Habits, old and new

In February, more than any other time of year, I find myself relying on old habits. Good ones, to keep life running smoothly. They might be easy – grabbing a jar of soup from the freezer as I head out the door to work – or require a bit more effort (my Tuesday night swim definitely fell into that category this week), but habits really do work.

Thankfully, new habits are relatively easy to create, one at a time. I tend to throw one in every few weeks, just for fun. This week was the week of starting to eat a salad for lunch every day, on top of my usual mid-morning soup. It’s only been three days and already I’m planning my next batch. And loathe as I am to join in with food trends, I have to admit that jarred salads are pure genius. I’m making them three at a time and the third was as fresh and appealing as the first. I just grab a jar from the fridge as well as the freezer on my way out the door now.

Like all families, we tend to let things slip a bit when life gets busy, and our children asked John and I whether we might revamp our plastic-free efforts a bit. I was all too happy to agree – some plastic has begun to creep back into our shopping – and we had a look through our bin to see what the culprits were. It turned out that it was mainly the odd unusual purchase – and lots of plastic from food that friends gave us when they emptied their fridge before a recent holiday. While there are a few things that we’ve reverted to buying in plastic (for instance our toothy-tab supplier ran out for a while, so we’ve been back on tubes of toothpaste), for the most part habits have kept our bin slim. Neither John or I would think of heading to the shops without our shopping kits in tow, and really, it is no extra effort at all. So we’ve just made a list of plastic-free goods we need to replenish to avoid some packaging we have fallen back into buying, and that’s about all we plan to do for now.

It goes without saying that I do have some bad habits – drinking endless cups of tea is one I’m tackling at the moment. There’s nothing wrong with the odd cup of tea, but from time to time I find myself drinking nothing but the black, caffeinated variety all day, which can’t be good for me. So far, I’ve cut it down to two cups a day, and I’m finding myself ready for bed a little earlier with each missing cup. Seriously, I’m sleeping like a baby at the moment, and this is from someone who normally sleeps well. Who knew it was having such big effect?

Then there are habits that are good for the environment but not always so good for me, like not buying flowers any more. In the summer, this doesn’t matter as I grow my own, but in the winter I rely on the odd flowering pot plant. Well, this week I have been doubly blessed by a bunch of alstroemerias regifted by those same holiday-going friends, and the most gloriously bright bunch of tulips as a thank you from another friend. What a joy it is to have flowers in the house again. They make me smile every time I see them.

What’s more, they’ve got me thinking about my own garden again, and those bulb lasagnas I planted in the autumn. I wonder how they’re doing? I must pop out and check on them, as well as the other things under cover, and give them all a drink. Soon enough it’ll be time to get back into the habit of watering them every few days and pulling weeds when I get in from work. That’s the lovely things about habits in a temperate climate: they shift with the sun. Nothing lasts for ever – not the winter and its challenges, nor the habits we build to survive it – and that’s just the way it should be.

Madeleine

Have you been trying out any new habits recently? I’d love to know – and maybe try them for myself!

These days

I’ve been making a real effort not to say I’m so busy, although truth be told I catch myself doing it all the time. Yesterday afternoon, collecting Ilse from my parents house, I found myself doing my usual must dash! – and it was true. John has been out of the country for work this week, which has been the cherry on the cake of a very full life.

The trouble is that the word busy doesn’t have the best connotations. There’s something self-important about it, as well as pointless. They call it busy work for a reason: something to keep children occupied and make them think they are getting somewhere whereas, in fact, they are standing still. There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with a bit of busy work, as long as it’s a conscious choice. I’d count knitting something simple as grown up busy work, really. But I don’t want to think of my life as busy. I want to think of it as full of the things I love.

These days, I am working four days a week outside the home and one day on my pattern designing business, and I am loving it all. Around the edges, though, I’ve chosen to keep going with the other things I enjoy, rather than putting them on ice for when the work dries up, or, worse, the last of the children leaves home. Like most people, I like finding out about how other people spend their time and, as this has been so much on my mind lately, I thought I’d share a week with you.

On Mondays, I just go to work. Normally, nothing happens in the evening, which is the loveliest end to the first day of the week. John and I take it in turns to come home and take care of the children and the chores, or stay late at work. As a result, I either switch off by cooking and doing the ironing, or walk straight into a house with a lit fire and tea on the table. I like both.

The lack of clubs means that Monday nights are when I tend to finish off – or at least work on – whatever craft project I started at the weekend. This Monday just gone I finished a couple of waistcoats for an upcoming ballet show (don’t worry, I’m not actually in it. I wouldn’t inflict that on any audience).

On Tuesdays, I go for a swim in the evening. We decided to enter an outdoor swim this summer, so since December I’ve been swimming twice a week (more in the holidays) at our local pool. There’s a women’s only session on Tuesdays, which is the perfect time to do interval training in the pool as everyone is very polite and knows that you are not trying to race them for a couple of lengths before going maddeningly slowly for a bit. At least, I hope so. Maybe they all just think I’m annoying.

On Wednesday evenings, I have a music lesson. At the moment, I’m working on the piano. You might remember that I also play the flute, but I find that one instrument to practice (hopefully) every (most) day(s) is quite enough to have on my plate at the moment, thank you very much. One day I am going to do my flute diploma. But I am enjoying playing the piano so much that I’ve decided to go for my grade 8 on that first. It might take forever, but I’m enjoying the journey and I’ll get there eventually.

Thursday is my day when I work at home on my business, and in the evening I head out to my adult ballet class. To be entirely honest, John often has to give me a shove out the door. Having spent a day blissfully cacooned in my own little world of sewing and knitting and writing, the thought of donning a leotard and going out into the cold and doing what is always a really challenging class is not a little daunting. Then I get there and I love it. Every. Single. Time.

On Fridays, I like to come home and cook and then watch something in front of the fire with everyone. I might, if I’m feeling energetic, do a little knitting. I always have an early night. Now that I’m forty, I don’t even pretend to want to stay up late.

Saturday mornings are probably the hardest part of the whole week, involving cleaning the house, planning meals and generally catching up with the debris of the week. Suffice to say that I have streamlined this to within an inch of its life. I will never enjoy it, so it may as well be got over with as quickly as possible. I know that there are people who love this more than anything, but I just don’t. If I could travel through time, I’d go and get myself a Victorian housekeeper – you know, one with really high standards who would take care of everything. Sadly, I can’t. At least everyone pitches in.

I do, however, love Saturday afternoons, because this is often when I start a big new crafty project. If you remember, I did a lot of cutting out of fabric during the Christmas holidays, and last week it was a joy to be able to just pick up those waistcoat pieces and start to sew. There is no way I would have had the wherewithal to grade and cut the pattern, but sewing? I can do that. Especially with a pot of tea, some Christmas cake and some good company.

If I’m not sewing, I’m swimming, because the weekend is the best time to get into the pool and just swim for as long as I want. Sometimes I have company that gets bored after about an hour, and sometimes I go on my own and stay in much longer. I don’t mind when in the weekend I go, or how far I swim, as long as I go and do at least 60 lengths of crawl. I am astonished by how much progress I’ve made in two short months.

Sunday has long been family day in our house, and in winter that often means a walk. Last Sunday it was just a short one: an hour along the Fulford Ings and back. The week before we all went to see Mary Poppins, instead. Next weekend is Residents First weekend in York, when all the local attractions and restaurants and so forth are open at a very reduced rate to anyone with a YorkCard. There’s a lot to choose from, but I’m hoping for a trip up the Minster tower as it’s been literally years, and perhaps a visit to Barley Hall or the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. We’ll see.

I can’t quite decide whether this is the most boring post in the world (I suspect it is – sorry) or actually vaguely interesting to those of you who don’t know me in real life. But I think I’m going to publish it anyway, for my future self. There’s been a lot of dedicated diary writing in our house, lately, and I caught myself thinking that I really ought to keep one again. And then I remembered that I do, after a fashion, right here on this blog. One day, when this big old house is much emptier and I have time on my hands, I’d like to look back at the way things used to be. The longer I live, the more I realise that life changes, imperceptibly, all the time, and what was just the norm one year is completely forgotten the next. So this is a little record for myself, really, of these fleeting months at the start of my fifth decade, and how I chose to fill them.

Madeleine

What are you choosing to fill these days with?

Forty

I think that my fortieth birthday was probably the nicest one I’ve ever had.

There’s an awful lot to be said for getting older and knowing just what you like. I didn’t want a party, or a big fuss, or a special present from John. But I did want to celebrate with my friends and family, and I did want to mark the occasion in some way. So in the end, John booked us into the sumptuous Pale Hall for the weekend, and we had such a fantastic time.

We don’t often have much time with just the two of us, and our holidays are self-catered apartments or back-to-basics bothies much of the time. So you can imagine my delight when we pulled up at the entrance to the hotel, handed over our car keys and were shown into the drawing room for a glass of fizz. Just the two of us (thanks, Mum and Dad), and a weekend of the most incredible food and drink and surroundings. We decided to just be decadent and had the six course tasting menu (something we only discovered in our thirties) and wine flight on the first night, and then dined in again on the second night, which was my actual birthday. Everything was done just beautifully, from the games in the library to the decanter and double ended bath in our room, and the staff couldn’t have been friendlier or more welcoming. I think the moment that summed up the juxtaposition of such luxury with such unstuffiness was when I realised that the harpist was playing Radiohead while we had our canapés on my birthday evening. Really, it was the nicest break we’ve had together since we got engaged, and the best present I could have received.

I saved my actual presents – from other people – for the Sunday night, because Ilse in particular likes to watch me open them. The children put them under the Christmas tree (it was still just up, it being 12th night) and opened a bottle of prosecco and the Christmas cake and had such a lovely last evening of the holidays. I have some great experiences to look forward to, as well as choosing the setting of some precious stones bought somewhere special to our family, back when I was little. There weren’t any Sunday night blues on my part. Besides, I was looking forward to seeing my colleagues again. Before the holidays, they had arranged things so nicely that I am the happy holder of some theatre vouchers which will be put to good use very soon. I am lucky to work with such an fun and thoughtful team.

Turning 40 prompts a lot of nostalgia amongst people who have been there. Some people have told me that they stayed at home and cried their eyes out. Others ignored it. But several had a great time. After all, what’s not to like? I feel (almost) grown up, but not old. I have more freedom than I’ve ever had, in all sorts of ways. I’ve started a new chapter at work this week, as well as carrying on with the things I was already doing. I have a wonderful family and group of friends, and I get to spend a lot of time doing things I love. Life is sweet. And it was so much fun celebrating 40 years of it.

Madeleine

I have to ask – if you’ve turned 40, what was your birthday like?

A small, sustainable wardrobe: we are the grown ups now

A series about the clothes we wear and the impact they have both on us and the world around us.

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My Sharpen Your Pencils dress as modelled by the gorgeous Ella. We got together for a photoshoot in the summer holidays, and she wowed me with how a  woman in her late teens or early twenties might style and wear my clothes. There are more photos to follow of both of us in the patterns. The dress pattern will be available in the coming months.

For some time now, I’ve been mulling over how to present my patterns within the wider context in which they are created. In the end, a series seems the best way forward: a weekly post about clothing and its impact both on us and the world around us.

I have always been interested in the wider world, the health of our planet, and the living conditions of its poorest inhabitants. You don’t grow up in a country like Tanzania in the 1980s and then turn a blind eye to issues like climate change, pollution, poverty, or human rights. Perhaps it seems odd – frivolous even – to approach these issues through the prism of the clothes we wear. Perhaps it is. But we all, without exception, clothe ourselves each day. And when you are conscious of your daily choices in one sphere, this consciousness spills over into other parts of your life, until before you know it, you are buying your loose leaf tea in an old ice cream tub and looking for a car share buddy.

I can distinctly remember learning about climate change at school. I was an early member of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots – a global environmental organisation which started in Tanzania, educating and inspiring children from kindergarten through to university about the change that they can make to the planet and its people. I remember reading Douglas Adam’s wonderful Last Chance to See, and about the rate at which the rainforests were disappearing, and being taught about the importance of educating women in eradicating poverty. So we kids made our changes: we stopped buying aerosols, and ate less meat, and learned to recycle our waste.

And all the time, I trusted the grown ups to sort the big things out.

More than twenty years on, little has changed. If anything, the rate of destruction has increased. We are producing over 300 million tons of plastic every year. Girls all over the world – including developed countries – miss school every month because of lack of sanitary ware. Between 150 and 200 species go extinct every day. Governments make decisions which they know are harmful rather than helpful to the world and its inhabitants. Even Lovelock’s fantastically optimistic Gaia hypothesis has lost its nerve.

We could do nothing. We could weep and wail and feel powerless in the face of big corporations, big government, big natural disasters that heap still more misery onto human misery. Or we could simply accept that we are the grown ups now.

I have money in my pocket, and I can choose where to spend it. I have places to go, and I can choose how to get there. I have children, and I can choose what sort of a role model I wish to be for them. I have friends, and I can choose what to talk about with them. And I have a voice, here on this blog, that I can choose how to use.

Most recently, I had the choice of what to do with the time that has opened up to me as my children grow ever bigger. I put a lot of thought into what I wanted the legacy of this time to be. In the end, I decided to start a business selling dressmaking and knitwear patterns. How, you might think, is that a positive choice? How will that make a difference? How is that being a grown up?

I started making my own clothes when our children were small and, frankly, we had no money for adult clothes shopping. More pertinently, we had nothing like the money required to buy the ethically made garments I really wanted. So as well as shopping second hand and accepting hand-me-downs, I decided to teach myself to make them. Of course, there wasn’t spare cash for patterns either, so I borrowed a book from the library and tried to draft my own.

Over a decade later, I’ve learned a vast amount. Best of all, I’ve taken charge of the choices I make. Knitting and dressmaking can be as sustainable – or otherwise – as you make it. Churning out clothes that you don’t need or don’t even want is no better than going shopping every Saturday. If you are taking clothes to the charity shop, you are still consuming too much.

Instead, I’ve become fascinated by detail, by skill, by versatility and material. I demand a huge amount of my clothes: that they be warm or cool or cross-seasonal, that they be comfortable, that they be attractive, that they fit into a reasonably compatible colour palette, that they have the sort of details that make them not just good enough, but exactly as I want them. One of the things that delighted me most about the reception of my Snow Day jumper was the number of people who commented on the little details. I added an uneven hem because it looks good and keeps my lower back warm. I added a very wide boat neck because I wanted a jumper that was both a little bit sexy but also cosy. The sleeves are ribbed to make them extra warm, because I feel the cold. And these details matter because that is my only jumper. I don’t have another jumper in my wardrobe. It needs to work hard.

In my wardrobe there is a fairly stable number of items, though of course it fluctuates a little. At the moment I have three pairs of shoes, three coats or jackets, one jumper and two cardigans, three dresses, three tops and four bottoms. Actually, I only have two bottoms, because I’m waiting to test the printed version of a couple of patterns. But there will be four, soon. I make my clothes exactly the way I want them, and then I wear them over and over again. Eventually they wear out, and I cut them up and make them into other things: quilts and potholders and so on, to give as gifts or use around the house. It works out that I generally need to replace one of each category each year. That means that I make one new knit, one dress, one top and one or two bottoms a year. I buy new shoes, coats and underwear as I need them, usually secondhand or from ethical companies.

Of course, having a tiny wardrobe isn’t going to save the world. But it was one of my first steps to making a significant difference. And I do believe that I make a significant difference. Every time I refuse to buy wrapped cheese, every time I log onto The Life You Can Save, every time I get on a train instead of an airplane. Spending less on shopping means that I have more money to donate or spend with trusted companies. Making my own clothes, and making them precisely as I want them, ironically means that I spend less time thinking about my clothes and more time thinking about things that matter. Each night I put away the few things that have needed to be washed. Each morning I put on whatever is clean and suitable for the demands of the day. I might wear the same things over and over again, but I couldn’t care less. I love all of my clothes and feel fabulous in them.

If you wanted to, you could work through all the patterns with me and, at the end of three years, we’d have sibling wardrobes. In different colours, no doubt, and different patterns and materials, but essentially the same. That would be fun. Equally, I’d be happy if people made just one of my patterns, so that they had that one great dress, or sweater, or pair of socks, and stopped buying more and more and more. Because the world just can’t take it any longer.

In my messy, imperfect life, making my own clothes is one of many things that I do to try to make a difference. I make mistakes all the time (though not in my patterns, I hope!), but I keep on trying. The internet is full of inspirational people sharing their personal passions. This is my offering: make the world the way you want it to be, from the clothes on your back to the cares in your head. Be conscious. Most of all, know that the choices you make do matter. We might not all be politicians or aid workers or company bosses. But we are the grown ups now.

Madeleine

Do you buy lots of clothes, in the search for the ‘perfect’ this or that? Do you make any of your own? What would your ideal wardrobe look like, in order to work for you and the world around you?

Photo shoot

Every so often, this blog forces me to do something miles out of my comfort zone. This week, it was the photo shoots for the sewing patterns I’ve been developing.

If I’m entirely honest, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t think about this part of the process when I decided to start selling my patterns. I knew, in a vague sort of way, that there would have to be photographs of some sort, but as long as it remained a hazy and unspecified prospect that was fine by me. Finally, though, my hand was forced by the fact that I’d made an appointment with a very talented young woman and that my photographer is due to go back to university soon. Given the choice of now or never, I went for now.

All I can say is: do not underestimate the amount of skill and confidence it takes to style an outfit and then be photographed in it. My friend’s daughter, Ella, arrived at our house with two suitcases of clothes and accessories and proceeded to throw on my clothes with such style and ease that absolutely everything looked right. Ben, our photographer for the day, had the privilege of clicking the shutter at someone who knew how to stand or sit, and had only to focus on the lighting and framing of the shot. My friend and I quickly left them to it, busying ourselves with folding and ironing and many cups of tea. It was one of the most inspiring and fun days I’ve had on this project, and the photographs are better than I had dreamed of.

I loved seeing a seventeen year old wear my clothes with such flair and inventiveness. She could have gone on and on, creating different looks for different occasions. I keep a very small wardrobe, relying on my clothes to be versatile enough to be dressed up for work or a wedding or down for gardening – there’s little I wouldn’t do in any of them. I tend to do simple shifts in formality: swapping heels for Chelsea boots or a knit for a tailored coat. Ella’s outfits were far more inventive and striking, and left my girls in awe. I can’t wait to share her photographs with you.

At the same time though, I love to see clothes on the person who made them. There is something symbiotic about the relationship between conception, execution and the physical reality that ensues. When I design, I think about who I want to be in a particular item: sharp and stylish, patterned and a little bit vintage, or just someone who is off to dig the parsnips. I love it when bloggers post photos of themselves in their creations, but never fully appreciated the effort until it was my turn.

Suffice to say that I have a lot to learn, and that Ben is very patient. The end result is a series of very honest photos: these are the clothes that I have designed and made and that I wear on a daily basis. They show how I wear them, and what they look like in use. I’m so pleased that we persevered with the shoot, because now we have photos of the clothes styled and modelled in two very different ways, but on two ordinary people, using the contents of their own wardrobes, on a slightly overcast day, in and around my house and garden, photographed by a novice. None of us had ever done anything like this before, and, although some of us were better at it than others, we all worked together to achieve an end product to be proud of. I couldn’t have hoped for more.

So, in the spirit of this week’s photo shoots, I leave you with the first up-to-date photograph of me published on this blog. It was another overcast day and I was hoping the sun would come out – and then it did.

Desert Island Discs: Mache Dich, Meine Herze, Rein

My father gave me a triple CD set of St Matthew’s Passion when I set off to university, and if I’m honest, I didn’t listen to it much at first, preferring the sweeping melodies of Rachmaninov, or the rich orchestration of Mahler. I used to turn away from Bach in my music lessons, not knowing how to turn all those black notes into something musical, something expressive.

After John and I were married we had our other children fairly quickly, and had completed our family long before most of our peers had even started theirs. It’s a funny time, your twenties. For many people, especially those who go to university, your twenties are the first time that you make your own decisions and people’s lives branch off in different directions. Of course, ours was different from much earlier on but even so, those early years – juggling babies and toddlers, primary school and then secondary school transitions, early career paths, maternity leave and then a period at home with the children full time – were both wonderful and extremely hard work all at once. They are for all families. It would have been nice to have had some friends doing the same at the same time, but we had each other, and perhaps that is why we are such a tight-knit unit now. I think I could do just about anything with John by my side.

Time passes, we grow older, and now Bach is possibly my favourite composer. In his music there is, to my ear anyway, the perfect balance of control and passion, and I can find all of life in it. His aria for bass, Mache Dich, Maine Herze, Rein (Make Yourself Pure, My Heart), bubbles with the sweetness, energy and yearning of those early family years. It presses on, so much happening beneath the smooth, controlled emotion of the soloist. I could listen to it a thousand times more and still find something new every time I do, so complex and perfectly crafted is its form. When I think back to those early years, I don’t remember the sleep deprivation, money worries or dirty nappies. I remember a busy, happy, full time, which I thought would last forever. Now that Ben is at university and Ilse about to start secondary school, I can see a time coming when life will be quiet and I’ll have all the time I used to long for. We have so many plans for what comes next, when we find ourselves with a grown up family in our mid forties. Now, though, in the midst of this transition, I like to put this aria on as we sit down for our Sunday roast, Ben home for the holidays and us all around the table together, the way we have gathered for years. There’ll be silence at first as we enjoy the chicken and wine that, years ago, was such a treat. Then the talk will start, just stories and questions, discussions about anything at all, really, until it ends in laughter. Those days of corralling little people, the endless washing and cooking and background noise are over now, replaced by teens and nearly-teens. It’s a different sort of noise. And it’ll be another sort of noise in ten years’ time. But, God willing, it’ll still be there in ten, twenty, even thirty years. The pulse of family life, the pulse that we created, John and I, beneath the sweet and different songs that we all sing.

Madeleine

Do you have music that you associate with family mealtimes? We have music that I’m sure our children will forever associate with Sunday roasts (in the same way that, for me, Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto is Sunday mornings): this, and Carmina Burana, A-Ha and REM – and the BBC R4 Friday night comedy. What about you?

Desert Island Discs: Something Changed

John and I had no business meeting each other. It really shouldn’t have happened: he was a starry PhD student in another subject, at another college, while I was still an undergraduate with rather a lot on my plate. Yet one June evening, a supervisor drove me out of Cambridge for dinner at a country pub, and on the way home he parked his car at the back of Trinity. We wandered back to St. John’s through Great Court and there we bumped into a friend of his, covered in chalk dust, an ice axe in each hand.

I’d come back from Syria, where I’d been having some time out, to spend May Week in Cambridge before returning for my final year the following October. At the end of year, after exams, there are a couple of weeks of pure fun: garden parties; May Balls that go on all night; dinners and punting and lazing around all day on the gloriously sunny Backs. My supervisor, seeing that I was smitten, invited me to his garden party the following afternoon as John was going to be there, and the rest, as they say, was history. I don’t think I’d ever had as much fun as we had in those first two sunny summer weeks. They remain in my mind as a time of pure happiness.

Although we didn’t listen to any Pulp during those first two weeks, I’m always reminded of them when I hear Something Changed. My whole life turned on a chance encounter on a golden Cambridge evening. Not just finding my life partner – although that would be enough – but finding my independence again. It’s all very well, believing in fate (I don’t), but even if you do, it’s what you do with your opportunities that counts. My whole life turned on the head of a pin in those two short weeks. In a funny way, I became myself again, free and unafraid.

I had a fantastic summer that year, diving in Australia and spending a couple of months with my parents in France and then Aleppo, Syria. When I returned to Cambridge in the October, John and I, who had been writing all summer, decided to make a go of it. I made new friends – through John but also, for the first time, through my course: proper friends, people who built me up. I started to take my studies seriously, spending my days tucked in a corner of the labyrinthine University Library, periodically meeting John for tea and scones in the cafe, and in the end I did rather well. When the time came to graduate, I didn’t want to leave. I loved those final twelve months, working and playing hard, encouraged and inspired by the people around me. They made what could have continued to be a very tough time not only manageable, but a joy.

If I think of my life as a series of events, the significant moments weighing heavy on an unbroken thread, that chance meeting was one such moment for me. How lucky I was, to bump into the love of my life just then, when I least expected it. It wasn’t just something that changed that day; it was everything.

Desert Island Discs: Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

At nineteen I found myself starting my second year at Cambridge, four and a half thousand miles from home and the single mother of a three week old baby boy.

The music I’ve chosen for this section of my life is the second movement of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs:Lento e Largo – Tranquillissimo. After the horrors of the Second World War, Gorecki wrote a three piece symphony for solo soprano and orchestra. The second movement takes as its lyrics the words scratched on the wall of a Gestapo cell by eighteen year old Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna: O Mamo, nie płacz, nie. Niebios Przeczysta Królowo, Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie (Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, you support me always).

Of course I would never dream of comparing my situation to hers, or to the suffering of billions around the world even today. Mine were first world problems, I know. The reason I’ve chosen it is that it voices the profound loneliness I felt. As well as the physical isolation of the long summer vacations, stuck in Cambridge when everyone else had gone home or was travelling, I was alone in my situation.

Even now, twenty years on, I’ve never met anyone who shares my experiences. But I have met other people who have come through difficult times and remained positive about the future. Because as well as being a sorrowful song, the piece I’ve chosen is also a bold one, and full of faith.

Desert Island Discs: Find the River

After three years in Jordan, we moved back to Dar es Salaam, where we stayed for five more years before I left home for university. Returning somewhere is a strange experience. Nothing is quite as you left it. The student body of international schools is constantly shifting, so that the people you left behind will often have moved on themselves. New faces take their place. Most of all though, is the change that takes place in you, and the shift from age ten to thirteen is a dramatic one.

Still, though all the buildings had shrunk and the number of familiar faces dwindled, there were widening horizons to explore. No longer content to hang out on the school campus, time was spent at friends’ houses or at the beach or, when I was a little older, at the Yacht Club (which sounds far posher than it was). Nonetheless, I did have a little sailing dinghy – a secondhand Laser – and we spent most weekends messing about on the water, racing each other, crewing for friends’ parents on their Wayfarers or catamarans, and eating junk food in the bar. We sailed through great swarms of white, plate-like jellyfish, and occasionally alongside dolphins. For a time, our favourite thing to do was to put a sandwich and bottle of water in the little watertight cubbies at the front of our boats and sail out to Bongoyo Island for a day of lazing in the sun. We had tropical beaches and reefs on our doorstep, and I quite naturally transferred my love of horses to the sea.

Of course school was school, as it is wherever you grow up, but life around the edges was rich with new experiences. There were family safaris and then, as I got older, safaris with friends. Although I never had a car, several of my friends had use of their parents 4x4s and I will never forget our trip to camp in the Usambara mountains, which were then almost totally cut off from the world we knew. We lit a fire, stored our food carefully to avoid attracting unwanted animals and spent the evening diving into plunge pools of icy mountain water. The following morning I ventured upstream, picking my way over boulders, only to look up and find myself completely surrounded by a troop of baboons. They looked at me for a while and, thankfully, went on their way. It took some time for my pulse to return to normal.

Then there were school trips. The most exciting was the Kilimanjaro climb, for which we took long practice walks along the coastline. Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, but scaling most of its 5,895 meters (19,341 feet) is nothing more technical than a very long walk. You do, however, ascend extremely quickly and the altitude sickness can be quite a challenge. In the end, I never made Uhuru peak – I was just too ill. I did make it all the way to the last of the huts, but I just missed out on the final dawn ascent. One of my very favourite things about that climb though, was the chameleons. They were absolutely everywhere on the lower slopes, with their roving eyes and grippy opposing toes, and I must admit that we did test their colour-changing abilities on our waterproofs…

If I had to choose just one album to sum up those teenage years, it would have to be R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. I heard it first in a friend’s bedroom and still have it, downloaded from CD onto iTunes, and it is still a favourite. I could have chosen so many tracks for this part of my life – Nightswimming would have been quite obvious – but Find the River sums up my impatience and wonder and longing to find my own path through the world.

Recently I was having a conversation with someone who knows Tanzania, and he commented that he couldn’t think of a nicer country in which to grow up. It is so gentle, so serene, so relaxed and conflict free. Of course, as a kid you never appreciate how lucky you are. I can remember my last few weeks so vividly – exams over we would gather at Coco’s beach bar for late-night bouts of monopoly punctuated by dips in the moonlit sea. I had a vague sense that something was coming to an end, but more than that I was impatient to be moving on, beginning something new. Within a year I would so have been so happy to have gone back and sat on that terrace in front of a dukah, sipping beer and worrying about nothing more pressing than the next roll of the dice. But then, I was so busy waiting for life to begin that I didn’t realise how much of it was coming to an end.

Madeleine

PS That’s me, in the white hat with the blue brim. We were in one of the huts, partway up Kili. Do you have a photo or song that takes you right back to your teenage years?

Desert Island Discs: Everything I do, I do it for you

On my thirteenth birthday, one of my friends invited me round to her house for a sleepover, or so I thought. When I opened the living room door there was everyone, as only a teen would say, jumping out from behind the sofas, shouting ‘Surprise!’, putting presents in my hands. We stayed up very late that night, as thirteen year olds are wont to do, watching the film of the moment: Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and my favourite present was a tape with the theme song on repeat on both sides.

Cut off as I was in a bit of a Middle Eastern bubble, I didn’t know that Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do it for you was number one in the UK charts for 16 weeks, and it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. It was a song which summed up a lot of the kids’ films of the age, with their reckless yet intelligent heroes fighting their way through history. When we lived in Tanzania, a socialist state, privately owned televisions and video players were illegal, so we didn’t have one. Our neighbours did, though, and every Saturday they would invite all the kids on the campus round to watch a film. There were three for us to choose from: Crocodile DundeeChitty Chitty Bang Bang and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The last was my favourite by far, and sparked hours of daydreaming in which I was, of course, Dr Jones and not his yet-to-be-empancipated female companion.

Once we moved to Jordan I spent a lot of time in my head, unhappy at school and struggling to make friends. I found myself in a bilingual school, scrambling to catch up with the native Arabic speakers around me, moved up a year halfway through the term (which never makes you popular), and because of my late move, separated from the small group of other non-native speakers. To cap things off, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait the following summer and so I found myself held responsible for the actions of the British and American governments by some of my less-than-reasonable fellow students. So I daydreamed a lot, sitting on the back seat of the school bus with the posse of 18 year old boys who had taken it upon themselves to keep an eye on me and always saved me a seat.

Of course, the impact that the first Gulf War had on my life was insignificant compared to that which it had on others, and it did have some positive outcomes. Several families – presumably those who could – left their lives in Kuwait City and came to live in Amman instead. Classes were reshuffled and gradually I made some really good friends. By the time I hit thirteen, life at school was pretty good again.

There was one thing, though, that I loved about that school from the start. In Jordan, as in many Islamic countries, the working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday. On Thursday morning we had what was known as Thursday School – an optional set of activities to choose from – and one of them was riding. I had wanted to learn to ride for years, but it wasn’t really an option in Dar. In Jordan, though, there are horses everywhere. Heads bent, dull from the dust and heat, pulling carts of watermelons for sale. Decked out in their finest, waiting next to a row of camels for tourists to mount and have a photo taken. Best of all, in the studs, where the stallions twitched and shuffled, impatient to be off. In Amman, riding is largely a male sport, and so as the only girl in the group I was always given the same horse to ride: a beautiful bay named Adham, which means Polite. I adored him, and was always slightly afraid of his power and will. I will probably never ride a horse like him again – he must have been worth a small fortune – but what an animal to learn on. So different from the horses that my grandad would take me to ride during summers in Ireland: great heavy mounts that you had to really tell what to do. In Jordan, we rode with precision and grace – or at least, I tried to. In Derry, though we practiced jumps and so forth, we would more often head out for a hack through tree-lined lanes, or leave the saddles behind and canter, bareback, through soft green fields. I loved both.

We had wonderful holidays both in and out of Jordan: to the UK to visit family but also to Aqaba, the Dead Sea, Jerash, Petra, the lush and vibrant Jordan Valley and camping, like Lawrence of Arabia, in Wadi Rum. We saw mirages in the desert and drank tea with bedouin, and were there the year the snow fell so deep that the army had to airlift them out of the desert. We also visited Jerusalem, crossing the border in a little bus and staying in a convent in the heart of the city. The region was awash with tourists, that first year. Then the war began, and all that changed.

Suddenly, we were the only visitors, everywhere we went. It must have been devastating for an economy which relied so heavily upon tourism. Jordan is a beautiful country and its people amongst the most hospitable I’ve met and, overnight, there were no guests. We’d be the only residents in hotels, the only people picking our way around an abandoned Roman town, the only group out picnicking and wadi-wading for the day. In the photograph above, I am standing in the doorway of the Monastery in Petra, and there was no-one but us in the place. It was one of our favourite destinations, and there is so much to see and learn that we could have gone back indefinitely. Empty of visitors, it was so quiet and eerie that we could have been Johann Ludwig Burckhardt ‘discovering’ it in 1812, or David Roberts sitting on a rock to paint his lithographs in 1832.

Imagine my delight, then, when Steven Spielberg chose Petra as the site of the third Indiana Jones film – The Last Crusade. Not only had I been to many of the locations that they used, but here I was, in Petra, with the place virtually empty and several horses available for hire. The happy afternoons I spent riding up and down the gorge were quite literally the stuff of my dreams. Which is why, although I wouldn’t listen to it now, Everything I do, I do it for you has got to be my song for this part of my life. Pure fantasy with a hefty dose of history thrown in, a dash of heroism and… horses. What more could a girl want?

Madeleine

PS – Do you have a song which sums up your pre-teen years? I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who daydreamed endlessly at that age – who did you want to be?