Saturday, April 5, 2014

Off to Uni

One of the pleasures of being a mum of a teenager is the University Open Day.

In the autumn we set off at the crack of dawn for our first day out at the University of Bath. We both liked it, but Bath is a campus university, located out of town, and dissected by its very own 1970’s concrete self-contained shopping precinct.  The teenager’s chosen field of study, we were told, was well over-subscribed.  The entry requirements are high and Bath can afford to be picky. There was a sharp, disapproving  intake of breath when we mentioned the teenager's US education to the Admissions Officer. Therefore, we cast our eyes further afield and the following week we set out for Bristol.

Bristol. Yes, this the place to be. The teenager fell in love with it immediately.  We spent more time admiring the Gothic architecture of the city centre than worrying about the course content. And why not? If you are going to have to live somewhere for 3 years then you may as well live somewhere you like.

We toured the accommodation blocks, some way out of town, some in the thick of the city centre. You want night clubs, one the student guide told us, then this is the place to be. The teenager nearly moved herself in on the spot.

Two more open days followed, both in London.  The husband and I had already decided to steer the teenager in a westerly direction after three years of heavily subsidising daughter No 1 in the capital. Fortunately, we need not have worried. Nothing, it seemed, compared to Bristol.

Last week we were back in Bristol again.  An offer of a place now secured, the teenager was invited to a taster day, further encouragement – not that she needs it – to name Bristol as her first choice.

While the teenager went off to sample lectures, we parents were plied with free tea and coffee and expected to mingle.  This doesn’t happen of course, because we’re British. However, these occasions are always interesting from an observation/researching the next novel point of view – there’s always the Ab Fab type mum, more trendy than her daughter, parents who seem even more addicted to their techno toys than their offspring and the couple arguing over the parking metre expiry situation and inevitably heading for a divorce. 

At the end of the afternoon the teenager was scheduled on a lab tour.  As it was late in the day, and the Bristol traffic is notoriously bad, everyone else in her group had already departed, so I was invited to go along.

We were met by a post-grad student eager to demonstrate the wonders of his electro something or other research into brain responses.  He had rigged up an experiment and sat the teenager in front of his computer monitor with a simple instruction to press a clicker at certain sounds.  This she duly did.

‘Let your mum have a go,’ post-grad student said, obviously needing more than one example to prove/disprove whatever theory he was working on.

I’m not sure how many years he’d spent on his research but the teenager and I are apparently a psychological phenomenon.

‘It must be genetic..’ he said with a baffled expression on his face.

Apparently our responses to the experiment were not the norm…in fact the only other participants, he informed us, to have achieved the same results were all American….

Two years on and it seems the US psyche is still embedded in our soul. We left him perplexed, and re-writing his project parametres….

Meanwhile, although the teenager's brain may well have remained in California, her heart is still quite firmly set on Bristol.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Out to Lunch

A restaurant review.

What do you buy the man who has everything?

It's a dilemma, especially as I am currently a woman of no-independent-means. Whatever present I bought my other half for his 50th, it was not going to be a surprise as he would inevitably end up footing the credit card bill.

I decided to take him out to lunch, on the premise that if he’d already consumed/ enjoyed his present, he’d be more than happy to pay for it himself.

He’s a bit of a foodie, and his current favourite is Michel Roux jnr. No gimmicks, just down to earth (?) cooking with a Gallic twist.

I googled Michel Roux jnr, along with several other celebrity chefs with restaurants in London and decided that his set lunch menu was (a) affordable, and (b) edible.  No point paying good money for something neither of us would want to eat. 

I read the reviews on Trip Adviser and Top Table and it all looked good. Three course, a glass of champagne, coffee and petit fours all for £36.50. Compared to the some of the others I looked at that wasn’t too bad at all. I noted the comments about the smallish portions, but that’s nouveau cuisine. I’m always the first one to bang on about oversized portions and wastage, (although to be on the safe side I decided not to skip breakfast).

I had chosen the Landau located in the Langham Hotel, just off Regent Street and opposite BBC Broadcasting House. My husband had never seen Broadcasting House before and insisted we hang around outside in the hope of spotting someone famous. We loitered for ten minutes as a woman emerged  surrounded by waiting photographers and autograph hunters.  Neither of us had any idea who she was. It was just like LA all over again…. My lack of celebrity knowledge is a serious let-down.

We crossed the road to the discreet (blink and you’ll miss it) entrance of the Landau. We were greeted and seated immediately, our jackets taken, our napkins unfolded and placed on our knees. We were handed menu’s, invited to enjoy our champagne. From start to finish the service was impeccable. Not rushed, not delayed.  We were offered bread, served appetisers. There was a choice of three dishes for both the starter and the main. I had fish, followed by fish. He had meat, followed by meat. He left to visit the cloakroom, his napkin was whipped from his chair and re-folded in readiness for his return.

We had dessert, coffee and a platter of petit fours - decorated  with a birthday message as I had commented on the on-line booking form that it was his special day. It was  a small but personal  touch that was very much appreciated. 

I couldn't fault it and fortunately neither could he.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Happy Now?

According to a study – and I read about this in The Times so it must be true – women are at their happiest in their fifties.

Last year, when I was still 49, the dental receptionist commented on my approaching ‘big’ birthday – which I was then dreading - and told me it was the best thing that happened to her.

‘You can get away with anything once you get to 50,’ she said.

Taking her advice I planned a birthday party – I hadn’t had a party that was just all about me for years (in fact since my 18th) so I thought, why not? I insisted on fancy dress, gave my night an 80’s theme, and thought what the heck – go for it.  I invited everyone I’d ever met and had a great time.  Not sure what everyone else thought, but well, I was 50. Who cares?

And that’s probably the reason why women in their 50’s are at their happiest. They’ve stopped giving a toss.  They’ve stopped worrying about body hang-ups because well, everything has already ‘peaked’. It will only get worse. They’ve stopped worrying about  keeping everyone happy because, after 50 years of trying, they finally realise they can’t.

Life is too short. Each day becomes more precious, and should be filled with doing something you want to do, rather than something you have to do, or feel you should be doing.  If the husband can’t cook his own dinner, then it’s about time he learned.  If the kids can’t work out how the hoover works, so what, it’s their room that stays messy, not yours. That’s the attitude you reach at 50. 

The empty nest - or nearly empty nest - is not to be dreaded, but embraced.  It’s ‘me time’ - an alien concept when so much of your life revolves around looking after other people and ‘servicing’ their needs. I remember when even snatching 5 minutes to read a book was a sheer luxury – I never thought that I could perhaps, if I planned my routine carefully and a kept a couple of hours a day clear ‘just for me’, find the time to attempt to write my own book….

Men have a ‘mid-life’ crisis, desperate to recapture their lost youth. Where’s the Ferrari? The blonde half their age, the Harley Davidson? I don’t think women want to recapture their youth – awkward moments hoping for a date at the school disco, stressing over exams followed by sleepless nights, changing nappies and the dread of children’s birthday parties? No thank you - that's the last place I want to go back to.

My other half has just celebrated his half century at our local Chinese Disco (rather bizarrely we have one of these in our village). The Teenager came with us and afterwards expressed her surprise at how much fun  ‘old people’ had when they went out.  

Us oldies have nothing to prove and no-one to impress. If I’m in the mood for dancing to the Nolans and reaching for the stars with S Club 7 then so be it. The dental receptionist was right, at 50, you really can get away with anything. Just do what makes you happy.

the old folks do know how to party after all...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


When we arrived back in the UK 18 months ago and moved into our new house, we realised we had accumulated a lot of stuff.

We had shipped home the contents of a spacious three bedroom apartment, plus we’d kept a UK flat containing the ‘basics’. The new house became home to two sets of everything.  One year on and daughter no 1 graduated and returned home, albeit briefly, with several boxes of possessions acquired as a student, and then the husband finished his stint in Saudi and another overseas consignment arrived, containing yet more stuff.

I’ve realised I’m not so much living in a house as a three storey storage unit with a kitchen and a bathroom.

A few years back I was a great fan of that programme ‘Life Laundry’.  I’ve always been quite good at de-cluttering, trying not become too sentimental about inanimate objects, and encouraging the others around me to 'let go'.

With my other half now home and relatively quiet on the work front, we decided it would be a good time to finally put our stamp on the new house and decorate. What better opportunity, as each room is emptied for painting, than to de-clutter.

I don’t need four cut-glass fruit bowls. I rarely entertain.  Nostalgia has its place, but the chipped Grecian urn bought many moons ago on a package holiday to Rhodes has probably had its day. As with clothes, the fashion, and passion, for kitchenware and ornaments change. It’s time to be out the old, and not necessarily, in with the new.

I have every intention of downsizing in the not too distant future, so it’s off to the charity shop with several bags of belongings.  Old furnishings, Jigsaw puzzles, boardgames – why am I keeping them? Trivial Pursuit anyone? No, I didn’t think so.

Perhaps it’s the arrival of the spring sunshine but I’ve also felt the need to rejuvenate colour schemes, plump up cushions and re-arrange a few pictures around the house.

‘You wouldn’t know I lived here,’ the teenager complained when she noticed her photograph had been removed from the mantelpiece.  (One look upstairs and there is no doubt we still have a teenager living in the house).  Despite the fact that there is very fetching picture of her on a nearby windowsill, and another on the bookcase, a photo on the mantelpiece is apparently the ultimate accolade.

As for the bookcase, do we actually need books any more now that we’ve all evolved onto the Kindle? Should I de-clutter my bookcase, throw out all those much loved favourites now that I have the ability to download everything?  Now that’s a tricky one. Maybe there are some things that are still sacrosanct after all.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Gone Girl

We all have to learn to take criticism.  I’m a Virgo which means I take it quite badly. However, in the writing game you have to learn to take your knocks – and your rejections – and pick yourself up again.  We all know the story of JK Rowling and how many publishers are now kicking themselves because they turned down her first story about Harry Potter…

So, when my tutor gives me advice, I generally take it.  We are constantly told to ‘show’ not tell, leave the reader guessing, allow them to use their imagination to fill in the gaps. This directly contravenes with ‘too many questions unanswered’ – another one of my tutor's favourites, presumably when I have taken the first piece of advice too far.

People think writing is easy, and it isn’t. It’s a skill, it’s a craft.  You have to hook your reader, keep them guessing, then give them a satisfactory finish. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was (apparently) the book of last summer.  It’s not an easy read, but I persevered only to be rewarded with the crappiest ending ever. Having stuck with the two obnoxious antagonists over many chapters I felt I deserved something better - one of them at least should have got their come-uppance (and it's not very often I'm on the side of an adulterous husband....).  I felt the author had copped out and I felt cheated.

Last term my tutor told me I’d ‘cheated’ the reader out of a proper ending on a 900 word short story because it didn’t have a definite ‘conclusion’, I re-wrote it.  I understand that Gillian Flynn has now done the same for the film version of her book. Shame no-one suggested it earlier.  I'm usually the first one up in arms when a story is changed beyond recognition to satisfy Hollywood. As far as I can see in Gone Girl's case it can only be a good thing!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

War Horse

Some people resort to Amazon and Trip Advisor to let loose their amateur feature writing skills.  I want a quick review of a book and I get a 1000 word synopsis.  All I really need to know is did the reader enjoy it and would they recommend it. Likewise hotels.

We all really want to write for the Sunday Times Travel supplement, but alas, we can’t. Sometimes we have to make do with blogs.

Today, I’d like to be a theatre critic.

Back in the Autumn I’d been given theatre vouchers as a birthday treat. The husband isn’t a great one for the theatre, so I was determined to spend them wisely. At least I would have the consolation of knowing that if he was going to nod off, as has been known in the past, it wouldn’t be my money he was wasting.

Months ago (and just as well as the show is now sold-out) I used my vouchers to book two tickets to see the National Theatre’s production of War Horse at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton.

I could tell he was apprehensive –  was it a musical? I assured him it wasn’t. Would there be dancing? I highly doubted it. Was it a comedy? In a story about the Great War - unlikely.

Having been advised it was helpful to know the plot beforehand, he quickly Googled the book.
‘There’s an awful lot of characters…..’ he warned me.

It's true. I’ve never seen a play with such a large cast. At least the Mayflower has a big stage, and it certainly needed it with galloping horses, tanks, and field guns.

The puppetry was – to coin one of my (least) favourite Americanisms – awesome. For anyone who has no idea what I’m talking about, the two full-size horses in the show are operated by teams of actors.  The co-ordination of the mechanics, atmosphere and creativity that went into the whole performance was stunning.

The basic premise of the story – boy meets horse, loses horse and finds it again is played out against the brutal backdrop of the First World War, which is of course very topical, and perhaps even more poignant in this centenary year.

War Horse is clever, emotionally charged and thought provoking, yet at the same time, very entertaining.  If I had one criticism - and it would be very petty - it would have to be the accents.  I know the farm boy was meant to be from Devon but did he have to sound quite so much like a Wurzel?  Yes I enjoyed it, and yes, I’d thoroughly recommended it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Starting Over...(again)

I woke up this morning and decided to start blogging again.

I’m not quite sure why it fell by the wayside. I’ve hardly been busy – but perhaps that was the problem. Not enough to write about.

It’s all right harping on about the challenges of being an ex-ex-pat but eighteen months on and it's as if I’d never been away.  There's nothing surreal about shopping in Tesco and bumping into people I’d known at secondary school.

My creative writing tutor says we all need a ‘writers’ platform, where we can boast about our successes and promote our work.  We need to blog, tweet, and brag about ourselves on Facebook. I’m self-effacing so that type of thing doesn’t sit comfortably with me, but having finally had a short story ‘accepted’ by a magazine - albeit it a local free one (and the story is on hold until later in the year) – I probably do need to start getting myself out there again.  

So, six months on from my last post, where I am? Adjusting.  The husband has returned home so we’ve progressed from me, the cat and a teenager, to a household of four. It’s amazing the additional amount of housework one extra creates -  and a routine again as well. He wants proper meals – none of that oh we’ll have scrambled egg on toast tonight in front of the TV I could get away before.

The teenager is also now 18, a fully qualified driver and less teenager and more young adult – although one look in her room confirms the teenage status. Keep the door shut on it all the parenting books tell you, so I do.

Daughter No 1 graduated and is working abroad.  We’ve obviously given her the taste for the travel bug.  She is also a blogger – probably another incentive to take it up again (a little competition is always a good thing).  She has moved to Asia, where she is embracing a celebrity lifestyle as something of a novelty – a blonde in Beijing.

 I hit the half century – a depressing day brightened considerably by an early morning flight to Rome and a wonderful week’s holiday in Italy – which I could have written numerous travel blogs about, and probably should have done, although it’s a bit late now.

The weight gained from seven solid days of pasta has refused to come off, despite lengthy walks – currently in waders and wellingtons along the river.  I had hoped this weight increase could be blamed on muscle from increased sessions at the gym, but a diagnosis of high cholesterol at my over 50’s health check put paid to that. Too much cheese, wine and yoghurt apparently (I thought yoghurt was good for you?)

Anyway, life isn’t so bad on the downhill slope.  I’ve decided not to hurtle, but to gently slalom. I can’t put off the ageing process so I might as well enjoy it. At least I can finally put my ‘senior moments’ down to just that.

One picture of Italy - more may follow