SWB gets irate over plastics (again)

Folks, it’s Recycling Week in the UK., and here’s a fun fact for you: Belfast actually STARTED this initiative in 2003 and then it went nationwide. How amazing, and a big shout out for our city being ahead of the curve. But, last week at Belfast half-marathon, we weren’t exactly covering ourselves in glory when it came to saving the earth. It was a fecking travesty. There were bottles EVERYWHERE: many of which were almost full. There were overflowing bins with all manner of garbage, so I doubt whether every last bottle made its way to a recycling centre. I grabbed a few and took them home and the wee ones and I watered the plants with them. I did the same after the marathon last year. Many of the bottles I rescued were the new mini versions supplied by River Rock especially for the occasion. They had been handed out at 5km intervals along the way so every thirsty runner could have a drink. The fact that so many of these contained all but a few sips suggested that the runners had plenty more than they needed.

 

I wrote this article last April and sent it off to several local papers. It remained unprinted, and I didn’t receive as much as an acknowledgement from any of them. Many years ago I suffered a horrific accident. These same publications were on the phone, often several times a day, harassing the life out of me and my family. Clearly, where personal trauma is the issue, they’re all over it, but what about planet trauma? All that save the earth shit? They don’t appear to give a hoot.

 

Here’s the article I wrote and filed away. Should you like to read and share it, I would be most grateful. If you are part of a running club yourself, perhaps you could advocate the use of paper cups and cones throughout the race. And frankly, I’m so pissed off about the bottle situation, deliberately perpetuated by River Rock and therefore by the Coca Cola company, that I’d be tempted to boycott the event altogether until they review their practices.

Article:

I love running, and I love the environment. Unfortunately the two don’t often go hand in hand. My husband and I regularly compete in ten km races around Northern Ireland. This means that we come home with double the bling, the tee-shirts and the goody bags. I’m trying (and failing) to adopt a more minimal approach to life, and as these spoils of races accumulate it not only adds to the clutter in my home, but in my mind as well.

Marathons make me a bit twitchy these days. On our screens we see marine life poisoned by plastics: turtles who have ingested bags and choked and fish with microfibers clogging their intestines. It makes distressing viewing. But when we, the runners, reach the finish-line, we find ourselves in a different type of sea, our feet awash in a tide of plastic bottles. The focus at these runs is often a quick event shut down, so we can’t be sure whether the rubbish is sorted. Often it isn’t, and this needs to be addressed.

So what positive changes can we make? At Berlin marathon, the streets are lined with volunteers, serving water (and oddly, tea) out of paper cups and cones. I suggest we have more water stops with non-plastic receptacles as one solution. In any one city there are numerous running clubs, who could come together to support competitors and organise the provision of water and the clean up afterwards. Often at the marathon the role of volunteers is vague, but a systematic approach with an emphasis on the care of both runners and the environment would make for a better marathon experience all round.

What about the parched runners at the end? Could sponsors use their imaginations and come up with a specific reusable vessel which runners could them keep them as a momento of their day? And again, there is a huge role for volunteers here, collecting litter and separating out what is compostable and recyclable from what isn’t.

Organisers of all running events should also consider the environmental cost of bulk buying tee-shirts. Just because these can be picked up cheaply does not mean that they should be an automatic inclusion of every race pack. Worrying research has come to light recently about the accumulation of plastic in river sediment. A study of over 40 rivers beds in Northern England showed that every river-bed which was tested contained deposits of plastics. Many of these microfibers come from clothes, which are released into the water systems after multiple washings. This is another incentive to discourage the mass production of clothes containing polyester and to return to more sustainable materials.

Recycling plastics is not a feasible solution anymore. We need to look at alternatives, since the broken down micro-plastics are finding their way into waterways and thus our bodies, the long-term effects of which could be dangerous.

Running shouldn’t cost the earth. But the high I get from running with my friends and the camaraderie at races is being steadily eroded by the over-flowing bins and short-sightedness of event organisers. At our local parkrun in Ormeau Park, Belfast, we have introduced reusable cups for tea and coffee afterwards. This has resulted in saving at least 400 polystyrene cups from land-fill in the month since it has been introduced. Small changes make a huge difference, so as runners, let’s ask ourselves what we can all do to make Irish running events more sustainable.

 

 

SWB hangs on in there

I’ve done it again. Some people pile on the pounds at Christmas, gobbling up mince pies and greasy canopés. Not me. I prefer to work on my spare tyre over the summer months, just in time to don a bikini and inflict myself on the good people of Spain. Beer and crisps. Sauvignon Blanc and an olive or six. You show me a BBQ and I’ll show you how many hotdogs I can chow down in the one sitting. My father-in-law looked on with something resembling awe in Malaga, at my ability to demolish a plate of tapas like a bear on steroids. Munch munch I went, and chorizo, fried feta with honey drizzle and my absolute favourite, ‘polpo’ (or octopus) disappeared in minutes.

 

Back home I’m no better, especially since Al brought his bloody gelato to the Ormeau Road. He’s a lot to answer for, yon fella. Some mums sit, sipping on their americano while their kids scoop away at their wee tubs of Kinder Bueno or mint choc chip. Again, not me. ‘Would that be a new flavour there Al? Give us a nice waffle cone of peanut butter sharpish there. It’s been a long morning.’ Gelato is just the thing on a sunny afternoon. Or a rainy one, I’m not fussy.

 

So, tired of pouring myself into my jeans like cement, I decided to take action, and my friend Ioana has introduced me to the class ‘FunXtion’ at the PEC. Now the name, is, frankly, a bit of a misnomer. It should be called, ‘Pack up your dignity in an old kit bag, and leave it at the door.’

 

The instructor, Paul, has you doing all sorts. I can imagine him, dreaming up these activities in the pub with a pint, chortling away to himself. ‘Wait til you see those eejits on Tuesday, how I’ll snigger,’ he must say. He makes us crawl. He watches as we push big boxes with weights on top. ‘’Refine your position!’ he gulders. ‘Ten seconds left! MAKE. THEM. COUNT.’

 

He gives a run through of all the exercises at the start and then you trot round with a partner, interchanging after a minute of torture. I spend most of my time looking bemused and saying ‘You have to do WHAT? Is a sit-up not bad enough without adding a dumbbell?’ If rubber was your thing it would make your day because there’s a fair bit of hanging off bars and straining against resistance bands. I hope there’s no secret fetishists getting a cheap thrill.

 

I do like the class though, because it promotes a certain sense of camaraderie, if only because everyone looks like a right pillock. There’s one fellow, and I’m tired looking at him as he’s at every bloody class I go to. Circuits: he’s there. FunXtion, he’s STILL there. He even came to yoga a couple of weeks ago and I was like, ‘Do you seriously have nothing else to do with yourself mate? And he’s one of THOSE friggers, who goes and SWAPS his kettle bells for even heavier ones when it’s his turn and says ‘WOWAH,’ every time he flings it in the air. I’m always looking on thinking ‘If you let go of that bastard thing I will sue the f**king life clean out of you,’ (that is, if I’m not dead, which is the more likely option, should it clunk me on the head.) But there’s a few other regulars who obviously think he’s a bit of a dick as well so some discreet eye-rolling goes on. It makes me feel better.

 

Then there was an auld fella this lunchtime, and bless him, but his shorts were VERY flimsy and he really ought to have put a wee pair of leggings on. He was no Burt Reynolds and I was thinking ‘I hope to God that junk stays in the trunk because I’ve suffered enough this class without those visuals.’

 

You will see a photo of me, clinging, limpet like onto the same punch bag that minutes early I’d been pounding the life out of, practising my left hook. That was one of the exercises: just ‘hang on to it,’ which for a whole minute is harder than it seems. My thigh muscles aren’t nearly as robust as I’d hoped. But if ever I’m caught in a tropical storm I feel more confident that I won’t be swept out to sea, and can attach myself to a tree, should the need arise.

 

But you laugh. You sweat. And later, when you’re sitting on the sofa with a bar of Green and Blacks and a glass of Malbec left over from the weekend, you feel a bit better about yourself. Maybe I’ll see you there next Tuesday and we can lock eyes and look on with disdain at the show-off together.

SWB isn’t talking politics, is she?

I don’t tend to talk politics and I’m fairly sure my readers already know that I’m a Guardian reading, Green/Alliance party voter. Is there any point getting involved, I think, when round and round we go in ever more depressing circles. It would be rather embarrassing, until we look across the water at the circus masquerading as a government there, and think, well, at least it’s not just us who are being run by a bunch of muppets.

Another reason to stay clear of politics are the nasty surprises which lurk beneath the surface. We’ve all been there, chattering away with people whom we assumed shared similar views to ourselves, when they reveal that they support some bastard party  you wish were every bit as extinct as the dinosaurs they don’t believe in. It takes time to reconcile that they’re still the same people you liked before.

I was the subject of such confusion myself once, when teaching in a Catholic Grammar school. They were a GCSE English class and I was taking them through the poetry anthology and trying to bring some awful poems to life. I always pictured the person behind the dreadful collection as being a flinty old crone who spent her Saturday evenings chaining up swings in playgrounds. Anyway, while trying to explain ‘I remember I remember’ by Christina Rossetti (she was another barrel of laughs) I let slip that I had attended a Church of Ireland growing up. One wee girl almost toppled off her stool. ‘Yes, I’m a Protestant,’ I clarified for the rest of them, most of whom were AGOG. I think they had quite liked me and felt aggrieved or betrayed or probably both, when they discovered I was one of ‘them’uns.’ They seemed quite put out by it.

Last week I was listening to the Nolan show on Tuesday morning when Vinny, (Nolan must have been on his hols) was talking about the cuts to education. I knew already, but hearing the first-hand experiences were horrifying. The funding has all but dried up, and of course the ones suffering are any children who require extra help with their reading and writing. There simply isn’t the money to pay for support staff, and teachers are already battling to get through the curriculum with 30+ pupils in a class. It’s a horrible feeling, to know in your bones, that you can’t give each child the time and attention they need. Teacher friends of mine work for HOURS, every single night. They often stay in school until 5 or 6, before going home to start into the marking and/or planning for the next day. Perhaps they’ve stayed after school to take games or drama or debating, and on Sunday morning they might pop down to Junior parkrun to encourage their pupils, or stand freezing the bollocks off themselves while their team plays rugby or Gaelic of a Saturday.

To think that at every single meeting, these teachers, who have already had their pay or pensions frozen (I can’t keep up but it’s all a shite state of affairs) have to sit and listen to an extremely glum prognosis about the school budget. ‘Don’t be even thinking about ordering books or other essential equipment!’ God Forbid the Executive invests in something important like education. As long as the sheds and out houses in Fermanagh are nice and toasty who gives a shit about the kids, eh?

And yet. Every year, because of the deeply entrenched divisions between the orange and the green, Northern Irish voters still elect the very parties who refuse to go into government and do the jobs they are supposed to do. It’s our teachers who suffer, and the parents pulling their hair out at home because their children aren’t getting the care they deserve and need.

The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter what scandals our politicians embroil themselves in, or what hatred they stir up when they purposely make decisions that they know will antagonise the other side. They can do whatever they want, knowing fine rightly, that when they rap on doors needing votes, all they have to say is: ‘Who do you want as First Minister? Arlene or Michelle?’ and they will get the vote, because people stick to their tribes, regardless of how abhorrent the actions of the parties are, and how little they actually care about the vulnerable in society.

So no, I don’t normally talk politics, but I’m frustrated that for over eighteen months we’ve had no government, and being a true cynic, I bet there’s all sorts of nefarious wheeler/dealing going on, but why should it be our children, our elderly and the sick in our society who have to pay the price?

We need to wake up.  Write to your MLA’s and MPs and quote what the principal of your child’s primary school said about their flat-lining  budgets and what that means for your kids. And say there’s no way you’re giving them your vote next time if they don’t sort their shit out.

 

SWB is all chipper. She blames Nick Mulvey

Now, I said on Monday I was going to try and be uplifting in my next post and I’ll give it a go, even if my cold has returned and I still have a lingering hangover from a gig on Wednesday night. If only the wine at the Empire Music Hall matched the quality of their performers, then I wouldn’t have felt so ill after three mini-bottles of mass-produced pish. But no one asked me to drink three, I just got carried away and high on life because any gig by Nick Mulvey is just so mesmerizingly good.

 

I’ve been following Nick’s career since I saw him twelve years ago in the upstairs of a pub in Clapton, and was enchanted. Back then he was, and still is, to be honest, a slight sort of a fellow but then he lets this deep resonant hum out of him,  and there’s something primal in it, a sound that has been around from the start of time, and you think, this is bringing solace to my soul. If you were listening at home you could think to yourself, that’s some big burly fellow from the Congo singing there, but no, it’s a young bearded gent from Cambridge who has just honed the hell out of his craft. You can read a bit more about him here.

 

In an age of X -factor shite, there’s something truly marvellous about a young chap, who, when his gran gives him money for a new guitar, flies off to Cuba to learn from the masters. He studied ethnomusicology and spent time in Africa, before coming back to live in North London, where he trekked across the city to perfect his strumming with a Congolese guitarist.

 

I love these stories, about people realising they have a gift and believing in themselves, refusing to be satisfied until they’ve done their best. There’s something very special about Nick’s gigs because the audience just ‘gets’ him. Goosebumps, I had. He actually had us singing along from his first song, inviting us to join in. I thought, ‘Now come on Nick, it’s a bit early on in the show for that carry on, you’ve just hopped up on stage.’ (Me, ever the cynical auld bastard). But hum along we did, and continued to for many of the tunes, until we were harmonising along as his back vocalists. It was just himself on stage, with three guitars no less, and it felt surprisingly intimate as he told us of his influences, and where’s he goes to write his songs and what inspires him. I desperately wanted a pint with him after wards to ask him more.

 

So good people: away out and buy the albums ‘First Mind’ and ‘Wake Up Now’. The added bonus is that they have a soothing effect on children, indeed wee G (the older child) has often said, ‘Put Nick Mulvey on please,’ when we’re in the car. It’s also music I can actually write to, which is rare for me. So this morning, if you’re feeling chilly and need a wee pick me up, fire on ‘Fever to the Form’ or ‘In your Hands’; hell,  any of them really. So, so beautiful. You can thank me later.

SWB starts the week with a grumble

My children seem to have reached a difficult age. Everything, unless it involves eating sweets or an excursion to a park or friend’s house, is a ‘no’.

ME: I’m just signing you up for gymnastics after school.

THEM: No. Don’t like it. It’s horrible.

ME: (weary) Music then.

THEM: No. WE. DON’T. LIKE. MUSIC.

ME: (melted) Well you’re flipping going to Irish Dancing then and that’s the end of it.

The shouting and the wailing and the foot-stamping that goes on, because God forbid you’d like them to do a wee jig. It’s not as if their Irish Dancing teacher is unpleasant either, unlike my experiences. I remember as a small child being trailed to dancing and the woman was a notorious old bint who shouted and guerned at us non-stop. ‘Hop two three, hop two three: No your OTHER foot. I said your OTHER FOOT are you stupid?’

‘No, I’m four years old and I’m pure terrified,’ (you auld bastard).  Mum tried to bribe us with a trip to a café, but this was the eighties so that was obviously a massive disappointment too. The coke was warm and the coffee was cold ( I can still recall my mum’s face) and the buns weren’t even home-baked, just a few Mr Kipling’s French Fancies which must have been lying out as they were dry as a f**king stick. It was gloomy and depressing and mournful music played in the background.

I was also sent to the GB (Girls’ Brigade for the benefit of my Catholic readers) which I absolutely loathed. Three whole years I had to stick that malarkey, and even the Mothershsip who forced me to go, said: ‘Would you mind if I gave the display a miss this time, because it was VERY long last year. I had my coat on ready to go when the leader said she was looking forward to the second half.’

We used to be sent, my wee friend and I, on a Friday night. Since we were both shit at the P.E. we did extra scripture or crafts as a delightful alternative.  We made baskets out of margarine tubs and such likes, while listening to the definition of what made a ‘proper’ Christian. (‘Jesus in your hearts, have you asked him in yet? Now put the pen lids back on tightly please.’) After wards, by way of compensation, our mums would take us to Papa Capaldis on Queen’s Parade for ice cream. One night I was SO, so looking forward to my two scoops of honeycomb with fudge sauce and a wafer, but my friend’s mum arrived to pick us up looking very harried. ‘Quick,’ she said, ‘the minister’s called and I have to go back and make him a cup of tea.’ My disappointment was acute, but that was nothing compared to my friend who had wanted to watch TV but instead had been forced to join in family prayers, holding hands round the pool table in their games room. I still can’t decide whether she made that up or not, but she said he stayed for ages and the laugh was, none of the family ever crossed the door of the church. Maybe that was why he lingered.

Readers, I tell you, isn’t it a wonder I’m as sane as I am? And don’t my two wee blighters have it lucky, with their Kaffe O and their Al Gelato and Parkrun and no GB? There’s the Monday moan over for the week. My next post will be up-lifting, I promise.

SWB gets ripped into Instagram (she’s still on it, mind).

Help me readers. How do I manage Instagram? Because I’m flipping lost. I was never a great one for taking photos: in fact, lazy bastard that I am, I was always happy for OTHER people to do the snapping, so I didn’t miss out on the moment. I always wanted to be DOING the activity, not living it second-hand through a screen. But some of my lovely friends thankfully would take pictures and even print them out and send me one, and for these I was always grateful.

 

But now, I don’t know where to draw the line. I write a blog, (doh, obviously) and I’ve found that Instagram is a great way to draw people to it. But my blog is about the writing, not the visuals. I feel like I’m selling my soul on Instagram- (Here’s me! Check out my new blog post!) Boke. But it’s just what we do now, or so it seems to me.

 

And the notion has got into my head now, so much so that I’m thinking: I’m having a coffee, should I take a picture? #Chillingout. Here’s a sunset, #beautiful. Here’s my child eating brunch, #Howcuteisshe? And not forgetting my pet peeve, #blessed: it’s so saccharine it makes my teeth hurt. I find I’m not enjoying where I am, because I feel I SHOULD be documenting the activity, and that feels like work, not the lovely downtime it should be. On Sunday I visited my friend and her two gorgeous twins. She baked an Apple Cake and handed me a huge earthenware cup of ginger tea to help my cold. I felt spoilt and cherished and also like I should be FECKING Instagram-ing it. I didn’t. I let it pass and we chatted instead. But it’s always there, this FEELING that I should be going clickety-click, and God help me: ‘building my brand,’ as my PR friend recommended.

‘Brand?’ I said, ‘What brand? I’m not bloody Cath Kidson!’ (Just pop over to Sour Towers to see just how un-Cath-Kidson I am).

‘But you are,’ she said. ‘You’re Sour Wee Bastard, and whether you like it or not, you’re branding yourself. And since Helen McClements and SWB are one in the same, that’s you. You. Are. Now. A. Brand.’

 

She’s a funny one, my friend.

 

Gulp. I didn’t like that one bit. I’m me, and I write and hopefully people will read my stuff and ONE DAY I might even write a wee book. But a brand? Hell no.

 

One of the things I DON’T like about Instagram is that it can seem, a bit, well, smug. Funny enough, I never mind posting about my eco-issues because that’s important to me. I can live with a smiling selfie of me if it’s getting the message out there. But when my kids were small and the idea of a holiday was frankly impossible, I used to almost weep with RAGE when I saw Facebook pics of people who were having a glorious time abroad. Oh yes, self-pity was at an all-time high when we were at home because LSB didn’t have any leave left and I sure as hell wasn’t taking two toddlers away on my own. I’d hate it if I put up pics and they made someone feel shit. ‘What has she got to be sour about, sitting there in Kaffe-O?’ they might say.

 

So I  have a a whole rake of pictures on my phone that I ruined a moment to take, and then haven’t even bothered to put up. Last week I spent a gorgeous night away with my pal, and we hiked and stayed in the Slieve Donard and thoroughly pampered ourselves, and then I didn’t share any pictures because I felt bad for being away in the first week of term when my teacher friends were back at the chalk face. Maybe I need to soothe my soul by taking some ‘real’ photos of me, like un-blocking the loo (who am I kidding, that’s LSB’s job) or scrubbing the grill or cleaning out the cat’s bowls. Would that address the imbalance?

Truthfully, I don’t know. But keep in touch and tell me your thoughts on this.

 

Even writing this has helped me figure a few things out. It’s all about where you are in your life, isn’t it? Since my career change, and the corresponding  improvement in my health, I don’t mind looking at other people’s pictures. I’m happier now in myself and I don’t suffer from the same anxiety. A few years ago I was the embodiment of a raw nerve: Ms Kill-The–Craic. I feel better now, and maybe it’s ok to show that.

Speaking of which, here we are, grinning inanely in the Mournes. #childfree #carefree #blessed. (I’m kidding about the last one, though I know we’re very lucky.)

 

SWB on birthday parties

My Whatsapp has been a-buzz with notifications from the school mums, as the birthday party merry-go-round revs up into action. My kids only resumed school last Wednesday and already we’re one party down and have four, possibly five, in the too-near future. Nothing says misery to me like a soft-play area, and the idea of spending two hours at one every other Sunday for the foreseeable is giving me the dry heaves.

 

Last year, we had a small gathering in the house on The Small Child’s ACTUAL birthday, then had a joint party with a little boy from her class at Funtastic, along with the rest of South Belfast. It was hot, it was noisy, and the only thing that helped me through was the good humour of other parents from the school. I’m not usually given to blasphemy, , but it was all too much and I just stood, clutching my head throughout saying, ‘Oh Jesus.’ One couple had come together for moral support, but ended up consoling me, as though I was having a root canal procedure. ‘It’s almost over Helen,’ they said in comforting tones, ‘and no one’s been hurt.’

 

It’s not just me feeling the overwhelm. I met a friend in M&S last week with a face like thunder. ‘I’m off to Smyths AGAIN,’ she said, ‘for another BLOODY birthday present.’ I felt her pain, as since I try to be eco-conscious, it perplexes me no end, when you go to a party and see a huge, teetering pile of presents, AND all the wrapping paper, AND the gift bags. I immediately think of Augustus Gloop or Veruka Salt from ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, ripping each one open with barely a glance before moving on to the next.

 

However, this time I felt a bit smug, and here’s why. Last year in my eldest child’s class, a like-minded mum suggested that instead of gifts we gave a fiver in a handmade card. As you can imagine, I was all over that like a wasp on your marmalade. I even mooted the idea in The Small Child’s class and it was pounced upon with alacrity. One of the things for which I’m most grateful, is the lack of pretension in our local school (unless I’m unaware of it, living in my own SWB Bubble.)

 

The odd parent may bring a present instead and that’s grand, because there’s a bit of variety then for the birthday child, and they have something to open. The plus side though, is that if most folk takes this lack of present policy on board, then the child doesn’t expect the mountain of gifts because they don’t see it at every party they attend.

 

After some discussion then, you can trot off to Smyths and buy their gift of choice, hopefully something substantial and not a pile of nonsense to add to the clutter in your home. Or, Draconian mother that I am, I realised my child had no concept of the money and so I thought I’d keep it for her bank account. (Did it ever make it to Danske bank?  No it didn’t, but then I did spend a small fortune on excursions and nice things for her and her big sis).

 

Here is my birthday party survival guide for minimal strain on both wallet and emotional health:

 

1) Suggest as many joint parties as you can. Heck, why stop at joint? Maybe you could coerce another friend or two on board and that’s three or four down in one go. What a coup.

 

2) Why not think of an alternative party idea that’s easier on the ear? Many yoga studios now offer yoga for kids and could put on a fun session that won’t have you reaching for the paracetamol three minutes in.

 

3) A friend of mine has a good idea where she says ‘present or party?’ Kids have no idea how costly parties can be, so this will help them appreciate the expense if they think of it in terms of a new bicycle or a tablet or such likes.

 

4) Don’t feel you have to go to all parties. Life is busy; we have families, day trips, lives. But if you must, at least offer to take another child or two with you and give some poor bastard the afternoon off. I aim to take a bullet early and then sit a few out.

 

I would like to emphatically make the point that I am very fond of the parents in our school and indeed consider many of them to be friends. If anyone suggests a soirée on the Ormeau Road, I’m the first to say ‘Yes please! I’ll even organise it!’ (In fact I did in June and Graffiti was superb.) But this doesn’t mean I want to shout over a load of shouting six years olds of an afternoon. No sirree.

Do check out my Instagram account @Sourweeblog to see the wee boxes I’ve been making and chucking a fiver and cute things within. (I’m not a complete auld shite. Just some of the time.)

 

 

SWB has Back to School Blues

I spent yesterday morning at home, having despatched the children off to school. But instead of feeling gleeful they’ve gone I felt an unexpected pang in my gut. Last year, when the little one started p1 I thought, ‘Well, that’s normal, my youngest has started school. I’m supposed to feel a bit freaked out and think :how the hell did that happen?’ I didn’t imagine I’d feel it this year, but as we entered the gates and the fleeting look of apprehension passed over their faces I thought, this parenting lark never changes. All summer I longed to ‘get rid’ and then, as a new year starts in school their babyhood slips away and I feel bereft. I want to gather them to me but they’re off and in with smiling teachers and I turn and go. They’re in good hands, but I think I need a wee cry.

(The little one was only messing in the first pic. Here she is, full of giggles.)

Incidentally, last night I took part in a Tenx9 in the Black Box on the theme of ‘Back to School.’ Revisiting the trauma of teaching was obviously too much for my damaged psyche. All night I dreamt of unruly teenagers, charging up corridors instead of sitting in my classroom, and one of the friggers smeared an avocado over the floor. It was not a restful night’s sleep. Here’s the story I told, should any of you wish to read it.

 

Back to School

Never mind going back to school, I feel I never really left school; in a house full of teachers I thought if I can’t beat the feckers I may as well join them. From the age of 5 I had a class in my bedroom, and sometimes, lucky teddy bears had a school trip to the beach. While my mother shivered, I served up biscuits to an assortment of cuddly toys on a rug and took them shell hunting. Once we found a starfish AND a crab and the bears agreed that had been the most exciting trip ever. They all had good Protestant names, not that I knew they were Protestant I just called them after friends and family members. So there was Steven and Julie Craig, Cuddles Stewart, Sweep Black because as an infant I’d stuck him up the chimney and Brandy Baird and Squeak Brown. He was the worst behaved out of all the bears and was once stood in a corner for two whole days after saying ‘One Two Buckle my Arse’ at an inter-school choral competition when a friend brought her school for a visit.

 

I couldn’t seem to get enough of teaching. Once, after an eighteen month stint in a school where, in the same year I’d taken an entire year 8 class to see an explicit and violent film, and lost another group of year 12 pupils and 2 members of staff on a Duke of Edinburgh expedition, I still retained the urge to teach during my holidays. In Na Trang in Vietnam I discovered a school for street children and spent 2 weeks there. There weren’t just street children at this school, also but street walkers. I found this out at an evening class when I recognised some of the girls who had elbowed me out of their way in the bathrooms of the local beach bar. As they applied their make-up and adjusted their dresses I quickly realised that they were ‘working’ not socialising, and no wonder they didn’t have time to waste queuing for the toilet. It was funny to see them in class, in jeans and tee-shirts, their faces open and hair loose, laughing and eager to learn. One boy, who really wanted to go to university, came along to practice English in the evenings. He shook my hand at my final class and said, with tremendous sincerity, ‘Miss, I wish you all good things.’ I wasn’t in a terribly happy period of my life back then, and I nursed these words on my long flight home.

 

It took me a while to find a permanent job in teaching so often I found myself as the new girl, which, whether you’re fourteen or twenty-four is still mighty uncomfortable. The politics of the staff room is something I don’t think I’ll ever understand. In one Belfast school, there is an actual dividing wall separating the men from the women. At another, we took our break in the canteen where watery coffee and leaden scones were doled out with less grace and charm than if one were flinging corn at chickens. To say that their seating arrangements were ‘a bit rigid’ would be to suggest that Nigel Farage is ‘a bit’ of a nob. As temporary members of staff, we sat with all the really odd teachers that no one else wanted at their table. Once, my friend was absent and I asked a fellow English teacher with whom I had made friends, if I could sit with her to drink my tea. She and I, had, by now, dined out, shared confidences and drunk copious amounts of wine together. As I sat down she announced, ‘we’re adopting Helen for the day. Or rather, I should say fostering, we’re giving her back tomorrow.’ The next day I rejoined my group of oddities as she really wasn’t joking.

 

As a sub I always feared I wouldn’t bond with the kids, but it wasn’t always the case. Once a child whom I knew to be slightly troubled came up to me after class. ‘Sometimes,’ she said softly, ‘I just feel like I shouldn’t be here.’

 

‘Oh pet,’ I said. ‘Sometimes I feel that too. I had that terrible accident and was almost killed and I think maybe I shouldn’t be here too. But I’m so glad that I am and I try to remember that every day.’ She looked up. ‘Aww Miss, thanks for saying that. But I actually meant should I be doing A-level English.’

 

Cheeks aflame I said yes, that literature was the answer to everything and she went on her way.

 

And then I finally landed it, a full-time permanent position in an excellent grammar school. At first it was great. I had my own room, so there was none of that hoiking all your belongings round the school and waiting for teachers and pupils to vacate your classroom while stood outside gormlessly with your class. I wasn’t expected to do a million extra-curricular activities to prove my worth, and I quickly made friends. Both my Heads of Departments were terrific and we remain on good terms to this day. But the workload. Dear God, the workload. In English and French the specs kept changing. This made children nervous and teachers more nervous. Increasingly children liked to be told EXACTLY what was going to be on the exam, and if the question they wanted didn’t come up, they were none too pleased. ‘I don’t have a crystal ball’ I used to say, but that didn’t seem to wash.

 

Parents had NO compunction about telling you at parents’ night how WONDERFULLY their child had done last year and really, what had happened, since they had started your GCSE class. ‘It’s a different course, a harder course, and it takes time to adjust,’ I would try to explain, but often in vain.

 

I got castigated for putting too much pressure on some kids, and not enough on others. ‘He feels like he’s failing French’ bleated one mother during a parent’s meeting, whose child’s marks had fallen into the eighties and not the habitual nineties. The father actually snorted in my face.

 

I got tired of hearing phrases like ‘How are YOU going to get me my ‘A’’ and‘Mr So and So has done this with his class, why are we not doing that?’‘Because it’s not the same F**KING text, THAT”S WHY!’ (I didn’t actually say that.) Other teachers seemed able to shrug these remarks off, but I couldn’t. My faith in my own ability was completely eroded.

 

It became the school’s policy to introduce continuous assessment. Never a week passed where there wasn’t some sort of test happening. ‘Is this a continuous or a controlled assessment?’ my exam classes used to ask. ‘Does this count towards my GCSEs?’ I didn’t blame them for asking. There were just too many tests: too many to set; too many to mark, and too many for pupils to do. The stress was huge, on everyone.

 

For me, all the fun went out of it. I used to love playing the kids music, reading them funny poems and doing a bit of yoga. It felt like we didn’t have time for that anymore. They didn’t have time for songs, they had an assessment on Thursday! It didn’t matter if I told them I had planned for it, had it under control. I lost my va-va-voom; my confidence; and finally, what felt like my mind.

 

Then, one day, I was beetling along the corridor, when I remembered something urgent that I had forgotten to do. And involuntarily, within earshot of a pupil, I dropped the c-bomb. Now I write a blog called Sour Wee Bastard, but that doesn’t mean I have no standards. This would not be my ‘go to’ profanity of choice, and so I took the fact that I was using such expletives audibly and without my own volition, to mean that I was not in the right job. The child, God bless him, didn’t seem to hear. I made a decision. I could keep being the unhappy, unfulfilled version of me, or I could take a break and consider my options.

 

I applied for a career break and I got it. I took three years to spend time with my children, to work on the house and to work on myself. I started to write, and discovered that though it wasn’t paying much, it brought me something akin to joy. This year, I had to ask myself if I was going to go back to school. Since a part-time option wasn’t available I decided that no, I wouldn’t be. I don’t think my smile has ever been wider, nor for that matter, has my husband’s. Turns out, it’s not that much craic being married to Frankie Boyle.

 

Thank you.

 

 

 

SWB Gives Thanks

Why, might you ask, is my smile so wide? Well, tomorrow the kids go back to school. What joy awaits me, and how my heart does sing. Turns out I’m much more a stickler for routine than than I thought, as week after week of unbridled levity has turned my children into something approaching feral.

 

Yes, children are precious, bleh bleh bleh, we know the drill. But feck me, they’re right melters too. Here’s a few tales of woe from the summer, not that you need any reminding how irritating youngsters can be.

 

We arrived home from Malaga late one Saturday night, and woke to a wet and chilly Sunday morning. Never do this. Never book a flight for a Saturday night and have a Sunday to fill when most of your buddies are still on their hols, because by God is it excruciating. We collected the cat from the cattery and snuggled under blankets on the sofa. This peaceful scene lasted about ten minutes. The cat legged it in a huff, peeved that we’d abandoned her for 10 days and also, according to her, manipulated the weather gods into making it piss down as well. The kids played with their toys and ransacked the joint and later we went to Forestside to shop. The sun steadfastly refused to appear.

‘I am SO bored’ said the older child. ‘Me too,’ agreed the smaller one, with gusto. ‘This is TERRIBLE’ went on the older one. ‘We have only done TWO things today and one was a SHOP and that doesn’t count.’ LSB took himself to the pub for the World Cup Final and proceeded to get rightly binned. Given that I’d cleared off on my own to Malaga to go around the shops and visit the Museo Carmen Thyssen I couldn’t really complain. Of course, I did, inevitably, but it was most unfair.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say, in a most circuitous manner, is that my progeny are spoilt rotten. It didn’t matter that they’d enjoyed numerous and costly trips to the fair in Fuengirola and hours of undiluted poolside fun  at the hotel. The more we indulged them, the worse they behaved. And so it went for the remainder of the summer. I WANT! I NEED! GIVE ME IT NOW! It’s not the done thing nowadays to beat one’s children, so I settled for telling them in most uncertain terms where to go on some occasions. And do you know, I don’t believe it did them any harm.

Other annoyances this summer included:

Tantrums- Any normal cleaning rituals became anathema to them, such as having their hair washed or brushed, or being shown the shower. The rows, the screaming that ensued, and  LSB taking the stairs 3 at a time to exclaim ‘WHAT’S HAPPENED?’  ME: ‘Just trying to wash the Small Child’s hair.’ LSB: ‘Ah. I see. Here I am, it’s a two-man job that.’

Then there was: THE LAUNDRY.  Load upon load of washing. Much of this was because despite being ferried off to summer camps left right and centre my children took to playing ‘camping’. With much duplicity in action, they filled rucksacks with clean and sometimes IRONED garments, and relocated them outside, shoving them, unbeknownst to me, into a little sun tent. Several days later, LSB noticed this pile of sodden clothes and his face turned grey as he imagined my response. He wasn’t wrong.

My mood deteriorated further when, as a fun activity with a visiting friend, they dragged a mattress and all accompanying bed-linen from the spare room into the landing as a ‘boat’ and proceeded to ‘accidently’ tip water all over it. The bed remained thus demolished for at least a week, because of my weariness. The small child then had the audacity to choose that SAME week to resume her nocturnal forays into our room, leaving LSB to sleepwalk his way into the unmade-up bed. He let me down a bucketful by explaining his plight to fellow parkrunners one Saturday morning. ‘Seriously,’ said he, pointing at the bags under his eyes, ‘I’ve seen classier crack-dens than our spare room.’ ‘You change the f**king bed then,’ I hissed.

So, like most of the mums I’ve met this summer, I’ll say the obvious thing. I love my children, BUT, I may well shed tears of relief in the morning and perhaps give their teachers a box of biscuits because by f**k do they deserve them.

SWB is homeward bound

Morning all. I do hope Monday finds you well and sprightly. I myself, was woken at 3am by The Small Child, who crawled in and disported herself in a manner which was not conducive to sleep, (for me, not her) and thus I found myself setting about house-hold tasks in the early hours. Yes, our kitchen does look less of a bomb site this morning but I have puffy eyes and a most pallid complexion. Upon nipping down to Sainsbury’s to purchase bread at 8.15 I had the misfortune to catch a glimpse myself in the camera at the self-service tills. It was like one of the photos one sees on Crime Watch. Anyhoo, at least I applied make-up on Friday evening when I read my story in Bangor for Tenx9. (I couldn’t have people saying ‘That Helen McClements hasn’t aged well has she?’) Those are my legs in the centre photo, as I stood on tip toes to reach the mic. Not the brightest, me. And that Paul Doran who runs the bloody event just chortled away to himself and took pictures instead of fixing it for me, the dirt bird.

I’m actually feeling better now after two cups of coffee and a tea. If you’ve time now pour yourself a nice hot beverage and see if you can identify with having the fear of God put into you at the CSSM and freezing your ass off on the beach. Here’s the story:

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1980’s Bangor didn’t cover itself in glory. Ballyholme Beach certainly didn’t, and I should know, because I grew up overlooking it, on the Esplanade. My poor parents never anticipated living there, in a rambling 5 bedroom semi, but they’ve been there 35 years so I suppose they’re used to it now. They wanted to move to the Donaghadee Road, to a house with a sunny south-facing kitchen and a large garden where I recall there were hens. (Not that my mum ever wanted hens. ‘Terrible stupid creatures, and they make a shocking mess.’) But that house fell through and since their other house had already sold they were in a right fix, with two small children and a nana and granddad to boot. In a sort of demented frenzy they grabbed whatever was on the market and in the summer of 1983 we moved in.

 

The previous owner of the house on The Esplanade had moved sharpish as well, because God had told him he was needed elsewhere. Mum said the way he talked about God you’d have thought he’d been on the phone to him that morning. God however, never suggested that he check the house for damp, install decent double glazing or fix the dilapidated garage. Thus after the expense of buying the house, my parents had the almost insurmountable task of making it liveable. The damp sea air made all the wood swell so none of the doors shut without a massive bang and one small friend told me she thought everyone in our house was always in a shocker of a mood, with doors slamming every three minutes.

 

Such was the force of the gale that the front and back doors could never, ever be open simultaneously, as the gusts shooting through would cause a door to slam so violently that glass could shatter and small lives could have been lost. Relaxing, it wasn’t.

 

And aside from two summers, when I was small, and it was hot enough for me to run around in bikini bottoms and nothing else, I almost always remember it being cold. And this seemed to really, really irritate my mother. Having spent two years in Papua New Guinea where the sea was like a ‘warm bath’ and she and her friends ran round wearing M&S nighties as dresses because the Papuans ‘wouldn’t have known any different’ since they didn’t have M&S on small Indonesian islands, she found the icy Belfast Lough a terrible disappointment. ‘It’s a waste of a sea,’ she used to say, mournfully. (I have to add here that my mum is actually from Coleraine, so this shouldn’t have been a surprise.) To this day there are regulation ‘red fleeces’ and one is often pointed in the direction of the cloakroom to avail of one before the heating is cranked up. (Why the fleeces are always red I don’t know. I assure you they’re not communists).

 

One summer when it rained for a solid month the sun finally emerged and everyone descended upon the beach in a ‘Carpe Diem’ sort a way. ‘Please, can we go, please please,’ we begged. We must have been quite little because we weren’t allowed to go across the road and down the steps by ourselves. With much sighing and giving off, beach accoutrements were assembled and down we traipsed. The tide must have been coming in because there wasn’t much space, and we got ourselves settled and my mother looked beside her and there was a steaming pile of dog poo. So livid was she, that our beach excursion was aborted after about 10 minutes. Back up the steps we went. ‘You wouldn’t want to be swimming in that sea anyway,’ said another disillusioned mum. ‘The sewer flows straight into it,’ and as I recall back that that was indeed the case.

 

When we weren’t enduring rubbish trips to the sea we had rubbish trips to the park instead. Ballyholme park was, and still is, home to The CSSM for two weeks in July, and parents, whether religiously inclined or not, rejoiced in off-loading their children for free, for a couple of hours in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? That’s because it is, unless your child’s idea of entertainment involves game after game of rounders and ‘What’s the time Mister Wolf,’ led by extremely over-enthusiastic young people. I didn’t much enjoy this type of activity, but thought story time sounded nice and settled myself, cross-legged and eager in front of a man with a flip-board. He proceeded to show one lovely picture of blue skies and sunshine and fields, a bucolic countryside scene, one could say. ‘This was heaven,’ he explained. He flipped the chart to a bleak and scary picture of dark clouds and lightning and rain. I don’t recall if there was a devil with a forked stick but I wouldn’t have been surprised. ‘And this was hell,’ he went on. ‘So we had all better be good Christian children because we didn’t want to end up there when we died, did we?’

 

There were some rousing hymns to follow and a few more games of Duck Duck Goose. I remember thinking what is WRONG with me because I couldn’t skip blithely on after hearing that story. I had taken it very much to heart and all the giddy kids and over-zealous leaders seemed to me like the very worst sort of people, and to be stuck with them for ever and ever seemed hellish in itself. I think I was 5 when this occurred. ‘I don’t want to go back tomorrow,’ I told my mum when she came to collect me, and taking one look at the hordes of noisy children she muttered: ‘I don’t blame you.’

 

As I got older I used to look out at all the young sailors in their toppers on yacht club night which was a Tuesday, and feel jealous that we weren’t a sailing family too. Rather than feeling on the outside, I was in the inside looking out, and feeling a bit odd, as if I didn’t really fit in there. But then I gave it a go and after being clattered on the head by a boom (that godforsaken wind again) I decided I mustn’t missing much, as it was actually much nicer just drinking a cup of tea on the window seat with a lovely view.

 

I’m aware that all of this paints my formative years in the most ghastly light. There were many lovely moments too. The kitchen may have looked like a throw back from the 50’s but that didn’t stop my Nana baking scones that were light as air, sponge cakes that even my brother’s most caustic friend described as ‘lush’ and pancakes served straight off the griddle. Other kids along the Esplanade may have been given ponies and skiing holidays for Christmas, but they never had the baked goods we had and the table was often crammed with children saying things like, ‘Look, homemade jam!’ and ‘Wow, real butter!’ (None of that Flora shite in our house). Nana’s apple tarts were so good that I felt actual pity for any child who turned up to school with a Mr Kipling in their lunch box. That, I thought, was almost tantamount to abuse.

 

As we got older, Mum and Dad were of the opinion that they didn’t care if their house was wrecked as long as their children were safe, so number 28 played host to teens every summer, many of whom stayed for indefinite periods of time. They didn’t change the 1970’s carpets because the gharish patterns hid all manner of stains from DM boots, and disguised evidence from vomit after someone got wired into the Scrumpy Jack. Budding musicians loved our house because it was so big they could crank up the amplifiers for guitar solos from Megadeth and Metallica and nobody complained. It was quite the place to be, circa 1994 when my brother had all his friends round for band practice, and if you didn’t mind my trying to save your soul, because by that time I’d given in & become an Evangelical myself, it was probably quite a lot of fun.

 

The house has since been redecorated, which is a shame really, as my 5 and 6 year olds can wreck a joint in 5 minutes flat, and I lament that every time I come home. Could you not have just left it a bit shit, I say to my folks, but I don’t begrudge them a thing. I grew up in an Enid Blyton sort of a world, in a warm cocoon away from The Troubles, in a ramshackle house, full of character. Now, when we drive up from the Ballyholme Road and see the yellow field of Ballymacormick Point catch the light, my heart always gives a little skip. It’s good they kept the family house, and one more thing for which I am grateful.