And breathe

What I needed, after the excitement and busyness of last week, was a breather. A quiet weekend. A chance to pause and take stock. And, in a funny sort of way, that is exactly what I got.

A chance to set things straight around the place, to plan the meals for the week ahead, to empty the fridge into the soup pot and refill it with fresh veg. To chat with my children, home and away, and share a new project with them each. Somehow, in between the Saturday comings and goings to the market and the ballet studio, the house was cleaned. I read a novel – a whole, 595 page novel – in one weekend: a treat which is unlikely to be soon repeated. Seb baked a seed cake. Ilse, between piano practice and dance lessons and copious amounts of homework, started a snood with the leftovers from Fliss’ Snow Day and presented it to me, last night, complete. I added a few more rows to my Lionberry shawl. John finished sanding the fiddly bits on that ugly old chair I’d brought home, and gave it a coat of wax. It was to go in our bedroom but looks better in my studio, so there it’ll stay for now. Its seat has been recovered deliberately lackadaisically, using one of the fat quarters purchased at the mill, back in August. I want to be able to whip the fabric off again, and use it in a quilt, in a new year’s flurry of making.

Mother and Father joined us for our Sunday roast, and it was one of those glorious affairs which seemed to cook itself, everyone taking care of just one of two parts of the process. Seb peeled a sinkful of spuds, and put them on to boil. Fliss picked the fattest pears from the tree and tossed them in brown sugar and cinnamon, before Ilse topped the fruit with an almond sponge, to make an Exmoor In-and-Out. I cut vegetables from the garden, and left them ready in a pan. And John pulled it all together: roasting the potatoes, making a gravy, carving the rested bird. By the time the girls’ gently fragrant pudding was brought to the table, I felt entirely myself again.

Yes, it was one of those weekends where we pottered about and everything we did was like a deep and calming breath. There is something so pleasing in the familiar, when you are regaining your balance. Make soup – inhale. Cover a chair – exhale. On it goes, through bookish cuddles on the settee and the sound of someone making steady progress up and down their scales. Family life, with all its familiar rhythms, has restored my bumping heart to something steady once again.

This morning, at the start of a brand new day, new week, new month, I got things ready to begin again. While seeing to the hens, I picked a fresh bouquet of cosmos to grace the windowsill in my little studio. I tidied the debris of the last design into the children’s craft cupboard so that my basket is waiting, empty, for the wool I’ve ordered to arrive. The desk is clear. There is a fresh title in my design book, gracing a clean white page, ready to record the calculations of the day. Colours have been chosen, little details settled upon, test knitters primed and waiting. A pot of tea, the radio for company: there is comfort in the familiar. A deep breath, a clean space, and I am ready to begin again.

Madeleine

And you? What did you do this weekend?

On hold

I have been meaning to make elderberry syrup for three weeks now. Mrs Beeston raves about it. Mr Winter has been tempting me with tales of his bottling exploits. Even Mrs East keeps asking whether I’ve got round to it yet. Three weeks on, the answer is still No. But at least the berries are no longer on the tree.

Instead, last Thursday, I made five minutes to run out and cut a basketful of the drooping clusters. All day, while I was waiting for the kettle to boil or for a reply to an email, I ran a fork through the tiny branches, knocking the berries into a tub, before sticking it in the freezer. They, like so much else right now, are officially On Hold.

These past couple of weeks, everything that can be shoved in the freezer has been. Pears? Freeze them. Tomatoes? Freeze them. A box of softening purple plums? Fr – ooh, actually, lets stew those with brown sugar and cinnamon and have them on our porridge. And everything that can be dried, has been. The airer on the landing, that sifter of warm upward drafts, is currently hung with mint and hydrangeas. The garden is collapsing, and I am catching what I can.

The thing about putting things on hold is that it doesn’t make them any less important. I still want to use that bag  of avocado pits for an weekend dye session; its just that I have neither the time nor the fleece just now. When I’m pickling cucumbers (eight kilos and counting) I can’t deal with the marrows, too. And while I’d like to claim that it’s just the rush of September that knocks me off my feet, the truth is that things are put on hold all the time, in this house. I left half the elderflowers on the tree in May because I was tired of preserving them. On hold, they turned into the berries I picked last week.

The trick is to know what’ll keep, and what won’t. Some things get better, given time. French beans are maturing into dried haricots – and next year’s seed. Cooking apples just keep getting sweeter. But those gladioli won’t keep coming forever, and there’s a limit to the number of days I’ll have cosmos by my desk. There’s already an empty seat at the after-school teatime table. Neither I nor all the science in the world can freeze these fleeting years.

One day – a foggy, November day, perhaps – I’ll pull those berries from the freezer. Knowing Ilse, she’ll be with me to stir our witchy brew. Another day, perhaps when everyone else is out at dance or Scouts or just visiting their friends, Fliss will help me draw and dye and fix that elusive pink from the avocado stones. Only last week, Seb spent a happy afternoon turning frozen black bananas into a raisin-studded loaf. Ben’s stashed a bag of sloes against a home-for-the-holidays gin session. And, thanks to John, that fruit will slowly become next winter’s crumbles and puddings and pies.

It’s not a case of putting things off. I’m just saving them for the right moment. When they can be a focus, and not a distraction. A pleasure, and not a chore. And a welcome reminder of all this rush in the still and frozen days to come.

Madeleine

And you? What are you putting on hold?

September again

16 September 1935

Why is it that while spring arrives so tentatively, autumn simply announces itself? Here I am, she says, and, like it or not, here she is. She’s here in fogged-up morning windows, in windfalls on the lawn, in retreating cucumber vines and tired children adjusting to new school routines. Like her or not – and there is much to admire in her red-haired-pale-faced beauty – she’s a stubborn one, and stares down the fast-fading summer.

I’d like to treat September as the start of a new year, and in many ways I do. I feel it in the children as they set off to school each morning, in their blackly polished shoes and trousers with growing room intact. I feel it in the evening when they tumble in the door, satchels full of new books with as-yet pristine covers. I approach the new year as they do, in my best handwriting, not wanting to spoil all that is fresh and clean and novel. This year, I tell myself, will be the year that I really focus on the piano. I’ve started to learn Debussy’s Arabesque No.1 and for an hour and a quarter last night I went over and over the passages, learning arpeggios, trying to commit tricky fingering to memory. If I did that every night, it really would make a difference. Just imagine how well I’d play, this time next year.

I’ve seen enough Septembers to know better. I’ve lived enough to know that it can’t really be the start of a new year, this slipping away of the sun. I’ve spent enough chilly hours at the piano to know that, blanket or not, there’s a limit to the time I’ll spend away from the crackling fire and other, cosier pursuits. And yet there is still enough of a sense of something new to incubate a little hope that, this year, something new will happen. Something will be achieved.

In the garden, cornucopia is no longer the word. It overflows no more. Today there was a measly solo cucumber on the vine; the season of courgettes morphed into monsters is done. Every day, there is a little less. Fewer beans on the vines, less spinach to cut and wash. And yet we are hungrier than ever. To make things stretch, our meals have many elements. Not just an omelette, but with beans and bread on the side and a hot baked apple to follow. Porridge and toast and – oh go on – an egg for breakfast. My usual soup, warmed up in the aga, is not enough for lunch without a thickly buttered roll. There was so little left of our roast last Sunday that the only leftover in our Monday pie was a single chicken breast, bulked out with gravy and copious veg. Mashed potatoes? Yes please, with everything. The children baked biscuits and cakes just days ago and, already, they are gone. Yesterday, there was nothing to add to the stone in our soup. For the first time since June, we need to buy more from the grocer.

And yet there is an odd sort of thrill in the end of the garden season. A new beginning is in the air – far off enough to be pristine and ideal in its conception. A weighing up of what went well and what… didn’t. My cosmos, for instance, have been a delight. The broad beans have not. This year, I grew the best potatoes we’ve ever had, and I’ll be chitting the same variety come 1936. And I have grander plans than that: for island beds of flowers tough enough to survive the hens’ attentions, and walls of willow waving in the breeze. In my mind’s eye, I’ll be digging a lot, this winter. Digging, and playing the piano, and making changes that won’t be washed away with the turning of the earth.

Perhaps that’s why September makes me feel so strange: both ill at ease and excited, all at once. Because in one way it’s another chance to get things right, to make a change, to move forward in my life. And at the same time, it is full of reminders that that’s just what life is doing: moving forward, taking my children with it. Those school books aren’t just a clean version of the previous year’s. What was to be, next year, is now. I can’t make out whether autumn is as lovely as she pretends, or whether there’s hint of  malice in those cold eyes. Whatever the truth, she’ll only give way to winter, but that in turn makes way for the gentle spring.

Cecily

How do you feel about September? And have you made plans for the coming year?

Across the water

We booked our holiday to Ireland on a bit of a whim. We’ve fallen into a pleasant pattern of having one summer’s holiday in the UK and the next aboard, and this was meant to be a UK year. But by the time June came round, I was itching to go across the water, so we looked at ferries.

As a rule, we try not to fly. The number of long haul flights I took before the age of 25 must mean that I’ve used up my – and probably my children’s – fair share of flying for a very long time. We’ve taken the children on planes a couple of times, but we do try to take the train whenever possible. It’s surprisingly easy and you get an incredibly strong sense of where you are going, and how far away it is. The furthest we’ve got by rail is Sorrento, which took a couple of days and involved spending a night on what was essentially a youth hostel on wheels, which everyone thought was lots of fun (except perhaps the poor French teenager who had to share our compartment). But of course you can’t get the train to Ireland, so we booked onto the Liverpool-Dublin overnight ferry instead. When we booked we were warned that it was not a passenger ferry, but one the lorry drivers use, so we didn’t really know what to expect.

It was fantastic. As soon as we boarded we were fed the most enormous meal – salad bar, puddings, hot main course, the works – before settling into our two very clean ensuite cabins for the night. Then we were woken up by the announcement that breakfast was being served and we’d be docking in Dublin in an hour. Sixty minutes later, full of yoghurt, croissants, hot drinks and a fry up we rolled off the ramp and set off towards Galway. If I were a trucker, that’s the way I’d travel. In fact, it’s the way I’ll be getting to Ireland from now on.

 

If I’m honest, the whole holiday was a little bit slapdash and last minute, which is the way our holidays often are, but it seems to work out fine. We wended our way cross-country, stopping for lunch and to take in a little sheep show before arriving at a lovely campsite and booking in for the first two nights. The site was relaxed and friendly and best of all, had its own beach literally just over the wall. Given that the weather was unusually warm and dry, we spent the whole of our second day on that beach, dipping in and out of the Atlantic, peering patiently into rock pools and knitting on a rug while others built a model of Newgrange in the sand. I love that sort of day, just pottering and knitting and knowing that there’s nothing more to do but cook some sausages for tea, but one day of that is also quite enough. The following day we set off north along the Wild Atlantic Way, taking in the scenery until we reached the National Museum of Rural Life.

 

Now, John and I had been to the National Museums in Dublin before, when we were over for a wedding, and if you’ve ever been you’ll agree that the collections of bog bodies and torques are breathtaking. The Rural Life museum greeted us with a tiny house just by the car park: a dwelling made up of all the traditional styles of Irish building, from wattle and daub to stonework, various thatching styles and lime plaster. I’m afraid it only fuelled my dreams of building or repairing an traditional dwelling one day, and everyone was very patient as I examined it and took lots of photos. I think they must have groaned inwardly when we then came across a traditional travellers’ caravan, but I managed not to linger too long there. I’d like my little house to be a little bit bigger, and probably fixed in one place. Unless it’s a houseboat, of course. But that’s the topic for another post.

 

Inside, I saw and read a lot of things that I already knew, but the children learned a lot and some of the craft displays were very interesting. I had no idea that so much was made from straw – everything from armchairs to saddles, hen houses to babies’ rattles. That, and the ‘lazy bed’ method of growing potatoes, fascinated me. Ireland continued to be a nation of tiny farmsteads for a very long time, and the ingenuity of people in what can be an extremely challenging environment, where the weather can make or break you, is not something that I encounter in my daily life. It might seem an odd comparison, but it reminded me of Tanzania, where everything around you can be used for some purpose or other, and where, even within one country, styles of housing and agriculture differ according to the climate.

We had our own taste of Ireland’s particular challenge – rain – that evening as we found a campsite at 6 and rushed to get the tent up before the black clouds broke. We’d stopped in a port town in Donegal – Killybegs – and as we erected our tent we saw the QE2 pull out of its deep harbour with thousands of passengers waving from the uppermost deck. Before they were out of sight the heavens opened, but thanks to John the children were perfectly cosy and dry, tucking into first soup then pasta before snuggling down with a book of Irish folk and fairy tales.  By morning, the wind and rain had gone and we were given the most beautiful view across the bay and out to sea.

Finally, we drove up to Derry to visit family for a few days. My mother comes from Derry, and I spent half of every summer there throughout my childhood and teens. Two of my mother’s siblings still live or work on the farm there, and I hadn’t been over in years. We had such a lovely time, seeing them: the children were spoiled rotten and announced that it was the best part of their whole holiday. When you’ve moved around as much as I have, there’s something very comforting about going back to somewhere you’ve known your whole life. It was fun, reminiscing about all those summers and the odd winter holiday when there were calves in the shed and I was given the task of teaching them to drink from a bucket by letting their rough tongues lick my hand. My uncle has a daughter Ilse’s age, who invited she and Seb out for the day. Later they played an epic game of Monopoly with my cousin Mary, home for a holiday, while my aunt and I talked craft. She’s studied traditional Irish crafts properly and is a superb basket-maker, and treated me to an afternoon of willow-work. I have a lot to learn, but she sent me home with such a quantity of willow, books and moulds that I can’t wait to get started. Best of all, I think I may finally have found a craft that John’s interested in as well, and I have high hopes for some cosy wintry evenings making all sorts of baskets, platters and plant supports together.

Going somewhere as an adult that you are used to visiting as a child is a very strange experience, and I saw Derry through different eyes this time. As a kid, I stayed out of town, playing or helping about the farm or riding at a nearby stables. This time we walked the walls and visited the Free Derry museum with Fliss, who learned a lot about her history and where part of her comes from. I’m really glad that we did book that ferry when we were bored and restless on Monday night in June. Really, it’s only a short hop to Ireland from York. Just drive to Liverpool docks, and head across the water.

Castles and coves

We love the sea. We love it in the morning, when the coast is fresh and empty and still sparkling with dew. We love busy midday sunshine beaches, when everyone and their dog lays claim to a patch of sand. Best of all though, we love it in the late afternoon, when the striped windbreaks and bright buckets are packed away and the coast empties of tired children complaining of sand in their shoes and the long walk home.

From about three o’clock the sand is at its warmest and the sun still high enough to revive you after the chilliest of dips. John invariably heads in for a proper swim, while the children splash about or jump the rollers. In and out, wet and dry and wet again, stopping for an ice-cream (madness) or reaching for the flask of tea (far more rational in these parts), the swimming and sandcastle making goes on until about six, when people start clamouring for their tea, and John lights his little Trangiar and the sausages are soon fizzing and popping in the pan. A bread roll, a salad or two if we’re feeling fancy, and everyone is full and warm and ready to doze on the long drive home.

We’ve visited several beaches over the past couple of weeks. In Cornwall we had a couple of balmy evenings in Poldhu Cove, where we were not the only family to turn up and start cooking supper on the sand. Kynance Cove merited a fast and furious visit, leaping through the icy breakers on a moody morning. Having decided that the water really was too cold and that I would only go waist deep, I was swept off my feet on more than one occasion, much to Ilse’s delight. We needed fish and chips – sat in – to warm up after that particular swim. Sadly we didn’t manage our usual Devon bathe from pebbly Beesands, with the gale force winds blowing us into a cosy cafe for a wet-and-wild-night-of-camping-recovery breakfast instead. But we did make a special pilgrimage to a site John has wanted to visit since he was about ten years old: Tintagel Castle, and its cave-speckled cove beneath.

If you’ve ever visited Tintagel, you’ll know that the castle itself involves no little toil up and down a lot of steps, and the soaring temperatures on the day of our visit meant that the cove beneath was packed with people cooling off after their endeavours. We pottered about for an hour or two, looking into local shops and sampling the superb pasties from the cafe by the ticket office, and by the time we traipsed back down to the cove it was almost empty. We were the only people in the sea, with a few families on the shore, their knicker-clad little ones squealing with glee as the cool water washed over their toes. It was our last day in Cornwall before a drive north through the gathering night, and perhaps my favourite day of all. A castle and a cove, pasties and a cream tea: everyone was happy, which made me so. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer end to our little southern holiday.

So when John announced that he’d like to spend an afternoon and evening at Sandsend, near Whitby, I was only too happy to comply. I packed a basket or two with sausages, a couple of salads from our bursting garden, and a chocolate cake nestled in my tin, and we had one more glorious afternoon by the sea, all of us this time, mucking around in the sand and admiring the crystal clear water. Seb built a birthday monument for his dad, Fliss and Ilse stood on the empty steps and belted out some Abba, Ben and I admired the many shoals of little fish, different types of jellyfish and the odd transparent crab. John, of course, went for his swim, and then we had our hot picnic tea before heading home to sandy showers and fresh clean sheets and beds that rocked gently in our sleep.

Cultural capital

Some opportunities are too good to be missed, and so when some kind friends offered us their London home for a few days, there was only one answer.

I love bringing the children to London. They’ve been several times now, but because of the age differences there is always someone who wasn’t born when we visited that place, or stayed at home when we went to that museum. And while York is a beautiful city, there are elements of London which are simply awe-inspiring, iconic, or both.

Much of this summer has been left deliberately under-planned, so that we can just follow the good weather, but I know better than to drag three children (Ben has stayed in York with some houseguests of our own) around the hot and dusty streets without a plan. On the very evening that the trip was confirmed, I bade the children to choose their top destinations, threw in a couple of my own (Liberty’s fabric department) and pulled the whole thing together into what I have to say is a rather slick itinerary. We’re taking in a West End show (Richard of Bordeaux opened to rave reviews this February), touring Parliament (the younger ones have never done this), doing a spot of bathing in the Serpentine and visiting the Foundling Museum, among many other things. Yesterday, though, we started with an easy and essential day for the younger two, who had no memories of the South Kensington museums.

I genuinely believe that, where possible, children should be taken to visit museums of national importance. It is part of their cultural heritage. I can’t even remember the first time I visited the Victoria and Albert museum, for instance (perhaps around the fin de siecle?) but I do know that it feels familiar and welcoming whenever I go back. Weaving places into your childhood does that; it makes them yours. So while I showed Seb and Ilse my favourite exhibits, and we all stopped here or there to rest our legs and make a sketch, my heart was brimming over at how much they loved it all.

It was only when we stepped out through the Cromwell Road exit that Isle remembered that in Ballet Shoes this was the girls’ walk everyday: down the longest road in London to the V&A. We all agreed that they would have been better off varying their routine with visits to the Natural History and Science Museums too, and obliged on their behalf. I must confess, I was looking forward to seeing the look on their faces when they encountered the diplodocus for the first time, and they didn’t disappoint. I remember his unveiling astonishing the adults in 1905; I defy children not to look up in awe. What I didn’t expect, though, was Ilse’s delight in the building itself, as she pointed out the birds and vines which were the fabric of every pillar, every arch. We could have visited that and the V&A empty, for the sake of their structures alone.

Years ago, when Ben was little and Fliss just a baby, my sister Meg and I took him on a tour of preserved bodies in the city – from Jeremy Bentham at UCL to the rarely visited collection that Darwin brought back on the Beagle, to the mummies in their sarcophagi in the British Museum. We’re squeezing the latter into today, along with the Foundling Museum and a visit to John at work in the British Library. With that said, we’d better make some sandwiches and be out the door. There is so much to see and do, you could come back to London again and again. It’s what I’ve done, since my parents brought me every summer, and what I hope my children will do as they grow older and one day have children of their own. Bringing them to London, showing them the sights, and building their cultural capital in their own capital.

Cecily

What are your favourite places in London – or in your own nation’s capital? Do you have any places that you’ve visited over and over since childhood?

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?

End of an era

Next week, I’ll wash all three of those little gingham dresses and take them to the charity shop. After fifteen years of having a child at primary school, Ilse leaves Year 6 tomorrow., and there’ll be no more hanging of summer school frocks on the line.

While I deliberately muddle my children’s names, ages and doings on this blog, some moments need setting down on paper, if only for me. I’ve been taking a child to primary school since 2003. We’ve got photos of them all on their first days, excited and beaming in their uniform, and in a couple of days we’ll have photos of all of their last days, too, with skinny long brown legs sticking out from too-short shorts and dresses, scuffed shoes and faces no less excited about the next adventure.

It would be a strange sort of parent who didn’t want their children to grow up. After all, that’s why we parent: to help them grow into independent adults, making their own place in the world. I won’t pretend that I’m not glad I won’t have to stand in freezing February playgrounds, or deal with two different sets of school letters. When Ben started secondary school I think we were almost as thrilled as he was at the next big step. Now that he’s at university, I know how quickly the next seven years will fly.

This week – this last, mad, silly week of term – is full of performances and celebrations. We’ve split the events between us, John and I, and drafted in the grandparents for support. Last night Seb and Fliss performed in the cabaret at their school, singing and playing in the orchestra, while I attended a different do and John and my dad went to see Ilse in her play. I watched it on Tuesday with the other two – Ben is working away from home – and despite my best efforts I must admit to a tear or two at the end. I don’t know how many school plays I’ve sat through: how many nativities and musicals and Christmas concerts and open classrooms and parents evenings perched on tiny child-sized chairs. They all merge into one extended blur and yet I can pick out distinct moments, made clear by the differences between my children themselves. In their Year 6 musical my children have chosen such different roles: technician, stage manager, comic relief and, last night, soloist. Watching Ilse dressed like a reception pupil, taking turns in a duet with another girl we’ve known since before they could walk, was such a fitting culmination of the confidence and grace my girl has gained over the past few years. I beamed at her throughout. But the finale tipped me over the edge.

This evening will be their graduation, with video of them all in reception, a bouncy castle and ice cream van and the dreaded farewell song. Ilse’s already expecting me to cry, but I think she will, too. It’s bittersweet, this transition from one thing to the next. Exciting and fun and full of adventure, but relentlessly moving on, on, on.

Madeleine

Little wins and smaller bins

At the start of Plastic Free July, we made a commitment to just try our best and celebrate the little wins. We knew that there would continue to be single-use-plastics in our lives – the stuff is so invidious – but we also knew that we could use less of it. So far, just over halfway through the month, we’ve had to empty our little plastics bin twice, decanting as much as possible into the recycling. And while that could feel dispiriting, almost all of it is either plastics we already had in the house, or the result of Ilse’s birthday party last weekend.

We actually bought very little single-use plastic for Ilse’s party. She was very keen on having ice cream to cool everyone down after a trip to the park, and as there’s no ice-cream stand near our house I went for the biggest, sturdiest tub I could find, with a view to reusing it afterwards. She also wanted soft, sesame-topped burger buns rather than the crustier rolls we usually buy, and they only came in plastic. Oh, and the butter for her cake came in plastic butter ‘paper’. Perfect? No. But not bad for an kid’s birthday party. In truth, the majority of plastic came with her gifts, and she was delighted to receive such thoughtful, personal presents. All in all, I think it was a success.

Other than that, I’ve long been the sort of person who cuts open tubes of toothpaste and bottles of moisturiser to get the very last bit out, and that packaging has gone into our bin. Bags of rice, packets of pasta… it’s amazing how quickly it all adds up when you start paying attention. However, John has had absolutely no trouble at all doing all our greengrocer, butcher, bakery and local shopping plastic free. For my part, our supermarket shopping looks very much like this:

 

So while we have emptied our plastics bin twice (decanting as much as possible into recycling), it is beginning to slow down. So much so, in fact, that we’ve been able to do a little bin reshuffle to reflect our aims.

I never thought I’d post a picture of our household bins online, but nor did I think I’d be declaring ice-cream purchases, so there you go. Allow me to introduce our little bins, from left to right. When we bought the blue bins at IKEA, many years ago, we’d already worked out that the smaller the bin the less rubbish you were likely to produce. Not only is it inconvenient to have to empty the bin more regularly, but it also makes me cringe. The bin on the left was our original rubbish bin, and its partner our compost caddy, until I had an epiphany and swapped them around. As a result, for many years we’ve had a landfill bin that takes a supermarket carrier bag, and tried to empty it just once a week, with varying levels of success. The wicker bin used to be a plastic-bag-lined bin in our bathroom, until it became our recycling bin (in which to carry things out to the garage and sort them into the council crates). The little Tanzanian basket on the right is our bathroom bin now.

Why, you might wonder, am I writing about our bins online? Lots of reasons, really. For a start, we’ve tried to align size with desirability. We’re most comfortable filling the biggest bin with old flowers and peelings, which gets carried to the end of the garden and composted. Next up is recycling, although we are well aware recycling isn’t really the solution. The smallest of the downstairs bins is for plastic – and, so far, none of these bins needs lining with even a reused bag. And now we’ve reached the point where our little bathroom bin is the recipient of only compostable stuff, so we’re lining it with newspaper and adding it to the compost heap.

The only rubbish that isn’t allowed for here is food waste. We genuinely do waste very little food – we’ve been working on that for years – but there are still some types of rubbish that I wouldn’t put in any of our bins. Mostly, to be honest, it’s old chicken bones, boiled up for stock after a roast. They’ll attract rats if I add them to the compost, and make a wet and smelly mess in our unlined wicker landfill bin. For now, I’ve lined a funny little drawer in the bottom of our freezer with newspaper, and the plan is to wait until it’s full, then put the frozen parcel out with the landfill on bin day. When we started Plastic Free July, none of us thought we’d be storing our waste in the freezer, but my wonderful family have just gone with it, as usual.

There have been a few unexpected benefits of our plastic-free endeavours. Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I have rekindled our interest in baking, making all sorts of bread (me) and cakes (the children). Afternoon tea has hit an all-time high in our house.

Bartenders feel inclined to top up my reusable cup with a little extra, once I’ve explained why I don’t want a plastic cup to take outside into these balmy evenings. I’ve also visited shops and parts of the supermarket I never went near before. The woman on the deli counter knows me now, and is delighted by how many of us are bringing our own containers in for cheese, olives and the like. The fishmonger helped me choose some absolutely delicious fish, which I later realised was not the most sustainable breed, but we live and learn, and we chose something different the next time. And it’s so nice to fill the fridge with food already decanted into your own containers, and not have to hunt down the scissors every time you make a meal.

With the end of term in sight, and summer trips on the horizon, we’re thinking ahead but I’m confident that we can do a pretty good job, even when we’re living out of our boot. No doubt there will be some plastic involved, but it’ll be less than it would have been ordinarily, and I’m happy with that for now. If I think about all our little wins, and all the other people around the globe similarly turning down one piece of plastic at a time, they begin to feel quite substantial. So at this point, just over halfway through the month, I’d say we’re winning, on balance. And this is just the start.

Madeleine

PS – Have you been taking part – formally or informally – in Plastic Free July? Do you have any wins you’d like to celebrate? I’d also love to hear about any tips you might have for plastic-free road trips…

Desert Island Discs: Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me

Apparently, green mambas have three scales between the eyes, whereas the harmless grass snake has four. This is one of the first things I remember learning when we moved to Dar, probably from one of the bigger boys. It was only later, once I’d carried a young cobra to the biology teacher’s house for identification, that someone thought to tell me that I should never get close enough to count.

For all the things that I loved about life in West Sussex, life as a child in Tanzania was bigger, wilder and more free. School ended at half twelve and then we were free to roam until the sun set at six. We lived on the secondary school campus and nowhere was off limits to us: not the askaris’ huts with their poisoned spears and arrows, not the diving pool with a leak but plenty of tadpoles if you could reach the bottom. Not the low roofs of the classrooms, on which we would play and ride our bikes, nor the flame trees into whose branches we hammered planks and made dens. I know, now, that we were safe, watched over by all the adults in the place, but back then we didn’t care. We were just kids, immortal and invincible, teasing scorpions behind the art room.

So many of my memories of that time are about animals – the baboon that stole the potatoes from my plate, the one-tusked elephant that hung around Mikumi Lodge, the rats that swam up through the toilets and ate our candles and plastic tupperware. Bright birds, in cages or tethered by one leg to a stick. Bush babies and monkeys for sale. Monitor lizards, appearing suddenly out of storm drains.

And driving to see more: lions and cheetahs, impalas and hyenas and giraffe. Tanzania is a huge country, and we thought nothing of driving for a day or two to get somewhere, see something. We saw black rhinos in Ngorogoro Crater, and swathes of flamingos shimmering on Lake Manyara. Wildebeest stirring up the landscape of the Serengeti, and hundreds upon hundreds of crocodiles in the Selous. We also drove out of the country, to Kenya, Malawi, and Zimbabwe and, when my parents wanted a little luxury, we travelled to the Old Town of Zanzibar, or to Swaziland, or to a tiny private island where we and the members of A-ha were the only residents for the week.

I’m not sure whether our Datsun pickup, shipped in second hand from China, had a tape player, but if it did I don’t think it worked. I can’t remember ever listening to taped music in that truck. What I do remember is my dad singing. He would sing Green Finger, and Wimoweh, and other songs from the sixties. Most of all, though, he would sing Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me, and at the vital moment it was our role to come in with the much-anticipated uh-huh? I’m sure we must have squabbled over space in the back seat. I’m sure it was a little stressful driving with several jerry cans of fuel in the back, and hundreds of kilometres between mechanics. We broke down a lot, with one immortal repair in the form of our exhaust being stuck back on with chewing gum, but what I really remember is the singing, and the wildlife, and the possibility of it all.

In 1984, Tanzania was to all intents and purposes unchanged from the accounts I read about in Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. The minibus would drive us past his house on the way to the lower school site, and I’d look at the huge baobab in his front garden and not be the least surprised that nothing had changed. I haven’t been to Tanzania since 1999, when already the country I knew and loved was beginning to morph into something else. Every so often someone asks me whether I’d like to go back. The truth is that I couldn’t, even if I wanted to. The Tanzania of my childhood simply doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been engulfed by our new, globalised world. It’s a place where you are always connected. It’s not that I think progress is a bad thing. It’s just that I’d rather hold onto my memories as they are, wild and free and undoubtedly rose-tinted. Those first five years there were a time when anything could happen, and when I learned that that in itself is a wonderful thing.

Madeleine

PS – What about you? What form do your early years take, once they are distilled? And what song would you choose to summon them up? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear.