Archive for November, 2014

Crafting Good Enough Company

November 26, 2014

Hat is describing a school function via Skype.  I witness her frustration in her frowns and the way she narrows her eyes when she’s cross. (A memory: when I was a child we had a book about science, it imagined a far off scenario where we could see the face of the person we were talking to on the phone in a screen opposite. It seemed the stuff of sci-fi movies. Less than a generation ago I marvel momentarily). I was so angry Mum, she says, her brow creasing, her voice rising in volume and pitch. There was this woman right, an Old Girl, not old-old (like me presumably) but Old as in used to come to my school. Yes, I prompt. Well one of the boys in my class, who was sitting at our table, mentioned the school’s new LGBT support. Yeeeees … I say (I think I know where this is going). And she said, LGBT? What? Here?! At this school?! That’s shocking!  And then she said, ‘in my day that kind of thing would have been knocked out of kids like that in the shower room’. I’m appalled. Hat clearly is too. How shocking is that Mum? Knocked out of them in the shower room?! What did you say, I ask. Hat drops her head. Nothing, she says. I couldn’t find the words. I empathize. I have been there too. Not long ago. And I have years on Hat, years which ought to have lent me a voice when I really needed one. But I did glare at her. And then I ignored her. So she knew I was disgusted. And I imagine Hat then, titian curls bouncing as she tosses her head to defiantly tip her chin, her hazel eyes hot with indignation. I have to stifle a smile. Well done I say. But next time, I tell Hat, next time a similar situation arises, draw on your inner journalist and ask a question. Say, ‘Why do you find the idea of LGBT support shocking’?  I bet they won’t have an answer.


I am not an aspirational mother. But I do make certain demands of my children:

  1. Be brave and try it (whether it’s lentil curry, an extracurricular activity they’re tempted by and afraid of in equal measure or a terrifyingly ambitious university choice which they’d love to have a go at but can’t bear being rejected from). What’s the worst that can happen is my default position – life doles out plenty of joy and disappointment, the joy is easy to handle. Managing the disappointment takes practice. The earlier you get some in, the better.
  2. Say thank you. And please. No thank you, I won’t have any more of the lentil curry but I’d love some more of the chicken one please. Manners maketh the Man. And the woman. I cannot abide the lack of.
  3. Don’t be a sheep. Just because everybody else is – or isn’t – doesn’t mean you have to follow suit; do what feels right. (And that applies to drink/drugs/fags/ignoring the new girl because everybody else is).
  4. Don’t be a snob. I inherited my maternal grandmother’s abhorrence of snobs.  Just because somebody went to an elitist school or university, just because they can afford to attire themselves in expensive brands, just because they have a double barreled surname and live in a palatial home does not make them any more clever/interesting/compassionate/funny than the next person
  5. Be Kind. To children, old people and animals. Especially old people, given my own advancing decrepitude.
  6. Open your mind wide. If you narrow it, your view of the world will telescope and you’ll miss all the best bits. The stuff on the edge and in the middle distance which is often over looked.
  7. Ask questions – there is no such thing as a stupid question, only stupid answers – it’ll ease your way into awkward social scenarios when you feel shy and asking questions is a good way to forget how anxious you feel (mostly because everybody loves talking about themselves.)

Educating our children isn’t, surely, just about making sure they get into the right school, onto the right course, attain the right grades, it’s not just about making sure they understand the perils of drink, drugs and unprotected sex (although, of course, urged a sex coach and friend, we must also ensure they understand that sex is not all bad; we must teach them about the good bits too)? It must also be about guiding them towards becoming reasonable grown-ups? Not just kids we’re proud of but adults we’d enjoy having a drink with? I think most of us do it instinctively.  We’re aware of the alternative:  imagine having to contend with a dinner party guest who won’t eat what you’ve prepared, having described the various afflictions that render him intolerant of dairy, gluten and lentil curry in particular, forgets to say thank you when you rush off to the kitchen to rustle up something he will eat, ignores the timid lady to his left, drones on about his skiing holiday and his son’s Gap Yah (the same son who went to Eton by the way), surreptitiously kicks your dog under the table, makes homophobic asides, never asks one question of a single person at your table and then ostentatiously regards his Rolex, twisting his wrist this way and that so you can all see it, and says ‘good lord, is that the time?’ and to yours and everybody else’s relief, ‘I must go’. You wouldn’t ask him back again.


To Market, to Market …

November 21, 2014

To market, to market to buy a fat pig (or sell some lampshades)

Home again, home again, jiggety jig.

 long drive matera2


2 000 Klm round trip. To a fair to sell my wares. The heat bore down and the social onslaught threatened to overwhelm. So much air kissing. Mwah mwah.  (The acquaintances). Throwing arms around one another in hearty, exuberant embrace (The friends, some I hadn’t seen in more than a year). So much relating where we are. How we are. Smiling until my face ached.

And then, curled into a kitchen chair late at night, in my pajamas, with a dear, dear friend, over bottles of wine, righting our worlds. Or eating lunch where I forget to fork my food into my face because I am so engrossed in the conversations I have missed.

For this is what I miss the most. This. This proximity of easy, aged companionship. The kind where you don’t have to pick up the pieces.  No explaining needs doing.

It feels like a balm. A soft and kindly reminder, after jagged, bumpy recent history, that some place somewhere really feels like home.

And then Ant and I are bundled back into the pickup, luggage and shopping piled untidily in the back, ham sandwiches and a flask of tea at my feet.

I try not to nod off. I try to remain engaged, to keep Ant awake on the eleven hour drive home.

There is a lot to talk about. Whom we have each seen independently of one another. Their news.  A sharing out of our individual spoils, as if spreading our separate offerings upon a picnic blanket  – it helps to stretch the occasion.

And shorten our journey.

We eat our sandwiches and drink our tea on the shores of the Matera Dam, hunkered low in the long lean valley that straddles the hot country between Dodoma and Iringa. Here temperatures soar to 35 degrees and the grazing is nicotine yellow but the acacia, in heady anticipation of imminent rains, are sporting lime green foliage and wearing mantles of white lace. And by the water’s edge pigs snuffle greedily. The incongruity of Africa I think. And I smile.

long drive matera

A Waste of a Cambridge Education?

November 11, 2014


On Sunday my eldest daughter will be 21.

She’s thousands and thousands of miles away.

A teacher now. Or a teacherintraining.

I say to an acquaintance, when they enquire as to where my children are and what they are doing: “Melie? Oh, she’s teaching’.



A degree from Cambridge and she’s teaching? What a waste!

My eyes grew wide and my mouth fell open. Slack jawed no words came out and acquaintance minced off.

But I was furious. Furious at their comment.  And furious at myself for not finding the voice to defend my daughter’s choice.  One her dad and I championed.

But I have now: found my voice.

What – I have asked myself  time and time again since that throwaway observation was made – ought parents do to pass muster? To be Good Enough? Love our children, certainly, protect them, cherish them, hug them, read to them, make them eat broccoli, remember to take them to the dentist, nurture a sense of self worth.

Educate them.

Give them Roots. Grant them Wings. Education helps society soar.

If we learned how to prevent the spread of malaria with a onetime cure, how to eradicate poverty with the wave of a magic wand, how to fill bellies in the hungriest places on earth with the click of our fingers, nothing would sustain. Nothing can without education.

Ask an impoverished African child what he wants most in the world and he’ll tell you to go to school.

And when I dwell further on my daughter’s critic’s comment, I am staggered at the irony. Clearly they revered Cambridge. But where on earth do they think all the academics who teach there began their careers. In classrooms I imagine?

I know it was the way Amelia was taught , the teachers who inspired her, that helped get her to Cambridge in the first place.

amelia final exam over

Melie after last of her finals

And I hope she’ll help kids to follow in her footsteps.



And Another Thing …


Amelia’s dad comes home and reads this post. He asks who it was that considered Cambridge a waste given daughter’s career choice. I tell him. ‘Ah’, he observes, ‘the most competitive of parents … didn’t they bust a gut to get their son into  (and he names an elite British boarding school) …”.

Indeed they did.

Presumably so that they could boast about the Education they could afford to gift their offspring …

Ironies abound.


He. Me. We

November 3, 2014


I think about marriage a lot.

I think about it because if I were not married to Ant I would not be here. This would not be my choice. I am here because he is here and because I Do, I Am.


It’s a peculiar thing that I turn over and over in my mind.

Can I be a feminist if I have followed a man to the ends of the earth? Because this certainly feels like it – the ends of the earth: at times I’m in danger of falling right off the treacherous precipice upon which I teeter.

Can I be my own person if I form one half of a fairly well established duo?

And has being a part of a pair eroded my identity as an individual? Particularly given alienating, dislocating, isolating geography?


Is defining yourself as Wife Mother (writer) enough?

Ought I have striven for something Professional (with a payslip and a private pension?)

I was so young when I got married that I did not think beyond the romance of it all – the Big White Wedding. Playing at House. And then I became a mother and was subsumed by all the deliciousness and the demands that came with children.

It’s only now, as I come up for air, that I have the time and the perspective from which to ponder.

Would I have done it differently?

Sometimes I really hate living here sometimes. Abhor the loneliness. The struggling for occupation. The scratching for purpose.


But a year ago – and because of our constrained circumstances and unsettledness – Ant and I were forced to live countries apart for four months. And I did not do well: living apart. Not because I was unable to cope. I lived alone in a house on a farm, paid bills, cooked glass, wrote, went out with friends, drove many lonely miles, remembered to eat (occasionally). My geography was kinder; there were cappuccinos and pedicures to be had within ten minutes of my gate.

No. Not because I was unable to cope. But because a part of my definition, after twenty five years in the job, is the business of this partnership.

We sit side by side at my desk (which he has rolled his eyes at for my papers lie strewn all over it and he must clear a small space for his laptop) and we work in mostly quiet companionship, separately but towards a common end. Instead of eating solitary toast and marmite for supper, I prepare chilli chicken for two. Not because I feel obliged in manner of Good Obedient Housewife, but because food in the company of others is, for me, a celebration.

We have made so many mistakes together. Lost thousands on bad ideas. Cried a bit. Laughed a lot. We have raised three children. We have fought. But mostly we have carved from the other a small space to fit a part of ourselves. A part. He remains He, and I Me. Perfectly able separately but much happier as We.

I would not be here if he weren’t.

So how do I know that I am equal in this union? How do I know my role counts, my contribution to this arrangement matters? Makes a difference?

Because he wouldn’t be here without me either.