Archive for the ‘ Places ’ Category

Just relax, take it easy, you’re still young…

Son one

Son two – “that was AWESOME”

My boys. Still so young, but growing up fast. Too fast. One of the reasons I take so many photos of them, to their complete and utter dismay, is that they are so beautiful, and pure, and innocent. One day they probably won’t be (innocent that is). But until then I do my best every day to celebrate their childish ways.

Just before these pix were taken, on the beach at Woolacombe, eldest was in the doghouse. He’d challenged his dad’s authority – again – and been dealt an appropriate punishment (no swingboat ride, no icecream). The day’s not too far off when punishments of this sort just will not cut it. When the arguments are long, and loud, and involve tears and breaking things. We’ve already had some taster sessions. He is stubborn, and refuses to take the easy option. Just like his dad. There will be trouble ahead.

But until then we will revel in his cuteness. In those wobbly teeth, and band of freckles which burst out, like snowdrops, at the first sign of spring and sunshine.

His little brother has it easy. He can’t do much wrong right now. We try not to let him get away with anything, but he makes it hard with his ready laugh and cheeky wit.

These photos were taken after a particularly exhilarating bodyboarding session. Littlest boy had taken a full head dunking dive off the board. As he surfaced, I ran to him to ask if he was all right. “That,” he declared, “was AWESOME! Can I go again?” and off he shot, back into the waves.

Big brother was equally happy. Staying close to shore is not his thing anymore; he likes to paddle out to the furthest surfers, in deep water, waiting to catch the big one. Time after time he misses the wave – then he catches one just right and swoops into shore. Less effusive than his brother, this grin captures the ride’s awesomeness all the same.

What a great time of their lives. But I wouldn’t hold back time, even if I could. I can’t wait to see what kind of men they turn into.

Blue Skies

Night sky, sea, sand

I’ve waxed lyrical about Woolacombe in north Devon before. It’s become a family tradition to come here over Easter to celebrate my birthday and it’s one of my highlights of the year.

This photo was taken within a few hours of our arrival for this year’s annual sojourn. I love  its simplicity and calmness, the lines and the shadows.

This week away is one of those rare times when I get to carry my camera around with me much of the time. There is so much amazing scenery, so many places worthy of a photograph, that I could spend the entire week snapping.

I’ll try not to bore you though – just a photo a day if that’s all right with you.

Black and white and red all over

 

 

 

Tree shadow, white wall and scooter boy

Well, what a week or so that was. It started with a job interview and ended with a canalside walk in the sunshine.

Before I get started, I warn you that I fear this is going to be one of those revelatory blogs. I’ve been drinking coffee with the odd drambuie liqueur, don’t feel like bed, do feel like chatting. Everyone else in my family is asleep. The laptop and this blog will have to suffice.

So, I’ll roll back 10 days to a job interview – my first proper one for a decade or so. I worried about what to wear, what to say, what to do with my hands.

The interview was held in the building where, as a young wannabe reporter 20 years or more earlier, I had turned up to try to land a place on one of the country’s best training courses. The sliding doors were still in place. Behind the desk was the same receptionist. And greeting me at the interview was someone who had worked alongside me all those years ago. He was the boss now. I couldn’t help joking about something that had happened two decades earlier. He didn’t laugh.

Anyway, the interview resulted in a job offer. It wasn’t exactly my dream job, but over the course of the next few days I got to really like the idea. In fact, I decided it was not just a job I wanted; it was the only thing I needed to make my life complete.

In fact, I decided the only thing stopping me accepting the job was my family circumstances. Curse them. For a few days I felt resentful and bitter. My ambition was being thwarted by my kids, without them even knowing about it. I’m ashamed to say I think I was even a bit mean to them as a result – older son would certainly argue I was a bit strict when on Thursday I banned him from riding his bike for a week for “being sullen”.

It took a while to work this out of my system. Even on Friday I was still in two minds about what to do. I knew there were genuine practical difficulties that would be extremely tough to overcome. The job would involve a two hour round trip every day. My hubby works over an hour away, and we have no family living nearby.

In fact there were more good reasons for turning it down than accepting it. Top of the list was the fact that I’d only wanted a part time position, which was not on the table.

Then I learned some terrible news and some worse news.

Someone I know and like (I’m reluctant to call her a friend only because we know each other purely in a professional capacity, but I know she is someone I’d like to have as a friend) was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is young and fit and gorgeous. It is a cruel and horrid disease.

The news has made me more determined than ever to do my little tiny bit to help find a cure or prevent more women (and men) suffering. I’m proud to be “walking the walk” by taking part in the London Moonwalk in May, with all money raised supporting breast cancer charities and hospitals. It’s a 26 mile night walk. I am halfway through my training regime and woefully under prepared but this recent news has made me more determined than ever to knuckle down. After all, a few blisters and aching bones are nothing compared to what cancer sufferers have to put up with. Feel free to support my efforts if you can…http://www.walkthewalkfundraising.org/blister_sisters

Then on Friday night I had a really vivid, bad dream. I woke up feeling really sad; at some point in my dream someone close to me died. I didn’t know who or how but it was a thought which stayed with me when I woke. I remember I posted a status update to this effect on my Facebook page on Saturday morning.

Two hours later my mum called to tell me my dad’s lovely cousin, Rachel (known as Ray), had died that morning. Ray had been hospitalised with a serious bout of pneumonia and pleurisy before Christmas. We exchanged emails and commented to each other on Facebook, keeping up a regular dialogue. She had suffered a lot in recent years with illnesses, including cancer and rheumatoid arthritis, but remained positive, upbeat and smiling throughout. She was the chronicler of my dad’s family history, the keeper of the flame…and suddenly, that morning, she was gone.

It is a terribly selfish thing to say, but her death helped me to see sense; to see the future I really wanted for myself and my family. This is nothing to do with sacrificing my own ambitions for my kids – I am horribly ambitious in some ways and determined to achieve success in my own right. But not at the expense of all the things that already make sense in my life; of all the things that already work well; and most of all of the precious time I get to spend with people who really matter.

So, I’ve turned the job down. It was never going to work; and the moment I pressed the send button on the email about my decision I felt relieved, rather than regretful.

Along the way between interview and today the muddy waters that have been swirling around me for months have suddenly cleared. For the first time in ages I realise what I want and how I’m going to try to achieve it. So thanks to everyone whose comments of support helped me along the way…you did help, enormously.

And so to that canalside walk earlier today. It was a simple stroll in the winter sunshine. The sky was a beautiful clear blue, like a Mediterranean sea. Trees were reflected in the still canal. I walked hand in hand with my lovely family, feeling the rays on my face. My heart was smiling. A corner had been turned.

White Blue

Standing in the Sun

Boys at war

This photo just about sums up my two boys in an instant. They are play-fighting with sticks – but in this moment their personalities shine through.

Littlest boy is the fierce aggressor; leaping in, taking a gamble, leaving himself open to a clever cut-and-thrust, but daring to go for it all the same. This is the boy who likes karate, running fast and getting stickers; who laughs long, loud and openly; who has a tendency to laziness; who is the leader of his little gang of boys at school, pushing them to be different (and sometimes naughty).

Big brother steps back and out of the line of attack. He’s a natural defender; a strategic thinker, rather than impulsive actor; the one who has a distaste for violence and aggression generally. He likes solving puzzles, reading books, running fast and getting unconditional praise; he responds to the slightest slight or the most constructive criticism as if he has been felled by a brutal swordsman. He is caring and sensitive and funny; he is also animated about his pain, emotional or physical.

They are very different but adore each other; I adore them equally. They are my best work. Two different sides of the same coin.

I like how the sun shines on them both in this picture – littlest boy has his back to it but it still swathes him in light, while big bro turns away from it, towards the shadows, but is still caught in its rays. I’ve also included pictures of them taken separately, also yesterday (below). What a pair of beauties (though I appreciate I am hugely biased.)

I was discussing the other day why I blog. One of the reasons I mentioned was my desire to keep a diary of sorts of my life and innermost thoughts, as a kind of legacy for my kids. It’s also a way to let them know (as I do every day anyway) how amazingly proud of them both I am, of how much they are loved. Thanks boys, for being just the way you are.

The Summer of 1996, Swansea, Wales

My flu-enforced house confinement this week has given me lots of time to contemplate the past, present and future (and sort through some old boxes of junk).

Tonight, one of my discoveries was a mix tape I made in May 1996 or thereabouts – a time when I was living and working in sunny Swansea.

I moved to Swansea in early 1995. I’d applied for and been offered (on the basis of a chat over a pint in a pub) the job of district news editor with the South Wales Evening Post. It was to be my first news desk role so, even though I didn’t know a soul and the job would take me miles from friends, family and my boyfriend at the time, Richard, I jumped at the chance.

I arrived on a cold and blustery Sunday, the wind blowing across the Mumbles seafront as I took a solo stroll along the beach. I wondered what the hell I was doing there.

I’d left the comfort of my simple life as a journalist at the Wolverhampton Express & Star, living with my boyfriend and having Sunday lunch at my mum and dads, to move to this distant corner of Wales, to live in a sad bedsit over a craft shop.

As soon as I met my new workmates the next day I knew it was going to work out just fine. They were friendly, kind and funny people who very generously allowed this English interloper to fit into their gang, who made me feel instantly at home.

I worked long hours and partied pretty hard, but also enjoyed long walks in the parks and on the beach with my new pals. I made some particularly special friends – Kathy & Rich, Cathy, Peter & Jayne, Janine and Kaye and many more – who shared this lovely time with me.

Within weeks I had been introduced to Wendy, a Scottish probation officer, who invited me to lodge in the Sketty home she shared with her black Labrador Mac and boyfriend Robin.

Though there were only a few years between us, Wendy quickly took on the role of substitute mum. I was naughty teenage daughter; I hardly ever washed up, rarely cooked, played loud music, drove a rusting, unreliable red Ford Escort and often came in late and drunk. I think it was a role she was used to – her partner, now husband, Robin, a fellow journalist, was like my naughty older brother, always in trouble. Mac the dog was definitely the least troublesome member of her household! Wendy could always be relied upon for a shoulder to cry on, someone to have a laugh with – and she always, always, had a pot of tea brewing.

It was a lovely period of my life. The only downside was the amount of time I spent apart from Richard, who by this time had moved up to Fort William, in the Scottish Highlands, to take up his own dream job – reporting for a weekly paper by day, climbing mountains every evening and weekend.

We only got together for one weekend in six, because of the immense distances involved. We had each taken on our new jobs with the other’s blessing – I wanted to push on in my career, and Richard wanted to seize the opportunity to live in the Highlands, however briefly. We were both prepared to risk being apart, in the belief our relationship would survive, and thankfully it worked. We enjoyed our independence, but ultimately we realised we wanted to be together more than anything.

While I missed Richard I truly fell in love with Swansea. It is an amazing, warm city and I would happily move back there tomorrow, if the circumstances were right.

Working at the Post was interesting and challenging. The editor who appointed me, Hugh Berlyn, was a difficult blighter – one day funny and brilliant, another day moody. It was a newsroom blessed with plenty of characters. I had the odd difference with people, and I’m sure I made the lives of some of the district reporters hell, but mostly we had a good giggle. It was easily the best place I have ever worked.

During this era my interest in music was reignited (probably because of all the time I had to myself tootling about in my Escort or in my room.) I went to lots of gigs and befriended a couple of the staff at Newport’s Diverse Records, which I called in to every time I popped along the M4 to visit my folks in Shrewsbury.

We quickly came to an arrangement – they would post me a batch of 45s every month, and I would keep what I liked and return the rest. They introduced me to lots of amazing bands – Super Furry Animals, Snuff, The Grifters, Lambchop – and lots of rubbish ones too, but the arrival of that package always gave me a great buzz.

So here I am tonight, sat in the kitchen, listening to that mix tape, remembering my old Swansea buddies. In front of me is the commemorative front page my old pals made me on my departure. It makes me smile every time I look at it, recalling as it does some dodgy nights out, my love of clumpy shoes, my inability to answer phones, my crush on MP Peter Hain (don’t ask), and my penchant for flavoured alcopops.

I left Swansea in November 1996 to move with Richard to Nottingham. I’d got a new job as deputy news editor at the Nottingham Evening Post, while Richard became a TV press officer for Carlton TV.

I made it back to Swansea a few times after moving away, but I’ve not been down for several years. I keep pledging to visit. But it won’t be the same, will it? Going back never is. There’s a bit of me that just doesn’t want to risk it. I want to remember Swansea, the Post and the people there just the way it was, summer 1996. Good times. Very good times indeed.

That Mix Tape in Full (labelled March-May 1996):

Manic Street Preachers: A Design for Life

Whipping Boy: When We Were Young

Bluetones: Cut Some Rug

Menswear: Being Brave

Auteurs: Light Aircraft on Fire

Bis: Kandy Pop

Gorky’s: If Fingers Were Xylophones

Wannadies: You & Me Song

Rocket From the Crypt: Young Livers

Laxton’s Superb: Coming Round

Gene: For the Dead

Snuff: Nick Northern

Ben Folds Five: Sports & Wine

Urusei Yatsura: Kewpies like Watermelons

Peter Perrett: Woke Up Sticky

Lambchop: The man who loved beer

Sparklehorse: Hammering the cramps

60ft Dolls: Talk To Me

Nilon bombers: Superstar

Shed Seven: Bully Boy

Eggman: Not Bad Enough

Ian McNabb: Don’t put your spell on me

The Grifters: Parting Shot

Sleeper: Sale of the Century

The Silence of the Cows. (or Worst. Job. Ever)

I recently won a competition. There was no prize, beyond the satisfaction that I was the hands-down winner.

I don’t win much, so I was pretty chuffed. Never mind that the contest was to find who, out of eight women, could officially claim to have had the worst job. Ever.

Back in 1985 I was in the middle of my first year studying A-levels at Shrewsbury College of Arts and Technology. For personal reasons I won’t go into, I decided to abandon my studies and get a “proper job”. In those days Thatcher’s Government had recently launched the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). Critics claimed it was a cheap form of child exploitation, with little in the way of meaningful training.

I need say nothing about that other than to say that during my six months as a YTS trainee I learned how to type. And I saw more of life (and death) than I cared for. Enough of the real world to know I just wasn’t ready for it (certainly not in exchange for £25 a week).

My first placement was in a hospital. Why this was I’m still not sure (In my YTS interview I’d definitely told them I wanted to be a journalist. Or a novelist. Or a UN peacekeeper. But definitely not a nurse.) Anyway, I rolled up to Shrewsbury’s Copthorne Hospital to take up my post as a Ward Clerk.

My job was to take care of the admin for two surgical wards, making sure notes were filed correctly, admission and discharge sheets filled in, reports compiled and phone calls answered. It soon became apparent that the job also involved lots of additional tasks – making tea, chatting to patients, fetching and emptying bedpans. Before I knew it I was even taking temperatures and pulses and filling in medical forms. All this as a completely untrained school leaver.

Anyway, I loved most of the patients and they seemed to like me. I got to see people at their most vulnerable and anxious, and hopefully my little smiling face and teenage banter brought them some comfort. I got careers advice galore from the patients, mostly of the “go back to college” sort.

Thankfully most of the patients made it home. A few did not. I found this very difficult to deal with, particularly as not once did I receive any advice or support. Death was dealt with practically and efficiently and was not dwelt on. I found each death shocking. I realised one sweet old lady had died when I went to fill her water jug at the start of a shift. She’d been telling me the day before how much she was looking forward to going home to her grandchildren.

It was a part of the job I hated. But it did not make this my worst. job. ever. That came at my next placement.

I’d obviously done a good job as a clerk, so I was sent off to ABP, the local abattoir, to help administer the transport depot.

I should say at this point that I had become a vegetarian months earlier, after reading a famous series of articles in The Times supplements about factory farming of chickens.

The transport depot was attached to the main factory, which in turn was situated on the outskirts of Shrewsbury, amid rolling green pastures. Every day hundreds of cows and sheep were brought in by lorry to graze briefly in the fields before being herded to their deaths.

I tried to stay oblivious to the carnage going on mere yards away, instead focusing on my task, which was to ensure delivery drivers could feasibly make it to and between various Tesco depots all over the country within very strict timescales. I got to know the UK motorway system intimately.

On my first day I was taken to the dining hall for lunch. En route I was shown around the packing area, where burly lads and lasses boxed up joints and steaks, ready for shipment. Inside the canteen, men in blood spattered overalls tucked into roast lamb and beef stew. It was enough to make my tummy do somersaults.

Worst of all was the sound of the cows in the fields. As soon as a herd started to trundle towards the slaughterhouse, bellowing would break out. It is hard to describe, but to simultaneously hear dozens of cows begin a low moo-ing left me in no doubt that they knew what was coming.

I didn’t last long at ABP. The last straw came when my boss kindly offered me a guided tour of the factory, with the bonus that I could select my own lamb in the field, then follow him/her through slaughter, gutting, butchering and packing – and then I could even take him/her home. I think mum was a bit cross I turned down the offer.

I saw the light and decided soon after to return to my A-levels, and then on to university.

Since then I’ve done lots of things as a journalist that were emotionally difficult; I’ve witnessed death firsthand, I’ve visited the scenes of innumerable tragedies and had to interview people in the midst of terrible tragedy. But those cows moo-ing. Still brings me out in a cold sweat to think about it.

Worst. job. ever. Anyone beat that?

PS: Due to the fact that I’ve spent all day quarantined in my bedroom, I have no today picture to share with you. I could have shared my sick bowl, or box of pills and remedies, or my unmade bed in the style of Tracey Emin, but I just didn’t have the energy. Hope to resume normal service soon. Bloody flu. Euurggh.

Climbing Clee: “If you don’t go, you won’t know” and other tall tales

“If you don’t go, you won’t know.” It’s an oft repeated mantra among mountaineers and explorers – and has long been a favourite saying of the Man in our house.

It’s what tumbles out of his lips, unbidden, every time he sees me casting a wary eye over the weather forecast on the eve of a proposed outdoor adventure. “They’re wrong 50% of the time,” he says. “I prefer to just do what they did in the olden days – stick your head out of the door and see for yourself. And then go anyway.”

So I did. This morning. And, like my ancestors before me no doubt, I decreed that as my head was getting wet it was, in fact, raining. Thus, a walk up the Titterstone Clee (renowned locally for being bleak, windy, remote and completely lacking in shelter), with two kids in tow, was probably not such a good idea.

I trotted off back to my still-warm bed and plotted a grand day in – listening to the radio, catching up on some reading, playing a family boardgame, building the Taj Mahal out of lego, maybe even doing a bit of work…bliss.

Two hours later, I had lost all feeling down the left side of my face. Not a stroke – that might have come as a blessed relief – but the result of being lashed in the cheek by galeforce, icy winds. My hood kept getting blown back, my wet hair was whipping into my eyes and my jeans were soaked through.

Littlest boy was just behind me, plaintively crying out: “I just want to go home,” while his stoic elder brother was yomping on ahead, leading us through the storm towards the summit.

Titterstone Clee, for those of you from further afield, is a famed landmark in my part of the world. It’s the third highest hill in Shropshire, standing a paltry 533m high, but is also perhaps its most unattractive. It is scarred by old mining works and is also home to a radar station, including the uber spaceage “golf ball” satellite, which helps control air traffic. Some 2,000 people used to work in the mines hereabouts – now its home to a handful of radar station staff and thousands of sheep.

It’s a peculiar place to be in a rainstorm. It is close to civilisation – a road runs to the radar station on the summit – yet it seems particularly desolate and bleak. Today it was foggy, dark and downright spooky.

On a clear day it provides fantastic views across England and Wales. From the top it is possible to see all the way to the mountains of Snowdonia, the Peak District, Cotswolds, Malvern Hills, Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons. Today we could not even make out the road, mere feet away.

We’d brought a beautiful new kite with us, hoping to take advantage of the wind to send it soaring into the sky. It was too windy to even take it out of the bag.

We’d also brought a flask of hot chocolate and a picnic, in the vain hope the rain would miraculously clear and we could breathe in the refreshing air while feasting on Philadelphia sandwiches and bananas. It was too cold to stop, even to catch our breath.

I’d brought my camera with me, with grand plans to take some multiple exposures of the radar installations while also photographing the kite flying antics. These quick snaps were the best I could do without drowning all the equipment.

We didn’t even make it to the true summit. This picture of the radar installations, just metres below the summit post, shows how close we got.

All in all we were out of the car for a paltry 45 minutes. It felt like hours. The littlest was crying, the eldest was soggy, my mission to capture our day on camera was thwarted.

But hubby – he was pleased. Apparently, we could now be delighted because we had “put a deposit in the bank of weather” and so were now “in credit”. (I’m not making this up. This is what my husband told me, seemingly forgetting I am 42, not four…)

On the bright side, once we got back to the car and turned the heating on full, we had a lovely half hour watching the rain continue to lash down and gazing as an impenetrable fog cast a ghostly pall over the entire hill.

While tucking into the picnic and slurping down the hot choc, we all sang along with the only CD in the car, a home-made reggae Christmas album (sample lyric: “On the first day of Christmas JahJah gave to me, a garden full of sensei”). The kids know it off by heart. I live in dread of the day the Reception class teacher quizzes me about my littlest boy’s knowledge of ganja and weed.

This hiatus also gave me a chance to share memories of my first boyfriend, Morris, who had the middle name Clee as he was conceived in Clee Hill village. This was long before the Beckhams made this slightly queasy concept fashionable.

My three month relationship with Morris, aged 11, consisted of him walking me to my bus after school every day and giving me a peck on the cheek in the same alleyway en route. That was it. We didn’t speak the rest of the time. I dumped him very publicly in front of his friends, telling him: “I think we are getting too serious. I just want to be friends. Do you still want to walk me to my bus?”

Once the reminiscing had finished, accompanied by “yuk” and gagging sounds from the boys, we then decided we would make it to the summit after all by driving up to it. To do so involved passing through a gate marked “no public access beyond this point”.

Now, our eldest is a stickler for rules. Breaking them, no matter how trivial, brings him out in hives, and we hadn’t gone 20 ft through the gate before he began to beg us to turn back. I trundled on regardless, but I too chickened out when we reached a second sign warning we were now entering a restricted area patrolled by security guards. So we didn’t even make it to the summit by cheating.

But it wasn’t a wasted morning. If we hadn’t gone, we wouldn’t have known, would we?