Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Downsize to buy my children houses? Not on your nelly Mr Peston.

The shaggy haired, ex-BBC economics editor, Robert Peston has called upon a generation of selfish parents to sell their big, family homes in order to fund the purchase of houses for their children.

A strange proclamation from Mr Peston, who is paid £400,000 for his pontifications on all things financial, which even by my far less mathematically expert reckoning means he could probably save up for a couple of months to offer both his grown up sons a pretty decent deposit on a home, even if they want to stay near to daddy in pricey North London.

But that aside, I am still not sure that I agree. Once upon a time I used to think that it was a good idea for parents to flog big houses in order to fund smaller ones for their brood, but that was before I was a parent with a big(ish) house to my name. Now before you think I am showing off, I have a big house for the simple reason that I have a big family.

I grew up in a tiny flat in the centre of Brussels. If I really reached out I could probably have touched a hand to each side of my bedroom, and let me assure you, my arms are not very long. It was shabby, tiny and a million miles from luxurious, but it did the job. There was a roof over my head and I was a short walk from the many dive bars and clubs I would frequent as a teenager.

This left me with a profound lack of interest in spacious, 'show-off' houses. However, I then went on to marry a man who had grown up in a pretty sizeable house (which his parents, now a couple on their own, still rattle around in and have no intention of selling to help anyone out) and proceeded to have four children. This led us down the path, via many well-timed sales and purchases to be the proud possessors of a huge mortgage on decent-sized home.

When I first bought this home I did vaguely think that one day perhaps we could sell up to help the kids set themselves up. But then I had the shock realisation that this would mean that they would leave home, and that wouldn't do at all.

Perhaps I am naive, after all my children are still young, but the prospect of them flying the nest is one that chills me to the bone. The idea of me and my husband knocking around in our big house all alone horrifies me. Yes, it would be tidier, and the fridge would undoubtedly not empty at quite such a pace, but it would be so empty and lonely.

No, far better that my boys stay at home forever and ever (imagine a rather terrifying witch's cackle as the soundtrack to that particular pronouncement). The idea of losing the only people who share my terrible taste in television, who laugh at my jokes, notice when I've had my hair cut and appreciate my cooking doesn't bear thinking about.

So there is no way I am selling my house to make it easier for my boys to escape. Instead perhaps, once they all have jobs, they can help us pay the gigantic mortgage we have on this one, which will still hang like a millstone around our necks well after we have reached pensionable age.

Also, which I am sure would draw opprobrium from a financial expert like Mr Peston, we have no pension fund, so any equity in this house is far more likely to end up funding our years of dribbling in a nursing home, than flash pads for our four boys.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the waists of my trousers elasticated

I am sorry T. S. Eliot but I think the abuses of old age on my body require more than a simple rolling of the cuffs of my trousers. After birthing four children my aged stomach is much more in need of the gentle touch of an elasticated waist, or at the very least a heavy dose of Lycra to soften the harsh pull of denim.

I recently went to see one of my favourite bands play, the Barenaked Ladies, whose name is their most risque feature. This bunch of ageing Canadian rockers kicked off their show with a song called 'Get Back Up', which is essentially about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and getting back to living life after the slings and arrows of life have given you a good old kicking (forgive my mixing of metaphors). If you want to read all the lyrics they're here.

Later during the show, the lead singer Ed Robertson, announced that he was 44. Just the same age as me. My first reaction was a bit of a shock, what with his greying hair I had assumed he had a few years on me, but then I remembered that if I were to stop slathering my own locks in L'Oreal dye (because I'm worth it) I would swiftly become just as grey.

This combination of factors led me to a meditation on ageing. Well in between singing along to the unsurpassable 'If I had a million dollars', watching my 11-year-old beam when they sang his favourite song, the theme from the Big Bang Theory and trying to clap without aggravating my arthritic fingers.

Going to a concert always takes me back to my youth. I was never one of those cool kids who saw all the latest indie bands, but growing up in Brussels meant that I could see all the acts that were topping the charts in the UK, long before the Belgian teens had worked out who they were. I was treated to virtually one-on-one performances from 80s pop sensations Howard Jones and Nik Kershaw. If you remember those names then welcome to my club.

But Ed's grey hair and the bittersweet lyrics got me to thinking about how my life has changed over the decades that separate my experience of bopping to 'Wouldn't it be good' in a sweaty Brussels nightclub, to sitting in a comfy seat in the O2 Indigo with easy access to the toilets, watching grey haired men singing about growing old.

Apart from the obvious fact that proximity to a toilet probably wasn't such a concern pre-children, it was that a song about being kicked to the ground and getting back up again, bruised, perhaps even scarred, but alive, resonated with me far more deeply than it would have done when I was a teenybopper.

I used to think I was invincible. That whatever life threw at me I could simply deflect it like Teflon. That to be happy was a  natural state. Now I look back on those days with the same nostalgia I feel when I recall how easy it was to fit into a size 8 skirt. I took for granted the simplicity of feeling happy and normal, just as I took for granted that everything in the shop would fit.

My goodness how life has taught me a lesson since then. I have ridden the waves of divorce, estrangement from my most beloved people, deaths and regrets. I have birthed four children, which was painful, stressful, joyful and blissful. I have collapsed in a soggy, weak heap under the pressure of depression, anxiety and insomnia. I have realised that I cannot cope, but that I simply have to.

I have built and lost careers, I have wasted talent and profited from it. I have seen friends soar, and felt that choking mix of pride and envy at their good fortune. I have realised that I will never be rich, or famous, or beautiful, I have realised that really, that's OK.

I have learned to see joy in the small things, because sometimes the big things are so grim it is hard to see a chink of light. To understand that a day can be switched from bad to good, simply by appreciating the glint of dew on a glossy, green holly leaf, or by dragging your exhausted, unwilling body out of bed and into the sunshine, or by a hug from an oblivious child.

I have come to understand the enormous power our own minds play in how life treats us. Of how easy it is to be washed away under tides of misplaced adrenaline that flush through you when your mind randomly opens the floodgates to your fears. But equally how deep breaths and fixing yourself in the present can help you to put your shoulder to those gates and hem in the fears once again.

I have learned what it means to unconditionally love someone. To care so much that their life counts for so much more than your own. To get wrapped up so deeply in the needs of someone else that you can lose sight of yourself. To have children.

Life has changed me, just as it changes all of us, and in some ways I miss the simplicity of youth. It's not that being young is easy, it's just that the challenges I faced didn't seem so insurmountable, I suppose because there were so many second chances ahead of me and it always felt as if someone else was in charge. But that said, growing up has given me a depth and understanding of the complexities of life that I am not sure I would swap to go back to that easier version of myself.

Of course I hate the hard days and then I would gladly throw away everything I have learned in exchange for some peace, to be able to relax, to feel the tension ease from my body, to relax, to sleep as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But paradoxically, I love that I am beginning to see that this kind of turmoil forces you to stop, to look at the world and seek out those tiny drops of happiness it hides round every corner. To spot all those things I would have missed if life had been easier.

So yes, perhaps it is all about the ride....the ups, the downs and the blessed calm bits in between.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

5 things you didn't know about FDMTG

A dear friend of mine, who coincidentally I actually met up with in the flesh last night, to compare notes on the lows and lower lows of being in our 40s (notable points raised included hangovers after drinking just three glasses of wine the night before, the proliferation of women our age suffering from insomnia, putting the sparkle back into a decades old relationship and feeling so very old when forced, through work, to meet with younger career women) is also the author of the fabulous and much more prolific blog than mine From the Valley to the Palai.

Today she has harked back to the old-fashioned style of blogging. She is a veteran of the art, having put finger to keyboard way back in 2008, while I am an upstart who copied her example in 2009.

These were the days when the only real reason to blog was to share in a community who were all trudging through the trenches of new babies and toddlers together. There were no ads, few freebies, but a whole lot of love. Fellow bloggers would dish out handcrafted awards to other bloggers who had touched them with their words.

These were the days before the incredibly talented Clare Mackintosh became a novelist and social media expert, back then she was just the run ragged mum behind the now defunct, More than Just a Mother. She wept, swore and laughed her way through the loss of a child and the challenge of multiple babies, and as I was simultaneously juggling newborn twins I found a lot of solace in her words, as well as being filled with admiration for her.

Even more so now that she is the author of a book I Let You Go, which is a feat I have never achieved, though not for want of half written manuscripts tucked away in the back of my hard drive.

No one really got book deals apart from the superlatively talented and well connected Wife in the North, whose blog about leaving the Big Smoke and moving 'ooop North was hilarious and quite rightly got picked up almost instantly by a savvy publisher.

The rest of us made do with the odd free packet of biscuits or trip to a theme park and thought we were doing pretty well. FDMTG even got nominated for a proper award or two back in the day, though the old girl never actually won.

The problem, even back then, was that to make a blog work you not only had to be super talented, but also dedicated. Linking out to other blogs, getting involved in conferences, endless posting pictures, posts and lists of your likes and dislikes in order to persuade a jaded internet audience that yours was the blog to visit for your daily dose of parental humour.

Now it's even tougher, but the rewards are greater. A modern top blogger can make money, get free holidays, book deals, TV shows and more. That said most deserve it because they work bloody hard at blogging, unlike lazy old FDMTG.

To which end I once again decided to copy my friend's blogging example and indulge in one of the old school blog activities by offering out to my adoring audience of about two readers, five things you don't know about the woman behind FDMTG:

1. I studied Theology. Weird enough fact in itself given that I am, oh another fact coming along, an agnostic with atheistic leanings. I spent three years arguing with people who believed that God had deliberately put fossils into the earth just to test their faith in the almighty. It was actually quite good fun, but was a terrible career move as I am forever dogged by the perception that I must be some kind of loony bible basher. This means I always have to go into minute detail about why I chose to study theology to prove that if I get the job I won't spend my lunchtimes trying to spread the word of the Lord around the office canteen.

2. I grew up in Brussels. Another part of my life that I appear to have to endlessly defend. Everyone believes that Brussels is the most boring city in the world. Not least the deeply unappreciative Mr FDMTG. I, on the other hand, know that it is, or a least was, a bloody amazing city to grow up in. With a mix of all nationalities I was a real international school brat, hanging out with all the other schools populated by the offspring odds and ends swept together by the EU. There was lots of underage drinking and copious opportunities to flirt with a vibrant mix of different young men, from the gorgeous Spaniards who spoke not a word of English, but had the most delicious velvety brown eyes you could drown in, to the strange German boy who wore a trench coat and smoked a pipe at the ripe old age of 18.

3. I think scallops are the devil's food. I know they are beloved of the Master Chef set, and whether paired with black pudding, bacon or pea puree are always a sure fire hit amongst those with a sophisticated palate, but to me they are just a lump of rubbery fishiness. I once went to a press do catered by a famous Michelin-starred chef, who served the most gigantic scallops as a starter. While everyone else tucked in with gusto, I chewed on one repulsively rubbery mouthful and then hid the rest under my napkin. Ditto for oysters, which taste like runny, yet paradoxically chewy, snot to me, even when dived fresh from beneath the ocean.

4. Ever since I gave birth to four boys I have been secretly (well maybe I don't keep it that much of a secret) dreading becoming a mother-in-law. Not because I am convinced that I will hate my daughter-in-law, or that she will hate me (though odds are she will), but because I cannot conceive of sharing my sons with another woman. I know this is ridiculous and my sensible brain understands that the goal of bringing up children is to set them free to wreak their own brand of havoc on the world. But deep down in my swirling pit of a subconscious I fear I will feel as jealous of  my son cuddling up with another woman as I would if my husband did. I am just crossing my fingers very hard that I grow out of this by the time they get their first girlfriends.

5. Although  I am a member of a book club that endlessly attempts to drag my literary choices out of the gutter, I really, truly mostly only like trashy books. Not real pulp like Mills & Boon, I tried it, but all those heaving breasts, dominant men and women whose only aim was to end up in a clinch with a billionaire didn't really do it for me. But JoJo Moyes, Freya North, Jill Mansell and the queen of chick lit, Jilly Cooper, are my real literary heroines. Give me a bit of froth, a romantic misunderstanding played out in a beautiful village, perhaps a horse or two thrown in and a dashing hero in the mold of Rupert Campbell-Black and I am in heaven.

For the budding arsonist in your family

Boys and fire are a magnetic combination. My eldest has never been able to resist the lure of box of matches and often had to be restrained from dragging all flammable items from the house in order to see if he could set fire to them. Now his particular obsession with all things incendiary could be dismissed as a mildly disturbing one off, but then along came his little brother and cousin .

They spent one sunny afternoon last summer engrossed in setting fire to elastic bands on my brother-in-law's patio. The acrid scent of burning rubber filled the summer afternoon, like the barbecue from hell. Clearly my oldest boy was not a one off.

Then friend told me how she once came home to find her home filled with thick, dark smoke and her middle boy standing in the kitchen looking sheepish. The source of the smoke? Her kitchen bin, which he had fashioned into a makeshift indoor fire pit that he had been using to burn much of the contents of her kitchen cupboards just to see which was the most impressively flammable.

This, I conclude, is enough evidence to prove that boys + fire = happy, if, slightly singed, sons. The problem is finding a way in which they can play with fire without setting fire to ether themselves or the family home. Solution, a neat little kit sent to me by Certainly Wood, which is ideal for the fire mad child in your life, although with appropriate adult supervision to guard against third-degree burns.

Delivered in a smart green box, it contains enough logs and natural firelighters to create a sufficiently impressive blaze for the most fire mad child, plus, and this is the draw for any children who less impressed by the sizzle of blazing bonfire, a kit to create your own Brit version of the American 'delicacy' s'mores.

As with all snacks of American origin, these are over the top, sickly sweet and absolutely irresistible to children. For the uninitiated they are fashioned from two biscuits, a slab of chocolate and a fire roasted, molten marshmallow.

So we kicked off by lighting our fire, a job that my 11-year-old fire fanatic grabbed as his own. So sticks and ingenious natural firelighters, which look a bit like tiny bales of hay, were neatly stacked in the barbecue and leapt into bright yellow flame at the touch of a match.

As a family with our own wood burning fireplace, I know this is a sign of quality. So many times my husband is left cursing over poorly seasoned logs that steam and belch smoke, but refuse to light. The wood in this pack was of a much more amenable nature and, even when we popped on one of the larger logs into the fire, it burnt merrily with no need to cajole it into flame with extra kindling.

Once our fire was burning away it was on to the fun bit and the whole FDMTG crew were equipped with s'more ingredients. Out came the cookies, the supplied chocolate hadn't fared well being stored in a overwarm house so we substituted it for some of our own stash of Cadburys and the most important ingredient - the marshmallows.

Soon all the boys were happily toasting away over the flames. There were tears when one marshmallow escaped its skewer and dived to certain death in the fire, but overall the horribly messy combination of charred marshmallow, chocolate and cookies was a hit. Faces were smeared with sticky goo, chocolate formed impressive moustaches above their upper lips, and the ensuing sugar rush was just what the doctor ordered right before bedtime.

Given that it is the season of bonfires this was certainly a way to indulge a fascination with both fire and food. We even had enough top notch logs left over to have a fire of our own with them the next night and they blazed away just as merrily then, though after having scrubbed the children clean following the previous night's sweet snack extravaganza no marshmallows were allowed near the flames!