Monday, 30 August 2010

Any dream will do

It's Saturday morning and we're reading the papers in bed. Throughout the week I'm up and out to work before seven, so the slow start to the weekend is very welcome.
I'm leaning back against three fully-plumped-up pillows, so I'm upright, but relaxed and snuggled at the same time. Philip is fiddling with his MP3 player; searching, as he often does, for the perfect soundtrack to our lives. There are times - please find this hard to believe - when I can be less than the tolerant loving wife I imagine myself to be; times when he affronts my weekend peace with his latest cry of 'you must listen to this it's great.....'
But today I've almost zoned him out, as I sit leafing idly through the Guardian magazine and gazing out of the window. The view from the bed is mostly tops - treetops and rooftops. I see the pinecones,  ready to fall from the high branches of the tree that stands waving at me from the bottom of our garden. I peer at the lace curtains draped across the dormer windows of the house in Mill Lane - I've never seen them, or anyone behind them move. I watch the clouds slowly drifting by. I don't think it will rain - it's more of a Simpsons sky.
Philip has tired of jumping out of bed to change the track, so his MP3 is now on random play.
Every Christmas he makes each of us a compilation CD - a mixture of songs he knows we'll like, and those he thinks we ought to like. He stores all the music on his MP3. Over the years, in his efforts to be a musical Santa, he's assembled a pretty eclectic catalogue; so when I say it's on random play, I really do mean random.
And I shouldn't be too surprised, as I gaze serenely across the valley, to hear the opening notes of a song I first heard more than thirty years ago.

I was looking out of the window that day as well. We were in one of the music rooms, high up in the old house of St. Martin-in-the-fields High School for Girls. I was one of about twenty second-year students. The best of us viewed music lessons as a harmless distraction. The rest of us....well we were just bored. I couldn't see the attraction in singing old hymns and ancient folk songs. Even a romp through the school song lost its allure if you were forced to sing it properly, without inventing new harmonies.
Ours was a school with a history - nothing reflected that history better than the dusty old music rooms and you could tell from the dog-eared, broken-backed song books just how long the same refrains had been intoned.  Which is why I spent most of our music lessons gazing out at the tree-edged playing fields below.

But when Mrs Wright announced that she'd got something new for us to sing, my attention was immediately dragged back from the treetops of Tulse Hill, to the girls sitting in a circle, exclaiming excitedly as they passed round copies of a brand new score. That day, and in every subsequent music lesson for the rest of term, she let us loose on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's finest collaboration, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. It had everything that a bunch of hormonal pre-teens could want -  rowdy choruses, ear-piercing solos, hilarious harmonies, and songs that stayed in your head for days and days and days.

Since then, the show has been staged and revived any number of times, re-launching more than one fading star's career. It even became a reality TV show. But I haven't ever been to see it, and this morning, listening to the random MP3 track, I'm rather glad of that - rather glad that I can be transported straight back in time - to the days when I am once again a skinny twelve year old; imagining that my brown school uniform is a coat with golden lining, bright colours shining, and that any dream will do.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Gone swimming

There's a particular sound about the place. The splash of limbs on water, the slap of waves against tiles, the  creaking of the diving board.
There's a certain atmosphere. Steamy, damp air, the hiss of showers, like snakes in the background; a chill breeze from an open door; hard, gleaming walkways, great glass windows.
There's probably a unique, remembered fragrance. I can't be sure. My sense of smell vanished years ago, but I still recall the chemical, eye-stinging aroma of my childhood, so I guess it lingers here.
It's 7.30 in the morning. In homes across the country people are waking, showering, eating breakfast; slowly dragging their unwilling bodies into the day. Here, under the high vaulted ceiling of the Riverside Leisure Centre, I've discovered a different world; a place of energy and effort. People counting, rhythmically beating time, striving against the clock, as they thrash their way backwards and forwards, length after length.
To the uninitiated, it seems a solitary space, a cathedral to the personalised pursuit of individual outcomes.
But in each marked lane, with its self-selected group of 'slow' 'medium' or 'fast' swimmers, the singular people watch and respond. They measure the pace of other swimmers, before deciding whether to follow or overtake. They check their own space, the angle and length of strokes, to avoid any ignominious collision. They glance almost shyly at the faces of swimmers coming towards them. If eye-contact isn't forthcoming, they drop their gaze, knowing better than to force any unwanted interaction.
Without sound, or physical contact, there is a whole system of communication here. It's an arrangement where nobody dominates the discussion, where no-one forces an opinion on you, or from you. There's no petty disagreement, or sycophantic flattery and no-one is excluded or misunderstood.
It's a simple structure, and it's effective.
But oh, what sort of a world would it be if we were always without the variety, nuance, tension and excitement of words? Wonderful, thought-provoking, empathy-inducing, laughter-raising words.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

In praise of small things- part seven - and a bit

So... I've come to the end of the meme, I've reached my seven, I've praised small things six times over and I've only one more post to write before sending the blog-baton whirling through the ether.
The biggest challenge left to me now - how to finish off?
Before I started, I wrote myself a list - just to be sure that there were indeed seven small things I could write about. After my second post I abandoned the list. Other things just kept popping up that I wanted to spend a little time with.
So today, when I need write about only one more thing, I have a whole heap of petite pleasures left to choose from.
Can I select the right one; a pocket-sized-but-perfectly-formed final instalment? A golden blogging moment that will leave you nodding your head in understanding, pausing for a moment to reflect on our shared experience, perhaps even smiling?
The trouble with small things is just that. They're small. In and of themselves, they don't amount to much. The pleasure they give me is mine, all mine, built up from experience and memory, from touching and tasting, seeing and imagining. And because of that I don't think I can choose just one to end with.
So instead, I will share with you my list. I'm sure it contains some items you'll be glad I overlooked . There might, just might, though be one or two that spark a moment of curiosity. Should that happen, let me know - I've got a whole lifetime of future posts to fill.

In praise of small things - the shortlist

  1. sherbet maypoles
  2. pebbles
  3. the bristles on Philip's chin
  4. bead necklaces hanging on the mirror
  5. picking berries
  6. Megan (she's short...)
  7. stitches
  8. playing two-balls on the shed door
  9. painting my toe-nails
  10. theatre tickets as bookmarks

Thursday, 19 August 2010

In praise of small things- part six - a game of chess

Chess appeals to me on a  number of levels. It's a game of complex thought and infinite options, but there's also something mathematically simple and reassuring about the board - 64 squares (that's 4 times 4 times 4, which is nice). 32 white squares, 32 black squares, 16 white pieces, 16 black pieces. There aren't many other situations in life where it all adds up so neatly, or where you can assert, with total confidence, that it really is all black and white.
At the same time, there's something of the fairy tale about it - kings and queens, pawns and bishops, rooks and knights, facing each other in battle - you can almost picture the handsome prince hacking his way through the forest to save the day.
And it doesn't really matter how good you are. Enjoyment isn't dependent on your level of skill - you can be a complete chess numpty and still enjoy a game - you just have to find someone else at the same level.
My Dad taught me to play chess when I was young. One of the very few things I still have of his, is an early computerised chess game that my sister bought him for his birthday. In his later years, when the kids and I went to visit, I'd often pick up the chess game from its home on the rattan bookshelf and play a game on my own, revelling in the chance of a small piece of quiet reflection, while the little treasures climbed all over their grandad and messed up his hair.

And probably because it was my Dad who taught me to play, I've always assumed that men who play chess have a level of intellectual superiority. Which is where my dearly beloved comes in.
I first met Philip when we worked together. During that year when we were colleagues and just starting to be friends, I enjoyed the way he challenged my thinking. I loved the fact that he always had an opinion and even if I didn't agree (which was very often the case), I enjoyed the time we spent, putting forward ideas like pawns, checking and countering each other. It wasn't too much of a surprise, when we eventually became more than colleagues, to find out that Philip also played chess.
When he first came to live with me, and my four teenage children, it wasn't a particularly easy time for any of us - the kids could see no need for him to be there; he wasn't their dad, and he was butting in on their territory. I wanted him to be there, but I'd worked hard to build up a measure of independence and self-reliance,which I wasn't letting go of too easily. And Philip was starting out all over, living in a new part of town and trying to feel like it was his home too, while treading on egg shells through a maelstrom of teenage (and womanly) hormones and resentment. So we often retreated to the dining room while the kids claimed the sofas and the TV, and that was when we started playing chess. The sounds of Nick Lowe's album 'The Convincer' played softly in the background as we played game after game, keeping a tally of who won in the lid of the chess-set box. We were pretty evenly matched.
Once, we went to Frinton for a day at the sea-side. It poured with rain. All day. Anyone who knows Frinton knows there is nothing to do in the rain, so we found a toy shop, purchased a chess set, and sat in the pub all day, warm and happy.
Another time we were spending a few days in Barcelona, when we found a fantastic shop in the old town, selling all sorts of chess sets.

Of course we bought one. Since then, we've often packed the folding wooden case with our holiday clothes, knowing that the 'chess mood' will fit well with our relaxed holiday heads.
Nowadays, with the hours we spend down at the allotment or writing at home, there isn't so much time, or need, for chess. But every now and then, we'll stick Nick Lowe on the CD player and get the chess set out. We're still pretty evenly matched.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

In praise of small things- part five - three little words

The title of this post might well, all on its own, send you running for the hills. So let me apologise first for any inadvertent nausea caused by my feckless choice of words. Let me assure you that I have no intent to write a soppy elegy based on an overused germ of endearment and then, if you're still with me, let me clarify what I really mean.
When I was a kid I was an avid reader - I've written here before about my love of reading. My weekly trips to the library didn't only get me out of the house, they gave me a ticket to somewhere else entirely. The books I loved best were always those where I could imagine myself as one of the characters. I practically lived in Narnia during the months I worked my way through the Chronicles. I spent weeks imagining the tiny world of The Borrowers that might exist under our floorboards, dreaming that one of the borrowers might slip out from behind a skirting board to befriend me. And I spent hours dancing around the bedroom - a floating ballerina from any number of books about an ordinary girl who makes it as a ballet dancer.
So, imagine the impact when I first saw a film that moved me as much as a book. 
I must have been around ten or eleven, when I was taken to see Lionel Jeffries' adaptation of E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. For those of you who aren't familiar with the plot, it's the story of a family who move to a house in Yorkshire, when their father is wrongfully imprisoned for selling state secrets to Russia. There are three children - Roberta (Bobbie), Peter and Phyllis, who pass the time playing by the railway, watching the trains and waving to the passengers. They become friends with Albert Perks, the station porter, and with an Old Gentleman, who they see regularly on the 9.15 train to London. The children enjoy a series of adventures, all loosely connected with the railway, while their mother sits stoically writing children's stories to keep them supplied with buns for tea. Eventually, the Old Gentleman is able to help prove their father's innocence and at the end of the film, the family are reunited.
I was one of three children, and although I was the middle, rather than the eldest daughter, I was often deemed the 'sensible' one, so it really didn't take much imagination for me to become Bobbie, marshalling my siblings through a series of mishaps.
I've lost count of how many times I've seen the film - it's rolled out on TV almost every Christmas, and I have DVD copies of both Lionel Jeffries' original and a later made-for-TV version. 
And although, as I've grown older, I've sometimes wondered about the way that poverty and class are portrayed in the story, the film has always been able to hold me spellbound. 
This week, Philip, Megan and I took a trip into town for the biggest treat. 
With amazing foresight, some clever and imaginative person had decided to turn the abandoned Eurostar terminal at London's Waterloo station into a theatre. We walked from the hustle and bustle of the main station at rush-hour, through the metal and glass surroundings of a modern international railway terminal, towards a black-curtained entrance. As we stepped past the curtains, we were transported to another world. 
Leather luggage trunks were piled up along the station platforms, a cream and gold footbridge arched across the track and ahead of us sat the station-master's house complete with white picket fence. Banks of seats had been set up each side of the track, and as we took our places, passengers dressed in full Victorian costume began to emerge onto the platforms, mixing with and talking to the audience.
For the next two hours, I sat in wonder as The Railway Children was brought to life. I was drawn in just as much as the little lad in front of us, who stood on tiptoe throughout, craning his neck to see every bit of the action.
And most fantastically, because it was a real railway station, with real train tracks, they were able to use a real proper steam train, with shiny green and gold paint, a tall black chimney and the actual Old Gentleman's carriage that was used in the film. 
And there was steam. Which is important. And which brings me back to the title of this post.
You can probably tell by now just how much I love this story. Most especially, it's the scene at the end, where Bobbie feels drawn to go down to the station. People are behaving oddly and we all begin to understand what is about to happen. But she hasn't realised it yet. 
A train pulls in, the passengers dismount and then the train moves on, leaving clouds of steam billowing across the tracks. As the steam clears, Bobbie sees the figure of a man slowly taking shape at the end of the platform. After a moment's hesitation, she begins to run towards him, with a heart-melting cry of ' Daddy'. 
It's those three words that get me. Every single time.

Monday, 9 August 2010

In praise of small things- part four - buttons

A button. Not chocolate or belly. Not a description of a chin or a mushroom. Not an instruction to button up or a warning to button down. This post is a short homage to that humble object with holes. The small but perfectly formed, functional and fascinating fastener.
The variety is almost endless. All shapes and sizes; countless materials - metal, polyester, wood, pearl, shell, leather, rubber, nylon, plastic, acrylic.......
When I was a kid, we had a button tin. I think it was an old Quality Street container from a long ago Christmas. In it we kept the spare buttons from new clothes, saved buttons from old shirts just before they became cleaning cloths, and fallen buttons that were being kept safe until returned to their rightful places.

I loved playing with them, lifting up a handful to let them run through my fingers; sorting them by size and colour.  When I first set up house, I kept buttons in an old pasta jar. It pleased me to watch the pile gradually deepening as the jar filled up. Nowadays, rather than jumble up all my buttons, I use an old spice rack. Each of the glass jars holds a different colour of button. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of my cooking skills will appreciate that the jars get far better use this way.
 I still like to sort them, and sometimes I like to think that each button might have a story; a tale of where it used to belong and how it came to be in a glass jar in  the cupboard-under-the-stairs.
After all, there can't be that many small objects that can be done up to create a feeling of warmth and comfort, or undone to create a feeling of quite something else.


Saturday, 7 August 2010

In praise of small things- part three - egg and chips

I've written about my Dad a few times on this blog, but it's been a bit more difficult to write about my Mum - I know she sometimes reads this, and she can't quite see why I would want to tell a whole load of strangers about our family and our life.
There are however, some things that I've enjoyed all my life - largely down to Mum and  it would be wrong to leave them out of this series - even if it makes her a bit uncomfortable. So, I'm sorry Mum, but here goes.
Most of my childhood memories of my mother relate to her cooking. In my mind's eye she is almost always standing in the kitchen - I'm sitting at one side of the kitchen table, I've got my big sister Rosalind sitting on my left, and Caroline, my younger sister, sitting at the end of the table to my right. Mum is standing at the other side of the table, with her back to us, either  stirring something at the cooker, or peeling vegetables onto a sheet of newspaper laid out on the draining board (the newspaper that is, not my mother).
I have a vague memory of Ros once writing in her school book, 'my Mum wears sack dresses and she is a good cooker'.  I think I remember my parents' reaction - a mixture of amusement and bemusement. I never knew what a sack dress was, but I do know she was a great cook.
Mum's coffee cakes are legendary - her grandchildren appreciate them as much as we did, although they don't often get the treat of licking the mixing bowl clean, which was an integral part of the pleasure for us. She still makes cakes and puddings for us at Christmas and she made my daughter's wedding cake last year.
But it's not for the special-occasion foods that I'm including Mum's cooking in my series in praise of small things. It's for the dinners she cooked us, day in, day out, throughout the years of my childhood when we all lived together in the house in Croxted Road.
Mum had been a child during the war, so I suppose that rationing and food shortages must have had an impact on her. For us, there was no appearance of shortage - every day we'd have a proper cooked dinner and a pudding. Roast chicken, shepherd's pie, liver and bacon. I could go on. Of course I had no idea then that she was performing culinary miracles with the most ordinary of ingredients. I remember her sitting with a chopping board and a sharp knife as she cut every tiny scrap of fat and gristle off the stewing beef that would go into a steak and kidney pudding. To this day, my favourite joints of meat are belly of pork and breast of lamb - they might be the cheapest cuts, but you'd never have known it.
Puddings were great too - from apple crumble to apricot batter, treacle sponge to mandarine cream.
We ate well, and we ate healthily - with plenty of fruit and veg. Summer meant sitting on the step outside the back door, with a colander full of fresh peas to pod. I learnt early the technique of slightly pressing at one end of a pod until it popped open and I could run my nail down the side to open it up and push out the peas (keeping an eye out for the occasional maggot, which would set us squealing with delighted horror).
The generally healthy approach meant there were some meals that could only be had every now and then. Among these 'rationed' dinners, my favourite was always egg and chips with tomato ketchup. I loved it then, I love it now. Caroline, who was renowned for playing with her food, would chop it all up, mixing the food around until it was a uniform pale pink, before piling it all up in the middle of her plate. Even that couldn't put me off. There is something so right about dipping the end of a chip into the runny yolk of an egg, then dipping the eggy chip into a pool of bright red sauce. A small pleasure, but a perfect one.


Monday, 2 August 2010

In praise of small things- part 2 - Two pound coins

Continuing with the 'seven things' task, and at the risk of portraying myself as either a miser or a lunatic I'd like to pay homage to the wonder of the two pound coin.
Before I start though, it's probably best to clear up one thing - yes, I know the title of this post was potentially misleading - I could have been writing about a pair of one pound coins, or even some very heavy coinage, but my desired clarity was hampered by my keyboard. For some reason, the solution to which is beyond the technological brain power of either me or my beloved, I cannot find the key on my laptop that types the symbol for one pound sterling. Dollars yes, percentages, quotation marks, ampersands - yes. But from the key that says it's a pound sign, all I get is a #.
I could, as someone is likely to point out, have searched for a pound sign from somewhere else, copied and pasted it in - but to be honest, life is too short. So for the rest of this post, wherever I've put a #, please read that as a pound - and I'll just apologise in advance to all the twitterers that I'm bound to confuse.
So, to be clear, my intent is to describe my affection, if that's not too strong a word, for the object that, in a single coin, offers two #'s worth of spending power.
Like many well-brought-up children from a not overly-affluent background, the importance of saving was instilled in me at an early age. To this day, I am more inclined to agree with the spirit of Mr Banks' 'tuppence prudently invested' than the bird-lady's  frivolous invitation to squander said tuppence on a bag of bird seed (the Disney film of Mary Poppins has set many of the standards for my adult life - but that's another post).
When I was about eleven years old, I had a cardboard box, with a slit cut out of the top, into which I deposited large proportions of my pocket money. I had a plan to go to America, confident that when I got there I would meet David Cassidy and then somehow convince him that he wanted to marry me.
My youthful, naive, confidence in the institution of marriage, the reliability of pop stars and my own levels of irresistibility were naturally all dashed in due course, but the pleasure of saving has stayed with me.
I'm not talking about the sensible grown-up approach of setting up a direct debit to transfer a chunk of your salary to a tax-free ISA before you even see it, but the task of actually taking coins from your purse and stashing them away.
Over the years I've always had a penny jar or its equivalent - ranging from an empty spaghetti jar on the telephone table to a blue and white faux-ming vase on the bathroom windowsill. We've had a  flower-painted jug for the money that sometimes re-appeared from the depths of the sofa, and the cardboard tube from a Laphroaig whisky bottle for late night pocket-emptying in the bedroom.
The problem with all of these is that it takes years and years to fill any of the receptacles and then, at some point, you have to decide what to do with the coins. This used to mean begging the tolerance of a world-weary bank clerk as I off-loaded my carefully separated and counted out bags of money. But the introduction of the #2 coin in 1998 brought a whole new approach.
What can I say about the pleasure and ease of collecting #2 coins?  The combination of gold and silver, and their resemblance to chocolate money at Christmas makes them look like treasure. There aren't too many in circulation, so when you get one it feels special and you know you have to save it. And even if you only get one every now and then, they accumulate quickly into quite-a-lot-of-money.
And then you get to actually spend it.
No more sighing bank clerks. Staff in shops are happy for you to count out the shiny special coins in exchange for their goods. How do I know this? Well....
....earlier this year, in celebration of my far-too-big-a-number-to-be-named birthday, we had a whole day out on the contents of the #2 coin collection. All day, everything we bought was paid for with coins - our train tickets, our coffee at the station, our lunch, a new belt for my jeans and a splendid heart-shaped fruit bowl. Admittedly, my bag was quite heavy at the start of the day, but our glow of satisfaction increased as the weight lessened.
I've started saving again and the special coin bag is rapidly filling. Philip has a big birthday in six years time - I reckon by then we'll be able to have a really big adventure courtesy of the #2 coin.