Sunday, January 31, 2010

Parallel Lives

I actually did some reluctant hoovering today, to remove the fluff-wads that had accumulated around my 'satellite' study in the bedroom. No-one else was going to do it, and as half-term is approaching I'm going to be using it again soon. As I was wielding the vacuum cleaner, I was musing to myself about the role that children play in the lives of their parents. In an ideal world this would simply be to love and be loved, but the more I mulled things over, brief snatches of memory and half lines of conversation conspired to wind me up to a fair degree of resentment.
Let me set the scene: Daughter #3 is at an interesting phase of life: her horizons are expanding rapidly with new friends, new interests and a blossoming intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for creativity and la vie boheme that I remember fondly from my early teens.
I remember it fondly but in reality, alas, it existed only in my head. My parents, the upright products of rationing and a rigidly hierarchical society did not want a moody, poetry-reading, Oxfam-clad beatnik (at they imagined) for their child. These days, I would probably have briefly become a Goth or something, but in those days there weren't the same sort of neat pegs available and I was just a bit.....weird. Too weird for them. They steered me back towards social acceptability, and closely oversaw my education, music, art and friendships until it all went horribly wrong and ended with me leaving home one Friday lunchtime forever.
As it was, it turned out that I had shot myself in the foot well and truly, turning my back on a guaranteed university place as well as a chance to escape an (emotionally) abusive relationship with a boyfriend that dragged on into an ill-advised marriage for another ten years or so.
They thought they knew what was best for me, and so did I!
So I am finding myself in the same position as my parents did all those years ago and hoping that I don't fail in my parental role.

Where did the rot set in? Well, it is very difficult to be objective about these things, but if asked to identify my feelings about those years it was of complete claustrophobia. Everything was vetted to such a degree that I felt that I had no autonomy whatsoever. I had wanted to play the violin when I started 'big school' but was discouraged from that as my mother thought that 'the clarinet sounded nicer'. When I subsequently proved myself a middling musician (competent but uninspired), I failed to find a place in the regional orchestras (who only required four clarinets max.) whilst my many cheerful violin-scraping friends got into the massed strings and my unique French-horn playing buddy found himself keenly courted throughout the North owing to his rarity value!
I was quite good at art, although I never had any illusions about 'becoming an artist'. My mother was artistic too, so that was 'nice'...and I was encouraged to take Art at A-level. But you can't study art history without becoming aware of the unconventional attitudes and lives of many artists and I developed a taste for Toulouse-Lautrec and the 19th century French demi-monde. That did not go down well.
Combined with this came a desire to go out with my friends (usually those ones who did not meet the required respectibility standard!) to the youth club and local discos and meet boys. Sometimes I was allowed and sometimes not, but always with my father waiting outside for me in the family car tapping his watch disapprovingly if I was even a minute late to our agreed rendezvous.
So I became very devious, managing to fit my debauchery into my time-managed youth unobserved. Maybe I was being really obvious, but I thought I was being so clever. In fact my cleverness entailed me becoming such a different person from the image that my parents cherished that, when the whole elaborate facade came tumbling down and the worms and secrets crawled out, they never really recovered.
Nor did I - I had become two people living in the same space and didn't know which I was. Both? Neither?
They had wanted a daughter that they could show off to their friends and live vicariously through - not unnatural ambitions for parents of that era - and when they found themselves with something that didn't fit the bill, they cut me off - their only child.
Only quite recently have I acquired enough respectibility to warrant mentioning again in polite company, which I find bitterly amusing!

So I look at Daughter #3 and hope that I never, ever drive that bright, blossoming spirit underground to grow amidst the tangled roots that throttled me. I am inclined towards liberality, trusting that we have instilled in her some innate good sense. I don't go on too much about homework, or trace her every move or try to quash friendships with the more unorthodox of her friends. Indeed, I try to make them welcome and feed them. We encourage their music experiments and encourage her to think, read and listen widely.
I think that it's inevitable that we will cross swords along the way, for what is growing up other than a pulling away from the reins that lead you. But I hope that we never reach that stage of utter breakdown that happened between my parents and I.
And I will try to love her for what she is, and all of them for what they are, and not because they are fulfilling my stifled dreams or giving me bragging rights among my peers.

I am currently trying my best to do the former for myself!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Appetites and Destruction

As the weather is merely grey today rather than pouring with rain, and the pavements are no longer icy, I walked the Bright-Eyed Boy the mile or so to school today (with the Dog in tow).
It's not a particularly pleasant walk. Many of the houses in our area are no longer family homes, but have been developed by speculators into student accomodation, which is distinguishable by assorted recycling tubs left permanently out, and split black bin bags dumped and spilling out onto the pavements. I don't have a problem with students: they're mainly a fairly affable bunch and polite enough, but their messiness is a bit of a problem if you're having to pick your way through and around it. After the beck (i.e. a stream, which often has supermaket trolleys or bikes poking out of the murky water) the student housing gives way to social housing. The houses are either neat as a pin (mainly owned by over 60s) or fairly squalid (not conspicuously 'owned' by anyone). The latter are characterised by equally overflowing refuse receptacles and the odd rusting car up on bricks in the driveway. The problem we had today was the sheer amount of broken glass on the paths where bottles, presumably from the recycling, had been smashed and left strewn in jagged shards. It doesn't take much imagination to foresee a pretty nasty accident happening, either with a falling child or a misplaced dog-paw. So we had to weave about, walk on the muddy verge to avoid the hazard. I'm probably going to drive again tomorrow: I don't fancy a trip either to A&E or the vet's. The council, although having little Smart-cars with 'neighbourhood pride' blazoned on the side couldn't care less if it's not that area's day for collection.

On the return trip I was wondering in my head about the sort of mentality that would think it was a good idea to perpetrate this sort of behaviour.
But of course, 'think' doesn't really come in to it - it's a sort of knee-jerk behaviour: it's there, so I'll do it.

Is it all about instant gratification? To scratch an itch? Isn't this what characterises a lot of society today (sweeping generalisation there)? Is it symptomatic of a more general loss of control?

It's a commonplace observation that we live in an age of instant access: if we want something, we can generally have it straight away - be it food, drink, sex, communication, a box, press a button and hey presto! it's there for consumption. The message pushed on us by the media is that everything we want is there for the taking and it's ours almost by rights. Why wait? Go get it! And hurrah for credit cards - get a couple!
The idea that it is sometimes better to wait and anticipate is met with incredulity and looks of disbelief. Why on earth would you want to wait? And as soon as the immediate want is assuaged, for many excess becomes the next stop, because humans are hard-wired to continue to want. It's a driving force which, along with curiosity, has made mankind so successful at survival. Why stop at two beers? - have fifteen and a night to remember (or forget, in most cases!). Why only one slice of gateau? - finish it off and we'll get another for later!

As much as I feel a mild aversion to the virtue of prudence (thanks Gordon!), the evidence of uncontrolled consumption and greed is far more worrying. The pools of vomit that dot the pavements after the weekend, the snapped-off wing mirrors, abandoned kebabs, recycling bins full of own-brand vodka empties, puffingly obese teenagers drinking Panda Pops on the school run. Are all these people really made happy by their consumption?

Another thing that I have noticed more of late, and not entirely unrelated to my way of thinking, is people arguing loudly with their partners in the street and parents (usually mothers) shouting, if not screaming, at their small children, unconcerned that they are being watched. The safety-catch on behaviour is definitely off, a message that is no doubt absorbed loud and clear by recipients and onlookers.
But then I reflected that this sort of uncontrolled behaviour in public is almost the flipside of the behaviour that I blogged about in 'Honour Killings: An Unpleasant Look at the Truth' just before Christmas. Britain has lost it's buttoned-up tight lippedness and is letting it all hang out.
It's not a pretty sight, and just as bad in a different sort of way,

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Leap in the Dark

I should -really should - be settling down with a suitably academic book and doing some serious reading. But as is apparent, I'm not doing that.
I've decided to give myself the afternoon off, partly because the Bright-Eyed Boy has passed on the snotty cold that he was nursing last week and my eyes feel like hot pickled onions in my head, and partly because I've just e-mailed of the latest revision of my first chapter to my supervisor ahead of next week's routine meeting, thus reaching a bit of a hiatus. I'm not inclined to press on with any more writing until I get the comments back: I want to see what he thinks of what I've produced first. By and large he makes encouraging noises, but I always come away feeling slightly downcast and that I haven't said what I wanted to.
It's always a bit of an expedition: York to Birmingham is a good couple of hours by train. Factoring in an allowance for delays means having to set off after depositing the B-E-B at school, walking the two or so miles to the station (the car parking's extortionate and our buses are unreliable and rude), catching the smelly CrossCountry service to Birmingham New Street, surely one of the the darkest and grimmest station in England. Then get onto the branch line that goes by the university (hopping off if necessary for the library), and onwards to the satellite campus where my department is situated, a fifteen minute walk from the stop. And of course, the same thing in reverse after our meeting, which means that I generally get home at around eight in the evening.
When I first travelled down to the Midlands, I really felt that I could not cope with all that travelling - it seemed such a long trek, but now, weirdly, it all feels a lot easier: I recognise landmarks from the train, I know where to get sandwiches and coffee from, how long the various legs of the journey will take me, how to get into the card-protected buildings. It all seems so much more handleable somehow, although nothing's really changed. I've changed.
When I was travelling to Leeds by car everyday during my undergrad years, I had everything worked out to a fine art, and was never late -either for lectures or for picking the children up. But nowadays I am filled with amazement that I managed to do this five days a week for two years, it seems an incredible effort. I guess it's all down to familiarity. Things that are familiar aren't quite so daunting.
A couple of years ago my parents decided, quite out of the blue, that they were going to try a new holiday destination. We were quite surprised, as they'd been travelling to the Italian lakes for a least a decade and a half, with the occasional foray into Switzerland for much the same sort of break. They went further east, and hated it. Unusually for them, they'd not attempted to learn any of the language beforehand, and it seemed to me that from the outset they had almost deliberately decided not to engage with the culture or people - they were sitting back and waiting to be impressed, waiting for the good times to come to them.
Now, if you're unfamiliar with anything east of Italy it all becomes a lot more......rough and ready. Buildings seem to sprout up in odd locations, apparently ungoverned by planning applications or building regulations. Quite often they appear incomplete and remain so for years, with concrete columns and reinforcing rods bristling towards the sky. Roads regularly lack markings, traffic lights are uncommon, pavements rare, gardens seldom well-tended in the our sense of the word. A lot of the landscapes can look pretty desolate and barren, especially if you're used to being surrounded by softly rolling greenery and picture-card views. It was around this new country that my parents were bussed in the company of other equally elderly people. Excursions tended to be very long and tiring, usually ending in a meal of unidentifiable dishes in an out of the way and unfinished hotel. They had a miserable ten days and returned home vowing never to go there again (although looking at their photos, it seemed a most attractive place).
This year they returned to their usual haunt and loved every moment of it, steaming across the lake, going to see the Matterhorn, all the things that they'd done many, many times before. They were surrounded by what they perceived as familiarity. They know the language, the excursion destinations, the timetable for the trains, even the staff at the lakeside cafes - and they recognise what they are eating as well! But I can't help feeling that now they've shut the door on a lot of new experiences, too. I know that there are a lot of places left that my mother especially would love to see, but because the last time they tried something new and didn't like it, they probably won't want to try again. Knowing exactly what you like is great, but sometimes a leap in the dark can ultimately be just as satisfying.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Disaster Limitation

[There's something definitely amiss....I've written two posts that seem to have disappeared into thin air. I prepared them as a draft and then did a 'save' rather than publish straight away (I wanted to look up a reference to see if I'd remembered something correctly) only to find, when I went to the Blogger dashboard that they'd gone! Not that they're any great loss actually, more of an exercise in putting thoughts into words and seeing if they were coherent or represented that mental babble that goes round and around in your head, promises much, but delivers little.]


Along with a great many other bloggers, I find myself constantly confronted with distressing images from Haiti of the bloated dead, untreated dying, distraught survivors and widespread destruction. What I am finding more disturbing than these (if that is possible) is the positive relish with which the media seems to treat these disasters. It reminds me of a television series that used to be on a number of years ago, where such events were treated as a chance to raise one's profile by producing an item of captivating journalism, and to that end one of the more repulsive characters used to carry round a baby's bootee to place upon a pile of rubble in order to create a poignant picture opportunity.
But the scale of the human suffering is terrible, and possibly all the more so for its sudden and acute genesis. In truth, Haiti has been a disaster area for years which the west has blithely ignored even though it is practically on the doorstep of one of the major superpowers. How could that be? Well, obviously Haiti has nothing that its wealthy neighbour wants. Despite being occupied by the US from 1915 to 1934, it was left with nothing more enduring than a massive debt to the US banks that has meant that the country's money has haemorrhaged from its coffers in repayment rather than shore up its own infrastructure. Many of its people are poor subsistance farmers, lacking the most basic necessities. Malaria, tuberculosis and water-borne disease are rife. But now that there's been a conspicuous natural disaster, governments are knocking each other out of the way to be the first to give, give, give. It must be an absolute boon for countries with faltering governments to take the spotlight off their own failings and recast them in a glow of humanitarian touchy-feely support, complete with suitably impressive rhetoric and promises that - let's be honest - not one of the voters will remember even six months down the line. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.
Still, this horrendous event will do just what all the others have done (be they flood, hurricane, tsunami or earthquake): give politicians and the public a chance to feel God-like and pretty good about themselves for an instant. But any improvement that is wrought for the Haitian people will be as a result of long-term, low-level, off-camera commitment aimed at enabling them to improve access to healthcare and literacy, not a one-off, guilt-induced, knee-jerk online donation to mop up the immediate distress.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Handful of Days

My poor old uncle, aged 83, long burdened by Parkinson's Disease and cancer, and who recently had a nasty fall that rendered him unconscious for a few days, revived sufficiently yesterday to tell his wife and doctors "No more".
No more meds, no more food. He has decided to turn his face to the wall and slip away. He has had enough, and I can't say I blame him. Despite everything, his intelligence has remained intact, and until very recently there were traces of his habitual dry wit and self -deprecating humour. An active and fit man, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of miltary history, his illness has mostly entailed an agonising curtailment of his former pleasures. His wife of over fifty-five years, herself a cancer survivor, was still (quite voluntarily) pushing him round in a wheelchair until a few weeks ago, but her increasing frailty would have soon made a nursing home an inevitability for him. He knew that, whatever, he was not destined to return to sleep in his own bed. He is currently in a side room of a small local hospital, tended and as comfortable as he can be. According to my mother (his sister) the nursing and pastoral care is exemplary and it is close enough for family visiting to be easy. But we are talking of less than a handful of days here. A gentle slide into the void, tenderly held in the arms of Morpheus, the quiet extinguishing of his light.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord. May he rest in peace.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

There are distinct signs of a thaw: the temperature has risen above zero for the first time in about ten days and the car tyres on the road are making 'wet' rather than eerily muffled noises. It reminds me of the chapter in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe where the traitorous Edmund is being driven in a sleigh to the Stone Table by the White Witch who realises that her reign of terror is drawing to and end.
'Now they were steadily racing on again. And soon Edmund noticed that the snow which splashed against them as they rushed through it was much wetter than it had been all last night. At the same time he noticed that he was feeling much less cold. It was also becoming foggy. In fact every minute it grew foggier and warmer. And the sledge was not running nearly as well as it had been running up till now. At first he thought this was because the reindeer were tired, but soon he saw that that couldn't be the real reason. The sledge jerked, and skidded and kept on jolting as if it had struck stones. And however the dwarf whipped the poor reindeer the sledge went slower and slower. Ther also seemed to be a curious noise all around them, but the noise of their driving and jolting and the dwarf's shouting at the reindeer prevented Edmund from hearing what is was, until suddenly the sledge stuck so fast that it wouldn't go on at all. When that happened there was a moment's silence. And in that silence Edmund could at last listen to the other noise properly. A strange sweet, rustling, chattering noise - and yet not so strange, for he'd heard it before - if only he could remember where! Then all at once he did remember. It was the noise of running water...'

The Narnia Chronicles were among the first books that I can actually remember reading. I thought at the time that they had been around for ages (probably because of the L,W & W's second world war setting) but when I read them they'd probably been in print only a decade or so. I enjoyed each one of them individually and each one was, in turn, my favourite of the cycle. Even to this day I'd be hard pushed to name my favourite book, but I most certainly did have favourite scenes; the sinister hall of statues, red-lit by the dying sun, in The Magician's Nephew; Doctor Cornelius' midnight revelation to Prince Caspian in the book of the same name; Shasta's unnerving night amongst the tombs outside Tashbaan in The Horse and His Boy, the selfish Eustace's discovery that he had turned into a dragon in the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; the metamorphosis of the Queen of the Underworld into a serpent in The Silver Chair. I found, at the age of eight or nine or so, that The Last Battle was unbearably sad, and the dying talking bear's bewildered murmur of 'I don't understand...I don't understand' reduced me (and still can reduce me) to tears. These books, read again and again for want of alternative, informed my literary imagination in a way that no others have.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Home Is Where the Hearth Is...(as well as lots of other stuff)

When we bought our house in 1994, we spent every last penny we had on it. The Husband, who had up until that time lived with his parents at very low cost, had saved enough for a deposit. We both had reasonably well-paid careers so getting a mortgage wasn't a problem. The property was an absolute bargain: built in 1936, it had remained throughout nearly six decades the home of the couple who had originally purchased it brand new from the builder, until eventually the elderly widow had fallen, fractured her hip and been placed in 'sheltered accommodation' by her daughter. She then put the house - presumably her childhood home - on the market, priced for a quick sale. Having already decided some months before that we wanted to face the future as an item, we'd been browsing the property ads for a few months. We knew, having looked around a few, that we definitely did not want a new build. We didn't like the thin walls, small windows and pocket handkerchief-sized gardens. The Husband, being two metres tall, found the low ceilings oppressive. Older properties, the ones we liked the look of, tended to be well out of our budget, so when we saw this house in the estate agent's window, we did a double-take. We viewed it within 24 hours and knew, completely and utterly, as soon as we walked in through the front door, that this would be our home. Strangely enough, it was something to do with the light that spilled through the coloured leaded lights and shimmered on the bare floor-boards of the front hall. The building had been cleared out, stripped of its furniture and as we walked around the echoing rooms, we became more and more certain that this house was THE ONE. It needed some work and TLC: the electrics were original, bakelite fittings and twisty cables. No central heating, no insulation, no damp proofing. The bathroom had the original suite complete with a high level cistern and pull-chain, and the miniscule kitchen had a steel sink in it and nothing else. The back garden was just a mass of waist-deep grass. Although the house was cheap, it needed a lot doing on it just to make it habitable, and we couldn't offer the full asking price and afford to do it up. Taking a deep breath, we made the agent an offer we thought he would certainly laugh at, but - after a quick phone call - he told us that the vendor had accepted. Our jaws dropped in unison: we were astonished - maybe we should have made an even lower offer! It turned out that the daughter was not in any particular need of money and just wanted the place off her hands. Six weeks later, it was ours.
The amount of work required seemed to have put other buyers off. The building society wouldn't advance us the full amount until the neccessary work had been done on it. A survey had revealed that was structurally sound, but quite damp. We borrowed what we could and put together a month-long schedule of work. I was living in rented accomodation in a small village six or seven or so miles out of York, and my lease for the next six-month period was due for renewal. If I could give notice on it, and we could move into our new home at the end of the four weeks, that would be perfect. So we set to with a vengeance and it's amazing what we achieved in so short a time. A local builder was mobilised to move the kitchen wall into the hallway by a couple of feet to increase the kitchen size slightly, the damp-proofing company renewed the damp-proof course where needed, stripped off and replaced the plaster, and a plumber put in a gas boiler and radiators. The Husband (as he would not be called for another 14 months or so!) and I took time off work to insulate the loft and scythe the garden. Daughters #1 and #2 (11 and 9 at the time) merrily ripped the original lino out of the bedrooms and discovered some ancient sheets from the Daily Mail underneath. When we'd originally looked at the house, we'd been less than impressed by the two ugly gas heaters that stood in the fireplaces of both the living and dining rooms. The plumber capped off the gas supply near the meterbox and we pulled them out. We'd been considering renewing the fireplaces as well, but once the two hideous appliances had been removed we we struck by the beauty of the fire surrounds, which were the original oak with art deco tiles, which could now be clearly seen. We cleaned them up and bought new grates to put in the hearths. They were going to stay.

As well as a ramshackle shed, the newly shorn garden revealed the remains of flower beds, a cinder path, a couple of fuchsia bushes and a rather woody old hydrangea. And a large toad, which hung around for a while until the stubbly environment proved uncomfortably dry and exposed for him. We cleaned up the bathroom as best we could - the unallotted money had run out by then - and grew to appreciate its austere efficiency.

As for furniture, we had practically none, as my bungalow had been fully furnished (although I possessed some curtains and bedding) and the Husband had none of his own either, except a piano and a full rack of electronic keyboards, mixers, speakers and amplifiers. We'd bought a couple of beds from a local housebuilder's show house when he vacated a completed site. An old lady across the road (who'd been friendly with the original tenants and, coincidentally, the Husband's grandmother-up-the-hill) very kindly gave us two cottage-style armchairs (hunting scene tapestry/bare wood arms: not that comfy). We re-used the room-sized rug from the front room in the back room, where we also put an old TV and a donated VCR. Some kind acquaintances gave us some old Argos chest-of-drawers which we used for our clothes. On August Bank Holiday 1994, we moved in.

Talk about minimalist living! Over the next couple of weeks, the Husband and his dad put floor tiles down in the kitchen and fitted some very basic MFI units complete with sink and a heavily-discounted oven and hob. We lived on food from takeaways during this time (our neighbourhood, which has a high student population is extraordinarily prolific in them), and washed our plates in the bath! We grew rapidly and heartily sick of fast-food, and it was with great relief that we walked to the local supermarket (we had no car then, only a bike each) and bought fresh food to stock our new cupboards.

Because we were then both working full- time we could gradually add to our new home, month by month. We acquired bits and pieces of furniture, carpets (some second-hand from the Husband's relatives), more curtains, an old dining table and four chairs. We cycled everywhere and what with this and the continual DIY, we were lean and fit. When we'd saved enough for our wedding reception (family only) and a three-day honeymoon in Rome, we married. Within the year daughter #3 was on the way, followed two years and two months later by the Bright-Eyed Boy. The increase in the family size entailed a substantial remodelling of the house. We extended the mortgage substantially and had a two-storey extension put on the back of the house. The builder was an absolute star and had it completed within three months from breaking ground. It was sheer hell at the time, living in one downstairs room, everything coated in plaster-dust with muddy-booted builders tramping up and down the stairs all day. We gave up tidying very quickly as the mess re-occurred every day - not because they were particularly messy, they were very considerate, actually, but because the whole process was just messy! It was very a difficult time, with two very small children, neither of whom slept well, juggling our work (we both worked 20 hours a week each at this time) and managing the building project. By the end, we were pretty much broke. We had no money to decorate the new extension and the Husband spent every spare minute for the next couple of years, growing thinner and thinner, doing DIY tasks and decorating if and when we could afford the materials, whilst I (growing fatter and fatter!) tended the children. Never having really recovered from my late pregnancies, I had become run-down and exhausted. I had given up going out to work and struggled to keep our computer-aided draughting business running from home and look after two small children. I was certainly not in my element! The unpredictable demands of the construction industry (feast or famine work-wise, many different employers and never daring to turn away a contract) saw us regularly trying to meet a deadline by sitting up until 2 or 3 in the morning on adjacent computers, often each with a child in our arms. I think I probably went a bit mad during this period. We probably both did, being very much sleep-deprived.

However, in my madness, I decided that I now desperately needed to do something to revive my atrophying brain and so I enrolled at the Open University to study Classical Greek. I'd originally attempted to do this the year before and then discovered that the B-E-B was on the way and had postponed it. This did mean that I often had to start my studies at ten at night when the children were 'asleep', or very early in the morning before they 'woke up' although it was never predictable. Not the best way to learn a whole new alphabet and language! For a while the Husband kept me company, doing a module on Astronomy and Cosmological Science which proved ultimately too time-consuming for him to sustain alongside his other commitments. Fortunately, by this time the whole building industry had become far more computer-savvy and designers were doing their own CAD and, at the same time, the Husband's career was progressing nicely in the same field. Without any regret (save that for the extra income) I bade our last client farewell and mothballed the business.

And that was pretty much that. Still caring full-time for daughter #3 and the B-E-B, one OU course led another until I'd pretty well run out of Classical Studies options. On a whim, I contacted the Classics department at Leeds and before long found myself enrolled full-time (courtesy of the student loans company - yet more debt) for the next two academic years. After gaining a First in Greek and Greek Civilisation, I went on to get an MA by research in New Testament textual criticism. By this time the children were in full-time education. A rigorously organised schedule, plus occasional back-up, meant that I could drop them off at school, tear off to Leeds for lectures, seminars or tutorials and usually be back in time to pick them up, just like I'd been at home cooking and cleaning all day, or whatever it is that women fill their time with. And finally, after a decade of study, my academic perseverence paid off and I find myself doing a fully-funded PhD in New Testament linguistics. Not in Leeds, as my MA supervisor - who is a world authority in the field of textual criticism - retired, but (less conveniently) down in Birmingham where, once again I serendipitously find myself surrounded by world-class scholars.
But I could have done none of this without the support of the Husband, my rock and my star, who has supported me and kept me going with unquestioning love and tolerance, who looked at this unpromising creature all those years ago and decided that maybe - just maybe - she was worth the risk.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Ground (Still) Stands Hard as Iron

The novelty of the wintery weather is starting to wear off a bit now. The return to school, usually a dull and dismal prospect signifying the end of the Christmas fun and festivity, has been made far less oppressive by the deep, crisp layers spectacularly coating the neighbourhood. The Bright-Eyed Boy has been mightily cheered by it all, which is a massive relief as I was dreading that his earlier anxiety symptoms would return with the start of the term. So far though (touch wood), so good: the snow has most certainly been a mitigating factor, with the prospect of snowball fights with friends and probably more sledging this coming weekend acting as a distraction from any lurking worries. I do hope that it was just a passing phase, although if it does return, I think that we'll probably be better able to cope with it.
Daughter #3's school has been operating irregular opening times, which meant that she has been returning home just after 2.30 in the afternoon, much to her delight. On Monday she had a teacher-training day, so she took herself off for a morning's sledging, complete with flask of hot drink and bags of biscuits.

The bird table in our garden has seen a mass of frenzied activity of late. I've made sure that it's re-stocked everymorning with crumbs, fat, bird seed and mealworms (popular with robins, apparently). The avian clientele seem to wait in the surrounding trees and bushes until I've done my duty (which includes making sure they have fresh, unfrozen water) and then descend. There is a definite heirarchy: the starlings arrive first, then the blackbirds, sparrows and the thrush (singular) and finally the ring-collar doves and the wood pigeon, who is too fat to sit on the table and sits underneath it waiting for stuff to drop to the ground. The blue and great tits arrive whenever they feel like it and tend to prefer the balls of fat that I've hung from the cherry tree at the end of the garden. I haven't actually seen the robin lately, although (s)he was around before Christmas.Very occasionally, I've caught a glimpse of a wren which bobs around at low-level, seldom above the bottom-most plank of the wooden fence. Last year, and the year before, blue tits actually nested in the box that the Husband carefully constructed from approved RSPB plans (did you know that size of the entry holes are variety specific?). However, unless blue tits are able to dispose of their egg shells completely - we opened the nest box up to clear it out in the autumn - I don't think they raised any young in there.
The guinea pigs are still living inside too, side by side in two large plastic tubs filled with shavings and hay. They've been in for three weeks now, but I'm not going to risk them outside in their hutches until the temperature increases somewhat. We lost a rabbit and a guinea pig to something like pneumonia when the children were small, and I still feel pretty guilty about it today. I did take them to the vet when I noticed the symptoms, but despite antibiotics and a special diet their conditions just deteriorated. And it is very difficult to bury even small pets at this time of year, as the ground is like iron. Last year daughter #2's budgie died at around this time and he had to wait about ten days for his funeral. Luckily, because it was so cold at the time, he remained quite well preserved round the back of her house, in his little shoe-box coffin.....

So Arthur and Albert - the guineas - remain inside, and pretty boring it must be for them too. Like solitary confinement. Roll on the days when they can laze around in their runs in the sunshine and vocalise abuse at one another! Albert (tri-coloured and short-haired) gets pretty noisy during the evening, which encourages the whole family to respond with squeals of their own. Arthur, albino, long-haired and quite, quite mad, maintains a more dignified silence. It's a shame they can't keep each other company in the same pen, but they just don't get on. When we tried it there was lots of eye-rolling, stiff-legged, wary circling and hostile chittering. Don't fancy taking them to the vets with battle-wounds either!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New Year's Fun

As it is the last day before the general return to work/school/study - no waiting until 12th night which falls on a Wednesday this year - we spent the first part of the morning taking down the Christmas tree and cards and stowing all the baubles in the loft until next year. We were quite shocked at how quickly Christmas had come round again this year, and no doubt we will be expressing the same sort of thoughts twelve months hence. Once everything was all clean and tidied away it was actually quite pleasant to have that bit of extra space and the feeling that the coming week represents a 'fresh start' in many ways. Once that was out of the way, all four of us went up and over Siward's How, the southerly ridge that obscures the low winter sunlight from our house, to the steepish hill that drops away onto Fulford Moor. This is excellent sledging terrain: the Husband and the Bright-Eyed Boy did some reconnaissance yesterday and ended up having two hours of snow-based fun. They couldn't wait to go back again today, and daughter #3 and I needed little persuading. The piste itself is reasonably uniform in profile (with some more challenging sections) that has been polished over the past couple of days to a glassy sheen, ensuring a fast and rather exciting trip. The run-out area at the bottom of the hill starts where the longer weeds and grass poke through the snow as a natural break. I suppose the entire run from top to bottom is about a couple of hundred feet or so, and you can reach a fair old speed. The trickiest bit is avoiding other sledgers, especially as the steering is a bit erratic, and a good loud shouting voice is essential! There were a lot of families there, lots of Dads imparting advice to their children and a lot of parents doing stuff that is going to mean aching joints and stiff muscles tomorrow (myself included - one particularly spectacular wipeout left me with some colourful abrasions on my leg).
But was most noticeable was the sound, a sound of pure joy, people of all ages laughing and having wonderful fun together that didn't rely on expensive gadgets or complicated preparations, and it struck me how unusual that was -an atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie, strangers chatting to one another, all their defences down.

Gradually the sun became veiled by cloud and large flakes of snow started to fall silently. Having had the best fun we'd had for ages, we headed home for soup and hot buttered toast, making a wholehearted resolution that this year we would - as a family -try to have much more fun!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Somewhere between Christmas and the New Year I have managed to pick up a stinking cold. This is absolutely typical: I manage - through sheer bloody-mindedness, I think - to make it through most of the year unscathed, only to succumb when there are a concentration of lovely, sociable gatherings to attend and enjoy. Still, at least it's only a cold, not a recurrence of the rather debilitating virus-thing I had last year, where I spent most of the holiday week glassy-eyed and inert on the sofa.

We managed to stay up and 'see the New Year in' last night (complete with daughter #2 and her Bouncing Babba, who grumpily kept stirring in his sleep to complain about the disruption to his routine). To be quite honest, we could have easily have turned in at our normal bedtime, having snaffled our buffet supper at seven in the evening and been bored to tears by the bland TV scheduling. We did attempt some games, but by then I was feeling a bit rough and was losing my voice and was not terribly enthusiastic. However, we stuck it out and raised a glass at the as Big Ben struck the midnight hour. On retiring almost immediately after, my attention was caught through the bedroom window by a flotilla of Chinese lanterns rising silently into the night sky. The light northerly wind carried them directly over our house and it was a beautiful sight, very much like drifting, luminous jelly-fish - much nicer than the raucous fireworks that randomly punctuated the early 2010 calm.

This morning the Bright-Eyed Boy and I were up early and, having waved goodbye to #2 and baby, took our sledge to the local park where over the past couple of days I'd been eyeing up the solidly-frozen and iced-up gravel path as a makeshift competitor to the infamous Cresta bobsled Run. The B-E-B soon mastered the art of weight-shift steering and, after a couple of trial runs, managed to propel himself along a fair portion of the track at a reasonable speed. He was quite keen (against my better judgement) on trying the head-first 'skeleton bob' approach, but fortunately this proved less successful than the conventional method, to which he reverted after a couple of slower runs. It was quite tricky remaining upright, especially as I was juggling the Dog's lead and my phone-camera and trying to boost the Boy out of the 'starting gate'. Much slipping about and hilarity ensued, but I eventually managed to get some fairly good video footage and some stills, despite the Dog being sent into leaping, outraged fits by a spaniel that had the nerve to get too close. When we arrived home the B-E-B was so enthused and glowing that the Husband immediately decided to accompany us back to the park (minus the Dog, who'd had enough excitement by then) and have a go himself. The bonus to all this fun is that my cold seems to have gone into retreat, no doubt on account of all the adrenalin coursing through my bloodstream, and I feel a lot brighter. (Long may it continue to improve.) It was a fantastic way to start the year.