Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside!

At work today, I seemed to be wishing lots of people happy holidays as they snuck off early for the Easter weekend. Some of them, with a definite air of optimism over experience, were setting off with their metaphorical buckets and spades for a few days at the seaside, determined not to let the dismal weekend weather-forecast dampen their enthusiasm.

Is there anything more likely to prompt nostalgic reminiscence than talk of past seaside holidays? Waves crashing on pebbles, the salty tang of the wind, the crunch of sand in picnic lunches. Children, families, lovers and loners; excitement and energy, romance and regrets.

Among my most treasured memories are two summer holidays when I was around 9 or 10. For two years running we stayed at the Georgian House Hotel in Littlehampton. In those days a relatively sleepy seaside town, with none of the brash brightness of Brighton or Hastings. No amusement arcades, slot machines or fairground rides, but the wonder of three different beaches!

The sand dunes - rolling soft sand that your feet sank into, while blades of sharp, unforgiving grass dug into vulnerable bare legs. The main beach - with its pebbles, deck chairs and wind breaks, where dads and kids would squat at the water's edge to build castles in the wet sand. And my favourite - the furthest away from where we were staying, but worth the extra walk for its magical combination of beach hut and rock pools.

The excitment of negotiating my way around the rocks, my feet clenching through their flip-flop soles, trying to cling on to one stone before gingerly stepping out to the next one. All the while knowing that if I slipped I'd jag my knees on the ragged edges, and drench the thick jumper that was keeping out the seaside wind. The magic of lifting a rock to find a tiny crab that I could lift up, oh so carefully, and store in a bucket of water. The bucket carried back and stored with our other treasures in the beach hut until it was time to leave.

When I was a child I always cried at the end of the holidays - never wanting to go home. So my very wise mother devised a special treat - only allowed on the last day of the holiday. A knicker-bocker glory. A tall glass, with syrup at the bottom; small pieces of tinned fruit covered in ice cream, piled up with whipped cream; topped off with more syrup, a strawberry, and a sprinkle of hundreds and thousands. It was eaten with the longest spoon I'd ever seen. Oh the wonder of pushing the spoon down through the melting ice-cream to find those pieces of fruit at the bottom, hoping to uncover another strawberry - it was almost as good as finding a crab.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

A boy with a guitar

I woke up this morning with a tune in my head and words on my lips. Nothing unusual in that - it happens most days. There's no rhyme or reason to it, my brain just seems to work on random shuffle to select a particular song that will accompany me into the morning. Today's tune wasn't a chart topper or a golden oldie, it wasn't a track that's ever been published or played on the radio. It was instead a song that I've heard only a couple of times, written and performed by a friend of ours and last heard a few weeks ago from the stage of a south London pub.

I don't know what it's called, or if it even has a title, but I'm pretty sure that if it's already made its way its way into my mental juke box it must be quite special. If you're ever lucky enough to hear Dan German singing the lines ' I meant everything I said and did last night, I just wish you knew me better, now you do...' then I hope you'll agree.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

In the system

Where I work, we use a whole world of words that I've learned to accept, but never learnt to like.....

In the system
Enablement, reablement,
intermediate care,
early discharge, virtual wards.
Doctors unaware

Emergency bed days, patient pathways,
telecare alarms,
day care, dom care, home support.
Ageing, graceless charms.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Big book of proper - the dining room table

When I was young we ate almost all of our meals at the kitchen table. The dining room table was pushed back against the wall, out of the way, and only pulled out for us to sit round on special occasions.
So, why does the dining room table feature in my Big book of Proper?
When I think back and picture myself as a child I am almost always sitting at the table. I know I sat there for hour after hour in quiet concentration, finding all sorts of ways to keep busy.
Colouring in was a game that required careful planning - my concerns weren't about using the right colours, or keeping inside the lines - I knew that each part of the picture came alive as I coloured it in,so I had to colour it in the right order - if I did the feet first, the person would run away only half-filled in.
I always loved reading and had plenty of library books, but one of my favourite ever books actually belonged to my sister Caroline - it was called Caroline and her Friends. I desperately wanted my own copy, so one year I sat at the table for what seemed like the whole of the summer holidays, copying out the stories word for word into my own book.

A single jigsaw puzzle could present a number of challenges - sorting out the edge pieces first then filling in the middle; trying not to look at the picture on the lid, or attempting to do the sky first. My favourite ever jigsaw had a picture from the film of Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang - Caractacus Potts and Truly Scrumptious dressed up as wind-up dancing dolls. I completed it so many times. Even now when I see the film, that scene takes me straight back to the dining table and the jigsaw.

So, no sign of dinner, and certainly nothing to do with etiquette, but the dining room table firmly belongs in the Big Book of Proper.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Google vanity

Somewhat shamefully I must admit,  that on very dull days at work,  I have been known to type my name into Google search. There is something both comforting and scary to find out what I might have been up to.
My vanity and boredom knowing no bounds, today I googled 'Resistant but Persistent'. 
For my efforts I've learned, among other things, that this is a medical term for something that's hard to treat - which sounds about right. But my very favourite reference was from the minutes of a meeting of Parliament in Kampala on Tuesday, 18 November 2003:
Madam Speaker, the committee was informed that buffalos are resistant but persistent carriers of FMD virus
I understand that FMD stands for Foot and Mouth Disease. While I have to own up to occasional foot in mouth afflictions, and I do like to wallow in the bath, I've never before thought of myself as a potential buffalo.......

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Emergency admission

We walk down corridors
without words
through harsh-lit halls
past unseen rooms, with blank forbidding doors.

Ahead of us, a porter presses on
he knows these sterile paths,
these numbing ways.
We struggle to keep up.

Along the pale-green walls
hang black-framed photos.
Their reddening autumn leaves and frost-rimed lawns
remind us seasons change.

Still we walk on
down corridors without windows.
Struggling to keep up.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

The Big Book of Proper

I've always had a strong sense of what feels right - nothing moralistic or judgemental, just a sense of wellbeing, brought about by doing something in the right way at the right time. I suppose it's a mixture of family ritual, sense of duty, happy memories and rites of passage.

Hard to describe, and when it happens I might either smile or cry, but I will always feel a bit better about the world. In our house, these events are known as entries in The Big Book of Proper - nothing written down, just a virtual, constantly growing list of good things.

So what goes in the book? Examples might include Sunday morning walks, always stopping to kiss the person behind you as you go through a kissing-gate; eating boiled egg sandwiches with a bit of salt and a lot of sand at the seaside; collecting the first fallen conkers of the season and keeping one in your coat pocket until it starts to shrivel; or watching a father sitting with his sons at a football match, knowing they're all as excited as each other.

One constant entry in the book, and probably worth a whole chapter to itself, is the film The Railway Children. I've watched it more than 20 times now, but it never fails to delight. Over the years I've felt less comfortable with the idea of the middle-class family playing at being poor, but I'd still love to be the mother writing stories so we can have buns for tea; and my heart is always in my mouth as the train stops inches away from a fainting Bobby. At the end, when the steam and smoke clear for Bobby to see her beloved and greatly missed father stepping down from the train, the words 'Daddy, oh my Daddy' are still enough to reduce me to a quivering wreck. Very definitely Proper.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

These Boots Are Made For Walking

Trying to learn the skills of creative writing sometimes means undertaking exercises that seem entirely bonkers. Below is my attempt at writing a poem in the voice of an inanimate object. 

These boots are made for walking

You ram yourself inside me,
dead weight upon my sole,
leather stretched by bones and flesh.
Hard nails against my toes.

I feel you yank my laces
Tie them, tight, across my tongue.
Knotted bows to hold me,
trapped until undone.

My skin is cracked, unpolished,
worn out by rain and sleet.
Broken down by years, and miles
of service at your feet.

But as we move together,
with your light-stepped rhythmic pace,
I feel your warmth spread through me.
I am moulded by your grace.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Life writing

Yesterday I took a trip into London for a day school on Life Writing. On my way there, I did some reminiscing about past journeys into the big city. 

When I was young the no.3 bus wound its way from Crystal Palace to Camden Town past my front door. 

We lived in between two bus stops, so journeys always started with a brisk walk, half-run, down the road, constantly checking over our shoulders to see if the bus was coming. Shopping trips with Mum usually meant sitting downstairs with the other mums and the old people. But journeys into London only ever happened with my Dad, and that was an entirely different adventure. 

We'd jump on the bus, swinging around the yellow pole, and climb the stairs to take our seats in the smoke-filled arena of silent working men and chatting teenagers. If we were lucky we'd get to sit in the front seats, so we could pretend to be driving the bus ourselves. 

At first all we could see was houses - bigger and grander than ours - but still just houses. Then, as we got to the bottom of Croxted Road it started to get more exciting. Past Brockwell Park, where years later I'd spend the hottest, sunniest summer of my life swimming and tanning at the Lido. On to Brixton where we'd crane our necks to see the green banana stalls in Electric Avenue, then Kennington, where I knew there was a cricket ground because Dad always watched the 40-over games on TV on a Sunday. We knew we were nearly in London when we came to the Imperial War Museum, its two huge guns a silent warning to wayward children. 

Dad would point out the buildings and streets he knew, so we'd always end up singing 'Doing the Lambeth Walk - Oi!' as we neared Lambeth Bridge. Then it was over the river and into London proper - past the houses of Parliament and up into Whitehall. In those days there were no black gates and railings blocking off Downing Street, but there were still those two silent horseguards sitting motionless outside Whitehall Palace, impervious to the taunts and teasing of tourists posing for photos. Ahead of us, we'd see Nelson's column rising up out of Trafalgar Square, surrounded by people and pigeons in equal measures. 

Sometimes we'd stay on the bus, through Piccadilly, up Regent Street, to the magical world of Hamleys toy shop. But an even better treat was to get off at Trafalgar Square to feed the birds.

It's strange for me now to think what a thrill that was - nowadays the thought of a pigeon perching on my head would send me running for the hills. But one thing has remained the same - I still think sitting in the upstairs front seats of a no.3 bus is the best way to arrive in London.

Oh - and in case you're wondering - it turns out Life Writing has nothing at all to do with writing stories of naked people...........

Friday, 5 March 2010

So it begins...

Marks on a page
lines and curves.
A letter then two,
a word, a phrase.
             creeping into the blank white space.