Wednesday, 18 July 2007

On The Town

I have been nominated by Mopsa and MYA for a Blogging Community Involvement Award for Services to Schmoozing! I am truly flattered, as I believe that schmoozing is a seriously under-rated skill (along with sponging – but we’ll come to that later). It is supposed to involve the gift of ‘conversing casually in order to make a social connection.’ After a few bevvies, my conversation can become so ‘casual’ that it is positively slurred, but never mind. Thank you Mopsa and MYA, I am delighted to accept, and would like to pass the nomination on to Jenny at Mountain Mama, who has such a warm, conversational style, you feel that you are sitting right next to her, at the kitchen table of her lovely mountain home.
Download the shiny badge, Jenny, and enjoy!

Anyway, enough of the red carpet - we are off on holiday! Some friends in New York have very generously given us the use of their beach house on the Jersey Shore, followed by the use of their Manhattan apartment. What a sponger’s paradise! Even the horror of taking three children on an eight hour flight wasn’t enough to make me pass up this opportunity. Also, as I have mentioned before, I am unfashionably fond of the USA, and can’t wait to get back there again.
The kids are very excited about seeing the Statue of Liberty, and I am very excited about pouring gallons of American wine down my neck. The favourable exchange rate means that I really should sample as much as I can, don’t you think?
While we are away, my brother and his family are coming to stay in our house. This has caused me considerable anxiety. When you take a look at your own house and try and see it through someone else’s eyes, it can be truly alarming. I’m not just talking about the level of squalor we tolerate at home, compared to normal people. It’s more to do with the vagaries of the house and its contents.
It started when we handed the keys over. I had to give my brother and his wife details about how the front door was ‘really easy’ to open, as long as you pull it towards you, before turning the key. Then I moved on to explain how opening the back door was ‘really easy’, as it was the reverse procedure to the front door, but required an additional shoulder barge. ‘Never mind’ they said, ‘we won’t open the back door – how do we open the windows?’ Well, it’s ‘really easy’, there’s a key, but it only works on some of the windows. ‘Never mind’ they said, ‘we won’t open the windows.’ By this point, they were exchanging claustrophobic glances, so I didn’t dare describe how you have to twist the shower control right round to the left if you want any hot water, or stand on one leg to ignite the ring on the gas cooker. It is turning into a nightmare scenario of having to attach explanatory Post-it notes to every idiosyncratic control and appliance we own. I have even bought a new kettle and iron, since the risk of electrocution from our old ones was dangerously high, unless you were wearing Wellington boots.
As I am in holiday mood, I have cracked open a bottle of Ca’Rosa Prosecco (Oddbins £7.49) which is dry, with a light and delicate apple flavour. I don’t like it quite as much as my favourite La Marca (Ocado £5.99), but it is a very strong contender for second place. Highly recommended!
Just one more glass, then I will carry on packing the suitcases. Despite all the preparation, I am really looking forward to this holiday. The chance to spend time together as a family will enable us to discover what it is that we really can’t stand about each other.

I will be back in August – I’m missing you already!

Monday, 16 July 2007

Knee Trembler

It is amazing how long a weekend can seem when you are free of the shackles of domesticity. Time normally spent making meals, arguing about eating the food, clearing up, and then making the next meal, can be spent on far more agreeable pastimes. H and I were away from the kids for only one day and night, and yet we crammed so much into that short space of time, it felt like we had been away for a week. Even the weather was complicit in this wild fantasy, by staying dry for the walk during the day and turning sunny for the Saturday evening party.
My new walking boots were fantastic – robust, flexible and reliable, which is more than can be said of the person wearing them. My friends and I started our heroic hike with a visit to Chesters at Skelwith Bridge to talk strategy, between mouthfuls of cake. The unanimous decision was to walk up to Stickle Tarn in the Langdale Pikes. This isn’t a difficult walk, but it is steep, and took us over three hours. By the time we got back to the car park, my knees were trembling so much that I could have been a teenager in the side alley of a nightclub.
A hot bath sorted me out, and within a couple of hours I had morphed from hearty hiker to party princess (or merry matron, depending on your perspective).
Any meal which starts with Taittinger on the terrace is going to be good, and the spectacular views over Lake Windermere were an added bonus. There were plenty of tasty little ‘amuse gueules’ which certainly amused this girl. I ate so many of them, there didn’t seem much point in going inside for the main meal. I was only persuaded to do so by the promise of a French white (Lamy St Aubin chardonnay) and a South African red (Meerlust Rubicon). Obviously I felt the need to sample them both, several times over.
Strangely, the more wine my fellow walkers and I drank, the more our ramble to Stickle Tarn took on the dimensions of an epic mountain adventure that would have had Sir Edmund Hillary begging to turn back, claiming lack of experience. By the end of the evening, one of my friends was slurring so much that we felt sure her jaw was displaying the early symptoms of frostbite. The other was having dizzy spells and kept falling over, so she was obviously suffering from altitude sickness.
Back here in the kitchen it already seems like a long time ago. I want to recapture that heady romantic feeling of being on the hotel terrace, without having to shout ‘Come away from the edge!’ to a lively child every five minutes. Perhaps I can re-enact some of the glamour with this chilled La Prendina Estate Pinot Grigio Rosé (M&S £5.59). Its crisp fruity flavour makes me think of strawberries and raspberries, and warm evenings where the glow from the setting sun is reflected on the dappled surface of a lake. Sadly, the only water I can see from my kitchen window is a fetid pool of stagnant rainwater which has collected in the yellow plastic lid of the sandpit. Not quite the effect I was after.
I think I will just sit down at the kitchen table, pour myself another chilled glass, close my eyes and dream. I can already feel a bout of altitude sickness coming on.

Friday, 13 July 2007

Lakeland Larks

I am posting early today, because we are about to set off up the M6 for a weekend away. On Saturday morning, H and I will palm the kids off on my Dad, and then try not to run as we head off to the glorious Lake District, where our friend’s 50th birthday party is going to be held.
The plan is that two very good female friends and I are going to do a fairly substantial hill walk in the morning and early afternoon, leaving the blokes to ….well, I’m not exactly sure what they are going to do, really. Watch videos or sport or something. Maybe swap knitting patterns, who knows?
I have already done an emergency dash to the shops this morning, to replace the walking boots that I threw out over six months ago, when I discovered that they had gone mouldy. I had actually forgotten that I had thrown them out, but apparently H hasn’t. Well, at least he claims to remember my bitter outburst about the symbolism of it all.
Thankfully, walking boots are designed for wide-footed hearty types, rather than pointy-toed pixies, so at least this speed-shopping trip wasn’t as arduous as procuring the turquoise strappy wedges last Saturday. I am now the proud owner of a pair of ultra-lightweight, waterproof state-of-the-art boots. Doubtless they will enable me to leap across mountain crevasses, scramble over scree, and stride purposefully up near-vertical inclines. Well, they looked comfortable enough to stroll through quaint little gift shops looking for Kendal Mint Cake, and that’s what really matters.
After the walk, the three of us intend to return rosy-cheeked and virtuous, ready for a hot bath and the transformation from mountain goats to valley girls.
Now, although I am really excited by the prospect of the walk, the pessimist within fears that after all that fresh air and a scented bath, I may just want to curl up and go to sleep. Walking any distance in new boots means that my feet will be like two bags of chips, and I will have to unplait my toes in order to force them into my strappy wedges.
There will be only one thing for it: pre-dinner drinks to lift my spirits and numb the pain.
I was thinking about pre-dinner drinks last night as I opened up my Friday Night Cheap Fizz (one night early). A glass of champagne in a posh restaurant is probably going to cost about £6. For the same money, I could have a bottle of Cuvée Royale Crémant de Limoux (Ocado £5.59 down from £6.99 until 31/7). I wanted to try the Blanquette de Limoux as suggested by MYA, who calls it ‘a fête in a bottle’ but this was as near as I could get. It has a rich biscuit and apple taste, and is quite dry, making it seem a lot more expensive than it actually is.
I have just checked on the weather forecast for The Lakes, and with comforting familiarity, it promises to be lousy. Therefore, I have packed my waterproofs - and I’m not afraid to use them.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Bags Of Fun

That’s it – the third child has finally finished school for the summer. At last we can sit around in our pyjamas all day and watch junk television – which is exactly what I used to do myself at a similar age.
I have spent the last week studiously avoiding eye contact with other mothers in order to sidestep plans to meet up for educational days out or healthy picnics. Unfortunately, my daughter has accused me of stunting her social growth by refusing to plunge headlong into the morass of scheduled events and activities. She hasn’t yet discovered the boundless joys of being unsociable, which is surprising when you consider that she lives with such a great role model.
Each of my kids has come home from school on their final day laden down with at least three carrier bags. These have all been dumped unceremoniously in the corner of the kitchen. It looks as if I have had a supermarket home delivery, but instead of the usual bottles of wine and packets of frozen chips, the bulging carrier bags contain every single piece of work they have done across the school year.
What is the point of all this? Do schools think that parents need hard evidence that their children have been doing something other than picking their noses all year? Are they just pandering to the parental obsession of needing to know everything our children are doing, even when they manage to escape the full glare of our interest for a few hours a day at school?
When I was at junior school, the only thing we brought home on the final day of the school year was a pair of cheesy-smelling plimsolls which had been used for ‘music and movement.’ I vaguely remember that we did those lessons in our underwear, which seems astounding now and makes me feel ancient. I suppose it added another weapon to the armoury of the sadistic PE staff, enabling them to humiliate the weedier children even more effectively.
Anyway, the bags are piled up in the corner, and I’m not sure what to do with them. I really can’t face looking through reams of spelling tests and times table worksheets, or making appreciative noises at A3 sized pieces of artwork which drop chunks of bright red powder paint all over my dressing gown. I know for certain that I don’t want to look in the ‘My Busy Bee News’ book, which is well-known for exposing my intemperance, rather like a tabloid newspaper. Now I know what it must feel like to be a D-list celebrity whose agent has advised her against reading the gutter press. After all, there isn’t much point trying to sue an eight year old for libel.
Other parents tell me that they select a couple of pieces of artwork to keep, and a nicely written story or two. But that is going to involve sifting through the entire contents of each bag, not to mention lighting the blue touch paper of sibling rivalry.
Time to pause and enjoy a glass of Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand (Sainsburys £8.99). This grassy, gooseberry–and-lime tasting wine is really intense, and offers everything you could ever want from a Sauvignon Blanc. Including inspiration.
I have decided to simply pour myself another glass, and revert to my default mode of ‘do nothing.’ That way, the carrier bags will become just another slag-heap in the industrial landscape of my kitchen. They can blend in with the assorted clutter until they cease to exist in their own right.
I have no doubt that the day my son asks me to retrieve the brightly coloured caterpillar with fifty pipe cleaner legs will be the day after I have finally shovelled the lot into a black bin liner.

Monday, 9 July 2007

Fifty Sense

The mighty Marks and Spencer has come to my rescue. Thanks to the divine intervention of St Michael, I will not be forced to wear orthopaedic shoes at the birthday dinner next weekend. Instead, a pair of turquoise strappy wedges (wider fitting) will transform me from dumpy frump into streamlined sylph – blink and you will miss me as I cha-cha-cha past, waving my glass of bubbly aloft. So what if my little toe hangs over the edge of the shoe like a sea-sick sailor? You can’t have everything.
Unfortunately, in my euphoria at scoring a pair of glam shoes, I forgot all about buying a birthday present. What do you get a fifty year old man for his birthday? He doesn’t drink much wine, so the ‘gift which says you truly care’ is not an option. There is a trend for buying ‘adventure days’ which allow the birthday boy to hurl himself around a racing track or parachute out of an aeroplane. But I reckon if you’ve managed to get to fifty without a coronary, it doesn’t seem very wise to tempt fate. A relaxing spa day is out of the question (this is no metrosexual male we’re talking about here), since I think any attempts at massage could result in an unseemly brawl. As for those enormous novelty balloons - I’m not sure what the attraction of a large balloon might be for anyone over the age of eight.
It appears that fifty-year-olds are no longer allowed to shuffle quietly into the realm of the old git, swathed in a baggy, threadbare cardigan, and clutching the crossword. Now they are all completing triathlons, or clambering across several thousand miles of coastline dressed in lightweight gore-tex.
I can remember a time when the term ‘male grooming product’ referred to a pair of nasal hair clippers, and that was it. Apparently today’s fifty-something male has the choice of applying anti-wrinkle cream or a face mask after shaving, rather than just slapping himself around the chops with a handful of Brut. It’s all very confusing.
As I am running through options for presents, I am aware that I am running out of time to buy anything. Slowing me down (thankfully) is this large glass of Bon Cap Syrah (Ocado £7.99).
This South African organic wine is a recommendation from my mate Peter at The Pinotage Club. H is more of a Shiraz fan than I am, but I like the peppery spice and liquorice aftertaste of this one, even if it is rather dry. It has certainly made me determined to try some of the Pinotage that they produce, if I can get hold of any.
As for the 50th birthday present, I’m still at a loss what to get. It’s all very well sashaying along to the dinner in my new shoes and party frock, but I don’t think that clutching a gift-wrapped Old Spice soap-on-a-rope is going to be appropriate, somehow.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Horse Shoes

I am going to a birthday celebration next weekend. It’s a dinner in a smart hotel, and I need to scrub up a bit for it. I have a rather glitzy dress which hasn’t seen the light of day for about a year, and which offers the perfect blend of sleek sophistication (for when I arrive) and party animal (for when I leave). The problem is that the shoes I bought to go with the dress have been reduced to twisted, mummified corpses at the bottom of the wardrobe. I am going to have to find a replacement pair, and that means going shoe shopping this weekend.
Now, I love going shopping for clothes, especially if it follows a boozy lunch with a good friend, and involves swaying in and out of dinky boutiques, stifling giggles and daring each other to try on totally unsuitable stuff (tops that reveal upper arms, peasant-style dresses, anything lime green).
But no amount of alcohol can numb the despair and humiliation of shoe shopping. I often feel like I belong to a completely different species when it comes to the topic of shoes. Many of my friends get a bigger sexual thrill from ogling shoes than they do from ogling their husbands (but then looking at some of the husbands, it’s hardly surprising). Shoes have become a byword for wild-eyed womanly lust. Buying shoes apparently represents the orgasmic fusion of female desire, submission and subsequent guilt.
I read once that the reason women supposedly lust after fancy footwear is because shoes are an accessible piece of glamour for all women, regardless of their body size. So, no matter how large you might be, or how much weight you put on, shoes will always fit.
Well, I’m sorry, but that is a load of sh....oes. I am the unhappy owner of wide feet. When I was pregnant they were even wider. So wide that flip-flops seemed like a reasonable option in February.
Years of sitting in shoe shops trying to cram my robot feet into tiny strips of satin or leather have left me feeling like one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters. I might be able to go to the ball, but if I want to dance or do anything other than sit on a stool and annoy the bar staff, I will be forced to wear sensible shoes.
Shoe manufacturers seem to be convinced that anyone with wide feet must be over seventy and devoted to beige. I never knew there were so many shades of beige, but wide-fitting shoes encompass the whole beige spectrum. They can range from a delicate, pale ‘support stocking’, through to ‘corn plaster’, and all the way to a rich, dark ‘ear wax’. The excitement of buying a foxy, sparkly red dress diminishes rather rapidly when the options for accompanying footwear all involve neutral colours, comfortable one inch heels, and large buckles for easy fastening. Not exactly ‘f**k-me’ shoes – more ‘sit me down with a nice cup of tea’ shoes.
Before I decide to unleash my inner pensioner, I am going to unleash this Friday’s Drunk Mummy Cheap Fizz. It’s an Australian sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and was chosen purely on the basis of its cork – or its lack of cork.
I am a huge fan of the screw-top wine bottle, since the disappointment of a bitter-tasting corked wine is enough to reduce me to tears. This Deakin Estate Brut (Oddbins £6.99) has a cap like a beer bottle, and why not? It is impossible to force a cork back into a bottle of sparkly stuff (and who would want to anyway?), so the metal cap seems like a perfectly sensible idea.
Admittedly if you tried to ‘pop’ the top off in true party buffoon style, you might get severe lacerations to the eye, but then I have always thought such displays of forced exuberance to be a complete waste of good fizz. The celebrations at the end of a Grand Prix race usually have me tutting like a tight-lipped maiden aunt.
The idea of forcing a cork back into a bottle is an uncomfortable reminder of the hellish task that lies ahead of me tomorrow. I think I need another glass of this rough-and-ready Aussie fizz to cope with the prospect. It is quite yeasty, and creamy, but with a good crisp finish - just what I need!
I have noticed that some shops are starting to do ranges of shoes to fit wider feet, so I know that I am not alone in my splay-footed splendour. These collections are usually called something euphemistic like ‘comfort range,’ ‘eezee-fit’ or ‘heifer hooves’ but at least they do colours other than beige, so maybe there is a chance I might buy a gorgeous and vertiginous pair of heels to go with my party dress. On the other hand, perhaps I should just stick with flip-flops, and then I won’t have to worry about falling over at the end of the evening.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Sweet Charity

We seem to be careering towards the end of the school year at an alarming rate.
It is particularly noticeable because every remaining day seems to require non-standard items of clothing, food or equipment in order to support the plethora of school charity days. This poses a dire threat to the well-rehearsed military precision of the morning routine. The school uniform may be all clean and ironed, but wait! It’s ‘Wear Something Blue Day’ to save water, or ‘Wear Something Yellowy-green Day’ to save the bile bears. We’ve already had ‘Wear Your Pyjamas to School Day’ and ‘Crazy Hair Day’ (both of which I endorse on a regular basis anyway). We are still living with the after-effects of ‘Crazy Hair Day’, since it involved copious amounts of coloured glitter spray. There is a fine dusting of the stuff over every surface in the house, and the bathroom looks like a drag queen’s dressing room.
At least the ‘French Day’ merely required that the children learn to shrug dramatically and mutter ‘C’est pas possible’ all the time. Parental involvement was limited to the provision of a few mouldy croissants, and a small donation to a charity which helps middle-aged women to buy matching underwear.
‘Roman Day’ was a bit scarier, involving gladiator fights to the death at playtime. The home-made toga was supposed to be straightforward, but all my sheets are fitted with elastic at the corners. So instead of a regally draped white toga, my son was sporting a pale blue billowing version with a puff-ball skirt. I forget what the charity was that day – something to do with sourcing vegetarian Christians to feed to vegetarian lions.
It may sound churlish to rail against all this fund-raising activity, but the majority of the charity days seem designed for the kids to have a big old laugh and eat lots of cake (there’s always a cake stall), while their parents run around throwing time and money at whatever outfit is required. I’m not sure that the idea of charity as an act of selflessness is actually getting through to the children.
It reminds me rather uncomfortably of a dinner party I went to recently where one of the glacial female guests peppered her conversation all evening with references to her ‘charity work.’ When I finally asked her what exactly she did for this charity, she smiled the benevolent smile of the morally superior and told me that she organised dinners and fashion shows to raise money. She lost no opportunity in reminding the other dutifully nodding guests of her extensive contribution, and clearly felt that her involvement with posh frocks and fabulous meals was enough to bestow the golden glow of virtue upon her own immaculate head.
I’m normally a very jolly drunk, but I couldn’t help wondering if she would be quite so charitable if asked to accompany a busload of incontinent pensioners on a day trip to Rhyl. Since there would be no call for a glamorous dress and limited opportunities for networking, I doubt she would be up for it. She didn’t look the type who would own a set of waterproofs, either.
Before I descend into total Scrooge-like malevolence, I need a glass of something to sweeten my mood. I think I have found the perfect solution in this glass of citrussy Leasingham Magnus Clare Valley Riesling (Sainsbury’s £7.99). This is a 2005, so there are no petrol fumes to contend with either. I happen to know that it is also a favourite of Heidi the kite-surfing, snowboarding dudette at Wood Vale Diaries.

I would like to nominate Heidi for my ‘Rockin Girl Blogger’ award, especially as she is someone who qualifies on all three counts. She gets to post the badge on her blog (by clicking on the badge, saving it as a picture, then adding it to the blog) and then to nominate someone else.
Heidi – I thought the pink badge might go with your new pink kiteboard!
Thank you Jenny from Mountain Mama for nominating me. I was absurdly delighted to be referred to as a ‘girl’ – can’t remember the last time that happened. Cheers!

Monday, 2 July 2007

Chinese Crackers

On Saturday morning my daughter produced a letter from the murkiest recesses of her school bag, asking if any parents would be interested in paying for after-school lessons in Mandarin Chinese next year.
That would be lessons in the notoriously difficult language that has over 200 basic characters and four tonal variations, then? For nine year olds? For half an hour a week? It was one of those classic examples of not knowing whether to laugh or scream. So I did both, and screamed with laughter – causing plenty of alarm for all witnesses, since I am usually grimly silent when I’m in my dressing gown.
I try to keep my cynicism under wraps when I am around the children (which is why I don’t talk to them much), so I had a hard time explaining to her why this was such a preposterous idea, without employing the terms ‘half-baked’, ‘pushy parents’ or ‘total insanity.’
I am convinced these lessons must be some knee-jerk reaction from the otherwise sensible headmistress, in response to the beady-eyed contingent of mothers who are constantly looking for that extra competitive edge for their children.
A quick whiz around on Google reveals that Mandarin Chinese is considered to be one of the most ‘economically useful’ languages to learn, for obvious reasons, and will make those who can master it attractive to future employers.
All very true, and in the case of nine year olds, all very depressing.
I can’t help thinking that the school’s efforts might be better spent on improving the provision for sport in the summer term. Even when it hasn’t been raining, there have been constant cancellations of rounders lessons (because the grass is slippy) or athletics lessons (because the track is slippy) or swimming lessons (because the water is slippy).
I seem to remember that when I was at school, there was a similar belief that the burgeoning South American economy meant that you would be virtually unemployable unless you could speak Spanish, or even better – Portuguese. There must be thousands of people my age who are now seriously disillusioned to find that the only benefit resulting from years of intensive Portuguese study is that they can order a Caipirinha off a ladyboy at a Mardi Gras carnival.
A scout around the Drunk Mummy Wine Vaults to unearth something Portuguese has produced just the one bottle of Tesco Finest Touriga Nacional (£5.99). It is very robust, and tastes slightly of prunes. I think that means I ought to have another glass – for the roughage, of course.
I was reading on Google that the four tonal variations in Mandarin Chinese can result in a word like ‘ma’ meaning either a mother, a horse, hemp, or a reproach, depending on the tone. Looking at that list, it would make you convinced that there is some sort of embedded word association going on there too.
Perhaps ‘pa’ can mean (depending on the tone) a father, a rat, beer, or leaving the toilet seat up.