Rusk Assessment

Phew! Finally, we’ve moved into the house we’ve been imagining for 30 years. And it’s lovely – all new, all clean, and best of all, clutter-free! Thank you, Lewis the fantastic carpenter and clutter-buster, who built us hundreds of drawers/cupboards/ built-ins/walk –ins/ plug-ins and slidey bins that have us as close to minimalist as we’re ever likely to be.

But not for long.

Enter our granddaughter Matilda Florence Byng and her lovely parents, trailing the vast paraphernalia of stuff required to deal with a baby’s hunger, thirst, tiredness, cold, heat,boredom, snot, vomit, plops, and anything else that mess-croppedisn’t going to help her get into Oxford. (Well you can’t start these things too early). And it’s messy. But somehow a pile of miniscule vests, a cereal- encrusted bib or a little coloured brick that gouges a chunk of skin from the unwary foot, are all so cute!

Nevertheless when she leaves, we like having our clean house back – for about ten minutes! Less, actually, before I find myself all teary when I come across a packet of her special organic rusksrusks-cropped – the signature snack for our favourite dribbly person – trailed around the house with her particular pals, Pinkie the pink thing and Kevin the koala. And suddenly we find ourselves with a big Tildy-shaped hole in our lives that we long to fill with all that wonderful mess, tedium, vigilance and joy that a gorgeous little person creates effortlessly. I’ve always thought a clean house was overrated, now I know why.

bob-and-tildy-2

reading-to-tildy

 

We didn’t have long to wait before we were reunited for her first birthday celebration in London. It’s a trip we’ve made at least forty times before, so why do I suddenly feel so anxious? It’s all here – the family, the old friends, the dulcet articulate drone of Radio 4, the shops, the theatres, the streets and buses and tubes we’ve been hopping on and off since childhood. And maybe because Tildy is our tangible, and precious reminder that so much is set down early in life, I’ve been thinking about that childhood.

Freedom to roam the streets, taking ourselves to and from school, risking our lives on dodgy playground equipment with no parents hovering, are all gifts we didn’t value at the time. We were allowed to get on with it, and I can see now, that if you’ve just come slidethrough a world war, letting your kid hurtle down a slide the size of Nelson’s column, was the least of your worries. Nevertheless, I don’t remember feeling scared of my world, and I’m the person who invented risk aversion.

I do get it, that the golden era of free university, a bag of chips for sixpence,fries a month in Greece for twenty quid, and a house that we didn’t have to mortgage our souls for, is long gone. And was it really that golden? I remember pubs so smoky you couldn’t see who you were talking to (just as well really), having to go down the street to make a phone call, living in flats with no central heating,  no fitted carpets and – ikeaunimaginably – no IKEA furniture or Netflix! But there were reassuring, if dreary certainties: a job for life with a gold watch and a pension if you stuck it out, a religion that promised you a spot in heaven if you did all those Novenas, and the knowledge that tomorrow would be pretty much like today…just a bit duller.

This generation has to write its own script – aided and abetted by Messrs Jobs and Gates and Zuckerberg, who may or may not have equipped them for the bumpy ride on the Globalisation/Brexit/Trump juggernaut through a warming planet into a sharing economy, armed with a smart phone and a flexible take on each new scary twist technology throws at them. nokia-3310And while there’s no way they want to go back even to the Nokia 3310, never mind the shared phone box in the street, what kind of world is our lovely little bub going to inherit?

Louis MacNeice – well known Irish poet (and friend and colleague of my lesser known  dad) – must have been having the same wake-up-in-the-night scary thoughts about the future for children yet unborn, when he wrote these lines in his sombre and frightening poem ‘Prayer Before Birth’*

‘That the human race may with tall walls wall me…

Would freeze my humanity…

Would make me into a cog in a machine…

Would blow me like thistledown hither and thither…’ (Oh no, poor Matilda!)

He wrote this poem during World War 2, and it seems like a highly appropriate response to all that carnage and hopelessness. But then it dawned on me that the generation for  whom he held such fears, was mine! And only a few years after all that horror, we just strode on through perfectly OK lives with scarcely a backward glance. Indeed as he hoped, in his last verse, the earth:

‘Provide[d] me
 with water to dandle me,

Grass to grow for me,

Trees to talk 
to me,

Sky to sing to me,

Birds and a white light
 in the back of my mind to guide me.’

So clearly there’s no point in viewing the future through my nanna-shaped lens, so badly distorted by worry and bewilderment. Hell, I don’t even have a smart phone, so how would I know how it all works! parot-3-200x150What I do have is the weight in my arms of a fragrant little person pointing with equal delight at the jeweled bright Queensland parrots, or the soft, dun coloured London sparrow-1sparrows…she’s not fussy…everything is a complete delight to her. And together with trusty friends Pinkie and Kevin, her joy in the adventure of her life is what will inspire us all.

tldy-and-friends

  • These are just random extracts from this poem. The full version is very powerful, and a bit scary. Nevertheless I commend it to you (maybe with a strong cup of tea…or gin.)
Advertisements

Thrills and Spills

tilda 5Thrilling is not a word I’d use to describe our life at the moment. Comfortable, yes. And predictable. We know we won’t be running the New York Marathon any time soon, I’ll never be size 8 again, and there will definitely be a re-run of ‘Midsomer Murders’ some time in the next 24 hours.

marathon

So predictable is a bit dull, but it’s pleasant. We might cruise tranquilly through the specials at Aldi, or have morning tea at the seniors film club, go to choir practice, or play golf…fortunate indeed to be able to drift peacefully into our sunset years. The closest we get to thrilling is when Midsomer Murders shows an episode we haven’t seen before. Or maybe we just can’t remember.

midsomer murders

But all that changed at 4.35 pm on Thursday 21st January at St Thomas’ Hospital. Within sight of Big Ben and the London Eye and probably within the sound of Bow Bells – if they were dinging especially loudly – our first grandchild, Matilda Florence (Mo Flo* to her friends) arrived.

big ben

Our first sighting was on Skype, but within 24 hours we had in our arms the soft weight and heft and smell of this brand new person. It is nothing short of astonishing. A couple of days before, she was a tidy bump that twisted and flexed, but didn’t stop her mum going to the movies or eating a birthday banoffee cake (made with mango – Queensland style). But now! This wriggly bundle of life with the dark eyes and rosebud lips is so emphatically here! She commands us all to smile and coo and repeat to each other how beautiful she is. And she is.

thea banoffeetilda skype

OK, arguably no more beautiful than all the other babies, but try telling that to all the people grinning stupidly around her. She is beautiful because she’s the next bit of our families – those little houses of hope we constructed in the face of all the crap that life might rain on us (not literally, we hope). Thank goodness we don’t know this when we embark with such blithe optimism on the business of rearing new people out of love and hope. And thank goodness we don’t know how hard it will be to give ourselves over to these new people…to watch and fret over their every move, to minister blindly to their every need, even when we are only guessing what that need is.

Tilda 4

So that’s part of the thrill – the sheer optimism of a new baby. But there is more to it. Trouble is, every time you try to explain it, you end up in clichés, because it’s the most common thing in the world. It has to be, or we wouldn’t have a world, so why is it so special when it happens to you? That’s the paradox – it’s unique and commonplace, profound and ordinary. It’s so huge it connects you with the grand universal story of humankind and yet all these unexceptional people have managed it…even idiots like your own parents!

Tilda me and Bob

But there are a few special thrills for grandparents:

  • You get to relive and remember when it was you that was suddenly responsible for this other life…the whole sweet awfulness of it all.
  • Airbrushed by time, you realize what a remarkable job you did getting them to sleep, feed and poo unscathed. (That’s them. You were extremely scathed at the time).
  • You get to say profound things like, ‘I think it’s wind,’ and people listen to you as if you know stuff.
  • And it’s your baby with a baby of her/his own. We can’t help taking some vicarious pride. Job done, back patted. We must have done something right. (Certainly not tight swaddling…I still can’t manage that.)

tilda and me

And as for that old chestnut, ‘the best thing about grandchildren is that you can give them back.’ Nup, that’s not it. Surely the best thing about the degree of separation is that you feel the same ridiculous love for this little person as you did for your own, but because it’s no longer you in that hormonal haze of exhaustion and exhilaration, you can enjoy the marvel of it, and savour it, think about it, gaze at the baby and later at the pictures (all 529 of them) with a bit of time to enjoy it. Not too much savouring went on first time around. More like saving – your life – before you go bonkers.

Thea, Si and Matilda

Happy two-month birthday Matilda – the thrill that keeps on thrilling!

*Can’t claim the name…that was coined by that well known wit Dr Tim Dark.

 

 

Back to the Past (but only my bit of it)

funny-girlI’ve just read Nick Hornby’s new novel Funny Girl in one sitting, because I just had to keep going. It’s a nice plot: likeable, good-looking Blackpool girl makes good in big bad Loondon with only wit, northern nous, and a longing to be on the telly to rely on. And it’s trademark Hornby: decent self-effacing folk triumph over tossers, amid lots of laughs and acute social commentary.

But the reason I wanted to stay in this book is because, whether by listening to his mum and dad a lot, watching loads of vintage British TV, or just good old fashioned research, Hornby was able to take me right back to the time when I was the same age as Barbara/ Sophie, lived in London, watched all those TV shows, was glued to the radio, and witnessed the emergence of London from its wartime privation to become the capital of cool. (Or what passed for cool in 1964)

By any standards it was a remarkable time I suppose, but then we boomers have no trouble asserting that our time was more remarkable than all the other generations put together. We absolutely refuse to move over gracefully, determined to wear our blue jeans, not our blue rinses, to the bitter end. And there must be a buck in it, because so many TV shows pander to us, and lovingly recreate the sixties in all their kitchen sink glory.

Heartbeat I reckon it started with Heartbeat, where the police chases are less convincing than the ones our son used to enact with his Matchbox cars and the crims only get caught because they are even slower than good old plod. It’s British fair play at its best. But clearly it struck a nerve because thanks to the likes of George Gently, (that’s Mister Gently to you), The Hour, and the earnest young Morse in Endeavour, beehives and Beatles hair, shillings in the meter and phones the size of small cars all glow under a patina of nostalgia.

george gently

Or is it the fug of cigarette smoke? Because in these brilliantly textured reconstructions, everyone smokes… all the time! How did any of us survive? Of course it took Madmen to make it all divinely stylish, even though the actors must have had a lung cancer clause in their contracts.Mad-men-title-card What a simple, wholesome time it is in our memories. People were somehow more decent, and we can be lulled into the notion that maybe we were too. As well, giving our youthful naivete the vintage treatment makes it OK that our legs were permanently purple mottled in those white boots and minis (in winter!)white boots with our panda eyes (watering from the cold) and ironed hair that we thought made us look like Jean Shrimpton…sorry Jean.jean shrimpton

And at least it made us resilient. Imagine today’s young ‘uns permanently, wired to their networks, having to go down the road (in the rain) to the phone box if they want any life outside a front room confined to silence while Dad listens to THE NEWS.

But doesn’t every generation like to think they invented youth, and that those embarrassing old fogies gyrating in the corner and screeching She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah arrived in the world that way? They certainly could never have been the zeitgeist-savvy uber-coolies that each succeeding generation imagines it is. We all have our time to which we are drawn, and which becomes a kind of touchstone. Everyone feels that their young years were remarkable because they were the years of hope (and potential glory). Start playing a signature tune from any era, and watch the appropriate age group smile mistily and star bopping (or groovin’ or makin’ shapes) How many times have you smiled and nodded gamely at a party when the not-my-era song was shouted in joyous union by folk for whom it was embedded forever by the potent mix of youth and possibility?

OK, I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never wear those white boots again (Is that a collective sigh of relief I hear?) But some things are still possible. Let’s start with food: who remembers creamed rice (in a tin) or bacon sarnies (on white bread with HP sauce)? ambrosia - creamed rice My tin of Ambrosia creamed rice is Britain’s answer to Proust’s humble madeleine, which was accorded iconic super-powers in A la Recherché de Temps Perdu…roughly translated as: to find again, times that are lost. One of the saddest lines in literature, especially as Ambrosia tinned rice is not available here in Oz, and I have to make do with Home Brand.

Here’s what the madeleine (dipped in tea) did for Monsieur Proust: And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me …immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents … and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine …in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, all from my cup of tea.

Proust madeleine  But wait! According to a site called Poms in Adelaide Ambrosia creamed rice can be found in Foodland, Hope Valley! I’m in the middle of googling flights to Adelaide and then I think…do I really want to go back there? The equipment with which one first tastes something is so sharp and well-developed (and hungry, in a way I never am now). But that me whose taste buds (and all other faculties) were so acute, is no more. The tasting equipment is more than a bit clapped out from sixty years of constant activity. And even if I could get the taste back, all the other stuff…and the people that went with it…are gone forever.

OK Pass me the remote. Apparently they’re showing re-runs of The Avengers, and I’ll just wallow for a while in the nostalgia tinted version of how it all was…so much more flattering and comforting. And, you never know, maybe Foodland in Hope Valley do home deliveries.