We love our kids, it’s their stuff we can’t live with

It’s that time of year again. When your offspring are medium-sized, that statement covers new school uniforms, shiny clean shoes and pristine book bags. When they’re bigger, and they only live at home over the summer, there are different considerations.

It’s the time when the detritus of the half-remembered college year that ended in early summer – the cheap washing tablets that are adequate for student launderettes but bring suburban families out in hives, the key texts for next term’s modules that, despite all good intentions, were never opened, and the piles of cast-off kitchen utensils – have to be collapsed into the boot of the family car. When the frantic last-minute checking of baggage allowances and weighing of rucksacks is replaced by working out how you fit two bass guitars, an amplifier and a TV into the back of a VW Golf. When there are always five pairs of jeans on the washing line and people still end up travelling with the pockets still damp. And when you realize something profound about your young-adult offspring, or at least I do.

I love them and would be happy to have them live here most of the time, like they always used to. What I can’t take any longer, what will send me cheering and throwing open windows through the house as the vehicle bearing them away turns the corner out of sight, is not themselves but their Stuff.

The first time they went away, a general purging went on, followed by a few months of relative calm. Their abandoned bedrooms became useful overflow storage cubicles. We had space to breathe. When we came downstairs in the morning, the living room still looked the way it had the night before. It’s easy to develop the sense that life, from now on, will be like this. Even the happy chaos of Christmas and Easter seemed like brief interruptions of the new, minimalist regime.

And then they come home for the summer, and the awful truth dawns on you. They have been out there, all this time, collecting stuff of their own. And as George Carlin memorably said, “Have you ever noticed that their stuff is shit, but your shit is stuff?”

I can remember the feeling of dull dismay gradually forming in the pit of my stomach as my husband and son unpacked the car and, TARDIS like, box after box appeared. And then, a week or so later, the process was repeated with our daughter. Everything was going to be put away – soon. And so it was, if you can call the semi-permanent occupation of the dining room “away.”

I remember our daughter being furious that there was still a drum kit in her bedroom. (She plays drums for about ten minutes, once every six months, a mysterious process known as “band practice” that generally involves carrying said drum kit downstairs and setting it up in the middle of the living room, conveniently placed directly in the line of sight from sofa to television). I won’t embarrass her by posting photographs of her room; that would be below the belt, but you’ll get the idea when I tell you that when she asked if she could have her boyfriend to stay over the weekend, my husband muttered under his breath, “He’ll probably find a couple of other boyfriends under the bed that she’s forgotten about.”

With my son, the issues are different. First there is the subtle mental invasion of his eclectic choice of music streamed throughout the house, all day, every day. The eighteen different types of tea. The three copies of Cabin in the Woods that appear, a DVD that nobody actually remembers borrowing or buying. The Diplomacy game that takes up semi-permanent residence on the dining room table.

Worst of all is the kitchen equipment. We don’t begrudge either of them their domestic independence, but it’s rather startling to discover that we have 63 mugs in the house, at least half a dozen frying pans and a pile of knives and forks that have been in a box on the kitchen windowsill for the last twelve weeks. As for the books, open and bookmarked and commented on, all over the place – well, at least they’re working. Sometimes.

If all this sounds negative, it isn’t meant to be. We love to see our kids. We relish their growth and development, even the aspects of it that seem slightly baffling, like our son’s rejection of CD’s and downloads for the bulky, scratchy vinyl we regard as antique. (Thank God for the Internet, it makes it much easier to buy a new stylus, something we never expected to need again). We appreciate that they value the security of a safe nest that will always be there for them to return to, although we do question whether that really has to include every bit of Lego they ever played with and the roller skates that last fitted them at the age of eight. Damn it, we’re glad that they do, occasionally, want to come home, and hopefully for reasons other than lack of rent money.

But oh, it’s lovely when they leave. Or at least, when their stuff does. Well, some of it anyway. Come on, we’ll help you pack. No, we don’t know where their phone charger is. Or the suitcase, for that matter. But as for huge cardboard boxes, no problem. They’re in our bedroom, all 15 of them, and you’re welcome. It’ll be nice to be able to see through the window again.

When they’ve finally left, we’ll crack open a bottle of wine and get back to watching Brideshead Revisited on DVD, having abandoned Charles and Julia in mid-Atlantic three months ago. That is, of course, assuming that the remote control hasn’t ended up with the X-Box cabling two hundred miles away.

North vs South – two nations?

She said kiss me or would you rather
Live in a land where the soap won’t lather?

Billy Bragg “The Only One” (from Workers’ Playtime)

You know you drive me up the wall
I need to see your face that’s all
You little sod, I love your eyes
Be everything to me tonight

Guy Garvie (Elbow) “Station Approach”

Glossary: Billy Bragg is an Essex Boy through and through. His reference to soap concerns the difference in the domestic water supply between the north of England and the South East, which geologically is on chalk deposits. This results in lime-rich water, poor detergent performance and coating of scum in the bathwater.

Guy Garvie is 100% Mancunion and proud of it. “Station Approach” refers to the road leading down from Piccadilly, Manchester’s main train station, into the city centre (and more generally, the sense of coming home to a community where you belong).  My son always puts it on as we leave the motorway and arrive back home after he’s been away at college.

Traffic on the M25
Bill Oddie follows the way of Ecky Thump in “The Goodies” (BBC TV)

A few months ago, several thousand BBC employees had to emigrate from the South East of England to the North, when the BBC moved its main centre of operations up to the Media City Centre in Salford, near Manchester.

The word “emigrate” isn’t used lightly. Strange as it may seem in so small a country, there are deep-seated and profound cultural differences between the south and the north of England. Arguably, the cultural fault lines are as deep as those separating Scotland, Wales and England, and the first two of those have good claims to being independent nations. Some of the main prejudices are that Southerners are arrogant, effete and insular, always assuming that people will visit them rather than venturing out of their own London-dominated enclave. Conversely, Northeners are accused of being ignorant, nosey, vulgar and mired in a culinary wasteland dominated by fish and chips, mushy peas and tomato ketchup.

Southerners are unfriendly, sometimes to the point of not knowing their own neighbours. Northeners are forever on the doorstep wanting to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar. Southerners are sophisticated, familiar with international cuisine and dismayed by the thought of eating salad cream rather than mayonnaise. Northeners haven’t even heard of cappuccino.

Of course, these are all laughable generalisations. But they persist. When the BBC relocated, there were rumours and jokes in Private Eye about trains to Euston being packed with exiles on Friday evenings. I’ve a foot in both camps. Though my Lancashire ancestry goes back several generations – I’m from Blackpool, for God’s sake, and you don’t get more vulgarly Northern than that – I married a North Londoner, and my parents spent their happiest years in the Home Counties. My nearest living relatives ended up in Billericay, Essex and Woking, Surrey respectively.

I actually prefer the South. We hope to retire there. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of people less snooty and stand-offish than my husband’s large, close-knit extended family. We gather at Littlehampton for a beach picnic once a year without fail, and there are usually four generations present. I don’t particularly like the idea of community on your doorstep, though I still think fondly of the Lancashire neighbour whose kindness sustained me when my mother died (She didn’t just draw her own curtains when the funeral procession passed, she went round knocking on doors to make sure all the neighbours did likewise). I can assure anyone with doubts on the matter that cappuccino and balsamic vinegar are well-known North of Potters’ Bar, but I do think that there tend to be more good-quality, reasonably priced restaurant chains in the South East (Bill’s of Lewes, for example, and the wonderful Cook range selling very nice, admittedly posh frozen meals – we only have them up here in Formby and Harrogate).  And I can remember my husband’s Auntie Peg remarking, in our holiday accommodation, “They’re posh here, they buy their Weetabix from Waitrose.”

So, where do the prejudices come from? And is there any truth in them? In the case of so-called stand-offish-ness, I think there is, but note the “so-called.” In my personal experiences, people from the South are not unfriendly, but they could be called reserved. They won’t barge in unless they’re reasonably sure you want to know them better. A lot of it, I suspect, is due to sheer density of population. The fact there economic activity tends to concentrate people in the South East of England makes houses smaller, commutes longer, roads and public transport alike more congested. All this makes people value what privacy they do have. What hits me every time I travel through Southern suburbia is how many new homes are being built (though still nowhere near enough) and how cramped they are. This affects people in all kinds of ways. Your working day is longer. If you’re lucky enough to get a seat on the train, and most aren’t, you’ll learn to tune out distractions and maximise your reading time. And you may well resort to audiobooks on the Tube.

None of these social pressures are unknown in the North of England. In fact, upwardly mobile suburbs like Didsbury in South Manchester generally replicate them. But I think they are less ubiquitous and less intense. And I also think this affects the way travel is perceived. I can remember, when I was growing up in a small Lancashire town, thinking that Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath must be very exotic places. Now I know how crushingly ordinary much of South East commuterland actually is. I also used to make the mistake of thinking that everywhere down there was pretty close together, and having no concept of the vast North vs South of the river divide in the minds of not only Londoners, but people who live in the South East of England generally. But once you’ve queued to go through the Dartford Tunnel after a long day, you begin to understand why to someone in Surrey or Sussex, the North of France seems more accessible than Manchester. We Mancunians say it’s only two hours on the train. And it is, to Euston. But it’s the trekking around after that you need to worry about.

I didn’t realise, fully, how tiring driving in the South East really was until we spent a day visiting my husband’s family in Enfield, then dropping off our son at college in Colchester and, finally, driving to his parents’ old bungalow near Littlehampton. The experienced left me utterly drained. I would probably have found a trip between Kendal, Ilkley and Harrogate a lot easier.

I suppose the moral of this tale, if there is one, is that you don’t really understand anybody until you’ve tried walking in their shoes, so to speak. Of course, none of that will stop me making jokes to my DH’s cousins about hitching up the husky dogs to come and see us, and it won’t stop DH himself saying, “You can take the girl out of Blackpool, but you can’t take Blackpool out of the girl.” Particularly when he spots me reaching for the salad cream.

(19)42 and the meaning of life

Jean, Eunice and Jack Hinton Jr

(Eunice, R, with my mother and a cousin in the 1940s)

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E Frankl
Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E Frankl (Photo credit: Pickersgill Reef)

Eunice, the last of my mother’s cousins, died a few days ago aged 87. I have vivid memories of holidays and Christmases spent with them in Colwyn Bay, North Wales, where her husband Don ran an optical practice and she ran a couple of antique shops. Their lifestyle was very different from my quiet, impoverished life as an only child with my widowed mum. Not only did it include holidays abroad, boarding schools and sports cars for their two sons as soon as they were old enough to drive. Eunice was a volatile character, the complete opposite of her unassuming but equally determined husband. She loved luxury, drama and excess. Chronically restless, she was always moving house, or having the one they lived in torn apart and renovated, only to lose interest and sell it halfway through. You could never be certain that the furniture that was in the house on Monday morning, or the beautiful Wedgewood china you had eaten Sunday lunch off, would still be in the house on Monday night. She was a magpie, shamelessly acquisitive, particularly drawn to all things shiny and valuable.

I remember that once they bought a house across the road and didn’t get around to moving into it for a couple of years. In the end her elder son, losing patience, moved the table and chairs over the road while she was cooking Christmas dinner and we ended up serving it over there. I was utterly captivated. She was impossible to live with, selfish, capricious, spoilt and irresistible.

Nobody adored her more than Donald, and I often wondered what the family of this unassuming Quaker man made of his utterly unexpected choice of soul-mate. He fell in love with her at first sight when she was 17, married her at 22 and cared for her with absolute devotion for the last two decades of her life, as a series of strokes gradually robbed her, slowly and painfully, of her faculties. Terrible muscle spasms made it impossible to feed or move her without help for days on end, but the only time she went into residential care was for six weeks while he recovered from a heart attack in his eighties. He pestered mercilessly until she was allowed back home.

She was an exhausting patient, apt to come out with the most offensive and embarrassing remarks at odd moments and to berate him for his meanness and foolishness as he struggled to push her wheelchair up the steep path of the house, high on a hill with a beautiful panoramic view of the North Wales coastline she’d fallen in love with in the 1940s and refused to leave. He would not consider moving somewhere more convenient. Her world had shrunk to two rooms by then; he would not deprive her of that balcony and its glorious view.

I can’t begin to imagine how he used to get her up that path, or into the car for their daily outings along the sea front at Rhos-on-Sea or to nearby teashops. Or how he put up with the way she treated him, or behaved in public. Somehow, he did all that and also kept up a barrage of letters to the press throughout the last Iraq war, part of his lifelong campaigning for peace. His meek demeanour hid a core of absolute steel, and the twin rocks that formed the foundation of his life were his utter devotion to Eunice and his commitment to the Quaker faith.

She died of pneumonia the day after their 65th wedding anniversary. He broke down on the phone as he told me about the spray of flowers he’d bought for his unconscious wife. I’d been meaning to go and see them for months. I found it unutterably depressing, having such memories of her lively and vibrant in happier times, so I kept putting it off. I kept telling myself she was too far gone to know I was even there, let alone who I was. Last Christmas, as I had the year before, I scribbled a note that I would definitely visit, and he wrote back that she would love it. I don’t know if he told her I was coming. I hope not. But the second time he broke down on the phone was when he repeated, “Oh, she would have loved to see you so much!”

I felt down for days. I think I deserved it, to be honest.

As it happened, the day before she died was my own 53rd birthday, and my son gave me a remarkable book as a gift. It’s called Man’s Search for Meaning, and my heart sank a little to see that it was yet another heavy-going Holocaust memoir. My son is a philosopher, through and through – he tends to avoid light reading. But yesterday I picked it up and read it at one sitting. Again, I’ve been humbled. It is one of the most moving and uplifting testaments I’ve ever read to the resilience of the human spirit.

The author, Viktor Frankl, was the founder of the third great 20th century Viennese school of psychology. When he was deported to Auschwitz with his wife of less than two years, he hid in his clothes a manuscript that he regarded as his life’s work. It was the foundation of what he called Logotherapy – the theory that human mental distress is relieved primarily with the discovery of meaning in life. This theory was hammered out in the agony of four notorious concentration camps and the loss of almost his entire family in the Holocaust.

The manuscript he treasured was ripped from him by the Nazis and destroyed before his eyes on the day he arrived at Auschwitz. He was forced to strip naked and given the filthy rags of a less fortunate prisoner who had already gone straight to the gas chambers. In the pocket of the coat his hand closed around a scrap of paper – it turned out to be a page torn from a Hebrew prayer book, containing the Shema Yisrael. “How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?” he reflected.

After the war, he not only rewrote the manuscript he had lost, but it was immeasurably deepened and strengthened by his personal suffering. He firmly believed that meaning in a human life might be found in three distinctive ways. First, by the creation of something of lasting value. Secondly, by complete and loving devotion to at least one other human being, and thirdly by the graceful and humble experience of suffering as the means of personal growth. I do not think that we have earned any right to argue with him.

At the core of his doctrine of logotherapy is the importance of personal responsibility

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recongise that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

(Man’s Search for Meaning, p89)

Of love for another human being, Frankl has this to say:

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No-one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

(Man’s Search for Meaning, p 90)

Who am I to say whether Eunice was a worthy object of the lifetime of love that this man lavished on her? The truth is that Don saw a potentiality in Eunice, from the night of their first meeting in 1942, the same year as Frankls’s arrival in Auschwitz, and the actualization of that potentiality became his lifetime’s work. If he had achieved nothing else – and that if far from being the case – his life would, by Frankl’s definition, be completely meaningful.

And who am I to conclude that Eunice would have been incapable of recognising me or responding to my presence? Nothing mattered more to her than her family history. It really does not matter whether she recognised me or mistook me for my mother, who died in 1983. At the very least, I failed Don, because I had the opportunity to bring him joy by offering myself to his beloved.

Frankl had a maxim that, he claimed, expressed his entire philosophy in one command: “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!” He wrote:

It seems to me that there is nothing which would stimulate a man’s sense of responsibleness more than this maxim, which invites him to imagine first that the present is past and, second, that the past may be changed and amended. Such a precept confronts him with life’s finiteness as well as the finality of what he makes out of both his life and himself.

Man’s Search for Meaning, p 88

I have many goals in life. To finish painting the garden fence – two coats, all round, concrete included. To complete my latest enormous, self-inflicted cross-stitch project within two years. To read Dante’s Inferno and Wordsworth’s Prelude. It’s good to have goals. I’ve become better at achieving them and making myself accountable for them. But they need to be the right goals. The ones that give meaning to my life, and recongise the meaning of the lives of others. I am so grateful to Frankl, and to my son, for what I have learned this week. And I hope it continues to change me – for the better.

Damsons and Dissertations

Two activities have dominated the last couple of weeks – finishing my dissertation and making an awful lot of damson jam!

I have never known a summer like this for soft fruit. I think it’s because we had a warm spring and the bees were out in force . It took us weeks to clear our glut of cherries – not that I’m complaining! – and now the damson tree has obliged with about 40 kilos, fruit as big as plums. I can’t bear to see such bounty go to waste so there’s been a basket at the gate for several days inviting the neighbours to help themselves. Also I’ve been touring my friends trying to offload large baskets.

We had the kitchen revamped last Spring, and that’s turned out to be a good investment. There used to be a comedian called Ken Dodd back in the 60s who went on about “jam butty mines” (For those who don’t know these important things, “butty” is a Norhern English word for sandwich). Anyway, that’s what my kitchen has been like. I’ve made 24 pots of magnificent jam and almost as much puree for the freezer. My Kenwood Chef fruit processing attachment has been working hard removing all the stones.

And we also have an awful lot of apples to get through. A rather unusual variety called James Grieve, lovely flavour but it doesn’t keep or travel well, hence you never see them in the supermarkets.

And then the dissertation. Well, I finally printed it out yesterday ready to submit by 1st September. It’s about how Shakespeare is portrayed in children’s historical novels. Only 12,000 words so I had to make some choices. Mainly I look at Geoffrey Trease’s Cue for Treason, written in 1940, and hence a prototype of the Elizabethan adventure with the Queen and Shakespeare and various shenanigins with traitors and such. And then what I call the coming-of-age novel, represented mainly by Susan Cooper’s wonderful King of Shadows. It’s fascinating how similar such stories often are to the boarding-school tale, with Shakespeare standing in as a benevolent Dumbledore figure. For quiddich match read performance, but you don’t get a lot of Hermione characters unless they’re dressing up as boys.

It’s almost the end of my Shakespeare adventure. If all goes well, I’ll graduate in December from the University of Birmingham. It’s been a wonderful time, but also a great challenge. I’m rather amazed and proud of myself that I’ve persevered and managed to work at that intellectual level. The dissertation was by far the most difficult because I had to be so self-motivated. Going to classes, though also hard work, was a hugely enjoyable social experience that I shall miss a lot.

Finally, wonderful news about my son Tom, who is now reading Philosophy at Essex. He has won a prize for the most outstanding academic performance of the whole first year. Not bad for a boy with chronic health problems who couldn’t get out of bed two years ago and was almost kicked out of school by a hardline Head of Sixth Form who thought it was all in his head. Also not bad for someone who was badly screwed over by the AQA (exam board), missed out on his first choice of uni when they missed out a section in their marking of his paper, and then they didn’t even have the courtesy to tell him or his school when they remarked it and he got an A grade after all (He found out by accident when he went back at Chistmas to pick his certificate up).

I guess the moral of that is that if you are despairing about your own grades, or those of some young person close to you, hang on in there. Things sometimes have a way of turning out better than expected. Or, failing that, they could always pinch a TARDIS and scarper.