Nature’s Peep-Show: Notes on camping

Camping I’m back from a camping sojourn in the sodden British countryside and I have to reveal a shocking truth; everything in nature is about sex.

Stuck in my urban flat, I don’t notice these things; my  ‘outside’ world mainly concerns fighting or buying stuff.  In the countryside, it’s all different.

I am almost embarrassed to witness greedy stamens of Queens Anne’s Lace forcing themselves upwards to the bees. The frisky sheep, the bucking horses, the pelvis-shaped sycamore wings fainting to the floor like damsels in a ‘take-me-now’ twizzle toward the fertile earth. Stags, deer, cadavers on the road, the fenced-in versus the wild. Flowers open shamelessly towards the sun and coyly close in the night air. Our campfire greedily sucks up the air and all of our wood. The earth, voluptuous in her mounds and curves, defies the copsing and mowers that try to tame her. She just keeps on saying it; “Love me, love me just the way I am. You cannot contain me!”

Everything in the countryside wants to shag or be shagged!

And the kids, my God the kids are free, combusting and instantly feral!  No need for chastening sex education videos or tightlipped lessons about ‘nocturnal emissions’ and ‘The Curse’ here. No, my six-year-old girl, just get a load of those rampant poppies in the upper field!

Camping in the dank grey, our tent is a seed pod of dreams. Our sleep is odd, incorporating the raw sounds from outside, a canvas sheet between us and the pelting rain which batters us out of our slumber saying, “Submit! You are so much less than all of this.”

Elemental, feet blackened with dirt and damp in our bones, we head home to the Big Smoke where I run a bath so hot I burn. I wonder if camping is not so much  about being at one with nature, but about proving we can still build a home that keeps her out. We try to humanize the wild with our Bell tents and trangias, but looking out from the comfort of our canvas porches, we are just voyeurs at a demented peep show, catching a glimpse of who we really are.

5 Things I Really Should Know By Now: Notes on Growing Up

When I was a child, I assumed that by the time I was in my forties I would have achieved certain things. I imagined I would be living a life of sophisticated inner-peace as I breezed around my creative business empire wafting of Eau du Coutts and Cotswolds. Instead, I exist in a primordial soup of chaos fuelled by caffeine and crumpets and what is more, there are important things I STILL don’t know such as:

1. How to reverse park

Sorry, but I just I can’t do it. It gives me a hurty neck and I get all confused. I have parked blocks away just so I can do a fronty entrance.

(And yes, all the above also applies to sex.)

2. What I want to be when I grow up

I’m not sure whether the lack of certainty here is about not knowing what I want to do, or not being sure what the general signifiers are that one has ‘grown-up’ and I’d like to know. Is it about having your hair ‘done’ regularly and acquiring a mortgage? It’s certainly not about having kids because that’s sent me into some kind of potty-talk induced decline. Plop. You see, the word still makes me laugh and I know I’m not the only one.

So what is it? HOW ARE YOU SUPPOSED TO KNOW THAT YOU ARE A GROWN-UP if no one gives you a certificate in assembly to you show that you are? I am a big believer in having something to work towards like a badge or a small engravable trophy. So until the passage to adulthood is made clear to me and broken down into small, achievable goals, I’m not playing. *Folds arms, kicks over toy bucket and sulks.*

3.Which clothes suit me

This may be a natural consequence of  Point 2 above, but I have no idea what looks good or even acceptable on me any more. This is partly because my middle-aged body is a stranger to me (as I explain in this blog). I usually go out looking like a cross between Fearne Cotton and Fern Britton which looks something like this:

Britton Cotton Bran

My face, Britton’s boobs, Cotton’s pegs

I’d be on my own What Was She Thinking page every week if I were a magazine. I don’t have a little black dress that always works, my killer heels do actually make me want to die and the last time I wore something saucy in the bedroom, my husband got the giggles and did a tiny sick in his own mouth.

I used to know this stuff, but it seems that ‘the knowledge’ fell out of my croissant along with my children.

4. How to save money and be all sensible about investments and ploppy stuff like that

You’d think by my mid-forties I’d have some savings or own some ‘stuff’ but my net worth has about the same value as an actual tiddler-net from an actual garage. I have put aside exactly diddly, zilch, nada, not a sausage. I like to think that this is because I have chosen instead to invest in skills that I do not have to ever retire from like writing and having v. smart children who I have guilt-tripped into making sure they feel they owe me.

“You will look after yer dear old mum won’t you? ” I say to my talented girls as I drop my pants and show them my caesarean scar for the 6,000th time.

So, if all you own is one cardigan, a pair of unwearable shoes and a hair dryer, you are not alone my friends.

5. How to accept that my husband really does love me

I just assume that I irritate the hell out of my husband and that at some point he will get fed up and leave me. I press his buttons daily (no, not those ones) in a perpetual test of his love like my 6-year-old smears bogies on my living-room wall to test mine. Even after 12 years of his consistent, patient, steady loving, I just can’t relax. Perhaps I just don’t really believe that I’m that lovable, or maybe it’s because I’m a child of that dreadful hairy 70‘s era when men did what the fuck they wanted when they wanted with whom they wanted while women were stuck somewhere between liberty and tradition. Why is it that women assume they will be left for a younger, prettier version of themselves, and men assume they will be abandoned for a richer, better provider? Perhaps the old adage is true, that until you truly love yourself, you won’t believe that anyone else can. Or perhaps learning to let someone love you is Lesson One in growing-up.

6 Vintage Children’s Books That Formed My Views on Motherhood

One of the things I love most about being a mother is rediscovering books from my childhood and enjoying them all over again with my daughters.

My childhood books were my dream catchers ~ my world view was woven from their threads. As we didn’t have a TV until I was in my teens, these vintage classics provided me with an entire cultural landscape. I still find the lithography and print styles of the 60’s and 70’s as evocative as perfume and the illustrations in these books are so familiar I could crawl inside them just as I did as a child. I realize that when I received stories as a kid, it was in an immersive way that I have since forgotten.

Make Way for Ducklings 2

Introducing my first feminist icon... MRS MALLARD

I love the poignancy of touching a crease made on a page forty years ago by the four-year-old me and the sense of continuity that comes when my daughter traces her tiny fingers over my name, the ‘S’ handwritten backwards in my childish scrawl, on the inside cover.

I adore my Kindle, but I know that the tactile world of books is leaving us and it makes me sad.

When I decided to compile a list of the vintage favourites my daughters and I have enjoyed, I noticed that every book featured a mother of some kind.

So while my own mother was reading Fear of Flying and the Female Eunuch, I was getting down with some of the greatest feminists of the era, many of whom had beaks. Here they are along with the notes I would have made to myself if only I had known how to spell at the time.

Make Way for Ducklings1. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)

Synopsis: One reviewer at the time of publication in the 1940’s commented on the pre-feminist tone of this story of Mr and Mrs Mallard who search all over Boston for the perfect place to raise their family of eight ducklings; Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack.

Favourite quote: ‘”Don’t you worry,” said Mrs. Mallard, “I know all about bringing up children.” And she did.’

Notes to self:

  • Mrs Mallard is in complete control in spite of having eight children, and was probably my first feminist icon.
  • It’s mothers who teach their kids everything important and husbands are a bit rubbish.
  • Give your children rhyming names for ease of communication. Think Jenny, Lenny, Lily, Billy, Gilly etc.
  • Don’t mess with ducks.

Blueberries for Sal2. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey (1948)

Synopsis: Set in Scott Island, Maine, the characters Little Sal and her mother pick blueberries to store for the winter months. There is a parallel story of a mother bear and her cub who eat as many blueberries as they can to fatten up before hibernating. Sal and her mum and the little bear and her mum get all mixed up on Blueberry Hill.

Favourite quote: “Ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk!”

Blueberries for Sal illustration

Mrs Blueberry: Fearless in the face of furry adversity!

Notes to self:

  • Mothers are supposed to know how to make jam.
  • Mothers are fearless even in the face of wild bears.
  • Your own mother could be easily mistaken for a bear.

the giving tree3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964)

Synopsis: The metaphorical tale of a tree (aka mother) and a little boy. The tree gives and gives and gives to the snivelling, ungrateful (my interpretation) little boy throughout his life until she (the Giving Tree) is just a tired old stump. This tour de force of martyrdom versus self-centredness is actually one of the most moving children’s stories ever written. If The Giving Tree doesn’t make you weep at the end, YOU HAVE NO SOUL.

Favourite quote: “And the tree was happy…but not really.”

Notes to self:

  • Kids, they’ll suck you dry.
  • And if the kids don’t get you, age will.

story of ferdinand4. The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf  (1977)

Synopsis: Ferdinand the Bull likes to sit under a tree and smell the flowers instead of fighting like all the other bulls. His mum worries about him, but lets him be who he wants to be. Ferdinand caused controversy when first published as he was considered to be a pacifist symbol.

Favourite quote: “His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was just a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

Notes to self:

  • Mothers, even if they’re a cow, know their kids better than anyone.
  • Don’t mess with bulls.
  • Or bees.

little runner of the longhouse

5. Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker (1962)

Synopsis: It’s New Year and The Basket Woman has come to collect gifts from all the families in the Long House. Little Runner wants to go and play with the big kids but his mum thinks he’s too little. Instead, he pretends to kidnap his Little Brother to try to trick his mum into giving him maple sugar.

Favourite quote: “It was cold in the longhouse…”

Notes to self:

  • Mummies always have a secret stash of sweets.
  • Mummies are weirdly telepathic and TOTALLY know if you’re fibbing.

Are you my mother6. Are you My Mother? by P. D. Eastman (1960)

Synopsis: Frankly terrifying plot where a baby chick hatches while his mother is out searching for food. The baby chick leaves the nest in search of mum and ends up asking all kinds of creatures and inanimate objects if they are his mother including a scary dog and a giant digger that snorts at him.

Favourite quote: Mother: “Do you know who I am?” (The baby chick does indeed)

Notes to self:

  • Your mother will quite possibly abandon you in favour of searching for worms and the journey to find her will be perilous and strewn with large vehicles.
  • Mothers are human and can make heart-breaking, gut-wrenching, awful mistakes.
  • Mothers can be many things: scary, kind, neglectful, loving, forgetful; but we all had one once, even if they didn’t stick around.
Are you my mother

It's all about the headscarf for me...

So there you have it ~ my six vintage motherhood classics. I’d love to hear about yours.

Empty Orchestras: On Karaoke as Medicine

Music Karaoke Medicine

The room is dark apart from the blue glow emanating from a giant flat screen. The wallpaper is lush and there are velvet cushions everywhere. There is a button on the wall that reads “Booze’. When you press it a young male appears who, enthralled by your mightiness, brings alcohol. I already assume I must be in heaven but it is about to get better.

I love it here. It feels like an illicit womb that I am temporarily sharing with seven sisters. I’m ready for whatever is conceived in this secret place tonight but you should know Dear Reader that usually, whatever happens in a room like this stays in a room like this. Until one of you blogs about it.

It transpires that I am not in heaven but in the karaoke bar above the aptly named Paradise Pub in London’s Kensal Green. Karaoke translates as ‘empty orchestra’ and no phrase on earth sums up the pathos of singing your heart out in a darkened room apart from some unallowable juxtapositions of words like happy/sad, mortifying/liberating or brilliant/awful. Why oh why oh why is singing loudly with your mates such a stress reliever? Why does it feel so damn good that I actually had a comedown the next day?

Perhaps the answer lies in the physiology of singing. Apparently you need a ‘vibrator’ (the vocal folds of the larynx) an ‘activator’ (the air from our lungs) and a‘resonator’ (the throat cavity) to make a singing sound. If this all seems vaguely sexual, that’s because it is. In what circumstances do women let go and allow big primal sounds to come out of our mouths other than in the bedroom or when we give birth or when we sing? The facts are that singing has a balancing effect on the hormones, increases oxygenation of the blood and works muscle groups that only pilates and gynecologists can touch. Singing makes most people feel bloody brilliant psychologically and physically even if the vibrator/activator/resonator alignment is a bit out of whack and the resulting sound is something only a mother could love. All these ‘well-being effects’ are multiplied when humans sing as a collective; if there’s one thing we cannot resist, it’s resonance.

The ritual of karaoke unfolds like this: at the beginning there will be performance anxiety but luckily its pervasive laxative effect can be easily countered by saucily named cocktails. You and your friends will attempt to ignore the huge karaoke screen that glistens alluringly in the corner like a pole dancer’s pants. The two dead microphones lying on the table in front of you will seem impossibly big and way too phallic to handle. Suddenly, several cocktails in, one of you (in our case my mate Polly) will go for it. It’s Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon. “Yoooooooouuuuu, consumed with what’s to transpire…” and there it is. The Banshee-wail of the undervalued, underpaid, overworked mother is something magical. (David Attenborough voice) “At the same time as this siren call of the Kensal Rise she-wolf cuts through the night air her husband, miles away, experiences a mysterious chill whilst watching Police Interceptors.” Such is its power ladies and gentlemen, such is its power.

Once the full force of ladies doing karaoke is underway, it’s like unleashing a hurricane on a Wendy house. My sisters and I were unstoppable for the next two hours becoming increasingly high on singing loudly. In nature, a bunch of females making this much noise would be viewed as sending a signal of either empathy or warning to the surrounding tribe. Judging by our waiter’s increasing reluctance to respond to our booze bell, we were perhaps sending out the latter message. Mind you, if confronted by a room full of wild-eyed women-of-a-certain age screaming a rendition of “Sister’s Are Doing it for Themselves” with the kind of ferociousness usually reserved for the January sales, I too would be scared shitless.

I know the NHS is cutting back, but couldn’t we just have a little singsong session every Friday at the local surgery? If they had karaoke in the waiting room, most patients would self-cure and cancel their appointments after one communal round of Rod Stewart’s “We Are Sailing”. Karaoke as medicine could save the NHS millions of pounds. The ironic thing about all this is that I used to be a singer. For fifteen years I lived breathed and puked music until one day, worn down by disappointment, I decided I’d had enough. I placed my music on the pyre named Thwarted Dreams and simply stopped singing. My Kensal karaoke night was a timely reminder that one can sing for many things other than ambition; for joy, for love, for life itself.

Musings on Kite Hill: Earth, Air, Marriage and Trees

Kite on Kite Hill

I recently spent an afternoon on Kite Hill, one of the highest peaks of London’s ancient public land known as Hampstead Heath. The Heath, all 790 acres of it, is about as wild as the city gets; unruly tufts of long grass dance upwards to an expanse of rolling sky, pockets of unhindered nature abound indifferent to mower, trimmer and shear.

The view of London from Kite Hill is exuberant; it’s as if the land has embedded the awe of everyone who ever climbed to the top; the summit offers all the comfort of a giant collective sigh. The hill is officially known as Parliament Hill and legend has it that this is where Guy Fawkes planned on watching the destruction of Parliament in 1605. I have always known it as Kite Hill because its topography captures the breeze and creates an ideal location for kite flying. My husband loves this place as do I, so we traipsed to the top of it with our five-year-old a few Sundays ago.

The husband was flying the kite equivalent of an F1 Tornado aircraft, streamlined and breathtaking in its high speed drops and turns. My daughter and I struggled for half-an-hour to launch a kamikaze paper butterfly which is now residing in the ‘shit toy’ pile at home. With her kite launch aborted, my five-year-old removed her shoes and ran off to try and adopt a stranger’s dog and I was left to contemplate the world to the buzz and hum of airborne diamonds, dragons and sails.

As usual, the summer in London was doing about five different weather fronts at once. Ominous sulky clouds petulant with rain hung below fluffier ones skipping along on a different breeze. Sunny fingers pointed down from the heavens lighting up the edges of buildings; glimpses of Mediterranean blue played a tantalizing peek-a-boo with the fug.

Why, I thought, do people fly kites? For me kite flying is an engagement with an element I’m not that comfortable with, air. It’s just so unpredictable! I watch how my husband patiently holds the strings of his kite while it twists and pulls against his grip. I witness the kite’s incredible instinct for pockets of friendly air, for slipstreams to dance in. In my husband’s hands the kite is tugged and repelled into a hissing, buzzing gambol. It is an air dervish.

This is how many a marriage works I think to myself; one partner will have that instinct for air, a chaos in their soul which leads them to perpetually arc and crash. The other will be anchored in the earth, solid and resolute, always catching the falls and admiring the acrobatics. Most of the time it works, this ground to air gavotte. But I know that when a kite tumbles to earth, it can do so with surprising viciousness. Things can turn from joyous dance to broken heap in a moment and it makes me sad to think how many times I’ve seen it. How fragile and how predictable these things are. How incredible it is that the loving intention of one can save both flyer and flown, and how sometimes the only thing to do is let go.

I grew up on the edges of Hampstead Heath and have been walking its paths and feeding its ducks since I born. I have watched saplings planted in the Seventies grow into sturdy kings. If we are lucky, we find somewhere in Nature that provides us with an outer landscape that mirrors our inner world and in many ways this is mine. I am struck by how I have loved in different ways all those whose hand has held mine up on Kite Hill. All those who’s reassuring grip has steadied my course; those who unraveled me and anchored me, and those who let me fly.

I am thinking of my dad’s baseball-mitt sized palms wrapped around a hardback copy of the Observer’s Book of Trees which I still have. Between us, we could identify every genus of tree between the bandstand and Kite Hill; Silver Birches, Oaks and London Planes giving way to shrubs and Rosehips on the upper slopes. When several mighty Elms were felled in an attack of Dutch Elm’s disease, I actually wept.

My little brother’s hands, covered with mud as we raced each other to the top, fire in our lungs.

My arm linked through my best mates’ as we made the trek from our school on Swaine’s Lane towards the running track for the annual humiliation of sports day.

A lover’s hand curled around mine a lifetime ago, and the same hand letting go.

Now up on Kite Hill, my youngest daughter fills my arms with wild bouquets of daisy and couch grass and I lie on the slopes longing for sunshine while kites sing among kestrels.

(Copyright Sara Bran 2011)

My Friend the Watchmaker: Notes from a broken heart

Notes on a broken heart

I am sitting with an old friend in the last few warming rays of summer. We are at the edge of the days now ~ the season of endings when the long shadows  descend.

You are deeply sad.

You ask me what I know, and it is this:-

What I know is what I see, and what I see is the majesty of your heart and the vastness of your soul. I am awed by the gentleness of the former and the immeasurable warmth of the latter.

I know that life  gives us the test first and the lesson too late.

I know that we are repeatedly uprooted from our dreams, not realizing we were sleeping so deeply. That we are constantly propelled into the wilderness not having realized we were on trial until we have either lost or failed.

I know that the road ahead is perilous, littered with broken stems, lost compasses, illegible maps and glass splinters. And I know that if you have to, you will walk it blind and still find your way home.

I know that buried in your heart is a masterful clock. Its skeletal coils are wrapped around invincible cogs that move too quickly through the joy and too slowly through the shadows.

And I know that soon, in some arbitrary second, this clock will silently reset itself and you will begin again.