Friday, 21 July 2017

What is a holiday?

What is a holiday to you? A holiday, in my book, is taking some books and going to Italy and doing not very much at all except reading and eating. A holiday is a flight and a hire car, hot sun and a cold pool, a lazy saunter to the village shops to buy provisions, which must include some of those giant creased tomatoes that look like they've been injected with steroids, then later attempting to cook those provisions for lunch on an unfamiliar hob, invariably one of those God-awful induction ones that require you to hold down the invisible buttons in a random sequence until something eventually starts to heat up and then the next time you come to do it you can't remember the sequence, because you stumbled across it randomly, so you have to go through the whole rigmarole all over again.

A holiday is taking the anti-mozzie plug-in thingies, then forgetting to plug them in on the first night because you were past yourself with exhaustion (as they say in Yorkshire) because you just did a 13-hour door to door journey (and you were only flying from Gatwick to Pisa) so you get bitten and spend the rest of the 13 nights with your arm under the table at dinner, scratching that bite on your ankle that swells up like a boiled sweet and leaves a welt that scars you for the whole of the rest of the year, as a souvenir.

A holiday is letting your younger kids have pizza and ice-cream and coke at every meal and your older ones drink alcohol and then not bothering to tell them to brush their teeth when they go to bed and leaving them to sleep until lunchtime, because you can.

A holiday is sitting on the sun lounger for so long reading a book that only the front of your legs get tanned.

A holiday is working out which place has the best bread and when the fried fish van comes to town, on the penultimate day.

A holiday is meaning to go and see that amazing thing in the local museum/art gallery/next town but never actually getting round to it and then on that last day saying, shall we go and see that thing? Nah, can't be arsed, we'll be travelling all day tomorrow anyway.

A holiday is using the barbecue precisely twice and then having to spend twice the time it took to cook the sausages scrubbing the thing clean and getting sprayed with burnt-on black bits, on the last night.

A holiday is the deafening sound of cicadas, church bells waking you on a Sunday morning, a row about using the sat nav ("either follow its instructions or turn the damn thing off!"), Boots Soltan Factor 30 you've had in the back of the bathroom cupboard for five years, fishing insects out of the pool with a net, the local market full of foreign tongue, both to listen to and to eat, a tatty old sun hat, a fancy pair of wedges you pack to wear in the evening and then never do because they're much too impractical, sand in the bottom of the bath when you get out, someone else's scratchy sheets and too hard pillow, buying salt and pepper then finding the rental supplied it already, supermarkets with whole aisles of lovely crockery you want to stuff in your suitcase and take home but you know that you can't so you just get one pretty bowl and when you get back home someone puts it in the dishwasher and most of the pattern comes off. THAT is a holiday. And is that what we're doing this year? No.

This year we're not going on a holiday at all, we're going on an adventure of a lifetime to the west coast of America to embark on a road trip because I once did something similar as a child and last year we came into a bit of money that will finally make it possible and if we don't do it now our kids will have gone off to live their own lives without us, for good.

This year there will be no house, no pool, possibly not a lot of hot weather because the pacific north west is not exactly known for it, just me and my four males, of various sizes and degrees of smelliness, in a 30 foot metal box on wheels, travelling from San Francisco to Seattle then ditching the RV and going on to Vancouver by train, then hiring a car to take us into the Rockies, before flying back from Calgary. And am I complaining? Of course I'm not, I'm lucky as hell and I know it.

Love E x


P.S. Watch this space...

Wednesday, 21 June 2017


Seven years. 365 posts. 292,000 words. I began writing this blog on the 8th of April 2010 when the boys were 13, 11 and 7, and according to the blog stats since then there have been 365 blog posts, although I think that's including drafts that were never posted and posts that went back into draft. With each post taken as an average length of 800 words, although some are shorter and many are longer, I arrive at the approximate figure of 292,000 words in total. I could have written a novel instead, or two.

Those boys are now 21, 18 and 15 and I hope I haven't written things here that might mortify them, although I fear I will have. I remember attending a blogging event some years back where a psychologist recommended not blogging about one's children at all, with or without their permission, and certainly not after resorting to bribery. I hope what comes across is how much I enjoy spending time with them and how funny I find them; that they make me laugh every day. I remember as a teenager loving to hang out with the cool boys in the sixth form common room at school, the know-it-alls with their sharp minds and quick-fire banter, and now I find I have three just like that to call my own. People often used to commiserate with me for not having girls, my paternal grandmother in particular. "What a shame," she would repeat when her mind got trapped in a loop, "only boys, like me. You're a Campbell. Your grandfather was one of nine!" I didn't like to tell her it's the man who provides the Y chromosome and like all women I rocked up with the X part of the equation, and in any case I was perfectly happy to be the mother of sons. As Mrs Morel says in Sons and Lovers, "to be the mother of men was warming to her heart."

If nothing else I'd like this blog to be a record for them of some of the highs and lows of the last seven years: school days and holidays, birthdays and Christmases, weddings and funerals, exhibitions and gigs, broken bones, and irons, and ironing boards, sitting round camp fires in France with friends playing guitars, or just sitting around the dinner table with me as they do every night being told to eat their veg. Should they want them, all these memories are here. I've never printed any of it out so I'm rather at the mercy of Google to keep it alive in the ether. I'm taking a break from blogging now for a few weeks to concentrate on a work project but I'll be back with a travel blog in about a month.

I leave you with this - I was in York last week with my brother to watch my father lecture about The Beatles as part of the York Festival of Ideas, a lecture called Sergeant Pepper: Playing With Words, marking 50 years since the release of that iconic album.

He did so for well over an hour without notes and incidentally he's their longest serving academic, still lecturing in 2017 having joined the university way back in 1964. I am immensely proud of him, and it being still so near to Father's Day seems as good a time as any to say so again. Here are some quotes below from Beatles fans from the close of his lecture as he played Yesterday, an ending I found incredibly moving.

'The Beatles songs were the kind of songs which offered you a world of their own. I became totally absorbed with each and every song in body and mind. I would feel alive, centred, alert, sensual, and very real. You could forget everything and become part of the song.'

'Their music is practically orgasmic to me. I’ve heard every song they ever did at least 500 times and I still get a cold chill every time I hear them.'

'The Beatles changed so much and brought us so much joy. We grew up with them. They taught us about life and love, drugs, war, reality, and fantasy… They dictated our styles, moods, lives. They shaped usDidnt a whole generation feel this way, or am I wrong?'

My whole concept of love derives from the emotions I felt as I watched them sing and saw their pictures in fan magazines, as well as the words that vibrated through my being.'

'I am so glad that they were around while I was growing up. I place them right alongside my parents when it comes to my up-bringing. The Beatles, Mom and Dad were, and still are, very important people in my life.'

Love E x


P.S. And here's that first blog.

Thursday, 8 April 2010
Up and Out

I'm making pancakes and waffles. Youngest doesn't want a pancake or a waffle, says he's too ill for school and wants a pancake made out of waffle mixture. A wancake? Too rude. I name it a puffle. He has two puffles.

Eldest is accusing me - very loudly and from up two flights of stairs - of hiding his French text book. Middle One says his waffle isn't soft enough - freshly made, mind, using the waffle iron from Lidl (only £11.99). Shove toast into hands of Eldest and kiss him good-bye.

Juice, cereal, grab coffee, load dishwasher, wipe-round, hairbrush, toothpaste, book bag, shoes (where are the damn shoes) hats, bit of lipstick, turn down the thermostat, slam door and the three of us are spewed out onto the street shivering. It's not even 8.30 yet and I'm knackered.

Drag Youngest down the street with Middle One keeping up relentless monotone on the unfairness of life: "and the portions at lunchtime are really tiny." Dance the dog turd shuffle trying not to make eye-contact with the crazy-haired cat lady from over the road (you know her, every street has one).

Turning the corner into the High Street, it's like an icy Vodka luge (I only had one once at a wedding but it made a big impression) and we're blasted sideways by lorry fumes, brake fluid, and sirens. It's a cocktail for the senses. Middle One ratchets up the moaning to compete.

Joining the flow school-wards - Boden-clad, Orla Kiely bag-clutching mums - heading salmon-like up the High Street against the commuter current. I won't be diverted, overcome, or, heaven forbid, overtaken. Check the competition. She's on time, and that one, and that lot going the other way to the Catholic school. On schedule we can relax a bit and talk to that mum catching up from behind. Tit-for-tat, friendly, quick-fire banter. My screaming sub-text: so you think your life's hard? Just listen to mine...

Wednesday, 14 June 2017


Once a week I go to the nearest Age UK offices and ring old people for a couple of hours from a little windowless basement room. I hear amazing things talking to these old people, once we get past the usual 'so how are you feeling and do you have enough food in the house?' I like to get them to reminisce about when they were young because it's a free social history lesson. Albert tells me about being brought up in the slums near the Ram Brewery and describes sleeping with his six brothers top to toe in the same bed in the attic and hearing rats moving around in the wattle and daub walls just inches from his head. He tells me his father left his mother for another woman so she had to bring up nine children alone. She worked in the local candle factory six days a week and took in washing in the evenings in order to make ends meet. He had his first job when he was six selling newspapers with his brother outside Arsenal football ground. "But Arsenal's miles away," I say. "I know it is," he says, "and I used to walk there and back."

Doris describes the London Blitz to me in minute detail. She lived in Putney during the war while her younger siblings were sent away to the countryside; she was 16 so had to stay home with her parents to help in the family bakery. She talks about the fires that lit up the sky at night all the way from the East End to Putney, and tells me they used to keep their front doors unlocked in those days and pop in and out of each other's houses borrowing things, not like now, when you can't be too careful and someone came right into her house the other week and took money from her kitchen table. Sometimes the things they say make me laugh, we make each other laugh, to be honest, like the woman who told me it was her birthday so I sang her happy birthday and then checked her notes and found that it wasn't. And sometimes they make me cry, just quietly to myself, you understand, because I don't want to upset them. Like the woman who said she goes to bed with a hot water bottle as early as possible every day because she can't wait for it to end, the old man who told me he goes for a walk by the river and sits on a bench just to watch people walk by; he says it makes him feel less lonely.

I read that loneliness is now an epidemic amongst the elderly, with 1.2 million older people in England chronically lonely and the over-85 population set to rise from 1.3 million people to just under 2.8 million over the next 20 years. Many of the people I talk to were fine not so long back: fit and healthy with active lives and happy marriages, then something happens, a turn for the worse health-wise, a heart attack, a stroke, a fall, the loss of a beloved partner, and everything changes.

You might think it's nice of me to give my time freely like this when really it's not. I do it for selfish reasons. One of them is because I like the reaction I get from people when I tell them. "Ooo how lovely of you," they say, "that's so kind." Another is because it gets me out of the house when I'm working from home and going stir crazy. Mostly it's because it makes me feel better about myself. Surely if I do this, I think, and sit in a depressing little basement and talk to a bunch of elderly sad people then I'm not completely useless. When of course I can still be completely useless because I'm using those elderly sad people to make myself feel better, and then write about it.

When I was a teenager I had a huge row with my Sociology A'Level teacher, which went on for weeks, when he told the class there's no such thing as a selfless act. I desperately tried to come up with one: the member of the French resistance who risks his own safety for others. "Self-serving," he said, "because it makes him feel good about himself." The mother who throws herself in front of the bullet to save her child. "Her child," he said, "so in effect she's saving herself." Now I think perhaps he was right. When I mentioned I was writing about this to one of my sons, he said: "reciprocal altruism, look it up." So I did. So maybe that's why I talk to old people, perhaps somewhere in the back of my mind I think it's money in the bank for my own future: what goes round comes round, do as you would be done by, tit for tat.

Whatever the reason, sometimes it's pretty thankless, especially if they're rude or cross and slam the phone down, which is rare but does occasionally happen. But mostly the thanks come in thick and fast and they're charming and so pathetically grateful I've rung for a few minute's chit chat it does make me feel perhaps I'm putting something back and the reasons I do it don't matter. The other day I had a long chat with an elderly Jamaican man about the jazz band he was in during the 40s and he told me "every day is a precious day," and another gentleman was listening to Mozart very loudly when I rang and I saw from his notes he's often difficult or too depressed to talk so I spent twenty minutes chatting to him about Mozart. I'm only meant to spend a few minutes talking to each one so I can get lots ticked off the list but I can't see the point of that and have favourites I like to talk to for longer. Sometimes they ask about my life and when I describe it to them it sounds wonderful, even to me. This week I got involved in the case of an elderly man, registered blind, who was moving house. All he needed was someone to put the food in his fridge so I put the phone down and got the relevant permission and went round and did it for him.

Love E x