Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Scottish Tale.

They say you should never go back but last week I did. I went back to Edinburgh after an absence of twenty-five years. The last time I was in Edinburgh I was accompanying an author on a book tour, which seems fitting because above all else Edinburgh is a city of stories; even its railway station is named after a novel.

On that occasion I stayed at the Roxburghe Hotel and I remember there was a telephone in the bathroom. I raided the mini bar, ran a deep bubbly bath, and rang everyone I could think of while
lying in it. And that's a true story.

The time before that I was 19 and I stayed with my uncle and aunt. This time I'm back for my uncle's 80th birthday celebrations, all two of them: the family get-together at the house on Saturday evening and the even larger family get-together at a local venue on Sunday lunchtime.

We fly up from London on Good Friday morning. The flight is so early we're standing in the B&B in the suburb of Colinton - where incidentally Robert Louis Stevenson spent his childhood summers - by 10.30am. I feel oddly rearranged and freezing cold, and there's no sign of either a bath or a mini bar.

"Michael Portillo once slept in that room just there," says the friendly B&B owner, as we climb the stairs behind him with our luggage. "And this radiator in your room here takes a wee while to warm up."

I feel the radiator. The last time that radiator warmed up Michael Portillo had a seat in the cabinet, I think. Fortunately there's an old heater in the corner so I put it on, and leave it on.

My aunt and uncle's house just down the road from the B&B is both warm and exactly as I remember it. I take photographs of particular objects I have fond memories of: the stuffed snipes behind glass that originally belonged to my great grandparents; the sculpture of a woman's head in the bathroom that came from the art college. As you get older the past becomes more precious and I'm conscious of trying to capture bits of mine before they're gone for good and to nurture relationships that, despite being geographically thwarted, I am nevertheless bound to by an unbreakable familial thread. I'm also keen to reminisce.

I tell my cousin I remember going round Edinburgh junk shops with her searching for Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper crockery.

I tell my aunt I remember going swimming with her and that I'm also now addicted to it. I ask my uncle if he remembers my father trying to climb around the house when he was a boy without touching the floor, something he frequently mentions. 

We all enjoy the slideshow of old photographs and shed a small tear together thinking of our shared grandparents/great-grandparents/parents whose union in 1934 made possible this gathering of 20 people in 2017.

Apart from my relatives there are two things I'm keen to see in Edinburgh, both with stories attached. The first is Holyrood Palace, inextricably linked to the history of Mary Queen of Scots, surely the most tragic of heroines, married to the brutal Lord Darnley who had her Italian private secretary David Rizzio dragged from the dining table on the 9th of March 1566 and stabbed to death 56 times in front of her in a fit of jealous rage, so the story goes. She was seven months pregnant with her son at the time (later to be James VI of Scotland/James I of England and Ireland). There's a spot on the floor of the palace, they say, where Rizzio's blood still stains the flagstoned floor. Unfortunately we get to the palace on Good Friday afternoon to find that it's shut. Easter Monday might not be a holiday in Presbyterian Scotland but we quickly discover that Good Friday is. No matter, I have seen the palace before. I haven't seen Greyfriars Kirkyard, though, and I'm keen to go there too, not just because I love snooping round old churchyards but because of its famous fable.

I tell my 13-year-old niece the tale of Greyfriars Bobby as we walk up to Edinburgh Castle on Saturday afternoon. "I think I've seen the Disney movie of that, Aunty Libby" she tells me, "and there's a similar story from Japan." She recounts the similar story from Japan as we climb the last few steps to the top. It's a sweet little yarn of love and death and devotion, told to me by a sweet little girl.

"Read this," says my brother, pointing to a sign recounting one of the myths associated with the castle. "Do you think it's true?"

Last Orders. Three hundred heroes rode to their doom after a year drinking in a hall on the castle rock. This story was told in the ancient verses of Y Gododdin -
it says.

"Could be," I say. "Actually, I think I was in that club at university."

We don't get to Greyfriars Kirkyard until late Sunday afternoon and by then it too is shut. I peer through the wrought iron gate. Instead of seeing the old cemetery for myself I will just have to imagine it. Or perhaps I'll go back to Edinburgh another time to complete that particular chapter from its past, and my own.

Love E x


P.S. Edinburgh is also famous for its ghost stories, and it's the setting for most of Ian Rankin's inspector Rebus mysteries and for the gruesome 19th century tale of Burke and Hare, a shocking real-life saga of death and dismemberment. There's even a book bound in Burke's own skin, which just goes to show that murders make great stories. Especially when they really did happen.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017


My friend Kay is having a house-warming party in Clapham on Saturday night. I want to wear my new boots with flowers on them but all my dresses have flowers on them also and the combined effect, when I try them together, is much too much The Mamas and The Papas.

"You need something in a block colour," says my friend Jai over a flat white (one shot, extra hot) in a local cafe on Monday morning, when I explain the problem. "Preferably a LBD (little black dress). My husband is taking the kids camping on Friday so let's go shopping."

Friday afternoon, after her husband has taken her kids camping, Jai and I go shopping. We start with tea in the RA and end with drinks in the BFI via cocktails at the Royal Festival Hall and dinner at the Tate Modern with roughly six hours of trying on clothes in between. Jai buys two tops and I buy two dresses. One of them is a LBD from French Connection with a narrow sheer section in the middle at the front.

On Saturday evening when the doorbell rings I've just ended a long call to my mother and the phone has rung again. I answer the door with the phone clamped to my ear. Jai is standing on the doorstep looking stunning in skinny jeans, new top, and very high heels. "You're not changed for the party," she says.

"Who's that?" says the voice on the other end of the phone.

"It's Jai," I say. "We're going to Kay's party."

"Kay's party?" Says the voice on the other end of the phone. "Don't take drugs."

"I won't take drugs," I say. "I never have. Except for once when I lived in Norwich. But you have to take drugs if you live in Norwich."

"Don't take coke," says the voice on the other end of the phone. "I won't take coke," I say. "I never have."

I come off the phone. "Was that your mother?" asks Jai. 

"No," I say, "that was my son."

I go upstairs and put on the LBD with my new Summer of Love boots. "What do you think?" I ask Jai, walking back into the kitchen.

"Whoah," she says.

"I'll try it with a camisole," I say.

I come back downstairs with a camisole on underneath so that the sheer section in the middle at the front isn't sheer any more.

"That's sort of spoilt it," says Jai.

We drink champagne cocktails made with prosecco and then I go back upstairs and take the camisole off. Fuck it, I think, it's not like I'm going to take drugs.

At the party I find lots of alcohol and my friend Sas in the kitchen. "You're Cheryl Cole!" she says, when she sees the LBD with the sheer section in the middle at the front.

"Thanks!" I say. Then I remember Cheryl Cole headbutted someone in a ladies toilet.

As we tour the house while drinking more prosecco Sas is behind me on the stairs. "You have a pert arse in that dress," she says. 

"Thanks!" I say. 

Then I bump into Kay on the landing and in lieu of hello she rubs her nose in the sheer section in the middle at the front of my dress. "You're a MILF in that dress," she says.

"Thanks!" I say, because that sounds like a compliment. 

My body is being objectified, I think, because of this LBD, which is great, but any more acronyms and I'll span the whole alphabet.

A group of us kick off the dancing in the living room, and then stay there. After about an hour I head for the kitchen in search of more stuff to drink.

"Rock and roll!" says a man as I pass him in the hallway, a bottle dangling by my side. "You've got a whole bottle to yourself!"

"Yeah," I say, "of Badoit."

By 1am I've drunk the whole bottle of Badoit and my hip is killing me.

"My feet are in literal agony!" shouts Jai. 

"So is my hip!" I shout back.

We tell the host we have to leave because we are in literal agony. "You can't leave!" he shouts, pushing us back on the dance floor. But we leave anyway, when his back is turned.

In the taxi home Jai texts her eldest son, who hasn't gone camping. "He thinks we're leaving early," she says.

"Tell him bits of us are in literal agony," I say, "and I've normally had three hours sleep by now." 

I text one of my sons. My text says: I don't have a door key. Are you still up? I'm on my way home. I don't have a door key.

His text back says: Your text just began and ended with the same sentence. And I'm in bed.

After what seems like a very long time standing on the doorstep ringing the bell, one of my sons finally opens the front door.

"What time do you call this?" He says. "And what the fuck are you wearing?" 

Love E x


P.S. The little black dress -

My little black dress, which according to the above might not actually be one -

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Spring breaks through in South London.

"A light exists in spring."

You can keep autumn with its rotting leaves and mellow fruitfulness. You can have summer with its brash, kiss-me-quick and give us a lick of your ice cream. And winter? Winter, with its crazy Christmas centre piece, is for kids. For me, it's spring. Spring is the beginning of things, the promise of things, the journey before we arrive. We spring forward into spring. Spring leaves unspring themselves. Spring bulbs spring up from the ground. Even the verb is a happy one. Here is my Ode to Spring in pictures for while I'm away on a spring break. See you next week.

Love E x


A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period -
When March is scarcely here

A Color stands abroad
On Solitary hills
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels.

It waits upon the Lawn;
It shows the furthest tree
Upon the furthest Slope you know
It almost speaks to me.

Then as Horizons step
Or Noons report away
Without the Formula of sound
It passes and we stay -

A quality of loss
Affecting our Content
As Trade had suddenly encroached
Upon a sacrament.

Emily Dickinson.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

For the love of socks.

Sock it to 'em.

This is the story of Mr and Mrs Sock, who were made for each other. He was left-handed and she was right-handed so they had this yin and yang thing going on. In the beginning they were inseparable, in fact they were attached: a piece of nylon held them together plus a plastic strip with their sizing on it, which was the same, and they were happy that way. They didn't want to do their own thing, they didn't want to hang out with other socks, they only wanted each other.

One day they were bought and taken home and the thin piece of nylon that held them together got broken and the plastic strip ripped off but still they stayed together as a pair, somehow. Even though they went in the wash separately and got thrown about in the lather, nevertheless they found each other at the end of every day. And they were happiest then, wrapped in a tight ball - she inside him, he inside her - all cosied up in the drawer.
Then the inevitable happened: they lost each other. He looked for her in the washing machine - surely she was in there with him? They went in together, didn't they? He looked for her in the dryer, tumbling around in the heat. There were lots of socks in there for sure, but where was his sock? Where had Mrs Sock gone? He looked for her in the clean pile where he lay upside down with a pair of kid's Y-fronts stuck to his sole.

Each time he saw another sock that looked a little bit like his sock his heart skipped a beat. It was her! They were back in step, reunited! But no, it wasn't his sock. On closer inspection it was a sock that looked very much like his sock but it was just that little bit wrong: too big, too small, too completely a different pattern with a massive tear in the toe.

I'm afraid to say this story doesn't end well because Mr and Mrs Sock never did find each other again, even though they lived in the same house. He often wondered if he'd put his foot in it somehow, but the truth was they just drifted apart. They were worn on different feet, on different days, by different family members. Sometimes he thought he saw her under the table, stuck on the foot of another, but the glimpse was always fleeting and then she was gone, forever. Neither of them could put their finger on how it happened. It was a total mystery.*

Much Ado About Something.

This is a true story that does have a happy ending and was told to me some time ago. Apologies if you've heard it already because I do love telling it. A friend of mine's husband left her because he said he fell in love with someone else (that's not the bit I love, by the way). They had two small children and she was blindsided. Broken. Devastated. Crushed. All the usual adjectives. She cried all the time and wouldn't leave the house. After a few weeks another friend stepped in and said she needed to snap out of it and dragged her off to the theatre - I don't know what play it was, she never told me that part - she did tell me there was a guy in this play, an actor, she couldn't take her eyes off. She just sat there in the audience thinking: I have to be with that man. She wrote him a note and left it at the stage door, suggesting they meet. And they did. Somehow or other he didn't think she was a complete lunatic and he met her for coffee one afternoon and they hit if off and started dating and now they're married and have two more children and live just down the road from us. 

The person this happened to told me the story herself at playgroup many years ago. Truth really is stranger than fiction, I thought, because if you wrote that in a novel it would sound implausible. 

"We only had one hiccup very early on when he moved in with us," she told me, "and it was about his socks."

"His socks?" I said.

"Yes," she said. "He put his socks in with the family wash and then he went crazy because he couldn't find them again."

"Ah," I said, "they were lost in the system!"

"Yes," she said. "I told him he would probably never see his socks again and that it was a small price to pay for love and he seemed to accept it," she said. Then she added, "actually, ever since then he's done his own washing."

Love E x


P.S. * Not a mystery at all apparently, here's the equation - (L(p x f) + C(t x s)) - (P x A).