The joy of camping and the great outdoors

My husband and children convince me into a camping trip once a year on average and I suffer through it, not necessarily in silence, because I know how much they enjoy it.

But to me it is an absurd way to spend a weekend. Why would you leave your perfectly comfortable home, complete with soft duvet, springy mattress and flushing toilet, to load up the car with more kit than you would need for a two-week European vacation and drive to a remote part of the countryside to sleep in a field with a few hundred random strangers while foregoing all nods to hygiene for fear of either falling over in the portaloo or catching something unspeakable from the public shower block?

A few weeks ago, our annual trip rolled around and I was hoping that the weather would be so inclement that we could cancel a few days before. Alas, no. The day was glorious and spirits were high. My organisational task was catering the food for the three families that were going, so I did the required shopping trip to buy mini boxes of cereal, ready-made salads and as much steak and burgers as our mini bbq could hold. Other Half’s job was to check the camping gear hadn’t been eaten by mice or squirrels since it was stashed in the garage after last year’s trip and to pack the car.

So far, so good: the cooler box of food and beverages was in; there wasn’t a centimetre of breathing space left in the car; Geoffrey the bulldog had been dispatched to the Dog Hotel for the weekend. We were off – and on schedule! We had chosen a campsite close to West Wittering in the optimistic hope of a bit of beach fun, so all manner of activities had been planned, from cricket on the beach to body-boarding in the non-existent waves.

About half an hour from our destination, OH realised he hadn’t packed the bag containing the beach activities. Ok, not a disaster; we can still have fun building sandcastles and paddling in the water. We carried on for another ten minutes before I asked if he had packed the folding chairs. Apparently not. As if on cue, we passed a caravan shop and did a quick handbrake turn into the car park. He disappeared inside and came out ten minutes later with four new chairs, only to ask if I had packed the bag with all of the picnic stuff in – you know, plates, cups, cutlery, kettle. I reminded him that he had had One Job. He disappeared back into the caravan shop to buy the rest of the essentials that were apparently still sitting in our garage, while I cast an eye behind me and wondered what the hell was actually packed, considering there was no room left in the boot.

Twenty minutes later we were back on the road and a few hundred pounds lighter. The memory of the caravan salesman waving us goodbye while wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes stayed with me for the rest of our journey.

Thankfully, night #1 was fairly uneventful once we had erected the tent (in record time for us, probably because we were both now gasping for some sort of alcoholic beverage to numb the pain of how much this little trip had cost us) and found the loo block (walk past the “organic loos” with your sleeve covering your nose to the portaloos at the end of the road). The bbq was lit, the burgers were sizzling and the kids were laughing and having a great time.

That night, we collapsed onto our newly inflated air mattress and hoped for a good sleep. It was absolutely freezing and I had so many layers of clothes on inside my sleeping bag that turning over or moving in the slightest proved incredibly difficult. I spent the night stuck on my back like an overstuffed worm. All I could hear was whispers from other tents, cows mooing and the traffic rushing past on the road beyond the field. At 6am, with the sun streaming in, I gave up and struggled out of the bag to find OH lying on the hard floor after a puncture in his mattress overnight had caused it to deflate completely.

Day #2 and the weather was promising for our trip to the beach. Sunny, not exactly warm, but the wetsuits would come in handy. We packed up our lunchtime picnic, secured the tents and headed off. The beach was busy, but we found a spot and settled in. Then the wind picked up. Within ten minutes, everything was covered in sand and the temperature had dropped substantially. I looked over at my friend in the chair next to mine and she was wearing two hoodies and a woolly hat – that kind of cold. The kids were ok with it, snug and warm in their wetsuits; the mothers less so. The flasks of tea and coffee came out, as did the picnic lunch, and we sat with our backs to the sea, facing the car park, to shelter from the sand blasting our faces.

And we stubbornly refused to move. We were going to spend the day on the beach if it killed us. However, when three of the children in our group were crying from sand stinging their eyes and a crunchy sandwich held no more appeal, we had to admit defeat and return to the campsite.

Instead, we opted for a game of rounders in the field. It started well. We took turns, the children were gracious in accepting parental advice on how to pitch and no car windows were broken. Then other children from other tents started to join in, the group got bigger, the requests to bat and moaning about not having a go reached fever pitch, strange kids started arguing about the rules and we suddenly realised that we had become the childcare providers for all those other adults sitting in their deckchairs, raising a beer to us in thanks. The game went on for hours. Only once we couldn’t see the ball in the dark were we able to call an end to the “fun”.

While we waited for the steaks to cook, one of the dads in our group decided to check the weather as a precaution. Cue the weather alerts for a storm overnight. The discussion began, as we fought to cut through our steak with plastic knives, occasionally spitting out soggy bits of paper plate, as to whether we were going to stick it out. The general consensus was that we would stay – how much worse could it get?

A lot. The weather overnight can easily be described as torrential. The wind howled, the rain pounded into the thin fabric of our tent, lightening flashed and I found myself getting up every hour to check we hadn’t blown away. My husband, on the other hand, apparently had the best night’s sleep ing ages, now that he was on the mattress without a puncture, and woke the next morning looking fresh and alert. I thought he would come to physical harm when he emerged later than the rest of us, saying chirpily to our friends how much sleep he had had, while they were in the process of cleaning up vomit from the inside of their tent after one of their children had had an explosive dose of motion sickness through the night.

With that, we packed up our bags, took down the battered tent and tried to cover the scorch marks in the grass from our enthusiastic bbq. It was over for another year and I waved in delight and relief at the caravan shop as we passed on our way home.

Next year, I may suggest that someone sticks small pins in my eyes rather than go camping again. However, on the plus side, we have more than enough kit these days and will never run out of chairs, unless we forget to pack them again.

Advertisements

Notes from my bookshelf #5: The Girl in the Red Coat

Yes, followers, the book review returns. This one is slightly different, however. As an ex-Curtis Brown writing course student myself, I always feel obliged to read all of the offerings from my fellow students who have been lucky enough to secure publishing contracts. I admit that this is a bittersweet pursuit, swinging between feelings of hope that if they can, maybe I can too, through to pangs of envy that they got there first, dammit. So I came at The Girl in the Red Coat determined to read it as a show of solidarity more than because I wanted to read a good yarn, as is usually my motivation.

I expected a story loosely based on Red Riding Hood about a lost girl. What I wasn’t expecting was to be completely captivated and haunted by the story in equal measures, and totally caught up in the mother’s suffering and the daughter’s determined spirit.

Similar to other offerings from ex-CB students (such as The Miniaturist, for instance), it is a beautifully written book, which is testament to the team at Curtis Brown and the course tutors who helped us to fine-tune our ideas into workable manuscripts. But this novel goes beyond beautifully crafted syntax and imagery. It is rich with layers of mystery and cleverly dotted with all things red. Carmel is a constructed as the kind of daughter we would all want to have, independent and strong despite the situation in which she finds herself. The mother had me crying on more than one occasion and I empathised with her sense of loss and helplessness.

Parallel to this is Carmel’s “special gift” and why she was chosen by her captor, with the different strands of plot knitting together to form a narrative constructed like a dialogue between the daughter and the mother, as though they are talking just to each other, the bond never broken.

I read it in two days, couldn’t put it down until I had found out what had happened and there are very few books of late that I have connected with so strongly. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Ah, the memories… or not

Yesterday, while scrabbling around in the attic for my old school copy of “Macbeth” for my daughter, I came across a dusty box containing my old diaries. For most of my high school years, I wrote every thought, feeling and angst-ridden memory down on those pages, so you can imagine how heavy the box was when I wrestled it down the rickety stepladder.

What quickly became apparent, apart from the melodrama that goes hand in hand with being a teenager, was that a fair-size portion of it I just do not remember. Some Big Events – the school disco; the first broken heart; exam time – are still riding high in my consciousness, but the day-to-day stuff that I spent so much time agonising (and crying) over seems to have been wiped from memory. Probably for my sanity.

Paging through, I started thinking about what I have chosen to remember – and, more importantly, what I have chosen to forget. For instance, if you ask me to sing the lyrics to any number of the songs I listened to back then in the good old eighties, I can word for word (but not necessarily in tune). I can still remember my old home phone number and the phone numbers of some of my friends (in the days before mobile phone contact lists); the names of my best and worst teachers, and various acquaintances from primary school and their siblings; the bubble skirts, long jumpers and lime eyeshadow I wore to a number of discos; the taste of the chips with a curry sauce splash from Liu’s, the Chinese takeaway at the end of our road; how much a quarter of rhubarb and custard sweets cost out of my dinner money on the way home from school; even the number of the bus I used to take.

However, when it comes to my present life, I struggle to remember the names of my children on a daily basis. I often find myself telling them off for something or other and calling them by the wrong name, which always takes the sting out of my wrath when they hear their mother stumbling over who it is she is supposed to be chastising.

The other day I walked into the kitchen, went clockwise around the island, only to find myself back where I started and none the wiser as to why I was there in the first place. I then went anti-clockwise in case that would help, was still none the wiser and went back upstairs. Only then did I remember what it was I had wanted (a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive).

There are other things that I can’t remember that would be quite useful to know, like how we did long division or algebra at school. Nor can I remember the date of the Battle of Hastings, which order the kings and queens reigned in or how many terms of office Margaret Thatcher had in the end. And there is always one of the seven dwarves I can’t name.

I’m not going to dwell unduly on this though. I will embrace it for what it is: a sign that I shouldn’t have any more children if I have a hope in hell of remembering who they are and that I’m rubbish at pub quizzes unless the questions feature 80s pop lyrics or the bus timetable for the No34 through Bedlington.

Ten things it has taken me 40 years to learn

For  an intelligent woman, sometimes I can be surprisingly slow to catch on. Some of this I put down to age and some to a certain degree of denial. I’m sure that there will be many more lightbulb moments as I head further into my forties, but here are ten things that I now embrace, along with my mid-life crisis.

1. Force yourself to enjoy the first minute of the day. I used to hate mornings. Getting up for school was torture; getting up for work was a fate worse than death. The only mornings I enjoyed before I had children were the ones I missed entirely by staying in bed until noon as a student. Now I realise that the first minute of the day, when you are just opening your eyes and your mind is frantically scrabbling to hold onto a dream as it evaporates, is the quietest and most settled minute you are likely to experience for the rest of the day. For a few blissful seconds, you are unaware of what lies ahead. Once you step out of bed, the day can go one of two ways: it can take off and be the Best Day Ever; or it can plummet into the depths of hell. Best to stay where you are for a little while longer and enjoy your cuppa.

2. I will never be tall. At 5ft, you would think I would’ve realised this sooner, but in my head I am definitely taller than what the height chart says. Mentally, I look people in the eye, not in the boob region. However, as my daughters and their friends get older, I am reminded constantly of how short I actually am. I have to look up to talk to them now and I often get lost in a crowd of kids at school, only to emerge from the other side mentally traumatised. However, dynamite comes in small packages and I find that my diminutive stature means I am often underestimated, which comes with the pleasure of knowing that I have plenty of opportunities to surprise people if I feel like it. And maybe one day I will.

3. Heated rollers are never a good idea. I have had my heated rollers since the early 90s and once or twice a year I get them out, thinking that it would be a good idea to try them in preparation for a night out. However, I have yet to use them successfully without looking like a French poodle afterwards. It is time I realised that rollers will never create relaxed gentle curls in my mop of untameable hair. Best to stick to the straighteners.

4. I don’t know everything and it’s best not to pretend I do. When they were younger, my children’s questions were random, but fairly easy to answer, which led them to believe I was the fountain of all knowledge. With this came my short-lived belief that I did in fact have an answer for everything. Then they started school and the questions became more complicated. These days just going through their maths homework is a challenge. For a while, I admit I blagged it and gave what I thought sounded like a credible answer to questions like, “If people say it can be too cold to snow, why is it always snowing in the Arctic?” Thank goodness for the internet as I can now confidently admit that I do not know everything, but can satisfy them by saying, “Google it!” What did our parents do before the internet? Oh yes, they lied too…

5. Some song lyrics will always be an enigma. There are certain songs that I will never understand. “The Riddle”, for instance, “China in your Hand” and possibly the entire Depeche Mode back catalogue. In my youth, I’d sing them unashamedly and contemplate their deeper meaning while trying to draw parallels with my own teenage angst. These days, I still sing them out loud, but now realise that Nik Kershaw didn’t have a clue what he was writing, but it rhymed and suited the tune in his head, so he went with it. Good lad.

6. A beautiful pair of shoes is the best medicine. After emerging out the other side of the teens, university heartbreaks, career frustrations, marriage adjustments and childbirth, I can safely say that the only thing that makes me feel better when my day/week/month has gone to hell in a hand basket is a beautiful new pair of shoes. Forget chocolate and wine; all they do is trick you into thinking you feel better, then make you feel crappy again when you’ve had too much (as you inevitably end up doing, evidenced by the multitude of hangovers I have endured over the years). However, a pair of shoes doesn’t care how fat you are, how many spots you have or if you’ve said something stupid. Every time you look down at your beautifully clad feet, you feel your spirits rise and that’s enough for me. Until you walk in your new heels and sprain your ankle of course…

7. I will never like olives or stinky cheese. They say that your tastebuds develop over time and you will enjoy different foods when you’re older. And in fact I can now eat guacamole, even though I used to think the avocado was devil spawn, and cooked fruit is ok when covered in crumble and smothered in custard. However, I can safely say that I will never embrace the trendy but foul-tasting olive or understand the attraction of eating a cheese that smells worse than Andy Murray’s trainers.

8. I really like sleep. As previously mentioned, I am not a morning person, so why it should take me so long to realise how much I love sleep is ridiculous. It was only once I had children that I realised just how important eight hours of sleep a night are to my mental wellbeing (and those around me). Even now on the rare occasions when one of my daughters wakes me complaining of having a nightmare, I am likely to be short-tempered and brusque, and certainly not the loving, comforting parent they deserve. They learnt that quicker than me and wake my other half instead now.

9. I am morphing into my mother. Much as I always said I would follow my own parenting path, I sound more like my mother every day. Yesterday I heard myself tell my youngest that she would “put her eye out if she isn’t careful” and that “there are starving kids in Africa who wish they could eat that cauliflower”. However, I hasten to add that with this comes a certain sense of relief in knowing that I turned out ok, so my mum must’ve been on the right track and if I can emulate some of that, then my girls will be ok too.

10. Always hold on when riding the bus. How many times have I told my girls to hold onto the rail when we are on the bus? Loads. But do I follow my own advice? No. There I was sitting on the aisle seat on the top deck with my mum over Christmas when the bus took a corner a little too hastily and I fell off the seat onto my back in the aisle like an inverted turtle. In my embarrassment as all eyes turned to stare, I started to laugh hysterically and couldn’t get up. My mortification reached a new level when I heard my mother loudly say in between guffaws, “I told you not to drink that gin with your breakfast.” Always hold the rail, people…

Laughter is the Best Medicine

My six-year-old daughter has been trying to make me laugh all afternoon. However, because I do not find her silly faces and ridiculous dance moves in the frozen food aisle of the supermarket the least bit funny, she declared, “Mum, you never laugh.”

This is not true. In fact, I have been known to laugh until a little bit of wee comes out on numerous occasions, usually inappropriately. However, upon reflection, it is true that I don’t laugh as much when it comes to my children, which is quite a sobering thought. This is usually because I am the “bad cop” of the house, the one who instills law and order, who lays down the rules, and dishes out the punishments, while my Other Half is Mr Fun, the Tickle Monster, the “let’s run through the lounge throwing a rugby ball to each other” guy.

My children don’t get to see my silly side very often – when I am a bottle of prosecco down and laughing with abandonment while dancing at a friend’s birthday ceilidh, or sniggering uncontrollably at the school quiz night. When we went on holiday with friends over the Jubilee, I laughed so much that I literally returned home with aching cheeks and sore stomach muscles.

I do find my children funny, but usually it is at something they have done that shouldn’t be funny. Like when my toddler, when toilet training, sat on the loo without checking her training seat was in place and fell into the toilet. Or when the same toddler ran full-speed into the glass doors in the Apple Store in Boston and knocked herself off her feet. Or when my older daughter sledged into a tree, closely followed by her father.

All of these things are very funny; listening to a nine-year-old’s attempts at telling jokes is not. That said, I really should just let my hair down and relax a bit more with the kids as I’m sure they think I am dull and boring. Recently, I suggested we have a handstand competition late one Friday night and their faces lit up (yes, I had had a couple of glasses of wine and it seemed like a good idea t the time until I fell on my head) because Mum was being silly.

Of course, if I start playing the “good cop”, Mr Fun is going to have to take over as “bad cop” and I sense it could go all “Police Academy” in our house. Chances are none of us will make it out in one piece.

 

 

So here it is… Merry Christmas!

It’s that time of year again – and the older I get, the less I seem to enjoy it, which saddens me a little. When I was a child – and even into my early twenties as a newlywed – I loved everything about Christmas: the shopping, decorating, singing and shameless gluttony that makes it the most special time of the year. This is partly due to my childhood when Christmas was an “all or nothing” affair, with everything sparkly thrown at it in abundance, so I learnt early on that if you hadn’t reached a point of near hysteria from excitement on Christmas Eve, then you weren’t doing it properly.

Then I had children. Many say that Christmas gets better when you are a spectator to their excitement. Not me. I remember my first Christmas after having my oldest daughter. The house was decorated within an inch of its life, I had bought every conceivable plastic pink toy there was for my three-month old, we had the in-laws visiting and a turkey that was bigger than the baby. I was beside myself with joy at the thought of my daughter’s first Christmas and couldn’t wait to get stuck into the present exchange. However, half an hour later, my angelic child was playing with the wrapping paper and had shown no interest in the actual toys; the dog had eaten half of the chocolates under the tree and been sick on the carpet; my in-laws had repeatedly expressed their disapproval at the extravagance of the gifts; and the oven wouldn’t heat up. The final straw came when I noticed my measly little pile of gifts – substantially smaller than other years – and I opened them to find that the most interesting gift was a neon-coloured potato peeler from my mother in-law. I remember standing in the shower, sobbing and repeating to myself, “Christmas is all about the kids… sob sob… Christmas is all about the kids.” Yes, I am well aware that this makes me sound incredibly spoilt and selfish, but the realisation that Christmas now meant that I had to be the grown-up in charge of the food, buying presents, writing cards, writing thank-you cards, and inviting random relatives so that no-one feels left out came as a bit of a shock. That was my mother’s job, not mine!

Nine years later and I have embraced my new role with reluctance. For the last two weeks, I have helped with the Christmas Bazaar at school, and contributed various bits and bobs for nativity costumes and school decorations. I have braved the parking nightmares and teeming shops to finish 90% of the gifts (a risk considering that only one child has written a list for Santa so far – including an iPad, which has been conveniently ignored as Santa is in a recession too – and who knows what the other child will come up with). I have started writing the cards and booked my online grocery delivery for 23 December. I think I have covered all the bases. Oh, and on top of all that, it is my wedding anniversary next week, so I have arranged an evening out, complete with babysitter.

But most importantly, I have endured all of the year-end exams and gradings – three dance presentations; two karate gradings; one nativity play; one orchestra concert; and one carol concert – and made myself available (with a fair amount of blagging out of work) for nearly every single one – and trust me, my daughter piled on the guilt about the one event I did miss. Someone asked me yesterday if I am feeling festive and, thinking about it, this is when I am most in the Christmas spirit: when I am sitting in front of 240 five- and six-year-olds dressed in various costumes – from lopsided angels to dodgy donkeys – belting out “We wish you a merry christmas” with glee while I sit in between two bleary-eyed, hungover dads suffering from their Christmas parties the night before and intoxicating me with their stale alcoholic breath, and my daughter, with her front tooth missing, is waving from the stage. That’s when I realise that Christmas is about the children and how proud we are as parents.

Even the mom who’s toddler farted really loudly during yesterday’s ballet presentation.