Sunday, 29 April 2007

My dominant narrative?

Kim Ayres that rambling, philosophizing and lovely bearded bloke left a very thought provoking comment on my last post: he told me that in order to get over my procastination problem I need to shift my dominant narrative. When I first read this I just thought arrgh... But something started stirring in my little walnut brain. What, I began thinking, is my dominant narrative exactly? And, actually, what is a narrative in this regard, let alone the dominant one? Is it how I see myself, or how I'd like to see myself, or a mixture of the two? Is it inherited; modelled, consciously, on some individual or type I believe to be cool; modelled subconsciously on some individual or type I believe to be cool; entirely imaginary, or a mixture of the above?

This is how I'd like to be able to describe myself: Tall and thin with an innate sense of elegance nicely juxtaposed with a touch of allure. Searingly intelligent but quietly so. Unable to be ruffled: cool headed but warm and friendly. Flexible: someone for whom the business of living is second nature. Able to deal calmly with whatever comes along, preferably while wearing Marc Jacobs, even though appearances aren't important to me. Well versed in the arts without being remotley smug about it. A writer, who always has a notebook to hand - in her beautiful but battered old brown leather bag - in which to jot down life's oddities. A warm host with a talent for rustling up something delicious from half an onion a carrot and some bulgur wheat. Witty. Motherly but not frumpy. On top of things. Nonchalant, in that sylish French way of my imagination. Laid back, which may be the same as French-nonchalant, but with added Johnny Depp.

This is how I do see myself: Scatty, disorganised, frantic, always fire fighting. Short, scruffy, with a few more pounds to lose and hair that defies the brush (see accompanying photo for evidence of this last point). Constantly being taken by surprise though reasonably flexible and often quite calm. Someone who has never been able to find an article of Marc Jacobs clothing that I can both afford and that fits (or that I actually like for that matter, what's that all about?) Though I am the proud owner of a Chloe skirt that I picked up in TK Maxx for twenty quid and happily wear even though it's at least two sizes too big. Well it is dark brown with while spots and little pin-tuck pleats down the front. Someone who never has time to spend on her novel and although I do carry a note book around with me - in a too new but not for long brown bag - I only remember to write anything in it when I'm at home.

Anyone who asks me will be told I love my life, I just wish I was different. I wish my appearance didn't matter to me so much. I wish I could just get on with things and stop procrastinating. I wish my values and desires matched up.

So what is my dominant narrative? The photograph I've added to this post probably says it all. I like this photo: the sun is shining, I look relaxed, the dressing gown hides most of my shortcomings and my hair obscures the rest. I'm on holiday which suggests there's a touch of the traveller about me. Also, I was in the middle of my dissertation, so shouldn't have gone away at all which hints at a devil-may-care attitude. I look like I haven't got a care in the world. I haven't brushed my hair: I like the idea of being a bit tousled, not unkempt but relaxed enough not to bother too much. And flexible, I like to think I am that. This can mean, however, that I never see anything to the end becuase something else comes along and I think 'Ok, lets have a go at this then.' I'm not one for making plans anyway, I like to see what evolves, what comes up, how things go if they're not forced. I like to think my instinct and natural ability will see me through. Mmm... I think this could be where the 'shift' is required. I need to see myself as someone who plans but whose plans are flexible enough to absorb all but the most debilitating contingencies. Not someone who doesn't need to plan. I need to get it into my head that planning and dealing with life's more boring aspects (opening the mail for example) can be good because they leave the way open for true flexibility. The sort that means you can take off at a moments notice knowing that when you come back everything will still be ticking along nicely.

If anyone can point out a desirable role model here, I'd be most grateful. Does Kate Moss always pay her bills on time? Does Johnny Depp ensure his guttering is clear before he goes off on a shoot? Did Gertrude Jekyll have a routine whereby she dealt with all her correspondence every morning before going into the garden?

Tuesday, 24 April 2007


I've just had a horrible experience. Not sure if it could be called a nightmare but it was grim. To get to it, though, some background is needed:

About fifteen years ago my husband's job meant he was never at home. Because he didn't want me to ever be stuck for money, small child and everything, he started having his salary paid into my bank account. So all the bills, being paid out of my account, were in my name. This throwback to an earlier age is still, in part, going on. All the bills still come out of my account, and are in my name, though the money doesn't automatically go into it anymore. This isn't normally a problem, he just transfers the money for the bills when he gets paid.

The conflict arises when something has to be dealt with. The companies have my name and it's me they want to speak to and it's me they send letters to. And I am not a person who either regularly opens her mail (read never) or likes to phone people up. Hell I only ever phoned my mother about three times a year. It's not that I don't want to do these things, it seems I just can't. Anyway, a little while ago some bastard in Leeds emptied my bank account the day after pay day. I went into a shop in Glasgow and tried to buy a belt, it cost about twenty quid but my card was rejected. There began a round of ghastly dealings with the bank: my account had to be closed, a new one set up, an overdraft awarded. An enquiry eventually resulted in the bank giving us the money back but what a palaver. Then there were all the direct debits to be sorted: companies needed to be notified and new forms filled out. Payments had been bounced all over the place so there were extra fees to be paid. We ended up with a bit of a backlog. We missed one or two companies and ended up being ambushed by a few enormous bills. We thought, by now, everything had been sorted. And that leads me back to today.

To put you in the picture, I work until about three or four in the morning and consequently don't wake up until about eleven at the earliest. And I'm not good first thing, not a cheery morning person. This morning I had set my alarm for nine thirty because I'm trying to wean myself back onto 'normal' time. I heard it, pushed the snooze button and dozed back off again. This happened every ten minutes for about an hour until I finally staggered our of bed at about ten thrity. I went to the bathroom, had a pee, washed my face and oxters, went back to the bedroom found some not too stinky clothes to put on, put them on. At last I made it to the kitchen to put the kettle on. Just as it was coming to the boil there was a knock at the door. Fuck! I hovered, do I answer it, tealess and droopy? I hate answering the door and often don't, I hide. But today I did and there, accross the threshold, were two honest working men who had come to remove the gas meter and substiute a 'pre-pay' one. I didn't ask why I just thought Oh my god! And had visions of sordid bedsits; running out of hot water in the middle of a shower and not a fifty pence piece in the house. They had written, the little one said, to warn me of this eventuality. The letters are probably in that pile on the stairs. 'I don't know anything about it' I say 'do you have to do it now?' 'I'm afraid so' he said. Fuck! I felt myself becoming hysterical so phoned my husband: 'Rising damp; fifty-pees, two men here IN MY HOUSE! mess, letters!' I told him. A silence ensued, I think he told me to calm down... He grasped the situation; asked for a phone number, a reference number, said 'Right I'll phone them' 'Now?' 'Now.'

And he did, and then someone phoned the wee man and then they left. Panic over for now. Poor husband had to pay a massive bill because I can't open my mail. Why can't I just do it? Nietzsche calls this state akrasia, it is the inability to act on one's best judgements.

I have a whole list of best judgements I am unable to act on: going out to buy loo paper/milk/toothpaste etc. when we're about to run out is another.

Anyone have any they might share with me to make me feel better?

Friday, 20 April 2007

Revaluating values: 1. Cleanliness

I used to be a clean freak. I cleaned the house at least twice a week and tidied up relentlessly. I showered and washed my hair daily - at least: if I was going out in the evening I'd do it again. Then I would blow dry my hair, smoothing out the frizz. Apply make-up. Put on clean clothes; I was always laundering: washing, ironing, folding and putting neatly away.

Then I became a student and began to notice a change. I didn't seem to have time to clean the house so often, now I do it only if I'm expecting visitors. I couldn't be bothered to wash and style my hair everyday, so I'd wrap it in a towel as I showered. Then I stopped showering daily too. Blow-drying became blast-drying when it happened at all. Make-up shmake-up I thought, who needs it. Every morning I put on the same pair of paint-stained, shabby old combat trousers, reluctantly laundering them only when they smell.

This week has been my most disgustingly slovenly so far: On monday I realized that I was going to have to really knuckle down if I was to get my dissertation in on time. I would need to do at least two thousand words a day. So I didn't have time for a shower. I put on exactly the same clothes I'd worn the day before. Tuesday ditto. Wednesday no change. Thursday, you guessed it. I could smell myself. Actually I rather wallowed in my own smell, I don't think I've ever smelled me before. Usually I smell of shampoo, perfume, soap, with a base note of fags.

Then my husband phoned to say he was on his way home and my instincts reverted. Before I knew it I was getting wet and soapy again, dabbing perfume behind my ears and brushing my hair. Today I'll have to do three thousand words but I did wash my oxters. I think that's probably what people call striking a balance.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007


My son came to visit. Quite unexpectedly as a surprise for my birthday. I got out of the shower one evening and ambled into my study and there on the couch he was. I can't explain the joy in words, you'd have to have seen my face. There can be nothing better in life than to unexpectedly see someone you love with all your being. I don't see him often as he lives the other side of Britain. I had thought that this would be the first birthday in twenty-two years without his presence. But no! he came and so I didn't have to miss him.

He stayed for just over a week, and it was a lovely week. We chatted and laughed; he brought me all sorts of new music which he installed onto my little machine; he sorted out my computer; he ate, with gusto, everything I cooked; he got me a Nietzsche finger puppet/fridge-magnet for my birthday; we drank wine; we watched films; he encouraged me to buy a brown leather bag - not the unfathomably expensive one of a few posts back - and a little cube music player for when I run (the other one hangs up with movement). I scratched his head and he was my little boy again, for a while.

And now he's gone again, and I had to fight back the tears as he boarded the train. I miss him more everytime he comes back and goes away again. I wish he could live here forever. But of course he has to go off into the world to make his own way. That's sad, but also marvellous: he's grown into an adult human, surely what I was striving for all those years trying to get him to eat brown bread and vegetables.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

One Year On

April 10th 2006: I awake feeling refreshed and it's 8.30 I can't work out at first why 8.30 seems like a lie in. Then I go downstairs and my two sisters are there drinking coffee and I remember, 'the hospital didn't phone' I say. Angela, the sister whose house this is, answers 'no, she must have slept well.' We all nod.

As I make tea for myself and proceed to drink it, the other two get showered and dressed. When it comes to my turn in the bathroom there is no hot water left. Angela throws a switch, 'it'll only take half an hour' she says kindly. Then she suggests that she and Elsa go on ahead, I can catch them up in my own car as soon as I'm ready. I am relieved to be left alone for even half an hour, we've been holed up together for weeks.

After showering I dry my hair, trying to make it look as groomed as possible. I then apply a little make-up, not too much, wanting to look elegant, in control, rather than attractive. I put on my tweed skirt, a black polo-neck sweater, heels; then downstairs grab my mac and bag and head out the door.

This is the morning of the great meeting: all the consultants are getting together to discuss whether my mother is strong enough to undergo a biopsy. Oncology, surgery, medical, elderly care all departments represented. There is a growth the size of a newborn's head in her lower abdomen. It's so large they can't tell, merely with scans, from where it emanates: bowel, bladder or colon. It just seems to fill them all. Ten thirty, we all want to be there by then to hear the news. To affect it.

I arrive at her ward and ring the bell, am buzzed in. A nurse comes to meet me 'this way m'dear' she guides me by the elbow to the office. I am positive, almost euphoric: something is finally being decided and I will be in on it, I will get to say my piece. I almost burst into the office and there turn to me, not a group of unknown middle aged men but three sad brown faces. I feel my face fall and my brother, for he has come too, rushes to hug me and I feel him convulse with loss. I crumple a little as I try to make sense of the scene: this is not what I was expecting at all. The multiplicity of feelings is discomfitting. Guilt, relief, anger, loss, a sort of odd, empty confusion. But there's also what seems to be joy... That she is no longer in that terrible pain that she is free at last. We go to see her body and she looks so much bigger, smoother, brighter. No longer wizened with unrelenting agony and morphine and fear. Now it has sunk in, a little, relief is what I feel the most, relief for her and also for us. I kiss her on her newly smoothed forehead and she is still warm, receptive even.

She died, not in her sleep but in the morning during a bed-bath; my brother hovering outside the curtains waiting to say good morning. He'd been there for over an hour but hadn't seen her awake. She had slept in for the first time in weeks, maybe years.

We had to wait for the coroner's report to find out what had killed her. A tumour that began in her colon but got so big it burst through walls of flesh and tissue into her bladder and bowel. How had we not known about this earlier?

One year on I think she didn't want us to know, maybe she didn't want to to know herself. Not the details anyway, I'm pretty sure she was aware that she was dying and she was ready for it. She had come to terms with her own mortality. Now I am relieved that the doctors didn't get to interfere with her anymore. That's not to say that I don't miss her, just that I think for her dying was the better option. It is, after all, part of the cycle of life and if she accepted that then so must I.

Thursday, 5 April 2007


Hot chocolate or cocoa? I've noticed a bit of snobishness creeping into chocolate drinks lately. In Harvey Nichols a small cup of intensely dark and smooth hot chocolate costs about six quid. This is becuase it is made with finest quality Valrhona, single estate chocolate and is sold to people who have more money than kitchen skills. In another cafe in Edinburgh - Vlavone & Crolla - they make hot chocolate in a tall glass cup. It isn't stirred when they bring it to you so you can see the melted chocolate quite clearly in the bottom of the cup. In trying to combine the milk with the melted goo in the bottom you spill most of the milk and end up with half a cup of chocolate tar to drink. Again this is quite shockingly expensive, though it has to be said delicious and it can be fun.

So I am on a new mission to bring back good old fashioned cocoa. I work late, until about four a.m., and at about tenish when I am preparing myself to get started I make myself a cup of cocoa. I've been doing this for some months and feel I have now perfected the technique enough to share it. It is like drinking liquid chocolate cake and actually makes the house smell of baking. So if you ever feel like some chocolate cake but don't have the time or inclination to actually bake one you could do worse than to make yourself a cup of this. Here is my recipe:

For each cup or small mug you need:
one heaped tablespoon of cocoa powder
one teaspoon of vanilla sugar
One small lump of unsalted butter
one cup of milk
a little cream if you feel so inclined which I usually do

Put the cocoa powder, vanilla sugar and butter in a small saucepan. Add enough cold milk to make a paste (this can be a bit hit and miss until you get a feel for it). Turn the heat on low and whisk like crazy until everything is amalgamated and glossy. Slowly add the rest of the cold milk and keep whisking. Keep the heat low, it will take a while for it to get properly hot but this is good as the cocoa needs to cook. It will start to froth as you whisk and the alchemy nears completion. You should end up with a very dark, intensely chocolate smelling and slightly syrupy liquid after about ten minutes. I like to add a teeny blob of thickish cream at this stage and then pour it carefully, slowly and with reverence into my favourite china cup.

I use Green & Black's cocoa powder because it is the best stuff available locally, but just use your favourite brand. To make vanilla sugar all you have to do is split open a couple of vanilla pods and pop them into a jar of caster sugar. Leave for about a month for the pods to excrete their aromatic deliciousness into the sugar. You can, of course, use ordinary sugar and a drop of vanilla extract but to get the best flavour this way you will have to leave the cocoa to get cold and then reheat it later to drink. This is because the vanilla needs time to affect the other ingredients. Actually, reheated cocoa is always better but I can never wait. Sometimes I make it and put it in a flask, flask cocoa is the best: somehow creamier and more chocolatey even if you don't add cream. Who knows why.

So, you don't need to procure single estate chocolate bars to make the best chocolate drink ever. Don't let those T.V. chefs convince you otherwise. All you need is old fashioned powder and a little time.