Looking Back (and in doing so, climbing out of a rut)

I can’t pretend I’ve been posting on here regularly. But I promise, promise, promise I’ve been writing. I just – and prepare yourself for an excuse here – since starting my new job I haven’t found or made time to go back and edit to a point where I’m happy to post. So I’m going to bite the bullet and post one of the things I’ve written in the past three months without proof-reading it. This means there could be grammatical errors, poorly phrased sentences or other imperfections of a first draft. It also means any references to timings are likely to be well and truly skewed given I’m posting weeks after writing and in a different year. But I want to climb out of this post-less rut, and start writing again. Shamefully aware of the hypocrisy this paragraph is submerged in given my own persnicketiness about grammar, spelling and, only to a very slightly lesser degree, quality of writing, I can only hope that you won’t judge me too harshly.

***

Today was the first I heard about the Duchess of Cambridge’s latest pregnancy. While I wish her and Prince William all the best for the coming months – and years for that matter – the pregnancy of a woman I’ve never met can only ever have a limited impact on me. Someone asked me recently whether I thought I’d had a good childhood. My childhood very definitely had an enormous impact on me, as it I imagine it does on every adult[i]. I told her what I tell you now: I had an idyllic childhood. My family has, as everyone’s has, had its share of difficulties, but I was fortunate enough that all of them occurred once I was well and truly into my teenage years. I can only hope and wish that my children, should I ever have any, have a childhood as happy as mine.

I doubt it will come a surprise to anyone when I say that there is a lot of negativity in the world. Yesterday I was nominated on Facebook to list three positive things about my day for five days running. I quite like this idea – it’s something I did myself, privately, earlier this year, both in linguistic and photographic guises, but never publically. Today is day two, and I will admit that at 8pm today I was struggling to come up with my positive things. But it’s amazing what relaxing with a glass of lovely wine (Brown Brothers’ 18-Eighty Nine Tasmanian Sauvignon Blanc 2013 if you’re wondering), watching a repeat of 8 Out of 10 Cats Uncut, and pondering what to write about for my next blog post can do. What it has in fact done, is:

  1. Made me laugh out loud multiple times, because Susan Calman is just brilliant regardless of whether she’s on Radio 4 or Dave (and the others aren’t too bad either)
  2. Made me want to bake; it happens to be referencing both Dr Who and my favourite series of The Great British Bake Off.[ii] Yes, I have a favourite series[iii]: series 3 from 2012, won by John Whaite if you’re curious.
    I remember curling up on the lovely leather sofa in our old house with my mum during the final, genuinely and honestly holding hands, both as tense as violin strings, praying to a God we don’t believe in that Brendan wouldn’t win (sorry Brendan, but it’s true.)

This memory then made me remember the conversation on Saturday about my idyllic childhood, and to counter just a little of the negativity in the world, I thought I’d share some of that conversation here. There isn’t much in the way of structure about to follow, nor any particular purpose; just flashes of memory from the time between 1989 and this one.
(Note: for those who don’t know, I have a younger brother three and a half years younger than me.)

So here goes: what do I remember?

I remember family holidays, some in detail and some only in flashes: building train tracks in France where there were horrible spiders in the loo and my brother left either Annie or Clarabel behind; wearing my denim sunhat with a sunflower on, looking at duck eggs in a nest by the pond in the garden of our rented house; jumping up to catch the freebies tossed out by the vans following the Tour de France when we went to watch Chris Boardman whizz past in a blur of yellow; eating couscous and steamed veg with cheese on camping holidays, discovering natural hot springs with my brother whilst exploring in Spain, Dad crawling under the camper with a hammer to hit the starter motor and get it going, and playing whist and cribbage in the awning.

I remember graduating from Junior Scrabble (complete with illustrations of a dripping tap and a tyre that sit peculiarly vividly in my memory) to grown-up Scrabble, where Dad took so long we actually started to use the timer that came with our Scrabble set, and we were encouraged to look up words in the dictionary to improve our vocabularies. I also remember playing Cluedo, both junior and full-blown, the Harry Potter game (awful) and Scilly Gold (bizarrely complicated), Careers (like Monopoly but with university and work instead of properties, where Mayfair becomes an Engineering Degree that allowed you to go Uranium Prospecting) and Masterpiece.

I remember going to into work with Dad, getting dressed up in my tartan skirt and red Scottie-dog-adorned jumper for my trip to the BBC. I remember playing computer games from a floppy disc called ‘Lunchbox’ that Mum brought home from work. The many, many boxes of conkers that we collected with Dad from Twickenham Green after school, and the poor man finally having to tell us they were being thrown away – there was almost more mould than conker. I remember the cutting and sticking box my parents kept for us to ‘make things’ (which I know included countless homes for my Teddy), as well as cutting up my Dad’s sweatshirt with my brother to make him cuddly toy Pokémon (what’s the plural of ‘Pokémon’? I’m hoping it’s ‘Pokémon’ just as the plurals of ‘sheep’ and ‘fish’ are ‘sheep’ and ‘fish’) – namely Charmander and Primape.

I remember the huge paper sleigh we made at school one Christmas being pinned to the wall in our first proper family house, the little wooden boat I made with Dad when I was about five or six, and the costumes Mum made me for school productions of everything from Twelfth Night (I was the fairy Peaseblossom) to silver-clad Millie Enium in year six.

The countless birthday cakes my mother baked for us. The few that stick out in my mind are the yellow chick I wanted (no idea how old), a white chocolate cricket ball and following year cricket bat for my brother, the blue teddy bear that she worried so much about outlining in black, the Thomas the Tank Engine made for my brother’s (first?) birthday, the turquoise and purple flower for a 70s themed 14thty, the chocolate cake for my 18th complete with ladybirds, frogs and edible glitter, and the starburst cake, with sparkles and sparklers for my 21st.

The first bunch of flowers I was ever given, from my dad on my 13th birthday. He had to work an early shift on the day – a school day – and left them by my breakfast plate.

The fact that the table was set for breakfast by the time I came down in the morning, just about every day of my years at secondary school. Given that both of my parents have worked all my life until I left home, this is all the more impressive. Added to this, Dad used to slice every bagel before freezing them, making countless breakfasts that much easier. The value of this will only be truly understood by those who have attempted to cut a frozen bagel in half (not recommended if you value your fingers), or worse, attempted to defrost a bagel in the microwave (resulting in a bagel-shaped brick)

I remember birthday parties, from being tiny at Heathrow Gym (from where my overriding memory is Susannah screaming when she caught her toenail in the trampoline), to being a teenager and having a roller blading party where the ‘cool kids’ at school were actually scared of Mum when she confiscated their potato guns (these kids weren’t even scared of our teacher!) I remember helping Dad umpire for my brother’s birthday, when my parents put on cricket or football tournaments for him and his friends. I remember one of his friends crying when he lost at pass the parcel. I remember Mum unfolding what seemed like hundreds of birthday lunchboxes (the cardboard kind, designed to look like treasure chests or similar) to cater for birthday guests, and insisting on making all the sandwiches with half white, half brown bread because kids and adults simply couldn’t agree.

The Halloween parties, complete with costumes, apple bobbing, and decorations including, a cardboard skeleton I made with one of my au pairs. My parents arranged games, including the flour game (a sweet in the bottom of a bowl then filled with flour, packed down and left for a couple of days. Once it’s turned out, the kids have to slowly carve the mound of flour into a tall thin sweet-topped tower using a normal dinner knife. The person who knocks over the flour has to fish the sweet out with their teeth, thus getting a face-full of flour. Hilarious.) and the chocolate game (a large bar of chocolate is in the middle of the circle of kids, next to a knife and fork, a pair of gloves, a hat, scarf and any other random clothes you want to use. One child is armed with two dice, and they take turns round the circle rolling the dice. When you roll a double six, the others keep on rolling while you have to put on the clothes and use the knife and fork to eat as much chocolate as you can until the next person rolls a double six.) Mum once served baked beans – spiked with sterilised plastic spiders and eye balls – out of an old, cast-iron cooking pot that I to this day consider to be a cauldron. These were spooned over baked potatoes by Mum, dressed as a witch, while Dad saw to drinks as our butler dressed in black tie.

Christmasses, unwrapping presents from my stocking, knitted by my Grandmother including my name in the design. When I was small, Mum used to make stunning Christmas cakes with homemade, hand-painted ivy and poinsettia made entirely of sugar. I remember helping peel sprouts on Christmas Eve and mixing garlic and herb butter (though to be fair we do that every year). Dad sometimes had to work early shifts on Christmas, and I remember waiting eagerly for him to get home from work to say happy Christmas, show him what I’d got in my stocking and, of course, to eat. I remember playing board games with Mum’s family, Monopoly becoming infinitely more challenging when my (allegedly) forgetful grandmother muddled the bank’s money with her own. I remember making vinegar and baking powder rockets on Christmas Day on the playing fields with mum, dad, my brother, with my Dad’s sister, her husband and my little cousin.

I remember vaguely making a snowman at my grandparents’, though I was so young I admit I don’t remember much of it. More vividly, I remember the Turkish delight Grandma always had in a silver dish in the sitting room of their bungalow where we sat and watched Mary Poppins, and boiled sweets in the glove compartment of the car. I remember Grandad tying the sofa cushions firmly around my brother and me so that we could attack each other with plastic golf clubs, and Grandma coming into our room late at night to rewind the blue and white plate with a musical windmill that we listened to until we fell asleep in our bunk beds. I remember waking to the hoot of wood pigeons, and flying kites at Ferry Meadows near Peterborough, where many years later my grandfather’s ashes were scattered. It was also at Ferry Meadows that Grandma and I collected feathers around the lake to later turn into a picture of a swan. I remember sitting in bed with my brother, curled up under the duvet while my other Grandmother read Four Seasons at Brambley Hedge to us, or recited poems about sponges (who very much disliked being pronged with cruel prongs) and earwigs (who crawl inside your ears, and stay in there for years and years.) I remember insisting holding the lead for her lovely golden Labrador Zach, no matter how many times I fell over doing so. I remember her teaching me how to hold a golf club, and the wood and putter I got given for my birthday, complete with cut down handles and pretty green grip tape. Grandma made – and still makes – incredibly meringues, and I ate so very many after knitting with her to make an apron for my Teddy to go over the dress mum’s mum had knitted. I remember her partner, whom we called Jimbo, lovingly teasing me about my preference for plain, unbuttered bread (fresh – she makes it herself) and tap water – I was always a difficult guest to cater for.

I don’t remember my parents’ being away particularly, but I do remember Dad bringing back the radio cart from Atlanta that my friends and I used every year for annual Summer picnics. I remember going to meet my mum at the airport, and rummaging through her suitcase for presents, from carved wooden warthogs from Kenya to Mexican marble wind chimes shaped like cacti. Pretty much every country Mum went to, she brought me back a lapel pin for that country’s flag. This has become somewhat of a tradition for me, and I now buy flag lapel pins for every country I visit.

I could go on, but this is already the better part of four A4 pages long and my childhood was rather longer than that. I have also already used the words ‘I remember’ far more than should be acceptable, but I don’t care. I love these memories, as well as many I haven’t described. I could not be more grateful for the childhood my parents gave me, and to get briefly soppy, I love them both so much for it.

My lovely family on my little brother's graduation day

My wonderful family on my little brother’s graduation day

[i] Possibly the first time I’ve described myself as an ‘adult’. Quite proud.

[iii] So far.

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