This morning’s breakfast has been full of examples of artists demonstrating the notion of synchronicity.  That combination of practice of their art – Gladwell’s 10,000 hours – and the effortless confluence of the artists’ spirit: a demonic work ethic driven by a need to complete a project they completely believe in, and then the sitting back and not recognising what they have achieved: because it is simply beyond what they had imagined they could do.

We had music on shuffle, so the Beach Boys and the Beatles came through – ‘Sloop John B’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’.  These were 10,000-hours-songs, artists demonstrating their craft.  And then ‘Good Vibrations’ played, and ‘Back in the USSR’.  The playlist went through Dylan, Hendrix, Presley, the Kinks, Clapton, and landed on Frank Sinatra, singing ‘Strangers in the Night’.  This is where I was struck deepest.  I read recently about how Sinatra made the recording of this song.  He sang, with a full orchestra in a studio, doing take after take until perfection was reached.  Yet, that two minute and thirty six second song sounds so effortless.  It sounds like we imagine it – he stood up in a crowded, dark bar, walked to the microphone cigarette in hand, and just sang it.

Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’, sung acoustically in front of an audience is a different example.  It is strangely dull, yet also meditative to the point of hypnotic.  It is a demonstration of what I am trying to understand in my own work.  That confluence – the moment when you practice and practice your art – writing, drawing, playing, singing – and then there is an interchange, and you become the work, and the work becomes you.  That is what I understand when I hear these people, and what I want to achieve.  It is what I am worried about – that I am not achieving it at the moment.

Because there has to be a drive forward, when you work.  There has to be a reason for doing it.  We all want to be rich, apparently. We all want to be famous.  This is what the zeitgeist seems to be telling us.  The Presidential election driving us insane with worry and desire for something beyond our control, the Brexit armies on either side of this chasm driven into our daily lives, the refugee crisis catapulted onto us by wars our governments created: they are all magnified in the way we receive our news, hour by hour, day by day, week by week.  The voters vote for the most raggedly popular liar, and half of us give up and hold our faces in our palms, trying not to catch a glimpse of the ugly light through our clenched fingers.

But we used to sit in sunny rooms and read.  We used to put music on the record player and darn our torn jeans.  We used to listen and think.  We used to do our best for the people who needed us – marching with placards, shaking buckets to raise money.  We used to do things collectively because we are people who cannot exist without each other.

My art is writing.  My art has upset me more than anything in the past ten years because my art has followed the free market enterprise by demanding success, and demanding a structure that is reliant on a single hero’s journey.  If you don’t know what the hero’s journey is, look up Joseph Campbell.  This is the nutshell of it: apart from maybe three cultures in our enormous world, every myth, every story – novel, film, play – fits into the simple structure of the Hero’s Journey.  A Hobbit, say, or Dorothy Judy Garland, set off on a journey – reluctantly.  They are forced into this by events larger than themselves – an authoritarian figure summons them for this purpose – and off they go, into the magical world of Oz or some other kingdom thereof.  They face adversities – yada yada yada, I won’t tell you it all – but all the time, all the time, they realise that – ‘there’s no place like home’.  They spend a long time realising this, so that they can come back to their lives again, changed, better for purpose, hungry for life.  It probably takes them 10,000 hours to get there.  You see where I’m going with this?  Along the way, they have many friends who help them, but you see, the reason why I’m pissed off with this structure is: they don’t work collectively.  No.  The friends encountered, work toward the hero’s success.

This is where we’re at, politically and artistically.  Trump and Clinton are products of a system – the free market – which says: singular journey good, collective journey – Marxism.  (And that’s bad, ok?)  But if that is bad, what happens to our world?  Already a handful of billionaires control the money.  Already natives are driven off their homelands for the sport of the rich people.

Art.  Frank Sinatra recorded and recorded that song and we just think of Frank, standing there in the spotlight, singing to us, the singular person in the audience.  But that song is violins soaring.  It is the producer who spliced together the various takes of Frank’s already strained voice.  It is a collective moment of genius.  Trump’s path is strewn with people he has defeated by grabbing them in areas he shouldn’t have, people he has thrust a sword into willy nilly, and he hasn’t ever completed the journey – just gone back to the beginning, over and over, because he hasn’t learned.  He hasn’t understood the traditional way of growing: he has not grown up, or gained wisdom.  He has stayed 13 while growing older.  Clinton has wisdom, but is part of a hero’s journey that is far more complex –  she must wilfully make this journey about herself, a singular hero, in order to achieve the goal of being President.

And isn’t that the problem and the point and ultimately the tragedy of the human being, and the democratic system?  We must work those 10,000 hours to learn our craft.  We must give ourselves to our art.  But then, we must thrust forward onto the pathway of the world, selling of ourselves.  Our art and ourselves conflate and change each other, and then people buy into our system.  Because that is what pays us, that is how we eat and how we live.  I don’t know what I am selling.  I don’t know how to be in a world where I sell of myself – I’ve tried to do it, and I’ve failed, because I don’t really believe in a system where I walk to a mic and pretend I did it all by myself.

I guess I will turn my record player on, turn it up, and play that other Frank Sinatra song, which came on just as I was writing this: ‘That’s Life’.  When she was six, my 24 year old daughter was asked to a popular girl’s party.  Isobel had always been the kid in the corner in class, the one who played imaginary games and read books.  It was a karaoke party, so she wanted to go, because she’s always liked to sing.  I left her in a large, oak lined house in Beckenham, with trepidation.  Three hours later, I was greeted at the door by the mother:

‘Your Isobel has had us up, dancing in the aisles…’

‘What did she sing? SClub7?’

‘She did a perfect – ‘That’s Life’.  Perfect…’ the mother said, laughing.

It sort of sums her up, really.  The quiet girl, the shy one, part of a large family, who seemed to be the arms who caught things when they fell from cots, who smiled when I felt defeated, who came in every day from school, every day, and made me a cup of tea.  When you’re despairing, put Frank on the record player, and take your face out of the palms of your hands, and when you think you’re going to cry this Wednesday, sing along instead.  Because guaranteed, although you despair of your place in the world full of singular heroes, you will understand yourself within it all.

You have to pick yourself up.  And get back in the race.


Throwing cups

I was never very good at sport.  I had flat feet and asthma.  When I was first diagnosed – at the age of four – there were no easy solutions.  If you couldn’t breathe, you’d lie down.  Plastic, streamlined puffers were a thing of the future.  When I was a little older, there were inhalers with plastic capsules that were pressed with inbuilt needles, so that you could inhale the powder inside.  For a six year old, it was yucky.  I didn’t like doing it, so I think I tried my best to avoid it.  I spent a lot of my childhood in bed, reading, and watching clouds scud past the windows.

I never thought running was something I would want to do.  My sisters were captains of many sports teams, my father a Marathon runner, my mother a sprinter in her youth.  I was the odd one out, and of course, in a family of characters, I was happy to be the quiet reader.  Now though, at fifty years old, six months teetotal, vegan, gluten and sugar free (I’m taking middle age seriously, and the fact that I am of south east Asian descent, which means diabetes is almost inevitable, if I don’t make these changes) – I am a runner.  Three times a week, I go out onto the cycle track and run 5 miles quite fast.  This morning, I did it in an hour, which isn’t great by anyone else’s standards, but by mine – it’s fantastic.  It’s more than fantastic.

Dad started running in his mid forties.  His own father died at the age of 45, and he always had it in his mind that he would need to ward off that hypnotic thought of dying young.  Dad was a funny, dear man, full of laughter and jokes.  He was serious too, and very religious, but he loved to play.  He loved children.  When he was working in the garden, he would call us to make a cup of tea, and we would take it out in his favourite cup.  A mustard coloured, nondescript seventies mug.  We would stay and chat, and when he finished drinking, the cricketer in him would throw the cup in the air.  Or he’d throw it at us – from a very young age, he would take all three of us out into the garden and throw balls at us, make us dive for the high catches.  I was never any good.  It was almost certainly because I didn’t practise.  You can’t really practise catching if you’re holding the page in your book with one hand.

When I was sixteen, I took the tea out, and had a chat with him, inspecting the flower bed he was digging.  And then he threw the cup, in the air first, catching it himself.  When he pointed it at me, I said ‘Don’t throw it at me!’, but he did anyway, and I turned away.  I turned away.  I can’t tell you why. But I keep seeing that turn away, today.   The mug smashing on the rockery.

Time is finite.  We cannot do everything.  I really thought, for a long time, that I actually  could do everything I wanted.  I have a limited pallet of choices.  A palate, if you will.  I like to write. I like to draw.  I like children.  I thought I could do everything within those loves.  It is proving harder than I imagined.  When I’m out with people who have just done a whole degree in illustrating, I am fascinated and a little alarmed that they draw and draw.  They sit down, and pen goes to paper, and there you have it, amazing artworks are created while I scrabble about with pencils and staring and deciding on framing and so on.  It’s like lying in bed and looking at the sky: it’s fascinating, but at some point, you have to get up and do.  You have to catch the cup.  You have to draw.

I told myself this the other day: cut yourself a break.  Be compassionate to the child you were.  You were sick. You didn’t have the practise to catch the cup.  Practise is all it takes.  So I started drawing this week.  I started completing projects.  I started running faster.  I used new pens, new techniques.  I learned to land on the balls of my feet.  I learned to play with colour.  I learned that – hey, if time is finite, chucking a cup in the air, or at someone, hoping they’ll catch it, is like drawing a picture or telling a story – you’re taking a chance.  Either someone will catch it, or they won’t.  And if they don’t, it’s only a mug.  It’s only a picture.  It’s only a story.  They may be the most important thing in the world, but at least you’re not in bed watching it happen to other people.


I am a sad mummy this morning.  My second child, Isobel, got on a plane to New Zealand yesterday evening.  She is twenty four.  She aims to be there a year, maybe forever, if they will let her.  Three of us waved goodbye to her at the station.  As the train approached, I held her to me and kissed her cheeks over and over, telling her it would be alright, while sobbing from my gut.  She cried too and said ‘I love you’ over and over, and I said it back, and then she got on the train and waved from the window.  Fifteen year old daughter said ‘Someone should run down the platform…’ and then she did.  We waved as Isobel waved from the window.

And then we went off and got on with the rest of our days – I bought food, made it, ate it, went out to a committee meeting.  All the time,  a small half of me was on the train, then on the bus, then sitting at Heathrow with my child.  This baby, toddler and child who the younger children didn’t know.  That’s the thing with large families: the older two had a space in their parents’ lives that was exclusively theirs.

They were babies when we were babies: I had Isobel when I was 26, I had her elder brother Ed when I was her age.  We were off-hand, busy parents, always marching on to achieve…what we have now.  When I sat on the floor with Ed and Isobel, it was in a chaotic household in south east London, and when we went out for walks, it was to tiny playgrounds.  We ate sparingly and saved up for shoes, for treats, for toys.  Our closeness is a strange clairvoyance: they learned to read the minds of people who were always flying by the seat of their pants, while assuring their tiny wards, carried on their shoulders – that everything was fine.  Fine, fine, fine.  Isobel became someone who seemed to understand undercurrents of emotion better than words.  She always giggled, Tom remembers, was always smiling, as if assuring us that yes, it would be fine.

I came back from the committee meeting through the rainy, unlit, winding country roads, feeling like a failure.  It is a totally undeserved moniker, but as a mother, the instinct is to keep your young near to you for as long as possible.  As a modern, feminist human being, my tendency has been to usher the children out into the world – claim your place within it, we have always said.  I sat and looked at Isobel’s baby album.  What a shame we didn’t look at it together, when she was here.  What a shame Tom didn’t sit on one side of her, and I on the other, and she in the middle, holding the album, turning the pages, the way it would have happened in one of those terrible movies they seem to make for the 3.30pm audience of Channel 5.  I sat and cried, looking at all the grandparents taking turns to hold her after she was born: three of them gone.  With them, they have taken collective memory, and it is a loss.

This morning, I thought about my grandmother – my father’s mother – who had five children.  Two girls and three boys.  My father was her fourth child: when he was twelve, his father died.  He and his brothers were sent to boarding school.  All three, in their twenties, got on a boat from Colombo, Sri Lanka and travelled to the UK, to seek their fortunes.  It is so  very hard to let go of your child, when you’re holding them and they’re crying and you’re crying, and they used to live inside you, and you carried them and loved them and supported them, like an addictive habit. How did my grandmother let go of three children?  How will I let go of four?

And yet, I will.  Because from those four children in the world, will come permutations of culture and happiness that I can only guess at now.  We went to Beirut in the Easter break.  Two or three shops carried a small advert for a horse shampoo called Mane’n Tail.  I scoured the streets of Beirut for horses.  There were none.  There were, however, a majority of women with the most gloriously thick and heavy, dark hair swaying across their backs in the sea salt stung breeze.  I ordered Mane’n Tail shampoo and conditioner from Amazon on my return, and use nothing else.  I am alien to myself a lot of the time, because I was born and brought up in London, and ate British food (yes, that means curry most weekends) and drank British drinks.  Thanks to the hipster culture, I have more coconut oil and coconut water in my diet, and feel more at home with it than I do with red wine – it is, after all, the main export of Sri Lanka.

Being an immigrant means the moving forward, the adapting to change, adapting to a different geography.  It also means you are a magpie.  You are someone who is always looking at the best all cultures can give to you.  Last weekend, the four children lived in our house again, for three nights, revelling in each other’s company, listening to the music of their childhood, reading the books they collectively loved: Asterix books mainly.  I made the foods they love – chicken curry and yellow rice, dhal, salads, and 15 year old made the Nigella chocolate cake that every feast finishes with.  We sat in front of the fire and nattered.  On Sunday, we took our Christmas walk with the dogs.  I imagined that in a year or two, there will be additional people with the four, creating new permutations of our family, enhancing our culture, challenging us and making us move forward.  We will travel to their new found worlds, and we will change and adapt and become better.  Forward is the only way.



Magic Ballet Pen

I have arrived at a place where I’d like to stay, perhaps for the rest of my life.  It is a very comfortable, forgiving sort of place, full of interest and challenge.  I write in the morning and draw in the afternoon.  I am finishing a book, which is going swimmingly, thank you for asking.  I am starting to learn my craft, drawing-wise.  I have a feeling that the learning will take the duration of my stay.

I have always drawn – we all have.  Before we learned to express ourselves with words on a page, we used pictures.  Letters are pictures of a noise. I remember the excitement of my first days at school – being given crayons and paper specifically for drawing. There was always a fascination with art materials – I remember days like today: rainy and windy, struggling through puddles and crowds of children, to arrive at a desk and find: exercise books with a blank top and three or four ruled lines at the bottom.  A fat HB and colouring in pencils.  The joy – to be asked to draw and then write some aspect of your life.  Imagine that being the start of your day, now?  I have configured my working life so that that is, almost, what my work is now.

Starting a project can be difficult though.  Starting a work, any work, is daunting.  Putting that first mark on a blank page is the most difficult thing.  The pictures in your head are never as good as the pictures you put on paper.  I scrabble around with an 8B pencil.  It’s sharpened with a craft knife, so it looks whittled, with a chiseled lead.  I make indistinct marks on paper with it, rubbing at the marks to smudge them, in order to make what I’m drawing look like what I am looking at – if I screw my eyes up tight and see shadings, rather than people or trees or buildings.  It’s daft.  I want to draw graphic novels. I have already planned the first, and am writing speech bubbles in my head all the time, while the characters who say them are still, well, blurred and rubbed at with my graphite stained finger.

How to change this? How to have the assuredness of a five year old holding their first pencil?  ‘This is my daddy going shopping.  This is me and my sister laughing’, my first picture in my first book says.  Dad saved my first books – he gave them to me when he was clearing out his study when I was in my thirties.  I like looking at them, because as we get older, we know ourselves less, it seems.  When you’re five, you describe everything you see from that simplicity of viewpoint.

We went to see Isabel Greenberg at Cheltenham Literary Festival on Saturday, and her clear drawing starts with a brush pen.  Chris Riddell too.  So. I bought a brush pen.  And there it was.  The first picture I drew with it was on the report slip for the fifteen year old: husband looking angry, me looking worried, with a note in the comment box ‘we will be monitoring her’.  The second picture was a sketch of the David Bowie postcard taped to the kitchen wall, with a cartoon of 15 year old next to it.  The writing underneath says ‘Spiky and David Bowie accidentally get married while she does her Maths homework and she thinks it’s really stupid.  She thinks EVERYTHING IS REALLY STUPID’.  I have drawn her eyes well – when I was drawing them, I thought – I’ve drawn these before: tracing their shape onto the page, I realised they were the same as my younger sister’s eyes.  I drew what I thought was 15 year old’s mouth, but when I looked at it again, it was my mouth.  That happens a lot too – I seem to draw myself.

The pen is like the red ballet shoes in the movie: once you take the lid off, you can’t stop drawing.  We had a children’s series of books for our children- The Berenstein Bear books.  One was called ‘The Magic Toe Shoes’ – a rather prosaic story about the placebo effect of buying a pair of ballet shoes for the sister bear, who on putting them on, finds she can dance.  When fifteen year old was five, she found she could swim when we bought her flippers.  I find I can draw with my magic pen.  I find that my pictures are everything I imagined them to be.  No – I find that I am everything I imagined I would be when I draw – and that my pictures are magical, because what comes from the pen is not what I imagined. It is different.  It is sometimes better.


I was asked to be the guest speaker at the Bristol Short Story Award prize giving event.  This was fairly thrilling for me: I love meeting other writers.  I love being with my people.  My clan.  There is something rather wonderful about the shorthands one can use, the friends of friends one meets, the daftness of writers.  We’re all, bar none, like the art teacher you admired when you were fourteen.  There’s a devil-may-care nonchalance to our demeanour, a glamour the perceiver tends to put on to us, and a strangely wavering sense of humour, which glints with knowledge and disappointment.  We’re very much like famous literary figures: Atticus Finches, all of us, or Dorothea Brookeses.  We have that hands-in-the-pockets-shrug, that creased-shirt-happy-whistle, that stare-into-the-back-of-you-because-we-can-guess-your-story.  It must be the same for other professions when they meet – an instant recognition.  But with writers, we’re all immediately equal.  There is no one more successful or better at our jobs.  People who don’t write perhaps make that distinction.  We don’t.  We just see each other on different pathways in the same forest.

So, writing a speech for a crowd of my people was easy, but also very difficult.  I tend to self-sabotage.  I make self deprecating jokes which are almost suicidal.  No, I used to do this.  Then, I grew some self respect. (How?  I taught myself to run, and each step I run, I say – look at you, you’re great! – though I don’t believe myself most of the time, but then I look to my dog’s face and she confirms that my words may be true).  So, I couldn’t write a funny-at-my-expense speech.  Instead, I wrote the following.  I’m putting it here because people liked it.  I knew it was OK because the 15 year old came with me, and when I finished, she did the face the dog does at the end of the run.


The short story is uniquely blessed and problematic. It is an artwork: a painting. It is often the final secret: the end of a story or a life and the beginning of another. Flannery O’Connor said – it is the third barn burned, that she writes about. The first and second attempts are the textured surface on which she paints the final, third attempt, when the barn burns down.

The short story condenses a life – it is easier, I think, to write a novel, when you have the time and space to explain everything. For the short piece, we writers need to know everything of that life, but we get to choose only one or two or three, scenes.

When I was published – the question I was asked more frequently than any other was – are your stories autobiographical? I’d say – no, of course not! But of course, all of us write autobiographically. The cute thing a child said or the dying words of a parent: seem to enter the story, and be swallowed into a narrative that becomes something beyond us, greater than us. That space between us and our audience, is where its truth is muddled and sanded down and created again.

This creating of the artwork saves us. It can heal, soothe, calm us.

I wrote a story called ‘Research’ for my first collection . I was unsure what research meant in the context of creative writing. I asked my tutor Stevie Davies what she thought. She gave me possibly the most useful writing tip: the research is in the writing. As we work, as we write, we discover what we are trying to write, and we discover our identities as writers. And our identities as people. Our perspective changes. We research our lives themselves. We unpack them and shake out the moth eaten memories and smooth them down and refold them neatly. As I get older, I understand that the easy assumptions I made about life when I was younger: the classifications and judgments mean nothing – there is nothing that can be taken for granted – there is only the life that takes place in front of us and us witnessing it and trying to make sense of it.

In the story I wrote, a child is taken on holiday to Sri Lanka, by her father. Her parents divorce soon after and she loses contact with her father, so the memories are precious. There is a moment – a drive late at night through island streets encroached upon by the jungle, where the father shouts stop to the driver, and the little girl and her father jump out of the car and chase fireflies on the side of the road.

I was six when my father took me to Sri Lanka for his mother’s funeral. I remember that my father shouted stop, with a fierceness, at the driver. I remember jumping from the car and chasing fireflies, and my father’s face laughing. But it didn’t happen. I wanted it to be true. I wrote the story the year he died – and now, it is true. The picture is there. Even if I tell you it isn’t true and my stories are not autobiographical, they are true.

Writers give ourselves an advantage – by trying to understand the secrets or the madnesses – by trying to articulate the colour or the movement, the beauty or the death – we somehow give ourselves the chance to rise above, look down and see – really see – truth. Or a near guess at it.

The art of it, the art of what we do is – this. We can provide – we can create – pictures or musical notes or tears or fireflies that are truth. They are our way of navigating the seas of our worlds, and I urge you on, I commend your bravery, I bow to your valour in entering competitions, and indeed, winning them.

It is a good way to be alive and to stay alive.

Thank you.



I’ve been making art.  I have just started an MA in Illustration.  I used to work as an illustrator about twenty something years ago.  I did a course, and because I was so young, using the simple tools I was given, I made an advertisement which I put into newsagent’s windows, saying I would take jobs large and small.  This was in south London, and yes, jobs large and small came.  I was asked to design a menu for a Mexican restaurant.  I designed letterheads for nurseries – children and gardens.  Once, I was asked to pick up some work from a flat in a high rise, and was made to wait outside while they got their Somalian passport, and the visa stamp they wanted me to draw…I ran, when they went back inside because they’d brought the wrong piece of paper out.  I got regular work designing labels for a clothing manufacturer who tore designs out of Vogue and taped them onto workbenches in the East End, in order to sell the knock offs in Deptford market.  I plagiarised his plagiarism, and used motifs from Aubrey Beardsley, every damn time.  They were pretty good, my clothing labels.

And it’s this that I’ve been marvelling at.  This idea that when you’re young, you do anything, really anything, to move ahead in your life.  I stole Beardsley’s motifs.  But when I look at Beardsley’s motifs, they are classical, in the vein of Dulac or Rackham, so perhaps he was simply plagiarising a little too.  I read a book a while ago – ‘Steal Like An Artist’ by Austin Kleon.  It was good – I remember little, apart from taking on board the precept of the title: he helped me let go of the guilt.  If we open ourselves up to the idea that everything in the world can be taped up above our mental workbench, then aren’t we allowing ourselves to move forward, like we did when we were young?

It is this idea that is startling me: not the fact that ideas must come from somewhere, but the fact that when we were first starting out, we woke up every day and jumped to it.  We had to make money.  We had to be something or someone.  There were no arguments against this huge push into the world.  Just out of education, just coming to the end of the first dead end job, I knew that I had to make myself the person I wanted to be.  Strain forward, surge ahead of everyone else, work work work.  It was the natural instinct of a baby needing to be born.  I try to remember how I did the normal every day things then: I had two children under three, a two up two down house in south London, a day job, and a husband training and taking exams.  I illustrated in the evening, while writing short stories and novels and a weekly column – the letter from London – for a newspaper in Sri Lanka.  I don’t know…I think I just did things fast.

There was no internet.  There was little on the TV.  Research was done in libraries, in between reading interminable amounts of Thomas the Tank stories to the three year old.  We walked everywhere and I wore a pram out – a wheel actually came off, in the rain – getting to illustration jobs.  I paid through the nose to have things colour photocopied in print shops.  We owned a computer, but it would be another ten years before anything I did artistically would be put onto a computer.

Now, I am going back to basics. I am starting illustration from first principles. I am in a class with people younger then my children, and I am so excited at the prospect of working in this new way – where the ideas are prompted by my life and my work.  It is a different, more measured approach.  I can take time, and am working slowly and steadily, exploring concepts and thinking philosophically.  The impetus is the same though.  I am trying to be something or someone, using pictures.  I am painting and drawing, and the push to be born, yet again, is still a natural instinct – it is still there.  But I’m going to take my time.


We had a party.  It was on our 28th wedding anniversary, and we were celebrating our fiftieth birthdays too.  We are both a little anxious – we overthink things.  If we are having a party, it must be as convenient as possible for our guests.   The garden must be incredibly tidy and beautiful.  And we must have an excellent time.  It all seemed too much to do, and overwhelmed, we decided to not have a party.  And then the bank wrote to us, telling us we’d been overcharged for years, on a monthly basis, so here’s a cheque and soz.  So we had a budget.  Why not have a party?  Tom threw together some invitations, and we started issuing them.  We bought a party tent.  We had the ivy chopped off the rocks in the garden.  We did lots of gardening and looked hopelessly around us, thinking HOW? What have we done?!

And then I hired a street food van that served Sri Lankan food.  And a dance floor.  And an ice cream van.  It became something we were looking forward to, because we had very little to do but welcome our guests, and dance.  The day before, Tom and I raised our party marquee.  He had a bad back and I had a bad elbow, but we did it.  I hauled eight hay bales in and sat them round the fire pit.  Our next door neighbour, who likes parties and likes making things lovely, came in with a wheelbarrow of vines and decorated the marquee.

I looked around the garden and picked up the stray flowerpots and years old garbage in the undergrowth for the inevitable trip to the tip.  On the skeleton of a cut down Leylandii at the front of the house, there was a rickety old slide which Tom fixed there thirteen years ago.  It was held on with one very rusty screw which had to be hammered hard, in order to remove it.  It should have been taken away years ago.  Its metal had buckled and pushed up the plastic, making it impossible to use.  We removed it, and tied it into the car with a piece of string one of the girls had attached to it when they were little.

At the tip, I put everything into the various containers, and put the slide in last.  I was walking away, when I realised, suddenly, that I hadn’t said goodbye.  I went back.  Nearly took it out and brought it home.  I stroked it a little.  Patted it.  Around me, people were racing around on a late summer day, merrily tossing things that crashed into the deep skips.  A lady stood next to me and said ‘I’ve just put our pushchair into there.’ We looked at each other sadly, and nodded respectfully to our discarded instruments.

On the way home, I thought of the third birthday when that slide arrived twenty three years ago.  We had an Early Learning Centre climbing frame, red and blue and green in the shape of a rocket, which had come for our son’s second birthday, a joint present from the whole family.  The slide came the next year – we bought it, because our fortunes had grown a tiny little bit.  All four of our children used that climbing frame and slide as their other home.  They each sat on top of it for whole summers, reading Asterix and Tintin books, and when a book finished, they’d slip down a side, grabbing at the bar above, and in one movement, land on the top of the slide and slip quickly down, sometimes on their bottoms, sometimes on their feet, running in for the next book, the next apple.

On the night of the party Tom and I danced and laughed and held hands and were photographed, so that  we could remember it all: it was really so very wonderful to have so many beautiful friends with us.  One was missing, thrown out.  Occasionally, I saw its ghost, over there at the far end of the garden.

I could hear the noise that slide made as the feet ran down, echoing to me.  I could see its sturdy bounce.  It travelled through all our houses, a witness to our hard work and growing fortunes.  It served our children well. It was a friend. A household God.  Like all Gods, it was quiet in its outcomes, steady in its presence through our years.  We’ll buy another, when the grandchildren come.  I’d like to hear that noise in our garden again.  I will treat it better.  Make it last – for the rest of my days, at least.  I don’t think I can take another slide to its end.  It was very hard.


When we were kids, Tom and I were known for our professorial pronouncements, our willingness to learn doctrines of literature, languages, records of sportsmanship and musicians.  We were a little overwhelming with our facts.  In the seventies, it was alright to laugh at nerds.  It was alright to punch them.  Our elder siblings to a lesser or greater extent, did so, and in doing so, I think did us an enormous favour.

We have been climbing a mountain every day for the past fortnight.  We went to the Greek island of Santorini and stayed in the cheap part – Perissa.  Behind the hotel was a mountain which took forty minutes to climb, it said in the guide book.  At the top was the ancient city of Thira.  Our first day, we took forty five minutes to climb up the first stretch, getting used to walking in thirty degree sunshine, and finding our feet on the rocky pathway.  At the end of the fortnight, it took us thirty minutes.  When we got to the top, we paid our four euros to clamber the 3rd century BC paving stones, and to marvel at the way the city was so perfectly perched, the small houses on top of one another, the amphitheatre with its three walkways which could seat 1,500 people, and the agora like a mini mall.

The fact is…our love for each other is never stronger than when we are physically pushing ourselves to get to a place where we can learn and marvel and imagine and delight in history and architecture.  Being punched for being clever made us even cleverer.  It also made us run faster and stay fitter.

After we had taken our morning up the mountain, we would head for the beach with our teenaged daughters, and lie on sun beds reading books, punctuated by long swims in the sea.  We have read, between us, 15 books over the past fortinght – bliss.  We ran out toward the end, and found that we had to hire a car and go see the island.  In Oia, the picturesque part of Santorini, with the white buildings and blue domes, we walked listlessly through little corridors of jewellery shops and silk shops, until the fifteen year old cried out as if she had stumbled upon treasure: a bookshop.  Atlantis Books, covered in quotes by worthy authors, and a hand-painted rail that says ‘The kindle won’t destroy books the way elevators didn’t destroy staircases’ on a stairway leading into its trove.  A cave-like place no bigger than someone’s boxroom, lined with the juiciest, most delicious wares.  Our hearts beat faster.

We enquired after books about the Ancients, and chatted with the owners about authors and people we knew in common, about our loves, our hates, our brushes with the famous.  We looked at their first editions, and read an actual letter from T S Eliot in the back of a first edition of his Four Quartets.  My, we had a ball.  As we were leaving, the seventeen year old said – ‘on this whole trip, because of the way you brought us up, it is this – this place, that has given me the biggest adrenalin rush’.

Geeks are not born, they are made.I know this, because I bred four mini Factoiders.  When we were children, Tom and I wore our geekiness like the tattered, raggedy coats of Victorian beggar children: always putting our bowls out for more, and scared of showing our true natures.  When we found each other, we married those minds and that identity into something invincible and unshakeable, so that our children wear their knowledge and their love of knowledge like the arrogant cloaks of Princes.  We’re back to work now, and climbing that mountain every day has made us understand our work better than we did before. Reading those books, too. Being with each other and our girls probably helped.  Atlantis bookshop could have been on top of the mountain: it was as real as Ancient Thira to us, because of its architecture, its joy, but also because our trait is to imagine.  Knowledge makes you walk faster, makes you understand the deeper world.  Our geekdom is our fiefdom. We’re glad of it.

Kilim Carpet

We’ve had one of those brilliant weekends which brings everything into focus.  I have a significant birthday coming, and the two older children were born at the beginning and the end of August, so we all gathered here on Friday. We spent Saturday making food, eating food, and then around a campfire with a ukelele, a guitar and cake.  We are all inveterate singers.  We sing in the shower, sing in the car, sing when we’re together, sing when we’re on our own, walking down darkened streets in dangerous towns.  It could be because I was brought up a Methodist and sang to the children in the womb.  It could be because my husband was brought up by Wagner fanatics who sent him to orchestra bootcamps during his teen years.  Or that we both have an encyclopaedic musical knowledge (and collection), which starts with the first Blues recordings of the 1930s and spans the twentieth and twenty first centuries and the globe.  It could be that we just seem to have a good ear.  We are great harmonisers.  Favourite songs to sing are ‘You are my Sunshine’, a song my father sang to me when I was a little girl, and which I have sung to each of the four children, when they were babies.  We’re great at the harmonies on that.  Also, ‘I’ll Fly Away’, and ‘As I Went Down to the River to Pray’.  We had a lovely time.

The next day, my husband’s family were all arriving for our summer get together.  At 8am, we sat up in bed with cups of tea, surveying our day.  We had three hours to chop and cook and tidy. His sisters are not judgmental.  Or maybe they are and we don’t know it, but we don’t want it to happen, so we do everything within our ability to make our lives seem perfect, just as all families do.  As we sat there, I looked at the rug on the bedroom floor.  I said

‘I remember saying to you when we bought that rug – it won’t be a waste of money.  We’ll keep it forever.’  Tom laughed.

‘Did you have to make those sorts of assurances to me back then?’

Well, I think I did.  It was twenty-seven years ago.  We were on a make or break holiday to Turkey.  We were at the end of a very rocky first year of marriage.  We had been given some shares in Abbey National Building Society, and had sold them to my father-in-law in order to be able to afford a holiday.  Turkey – Fethiye, in fact – was the cheapest package deal we could find.  I don’t remember much about it, apart from staying in the most beautiful villa, the inherited home of an academic who served us two boiled eggs, a slab of Feta cheese and some black olives with bread and black Turkish tea for breakfast, solemnly and with great dignity, before getting on his moped to go to work at the university.  We would sit on the beach all day, and Tom got incredibly burned and woke up one night going deliriously mad with the itching and the rawness.

Our last day, we went shopping.  I’d seen the carpet on our first or second day, hanging outside the shop, and we had to walk around and around the small town Fethiye was back then, to find it again.  I had become obsessed with its patterns: the Christmas tree repetition like an Escher drawing,  in browns, beiges and creams was so sophisticated and different and was the beginning of my obsession with making a home that was bohemian and represented our mixing of cultures from around the world.  I wanted wooden floors, white walls, bookcases and this carpet.  That would be home, for me.  It cost more than we could afford.

‘I promise you we will have this carpet forever,’ I said to Tom.  We bought it, and also a painting from an antique store: a miniature that had been painted with a fine brush – our academic host told us it could have been a single hair in the brush, the picture was so fine. It is a picture in browns and purples and oranges of a Princess escaping in a fine carriage from court, in order to be with her true love.  The picture is over two pages, and her escape is from the frame of the first page, the horses of her carriage galloping onto the second page.  It hangs in an alcove in our wooden floored sitting room, between bookshelves which hang on white walls.

Our twenty-eighth year of marriage, we are sipping tea and laughing about that promise in a Turkish carpet shop, because we are still young, back there together, though our children sang with us around the campfire the night before: our twenty-six year old son who is wont to say things like ‘When I was living in China…’ or ‘when I taught on a Saudi Arabian army base…’, our twenty-four year old daughter who lives and works in London, our seventeen year old daughter and our fifteen year old daughter.  The years that have been sung by like three minute songs played on the radio seem not to have aged us, because we are the people we were, still looking at expensive purchases with the eye of forever – will it last?  Will it last as long as we are together?  If I promise another year and another eternity, shall we have it?

And that’s the joy, I think.  That’s been the joy for us.  We went to Turkey because we were nearly finished.  He had toured with his Blues band that year.  I had worked in the City.  We were going in different directions.  We were too young when we married.  We wanted different things.  In Turkey though, standing in a carpet shop, we both saw the house we live in now.  We saw the carpet in it.  We saw the singing, swearing, nutcase children.  We saw the garden and its fading roses and the ducks that knock the petals off and eat them. We saw the bed in which we sit and drink tea.  We saw that we would laugh at our maturity when we were twenty-five and twenty-three.  And now, we do laugh at that maturity, and tip our hats to it, and feel we are the same people, those people who made it all.



17 year olds

I have just watched a child’s video on her youtube channel.  Her theme is studying for exams and with her dyed hair and scarily insecure eyes, she enacts charades of procrastination, masturbation and other weird things ending in -tion.  I have watched a full thirty seconds before feeling uncomfortably like I was colluding in some weird form of self abuse.

It is only thirty three years ago that I was that age.  Yes, that is a lifetime, but also, in the scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago.  We would do the skits she is doing in that video, to each other, while lying in beanbags in the sixth form common room, or on the floor of a bedroom or in a park.  She is doing it in front of a phone camera, by herself, in order to entertain people she has never met, who I guess, she feels as a pressure – a Gloria Swanson-style imagined audience of people mad for her.

I was trying to understand her.  She seems scared.  She seems desperate.  She seems sad.  She has that quaver in her voice – when we stand in front of an audience, or we’ve been called out by a parent for lying.  She looks happy.  I think: what are her parents thinking?  I mean – allowing her to have a youtube channel, allowing this amount of time to be spent on something as strange and nuts.  I am thinking of writing in the comments: ‘Read a book!’

I have just watched the thirty seconds of this because…she is a girl who has just started a rumour about one of my girls.  My girl is strong. My girl achieves. She is brave. She is cool.  She walks through the world in charge of her life and confident in her choices. She is private. She has a core group of friends who she protects and who protect her.  She has a cool boyfriend.  They both wear black to parties, but come home early from said parties to read piles of Asterix books and eat sausage rolls in bed.

When she tells me about the rumour (and it is unpleasant), I become Medieval in my outlook.  I don’t know who the girl is, but I want to go round there and take my flip flop off and slap her round the chops.  I want to challenge her to a dual.  I want to…but my girl says – ‘I don’t bloody care’.  It occurs to me that I am outraged for the wrong reasons.  Of course, there is the potential hurt my girl might feel – that’s bringing out the tigress stuff.  But what outrages me more is the insidiousness of the accusation.

Teenagers are essentially Victorian in their morals.  And when I say Victorian, I mean with the hypocrisy that that implies.  They sleep around, take the drugs, do the worst things, but are then the first to point the finger, start the rumour, besmirch a good name.  The rumour about my girl is that she was ‘seeing’ a boy when he was going out with the youtuber.  It’s not true.  Of course it’s not.  She was at home, studying.  She was working on speeches for her role as Deputy Head Girl.  She was sleeping mostly.  She only started partying once exams were over.  And even then, it was with her boyfriend. But the thing is – what does it matter?

It matters to me. Here’s why.  When I was seventeen, I kissed someone else’s boyfriend at a party.  It was a terrible thing to do, I guess.  They had only been going out for a few weeks – and I made a play for him because I fancied him.  That was the bottom line.  I thought that my attraction to him was just as valid as a boy’s attraction to a girl.  I was wrong.  Somehow, by making my feelings known and kissing him, I was now a slut.  He was truly gentlemanlike and said it was all his fault.  It was he who had kissed me.  Lovely Nick.  But it wasn’t.  I kissed him.  Because I wanted to.  The Monday morning, after the Saturday night, was hell.  I still remember the walk in to school and Sarah, his girlfriend, surrounded by all her friends by the lockers.  One of them called me a slut to my face.  We did things more honestly back then.  It blew over within a matter of days, thanks to Nick stepping up and being a good boyfriend.

I find the whole 17 year old maelstrom tiresome.  I find it outrageous – it is girls who get it in the neck, as always.  There is an unsaid morality that girls are to blame – why?  Because girls should be pure?  Because girls should know better?  It’s Victorian in its outlook all right.

But watching the girl this morning, I realised that we all have a responsibility to defuse it.  My girl is right – not caring about it all is the best way.  But we can do more.  We can decide not to fuel the fire.  We can decide to actively put it out.  Encourage our daughters to be their best person. As mothers – we can be kind and decent and set the example of being our best person too. Open our homes up to all the teens and ask them to lie on the grass here and talk to each other.

Realise that just because it’s there, you don’t have to watch the youtube video.  You can be kind. You can be in the world. You can simply be elsewhere, enjoying life.