Thursday, 24 December 2009

GUEST POSTING: by Hazel Gould

It’s coming on Christmas and they’re cutting down trees: I feel OK about it though, because it’s a renewable crop and growing lots of trees, even if they’re destined to be felled, has to be a good thing doesn’t it? But as we are all beginning to feel that our Christmas gift from Copenhagen needs to be sent back and exchanged, I am recognizing more than ever that it’s not just the thought that counts.

I do my bit. I recycle, I communally compost, I don’t have a car, I have two pairs of Howies jeans. What was once a cute and quirky little collection of re-useable shopping bags: A New Leaf, Portland, Oregon; Back to the Earth, Leeds; Bags that Won’t Cost the Earth, Brixton Wholefoods; is now a mountain of unbleached cotton. It may prove in years to come that jute is just as bad as plastic, but my addiction to tote bags illustrates my commitment. I have used cloth nappies for both my children, viewing disposables as a treat only for high days and holidays. I haven’t been on a long haul flight since week 16 of my first pregnancy. It’s slightly by default, but with two children holidaying closer to home is the obvious, as well as the ethical, choice.

I’m no angel though. I transgress in the most energy inefficient ways. It began when I was staying at my mum’s. My mother is an intellectual and not known for fastidious housewifery, but she is the best laundress I have ever encountered. It is a dark art that I have never mastered. After a bath, I asked her how she got her towels so warm and fluffy. She drew me in close, and whispered, ‘I tumble them’.

And so, I tumble my towels. I’m not proud, but how can it be wrong when it feels so right? Since this revelation, my housekeeping has veered further and further towards the 1950s triumph of science. After a heady, but ultimately unrewarding affair with eco balls and essential oils, I compromised by using earth friendly washing powder. But it doesn’t work for me. Despite myself, I want my clothes to smell of chemicals that smell like cut grass. Ecover has all but been totally phased out. And while I know that tea tree is a natural disinfectant, I still want bleach down my toilet.

I don’t say this as a climate change denier; I say this as someone who knows how vital it is for us to act. So why is it so hard to make those tiny sacrifices? I think it’s because whilst I have the luxury of choice, I can choose to carry on regardless and not ever look at what the impact of my fluffy towels really is. For me climate change means some unseasonal plant growth, I am not living in a reality where I’ve lost my husband to a tiger attack or my home to an advancing shoreline. To stare that reality in the face would mean it’s admitting what is happening, and I fear that I can’t live with that. Perhaps on some level, that’s exactly the rationale behind the limp agreements from Denmark this month.

Climate change is a perfect example of how the comings and goings of an average household impact on the world outside. Just as a butterfly that flaps its wings in the jungle may cause a cyclone in the desert, the bleach flushed down my sparkling white bathroom porcelain may poison a fish, starve a gull, drown a polar bear.

Dickens knew what he was doing when Scrooge underwent his transformation on Christmas night, and shows us how the actions of one man can impact so many. The long dark nights of winter, and the celebration that punctuates, is a time to reflect, a time to give, a time to act with kindness and with spirit. I’m not religious, but I love Christmas for its warmth and generosity. I have listened to the comings and goings of Copenhagen and read the reports from the front lines of climate change telling of people whose lives and livelihoods have been decimated. I have seen the ghost of Christmas future, and I don’t like what I see. Just like Ebenezer, it’s time to recognize that by making small changes I will ultimately make my world, and the world around me, not just a better, but a viable place to live. So I’ll carry on doing my bit. But this year, I’ll do it with bells on.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Today I Will Notice

Grace Coddington, creative director of US Vogue and ‘surprise star’ of The September Issue, a film for which the only real surprise is that it was made at all, made one lovely, poignant comment in among a lot of arguing about rails and frills. She said that her father had told her never to fall asleep in a car because that’s when you do your best noticing, find inspiration, see the world as new and interesting all over again.

My sister and her family have just arrived home from their new home in Brisbane for Christmas, to be greeted by snow. It’s 39º in Brisbane. Snow is an unimaginable miracle. For us, the idea of leaving the house without four protective layers, ski gloves and an emergency frizzy-hair preventing hat in every pocket is an unimaginable luxury. But the look on my niece and nephew’s faces as we pulled away from the concrete of Terminal 3 very early yesterday morning into snow-sprinkled dawn-dappled suburbia was pure noticing gold. They haven’t learnt to stop looking yet, however jet-lagged and grumpy they are.

And so, Grace Coddington, here are the amazing things I noticed while looking rather than concentrating:

1. North London houses do have gardens, some of them quite sizable, and all of them completely magical at 5.30 am when thick with crisp, fresh, icy snow.

2. The clarity with which you understand the Radio 4 news when it’s 5.30 am and there are no children, other cars or general outside activity to distract you is extraordinary. I formed current-affairs based opinions on the trip to Heathrow for the first time in years.

3. There is literally no-where more wonderful to be than in front of a long-haul Arrivals door five days before Christmas. This is where the world is happy, and where everyone cries with the simplicity of that.

4. My sister and her family chose to take their Arrivals moment in slightly un-Vogue attire: shorts, t-shirts, flip flops and Santa hats. I will literally never forget the sight.

5. Seasons are evidence of an extraordinary truth – that it’s really really cold here and really really hot just over there. On the same planet. The planet that sometimes feels so small and claustrophobic, but is actually so huge that we can live on it together but in a completely different time of the year.

6. There are flowers growing in our local park, in the snow. Maybe that's something that should scare me, or maybe it's the just the one plus side of global warming.

7. There’s a restaurant opposite St Pancras station called Eataly. Admittedly I didn’t see this today, it was last week, but isn’t that just the most fabulous name for a restaurant? It’s impossible to say without a fake accent, a hand gesture and a smile. Thanks Grace.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The devil wears trainers

I’m writing this on the bus, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the wonders of my husband’s inability to ever put things back where he found them. I am locked out of the house, on my way to his office to collect his keys, while mine will be found later in his coat pocket. And in a spectacular addition to the fun of this outing, I have just come from the gym, so I’m feeling really excited to be heading into normally-clothed-professional-land with trainers and sweaty hair.

Actually, aside from the trainers shame, my main emotion right now is fear. Of myself. Until a few moments ago, I was literally beside myself with anger that my keys weren’t in my bag. And I mean body-shaking anger. How could anyone be so stupid as to borrow keys and not replace them? How can a just world exist if I am on the outside of my front door unable to open it? My anger, and the breathtaking pace of its appearance, was shocking. I think I might be deeply troubled.

I have more evidence than just the keys. Recently I bought a dress and I bought a size too big. You’d assume this would be quite a pleasant experience, but sadly when I went to exchange it they didn’t have a size smaller, even after some lengthy stock-room rummaging. So, even though I'd actually worn the dress so was very much in the wrong on both size and ethics, when she very politely offered me a credit note I was so incensed and irritable with the shop assistant that even my four-year-old son turned away in shame.

Then, after sulking for too long in the changing rooms trying to find something half as nice, I was late back to the car park and discovered I’d fallen just five minutes into the stay-all-night price, which was about double the price of the dress I didn’t now have. It’s hard to describe the exact emotions that surged, but darkness was all around as I stared with pure hatred at the lovely man doing his job behind the glass. But in fact, and unfortunately in terms of any important learning process, he was explaining that he’d let me off the extra charge, and put back the clock with a cheery smile. I magically transformed back into the kind, polite woman my mother brought me up to be – instantly. Deeply troubled and possibly possessed.

I met a friend’s wife for the first time last week and it threw me into a bit of a decline over the whole snappy, angry personality thing. Sitting next to her in my black dress (in fact, aforementioned dress in wrong size, nice symmetry) over my black jeans with my black and white Converse I realised that I had become a sort of stay-at-home widow by mistake. Understated cool I was not – colourful, stylish and seriously interesting looking she was. My wardrobe is sartorial embodiment of my bi-polar personality: deceptively comfy and wearable but with an almost clean sweep of black and grey and all a bit irritably ill fitting.

However, while a complete colour-palette transformation of my wardrobe is a bit out of the pre-Christmas budget, off-loading some of my anger concerns has made me feel a hundred times better and calmer. So it’s win, win. No longer need I be angry that I’ve got nothing but mummy nonsense to write about – who needs to be clever when you can just psycho-analyse in public.

Friday, 11 December 2009

GUEST FRIDAY: by Hazel Gould

Hot Monogamy

A good friend once told me that she had found a book in her parents’ bedroom entitled Hot Monogamy, counseling married couples on how to keep things alive in the bedroom. It is written into our DNA that any mention of the sex lives of our parents or their peers will induce dry retching and a constricting of the airways, but it’s not the disgust that I remember. It’s the pity. How sad, I thought, that a couple could be getting it so wrong, they have to refer to a book to make it right again.

In my early 20s, I thought that the key to happiness in love was simply this: finding the right person. Informed almost entirely by romantic comedies, I knew with certainty that the struggle was all in the preamble, and that once I had decided to seal the deal with a man who felt the same as me, the credits would roll, and the ensuing 40 years would play out in the reflective glow of our perfect first kiss.

During my wedding ceremony, my eloquent, intelligent, nervous husband mispronounced his vows and promised to stay with me through ‘Aversity’. Our preamble had been filled with fight and moving apart and coming back together, we had already had our battles and the idea that there might be more to come was so alien to us that we couldn’t even speak it. We had done the graft, and from this day forward, it was going to be plain sailing. It never occurred to me that the ‘hard work and compromise’ that was spoken about would actually ever be hard work. It never occurred to me to ask why rom-coms rarely get a sequel.

My husband is a good man and a great dad, we make each other laugh, we are respectful of one another, we are kind and supportive. I am, two years into my marriage, happy, but we’re not Hugh Grant and Andy MacDowell, and we have our rightful share of grievances.

Yesterday, as he left for work under the cloud of an unresolved row, I remembered the experience of another friend. During a year of living an East Coast/ West Coast life with her boyfriend, they had religiously read the same books at the same time so that their nightly conversations had some focus other than the boredom and loneliness of being separated by 3000 miles of land mass. My husband and I live in the same house, but we too are conducting a long distance relationship of sorts. The burden that he carries of our financial well-being and my desire for more help, time and sleep all prove to create a distance that physical proximity doesn’t always bridge.

As in so much of my married life and my parenting, I find myself doing exactly the thing that I promised myself I would never do. Not because I’ve given up, or given in, or run out of ideas, but because all of a sudden, the very thing that I dismissed as pedestrian or pointless seems to be exactly the right thing. It turns out that I’m not the mother who takes her 12-week-old baby to India, and I do have to bribe my children to eat vegetables. In that moment, as I formulated the sentence 'let's have a two person book club' I suddenly realized that I am that person. We are that couple. We do need to work at it, and we may even need to take some hints and tips from travelers further down the road than us. For us, it’s not our physical life that needs spicing up, it’s our intellectual one. It is Hot Monogamy for the brain.

So what is it to be? The mini book club? A weekly date? Comandeering a column on the family calendar for ‘quality couple time’? Actually I think it’s easier than that. It’s just about remembering that the man who walks through the front door at the end of the evening is not to blame for everything that goes on behind it, and the woman that he finds there is more than the badly-fitting bra and the snot-smeared jeans might suggest. Just like taking your coat off indoors so you’ll feel the benefit, the one conversation we that have in 10 which veers away from the big four (work, money, children, food) has the power to take me right to a place where he and I are simply two individuals who are together because we choose to be, not because of contracts, children, bricks and mortar, and beyond. I value our time together more than I ever did pre-kids.

So it turns out that I was wrong back then, when Hot Monogamy was nothing more to me than a sign of something I would never be. I do have to work at it, but I was right too. I did find the right person, it’s just that now I know that the right person is the one who makes the hard slog worth it.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Curse of the Mummy

I had some feedback on my blog last week in a slightly unsolicited way from the editor of a lovely national magazine. Someone it might be quite handy to please in fact. The general verdict was that she liked my writing (hurrah) but thought the whole ‘mummy’ thing had been done to death (quote, and boo).

My first reaction was to agree actually. My instinct is that that I don’t enjoy reading about other people’s experiences of wiping baby puke off their laptops as much as I enjoy a good yarn about windfall tax plans, celebrity misdemeanours or what people are wearing in New York. These are things that are definitely worth blogging about.

But then I thought about it a bit more, and I remembered that there were a few things I still hadn’t got a clear handle on about motherhood, and I recalled a couple of friends mentioning the same thing. And I thought about how much better it made me feel, sometimes, putting my thoughts on keyboard, or reading about how badly someone else’s life skills were serving them in their particular domestic war zone.

And I thought about another comment I’d had on the whole blogging thing, about how people don’t like to read other people’s abstract musings. How there needs to be a linear narrative, a direction, an end point in sight. Then people will follow, come back, support. The advice came from a man and, without getting all Hélène Cixous, I think we can agree that this opinion has been somewhat dissected and challenged over the years. However, he had a point – men don’t like to muse as much as women. While the internet helps women to share, it helps men to market.

So maybe what it comes down to is originality. You can offer anything for discussion if you do it with originality. Take Slummy Mummy. Banal and tedious, or insightful and witty? You don’t have to answer that, but in a world where it’s sometimes difficult to remember whether your career is on hold for the family or the family is on hold for your career, being creative about the whole situation and sharing, musing and boring anyone who’ll give you five minutes of screen time makes motherhood feel far more professional as a profession.

There’s a Stephen Fry quote outside the British Library that I think sums up the ever-expanding world of internet musing: ‘An original idea. That can't be too hard. The library must be full of them.’ And long may plundering the past and musing about the present be potential insights for all our future posts.