Tuesday, 27 March 2018

A happy birthday.

Last week it was my fiftieth birthday. Hang on a minute, I hear you say, wasn't your fiftieth birthday two years ago? Well, yes, it was, technically, but I was so depressed two years ago, living under a  fug of despair, that I barely remember it. I came home from a bash someone kindly threw for me and cried. I read books and cried. I listened to music and cried. I watched television and cried. I sat in the house and cried. I sat in restaurants and cried. In particular, I sat in the offices of Age UK listening to sad, lonely, elderly people on the telephone and silently... cried. I basically spent a whole year crying.

Last week my birthday coincided with a day at university and I didn't cry at all. I got to spend it with a group of wonderful people all day long, from 10am until midnight, interspersed with encounters with other wonderful people in tutorials and lecture theatres and I smiled, all day. Then I got to celebrate it all over again all over the weekend with family and friends which made me smile even more. So I'm going to call that my fiftieth birthday. Well it works for me.

Here's a little story below. We were asked to write something in class based on a map drawn by a fellow student of somewhere important to them when they were a kid. I got 'Bob's' map, then promptly lost it, and after eight weeks suddenly remembered we were meant to have written something and couldn't remember anything he told me except for one tiny detail. He doesn't come from Sheffield. My 'I know it's a bit crap disclaimer' is that I wrote it in half an hour.

He comes into the kitchen via the backdoor, quietly, so she might not hear. Where would she be on a Wednesday afternoon? Off spending his money somewhere, no doubt: Meadowhall or further afield at Crystal Peaks or Fox Valley. Well, all that will have to stop for starters. He puts his bag down on the formica, sits on the nearest chair to untie his boots. It takes a while because they’re wet, because it’s always fucking raining in this stupid part of the world. He pads across the lino to the formica top by the sink in socked feet and begins emptying his canvass bag, chucking away the sandwich he didn’t finish and the Yoplait yoghurt thing she always insists on giving him when he doesn’t even like Yoplait yoghurt. Then he takes out the thermos, unscrews the lid, and tips the last few dregs of lukewarm tea down the sink. On the plus side, he won’t be drinking tea out of a thermos for a while. He never liked it. Why doesn’t it taste like tea? Why does it just taste like thermos? As he rinses the thermos he wonders what the kid’s doing now, and if he realises.

Meanwhile, the kid in question is over the other side of the same city, also entering his house through the back door, and for pretty similar reasons: he doesn’t want his mother to hear him. It’s only two thirty in the afternoon and he should be in school: period five, P.E. He hates P.E. He’s bunked off again, went down Thornberry Fields to throw stones, him and Tommy Metcalfe. They often do this on a Wednesday because they hate P.E. That Mr Pinkerton, a fucking nut-job. He makes them do star jumps and squats up on the top field in all weathers, in fucking January, in fucking Yorkshire. They should call Childline on him, it’s tantamount to fucking child abuse.

After he’s unpacked his canvass bag, Bill (Bill’s the first guy) reads the paper, The Mirror, cover to cover, sitting in his kitchen, in his socks, legs stretched out under the table, wiggling his toes now and again because it’s nice to have them out of his boots mid-afternoon; it feels like a holiday. His feet are having a holiday. To be fair, he’s having a holiday, an impromptu one, probably forever. How the fuck’s he gonna tell her?

Bob, fourteen-years-old, bunking off school, in his kitchen, reaches up for a packet of Cocoa Pops in the high cupboard by the boiler, hungry because he hasn’t had any lunch and bunking off school throwing stones at bus drivers has given him an appetite. He reaches up, hears a key in the front door, and knows it’s his mother. He’s hoping he won’t have to tell her about the bus driver, that the incident won’t get traced back to him, but she’s going to catch him in a minute, in the kitchen, mid-afternoon, eating Cocoa Pops, that’s inevitable. He knows that, and now so do you.

Bill’s hearing a key in the door, too: his wife, home early from Tesco with five bags of groceries, including lots of Yoplait because she thinks it’s good for Bill, for his digestion. She always puts one in his packed lunch which she makes for him every morning because he’s the only earner in the household (and they have two kids) ever since she got laid off from her Lollypop lady job by Sheffield County Council, because of their stringent budget cuts. She doesn’t know this yet, but she won’t be needing to buy Yoplait yoghurt for Bill’s packed lunch anymore because Bill just got suspended from his job for leaving his bus unattended at the bus stop and chasing after two teenagers who threw stones, one that made a direct hit through the open door onto Bill’s forehead, but she will in a minute.

Bob’s mother, coming in from work (she works in the same Tesco, as it happens, the same one Bill’s wife just came back from) doesn’t know that very shortly there will be a phone call from Bob’s school because the bus company just rang to say a couple of boys, one fitting Bob’s description, were seen throwing stones at a bus driver. After she takes this call she’s extremely cross with Bob. So much so that he seriously considers ringing Childline, before realising he doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

None of them know - that’s Bill, Bill’s wife, Bob, and Bob's mum - that Bill’s suspension turns into a permanent laying-off because the bus company needed an excuse to get rid of him anyway and Bob gets suspended from school and later expelled completely, which affects the rest of his life. He never gets any GCSEs so he doesn’t get a good job when he leaves school, just a series of temporary things, so he pretty soon turns to petty crime and gets nicked and does time in prison. And Bill, well, Bill never recovers from losing his job at the age of 54 and descends into depression with associated health problems: diabetes and high blood pressure, culminating in a fatal heart attack seven years later, at the age of 61, having never worked again. All because a couple of boys bunked off school and threw stones at a bus driver. So, think on, as they say in Yorkshire.

Love E x


P.S. The one detail I remembered was that he once threw stones at a bus.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

A good clean spring.

Apparently it's spring. Someone needs to tell the weather. Despite it not feeling very spring-ish, I've twice recently had people tell me about their spring cleaning activities. "I've been having a sort-out," one friend said. "I don't know what's come over me," another friend said, "I keep cleaning and tidying." I guess, at the end of the day, we're all just animals and subject to the same sort of seasonal rhythms and fluctuations they are. Doesn't that Jordan Peterson fella think we're all basically lobsters? Perhaps even a lobster likes a good sort-out after hunkering down for the winter, down in his octopus's garden. So, anyway, here are ten spring cleaning tips inspired by the notion of spring if not the actuality, and by something I read in The Times last week, which I am shamelessly pinching because I'm busy with not much time to write something fresh.


Filthy in bed

1. Wash your duvet. Not your duvet cover, your actual duvet. Apparently we should do this every three months. I know! Still, worth doing at least once, I reckon. Pillows too. A new pillow can double its weight in two years owing to the accumulation of dust mites, apparently, the average bed contains ten million of the buggers. Duvet covers and sheets should be washed once a week at 60C to kill them all off. Also, make sure you pull the duvet back to air the bed each morning. 

Plant pleasure

2. Clean your houseplants so they can better absorb the sunlight they need to grow. I love plants. I reckon they're important for our spiritual well-being as well as our physical one (they put oxygen back in the atmosphere). There's one plant in particular in our kitchen that I've had a long time, it was the off-shoot of one my grandfather had. I talk to it often and water it whenever it droops, which seems to work because I've had it for... oh my God, I've had it for 25 years!

Best foot forward

3. Wash your front door and polish your door furniture. Look at it this way - your front door is you putting your best foot forward, it's the first thing people see as they approach your home so make it look nice. London streets are dirty and traffic fumes make front doors and windows grimy. Spring is the perfect time to buff them up. Or get a guy in to do it.

A clean sweep

4. Go outside and sweep the garden when the snow thaws, either the decking or the patio, whichever you have, give it a nice post-winter once over. Sort of like combing your hair after a long and troubled sleep.

Food fetish

5. Clean all the places you put food - like the oven, the fridge, the bin, maybe even the microwave, which in our house gets sorely neglected because it's under the kitchen island tucked away and we forget about it so it stinks of the last thing someone put in there, like an M&S chicken tikka masala, just to take a random example.

A throw away line

6. Chuck out - old jumpers, old paperwork, old shoes.

Drawing the line

7. Get the car washed. (I draw the line at doing this myself).

Sponge bath

8. Change your washing-up sponge. Okay, so, this shouldn't be once a year either, more like once a week, at least. It says in The Times that you should disinfect your sponge after use, every time. Yeah, right. Some of us have a life.

Mobile filth

9. Mobile phones are covered in bacteria. Faecal matter was found on one of six smart phones tested, and not only those that got dropped down the loo because you forgot it was in your back pocket when you pulled your jeans down (this is purely a hypothetical example). Give it a wipe then, I guess. Don't put it in the washing machine on 60C because you forgot it was in our back jeans pocket. Again, a purely a hypothetical example.

You're worth it

10. Give yourself a spring clean as well, because you're worth it. That space between the toes where black bits gather from socks, the tummy button where there's always purple fluff even if you never wear anything purple. Maybe even have a bit of a shave here and there too, then go and get your toenails sorted ready for summer: a full pedicure and nail polish. Girls could do this too. 

Love E x


P.S. Here's something lovely about spring cleaning, from a mole...

The River Bank

The Mole had been working very hard all morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said, "Bother!" and "O blow!" and also "Hang spring-cleaning!" and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, "Up we go! Up we go!" till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

Now tell me that's not one of the loveliest things you've ever read. You can't, can you? Ha. 

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Marking a passage.

Isn't it funny how when you're reading certain passages jump out at you and you think: 'Yes! that's how I feel', or, 'I did that once', or, 'I understand that'? I guess that's what every writer is striving for.

I've been reading a lot lately with a highlighter in my hand, highlighting passages that jump out at me and then marking that page with a Post-it and going back later to write it in a notebook, all in an effort to remember what I've been reading because at my great age I easily forget things. 

I recommended the same technique to Youngest who has his GCSE's coming up but then remembered he doesn't actually read anything; he's the only member of the family who doesn't.

"I'll read your English texts to you," I offered. So, that's Romeo and Juliet, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Poems of Conflict and Animal FarmOf course he was horrified. "It's either that or you'll have to re-read them yourself," I said. "Or, I suppose I could get you the audio books." He plumped for the first option: me reading them to him, probably because it requires the least effort on his part.

So, now in addition to my own reading, I'm reading the GCSE set texts out loud every evening. I suppose it's good practice because I have to read my own work at an event soon and now I can hear what my voice sounds like outside my head. 

When I'm reading Animal Farm, I stop now and again to check he's still listening. "What was the name of the farmer?" I say, or "What is a faction?" or "What did they call The Battle of the Cowshed?" Actually, that last one was a trick question just to see if he was still awake. It's been really lovely, reading to him in his room, lying next to him on his bed. It reminds me of when he was little. I feel it's an honour he will allow me to do this at his great age, and mine.

The other honour he bestows me is that he doesn't mind dancing with me. We have a little routine: we dance round the kitchen together every night after dinner. It's the highlight of my day, his too, I think. When my friend Jay came round with her son a few Saturdays ago to watch a Jekyll and Hyde film with us as part of their joint revision it was so terrible and so dull -


that the four of us gave up on it and danced round the kitchen instead, which was fantastic.

Here are some passages from books I've marked recently. Just to make it more interesting I haven't included which books they are from. Perhaps you will know, or can guess...

"I feared that if I stopped too long anywhere I might lose faith in what I was doing, give up once more, and be left with nothing."

"What's to be done with the lost, the dead, but write them into being?"

"But there was no possibility of doing anything, so she forced herself to read, while her little hands twisted the smooth paper knife."

"The author names the manifestation of her illness - the hallucinatory images of fear and loathing - the Thing."

"The writer is most present in the text at the moments we most completely forget about him."

Love E x


P.S. In case you were wondering, the farmer in Animal Farm is Farmer Jones.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Loving a cold climate.

I don't mind admitting, coming right of my cosy closet in my thermals and insulated slipper socks and confessing: I love snow. For me this recent spate of cold weather is like birthday and Christmas come at once, but mostly like Christmas. As media hysteria reaches boiling point, I turn off the radio and stop looking at the news on the telly - because snow is the news on the telly and I can't stand all those naysayers - and listen to what snow has to say for itself instead. 


It might be loud at first, on the wind, swirling round chimney stacks, darting in and out of smoke plumes, but at some point it's always going to be muffled, a hush that stifles traffic along with all the gloomy thoughts in your head. Flinging open curtains to a street shrouded in snow, I break into a grin. I can't help it: snow's a powdery pick me up.

Snow is such a big cheese, in fact, (definitely a Camembert) that schools get the day off because of it. Pipes freeze and shatter. Boilers give up the ghost. Trains stop. Cars stall. Theatres empty. If you had to describe it to an alien just landed you might say 'snow is a white that covers the world,' but the word white doesn't quite cover it. It's a luminous absence. A colourless sky. A emptying softness. A dust to cover all things, including the bins. Hooray! And then when it melts all the shit is still there underneath. Boo! You don't need a metaphor for snow, snow's a metaphor already.

Come to think of it, it's not just snow that turns me on, it's all proper weather. Give me a winter that roars, following an Autumn that's mush, crowned with a riot of spring; a spring that shoots through soil like a David Attenborough timelapse on speed. Daffodils to make a poet swoon. The blossomest blossom Dennis Potter ever did see...



Orgies of buds, catkins, pussy willow, bird's nests with blue-speckled eggs in them to satisfy even the fussiest teacher; enough to break a primary school nature table. Followed by a heat in summer so searing it wilts children in playgrounds like corn. Endless evenings of flawless skies, nothing in them but a high circle of swallows. Temperatures to melt candles. Nights so hot you lie awake in nothing but perspiration, thinking about calling out the fire brigade to hose you down.

I don't want cloud, mizzle, damp or drizzle, which is why autumn doesn't really do it for me. I don't want middling days. I want full on, full throttle, turn it up to the max weather. So cold, there isn't a log or a bag of kindling for the fire to be had in the whole of south London because someone got there first and bought it all, or, so hot that every ice-cream and lollypop has been purchased from the corner shop and licked down to its lolly stick by mid-morning. All of which is jolly handy because with climate change here to stay this sort of weather is a lot more likely.


Love E x


P.S. Snow joke.