Wednesday, 8 February 2012

David Beckham and the art of being an embarrassing parent

“Have I ever been an embarrassing parent?” I asked my son the other day. “Quite often,” he muttered with feeling. 

He then proceeded to list everything I’d done to show him up, from the day I fell off a fairground roundabout (stone-cold sober, I hasten to add) to all the times I’d insisted on staying to watch him ride his bike at the skate park. I pretended I wasn’t with him by sitting on a bench and reading the paper, but he still wasn’t best pleased.

So I felt an awful lot better when I picked up this week’s issue of Grazia and read an interview with David Beckham to mark the launch (this was the crowd that turned out!) of his new Bodywear range for H&M.

Asked what his three sons (presumably baby Harper is too little to have an opinion) make of his posing in his pants, he admitted: “They come out with remarks like ‘Oh my God, Daddy, not again,’ or ‘Everyone’s going to see you in your pants!’”

The pictures, emblazoned across thousands of billboards, are clearly working though, because Beckham’s boxers, vests and even long johns are flying off the shelves. And if it’s any comfort to Becks, embarrassing your children is part of being a parent.

I remember that when I was about 11 me and my sister went shopping in Bournemouth every Saturday with my mum. She didn’t drive in those days so on the way back we’d get a taxi home from The Square. As we turned into our road, she’d lean forward and say to the cabbie “it’s just past the fifth lamp-post on the right.” For some inexplicable reason I’d squirm with embarrassment every time she said it. “You always say that,” I’d protest. “Well it always is just past the fifth lamp-post on the right,” she’d reply.

Image © Nick Harvey

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Lost in the fog - and Jools Oliver's new children's range

For a moment I nearly panicked. I was stuck in the middle of nowhere, in freezing fog, with no phone signal and not a clue where I was going. I was off to my monthly book club, with a copy of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women tucked in my bag, but it looked like I wasn’t going to make it. 

Of all the stupid things to do, I hadn’t checked where I was heading before I set off. The February meeting was at P’s new house in one of the loveliest villages in Northamptonshire. She’s only just moved in and I hadn’t visited before - but I assumed finding it would be a piece of cake. After years as a news reporter, haring off all over the country at a drop of the hat, my sense of direction hasn’t failed me very often. So all good, except I don’t have a sat nav and I’d left in such a hurry that I hadn’t phoned P for directions or printed out a map. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll just get to the village and ring P from there.”

Only it wasn’t as simple as that. The snow has vanished from Oxford as fast as it arrived but the winding country lanes of Northamptonshire are a different story. As I drove at snail’s pace along the back roads, past snow-covered hedgerows, rabbits skittering in the ice and posters emblazoned with the words “No HS2 Rail Link” fluttering from the trees, thick fog descended and I could only see about two metres in front of my nose.

Finally, half an hour late, I drove gingerly into P’s gorgeous but alarmingly hilly village. Reaching for my mobile in the pitch black, my heart sank. “No service,” said the illuminated words on the screen. I’d stupidly failed to appreciate that in the wilds of the countryside O2’s signal is patchy to say the least. I drove up the hill, peering at the country cottages, all shrouded in darkness. There wasn’t a soul about and I briefly contemplated knocking on doors, reporter-style, but was too much of a wimp. After managing a scary 28-point turn to avoid ending up on the icy verge, it seemed my only option was to concede defeat pathetically and drive the 40 miles home.

And then suddenly, for a second at the top of the hill, a tiny bit of signal miraculously appeared. Another book club friend answered my call and yes, I made it to book club after all. Late, flustered and slightly incoherent, but I made it.

PS.  I’m not usually a fan of celebrity collaborations but I reckon Jamie Oliver’s wife Jools is a great choice to design a range of children’s clothes for Mothercare. The mother of four (three girls and one boy) is ultra-stylish, down-to-earth and I reckon she’ll come up with clothes that mums want to buy and children want to wear.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Why this year's snowfall made me sad

We were walking along St Giles when the first snowflakes fell. With temperatures below zero and our feet turning to blocks of ice, the snow had been threatening to arrive all day – and finally it had. With a vengeance.

My teenage son took one look and immediately walked faster, keen to get back to the warmth of home and the excitement of his Xbox. I felt a bit sad. This was the first time snow hadn’t made him leap up and down in excitement. Up until a year ago he’d take one look outside and think “sledges, snowmen, snowball fights with the boys next door.” Before I knew it, he’d be grabbing a jumble of clothes (no coat of course) and would be frantically unlocking the back door, desperate to hurl himself into the wintery world outside.

He’d be as happy as Larry all day. He’d get through four changes of clothes (all those snowballs), build a snowman taller than himself and rootle about in the garden shed for the sledge my mother gave him. I remember the year he came back inside at the end of the day, soaked to the skin, exhausted and beaming with happiness. He then rushed upstairs to post a cheery message on Facebook. “Yay, no school,” he wrote. “Thank you snow.”

But now he’s 17 he’s not interested in a paltry few inches of snow. It might make the dreaming spires of Oxford look even more beautiful, but he needs several feet of the stuff to play in. He wants to leap off mountains and do scary twirls in the air on a snowboard. Sadly, our current frosting of snow just doesn’t cut the mustard as far as he's concerned.

PS. My husband times his work trips to the Far East impeccably. While I’m gingerly picking my way along the icy Oxford pavements in my grippiest shoes and wondering whether I can get the car out, he’s on a flight halfway across the world. Next stop – Kuala Lumpur. Temperature – 25 degrees C.

Image: Oxford snow by tevjanphotos, Oxford Light

Sunday, 5 February 2012

The only time you see teenagers out with their parents

At the crack of dawn next week my son will thrust a hastily downloaded Google map at me, plug his favourite Justice tracks into the car’s audio system and we’ll set off for yet another university open day (snow permitting!)

The only trouble is that after visiting a handful of universities already, they’re all starting to blur into one. Neither of us can remember which boasts 22 Nobel Prize winners, which has a library with four million books and which serves coffee that tastes like old socks.

University open days are a new and weird phenomenon in our lives. When I went I more or less stuck a pin in the map and hoped for the best. Today’s teenagers get bombarded with leaflets and letters, spend hours trawling through the UCAS website and are encouraged to visit universities all over the shop before applying. The only trouble is that when they get to open days they meet academics in tweed jackets quoting statistics like 1,000 applicants for fewer than 100 places.

Even more bizarre is the sight of thousands of 17 and 18 year olds trailing round campuses with their middle-aged parents. Some look dead embarrassed to be seen out with their mums and dads, while others are clearly livid that their parents have muscled in on the trip. I’ve scored a double. I’m in both categories.

And this year there’s something new to worry about. The newspapers are full of doom and gloom about tuition fees trebling to an eye-watering £9,000 a year and students being saddled with debt for the rest of their lives. I take one look and stuff the papers in the bin. This university lark is hard enough without worrying about that right now…

PS. Forget my hankering for a 2CV. I’ve just spotted my new dream car outside Jamie Oliver's restaurant in Islington (see above!)

Friday, 3 February 2012

Friday book review - Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

The first Joanna Trollope book I ever read was The Rector’s Wife. I was so captivated by her 90s tale of a vicar’s wife who shocks everyone by taking a job at a supermarket to make ends meet that I was desperate to read her earlier books. The instant I’d finished that one I rushed out to buy another, feverishly working my way through her backlist in the way I used to gobble up Enid Blyton stories as a child.

But in recent years I haven’t found her books quite so gripping. She’s as prolific as ever – Daughters-in-Law, her 16th Trollope novel, came out in paperback last month while her 17th, The Soldier’s Wife, is published in hardback this week. I’ve clearly got a bit of catching up to do because I’ve only just read Daughters-in-Law and while I found it enjoyable enough I wasn’t bowled over by it.

In theory Daughters-in-Law sounds exactly my cup of tea. It’s the story of Rachel, the mother of three grown-up sons. She’s devoted her life to bringing them up in an idyllic-sounding house near the Suffolk coast. But now the trio have their own lives to lead. The three sons, Edward, Ralph and Luke, have all married and two of them have children of their own. Suddenly Rachel isn’t at the heart of everything, as she once was, and she clearly doesn’t like it. As she tells her endlessly patient husband Anthony: “…nobody wants me to do something I’m good at any more.”

The trouble is that I didn’t care enough about any of these characters. Rachel isn’t exactly the mother-in-law from hell, but she’s blooming annoying, with a tendency to feel sorry for herself when things don’t go her way. Ralph, her middle son, doesn’t know whether he wants to be a city slicker or to drop out and live by the sea, and as for his hippyish wife Petra, well I didn't find her believable at all. I also had a problem with Trollope’s dialogue. It’s full of wise observations, articulately expressed, but everyone sounds exactly the same. If I closed my eyes and listened to it, I’d be hard-pressed to work out who was speaking.

But despite my reservations I’m still keen to read The Soldier’s Wife. It focuses on the lives of army families and sounds a far more substantial read. An army wife interviewed on Woman’s Hour this week glowingly said that Trollope had got every single detail right. Praise indeed.

Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope (Black Swan, £7.99)

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Marian Keyes and her new baking book

The best news of the week is that the brilliant Marian Keyes has written a new book - and it's out this month.

For the past two and a quarter years the bestselling Irish novelist has suffered from debilitating depression, unable, as she writes in her latest (and very moving) blog, “to get out of bed or concentrate on a sentence or motivate myself to do anything.”

But on her better days she found the one thing that appealed to her was baking cakes. In fact she found it so comforting that she started writing the recipes down, and hooray, her book on the subject (called Saved by Cake) is out in two weeks time. It’s not only an honest account of how she coped with depression but how baking helped her get through the day. As she baked and worked out the recipes, she found that little by little her depression started to lift.

Keyes has also revealed that she’s almost finished a novel – great news for her millions of fans. Part love story, part thriller, it doesn’t have a title yet but will be out in the autumn. I can’t wait to read it.
I discovered Keyes’ novels when I had to spend a month lying on my side after an eye operation. I couldn’t read, use the internet or watch TV, so to pass the time, my daughter downloaded a ton of audio books for me to listen to. The hours flew by as I worked my way through all the books Keyes had written.

I don’t know how she does it but she manages to puts a smile on your face and makes you think. All at the same time. Her books - my favourites are Last Chance Saloon and The Other Side of the Story - are warm, witty and wise. Even when she’s writing about hard-hitting subjects like divorce, depression or alcoholism, she’s never preachy or pious. Her dialogue is true to life (unlike other novelists I could mention) and her characters are utterly believable. And how can you not love a writer who comes up with cracking one-liners like “never trust a man with two mobile phones” and “there’s not much in life that can’t be fixed by cake?” As she's found out herself.

Picture: Neil Cooper
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