Monday, November 22, 2010

In defence of the Emerald Isle

We'd been in Ireland about a month when someone (the lovely MD of Penguin Ireland, to give him full credit), told me the truest thing I ever learned about Ireland. 'The thing is', he said,'the Irish feel a far greater sense of kinship to the English than the English do in reverse'.

Three years living in Ireland taught me nothing more useful.The Irish have generations-worth of layers of familiarity with Britain, be it involuntary or (a consequence of emigration) voluntary. The Irish husband of an American friend told me that, in his primary school in the Eighties, his class of 30 were asked to put up their hands if anyone had an aunt or uncle living in the UK or the USA. Every hand in the room shot up. This would have been an unthinkable phenomenon in Eighties Britain.

How this familiarity translates into everyday life is as follows. Many Irishmen (and women) actively support Premier League teams (though I've yet to meet any Vauxhall Conference die-hards). BBC programmes are watched interchangeably, if not more frequently, than RTE ones - when we were in Dublin, there was genuine outrage and consternation about the migration of the BBC to an all-digital service, which would mean that the Irish would have to start paying for the BBC rather than picking it up via the English transmitters.
Everybody you meet has been to England, usually to visit relatives/close friends and often for a few years. The Guardian was cheaper for me to buy in Ireland than in England (go figure) - and available everywhere the Irish Times was sold.

At the same time, Ireland's got its own thing going on. It most definitely isn't an outpost of England (when I commented once that, with all the consumption of British media, it was as if we were standing on the edge of Ireland leaning towards the UK, an Irish friend said, 'just don't start referring to Britain as 'the mainland'. Noted).

I said it when we lived there, and, eight months out, I stand by it; Ireland's an amazing place for a holiday, but as a place to live, you really need to be Irish. In many ways, and oddly for a country with such deep roots, it's still finding its feet, and the Celtic Tiger mess is that of a teenager let loose with a credit card.
Religion, despite a generation that claims to be beyond it, is still pervasive (just try getting your unchristened kid into school, even Protestant school). Family ties are strong in an utterly exemplary way; but that makes it harder to belong if you're not part of an Irish family.
Then there's the preventative layer of the language; both Gaelige, which still sounds like someone talking through a mouthful of Jameson's however long I twist and turn with it, and the Hiberno-English vernacular, which is glorious, but takes a while to come to terms with. 'The day that's in it'; 'the guts of a week'; 'messages' and 'press' and the difference between 'your man', 'your one' and 'yer wan' - don't try and emulate it if you're an outsider. You won't get it right.

I left Dublin before things got truly bad and for entirely personal reasons; simply put, our roots are in England, and a sum total of seven years abroad felt like enough. Given our utter lack of regret at leaving Ireland, I've been taken aback at just how protective I feel of the view of the Irish as reported in the British media currently. The English just don't care about the myriad differences between themselves and their country cousins. If they think of them at all, it's in cliches.

Still; all the front pages depicting Ballymun slums and piebald ponies; the co-opting of Michael Flatley as spokesperson for Question Time (not yet, but surely only a matter of time); the fundamental indignation that Britain's helping to bail out Ireland, a Eurozone country; it all speaks to one, slightly sad, truth.
Namely: though a strong percentage of the Irish people could take Britain as a Chosen Specialised Subject on 'Mastermind' and ace it, the odds are that the average punter in any English town wouldn't know the name of the Taoiseach if you stopped them in the street. It's peculiar, and it wouldn't have occurred to me as odd before the years spent in Dublin, but now it makes me angry at my fellow Englishmen. I know Britain's far bigger than Ireland, but still. The USA is bigger than them both, and the Americans, even on the Scandinavian-dominated West Coast, all seemed to know heaps more about Ireland than the British do.

These people fought in our wars, they helped to rebuild our towns, and they have their own country and culture. Let's let them keep some dignity, at least, and acknowledge that.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

What words are worth

I went to a wedding once where the lead singer of EMF was a guest (it was a Forest of Dean wedding, natch. Everyone's related there, via sheep). After the wedding breakfast, he took the mic and informed the assembled crowd, 'Tonight I'm going to sing some songs about trains'.


And then, he did. I can't remember a single one of them (see again: Forest of Dean wedding. There were many old friends, and much booze), but I remember his set being (a) surprisingly great and (b) full of trains.

I've been overdosing on This American Life podcasts this month thanks to all the sodding running I'm doing. I'm sure there's a train of thought that says you shouldn't listen to something that makes you slow down in the driveway when you're training for a race, but I'm all about the endurance part of endurance running, and far less about speed. Hmm. Not at all about speed, that should probably read.

Anyway, This American Life has a little story before the main deal which sort of introduces the topic, but somewhat tangentially. And apparently the genius of Ira Glass has woven itself into my brain (if only), because that's what the wedding story is. A tangential introduction.


All of which to say; tonight I'm going to tell you some stories about poems. Well, just the one, really; but 'a story' rather than 'stories' would have knocked out the rhythm.

I got lucky at college. My first term in, I made friends who have, with very few shake-downs, been with me ever since. Theo (he of the flowers) and I were pretty much inseparable in those days, and for years after. We fought more or less constantly; huge, incensed arguments about the supremacy of language over science; huger, still more incensed arguments about whether it was OK for him to eat my food whilst I was still eating it too (Theo's point was that he always ended up finishing my meals every day, so he may as well eat it whilst hot rather than wait for it to be congealed). Theo was family from the outset; whatever we were bickering about at the time, the fact that we were friends always seemed obvious; irrevocable.

At the end of the first term, we met to exchange gifts - the vogue was for those hideous carved candles of naked people embracing that you could buy for a fiver in the market. In an Emperor's New Clothes way, everyone thought were unbelievably sophisticated (they were unbelievably ugly, more like). So I was expecting wax, and was pleasantly surprised when Theo gave me two envelopes. One was a Christmas card.

I opened the other one. That was a Christmas card too.

(To understand Theo, you have to think back to early episodes of Friends and imagine Joey mixed with Chandler in proportions of about 70:30. Right at this moment, he was all Joey).

Theo grinned at me. 'Read it!'

It was a poem. I don't remember much of it, though I still have it somewhere; congenital pack-rattage combined with a commitment to never discard other people's emotions means we have an entire sea-chest upstairs filled with randomata.

What made it so utterly brilliant, though, was the dedication that preceded the poem:

'Saz - I wrote this for X (whichever the latest of Theo's conquests had been)but she ditched me so I thought you'd like it'.

He was right; I did. And I especially liked that he knew me well enough, after only eight weeks, to understand that a poem written for me would've felt unbearable and inappropriate; but a poem written by Theo and given to me (proof that language wins! Ha! Except that we continued the language/science argument for at least another ten years) was a beautiful and touching present. And at least it wasn't a sodding candle.


There are lots of things I think I could usefully change about myself. I could be less verbose. Less twitchy. Less hopelessly optimistic in the face of life. But what I absolutely love about being me is that, for some reason, my male friends (never my female friends, and never romantic entanglements) have always felt comfortable giving me their poems to read. I think poetry's amazing, and I think my friends are amazing, so they know it's a safe bet. But it's still a total act of trust, and it blows me away every time.

Happy National Poetry Day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I had to cut this post short to go and do a little light dusting

Jonah was on the phone to my Mum, on loudspeaker.

'Yeah, nice weekend...Daddy is doing the gardening and Mummy is doing the cleaning'

I choked on my muesli and had to resist grabbing the phone away from him. I could hear Mum, on the other end, howling with laughter. '

Jonah, bless him, is only saying what he sees. Most of my life, personal or professional, is spent working with the premise of 'show, don't tell', and it would appear that when it comes to giving children role models, the traditional ones are what's being served up. So it is that, with two small boys in the house, I'm being more to active feminism than at any other point in my life.

Thinking back, I was lucky. I didn't ever ponder feminism too much (or 'boys vs girls' when I was too small to give it such a multi-syllabic name) because there was no need. I was one of two sisters with sports-loving parents; weekends were just as likely to be spent by the side of a minor-league rugby pitch or helping to mix cement as they were doing the grocery shopping. We had a Scalectrix, and tools; and anyway, books very quickly usurped anything remotely gender-specific for me (unless you're going to claim that reading is inherently female, which is a whole other issue). 'As soon as you learned to read everything else stopped' my Mum has been known to remember wistfully.

I went to an all-girls' secondary school, where CDT and woodwork were taught alongside ceramics and jewellery. When I reached sixth form, one of my general studies classes involved donning overalls and learning how to change the oil and a tyre in our car mechanics class. We were also taught the far-more-useful skill of hotwiring; probably something not being taught to the boys down the road.

I was lucky, too; whilst I had a terrific group of girlfriends at school, my out-of-school friends were predominantly boys (with two key exceptions). And again, I honestly don't think I ever felt that I couldn't do anything the lads were doing. Sometimes there were things I wished I wasn't doing, like abseiling down a disused quarry or leaping off a bridge attached only to a piece of rope (and there was nothing 'professional' about this; it was just an idea cooked up in the pub).

If I'd abstained, nobody would have cared; some of the gang just didn't fancy some of the activities. But there was never an assumption that I would or wouldn't do something based on gender.

I suppose it could be said that I was the ultimate beneficiary of the generation before me, who burned bridges (and bras) so I didn't have to. Honestly, though, I think it was more down to a matter of luck and attitude. I never actively engaged in fighting for feminism not because I didn't care, but because I didn't have to. If I wanted to do something; great, get on with it.

Having boys has made it an issue, though. Maybe having children would do that anyway, in the way they make you reexamine your stance on, say, TV or jaywalking. But as the sole female representative in a house of men, I'm at the diametric opposite end of where I grew up. So we try to ensure the boys know two things:it's possible for them to aspire to anything they like; and secondly: that would be also be true even if they were girls. My boys love to cook (although, as with reading, I fail to see why that should be gender-biased; cooking's a basic human skill set, for crying out loud). They love to play rugby. They love to read endless books, and they love to climb trees. For the most part, I think we're doing OK. All I need to do is figure out how to persuade them that Mummy doesn't clean...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Croeso, boyo

I was going to show you pretty pictures, but Blogger has other ideas. Oh, the joys. So you'll have to make do with a mental image instead.

Imagine yourself crossing the 'big bridge', as they always put it in Gavin and Stacey (imagine yourself too, if you like, loving Gavin and Stacey for its frequent mentions of the A48, then you'll be in the right mood). Search in your pocket for the ridiculous quantity of change now required to entering the principality. Find the manned toll booth ('always use the one with the person in it' as my lovely pal Alex says, 'because that way you're keeping someone in a job').

And as you put your foot down on the accelerator and head towards the wingspan of the bridge, sing this as hard as you possibly, possibly, can:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Age shall, of course, wither us, but we'll continue in denial

I was at a wedding earlier this month with some of my favourite people, one of whom was (duh) getting married.
It was everything it needed to be. The wedding itself was gorgeous; sincere and lovely and just so HAPPY but loads of fun too (Depeche Mode to come back down the aisle to, anyone?).
Three-line-whip get-togethers of the whole gang are relatively rare nowadays, so there was a Mexican wave of a cheer every time the next familiar face arrived. And - maybe significantly in the context - the various offspring had all been left at home, so we were in utter party mode, and also, for twenty-four hours, able to pretend to be the irresponsible yoofs we'd once been.
I was in the car today and looked up at the date, and thought, 'blimey, Tim's birthday tomorrow - is he 41 or 42 now?'. And then I remembered that, whilst I'll almost certainly associate the Glorious Twelfth with Tim, he's not around to have any more birthdays. It seems impossible, just impossible; perhaps all the more so because he was someone I didn't see much of recently, so I don't notice his absence on a daily basis the way I know others do.
Whilst I was thinking about this, and almost resenting the fact that we can be old enough to have friends who've died (and I know that I've just been extraordinarily lucky, really, to get to this age without bad shit happening before) I remembered something that one of our gang had said at the wedding. We'd been doing the usual, 'what's the next excuse for a party?'. Since most of us are married at this point (and happily, so second weddings aren't in the offing as the festivity-provider), it's likely to be the rash of fortieth birthdays that start for us next spring.

'Forty?' said K.; blonde, beautiful and several years younger than us (married into the clan, and we're very glad of her). 'None of us are old enough for that to be happening. Forty's'.

I don't know whether this is related to the one semi-coherent point Tony Parsons made, in Man and Boy, when he observed that our post-war generation hasn't had to work at anything so it doesn't know how to do anything but live in perpetual youth. Maybe that's part of it, but we looked around. Amongst the dozen or so of us, we'd experienced what's probably the normal amount of life stuff; serious illnesses, a couple of football-teams' worth of kids, redundancy, fertility issues. None of those things was tackled lightly, or could be anything other than adult in nature.

But K. was right. We still don't feel old enough.

Monday, July 19, 2010

These are my trees: Didn't fall far

We went into Jonah's pre-school last week for his pre-Big School 'report'. He's lovely, they said. We know that, we said, but thank you; it's still good to hear from others.

My other favourite part of the report? Jonah's been taking part in a 10-week project called Forest School. Once a week, he and his classmates have spent the 'classroom' session outside, literally, in a forest, messing around with trees, learning to cook around a fire, making pictures with 'treasures' they find. At four I'd have adored it; at nearly 40, I think it's more or less compulsory for the soul.

In preparing the report, Jonah's teachers asked him what he'd liked best about Forest School.

'The trees', he said.

That's my boy.

Monday, July 12, 2010

That's me in the corner

Through happy chance, I've spoken to four of our Seattle friends in the last week. The time difference is a total bugger to negotiate, so it was particularly lovely to get to manage it so often.
The close proximity of the calls made me realise something, though, that I might not have noticed over a more separated period. I don't know how to speak American any more. The once-learned automatic cadences and re-accenting ('gar-arshhh' rather than 'garridge' for 'garage', 'fosset' rather than 'fawcet' for 'faucet' - and come to that, 'faucet' rather than 'tap') are gradually slipping away under first Irish and now British reassertion of dominance. Maybe I was always this inarticulate in the US and I've just sugar-coated my memories the way time allows, but I found myself tripping up on the absolute daftest of things; what the Americans say for 'ring road' ('arterial', I think; but I haven't looked it up so God only knows); whether it's a two-by-four or a four-by-two (and it's certainly not a 4X4, which is an SUV and thus something else altogether). It felt a bit like losing my religion. How could I not know how to speak anymore, for Christ's sake?

I've always been astonished by how little room in my brain there seems to be for vocabulary, especially for someone who loves talking so much. I learned Spanish for six months, and that was all it took for my 13 years of German (including two years living auf deutsch, um Gottes Willen) to be supplanted by those sneaky sibilant 's's and perkily phonetic phrases.

The exception to this (and why yes, I have spent a long time thinking about this; why do you ask?) is for words that I particularly attach to a given situation. 'Carafe' in French, because all wine is in jugs so you're forever asking for jugs. 'Strassenbahn' (or worse, the colloquial 'Binnen') for tram in we-will-rule-everything-on-little-electric-trains Germany. 'Remolque' in Spanish, mostly because I learned Spanish with Ol (yeah, this is what we did for fun. I know.) and the phrase 'Tienes uno remolque?' ('do you have a tow truck?') struck as the most ridiculously un-useful phrase ever from car-less central London. The 'learned it here first' rule also holds good for English, it seems; I was able to chat diapers and strollers with lovely Kim without the need of a translator.

Anyway, I hadn't thought about one of our forms of English drowning out the others. I'd assumed, if I considered it at all, that we'd switch effortlessly from one to the other the way we drive on the left or the right (or the middle, in Ireland, where the roads are so tiny and twisty) according to cultural dictat. But no. It would appear that even the mother tongue is situational.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Queue here for the pink bricks

We spent today at LegoLand. It was Fathers' Day, and it seemed like an apt place to spend it, with one Lego-crazed boy and two Lego-crazed wannabees (when they can just figure out how to put it all together...). It was a great day, and we had a blast, but that's not what I'm here to talk about.

Before we got there, I'd taken the concept of LegoLand pretty literally. I thought it was going to be a centre of tiny (and not so tiny) Lego models, and maybe a few places where you got to put together your own pale imitations instead. But no...LegoLand, as anyone who actually bothers to read about where they're going before they go would have known, is essentially a mini theme park. There's Lego galore, bien sur; but there are also log flumes and pirate ships and dinosaur rides and Vikings and diggers and car tracks and....

....and absolutely nothing that seems aimed towards girls. I'm not advocating gender-based play; to be honest, having grown up in a two-daughter household with toy garages and Scalectrix, and having bought our boys a toy kitchen for Christmas two years ago, I actually think it doesn't really occur to me. But you see the evidence around enough to know that gender-based play does exist: that for every Captain Hook walking the plank there must be a mermaid combing her hair; for every bumper car there's a hospital with a nurse in attendance; for every dinosaur there's a...a what? Betty Flintstone? Buggered if I know.

Anyway, it just struck me as curious. The conclusion we came to was that Lego's self-selecting; whether meaning to or not, it appeals more to boys, thus the activities were centered around more typical 'boy' interests, too. I've got no idea whether this is actually true or not, but it was weird to be presented with such a strong gender-based theme park. Who knew those even existed? Or are theme parks, by their very nature, more 'male'? And no, I'm not bringing Dollywood into this.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

And, of course, there's Camus...

I was all set to write about Martin Amis tonight, but the footie's on in the background, and my mind keeps filling with that instead.

I could give a damn about formations and the offside rule and all that technical nonsense; but I've always loved football for that huge sense of people joining together and willing something to happen. I suppose it's not the game itself I love - if you could get the same effect from a tiddlywinks championship, I'd be all over that instead, I'm sure - but the way it connects people's brains. And of course, in my brain, it makes me think of writers. Two in particular.

The first is, of course, Nick Hornby. I devoured Fever Pitch when it first came out and in those early days, before the onslaught of earnest contemporary male writers, the book was astonishing for showing you the world through the prism of the fanatic. As a non-fanatic with a great love of communication and my mates, there's a segment near the beginning that I remember any time there's a major match on. Arsenal have won some significant championship (she says vaguely; half our books are in storage at the mo and I'm pretty sure Fever Pitch is not one of the chosen few hundred currently on the shelves). Hornby describes coming home and his answer phone (this being pre-mobiles) is flashing like a streaker at a cricket match, full of messages from ex-girlfriends and distant relatives and his Mum; all these people who saw the result at the end of the news and were moved to call the biggest fan they knew.

I *love* that sport can bring connection like that. And Hornby, of course, put it beautifully; which is why the book went on to be such a huge success.


The second is Roddy Doyle, who wrote an essay about Ireland's participation in the 1990 World Cup for an anthology, The Beautiful Game. The whole thing is lovely, but then near the end, he's describing David O'Leary taking a penalty kick:

'We had to score our last one....David O'Leary, a great player and a nice man...No one spoke. He placed the ball. It took him ages...the ball hit the net in a way that was gorgeous...I cried.'

Doyle goes on to ponder, wistfully, that there's nothing in his profession that captures that same emotion. Apparently O'Leary's wife, at home in Ireland, had been unable to watch her husband's penalty, so she'd gone out into the garden and their son had come running out to tell her the result. I'm paraphrasing here, but Doyle's point is, imagine that happening at the end of a novel:

'Ma, Ma! Da's after finishing the book!'

Friday, June 4, 2010

Say what?

Nearly three months have passed since we set sail* from the Emerald Isle; enough time to start to figure out what we've exported from our three years there. I've written before about wanting to hold onto our American positivity; with Ireland, what seems to have lasted is the language. Jonah, the only one of us to have ever truly passed as a native (despite his brother being the actual born-and-bred Gael), is starting to lose his Dub accent, which is both a shame and also a relief; it means he's hanging out with new buddies and absorbing their accents. A shame to be losing the accent, but a relief that he's not all alone in a corner of the classroom mourning his lost pals of the West.

Still, although an Irish accent isn't part of our family any more, it seems that certain words have crept in and are here to stay. I took the kids to buy new school shoes and runners last week; despite our best efforts, it's impossible to call the damn things 'trainers' when 'runners' is by far a more appropriate term for the footwear of a small boy.

Earlier this week, I had cause to teach Jonah when to use 'lashing' and when to use 'drizzling'; a distinction that made me giggle, because of course you'd need to know the word for a bloody great downpour in Ireland and a polite sniffle of rain in England. We're still inclined, as a family, to ask, 'Will I bring (the boys with me to the shop)?' rather than 'shall I take (the boys with me to the shop)?' Incremental differences, but they make me smile when I hear them. We seem to have slotted back into life in England with relatively few seams showing; but if you listen closely, the time overseas is there, embedded in our lexicon. Grand, so.

*oh, OK, it was RyanAir, but who the hell wants them in an opening sentence?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Don't need a ticket for my destination any more

Earlier in the month, I met up with a bunch of old friends. Because we live largely all over the place these days, there hadn't been a proper chance for everyone to get together for, as the Irish would say, the guts of six years.

The gang, it's probably worth pointing out, is all blokes (with a couple of exceptions) and I've never been treated in any other way than as one of the boys.Within three minutes of arriving in the bar, I'd been asked if I threw bigger tantrums than the kids; when I was going to 'do more pointless books', and teased about living in a place called The Old Shoe Shop: 'trust you, with your romanticised view of the countryside...'

Maybe there's something warped about being away for a long time and then meeting up again, but far from making me want to throw one of the tantrums they remembered so well, the whole evening had me grinning for a week.

These particular mates can say whatever they like; they've earned it. As unmarried, childless males they've bought books on parenting issues (and read them) because my name's in there. Several of them have talked me off a number of hysterical ledges. Others have travelled thousands of miles so that we can sit and chat. They remember my birthday; and when I got married, they threw me a stag party. There were shots, there was cross-dressing, and there was a lot of banter. It was ace. My point is, it's the sort of collective friendship that ends up being like a family. Slandered and libelled; it's part of what makes it great to be back home.

(This one is sort of in response to two memes. Alice asked me a while ago what my five favourite songs were, and even further ago than that, Laura tagged me for my favourite-ever song.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Things I learned when out running last night

1. Eating a pork chop the size of your head an hour before you head out to your new running group isn't necessarily the best idea in the world. Even if it's from the local butcher. That lack of chemicals probably makes the protein harder to digest.

2. Iowever much I try to deny it, I'm obnoxiously competitive (yeah, yeah; cue amused shaking of heads from the rest of you who knew this already. Slow learner here). It's a GROUP RUN, Sarah. That doesn't mean you need to win. There is no 'winning'.

(This is the first time in 13 years of regular running that I've joined a running group; partly because we're new here, and it's an obvious way to get to know people/good routes; and partly because I've applied to run the London Marathon next year and so I'll damn well need to keep at it...)

3. If you have the build and pace of a Shetland pony, you should not try to overtake the racehorses. Or even the Shire horses. Muppet.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton

The last election I got really involved in was in 2004: the Kerry:Bush US Presidential campaign. After four years of (at best) accidental, (at worst) stolen Republican rule, everyone and anyone with a blue-beating heart was desperate for change. These were the pre-Obama days (although this was the campaign that first got him noticed nationally) and change wasn't as talismanic then as it became in 2008. Change back then just meant, 'not Bush'.

My fabulously hippy, island-dwelling, Bug-driving boss gave us all Election Day off on condition that we would spend it canvassing. This being the US, he was very carefully to be non-partisan in this suggestion; this being an independent publishing house in Seattle, it was an absolute shoo-in that every single one of us was off to fight for the Dems.

Being a foreigner in a desperate election is simultaneously liberating and disenfranchising. Liberating, in the way that many things about being the foreigner are liberating, you have a certain amount of emotional distance from the situation. But if you're living as a 'native' rather than a 'tourist', by which I mean, hanging out with the locals (rather than in some peculiar expat enclave); working; paying taxes; it's incredibly frustrating to want change and not be able to tangibly effect change. And yes, I mean 'effect', not 'affect', grammar nerds.

So I did what I could, and I did it as sincerely and as desperately as it could be done. I went to Nordstrom and bought the VOTE!!! t-shirt in case being confronted with my boobs was likely to sway anyone to the polls (this is pre-kids; said boobs were not unimpressive, if I say so myself). I called our local branch of the Democrat Party and offered my services. And I spent election day in the local office in a sterile office park, dialing my way through a list of numbers and asking each person if they'd voted today and who they'd voted for (none of the British squeamishness about this being 'too personal' a question).

It was a strange feeling; a sense of utter urgency, and a need to be DOING something, dammit. Americans, I think, are inherently more politicised than the British. Whether that has to do with British disinclination to talk about such things, or the American democracy (with a small d); but it was actually really energising to be around.

Everyone (well; everyone in our uber-liberal gang of pals in uber-liberal West Coast Seattle) was so desperate for a Democrat win that you could feel the vote being pulled there, inch by inch.
It was like a tug-of-war with a really stupid, but far-bigger-than-you person on the other side. And, to be honest, Kerry was never the best candidate for the Dems; he was essentially a spoiled rich kid just like Bush, and a bit dull. But he was the best of a mediocre bunch, and so we got behind him and we fought.

All of which brings me to how utterly, nerve-wrenchingly thrilling it is to be back in Britain for the first decent election it feels like we've had since (in my voting time, at least) 1997; and in reality, for absolutely ever. It does feel a bit like that 2004 campaign, in the sense that neither poor beleagured Gordy (though as the girl who always falls for the drummer in the band, he does have a certain appeal) or Slick Nick Clegg really have the Obama-appeal. The real emphasis for voting here is 'anyone but Cameron'. But that vitality, that sense of unity, the urgency of it all, and the huge amount of sheer energy it's bringing to the country, is really, really interesting. And it's good to be home for it, where I have a vote.

Now: fingers crossed, and off to the polls we go.

PS Nigel Barton is, in essence, Dennis Potter's alter ego. I know, I know; any excuse to slip in a reference to the Forest...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Games that are rough, that swallow you up

Lots of firsts this week, especially for the boys. Jonah went off for his first day at 'big school' yesterday. Well, the pre-school attached to 'big school', more accurately; but he went off in uniform, grey knee socks and the rest of it.

What is it about uniform that makes every child look like an evacuee? If I'd taken a picture in black and white, it would have looked straight out of the 1940s. Maybe it's something to do with the timelessness of it all, pulling us back through the wormhole.

Jonah went off without a backward glance, quite literally, but I found myself metaphorically looking through the railings and thinking of Roger McGough:

I wish I could remember my name
Mummy said it would come in useful.
Like wellies. When there's puddles.
Yellowwellies. I wish she was here.
I think my name is sewn on somewhere
Perhaps the teacher will read it for me.
Tea-cher. The one who makes the tea.

(from his glorious First Day at School. Gotta love me some Roger McGough).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Critical masses, land masses, and bringing home the ash(es)*

Last week was Week Three of living in Our New Life™. Because nothing's fun unless it comes with a bucket full of irony, Dave was back in Dublin for the first four days of the week. And because, hey, why have a bucket of irony when you can have an Irish Sea full of the damn stuff?, he ended up stranded there thanks to the unpronounceable volcano and its inexplicable stalling effect on jet engines.

Dave wasn't stuck for long, arriving home on Friday night, which is barely a blip compared with some of the stories out there. But what I found the whole thing notable for (since clearly, the ash is all about me me me) was how it highlighted that being back here feels right. It's a weird thing to articulate, maybe, but whenever we've lived overseas, I've always felt quite solitary when Dave's been away. It might have something to do with having lived on the edges of maps - Seattle's all the way up there on the furthermost part of the continental United States, and Dublin is perched right on the very curve of the coast. There's nothing like being alone in a foreign country to feel, well, alone in a foreign country. And I say this despite some of our closest friends being in those countries.

This time, we were a matter of days in a new place; no routines sorted out yet, no little mates for the boys to hang out with; not even all our things around us since some are still in storage. But rather than having that slightly panicked feeling of 'What if something happened and I needed to get back to England?', I thought, well, at least we're all in the right place (bar Dave, clearly).

It's a bit like this. Say I'm a green pin. I've been trying out the blue map, and the red map, and now I'm back on the green map. It makes no particular odds superficially, but at the very core of things, it's what makes all the difference. Ashes to ashes, and all that.

*Apologies to any cricket fans who got their hopes up there. I just liked the scansion.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Life in the pale

I've got about a million posts brewing, and now the boxes are unpacked and I've stopped waking up wondering where we're living now, there's hope of getting to them soon. But in the meantime, here's Louis MacNeice describing my relationship with Dublin better than I ever could myself:

This never was my town,
I was not born or bred
Nor schooled here and she will not
Have me alive or dead
But yet she holds my mind
With her seedy elegance,
With her gentle veils of rain
And all her ghosts that walk
And all that hide behind
Her Georgian facades -
The catcalls and the pain,
The glamour of her squalor,
The bravado of her talk.

The rest of it's here if you don't know it - beautiful.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Foreign object(ive)s

Three weeks before we left Seattle, we went away for the weekend with great mates. They, like us, were British, but, unlike us, were committed to staying in the US forevah. At the end of a bottle or few, someone asked what we'd be taking with us back to Europe.

It was an easy enough answer, actually. 'That sense of possibility', I said. 'The way, if you say you're going to try something new, everything gets really enthused. It's lovely to live around and it gives me way more confidence'.


There are many things I love about Ireland; the dips and curls in the language, the colour in the expressions, the friends that come pre-packaged with a healthy dose of 'stealth evil'. But over the years, I came to learn that where the US is known (and often derided) for its insistence on a 'can-do culture', sodding Ireland can quite often be guilty of a 'can't-do culture'. There are a million historical and sociological reasons for this; but as a damn foreigner, it can be wearing, in the same way as living amongst someone's ingrained optimism is oddly liberating.


When we first mentioned that we were moving back to England, our Irish friends would often say to us, 'but you seemed so happy here'. And I guess that's the point; this is where what we brought back from Seattle comes into play. We were happy in Ireland. We have fabulous friends; a really nice, comfortable lifestyle; the boys were thriving. But at the backs of our minds was the ultimate in American doctrines: the pursuit of happiness. And sure, we were happy. But was that a reason not to make a change? Maybe it's because we're contrary to the point of obnoxiousness sometimes, but for us that seemed almost to be the reason to consider a move. Were the essential things that were missing in our lives (close family access; friends who'd known us since the year dot; a sense of belonging to a country) going to be things that would make enough of a difference?

We don't know the answer to this, of course. And I'm guessing that repatriation is going to take just as long to get used to as living outside the country did. But because of our time in the US, we felt that just giving it a go is going to give us something. Mal sehen, as the Germans put it.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fattening up for the long journey home: what the Irish have in common with Jewish grandmothers

We're in our last week in Ireland, and our friends, misreading the parable, have decided to fatten us up as if they were expecting the prodigal son, not getting rid of us. And yes, I realise that I've ended up as the cow in that particular mangled image. Let us move swiftly on.

It's incredibly lovely. Our next-door-neighbours, who've been surrogate parents during our time here (down to nagging about buying a house but stopping short of telling me I can't go out looking like that) came round last night with fish pie and creme brulees. And wine, of course. Lots of wine. This is Ireland; the booze is assumed.
Tomorrow and Saturday are dinners out with other, equally lovely, groups of pals; and on Sunday our neighbour-friends and 'co-parents' are hosting a farewell brunch with a gang of our local mates with kids. I'm anticipating bagels, bubbly, and chaos. And lots of tears - mine, at least.

When it comes to emotions, the Irish are more like the English than the Americans. They'll keep it to themselves; people don't want to see that kind of mess. But this revolving platter of meals that's coming our way is showing us what we knew without words. For our Irish friends, we're part of the family here; and when family comes round, you cook. You show them you care. Then you drink way more than you're capable of and start a fight. Think we'll leave the latter to the kids - this time, anyway.


Relatedly, I've been thinking recently about Irish words and phrases that I'm going to miss. There's all the usual stuff, that makes you feel like you're in a Hollywood version of a set-in-Ireland movie; the 'your man's and the 'that's grand, so's. But there's also a wealth of sayings that make me giggle every time I hear them. And here, in a terrible segue, are my two favourite food-related ones:

1) If you want to say that something took you about a week, or that you haven't seen someone for most of the week, you describe that time as 'the guts of a week' ('Sure, I haven't seen your man for the guts of a week, so')

2) If you want to describe someone as skinny, you'd say, 'Sure, there's not a pick on you'.

The latter especially always reminds me of Hansel and Gretel and I get a picture of all these Irish folk poking out sticks rather than fingers to be considered svelte. I'm relatively certain that, after this week of being fed for the long trip to the new country, 'there's not a pick on you' will be the last phrase I'm hearing. But in the guts of a week, we'll be gone. And excited though I am to be going home, it'll be sad to leave this crazy country behind.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

This one goes out to the ones I left behind

There are three invites on our mantelpiece right now. One's to a friend's book launch here in Dublin. One is to brunch in honour of lovely Kim, who's pregnant...and in San Francisco. The third is to the wedding of one of my dearest college friends, in Manchester (England, not NH).

The mantelpiece sums up the thing I hate most about overseas living. Sure, I don't exactly miss the residual homesickness that kept me company the whole time we were in Seattle, and I think I'll probably be able to cope without Dublin's insane cost of living; but making lifelong friends who are all scattered is a total bitch.

I've never really believed in going overseas and living as an expat, all Pictionary leagues* and Guy Fawkes nights. Apart from anything else, the latter'd get you shot in Ireland, and rightly so. This probably stems back to my first two year-long stints abroad, in Austria and Germany. In those instances, I was there for the explicit purpose of learning the language and immersing in the respective cultures of the country, so that later I could pass an exam.

Apparently, being a total nerd, the fear of failing the exam persists, so I've always thought that if you're living in a foreign country, the only option is to 'go native'. Not least when there's no foreign language to act as a barrier.

And we've been really lucky. We've made some incredible friends in both the US and Ireland; friends who are still in the fabric of our lives even though we're not hanging out regularly any more. These are people we've spent Christmas with; friends (in both countries) who got me through endless months of sleep deprivation and terror-of-the-tiny-newborn; friends who've drunk cocktails with us in Hawaii; friends who've sung 'Fairytale of New York' with me at the tops of their voices and bottom of their glasses.

I'm not at the stage yet of missing my Irish friends because, with two-ish weeks to go, it's all about trying to see as much of them as possible in the hopes that, like perfume, the more intense the experience the longer it'll linger. And because Ireland is so much closer to England than Seattle is, it'll be easier to get back, for people to come over. But, like a sheep in dipping season, I can see it's coming. And I'm not looking forward to it one little bit.

I don't think there's an easy answer to this. Don't go abroad in the first place? Well, fine, but then we wouldn't have met the people or had the experiences. Go abroad but keep it light, don't get attached? Maybe possible if you're going for such a short length of time that it's almost an extended holiday; but work somewhere, have kids, and you're going to form attachments. I don't have the answer yet, except to try my hardest to make it to as many events as possible, something that's growing easier as the twinkles get bigger. And to put effort into those friendships, because they matter, dammit.

And to be grateful, of course, that I even have this problem. Friends are magnificent, even if they don't all live in the same street any more.

*A friend of mine who spent a year in Caracas said that this was the height of expat entertainment. I can't even sodding draw; I'd have been screwed.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Read on for a mental image you really, really didn't want

A few weeks ago, in a fit of enthusiasm fuelled by Twitter telling me that what I needed for maximum mileage was power ballads, I bought a CD of running songs. Once it arrived, I remembered that I don't, in fact, ever listen to music whilst running. It's one of the things I like most about it, actually; the solitude. OK, so I may belt out 'Footloose' whilst stumbling towards the coastline, but I could do without Kenny Loggins turning it into a duet.

Still, all is not lost: power ballads are great in the car, where I can turn them up loud and pretend I'm still driving a convertible Beetle rather than a 'mummy machine'.

When I collected the kids from daycare on Tuesday, I was halfway through 'Wake me up before you go go', and reluctant to swap back to the nine-millionth rendition of Jack and the Beanstalk.

'Let me finish this one, then you can choose' I said.

As Julia Roberts put it in Pretty Woman: Big mistake. Big. Huge. The next twenty minutes were given over to a deconstruction of 'Wake me up' that would've put even George Michael to sleep:

'But how is he singing when he is asleep?'

'Is the singing man wearing pyjamas to sing or is he naked?'

'Are they spiderman pyjamas?'

'Why is he sleeping at dance time?'

The next morning, back in the car for the drop-offs, Lucas 'delighted' Dave with yells of, 'NO Jack Beestalk! Me wan' Wike me GOGO'.

Dave turned to me in horror. 'What have you done to them?'

It's all better today. We've moved on to the next song on the CD; Billy Idol's 'Rebel Yell'. Jonah has this one down pat: 'It's about a man who's doing naughty shouting, Daddy'. The Confederates would be proud.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fish might fly

I was lying awake last night worrying about a goldfish. Yeah, I know that counting sheep might have been more restful, but yesterday's sleep nemesis was a fish called Nemo.

We're five weeks away from moving country, and chin-deep in lists. Lists about making lists; lists of things we've done; lists of things to do; you name it, we've put it on a list.

The variety of job-choice is endless, ranging from the banal: scrub away all evidence of DestructoToddler from the walls of our Dublin home; to the critical: enrol Jonah in school for September. But am I doing any of these things? Am I buggery. Instead, I'm Googling "transporting fish 250 miles" and calculating how many plastic bags might be necessary to prevent leakage during an eight-hour car ride.

Yeah, yeah, I know: just flush the damn fish already and buy a new one in England. Christ knows, this isn't the first move we've had that involved fish-rehousing. When we left London for Seattle, one of our final duties before the Pickfords van showed up was to lug an industrial dustbin full of appropriately-algaed fish water (and accompanying bin bag of tropical fish) to Oxford Circus. Strangely, we were able to say goodbye to the little floaters without too many tears.

This time, of course, it's not about us. It's about the kids, and more specifically Jonah. Jonah picked out Nemo for his third birthday present. Well, OK, so technically he picked out a different fish, but when that one died after a couple of months, we went back for another one, and this one, he has lived. I guess the first one was the aquatic equivalent of a starter marriage, teaching us to love and nurture this little fishy until death us do part.

Or ....250 miles, followed by death.

Jonah loves this fish. Jonah's closing in on four-and-a-half, so Nemo has been in Jonah's life almost as long as Lucas has; and on some days, it's a close call which one he prefers. He comes down in the morning and chats to Nemo, and when we're away, Jonah phones his BFF, little Finn across the road, with strict instructions on fish care.

And, well, we're about to change most other aspects of Jonah's life, so flushing the fish just doesn't seem reasonable. Moving back to the UK is, in part, a way of knitting the boys more closely to their extended family and showing them the value of roots. It's not exactly practising what I preach if the first casualty of the "closer family" move is one of Jonah's favourite family members, albeit a (virtually) spineless one, is it?

I know, too, that focusing on the fish is just a way of putting my fingers in my ears and ignoring everything else that needs to happen. Denial? Yeah, and?

Anyway, if you'll excuse me, I've got "transporting fish" to Google again....

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A whole different kind of Olympics

I don't normally pay much attention to the Winter Olympics, but Vancouver still feels "just up the road" even four years after leaving Seattle, and there's something just so damn wholesome about the Canadians that gets me rooting for them. And seriously, anywhere that has a road called the Sea-to-Sky-Highway is going to do it for me. I mean, c'mon. Why call something the N11, for example when you could be calling it Hillocks-to-Hellholes? (sorry, Ireland. I do love bits of you, but your roads aren't those bits).

I read this post last week and wanted to say: Kristin, don't worry: that pang you describe? That's exactly how Vancouver feels to visitors, even to relatively frequent visitors like me. I dunno how often you'd have to go there before it stopped being one of the coolest places in the world; one of the places I wish I'd been born (I love where I was born; we all know that ad nauseum; but I do have a list of alterna-birthplaces. What? You don't? Weirdo).

I'm having real trouble, though, envisioning Whistler as a place filled with bustling Olympians, all perfectly-honed and highly-toned, because the last time we were there, we were the opposite of either of those things.

Jonah was just under a year old and we'd decided we wanted a family holiday that involved just the three of us. We'd already been across the Atlantic four times with the poor little sod by this point, so somewhere that didn't involve a plane ride was pretty enticing.

So we went to Whistler, and rented a cute little apartment with a flight of toddler-defying stone steps which I'm sure were ideal for rugged boarding types to beat all the crap off their boots, but just signalled DEATH TRAP! to us and PLAYSPACE! to Jonah. Hmmm.

We went in September, pre-snow. The hiking was great, and we figured that we weren't likely to get any snow time anyway, so why make life miserable for ourselves?

Unfortunately, the not-making-life-miserable thing didn't stretch as far as anything sensible like, oh, sleeping. We all know we can make really, really stupid rookie mistakes when we're fresh-out-the-gates parents. So that you don't do as we did, here's my PSA: Do not regard a holiday as the ideal time to sleep-train your child.

I know, I know. But the point was, we didn't know (conflicted, much?). The logic was sound: lots of daytime for napping, lots of gorgeous scenery to take our minds off the pain of not sleeping, return home with child who magically sleeps 14 hours a night and wakes us up with breakfast in bed.

Yeah, about that.

So watching the Olympics, whilst thrilling and all that, is bringing out a Pavlovian reaction in me. Any time someone swoops down a hill, or there's a filler shot of the little town, I think of those sleepless nights and yawn. And somewhere in my subconscious, a baby yells in indignation.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sometimes it might be better not said with flowers. Or said at all, really

Since it's Valentine's Day at the end of the week, here are three moments with blooms. Yeah, just don't expect chemical romance. Or any romance, really.

1. Be my (sweaty) Valentine

It's early 1999. I'm in Australia for a conference, sent 10,000 miles for a 2-hour presentation, my remit to be perky and convince people to promote our books better than others. I arrive on Valentine's Day and, since my slot isn't until the next day, I figure I'll go for a run and try and re-ignite the Pollyanna bounce that's won me this gig in the first place. I've been travelling for what feels like a couple of years, so I dig out my running gear and head off into the Hunter Valley. It's gorgeous; February is the height of summer, so the neighbourhood gardens are full of flowers and mad-looking birds dive around. I run a couple of miles out to a boardwalk landing pier and stop to take in the craziness of being out here, in the middle of nowhere, barely a day and a half after commuter-crazy London.

On my way back to the hotel, a young-ish guy is hanging over one of the garden gates. When he sees me slogging sweatily past, he waves for me to stop. Because I am genetically predisposed to (a) talk to anyone and (b) always trust strangers (I know, I know), I stop. He hands me a beautiful pink rose, cut from the garden.

"I saw you go past" he says, channeling Jason Donovan rather than Heath Ledger, more's the pity, "and just wanted to say Happy Valentine's Day".


2. I wouldn't touch her with yours, pal

It's New Year's Eve 1996 (?). I'm in Paris with the boys, visiting our pal Ol, he of the boundary-less phone calls. We end up in some very un-chic divey bar; sawdust on the floor, cheesy music, the works. It's minus WhatNow?! outside and we're all together again for a few days, so we don't care.
A few minutes after midnight, one of those rose-sellers arrives in the bar. I'm huddled in a corner with Ol, putting the world to rights as we were wont to do. The flower guy comes over and waves a rose in my general direction. Ol and I wave back at him, in dismissal, but he's persistent.
"A rose for the beautiful lady?" he asks, in French.

Quick pause for an editorial note here: Ol's bilingual, and though it's not like we speak French together, I was studying it for the first four years we knew each other, so he knows I'll understand him.

Oli looks at the guy, then at me. Then he leans towards the flower seller and said, gesticulating in disgust,

"Look at her! Honestly - would you buy her a rose? C'mon, mate, don't be crazy. I'm not wasting my money like that"

I'm not in the slightest bit upset - this is our MO, and Ol knew that he'd get plenty of grief from me in return. The poor flower seller, though, had no idea what to do. Panicking, he thrusts an armful of roses at me, and with a muttered - "Here - happy New Year" - flees into the night.


3. Heaven knows I'm miserable now

I'm 19, and in my second term at college. I come back to the room after a long day of trying not to feel sorry for myself (nothing wrong beyond the usual late-teenage angst which seems so insurmountable at the time) and trip into the hugest pile of flowers I've ever seen, before or since. And by pile, I mean pile. There are close on 30 bunches of blooms, of all sorts - roses, irises, carnations, early daffodils (always the worst when you're homesick for the green, green grass of home).

Each room door in halls has a pinboard on it, where you leave a piece of paper for your mates to write notes on should they happen round in your absence (oh, the random rituals we had before the joys of texting). I clear a path through the Amsterdam Flower Gardens that now consitutes my hallway and read the message scrawled on the board. It's from Theo, one of my best mates and sort of substitute brother (not that I've ever had a brother, but if I did, I imagine our relationship to be like mine and Theo's; lots of fighting and utter reliance).

I went to the market at the end of the day and told the flower guy he'd never seen anyone as pathetic and sad as you, so he gave me all these for a fiver. Hope these make your Thursday better. Theeee "

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Bet Blanche Dubois would've done the same if she'd been stuck at High St. Ken...

I'm 26, just finishing a late night's work in London. I set the office alarm, slam the door, walk the 10 minutes to the tube station...and realise I've left my wallet, my house keys, my tube pass and my reason at my desk. No way back into the office tonight, and this being the pre-mobilithic era, no cell phone to call for help. Home is 6 miles away.

I do what I always do - I find someone to talk to about the situation. It's the compulsive habit formed by a small-town upbringing and, not for the first time, I'm glad of it. I look as small and pathetic as I can (yeah, yeah, not difficult even under the best of circumstances) and approach the station guard (is that what they're called? The men in the luminous jackets who hang out at the Tube snarling at tourists).

At first, the conversation goes as you would expect:

"I don't have my ticket"

"Buy a new one"

"I don't have my wallet"

"How are you going to get home, then?"

but then something changes. Maybe the station guard thinks I'm actually going to cry on him. I'm shaking, sure, but that's because I'd last eaten at midday and now it was 9:30 at night.File under: jobs I'm dead glad I no longer do. Also: stupidity of youth.

"Perhaps you could let me through without a ticket, just this once?" I ask in my nicest poor-idiotic-overwhelmed-no-threat-to-anyone guise.

The station guard ponders it. My heart lifts, and I start mentally calculating whether my housemate will have left me supper in the oven (for though I was ridiculous at 26, I had the kindest roommate ever. He'd probably still leave my dinner in the oven now if he thought I needed it).

"That wouldn't work" the guard says, breaking into my reverie of what said oven-waiting supper might possibly be (shepherd's pie, probably. We ate a lot of shepherd's pie in those days. Young, fetterless, and living in London: staying in and cooking shepherd's pie. We knew how to live. Um...).

My lip quivers, perhaps.

"There are automatic gates at Wimbledon" he reminds me. Clearly whilst I've been dreaming of lamb mince and carrots, the guard has been running through his mental rolodex of exit apparatus on the District Line. And I thought I had an exciting life.

Then he does something that I imagine would have got him fired had his bosses noticed, London Underground not being known for their bendiness of either trains nor rules: he reaches into his pocket and hands me the exact change for the tube fare.

"Here," he says. "You look like you need to get home before you fall over".

The next morning, flush with cash lent to me by my long-suffering-but-still-saintly housemate, I seek out the guard on my way into the office and press the loaned money back into his hand. He refuses it. "Buy yourself something nice for breakfast" he says.

So every time it snows I think of Kurt Cobain; and every time I eat a raisin Danish, I think of the tube station at High Street Kensington.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The devil may wear Prada, but the vicar wears a Leinster shirt

The vicar called round unexpectedly last Thursday afternoon. The vicar was never going to call round expectedly to this house, since we're not in the habit of expecting vicars here. And anyway, in uber-Catholic Ireland, a protestant minister at the door is only slightly less unlikely than a vampire at the door (and that's only because we all know vampires come in through the windows. D'oh).

Anyway, imagine the scene. The vicar rings the doorbell. A man answers the door.

"Is this the Franklin household?" asks the vicar.

"Yes", says the man, clearly at home here. "I'm not a Franklin, though. Sarah's upstairs showering"

Sarah (why yes, I am in third person this evening; does my bum look big in it?) isn't quite in the shower yet, so she belts down the stairs to see who's in the hallway. She is dishevelled (OK, even more than usual) and panting, her hair plastered becomingly to her cheeks with a winning mixture of sweat and rain.

(I'd been out running, OK? And our neighbour friend was watching the kids as part of our weekly swap. Honestly).

"Hello, vicar," she says, trying to look as if this sort of thing happens every day.

" ..... "

This would be the point where a normal person would offer the vicar a cup of tea and a selection of nice homemade biscuits, but we don't need to tell you that that didn't happen, do we? Nah, thought not.


So yeah, the vicar is sitting in our rocking chair, cup-of-tea-less, chatting brightly with me as he, essentially, vetted our godliness in order to assess whether or not to award Jonah a place in the local school. The kids, all three of them (Jonah's BFF Finn was here too) kept barreling in to see the exciting new person in the front room. Lucas, who at 2 is a mixture of Cartman and Father Jack , was particularly taken by this new audience to admire his sofa-diving technique.

After I'd rescued Lucas from his third landing (upside down jammed behind the baking hot radiator) whilst simultaneously trying to focus on nodding in a suitably pious-looking manner, I suggested to Lucas that he go and read a book with Jonah, Finn, and the longsuffering neighbour friend.

Lucas had a better idea. He disappeared for a couple of moments. We heard some middle-distance thuds, as if blunt objects were falling off high shelves. (They were). Then he reappeared, triumphant, bearing his bodyweight in Hairy McClary and I Love You, Little Monkey tomes.

"Mama read book me" he beamed.

"Yes, darling. I'll read to you after I've finished talking to the nice man"

Lucas didn't hesitate (maybe I'm selling him short in that description above. He has a decent whack of Jason Bourne in there too).

"NO!" he corrected me, dropping the books and whipping, ninja-like, to the vicar's side. "BAD man!" And then, should the vicar be in any doubt as to the toddler's opinion, he whirled his leg back and kicked him as viciously as he could manage.

We're all going straight to hell.


There was one tiny, beautifully ironic, redeeming part of the whole visit. Jonah happened to be wearing his Irish rugby top (for matters of laundry rather than team affiliation). The vicar, delighted, confided to me that he was going to be missing church on Sunday because he was off to Twickenham to watch his team, Leinster, play London Irish. So Jonah and the deliquent vicar bonded over rugby. One soul, at least, may be saved.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Radio Gaga

I had a post in my head which requires wrestling to the ground in the right words to be remotely worth telling, but I'm too keen to go and watch Gavin and Stacey (can't link to it yet for fear of giving away the ending to myself, but it's glorious). So whilst I'm off adoring the Welsh, here are my three favourite moments from Irish radio, or, more specifically, from RTE Radio 1 (which is the equivalent of NPR or BBC Radio 4 for those of you playing along at home):

1. The interview with the medium who helped the police with their inquiries. The medium was pretty average as these things go: full of beautifully vague claims such as, "I'm sensing a your past" (y'think?). She was neither aided nor remotely abetted by the presenter: when, aiming to set a mystic mood over the airwaves, she asked him, "Doesn't it feel colder in the studio suddenly? That must be a presence from The Other Side". The presenter entirely missed the cue and said, "No, but I'm wearing one extra sweater than you".
The reason I love this one so much, though, is in the first line. Here it is again, slowly:


Do what now? I have spent many an hour pondering how this would work, but that's another post for another day.

2. The 15-minute segment on Morning Ireland, the flagship morning show, about the possibility of Ireland's motorways being finished in the next two years and the form the resulting service stations (rest stops) might take. Presumably somewhere else in the world, something was actually happening (oh, you know; international financial collapse; humanitarian crises; Obama's election). All that could wait, however. Now was the time for a lengthy discussion of hypothetical service stations on a hypothetical motorway. Several experts were called upon to give florid descriptions of rest stops they'd known and loved elsewhere in the world. Sadly, they they missed the opportunity to call in the medium for an estimated completion date).

3. The breathless (and endless) coverage of the National Ploughing Championships. I feel like I must have talked about these before, because they're just so glorious. The coverage is broadcast with much the same awed anticipation as the Oscars, and you get to hear from such stars as the breeder of last year's Finest Filly. A bit like talking to Keira Knightley's mum, but with more of a brogue and discussion of fattening up.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Road trips, snow, and Kurt Cobain

All this snow has got me thinking about Kurt Cobain again.

Back in the misty days of 2003, Dave and I took a road trip to Santa Barbara to meet up with my favourite cousin and his family. Andrew had promised to come and see us in the US when we moved to Seattle, and true to his word (as he always is), he did. Trouble is, Andrew and I have both inherited our clan's optimistic streak, so he flew into LA, since Seattle seemed "a bit rainy", and I was sure that it'd be no trouble to meet them "somewhere in the middle". Yeah, right. A 2,500 mile round-trip "middle"

Anyway, it was worth it to see the Forest contingent, even if we only had two nights with them before turning round to head the 3 days back. We stopped off to celebrate New Year's Eve in a hot tub in wine country before banging up the I5 motorway all the way home (note to self: I5 or motorway? Pick one). Well, that was the theory.

Because we were total newbies, in the US only eight months, we hadn't paid any attention to the sporadic radio reports warning of "heavy snow" on the border between California and Oregon. We were in an all-wheel drive SUV (hey, this was America) and travelling on the motorway. What possible concern could we have?

Um, yeah. That's right, we're idiots. We got snowed off the road not once, but twice. The first time was just before the mountain pass in the incredibly inaptly-named Yreka (or maybe that's the point: it really ISN'T a Eureka moment, it's a Why?reka moment). At this point, I was still caught up in the romance of the road trip (you'd have thought 1,500 miles in a car would've solved this particular sentimental nonsense, pero no). "Hooray" I thought (and maybe even said, at which point Dave should have just pushed me into the nearest snow drift and legged it). "We can do the proper road trip thing & eat nasty take-out in a dodgy motel".

We were on our way the next morning, my ThingsToDoInAmerica list one item shorter, and despite the quickly-acquired snow chains battering the living crap out of the car, we made it through the mountain. In a blizzard. At 30 miles an hour. With nothing in sight (not even other cars; Christ knows where they went). In reality, I don't think it was *actually* dangerous, bar our extreme stupidity. We had no spare blankets, no flares, no *spade*; our Seattle-area mobile phones didn't get coverage in that region; we had nothing, really, to help us out of a problem. We did, however, have our bodyweight in books and some Ghiradelli chocolate, so I suppose we'd have been well-fed and well-read, if moronic.

Later that day, we came off the road at a freeway onramp in our haste to leave a rest stop manned by over-excited Christians (burgers and bibles. Another thing off my list, then). We stood there examining our car, listing in the snow with a burst tyre, and decided that the only thing to do was to convince the Christians that God's Will was to mend our car. Fortunately they were quite sturdy Christians, appropriately dressed in snow gear (did we have our snow gear in the car, despite having gone snowboarding a week previously? Did we bollocks) and got us on the road in good time. We were a bit late for the next stop, but no matter - we'd just do a big day the next day and get home already.

Except, no! Driving merrily through a picturesque bit of lower Washington state, Oregon gladly behind us at this point (no offence Oregon), bam - more blizzards. Let me tell you, snow falling on cedars might make for an evocative book title but it's a bastard to drive in. These were little forest roads with no sign of either gritters or Christians, so there was nothing for it but to stay in the nearest town, the call-it-like-you-see-it South Bend (and yes, there's a North Bend. Dunno about East or West though).

By this stage the whole quaintness of motels and Friends reruns was wearing a bit thin. We made it out the next day by the judicious move of following the gritter through the forest, and followed the road to the most depressing small town we'd seen yet, which was saying something. And then we saw the sign for it. Aberdeen. The hometown, as anyone living in Seattle is civically required to know, to Kurt Cobain.

"Jesus" said Dave, who'd been pretty stoic until then. "No wonder the poor bastard topped himself.

Anyway, any time we see decent snow here, I think of our first, idiotic road trip, and Kurt Cobain. I'm sure he'd be horrified to be linked with snowballs and mayhem, but he'd certainly get why being snowed into South Bend was such a hideous prospect.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Next she'll have her own YouTube channel

Comments from my 82-year-old grandmother:

"Sarah, are you on Facebook? Because C (cousin living abroad) has just been in touch with J (cousin living elsewhere abroad) about meeting up next year and they want to know when you're home."

(to my techie husband): "oh good, I've been waiting for you. I need you to set up my DS. I got playing DS at Christmas and so I went online and found one for myself."


The Christmas season was great to us this year. I hesitate to post such a straightforwardly pleased sentence because I fear what Dan Savage calls the "irony graph". If I'm happy about something, something awful will happen to counterbalance it. "Just as Sarah was praising herself for a wonderful Christmas, the Santa decoration fell from the chimney and crushed her to death". That kind of thing.

Still, it was all kinds of fun. Small children, large gifts, far more wine than whining and belly laughs as well as laughably full bellies. And one of my favourite memories is my Nan, arriving for supper with her pink DS carefully packed in a ziploc bag, harrassing Dave to set it up so that she could beat the crap out of us all at Brain Training. Here's hoping I've got those genes...