Monday, 25 September 2017

The Child In Time

I am a huge Ian McEwan fan and have read nearly all of his books. But The Child In Time is definitely one of his less penetrable works. I first read it many years ago and spent a lot of it feeling nervously perplexed, as it was just - for want of better words - a bit weird. There was too much on the physics of time and place for my impractical, unsciency little brain to cope with. The looking through windows into the past and future at parents and children just didn't gel with McEwan's normally brilliantly everyday, realist and remarkably detailed settings.

I then re-read The Child In Time with my book group a couple of years ago, and found myself in a different place - that of a parent. A parent angry about the state of education for our young children. And a parent who can better imagine the total horror of a child abduction and its worst nightmare scenario. The panic, the grief, and the unanswered questions if the child is never found.

The television adaptation had the latter as its focus. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kelly McDonald play Stephen and Julie, the parents of Kate, who aged four was taken from a supermarket and to this day has never been seen again. As a result, their marriage has crumbled and they have each retreated into their separate worlds. She has run away to a beachside cottage, where she teaches piano and, in her words, "gets by". He is a children's writer, struggling with a lack of words for a work about a boy who wants to be a fish. Stephen writes in front of an aquarium and practises holding his breath underwater in the bath.

He is also part of a government focus group working on a new children's education policy, sitting for hours in stuffy meetings, disgusted with how out of touch the civil servants and ministers appear to be with young people's lives. He still lives in the family's London flat, where he leaves a note for his daughter on the front door every time he goes out, in case she comes home. He has kept his daughter's bedroom as a shrine, and he leaves wrapped presents under the tree at Christmas. "I'm not mad," he tells a friend, but at times he is definitely teetering over the brink of madness. He sees his daughter mirrored in other people in random places - on a beach, in a school. The latter is more worrying, as he manages to break into the building and enter a classroom to talk to the girl he has seen. The book was written prior to the horrors of Dunblane, when school security was more lax. But nonetheless, even in today's more modern setting, he is treated only by kindness and understanding by the staff, and he is given time, the time of the title, to gather himself and move back on into the world. As much as he can. How can you ever really move on after such a terrible event?

He has friends to look after him, Thelma and Charles. Charles is his publisher and also a government minister, but he too needs to retreat from the world, to retire. Only it is into an eternal childhood that he goes, the boyhood fantasies of Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton, on a perpetual adventure in the woods. He climbs trees and builds dens, lays traps and pretends to shoot. He has the energy of a toddler, covered in mud and bruises, and a wildness behind his eyes as he clips off his greying pubic hair. Don't we all want to return to our youth, to the innocence of childhood? Don't we all fight now for our children to enjoy that innocence too - to let our kids be in fact kids? Isn't our current government doing all it can to rob our children of that freedom to play, as they force them to neaten their handwriting and learn about fractions and fronted adverbials at an age when really they should be rolling in that self-same mud and climbing those self-same trees? Will they all be like Charles in middle age, trying to live the childhood that was taken away from them by obsessional testing and pointless arbitrary standards? I hope not. But something needs to be done.

Thelma is a much lesser character in the television adaptation. In the book she is a physicist with much to say, whereas on screen she just quietly tolerates Charles' regressive foray, ringing a handbell at dinner and bedtime so that he knows to come home. Until the day he doesn't, and Stephen finds him hanging from a tree.
Climbing benches on London's South Bank
The settings of the film are familiar McEwan territory - London, the South Coast, the Kent countryside. Stephen walks through Whitehall, crosses the Thames from Embankment tube, then walks along the river to the National Theatre. He catches the Tube at Maida Vale. Not so much this time in McEwan's native Fitzrovia, the setting of Saturday, where he describes characters I used to see on my lunchbreak from my job on Carburton Street, notably the lady feeding the birds in Fitzroy Square.

One of my daughter's favourite games is hide and seek, and one of her favourite places to play it is in a clothes shop. She treats the racks of dresses and trousers like topiary bushes, skirting round the skirts, burying herself beneath the rails. And when I can't find her I am casually hyperventilating mum, forever remembering this story of The Child In Time, barely able to conceal the rising panic within. I try to convince myself that nothing bad will happen, that she will always come if I call her, though it's hard to flatten my shrill intonation when I do. I want to let my daughter have fun but have to protect her from harm. There is the dilemma of not wanting to scare her unnecessarily, while accepting my own duty of care. She is innocent, but others in the world less so. She has to play, but please, please, please let her get out of the Next jumpers section alive. Rationality must prevail. "Come on, it's time to go." And breathe....

And "Keep breathing," Stephen says to Julie at the end, in the maternity ward he has managed to barge into as easily as the school. The lost Kate is gaining an accidental brother, a brother Julie has seen through her window on to the beach and Stephen has just glimpsed on the Tube. The couple who could not live together or apart have found the end of their rainbow journey. Hope has befallen them at last. Though the poignant gap of the missing girl will never be filled.

South Bank rainbow above the QEH, London 2016

Friday, 15 September 2017

Hollywood and friends

It's feeling like autumn. The nights are drawing in, the conkers and leaves are tumbling, yet the weather still has to warm up for summer...

Televisually, September means we are back with old friends. Hapless Pete and pals on Cold Feet. The increasingly psychopathic but much wronged Doctor Foster. Fondly bickering Phil and Kirstie on Location Location Location, though sadly this series won't be featuring the episode filmed in our part of York sometime in May. Disparaging Jeremy and his Oxbridge nobs on University Challenge. Clever Victoria on Only Connect, which also featured Oxbridge nob and University Challenge winner (til her team was disqualified) Gail Trimble.

And The Great British Bake-Off. I was going to stay loyal to the BBC, I really was, like Mary, Mel and Sue before me. But the BBC has become a hideous Tory propaganda machine and is so biased (pro-Brexit, anti-Labour) in its news reporting that frankly it doesn't deserve my loyalty. Plus I actually like Channel 4. Because Last Leg. Because Jon Snow. Because Frasier. Because of my beautiful subtitles gracing its Countdown screens all those years ago.

And the news is so stressful right now that it's unbearable. I just want to look at cake instead. And biscuits and bread and sticky toffee caramel. And, new presenters aside, the show is so reassuringly familiar and cosy. The rest of it has been transferred in its entirety. The music. The bad puns laced with innuendo. The marquee with torrential rain streaming down its window panes. The tea cups and bunting. The malfunctioning ovens. The cakes hovering over bins. The mysterious proving drawers. The crazy contestants, although they seem a little Liverpool heavy this year, maybe as an homage to Paul, the only surviving face from the original series. He's just the same too, with his fierce eyes, dismissive comments and occasional bear-like handshake reaching across the work surfaces.

Admittedly, the ad breaks and heavy sponsorship are as irritating as I feared, but at least the content of the programme hasn't been cut short to accommodate them. And I'm having to get used to it being on a Tuesday, with Jo Brand's Extra Slice on a Thursday, rather than the Wednesday and Friday slots they held on the BBC. Routine is important to me. But Sandi Toksvig is very cuddly, and I quite like Noel Fielding's dreamlike musing, even if he doesn't seem to be that interested in the food. Prue Leith is scary though. She's much more of a force to be reckoned with than Mary Berry. She's about twice the height of Mary for starters. And you won't be crying on her shoulder (you wouldn't reach that far!) or getting any sympathy or gentle advice if you mess up.

I am part of a small team working on a baking book at the moment. It's to raise money for the school (so it can still afford to buy things like books, and, er, staff) and putting it together has been a lot of fun. It's going to feature lots of delicious everyday recipes, submitted by parents, teachers and local cafes. Mostly things that you should be able to bake with kids, as opposed to the impossible challenges you see on Bake Off. So more this:

Than this:

The book will come complete with professional colour photos, hopefully no typos (since it's my job to find them) and a decent level of wit. Please buy a copy when it's published, hopefully sometime when we are officially - rather than only weatherwise - in autumn.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Astronaut: Do You Have What It Takes?

An X Factor with brains, this. A group of people who might be described as seriously clever clogs get to do all sorts of gruesome tasks in order to prove they have what it takes to enter into a European Space Agency astronaut training program.

Clever clogs
The ESA doesn't necessarily have any astronaut vacancies, since they haven't recruited any new staff since 2008, but this is all about kudos - or at least getting space veteran Chris Hadfield to write you a half-decent reference.

The tasks aren't gruesome in a celebrity eating revolting bugs in the jungle kind of way. Although that may yet come - the possibility of accidentally crashlanding in the Brazilian rainforest makes that sort of survival skill necessary for an astronaut. Plus you've got to learn to stomach all that pouched up dog food on the International Space Station, especially if Heston Blumenthal's contributions get blown up.

Instead of eating cockroaches, the contestants have been facing a series of gruelling physical and mental endurance tests. Counting backwards while being starved of oxygen, repeating series of numbers backwards while stepping on an off a block (there is a lot of counting backwards - must be a rocket thing), being stuck in a pitch-black sphere for 20 minutes, having to escape from a box underwater, being strapped in a box attached to a human centrifuge (there is also a lot of being put into a box, which is definitely a rocket thing)... They also have to extract their own blood in a syringe, ready to perform experiments, and learn some basic Russian. The latter was the only task I could do. Everything else has been a case of "not on your nelly." I'd be a total wreck. I'd be the one deciding I was deprived of oxygen while still on 100% flow, thus jeopardising a multi-million pound spacewalk. I can't even iron a shirt flat (and why should I?), let alone keep a hovering helicopter level. I don't like putting my face underwater, so wouldn't be much cop at solving maths puzzles on the bottom of a swimming pool. Etc.

Counting backwards to launch...
The judges are all terribly calm, but meticulous. And completely ruthless. They send you home at a moment's notice. They wouldn't have even let me through the door. So I have to admit that it's just a teensy bit satisfying to see all these said clever clogs come a cropper, and be made to realise that they are mere human beings after all. They might be nuclear physicists/ ballerinas/ Everest conquerors/ neurosurgeons/ urosurgeons/ academics/ engineeers, but some of them can't sprint or swim. Some of them are claustrophobic. Some of them can't answer technical questions about how you pee in space. Some of them don't notice that they're about to pass out from lack of oxygen because they are too busy doing sums.
My husband being "a bit shit" at an ISS experiment
Was I the only one who expected Tim Peake to be a bit shit, because he was British? For being a bit shit is what we are good at. We just moan about it, or laugh about it and carry on. We never quite get anything to work properly or be a resounding success. We just lack that drive. Taking the piss out of ourselves is so much easier. But Tim Peake is the exception. He was just awfully good at everything. He didn't drop a screwdriver on a spacewalk, sending it somersaulting off into the heavens. He didn't get ill or have allergic reactions. He didn't cut off anyone's oxygen supply or lose some important plant cuttings. He didn't crash the space station into a satellite or misfire the Soyuz capsule. He even ran a marathon simultaneously with the one in the London. And he was just terribly nice and enthusiastic about everything the whole time. He is a rare Brit indeed. Just as well he got signed up in that last recruitment drive by the European Space Agency in 2008, when Brexit was only dreamt of by jokers in UKIP, rather than being the everyday nightmare unfolding before our eyes in the lazy hands of David Davis, severing us from all that is good. For no matter how clever cloggy or physically strong these contestants are, they are British, and the European Space Agency, like the rest of the Continent, will soon be sailing on merrily without us. These folk ain't going up in a rocket any time soon, unless it's one piloted by Richard Branson.

Or it's one in a museum
I went through my own recruitment process in the summer as I applied for a couple of jobs at the university. I earn a bit of pocket money doing academic proofreading, but really need to earn some proper cash and get myself some guaranteed hours. But I quickly realised, after seven years of being based at home, how out of the game I have grown. It's not just how technology has marched on with things like apps and virtual learning environments and that I haven't opened an Excel spreadsheet since 2010. It's not just that the job I was good at - subtitling - has all but collapsed as an industry in the UK and now wants to pay a rate half that of what I used to earn 12 years ago. It's not just that I am now in my mid-forties and there are so many bright young things out there who don't have a small child and the need to fit work around school hours and school holidays and who can maybe talk about something other than rainbow unicorns and Harry Potter. My self-confidence is at an all-time low, my health is crap, and I just don't believe myself capable of anything. That said, I am obviously not too bad at filling in application forms since I managed to get interviews, but that's where the process ended. I totally failed to sell myself. Although - and knowing how the university works - I felt fairly sure that they had internal candidates lined up for both positions since the interviews either consisted of deliberately wacky questions asked just for the hell of it ("Describe yourself in three words!"), or such sparse, superficial questions that they wouldn't have found out anything of relevance to the post about someone they didn't already know. Or that's what I am telling myself, anyway.

Maybe I am doing myself a disservice - perhaps I assume I am "a bit shit" just because I am British. Maybe it's all about self-belief and talking the talk. Yes, I would make a BRILLIANT astronaut! You couldn't imagine a better person to send up into space. I've read a book about it! I've built space Lego!

You can send that nice Kevin Fong chap over to give me a medical.

Milton Keynes and Me

Gosh, it's been an age... Trying to catch up after the summer holidays. Feels like (and is indeed) weeks since I watched this programme, but never mind. Off we go...

I never expected to use the words "touching" and "Milton Keynes" together in the same sentence, but that's what this documentary led me to do.

It was a film about having a home town that you grew up bored by, and later embarrassed by, and that you ran away from as fast as you could as soon as you could. But a home town that you remain attached to simply because it is where your family made your roots, and where your parents stayed to grow old. And it was a film about how life turns full circle - suddenly, you have your own kids and realise what a nice place your home town might be to raise a family. Maybe you are merely trying to recreate your own memories for the next generation - memories which, as you age, acquire the rose-tinted spectacles of yore.

I possibly have similar feelings about my own home town. It was crushingly dull as a teenager - it didn't even get its own cinema until after I left home. Or rather it had had one years before, but that had long since been turned into a Marks and Spencer. Life only got marginally more interesting for us once we could start trying to drink underage, but it was never a place where anyone sensible would want to hang out on a Saturday night. But I've seen many friends, who shot off like the proverbial bullet to university in far-flung places as soon as they had the opportunity, move back there over the past decade to have their own kids. Possibly they just want the free babysitting that the grandparents offer. Alas that's not an option for me, with my mum dead for over 12 years, and my dad sold up and moved away back to his own childhood roots. But home is home. There are things about my childhood that I wish we could offer our daughter. A school with a large playing field and lots of trees instead of the concrete playground she has to make do with. The proximity to Hatfield Forest and Audley End children's railway. The opportunity to go to London every weekend. Sunshine in summer, snow in winter. An airport on the doorstep, the Suffolk coast and Channel crossings that much nearer.

I've only been to Milton Keynes properly once, on an organised coach trip from my own dull home town to do some Christmas shopping. It was possibly my first trip to a "mall". It was all terribly exciting and I remember stocking up on a Eurythmics tape, a bad lipstick that matched the one Annie Lennox was wearing on the cover of the Eurythmics tape, and a terrible pair of black and white '80s trousers from Chelsea Girl. But my only visits to the place since have been driving round its endless roundabouts en route between the M1 and my aunt's house in Buckinghamshire.

And Richard Macer's documentary began with those self-same roundabouts. There is a roundabout appreciation society, did you know that? It has its own calendar. And Milton Keynes makes them drool. They call a garden roundabout a "Titchmarsh" or a "Monty Don". They will risk life and limb to cross lanes of traffic and stand in the middle of them.

But there is a town behind those roundabouts. Hidden by trees, mounds and duck pond reeds are a multitude of houses which, at the time of building, were considered innovative and state of the art. (They haven't necessarily aged well, however.) They have unusual sloping eaves, a sense of light and space seldom found outside Scandinavia, and open-plan living. They were designed to lure people out of the London slums, where kids never knew darkness - without their own room and forced to sleep in the lounge, they had to put up with their parents staying up late in artificial light.  The families were helped to settle in by social workers. One recalls helping a woman who was dying of cancer to write letters to her young children. It still makes her cry after all these years.

Going back to the architecture, the original shopping mall, the centre of MK, has all sorts of features that you wouldn't necessarily notice unless you were given a tour by its actual architects, which thankfully in this documentary we are. They point out the reflections, the framework, the Roman marble. They sum it up with a "Milton Keynes - so there!"

Unfortunately a new shopping mall has been built bang in the middle of the Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through town, causing a diversion. This has upset numerous locals as the town has lost its sense of flow and order. The original planning corporation of Milton Keynes has been disbanded and replaced by a council committee desperate to make commercial money. So the grand plan has begun to slip. Admittedly, some parts of the original grand plan were a little way out, such as the Vegas style leisure centre, with its rodeo, wave pool and souk bar area that wouldn't have looked out of place on an episode of Star Trek. But these were never built.

There is however a lot of way-out art that has survived. It's a shame that the only sculpture people have ever heard of is the concrete cows, as there is a whole lot more. There's a gallery full of it. Enthusiasts will show you round. Artists and photographers are still lured to the streets and estates. A new piece is being commissioned to commemorate the town's 50th birthday - for a roundabout. It's a little telling that the council chooses to hold the 50th birthday party in the historical house at Bletchley Park, rather than say, the shopping centre, or on a roundabout. It's as if they're not quite as proud of the town's achievements as they claim.

The school tried to make the artists of the future. They would have themed days where the intended curriculum would be forgotten and pupils would be allowed to specialise in an activity of their choice, like art, maths, rollerskating or even golf. There was no uniform, the classrooms had carpets and the teachers and pupils were on first-name terms. Nowadays the pupils all wear ties and follow rules and whatever prehistoric lessons Michael Gove has made them learn. The vision of utopia has been snatched away from under them. Today's pupils find Milton Keynes "boring", just like the documentary maker (who attended the school at the height of its vision). But they do like the town's openness and tolerance, and multiculturalism. Which didn't exist in its early years. A famous advert with a clown on stilts carrying red balloons encouraging people to move to Milton Keynes had only white participants.

And after school the university - the Open University. That of the beards on early morning BBC2 and unfathomable equations. Local residents signed up in droves but were then disappointed to discover that physics is hard. Time to go and meditate at the first Buddhist peace pagoda in the Western world instead.

I grew up near another new town - Harlow. It was the first place my parents lived when they moved down south, in one of the country's first residential high-rise blocks. My dad worked in Harlow on an industrial estate making Latex for 30 years. Harlow had a similar ethos to Milton Keynes - lots of airy houses, green spaces and cycle paths. And roundabouts. But unfortunately it quickly lost its original aspirations and became a bit of a dump. Growing up, it provided our local A&E and cinema, though both were fairly nasty. That said, the town had its own cultural highlights - Carter USM were discovered at The Square, and the Pogues played Harlow Park. Harlow Playhouse had its annual pantomime where all my school friends seemed to get invited up on stage but I never did (oh, the trauma of being eight!), and a series of children's classical music concerts called Patchwork which attracted some pretty famous musicians (Emma Johnson, Malcolm Messiter) and instilled in me my love of early music and folk. The town's sculptures were by Henry Moore, who lived locally. Recently, a Polish man was murdered there in a racist hate crime after the EU referendum, which was far from Harlow's finest hour, and shows none of the tolerance and diversity so praised by the children of Milton Keynes. Sad times indeed. Though Harlow has apparently responded, like Milton Keynes would, with art.
Me and my mum hanging out in Harlow's green spaces in 1975

Friday, 18 August 2017

A lament for LoveFilm

Dear Amazon,

Thank you for your recent e-mail announcing the closure of your LoveFilm DVD postal service at the end of October. However, you have made me rather sad. And a bit cross. Your excuse for the demise of LoveFilm is that you've apparently seen decreasing demand for DVD and Blu-ray rental "as customers increasingly move to streaming". Streaming? Streaming what? Colds?

Some of us, you see, have no idea what you are talking about. Some of us are technically inept and technologically decrepit. Some of us just don't always have the money to upgrade to the latest thing. Some of us are still barely coming to terms with the demise of VHS. And the closure of our local Blockbuster.

I have a DVD player. In fact, only last year I upgraded it to a Blu-ray player. It's been a long haul into the 2010s in this household. So what? As far as I'm concerned, I've got it and I still want to use it. Why should I chuck it out and waste all that plastic and circuitry just because a lot of your customers have got streaming colds?

Oh, wait, you mean Internet streaming. There, I'm not such a luddite after all. Yeah, online streaming. We do that with Netflix. I signed us up in desperation for a free month's trial when our daughter got chicken pox at the end of reception, which housebound us for the best part of a week. And it's shit. It buffers a lot, crashes regularly, and has very little on it that we want to watch. Some good TV box sets, yes, but we're probably only interested in about one film in a hundred, none of which were released in cinemas in the past three years. Besides, our daughter has completely hijacked our account by watching My Little Pony and Paw Patrol on a loop.

You see, I used to go to the cinema at least twice a week. I saw pretty much every film going. Living in London, I could see anything that a review made sound interesting, no matter how obscure. This backfired sometimes. Uzak, for example. But anyway, I didn't get to miss out on movies. Relocating to York, with only one art-house cinema, our choice was more limited, which is how our LoveFilm subscription started. I still read the reviews, and slowly worked up a list of films that weren't heading our way that I wanted to see. And then we had our daughter, which (aside from a crazy year of taking her once a week as a baby to City Screen's Big Scream, where she sat through Black Swan, 127 Hours, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Another Year and many other inappropriate titles in complete milk-overloaded oblivion) meant we didn't get to go to the cinema at all for ages. Now when we go it's to see things like Captain Underpants, Minions, The Boss Baby and Moana. Which are all fine, but meanwhile our LoveFilm list of all the titles I really want to watch has been growing and growing.

It's not often that we get an uninterrupted evening with enough time and energy to actually sit through a whole film, but when we do, it's a proper treat, and we want therefore to treat it properly. Do the cinema thing. Turn the lights off, and the sound up. Have a glass of wine. Maybe even make popcorn. We bought a bigger telly to enhance our experience. We wanted to replicate the Picturehouse in our house. We're not bothered about being able to watch things on our phones. But I'm certainly regretting how few uninterrupted evenings we have, which meant we sat on The Hateful Eight for three whole months, now that we only have two months left to get through the rest of my LoveFilm list. I'm trying to up our game now, with the nights drawing in at the close of summer, but it won't be easy. I just had to quarantine my husband in the spare room for two days because he threw up everywhere on Monday night and I selfishly didn't want our daughter (or me, because I have a piece of plastic fork stuck in my intestine) catch it.

The DVD still has something that Internet streaming doesn't. What you get on DVDs or Blu-Rays are (1) extras and (2) subtitles. Extras that tell you something about the background to the movie you just watched - how it evolved from concept to completion, how special effects were achieved. Deleted scenes sometimes show you how thought directions were abandoned, for better or worse. You may catch some silly bloopers or other funny incidents that occurred during filming. You will undoubtedly see actors, writers, producers and directors gushing about how brilliant they all are. You may even capture some handheld footage of the wardrobe department. Many extras are total dross, but I always watch them. Because I spent years of my life subtitling them, or getting other people to translate subtitles for them. So a lot of effort has gone into the behind the scenes of your behind the scenes and I for one want an opportunity to appreciate it. And of course the main feature will have subtitles too - for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and in up to 38 different languages, depending on which regions the disc will play in. The subtitles will have been put together by poorly paid professionals, mostly doing it for love, because translating a movie is more interesting than translating a washing machine manual, even if it's paying you less than minimum wage and has a turnaround so fast you almost have to translate in real time.

How will the deaf community access movies now, with so little online being subtitled properly, if at all? And, more importantly, how will I watch the latest releases in Norwegian or Brazilian Portuguese?

It was kind of annoying that you didn't have much control over what you were sent next with LoveFilm, but the mystery envelope winging its way from Peterborough was part of the thrill. Now you are offering me Amazon Prime instead of my LoveFilm subscription. I try so hard not to accidentally click on that big yellow Prime icon every time I order a book or CD (yes, yes, I'm so prehistoric, but it is surely clear to you by now that I prefer objects to computer screens), but now you have really upped your ante. Will you actually have any of my LoveFilm list on your Prime selection, cos you certainly didn't the last time I checked? Or will I have to do a pay-per-view for my more obscure choices that will cost way more than my LoveFilm subscription ever did? Are you even going to e-mail me my LoveFilm list before you delete it, because I'm not going to be able to remember ten years of film choices by myself? Actually, since you are about to have a warehouse full of unwatched DVDs that you can't sell, why not use me as your charity shop and send all the ones on the list my way? I'll sit in my ark, gradually working my way through them.

And I don't want your discounted Firestick, thanks, because you let Jeremy Clarkson advertise them.

I think that ditching LoveFilm and making us all take Prime was always your plan. You said otherwise, but who ever believes a word that large tax-avoiding corporations say?

Yours, except I'm not,

A disgruntled LoveFilm by Post viewer.

Summer holidays and teenagers

So we're over halfway through, and how's it going for you? How's the weather been? (We've actually had a tiny bit of sunshine this week in York.) Are the tensions in your house at Trump-Kim levels yet or are they still relievable by wine? Yesterday my daughter asked me when I was going to stop controlling her life and let her take charge instead. This was a response to me inviting her to go to the ice cream boat over the river as a treat. She wanted to stay at home and play with her magnets instead. You just can't feckin' win, can you?

She is harder to please than ever this summer. We've done some lovely things. We've been to some shows at the Great Yorkshire Fringe and to see Robin Hood at York Theatre Royal. We've been to Harlow Carr, Newby Hall and the wonderful York Maze, and we went to stay with my dad in Grasmere for a few days, where we met up with friends and played Swallows and Amazons at Blackwell House in the pouring rain. We've done campfire cooking and raced around Goddards. But during it all there was so much moaning! (Particularly when I managed to wreck her bread dough in the campfire...) And I haven't even made her go on any country walks!

The Giant's Loo Roll
(the daughter was bribed with a chocolate pancake not to scowl in this picture)

The Scarecrow's Wedding

Genuine tents...

..and genuine boats from the Swallows And Amazons film at Blackwell House, Bowness

The dissatisfaction is spreading beyond home. This week is she is attending Kings Camp, a sports activity week held at the Mount School. It's a lot of fun, but every day she comes out overly focused on the negative - that she hasn't won star of the day, that she had to wear a beginners red cap in her swimming session despite the 25 metres badge she has sewn on to her costume, for which she was teased, that she scraped her knee during a treasure hunt, that the timetable wasn't announced in strict order at the start of the day, that they didn't go outside enough, that they went outside too much... Bah! It's partly tiredness, hence me trying to revive her with ice cream. But give the poor guys a break!

It's a foresight of what the teenage years may hold, assuming Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, Isis in a van, and a piece of plastic fork let any of us live that long. Did so many things cause my parents sleepless nights when I was little? Plastic forks didn't of course, because my parents weren't that stupid, but when I was my daughter's age Thatcher had just come to power, nuclear war between Russia and America definitely seemed a possibility, and then Argentina invaded the Falklands. But was it this bad? With Brexit, that narcissistic, volatile moron tweeting unpredictable nonsense from the White House, a fat kid in North Korea playing games and people being run over on the streets of Europe, I feel like I am living in a nightmare that can only get worse. My mood certainly can't be helping my daughter's negativity, even though I try not to mention any of it to her. Let her have her innocence for as long as it can last. But when will something good happen? Even The Last Leg can't lift my spirits about the madness of the world any more.

Love to you, Barcelona

Anyway, teenagers. Yeah. There's a bunch of them living in the park this summer. Our lovely park, which has just lost its park keeper thanks to the latest wave of austerity cuts (my prediction in a previous blog post came true). Now it's up to volunteers to maintain its flower beds and keep it looking lovely. Which was hard enough with its flock of geese shitting over its lawns and pathways, and has now been made even harder by these teenagers' inability to use a litter bin. Oh, such bravado they show as they do their wheelies down our street and around the park stage, which only a few weeks ago was used to put on an opera. Such colourful language as they abuse each other and passers by. Such profits the corner shop must be making as they purchase their bottles of Rubicon Spring and packets of Moam. And such a mess they hurl on to the grass without a moment's thought. There's no dealing with them; they are a wall of hormones who just want to laugh at adults requesting a little respect out of them for their surroundings. Needless to say, me politely requesting them to stop ripping leaves off my neighbour's bushes did not go down well the other day.

Yes, I did pick all this up afterwards

My daughter chipped a little off their cool though. The boys invaded the zip wire queue in the play area, pushing in front of her, where she had been standing watching some friends. "We're going next!" they boomed, sneering at her. "That's OK, I don't want a go anyway because I don't like it," replied my daughter. "Ew, what are you, six?" they snorted. "Yes. But I'm nearly seven!" answered the girl, oblivious to what they were inferring. She's darn tall for her age.

We have a teenager coming to stay in our house next week actually. Hopefully he can sort the brats in the park out with some good Dutch manners. We are doing a house swap with a friend in Holland, a cheap and convenient way of being able to go abroad in August. So I am spending this week frantically trying to tidy up and looking at everything in the house that doesn't quite work properly, thinking "My goodness, how have we put up with this for ten years?" Well, mostly because one of us in this marriage is very laidback. He has to be, of course, else he wouldn't cope with me being the other half. But as a consequence his attitude to repairs is somewhat slack. He'll just work out a way of tolerating whatever has gone wrong. Deciding he prefers showers a bit on the cool side, for example. Deciding that the steam function on an iron isn't necessary if you just squirt a bit of water on your shirts instead. Not minding water spraying in his eye from a pipe because really it's quite refreshing after a long run. That sort of thing.*** Anyway, I'm just hoping I've managed to patch the place up enough to stop it falling down before the end of the month, so that our friends have a peaceful and harmonious visit, despite bringing a teenager.

So yes, ten whole years we've lived here in our crazy house. I think that's the longest I've lived anywhere continuously in my life. Cracks are still appearing in the walls. I panic about subsidence, my husband merely decides they add character. Our daughter could definitely be a little bit more like her daddy on some things.

Only 19 more days til the start of term.

*** My husband would just like me to point out that while the girl and I were in Grasmere he painted four shelves that have been bare MDF for nearly as many years. It seems the trick to make him get round to doing DIY jobs is to go away without him...

Friday, 23 June 2017

Childhood Heroes

After the whole hideous Jimmy Savile business, it felt like there was no longer anything sacred about my childhood television viewing. It had all been spoiled forever. It was the 1970s and 1980s, and they had all turned out to be a bunch of perverts. And we, in our innocence, had been completely and utterly duped. Savile was disturbingly close to home too, as he had worked with my grandfather in Leeds, and met my parents and aunts - and apparently me as a baby - at hospital social events. My mother recalled one of his cigars in an ashtray in their lounge.

Then Rolf Harris. Sunday afternoon cartoon fodder for me and my brother once we were back from our weekly swimming session at Leventhorpe pool. "Can you see what it is yet?" When we lived in Crouch End, Harris regularly went into the primary school down the road to give art lessons, open fetes etc, as his grandchild was a pupil there. But he was not what he seemed either, and was released from prison just over a month ago. No wonder the Queen's smile looked so forced on his portrait of her. I am no royalist, but she is an astute woman who can express much without words. It can't be coincidence that she dressed up as the European Union flag for her vellum-penned speech in the House of Lords this week.

However, recent events have restored some of the balance. There were good, honest people out there making television when I was little after all. I went to see Peter Lord, creator of Morph, give a talk at the York Festival of Ideas a couple of weeks ago. He is a York graduate, which I had forgotten, and one of the founders of the wondrous Aardman Animations. Morph lives on even now. Even without Tony Hart, who has become famous for nearly dying twice. I had really bad stomach ache throughout the talk (thanks to "the fork"), but it was lovely to hear Lord give an account of his career, showing some brilliant clips, even if these were hindered by technical glitches from the rather strange audiovisual set-up in the Bootham School auditorium. But nonetheless we saw everything from their first attempts at stop animation (photographing people jumping in the air then splicing the footage together to make it look like they were flying), to the original Aardman superhero character, to making the Sledgehammer video for Peter Gabriel (the success of which meant the Aardman Christmas parties trebled in size). Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! 

And don't forget Shaun...

Peter Lord was terribly modest, and spent the entirely of the talk modelling a piece of brown plasticine into a fresh Morph that was then auctioned off for charity. He also paid tribute to the wonderful Peter Sallis, who had passed away a few days before. He showed a clip of Sallis remembering how Nick Park had persuaded him to record the voice of Wallace when he was a young film student. Sallis graciously obliged, for very little money. He heard nothing more until Nick Park phoned him up six years later to announce "I've finished! Do you want to come and see it?" Such is the time-consuming nature of animating plasticine models.

Peter Sallis is a loss, though my childhood was more spent watching him rolling down a hill in a bath in Last Of The Summer Wine than in Wallace and Gromit. But that just reveals my age.

OK, so this isn't Shep...

And there have been two more recent passings of children's television presenters from my childhood that reassured me that they weren't all terrible sexual predators. First, John Noakes, Blue Peter hero. Who will always be remembered for an elephant standing on his foot, and climbing up Nelson's column on the world's most precarious ladder, without even a nod to health and safety. Because it was the 1970s and the BBC was, well, distracted. Rumour has it that the first time John Noakes climbed Nelson, the sound didn't record, so he had to do it all over again. A brave (and patient) man indeed.

"Windy's cider is very strong cider..."

Secondly, Brian Cant, voice of Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley, and presenter of Play School and Play Away until both were abruptly decommissioned in 1984. I never really saw him on screen again, though it seems he kept working right up until a few years ago, when Parkinson's took hold. Bizarrely, his copresenters on Play Away included Tony Robinson and Jeremy Irons. Which just goes to show any actor with rent to pay will do children's television. In the 1970s and '80s, 'kippers' had no connotations with Nigel Farage, and it was still acceptable (see above) for people to sing songs about ladies in a harem to young kids.

Our daughter is growing out of CBeebies, but I wonder which of its many presenters she will remember into adulthood. Justin "Mr Tumble" Fletcher? (Who of course is one of the voices on Aardman Animation's Shaun The Sheep and Timmy Time.) Lovely Chris and "Show me show me your groovy moves" Pui? Andy "Dinosaur Adventures" Day? I will be heartbroken if any of them are subsequently hit by scandal. Apart from Topsy and Tim's mum. She deserves all she gets.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Wife Swap: Brexit Special

Wife Swap: something my husband may wish was more widely available. Also a typically scandalous Channel 4 title for something that is in fact slightly more inane - a chance for families with opposing beliefs or lifestyles to see how the other half lives. The female of the family swaps places with the female of another for a week and goes to live in their home. First, she follows the "rules" and lifestyle of the family where she is a guest, including doing whatever work the woman does. Then she tries to introduce some of her own ways of doing things to the family. But naturally there are some deliberate attempts to fuel an argument or court controversy. I am still traumatised by the memory of the mindless sap who pretended to be a Japanese geisha girl morning, noon and night.

But now it was something closer to home - a family of Leave voters swapping with a family of Remain voters. One of the accusations bandied about after last year's (in my opinion) disastrous referendum was that voters lived in their own bubbles, each believing that everybody thought like them, and never hearing the alternative view. Remain bred Remain, Daily Mail bred Daily Mail. I saw nothing but pro-EU posts in my Facebook feed from my friends, and all the posters (bar I think two) in our part of York were for Remain. Whereas Leave voters got fed bullshit by Boris, Gove, Dacre and Murdoch and the side of a bus, which was all self-reinforcing.

So now it was time for the two opposing views to have a conversation, and try and understand each other. Only it turns out you still can't have a conversation with a Leave voter. They just stand and shout crap, and refuse to listen to anything other than the sound of their own voices. They come out with Daily Express soundbites about taking back control and wanting their country back whilst blatantly failing to understand what the EU actually is. This Leave husband and dad, Andy, was no exception. He took Kat, a German migrant, to an East End market to show how there was only one white face left manning the stalls (who was Jewish). Seriously. But Andy's not racist, apparently. No. He just doesn't recognise his own Little England any more. Kat tries to point out that the EU has nothing to do with how many Pakistani people are selling mangos or saris in London. At home in their garden over a glass of wine, Kat tries to explain that EU migrants do not get a house and full unemployment benefits within ten minutes of landing at Dover. But Andy won't listen. He's read everything he knows in the paper. In the Canvey Island pub where his wife Pauline works, Kat rolls her eyes over an outside smoke as she tries to make the punters understand that she is the EU migrant and not the Syrian refugees who are fleeing a terrible war. She just gets shouted down with Dacre quotes. "Is this about not liking the EU, or not liking brown skins?" she asks in exasperation. But they're not racist either, apparently.

Meanwhile, Pauline, the Leave wife, over a meal of boeuf bourgignon, is surprised that the Germans in the room no longer feel welcome in the UK, having been told in the street to go back to their "Hitler Merkel". It's not that sort of immigration she's opposed to, you see. Not the sort where people pay taxes and work hard and have an education and raise children here. Well, what other sort did the EU give us, you moron? She objects that she's not allowed to put on a nativity play at Christmas any more. Which is again, nothing to do with the EU. She is shot down by Guardian-reading left-wing opinion, but is ultimately a little humbled by it. Nonetheless, she still goes and puts a picture of Nigel Farage above the fireplace. And later hides a garden gnome of him in the garden.

Meanwhile, Leave husband Andy won't take his England flags down. Kat should fit in, he says. "When in Rome..." Except he was totally unable to realise the irony of that statement, having just voted against the treaty of its name. But then, he acknowledges, Kat is the one with the facts. Which makes her the one in the wrong, apparently. Kat takes him to a Polish restaurant, which he is surprised to find isn't staffed by criminals, but instead by nice folk from Poland. With his love of roasted pork belly strips, really he should fit right in. When I taught English at a summer school on the Baltic Coast in Poland in 1996, we were expected to eat fatty cuts of meat three times a day.

Pork, European style

Slupsk Summer School, 1996

Andy's unhousetrained dog learns to poo on the Daily Express at least.

At the end of the day, Kat still feels adrift. And who can blame her? She's done her best, but it was like banging her head against the proverbial brick wall, only one festooned with the flag of St George. The only small sign of progress is that Andy and Pauline, who have definitely found Kat very intense and quite hard work, try not to list any anti-German stereotypes in the car on the way home. For now, that's as good as you are going to get.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

So this is my essential Sunday night viewing for the next ten weeks, or as long as "the fork" lets me last. I am a big Margaret Atwood fan, but The Handmaid's Tale was the only one of her works that I didn't enjoy the first time I read it. Nothing to do with Atwood's writing, it was simply that I thought it was a horrible story, with an awful premise. I found it genuinely disturbing. I worried about the mind that had dreamt the whole thing up.

But a few months ago, I read it again with my book group, and this time saw so much more. The storyline couldn't shock me any more, so I could observe the wit and insight behind the words with much greater objectivity. And a lot has happened to the world since I first read the book. I realised that Margaret Atwood hadn't just dreamt the story up out of nowhere in some sort of sick moment. She had studied and observed how totalitarian regimes handle women. She had understood the oppressive nature of extreme religious beliefs towards the female gender. She had recognised that man believes his sole purpose on this earth is to procreate, and the lengths that people may go to in order to pass on their genes. In a way, she had, writing in 1985 about an American dystopia, foreseen the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. We recently read I Am Malala in our book group, which made all too clear the ruined role of and lack of opportunities for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan's Swat Valley under their rule. And current US Vice President Mike Pence seems to hold beliefs not a million miles away from many of the Gilead regime, which is why the book was enjoying a resurgence in popularity long before the television adaptation.

The television adaptation is great. Very dark, both figuratively and literally, but it seems that electricity has gone the way of fertility so there aren't many lights to turn on. There are many shocking scenes: Janine losing an eye, the bodies strung up by the river, the Eyes in the vans, the ceremonies of rape, death and birth. But there is also Atwood's sense of the surreal, and her sense of humour. The technicolor macaroons. The Scrabble game. The oranges. A Simple Minds song. Atwood herself has a brief cameo, a blurry spectre looming large to slap a girl down in front of Aunt Lydia at the Red Center.

I love the use of flashback to Offred's past life, and her barbed interjections on the voiceover that reveal her innermost thoughts. Elisabeth Moss can say a thousand words with her facial expressions in any case - she might seem mute, repressed and withdrawn, but you always believe that there is a firebrand within.

I have seen Margaret Atwood twice in person - once at the Hay on Wye book festival discussing Oryx and Crake with David Aaronovitch, and secondly at the Theatre Royal in York this year discussing Hagseed, her reworking of The Tempest. Both times I was struck by how staggeringly intelligent, erudite and eloquent she is. She talks slowly and steadily, but her mind must be racing as she speaks in order to be able to continually come up with those sorts of verbal goods. In York she kept her coat on throughout the session and seemed only to be dropping in for the briefest of moments, yet the hour felt far longer owing to the sheer richness of her contributions. Atwood managed to give interesting answers to even the most banal of questions. The York interviewer was simpering and simplistic, and the first person in the audience to ask a question took about five minutes of precious time to do so. He began with the epithet "I'm retired", which raised a collective groan, and he then proceeded to tell his life story, waffling on to eventually form some sort of question which basically seemed to require a denunciation of the "youth of today" and all its ilk. Atwood graciously shot him down with her highlighting of environmental concerns (the focus of many of her novels, particularly the MaddAddam trilogy), to ensure that her priorities lie with making sure that there is actually a world still here in fifty years' time for "the youth of today" to live in. The Handmaid's Tale presents a world where "youth" as a concept stands in danger of being lost forever. The human race is dying out, and the fault is entirely its own.

Question Time Special

While the news has been dominated for the past two weeks by the election and the terrible attacks in Manchester and London, my life has become pathetically obsessed by the fact that I have a piece of plastic fork stuck inside my intestine. One moment of carelessness, the sort of thing that happens when you have a young child and spend your life not concentrating and attempting to multi-task, and as a result I am now living in constant fear that I am going to win a Darwin award for the most stupid death of the year.

We were having a lovely day out in Bridlington, and had been to see the breeding sea birds at the spectacular Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve.

Our daughter was full of the moans, as she had been made to go for a long walk and it was well past her lunchtime. So we pulled up at our favourite chippy, 149 on Marton Road, and bought ourselves a picnic to eat on the cliffs next to the car park at Sewerby. Randomly, some friends from York were seated at the next bench. So I was talking, sharing my meal with my daughter, admiring the view, feeling pretty darn hungry myself, enjoying the yummy food, and therefore not paying attention to my cutlery. It was only when I swallowed that I felt something sharp. "Crikey, that was a big bone, or a tough bit of batter," I thought to myself, only to then notice that a tine of my fork was missing. I tried to calm my instant panic, by reassuring myself that it would just past straight through, like one of my top teeth when I was seven, which dropped out of its socket while I was leaping up and down on a bean bag and I reactively gulped down.

Anyway, not to put too fine a point on things, it hasn't re-emerged, over two weeks later. And I have a sharp pain on the right-hand side of my small intestine. And no doctor will effing believe me. The trouble is that plastic doesn't show up on X-rays. So there is nothing to see. I have had a CT scan with oral contrast, quite a miraculous achievement in itself for a Sunday afternoon in York Hospital on a Bank Holiday weekend, but all it showed is that my bowel is still intact. Obviously I don't want to be cut open unnecessarily, but I know it's there, sticking into me a little more as each days go by. And I can't get the bloody thing out, no matter how hard I try.

So here I continue, each day in pain, each day feeling very sorry for myself, and a bit scared of what the next few days or weeks might bring, with a sharp object in my body made of toxic plastic. It brings home to you just how special your family are to you, and how much there is to live for, and all the things that you never quite got round to doing. "You aren't going to die," my husband groans in exasperation. He is used to this sort of talk from me, and naturally doesn't like it. I am very paranoid about my health. I always was, and then watching my mother die of cancer made me a million times worse, especially now I have a child of my own, who I couldn't bear to leave motherless, because I just fricking adore her. 

And what a bloody idiotic thing to have done. That desperation to travel back in time and reset the clock, to go to a different chippy, to just chew my food that bit more thoroughly so that my teeth could have found the big sodding bit of plastic before my gullet. But it's happened, and there is nothing I can do about it now.

So it was good in a way that Question Time came to York last Friday, to remind me of the bigger picture. Here I am stressing about a tiny piece of fork, when we have the chance to decide and change our futures this coming Thursday, and when the May and Corbyn bandwagon was rolling into town. They'd both been to York already during the campaign. May spoke to ten Tory party activists in a back room of the Barbican (that "getting out and meeting voters rather than taking part in TV debates" that she keeps referring to, part of her "strong and stable leadership" mantra repeated ad nauseum, alongside "It is very clear that" and "negotiating Brexit" and pulling that funny fish face every time she tries to think of her own words) whereas Corbyn addressed a packed St Helen's Square, holding up an amplifier so that everyone could better hear Rachael Maskell's introduction. This was early in the campaign, when he was very lacking in the polls, but even then he had the popular touch. 

I have never been a Corbyn fan. I am angry that he ordered a three-line whip on the Article 50 vote - and that he voted to allow May to hold this election in the first place. He seemed to have no clue about what it means to be in Opposition, i.e. that you are supposed to oppose. But Corbyn is genuine at least. He is a man of conviction and integrity. He tries to stay on the side of decency. He is a pacifist. He gets out and talks to people. He is comfortable in his own skin. He tries to answer questions put to him. He doesn't U-turn at the drop of a hat, though he might want to learn the art of compromise a little more succinctly. But most importantly, he isn't full of shit. Unlike Theresa May. And all of that has counted a lot over recent weeks. 

But whatever doubts I may have had about Corbyn, I am going to vote Labour in this election, assuming my plastic fork lets me survive til Thursday. This is partly because I have a huge amount of respect for York Central's current MP, Rachael Maskell, who defied Corbyn's whip to vote against triggering Article 50. She chose to listen to the majority of her constituents, who voted to remain by a far greater margin than the country as a whole voted to leave the European Union. She has served our city tirelessly since being elected in 2015, and frankly I have no idea when she sleeps. She is there for the big issues, and also the small. When the city was inundated by water, there she was on our street, speaking to the residents next to the park whose houses were full of the river. She lambasted David Cameron for the government's lack of funding for flood defences. When Virgin Media trashed our pavements in Southbank laying new broadband cables, she was there demanding that they pay for the damage. When a group of mums at school campaigned for a safer crossing on Bishopthorpe Road, she came to see for herself and to ask what she could do. She has much of Corbyn's honesty and integrity, and I hope will go far. But the Tories are gunning for her seat. They have the money to throw at their campaign, and Theresa May is busy sending her glossy brochures out to the more marginal wards of York, particularly those who leaned more towards Brexit. It's greedy and despicable.

Anyway, here we were, Question Time, from the Ron Cooke hub at the University of York, part of the new Heslington East campus. Not a leaders' debate, because the Maybot only does pre-programmed cliched rhetoric, but a chance for the public to ask their questions. Although no one I knew - pro-European, left-leaning - who applied to go on the programme was successful. Instead, the biased BBC had managed to dredge up a load of entrepreneurial, wealthy, nuclear-war loving, anti-foreign aid and anti-Northern Ireland peace process Tories, young and old, to have a go at Corbyn. Gold star to the woman who finally had enough of the red-button grilling, and asked if people would kindly refrain from discussing the murder of potentially millions. Anyway, the audience certainly didn't reflect the people of York - who I generally regard as open-minded, tolerant, cultured and international - that well. They were more a reflection of the Saturday afternoon binge-drinking hellhole that our city can turn into from time to time. There were a few awkward questions for Theresa May too - notably from a nurse who has had only 1% pay rises (not in line with inflation) since 2010 and from a lady who had had a terrible experience during a work capability assessment and has had to wait years for psychological treatment. But nobody pushed May on how many people she was planning or not planning to bomb, or how she will deal with the fallout from Brexit on the borders in Ireland and the IRA. That would have made her pull a multitude of fishfaces.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Truth About Sleep

In recent years, I have had a troubled relationship with sleep. It isn't just because I have a young child, though that certainly doesn't help. She likes to get up at stupid o'clock, and still has illnesses and bad dreams often enough to keep us on semi-alert all the way through the night.

But I wasn't much good at sleeping before she came along, to be honest. I don't think I've slept through the night since I was about 21 years old. I am terrible at dealing with jetlag, not that there's much opportunity for long-haul flights at the moment. How I envy my daughter the way she sleeps when she finally - after a much protracted bedtime routine of toileting, baths, further toileting, toothbrushing, hairbrushing, saying goodnight to the cats, reading Harry Potter, non-stop chatter and clingy cuddles and us popping in and out of her room for what feels like hours - FINALLY drops off. I don't think there is a more beautiful, heartrending and peaceful sight than a sleeping child.

If I am in familiar surroundings, I can get to sleep fairly quickly. (Different story in a strange bed, when I seem to forget how to fall asleep at all.) But then after a couple of hours I will wake up, and then spend most of the rest of the night tossing and turning, having silly dreams where I am half-awake, half-asleep and trying desperately not to get up and go to the loo. At certain times if my thyroid is swollen, I develop sleep apnoea and wake up gasping for breath, my heart pounding. And then just as I finally settle and begin to nod off again, something will disturb me - a passing drunk or car on the street outside, an owl in the park, or the pigeon that lives on our roof and coos at the first break of dawn every sodding morning. Or the girl wakes up. Or the cats start taking lumps out of each other or knock something over downstairs. Then there is my husband, trying to reclaim his share of the duvet, or rolling onto his back and starting to snore, or having one of his nightmares which make him wail like he's being murdered. And so it goes on, with me getting more and more restless, my joints achier and achier, and my feet and hands full of pins and needles. Then I will pass out into proper unconsciousness about ten minutes before we have to get up for school and work.

With my own little foibles, I am very annoying to share a bed with. I hate noise, so sleep with ear plugs in. I like darkness, so want blackout blinds and sometimes even an eye mask. And I love lots of fresh air, so I will sleep with the window wide open even in the depths of winter, the duvet over my head so that all is exposed to the chill is my nose. (See husband's battle with the duvet in the previous paragraph.) To help ease the sleep apnoea I will smear myself in Vicks and stick a little plastic strip across my nose. Then I need the bed propped up on several books to relieve acid reflux, so it feels like I am lying on a cliff, regularly sliding down to the bottom of the bed until my toes hang over the end. This gives me backache, and makes me toss and turn even more.

Sometimes my husband and I just give up with each other and sleep in separate rooms. It's bliss. But we don't like to admit that to one another.

(And my husband would just like to point out that it is very hypocritical of me indeed to complain about anybody snoring.)

But I am by no means alone. The Truth About Sleep, presented by Michael Mosley, told us that insomnia is becoming a national, generational problem. None of us are getting enough sleep. And it's making us depressed, obese, and diabetic, and prone to all sorts of other health problems. But I really didn't need to know all that. It's enough to keep me awake at night.

You can measure how sleep-deprived you are by lying on your bed in the middle of the day. Hold a metal spoon over the edge of the bed above a metal tray. Make a note of the time. When you nod off, you will drop the spoon, and the clatter of the spoon hitting the tray will wake you up. See what time it is, and how long it took you to fall asleep. If it's less than 15 minutes, chances are you need more slumbertime.

So what can we do about it? GPs offer the quick fix of sleeping pills, although they are usually reluctant to prescribe these for long, as they are addictive and - if our bodies adjust to them - soon rendered useless. That said, some people end up swallowing them for years. There is only so much resistance a doctor will put up if they have a waiting room full of patients to see.

But what about more natural ways of reducing insomnia? Well, there's the obvious behavioural things like avoiding alcohol and caffeine and large meals just before you go to bed. Although apparently if you down a shot of espresso just before you take a nap, you will feel much more alert when you wake up. This is the recommended course of action if on a long car journey you find yourself too tired to drive. Pull into a service station, buy a coffee, and then have a snooze in your car. But who the hell can manage to have a decent nap in a car, other than a toddler? Not me, that's for sure.

Another thing you can do is to switch off all screens - laptops, smart phones, Kindles etc - at least an hour before bedtime. The light from them acts as a stimulant and upsets our body clocks. Proof that the darkness I crave is important. Our daughter still refuses to sleep in the absolute dark, but daylight certainly keeps her awake in summer. Michael Mosley goes to stay the night in a Danish greenhouse to investigate the healing effect of floods of natural light controlling our bodies.

Kiwi fruit and alcohol-free wine

Then there's a selection of what seem like kooky old wives' tale sleep aids to try out. Two kiwi fruits an hour before bedtime. A hot bath. A session of mindfulness. And taking pre-biotics, a white powder stirred into a drink to encourage gut bacteria to grow and thus improve the dynamic between our brain and digestive system. A group of insomniacs each trial one of them. Bizarrely, all seem to have some sort of beneficial effect. I think I'll have a go at the lot.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Child-Friendly Holiday Review: Les Sablons with Eurocamp at Portiragnes-Plage, Languedoc, France

Eurocamp made me laugh today with a new blog post about walking holidays for beginners, celebrating "national walking month". There was nothing particularly funny about the post, which was simply highlighting booklets of walks that some parcs have published. We own one from Lathuile in Annecy last year, where unfortunately a week of pouring rain meant we didn't set out on any of them.

What made me laugh was that our hikes in the French Alps were curtailed by not just incessant rain, but also our six-year-old daughter, who is currently the world's biggest moaner on walks. Her whining can dampen even the hardiest of spirits in the most glorious of sunshine. We live in Yorkshire, surrounded by beautiful scenery - the Dales, the Moors, the Wolds. It spoils us. It tempts us. We are determined to enjoy it, as well as trying to get a bit of much-needed exercise. Every weekend we drag our daughter out on what could be described at worst as a gentle stroll, usually no further than a couple of miles, and usually featuring a bluebell wood, an interesting view or geological feature, some cute animals or birds, and a massive bribe of a cafe or ice-cream van at the end. But still there is this constant pitiful wail in the background - "It's too far, Mummy!" "How much further is it, Mummy?" "My feet hurt!" "I'm tired!" - slowly sapping us of the will to live.

It doesn't help when the weather forecast turns out to have been slightly inaccurate
Sigh. I am sure we are not alone in this, and that she will grow up determined to climb mountains and reflect her Cumbrian roots. I am fairly sure I was none too happy about being taken up hills in the rain at her age either. But whatever, for now we need to accept that we're a still long way off being able to book a Eurocamp walking holiday.

So this Easter we decided to go for the much easier beach option. Keeping mountains (in this case, the still snow-capped Pyrennees) at a suitable distance, we flew with Ryanair from Manchester to Beziers, and booked ourselves a week at Camping Les Sablons in Portiragnes-Plage in Languedoc. We paid £341 for the flights including luggage, and just short of £420 for our accommodation, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom Vista, including bed linen and towel hire.

Distant Pyrenees
Miraculously, this year French air-traffic controllers weren't on strike for either of our flights, and all proceeded smoothly. Ryanair had become a lot more family friendly since we last travelled with them, and Beziers airport is one of the smallest I have ever been to. It literally consists of two rooms - one for departures, one for arrivals. Facilities don't extend much beyond some Portaloos and a tiny bar, although extending them does appear to be on the agenda. The airport also only has two customs officers, which meant for a long wait at passport control, which will no doubt only worsen post-Brexit if (and please no!) we all need to get visas as well. Ryanair were as impatient as ever to be off, so they boarded their return flight to Manchester while we were still queuing across the Tarmac all the way back to the plane. Our suitcases had been waiting for ages by the time we got through.

We had booked a taxi transfer, as Eurocamp had listed Les Sablons as one of their recommended car-free destinations. It's certainly no distance from the airport to the campsite so in a matter of minutes we were checking in at the courier reception. A disinterested girl sat lazily behind a desk and drew an X on a map to show us where to find our caravan. On every previous Eurocamp holiday we have always been taken to our accommodation personally by the courier. I don't know if this is just part of Eurocamp's constant cost-cutting - we've lost the free playing cards and shopping bag, we've lost the returning customer complementary wine, and now we've lost the one guaranteed interaction you had with your couriers. (And it transpired, while we're listing first-world problems, that we've lost the black bin bag outside too.) Les Sablons is a big site and we were on foot, so some assistance during a long walk with luggage and an over-excited child might have been appreciated.

Slightly limited space for an Easter egg hunt

The top bunk was a must
Our mobile home was great - it was almost as spacious as the Avant we rented at Lake Garda last year, and seemed almost as new and well equipped. (Minus the dishwasher of course.) In the end, we were glad that all the Avants at Les Sablons had already been taken by the time we booked the holiday, as they were in a very cramped location near to a large toilet block. Our Vista had a much nicer setting. The caravan was clean, although there was a slightly unpleasant smell in the cupboard under the sink. (Some of the drains on the campsite plainly needed work.) The caravan had air conditioning and heating, although things got a little chilly at night. As there were only the three of us, we could share six blankets between us, and that was enough. The bed was surprisingly comfortable - often they aren't the best in Eurocamp homes.

However there were at least three light bulbs not working, despite the courier's checklist claim that they had all been tested that day. The only one we needed and chased them up on was the outside light, but this turned out actually to be broken, as a replacement bulb didn't make any difference. We made do with little LED lights and torches we had brought with us to sit outside in the evenings.

The pitches were shady under trees, which must be a welcome relief in summer, but also meant that the outside furniture was splattered with bird poo. The ground was sandy, and full of busy ants pushing the dust into piles. It was quite fascinating to watch (if you are six), and thankfully the ants at this point weren't finding their way into our caravan. At dusk, bats swooped around the caravans, and mosquitoes sparked on the electricity points. Don't forget your insect repellent - these fellas seem able to bite through clothes.

As I mentioned before, the campsite is big, so it was quite a walk to the pools and shopping facilities from our pitch. But this meant that it was very quiet all around us, with no disturbances from the bars or evening entertainment, although this wasn't in full swing at this time of year. No foam nights yet, just a mini disco for the kids, and a slightly awkward magician. And we did have things to entertain us nearby - several ping-pong tables, a tennis court and a play fort. Not having been able to fit much into our Ryanair luggage allowance, we borrowed various items of sports equipment and games (plus a couple of beach mats) from Eurocamp reception.

The campsite had a decent-sized supermarket, with a bakery and newsagent's next door. They were open every day, even on the Easter bank holidays, though closed for a siesta for a few hours in the afternoons. The prices were quite high, but needs must when you don't have a hire car. The bread and pastries from the bakery (called a depressingly English "Bread And Sun") were fabulous, and it was a joy to get up early each morning to buy our freshly baked breakfast supply.

Creperie reverie

As for the food outlets, we got takeaway pizza one night. There were plenty of toppings to choose from but we couldn't dissuade our daughter from her standard margherita. She also indulged in several of the bar's crepes Nutella (see above). We ate once in the campsite restaurant, which was friendly and just fine. We opted for the menu du jour (duck on a bed of sweet potato puree, with a weird thin breadstick sticking out of a minuscule glass of gravy) and lucked out because they had run out of the official ile flottante dessert of the day so let us have their home-made tarte tatin instead, which was incredible. The lovely waitress assured us we were getting a good deal, and then made it an even better one by forgetting to charge us for it. I have to say that everyone on the campsite was so nice and seemed to take real pride in their work. It probably helps that I can speak reasonable French and like to strike up a conversation, but the staff were without exception truly warm and often very funny people.

The pools were heated so could be enjoyed (just about!) even this early in the season. The water in the covered pool felt greasy with suncream after the morning aquarobics session, but otherwise they were pretty refreshing. There were slides, a toddler play pool and a jacuzzi pool, and one more suited for proper swimming. The pools were really busy in the afternoons, but we nonetheless always managed to get a sun lounger. The pool toilets smelled foul by the end of each day and were best avoided. Unfortunately the adults only spa area didn't open until the 1st of May, which was clearly stated on the campsite's own website, but not on Eurocamp's. This was a shame, as it looked great and would have been a real bonus if we had had any time to spare away from our daughter.

Which we did have as she was quite happy to join the campsite kids club activities once a day. These had to be booked at their office in advance, and quickly filled up. We were quite proud of our daughter's self-confidence as English kids were definitely a minority presence, and she knows only a smattering of French words from her lessons at school - bonjour, j'adore, trois, lundi, violet and ananas. (Believe it or not, telling someone she loves three purple pineapples on Mondays isn't necessarily the most random thing she is likely to say on a given day.) They did lots of craft activities, and walks around the campsite. And not being able to speak French meant she had to do all the walking without moaning. Good for her.

Walking on the spot is also OK, it seems

And it meant we could go for a long walk ourselves. On Easter Sunday the kids club activity was a three-hour Easter egg hunt, which gave my husband and me time to find the Canal du Midi, and walk to the lock at Portiragnes village and back. It was idyllic, and so relaxing. We saw lizards, bulls, horses and even flamingos from the path. The famous plane trees that line the canal are being struck down by a lethal fungus so the path is no longer as shady in parts as it once was, as the trees are being felled in order to curb the spread of the disease. There were plenty of boats cruising towards Carcassonne and the Atlantic, but the lock at Portiragnes only took three of them at a time, so there was a long queue of them required to wait outside the village. In the glorious sunshine, however, nobody seemed to be complaining.

Yes, sunshine! As equally miraculous as there being no strikes and our daughter not moaning on campsite walks, the sun was shining when we landed at Beziers, and pretty much didn't stop for the whole week we were there. And it was unexpectedly warm, averaging 23-25 degrees most days, which is my absolute optimum temperature. After three years of holidaying with Eurocamp in our winter coats, we were delighted, and didn't quite know what to do with ourselves. But it was just as well, because we may have run out of things to occupy us if the weather had been bad. Eurocamp say you don't need a car for this campsite, but that's only true if you are happy with just a beach and campsite holiday. Exploring the region without a car is quite difficult. There is a bus service to Beziers, but it is designed for the needs of commuters and school children, so you have to be up and ready to go for 8am if you want to make use of it. This, needless to say, caused some more moaning:

The bus goes to Beziers via all the local villages so takes around 40 minutes. And it only goes to the gare routiere rather than the train station (which is a 20-minute walk downhill from the bus station). So we had to abandon plans for trips to Montpellier and Carcassonne on public transport as the bus just didn't connect that well with the trains, and the extra walking would have started off that moaning again. There were two buses a day back to the campsite - one just after lunch and one about five o'clock, so you had to plan the day carefully. However, the big advantage of the buses was that they were super cheap - if you bought a ten-journey pass (which the three of us could share), each ride only cost a euro. The bus driver was greeting us like old friends by the end of the week.

Beziers is well worth a visit, with its beautiful cathedral, old bridges, canal locks and Roman remains. It also has an extensive indoor market and plenty of good restaurants and cafes. We found a quiet square (Place de la Madeleine) for lunch behind the market where, in a restaurant called Au Soleil, we feasted on a tasting platter of oysters, pissaladiere, prawns, smoked salmon and cold pea and mint soup. The hostess was charming, and so welcoming to us all.

Another day we took a further bus to Pezenas, a gorgeous town full of artists' ateliers and quaint and quirky shops. Moliere used to hang out there a lot, and it's not hard to see why. It really is a lovely place.

The town's local delicacy is a mince pie; a legacy from Clive of India, apparently. The filling is like your average Christmas mince pie, but the pastry is raised hot water crust, like on a pork pie. They garner a mixed reception:

Pezenas was all geared up for Easter, with a busy food market and a street decorated with paper flowers and bric-a-brac stalls. We met a friend who lives in the area for lunch, who took us to a wonderful restaurant (Chez Hansi) run by a guy from his village. It's the sort of place we would never have found by ourselves (although it is currently number one on TripAdvisor), and the food - a warm chevre salad and lapin for me - was amazing. We chickened out of his speciality dish, a steak tartare prepared at your table.

But for the rest of the holiday, given the perfect weather, we were content to just hang out on the beach, which was a wild stretch of sand that went on for miles, all the way to the Spanish border. The sand was mixed with millions of tiny, colourful, perfect shells. The campsite had direct access to the beach through the dunes, and Stick Man and his family pointed the way:

The sea was needless to say pretty cold, but you got used to it. Or maybe your skin just turned too numb for you to care. Some days the water was quite rough with waves that could knock small children sideways; on others it was a calm oasis with barely a ripple on it. The beach had a long shallow shelf so you could paddle quite far out without getting wet beyond your knees.

The resort at Portiragnes-Plage was "upmarket" according to Eurocamp's brochure, but that wasn't a word that immediately sprang to our minds. Although it was hard to gauge the place, as a lot of the shops and restaurants hadn't yet opened for the summer season. We found a couple of places to eat, but they weren't spectacular. In fact, one had an all-you-can-eat buffet that looked like it might kill someone. We found some more promising looking places a little further from the campsite, but only on the last day when a lot of them were closed after the Easter weekend. A circus was in town, but we failed to find it. There was a big nature reserve leading on to Serignan Plage, where families gathered for barbecues on the bank holiday. The nature reserve had more dunes and a large lake like the one next to the campsite, which had several safari tents alongside it and was under a permanent fog of mosquitoes.

View towards Beziers cathedral from Portiragnes-Plage

All too soon it was time to leave. The couriers, having cycled past us several times without a word of greeting during the week, also did their best to ignore us when we arrived back at reception to check out, although admittedly we were in the company of a child having a screaming meltdown because she had just fallen over, badly scraping her knee. Anyway, when addressed directly, the couriers agreed to store our luggage for us, as our flight back to Manchester wasn't until early evening. They however failed to turn up at the agreed time later that afternoon for us to collect it ready for our taxi. Thankfully, one was only a phonecall away so we weren't overly delayed. A word of warning - the taxi cost twice as much on the return leg as on the way there, because he also charged us for his travel out of Beziers. Probably best to agree a fare in advance. But we had been too busy chatting about the upcoming presidential election and the aftermath of the Brexit vote. The taxi driver had a brother who lived in Manchester and was facing an uncertain future.

We would go back to Les Sablons in a heartbeat, although it would possibly be way too hot and crowded in the peak summer season. (We couldn't afford August prices anyway, whereas the Easter rates were extremely good value for money.) We were incredibly lucky with the weather, as it is always a risk to take your main holiday so early in the year. We benefited from Easter being late. The disinterested Eurocamp couriers were definitely the least good aspect of the otherwise fantastic trip, but their bike rental guy was in contrast chatty and helpful. But at least they keep the caravans clean and if you rented the campsite's own accommodation (some of which looked really cool, in lovely garden settings) you would either have to leave it immaculate or pay a hefty cleaning charge.

I don't suppose we'll get our daughter on a Eurocamp walking holiday next year either, but if we return to Les Sablons, we might persuade her to accompany us along the Canal du Midi for a short stretch to see the flamingos, but there may need to be the promise of a chocolate pancake on return. I am very relieved that Marine Le Pen has since lost the election (one power-crazed xenophobe as Prime Minister at home is enough), as we would love to explore Languedoc some more. But next time we would definitely rent a car. Maybe one of the shiny purple Fiat 500s the hen party in the next caravan had hired for the weekend, which looked seriously smart.