Minimalist or maximalist?

Mr Trebus was an obsessive hoarder who featured in a 1999 BBC documentary ‘A Life of Grime‘. He gathered so much stuff that there was barely enough room left for him to live in the house.

The British public warmed to him. Despite the filth, there was something about his humour and the way he could argue the case for every single item stacked in the towering piles he created, which were a miniature city for the local rat population. That and his catchphrase ‘stick it up your chuffer‘ which was readily bandied about to every council employee who ever came to the house to tackle the issue. If you read his obituary, you can see where his problems might have stemmed from.

So, you might ask, why am I writing about him?

I’m no minimalist but not a compulsive collector either. However, I do admit to having trouble letting go of ‘stuff’. Until very recently I had emails going back to 2001. If you look in my kitchen cupboards, it appears that I am prepping for World War three. If the nuclear Winter ever comes to Oxfordshire, I will be ready with my five giant size jars of Marmite, ten different kinds of pasta and twenty tins of tinned tomatoes.

My daughter is the same. I recently cleared out 40 boxes from her bedroom. In them, you might find a collection of pebbles, dried flowers, jewellery, small plastic toys, drawings, and lipstick. There is no apparent connection between the things she has collected but they are very consciously put together. They have meaning to her.

Maximalist living?

Maximalist living?

This cannot be a peculiarly female trait but on clearing out my Granny’s loft, my Aunt found amongst other things a packet of unused Harrington squares (the very best quality pre disposable diapers/nappies available at the time), a set of crockery riveted together to within an inch of its life and some beautiful old lace cuffs and caps which must have belonged to her Grandmother, or even her Great Grandmother. There were also toilet rolls stuffed in cupboards everywhere and probably a hundred of those free hotel wash sets from my Grandpa’s travels round the globe throughout his working life. So maybe there is in my family, an inherited tendency amongst the women not to want to throw things away.

The Doctor on the other hand, comes from the ‘slash and burn’ school of thought. Growing up in the forces, his family moved constantly and he would find himself coming home from school to a different house from the one he left at the beginning of term. Nothing extraneous was kept by his parents, nothing. If it didn’t have a practical use, it went. He has very few things from his childhood. There’s no box of toys for our children to rummage through, no history for him to reminisce over with them.

Or show home perfect?

Or show home perfect?

So I am left wondering, why do some people keep so much stuff and others nothing?

I try my best to live by the William Morris quote ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful‘, but as my eldest son puts it so eloquently: #epicfail.

Pretty much everything I own has a memory attached, even the ugly stuff, so I will always have an inner struggle going on when I know the house needs a clear-out.

Which side of the fence do you sit on?


Changing colour.

I haven’t been able to write for a while due to a bad case of the mauves. This is something in between the blues and the mean reds.

For those of you that haven’t heard of the mean reds, see below: audrey

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?

Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?

Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

Paul Varjak: Sure.

Holly Golightly: Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that’d make me feel like Tiffany’s, then – then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name! (Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961)

Plus it gives me an excuse to put up a picture of Audrey Hepburn. And everyone loves one of those.

I tried to write a post about being made redundant a while ago. I couldn’t quite get the words out. After a long time in a well paid job, here I am at 41, three children at school, in a village where most of the other mothers are working, the Doctor’s career on the up as usual, and life has stalled. I know it’s not very serious. But for now I’m unsure where I fit. I’m working on it.

Other than my four year old repeatedly asking me to search for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that he thinks his dad has bought him and hidden in the house somewhere (he hasn’t) and winking at me every evening before bed saying ‘Remember what I said Mummy’, some other things have cheered me up in the last few days. This explanation of the current weather conditions in England is one of them. I also recommend going to visit Andra, 23 thorns and Ned Hickson, if you need a reason to smile.

It’s the small things that can dig you out.

The travels on my plate.

There are some advantages to the Doctor in the house being away. Which he is, a lot.

Mealtimes are just for me. Fishfinger sandwiches were one of the first things I ever wrote about on here.

Last night however, was a bit more elaborate. I enjoy my food, relish strong flavours and sometimes a meal can take me somewhere else completely in my head. Yesterday evening had me eating tofu with ginger, pak choi and jasmine rice. It was delicious. The recipe called for Sake, and the heady scent of plums, or is it cherries, took me straight to a Japanese snow covered mountainside.

Somewhere like this...

Somewhere like this…

I have never been to Japan and one day I would love to go. When the silence closes in around me, when the children have gone to bed and the quietness of the house hangs around me like a cloak, I think of places I have been to or might go to in the future. Those ‘glamorous getaways’ that I am sent emails about and that I can only sigh at before pressing the delete button.

Cooking has never been quite the same for me since I had children. My eldest son, at nine, is convinced that most food is actually poisonous. Black bits, green bits, fatty bits, lumpy bits? All qualify food for instant rejection. Don’t even mention fruit. Don’t even talk about it.

Then there is my daughter, who will gnaw on bits of meat like some kind of warrior queen. Provide her with a piece of steak that looks so rare that it is possible that the cow only just walked past the frying pan before ending up on the plate, and you will be greeted with a beatific smile. The little one is somewhere in between the two of them. I can never, ever, make them all happy at once.

Sometimes I like to forget the need to take a deep breath before putting a family meal on the table. Instead of waiting for a vote out of ten, or a thumbs up or down, I will eat a Thai curry with creamy coconut and the twang of kaffir lime leaves, remembering the time I spent in Bangkok in my twenties.

I will smell the rich enveloping fragrance of a lemony, buttery roast chicken and recall Sunday lunches for fourteen at my Grandma’s house, getting slightly tipsy on homemade ginger beer, and being allowed whipped cream from a can on my ice-cream for pudding.

Hand me a paper parcel of fat golden chips and freshly battered cod and I will be instantly transported to a pebbly Suffolk beach, on holiday, the sea so far away from where I am now.

I can’t wait until my children really start to love their food all the time, as sometimes they show me they do. They are missing out. In a world full of diet shakes, calorie counting and low fat, low taste, are you?

Feeling cheerful?

I have a clear recollection of an essay I once wrote at University on the psychology of ageing.

In short the argument went something like this: as you get older you become more like yourself, not less. Every personality trait becomes magnified. This is bad news for me, as it definitely means I am firmly on the path to grumpy old womanhood.

Attractive, no?

Attractive, no?

Last Summer I realised that I was feeling quite upset with the owners of the barn next door as they had not cut their front lawn for weeks and it looked like a meadow. In truth I knew that being in well paid jobs, young and yet to have a family, they probably had better things at the weekend than to waste time with a lawn mower and a pair of garden shears. In reality though I was bothered that they were making the place look untidy. As a friend said to me soon after though, I need a swift visit to a yurt in Cornwall and some surfing lessons. Starting to grumble about the neighbours not caring about the environment is a slippery slope to washing out your bin every weekend, deciding a cream tea in the garden centre is a fun day out and thinking that topiary is a good idea.

However, it’s happened again. Today I am grumpy about this. In the middle of a recession, with some countries having been on the verge of a total collapse of the banking system, Barclays in the UK have spent out on an advertising campaign to personalise your bank card with a photo. Every time I see the advert I wonder who on earth duped the banking executives into thinking this was a good idea.

I can imagine that the bank went to the agency with a brief about making the retail banking industry trustworthy again. However, whether or not you have a picture of your friends on your bank card, some cuddly dogs or anything else that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, the fact remains that you do not bank with your dogs, or your friends, and never will.

I am worried that they have evidence that every time you look at your bank card, that you will in future experience some kind of ‘awww’ moment that begins to become associated with their company logo. I hope they do though as otherwise someone in a pinstripe suit has given over millions to some skinny jeaned, black polo necked adman who is currently laughing on the other side of his face.

I’d like to tell the bankers out there that if that’s the best they can come up with, then if you’ll just give me your bonus this year, I’ll come up with something better. In the meantime, I’m off to shout at children on bikes wearing iPods, shake my fist angrily at people who don’t pick up after their dogs and find some nail scissors to trim the lawn.

The last laugh.

At the end of last week, I was readying myself for the afternoon’s entertainment when I received an email on my phone. May Pole Dancing cancelled.

As an ex civil servant, who spent most of the last twelve years writing, anything involving semantics amuses me.

However, if you are not familiar with the tradition of Maypole dancing, involving children holding on to pieces of ribbon and leaping round a large pole to folk music every Spring (see here), then you may not understand why I laughed. The school’s wording was unfortunate to say the least and caused me a momentary chuckle.

This is definitely just for the grown ups..

This is definitely just for the grown ups..

However, I did then think to myself that I don’t actually know in detail what Maypole dancing is about. So I looked it up. It seems there are quite a lot of theories on the subject. It turns out that one of them is that Maypole dancing is an ancient fertility rite harking back to the time when tree spirits were worshipped, and which originally would have involved a real tree having been cut down to make the Maypole.

My interest was piqued so I read on. You can probably guess what is coming next but it’s probably not a surprise to learn that some think the Maypole is a phallic symbol. A tall pole planted into mother earth illustrating the bringing forth of new life. All this sexual symbolism and the high jinks that went with it (dancing, round a pole, with flowers in your hair – I’m outraged) apparently led the Puritans to outlaw the custom in 1644. The ribbons, which came along in the nineteenth century with the modern formation dancing? Well apparently there’s still sex involved. This time the weaving together of two ribbons by the dancers to form a new element represents the joining together of two people and their resulting offspring. There are other theories but this is the one that appealed to a woman with a mischievous sense of humour and therefore the one I liked the best.

So it seems that it was indeed Pole Dancing that my children were being taught. I smiled. Sometimes the last laugh is on you. MV5BMTUzNjE0NjQ1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTk5NzcxMQ@@__V1__SY314_CR3,0,214,314_

Something needling you?

There is one thing that is guaranteed to take me back to the feeling of being a tantrumming two year old.

Sewing. Or more generally any kind of arts and crafts.

The tools of sewing - sight of which always makes me wish I had some Valium.

The tools of sewing – sight of which always makes me wish I had some Valium.

My genes do not support the D- level of my abilities in this area. My mother could always conjure up an elaborate homemade costume for school at the last minute. Can-can dancer complete with crepe paper ruffles, matching hat and actual cans? Check. Bat made with bin liner wings incorporating bamboo skeleton? Check. She has knitted an actual farm complete with animals, thrown together a hobby horse in under an hour and fashioned a zombie bride costume at my daughter’s request. As for my sisters? One has an MA that reflects her talent in this area and the other a business, one element of which involves handmade toys. 

Meanwhile I can barely sew on a button. Sewing badges on to cub uniform brings me out in a cold sweat. My eldest son comes home to tell me I have sewed them on in the wrong place. I do that thing little children do – head on hands, face on the table. ‘I am not doing it again!’ I wail.

Like me he is a perfectionist and looks mortified at the thought of going to his beloved cubs with his badges incorrectly located on his sweatshirt. He knows however, that in this case, when I say I’m not doing it again, I mean it.

At school, I would regularly pass my basket weaving (oh yes, we had to) to my more talented friends to finish. As the end of the lesson neared and I was still struggling with crooked stitches, gaping edges and stuffing spilling out,  the offending item would be swiftly removed and completed in five minutes so that I didn’t end up in trouble. Wood and metalwork seemed easier but mainly because the teachers took pity on me and did most of my projects themselves.

I have tried though, I have tried. Last year I went with a group of friends to one of those cafés where you sit and make things and chat while you do it.  While all of us wondered what we were doing when we were sitting there decoupaging a pottery flip flop, the level of stress I felt when being made to thread beads onto a wire heart and fix it to a piece of card was unparalleled. The whispering of one of the staff members in my ear of ‘don’t give up’ was the last straw. I suddenly realised I DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS. So I didn’t. To the amusement of my companions, I sat there, hands in my lap, face set in grim determination and resolved never ever to go back.

I know that sewing is on the person specification for motherhood and is even apparently still up there on the list of desirable requirements for wife-hood. I have always struggled with the fact that I don’t meet 100% of the criteria for either job. Sometimes though your expectations of yourself are too high. You get better at letting yourself down gently as you get older. So I’m letting myself off this and focusing on the fact that my fairy cakes taste just fine.

Are your clothes revealing too much?

The weather here is dismal. No don’t fall over in shock, but it has been raining today. All day. Not only that, it is cold.

Possibly the right clothing for the current weather conditions.

Possibly the right clothing for the current weather conditions.

A few days ago though, things were different. Spring finally burst into life. We had a long long Winter and then suddenly, almost overnight the birds were singing, the butterflies flitting, the tulips, grape hyacinths and daffodils all coming up at once. English people reacted in the way that they always do. They went out in as little clothing as possible, lit the barbecue, got the Pimms out and sat in the garden all day, with no sunscreen. They smiled even while they (almost) burned.

Me? Well I wasn’t ready. My Summer clothes were still in the garage. I had to make an emergency dash to the loft, scramble up the ladder and heave down the right bag so I could find something cool enough to wear so as not to have a Jane Austen era style fainting fit.

On looking through the things I haven’t seen in some months, I suddenly realised that my Summer wardrobe bears absolutely no resemblance to the fact that I live in England. In a village in the countryside. Where it rains all the bloody time.

I seem to have stealth acquired a rainbow of dresses that make it appear as though I’m waiting for a role in a remake of John de Florette or Chocolat. In some of them I would look just right with a baguette tucked under one arm and a basket of flowers nestled in the crook of the other. I can almost imagine myself wandering happily down the alley of some remote French mountain village, nodding at the older generation as they sit gossiping outside the front of their houses.

I do have a bike (that mostly sits in the garage looking pale blue and beautiful) but I also have a mum bus which is the transport I actually use. I won’t talk about that too much though as it ruins the imagery.

There are no children in this picture. I don’t have to stand in muddy parks, on wetter than they ought to be cricket pitches, or walk along shingle beaches in Gale Force 10 winds, trying to catch up with my Mother and her Dog. I don’t appear to do anything involving dirt or in fact to do any actual work.

There’s the dawning realisation that the trouser suits, the dry clean only, the freshly pressed white shirts, the ‘don’t-mess-with-me-I-know-what-I’m-doing’ clothes have all but disappeared from my cupboards, wardrobes and chest of drawers. I’ve worked from home for the majority of the time over the past three years. I’ve only needed the occasional smart outfit when I’ve had to travel to the office, sometimes more, but usually only once or twice a month.

So this, I suppose is how my dresses have eventually revealed me as a bit of a romantic idealist, (ignoring the outlier of the running kit) who apparently sub-consciously wants to live in the South of France.

In reality, most of the time, at least when it isn’t hot, I’m in my jeans and Converse. If anything ever happened to me though, I’m afraid that if they looked in my wardrobe, the detectives piecing together my last moments would form a very different picture.

This one looks practical doesn't it?

This one looks practical doesn’t it?