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.




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.


  • 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.)

Resolution revolution

resolutions 2Last New Year’s Eve, I had a brilliant idea. We’d write down three resolutions, put them in an envelope, then take them out at the same time next year and check them. I’m not sure what I thought would happen then. I suppose we’d either feel new yearsridiculously smug, or be seething with self – loathing, neither of which are especially appealing. Anyway as you might imagine, it didn’t turn out as planned. Our first mistake was resolving to do this before a few glasses of bubbles. Predictably, by the time the fireworks fired, the clock struck twelve, Auld Lang was signed, no one could be arsed to find a bit of paper and a pen so we decided to do it in the morning!

Given that my first big resolution was to stop procrastinating it wasn’t a promising start to 2016. But my second resolution – to stop wasting time – fared a bit better. At least we hadn’t wasted valuable time writing down fragile promises to ourselves. And that’s when it dawned on me. Stop wasting time making resolutions! If you really wanted to do it, you would! You don’t waste time writing down the things you really want to do, you just do them. If I made mine into a list it would go something like this:

  • Eat some chocolatechocolate
  • Have a drink
  • Watch some telly
  • Walk on the beach
  • Cook something nice for dinner
  • Have some friends over
  • Practise my choir music
  • Read my booktyping
  • Skype the kids
  • Write something
  • Email friends



Whereas the resolutions go more like this:

  • Lose weight
  • Clean the house
  • Do tummy crunches
  • Start Yoga
  • Clean up and organize all my emails since 1998

But hang on, would I be a better person if I’d achieved the latter and stopped doing the former? I’d be thinner, more toned and I’d have a clean house and a clean computer. But was the old chocolate-munching, beach-walking, offspring-skyping me so bad? That word RE-SOLUTION is basically an attempt to keep solving the same problems…over and over. So maybe it’s time to de-problemmatise my inability to be someone else, and just be me.

And this latest blog post is incontrovertible evidence of the uselessness of resolutions. I started it weeks and weeks ago and we’re already half way through the season of Lent, just in time for another bout of self-flagellation about my shortcomings! So this year I’ve decided to give up feeling inadequate, and just try to do what I like to do, really well.

pink-diaryFor a start I like – more like a compulsion really – to mark the passage of time with some kind of record-keeping. It’s an attempt, I suppose, to make some meaning out of my days on the planet, and to that end I’ve kept a diary since about 1962. Clearly it was part of my make-up long before ‘time’s winged chariot’ went into the warp speed it is now.

So, since we have spent these last three months in London, I decided I’d post something quirky or interesting on Facebook every day. How easy it would be! London provides endless inspiration, and I have my lovely new ipad mini so I can click and post seamlessly. And it was fine for the first few days…a pink wintry sky or a gleaming red bus was enough to intrigue my Facebook friends (all 37 of them).

red sky


me and matilda 2But now – on day 70 – it’s dominating my entire life! I’ve scoured the streets and sky, hung out of train windows, and trespassed in people’s gardens in the quest for some post-able event. I’ve had to shuffle the days, make stuff up, perv on unsuspecting tube travelers, and set my family up in all manner of poses (OK, that one with the Dalek was a bit much.) diaryOnly occasionally have I resorted to granny-bragging, even though our new granddaughter – the main reason for our visit – is completely adorable. But, with one week to go, I’ve pretty much done it. And I have to say it feels OK to set a goal and fulfil it. But more than that I now have a photo-record of a lovely time in our lives – daleks and all.

And in a curious Mathematical equation, which you probably won’t find in the pages of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (because you won’t be looking…and neither did I!) the cumulative effect is greater than the sum of its little parts. It’s something to do with the links and connections, and the blithe ignorance of the future that is in a daily post. After a while a pattern emerges of what a period of a life looks like. It’s a bit like a patchwork quilt. The pieces on their own are unremarkable, but brought together and chucked on the bed…it looks terrific. And – bonus – it will warm you on a cold night.

patchwork quilt





Blinky and me on the 243 – welcome to London

graffiti 2

When I come to London from  peaceful little Noosa Heads sur Mer, I feel as if some myopic paramedic has applied those paddle things they use to revive people, not to my heart, but to my brain! It’s not as if I’m a stranger here. This is my hometown. I grew up in Marylebone, went to a little primary school just behind Selfridges, and lived here on and off till my late twenties. Maybe I should heed the wise words of Terry Pratchett: Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. But I don’t know if even he has prepared me for this whirling, spectacular, cacophonous and completely bonkers experience … and that’s only a ride on the 243 from Stoke Newington to Waterloo. I think you’ll agree the expression on the face of my little friend Blinky says it all.

koala on bus 1

Just so many, many people. I’ve always been good at just staring at other people (discreetly of course), watching the passing parade, wondering what their lives are like, what they think, believe, hope for, and what possessed them to wear those shoes with that frock!

London folk 1

But here – initially at least, my brain is on overload. The beautiful young Jewish girl, in the black wig and dark tailored coat eases her stroller with her four children and six bags of shopping hanging on to it, past the pair of schoolgirls, in their neat blue blazers and silk -swathed heads bent over their i-Phones. Weary grandmothers – Irish looking or West Indian origin maybe – offer a smile before they sink gratefully into a seat. Tall young black guys lope gracefully through the bus; smart-suited young profs, hold on to the rail and gaze seriously at their phones; someone down the back talks loudly into space, entertaining the whole bus with what they’re having for dinner. I try to imagine the worlds they all step back into when they leave the bus. That’s what a writer is meant to do, right? (write?) But I can only sit and stare. I haven’t a clue! London 2

Maybe if we look out the window we’ll pick up few hints. Our big red chariot jolts and judders us through streets teeming and people weaving busily through shops, chatting on corners, lounging outside pubs in the spring sunshine. Seems the trusty 243 offers a kaleidoscopic lesson in socio-economics as it slices its way through the layers of generations, classes, ethnic groups, rungs on the fiscal ladder, fashion proclivities and just general out-thereness. A trip on the 243 is a snapshot of the city…better yet, a short film (that feels like a very long film if you’re late for the movie) as it heaves its way through Dalston, past street markets, peeling shop fronts offering everything from wigs to wedding gowns, cheap phones to children’s clobber. The all night bagel shop vies with eco-veggie restaurant and the halal kebab vendor for your eating pleasure….actually don’t start me (or Blinky) on the food, or we’ll never get out of here. Blinky wants cake1

If we gaze down the long vista of kingsland Road we’ll catch a tantalizing glimpse of that huge green gherkin, or the sharp shiny splinter of a building known as the shard. That’s where the money is, but there’s a journey before we reach them. We must pass gracious Victorian civic buildings; a cluster of wonderful Vietnamese restaurants, a canal that has spawned bijou urban dwellings that now overlook its murky depths. And the Geffreye Museum sits sedately back from the road with its garden shining green through cast iron railings. Then we’re in trendy Hoxton, where the remnants of the livid night-life can still be detected in posters for rock bands and tired looking young folk queuing at the bus stop. Cyclist weave their way in and out in grungy fluoro patches and what looks to me like reckless abandon, and at every stop light, a surge of humanity sweeps across our path. koala on bus 2

Now we are in the heart of it…skirting the old city wall at the Barbican, passing Hatton Garden for the diamonds and the Inns of Court for the justice. Gracious edifices line the way, peppered with the new and audacious glass-fronted buildings of all shapes, and angles imaginable that reflect the London of the bankers and the financiers back to themselves. Then we’re at the edge of theatre-land. And yes, Mama Mia is still pulling the punters, there on the corner where Aldwych curves us round in the same old path to the Thames it has offered for hundreds of years.  The river glideth at his own sweet will said Wordsworth in about 1802 and it still does. No amount of new buildings thrusting themselves confidently into the London sky, not even the big unsightly red box at the end will change the grace and majesty of the view from Waterloo Bridge london skyline 2

And what do we find at the end of our journey? For a mere three quid (plus thirteen for two glasses of rose…all right, they were large ones), we can watch Alan Bennett talking to Nicholas Hytner in the Olivier Theatre. In his deceptively mild northern burr he dissects all that he finds wanting as well as all that he finds wonderful in the Britain he’s documented so brilliantly in a life of 80 years. For Bennett and millions of his fellow Brits this is what it’s all about and, as Churchill was rumoured to have said when someone wanted money diverted from the arts to the war effort “What are we fighting for?” I’ll let the poet Shelley finish for me. If I’d let him start, you wouldn’t have bothered with mine, because he pretty much says it all:

 You are now In London, that great sea, whose ebb and flow

At once is deaf and loud, and on the shore

Vomits its wrecks, and still howls on for more

Yet in its depth what treasures!

And wouldn’t you know, we’re following in Shelley’s footsteps to Italy, not far from La Spezia where he met his tragic end. Ours will be a happier visit I’m sure, and promises lots of blog-fodder.

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

Sonnet Composed on Westminster Bridge  by William Wordsworth

Percy Bysshe Shelley, from a letter to Maria Gisborne 1820