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Friday, 28 November 2008

Guess what - it's cold!

My neighbours are nice. We wave at each other in the street while smiling nervously and thinking, Who the hell is she? A friend of mine once confessed that when driving, he used to sometimes parp his horn and wave energetically at a stranger while shouting: "Hello!" Nine times out of ten the poor person would wave feebly back and look very confused.

Yesterday The Girl who has that four year old habit of saying absolutely everything in her head(a habit that sadly some people never grow out of)- regal led Mr Next Door with a long tiresome monologue about her new pink gloves. "They have pink hearts on them and I've got a matching scarf and my best friend is called Shania." What is it about four year olds that they never draw enough breath for you to run away or interrupt? I watched as Mr Next Door's smile became more fixed. Then when The Girl offered to show him her matching pink knickers he suddenly decided he was in training for a marathon, and sprinted off up the road as though the pink hounds of hell were after him.

But most of the time like all English people I talk to my neighbours and local shopkeepers about the Weather. "Cold isn't it?" "Ooh yes. . .freezing." A moment of silence. "I wouldn't mind that so much but it's damp as well." "Oh yes. Damp. Terrible. So cold and damp."

Another silence. Then one of us ventures:

"Must go. I'm really cold." And off we go again. "Yes I don't remember it being so cold last year."

One of us really ought to say: "It's nearly December. Of course it's fucking cold!"

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Rows and Collapsing Buildings

Yesterday The Boy and The Husband were both contentedly watching When Buildings Collapse Noisily. I was reading a book about Pensions. Yes, it's just crazy non stop action in my house. I glanced across at the boys. Thud thud thud music underscoring each scene, like in psycho movies when you hear the thud thud of a heartbeat to increase the tension. "Any second it's going down!" shouts someone. BOOM! The building unsurprisingly vapourises. The Girl toddles in with her knickers on her head. "Wow" she says.

You'd never guess that two hours earlier we were having a screaming row with the Boy about his failure to do homework. He's had nine detentions this term all for not doing homework. It's never his fault of course. The homework is boring. "It's meant to be," I say sternly. (Is it?) He's doing Macbeth (terrific, short and full of violence) and his homework was to read Act 4 sc 2 which is where Lady Macduff and her son are murdered. I suggested he watch it on YouTube. "Watch it?" yelled The Boy in tones of outrage. "It's meant to be performed" I said, trying and failing not to sound a) superior and b) patronising. I'm struggling not to say it . . .arrrghghhh . . .here it comes . .FUCKIT. It's So Much Easier For Kids These Days. All I had was a copy of the sodding Shakespeare play. The only chance we had to watch it was some clunking O level version performed on a budget of £1.99. Now you can click on YouTube, type in Macbeth act 4 sc 2 and lo! Trevor Nunn's fantabulous production is there for the watching. Or Polanski's! We sat and watched a few clips of Polanski's Macbeth and I tried to explain that Polanksi had made this film shortly after the murder of his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. The Boy looked bored. "It wasn't a film!" I suddenly snapped. "His wife was murdered by a ghastly bunch of vile drugged up hippies."

Suddenly The Boy and I were having a huge row about nothing and everything. I can't understand why when I try so hard to be aware of his feelings, to listen to him, to respect his views, that he seems to treat mine with utter contempt. Probably because he's a teenager. Anyway I started acting like one too - I threw his stupid book across the room and slammed the door.

Anyway after we found out about the detentions, Husband stomped up and down telling the Boy he wasn't applying himself to anything. "What am I . . Glue?" said The Boy sarcastically. Sometimes I wish he wasn't so good at answering back. The Boy was banned from going out all week and we're taking the x-box away for a month.

Later on peace was restored as everyone watched footage of buildings falling down. Then as I was brushing my teeth before bed and gloomily realising that yet another line has appeared on my forehead (Thanks Boy!) I realised I had a spot as well. It's not fair! How can I have lines and a spot? And it's one of those ones that won't just go away - it'll swell up and mock me. "That's why I have a beard" said Husband smugly. I wish they made a programme entitled: Husbands Standing Underneath Buildings that Collapse Noisily.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Stinky Worrywart

Sounds like a CBeebies character doesn’t it? A small furry purple thing whose tail goes boingggg! and puffs out a farty cloud. Except it’s me. During a particularly stressful moment yesterday I realised, to my intense embarrassment, that a bayaaaaad smell was wafting up from my armpits, impervious to triple strength deodorant, a good showering, or the fact that it was -10 degrees outside.

This, along with other unpleasant physical symptoms (racing heartbeat, lack of appetite, spots and boring my loved ones stupid by obsessively going over and over the source of my anxiety) have appeared on and off throughout my life. You see, as well as being prone to depression, I also get very anxious and jittery. Yes I know – I’m a real prize.

This stinky worrywarting though – I noticed it first a few years ago when I was temping. I sat in a tiny, crowded office, and the Office Manager insisted on giving me an hour’s training even though I was only going to be there for a day! Then as I sat trying to type, I realised that a stinky pit smell was wafting up from my armpit. Specifically my left armpit. Horrors! I’d only put deodorant under my right arm!

It was dreadful. I sat with my left arm clamped to my side like a secretarial Quasimodo, struggling to type, feeling myself get redder and redder in the face. And stinkier in the pit. It crept up into the atmosphere like a miasma of evil. At one point someone stuck their head round the door, furrowed her brow, flapped her hand in front of her face and glanced at me. That was the longest afternoon of my life and I’m sure my name in that office will be forever writ large as The Stinky Temp.

I get particularly anxious when I feel undermined and attacked. I'm doing some creative writing teaching, and having been on both sides of the fence, know how it feels to have your writing criticised. But I wasn't prepared for the fact that some people take the slightest hint of criticism as a full on attack. Unlike the real world where people will either ignore your work, or that one time at Random House when my irascible boss picked up the phone to an unpublished writer and shouted: "Your book is utter shit sir!". However, I’m expected to examine minutely and frame comforting but rigorous critical feedback on work. But there will always be those who equate constructive criticism as a personal attack, just as there are also those who believe that their exclusion from the Booker shortlist is due to the massive conspiracy against new writers. As W.B Yeats said: “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of a passionate intensity.”

But not only do I stink when wracked with anxiety, one half of my brain is metaphorically wringing its hands and getting into a state, while the other half is sternly admonishing and pointing out that this is ridiculous and it will all blow over. Don't be ridiculous I shout at myself. It’s like one half is worrying and the other half is telling me off about it.

After a few days of calming emails, gentle encouragement and Super Strength deodorant I’ve stopped smelling. And started to think of how one person’s mild anxiety is a nervous breakdown to another. My mother rang me. “I’m so glad I’ve done my Christmas card list” she sighed. “It was really bothering me.” I mentally rolled my eyes. Then I thought of Barack Obama, who always seems cool and collected. With the whole world on his shoulders.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Evil Aided by Incompetence

The philosopher Edmund Burke said that for evil to triumph, all that is needed is for good men to do nothing. In the case of Baby P, it's wise to remember that the actual perpretrators who inexplicably have only been sentenced to fourteen years in prison, are the ones who carried out the appalling treatment of the child. But perhaps here, evil has flourished aided by incompetence and secrecy. There is a very good article by Camilla Cavendish who recently won the Private Eye Paul Foot Award for Journalism. You know proper journalism where you look under rocks, question the official version and keep going, past all the lies and obfuscations, till you find out what's really going on. Where all you gather are enemies in high places, not baubles and free lunches.

She believes that "social workers jumped to the conclusion early on that Baby P's mother was inadequate but not a physical abuser. They then stuck to that in spite of the staggering and mounting evidence to the contrary."

I've tried to imagine myself in a roomful of experts and everyone is telling me that I'm overreacting; that the mother is co-operating, that all the evidence shows that chldren taken into care do very very badly. Would I have the moral courage or just the stubborness to press forward and keep arguing that no, mother is not just inadequate, she is an abuser. I wouldn't have had the confidence to do this in my twenties. And groupthink is very powerful and so hard to fly in the face of. When the whole group is telling you that you are wrong, even if instinct and mounting evidence tells you otherwise, what do you do?

Charles Percy Snow said that "There have been many crimes committed in the name of duty and obedience, many more than in the name of dissent." When it comes to the failings of the social services this couldn't be more true.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Baby P

A terrible case like Baby P brings out the mob-wielding-flaming-torches hate in us. Well it does in me. My thoughts swing between musing that you never see a newspaper headline saying: Prompt Intervention of Social Worker Saves Child!!! or Long Term Support Keeps Vulnerable Family Together. Then they swing back to Anyone Who Wouldn't Look Out of Place on the Jeremy Kyle Show Should be Fucking Sterilised.

There's a reasoned and thoughtful response in the Guardian that flies in the face of the understandable baying for blood and reprisals. Ian Johnston Chief Executive of The British Association of Social Workers points out that "many of our critics would not dream of going into the situations with which we deal."

He is right of course. I couldn't imagine going into a freezing house, the boyfriend screaming abuse at me, dogs barking, the toddler has just wet the bed and there's no washing machine. All credit to them for the impossible job social workers do. And yet . . .SIXTY VISITS. Did nobody pick the child up? Or draw conclusions when he was cared for outside the home and his 'clumsiness' suddenly stopped as did the injuries?

But then again, you need life experience to know these things. Maybe you need older social workers. Better paid social workers. We are a culture that romanticises and venerates those who work with the poor, the sick and the young, but we don't actually believe in paying them a decent wage. No wonder teachers are crushed with stress. And social workers buckling under impossible case loads. I just can't stop thinking about it.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Hiding Chocolate

Something strange is happening. As the mother of a four year old Girl and lolloping Teenage Boy, I find myself behaving very oddly. If I'm not answering surreal questions at 7am like 'Why do we have elbows?' or 'What happens if one legged people get tired?' I'm hiding food. I can't quite believe I'm typing that - it strikes me as the kind of thing a quasi-anorexic obsessive would do. Yeah - or the parent of a Boy who seeks out and scoffs anything remotely nice like a heat seeking Exocet sugar seeking missile.

At first we tried hiding the kitkats in the vegetable drawer because as Husband reasonably surmised, 'What teenage boy is going to look among vegetables?' But Boy soon sussed that one. Then we put packets of biscuits in the DIY cabinet along with light bulbs. That was quite successful for a while. I know it all sounds ridiculous. But really if I ever want just ONE lousy biscuit or the occasional packet of crisps, I have to squirrel them away in cunning hiding places. Yesterday, the DIY hiding place was discovered in an unguarded moment. As I removed a nutty bar chocolate thing to add to the pile of lunch stuff for the Boy, a look of peasant cunning came over his face. A look that said: 'Ah! I have found your hiding place for confectionery mother!'

After he went to school, I decided the only place left to hide the chocolate was in a few of the antiques, and so far he hasn't clocked it. We have in our possession on of those antique Egyptian things that used to store a dead person's heart. Now it contains something even more precious; ten snickers bars. Ha!

Sunday, 9 November 2008

They fuck you up your mum and dad . . . .

They fuck you up your mum and dad
They may not mean to but they do
They hand on all the faults they had
And add some extra just for you

Yesterday my sister and I had lunch with an aunt we hadn’t seen for over twenty years. She’s my dad’s sister and as with many families there’s a habit of referring to relatives mired in the past – oh he’s the mean one, she’s the chatty one . . .each relative defined by one action that stuck in my parents’ memory and was handed down intact. Alas, looking at the photo of me that auntie brought with her, I may well have been enshrined as ‘the butt ugly one’. Aaah! There I was age 9 or 10 wearing hideous specs, my hair in what I can only describe as a ‘middle aged geography teacher’ style. This particular auntie was ‘the divorced one’ as though it defined her. In some ways it had. We sat in a restaurant and talked with auntie for hours, about family history.

My dad was one of five children, brought up in Ireland in the forties, and my auntie was one of his sisters. I heard about how my dad’s mother had been bullied relentlessly by her own sister. I’ll call her Mrs Nasty. This woman’s life mission had been to revenge herself on her sister for marrying the man she wanted. Let me be precise. My granddad chose my grandmother. She was attractive but he was very handsome. He was also a survivor of the notorious Christian Brothers, and shortly after his marriage to my gran, he joined the army and was abroad a great deal. So gran was bringing up five children single handed. Sadly the constant undermining and bullying she received from her ghastly sister, served to reduce her to a cowering wreck who in turn bullied and undermined several of her own children. My dad was given a bike once, but Mrs Nasty said he would kill himself on the roads. This was a small Irish village which probably saw about two cars a week on the road, remember! But granny, terrified of her sister, took the bike off dad and locked it away.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

My dad, a very clever boy grew up unsure and unconfident about his abilities. My other auntie was forced to leave school early in order to help out Mrs Nasty in her shop – a bit of cheap labour. Can you imagine you, a parent, telling your daughter age 14, “Er you’ll have to leave school because my sister wants you to work in her shop.”

“But I want to stay on at school mum.”

“Sorry but my sister wants you to help out in the shop. You’ll have to leave school.”

My grandmother was totally unable to stand up to her own sister, taking out her anger and frustration on her own children instead.

Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out as early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself

Years later after my nice (childless) auntie went back home to see her mother, and Mrs Nasty was there, she made a snide reference to my auntie’s divorce. But auntie wasn’t scared of her and shouted that she should mind her own business. “You’ve had enough practice minding everyone else’s for the last thirty years!” she shouted to a stunned silence. All that anger and misery and bullying rooted in Mrs Nasty’s sexual jealousy.

I came away glad to understand why dad was always so unconfident, and why he had unwittingly handed it on to my sister and myself. I really really hope I haven’t handed this all pervading fear onto my own children.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

And my heart melted. Until . . .

Last Monday I had to rush out the door when Husband came home. Not, alas to go out on the razzle or to meet my secret lover, but to go to Marking Meeting for the creative writing course I'm teaching. This is where a group of us sit in a room with a pile of writings and try to come to an agreement about what kind of mark to award them, so we're all on the same page. Yes it does doesn't it?

Before I ventured into the cold, stinky night The Girl asked me if I was coming back and she would miss me. So thinking I was being creative and clever, I gave her one of my most precious possessions, not a book I'm afraid, or a bracelet but my sunglasses. The ones that cost a packet and miraculously I've neither sat on, nor lost. "You take them" I informed my solemn daughter "and then you'll know that mummy is coming back." It worked. She took the sunglasses in their case and promised to take care of them. Off I went, belted across London, and sat in a room with other people and tried to think of nice things to say about the students work. One lecturer was very scary indeed as we dissected a very bad piece of work.

"It just doesn't have any function" she drawled. Function? What the fuck was she on about? But being a Lecturer it doesn't do to say that, so instead I just furrowed my brow and wrote: 'what the fuck is she on about?' while a man with long hair tied in a ponytail added that this piece of work "defined chick-lit at its most banal". That particular man was a poet. I could tell because he looked like Jesus. And he said he was. A poet that is. I wondered how many people make a living from poetry and could only come up with . . .that Poet Laureate . .Andrew Thing? Maybe Benjamin Zephaniah? Pam Ayres?

Got home an hour or so later, chatted to Husband for a few minutes, and then like a small ghost, The Girl drifted down the stairs holding tight to the sunglasses case. "Here you are mummy - I kept it safe for oo". Oh my heart! I just folded up, held her tight and carried her up the stairs. She'd kept my sunglasses safe. Oh I love you! Tuck you up and kiss you goodnight. Hang on . . . you gave me the case. But where are the actual sunglasses. My expensive sunglasses?

"I don't know mummy," says The Girl with a Gallic shrug.

Three days later, I'm the proud possessor of a plastic sunglasses case and no fucking sunglasses! I've turned her room upside down! Bollocks! That's the last time I'm entrusting ANYTHING TO A FOUR YEAR OLD.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Could Do Better

The only time I've ever cried at work was when I worked at Random House Publishing and the printer kept breaking down. Five of our computers were linked to it, and every day without fail, it would refuse to print, then vomit up sixteen versions of a manuscript you had tried to print last Tuesday. It became a little anecdote, with the sharp bits filed off. "Oh the irony - a publishing house where the printer didn't work!" Ha Ha. Except when it was actually happening you wanted to firebomb the fucking useless piece of shit printer. And that time where I wandered up to the seventh floor, the Grown-Up floor (I worked in children's publishing) where the walls were lined with portraits of literary giants like A.S Byatt and Ian McEwan, the air redolent with cigar smoke and intellectual endeavour, and piles of books softly nestled in every corner. There, standing over the photocopier, his face bemused and bathed in green light was the journalist John Pilger. Quite reasonably he couldn't understand why after pressing the right buttons, nothing related to what he actually wanted printing, was spewing out of the machine. A man can take on global corruption but it's software that drives you mad in the end.

One day, after a particularly bad incident with the photocopier (deadline + stuck copier - anyone coming to help + me thumping the machine = me running to the toilet and crying) I swore I would never allow software to make me cry again.

All last week was half term and I found myself taking on more students at the Open University due to tutor illness. This I didn't mind at all, but in order to mark things I had to download three separate bits of software, save them in the right place, then . . sorry fell asleep there, I'm boring myself. Yes dull and dreadful but it HAD to be done or I couldn't mark them in the right format. The Husband found me, pale and wild haired at 12.30pm trying to get to grips with it. He kindly told me to go to bed and deal with it in the morning. I was choked with failure and rage and misery at my endless downloading and clicking only resulting in Error Message: 244 What? What? Or Cannot Compute. Or Your Computer Has Performed an Illegal Action. "FUCK OFF FUCK OFF FUCK OFF!" I shouted helpfully. And yet my spitting stream of profanity had no effect. For a second I thought of those black and white films where somebody is talking on the telephone and gets cut off. And they immediately start pressing uselessly on the disconnect button while saying: "Hello? Hello?" in a posh voice.

And yet when I did manage to download it properly, I felt an absurd sense of achievement. "You're too hard on yourself" said Husband kindly. No it's not that. You can't be emotional when you're doing IT. But it always makes me cry - nothing makes me feel more useless.

It didn't help that Husband and I had a row on the day I was dragging myself into town to carry out a face to face Tutorial. I had Given Out My Home Number, so if there was a problem my students could contact me. Bad Idea apparently. What if one of my students got all stalkerish? "It hasn't happened in thirty years" I said. Am I wrong? Is he paranoid? I think if someone wants to find you they will. And I can totally understand not handing out your personal details if you don't want an abusive ex to contact you, but I thought he was overreacting. However, I responded in a very mature manner. I stormed out the door, slammed it shut very hard and then slammed the gate shut too. Bad week really. Software and rows. And rain. And it's nearly Christmas.