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:

******

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.

SWB enjoys being miserable

Evening all. The blog has been quiet for a week because my productivity in summer seems to slow right down, and my patience with my children has all but dried up completely. The older one is upstairs, WAILING because she stubbed her toe at dancing and suddenly, upon being told it was bedtime, the pain returned with such ferocity that it triggered a full on attack of THE RAGES . Earlier they had been quite good. ‘Off you go to yoga!’ I told LSB. ‘Sun salute your way to serenity, all grand here!’ No it fucking isn’t. My head is pounding and I’ve a ‘to do list’ that would would stretch from here to Brittany. BUT ANYWAY, sorry for the rant there, and on to more life-affirming topics.

Last night I had a slot at an event at the Eastside Arts Festival, and it attracted a cracker audience who were ever so appreciative, and was beautifully curated by Jan Carson.  It is a never-ending source of wonder to me how Jan manages to stay AWAKE, given the number of arts-related projects she’s involved in, or indeed ORGANISING. But not only did she remain wide-eyed throughout but she read some of her gorgeous stories and entertained us too. (Check out her tale about the bloke with the brick babies. It was my favourite. I’m a sucker for a bit of magic realism).

Stephen Connolly showed his musical side, playing a few soulful tunes about people being miserable and did a superb rendition of Leonard Cohen. I liked that very much. He seems a most affable fellow and my husband has all but persuaded him to come to parkrun so we could be best buds in no time.

Speaking of buddies, I’d rather like to pull the fabulous Emer Maguire into my circle of acquaintances. I almost did myself an injury guffawing at her song about morphing into middle class and eating avocado in over-priced cafés. ‘That would be me then,’ I thought, but then I’ve never been one to berate myself for being middle-class. As a student, I remember cooking up three course feasts for my friends, and then ringing my mum because I had no money left. She and my brother then found a receipt from Tesco and saw my purchases in black and white. ‘King Prawns. Chicken Breasts. Tesco’s Finest Ciabatta’.

‘No wonder she’s blooming’ broke said The Mothership.

Back to Emer. If I could just direct you to her website, have a quick peruse. (Just don’t if you’re having a bit of a downer because trust me, you’ll feel like an under-achiever.)

What a preamble that was! If you’re still here, and you’d like to read my piece from last night it’s just below. But first, I’d just like to thank all my terrific friends who showed up to see me. Trust me, I know what it’s like trying to get to a 7pm gig when your youngsters are going berserk. And my pals Maureen and Malachi came too, and if anyone should be over-saturated with the arts it’s that pair, but there they were, full of bonhomie and fun with their mate Joan to boot. LSB was there, fixing projectors and opening wine for people. He’s a good egg. And the folks, they came along too, and thank goodness they did. Mum made a rather manic gesture before proceedings began. I trotted over. ‘What’s up?’ I said. ‘If you want to cross your legs like that you need to wear a longer dress,’ said The Mothership. ‘The front row got a right eyeful,’ said Dad. Luckily, I knew the front row well. I assumed a more ladylike posture after that.

*******

I write a blog called Sour Wee Bastard, and as the name suggests, I can be a bit of a whinger, and I’m inclined to think that yes, everything does get worse all the time. Sometimes I feel the overwhelm so acutely, that I have periods of great despair and despondency. But Yeats coined the oxymoron ‘terrible beauty’ and I find it an apt term for existence in general. In order to experience life at it’s most fulfilling, we have to accept that there’s a lot of shite too. Thus we must find ways to elevate ourselves when all seems lost. So this evening I’m going to share with you my top six tips on how to do this.

 

Number One– Ring Your Mammy.

Now The ‘Mothership’, as she appears on the blog, can be at once caustic and insightful; an odd mix but there you have it. And she is, happily, just at the end of the phone when I get beside myself. A couple of years ago I got a trifle fraught. I can remember the exact moment when, while putting on the umpteenth load of washing that day, I heard on the 6 Music news that the Russians had annexed Crimea. My bIood ran cold. ‘It’s starting,’ I thought. I rang my mum.

‘It’s me,’ I said, voice aquiver. ‘Oh hello, I’m just sitting here, having a cup of tea,’ said the Mothership, ‘with a nice slice of ginger cake, from the market. You sound very glum.’

 

(Me) ‘It’s the Russians. I think there’s going. To. Be. A. Third. World. War.’

 

(Mothership) ‘Are you on the drink dear?’

 

(Me) ‘It’s three thirty.’

 

(Mothership) ‘Hasn’t stopped you before. You’re talking terrible nonsense. I thought we had discussed this ‘end of the world business.’ It’s getting very tiresome.’

 

(Me) It’s getting very close. They’ll be all out nuclear warfare, this is just the start of it.

 

(Mothership) I’ll ask your dad. RONNIE? Come down off that ladder before you brain yourself. The child’s demented here, because of the Russians.

 

(Me) And Trump.

 

(Mothership) And Trump she says. Do you think we should be worried?

 

He’s shaking his head. Probably not, he says, though he’s not watching the news anymore. Honestly, if it’s not about the Napoleonic Wars for that U3A he’s in, he’s not interested.

 

Listen, your grandmother survived the Blitz, hiding under the very table I’m sitting at here, trying to drink my tea. Do you think she ran round worrying the end was nigh? She did not. Too much to do! And we’re all still here aren’t we?

Now we’ll just put on us here and come up and see you. Will I pick up a baguette in Asda?

 

After a chat like that I always feel better. We may all be heading to hell in a handcart, but at least there’s tea and cake and helpful parents.

 

Number Two.

 

Do something useful. So many things are a bit rubbish. But if we make a small effort in our own lives to volunteer, to recycle, to involve ourselves in creative projects, we will at least feel as though we’re contributing to something. At the John Hewitt Summer School this July I met a writer by the name of Angeline King, who has formed a Regeneration Project in Larne. Working with local communities they plant flowers, paint murals and run round the town yanking up weeds like mad guerrilla gardeners. It made me want to visit Larne. That had never happened before. If there’s hope for Larne, there’s hope for all of us.

 

Yes, when I listen to the news, it makes me want to run the bath, pop on Radio Head and marinade in vodka. But that’s not very useful is it, so I might write instead, or of a Saturday morning, I head down to parkrun to meet other people who have dragged themselves from their pits and instead of languishing, are starting their day in a more positive manner.

 

 

Number Three.

Tend your garden. I got this from Voltaire’s Candide. Candide faces all manner of misery, surviving plagues and earthquakes and seeing the woman he idolises reduced to being a toothless old crone with syphilis, but throughout, he remains stoical. The novel concludes with him shacking up with a crowd of like-minded survivors, growing their own food and looking after each other.

So when you feel beaten down by the squalid aspects of the modern world, don’t go to Tesco and buy a budget cottage pie, devoid of all nutrients, and let’s face it, hope. Feel the earth under your fingernails and plant a few courgettes. You have to be a special sort of a person not to be able to grow courgettes: they are prolific. And if the thought of organic veg doesn’t soothe your soul, perhaps just being outside in the air may bring you some respite.

 

Number Four.

Find comfort in literature. Everyone has suffered, but some people put their agonies to good use and write about it. One of my favourite authors is Maggie O’Farrell. She has nearly died 17 times, as she chronicles in her latest book, but I’m almost glad she’s had such a rough trot since it’s given her plenty of experiences from which to draw. Her novels help me transcend the misery of Brexit, of Trump, and life’s frustrations. She sharpens the experience of what it is to be human, and there is always, in her work, a sense of redemption and reconciliation. Could Stormont do with a dose of Maggie O’Farrell? I’m thinking yes.

 

Beckett too is worth listening to when your soul’s in torment. My friend Aisling is a massive fan, (and bless, her, she sent me this quote because reading through endless Beckett would have me mainlining the drugs). Pozzo tells us in ‘Waiting For Godot,’:

 

The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep, somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors.

 

Looking around, we can be inclined to think that things have never been direr, but this is not true. I like to think of the Greek concept of the wheel of fortune. Sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we learn that Californian Holocaust deniers are running unchallenged for the Senate, but if we can employ some of the thinking of the Stoics, we may be able to maintain a degree of serenity, whatever our predicament.

 

Number 5.

If the life you have chosen has stopped bringing you joy, then choose another. After a few miserable years, I finally caught on to this. In my opinion, no one can truly appreciate stress until they’ve done a day’s work in a pressure cooker of a school, picked up two small, tired children, and had to make a right turn from a crèche onto the Annadale Embankment at rush-hour.

 

‘Quiet now, stop crying, just let me out of here. Your picture’s lovely pet, lovely, I’ll see it we get home. ‘Will she let me out? Will she! She will! Thank you! Aren’t people nice girls? OH FUCK ME WHERE DID HE COME FROM? God Almighty!

 

When my second child started using choice language of her own, aged two, I knew I had to exact a change in my life. (Incidentally, her first word was ‘No,’ and that continues to be one she employs a lot.)

 

And finally number 6. My father offers some sage advice, but this is by far his best. When you feel something niggling away at you, such as a feeling of gross ineptitude or abject terror, he advises: don’t feed it. I used to torture myself over things I couldn’t change, and they would mushroom out of control until I felt riven by dread. What a waste of time. As my yoga teacher Elizabeth says, if you get a parking ticket, pay the bill, then let it go. They’ve taken your money, don’t give them anything else.

 

But ironically, since I started writing Sour Wee Bastard, and airing my grievances, I’ve started feeling a whole lot chirpier. I’ve stopped suppressing all my rage and feelings of impotence and articulate them instead. In fact, some of my readers have conveyed to me that they feel a bit short-changed, since I’ve started being more up-beat and brighter. Don’t worry, I tell them, I can still be an acerbic old bag, and at least I can direct my vitriol at some of the feckers who deserve it.

 

Thus to conclude, when it all gets too dark, jog, volunteer, help people, or write your way out of the mire. Love and consideration are so undervalued by our politicians and world leaders. Maybe subtle changes in our own lives can show them what’s what.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SWB goes Eastside (Arts Festival)

Sour Wee readers! Would you look, I have my first ever gig, as part of the East Side Arts festival. The lovely Jan Carson contacted me about this and said I was the first person she thought of when it came to misery writing. How my reputation doth proceed me. I’m ever so excited, and a trifle nervous too, but thrilled to have been included in the programme. So if you’re free of a Tuesday evening in August, and let’s face it, it’ll probably be pissing down, because I reckon after July we’ll not see a summer like it till 2035, do come on down and see if a Sour Wee Bastard can make you smile.

 

SWB loses the will

There are fewer greater disappointments in life than pish wine, and I should know, because I’m after enduring two of them, and I’m going to NAME AND SHAME. The M&S Dine in Deal: there should be a law against it. I’m after nearly spraying the book I’m reading (Country, by Michael Hughes, more of which to come) with a mouthful of the foul Daniel’s Drift, but I swallowed it back because it’s a signed copy and one which I’ll reread because it is a GEM.

The Dine-In is a take on, for SO many reasons. If there’s no rotissererie chicken on the menu, don’t even think about it, that’s my motto. The wine is usually vile, only fit to cook with, though a French person would query that. I once read a book by the wife of the fellow who runs Veuve Clicquot and she had a recipe for chicken cooked in champagne. Can you ever, EVER, imagine having the cash to immerse your fowl in bubbly for a mid-week supper? Have you ever heard the like? Marie Antoinette wouldn’t be in it. And don’t get me started on the overuse of plastic. Oops, off I go. The packaging on the veg cracks me up, and the desserts. Not a bit of need for it.

 

Right, shite wine number two. I came home from my holidays, all excited about white Rioja. ‘Sí, sí’ said a Catalan friend, ‘You can buy it from Sainsbury’s.’ And how serendipitous, because last week they had 25% off when you buy 6 or more bottles, (no problem there for our family) and down the hill I zoomed and stocked up. ‘Muy buen,’ I said when I spied it, and into the trolley went a bottle. ‘I shall open that for aperitif when friends visit,’ I said to myself. And I did, and some poor bastard drank it and said it was lovely but I must have been on the red for I have only just sampled it there this evening and it was horrific. No wonder they only had one small glass and legged it. Must have thought the standard had slipped something shocking here in Sour Towers.

So there’s two glasses, destined for the slop bucket, and me in a state of profound agitation with youngsters who at nine pm are like yoyos up and down the stairs. ‘She nipped me!’ said one. ‘She called me FART,’ said the other. Bring back the rod, says I. And himself ensconced in The Northern Lights tucking into chicken wings, AFTER DOING YOGA! The cheek of it. Anyone would think I’d been at a literary festival all last week or something. Me nerves.

 

So to sum up: M&S Daniel’s Drift Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon: let it drift on, and Viñedos Barrihuelo Rioja: pure minging. I’ll be lucky if they don’t kill the lavender out front; may need diluting, as apparently,  does urine, according to The Mothership, who looked it up on the internet.

 

But back to the author: Michael Hughes, the man is a genius. This is only his second novel and it’s a thriller set in Provo land in South Armagh in 1996. It’s a riveting, at times stomach curdling read, and wait for it, he’s only gone and based it on Homer’s The Iliad. Brains to burn, yon fella. So there’s all these funny in-jokes and parallels and as one who loves the Classics I’m reading it in a state of near euphoria. I’m almost demented at the thought that I’m half way through.  AND he manages to make it funny with his topsy turvy use of syntax. Now I’ve studied The Iliad and it wasn’t a laugh a minute, but I keep reading snippets of ‘Country’ out to himself when he’s trying to sleep or get a bit of work done, and I’m laughing away to myself so much I can hardly get the words out. Maybe that’s why he’s in the Northern Lights this evening and it was nothing to do with their ‘Buy one bowl of wings get one free deal.’ It’s all about the deals this night isn’t it?

 

In a fit of imitation being the best form of flattery, I wrote  about the trauma that was breakfast this morning in the style of Michael Hughes. This is very niche and to be honest, if you haven’t heard the man himself (as I did last week at the Hewitt in conversation with Glenn Patterson), you’ll not get it. You’ll probably think I’ve gone completely mad, but here it is and sure just skip on if you don’t get it.

 Troy via Four Winds

(In a reversal of the myth, Helen is left while her beloved takes his leave, sailing off, the wind on his back, down the Ormeau Road. The onslaught begins.)

‘Where’s my toast? I want a drink. Would you cut me out a tail? I’m making ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ for tonight.’

‘Could a mother not take her tea in peace?’

‘Here’s a pen, draw it, now.’

‘Would you whist a while, Gumtree has me rapt.

‘Draw. Here’s the donkey. Where’s the blu-tack?’

The clock chimes half past nine, it’s Playball time.

‘Playball! NOOOOO!’ (They loved it yesterday, but like the Ancient gods my children are capricious.)

‘Up the stairs. Those teeth need cleaned.’

The blood gets up. Brioche ground into the rug.

Chocolate stained milk up-ended. ‘DON’T YOU SLAM THAT DOOR!’

CRASH.

The mother gives a gulder that would wake the dead in Hades. Lifts off the roof.

Up rears the cat and out.

Hair uncombed, in rats’ tails hanging. Vests back to front; shorts inside out.

Fleeces wet from water wars, left to moulder on the floor.

Not a coat, a water bottle, a lunch box. All is lost and it not yet ten. My parenting in tatters and STILL A MONTH OF HOLIDAYS TO GO.

Send in reinforcements, quick.

(Neither poem nor prose, just a lamentation.)

 

SWB gets arse to seat (finally)

 

Anne Lamott, a writer whom regular readers will know I hold in high esteem, recommends that one keeps their expectations low when it comes to writing  on a Monday. She suggests that after the freedom of the weekends, it is hard to condition oneself to achieve much, while the memories of the period of reprieve sit so vividly at the forefront of one’s mind. When it comes to writing, the summer seems to me, like a constant stream of Mondays.

I find it almost impossible to settle myself, running hither and thither, dogged by a state of mild but relentless anxiety about how to entertain my offspring. The holidays ought to be a time to unwind but instead the constant demands of small people means that I feel I have to crank it UP a gear, when every natural impulse suggests I do otherwise.

In Spain, in the absence of turning to writing as a means of catharsis, I took to the drink. Last year, we left the laptop in security at Belfast International, this year I left the charger, plugged in, at the house. ‘We can turn back,’ said LSB, ‘We have time.’

‘No no,’ I said, like a demented lunatic. ‘Foot to the floor, we MUST NOT be late.’ We were a mere ten minutes from the house, but on we trundled, and rocked up at the airport a full ten minutes BEFORE the baggage drop had even opened. I’m an anxious sort of a traveller.

My dreams of tapping away merrily on the balcony thus came to naught, and my writing muscle went un-flexed for almost a fortnight. Instead, I sipped more Vinho Verde than was advisable but did help somewhat dull the intensity of the children.

I exaggerate a little. I was reasonably restrained until the last evening, when I got quite carried away in a tapas bar in Fuengirola. After enjoying ice-cold beer as  aperitif, I foolishly guzzled  Rioja with the meal and got stuck into dessert wine with my tiramisu. I was in fine fettle by 11am and kept pestering LSB to let me adopt a small Chinese child. I even dragged the father-in-law into the debate. ‘You could take a pivotal role,’ I told him, with some gusto. ‘I’ve done my child rearing,’ he said firmly, giving his son a sympathetic look.

It was all great fun until the next day when our bus to the airport took the most dreadfully circuitous route and the combination of heat, hangover, and perhaps a dodgy langoustine in my Pil Pil Prawns left me feeling most nauseous. I was so ill and sweaty and quite beyond speech that no one came near me and I was left to sit alone on the bus, undisturbed in my misery. I suppose there is always a silver lining when one looks for it.

Incidentally, there is FORM to my wanting an Asian child. It was always a thought of mine that I might adopt, even long before I had shacked up with LSB and had my own pair. A former partner had to rein me in on a trip to Cambodia, when I kept harassing American parents about how they came by their Asian children. ‘Why can’t we just do World Vision like everyone else,’ he had grumbled.

Anyway, you can just imagine LSB’s delight when we arrived at our resort and there was a lovely couple from Galway with FOUR children,  one of whom was their biological child and the other three hailed from Mexico and China respectively. The little Chinese fellow took a great liking to me and I spent a great deal of the holiday with him slung round my neck, finding it quite hard to relinquish him to his mother. ‘Oh dear God, she has him again,’ I heard LSB mutter to his dad at least once.

Gosh, I digressed terribly there. What I’m trying to articulate, badly, is that over the summer I come quite UNDONE, and perhaps go a little berserk. Although I wheel the kids into various summer schemes, (this week, Playball, last week, tennis at Stranmillas Boat Club, both excellent) we are all out of our routines and I’m beginning to think that I actually quite like a routine to keep me functioning like a normal person. Without one, I feel like a cartoon motorcar, careening down a hill helter-skelter with hubcaps flying, then boot and bonnet, wheels and all, until it lands, a hissing steaming wreck, fit for nothing.

But I’ve so much to write about, not least the wonderful John Hewitt Summer School for which I was lucky enough to receive a bursary and attended last week. I was almost over-saturated by culture and was left reeling altogether by the quality of the poets and novelists who shared their work with us. I did the most wonderful memoir workshop with Ferdia Mac Anna who recommends ‘bum glue’ as a means to getting started, and I took his advice tonight and just SAT DOWN and blattered something out.  I’ll write more about the whole experience again, when a small child is not running around, at 21-34pm holding a colouring book and singing PEPPA PIG, FA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA, with tremendous vigour.

If you’re in anyway religious, say a few prayers. If not, say them anyway. I need them this evening.