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When we moved in

We got on with some painting at the weekend. Not the filling a blank canvas type – instead, creating the blank canvas itself.

When we moved in, we were desperate to put our stamp on a place of our own. Five years of marriage: renting, saving, waiting for enough job stability to start a mortgage.

So we painted the place ourselves. We soon learned we weren’t that great at DIY; that where it mattered, it was better (for us) to pay someone who could do a decent paint job.

But this room doesn’t need a fancy finish. In fact, it’s the only room that’s not been redone since we moved in. Time to freshen it up.

When we moved in, every room was a different colour. There were stencils all the way up the stairs; small stencils above the handrail.

I knew they had probably taken a long time to do. I also knew, very quickly, that they would likely not last the first weekend we were in the place.

They didn’t.

Both of us were in on the painting, this last weekend. Dan on the rollering – broad brush stroke type stuff. Me on the taping up the woodwork; painting the edges by skirting boards, and so on.

(Pretty much our usual styles of operating: big picture vs details. Good team work for painting; for living, too.)

We stuck on a whole range of music to help us through the day. A proper painter would have their radio; a preferred radio station, and would get on with it a whole lot faster too.

We jumped around, in terms of choosing music. If it was reasonably high energy, that was enough. We took newspaper reading breaks, too, when we’d had enough of one circuit of the room.

(Sugar soaping: tick. Remembering that you then need to wash off the sugar soap: not so much. A further circuit of the room for that.)

When we moved in, we pulled in some painting favours. We’d helped other friends paint their places, at least a bit; we figured we could ask for some help.

It speeded up turning the yellow room white. The big mauve room: that took at least three coats to get it to white. (I know why our downstairs neighbour sighs when it’s time to paint their ‘big room’ again. It takes a long time.)

We had begged a different set of favours this time round: grandparent favours so that it was just the two of us to get on with the painting. We stepped back in time, just a little bit: just the two of us, back painting this room.

We got faster as we went on. By the time we’d finished the second coat of paint, we’d got it down to an hour to go round the whole room. (The gloss work is still to do. We took the decision to leave the ceiling as is.)

When we moved in, I remember us hosting our first meal with friends. A big pot of chilli, picnic style, sitting on the laminate floor of the attic (the one room that didn’t need painting, and so wasn’t in upheaval).

This time round, we went for calorie distribution between the two of us. Cooked lunch; takeaway meal for later, once we were tired and unlikely to want to cook. (We were.
We didn’t. We still wanted to eat though. Good move.)

When we moved in, we were both 30. There are some ways of going back in time, and repeating an earlier experience is one of them.

We can’t go back to 30. But actually, we don’t need to.

Lit Kid: recurring phrases

I began with openings, and now I’m going onto recurring phrases in children’s books.

It’s not my intention to get overly stylistic about it. I have a notebook where I am starting to record ideas for writing about children’s books, and there are (unsurprisingly) many others that could clamour for attention.

But a certain amount of time this week spent with audio books, to calm and occupy the invalid, has made me more aware of the power of such phrases in books – even when we hear them inside our heads, or with our eyes.

Just as we may know what is coming with words such as “Once upon a time”, recurring phrases belong to the atmosphere that is built as a tale starts to take shape before our eyes.

Whether read aloud, or viewed on the page, the phrases are there for us to notice. They tie us to that particular author, or series of books.

Sometimes it is a form of address to the reader that beguiles us – particularly with Kipling’s ‘Best Beloved’, of the Just So Stories. (In fact, try doing a ‘find’ of ‘Best Beloved’ on the Project Gutenberg version, and see just how many there are.)

It may be like a favourite uncle having a pet name for us – a phrase of affection, like ‘Silly old bear!’, which may even make its way into regular language usage.

It may equally be a suggestion that we, as readers, understand more than others, and so will be entrusted with secrets by the author.

Recurring phrases don’t always have to be the same words – but they need to occur in the same kind of place each time, and follow a particular function.

They may be the equivalent of an in-joke – which they often are, in the Harry and the Dinosaurs series.

Book by book, Harry’s older sister Sam makes some kind of comment which gets Harry’s goat, and leads to some form of retaliation:

‘Sam said “You can’t take dinosaurs to school, stupid!”
That’s why her toast fell on the floor.’ (Harry and the Dinosaurs go to School)

We know it is coming – we also know that (usually) Harry’s Gran will take him off and calm things down.

What we don’t know is what format the offence will take – or what Harry’s response will be. So we need to go on to the next book to find out.

Equally, in the Horrid Henry series, there are regular descriptions of the anti-hero Henry attacking his brother Peter, all worked out in character – a bit like Calvin as Spaceman Spiff, dealing with the latest impertinence by his class teacher.

The pay-off, really, is that someone will have to say “Stop being horrid, Henry!”, and reconfirm his nature and character.

For younger children, often the main beneficiaries of reading aloud, regular phrases are markers in a world they are still trying to understand. These phrases or set pieces help set up expectations; they show the way that we are expected to react.

On occasions, the phrases also help build a world for the characters: one that, we feel, we could step into, and know how to interact with others.

Sometimes, it’s done through recurring minor characters. The Harry Potter series, for example, has Moaning Myrtle, a ghost first encountered in the girls’ toilets.

Myrtle moves through water, it seems, so it’s not so surprising when she turns up in a later book when Harry is forced to take a longer bath for reasons of solving a mystery.

The expectation is that we will recognise Myrtle, that we will know why she is here, but also why she is well-placed to give Harry a clue.

It’s a useful short-cut for us – and for Harry – and it helps confirm that sense of the wider Potter universe that J.K. Rowling carefully built up.

Recurring phrases, or characters, are probably one of the ways we are drawn into continuing reading through series of books – the promise of a series of comic turns, that improve in impact the more you read.

But illustrators can use them too, when drawing a new book but including recognisable details from another one.

One example of this would be the recurring cat characters in Satoshi Kitamura‘s picture books. (See how many cats you can spot in the link article’s pictures.)

Equally, scroll through the link article’s Sendak illustrations to the one for The Nutcracker (third one down), and see who else you recognise (on the left hand side).

There are equally visual protocols that illustrators enjoy – like Herge drawing himself into Tintin stories (a bit like Hitchcock’s brief walk-on parts in his own films).

For those (like me) who are fond of a catchphrase, and the opportunities to repeat it, recurrence in books is the best kind of deja vu.

It is an invitation to guess the punchline – and to take a step closer to the author (or illustrator) setting up the joke.

And with your liking for them and their books building through each recurrence, who would refuse?

Retirement starts here

A thought struck me today: and I’m going to have a go here at thinking it through.

I’m thinking about that later life phase: those (hopefully) special times when we are free of responsibilities (or freer, at least); when availability of time is not an issue.

What do people think about doing in retirement? Travel is high up the list. But so is doing whatever we want – having quiet days, having stay-up-all-night days, however the fancy takes us.

We might want to take up new hobbies – or reengage with old favourites. We might long to enjoy beauty more, whether through going to galleries, painting our own pictures, or looking up at the sky more.

It might be about music, it might be about reading, it might be about other creative pursuits.

It might be about the people we spend time with: whether special friends, family members, people who live further away from us, whom we might normally not get to see.

We’re supposedly hoping for more time, more spare cash to do these things – but they may equally be the free or low-cost delights. The park bench in the sunshine. The cafe and the good book, as long as our fancy takes us.

So here’s the question. Why do we wait until retirement to embrace these things?

When we’re in our childhood or teens, we’re encouraged to try new things. To develop interests, deepen them.

Why is it that we stop doing that as we get older? Why does productivity have to take over?

I’m not assuming that I can get by purely on big ideas and shafts of sunshine. I know that there’s some earning of money that goes on, and I’ve done my fair share of that.

Then I took on the job without pay, for all the hours God sends (otherwise known as parenthood). If I’d forgotten how to have time for myself when I was working full time, it took on a whole new dimension as a mum.

For those who are reading who are parents, I don’t need to elaborate. Sometimes, it takes extremes to help you identify what you need for yourself.

You choose time for yourself – any spare minutes – because you see the difference it makes to everything you do.

Little by little, I got better about having time for me. I even started last year with a set of ‘wants’ for my birthday list which were all to do with hobbies and interests: tune the piano, use opportunities to speak German again, and so on.

Not all of that happened, by any means. But by the end of last year, I had to come to agree to writing being an essential for me, rather than an option for when I had done enough on my-to do list to be allowed some free time.

(I’ve never done enough on my to-do list. That’s partly realism, and that’s partly being a recovering perfectionist. So it had to stop being about ‘enough’.)

A few years back, some friends of ours had a tagline to their emails that went like this (quotation by Mark Twain):

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

I liked it, I even tore it off one email and kept it in the back of my diary. I would look at it now and then and hope.

A new decade is round the corner for me. And twenty years on from that, I can start to think about retirement. So do I want to keep those joys of life until then?

We may save for retirement, but do we save our opportunities for then too? Or do we start spending them now?

I don’t think I can wait until retirement to listen to great music, read great books, maybe write some of my own. I may have to wait a bit for some of the travel I’d love to do, but I don’t want to give up on it.

I may find that the art I still want to see means more to me because I have to negotiate that time to do so, more than in my twenties and early thirties.

So. The only way I can see to do this is to begin now. As much of it as I can squeeze in, between food shops and school runs, work commitments and family responsibilities.

Call it a late New Year’s Resolution, perhaps. Retirement starts here.


A Christmas Carol: Christmas stockings

It’s almost Christmas Eve as I write today’s post. Almost.

Almost is close enough to be able to talk about Christmas stockings, isn’t it?


Christmas Past

I think the very early days of Christmas stockings were proper long socks. There is a pair of good stout navy socks that my dad had when he was in the Merchant Navy (I think) – I think this is where my Christmas stocking experience began.

Some time in the dim and distant, my granny F (I think) arranged Christmas stockings for me and for my brother. I think my parents have them now.

They are red and white striped (and maybe green too?). They are a bit Dr Seuss, or candy cane, in appearance. And on the cuff, at the top, is embroidered the appropriate name.

I think these come from the era when we were living in Peebles, reasonably close to my grandparents when they were in Edinburgh. So maybe the stockings came out at a
get-together during that time.

In those days, we lived in a first floor flat – a big house, converted into flats with impossibly high ceilings. And there was a fireplace too – perfect place to hang the stockings.

I suspect Dad hammered in nails – one each side of the fireplace – and a stocking went on each side. And as far as I know, that pattern was repeated.

In the house where we lived for all of my secondary school years, you could see the nail holes beside the fireplace there. It was simply a case of pushing a nail back in, hanging up the stocking.

Well on into our teens, even if our Father Christmas perspectives had shifted somewhat – we still wanted a Christmas stocking. And Mum and Dad still brought out the stockings to hang up each year.

Always, but always: a shiny coin. A satsuma. (I think my parents had had this pattern for their own childhood stockings.)

Likely bet: Terry’s Chocolate Orange. Possibly even a dark chocolate one, in later years.
Or Neapolitans, perhaps (which I now discover are no longer produced. I suspect public disgruntlement about The Coffee Flavoured Ones.)

Christmas stockings work well with things that are small, or long. So they’re fine to add the odd bottle of something for the bath. Something like this, for example.

Most memorable item in a Christmas stocking: a folding music stand. Indeed just what I needed, in those ‘cello playing days.

The day began with stockings: but of course! (But after 7 am, please.) I’m sure mine was initially unpacked on my own bed, delighted over, repacked again and carried through to my parents’ room.

And when we had opened our stockings on our parents’ bed, it would seem unfair that we had something and they did not.

So I would head down to find presents for them, from me and from my brother. And so the rest of the giving and receiving would unfold.


Christmas Present

I would love to tell you that Junior Reader has an heirloom-type stocking that can be treasured for many a year.

But this would not be fair to say, as it was purchased in a bargain store. (Christmas traditions can still be borne out of limits on maternal time, patience and cash.)

No matter. It looks like Father Christmas, and it is jolly in red and white felt. The hook may not be the strongest, and has seen some repair, but the stocking is doing fine.

There is a space for a photo (should the visiting Father Christmas forget the child he is visiting) and Junior Reader is usually happy to spend some time on Christmas Eve hunting around for a reasonably recent photo.

Stockings are about appropriate levels of novelty – and astonishing levels of insight on the part of Father Christmas.

So I can reveal that not only has he brought Junior Reader a CD or two over the years, in the Christmas stocking, at times he has also kindly put the CD onto the family iPod so that it can quickly be listened to in any environment!

Father Christmas also seems to have a bit of a thing about glow sticks. This being at a dark time of the year, we see his point.

Lacking a chimney, or a suitable bed end for a stocking to hang on, we improvise with the stocking hanging on the outside-facing handle of Junior Reader’s door. Father Christmas has coped admirably with this over the years.

Given the obviously as-yet unknown stocking contents prospect of 2013, we can only speculate about what it will be like this year.

But we are reasonably sure that Father Christmas has enjoyed putting together his purchases.

A Christmas Carol: pantomime

Time for another Christmassy post. Oh no it isn’t. Oh yes it is…

When I started planning out subjects for this month’s posts, pantomime was one that made the list early on.

Others will choose to focus their Christmas ‘must dos’ on elves on shelves (or not, depending on this year’s press about it), cookie exchanges, or indeed recipes for beach barbecues for the big day.

It all goes to show that Christmas really is very different, depending on where you live, and the traditions that have grown up around that location.

In the case of pantomime, it’s many things. Call it an alternative reason to get together – instead of the carol concert or the Christmas outing.

Call it a reason to test out multi-age entertainment – with jokes that work for the kids and others very much aimed at the adults.

Call it a reason for grandparents to treat the grandkids, and soak up a little of their excitement. Call it the need for a good story, and a happy ending, in the season of dark mornings and short days.

For those somewhat mystified as to the nature of a pantomime (or panto for short), Wikipedia leaps to the rescue as ever – reminding me that it is an entertainment of generally British beginnings (with plenty more influences too).

Meanwhile, time to line up the performers.


Christmas Past

I’d love to tell you that I remember my first panto – but I don’t. But I do remember the one that set the standard – for many things, as it turns out.

Aged eight or so, my Brownie Guides pack arranged an outing up to Edinburgh to see a proper panto – one with known names. It was only an hour away, really, but it felt like a big deal.

We went in a coach, for starters. We came back in the dark. It felt very grownup and exciting.

I suspect we were at the King’s Theatre, the classic Edinburgh theatre for Christmas pantos. These are the real deal of pantos, often with celebrities included.

But part of the pattern with pantos is that many performers get hooked, and appear in new pantos year by year. (I say new. Most pantos stick determinedly to fairytale subjects.)

In this case (as currently in Edinburgh), part of the attraction is the familiar faces, still identifiable in new costumes and a new storyline.

The year I went, the key attraction was the Scottish comedy duo Francie and Josie, which my father certainly knew of old. I don’t remember who played which parts – I don’t even remember which story it was, to be honest.

But it was an early introduction to pantomime set in a local tradition – in this case, lots of use of Scots, and lots of jokes relating to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Thirty-odd years on, I can still sing the song that they taught that night, Parliamo Glasgow. So that’s a fairly clear indication that it had an impact on me.

(Stanley Baxter was the comedian who started the notion, and the song was evidently written for him – for pantomime performance. I have been able to find the words, should you want to learn it yourself.)

The other key aspect of the trip was: chips. With brown sauce – or as it’s better known:
salt ‘n’ sauce. It was a treat, partway back on the coach.

I’m sure the place must have reeked of vinegar, but the comfort factor was high, especially important when getting back relatively late.

Having set up such expectations, the next step was to be in pantos myself.

Fortunately, at secondary school, our drama teacher was also the director of the local amateur dramatics society, whose performances included an annual panto.

One year I was in both the school panto and the local panto, along with a good number of friends. (I was never anything particularly important – usually a member of the chorus.)

The rehearsals were a huge source of fun, even though my parents must have been pretty fed up with all the ferrying me about. Singing and limited gesticulation with arms: those
I could do.

(And I do remember some of us getting locked in a music practice room, along the corridor from the stage, and only just getting out at the last minute, thanks to someone’s nifty work with a hairpin to unpick the lock.)

And while the school panto (‘Scrooge’) was only on for one night, the one in the local theatre (‘Jack and the Beanstalk’) ran for a good ten days, I recall – matinee and evening performances.

There was no point coming home in between, so we would all stay on (probably with leftovers sandwiches), play card games and so on.

I don’t know whether there was a veto on more after that – or whether the school work went up. I had probably reached the outer limit of my ‘am dram‘ abilities, in any case.


Christmas Present

We’ve been to a panto with Junior Reader in the last few years – thanks to the efforts of the local theatre near where my parents live.

Two years in a row, a cast almost entirely of kids impressed us all, firstly with ‘Ebeneezer’ (a musical version of A Christmas Carol), and the following year with ‘Oliver!‘ (the popular musical based on Oliver Twist).

This year, no panto – and timings weren’t quite right for alternatives here either.

But today, we made up for it a bit. We had our own extra mini tradition of watching the annual children’s TV panto – where the presenters of various programmes come together to perform a pantomime, one which is also done live and filmed.

Part of the fun is ‘spot the presenter’ – where the storylines usually incorporate some catchphrases of particular shows too.

And this year, I was able to point out some of the special guests, including ones I had watched in my own childhood.

There were audience participation songs. The baddie saw the error of his ways, even if there was less opportunity to shout ‘he’s behind you!’ than in some years.

Familiar storylines, in-jokes. Familiar cast – maybe with special guests.  Slapstick moments, and little times of genuine pathos. Doesn’t that sound like most people’s notion of their own Christmas?