Salut

‘Hello. What’s your name and do you have a hobby?’

Back in the late eighties when I turned the pages of my Tricolore textbook in Madame Scott’s form room, the single most important fact you could learn about someone (French or otherwise) was whether or not they had a hobby. What a person was interested in doing when they weren’t at school was right up there with their hair colour and home town as their key info: the fact that Le Samedi, Jean-Luc liked to jouer au ping pong and Marie-Claire was keen on la natation told you everything you needed to know about them.

There was the unsuccessful stint as a young ballerina, the piano teacher who informed my parents that it would be for the best if I stopped attending her lessons, a brief and meaningless fling with trumpet playing. And the one my family find most amusing of all, the unforgettably faint praise on one of my secondary school PE reports: ‘Lucy is a reliable member of the hockey team.’ Here the ‘reliable’ is, of course, teacher code for, she’s not much cop at the actual hockey but she does at least always turn up. More rewardingly I liked to trawl the record shops of Birmingham and attend record fairs on the hunt for Smiths seven-inches. And charity shops for vintage clothes. They were hobbies of sorts.

But then they tailed off. Stuff got in the way: exams, university, social life and jobs. All of which meant that your hobby wasn’t the most interesting thing about you any more – what and where you were studying and which career you had chosen eclipsed the hobbies in the story of your life. Looking back it probably would have been a good idea to take up more hobbies before starting a family, because the chances of starting something new when your kids are small, are even smaller.

These days there are plenty of hobbies, but none of them belong to me. The years of taking kids to baby and toddler groups have given way to a new era of youth groups and a myriad pastimes.

The list over the last 12 years for my brood includes football, tennis, swimming, netball, korfball, hockey, art club, ballet, coding, choir, bell ringing, and the full gamut of uniformed groups. Jean-Luc and Marie-Claire would certainly be impressed.

Kids these days or maybe just kids round here are spoilt for options of things to try their hand at, and this is indeed a wonderful thing. Cambridge is the sort of place where you can try anything. If you were looking to find a club dedicated to the appreciation of underwater uni-cycling, I imagine you’d find it here. For this and the fantastic opportunities afforded to my children, I’m very grateful.

But what about me? – Apart from the occasional exercise class I have been hobby-less for 12 years or more. I’m hoping that while you grow out of some hobbies, there are others you grow into. However time-poor we are, surely it must be possible to claw some of this time back and channel it into a passion or a pastime, something that could reasonably be called a hobby?

I am making a conscious effort to get stuck into a something new, something for me, and it had taken me long enough to get round to it. I do different things to different degrees of success and completion. I have numerous craft projects on the go, half finished. My husband despairs of the old bits of furniture kicking round the house that I may or may not get round to upcycling. I play netball on Mondays and here I am writing again. I need to find time, make time, or just beg steal and borrow it from my other commitments to make sure I have a hobby of my own.

So maybe if I ever happen to visit La Rochelle and have a conversation with Jean Francois, I’ll be sure to mention that ‘je m’appelle Lucy et je joue au netball.’ And when I grow up, I want to be a writer…

Inconvenience food

I’m a big fan of Greta Thunburg. But when I think of the poorly planet Greta has opened our eyes to, I’m a bit torn. On the one hand she inspires great hope. Here is a young woman with everything and nothing to lose, with the guts to warn us of a natural disaster on a scale not seen since it started getting too chilly for even the mammoths.

That someone her age should be so switched on, not to mention motivated to get off her teenage behind and do something about it, while the rest of us procrastinate around the peripheries is just plain awesome.

That this amazing young woman who hasn’t even finished school yet is in the running for a Nobel Prize – Piers Morgan’s odious Twitter outbursts notwithstanding – is profoundly positive. Imagine a future populated by mini Gretas: informed and eloquent stars of tomorrow, unafraid to practise what they preach.

And it’s inspiring that after thirty-odd years of climate-change apathy, someone is finally willing to peak above the parapet and say, ‘yep, I’ll take this on’.

But then, on the other hand, it’s pretty depressing that a sixteen-year-old has to school us on this stuff at all. I can’t help but feel that, even by the time our teenage hero had started clanging her chimes of doom, it may already have been too late for our sad little planet.

So what now? Oddly it seems that the only way forward in this predicament may be backwards. We’re all too bound up by layer upon layer of progress. Our world is built for convenience, to make life simple, to placate us with that comforting old lie that we can have it all.

Take supermarkets for example. Surely they have to go: they’re just too convenient by half. Everything you want under one roof, a one-stop shop, crammed to the rafters with overly-packaged goods you probably didn’t come in for, and accessible by car? Yes please.

I polished my eco halo last week and popped into our local pop-up refill shop. (Full Circle https://fullcircleshop.co.uk ) to fill up a bottle of fabric conditioner – my own tiny drop in the plastic-filled ocean.

Looking around the shelves at the vast array of washing liquids, detergents, seeds and pulses available by weight or volume, it occurred to me that if you chose to refill everything here you would need endless empty bottles and boxes plus limitless time on your hands to fill, weigh and pay for each item. And then you’d probably need your car to get them home. Bang goes convenience…

It’s why supermarkets came along in the first place. They do away with the time and effort it takes you to hoik your containers from shop to shop till you have everything you need. One step forward, two steps back.

The idea of shopping locally was all well and good when there was someone at home all day with the time and inclination to schlep round a myriad of individual stores to “pick up the messages”, as my Scottish Granny used to call them. It’s just not what we do any more.  The milkman was right all along… who knew re-usable glass and electric vehicles were a good idea anyway? We used to be green by necessity, now I think we’re plastic by choice.

In our defence, we do have a lot on our plate. We’re all supposed to be raising our own young Gretas, enjoying ‘me time’ as well as couple time, spa days and date nights. Our homes should be ideal; and our horizons must be expanded by travel – (just don’t go by plane). Then there’s the active social life we’re told to have, the hours spent at the gym, not to mention mindful minutes and time set aside for box-set bingeing. Hands up for less convenience in their life? No thanks.

But in the end, we have to do something. For me I’m replacing the word ‘need’ with ‘want’ in my family’s vocabulary to see if it changes our story. And if facing the future means a little backward thinking, then so be it. I’ll be here re-filling and re-using, taking baby steps towards our greener goal.

Greta is the kick up the backside we all needed to change. I just really hope we don’t let her down.

NB – First published on http://www.magpieonline.co.uk/featured

when in cambridge

I did something amazing the other day. Wait for it… I cycled to Cambridge. I did what, to most people around here comes as second nature. I got on my bike in Histon and weaved my merry way into town. I’m not a natural cyclist (I’m not sure if such a thing exists) and it’s only a paltry distance of 4 point something miles, but it’s something I probably should be doing, and so for that reason, I donned a helmet and hi-vis and off I went.

The thought of getting on a bike is not a completely alien concept in my life, not as such. There was a bicycle once, somewhere in the dim and distant past. I remember a classy-looking number from my late childhood, early teens. I definitely wanted it, petitioned for it for a birthday or Christmas present even. And no wonder, it was a fine bike: painted burgundy and white, and decked out with a leather seat, and pretty basket to boot. Sadly it languished unloved in the ramshackle passage that ran down the side of the house, alongside the spiders and the scarifier. In honesty, I only recall using it on a handful of occasions. As a parent myself now, I vicariously feel the annoyance that that waste of my parents’ money must have caused.

In defence of my younger self, most places I needed to go were very walkable and, if they weren’t, then we jumped in the family gas guzzler. There wasn’t the same culture of cycling in Solihull in the 80s and 90s, nor clearly the same awareness of climate change. And I would have needed a death wish if I’d have attempted to travel as far as Birmingham on two wheels.

It is probably the fear of climate change that has finally brought me to this point. That after 10 years of living in a cycling-dominated city, without cycling, I feel guilt-ridden enough to hop onto a bike. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for two-wheeled transport and admire those who choose it as their preferred mode of transport, but somehow it just didn’t feature for me – and the thought of slotting into the often perilous melee of local traffic without the protection of a shiny metal box, is daunting to say the least.

What really brought matters to a head was the day I accompanied my daughter to Central Cambridge on a youth school strike against climate change.  For reasons of speed and convenience and a dozen other feeble excuses I could come out with, I am embarrassed to report that I drove us both into town that day to join in the protest. As the charged-up students yelled out their anti-car slogans, I marched alongside keeping schtum about how we had travelled there. I told myself it wasn’t too hideous a betrayal of the crowd’s message since I did end up using the trip for a double purpose: to pick up a package I had ordered from John Lewis – which would have been far too large to precariously balance in a bike basket. And there you have it… Activism and capitalism side by side in perfect harmony.

And besides saving the planet there are other motivators to getting me peddling. There are obvious benefits to both my physical and mental health – and perks for my wallet too, in avoiding Cambridge’s extortionate parking charges.

They say that you never forget how to ride a bike and, while that may be 98% true when it comes to balancing, peddling and forward momentum, you do tend to forget most of the finer details you may need to safely negotiate the roads in 2019. In my early thirties I took refresher driving lessons because I had gone a long period without using a car, and had lost confidence in my ability to do so. I found it frustrating to be a learner again but the course did at least remind me of the rules of the road and go some way to restoring that missing courage behind the wheel. I’m thinking I may need to tag along to my children’s school cycling proficiency classes to become a real Cambridge-ite on a bike.

I did make it to town and back again on my bike that day. I was cautious, probably overly so, and I stopped many times to consider my next route or fiddle with the gears. The bicycle itself was a bargain purchase from a Facebook selling page a year ago. It wouldn’t pass muster for Chris Froome – but it did the job for me.  I bought what I needed in town and got out of there: no parking charges, no carbon emissions, no trouble. Smug and only just the teensiest bit knackered from the effort.

So I intend to carry on peddling here, there and everywhere. All I need now is a pretty wicker basket attached to my handlebars. That way I’ll still be able to cart around all my heavy capitalist goods while basking in my low carbon footprint.

the Bee Gees on bikes… just for fun

Clocking off

I’ve written before about my ‘vocation’ as a stay at home mum and probably bored you silly, droning on about the additional useful stuff I get involved with as a volunteer, but recently something big has dawned on me.  I need more than this.

It started a little before Christmas, when I applied for and accepted a job as midday supervisor (but you can call me a dinner lady) at the local Infant school. I’m not entirely sure what possessed me, but I’ve been involved with that school since my eldest started there in 2011 and to date I continue to hang around, now that my youngest is in her last year as an Infant. On the basis that I’m always there for one reason or another anyway, I figured that I may as well get paid for showing up.

And therein lies the main difference between this new exploit, my roles as a mum and parent, and all of the other guises and hats that I wear within the community and my own social circle: This is a job; actual employment; tangible work for which I am rewarded with a real wage, an income, actual money paid to me.

Admittedly, a job which only lasts a duration of an hour and 20 minutes every day and which involves such repeated tasks as: walking a class of six- and seven-year-olds unscathed to the dinner hall each day, ensuring that they eat enough of what’s on their plate, shushing them occasionally when they get too excitable, and then escorting them to the playground where they can run wild and free – within certain pre-agreed rules and parameters – isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Heaven knows, it doesn’t pay me a sum that I’m likely to be able to retire on any time soon, but it has its value, to me, to the children and to the overall running of the school. Educational institutions in my experience are multi-cogged, well-oiled machines in which every one of the components – from late-evening cleaners to Executive Principals – are integral to their smooth operation.

There is certainly satisfaction in the job. I may not necessarily be using my degree every day when I set about my midday supervising tasks, but I do have my uses. I am a holder of hands, a sorter-out of squabbles, a cutter-up of food, and I’m proud to say that I have the honour of being the bell lady! Each day, if a child wishes to take a turn clanging the huge, old fashioned metal bell that signals the end of play, they need to go through me. I alone wield this power. Although in truth, the teaching assistant that handed this duty over to me was relieved that she no longer needed to remember who rang it last, who had behaved well enough and which child had approached her first. It still feels like a promotion in my world.

In addition to a pay cheque, midday supervising comes with a lanyard, a contract, interesting training and an appraisal system. All of which make me feel like a grown-up. It also gives me something that I have been missing but didn’t know it till now. I had forgotten what it feels like to clock off. After my short shift, I get to down tools, grab my bag and head back through the automatic doors, happy in the knowledge that my work (at least my paid work) is done for the day. There is definitely a lightness in step at the end of the working day; that ‘Friday feeling’ of relief. Now that I’m putting the super into midday supervisor, I get that every day, and after only one hour’s graft.

After eleven and a bit years, this feels new. I have worked all that time at home as a parent and homemaker – if you will – but you can’t ever clock off from kids. Even in those rare moments of holiday or respite, or when you’ve employed the services of a babysitter, your responsibility to those growing little people is unending. And that’s exactly as it should be of course, but it can be exhausting nevertheless. Not so with my job. There’s barely time to be tired of it, before that heady ‘I’m heading home’ feeling comes round again.

Committee and voluntary roles are all well and good but, like parenting, they are responsibility- and time-heavy. Along with the fuzzy feeling you get from ‘joining in’, there always seems to be the nagging sensation that there’s more you could be doing, or an email you could be responding to. The remit of these roles can be amorphous and vague and, while you may have raised your hand and offered to take on a particular task, no one feels they can compel you to complete it – because they are keenly aware that you, like them, aren’t paid to do so. Thus a cycle of procrastination continues and nothing feels finished.

All in all, my new job is what I need now. There are sacrifices: I miss out on full days at home or day trips, now that my job eats up the middle of the day, but what I lose in free time, I hope to gain in productivity before and after my shift and do more of what I enjoy, more efficiently. Plus there’s the perks: I get to spy on two of my children at play, I enjoy wearing wellies, work five minutes from my front door and can inhale lungfulls of fresh air daily. And then I clock off.  dlock

Me, myself and I

[something I wrote for a writing group I’m attending]

 

When I sat down to tackle this assignment, I couldn’t remember whether the title was writing about my life or writing about myself. This led me to question the difference. Is it a question of mere semantics or is there a distinction between my life and myself?

I would hazard a guess that writing about myself may prove the more revealing. My Life is the view from the outside, the window frame through which others can peer in. My day-to-day, the things I do, the places I go – that part reads like a fairly open book. As far as I can tell, the stuff of my everyday is transparent; the part of me that perhaps reflects the person I have chosen to be.

I am a stay-at-home Mum who rarely actually stays at home. My neighbours will attest to my Groundhog-day morning routine. Each day they can set their watches by my often mono-syllabic squawks heard through the party wall that separates our two houses. Between the hours of 7 and 8am I’ll bark: “out of bed”, “clothes on”, “teeth”. Then in the evenings I’ll reverse these commands: “teeth”, clothes off”, “go to bed”. To all appearances, my life is less defined by who I am, than by what I do on behalf of the three smaller human beings for whom I am responsible (and to a lesser extent, by the larger one, to whom I’m married). Throw in the labels taxi driver, cook, cleaner and counsellor and you begin to get the picture.

The hours when I’m not with the children are spent wearing various different figurative hats. You may find me helping in one of the local schools, wearing a Guiding leaders’ uniform, in lycra at my Tuesday boot camp or in my anorak in Aldi.  You may see me enjoying a coffee with friends or even idly scrolling through Facebook. The cogs of my world are greased with coffee by day and gin by night (all in moderation of course). A lifestyle forged by fortune, opportunity, design, but above all, that First World luxury: choice.

I am, as we all are, shaped by my ancestry and influences; genetics and education; all the books I’ve read and all the songs I’ve ever heard (although only the 80s ones stuck). My self is defined by who I am, not what I do. There’s nothing more irritating that the query, “and what do you do?” as a conversation opener. As if the idea that someone’s line of ‘work’ is the single most revealing thing about them. In some cases, it might be, but in many others the fullness of that person’s identity cannot be conveyed in the job title on their badge.

I didn’t choose my personality. It chose me. If my self was one of those fashionable word-art images framed on a wall, the computer generated mass of buzz-words arranged in an abstract shape may include: introvert, argumentative, bright, worrier, funny, mother, carer, lazy, thinker, pragmatist, child, contradictory. That’s me in a nutshell, or perhaps it’s more like a particularly disappointing Kinder Egg; there’s the fun and colour and anticipation on the outside that sometimes the inner surprise finds it hard to live up to.

While the outer life is lived in plain sight, I’m not sure my inner self is fit for public consumption, but then, whose is? My own peculiar mix of positive and negative quirks are the anodes and cathodes of my inner circuits; I seem to be on a constant quest to know myself better and to improve the self I already know in order to harness their full power.

There is always the hope that by getting all this down on paper/a screen, a clearer portrait of myself may gradually emerge. And as my life moves on over the years, my self also evolves.

After all, I’m not the me I used to be, nor have I yet met the protagonist of my future memoirs.

Pictures of me

 

I’m not sure whether I can remember going to the park in Ferry Hill at all.  I do know that I have been there. I have sat coyly at the base of a column of children extending up the park’s enormous slide, a shy face fronting a tower of smiles. I know this because I have seen a photograph of it.

Looking back at the slide in that image now, it’s perhaps not as imposing as I once thought, nor as steep. Still, it must have been fairly long to accommodate all twenty-something of my Aberdeen playgroup chums along its length. The photo was taken on the day I attended my last session of blubloup – as I affectionately called it – before leaving the Granite City and upping sticks to the Midlands. There I am, perched at the bottom of the slide, nervously looking down at my tan-coloured Clarks buckle-ups and gripping the cool metal of the slide for dear life. Meg and Wilma, my marvellous playgroup ladies are waving down at the camera from the top, while alongside the slide, on its raised cement mount, steps jut out from the hillside like concrete teeth.

Meg and Wilma are the stuff of legends, the names that kick-started my education, that tried to coax me out of my shyness with too-strong orange squash and a ready supply of Digestive biscuits. Again I’m not sure whether I truly remember them or even being at playgroup itself, but those ladies are penned in our family’s narrative as much as the sting of Aberdeen’s bitter North Sea blast or the dead grey of its housing stock. I can recall a hit of sadness when a few years ago, my mum told me about Wilma’s untimely death to cancer. This lady who remains deep in my memory banks and a seminal part of my childhood, gone but living on in a cheerful snapshot.

Whether or not this picture is painted from my own pallet of memories, or from the ‘proof’ of a photograph in front of me, the sense of nostalgia is the same: nearly forty years on, I can taste the lip-curling sharpness of that sugary squash and feel the hot burn on my cheeks when, on that same last say at blubloup, I was asked to stand up and hand round the biscuits.

But are these genuine recollections or would the pages of my memory be embarrassingly blank without some photographic prompt? Fortunately much of what I can’t remember, my Mother can. She tells me that I loved playgroup, I loved Meg and Wilma, and I loved going to that park, although a glance at my pained ‘stop looking at me’ expression in every photograph might make it appear otherwise. The fondness of Mum’s appraisal of these two staff members perhaps colours my memories of them, after all, I was three at the time. These were playgroup ladies of a traditional mould and Mum trusted them. I think she felt the same about Meg and Wilma as I did about the wondrous staff at Stepping Stones, my own children’s playgroup. Leaving your most prized possession in someone else’s care is no small thing, since those are the people who will feature in future stories and memory fragments, the perceptions and the pictures that shape childhoods.

The park in Ferry Hill is a long streak, the sort of green space planners bung in to break the stranglehold of so much sameness. I have another photograph of that Aberdeen park, one in which my school-uniformed brother and I stand by the sash window in our Albury Road house overlooking the green space opposite. Look higher out of the same window and you can glimpse a prim row of granite houses, their grey seeping into the sky. My parents must have been grateful to live opposite that flash of green: a playground and a pause, right there on their doorstep.

The change from black and white to colour photography predates me, but the earliest snapshots in which I appear are almost always printed out three by five inches and feature the round corners that were fashionable at the time.  My childhood memories have round corners too. Aberdeen’s harsh light is softened with curves and any hard edges are smoothed out for posterity. 

Perhaps after all there is nothing new about the Instagram generation’s need to apply filters to everything they view. Some of the best memories are a little blurred at the edges anyway.

 

 

Blocked

I haven’t written anything here for ages. There may be digital silence, but my head swims daily with thoughts of frivolous things, angry things and more. I comment on the news inside my own mind as if I’m a speaker on a talk show.  I quip with myself like I’m a guest on a panel show. I spew criticisms and plaudits alike at the world around me as if my opinions matter, but it’s inaudible if you’re not actually in my head. Sometimes that’s for the best…

Have I not written because I’m lazy or  because I’m busy. Do I lack imagination? Am I too tired, too distracted? Is it that I haven’t the confidence that the words I write will adequately represent what I want to say, or is it because I think no one will listen anyway?

Whatever the answer, it’s very echoey inside my particular chamber right now. If only for my own sake, it’s probably time to follow the light back to the outside and write… Watch this space.