Thursday, 31 July 2008

Slightly unhinged

Spend the day being chased by goblins. Not the paranoid delusional variety induced by daily misuse of hard drugs and vodka, but the small goblin variety also known as Shark, Tiger and Squirrel.

Occasionally, under my breath, they travel, cursed, under the names Goneril, Regan and Lady Macbeth. Those names will one day make horrible, cruel sense, and then my daughters will sob and say Why, mother, why?

I will answer that by saying that in these growing years, before you chuck your family up altogether and stomp off to live in a squat with a born again Christian and then get pregnant at age 17 (these things happen, trust me), then any quiet resistance I can manage now is merely growing my inner shield in preparation for worse to come. In fact I am growing it for the teenage years, which on some days, I think we may glimpse, just a little, of what life is to be.

By that time, this shield should take literally anything that is thrown at me. And yes, even a shield that outwardly is composed of curses and in the future may seem cruel, disloyal and uncaring is actually a way of emotional resistance and a positive act of therapy. And having that hard shield which stops me from being fatally wounded is far better than stabbing myself in the head or grabbing someone and throwing them out of the top floor window.

Anyway, I will tell Shark, Tiger and Squirrel, you know that I love you more than all the green tea in China and beyond, and possibly more than life itself, so you should be able to withstand your new names, Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth.

However I also know that there are more socially acceptable forms of therapy I can admit to than muttering curses to my own children under my breath, even if they are Shakespearean.

Thanks to the wonderful Ellie and Mr W, therapy can also take the shape of a good chat over supper while Goneril, Regan, and Lady Macbeth are drugged upstairs by Anastasia. As if my id were not calmed down enough, then Ellie produces another form of therapy and it is this:


When I finally extract this recipe from Ellie, possibly under threat of torture and blackmail, I shall blast it out to planet Internet and anyone who is suffering from the pre-teen years can join me in this therapeutic melting moment.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Forest play





This is a fun afternoon for Tiger and Squirrel. Shark gets herself grounded for screaming YOU IDIOT! GET OUT OF MY WAY! repeatedly at me on the way to the woods.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The A421 is a very fine road

Memo to Grit. Please look at the ruddy map before setting out with Shark, Tiger and Squirrel for the swimming pool with the wave machine. Or simply power up the Satnav and, along with the woggles, costumes, shampoo, conditioner, hairbrushes, towels and bags, take it with you.

Either of these two procedures will prevent you standing at the side of the road somewhere off the A421, in tears, possibly needing a respirator, calling Dig on the mobile to navigate the last ten minutes past the A5134. Otherwise, Grit, if you keep going on like this, you are going to have a breakdown.

And incidentally, do not yell at the children who have all got out of the car to take swinging punches at each other, that we are all going home now, right NOW. This is a pointless threat which no-one will take seriously, because everyone knows that after you've invested over an hour trying to find the swimming pool with the wave machine, the last thing that you are going to do, is GIVE UP.

And on reaching the swimming pool with the wave machine, when Doreen on reception says that it is lucky it took an hour an a half to get here and now it is the off-peak time, so everyone gets in half-price, remember that you need to be more like Doreen. Smile. And think that every cloud has a silver lining.

Monday, 28 July 2008

I should have known this would happen

9am. The stables are shut. Of course the stables are shut. Of course there is no-one here because I have arranged for Tiger to be mucking out from 9am to 11am. It is supposed to be the start of her horse adventure week, for which I am selling a lung and a kidney.

9.10am. I tell Tiger for the millionth time that of course Tim, who is managing the stables, has not forgotten about her. He is leaving the house right now because he overslept last night and when she is grown up she will understand why grown ups need an extra ten minutes in bed on a Monday morning.

9.20am. I tell Tiger play one more game of hopscotch. I will call Tim's mobile in a few minutes.

9.30am. There is no answer from Tim's mobile. I get a recorded woman telling me this number is not contactable.

9.40am. I tell an increasingly distressed Tiger that everything will be fine. In fact nothing can possibly go wrong with these arrangements because I have worked hard to set them up. And, I say, I am so confident everything will work out, that I have appointments for myself lined up all day today which have been built around dropping her off and picking her up.

9.45am. On the sly, I ring Dig, and ask him to search the web for telephone numbers.

9.50am. Dig finds a number for the stables. I ring it, even though we are here and no-one else is. I get a recorded woman telling me this number does not accept incoming calls.

10.00am. I call one of the six emergency numbers listed at the stables. These are the emergency numbers in case of fire, bolted horses, or a wall-eyed toothless lunatic heading over the hills with a grudge against anything on four legs and a machete. Actually, I would count as an emergency a distraught Tiger who thinks everyone has forgotten her, and a pissed off Grit who has spent several hours in the last few months pursuing these arrangements for her daughter's home education, only to have now the strong suspicion that she has been forgotten about, even though she stood at Tim's elbow in the stables only last week when he wrote down in the diary that Tiger was to be here everyday on a horse adventure week.

10.05am. I call the first emergency number, for Jules. She says ring Tee. I ring Tee. A recorded woman tells me to leave a message. I ring the third number for Laura. Laura tells me to ring Tee, when lo and behold, Tee drives past in a car. She screeches to a halt when she sees me and asks whether we are there for Tim. Yes. But Tim is not here for us. That is because, says Tee, he is in a field.

I should have known that. I should have known that whatever Grit does in her life it is going to end in a field. The field will be in the middle of nowhere because everything always is. I am going to spend my life in fields. I will spend my life in fields because this is where the excluded, defeated, marginalised, frustrated, pissed off, and miserable people go. They go into fields. If you drive past some fields you will see us there, wandering about, unable to escape, weeping. I will never get out of the field. I will die disappointed, defeated, in a field with no funeral because that is what happens to people who struggle everyday, only to see their ambitions, purposes and goals frustrated, no matter how small and insignificant those ambitions are, no matter on whose behalf we are all working, or how minor our objective, it will all be thwarted and skewered. And end up in a field.

11.00am. Take Tiger to a field where Tim swears blind he sent me a text. Meet him here, at the field. I hold up my phone. No text. He raises his eyebrows like technologyeh? and heads off into the field with Tiger behind, leaving me to look at the back end of a horse.

11.10am. Arrange to pick Tiger up at 1.30pm. Spend the next 30 minutes hanging on mobile phone rescheduling the day, cancelling appointments, rearranging times and asking Dig to pick up Shark at midday from a drama workshop because now I will never make it.

11.35am. Stare at field. Consider whether it is better to be buried near the gate or under the horse shit.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Happy families


The day of the butterfly walk! Yeah! I'm putting exclamation! marks! here! and here! Because this is a long, long, overdue family day out! And are we excited!

No, actually, we are not. Despite my best efforts to be cheery mummy cheerleader whipping up the frenzy of a happy family band, we are not excited. Not at all. So I shall start by blaming the butterfly walk. It has bad vibes. It already got cancelled last month thanks to the amount of rain coming down from the heavens. On that single scheduled day the local devout shouted told you so and probably took to hammering planks of wood together in the shape of an ark. The rest of us tut tutted about what global warming can do for butterflies before sticking on the heating and making a nice cup of tea from a full kettle of water.

Well now we are arrived at the rescheduled day of the butterfly walk, and the first day back together as a family, and I am determined that we will enjoy being together. Shark isn't talking to any of us and demands that we stay several paces away from us because, as she puts it, we are embarrassing. How can I be embarrassing! I mock as we are getting into the car. And by the way, did you remember to put knickers on this morning? And are you ever going to wear socks with those sandals? Mockery, by the way, is not a good idea and she refuses to speak to me for the next seven hours.

Then Dig gets stressy about how late it is and is probably not talking to us either now and also wishing we would walk several paces away. Tiger won't stand anywhere near anyone, because someone might produce a dog, and Squirrel is usually in a huff half an hour after anything starts because of something or other, and if not that, then probably the colour green, or something important along those lines. A Squirrel in a huff usually then snaps at me that she does not wish to see me right now and suggests I go to my room. I snap back that I am in a field and anyway, that is my line and she is not allowed to use it.

The woman leading the butterfly walk then gets pissed off with the speed with which we are all marching up the hill. We are probably doing that because there is a German Shepherd on a lead at the bottom of the hill, but that is difficult to explain. Anyway, she manages to dump the group we are in, and abandons us with her assistant who is an expert on locusts. Then when I see a dead rabbit in the grass I try and stand in front of it to protect my little Tiger who tells me she doesn't need that sort of help thank you very much and looks like she is going to give me a shove so I fall into it. That sends me scuttling up the hill as far away from an irate Tiger and a dead rabbit as I can get while feeling sorry for myself that my children are all, in their various ways, telling me they are now so grown up that they do not need me anymore, and I am clearly a burden to them and everyone, even though I am not on a respirator. I could, I console myself, arrange for that and then I am sure everyone would be sorry.

So it is in this mood that today, in a field, led by an expert on locusts, we see a large white, a small white, a peacock, a something else and a something else with wings. I forget what. Because I am disappointed, deflated and sulking and telling everyone to walk several paces away from me. And, I tell myself in my wallowing pit of misery, all I wanted was to be a happy family simply so glad to be together and holding hands for a lovely, lovely, butterfly walk!

Well don't say I didn't try. And there is always a consolation. It is called one large white and three large reds.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Photoblog day out

Here is Shark, and Squirrel, and Tiger, meeting up in Wales after a week apart.


That's forty minutes before everyone is towed around the Mappa Mundi exhibition in Hereford.


One and a half hours before everyone is forced to enjoy themselves at Snowshill.


And five minutes before the first argument. The one about who is allowed to look out of the window of the car.


And here is a flashing sea slug, hand-made by Squirrel. It accompanied us for the entire journey there and back, attached to a bit of string.


I agree that it is not impressive and does not even look like a sea slug. But don't tell Squirrel. It is a present for Shark.


After that bizarre addition, I may as well post a photograph of a lot of eyeballs in a box.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Displacement

Of course I may have the suspicion that this cleaning is a displacement from saying what I feel or even acknowledging it, especially when here is a bit of floor that needs a sparkle. And that is, how sad and empty is this house without Shark.

In fact if I clean up this kitchen work surface here, I can just tell myself that I do not need to think about anything else, like whether Shark is quad biking today, and whether she is falling off that quad bike and is, at this moment, being airlifted from the side of a Welsh mountain, and then with this vacuum cleaner I do not need to think that the organisers have been trying to contact me on the emergency mobile telephone number, and how they haven't been able to reach me because I might have forgotten to turn it on, or I have left it under my pillow in the bedroom where it has been ringing and ringing for the last hour while Shark is in the emergency operating theatre.

And if I give these doors a wipe then I might not need to think about how Shark would say, if she were here, Mummy, have you noticed what an enormous presence I am in the house, even when you don't notice me and even though you managed to elbow me in the head last week because my head is at your elbow height and I have a habit of standing right behind you quietly when you do not know I am there and, when I speak, you jump round and manage to knock my ear off with your pointy elbow? Mummy, have you noticed how silent and quiet a reader I am, except with Tin Tin when I suddenly burst into laughter, possibly when Captain Haddock is shouting blasphemies at the empty whisky bottle, which is something that I have noticed that adults do and especially you mummy, at 11 o'clock at night when you have said everyone should have gone to sleep hours ago and I say in a loud voice that even though I know I have to get up at 8 in the morning for the workshop that I am still going to read Destination Moon one more time?

And mummy, have you noticed how full of attitude I am right now and how hard I have been working to justify your line of that child is aged eight going on thirteen. And have you noticed that if I don't like something I will aim that withering look at you, the one I have been experimenting with to see if it will kill plants and small furry animals, and it happens when I look down my nose and narrow my eyes, particularly after those things you say like Are you wearing socks with those sandals? And have you noticed how I can answer back now with such lip that I can send daddy Dig scuttling from the room, with his parting words something like And do not talk to your parents like that! when he is clearly just so dumbfounded at what I said that it must have been a really excellent answer-back line, probably as bad as a church blasphemy on a Sunday, so that's a line I'll try again, and next time, just to see what you do, I'll repeat it in public. With hand gestures.

And mummy, have you really noticed how much I can eat at one sitting, how many cut up bits of paper I can generate from one pair of scissors and a ream of paper in just five minutes, how loud I can make Tiger scream in the street, and how much I can provoke Squirrel at 7.30 in the morning so that you start slamming doors and waking up the neighbour who sleeps all morning after his night shift? And have you noticed mummy how much mess I can make on the hall carpet when I come in from the garden and forget to take off my sandals which are now platform shoes because they have a two-inch layer of mud and clay strapped to the bottom. And have you really noticed how bloody awkward I can now be about simple things like getting into the car, and how I stand there shouting in the street I cannot get in! when Tiger is sitting in there, because I know for sure she will start screaming? Have you noticed those things about me? Have you?

And I would say Shark, I have noticed them all, and more, and on Tuesday when I spoke to you for 15 minutes on the telephone to see if you had settled in OK at the nearest thing to a boarding school we could find for the week, and how when you spoke back to me my heart just leaped down that telephone line and I wanted to follow right after it and come out the other end and give you such a great big hug and say You are wonderful, my big, beautiful, grown up baby girl, how much I love you, and then when I asked Shark, Are you missing us, without a skip or a beat you said simply, but with possibly the hint of surprise that you'd been asked to consider this, you answered cheerily No! Of course not! and what's more, there is Madagascar playing right now in the common room so we have phoned at an awkward moment. And then I said well that is good my darling and run back and do not miss the funny bits with the scaredy lion, because do you know what? I am busy myself right now and I just have to go and clean some floors.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

World matters

Stop, Grit! STOP! All this cleaning is making holes in my brain. Not because of the fumes from Airwick but because when there is cleaning there is NOTHING ELSE.

I cannot think of anything right now but where does this foam dice go? Should it go on this shelf in the schoolroom or does it belong in that plastic box I have been calling the Maths Box for the last 18 months. And the cuddly birds that sing. Bird box or cuddly toy box? I mean, these are really important issues of state. Not, shall I educate the kids about the US Presidential elections and the democracies of the world, or should we get the kids to go on the march to stop the western world bombing Iran, all of which is like nothing today compared to where does this squeaky toy chicken live?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Look at MY FLOORS




AND WHOEVER PUT THAT PENCIL THERE IS GOING TO SUFFER.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Monday, 21 July 2008

Pictures of floors

Grit is in a frenzy of cleaning and is uncontactable.

Some of the time she is gloating. Because she can see this.

The floor in the front room.


The staircarpet leading to the bedrooms.


And the rug in the Princess Room.

Can you see any plastic crap / bits of paper / orange peel / knickers / cuddly toys / bits of yellow wool / pieces of cut up cardboard / pencils, crayons and entire stationery cupboard assortment / body parts ?

No. That is why I am gloating.

And while I am doing that, Squirrel and Tiger take a historic footstep on the road to delinquency, addiction and drug dependency. Dig took them both out, so I could get on unhindered, and he took them to a play garden. At the pub.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

On reflection, is this home ed lark such a good idea?

I think I may have reached the state of parenthood I've longed to reach. Possibly for eight years.

This desired state is one where I roll out of bed one morning and say Uh? Where is everybody? and then, when I get no answer, go back to bed with a cup of coffee and today's Independent.

This state of parenthood is novel to me, and a bit like a magical transformation from anguished, care-worn, beaten, down-hearted, frustrated, lonely, miserable and hoarse, to invigorated and relaxed. In fact I may indulge in one of my favourite fantasies, now I have time. Not the one involving Dig, naked, with antler horns on his head as he dances around the garden. But the one where in the cafe I tentatively inquire what's the vegetarian option for the day? I sigh as I hear the microwave ping and expect the answer, omelette. Then the woman at the counter actually looks straight at me and smiles a warm smile and says Crank's Pepperpot Soup – the one that gives your weary soul a great, delicious hug. And with it you can eat, for free and as many as you like, fresh cooked garlic croutons that explode those garlicky kisses straight inside your mouth. That one.

Now I'm not sure why I feel in this relaxed state, or what has created this phenomenal change. There is no logical reason to this, after all. It could be, of course, that I have mislaid reason completely, and am now benefiting from unselfaware insanity. While I was sleeping, some Buddhist nirvana then sheltered inside my brain and kicked out all fears, self doubts, frustrations and angers, and put in their place happy thoughts, freshly brewed coffee, and today's unread newspaper.

But I have to face more fearful possibilities, too. Like this strange relaxed mood comes about not in spite of Shark, abstracted entirely, but because Shark is abstracted: enclosed in a field in Wales some hundreds of miles from home.

This Sunday morning, someone else will wake her, hopefully not by pelting her with a puffin or screaming at her head, then she will be offered a breakfast choice which I have not had to prepare, cook, or wash up for. From this point someone else will get her ready for a mountain ramble and hopefully she won't complain, squeal, argue or drag her feet, and if she does, that's not my problem. Then someone else will feed her lunch, busy her with quad bike challenge, feed her tea, fuss about 8 o'clock cocoa, and sort out the bedtime routine. None of which will include me.

I may feel confident she's having fun and is safe and will be insufferable when she comes home, but for the interim her absence does something else. It reduces our family status to the sublime peacefulness that is twins.

I cannot escape this observation, that twins play together. They have squabbles, upsets and fallings out, but there is no third dynamic introducing new constraints, knocking all games off course, providing new inclusions and exclusions, laying sister baits and traps, provoking one, playing divide and rule, all while safely knowing that if you piss off one sister, that's OK, because you've got another one to play with who was pissed off yesterday by Squirrel, and who right now will be a co-conspirator for revenge.

The fact that I can sit this morning with a cup of coffee and Gordon Brown in thick black print, and think these thoughts in a logical, ordered line, betrays something else that's new, too. The house is quiet. The house is so strangely quiet I think I may have sent Squirrel and Tiger away for an adventure holiday week and forgot about it. But no, because here are the two of them, sat on Squirrel's bedroom floor, listening attentively to Watership Down. All six uninterrupted hours.

And then I get to really think. Because what if twins became no children at all during 8.15am to 4pm? What if all my kids are occupied elsewhere? Would I spend everyday like this? Peaceful. Ordered. Calm. You people who send your children to school. Do you seriously walk around the earth with this knowledge that responsibility for the day's hours are all elsewhere? This wondrous calm and peace? This ability to think? Like Today I will read the newspaper! To be in charge of your own limbs and not be beaten by a willow fish? To think Hey! I'll use the blue cup! and not by doing so, create World War III and all the earth's destruction? And is the house so blissfully under your own control, with no-one else to pour oil down the toilet, compose a clay horse on the kitchen table, or paint the chairs orange, because it looks like a nice colour and we had a tin of it?

If really to send your children away, day after days, means this much calm and ordered peace, then I'm in. When Shark returns, she may just find the result of her summer camp is a brisk march down the road, dressed in black and white with mummy Grit behind her, urging, Let's not waste a minute now, because I've a full day ahead. After lunch with Laura I have an appointment with the manicurist and then, because I am a busy mummy, I need to hit the gym and book tickets for the opera.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Do they use towels in Wales?

Grit is in tip top mood. Ready for a long drive to Wales, she has cleaned out the car, prepared four hot flasks (two green tea, two coffee), dashed to the library to acquire a four-hour story CD, (thus ensuring listening joy and silence from the back seat), packed Shark's bag in the car, and prepared a picnic with sandwiches!

Howabout that! Not just a loaf of bread clutched between her frantic fingernails while she is running between house and car while losing her keys and dropping her glasses. And if things could not get better, Dig volunteers for the driving. (I suspect he thinks otherwise we might crash; he betrays this lack of confidence in my abilities with involuntarily twitches of his brake leg at roundabouts and junctions.) But today I am not complaining. Because Grit can now do her trolley dolly routine on the M5 and hand out jam sandwiches.

And off we go. And I can say smugly to myself, this is what it feels like to be calm and organised. You see, if I am calm and organised, I can do anything. Anything at all. I could probably balance elephants on my nose right now if I were calm and organised enough to do that.

Everything goes fine, it really does, all the way down the motorway to Wales. Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are all quiet and drugged by hobbits, and we make good time without incident or accident. Then we stop off at Goodrich Castle where things just go a little bit awry, because the toilets are a long walk from the castle, which would not be so bad if you only had to do that walk once, and not get back to castle with Shark, where Tiger says Mummy! I need a wee! And then when I get back to the castle with Tiger, I see Squirrel hopping between one foot and another which strangely evokes a water balloon just about to explode. So I don't actually see a lot of the castle, but do see quite a bit of the path backwards and forwards to the ladies.

Then, just as mummy Grit is coming out of the toilets after washing picnic cutlery, daddy Dig sings out, Time to go! and everyone gets back in the car. Apart from the toilet sojourn this journey is going splendidly, and we should arrive at Shark's destination in the middle of nowhere bang on time.

Shortly, just having passed Hereford where the roads become smaller and the approach to Wales and our destination beckons, when Grit is peering out of the window looking for heads stuck on poles to mark the border territory, a sudden and dreadful revelation occurs. I forgot to pack Shark's towels!

Because Grit is smart and quick, she immediately sets about thinking what towel-like substitutes do I keep in the car that Shark could use instead? Things that her fellow adventure holiday chums might not notice as strange yet would serve the routines of nightly showering after raft building and canoeing down the muddy river Wye. A mental check includes one pack of sanitary towels, one tea cloth left over from last month's holiday in Cornwall, a plastic bin liner, washed plastic picnic cutlery, and an emergency coat. Shark might just get away with using that lot in place of towels if she could bluff it and behave like everything's normal.

But we have one town left to go on our journey, and that is Hay-on-Wye, and fortunately we are within seconds of passing as Grit confesses her blunder. Dig, with his very logical two brains, suggests Hay-on-Wye might have a draper. You can tell Dig was born in the nineteenth century and went to a posh boarding school, can't you? Only Dig would automatically seize upon the word draper as an ideal solution in a moment of blind-Grit-panic at the thought of her precious daughter rubbing herself dry with a sanitary towel and a plastic picnic fork. But it is that sort of safe everything will be alright when we find a draper talk that I fell in love with in the first place, and I agree, and say, Yes, there could be a draper!

Quietly I consider it could be a long shot, that Hay-on-Wye, second-hand book capital of the world, has a draper's shop sandwiched between its bookshops, but let's face it, the options from this point on the road map are limited.

But here they are! The last towels in Hay-on-Wye! Purposefully and directly bought from the hardware shop on the corner while Dig circles the car park outside!


And if I am looking for a moral to this story, it is Never clean out the car.

Friday, 18 July 2008

Success and failure

8.00am. Water the tomatoes, courgettes, sweetcorn, carrot, cabbages that have been eaten, and the pea. We'll count that as a success. It is the only surviving pea in the harsh landscape that is the Grit vegetable garden.

9.00am. Plan the day. Promise Squirrel honesthonesthonest I will book her on the kayaking course next week. Yes, I know I said I would do it today but there may not be time. Look, next week things will be quiet because Shark will not be here. Honest. Honest. Honest. Next week.

9.45am. Get Shark into car. Drive to local downbeat town, where the lads hang about at midday drinking lager, the ladeez are very wide indeed, and the houses are boarded up, run down and have a washing machine in the front garden. But here the charity shops are well stocked and cheap. Here a canny buyer can pick up an Episode silk dress for 99p. Today we are sourcing seven days worth of jeans and tee-shirts for Shark to cover in mud, grass, river, and cow poo. She will be enjoying herself from tomorrow on an adventure holiday in Wales, booked yesterday.

1.45pm. Shopping success! Arrive home exhausted, penniless and starving. I am also rather whiffy thanks to running out of Dove deodorant. Swap over children. Get Tiger in the car and drive to the local stables to negotiate putting Tiger there for August holiday horse experience.

3.35pm. Horse success! Tiger is skillfully negotiated in at the stables for one week, learning how to muck out and do things with hay. Arrive home exhausted, financially destroyed, smelling of manure, starving, and depressed after finding out that the partner of Tee, who owns the stables, died last week in a road traffic accident. At home, Tiger has a fit because this morning at the charity shop I picked up a pair of Junior Joules wellington boots (RRP £29; RSPCA £2) and they are blue. Blue! Not PINK! How can she wear blue wellington boots to the stables! This is impossible. She is beside herself with fury because now look what this hopeless mother has done! She has bankrupted herself at the riding stables, promised Squirrel a watersports week, got Shark sorted for an adventure holiday, and chosen the WRONG BLOODY COLOUR OF WELLINGTONS.

4.00pm. Bang head against wall in despair. Swap over children. Get Squirrel in car to drive to ballet even though it is a five-minute walk. We do not have time to walk after arguing with Tiger.

4.03 pm. All the ballet mums hate me. While they are clucking and fussing about the doorway going into the ballet studio, they throw looks of disdain at me down their pointy pink noses. It is the last lesson of term and parents have to watch and I have clearly forgot. I turn up smelly, ruined, late, and with dribble from a hastily-eaten tomato sandwich running down my front. While I am gripping my hands to my head, Squirrel says we always forget about watching her at ballet. I say this is because we live a flipping hectic life and it's not as though I am lying on the sofa injecting heroin into my face.

The worst ballet mum of all turns her head away from me; her contemptuous glance is probably reserved for me and the drunk tramp stinking of wee in the doorway at Lidl. And that disdainful glance has said everything. In the eyes of the ballet mums, I am failed. I can almost hear her think, That wretched hippy educating woman! Tsk. She obviously doesn't care one jot about that child. She can't even be bothered to turn up and watch the end of term lesson! And she has probably spent her day lying on the sofa injecting heroin into her face AGAIN.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Adrenalin junkies

Somedays I am reminded of that gleeful maternity nurse who sang out, at some moment when I was coming round to consciousness and probably hadn't yet seen the three tiny faces that were to change my life forever, That's it! You'll never go out now!

At that instant I resolved to go out every day. And more, because she was not to be right about this. If she was to be right about this then I was a dead woman walking. For her to be right meant I would be imprisoned for the rest of my life by walls of nappies plastered in baby sick and by mountains of dirty clothing jamming all the doorways. If I found an escape route through that I would be held in by the bars of self-loathing at doing a needed job terribly, and by the self neglect that I would naturally fall into, and by my own fear of leaving the house in terror of someone spotting me and trying to section me, or remove the babies from my dazed haphazard care, because going out into the street meant staggering out there wearing pyjamas covered in vomit again for the third week running.

But she was not to be right about this. If she was, I may as well give up and bury myself alive right there and then. So after the first mad rush back home and the co-ordination of sleep, feed and wash duties, I took the babies out everyday. To the garden, to the shop, to the park, to the street.

There were some days when survival overstretched me, so I got all the babies out into the hall and I pointed through the doors and looked at the garden in the rain, and while I wept I counted that as success. There were some days when all the hours of the day were driven by just getting in the car and getting out again. And some days were driven simply by madness, and fear of failure. At 7 o'clock one dusky September evening with Dig in Sri Lanka and the babies just six months old, I packed everyone up, drove to a cricket field and walked round and round it talking about bushes. The fact that I wore pyjamas under a trenchcoat didn't make anyone stare because no-one was there to see.

Throughout all those bad, mad and frantic days there were days that shone, literally. Then I strapped sunshades to the triple buggy, strung up flags, dressed the kids up at mice, and ran at a clap through parks and shopping centres. If it was not despair that kept me company, it was hope.

In these days, now Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are older and have their own legs, shoes, and opinions about which way they're walking, we go out because we are used to doing that, and everyone has an expectation that we will do this today because this is how it has always been. Even if we fight before we get there, while we're there, and when we get home, we still go out. And now I can call it not survival, but education. Somedays I feel we're succeeding enough in that for me to enjoy this aspect of our disordered, messy life, and to look forward to next week's activities and plans. Then somedays I think planning another week, getting these children safely through the door to another lesson, attending another workshop or finding another meeting is just all too much, and it's all beyond me, and I want to give in and say I don't care, sort it out yourself, chuck up all responsibility and walk away.

And then we get those moments when Shark bursts in through the door, cuddles up to daddy Dig and whispers Daddy, please can I go to PGL? and within thirty minutes her place on a week's adventure holiday, starting Saturday, is booked, and she's jumping up and down at the excitement of a week away from home, independent of sisters and parents; a week filled with zip wires, kayaking, raft building, quad bikes, archery and a mountain walk wearing a blindfold.

All these days and months of determination, of raising expectations, of gritting teeth and saying to myself You can do it, have brought me a sudden sight of spirited, confident, outgoing children who think that the world out there is a place to be actively engaged with, discovered and explored. Now, they tow me along in their wake. And I carefully get out all the diaries and look ahead to another week, and think of that maternity nurse, and how we proved her wrong.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Triplets on ice


It's about eight months since this picture was taken at the ice rink, and even though Shark, Squirrel and Tiger haven't been near any ice in that time - apart from the chunks of it they bomb-blast into their apple juice - today when I watch them edging out onto the ice I am struck by how self-assured and confident and individual they are, and how purposeful they seem, like they are each just deciding to go over there and actually taking that decision rather than being taken there by force of circumstance because the skates are lined up that way, or being slid along there by a sister who won't let go.

I watch all of this movement in three different directions, and all without arms going like windmills, nor with sisters anywhere near, and quite honestly I am knocked out. It is all I can do to stop myself grabbing the sleeve of the person standing next to me and pumping it up and down like a mechanical aid put there to measure the amount of my excitement about this turn of event. I want to shout Look at my children! They are upright! They are all different! Really, I have to contain myself over this or people will think I am mad, or that I never encouraged them to stand independently. Or I keep them on the floor with vodka shots.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger are completely oblivious to this maternal joy, and seem unaware that a great moment has passed, and that now they do not need to hang onto each other, and then blame each other when they all fall over. I watch them, each concentrating on their own skill; how to turn round on one leg, how to move round the toddler without clinging onto them, and how to glide while lifting one leg in the air.

Clearly they've each learned a few things about standing upright, which is better than mummy Grit can manage without metal blades strapped to her feet. They have learned standing alone on your own two skates; how to put one foot in front of the other and move; how not to do the splits while screaming and yelling. Astonishingly, they have even learned to fall over with control and dare I suggest, dignity. While they are falling I can see them correct themselves with an outstretched arm here and a leg extended there, seeking new balance. This is a pretty amazing sight. None of this I can do after a quick sniff of cooking sherry, and nothing at all after two bottles of beer. Then I can only fall gracelessly face down in the gutter, hoping no-one can see me weep.

How the little gritlets have achieved all this magnificent independent balance and poise while perched on metal blades I simply do not know. They do not have ice skating lessons. I am too poor and mean for those, and cannot fit another thing into the week's timetable without dying from nervous exhaustion. In place of actual ice skating, they have strapped Ikea tea-trays and empty mushroom containers to their feet and pushed each other around the schoolroom table on those.

Well evidently that technique has not only worked, it has produced a bonus by way of independent locomotion. And proud mummy that I am, I resolve to stock up on tea trays and mushroom containers in preparation for winter and Olympic gold.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Crack, sweet crack

Today Tiger learned how to cook crack.

Here she is, writing up how to do it, for the future benefit of her children.


For those readers about to call up Social Services, you may be relieved to learn that crack is the name of sugar boiled to around 150C. Drop the boiled sugar into a bowl of cold water and then drag it out with your fingertips. At crack stage, the sugar will harden quickly, and snap.

Crack makes the following delightful confections.

Raisin drops


Coconut crunchies


Raspberry toffees


Cooking crack also teaches us that when we thought we were inventing something new, we discover granny knew it first.

1lb sugar, 1/3 pt water, 1 1/2 oz butter, 2tbsp golden syrup, 1tsp vinegar. Boil all ingredients together. Test for crack by dropping into a bowl of cold water, watching, and feeling the result. We added flavourings at the end.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Up, up and away

We go to an art gallery. The art gallery is handing out free balloons. Don't ask me why the art gallery is handing out free balloons. The moment I set eyes on these green helium delights I ask myself that question a hundred times. Each time it's a bit more despairing than the last. The only answer I have is that the art gallery wants me to suffer and go straight to Hell because that is what a helium balloon in a child's hand means for a parent.

Don't tell me otherwise. I have never yet seen a parent bound up to the giver away of free helium balloons shouting in delight Balloons! BALLOONS! Hey everybody! Have a BALLOON!

No. Parents do not do that. They cringe. Like me. They try and make themselves invisible. When that fails we all become deaf. 'Can I have a balloon?' whispers Tinkertop Moonbeam, clasping your hand and looking straight at you with her liquid child eyes. 'I'm sorry, I can't hear you' is your reply. 'It is the acoustics/music/noise/children/elephant/all the fault of the people of Sumatra that I cannot hear you. Now speak up.'

Then Tinkertop Moonbeam will be forced to shout out her request and hopefully will become so sullen and surly after screaming it out twenty times that you can reply 'No. Not at all! You are shouting, crying, and kicking me in the shins. That's not the behaviour that's going to get you a balloon, is it?' Then you can carry her home in the ironing board position because, let's face it, that's what's going to happen anyway. But with this method at least you can dispense with skewering the balloon with a breadknife in the kitchen to release all your hatred of free helium balloons. And I guarantee you will feel like the world's most wretched and crappiest parent when you skewer Tinkertop's precious balloon to the kitchen wall with a kebab stick. Now you have to lie, and say it got caught on a saucepan. And as part of your penance and to stop the sobbing you have to humbly promise to go back and get another one.

Better I'd say to incite the temper tantrum early and avoid getting the ruddy balloon in the first place.

Well that tactic worked fine. Until now. Because Squirrel just got brave and bold enough to go and ask for a balloon on her own account. Then, when she has done that, leaving a mamma in shock and terror behind her, she proceeds to go up and get a second and third one for each of her sisters. The free giver of balloons looks delighted. Now they have something to do instead of stare in bemusement at the faces of scowling parents and howling kids. Shark and Tiger meanwhile both have looks on their faces like they have never seen a balloon before, and start skipping and prancing around in the art gallery, looking dangerously close to the art which is incidentally propped up on bits of wood.

That observation leads me back to the question, Why is the art gallery handing out free helium balloons in the first place? This is as crazy as that Family Day Art Event we turned up to a few years ago and they put the kiddy scissors and crayons on the art table right next to the Hockney. I mean, is that normal? Does that happen in a gallery near you? I have never come to terms with that. I squeezed myself so close to that Hockney to prevent Tiger adding her bit that I got told off by the gallery staff.

Well of course the inevitable happened to a green helium balloon lightly grasped on a slender ribbon by a prancing Tiger.

If it had popped I could have dealt with it. I am proud to say that in turning popping balloons into a positive experience we are now uber parents, because everytime a balloon popped in the last eight years we jumped up and down with joy. Partly because that expression of joy was true, but partly because we were trying to deflect the anguish. 'Make a wish! Make a wish!' we would cry as if someone just told us we won the lottery and we didn't need to even buy a ticket. 'When a balloon pops all the good fairy wish sparkle bursts out and drenches you in fairy wishes! Make a wish!'

I'm not saying we didn't have to refine this approach with cautionary tales, like remember there are things fairies cannot do, e.g. sweets, horses, trips to Venus, and having no sisters. But they can do a video of the Aristocrats and a bowl of popcorn.

Well of course Tiger's delightful green art gallery balloon just floats off to the ceiling. And with it goes all Tiger's euphoria and delight in the world, leaving everything down on the ground pointless and rubbish and hopeless, and probably, to prove it, worth knocking over several hundred thousand pounds worth of modern art propped up on a stick. Mamma is at a loss to say anything useful and witters on about helium as lighter than air and don't you remember? We did this experiment at home, while you sat under the Thomas the Tank Engine balloon two days and waited for it to sink back down to the ground, then cried because it was a whole lot smaller and we had to say that's because a mischievous magic unicorn steals the helium on the way down to inflate his horn.

Squirrel is a lot more pragmatic and probably will make a much better scientist than Mummy Grit, and possibly Tiger, who now thinks the world's elements and physical processes are manipulated by invisible fairies and unicorns with floppy horns.

Yes, Squirrel is a pragmatist. She just goes and gets another one.



Sunday, 13 July 2008

I was there


Grit is is a festival goer. This is very zeitgeist, is it not? In fact she is now so zeitgeist that she spurns the Glastonbury-Womad tour. These are obviously way too common-all-garden and not at all cutting-edge enough for a woman on the spearhead point of life. Grit opts instead for the local park which is, ahem, free, and where the very zeitgeist Big Laundry Bill are playing. In fact you might just be able to detect the washing machine. Now how zeitgeist is that, huh?

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Grit meets her match

On my To Do List (now as long as both my arms and the weight of a small baby hippo), I add Russian Revolution.

Eager to start, I tell Shark, Squirrel and Tiger (but not Dig), that today in the house we will be running autocratic control. I bagsy autocrat. I say we can swap over later, when the actual revolution comes. Then I can be Lenin. Everyone agrees.

I like being the autocrat. I order everyone in the car. I say the next step is to go to the library to find out what actually happens when the revolution comes. Then we can think about whether being Tsar Nicholas II was really such an idea worth fighting over.

We have to drive to the Big Library because, for the Russian Revolution, Smalltown will have nothing. 'Russian Revolution?' the young woman on the library apprentice scheme will enquire. 'Uh? We have Handling your Menopausal Budgie, Death and Your Cocker Spaniel, or Tea and Cakes in the Yorkshire Dales: the hilarious saga of moving house and taking the nanny and children with you – but nope, nothing on the Russian Revolution. Which country did it happen in?'

At Big Library, there are no books on the Russian Revolution either. I feared this before we left the house. But if there is one thread which runs through Grit's day, it is hope. I ask Linny, with whom we are on surprisingly good terms after several years of home education and Shark weeing on the floor in the children's section.

'We can do the Tudors', sniffs Linny. Then she starts, and she's even worse than me. 'How many books do you want on the Tudors?' she adds sarcastically. 'We can do six thousand of those'. OK, I've touched a nerve. 'If it's not the Tudors, then it's the Second World War' she continues. I detect a whiff of pissed off librarian. She tells me her son just completed A-level history and, she adds disdainfully, he just did two years of German history.

Even with Linny on side, we can't find anything about the Russian Revolution. And she's right. Because the Russian Revolution is not on the National Curriculum. One of the great powers on earth and here we are in the UK as ignorant as a flea on the backside of a mongrel.

After an hour I have cleaned out the entire library. I have a guide to life in Russia today from the children's library and an Eyewitness book which is good to look at, and has pictures of onion domes. From the adult library I have two studious volumes on the years 1895 to 1949, both of which are heavily annotated in pencil; probably by the same exam-taking university student.

I console Linny. I say it could be that round here everyone's just been to see Fiddler on the Roof and are now desperate to find out about the Jewish experience in Russia circa 1905. She looks doubtful, and adds sorrowfully that two years of German history wouldn't be so bad if it didn't just follow ten years of The Tudors.

Friday, 11 July 2008

To the dentist

I leave the dental surgery in disgrace with only my left-side teeth cleaned.

The dentist gives up after the left side because I am writhing around too much and making HHGHGFHHHHGGGHG noises.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Not another musical

We have tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof. I really don't want to go. After the exploding camel I want to stay at home and stare at the walls. For a start that camel's head was so real. The head exploded and then it was still alive! That was horrible. I can't get it out of my mind. Dig says I am depressed. He says sitting through a musical about the Jewish experience in the face of change and a time of pogroms and general social persecution in the prelude to the Russian Revolution and the First World War will cheer me up a bit.

I am not convinced. I went to see Les Miserables in the 1980s. I cannot, to this day, believe how much I hated this production. Clearly, as it rakes in another zillion dollars around the world, I am out of step with the rest of the planet here, so if you are thinking of taking my critical advice before deciding whether or not to see it on Broadway, perhaps you should think again.

Why I went is still a mystery to me. Possibly because I had read the book. What a mistake. I loved the book. I cherished every word between its covers, right from the very first to the very last sentence, and I probably denied myself sleep, food and water until I had finished reading it; better to sympathise with the struggling and suffering within.

But clearly, witnessing the trite dance routine that this glorious novel had become was not enough of an off-putting experience and introduction to the horror that is musical theatre. Because shortly afterwards I went to see Cats. I liked this a little better because at least it didn't mess too much with the plot. And someone else paid.

Well that was it with me and musicals for about 20 years. Then last year, due to having my arm twisted and cheap seats waved in front of me, I sank back down to the lowest point of my life when I went to see Starlight Express. Seriously, I spent the entire production thinking up ways to kill myself. I have never had such a miserable time. There is no plot, no characterisation, no script, no nothing. Just banal and pointless rollerblading and singing and to Grit's sophisticated camel-laden brain it is all total crap.

Which is how I expect to sit through Fiddler on the Roof.

But there is a surprise in store. Because Andrew Lloyd Webber, that bringer of death to the London stage, has been nowhere near this production. Fiddler on the Roof is thought provoking, and funny. When I come away, I can't talk of anything else but the script, the moment in time that it has evoked, the family drama by turns comic and terrible, the poise of revolution, persecution, war. Tiger, Squirrel and Shark think it is good too. Tiger even agrees to do some project work on the Russian revolution of 1905.

Of course I may have misread her enthusiasm and she could have spent two hours in mind-numbing despair, praying never to see another musical again. Or, of course, she might be considering the alternative, which is mamma and the lice comb.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Hunting the criminals

We are supposed to be out today, but we're not. We're in.

Shark, Squirrel and Tiger were booked at a crime and punishment workshop in Nottingham, probably getting it all muddled, hanging good Robin Hood and praising bad King John.

But at 5am this morning I suddenly woke up with a nightmare. No matter how much I thrashed about and tutted and grumbled I could not get back to sleep. Then I began to have wake-dreams that the paint on the walls would climb down and eat me. Normally this would be OK, and we could still go, if we were travelling on the coach with the other home educators, and if I didn't have to do nearly a two-hour drive with a screaming fit in Nottingham city centre, and if the weather wasn't quite so appalling, and if I didn't have to drive home again on the same day.

Outside doesn't help. It's lashing gales. I may have to go and tie the house down with ropes just to stop it being blown away. Then at 8am Dig doesn't help either. 'Do not go' he says, and adds the weather is awful, the M1 will be chaos, and we will all die horribly. Just as I think he cares, he whines 'Is there any coffee?'

Dig, I argue, let's face it, I have driven in worse. Do you remember that time we set off for Warwick castle and there was a cyclone outside Birmingham? Or the hailstones that nigh on dented the car roof outside Bury St Edmunds. And Cornwall, only last week, when we drove around with a screaming three-headed monster in the car.

But he's right. Eveything's against me, there is no coffee, and I am weak and fed up. So while gales blow around the country and everyone crashes on the M1, I don't drive to Nottingham. I stay at home and brush fleas out of my daughter's head. She keeps asking, Are you done yet? Is it finished? and I keep saying No. Shut up. Keep still. Watch Walking with Dinosaurs. Stop moving, because I just have to get this one here, and then wait. Because when I get it, I'm going to do a crime and punishment workshop. I'm going to pin it down on the kitchen table and shoot off its arms and legs one by one and them I'm going to stick its head on a pole outside the front door to serve as a warning to all its kind.

By five o' clock in the afternoon, just as I'm thinking for the millionth time what a great time everyone else will have had, stringing up Robin Hood, I relent, and let Tiger take a wee. Even the most dedicated nit picker has to take a break sometime otherwise really, this splitting hairs business could drive a judge mad. I swear I have been round every single hair on Tiger's head. Twice. Not one of these criminals will escape me. I feel such anger and outrage. How dare they violate my sweet Tiger's little scalp? How dare they even look at her and think her curl laden head might be a groovy place to live? How dare they even exist? Do they do any good in this world? No. They should be hunted down and killed.

I am sure my psychosis is suffering. Apart from the paint, I dreamed of an exploding camel.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Vinegar day

We spend the day putting vinegar on our heads so there is not much to report.

We could sprinkle ourselves with salt and have our photos taken posing as a giant bag of chips.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Washed out

It's 9am and here we all are, bagged up with Tesco carrier bags wound round our heads to stop the Listerine dribbling down our backs.

Mummy Grit has already got four bottles more of Listerine lined up and they are not even on special offer. How dedicated is that? When we've done with the Listerine, then I unwind everyone's hair and start combing. I cannot find anything alive or dead in anyone's hair, except Tiger's, so that's either bad news or good news depending on whether you are Tiger.

And Dig. Poor Dig, who has been nit examined too. Come on, big boy, says sexy wife Grit, sit down and be examined like the rest of us. Do you know there are some elements of the bondage sado masochism group that finds this sort of thing erotic? Shall we join them, you and I? After all, isn't this just about the most romantic thing we have done together since those evenings we spent on the Lake Palace in India when we watched the elephants crossing the lake while we sipped gin and lime soda? Doesn't this experience equate to that? This nit picking business could be exactly what it takes to kick our marriage back from that lonely place where it took refuge precisely eight years ago.

When everyone's been examined with Dr Grit's not very erotic nit technique, it's Tiger who has to sit still, watching two films on DVD back to back while I nit comb her hair, dragging out lice eggs with my fingernails. The whole front room looks like a surgical operating theatre with buckets of water, towels, Listerine, combs, jugs and Dr Grit with a Tesco bag on her head in case one of Tiger's troupe develops super louse skills, and jumps.

After three hours of nit combing and shouting die die die over the cute lion in Madagascar, Grit is ready for a turn outside in the fresh air. Actually the air's not very fresh because it is raining, but the alternative is to go insane. Anyway, common sense and wisdom have been combed out of Grit's head as well as most of her scalp and all her dandruff in the search for head lice, so I pour some more Listerine over us all and get everyone in the car to go to the farm. Here there is comfort because we go to dig up potatoes, collect onions and gather strawberries.

It is only half way down the A5 that I wonder am I mad? Am I mad? Yes I am. I am mad and bloody furious and possibly deranged and crazy because now it is thunderstorming and I am lost because I always get lost on the way to the farm and now I really should go home and cry but I am not going to. I will not give up. This is grit in the face of all disaster. I am Hilda Ogden with my bagged up hair and gritted teeth in the face of all woe and fallen about life.

And you would think that it could not get worse, wouldn't you? Let me just say to Shark, that when I am on a farm, miles from home, in the middle of a thunderstorm, in a field, that when I have just realised we have five minutes to walk the 15 minutes to the entrance if we are to make your drama performance tonight at 6pm which I had forgotten about along with everything else, that we have lost the potatoes, that we are late, having got lost on the way because I always take the wrong turning, no matter how many times I make this journey, that I am soaked to the skin, up to my knees in mud, and have discovered both my boots leak, that I stink of Listerine, that we are alone on this farm in this awful world of despondency, misery and despair, that this is not the moment to shout out Mummy! For drama tonight I need a pair of black leggings and a frog costume.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Listerine and vinegar

I am getting bells to put round our necks. Because today, when the laundry, the chaos, the upset, the rain, is all not quite enough, we discover head lice. There they are, dancing about in Tiger's hair. In fact I am such a partying mother myself I do not even know we have guests until these lice start jumping out of Tiger's head at bathtime, shouting Hey! Look at me! I can do a double backflip into the swimming tub using this hair as a springboard!

When these vile little creatures start coming out of Tiger's hair at bathtime I am dumbfounded. I am speechless. At first I cannot believe what I am seeing. What has my daughter done with her head? Did she stick it down a rabbit hole? Did she walk through treetops and get caught up in a nest of things? What did she do? And then we realise. These must be what lice look like. And she does not even know these things are here. Jumping up screaming from the bathside, pointing in horror into the tub she's sitting in, is not exactly going to make her feel good about this moment. So instead I try the calm approach. I shriek to Squirrel and Shark, Get daddy! which I agree is responding a bit like someone just entered the front door swinging a machete, and not much better than shouting Oh My God We Are All Doomed!

Now, instead of the cosy, comfortable hour I expected after bathtime, supping red wine and reading blogs, I am scouring every internet mention of headlice ever made. I resolve upon a Listerine and Vinegar method first of all. And combing, combing, combing.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Happy homecoming

Here we are driving home. And this is the smile in the car, about half-way. Remember that, Grit.


Because from then on, things went downhill. Fast. Even with a stop at Chedworth Roman villa. Which, on reflection, probably started it all, when the lady dressed as a Roman asked Tiger a question. Squirrel casually supplied the answer and Tiger didn't say anything at all. Just growled.

With two hours to go, we can certainly say we no longer have triplets in the car. No. We have a three headed monster from tripletland. It has one body with six arms and three heads. And when one of those heads speaks, then this means that your siblings are stealing your identity, ripping the face off your body, trampling on your desires, ambitions and aspirations, controlling your life forever and ever and ever, and worse, yes, worst of all, it happens when you are asked a question, and your sister ANSWERS FOR YOU. This is the worst thing ever to happen, and it happens again like this, when you are asked 'Do you want a Carr's cheese melt, Tiger?' and Squirrel pips up with, 'I do! I do!'

Oh wow. Has that moment transgressed once more the unwritten law of triplet individuality. Now one of the heads of the three headed monster has had her independent answer just ripped out of her mouth and mangled up and torn up right in front of her. So this means you have to jump out of your seat, grab your sister's head with both hands and ram it face down into her lap so that her brain is dented forever and she will never eat a Carr's cheese melt ever again in her life and that serves her right. Then the other head of the three headed monster starts screaming and screaming so that anyone unfamiliar with triplet life thinks we must surely be extracting a kidney from her on the M5 at 80 miles an hour without anaesthetic, when all mamma wanted to do was offer a Carr's cheese melt for God's sake and now look. Daddy Dig is shouting, mummy Grit is shouting, the car is swerving about and the three headed monster is screaming and yelling and kicking and throwing punches and kicking seats and the Carr's cheese melts are all thrown everywhere.

Is this the moment the mamma of the three headed monster needs to shout, 'I am never ever travelling anywhere with you three, ever ever EVER AGAIN! And this time I MEAN IT!'

Friday, 4 July 2008

Life in the tin mine

For us, school never happened, but home education did. Sometimes I worry about that. Perhaps we took the wrong way, or the foolhardy way, or the way running straight to Hell, prison, or the checkout at a Tesco filling station.

But today is one of those days when Education Our Way makes perfect sense. It is the right thing to do when I see Tiger grow and make better sense of the world, and herself in it, and all happening before my eyes. It just happens to be underground, that's all.

But this is the heart of Our Way. It takes time. And sometimes we have to have nerves of steel, go the course, and wait for Tiger to cross that particular line, where she can say 'I did that'.

Because there are some things, Tiger, you will not do. You will not go in dark places, or stroke cats, or speak to the waiter Asif at the Indian restaurant, because these things are scary. Sometimes they're not scary, but you're stubborn. You won't sit down and read aloud, even though I know you can damn well read because I spy on you, following your eyes on Black Beauty. And you won't show off your knowledge in public either, even though I'd like you to do that sometimes, especially about Edward III. And neither will you answer polite making-conversation questions about your sisters, your hair, your holidays or your shoes. And nor will you smile at the woman at the Co-op who last week laughed and asked if the beer was for you.

In the face of all this onslaught, this social life, this exposure, this world of other people, school would probably have been a disaster. You become so painfully shy in some situations that it's embarrassing to watch. I feel my toes curl. I slap myself to remember that every week you have lessons with kids you know, and have friends far and wide. And about your shy shrinking, we can bite our knuckles, grit our teeth, roll our eyes, or just plain worry about whether we're doing the right thing.

But then along comes a day like today and I realise our agony and my poking you in the back in the Co-op queue won't make a scrap of difference. Because it's quite clear, and proved to me again and again, you will do whatever it is you want to do when you are ready to do it, so I should just shut up and stop worrying.

And this is, I believe, the true benefit of Education Our Way. We can, if we relax enough to remember, give you the time you want to go on at your own speed, your own pace, and learn the things you want to learn when you're ready to learn them. And all my job is, is to carry on putting those opportunities in your way for you to pick them up and run off with them.

Today we toured the National Trust Cornish mines and engines site, and found out about Trevithick and how the industrial revolution and the Cornish engine shaped Cornish life and made Cornwall the world centre of mining. Seriously, in 1800 the whole of Cornwall must have looked like one sprawling mine. It can't have been too attractive, but there was work, and money. As we trace the mines across the country, the lush rolling hills bear few scars to what mining must have made of this land. And we found out all about this, and we poked you in the back when the lady asked you if you'd enjoyed yourself. Then our route through mine sites and engine houses led us, in late afternoon, to Poldark mine.

Almost as soon as we arrive, the deed is done. We are going down the mine. Dig draws Shark and Squirrel aside who are delighted with the news and gasping for the hard hats. But Dig does not tell Tiger, who hates tunnels. Dig tells me let her work it out for herself. I say I'll stay on the ground with her, because there's no way she'll go down a black hole in the ground.

After some moments in the assembly area, she works it out, why we might have paused there. Oh! Would you like a mine tour? I ask, innocently, like we just had that idea. Tiger's eyes widen as awareness creeps in. It's alright, I tell her, I'll hold your hand and there are no cats. To my surprise, she readily agrees, and adds that it's raining outside, so if we do not go down the mine, she will get wet.

Fifteen minutes later we are standing in tunnels of rock, wearing hard hats – and I do need one – this is not one of those safety-crazy places where you must wear special gear because in the next 500 yards there is wooden beam. No. I need one because already I've bumped my head twenty times and had to stoop so low I'm virtually on my knees. Our feet are in puddles of running water, which is pumped from the mine daily, we are told, otherwise it floods. And Tiger, my little anxious Tiger who is frightened of tunnels, cats, Asif and the woman at the Co-op, is leading the way, delightedly scampering and already steadied by the gentle hearted guide who has been a miner all his life and, he says, would do it now if only his wife would let him.

As I watch Tiger, with her flushed excited face, I wonder why I'm surprised. Here she is, in the capable company of this skilful, knowledgeable man, learning about life in the mine, and the upper world could be a million miles away and she would not care.

Our guide is a wonder to meet. He strokes the warm and damp rock as if it were the coat of a spoiled pet. These two granite blocks moves sideways towards each other, he warns, looking up to the curves above, as if he is noting the characteristics of difficult customers at the local pub by closing time. He adds these customers are kept apart - and he slaps strong wooden beams above us. Don't worry, he says with a wink at Tiger, they won't come down. And if they do, they'll hit me on the head.

Here in the mine we can smell, feel and hear these massive beings. We can almost hear them growling and shuffling into place. We can feel our feet wet and our heads bumped, and Tiger is loving it.

We learn more as we go on, further and deeper. Our guide knows intimately the veins of blues and browns in the rocks around him, he can spot the haphazard chance, the movement sideways in the earth's crust, the slip of brown and grey and blues that promise copper and tin. We are indeed a million miles away. For Tiger it's a real experience and revelation. She can go down mines, stroke underground rock, smell earth-air. And she did those things without a school inspector, a head of department with a clipboard and a risk assessment sheet ticked and crossed in twenty places. She did those things without a dreary worksheet headed Key Stage 3, Life in the mine, while sitting in a classroom, shrink-wrapped and sanitised, and that is one million miles away today from Tiger's happiness, and my own.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

Loving Marconi and Hating BT Goonhilly

We are learning a lot about communications in Cornwall. It's quite the place to be, this end foot of England, kicking the ocean waves of the Atlantic. If you want to do a home education project on communications, I can recommend it.

I can recommend the whiskery chaps, members of the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club, tipped up at the top of the Lizard peninsula, in the shed there now, at Poldhu. In this place, Marconi sent his first wireless dot dot dot to Newfoundland, across all those waves of the Atlantic Ocean, and in doing so scared the knickers off the cable company down the road who'd just spent the economy of England dropping cable lines on the sea floor, to be chewed at by sharks and sat on by barnacles.

In these days, the radio amateurs hang around in a rebuilt version of Marconi's shed. They seem a decent lot of eccentrics in their coastal sweaters and breezy sea salt faces. Admittedly, one or two of them look like they might've been living in Marconi's shed since 1901, and are as likely to be enticed out of it, blinking into today's bright world, as they are to be enticed to sit inside a burning car, but no matter to us. After all, we home educators actually seek out people like this. These are the lost and best of British eccentrics. In this world of pin numbers, bar codes and steam rollering normality, we actually think these wonderfully mad people have something to teach us. And, we tell the children, there is mad talking to trees, and there is mad blowing each other up, so let's get in contact with the former before we are scattered around by the latter.

So I can recommend a pleasant hour in Marconi's shed with some old amateur radio codgers, enthusing over dots and dashes.


But I cannot recommend to home educators BT's Goonhilly. Oh dear. Not at all.

We thought that the BT Goonhilly site and their trillion-billion pound enterprise science station, 'Future World', would be a fine educational contrast to place alongside Marconi.

But what we did not appreciate is that Marconi's shed is staffed by informed, enthusiastic, engaged people who genuinely are inspired to communicate a slice of life that they find of life long fascination. But Goonhilly is staffed by corporate clones with no interest whatsoever in engagement, nor with communicating any subject with passion, possibly apart from BT rules and regulations. But why should they? They are staffing a site which is unimaginative and, by our book, anti-educational.

At Goonhilly we pay a whopping wodge of money for a list full of horrors. A preachy animation about how we must look after the planet. A room of computer games like a down market arcade. A bus tour of the site. (Sorry about the satellite dishes! They've been dismantled!) A ten minute stop off at 'Future world', which is actually two rooms, where we are not invited to linger for more than five minutes each before a prison warder barks 'One minute more because the bus is waiting!'

By the end of ten minutes, Shark is in a temper tantrum, while Squirrel and Tiger are in tears. Dig is snorting, which in Dig's way is the equivalent of nailing someone's testicles to the floor, and I feel like taking a swinging punch at the smug young face of the 'tour guide'. I cannot explain to this man with the flippant attitude that I have three children who can spend five hours in a museum before they are dragged kicking and screaming out by the security guard with the keys. They simply are not accustomed to five minutes engaging with a drawing screen before it flickers off because their time is up.

In BT's bleak, corporate, time-limited future, there'll be nothing for us. Apart from the pleasure of physical violence from Grit, possibly. But at the end of the day, while we are ushered out of the Goonhilly site at 5.27pm, and while I see if I can muster up a contemptuous wee on BT property, we suggest that Shark, Squirrel and Tiger go play on the playsite. In ten seconds flat, Tiger slams her head into a stray iron bar on the play equipment and draws blood. Now I do not approve of those members of our public who sue the local council because a paving stone is wonky and thereby make all our lives more miserable at a stroke, but right now I feel as litigious as a wronged, broke woman, cheated from knowledge and withheld from power. And is that ever a dangerous combination.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Education at Pendennis Castle

Dig is working today, or possibly hiding in the caravan toilet in case I try acting out my threat of a holiday romance, so in his absence I take Shark, Squirrel and Tiger with me to Pendennis Castle.


Now we are safely on Grit territory. And I don't know what comes over me, but at some point, walking around this fine lump of earth overlooking the entrance to England, Grit makes a silent commitment to proselytise the unsaved. In a fit of historical zeal she wrestles Shark to the ground and forces her to repeat the order of the British kings from Richard III onwards before she is allowed into the Discovery Centre to play with the radar system. These things, I tell Shark while I am banging her on the head with Henry VII, are important to know. If you do not know that Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth, next you will get all your Henrys, Elizabeths, and Edwards mixed up and then where will we be? Lost. That's where. And what will happen to British society? It will collapse. That's what.


At this point, the gritlets probably wish the living history experience is over. But it is not. I direct myself to Tiger, who thinks she is escaping by playing with building blocks. She is actually demonstrating the architecture of a Tudor gun room. She just does not know it yet. She needs some education about that.


By the time I have finished with Tiger who is lying on the floor pleading for mercy I just have Squirrel to go. She is more canny and difficult to catch, but I bait her with the bit of chocolate I keep at the bottom of my handbag with one nibble taken from it and a bit of fluff attached. It does the trick. By the end of fifteen minutes and the threat of a Chinese burn she can give me an informed talk about fortification and communication in South West England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I.


It is true that all of this experience is probably akin to becoming locked in a lift with an Evangelical Christian named Milton, late at night, when the Emergency services have gone home, but this is the way it has to be. Because if the gritlets do not learn their history, who am I going to discuss these important matters with, on my long, long Sundays during visiting hours in the rest home? The staff will have deserted me and Dig will have locked himself in the toilets.

So I know that the gritlets would like me to hang my head in shame and apologise, but I cannot. Because at that moment, in that historic space, it is the right thing to do.

Anyway. They try revenge. On the way home the gritlets force me into the Shire Horse Centre to look at a horse.


What they do not know, and what I find out within seconds, is that the owner of the Shire Horse Centre also hand makes medieval armour and has a special interest in armour of the 14th century.

Grit is born again.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

10 places to visit in St Ives

No trip to Cornwall is complete without a visit to St Ives. That's the brochure speak anyway. And, just to oblige, we take a day trip to St Ives. And I can recommend these sites...

1. The car park on the hill in the pouring rain. I told you! I told you it would rain! sings Grit gleefully, glad that all her premonitions of gloom, storm and tempest would eventually come to pass. And up here you would get a good view into this little pilchard-fishing town, with its lego-brick grey and brown houses and its little twisty streets, all tumbling down the steep hillsides to the Atlantic ocean, if it weren't for the clouds, drizzle and acres of coach tours pouring millions of tourists down to the harbour ice cream parlours and Cornish pasty shops.

2. The queue outside NatWest bank. Grit is cashless. While in the queue she has a good old moan, tut and grumble, because if there is any argument for banning vehicles during the hours of daylight, it is here, at these crossroads. St Ives town council, what are you doing? Do you have pilchards strapped to your eyeballs? Can you not see that two motor vehicles travelling in opposite directions on a street designed to take one pilchard cart travelling in one direction is a disaster waiting to happen? One driver blithely drives over the pavement, narrowly missing my little Squirrel's toes because there is no room here for cars, tourists and Squirrels. One of them has to go. And I would rather it is not my Squirrel to A&E. Ban those cars now!

3. The tourist information office, because we are lost. This is very usefully marked and I like the sign which is a curvy letter i. Shark says it stands for idiot.

4. The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. I have long wanted to come here because I want to fondle those lovely sculptures in her garden. I even feel a need to wear them. Probably because of the arm holes. But it is not those sensuous curves which blow my mind apart today. Did you know that Barbara Hepworth had triplets? I didn't know that. She had triplets. Oh my God. In all the photographs I've ever seen of her she looks the most unmotherly looking woman, thin and alone, smoking herself to death behind slabs of plaster, stone and metal. Triplets. After that, thoughts of destruction and creation dog me all day long.


5. The streets of St Ives. These are definitely built for pilchards. They are tiny and tightly packed. And just in case we have not yet had the full pilchard experience there are some more coach loads of tourists arriving fresh into town. We are barely able to navigate our way through the shoal, and I am sure at one point my feet don't touch the ground as I move on ten yards. The Atlantic ocean tipping down on all our heads helps complete the experience.

6. The Cornish pasty shop. We are foolish. We go to the first one we see. Mostly to escape the tidal wave of rain. Standing inside a Cornish pasty shop at that moment seems the most inviting thing to do. But here, as the vegetarian option, there is just cheese and potato pasty. Walk two paces and we could have moved to the gentrified class and had tomato and basil, or Dolcelatte and cucumber.


7. St Ives Museum. Now if there's anywhere in Cornwall which makes me think we have entered a county of England where we must choose to show our identity papers at the border or have our heads stuck on poles, this place is it. What can I say about this bizarre museum with its eclectic mix of objects? I would show you them, only no photography is allowed. There are several signs to remind me about that. There should be guards patrolling with machine guns and dogs, just in case I feel the urge to snap a photo of a pilchard pressing stone. Or the pneumatic powered drill. Or the Cornish screw press from 1880. I start to wonder what can be the possible reason to deny me a photograph of a treacle dispenser? Perhaps they are all artifacts of some weird Druidy sort of Cornish secret society thing. In fact there is a dummy dressed up in a blue robe round the back of the Cornish kitchen who which looks to me like an effigy of Mrs Big. We are probably lucky to escape with our lives.

8. Sandy patch on the beach. It's raining. No one else is there. But that doesn't stop the Grit and Dig girls. No way. Because this is sand. And we're taking that home. Squirrel is busy stuffing it into her pockets right now.


9. The harbour. This is the strangest sight of all. Believe me about this. I watch a woman who looks like the Queen Mother struggle to get into a rubber dinghy bobbing on the water and held by a man who looks like Captain Pugwash. This woman looks like she has never stepped into a boat before in her life, never mind a rubber dingy. She's wearing a tweed jacket and headscarf and carrying a bag of shopping. At one point, while she's got on foot in the boat, she actually tries to put the shopping bag down on the water. Can you believe that? The dinghy is rocking this way and that and she finally lands on one side of it, more by slipping over and falling into it than any other method, then Captain Pugwash hands her some oars and off she goes. Let not reason stand in the way of determination, ineptitude, and folly. It makes me proud to be British.

10. Not a pizza restaurant. And not because we can't find one. Dig is not in love with St Ives. I can tell. Perhaps he feels like too much of a tourist. Or not enough of one. He thinks the restaurants are too crowded, and noisy, and there are too many young people in them. I tell him it is not as bad as Newquay where I am too old for the beach by some 30 years and there is a curfew out on anyone aged older than 25 by reason of age being way too uncool. We decide to drag our offspring and our geriatric carcases back to the van via a chip shop. Which seems a very suitable thing to do in the pouring rain.