Monday, 25 April 2011

How does my garden grow?

 My name is Rachael and I am a garden bore. There. I've said it. I love my garden. I love getting dirt under my fingernails and leaves in my hair. I carefully pick up freshly dug worms and put them back in the soil, tossing the odd one to the robin who always appears as soon as I have a spade or fork in my hand. From April to October, I have to spend at least five minutes every day checking what's blooming, what's fading and what's downright surprising.

What's most surprising is that I have become a gardener at all. I used to be the girl that not only killed all her own house plants, but also transferred the kiss of death to any plant I bought as a gift. The first two gardens we owned I viewed with suspicion and tried to keep under control, but no more than that. When a Japanese Maple tree started throwing up suckers in the grass and then, even worse, under our kitchen floor in our last house, all my suspicions were confirmed - nature was the enemy.

All that changed when we bought our current, beloved, house. It came with a mature and extremely well-loved garden. On our second viewing, the then owner, Angela, made coffee and confided that they had just turned down an asking-price offer on the house from a man who wanted to dig up the lawn and put in a swimming pool. When we moved in, the neighbours told me how Angela would stand on the terrace every morning with a cup of coffee, just looking at the garden. I felt an immediate responsibility. This garden I had to look after.

As it turned out, in the first few years there wasn't much to do except keep things ticking over. With a toddler and then a new baby, I was glad to let the garden do its own thing. Every year things grew, things flowered. Throughout the summer the garden was filled with colour - purple and pink hardy geraniums, sky blue lupins, sweet lavenders, blousey pink roses, creamy-white and fragrant mock orange. The pear tree dripped with big-bottomed fruit. The cherry tree flowered twice a year, spotting the tips of its brittle branches with puffs of blossom. I watered and feed and tidied and continued to think of it as Angela's garden.

I knew when we decided to moved to New York for a few years that leaving the garden would be hard. One warm sunny day in early-June, we sat on the patio eating take-out chicken and thinking just how beautiful it was, while the men inside packed up the house and the children ran around on the grass. It seemed cruel that we had to leave just when the garden was at its very best, but leave we did.

We returned three years later to one of the worst summers in London for many a year. Cold and wet. The tenants had moved out six weeks previously and the grass was knee-deep. Three trees had been lost to the January storms earlier in the year. But, much worse, the ivy had run amok. It covered the deep flower beds, all but meeting the grass. It had grown right over the top of the pear and apple trees, and even the tall cherry tree was bowed under the weight of an ivy canopy. The letting agents argued that this had all happened within the six weeks the property had been empty. I knew this was three years of neglect.

I cleared as much of the ivy as I could, rediscovering the old paths and border boundaries, pulling and teasing lengths and lengths of the stuff out of the trees. For every foot of ivy there were two of bramble, lashing cuts up and down my arms. There is only so much one small woman with a pair of secateurs can do and the final hacking back took two men and a chainsaw the best part of a day.

And then we waited. And waited. Surely some of the old perennials were still alive under there? The hardy geraniums earned their name and dutifully came back. A nameless silvery shrub thrust out soft spears of purple flowers - it may be a Salvia, I'm still not sure. The evergreen Euonymus shrubs still marched down the shady side of the garden.  A woody rosemary bush was alive but in danger of being pushed out by one of the many ant hills. Little else survived.

Angela's garden had gone and I had never taken the time to find out what all those wonderful plants were. So I started again. It's taken me three years, but I now know (more or less) what I have in my garden. As I sit here in late April, I can see bluebells and grape hyacinths, just passing their prime. The hardy geraniums are lush with leaf and in a few weeks will be smothered with both flowers and busy-bottomed honey bees. The lime green leaves and stems of purple alliums stud the length of the beds, some already in full bloom, others with their buds still closed in tight green bullets. Self-seeding aquilegias are already sporting their pretty pink bonnets and the sea holly and hostas are in full leaf, with the promise of colour to come. The wisteria is dropping its pale purple confetti on the lawn with every gentle breeze. From behind me comes the thick scent of lilacs, shortly to be replaced by the equally lovely fragrance of the mock orange tree.

And, happily, after years of hiding and sulking, some of Angela's plants have come back. There is a peony I forgot we had that has suddenly come into leaf. The smaller trees have recovered from their tussle with the ivy, and the firethorn tree is especially grateful for its release, with blossom in the spring and masses of hot red berries in the autumn and winter. The roses and flowering shrubs that had become woody and barren have been hard pruned and fed and left be and are now happily flowering again. Last year, a small grey nub of a stub that I decided against digging out for no better reason than laziness suddenly sprouted new branches, then leaves, then beautiful white flowers with blood-red hearts. It's a hibiscus. The ants have been evicted and the rosemary bush is happy. Even the hostas have been spared by the slugs this year, possibly because some hedgehogs have moved in and they love a nice juicy slug.

I don't kill things anymore, I grow them. A garden, a family, a home. All built on solid foundations and thriving.

Friday, 4 March 2011

The love of a child

When I was very little, the person I loved most in the world was Nanny. Nanny wasn't a proper fancy nanny, she was my Grandma Smyth's next door neighbour and she used to look after me and do a little light housework for my mother. I don't know where my mother was - I can only assume she had a job. My mother was a remote figure in my early years, but I remember Nanny very well.

Nanny used to bring me red grapes because they were the only type of fruit I would eat. When I had one of my frequent ear-aches, she would pack my ear with cotton-wool and let me rest my head in her lap. When Nanny babysat for me in the evenings, she would run me a deep, warm bubble bath and let me play in it until the water went cold. Then she would bring me downstairs and set me in front of the old fan heater, which she used in lieu of a hairdryer. I would sit with my back to the heater and she would gently brush my thick, thick hair until it had dried, smooth and glossy and so blond it was almost white. Sometimes I stayed the night at Nanny's house. She would feed me sausages and  baked beans that came from the same tin, and raspberry ripple ice-cream. In the house next door, my grandparents would be sitting either side of the fireplace smoking unfiltered Gallaher's cigarettes and not talking. Nanny was the warm, loving constant in my life.

And then, one day, Nanny told me that she was going away and was never coming back. She was going to live in a place called New Zealand that was so far away, she would probably never come back to Belfast again. She was going to live with her daughter. I begged her not to go. I cried and cried. I felt like the rug had been pulled out from beneath my little feet, my life turned upside down. When she was gone, I thought my heart would break. I didn't know it at the time, but I recognise now what that feeling was: it was grief.

Suddenly my mother and I were thrown together. I didn't care for her cooking - she never did things the way Nanny did. When she ran me a bath, she only filled it a few inches, and with tepid water. She neglected to brush my hair after it had been washed, with the result that it became as matted as a bird's nest. She would roughly brush the front of it, leave a heaving mass of tats at the back. She never bought red grapes or raspberry ripple ice-cream.

Gradually I got over my grief at losing Nanny and my mother and I became closer, although it took many years. I have often wondered what was going on with her during my early years. She was a naturally warm and loving person, but I don't remember much of that being directed my way back then. I wonder was she depressed, post-natally or otherwise? Did she find it hard having a baby in the house again, when my sister and brother were older and already at school? Did she find she only had enough mothering in her for two and there was just nothing left for me? And is that why I was so sure I didn't want another child after The Boy was born? I never want a child of mine to feel like an also-ran, an after-thought, an inconvenience.

I'll never get to ask my mother now, and even if she were still alive, I'm not sure I'd know how to ask. But for all the love I feel I missed out on then, there was much love from her later, so much so that when my mother died, the grief I felt then outstripped any I felt before, or have since. Turns out there is always enough love to go around.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Rock and troll

Am I the only middle-class London mother to have never been on Mumsnet? I was tempted to take a look around the time of the General Election, when the talk was all about the party leaders' favourite biscuits. I wanted to know how such stuff gets to be news. I understand why the politicians did it (they were courting the female floating vote). But why have the media suddenly decided that Mums are important, powerful, taste-makers, arbiters of justice and imbued with some sort of special every-woman wisdom?

I might find the answer to these questions if I just went and had a look at the website, but I really don't want to. I've dipped my toe in the online forum world over the past year and, with a few notable exceptions, I've pulled my toe right back out again.

Here are the exceptions: I use my local forums to get dull but essential information (roadworks, train cancellations, local campaigns). I am a member of a writing forum that is supportive, engaging and informative, and blessedly troll-free. And that's about it. On the local forums, there are places for people to discuss 'wider issues'. It hasn't taken me long to realise that I'm not really interested in the opinions of people I don't know, much less getting into an argument with them. And it almost always does degenerate into an argument. There is an inverse proportion between the length of a discussion thread and the quality of its content. Once a general discussion has reached its second or third page, I can almost guarantee that the conversation will have boiled down to 'You are a racist.' 'No, you are.' 'No, you are.' Ultimately, it all: Me, me me!

The thing is, no matter how reasonable or even-handed you try to be, no one is going to change their opinions because of what you write on a forum. And no-one actually cares what you think, they just want to say what they think (and I'm as guilty of that as anyone, see above). And whatever you say can be twisted in any direction by people who are Professional Offence Takers.

Of course, I didn't know this at first. I went looking for the message board of a national radio station because I had heard something on the radio I wanted to know more about. I thought this might be a place where I would find like-minded people. I posted a few comments. Someone misinterpreted something I said. I tried to clarify. I was called uncultured and uneducated. I sighed and bowed out. Every now and then I look in on that message board. The same handful of people (maybe ten or fifteen regular contributors, no more) are still going at it, staggering around the ring, punch-drunk but unwilling to give up their stated (and indeed mis-stated) positions. This a radio station that averages ten million listeners, but with a message board dominated by a tiny number of people. Don't get me wrong, many people post perfectly sensible things on that board, but the common sense is drowned out by the baying and braying of the moaners and trolls.

I have a feeling that the general message board / forum will die a natural death as media outlets become more and more tailored to the individual. For now, though, I'm steering clear of Mumsnet. I parent the way I parent, and I'm not about to tell anyone else how to do it. And I'm a little scared I'll find out that I've been doing it all wrong. Ignorance is bliss (at least until the kids are all grown up and can sue me for the cost of their therapy).

(Note: When I do post on forums, I do it under my real name. It helps me think before I flame, and it means that anyone who has seen me on a forum can also find me here slagging off the forums. Oh well.)

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


I went to the post office last week to send a parcel. Once the package had been weighed, measured and the value of its contents quantified, I handed over my money, got the stamps and expected to be on my way.
'Is that everything?' the man behind the counter asked.
'Yes,' I said, waiting for my change.
'Do you need to top up your mobile phone?'
'Can I interest you in a personal loan?'
'Open a National Savings account?'
At this point I said nothing, giving the ten pound note I had proffered an extra shove in his direction. He took the hint and gave me my change.

Yesterday, different post office, different staff. I'm sending off the Boy's passport application.
'Do you know we offer a "Check and Send" service for passport applications?' the lady says, eyeing up the envelope.
I smile and nod and put the envelope on the scales. 'Just the stamps please.'
'Can I interest you in a Post Office credit card?'
'Travel insurance? Currency exchange?'
Silence. I'm not biting. Finally she hands over my change. I give her a breezy smile, but inside I am sighing.

There was a phrase my mother and teachers were fond of using: Jack of all trades, master of none. I wonder when this piece of folk wisdom went out of fashion.

Many years ago, before Children, when I worked as a researcher in arts and media, there was a lot of talk about 'convergence' in the media industries. I didn't really understand then what that meant but, some fifteen years later, I see it every day. I surf the web on my phone, I watch TV on my computer. With all the data coming down the phone line, it sort of makes sense for BT to want to sell me TV data, and Sky to sell me telephony.

But elsewhere in the marketplace, it's all gone a little mad. I get my pet insurance from the supermarket. British Gas fix my electrics. Blockbuster are going to start selling the TVs and DVD players we need to watch their movies (although what you are doing in Blockbuster if you haven't got a TV in the first place is beyond me).

What I really want is people who know what they are doing, know their product, and don't have to send me to a call centre to answer every question. I had a problem with our new Sky box a few weeks ago. I've learned by experience that their technical support staff are charming, eager, and clueless. I know what they are going to suggest before they say it, and I will invariably have tried it already. This time, I went online first, found a Sky user forum where my problem was discussed, found the solution, called Sky and asked them to implement the suggested solution. They refused, had to go through their checklist. We did the checklist - and thirty minutes later, still not fixed. Then they tried my way - two minutes later, ta da. Problem solved. Yet I bet the next person who calls in with the same problem will get no joy. They won't make a note of my solution - it doesn't appear on the list therefore it doesn't exist.

But the backlash has started. We have a new fishmonger on our high street. The guy who runs it is pleasant and knowledgable. He provides recipes according to the fish he has got in that day, and sells all the ingredients too, getting the neighbouring greengrocers to supply the veg. Give him enough notice and he'll get you whatever fish you want, and tell you how to cook it. Perfect. I want fish - he sells me fish. Job done.

If he ever tries to sell me car insurance, though, I shall despair.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Blinking into the light

Your blogger will be out and about this week, reading from 33 West at Hammersmith Library on Thursday evening, as part of the Story of London Festival. Come along if you are in the vicinity - I'm up first, so make sure you are early!

In other news, Hoovering the Roof  has been a major success for the East Dulwich Writers' Group. The first print run sold out, and it was a runner-up in the National Association of Writers' Groups Annual Writing Awards.

Not ones to rest on our laurels, we have been beavering away for the past several months, and Hoovering the Roof 2 will hit the shops in late November, just in time for your last minute Christmas shopping. Look out for promotional events in late November and throughout December.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Teen Queens and Strong Thumbs

So there it goes. Summer 2010. On warmer afternoons I can almost imagine it is still summer, but in the mornings the grass is heavy with dew, and the early evening sun now slides behind the house rather than sailing above it, casting longer shadows over the garden. Both kids are back to school now (after a false start for The Girl, who has been suffering with a Mystery Ailment for a few weeks now). A mixed bag of a summer, but I'm sorry to see it go.

The Girl's transition to Teen Queen continues, although not at a steady pace. As she spent more of the summer with us than with her friends, she gradually reverted to something more like the girl she was a year ago. Not that there is anything wrong with the girl she has become, it's just that there is a slightly harder edge to her when she is with her secondary school friends. By the time we went on holiday, she had been hanging out with me and the Boy for a few weeks, so was ready to enjoy herself Old School - playing with inflatables in the pool, diving to find fish in the sea, building sand castles (and digging wells - it's clearly genetic).

The Boy has a very peculiar inner alarm clock. On school days, he has to be dug out of bed with a crow bar at seven a.m. On the weekend and holidays, he wakes bright-eyed and bushy tailed at six-thirty. He says it's all to do with having something worth waking up for. Given that he is allowed to play his DS before breakfast during the holidays, I can see where his priorities lie. It has been nice for Hubby, though, that the Boy has been waking early all summer - it is lonely for him, setting off for work while we all slumber on. Now the Boy is back at school, I will miss his Random Daily Statement, the best of which was: 'I've just noticed, I have very strong thumbs.'

And now we are back in the thick of it and it seems like I am always doing six things at once, none of them very effectively. But it's not quite time to put away the flip flops yet - at least not until the clocks go back.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Four wheels bad

When I was growing up, our family car was a Land Rover. That Land Rover there on the left.

Sounds okay, right? Very nice, in fact, four-wheel drive cars being the vehicle of choice for many a suburban family these days. Well, no. Not okay at all, for two reasons. One, this was in the 1970s, and two, this was Belfast.

In the 1970s, the only people who drove Land Rovers were farmers and soldiers. They were utility vehicles, not family cars. Our Land Rover was undercoat-grey (come to think of it, it may indeed have been painted just with undercoat, and remained unfinished, a bit like the house). The interior was finished in a fetching combination of rivets and bare metal. The seats were upholstered in bum-numbingly hard plastic. In lieu of a boot there was a loading area with a handy integrated folding shovel. Just what every family needs.

Being driven about in this grey tin box was mortifying. My friends' dads drove proper cars, with velour upholstery and radio-cassette players and windows that wound down with a handle, not ones that slid down with an alarming crash when you released the catch. One of the back windows had been replaced with clear plastic sheeting, the glass having been broken long ago. I occasionally got a lift to school with a friend whose dad wore leather driving gloves while driving their Ford Grenada, the executive car of the day. I say they were friends, but actually, these girls just happened to go to the same school as me. They spotted me at the bus stop one day, pointed out to their dad that we went to the same school, and he stopped to offer me a lift. And there was another difference between my father and other people's fathers. He never, ever, once, drove me to school. I don't think he ever just gave me a lift somewhere, anywhere. Given how much I hated the Land Rover, I should have been grateful for that, but of course, it was just another point of difference between me and everyone else in the world.

Of course, it wasn't just social embarrassment that was wrought on us by the Land Rover. Like I said, only farmers and soldiers drove Land Rovers in the 1970s. In Belfast, the only other Land Rovers on the road were painted camouflage green and driven by British soldiers. So there I was, a Catholic girl in a sectarian city with an English, Protestant father who drove a Land Rover but who wasn't a soldier, who was in fact a university professor with middle-class tastes without the middle-class income. In a city where your cultural identity was everything, I didn't have a clue who I was.

There were times, however, when the Land Rover came into its own, never more so than when we went on holiday to Donegal. With its four-wheel drive, the Land Rover happy trundled down onto the beach. On more than one occasion my father helpfully towed away other cars that had foolishly followed him onto the sand and promptly got stuck. With its back door swung open, the Land Rover provided a changing room, a place to make sand-free sandwiches and a spacious shelter from the rain. The folding shovel was often used to dig sand wells - my father would dig holes in the sand so deep and wide that he had to cut in steps to climb back out again,  after digging down and down until he hit water. The plastic spades other families bought from the harbour gift shop were no match for my father and his proper, made-for-emergencies shovel. Other fathers tried to dig similar wells, perhaps driven by spade-envy, but they never made better than ours.

One year, finally, the Land Rover failed its MOT so comprehensively there was no saving it. It was so dilapidated and full of rust that it could only be sold for scrap. And that was when I discovered that there was one thing more socially damning that a Bad Car, and that is No Car. For a while (I don't know how long, but it felt like forever) we had No Car. I didn't know anyone else with No Car.

Luckily, the only way you can go from No Car is up. One day, on the back of an advance from his publishers (I think) my father proudly brought home the Princess. That wasn't some sickly pet moniker we gave the new car, that was the actual name of the model. The Austin Princess. It was royal blue and had proper windows and a boot. And a few years after that, oh joy, the Audi Quattro. White with those three distinctive black rings emblazoned on the side. Not only did we have a car, it was a Cool Car. Change came to my family in what felt like an avalanche in the 1980s. My mother started a new career in financial services and all of a sudden money was something that came out of the hole-in-the-wall on demand, not a scarce commodity carefully counted out from my mother's black cash tin. Cars came and went - company cars changed on a whim. But the funny thing is, I hardly remember those cars. But the Land Rover, much as I loathed it, was a member of our family, and being eccentric and awkward and downright bonkers, it fitted right in.