It’s Monday morning. It’s not five to five, and it’s definitely not Crackerjack. It’s rubbish is what it is. The rain is hammering down, the wind is blowing sideways and the sky is grey, grey, grey. I don’t mind rain so much, but I hate when the wind blows it sideways down the gaps in your coat buttons. The best kind of attire for weather like this is a neoprene wet suit (and ear muffs). Unfortunately with my rolls of fat and lack of patience this is never going to happen. It’s probably for the best to be fair. I don’t want to be responsible for a major pile up on the main road as I waltz past looking like the Man from Atlantis’ fat aunty.
I had many plans for today. Both the girls are in school and it’s just me, The Lone Ranger and shorty boy Tonto this morning. I have to get Tilly a Christmas present. I have to go to the post office sorting depot and pick up some parcels. I have to buy Oxo cubes. I need to think wistful thoughts about panettone. How will I do that in this weather? I know I’m just going to sit around with the heating turned up to melting point playing cars with Oscar and pretending to be busy. It’s exhausting. I know the kind of pressure Kofi Annan must live with. Thank God nobody has asked me to join the UN as a good will ambassador. I can’t even take the kids to school without having a lie down. It’s just so demanding, all this responsibility. It makes you long for the simple life. NOT!
I love watching all these programmes where world weary accountants and advertising executives pack up their loved ones and cart them off to Tuscany to live in a haystack, while they pursue their idea of a golden age rural idyll after having burned out in their jet set city life styles. Invariably they have names like Tarquin and Jeremy and the one thing you can absolutely guarantee is that the most research they’ve done on this wonderful plan is to read Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence,’ and think: ‘how hard can it be?’
It is of course all bollocks. Anyone who has ever lived in the country and done anything vaguely rural will tell you that getting tired from earning too much money and snorting coke from a lap dancers navel is nothing compared to lambing five hundred sheep at three a.m. in a howling gale with water pouring down the back of your parka. It doesn’t matter whether you do it in a rusticated backwater of the unspoilt Dordogne, or Herefordshire, it’s still going to be hideous in large parts, and will smell quite bad a lot of the time.
The other thing they neglect to think about is the fact that the words ‘rustic’, ‘quaint’ and ‘unspoiled’ are all brilliant when you’re visiting for a two week holiday, but not when you’re trying to rewire your entire house in a thunderstorm using a blueprint from 1933, and the only electrician in the entire area has gone on holiday for the entire month of August to escape his stressful lifestyle (he’s sitting in The Spearmint Rhino drinking champagne out of a stripper’s shoe, thinking he’s died and gone to heaven).
Jason’s parents moved from the city to run a strawberry farm in Cornwall when he was a teenager, in pursuit of a quiet country life. What they don’t tell you while you’re blissfully dreaming of agas and plaiting your own corn dollies is that even strawberries need twenty four hour, round the clock attention, let alone any form of livestock. You become hostage to a bunch of weeds and a perambulating pork chop.
You can’t ever go on holiday again and you spend your whole life doing such joyous jobs as rotivating; spraying; mulching; weeding and other back breaking chores. You spend the next twenty years of your life cultivating calluses the size of Denmark and spending all your hard earned cash supporting the local osteopath who plays golf and jet skis round the globe while you remain tethered to your rural lifestyle.
Jason can’t even look a strawberry in the eye any more without hyperventilating, and he’s got a whole raft of stories prepared for the Kevin and Perry days of the kids’ wild teenage cries of: ‘It’s not fair!’ that are going to drive them absolutely bonkers! Because the other thing that these programmes don’t tell you is that the children never ask to be set free into the country to roam wild. It’s all about the parents.
They say that they’re doing it for the children, and that they want to give their kids either a) the kind of idyllic childhood they remember or b) the kind of childhood they would like to have had instead of being a latchkey kid on a run down housing estate/ghetto surrounded by burning cars and pre-Asbo teenagers.
Rubbish. They’re doing it because they imagine themselves sitting in a giant farmhouse kitchen swimming in terracotta tiles and Emma Bridgewater crockery, being interviewed by someone from the Guardian weekend supplement about their ‘simple’ lifestyle, which in actuality has only been made possible by their vast trust fund and mummy’s largesse. There is nobody in the world who can sleep in Cath Kidston sheets, surrounded by hand woven kilims and treasures from Paul Smith’s antiqueorama from the proceeds of a run down olive farm, unless you’re Terence Conran or a drug smuggler on the side.
The kids meanwhile, who are supposed to be enjoying getting back to nature and running wild and free like Brooke Shields in that dreadful film (the one where they had to superglue her hair to her nipples to stop people getting over-excited!), are going mad with boredom. They’ve spent three months whinging about the fact that the home made bread is breaking their teeth, and are praying that their dad will get the solar panels fixed in the next twenty minutes so they can immerse themselves in Gran Turismo III on the X-Box and pretend they live in a mean ‘hood stylie ghetto with some car jacking pimps and crack whores.
The reality gets as exciting as Pound Stretcher, early closing on Wednesdays come hell or high water, a burned out telephone box miles from anywhere and a bus shelter where the buses go once a week if you’re lucky, but don’t come back, if you’re even luckier.
There speaks the voice of bitter experience! I lived in the country when I was little, and although there are parts of it I really loved, I confess to being more than ready to move on by the time I hit my teenage years. Thankfully my parents had their ‘let’s pretend we live in The Good Life’ moment, early on (that Felicity Kendall has a lot to answer for), and by the time I was old enough to crave the delights of ‘yoof culture’, they had had enough of weaving their own vests out of vegetable matter and brewing parsnip wine.
Despite what your parents tell you, travelling forty minutes each way to school by bus is not a ‘fantastic adventure’. It’s a pain in the arse. Living ten miles from the nearest Chinese takeaway is not character building either, especially when your mother’s cooking is as erratic as mine.
Having the only jobs available to you to supplement your meagre pocket money being potato picking or a paper round is also a bit soul destroying. My mother wouldn’t let me do potato picking because she was having a vendetta with the local farmer, so paper round it was. To add insult to injury (paper rounds were crap pay, four pounds a week for seven morning’s graft. Spuds were positively lucrative in comparison), the paper round in our village was taken by the 75 year old father of our eccentric cleaning lady/girl, who resolutely refused to drop dead of old age or heart failure so that I could have an easier job. This meant that I had to do the paper round in the next village, which was a two mile bike ride before I’d even started.
Life wasn’t easy. My bike had collapsed several months earlier, but my parents didn’t want to buy me a new one, so my granddad had fixed it using cotton reels and a soldering iron. It was a little unreliable, and because I had had a growth spurt, my knees brushed my earlobes as I pedalled. On Wednesdays it was Radio Times and magazine day. I was quite tiny at this stage in my life and only managed to make it round without snapping my spine by innovating a manoeuvre where I rode perpendicular to the floor and grated the paper bag along the road to stabilise myself. I went through a lot of paper sacks.
My brother was supposed to help me. It was he who mentioned the idea of having a paper round to my mum, and she thought it would be ‘character building’ for him. Now this is all very well, but I was, as we have established, a lazy toe rag who hated getting up and was quite content to eke out what meagre pocket money I had if I couldn’t throw spuds in a bag for however much spuds in a bag went for in the olden days. I did not, under any circumstances, want a paper round. My brother however, was dyslexic and couldn’t read very well. My mum said that I had to go with him and help him for the first few weeks until he could memorise the round, and then I could stop.
After two weeks my brother had hysterics when a Jack Russell leapt out from behind a bush and tried to kill him, and cycled home in the middle of the paper round, leaving me to fend off the slavering beast and refusing to go out ever again. My mum felt sorry for him and agreed that he didn’t have to do it any more. I on the other hand, had to continue for the honour of the family etc. We had made a commitment, we couldn’t let people down (what’s all this ‘we’ stuff about? She didn’t get up at five thirty every morning to cycle herself into oblivion). I was outraged of small village in the arse end of nowhere. I protested to no avail.
I hated that job more than any other job I’ve ever had in my life and I’ve had a few. One day the door between the shop and the flat where the owners lived got jammed and they couldn’t get in to open up. Because I was small they posted me through a ventilation window about eight feet up in the wall, whereupon I plummeted down like a stone. The only thing that broke my fall was a display of dry goods, and I was chastised for squashing a box of Scots Porridge Oats, which I thought was a bit rich.
When I had let them into their own shop and then cycled four miles round the paper route (middle of nowhere, farms all spread apart with vicious dogs, geese, hamsters etc) I got back expecting some praise and maybe even a reward. They grudgingly gave me a bar of chocolate! Chocolate for God’s sake. I mean, never look a gift bar of chocolate in the horse’s mouth and all that, but please?! I had risked life and limb and got a bar of bloody Dairy Milk for my pains. I expect it was reaching its sell by date and they would have had to reduce it anyway.
The worst bit of the job was the cycle to work. The road to the next village was down an incredibly steep hill, which was fun on the way there, and murder on the way back, and then round a series of hair pin blind bends with high hedges and no pavements. Once the clocks changed in the Autumn, the frequency of my near death experiences increased exponentially and I used to come home a quivering wreck, weeping into my bicycle clips.
One day, several months into this horror, my mum took me to one side and said that even though she knew I enjoyed the job, she really didn’t think I should do it any more as she was a bit worried about me getting killed one dark morning! Outraged of Outrageousville. Nothing more was said between us, due to the fact that I had no wish to be convicted of matricide.
The only good thing about living in the middle of nowhere used to be the frequency with which we were snowed in in the winter, thus avoiding masses of school. With the advent of global warming even that benefit has now disappeared into the ether. Tragic.
Moving back to the present day I am pleased to say that we had no squabbles over uniforms this morning, and there was even queuing at the door at twenty past eight. Tallulah is so desperate to see the back of me she got dressed last night! I remember doing that when I was a child.
I have always been absolutely terrible at mornings, and I used to hate that mad scramble on a school morning in particular. Our house was what an estate agent would call, ‘full of rustic charm’. We would call it miserably freezing. One of my major dislikes was the brutal transition between the warm cocoon of the duvet and the freezing, arctic conditions of the rest of the house. I puzzled long and hard and figured that if I dressed in my school clothes the night before and simply slept in them I could avoid much of the anguish of having to be naked in sub zero temperatures.
It was brilliant. In fact, an inspired stroke of genius. My mother however, did not feel the same way when she came to tuck me in before she went to bed and found me sweating in thick woollen tights and a school tie. Unimpressed would be the word I would use to describe her mood, unimpressed and shouty. I felt brutally wronged that she couldn’t see the brilliance of my plans. If truth be told, I still do…
Children are seldom appreciated for this kind of thing. I once made a pill box hat out of cardboard, which I covered with cunningly made roses which I fashioned from toilet paper. I proudly took it downstairs to demonstrate my marvellous millinery skills and got told off for wasting valuable toilet paper! Hence my early retirement from the world of high fashion and my overwhelming desire to own a Philip Treacey hat.
One of my worst crimes was committed on the day I benevolently decided to make my mum and dad breakfast. It was a Sunday morning and I was the first one up. I was always getting shouted at for waking early on Sundays (despite my sluggishness during working hours. It’s a kid thing, weekends, holidays and bank holidays are always fair game for early rising), and told that I shouldn’t wake them, but should go and find something constructive to do.
I thought it would be a nice idea to take them breakfast in bed. I would earn many Brownie points. I would be a ‘good’ child, and I would get to fiddle about with dangerous cooking implements unsupervised. A winning plan all round.
Now we didn’t have read sliced bread from the supermarket. We had a baker who used to deliver bread to our house, or my mum would attempt to make it. Consequently our bread was in vast loaves, and if my mum made it, akin to chewing on a brick. Sawing through one of these monsters balanced on a stool wrapped in fourteen layers of clothing was my first obstacle.
I managed to cut two ‘slices’, although their smoothness and regularity of form was not a joy to behold. They were however separated from the main loaf, and this was all that counted to me. By then I was brutally bored of the whole thing, it having taken me a good twenty minutes of sawing to get to that point, and I had almost taken my thumb off twice. I knew my mum would shout at me if I bled all over the kitchen, so I needed to move on to pastures new where bleeding was not an option.
We did not have a toaster at this point in my life either (It’s a wonder I’ve made it thus far, with these levels of deprivation in my life). We had to use the grill on the oven. With much twiddling and pushing I managed to light the grill and extricate the grill pan upon which I placed my dainty morsels of soon to be toast. I soon noticed that the slices were rather large and didn’t quite fit in the space between the top of the grill pan and the bottom of the by now, red hot, element. I decided that I could not go back to the bread whittling stage, as I would surely lose a finger and then my life would be over as my mother battered me to death with the soggy end, thus defeating all my plans. Consequently I came up with the brilliant idea of hitting the slices very hard with a rolling pin to flatten them a bit. Voila, perfect fit.
I was merrily filling the kettle and messing about with arranging tea cups on a tray when I smelled the acrid stench of burning toast. I turned to see that the bread was not only beginning to char, but in the places where the bread was touching the element it was actually on fire. Now I had a dilemma. I had at this point gone into shock. At no stage in the proceedings had I thought: 1) make breakfast for grateful parents 2) burn down kitchen in the process. It had never crossed my mind that the burning down the house thing might be an option. My mum and dad got quite cross when the house looked like it might burn down, which happened on a regular basis, so I knew I would be in big trouble if I made a fuss.
I stood and watched the blaze as it crept along the grill pan and started to lick over the sides of the oven, unsure of whether to confess my sins. Now why I didn’t just pull the bread out and toss it into the sink, I really don’t know. I put it down to the trauma of watching all my plans fall apart. In the end, as the smoke got denser I decided the only thing to do was to confess all. I ran upstairs two at a time screaming: ‘I’ve set the house on fire!’ which was slightly different from the original lines of: ‘Good morning Mum and Dad, here is your breakfast and the newspaper.’
My mum shot out of bed like a scalded cat, shouting: ‘What? Where? How? Etc’ and stood on her glasses, which made her even madder. She hedgehogged downstairs, threw the remains of the toast in the sink and opened the window to let out the clouds of smoke. As predicted I was seriously in the dog house, and banned from making any more gestures of goodwill towards them before I’d taken my Brownie, Safety in the Home badge.
Now when I say that my parents nearly set their house on fire with alarming regularity I am not exaggerating. I will point out for the record that all stories, however far fetched they seem in my blogging adventures are actually true, and this explains everything. You can ask my mum if you like. She’s a very reliable witness, as long as you don’t ask her whose idea it was for me to get a paper round that is.
Our central heating was erratic to say the least. My dad loves a good bargain, and will never buy anything legally, or full price if he can avoid it. He used to be in the motor trade and was forever doing deals with people which meant that we ended up with a random bunch of rubbish that generally made our lives either a) strange, b) unmanageable or c) both. One year he bought my mum a church organ for Christmas, but forgot to tell her that it was coming, and she had hysterics when two burly men turned up at the door shouting: ‘Where do you want your church organ love?’ He also bought a fire engine, which we had parked on the drive for the longest time, two fruit machines and a Victorian cash register.
These things weren’t too bad, just eccentric and difficult to dust or decorate round. The big problem was when he went in for practical stuff, like the champagne coloured toilet that had to be held together with orange bailer twine and flooded the entire landing one Christmas Eve, and of course, the boiler. The boiler was French. The instructions were French. We were English and our French was limited to: ‘Ou est la plume de ma tante?’ and three verses of; ‘Sur Le Pont, D’Avignon’, which oddly enough don’t crop up in the instructions for how to fit and light a boiler, try our level best though we did.
My dad hired a random stranger who had once done a weekend course in panel beating and needlework to fit the boiler for us as best he could, and then proceeded to try and translate the instructions on how to light it. It turned out that, according to my dad (who should never be trusted on these matters, and why we let him this time, I really don’t know), you had to fill a wine glass with methylated spirits, open the top of the boiler, throw it in, and then throw a lighted match in on top. Then Bob was indeed your tante, and your house would emanate a rosy glow, etc, etc.
My mother was very sceptical and made us all hide in the larder while my dad was sacrificed for this foolish experiment (fair do’s, it was his fault). There we were, crouched behind a packet of boudoir biscuits waiting for a loud bang and a scream, when nothing happened. After twenty minutes of nothing happening we ventured forth using some old Newbury Fruits as a blast shield, to find my dad nonchalantly having a cup of tea and telling us how brave he’d been.
My brother and I were rather let down by the lack of drama and went to bed in a huff. We needn’t have worried. It turns out that my dad had been rather over enthusiastic with the meths and had started a teeny, tiny conflagration in the boiler, which had then become a much bigger conflagration in time. By about nine in the evening the boiler was making a series of hideous groaning and knocking noises and sweat was dripping down my parents noses as they rang the fire brigade. We were evacuated to the front lawn while they put the fire out and were very excited to be running round in our wellies in the dark on a school night. My mother was not so impressed, and her language about my dad and the boiler was positively Anglo-Saxon.
We also had open fires in all the downstairs rooms of our house, which my parents set on fire on a fairly regular basis. The best one, at which I was sadly not allowed to attend, was when we had all decamped to my aunty Carol’s house to play and the local farmer rang my mum to say that her chimney was on fire. She left us with Carol and hared up the hill to our house to try and put it out. Unfortunately the farmer had other ideas.
He thought that girls were weedy and wet and as any fule no, only a real man could put out a fire. He elbowed my mother out of the way with the words: ‘stand aside. I’ll handle this Sue!’ and promptly shoved a load of sacks up the chimney to stop the draft and cut off the oxygen supply to the fire. Now this is correct in all aspects of chimney fire management, except for the kind of sacks he used.
You are, for the record, supposed to use wet hessian sacks (see, hessian does have its uses). He used plastic fertilizer sacks, which were not only highly flammable because they were plastic, but because they still had fertilizer residue in them (fertilizer is an active ingredient in many home made bombs). The whole chimney then exploded into life and large gobs of burning plastic came shooting out of the fireplace and set the rug on fire as well. Job done!
My mum called the fire brigade, but so started the long feud with the farmer, which escalated when he cut off her water supply digging a hole through our pipes in his paddock, and shot out our bathroom window with an air rifle while my mum was trying to relax reading Georgette Heyer in the bath. I was never going to get that job picking potatoes was I?
Right. I have to go and pick up the girls from school. I must tell you that I have resisted the urge to buy a panettone again today, for which much kudos. I did however buy a cake called a Pandoro, which came in the same kind of box as a panettone but was half the price. A weird way to buy cake I know, but we live in hope.
It is o.k., but it’s not a panettone and never will be. It is rather like a brioche that’s been inflated with a bicycle pump and fed on steroids. It’s so enormous it won’t fit on a tea plate and I’ve had to eat it on a dinner plate, only exaggerating my already shameful claims to gluttony. It has not diminished my desire for a panettone either, and if I were a betting woman I’d say that that was another tenner gone by the end of the week.