Wednesday, 31 August 2011

It's not that I want it to go like this

Don't ask me what I am doing, sitting in a Hong Kong bar frequented by expats.

I am socially out of my depth. I have no idea what to say, and when I am goaded into speech by some particularly insistent person, I mumble incoherently in a way I hope suggests I am normally too much in demand by a wide circle of friends to end up here. Either that or I feel so provoked, I tell everyone exactly what I think. I am rarely invited back.

I thought I would share the Basil Fawlty awkwardness of this event with you, since I haven't got any other friends.

Anyway, it might provide a distraction if you're waiting for your wash cycle to finish.

Expat: Hello Grit, nice to meet you. Is your family here?

Grit: (barely audible) Yes.

(awkward pause)

Expat: Have you any children?

Grit: (slumping into seat) Yes.

(awkward pause)

Expat: (casting round, desperate for something to say) Do you like Hong Kong?

Grit: (shifty glances) Um, er, um, er. No.

Expat: Oh! Why is that?

Grit: Er, er.

Expat: Come on! You can tell me!

(awkward pause)

Grit: Um, I find it a little soulless.

Expat: How do you mean?

Grit: Well, do you really want to know?

Expat: Yes!

Grit: The environmental record is appalling so we're all doomed, and the government couldn't care less because they're not interested in anything but appeasement to Beijing, and when they're not doing that they're only bothered about maintaining the support for the concrete-pouring construction industry, so the place is run by people with no loyalty except to themselves, money and power, while any dissenting voice or local opposition is suppressed, so by a mixture of cowardice, greed, backsliding and repression they're systematically destroying some of the finest assets here, stuffing any history and selling the future, and don't tell me about the vibrant cultural life because they just buy that in to make the place look good.

Expat: Oh.

(awkward pause)

Expat: How are your children doing in school?

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

It stayed the same and changed

We are back in Hong Kong. I can see immediately that life is how I left it, four months ago.

The fumes still surround us in our island town as we pass on our route home. The warm humid stink rises from the drains just where we pause, between the ice cream parlor (now closed), and the cranky wire fence where the rat killer lays out his poison.

The drain runs along the street that slides off the main path and runs towards the steps which rise past the crack house. It is possible to avoid the sluicing drain and the disreputable route, but we never do.

I do not know why not. Perhaps all our family feet are instinctively drawn to this particular junction, for the five of us always, always must position ourselves here, standing over the running drain, to invariably discuss which of us might walk in which direction, and who could walk with whom. While the rat poison and gutter effluent rise up all around us.

The noise of play in the house. That is the same, too. I had forgotten how cataclysmic is that sound.

If three children are drawn to 'play' in a house basically made of concrete and tile, there is nowhere for the sound to be absorbed. I hear it all, echoing. And it is terrifying.

In England I am protected. The wood and fabric absorb the blasts, shock-waves and fallings out of daily play. If I hide upstairs, the noise is guaranteed not to travel three floors up through carpet. Then I can feel calm, and tell myself I'm letting these children, future citizens, solve their own problems, and that is called effective parenting.

But in Hong Kong there is nowhere for a weak parent to hide. There is no let up. It is all noise, start to end. Even the most innocent states of 'play' set up reverberations round this house, so I live with a continuous level of anxiety about my involvement. I can't tell the difference between happy play and serious grudge match of epic proportions. Until it is too late.

So I set up strategies. When the physical starts, I inevitably creep along to the site of 'play' with half-formed ideas about distraction, where I might draw one child away from the melee, maybe to buy onions, hoping to avoid torture and blood spillage. I am usually met with blank stares and the explanation 'We are playing', delivered to me like I am some sort of wandering village idiot.

The insect life. That is still sub tropical. The Bish could be a real help to me, with the sense of joy I feel when the two-inch bug crawling over the cooker hood at my eye height waves a cheery greeting with its antennae. If not GinoBug, then the centipedes creeping behind the toilet, or the ants in my bulgar wheat cupboard, and the tree spider that stares at me, watchfully, as I edge my way with a bag of laundry for Mrs Chang's blast furnace.

So it's all the same. The displacement, wrong footing, the life on edge.

But not everything remains unchanged. I have been absent four whole months.

I can stare into the fridge. There has been no Good Woman to impose Moral Virtue on the innards. Dig has reverted to Planet Bloke.

Thus your atmosphere is burned up by fridge gas for the benefit of the following: one porcelain bowl (containing a curious orange stain); a half tin of anchovies (dried); three bottles of wine (two empty); and a hewn chunk of rock. On examination the rock turns out to be the piece of cheese I left there in March.

Other changes that I note, are the piles. Dig has formed Mr Trebus-style mounds of paper and cardboard boxes to line his burrow back and forth to the office; he has heaped books over most available surfaces, and purchased a vacuum cleaner.

(No, it doesn't surprise me, especially the last. When faced with any domestic problem of any sort, Dig's answer? Buy a vacuum cleaner. At one point we had five, and I reduced the count from seven.)

Strangely, a selection of chick lit has appeared around the house. Since it is not mine, I have of course immediately accused Dig of the obvious conclusion, and that is, he has acquired an air-head floozy for whom exciting life drama is to lose a handbag in a wine bar where it will be picked up by accident by Mr Wrong who, through a sequence of hilarious misunderstandings, turns into Mr Right.

Dig denies it all. He claims the chick lit was pressed upon him at a publishing do by Bernice the PR girl who was desperate to offload two hundred copies.

Hmm. It may be so. But I also note, as I rifle his wardrobe, that his socks have been perfumed with orchid allure fabric conditioner. I am only saying that Mrs Chang does not normally add orchid allure when it is me, giving her the socks. I will keep my eye on her, and if there is any change to her usual indifferent manner, I will let you know.

Monday, 29 August 2011


Dear House,

I am so sorry, and my confined heart is filled with concern for our parting, but it is that heavy hour. I must steady my hand, pick up my bag, collect my children, and pass your front door key into the tender care of Mr W.

You know, of course, that today I must run to embrace another.

In my eyes, they can never be as beautiful as you. Truly they do not possess as many elegant, ancient charms as you! Their light is not delicate, their floors not wooden, their walls not crumbling, and their office roof not caved in on one side.

Yet I must leave you. I must keep children with a father, stash some cash in the bank, and follow that urge I have: the pointless one where I put myself in difficult and uncomfortable situations just because.

So I must cut myself away, and look now only to the assets of your Asian competitor. I must ignore how they are basically a soulless tile and concrete block on a Hong Kong hillside, and gaze instead on their lustrous charms. How they offer great views from a delightful flat roof, a selection of beaches close by, an endless sub-tropical summer, and a view of banana trees from the kitchen window.

My dear house, I know this will be no comfort to you. I feel sure you will be anguished by my betrayal, as you live with my abandonment of you for another six months. But please do not be angry with me.

And do not fear Mr W. He will look after you. Probably better than me. He will not mess you up like I do. He will not kick the back door in like Squirrel, nor slam your kitchen door hard like Tiger in a temper tantrum. He will step gentler on your stairs too, softer than Shark when she is trying to be discreet. Although yes, he might move in some heavy machinery to your kitchen, just for temporary storage while he builds his new shed.

Now, I must depart. Please do not let the tap explode in your anguish, frustration and grief, like you did that morning when I set off to Hampton Court. I did tell you I was only going to look.

PS. I have thrown out the posy of flowers from your hall, collected by the children from the garden.

Forgive them. They will do the same in their new abode. They are children, and fickle, and live casually, as children do.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Ah, England, how I love thee!

Here we are, arrived at the very conclusion of our English summer, undefeated, always joyous in optimism, carrying on tirelessly to our August end!

An email pings into my inbox about a Solar Art workshop at our local community art studios.

I am a slave to Squirrel's eager face, lit up in anticipation of delight. Of course I say Yes! And to Shark too!

Time may be ticking away our final hours, but for my child's satisfaction and joy, I would stop all the clocks and stay the world.

Anyway, if I squeeze in one more activity which means all the kids are out the house, I can pack the final knickers and socks in peace.

The day of Solar Art arrives, and everyone is excited. Tiger must go to the lake, to complete her Windsurfing Stage II, so I hear her lament that she cannot join with her happy sisters for Solar Art fun.

Can we stay a bit longer in England, just a few more days? she whines. No, Tiger. We cannot.

Remember how, this summer in England, we have conjured miracles, enjoyed fantastic achievements, and completed all the listed items you gave me: the ones you said with a menacing stare, Otherwise I am not getting on the plane.

We followed all these child wishes, and more. I smugly called these past months a child-led education. True. There was bound to be learning in it somewhere. But Solar Art. Tiger, you cannot do. Time ran out.

Shark and Squirrel arrive at the Solar Art five hour fun day, and the bleak leaden skies are beating down. We all recall fondly how the sun was last seen over England several weeks ago.

I leave them to the joy, while I come home and still find space to squash in an IGCSE Geography syllabus.

When I see Shark and Squirrel again, their faces blurred by tears of joy, or maybe five solid hours of persistent rain, I can see that all the Solar Art delight was truly there! The anticipation was fulfilled! All our wishes came true!

Then Tiger, my daughter of summer, came home, her final activity done. Her course at an end, and her certificate gained, albeit with the ink run and the paper soggy. She said windsurfing was called off. They were told by Andy to sit in the kayaks instead. He went off and made telephone calls in the portacabin, and she escaped by pretending to be locked in the toilets. She glowed with pride as she told me how no-one noticed and he gave her the certificate anyway.

Oh, England. I will miss you, and all the adventures of summer you made complete.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Personal celebration day

I celebrate, with a bottle of champagne, and a carry-out curry for the kids.

I have confronted many ideas in our society; not least those that say champagne should be shared, or is a romantic drink, or is better not served with a vegetable balti.

Or, indeed, could be photographed to better effect when there is not a bottle of bleach behind it on the kitchen windowsill.

No matter. Some days, it is just good to celebrate, because I feel like it.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The bug park

Did you know, centipedes wash themselves? Or that the Northern Violet Ground Beetle will chew a hole in your skin?

We do. Because today we joined Kate and our lovely local home ed group, led by the Archbishop of Rushmere* for all talk bug-related.

This fantastic jaunt was organised by a family of unbounded insect enthusiasts. I first met them over a jar of crickets.

Thanks to them, and The Bish, we learn how Scottish wood ants spray poison from their bums. They do! Each ant holds its bum with its little hairy fingers and directs its spray at the enemy! Like a hose! **

See what you can learn out of doors?

Well of course, if you're thinking about it, I want to give you confidence that you can do education out of school, too. Lots of little kids don't want to go in the first place, and lots of parents worry they won't learn anything if they don't go. So I'll tell you how learning like this is as straightforward as it can be.

Without school, it can go something like this.

Kate - organiser of her creature-crazy family including pet spiders, ladybirds, crickets, slugs, and a guinea pig who won't climb ladders - calls the local entomology group (look yours up on the web***) and she asks for someone who can talk bugs to kids.

The Bish turns up. He says, Insects are our friends. I'll do it for the love of a lacewing.

Kate contacts the ranger of a local country park and hires one of their woodland meeting rooms. Then she advertises the date, cost, details, on the secret email lists we home educators run up and down the country. (The ones that are under surveillance by MI6 and the Saudi Secret Service.****)

That's it.

We parents and kids all turn up, pay three quid each for the room and The Bish's petrol, then we enjoy a fantastic few hours crashing about fields with big nets, having our ankles nibbled, saying ooh and ahh at the seven-spot ladybirds, and listening to a brilliant talk with magnified bugs and an errant cricket.

Over to The Bish. I couldn't have made him up. He is BRILLIANT. I scribbled down his best bits while he put his bezzy mates (and possibly his girlfriend) on a magnifying projector.

(But because this is an educational blog, I won't say which bug he's talking about. Match it from this list: bush cricket, field grasshopper, Northern violet ground beetle, lacewing, centipede, harvest man, and white cross spider.)
'Turn her over! You can see from above she's got rather lovely eyes, a cute little beaky nose, and her ovipositor. Another very exciting thing about her, she keeps her ears in her elbows! You can speak to this little lady from anywhere and she might stick out her arms to hear you.

Now here's a madam with a very hairy chest and very shiny eyes. If madam will sit still for a second, you might just see she has a bush between her legs (I'm not making this up). She covers her eggs with froth. Oh dear, she's wandered off. She's not being as helpful as she might be.

Oooh, now here's a lady with big jaws and small eyes. She eats by chewing a hole in your skin, liquefies the flesh with her digestive juices, then sucks out dinner. Look, I can demonstrate. I'll just put her on my thumb. (I blacked out for five minutes and may have missed something.)

This one's a boy! Come on, let's see you! Oh dear. I apologise for the lost leg. Never mind. He'll be fine with seven. I wish he'd start waving to you so that you'll know I haven't done anything really awful to him. He must be sulking. Oh. Has anyone got any more of those?

Now, what have we here? Aha! These are exciting little fellows. If you go out at dusk you might see them gathering. Oh look! This one's having a wash. That's really rather wonderful. They have to live in damp conditions because they are very delicate. They keep very moist and clean. Go out tonight and see if you can find some.

My favourite! Isn't she a delight? She's worth getting to know. She is so friendly and has such beautiful golden eyes. (The grasshopper started crawling about my ankles at this point. I became distracted and took no more notes of eulogy.)

If you've never looked into the eyes of this tiny fellow it's quite an experience. They're scavengers. They'll queue up around any creature that's feeling a little queasy, and they'll wait. (I check my immediate environment.) They have the most delicate feeding parts of any animal I know. They eat daintily, as if they're using chopsticks! (He's obviously not seen us having a go with those.) One note of caution. Hold them by five legs. If you hold them by one or two legs, they let those legs drop off.

Well, to wrap up. There are 30,000 types of wildlife in Britain. 22,000 are insects. 2,500 types of insects you'll find in Rushmere country park. You can be here every day of the year and find a new insect. Each has its own lifestyle, its own way of living, eating, making babies. There are some 21,000 species we know very little about. If you find a new insect, one that you don't know about, remember that even the experts might not know much about it either.

They are amazingly fascinating, and incredible diverse. And I, for one, am incredibly grateful we share the earth with them.'*****

* Not his real name. He deserves it for resembling the real Archbishop of Canterbury and being a softly-spoken evangelist for bugs.
** I wish I could do that to my arch enemy, the bloke at number 32.
*** Royal Entomological Society.
**** Home ed paranoia. You'll need to get used to that.
See why I called him The Bish?

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Rough justice

Mr W. is all 'blahblahblah who wants to friggin' know about your whining Hong Kong life? Why don't you tell people something important? Like what happened to me down the allotment?'

I say yes, alright. I've had enough with my whining as well.

So here's something different.

Mr W. hires a van and drives to the council allotment to fetch his water butt and his wheelbarrow and all his gardening tools.

Don't ask me why. I forget. Maybe he wants to rebuild a scale model of his allotment in his kitchen and call it installation art. I don't know. Anything's possible.

But Mr W. arrives at the allotment and what does he see? Nothing, that's what. His patch of soil is bare. It's been cleared. Of everything. Including the plants.

Mr W. is not the sort of man to clear it already and forget. I would do that. I would forget. I would look at my crusty council soil, scratch my head, then come home and look under the sofa. I would imagine I lent the wheelbarrow to someone, or it would turn up. After a while I would forget that I forgot. Not Mr W. He immediately is on the trail.

He walks around the allotments until he sees Bill (let's call him Bill). Bill's the Big Chief. With his round face, straightforward manner and rolled up shirtsleeves he's been put in charge. He's responsible for keeping everyone else on weed duty, patrolling the communal paths, and tidying up when people leave their allotments for vegetables patches elsewhere. Each week Bill has tea with the little blonde-haired PCSO and her high-pitched laugh, in his shed, when she drops by on her community walk.

Bill looks up, surprised, as Mr W. comes down the path towards him. 'Hello Bill', says Mr W. 'Have you seen my stuff? It's disappeared!'

Bill says 'Nah, nah, not at all mate.' They talk about the weather and what a rotten season it is for cabbages. Just as Mr W. is about to go, he sees through a crack in Bill's shed door, the red handle of a wheelbarrow. Mr W. stops and says, 'Why is my wheelbarrow in your shed?'

Bill's eyes dart right and left. He says, 'Ah! That wheelbarrow! It's yours, is it? Yup. I put it there for safe keeping.'

Safekeeping? asks Mr W. 'I chained it up. Someone cut through the chain with bolt cutters.'

Bill's eyes slide this way and that. He licks the corner of his mouth and rolls up his shirt sleeves, just a little. There's no-one around. He suddenly looks Mr W. straight in the eye, and laughs. He pokes a finger at Mr W.'s chest. He laughs, a big scornful laugh. 'You can't do nothing!' he shouts. 'Nothing!'

If I were Bill, I wouldn't have done that. Mr W. is a big man. Broad in the chest with heavy arms. You can bet those arms could swing a length of industrial metal pipe like it was a feather duster. Mr W. draws back one of his heavy, muscular arms and has a word with Bill.

Bill has no option but to listen to that word. Within a trice he clamps his hand to his face and runs as fast as he can to his shed where he locks himself in and telephones the police.

Mr W. shouts 'Yeah! You do that! And I want no button nosed PCSO either!'

Within a trice the squad cars arrive. 'Four of them!' Mr W. roars in delight. 'Four squad cars just for me!'

So that's as much as I will say. You could play a game called Did the police get it right? What would you do with Bill and Mr W.? Did anyone get a caution? Did anyone get arrested? Did anyone get a night in the cells?

One thing is for sure. It was a much better story to tell than how I decided to pack the white sandals and not the black sandals on the basis that the black ones hurt my big toe.

And I apologise to Mr W. for making free with his story. (But the punching is true.)

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


I am innocently driving the trusty GritMobile to pick up Tiger from the other side of town, when a horrible SCHCHGLMSHKSCH rises from under the bonnet as I lay my foot on the brake pedal.

I do the sensible thing and turn up the volume on Sue so I don't have to hear the horrible SCHCHGLMSHKSCH.

But it is quite insistent.

Hmm. I must think about this. I do not want to put the car in a garage for a day. This morning I calculated exactly how much time I have to organise everything for a smooth departure.

I must keep to the times to pick up Tiger from her windsurfing course at the lake and drop off Shark and Squirrel at their play dates.

And I must budget carefully. I have thought about this as well. I want to fill the car with only enough fuel to last the week. Then, if an insane and blind young man wants to steal the GritMobile while it is tucked in its nest behind closed doors, he will have to fill it with fuel first.

How I have planned ahead!

But the car continues to make that horrible SCHCHGLMSHKSCH.

Less than one week in England! How can I find a garage with a bank holiday weekend looming and us on a flight to Hong Kong? I wonder if I can drive without using the brakes?

I try that.

It is not very successful. My road speed is ten miles an hour and in the rear view mirror I see that I may be the cause of an accident.

So I think about not driving anywhere.

While the car screams SCHCHGLMSHKSCH I calculate the cost of taxis back and forth to the lake, over to a community arts centre on the other side of town, detour to Bletchley Park to drop off the relays, do the chip shop run on Saturday night, then take the hamster to live in the borderlands of Northamptonshire.

Taxis sound expensive to me.

I consider the options.

When I pick up Tiger to drive her home, I observe how we nearly smash into the back of an Audi because now the trusty GritMobile can barely stop. So I say to Tiger - paralyzed with fear at the sound of SCHCHGLMSHKSCH and the approaching Audi brakelights - that I will drive into the local garage to hear what they say. But frankly, I don't expect much when they're closing at 6pm and it's 5.55.

The garage mechanic sees me at the desk and his face falls and he says, 'Oh I remember'. I say, I have had a valet since then. Now it is making a SCHCHGLMSHKSCH sound.

So he rolls the GritMobile on a lift and crawls about underneath to say pads and discs, really bad, really really bad, and he stares at me.

I think, what are my options now, given the fact that I have three kids to get on a plane, I planned the point to a full stop so precisely, with all the stuff where I said 'yes, we'll do that', and I only have a hire car place that I need a car to reach?

He must have seen my face, and maybe he softened since I brought the car in for the MOT. Maybe he thinks how much mould has been steamed cleaned away, and considers how I must love the GritMobile. He says, 'We can do it for you now. Bill's just finished, but he has to stay on for his missus.'

Immediately I say yes. I don't think for one second whether there's enough money left in the bank.

As I drive home with the lovely safe brakes that don't SCHCHGLMSHKSCH each time I lay my foot on the brake pedal, I consider how I have reached that point where I solve difficulties by throwing cash at them, and sort problems in minutes that otherwise would take me months, simply by doing, and not thinking or planning at all.

Maybe I should take that as advice, and try solving a few other life problems that way, too.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

One more time to the woods

I had the question again. A 'Human Resources Manager' who couldn't think how education out of school might function. She feared there were no timetabled hours, no constructed social events, no designated holidays, no planned team-building exercises.

'But how do you make it possible for your children to meet other people?' she asked, and the frown line came down between her brows like a pin.

I wondered if she would think I was being deliberately awkward when I answered, 'Well, today we're meeting at the woods with some other home ed families and the kids play.'

She stared at me a moment, then turned away, as if this was an idea she couldn't take on in the last few days of a busy holiday she'd planned for her family.

We've spent hours at the woods this summer. I've remembered, if I'd forgotten, how we are surrounded by woodland; how much the kids enjoy being here, losing sight of us lumbering adults, skirting danger, tracking back to surprise us, just when we wondered if they were lost. The play takes hours. I never ask what went on.

But because it was almost sure to be our last time this summer, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger asked to stay on, after everyone else went home, to experience those rope swings a few more times.

Of course I said yes, because we don't have a set time for supper, and I enjoy sitting under the trees, watching them sway in the wind, listening to their rattling talk and their creaking laughter.

Monday, 22 August 2011


We are wrapping up England. But we can't take it with us. We can transport only the words, We did that.

The kids wanted their friend Am to sleepover. We did that.

Am came round. The kids did what they wanted to do. They ran around, made pizza, played unicorns in the garden, watched a DVD, fooled about, freaked themselves by conjuring zombies in the dark, laughed long and hard, then at midnight Am laid down, exhausted, on the inflatable mattress in Tiger's room, and blew out like a light.

Her mum Jol came with her; she had a sleepover too. We're both mothers. We dressed in straps, heels, and stuff unwise, found ourselves a bistro, drank too much wine, laughed too loud, screamed in delight at the taboos we could break, said What the hell!, stayed out late, came home by taxi, giggled and tiptoed back into the house at 4am so as not to wake the kids.

We didn't. But I wanted to say, We did that.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

If I sound like an old woman, I probably am one

After years of failing to coordinate ourselves to be in the right place at the right time on this very special weekend, we finally arrive.

We go to a field to watch the dear old reenactors run about dressed in wool and armour, sweating hard to bring to our minds a battle which changed history.

But I'm stopping there to complain. I shall say, I bet most schoolchildren outside of Leicestershire don't know about this battle.

Well, if they don't, they should.

Okay, I am now officially one of those scary old crones smelling of mothballs and wee. The type who wears a feathered hat and blocks your way in the street to harangue you while stabbing at your face with a withered finger.

But what is going on in the history lessons of today? Tell me, is the Battle of Bosworth on the National Curriculum? Or years of Henry VIII and then inexplicably the Second World War? It's shocking. We need to get back to basics. Be quiet. I was on my way to the Post Office but I must say this.

I think the way Henry VIII has dominated the school curriculum says a great deal about our times. Yes, I agree he is probably the most significant king I can think of, but it is not enough simply to be told how someone is important.

You cannot know his significance unless there is some understanding of what went before; what culture and thinking there was guiding the Plantagenets and seeing them through the Wars of the Roses. Then we need to know how Henry Tudor started to change everything when he bashed Richard III at Bosworth. And Henry VIII hasn't even been born yet.

Well of course I have opinions about why Henry VIII is given to children as a model of history, apart from the narratives of religion, sex and violence. (Those same themes are in Mortimer and Isabella, and Stephen and Matilda, but no-one seems to study them.)

I think a telling of Henry VIII presents a story of irrefutable male power in all matters institutional, religious, political and sexual; gives us a straightforward character on which to hang elements of English identity; reaffirms a national and Londoncentric plotline which can be used to reduce the significance of local powers; and creates an easily-themed image of England that is marketable for overseas tourists. Something which you cannot do quickly with the messy plots and duplicitous players cavorting around the shires in the Wars of the Roses.

You school-based people should stop it for a day with the Henry VIII and the Second World War (which I'm sure some kids think happened one after the other), and you should take all the mini-people to a day out at Bosworth Heritage Centre. Walk one of their excellent guided battlefield tours, listen to an informed lecture about the location of the battlefield, see the splendid exhibition, and watch the reenactment, always as close as they can get it, about the third weekend in August.

Right, that's it. Now I have to buy cat food for Tiddles.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

But Miss Marple is sitting in the audience

To my way of thinking, outdoor cinema with its drive-in audience has a USA culture running straight through it. Teenagers, dodgy films, late night passion and shabby shadiness. (Where do I get that from? I don't know, must be the movies.)

But as an idea, outdoor cinema is brilliant, isn't it? Egalitarian, accessible, social. So I love how the English have adopted it, left the American behind, and moulded it for their own.

Here in Milton Keynes, centre of England, as far from the sea as you can get, families and friends unfold their deckchairs, shake out their tartan picnic blankets, wrap warm rugs around their knees, open up a selection of bottles and flasks from beer to cocoa, and prepare their umbrellas.

But of course we don't drop everything American. Not at all. This weekend we're watching E.T., Back to the Future, and South Pacific.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Thanks, Hyundai!

I gave my (ad-free) blog soul to Hyundai today. I had to do it. They waved a family pass for Woburn Safari Park at me. So I considered the alternative - watching my spirit shrink as its owner sank on hands and knees to defrost the freezer - and I agreed. It seemed a fair exchange.

I had to agree to something else too. Shadowing a keeper for the day? suggested Tiger. No Tiger, something even more exciting than shoveling lemur shit and cutting up dead deer.

Driving a Hyundai car. Not any old Hyundai car, like the beat up specimen that lives in our 'hood at 32 Arbuckle Street - the one with dents in the bonnet where the local gangmaster took a hammer to it. No, this is a proper upmarket Hyundai car. The new i40 tourer diesel thingy, available in your showroom from September, from where you can drive to Milan on a single tank of fuel, apparently.

As you can tell, I know nothing about cars.

I am not a car worshipper, am I? You don't get all that 'petrol-sipping, vigorous interior, crisp graphic dash, hydraulically-assisted steering' round here. No. You get the practical horror of rattling several thousand miles around England with three kids in the rear, locked in mortal combat over a rage-fuelled vendetta that started last Monday.

So I started this test-drive experience with kids in a proper spirit of terror. (You should see the Grit Mobile. It needs a valet like the clear-up after the Bosnian War, and it's got no corners.)

The moment I sat in it, I should have backed out. Because it is at that point I realise the godawful truth that in test driving this great Hyundai chunk of metal, it is someone else's chunk of metal and (the awful bit) I have to drive it around a safari park and bring it back with all its corners, lights and wing mirrors intact.

Then Gerald says, Not only that! You must make our metal go past the rhinoceros, and they have a history of taking a dislike to your face, so watch it.

Well, after the terror of sitting in the chunk of metal and making it go had sublimated into shouting at the children to shut up about the bloody windows, reason and thinking started to kick in.

Most importantly, I think someone should tell Hyundai about the handbrake problem and the fact there is no ignition key.

They may not know this. The designers obviously did what they wanted with the look and functionality of this car because they not only made the outside metal very physically curvaceous, they rejigged the inside, and did away with the handbrake.

Be warned. You must press the handbrake button! Do not sit there screaming surrounded by vindictive rhinoceroses while the chunk of metal has stalled, and is now gently rolling backwards. The poor sod of a driver in the vehicle behind is frantically banging his horn and making shock-filled faces at you in the rear view mirror.

But there are so many buttons to choose from!

It was close. They won't be inviting me to test drive their metal again. But I carried on! In the same spirit of fortitude as always!

I only forgot about the handbrake button a few times, and then forgot how to drive altogether because there's no ignition key to turn when it stalls (another button). Then there are buttons in the steering wheel (confusing) and buttons all over the dash (don't look at them). There are buttons for air con settings, buttons for seat positions (up, down, hot, cold). I half expect a button to make the ruddy thing sing the South Korean National Anthem as well.

Some of the gadgetry does help though. A little screen on the dash shows me how cak-handed is my reversing, and the headlights swivel round corners to show your parking space. Gerald made much of the strip lights on the front. He said - with one beady eye on me even before I'd switched the thing on - how daytime lights significantly cut down your daytime accident rate. Ahem.

I merely wonder what is the cost to repair this electronic gadgetry when it all breaks down. I mean, at one time we drove a Ford Galaxy people carrier, and when water hit the electrics, the whole thing went kaput. You would drive along, and the doors would spontaneously lock and unlock a dozen times, and the windows roll down. It even used to do it when no-one sat in it. We'd come out in a morning to find the car unlocked and the tax disc nicked. So, Hyundai, a sensible approach is to know the maintenance cost of your buttons.

On the actual test drive I brought the metal chunk to a shuddering halt maybe two dozen times, so there is definitely something funny going on there, apart from my limited driving skills. (Admittedly I never got into third gear, it was all so scary and button-driven.) Maybe the new i40 requires a confident foot, a widely experienced driver, and a man who likes buttons.

But you are desperate to hear how the children reacted, aren't you?

They hated the Hyundai i40 tourer, and I am being kind. They couldn't see out (rear seats sunk into metal). They couldn't see out (windows smoked). They couldn't see out (she is in my way, it is not fair, I always get the middle seat, there is no space, etc. etc.).

In a consoling voice, Gerald said the kids have ports in the rear to dock ipods and computer gadgets (more buttons).

Sadly, we do not have kids who tour in cars like that. We have kids who want to look out the ruddy windows.

With a note of pleading he adds how the kids can set their own air con temperature. (Oh, innocent child-free man! Imagine the endless fun on a six hour journey to Northumberland!) The main advantage I can see there, is that the boot is very large.

On the other hand, Shark, Squirrel and Tiger could not believe their luck that Hyundai would give them a free safari day pass merely in exchange for a test drive and a post on mama's dodgy blog. So Hyundai score very high on kid delight there. They also, unwittingly, gave us a great lesson on car design, manufacture and marketing.

Quickly then, in conclusion.

What the new Hyundai i40 tourer needs: A bloke (35-years plus), who says, 'I am successful and stable in my important career with my expensive car and impressively fragrant wife, and I have computerised children (only two of them) who do not want to look out of the windows. I play golf and like buttons.'

What the new Hyundai i40 tourer got: Grit (aged 50), who says, 'Good grief where is the sodding handbrake? Why is it all buttons? Shut up SHUT UP about the windows. This car would last five minutes on our street before someone keyed it. Your father will never pay the repair bill on these gadgets. We could keep the rock collection in the boot. Oh my god, I can't see the corners.'

What Hyundai wants: You, to test drive it, then buy it.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Balancing the successes and the failures

I now have so many preparations to make for our too-soon departure to Hong Kong, that I can afford to waste several hours balancing out success vs failure of our few months in England.

(Let us pray when we have done this futile exercise that we reach equilibrium or, better still, are on the up. Otherwise, I fear the worst. In the woods last week my mind could not help but record how the kiddie rope swing had been most effectively mended.)

(Most in worship of a god called Education; obeisance performed while feeling smug and self-satisfied about the raising of outdoorsy children, who neither see broccoli as the devil's nose pickings nor imagine the most fun thing they can do on a Friday night is to smash up the city centre.)

1. Five outdoor adventure holidays taken by three children in lakes, woods, fields. Not a bad rate. My advice is: hold your nerve till the final hour. Some desperate adventure holiday company always does a half-price or kid bogof offer. (But not so useful if the holiday is located in Ullapool while you live in Eastbourne.)

2. St George's Day. And the Festival of History. And lots of castle. I love English Heritage, I do.

3. The Globe. Passion, satisfaction, delight, surprise, perfection.

4. Seeing Richard III at the Old Vic. I must pause to sigh.

5. Making jam, like good mother.

6. Local museums, all over the place. Hmm. Not as many as I would have liked. Saxmundham was my favourite, thanks to Peter with the keys.

7. Happy hour cantering for Tiger.

8. Spending time in Suffolk. Should I count as a success the fact that Big Bro's partner left the house before our arrival so she does not have to clap eyes on me or my foul brood ever again? I have put it in the Success list, anyhow.

9. Illyria Theatre. I include here all workshops, parks events, home ed activities, RSPB kiddie group etc. I could not possibly list them all as individual successes.

10. Northumberland. (And this time, avoiding being stabbed by Arctic Terns.)

11. Staying married.

12. Buying a small piece of vinyl. (I know it does not seem much, and it was the wrong size, but it was a big thing to me.)

13. Halting the ferocious advance of The Ivy. (The plant, not the restaurant.)

14. Visiting the tip with the contents of the house bundled into anonymous plastic bags. Strangely satisfying.

15. Organising and executing a week's tour of the Jurassic coast. With hamster. Without injury, loss, disfigurement, imprisonment, hospitalisation. (Very great success.)

16. Killing 235 moths.


1. Losing the shifty nightingale for which no vengeance is enough. I will trap the little bastard next time, if I have to sit up all night in Bradfield woods to do it.

2. Missing the British Library Science Fiction Exhibition. Don't show me your Martian badge and say in a funny voice while you are pretending to be a Martian, that it was very, very good.

3. Christmas pudding (make it and eat it). Truly, I am sad about this. I really wanted Sarah's Vegan Christmas Pud. And so what if we celebrate Christmas in August?

4. Visiting Dover castle. Big FAIL. Warning: I will make Dover Castle to see the Great Tower by this same time next year, or explode. Fact.

5. Staying over in Nottingham. (Always on the list.) Yes, I know that Nott'm is one of the premier gun cities of England. But we can all laugh together while we watch our innards splattered over the stone lions in the Market Square in a drugs turf war.

You are probably right. A visit here is a misconceived idea. The kids do not want to loll around The Trip before heading off to an evening's mindless criminal damage with a Robin Hood statue, but it was called fun when I grew up.

6. Other sites of visit FAILURE. Cornwall (Squirrel). North Wales (Tiger). Whale-spotting on the west coast (Shark). Salmon watching in Scotland (Shark). Hull, for The Deep (Shark). I harbour a desire for Scilly Isles burial chambers. So basically, everywhere.

7. All school-type work as recognised by most of the population. Handwriting. Spelling. Maths. Etc. Etc. Big Deep Fail with High Probability of Sudden Anxiety Attack at 2am Type of Fail.

8. Admitting to friends, flung about several counties, that we are now in England. Um.

9. Lace making. Long story, slightly embarrassing.

10. Allowing 756 moths to live because they have gone into hiding.

Now, those are the lists that spring to mind, and I have to say, the comparison of success and fail is NOT BAD.

Indeed, I can now say with some confidence that the children may enjoy the rope swing in the woods without first having to cut down mother.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

I have packed!

I read recently a pointless article which suggested women should have no more than thirty outfits a year.

I thought, thirty? That is a joke, surely. Last time I hit Hong Kong for six months I wore four outfits. It shrank to two. I could have got away with one. (Admittedly, the ensemble would have been my bedsheet-shroud, worn in a state called borderline clinical depression.)

But clearly you ladies need my help. You do not need thirty outfits for a year. Have my fantastic rules for capsule dressing. I have gained this knowledge over many years of refusing to travel with more than a cabin bag, regardless of how long I'm going for, plus an incredible self-defeating miserable streak which means I refuse to buy any clothes when I get there!

Ready? These are the key elements in and out of the cabin bag.

1. OUT. All aspirational clothing. Example: Phase Eight fantasy dress. Pale green, floating chiffon, beaded straps. This is a beautiful dress. Under the circumstances, I had to have it. (Circumstances = RSPCA shop, never worn, two pounds, sold to me by an indifferent crusty smelling of cat pee.) In my mind's eye, any man with half a brain would swoon, seeing me dressed in this pastoral idyll. Declaring undying love and offering to marry me on the spot would be a modest step.

Reality? I look like a fifty-year old woman dressed as a pixie.

2. OUT. All control freakery clothing. Example: Jean Paul Gaultier trousers. Soft sueded silk, golden bronze sheen, wide leg, tight on the hips. No, I MUST stand like this so the leg is shown to best effect. DO NOT come any closer with that butter knife. MOVE AWAY so that I can glide forward, at an even pace, to show the fabric movement to best effect. Be quiet. I am STYLE.

After I have crawled up a sweaty Hong Kong hill in 90 degree humidity trailed by three kids while clutching an overfilled sandwich box with tomato pasta leaking down my left leg, pausing only to have a terrified Squirrel climb up my backside thanks to sight of a chihuahua, the JPG trousers will be indistinguishable from a floor cloth. Keep them in the wardrobe. I would rather they were eaten by moths.

3. OUT. Self-improvement clothing. Example: Laura Ashley skirt. Classy simple cut, plain, moss green. Also, button missing, which anyway I couldn't do up because the waistband is too tight. Thinks: When I move into a different country, I will exercise my waist! I will do that each morning before breakfast! Then I will search for and sew on the perfect decorative button!

No I won't. Self improvement is over-rated. Put it in the charity bin bag.

4. OUT. All emotionally charged clothing. Example: Ghost skirt. Black. Bought c. 1983. No, I am never giving this away. I don't care that it is deeply out of fashion, and ain't never coming back on a retro moment. I sewed it up eight times, the waistband has gone saggy and the hem fell off. I have lived, died, joyed and sorrowed in this skirt. Get off it. It is mine. Bury me in it. The scouts will have to prise it from my dead fingers for jumble. I will defeat them. I will eat it before I die. It is staying here in England where I have hidden it for safety.

5. OUT. High maintenance clothing. Example: Brown silk Episode dress. Very very brown. But there are lots of shades of brown, are there not? So this dress requires exactly the right shade of complementary accessories by way of delicate sandals and precision jewellery if its true nature is to be revealed. Do not try and pass it off with cheap white sandals and a plastic handbag. NO WAY.

PS. Also needs: perfect complexion, superior make up, polished nails, effortlessly languid hairstyle (requires two hours each morning to achieve) plus haughty stare. Equates to four hours dressing, plus extra time for practising sulky face repertoire in front of mirror.

Solution: Leave it in England in a cupboard. Here it may spend the painful hours considering the wisdom of its list of demands.

1. IN. Anything dark. Does not show stains, dribble, ketchup, Indian meal, sweat from 32,000 people in Mong Kok street market.

2. IN. Anything old. By the time I have worn it for ten minutes, it will look ancient.

3. IN. Anything shapeless. That way, no one will see how the push up bra fails to push.

4. IN. Anything in stretch fabric. Elastic waists, bits that can be held up with safety pins, hems that can be held aloft by sticky tape. If I grow thin, fat, fat, thin, no matter. I can take that clothing with me.

5. IN. Anything made of fabric which has all the qualities of steel. The ferocious Mrs Chang's Chinese laundry is just down the lane. Her wash cycle is modelled on a blast furnace and her tumble drier was a prototype for the Hadron Collider.

Now ladies, I hope these simple rules are useful when you are considering your capsule wardrobe for any circumstance. As always, you can rely on the supremely organised and well-dressed Grit to see you right.

Having sorted that, here are some pictures of Sparky the hamster. The children observe how couture I am today, and say it will make very little difference if I smuggle her over in my bra.

Monday, 15 August 2011

So there's a lesson

Yesterday I am discovered, by Mick the neighbour. Passing, he glances up at me. I am draped sad and exhausted over a garden wall, pathetically tugging at an ivy trunk as thick as a builder's biceps.

'Do you need any help?' he calls.

Of course I imagine I am very English about this offer of help. I muster up what I think passes as a smile and I whimper, 'That's very kind of you but I'm doing fine'.

I do not know why I say this. I am caked in ivy dust, layered two inches in insect corpse and am a woman in defeat.

But even at this stage it is impossible for me to accept any offer of help. I do not know why. I do not know whether being a home educator is something to do with the mix. We certainly become very self-reliant types. Maybe it is because whatever I need to do, I can usually do it. I have lifted concrete, laid paths, built brick walls, cooked dinners, taught river erosion, painted walls and made clothes. (Sometimes on the same day.) Or perhaps I am so much on my own I just assume I am beyond the point of all help, probably with anything, least of all an ivy tree and a blocked gutter.

Indeed I will have a go at almost anything on the assumption that no-one else is going to do it, so better get on with it. Only electricity defeats me on the grounds that I cannot pick it up and handle it without having my hair stand on end. (Household finance also has the same impact.)

Well today I have my lesson. I am atop the wall again hacking feebly at the embrace of ivy arms, and Mick cycles by, stops his bike, and says, 'I'll be back in five minutes with my big clipper'.

Moments later he returns with he-man clippers and rubber gloves and he's up the ladder and into the gutter with the ivy. Three hours later and we've achieved more than I would singly have done in three months. The devil twine is eliminated from wall, gutter, wood, tile, and flashing, and I need not wake in Hong Kong at 2am worrying about another season's green and woody growth clutching the fabric of my home to slow but inevitable destruction.

I am utterly grateful to Mick, grateful not only for the he-man clippers up the ladder, but for ignoring me a little and bringing his benevolence to my house.

And I am chastened. I am not about to trade in independence and armour for helplessness and vulnerability, but I recognise that it should have limits, this permanent assumption of self-reliance. I should know when to stop and say, Yes, I could do with some help, thanks.

For once, not me up the ladder.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

I have all the help I need, thanks

I am entering a week of mostly domestic labours. I must make the house fit for purpose while we are away. That means, write obsessive notes about the heating systems, install a drainpipe in the kitchen, provide the telephone number for the local police station, and cut back the ivy that is heading its way towards the kitchen window at an alarming rate.

None of this will be any help for the poor sods who must occupy this house while we are away. They will merely look at the boiler suspiciously and wait for the tap to explode, but all my hard work makes me feel better.

However, my labours are made a tad more difficult this week because I have all three children at home.

Recently, I have got away lightly. Squirrel has been on her residential horse week at the local stables; Shark has been throwing herself about tree-tops in Wiltshire with PGL; and Tiger, I am shortly to give away to a lady who lives in a lake. (Okay then, Allie the watersports teacher. Stage II windsurfing course.)

But with one child always away, it has meant a relatively quiet time for me. Twins amuse each other, or they are fuming so hard in mutual telepathic hatred that they separate as far as possible apart. In either case, I have a quiet house.

This week, all three of my lovely kids are together. So I must perform drainpipe fixture and ivy surgery and be a referee.

At this point, please don't say, Grit, ask them to help you!

Having competitive triplets helping out is usually no help at all. My preferred strategy is to manoeuvre them as far away from me as possible, so I have at least a fighting chance of finishing the job I started.

If I don't do this, I find the following happens. Despite the fact that we have an engagingly diverse house with many secret holes and corners where people can hide away, all the kids magically seek each other out and must occupy the exact same space as everyone else.

Worse, at some point, the entire ugly crowd of them will cluster around my parent body. Do you find this? You could have acres, but the offspring will find your old worn out torso, then need to occupy the precise space your bum needs by health and safety legislation to navigate the turning circle in the smallest angle of the entire house, i.e. between the fridge and the washing machine, or the cooker and the chopping board.

So all four of us wedge ourselves there. In a shape roughly 12ins x 12ins. Elbowing each other in the face while I am trying to stick a drain pipe under the boiler.

I will intermittently lose my temper and yell Maths! or Spelling! This ensures everyone suddenly scarpers and everything goes quiet. But it is a temporary solution. Within the hour the magnets in their noses start working again, and they find each other, and me, and come and stand exactly where I am standing with a drainpipe, then they will complain that I am standing in their way.

Well, today I make it hard for them.

I tell everyone we are going to do some maths. Then I quickly climb up this shonky ladder which I have wedged up on a bit of wood in a wobbly yard, and I start wielding a rusty saw and begin a stream of unseemly sweaty cursing.

It is not too long before the fear of maths wears off, and a curious child wanders into view.

She asks what I am doing up a ladder swearing into the street while waving a saw menacingly at the neighbours.

Personally, I think it is obvious. This machine is going at full pelt ...

... and there is a lot less of this stuff crawling all over the garage.

Then she asks, is there anything she can do? After ten minutes lengthy instruction while I become irritable because there are only two buttons on the shredder and I promise it will not electrocute anyone, she begins to feed into it ivy strands at a snail's rate of one twig every five minutes.

Then the other two appear. One starts complaining that I am in her way because she wants to play where my ladder stands, and the other starts up a campaign for ivy rights. Within minutes they have the bright idea of taking the sawn branches off me to build unicorn hatching grounds all over the garden table, thus creating a second domestic labour for later. That one will be much harder because I will have to fight the wretched unicorns for the ivy and then try and put it into the shredder in secret. Not possible.

So this will go on. All week. Drainpipes, gutter, ivy, floorboard, you name it. Help. That's all I can say. Help.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Walking the Ridgeway

I want to walk the Ridgeway before I die. From end to end.

Where should I leave the little grits while I walk the week? Maybe I could give them away? How about various adventure holidays?

They would never want to go on the same week.

Perhaps they would walk with me?

I bet, after the first hour, Tiger would be all, How far do we have to go? and How many days?

Maybe I could leave them in Hong Kong, and sneak back here? No-one would notice I'm gone.

Or Dig could look after them! They could feast on raw potatoes. Again.

I must walk here because the chalk landscape - from White Horse Hill, round Dragon Hill, to Wayland's Smithy, is so beautiful I fall in love with it.

So I'll walk the whole. Until then, photos from the tiny slice we see today.

Oh I'd like this comfortable feeling - all pastoral historic romantic where my feet are lost in earth and my heart gone to cloud - yes, I'd like it very much, because a half hour of spiritual repose with a pretty landscape is as close to comfort as an old hippie's going to get.

But it's not going to happen, is it? It can't ever happen. Because the hard miserable grit of reality always intrudes on tranquility to make a grand depressive moment.

Which means I spent some of my time on the Ridgeway in a fight with a dog owner.

First, let me say, most of you dog owners are sensitive to these signs, and to me and mine. For which I thank you! You keep your dogs on leads or see the impact you have and keep Fido under clear control! I can see that! Country code, social responsibility, awareness of others, etc. etc. Truly. From my heart. Thank you. You have no idea what help you are. Because with my dog-phobic tribe I can reason. I can say, Look at the owner, not the dog. Do they look in control of their pet? Do they look as if they care?

But there is always one dog owner who couldn't give a toss. They stride past the 10,000 signs. Maybe they're the same person who has no voice control over their animal either, and probably thinks the signs don't relate to them, but no-one can possibly mind, because Fido wouldn't harm a fly.

Well, even there I'll give the benefit, because ignoring the rules has to be okay sometimes. And I sort of expect it from the English, with their strange subservience to rules at odds with their bolshy independent streaks.

I'd go so far as to argue how this rule-breaking behaviour is sometimes necessary. What about the Ramblers? And without the hunt saboteurs the hunting debate wouldn't have moved much. So yes, of course there is a place for poking at the status quo.

But please do it consciously - because you know what you do, want to have an impact, change the way we accept the world, push the culture on.

So what does the rule-breaking dog owner achieve today?

I have Squirrel, barely able to breathe as she flips into panic at Monster Dog hurtling straight for her; she's clinging onto my arm and sinking us both into an iron age ditch like death is nigh. And here we are on one of the most beautiful sites in all England.

I could fucking weep.

As I yell back about the dog control, yes, in a stock grazing area, after I just reassured my children, it will be okay, there are signs, and now my daughter is knee buckled in sheep shit and fear, what then for the willfully ignorant owner who watches this display of human fear and shouts back, What's the problem? He's not bothering the sheep!


Reader, words were exchanged.

Just let us pause and be grateful that the family I married into have influenced me. My sister-in-law was raised by Quakers.

So, apart from that moment, the Ridgeway is beautiful. One day I shall walk it. Where should I leave the children?

Friday, 12 August 2011

Gentle days

It is a gentle August here, is it not? Mostly house-related and moth-obsessed.

I think this is normal for home educating types. We tend to avoid the peak season crowds of visitor attractions, the endless queues, huge motorway swells of holiday times. We wait until the schools go back. If you leave school behind come September, that's one of the first delights you'll know: freedom of space to move.

For me, it's an August of less dashing about England, much less than I anticipated, even in these final days, when I feel time run out. The children have asked to stay close to home for gardens, and toys, and books. Everyone's aware that soon enough, it all changes.

But since I am providing not much by way of amusement/education for the little grits over this long summer - except to ominously rattle an IGCSE exam syllabus in Geography in their direction - I take Tiger and Squirrel to the woods. Here they can fool about in trees and do stuff with ropes.

It leaves me free to wander off and photograph the ground.

As you can see, I take simple pleasures and am easy to keep content.

Shark is away all this week with PGL. Strange, I haven't missed her at all. With twins, the house falls quiet and I can crawl about the carpets with more ease when fewer people stand on them. Anyway, PGL are better parents than me, because they feed her pudding and are enthusiastic about zip wires.

I feel a little guilty about that last bit, so I tell Tiger and Squirrel that their rope swings are the best. And back at home, serve plum and cinnamon crumble.