Sunday, 30 September 2007

Searching for Aber

It is a funny thing, going back to places you knew well, but years ago.

Yesterday we went to Aberystwyth where I was a student from 1987 to 1990. But it wasn’t there. Instead there was an interloper town. An Anytown, full of Argos and Morrisons and Focus and car parks where there were once wide open spaces. And people, so many people thronging the pavements and eating in cafes. Walking around clutching blue boxes of fish and chips to eat sitting outside the station, part of which is now a Weatherspoons, or outside a dispiritedly closing down shop. I thought Aber used to be a seaside town, with a seafront.

We walked, my eyes scanning for signs of the old Aber. We encountered groups of students, some wearing the hooded university sweatshirts I used to be so proud to wear. I sought their faces, hungrily looking, for what? For myself? For something, someone I recognised? My brain couldn’t really accept that these were students 20 years on and if I did encounter someone from my university days they too would be older and greyer.

My feet took us on through the crowds, past Monsoon and Waterstones and Boots – still shrouded in scaffolding. Has Boots been hidden by scaffolding for 20 years? Do they ever let it see the light of day? The street (two back from the sea front), I lived in is still there, and the house I lived in was undoubtedly there too, but I couldn’t remember the number or trust my feet to find it, and anyway my elderly landlady will be long gone. Who would I find there now? Someone else’s posters hiding the hideous turquoise and purple wallpaper in my old room?Someone else’s 50ps in the electricity meter?I wonder if they put crumbs on the windowsill for the blue tits?

When I was in Aber they knocked down the old Kings Hall. As if by some crazy miracle a new Kings Hall has sprung up in its place, but my eyes sped on past, as if they couldn’t believe it, but also to seek out the sea. There it was! Some things never change. At least the sea front was still there. Carpenter Hall is still blue. The Belle Vue is still there. I forgot to look for the Mariners where we had windsurfing club meetings every Tuesday night. How could I forget to look for the Mariners?

But the sea front was strangely forlorn and lonely. A few people wandering about, some no doubt off to kick the bar, if that tradition still lives on. But the sea loses out it seems now, 17 years after I left clutching my 2:2 in Agricultural Economics. It’s as if this Anytown has turned its back on its heritage and bought retail greed instead. It was crowded, it was messy, and it was awful. The first thing I saw on entering this new Anytown Aber were the golden arches of MacDonald’s, then a retail park with its homogenous, faceless stores offering the same old same old. They’ve castrated my old town and stuffed it full of tat.

Perhaps one shouldn’t go back to places you once loved. The same has happened to Birmingham. I went there five years ago after a gap of 15 years. I couldn’t find Birmingham. No Bull Ring with big black Caribbean ladies selling delicious slices of pineapple to hungry broke teenagers like I was then. It had gone all posh. I think Aber’s trying to do that too. I didn’t like it.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

It's a simple life

Life, at the moment, is a fairly simple affair for me. I sometimes wonder if I should be doing more; if life is perhaps ‘passing me by’. But then I remind myself that my children are small and that everyday brings a stage in their lives that will pass and never return.

I wish I could remember each of their little misunderstandings that make us roar with laughter. Like Rosie yesterday saying (when I brushed something off her ear): “Don’t touch my ear! That’s disgusting!” Me: “What does disgusting mean Rosie?” Rosie: “Don’t know. But don’t touch my ear, that’s disgusting!”

Rosie, who is three and nine months, has just started school and, after initial angst on both sides, has settled in well to the routine of going in the afternoons. Hannah, five, is enjoying her role as the big sister who ‘knows’ about school and, in the car on the way home yesterday, was trying to explain to Rosie about the end of the school day rituals. Rosie didn’t like putting her hands together under her nose and closing her eyes.

“That’s prayering,” said Hannah, knowledgably.

“Don’t like it,” says Rosie.

“Yes,” adds Hannah, “It’s prayering, like Amens.”

One day I will explain that ‘Amens’ are usually called angels, but Hannah’s word is descriptively better and it doesn’t bother her at school because I expect she knows the correct term in Welsh.

This morning, in lovely warm September sunshine, Rosie and I planted the seeds which will hopefully turn into cabbages for next spring. Then Rosie picked an armful of sweet peas which are now spilling fragrantly from a vase in the living room. The sweet peas are just about in full bloom production; they’re a bit late because the first batch of seedlings were cleared overnight by a plague of voracious slugs (is there any other sort?). It is rather lovely to have them flowering so enthusiastically at this time of year. It makes the house smell like summer.

The ducks were allowed out to roam around the garden in the warm sunshine dabbling for slugs and taking it in turns to splash in their ‘pond’. ‘Pond’ gets inverted commas because it is the girls’ old baby bath. Three ducks can fit in it alongside each other, while the other three look jealously on. I wonder if I should offer them some soap and a loofa, or possibly some white fluffy towels for after their dip?

Friday, 14 September 2007

The elephant in the room

I have learned a couple of things over the past few days. One is that do get things done, you must ‘eat the frog first’ – or, in other words, do the thing first that you least want to do.

Another is the Purple Cow theory of marketing. If you want your product to stand out and be a success it must be a ‘Purple Cow’, not another black and white one.

And a conversation I had on my walk with Julie this morning reminded me of another one – ‘the elephant in the room’. This popped into my head because Julie’s farm had been visited by a nice chap looking for old batteries. To speak he had to press a button on his throat, so he sounded a little odd. Julie summoned her husband, whose first words to the poor bloke were: “Lost your voice then?” Straight for the elephant. He found out that the man had suffered throat cancer, hence the hole in his neck and the electronic talking equipment.

It reminded me of trips out with my mother’s late partner, Michael. Michael had chronic kidney failure and was on peritoneal dialysis. This is not as effective as blood dialysis and the un-cleaned out waste collected in his extremities causing infection. To cut a long (and unpleasant) story short, he had lost both legs below the knee and most of his fingers.

The legs were largely undetectable to the public at large because the artificial limb centre in Swansea had fitted Michael out with a sporty pair of legs and he walked about with a walking stick like someone with arthritis. The fingers, however, would often become the elephant in the room. We were well used to them, of course. Something you look at soon becomes normal, however horrid it make look at first. But other people, encountering the amputated stumps for the first time would, usually, look horrified, and then try to cover it up and ignore them, out of politeness or embarrassment.

Occasionally, however, someone would spot Michael’s hands and straightway it would be: “Woah! Look at that elephant!” They would be interested in how his hands got that way and would want a conversation about it. Michael was happy to oblige. It was much, much better than being ignored. I think it takes a certain amount of bravery and interest in humanity to be able to dive in and talk about the ‘elephant’. I’m not sure I could always do it, but I do try to remember that behind every missing limb or facial disfigurement there’s another Michael.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Smells and sounds to stir my soul

Here are my 12 things that ‘stir and reach my inner soul’. In many cases these are things from the past – often childhood – that when you hear or see them they evoke a surge of strong memory.

Sometimes it could be a horrid smell – like the inside of a rubber plimsoll and the school gym, or the urine soaked bone-chillingly cold smell of the mental hospital in which my grandfather was once – mistakenly – interned.

There are sounds and smells that etch themselves on your soul, but the memories are just of sadness, like my beloved and much missed horse James whose rich, rumbling whinny and warm, brown horsey smell meant so much to me in my teens and twenties.

I think, instead, the list should be things that bring back memories of happiness, or triumph or rest or peacefulness. The smells and sounds that whisk you back to the past in a blink. So here they are:

The smell of fibreglass resin – this reminds me of my childhood when Mum and Dad went through their boatbuilding phase. The first was a mirror dinghy built in the kitchen. Luckily they remembered they had to get it out through the door just – just - before it was too late… The next two were bigger boats with cabins. The first, ‘Solent’ I think she was called, was fitted out in the garage, then towed to various holiday destinations. During one trip – somewhere near Dartmouth – Dad rowed off for supplies, the tide went out and he walked back across stinking, black mud, pulling the dinghy behind him. Mum welcomed the supplies, then, as Dad put a filthy boot up to climb into the boat, she told him exactly where to go (and it wasn’t on the boat!)

The smell of my children’s hair. Both different, both totally yummy. Freshly shampooed as well as the ‘we’ve been to the beach, it’s hanging in rat’s tails, can’t remember when we last washed it’ hair. Connected with this is the smell of a freshly scrubbed baby, preferably my own, but now they’re little girls rather than babies, I’m not averse to a quick sniff of friend’s babies’ heads. Puppies, too, have a lovely peppery smell.

Coffee. This is sound, of course, as well as smell. That lovely hot, wafty aroma, that charges up your nose to administer a swift kick to your senses. Not a subtle scent, more demanding and punchy, and with it the lovely gurgly noise of a coffee maker. Mine is one of those stove-top Italian espresso jobs with lots of hissing and spitting. I also like my sister-in-law’s filter machine which has a lovely lazy Sunday morning gurgle.

The Bassets Liquorice All-sorts factory in Hillsborough, Sheffield. This is right by the leisure centre I visit with my sister where there is a big pool with a water slide and waves. I first went there the night before I took my journalism exams and Jax took me for a swim to take my mind off my nerves. We had a great time then emerged to a gorgeous waft of hot aniseedy liquorice. I passed my NCTJ first time, to my great relief, and the smell of that factory will always remind me of that time.

Back to sailing again and the ping ping ping sound of halyards on masts. When I was little we kept the third and biggest of our boats at Lawrenny, in Pembrokeshire. She was a 22 foot Ballerina called ‘Sea Dance’ and we drove from Worcestershire to Pembrokeshire every weekend to go sailing in her. We would have fish and chips in Llandovery on the way and then eventually arrive in Lawrenny and row out to the boat. My sister and I would fall asleep to the sound of the pinging halyards. When it was warm and dry Dad would lift the hatch in the deck above us and we would watch the sky for shooting stars. Occasionally my sister would kick me off my bunk and down the gap in the middle.

The smell of a winter morning, early before the sun has woken up at all, with thick chilly fog and crisp air with the promise, but not yet a threat, of snow. Warm welcoming porridge, with a spoonful of golden syrup waits indoors and fragrant wood smoke floats on the cold air.

Vanilla. The smell of it in cooking is sublime. When Rosie first learned to crawl her main aim in life was to burgle the vanilla extract bottle from the cupboard. I once found her sitting on her fat nappied bottom, head thrown back, vanilla bottle in mouth. Luckily she hadn’t worked out how to get the lid off! She still gives the lid a sly lick when we’re cake making, usually while I’m inhaling deeply from the bottle.

Whisky. Single malt. At the end of a hard day, with a little cool water. Heavenly. Preferably Tobermory to drink, but I used to love the warm, peaty smell of Dad’s Laphroaig.

Bono’s voice. Singing or talking. Especially in the songs ‘One’, ‘Pride, in the Name of Love’ and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Oh, and the line ‘tonight thank God it’s them, instead of you,’ in the Live Aid single. Spine tingling.

The sound of my children’s peaceful snores. I love to watch them sleeping, snoring and dreaming. Particularly after a day filled with sounds such as: “Mummeeeee! Rosie/Hannah hit/pinched/pushed meeeee!”

Cigar smoke. I hate the smell of cigarettes, mainly because the smoke makes me feel sick, but a tantalising waft of an expensive cigar is somehow evocative of hot summer days and lovely lazy dinners with fine wine and good company. It’s a shame that all the cigar smokers I know have now given up.

The sound of David Gilmour’s guitar. Particularly the guitar solos from ‘Comfortably Numb’. The man’s a genius.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

School days

It was a bit mean, really, the weather yesterday, and today for that matter. Broadly smiling sunshine on all the children as they went back to school after the summer break. For once it wasn’t even windy.

Hannah, who is five, went off happily to Dosbarth 2, feeling a little apprehensive, but only a little. She came home stuffed with confidence and was stroppy for the rest of the day. I was informed, by a mum at school today, that “they get worse as teenagers”. She, a mother of four, had just witnessed Hannah in the playground yelling at Rosie: “No! You can’t come and play, I’m playing with the boys!” before running off to join said boys (one of whom, I kid you not, looks like a mini Boris Johnson!) The game involved a row of children on one side of the fence and a herd of cattle on the other. Best not to ask!

Yesterday Rosie sobbed at not being allowed to go to school in the morning, especially as the lunch menu had promised meatballs. When she actually was allowed into school, at 1pm, she was so overwhelmed by all the attention that she cried again! But she enjoyed her first afternoon and was fine today, apart from sticking out a fat bottom lip for a bit of a wobble when horrid big sister said she couldn’t play. Thankfully she has other friends.

Here in West Wales children go to school in the term which includes their fourth birthday. The two children who started yesterday are not four until December, so they are very young really to be thrust into a school situation. But in Wales it is learning through play, this particular school is bilingual (ie Welsh medium education) and is truly the heart of the community. Staff members include Julie, the friend I walk with (who some will remember as Julieeirios from CL days) and two of the helpers from the village's Cylch Meithrin. The children seem to develop a bond when they have been to Cylch together and some of them Rosie has known since she was a couple of weeks old and going to Cylch Ti a Fi. So school is full of familiar faces and it is a very warm, friendly environment. Yesterday Rosie said she did “hop scotching” and Mrs D, the head teacher, told me today that they had played farms together. But Rosie refused to sing, which I think is the prerogative of a three-year-old.

I’m very proud of my two little girls, but I might have to have a little word with that cheeky monkey Hannah later. I think, though, she is feeling that Rosie has strayed onto her turf. She is going through a jealous phase (hopefully a phase) and complains if Rosie gets anything from toys to praise that she thinks she hasn’t had. We try to be even handed with the pair of them, but Hannah does demand a great deal in a loud voice, whereas Rosie is quieter and more self-sufficient (when she’s not doing her occasional a three-year-old Riverdance-style tantrum). They will have spats over toys and if Daddy is at home he will immediately confiscate the toy. Result? Two crying children. My namby-pamby liberal way is to wait for a gap in hostilities and suggest they find a compromise. Result? Two children happily playing. Daddy says his way is better, because they learn that if they fight over something, it gets taken away, so they learn not to fight. I say this teaches them nothing about conflict resolution and finding compromises. Perhaps they benefit from both approaches. Life, after all, ain’t always fair!