this. TEENAGE GIRLS ARE REMOVING THEIR PUBIC HAIR BECAUSE TEENAGE BOYS THINK PUBIC HAIR ON GIRLS IS ABNORMAL. Teenage boys have been taught this. This is akin to some American schools denying evolution and teaching that the world was made in a matter of days by an omnipotent Being who also buried dinosaur bones to confuse us. Boys have not learnt this at school or from parents, but from grubby porn directors on the internet, the type of slimy bloke you'd cross the street to avoid. Aside from abuse, I can think of little more damaging for a girl's sexual self-esteem than if she's about to have sex for the first time, takes off her underwear, and sees her boyfriend recoil in disgusted horror at the hairy gargoyle leering at him from between her legs. Mothers, I beg you, you owe it to our daughters, to your fellow human beings, to the SISTERHOOD, to tell your sons that a gorgeous, womanly bush is normal and the sign of a sexually-mature girl. Bare bots are for children. Girls, trim it, shape it, give it a fucking perm if needs be, but do it because you want to and WEAR YOUR HAIR WITH PRIDE.

And lastly. The classic, leather-armchaired 'gentlemen's club' clap-trap. "Women are the weaker sex." This actually merits no more than an impolite 'fuck off', but for blog's sake, I'll be more verbose. It is absolutely NOT okay for us to perpetuate male superiority over womanhood. I love men, really, I do. I love my husband, my dad and my friends, and Jared Leto and Damian Lewis and Moriarty from Sherlock, but men are not our superiors. Men are, after all, creatures who freely and happily admit to thinking about sex every ten seconds. All day, every day, every ten seconds. Picture Obama considering whether or not to invade Iran or Cameron and Clegg debating university fees or Trevor Macdonald reading the news. All of them apparently simultaneously thinking about boffing. Every ten seconds. That's a serious amount of time spent drifting off-topic onto something technically not on the job description. Women don't give over the same headspace to the consideration of rutting and this is in our favour. We are talented, creative, intelligent, funny, tough, gentle souls, who can also give birth, nurture, and love unconditionally. ALL of us - unless told otherwise - are perfectly capable of driving in all weathers. We can fix a shelf and change a light bulb, boil an egg and read a book. We can even make a nativity costume out of loo rolls and tin foil. If you tell a child they cannot do something, they will believe you. Women rock. Tell your daughters they rock. Tell your daughters they can do anything they want to. In the long-term it will help. In the long-term we might not need International Women's Day to remind us we're fully paid-up, equally valued, equally wonderful, citizens of this planet.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Le Blog, Le Chien et Le Pout.

As a confirmed Francophile there is little I don't love about France. The wine, the food, the art and architecture, and also the language. Sadly, I don't speak it as well as I'd like to, and, according to one friend of mine, the paltry bit I do speak, I speak with a ridiculous 'French face'. (Picture a sort of bastard hybrid of Keira Knightly's poutiest pout with a heavy dash of Serge Gainsbourg phhffft. By the way, you need a French face to speak French. It's a proven fact that if you're English and you try and speak French without your French face it's almost impossible for a Frenchman to understand.) With or without the pout-and-phhffft, the language is undeniably beautiful. Even the English words they've adopted, like le Big Mac, le weekend, and, the oh-so-sublime, le blog, which in theory should sound totally ludicrous actually sound, well, kind of fun. Everything sounds better in French.

Even the animals sound better.

Picture the scene if you will: an English Setter, Cyril St John Smythe, is on holiday in France. He is feeling lost and befuddled, and is more than a little horrified by the toilet facilities ("It was dreadful, Henry. Nowhere to go at all. They just do their business on the pavements. There was...faeces, everywhere. EVERYWHERE, I tell you!! Those Chiens are utterly filthy!) But Cyril has heard how good the food is supposed to be and he's hungry. He wants something authentic. He sees a local, a Bichon Frise - Jean-Jaques Le Grange - watching a game of Petanque beneath the shade of a tall lime tree in the square. He approaches and, with a tight clearing of his throat, announces his arrival. "Woof Woof," he says politely. "Woof woof woof. Woof. Woof woof, woof." [Roughly translated: "Excuse me, my good man, would you mind awfully pointing me in the direction of the nearest eatery? A local rubbish tip, perhaps, or the back door of a butcher?]
Jean-Jaques pulls hard on his filterless Gitanes. Then he shrugs and phhfffts, and in a gutteral Gaelic growl says: "Waouh, whaouh. Whaouh. Whaouh whaouh whaouh." [Roughly translated: "Zere iz no dermp around eeaiir. But zere iz a bar where zee leedle poodle, Fifi, she sings like zee laarrvbard flying on zee breeezze of liiife.]

Woof versus Waouh? No contest. In the language stakes 'waouh' wins paws down.

Likewise, the human being, Vanessa Paradis, scorched her way through Joe le Taxi, mesmerising middle-England with her raw, burgeoning pubescent sexuality. Our equivalent would be the young Billie Piper in stage-school leg-warmers and a hoodie singing Joe the Cabbie. Not quite the same ring. We shouldn't be surprised, of course. French is the self-proclaimed language of love, the Big Daddy of Pillow-Talk, romance and passion soaking every syllable uttered. Take the rather racy Soixante-Neuf. It sounds like something seductive, something adventurous. We have the literal translation, of course, but there is nothing remotely exotic about it. "How about a 69, love?" sounds more like a bloke ordering sweet and sour prawn balls from the local chippie-cum-chinese than, ahem, well, a Soixante-Neuf.

So back to poor Cyril who eventually located the bar. He found Fifi and in his best French he asked her for a lamb chop. He waouhed and waouhed, but she just stared blankly. In the end he gave up and went home. He missed Blighty too much. He needed a clean tree to pee against, he craved a crispy bit of bacon rind, he wanted to be back where the dogs go woof and the cats go miaow. I think the problem was his French face. It lacked pout. Cyril, my dear boy, if you want to speak French it's not good enough just to learn the've got to do your French face.
Jean-Jacques Le Grange
Cyril St John Smythe