SWB gives Stand up Paddle Boarding a Whirl

F**k me everyone, I don’t know about you but you, but I am totally feeling the mental load this week. In some ways Lockdown was easier, wasn’t it? Now of course I’m thrilled to be reunited with friends and the massage I got on Thursday was long overdue. But I was living there for a while with nowhere to be at a specific time and I quite liked that. Now the kids are pestering me constantly to have their friends around and the door is going steady and it all feels a bit ‘full on’ after 3 months of near hibernation.

I also had a couple of deadlines and god-awful forms to complete which turned my brain to a bowl of savoury mince and when I got those finished I looked around the house and clutched my heart. The Mothership called up on Thursday and ventured inside for a few minutes as she’s still ‘wary about enclosed spaces.’ Well, she was certainly wary of mine and retreated to the patio area sharpish.

‘I’ve never seen the like,’ said she, as she tried not to trip over the greyhound while walking backwards. ‘It looks like that time your brother thought we’d been burgled’. She was referring to the summer of 1999 when I moved back to the family home in Bangor and the next day headed off to Montreal with my parents for a holiday. My brother came home from an evening out and seeing my bedroom door ajar and the chaos within, he got straight on the blower to Canada to check that it was in that state of chassis BEFORE I left and that some intruder hadn’t ransacked the place while he was at the pub.

The problem is that I haven’t been able to chuck out all the kids’ home-schooling stuff because I harbour notions of still doing a wee bit occasionally. (Twice. I’ve managed this TWICE in July because they make their opprobrium known in such a high pitch that my inner drums tingle and my temples throb.) Kids are melters, aren’t they?

They prefer to spend their days creating dens for themselves and the dog, so blankets and cushions get trailed outside and back in again covered with little bits of detritus from the garden: twigs, leaves and once a large slug which had attached itself to the underside of a plastic chair. I was near sick. The slugs up this way wouldn’t look out of space on Ridley Scott’s Alien: they would turn you.

But happily, I had respite planned…. The other day I met my friend Martina (of Harper’s Yard fame) and she mentioned that she had a paddling boarding trip to Limavady on Sunday. So I just invited myself along. In times gone by, I would have been self-conscious about doing the like (both inviting myself and heaving my less than svelte form into a wetsuit) but this new me doesn’t have the same scruples.

I tried stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) in Spain once but only managed to stand up twice on the chippy choppy waves. I had all the poise and balance of a blancmange. So what I recommend is to start on the river. The water on the Roes is brown and coppery in hue, the iridescent blue of the Costa Brava it is not. But man, it was GLORIOUS. With the verdant reeds on either side and the cliff face of Binevenagh Mountain as a backdrop, it reminded me of kayaking in New Zealand’s South Island. And our instructor was SO utterly in love with the area. This is where he grew up and this was the river he learnt to swim in with a proper old-school rope swing with a tyre. He was so keen to show off his homeland to us, this little corner steeped in history. I want to go back and stay in a pod, pop the kids in kayaks and pootle about in the water like Mole and Ratty from ‘The Wind in the Willows’.

So, if like me, your pickled brain is crying out for some tranquillity, perhaps you need to hit the reset button and hop onto a paddle board. It doesn’t have the same adrenaline rush of surfing, but I’ve enough tumult in my life at present, and can live without being swooshed up the face with a wave and swallowing mouthfuls of salt water. Some days you need the meditative calm that paddle boarding brings, and if you’re new to it, then this is the perfect place to start.

 

 

 

 

SWB has a wee rant to herself

First world problem alert, but do you want to know what is really pissing me off? Now it shouldn’t be a biggie, when you think of the atrocities worldwide and the ever-present threat of the virus  (no matter what that f**king clampet Boris says, back to normal by Christmas MY ARSE), but what is annoying me is this week is WHAT TO WEAR. Let me elaborate.

If you go on holiday to Spain you pack a few dresses, your swimsuit and your trainers if you fancy a run. (Yes, I used to do that until lockdown snuffed out all desire to exercise). So here I am, in Northern Ireland where earlier, as I sipped a coffee on the Ormeau Road in the sun I was sweltered, but within 20 mins I was home and the breeze had the goose bumps on my bingo wings standing to attention.

All this outdoor living, it’s a whole new fecking pain in the hole, isn’t it? Normally, when entertaining, we sit inside because we’re Irish and that’s what we do. And it was fecking great because you only had the interior of your home to clean and your garden could be a right shithole because no one saw it. But now you have to tidy your kitchen, your bathroom AND the patio area, which for me is no easy feat when everybody and the hound are home and trashing the joint constantly. It is not, and never has been, my natural inclination to get a yard brush and sweep up nature’s debris before guests arrive but now it has to be a regular occurrence. Pebbles, leaves, dust, and a tiny dead shrew deposited by the cat, that’s the shit I had to deal with last night prior to friends arriving.

To return to my original point: there are many added complications when it comes to dressing for the season here. When entertaining al fresco, my attire of choice is an empire line maxi dress which conceals my portly tum, the evidence of my current penchant for cake. My choice of footwear would be my trusty Camper sandals which LSB bought me three years ago and are still in decent enough nick. But I can’t wear these can I, because I’d be f**king freezing. I don’t even think that Rhianna can get away with the socks and sandals look and I think we can all agree that she’s ‘some wagon,’ as the Derry wans would say. So last night, I had to don jeans, warm socks, my Converse, a top and then a light jumper on top of that. And as the night wore on, I needed to wrap a pashmina round my shoulders.

And this is AFTER I took a trip to Hillmount yesterday where I splurged. I bought, (and fecking near emptied my account in the process), a GAS HEATER FOR THE GARDEN. I have to tell you folks, I don’t spend that amount on things under normal circumstances. The usual way of things is buying from Action Cancer on the Ormeau Road and heaving stuff out of skips. (The children are beyond scundered with my current obsession with skip diving). But considering the money I’m saving by not going to Spain I concluded that by sinking the money into a heater I could instead enjoy a semblance of summer living here. I decided on a gas heater since I knew that I just couldn’t relax and have any craic at all if I also had to keep a fire pit going. I know they’re atmospheric and I’ll miss out on the crackle and the burning embers but I had to kill the poet within and go for practicality. Let’s be honest, nice as they are, fire pits are a flipping nuisance and you have to be watching them steady, and be flinging on logs all evening. There’s also the potential hazard of sparks flying out and singing the shins off your guests, or an annoying child clattering into it and burning their bottom. No, none of the above thank you; I’ve enough to be doing.

Back to last night and all my layers. The heater did throw out some warmth , but we have to face it, we are living in northerly climes here and gas heater or not, you have to cosy up with coats if you don’t want a foundering.

So tell me before I go, how are you all coping with this new outdoor life malarkey? Do you layer up with leggings under your long skirts, have you swapped your sandals for shoes and your frocks for fleeces? And sorry, but BORING BASTARD ALERT here, any hints you have for keeping the place tidy without losing your absolute mind then send them my way. I got a few good suggestions from a reader recently and I’m slowly managing to sort my shit out, the key word being SLOWLY.

 

 

 

Shout Out Saturday for ‘The Painting Mum’

I’m doing something new today and giving a shout out to people I’ve come across  who are doing something brave, or fabulous, or different.  It’s all too easy to get chained to the same, (that’s a great phrase coined by the Mothership) get melted by the mundane and put off reaching your potential.

So first up, I’m introducing ‘the Painting Mum’, aka Lucinda Scott, who thought to herself, back in June, ‘I’m actually very good at painting. I’ve no bother sourcing the materials. I’m keen on reusing things. Sounds like a business to me.’ So she set one up. Just like that. And it has done so well ALREADY that she’s thinking of packing in her job in the public sector and making this her full-time profession.

I came across Lucinda on a Facebook site which is all about minimising waste, where members post ads if they are looking to either get rid of stuff or find an item for free. So far, I’ve given away a small bike, some children’s toys and a ton of cardboard packaging which went to Lucinda so she can pack up her lovely things and post them safely.

She paints bottles, jars, coat hangers, flower pots with bespoke patterns so you can add some cheer to your homes during these depressing times. It’s the personalised aspect which makes them perfect for a unique and thoughtful gift.

But the bit that gives me ALL THE FEELS, (apart from the artistic talent of which I’m damn envious) is that the items in her collection  are all objects that people may just be chucking out. Her objective is to take something that could have ended up in landfill, and then she sprinkles on her fairy dust and makes it beautiful and enduring. If she does need to purchase supplies for her art she sources it from local suppliers. Since she’s a serial ‘collector of things’ she has become the ‘go to’ lady if you need something, as she picks up bargains, is a self-confessed hoarder and has transformed her garage into a storage unit, so when neighbours need boxes for moving house then they look no further than Lucinda to sort them out.

Another thing I admire is how she has created her entire office space out of repurposed items or furniture sourced from pals or bought second-hand. I love a good skip-diving session myself so this makes me very happy (and validates my own eccentricities). My absolute favourite is this shelf unit made from her daughter’s old cot. At the top right of the picture you may spot a chalk board she has fashioned out of a cardboard box. What wizardry is this? I feel like I have neither imagination or talent after seeing this. My child’s cot is lying in pieces under the eaves and is probably beyond assembling into anything recognisable now. (Hmmm…. suddenly I’m thinking of a job for LSB later.)

Here’s a link to her page so if you like what you’ve read here then look her up and share if it floats your boat. I’m pretty sure that you’ll be seeing her stuff everywhere when all the shops open again.

And, if you’re in the Belfast area and you have any ramekins, or quirky bottles or jars that she could put to good use send me a message and I can collect for her. The house is already a tip so to create a holding area won’t make it look much different really. Maybe I’ll get LSB to re-assemble that cot later and create me a nice wee shelving unit. ‘STE-vey……..’

 

SWB on Staycation

I think my husband may never request a long weekend off work again. The man’s demented. Every five minutes there’s either a person or a pet annoying him. The poor fella just wants a sit down and I’m all ‘STE-vey’ (he hates it when I place the emphasis on the first syllable as he knows I want something).

These things  can be as diverse as driving us all to Templepatrick to pick up a greyhound, or schlepping off to Killyleagh for a kitten. Often they’re as banal as asking him to fix my Mac when the fan is making a noise similar to an Airbus 777 during take-off.

He’s started to pre-empt me. ‘Does this involve a trip to a garden centre’ (occasionally) ‘Does the dog need walked?’ (sometimes) Do I need to nip to the Vineyard?’ (definitely).

Today I was on about home décor, both inside and out. ‘We need a chiminea,’ I say, ‘that’s a must this summer.’ Last night a friend hosted a soirée and it was a glorious affair altogether. She has transformed her garden into a cosy utopia for sipping wine of an evening, toes toasty under a woollen blanket with the smell of woodsmoke in the air. Homemade samosas and tandoori chicken- I’m telling you- she sets the bar high, this one. It could shame a person. Another friend has done the same: Lockdown has unleashed her inner Monty Don and she plies you with fruit punch before sending you home with chard and lettuce as part of your five-a-day. Her fire pit is a delight. Our garden has no such merits. ‘Come here and pray the sun comes out or you’ll be ball-froze,’ we might as well say.

Thus, I was on about outdoor furniture, buying a new selection of bedding plants, painting the fence and the aforementioned provider of warmth. It doesn’t matter how fragrant your French Marigolds are if your guests are foundered. ‘Hillmount’s open until five,’ said he. ‘But you’re on your own.’ At this point he’d already driven to Murlough and back, via Castlewellan and understandably wanted a rest to himself. It’s no joke chasing a greyhound the length of the beach when she’s spotted a cocker spaniel with whom to frolic.

So I sat down with a cup of tea and the Guardian Weekend Magazine, and weren’t they doing a wee feature on creatives during Lockdown. So that was depressing. Seriously, if you ever want to feel inept, open the bloody Guardian. You have the ‘Experience’, where someone has wrestled themselves out of the jaws of a crocodile and now works with amputees in Rwanda. You have Tim Dowling who can make a three mile bus trip wearing his fave mask sound entertaining, and THEN you have this crowd, within whom the confines of Lockdown has fired the flames of their artistic talents. One woman has been painting the beams of her 16thcentury cottage with her homemade cardboard stencil. This is but a trifling endeavour for her, given her usual endeavours, but only because she’s had her 9 week old baby attached to her person with a sling throughout. I mean COME ON. When my first born was 9 weeks I considered it an achievement if I showered before midday. Some days I celebrated the event with a M&S caramel square and a cup of tea, before attempting to have a nap before she woke up again.

With this fresh in my  mind I wandered into the front room which is a sadly neglected area. When we moved into this house we loved our living room. Our kitchen was tiny, so we ate our meals in front of the TV and I stared out the window at all the neighbours when I was heavy with child and unable to move.

Then we built the extension and it has become the ‘turfing area’ where toys and a defunct table football languishes. The huge dog crate adds a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. The sun has faded the sofa and chairs and piles of games and papers gather in every corners. (What IS IT with me and cluttered corners?) It has become a source of embarrassment because it has tremendous potential.

Hence there I am, googling feature walls and pestering Himself about whether he could paint the boring Ikea book shelves in hues of glorious pink to add a bit of oomph, or if I should contact a painter.

‘STE-vey…’ I begin, but he’s disappeared. I find him upstairs asleep, with the dog at his feet, the two making happy snorting sounds as they exhale. ‘Ah feck it,’ I think, and lie down beside him. The children are playing with their Lego. Quietly. You have to seize these moments. Sure no one really comes into the front room anyway, so where’s the rush?

Myerscough’s new bookshelves. Photograph: Courtesy Morag Myerscough

Listen in to SWB on her favourite books

I’m doing it slightly differently this week and instead of writing a review of some of my favourite books, I’m going to direct you over to some musings that I recorded for Radio Ulster, (click here to listen) based on books which made a big impact on me.

You will notice that all three have a strong female protagonist- characters who are eccentric and not instantly likeable, but therein lies my fascination.

I’ll just focus on Elizabeth Strout in this post simply because I saw her read from her latest book ‘Olive Again’ in Dublin in November and gosh, but I was taken with her. Calm, measured and wry- I could definitely see a wee bit of Olive in her, although she’s slight and blonde. (Olive is large in both stature and personality).  Strout said that she was sitting one afternoon, minding her own business, when she thought : ‘Oh here we go,’ as with a clatter, Olive barged back into her sub-consciousness. Sometimes, when my children are annoying me, I’ll do an impression of Olive, with a  flick of my hand above my head. ‘STOP DOING OLIVE,’ they say.

Strout’s novels are more a series of vignettes interconnected by appearances by the main character. Strout says she does this because a whole novel of Olive would be ‘a bit much’ and I get her point. (Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible follow a similar pattern, both of which, incidentally, are marvellous)

She’s never afraid to expose the absurdities of the human condition, but does so with sensitivity and compassion. In short, I wish Strout could just live here, in Belfast instead of the USA and be my friend. I’d ring her every time I felt like a sack of shit and she’d see me right.

Incidentally, last September I did two glorious workshops at the Aspects Festival in Bangor with Patsy Horton (of Blackstaff Press). We looked closely at Lucy Barton by Strout and Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park. If such an event were ever to happen again I’d be there in a jiffy. The aim of the sessions was to see the techniques writers use to draw in the reader. In a way it was demystifying the writing process, but also showed to illuminate that the process only works when they sprinkle in a bit of their magic.

The Mothership always said that instead of teaching I should be a newsreader. Listen in and see if she was on the money. (I’d much rather chat about books than read the news. I’d be unable to suppress my apocalyptical levels of angst if that was my job. No impartiality there.)

 

SWB Scrapes the Barrel

Right, so today I’m talking cleaning. Yes, cleaning and tidying and all that household nonsense. I realise that this may be risky, and you would be quite entitled to think, ‘what depths of banality will that woman not plumb?

But it feels like every time I chat to friends, we take a collective sigh when we think of the state of chaos into which our homes have descended. Over Lockdown I have looked around and often felt an acute sense of nausea. Granted, some of this has been my own fault. It was me, for example, who wanted a dog, despite knowing full well that it would lead to a messier home and less time to clean it because of pet related duties. I brought that on myself. I didn’t, however, bring about the triple whammy of home-schooling, my own work situation, and keeping a family clean, (ish) nourished (somewhat) and entertained (occasionally).

Some people are just naturally quite tidy. Neither my husband or myself fall into that category, and it would seem that our progeny follow suit, except they’re ten times worse, the little s**ts.

I’ve decided to accept that there’s more chance of Bernie Ecclestone making it to his child’s graduation ceremony than there is of me getting (and keeping) my whole house to an acceptable level: so instead I will just focus on a couple of areas. I need a some places where I can retreat without taking something akin to a panic attack.

Last year I visited a friend of mine and was upset to see that her living space was pristine and devoid of accumulated shite in all the corners. (VERY bad Feng Shui, apparently, cluttering your corners).  She has two teenage boys, works full-time and owns a dog. I was affronted. I wondered briefly if we could still be friends.

‘How the f**k do you manage this?’ I asked.

‘The rest of the house is a bombshell,’ she said. ‘Don’t even think about going up the stairs.’

‘Phew,’ I thought to myself. ‘That’s the girl I know and love.’

If you’re short on time and jangly of nerves, my sagacious friend suggests, that you keep one area tidy, and make it the place where you spend most of your time. Like myself, my pal has a kitchen/dinner/den set-up, and all of it was lovely. My expectations aren’t that high. I can’t manage to keep my dining table clear, and a week after school has ended, it still groans under the weight of books, colouring paraphernalia and God knows what else. But I’m getting increasingly ratty with the children if they leave their truck around the living area, especially in the evening when I’m counting down the seconds until it’s unwind-on-the-sofa-time. Marie Kondo wouldn’t be standing for any of their nonsense.

Then there’s the island, where crockery jostles with bills and newspapers and wineglasses that don’t fit in the dishwasher. It is where hope comes to die. But we have decided to adopt a ‘clear island’ policy, and are trying to keep it clear. That way, if at least two surfaces are free of crap my nerves feel less ragged. So if the island is swept clean and the coffee table is home to nothing but a scented candle, I can just divert my eyes from the catastrophe that is the rest.

My policy in the front room is just to keep the door closed. I can’t bear it right now and I’m not venturing in for another week to start cleaning. The same goes for the downstairs bedroom. They are too awful to contemplate as the girls have annexed them as play areas and they are littered with their detritus: Lego, lots and lots of Lego.

Now I can’t possibly sign off without mentioning toilets. As you know, the Mothership is keen on inspecting the level of cleanliness of my toilets and then passing comment before donning gloves and reaching for the Domestos. I’ve never had much success with keeping the sheen of the bowl up to her lofty standards.

‘It’s coming that time,’ I said to LSB earlier. ‘Restrictions are lifting and she’ll be back in and may have a stroke when she sees sees the limescale situation upstairs. I don’t want that on my conscience.’

Now as I’ve mentioned in that past, Himself is a great fella for leaving the housework to me, but didn’t he get out his phone and start googling ‘Top Tips for Toilet Cleaning’. The next thing he was heading up the stairs armed with baking soda, vinegar and a scourer. I came back from a walk in Ormeau Park and the glean off the loo nearly blinded me.  I think he felt that he had to atone for swilling pints most of the weekend, and so this cleaning spree was his penance. Either way, I’m not complaining: two clear surfaces and a sparkling toilet and it’s only Monday evening. And the pubs and eateries are open again. Hurrah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SWB on Marian Keyes

I’ve a cracker book to recommend this week- when you’ve been so driven to distraction by your children that your brain feels like the sponge cake batter you’ve been whisking up, there’s no one quite like Marian Keyes to lift you out of your funk. In May a friend left Grown Ups on my door step, and thankfully she legged it before I could break all social distancing laws and envelop her in a warm embrace. It’s been hard, this Lockdown, if you’re a habitual hugger.

I set to it that same evening, and over the following days, my house reached new levels of squalor as I took myself off into the garden to get reading it. There are a few recurrent themes in Keyes’s oeuvre, namely addiction, fidelity issues and family sagas. And yet, I never tire of her writing because she creates such vital characters. I get so invested in what happens to them, that I don’t care much whether she has touched on a topic before.

Grown Ups focuses on a big family drama about three brothers and their families, so there is a multitude of interlinked characters and it’s a joy to read while she untangles all their stories. She’s most adept, is Marian, at creating tension, and the best bits by far were when all the family got together at a posh ‘do’ or a holiday.

Perhaps you’ve been away on a weekend to a hotel, and you’ve seen those families, you know, those shiny sort of people, all perfectly coiffed and delighted with themselves. They always materialise when you’re feeling rotten, shoe-horned into an ill-fitting dress while your ungrateful progeny refuse to eat anything but chips and your husband’s already chugged down three pints to cope and it’s not even 7pm. Those are the times I look at other families and think ‘Would you look at those bastards. Haven’t they got it sorted?’ This is when Marian is your woman, because she knows, better than most, that they aren’t all sorted at all. Not one little bit. The poor sod who’s picking up the tab is necking gin so they can cope when they get the bill, which, on a trip to a posh hotel in Ireland will be the equivalent of the GDP of Gabon. Someone else will be longing to garotte their sister-in-law with her Hermes scarf and the nephew will be checking his watch to see how soon he can escape this forced felicity.

There’s a wonderful chapter where one of the brother’s attempts a to organise a murder mystery weekend for his wife Jesse, but makes the mistake of booking it out in the sticks in Antrim instead of a famous hotel in Perthshire. Having read about their Easter trip to a plush Estate in County Kerry, and the luxury to which his Jesse is accustomed, you can only chortle with mirth at this shambles that is ‘Gulban Manor.’

But being Marian Keyes, she touches on the deeper stuff too: the refugee crisis, on period poverty, and the reality of trying to find a decent home in Dublin if you’re neither loaded nor a property developer. And she reveals some sad but essential truths too, that some relationships just can’t be repaired, no matter what you do , and the lesson is learning how to accept that.

It’s not all froth and romance, but it’s effortless holiday reading which makes it perfect for this summer. When we haven’t a f**king clue what’s coming next, it’s great we have Marian Keyes to rely on.