Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Middle Ages

In a few days time I will turn 45.  This is not as much of a shock or a feeling of desolation that I had when I turned 30.  Losing my twenties was something that took a lot of headspace, and the fact that I was pregnant with my first child meant that I couldn’t even celebrate in style.  And turning 40 was initially overshadowed by the death of my beloved grandfather, once the funeral was over I had two days before I was whisked off to the Ice Hotel which was a truly magnificent and an unforgettable experience.  Lying down at -10C in an art exhibit of a room made entirely of ice in a bed comprising sleeping bag -on -reindeer skins- on wooden pallets- on ice blocks resulted in one of the best nights sleep that I had ever had.   And of course, turning 45 is not really a big birthday… it’s a good age, where you have a bit of time before you hit five oh, and you are only five years away from when you turned 40.  So it’s a good mid age.

Having a birthday in January is always a bit depressing.  Most of your friends are broke from Christmas, or detoxing for the New Year.  All of your presents are bought in the sales, which is great for the giver, but not great if you need to take something back because it doesn’t fit.  Or even worse, you get given unwanted Christmas presents– one year I even found the Christmas gift tag stuffed into the box with a little private message to my friend…  But on the up side my birthday comes at the time of the month where the memory of Christmas is distant, the detox is beginning to become a struggle, and my good friends will always come out to celebrate!

Rather weirdly, due to work or other circumstances, I’ve hit an age where I am either ten years older or ten years younger than some of my friends.  Having three kids roughly 3 years apart from each other in age means that my school life spans a number of different mummies. To one set I am still a young mum, to another I dispense sage advice with all the grace of an elder statesman.  It is a stage at which I am comfortable.  I watch other mums stressing out about things that used to worry me – what level books their child reads, why the Science teacher doesn’t seem to ‘get’ their kid, the unfairness of sports teams selections – and I know with the benefit of hindsight that it all works out in the end.  On the other hand, with my eldest I have learned from the older mums that although it is a first time for me, as a senior my child is far more capable than I would expect, and when there is a real and actual problem, he will come to me. (Although if it is Maths, I will still send him to his Dad…)

At my age I have now seen the downsides of life as well as the upsides, and hopefully have learned from them.  In my twenties I was ambitious (and successful) and unthinking when it came to trampling over anyone when it came to my career.  I earned and spent a lot, without a care for the future.  I had a great time, and yet it took a lot of effort and energy in keeping up the momentum.  But I did a lot and experienced a lot, and part of me would probably be shocked if my kids did the same, but another would be sad if they didn’t at least have the freedom to try.  In my thirties I rethought my career ambitions so that I could work from home with my young kids – this was fulfilling, frustrating and fast paced.  This was also the time of weddings – one year we went to nine… My thirties disappeared faster than any other era.   Hitting the forties brought on the divorces – friends shattered the illusions of the Happy Ever Afters and I found myself trying not to side with one or the other.  It brought on the deaths of beloved members of family - one year we lost 5.  It  hit me personally last year showing  just how tangible and precious life is when we nearly lost Eldest Son, aged 13, in a rowing accident.  And you start putting on weight – Fat and Forty – it’s not just a saying, it’s a prediction…

Over the decades I have survived the advent of emails, HD TVs (let alone colour ones) and mobile phones.  I have learned to cook, briefly unlearned to cook in my twenties with the attraction of  takeaways and microwave meals, and then started to like cooking again.  I work in a job that suits me, rather than my conforming to the job.  I now change my hair colour, not because it is fun, but to cover the grey.  I’m never going to be the shape I was in my twenties – the years have taken its toll – but I am relatively comfortable in my own body. I have three fit and healthy boys whom I adore and to whom I will always be Mum.  I have learned (with some degrees of success) to not react to those who deliberately goad me, or whom I dislike on the first meeting.  They may have a point. I now take the time to enjoy my surroundings, be it on a walk in the woods with the dog, or a brand new cocktail bar. I have some very dear and old friends and some new acquaintances that I am looking forward to getting to know better.

I am old enough to have learned to give and take, and young enough to enjoy it. 

So it is with a philosophical smile that I will raise a glass to myself on my birthday.  Yes, in a couple of days I will be turning 45.  But I will be smiling.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Out of the Mouths of Babes

If you have children of 5 years or over, and are a car driver, then you will (if you haven’t already) one day discover a strange phenomenon known only by London cabbies or Limousine chauffeurs – that of the Invisible Ear.  That is, from the moment that your progeny starts to bring friends home for tea, or in the spirit of good mumminess you offer to give a wayward child a lift, or it’s your turn to do the football run, or indeed (as has once happened to me) a strange child simply clambers into the back of the car and demands to be taken to my house (I didn’t), as the driver, you suddenly become invisible.  Gone then are the two most important things that your children will say to you every day 1) what they ate for lunch  2) what are they having for dinner? 

Instead, their friend brings out of your child more information than you have ever done, and what amazing information that is – unless of course you make the stupid mistake of joining in, in which case if it’s the teenager involved, he merely looks at you wishing that you would instantly explode, if it’s the preteenager, he rolls his eyes and says that you’re really sad, and if it’s the 9 year old he and his friend become instant mutes and giggle on the back seat pretending to shoot you with their fingers…

But if you stay quiet and carry on driving, they carry on talking.  I now know why in my twenties, even thirties, all right… maybe a little into my forties, I would get into taxis with my mates after a night out, and at the end of the journey the driver would be laughing.   It is because, once those car doors close, there is a false sense of privacy, a feeling of shutting out the rest of the world, a space in which to release all that information that is rushing around your head, be it muzzy with alcohol, dizzy with teenage hormones or sparking with prepubescent neurons.

A friend of mine F, whose turn it was to do the netball run, set off in the car to pick up her daughters friend.  F rolled up to the house at 8.30 am in her duvet coat and wooly scarf, beanie shoved on her slightly hungover head, feet trussed up in wellies, teenage daughter in a strop.  The other mother A opened the door impossibly coiffeured and impeccably dressed in a crisp white t shirt and blue jeans, with casually low slung converse boots and not a scrap of make up.  Inwardly F marveled at how great A looked for her age, A was, after all, an older mum, as she bundled the girls into the car.  As she drove off, her daughter turned to her friend with a sigh and said ‘Your mum is soooo cool, she wears fab boots. And she looks sooo cool – I really love her hair, and she’s so pretty.’  F studiously carried on driving although her ears were reddening.  The other girl stopped BBMing on her phone and turned to her daughter, ‘You wouldn’t have said that a couple of weeks ago – she had a chemical peel and bits of her face were dropping off all over the place and she looked like an angry baby.’

Because of the car, I can now proudly talk as an expert on the merits of Xbox versus Playstation, can tell you why the England Cricket team are hopeless, what the best school dinner is, whose single is really the best in the Top 40 regardless of statistics, and who is the fittest girl in Year 4 (and why the girl with an ipad mini and an iphone doesn’t rank).  Other mums who have ferried my kids to places have told me what I wear in bed (or not), which of my children received a bona fide Valentines card (or three) and didn’t tell me, who we entertained for dinner at the weekend, and what I am getting for my birthday…

It does not, however transcend the Teachers Ear Syndrome, which thanks to several friends of mine, have kept us entertained on many a night out.  I asked one friend how her new posting was working out.  She said that a five year old Irish boy with the face of an angel had told her that his mummy thought she was much better than the ‘focking halfwit’ of a teacher that he had had before.  She was torn between correcting his language and defending her predecessor…

Perhaps though, it is best to enjoy the Invisible Ear phenomenon for what it is – a sign that your kids are growing up, learning to express themselves no matter what their age or style, and testing out their ideas and opinions in a contained (and motorized) vehicle. 

Just sit back, and enjoy the ride…

Monday, 6 January 2014

Tackling the Ma-Fia

I was doing the Taxi Run of Mum job which is normal most weekends – Middle Son was at a birthday party and I had already rescued stranded Eldest Son from the railway station (at the age of 14 he has discovered train travel – but alas not the intricacies of the Sunday Train Timetable)- and decided to stop in for a cup of tea at a friend’s house.  This woman runs her own successful business, has a house in which you could eat your dinner off the floor (unlike mine – unless you have a penchant for grey fluff) and a permanently optimistic view on life (I know, you hate her already).  We sat and chatted for a bit, and I said how I was looking forward to de-Christmassing the house and packing the kids off in their daily routine that is school.  She let out a sigh.  On enquiry, I found that she was not upset at the imminent thought of getting up for the school run, screeching at the kids to get into the car, racing towards the closing school gates,and finding that the swimming kit/school bag/lunch money (substitute what you will) had been left behind – oh no, she was getting worked up by something entirely different.  It was, she explained, having to deal with the other mums.

Now before your (or is it just mine?) imagination leaps forward to the images of the Mummies of Surrey and Hampshire hiding behind the school fences ready to leap out at my unsuspecting friend brandishing their Kath Kidson fold up umbrellas and yelling at the tops of their voices, she allayed any fears by saying morosely ‘It’s not that they are nasty, they all mean well, but they are just so full on – and this makes me feel inept.’  You see, my friend had got caught up in what I like to call the Ma-fia.  The Ma-fia are present in every society, every country and every community.  They comprise, very simply, mums with a Common Purpose.  They can be in the PTA, they can be in the Girl Guides groups, they can be on the soccer pitch, or the yoga class, or even the local library.  If you have a child, the chances are, whatever your circumstances, you have run into the Ma-fia at some point. 

The Ma-fia are kind to their members, travel in packs, swap handy hints and tips – subject related , and socialize together with great hilarity and with a common enjoyment – again, subject related.  The Ma of the Ma-fia, though, is not such an easy pushover.  She is, as Constance Van Flandern coined all those years ago, an ‘Alpha Mom’.  She is the leader, the one who decides who is in and who is out – who sets the initiation tasks, no matter how subtle (‘Oh, you take your tea with sugar? You’re very brave, considering your lovely curvaceous figure…’) and who sets the direction of her Ma-fia group.  Unlike the rest of the group, who begrudge any new people joining, and indeed are very resistant to change, Ma fully embraces the new and will advance, amoeba like into new territories, gathering people under her wing as she goes, spitting out those who she no longer needs, and the group simply follow behind.  This was where my friend came in.  Torn between the human urge to run with the crowd, the very real desire to be friends with the mothers of her daughters’ friends, and the feeling that she would somehow lose her sense of choice, she had escaped during the holidays by turning down every well meaning invitation to meet up.  But now term time was looming again, and she was worrying.

‘I am’, she exclaimed, dunking a biscuit in her tea and not noticing the soggy crumbs defiling the perfect polish of her granite work surfaces, ‘Blaming Grease, all the way…’

Now this was not a reflection on her diet, or indeed the can of WD40 that I noticed by the oven, but rather the seminal film of hers and my era – Grease, starring a very handsome John Travolta and an innocent young Olivia Newton John.  It was also the start of a whole load of ‘Teen Angst- Don’t belong to Groups- Trials of Individuality- Now belong to Groups’ type of films that we regularly used to go and watch and then discuss in detail whilst forking out for a coke and a bag of chips on the way home. It seemed that the desire to belong to the In Crowd overrode all common sense.  Thus Sandy, who tagged along with the Pink Ladies, and Danny, who headed up the T-Birds in their black leathers, were caught up in circles of their own making. One of the reasons that the film was so successful was the transformation of Sandy at the end into black leathers – her initiation and acceptance to and from the Pink Ladies complete, and therefore she was a worthy contender for the cool Danny (who never really convinced us with the Preppy look that he briefly adopted for Sandy’s benefit).

I turned to my friend.  She sat there morosely, bemoaning the fact that if she turned down more than three coffee or dining out invitations in the next couple of months then she would be ostracized by the Ma-fia, and her daughter would be tarred with the same brush.  This was a sensible, sane woman, who was not thinking sensibly or with any degree of sanity… ‘Just say NO’ I said.  Actually, my advice was a little more sanguine than that.  Frankly, the Ma-fia only succeeds on the fear factor – the fear of failure or being segregated or being ousted.  It is relatively easy to walk away from the group, but only without fear of remonstration.  This can be achieved in many ways – the excuse of busyness, the joining of another Ma-fia group, participating in the odd activity to keep the peace, or even setting up your own group (in which case you take on the mantle of Ma and all the Alpha problems that that entails). She smiled at me ruefully. 

I have no idea what path she will take.  And indeed, if in climbing out of one situation she heads off into another.  And it is very difficult to try not to belong. One thing I did urge her to do was to watch that old film again. 

Sandy’s transformation from innocent schoolgirl to leather clad vamp was actually not an attempt to join the Pink Ladies.  In fact, throughout the film, and most importantly at the end, she never wore their jacket.  Instead, at the very moment that she was accepted by them (and us), she had opted to wear a black leather jacket, reminiscent of the T-Birds.  She had transcended one group and become the Ma of an all male group. 

Grease really is the word…    

Saturday, 4 January 2014

That's All Folks!

Naughty Shoreditch, as we christened ourselves, seemed to get told off for everything from talking in the wings, to getting ballet moves wrong, to messing up the costumes – and for a while as chaperones we took it really personally, until Amanda said to us that everyone had been told off for something, and that it was all part of backstage life.  However, by this point we all quite liked the moniker, and so it stuck.  All in all, we had 9 performances in total – with every single one of them throwing different things at us.  

As I have said in a previous post, we had a team of chaperones with no experience – and by the end of the run, we knew our stage lefts from rights, could tell a child off for ‘corpsing’ on stage, and had worked out who out of the technical and production team did what.  We learned that Kirsty, the Deputy Stage Manager, was the boss when the performance was running as she also called the show, that Chris the Stage Manager was the boss before the performance started, and that Thomas, the Production Manager was the boss of all things technical.  We met the likeable Josh, who battled daily with the sound problems thrown up by the Harlington’s aged wiring, and we relied heavily on Sue, the wardrobe mistress, whose needles flashed in and out mending tears or replacing buttons, or in the case of Little Man, refitting one of his costumes every time he was performing as he was so much smaller than the other two Freds.  The two male principal dancers would wave cheerily at us before the performance started, and as one of them had to strip under the stage at every performance, we took it in turns to hold the door open on stage right (wink).  The three principal girls were much more reserved, but one of them was officially part of team Shoreditch as she was technically still a minor, and so she would give us little snippets of gossip as she signed in each morning.  The kids soon got used to the cues, the quick changes and any costume dilemmas were soon speedily resolved by either one of us, or Sewing Sue (she too learned to live with that moniker).

Little Man

Occasionally, just to keep us on our toes, something from the last team’s performance would spur the production team into making a change.  This was all well and good if we as chaperones knew what they were talking about – it was near disaster if the kids had no idea.  There was a particular sequence in which the girls quickly changed from bad rats to beautiful lilac pirouetting ballet dancers, which involved not only a change of tights, but ballet shoes, some with ribbons, some with elastic, one with pointes – and all had to have two pairs of plastic bells attached by hair clip to their lilac leotards (which doubled as their base –or privacy- layer) and two glitter butterflies in their hair.  We had roughly 5 minutes to assemble them all together, and then from that sequence they then had to quick change back to rats.  Aside from the dance itself, which was split into three parts – little ones, inters and seniors (which meant three people led at three different stages and therefore there were three chances of going wrong) – there was a curtain to negotiate and a scenery change. Once off, the girls would be frantically tugging at the knots in the ballet ribbons, battling with glitter butterflies that got caught in their hair nets and the gold bells pinged off at alarming tangents in the haste to get back into the black rat costumes. After one performance where two of the three leaders went wrong, Vicky the choreographer came up and went through the paces step by step.  It was only then that we realised that the girls were actually doing the dance incorrectly, hence the problem on stage, this was quickly corrected and from then on there was no issue.  I had a friend in the audience who had sat through the whole performance blissfully unaware of the panicked faces of the ballet dancers who skewed off beat all over the stage….

As a team, we had a rota of 4 chaperones who were to attend each performance. All well and good, but fairly early on I realised that our inexperience meant that we would struggle with 4 until we all became a little more au fait with the script and the show itself.  And so the Shoreditch Facebook Cry Out became de rigeur, with an extra chaperone drafted in for the morning shows at least, when we needed to ensure all costumes were present and correct and that all kids were present and correct before the shows began.  Thus it was when one day we discovered that five of the Walkdown (or Finale) dresses were ripped from the night before, and Sewing Sue set to them with less than two hours to go before they were actually worn.  We found missing masks, rats noses and a pair of leggings with minutes to spare.  All hands were on deck initially to change the kids, until they got used to the outfits, and one scene which involved the use of ultra violet lights, if done correctly took 4 of us, and the fifth person was always useful in grabbing the props from the kids. As a team, the kids and the chaperones bonded really well – and Naughty Shoreditch had the biggest smiles on and off the stage.   

The parents got used to hanging around the dressing room until I gave the all clear – costumes were put away and stations tidied for the next team to come in – and only then were they all allowed to leave.  One mum kept getting the timings wrong, and she was mortified when she turned up 20 minutes late – I assured her that the others had only just left due to a missing rats tail.  It was only later that I realised why she looked so confused…

The cast and crew party took place just before the end of the show run and was a riotous affair in which everyone let their hair down.  The Shoreditch chaperones met at a local pub before going to the restaurant which had been booked for the event, only to find half of the cast in there already.  Layton Williams, Greg Airey, the two principal dancers (with clothes on…sigh…), Rob Rawles the Dame, and various other people were having a swifty like us before the meal.  We raised glasses at one another companionably and they arrived at the restaurant five minutes after us to make their Dramatic Entrance. 

And all too soon, the pantomime hurtled towards the last few performances.  Little Man at this point was now totally self sufficient – he got to the dressing room and would lay all of his outfits out on his floor, in the order in which he would be getting changed.  He would appear only occasionally to ask for someone to do up a shoe or a belt.  He brushed his hair and fixed his various hats in the mirror downstairs.  He would sit and chat quietly to the girls who would mill about him, or sometimes he would chat to Sewing Sue or Amanda’s mum Marie, who would be there to help out.  He seemed to be very much at home in the chaotic world around him.  I was truly amazed at how unfazed he was, and one day Sewing Sue came up to me and gave me a telephone number.  ‘I’ve had nearly thirty years in the business, and your boy has got something special about him. Call it’, she urged, ‘He’s just what they are looking for’.  I looked at the number, and the name beside it.  This was an unexpected avenue…

It was New Years Eve, and for the first time Little Man was actually in front of the stage watching his counterpart in the Dream Team playing his role.  At last he could see what the show was about, and how the storyline worked. He had done his last show that afternoon, and yet it was as if he was just another excited little boy seeing it for the first time.  He joined in enthusiastically with the songs, shouted Boo and Hiss at the baddie, and through his eyes, I could enjoy the theatre of pantomime afresh.  Afterwards, I caught up with some of the cast and crew.  Layton was looking forward to going back to his fast paced life in London, Greg wanted to get home from ‘the insanity of panto’, Sewing Sue had a small break before working on La Traviata and the Rock Choir, Vicky had to refurbish her new dance studio, and Amanda was already starting on plans for the next one, Cinderella. 

And what lies ahead for Little Man?  He has had an experience of a lifetime this pantomime, and has definitely got the bug.  He has in the past expressed a wish to be on television and was sad to turn down a small part as an extra in a film with Keira Knightley during panto rehearsals.  So it was with baited breath that I asked him what he wanted to do next.

He was wearing his Dominos Pizza badge and playing with his snow cone (slush puppy) machine that he had got for Christmas.  He turned to me.  ‘Did you know,’ he asked, ‘That you can also buy a candy floss machine?  I could get one with my Christmas money and then set up a stall, with a name and everything!’  I looked at him quizzically as the machine churned the shaved ice.  ‘And,’ he continued, his eyes shining, ‘I would also like to learn to play the harp.’

Looks like it will be another interesting year...

Naughty Shoreditch Chaperones (and Layton)

Amanda and Greg

Amanda and Kirsty

Josh and Thomas 

Layton and Vicky