SWB on Storm Francis

This isn’t the morning to discover that you have a hole the size of a five pence piece in the sole of your boot. The rain and wind are driving in from the west with a velocity bordering on venomous. It’s the first day back at school and I am trying to manoeuvre the children out of the backseats without bashing the car beside us. I have parked too close and am mouthing ‘SORRY’ to the man beside who is refusing to look at me but no doubt thinking that I’m a clampet.

I wanted to walk the children down with the dog this morning. I wanted to it to be a pleasant experience, after all the randomness.  I can get oddly emotional about them going to school, (which is quite ironic since I’m often looking rid of them.) I wanted to smile at their wee friends and their other mums and dads, or at least try to convey that I was smiling behind the mask. But there is no time for any salutations in the car park. Just as the water seeps into my sock and I squeeze the three of us between the cars, another mum calls over that they aren’t letting any of the pupils in before their appointed time: we are seven minutes early. We clamber back into the car. Both children have donned wooly gloves and warm coats. The Older Child left her detachable hood on a class trip to Oxford Island, so she is wearing a pink hat with a star on it. It is pointy and makes her look like an elf. The leggings they are wearing were labelled ‘cosy’- I had bought these for after Halloween, in a fit of organisation. I didn’t imagine they’d be worn on the 25thAugust, but since nothing in 2020 has turned out the way we’ve expected, fleece lined leggings should be the least of it. 2020- the year that just keeps on giving.

At 9-12am they begin bleating that they’ll be late, so we do the sideways shuffle out of the car again and weave our way over to the gate. The rain falls in torrents. I see The Small Child’s teacher at the door as she herds in half the class, ‘Bubble A’. Although her hood is up obscuring her face, I know by her gait that she is reassuring the children as they come in. She taught the Older One last year and I feel enormous relief that at least some things remain consistent.

I come home and strip off my soaking socks and leggings. I am so grateful that I’m not teaching at the moment- that I can come into my warm kitchen and reheat my coffee. It’s just as well LSB and I are both here, so we can act as referee between all the animals. The visiting cat (Fat Bramble) has taken up residence and our tortoiseshell is giving him daggers through slits of eyes. He disappears under the sofa with a disconsolate mew. The dog is bewildered by the inclement weather. We put her coat on her earlier so she could go out to pee but she just stood at the door looking back in at me with a hurt expression. Greyhounds are a very sensitive breed apparently. It doesn’t pay to be sensitive these days. I voice my concern that she is going to urinate, (or worse) on the floor again so LSB leaves what he’s working on and dons his coat. Fetching an umbrella he trudges up onto the grassy bit of the garden where she prefers to pee and holds the brolly over her while she relieves herself. He comes back in, peels off his sodden socks and is now back at his computer looking like a Jedi with in his green hoodie. I’ve just interrupted him to ask if he thinks greyhound coats come with hoods. He starts googling. While he’s at it, I ask him to see if he can buy us a golf umbrella made from recycled plastic. Apparently both are available on Amazon. I feel that it’s quite wrong to name a storm after a Saint who was  so fond of livestock. Or the present Pope for that matter. Surely he wouldn’t have approved? They should be running these things past the Vatican before letting them through, in my opinion.

 

SWB on going Back To School

LSB got stuck in a queue the other day behind a long-winded person, who, in his words, was talking ‘absolute mince’. This expression just about sums up my own attempts to communicate, since my ability to articulate verbally has gone down the toilet. I have started gesticulating to indicate what I want, as though I’m a scuba diver and the kitchen is my underwater world, minus the iridescent fish. Handing LSB my coffee cup earlier I made a swirly gesture, drawing circles in the air with my forefinger, which he miraculously correctly as giving it 30 seconds in the microwave to reheat. As though reverting to toddler-speak, I have referred to the dishwasher recently as the ‘whoosh whoosh’, and have told the children to eat their bun over a plate so I don’t have to get the ‘vroom vroom’ out. While I like these terms for their onomatopoeic quality, I fear any onlooker may conclude that I am a bit of a simpleton.

Finishing a sentence has also become an achievement. When we were younger, my brother and I would get frustrated with The Mothership, as her statements petered into nothingness. ‘FINISH WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY,’ my brother would shout, which was never a very helpful response. I have now overtaken my mother with my lack of coherence. Put simply, there is just too much going on in my head. Information overload has occurred and I lack the headspace to process it. Last week the children went to a camp. I got up early and did some yoga, walked the dog and cooked dinners while listening to Radio 4. For the first time since March, I had a significant amount of time to potter, undisturbed. I still took to my bed two days after lunch to stare at the ceiling for half an hour.

Friends of mine, with children of a similar age, weren’t exhaling at all. Instead, since they are teachers, stuck in back to back meetings and preparing for the return of the pupils. I felt exhausted on their behalf. Merely reading the guidelines and the ‘do’s and don’ts’ for my girls as they start back at school next week took it out of me enough.

The mental load is huge. God help any parents who have children in nursery, primary and secondary schools, having to juggle all the different times and restrictions. In the next few weeks tempers will be frayed, appointments will be missed and new rules will be broken. It’s inevitable and it’s no one’s fault: there is just so much information. And for those of us who have the memory of a gnat to start with it’s going to prove exceptionally difficult.

But, and to use a phrase that I hate, ‘it is what it is.’ Either we attempt to have a sense of humour as we muddle on, or the next few months will have all the cheer of binge listening to the Radiohead back-catalogue. My advice is to be kind to ourselves when we f**k up, because this is all new, and a bit shite. Self-preservation is key. So when you see someone headed your way who winds you up, hide in a doorway. Know your people, find your tribe and develop a hand signal with your significant other which means ‘get me home immediately and put a large glass of red in my hand’. If you’re as fried as me keep in touch, as it would be great to know I’m not alone here.

 

 

SWB Tries Growing Her Own

This Wednesday Whinge is devoted to growing courgettes, or more specifically in my case, my failure to grow any class of summer squash. I’m fed up listening to celebrity chefs dishing out recipe suggestions on the radio to allotment owners running out of ideas with what to do with this season’s glut.  They can all shove their courgettes and that’s the end of it.

At the start of Lockdown I bought some Mr Fothergill courgette seeds because I was told, repeatedly, that they were the easiest thing to grow, one up from cress, which every child of nursery age has grown successfully with a bit of moist kitchen roll and a window sill.  The perfect place for a novice like me to start then, I thought cockily to myself.  Bill Bryson is always chuntering on about New Englander’s love of ‘zucchinis’, and how they grow them in prolific quantities. Such is their surfeit, they are forced to become ‘guerrilla courgette givers’ sneakily leaving bagfuls on neighbours’ doorsteps under cover of darkness. In small, crime-free villages, people start suddenly locking their cars in July and August, when they nip in to the local shop for fear of a randommer chucking a boxful into their passenger seat before scuttling off.

Thomasina Miers is dishing up ‘Grilled courgutte and mint tart with tahini cream’ this week in the Guardian Feast. The Edible Flower are stuffing their courgette flowers according to a Cypriot recipe, and I’ve come across a Spanish chilled soup  as an alternative to gazpacho. But why stop at savoury? One could try a lemon and courgette cake or grate some into a muffin and add a few sultanas. Sounds revolting, but hey ho, better than a pile of mouldy courgettes languishing in the bottom of your fridge drawer.

Well, needless to say, I shall be attempting none of the above as despite my best efforts, following the instructions carefully and planting my seeds 45 cm apart in my containers, I’ve grown a measly three, all of which are stunted and deformed in appearance. Now I’m all for a wonky vegetable, and have been known to deliberately seek out the ‘imperfect peppers’ in Sainsbury’s. But still, you’d need to be a brave one before you’d sink a tooth into one of these fellas. And then, a green fingered friend told me why my efforts may have been thwarted, as a courgette scourge has infected some of this year’s crop. Not so benevolent looking now, are we Mr Fothergill, with your bushy moustache and wide smile. No, like some great vegetable villain, his seeds are out to wreak havoc with your digestive tract, as this bitter tasting strain of ‘curcurbita pepo’ can result in vomiting and diarrhoea. So, 2020 strikes again then. You take up a lovely new hobby, getting outside and embracing the good life, only to find that your lovingly homemade ratatouille could see you hollering to Huey on the white porcelain telephone.

I hunted out my seed packet to see if my seeds were part of the infected batch. And apparently not, so I don’t even have an excuse.

I’m not even going to start on my tomatoes. No mutant seeds there, to the best of my knowledge, only my inability to keep them alive long enough to bear any fruit. I asked an elderly neighbour if he had any suggestions why they looked so ravaged and he shook his head. ‘Overcrowded and insufficient soil’ was his verdict. ‘I’ve a good gardening book I can lend you,’ he said. ‘Looks like you could do with it.’

Great, I thought. So I am to tomatoes what battery farming is to chickens.

I mean, surely if Matt Damon can manage to plant and harvest a bumper crop of potatoes on Mars, for f**k’s sake, I should have been able, with my frequent watering and diligent removal of slugs, to grow more than one radish and a single tiny carrot this summer? I’m wondering if any of it was worth the effort at all. Quite despondent I am.

Please don’t go sending me any pictures of your vegetable patch success stories: it’s all still too raw. It’s as bad as those b******s who went to Donegal last week and filled their timeline with pictures of sensational sunsets and idyllic white sand beaches, when our reality in July was a monsoon in a wooden hut. No, of course I’m not bitter. If you want bitter just try sampling one of the contaminated courgettes I was telling you about…

The Mothership Bites Back

The phone went at ten past three yesterday afternoon. It was The Mothership, in puerile form altogether.  

THE MOTHERSHIP:  Helen, I’ve just watched that video you put up; the one about recycling. 

ME;  Oh good, do you approve? 

THE MOTHERSHIP:  Well, there was some useful information apart from washing all those catfood  packets.  People have to go to their work you know.  No wonder you don’t get much done of a day.  Contact the manufacturers and tell them they should have tins as another option. 

Not that I ever liked tins. I threw out more food than the cat ate because it went off.  But, would  you believe, your Dad stands and cuts those sachets open with scissors, kept for the purpose; he says there’s a lot left inside and it’s a terrible waste. 

Anyway I digress.  What I have to say is, if you must continue with these videos then you need  to improve your presentation. I know you’re an amateur, but is there any need to make it so obvious? 

ME: (I’ll be honest with you folks. It stung.)  Deep sigh. Can you pin-point exactly what was wrong? (I mean why? Why in the name of God would I ask that?)  

THE MOTHERSHIP: Where do I start? Well first, the sound wasn’t great and near the end I could hardly make out what you were on about.  Did you not do that exercise* I showed you? 

ME: Deep sigh.

THE MOTHERSHIP: And then there was the sloppy English. It won’t do Helen, it won’t do at all. 

ME: Oh God.  

THE MOTHERSHIP: You were dropping your ‘ing’ endings all over the place and it doesn’t  sound well coming from an English teacher, of all people. You actually said ‘boggin and some other unpalatable terms  that I won’t go into now; very uncouth they were.  Who wants to listen to that sort of thing? 

The woman can suck the oxygen from a room in 9 seconds flat.  

THE MOTHERSHIP: And then! And then at the very end, when I thought you were finally wrapping up, you said ‘Stinkin’.  

ME: Did I?  

THE MOTHERSHIP: You did. You said Stevey wouldn’t use a pot of toothpaste instead of a plastic tube of Colgate because it was ‘stinkin’. Most uncouth. I can say, hand on heart, that I have never actually used it.  

(This is true. The Mothership has let me get away with saying FOR F**K’S SAKE in her earshot but I don’t think I’ve ever said ‘stinkin’ without getting berated for it. In fairness, I don’t employ it often.)  

THE MOTHERSHIP: And one more thing.  I mean that about complaining to Sheba or Gourmet, and I’d be asking them to start using the tins again. Because Cleo** is fussy too, she’s off the Sheba now and she wouldn’t look near Felix, but I think the Gourmet is very overpriced and she’ll only eat the Poultry selection, never the Ocean range, and that’s what Asda keep sending me. They just replace items if they don’t have them in stock, and they don’t even ask you. It was the same with my tonic water. I didn’t want the ordinary one, I wanted Slim-Line but they sent the other and your father has to watch his blood sugar.  

ME: You were saying?  

THE MOTHERSHIP: Yes, get on the phone or e-mail, I don’t suppose it matters, and tell them that yes, the plastic is bad for the environment or whatever, and bring back the tins. Far easier to wash. I agree.  

Finally!! The woman actually agreed on something!  

Off she went- rant over.

And, I’m raging to have to admit it, but she did, of course have a point. Several, in fact.  

Truth is, I was so mortified about doing the bloody video in the first place that I couldn’t bear to watch it again. But I did last night, and I didn’t even have a drink to soften the blow. Flip me but didn’t I go on and on? Far too long. I bored myself, so she was spot on there.  

Secondly, once I wrote a post about the children reading Enid Blyton and I mentioned the ‘paucity of adjectives’ in ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ (and, let’s be honest, every other piece in her oeuvre). Turns out I don’t have a leg to stand on as I must have said the words ‘brilliant’ and ‘fabulous’ a total of nine times each. The shame. 

So I’ll perhaps do another video in 2021 when I’ve got over this bollocking. Have a lovely Monday everyone.

*The Mothership has a range of vocal exercises she used when teaching children how to extend their vocal range for the class choir. There’s a lot of humming involved- the trick being that your ‘lips have to tingle’ as you do them. Otherwise, there’s no point. Apparently.

**Cleo is the small black bolshy cat we once left in Bangor while we went on our holidays in 2010. She’s still there, living it up by the seafront, giving orders. Savage wee beast too.

 

 

Saturday Shout Out for ‘Brown Paper Packages’

I’ve always had an obsession with buying prints and framing things. Great trouble I have, shifting myself past the shop window of an arty shop. When I was in first form, we had guests coming from America. Five of them there were, and they were all staying in our house in Bangor. I don’t think my mother has recovered yet from the experience. Clean daft she went, touching up the paintwork in all the bedrooms and assembling bunkbeds. In the middle of this ecstasy of cleaning, I had my dad up a ladder hammering nails into the wall so I could display a picture featuring four kittens in a basket. (I was an innocent sort of a child). No expert at DIY, he made a shambles of it, covering the freshly vacuumed carpet with bits of plaster and The Mothership had to fetch the Polyfilla and start rectifying the situation. Pure raging the both of them were, at my prioritising picture hanging over more pressing concerns as to where the guests were going to sleep. Incidentally, the Americans, when they arrived, were a pain in the arse. Well I suppose the adults were alright, in a terribly earnest sort of a way, but the kids were total ingrates. ‘I WANT I WANT I WANT.’ (You know the type). While playing Monopoly with them one rainy evening I landed on a Community Chest and was chuffed to get lucky with the ‘You have come second place in a Beauty Competition, collect £10’ card.

‘Must’ve been a very small beauty contest,’ drawled the little fellow, who was no oil-painting himself and could have done with holding back on the auld Hershey bars. Little bugger.

Anyway, I digress. 30 years on and my passion for all things art-related hasn’t waned. I’ve been on the look-out for a new piece for the study I share with Himself, and wanted a motivational one that was original and avoided all the clichés; I’m sick to death with the whole: ‘When Life gives you Lemons grab salt and drink Tequila’ prints that abound in every single arty shop I frequent. I had too many unfortunate brushes with tequila slammers in my youth for those to bring me any comfort at all.

And then, through the magic of Instagram, I discovered ‘Brown Paper Packages’ by local artist Gemma Ruth Brown. The print that immediately jumped out was from the Bookm of Proverbs and I thought ‘well that’s unusual, but what a cracker line.’ This is exactly the message I want on my wall’. Now it realise that this may sound ironic for the likes of me, considering that my writing is peppered with profanities and the fact that I base most of my Tenx9 stories on my bowel movements. But this message about strength and about laughter and the miracle that is being unafraid leapt out and spoke to me. For years I was afraid to be myself. I was afraid to be different and quirky and above all, I was afraid to tell my story. I love how the pink and purple pop in this picture and how the bold white letters are capitalised. ‘Don’t mess with me,’ they say. ‘You can try, but I’ll just get on my way now. Have a good day.’

Chatting to Gemma she told me that during Lockdown her painting and writing became a form of therapy for her, as she carved out a little ‘me-time’ away from her full-time job with Tearfund and looking after her toddler. In her new collection there is a nod to the fear and uncertainty we have all experienced recently, but rather than dwelling on the darkness they focus on seizing moments of joy. Her use of space and colour show, I feel, the relief that taking time out to be creative afforded her, and when I look at them I see a sense of  lightness and levity. Flip me, couldn’t we all use a bit of that right now?!

Another aspect of her prints that I’m obviously mad about is the lengths to which Gemma (and her husband and collaborator Dan) go to, to ensure that they are environmentally sound. The materials are all eco-friendly: they use cardboard envelopes to post which are easily recycled and the clear envelopes they pop the prints into are made from corn/potato starch so are compostable. It’s as though ‘The Guardian’ are delivering to your doorstep, so obviously I’m a big fan.  Have a look at the prints yourself on www.brownpaperpackagesni.co.uk and have a read at Gemma’s blog, www.gemmaruthbrown.com. Her photos are stunning- boy does she have a good eye for the camera. Eek, I’m starting to worry that you’ll never read mine again- just as well I’ve my new print telling me I’m strong and ‘without fear.’ Just as well with this new kid on the block. 😉

 

 

SWB on visiting cats and chaos

Are you ready everyone for this morning’s tirade? Because, this week, (although we’re only mid way through) I am at the end, the very end, of my tether. I am demented, driven daft and distracted (all at the one time) by the state of my f**king house. Even worse- a lot of it is my own fault. I wanted a dog. And, it turns out, there’s rather a lot of work involved. Animals it seems, attract other animals. Would you believe it another cat has rocked up at our back door, ambling in out of the brambles out of the back. The children thought that Bramble would be a suitable name for him, but given his rotundity have christened him ‘Fat Bramble’. With his vocal range and girth he’s like the feline equivalent of Pavarotti. He is a beautiful tabby and white puss with a temperament to match, unlike our dour and truculent Izzy, who’s only pleasant when you’re dishing out her Sheba. Problem is he has wreaked havoc since he arrived. The aforesaid Izzy took immediate umbrage, blamed the dog for this outrageous intrusion and decided to go for the poor greyhound. The dog ran off in terror and took a massive dump in the living room. All this before 8am. It wasn’t the best start to the day. My house is in a big enough state of chassis without these shenanigans.

A couple of weeks ago I posted a little video about my endeavors to recycle because I was going at it great guns. I had a system and it appeared to be working because I had actually just managed to off-load a lot of stuff for TerraCycle. But people, it seems that I am being thwarted at every turn. The dog.The f**king dog. She’s a sight hound and can sniff out anything food related in a matter of seconds. However she likes to wait until we are out and then she goes on the hunt. We left some sourdough on the counter and went upstairs. When we came back down that was gone. As we had run out of green compost bags I had also scraped some peelings and leftovers into a foil container. It was on the floor, licked clean. Then the blighter headed into the front bedroom where I am storing all my recycling. She found the bag of cat pouches which I had painstakingly washed and ripped a load of them to shreds- the floor was dotted with fragments of foil, catching the light. And no matter how fastidious one tries to be while cleaning, there was a distinct aroma of Sheba ‘Prime Cuts’ and ‘Fine Flakes in Jelly’ lingering in the air. That’s the last time I’ll be doing that.

The truth is, I could actually spend my entire life cleaning the house and sorting the recycling and it still wouldn’t be done. On Monday night we went down the Ormeau to Shed (Eat Out to Help Out oh yes, please I am in) and you’d be entitled to think ‘check her out, having her dinner in a restaurant of a Monday evening’ but the truth is, I instigated the meal by saying to LSB: ‘If I have to look at the f**king state of this shit show a second longer lives are going to be lost.’ ‘Let’s book a table,’ he replied. Few things cheer me more than a glass of Shed’s cracker of a Prosecco. 

Other people get a skip. They get a skip, and they f**k everything into it and take back control of their lives. I can’t do this. No, instead I go around to their skip and start hauling out stuff that they’ve chucked into it. I can’t help myself. I can’t bear the thought of adding more to land fill, so round I go, lifting out plastic sea-shell shaped sandpits and elderly storage units and chipped plant pots. ‘I will put this on Freecycle,’ I say, giving myself a self-righteous pat on the back. Indeed I intend to, but it doesn’t happen.

So yesterday I took action. ‘Feck this feeling miserable business,’ I thought. We had a new chest of drawers and a Billy Bookcase arriving from Action Cancer on the Ormeau so this spurred me into action. I popped some clothes belonging to LSB on a Facebook Zero Waste site and they are being collected tomorrow. I popped an ad on Gum Tree for a dog bed I thought we might use but never did. I sorted out some of my recycling, asking my children to help.

I felt a bit better.

To sum up, if you want an easy life, don’t get pets, unless you really like the smell of Dettol. Have no principles at all. F**k everything straight in the bin and to hell with the oceans.

I considered this, briefly, Then I thought, wouldn’t it be awful? I wouldn’t be here now, tapping away on my laptop in bed with a greyhound lying alongside, keeping my right leg warm. Life wouldn’t have the same richness if I could make the coffee in the morning without my cat shouting at me. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror without a sense of revulsion if I wasn’t obsessed with recycling. I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t policing what everyone was putting in their bins.  It would be a half-ass life really, and who wants that? And if anyone wants to claim Fat Bramble that would be great. (Or if not, offer a cantankerous tortoiseshell a home so peace could resume here. I think that would be a fair exchange. )

(This is Tilly, hugging her trauma blanket after Izzy went for her). 

SWB on why period shame has to stop. Period.

Saturday Shout Out for ‘Shared Threads’

This week I’m on about periods. What’s that you say? Periods, really? Again? Well hell yes, because for once I’m not just whinging on about my own (and the flipping big massive nuisance that they are) but I’m chatting about my epic friend Kirsty King who founded the charity Shared Threads’. Wait til I tell you: Kirsty is a SUPERSTAR. Initial impressions would lead you to believe that Kirsty is mild and unassuming. But not a bit of it- this woman has a core of steel and grit like you could never imagine.  When she learnt that millions of girls worldwide miss weeks of school every year because when they have periods, Kirsty decided that she couldn’t sit on her hands and do nothing. And so began ‘Shared Threads’- a collective of women AND MEN who make recyclable sanitary cloths and send them to India. This initiative is not just about giving girls their own bag of period  pads- it’s so much more than that. It’s telling them that they are valued; that they deserve respect and that there is no shame attached to their bodies, not during their periods or at any other time.

Here in Northern Ireland we don’t much like talking about periods. I know this because I talk about mine all the time. I find it’s quite a useful way of shutting down a conversation if it gets a bit tedious. People, especially men, move along swiftly when you mention PMT or a crampy tummy. The Mothership gets very irritated when I write about mine on the blog. I can almost guarantee that she will lift the phone sharpish to tell me that no one wants to hear about my menstrual cycle, or my mood swings. ‘Too much information!’ she will say.

So imagine growing up in a country where there is a huge stigma attached to the female body and its cycles. I don’t think I’d cope very well. In certain parts of India, periods remain a taboo subject and because many young girls have no access to pads they then miss out on going to school. This is why Kirsty joined forces with an NGO who distribute pads and provide information in areas where this is likely to occur, thus alleviating the confusion and anxiety felt by these girls.

On International Women’s Day I joined Kirsty at her workshop in Portview Trade Centre to see every stage of the making process and see how I could get involved. I have a great aversion to sewing machines as I am risk adverse and they require far too much concentration. Happily, for the likes of me there are other ways I could contribute and I was given the infinitely easier job of cutting up towels which form the absorbent part of the pad. I took a bag of towels home with me that day and cut them up over the course of a few evenings.

During Lockdown, work didn’t stop for Kirsty, as her team of volunteers continued to snip, stitch and sign hand-written notes, staying in contact and dropping off their handiwork at each other’s doorsteps. I asked her for a few more bags of towels and she gathered up some for me. Since then some of my friends have taken a few towels each and snipped away. It occurred to me then that we could to get together of an evening when it was safe to do so, and a jolly soirée was had. We called it a ‘Cutting Party’, which sounds like some sort of tribal ritual but just meant that a small group of us  sipped while we snipped at my table in the garden. I do love an activity- I think conversation flows (pardon the pun) better when your hands are busy.

 

Everything about Shared Threads excites me. I love how, with the exception of the PUL (a waterproof fabric that is used in the pads), everything is made from second-hand material. I love how by repurposing household items we are reducing waste, and by switching to cloth pads there is ultimately less plastic in the ocean. Over the last year I’ve been using a mixture of cloth pads and period pants and it makes me feel better that I’m contributing less to plastic pollution- especially in the throes of this pandemic when the PPE is flooding all our landfill sites, and ‘reusable’ doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore. (I’m not saying it isn’t necessary, just that it’s happening right now and if we could off-set it in any way then that would be good).

So I’d like to direct you over to Kirsty’s fabulous blog where you can learn all about her endeavours, see how you can help and perhaps even consider becoming a patron so she can keep doing this for as long as women need it. We need to put an end to period poverty, and this is one glorious way to go about it.

(I think what really makes these pictures is my banjaxed shed as a backdrop.)

SWB on The John Hewitt Festival

This year The John Hewitt Summer School had to be shifted on-line as Covid continues to wreak havoc. I thought I’d take the opportunity to post up a blog I wrote about my experience two years ago when I was lucky enough to receive a bursary and head down for a week WITHOUT THE CHILDREN. (You know I love them dearly but flip me it was great to get away for a bit).

August 2018

If I had to use one word to describe The John Hewitt Summer School, it would be this, possibility. ‘Why don’t you apply for a bursary?’ suggested my friend, but I didn’t think that I would be eligible. I write a blog, and tell a few stories, I didn’t think of myself as a ‘writer’. But it turned out that that was enough, and I was thrilled when I received confirmation from the Community Relations Council to say that I had been awarded a place. On the table was the chance to attend a full week of events and a 3 day workshop of my choice. As a busy mother I don’t get the opportunity to indulge my creative and literary side in this way: to say I was excited was an understatement.

Upon arrival at the Market Place, I met a few people who read my blog, and had heard me tell my stories at the Tenx9 events in Belfast. ‘It’s you!’ they said, ‘It’s Sour Wee Bastard!’ I have found my people, I thought.

I had been thinking about writing a memoir, and have been for some time. The Mothership was less keen. ‘Write what you like dear,’ she said, ‘But just wait til we’re all dead before you consider publishing it.’ I think when it comes to memoir writing many share the same anxiety. The material is so raw, and there is always the chance someone will be offended, possibly someone to whom you are close. ‘Write your story,’ said Ferdia Mac Anna. ‘It is yours to tell.  Do what you like with it afterwards, but write it, for you at least.’

I felt so fortunate to have managed to get a place in Ferdia’s memoir workshop. In the group, we took turns to share, and Ferdia gave each one of us the full weight of his attention and experience. He honed in exactly to what was relevant; what sentence to keep, what to omit; what said too much, and what didn’t quite say enough. Under his gentle but incisive direction, I felt myself grow as a writer. It felt part tutorial, part therapy session. People opened up and shared. There was a palpable sense of connection in the room, and when Ferdia said ‘You all have stories worth writing, and I would want to read all of them,’ we believed him.

I was daunted by the possibility if reading at the Creative Showcase on the final Friday of the week. In the run-up to the Hewitt I thought I probably wouldn’t do it; especially because it was memoir, especially because I knew the story I wanted to share. I wasn’t sure I could do it. But when Ferdia asked for readers I was one of the first to volunteer; such was the confidence that he, and the rest of the group, had given me.

When I read my piece, after paring it down to its essentials, the words chimed so it sounded more poetry than poetry. I’m no poet, but reading my story I felt I could be. As a writer I have always put restrictions on myself and what I’ve learnt over the past year is to at least give myself permission to try, and my time at the Hewitt encouraged this further.

When thinking about the week, I keep coming back to the word ‘connection’ too. At the opening lecture I spied Richard O’Leary, another regular at the story telling event, Tenx9. He was also staying at the Armagh Royal School, and had a similar sense of direction to myself. Together we wandered round, deep in chat, only to realize we’d no clue where we were. ‘I can just imagine having to ring your husband’ he tells me. ‘She was last seen looking disorientated on Scotch Street.’

When Michael Longley and Imtiaz Dharker  read on the first evening, I sat, rapt by their performances. After I bought their books and waited to have them signed. ‘The last time I saw you read I was incubating a child within,’ I tell Michael Longley. ‘It was 2013 In the Ulster Museum.’ He smiles and I take my copy and make to leave. ‘What did you have?’ he asks. ‘Tell me their names.’ He tells me how lucky I am to have two little girls, and says my hands must be full. I am amazed and touched, that this Titan of verse genuinely wants to know about my children.

I tell Imtiaz Dharker that I found her poetry about her late husband profoundly moving. She smiles and thanks me. ‘I’ve lost someone too,’ I say. ‘I want to start writing about it now.’ ‘Do it,’ she says, emphatically.

What I feel at the Summer School is a sense of validation of myself as a writer. I mingle, chatting to novelists and poets without a sense of inhabiting a different world. The generosity and the willingness to of the other writers to share theoir knowledge and experience is is immense. Angeline King advises me how to use my time more effectively, and along with Byddi Lee warmly welcomes me into the Women’s Aloud group.

I tell Maria McManus how inspiring and pertinent I find her poetry, in which she shares my concern for the environment. She lives near me in Belfast. ‘Let’s meet up,’ I say. ‘I’d like that,’ she smiles. I chat with Michael Hughes and tell him how I re-read The Iliad last year and how excited I am to read Country. I devour his novel in great greedy gulps and in a blog post later that week I imitate his style to show the Fury that is bath night in a home with two small children.

One of the sessions that resonated with me most was Malachi O’Doherty in conversation with David Park. Together, they encapsulated the importance of art in helping one transcend the everyday and tap into something more profound. Exposure to art, in whatever medium, affords us a glimpse into something luminous, and it is this which made me so very grateful to spend this week away in Armagh.

It is too easy as a mother to lose oneself in daily tasks, and to stop tending to oneself. This is why writing has been such a solace to me and has helped me redefine a sense of ‘me’. At the John Hewitt, I was utterly myself, for a solid week. I write and that feels enough.

 

 

 

 

SWB gets soaked on Staycation

I have a few bad habits (numerous some may say) but at the top of the list is my inability to read the small print. Failure to do this has left me stranded at an airport the size of a Texaco garage in Zanzibar; cost me £3000 for 6 week’s accommodation in a tiny shared flat in Madrid, and in the most recent case, having to schlep up a muddy lane at 4.55 of a morning because the Small Child needed the loo. (In the rain, obviously, because it was Donegal). Now listen, I’m no princess (though LSB may disagree) but over Lockdown I was watching ‘Sex and the City’ and I scoffed when Carrie went on a trip with Aidan and was traumatised on account of seeing a squirrel. How I chortled when Miranda and Steve went on their honeymoon and she bitched non-stop because couldn’t get on the Wi-fi. What she was whinging on about I don’t know: she had a bath, FFS, and a mighty fine one too, with rose petals and ambiance.

I, on the other hand, arrived at the cabin I’d booked for Wednesday evening, busting for a pee, only to be told that the toilet was back up at ‘Base Camp’, a 300 metre walk up a potholed lane. WTF? I almost said, as it was chilly and we were only out of the sea at Rossnowlough. I was clad  in my blue and pink hooded towel over a damp swimsuit, and looked like a giant bedraggled flump. The directions on LSB’s phone had seen us drive through Ballyshannon several times. If you’ve ever been to there you will know that as town centres go it’s a bit tight in places and a tricky one to navigate. By the fourth time we drove up the incline of the main street my nerves were shredded. Leaving the town and driving out by the lake we ended up inadvertently CROSSING the border again, at which point I demanded that we pull in look at the directions properly. I attempted to find them on my phone while he nipped into a petrol station toilet to relieve himself. Out he came sharpish as a rather large woman hadn’t locked the door properly and in he’d barged on top of her, prone upon the throne. He was a whiter shade than I’d ever seen him and was all for making a speedy exit but I was shouting ‘DON’T GO ANYWHERE TIL WE HAVE THE RIGHT GRID REFERENCES!’ The Sat-Nav kept trying to direct us into the middle of Lough Erne so we finally did the sensible thing and rang up, a cheery voice answered and directed us to the location, a mere 4 minutes away.

My mood was bleak, on arriving, to find that there was no mains connection to the cabin so after a mercifully hot shower, (also up at ‘Base Camp’) I had no way of drying my hair and no drier either (‘Sure I wouldn’t be having one of them things!’ said Kiwi, the co-proprietor, in an accent that was pure Donegal via Deutchland, from whence she originally came.) I had planned on making myself look nice for the evening, applying my new Tropic bronzing serum and shaving my legs. None of the above happened, and nor, I suppose did it need to, given that I was donning jeans and my grey woolly jumper from Marks and Sparks.

Anyway, it was all grand. We taxied out to Smuggler’s Creek Inn where we met our friends and partook of gigantic bowls of mussels and scampi. There we made light of the lack of lighting and our total inability to work the wood burner, through the haze of several glasses of their splendid House Red, and the sheer joy of being out together, in an actual restaurant.

However, when nature called at 5am for the Small Child, it was all less amusing. Down she came from her little ladder hopping from foot to foot, which I clambered about hunting for shoes and a coat. In the meagre light of the solar lamp I could only find my 90 pence flip flops from Dunnes. These were no match for the puddles on the lane, and in my vest top I was quickly drenched. My mood, people, was bleak. The sheep had baa-ed all night and the rain against the windows was apocalyptic.

But, (and here is the funny part) in the morning, opening our little wooden door and wakening to verdant green of the hills ahead, I was quite uplifted. All thoughts (or almost all thoughts) diminished as a pale sun tentatively emerged. Donning sensible attire we headed to ‘Base Camp’ or the communal kitchen, where a basket containing fresh eggs, homemade bread and sausages and bacon awaited us. On went the kettle and good humour returned.

The owner Paul came in to bid us a good morning and we could have been there yet chatting to him, so fond is he of a good yarn. ‘What you be doing coming to Donegal  without your wellies,’ he laughed, shaking his head at the stupidity of townspeople as I bemoaned my lack of foresight in bringing a pair with me.

So actually, I would recommend it. It was homely (I suppose without the home comforts of mains electricity) and the girls were so happy: pooling about stroking the velvet noses of the horses and giggling as the wee collie tried to herd them up along with the ducks.

It was all rather lovely and reminded me of being little, trotting about my Uncle’s farm when the rain didn’t bother me in the slightest. And then, on coming home and going into the Airbnb app, I found it all. All the directions and all the ‘small print’ (including advice on footwear).

It was great. We’re thinking of going back as I’m a wee bit taken with Donegal now.

 

 

Saturday Shout Out for Recyclers

Last week I made a little video about recycling. I hate videos. I seize up inside my voice sounds strangulated and nasal. I watched LSB attempting to edit this one and he kept pressing the pause button and I looked as though I was having a stroke.

However, I thought about writing it all down instead and that was for too much work so I’m firing it up anyway. I will then will get back to my Saturday evening of lying on my sofa with the greyhound in front of the fire, (EVEN THOUGH IT IS AUGUST). FFS.

So here’s 7 minutes of your Saturday that you’ll never get back, but you may learn a wee bit about washing out crisp packets and cat food sachets.

If you are interested in recycling such items then here’s a few contacts for you. These are the guys in East Belfast;

This is the FB page for Kicks Count;

And finally this is The Painting Mum who is an all-round brilliant reuse and recycler of just about everything.

*LSB is the husband (Long Suffering Bastard) for the uninitiated.