Monthly Archives:

January 2017


SWB gets a good telling off


AAI is properly raging. She read the last post and the profanities were just too much to bear. “I was angry.” I reasoned. “It was a totally justifiable rant when I”m on a one-woman-mission to encourage recycling, only to be thwarted at every turn.” “I still feel it’s excessive”, she sniffed. “Language of the gutter. You never know who’s reading this blog, and if they recognise us we’ll be disgraced.” She warmed to her theme. “Your Auntie Ethel came across a man one day, who was rude to her in the Post Office. And she said, I recall it to this day, “I don’t know who he was, but I thought he was very ill-bred”. Imagine if people said that about you! Letting us all down a bucketful.”


The Wise Old Elf looks up from his Bernard Cornwell. He doesn’t normally comment on the blog because he’s embarrassed by me, but he caught sight of the post while checking his e-mails. “Yes, I would temper that language. No need for it: does you a disservice in fact.” He shakes his head, looking genuinely saddened at my descent into vulgarity. “Devalues your argument in fact,” he concludes, determined to hit me where it hurts. “But,” I protest. “I try to be a helpful person. Plenty of those pious ones might look at me askance for swearing, but I don’t see them bin-hoking for Coke cans.” (In a recent display of greenness I set about fishing cardboard boxes, food cans and plastic bottles out of neighbouring black bins and transferring them to the blue one. No wonder my house rarely gets cleaned). “They’re content enough to burn wood pellets in an empty barn to be sure, but you wouldn’t catch them dropping the F-Bomb.”


“Hmmmm,” says herself, not in the least appeased and resolutely unswayed by my argument. So no daughter of the year award for me then, alas.


*Wise Old Elf, so called because of his likeness to the character in a well-known children’s programme.




SWB channels her vitriol constructively (for once)


So how did I find myself up-ending a brown wheelie bin last week? Not the most pleasant experience, olfactory or otherwise. Since the shift to the temporary abode I’ve been concerned (or rather, obsessed) about the recycling, or lack of it. We have neither any glass collection or composting bin. So after 3 months of complaining, I duly rang the council. Well, they sent a man in a van the next day. And as serendipity would have it, I happened to be cycling back from a run just as he pulled in. A lively chat ensued and a brown bin materialised within the week. Ask and you shall receive. Not just as progressive on the glass front, alas. Apparently in flats all the recycling tends to get mixed up with broken glass which poses a health hazard, so it just isn’t done. So I was all excited with the brown bin and saw some others were using it too: result! But then, some fuckwit fired a load of glass bottles in on top of the food waste, plus other rubbish. I nearly went berserk. There was me, fastidiously scraping every last coffee ground into my green bag and carting them down 3 flights of stairs and it was now all contaminated so destined for dumping. I was very irked.


Not to be deterred, I set about hoking out the bottles, but one, inevitably, had smashed. Bugger it, I thought and took off on a run to channel my energies elsewhere. But en route, I spied two council workers emptying litter bins, and stopped to regale them of my plight. “Can’t be up to them,” sighed one, “thos’uns. They see a bin, and they just fuck anything in til’it. They don’t give a rat’s arse”.  We shook our heads; the futility of our quest for a greener Belfast having worn us down. “No”, I said. “I won’t have it, me schlepping potato peelings up and down and all for nothing.” Seeing my distress, the chap sprang into action. “In that case, you’ll need gloves” said he. “And a black bag”.  So off I skipped with my council bag and gloves, and hid them behind a fence while I did my run, before returning to the flat. My renewed vigour waned quickly as the stench was rancid and my stomach was turned. Plus at 5 feet nothing, I was practically inside the bin, and there were spiky shards of glass everywhere. (Should I maybe, just go back to work, I wondered?) But, perseverance pays off. Another fellow came to my rescue, this time from the serviced apartment. He upturned the bin and we sifted through the bags together, chatting as we did so. Life felt better.


And this, dear readers, is what I love about Belfast. It is quite clear, that I am daft as a brush, but people are kind. They could have eyed me with suspicion and sent me on my way and I could have given up on the whole mission. But I didn’t, and I felt a wee bit more positive about myself and the world as a result.


But please, all those in Anna Hill, for fuck’s sake save me the effort and sort your rubbish out next time. We’ve a planet to preserve you know.




I am properly sour after doing the school run over the last few days. The pavements are disgusting, and it’s an even bigger disgrace given the number of schools and nurseries in the area.  Shower of lazy feckers. It prompted some vitriolic verse:                                                          theres_no_such_thing_as_the_dog_poo_fairy_classic_round_sticker-r04a582b9651e454ea0d14f3cdb353274_v9waf_8byvr_630

Good people of Rosetta,

Could you possibly see fit,

To avail yourselves of plastic bags

And pick up your pooch’s shit?


Each morning as we trot to school,

Round fetid mounds we step,

Since you reckon it’s beneath you,

To clean up after your pet.


Each day it seems there’s more and more

On Wynchurch Avenue,

But the kids race on regardless

As mums chorus WATCH THE POO!


Fido’s left a pile like horse manure,

Of which he’s proud as proud can be,

But us pedestrians are less impressed

That it’s been left for us to see.


Instead we lift our feet and scan the street

As we skirt around the dirt,

And lament your lazy feckless ways,

As your dog duties you shirk.


So once more I implore you,

If it’s not too much to ask,

That you grow up and do the needful,

Or else cork your canine’s ass.


Balm for the soul


I’ve just read Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine and I’m still reeling to be honest. It was one of those novels in which the characters grab your heart, limpet-like, and it takes a while to shake them off. She writes about children so well: their heavy warmth, from the new-born nuzzling your neck to the toddler on your hip, wee leg wrapped lemur-style round your waist. Sometimes I miss my babies, but then I give thanks that I’m still not knee deep in nappies as that period dragged on a while.


So vividly did she paint 1960’s Soho that I could have been in the Coach and Horses too, eavesdropping on Jeffry Bernard and his motley band of mates. But what I really admired though was her ability to do justice to the mundane and banal. The achingly long hours minding a baby, when one exists as though in a vacuum, while the rest of humanity, buzzes around purposefully but your world has shrunk, to one room and one tiny infant you have to keep alive until your partner comes home at 6. I recall it vividly.


I read the writer Shirley Hazzard’s obituary in The Guardian and she summed up what it is to write about the everyday: “the expression of something in a supreme way.” That’s O’Farrell for you.


This Must Be The Place is her most recent novel and I’ve just started it, but I’m almost rationing myself to a few pages at a time, eking it out so as to savour the story and the characters. She always hooks you in with a bit of mystery, making you want to devour it in one big greedy go, but I’m on to her wiles now and I’m going to try and take my time.


I find it difficult to get my arse to a seat long enough to churn out a blog post but she produces these works of beauty (I know I sound sycophantic but I’m mad about this woman) while running after three youngsters, who often seem beset by bugs and ailments.


For all our sakes Maggie, would you just feed them some Imodium or cork their backsides so you can get back to your computer and keep doing what you do so brilliantly? You help me transcend the misery of Brexit, of Trump, of all the shit out there. But you sharpen the experience of what it is to be human, to hurt, to long for and just to be. And there is always, always in her work, a sense of redemption, and reconciliation. We all need that. Are you listening Arlene?


My many incarnations


So they say everyday you should do something that scares you. Well every day’s a bit much, I mean I’d be dead, my heart couldn’t take it. But I thought I’d start the year on a scary note and tell a story at 10×9. You can have a read below. It was a nerve wracking experience but I am ever so lucky to have a crowd of loyal supporters, who said encouraging things and bought me gin. They’re a lovely bunch. As my brother once said, I’m a Lucky wee Bastard.

6 weeks. It took my parents 6 weeks to settle on a name for me. Dad was keen on Eleanor, Mum preferred Stella. I think for a while I was actually called Anne-Marie before they settled on Helen, which apparently neither of them actually liked that much, but at least it was one on which they could agree.  Aside from the idea that Anne-Marie coupled with my surname was a bit long, there was also the notion that it was ‘a bit too Catholic’. They wanted my brother Richard and me to have neutral names, neither obviously one or the other, so no one could immediately guess our religion. This was 1979 so it was a valid consideration, but you know, this is Northern Ireland, where to paraphrase Avenue Q, everyone’s a little bit sectarian. In West Belfast, four years on, another set of parents were choosing a name for their son, and applying the same logistics to their decision. They eschewed Conor and Liam and Fergal before settling on Stephen, because they didn’t want him labelled either.   The fact that he grew up on the Falls Road was perhaps indication enough what foot he kicked with, but enough about Stephen for now, he’ll crop up later.


It was ironic that mum and dad agonised over a name for so long, given how little Helen was ever used. My aunt had a little boy the same age as my brother, and she had another boy a month before I was born. So convinced was Richard that he would have a baby brother too that my mother didn’t want to disabuse him of the notion, so for the first few years of my life, I was known by everyone, as the Baby Boy. It really was a miracle that serious gender issues didn’t manifest themselves.  I don’t think Richard ever really forgave me, a) for being born at all, and therefore for my intrusion, b) for not being male, ergo rubbish at football, or in fact any other sports at all.


Growing up in our house was like being trapped inside a Lewis Carroll poem: there was always fresh nonsense afoot. In addition to ‘The Baby Boy’ I was also, Helencianna, wee Lencabel and if was bold I was the Bad Baby Boy, which morphed into BBB, which became BBB from the BBC. I didn’t work for the BBC. I was in no way affiliated with the organisation. I was 3 years old. I could perhaps have been the subject of a Panoroma investigation into stupid names given to infants. Close friends invited to the fold were quickly nicknamed, you could see the disappointment register in my mum’s face if there was no immediate effective rhyme available. If a name didn’t appear soon they weren’t generally keepers.


Mum owes these idiosyncracies to a great Uncle of hers, William Martin, whose portrait hangs in the landing of the house in Bangor. A kindly soul, he too spoke in riddles, gave everyone odd names and on Christmas Day gave all of his animals an extra handful of hay. I’ve inherited this trait, and no doubt my own kids will call me out on it.


If one was sensitive to nicknames, perhaps teaching wasn’t the ideal career move; children can be mean. But I’d been teaching my dolls and bears since I was six years old, grimly annotating their work: Brandy, this is not good. Cuddles, more space please. Prince Crawford, this writing is a DISGRACE. So it was no great surprise when I decided to become an English teacher.


The initial weeks of the PGCE at Queens were like the phoney war. Lectures, theory, quite a lot of lunches on Botanic Avenue and pints in Dukes Hotel. It was peachy. Then teaching practice began, taking two buses out to East Belfast, this was before Ballyhackamore became trendy. As we trundled through the Beersbridge Road in the 8am gloom I couldn’t help but think of TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. The lesson planning, and the trying to ingratiate yourself to the harried staff and supervisors all got very wearing indeed. The kids weren’t much into poetry. The truth is, in an all girls grammar, there didn’t seem to be much craic. I actually longed for a bit of life, a bit of animation, light impishness perhaps. There was a lesson in this for me: be very careful what you wish for.


Cue my next school, an inner city secondary. Oh, was there animation! On a daily basis I dodged missiles such as M&Ms, pencils, and on one memorable occasion, a chair. I quite literally took to the hills and a crowd of us used to hot-foot it down the Mournes of an evening and I would regale them with my tales of woe, until we got to about Dundrum, when someone else may have squeezed a word in. Then we walked up and down Binian and Bearnagh, Meelmore and Meelbeg, and it soothed my soul, at least until morning.


I created a Unit of Work based on a character called Spindletrim. It was an extract from a book given to us by our course tutor, some of you may even be familiar with the piece. So taken was I with Spindletrim and his plight at the hands of the evil bullies, that I designed several activities through which pupils could explore the intricacies of the English Language. Very little of this stuck. What did stick was Spindletrim, their nickname for me. In fairness, it was better than some others to which I’d been subjected, namely ‘camel toe’ after an ill thought out pair of trousers, and ‘arsehole’, yelled at me from a bus stop. That one caught on too, for a while.


There was one particular child called Daniel. One might say that he was a ‘spirited’ youngster, bustling with energy. I’ve never been one for political correctness, so I’m just going to call him a little shit. Daniel ought to have been with a teaching assistant at all times, but he was quite the escapee, and would often be found roaming the corridors, often at tremendous speed. One such day, I was heading to class when I felt the vibrations of heavy footsteps behind me, getting closer by the second. In hindsight, I should have stepped aside, as one does a charging bull, but instead I wheeled round, elbows bent and raised to protect myself. And so Daniel, who was also quite a portly chap, literally ran straight into my fists and sort of ‘bounced’ off. A mighty shout went up from a few onlookers: “SPINDLETRIM’S HIT DANIEL!” as indeed I suppose I had, although it wasn’t my intention. Oh fuck me, I thought, there’s my teaching career over, before it has even begun. Thankfully though, a nearby teacher witnessed the scene “Terrible love, I saw what happened, you’re grand, yon eejit needs locked up”. Thus it was clarified that I had not indeed hit Daniel, and if anything, this event lent Spindletrim a wee bit of street cred. I subbed in the same school for a month after my teaching practice had ended. At one stage my dad offered to pay me the daily rate, which was £70 to stay at home, because he couldn’t listen to the guerning. He’s nice like that, my dad. All my family are. Mad as a box of frogs, but nice.




And so to my final incarnation. To fund my course I worked on Botantic Avenue in the Mexican restaurant, Acapulco.  Saturday nights were hectic. I got super fit, taking those stairs two at a time to deliver margaritas as though they were pints of blood in the ICU. We ran out of milk one night, and it fell to me to run down to the Spar by the train station. My feet were on fire, and as I waited, shivering in the queue, a chap tried to engage me in conversation. “Are you having a good night there love?” “Err no, like I’m working, hence the apron?” Detecting the hostility in my tone, he made a vaguely sarky comment, to which I replied rudely. Not expecting such invective he replied: “Well you’re a Sour Wee Bastard aren’t You?” and stomped off. I was taken back. In fact I rang my mum the next day, looking sympathy. Instead she went into peals of laughter, and called over my brother, who joined in heartily. They seemed to agree that never had a person so aptly summed up a complete stranger’s character, in so few words. And thus I am now known by the pair of them, as SWB. I’d actually quite like to thank the randomer from the Spar that night for giving me my nom de plume.


And so to the chap from the Falls Road. Well listeners, I married him. And no one can quell my sourness quicker. I didn’t become Helen …………, because I’ve been called enough things over the years. So I remain Helen ……………………, AKA Sour Wee Bastard. The irony being that at the moment, thank God, my life has never been sweeter.




SWB sees Red


WARNING: May put you off your dinner. Especially if bolognese.

Periods. Since popping out my off-spring, my periods have become sorer, heavier and more sheet defying. Perhaps you’re familiar with those wooden devices that you thrust into half a lemon and twist firmly to extract the juice? That’s how my lower abdomen feels on the second day. And sometimes, as a treat, it goes up my back passage too.

It’s the surprise element that gets me. Usually it’s on a 23 day cycle, except when it isn’t. One month it could be light and relatively pain free, another and it will saturate a tampon and a pad in an hour. That’s one way to endear yourself to Easyjet flight attendants, when your reserves are locked in the hold and you have to deplete their own personal tampon supply.

Holiday times are when my periods are at their most objectionable. On a trip to Malaga last year it was late. Very late. After two negative pregnancy tests I still couldn’t relax and enjoy my Rioja, lest I damage the budding embryo within. It finally arrived on the last day of the holiday. “Isn’t Mother Nature a malevolent old witch?” I opined.

It made a very visible appearance when we stayed with new friends in Barcelona. After being deceptively light it came a-gushing one morning; LSB had to coral the kids out while I assessed the damage. Like the f**king Texas Chain Saw Massacre, that’s what. Upon seeing an armful of bed linen, our gracious hostess assumed it was a ‘niña’ who had wet the bed. “No pasa nada!” she smiled, while I shook my head, trying to convey the necessity for Ariel Non Bio in my rubbish Spanish, and set to scrubbing the scarlet stain. I bet she can’t wait for me to come back next year.

So what brings on this particular rant today, one may wonder. Well, the first period of the year is always hideous. It’s not called the curse for nothing. We honeymooned in January and I learnt to my mortification that Hungarian toilets have the most half-hearted of flushes. LSB returned from a trip to the loo after me, his face positively ashen. Another year I almost crashed the car, as a searing white rage descended, to accompany my throbbing gut. And so to today and the reason for my ire: as I drove to Bangor with the girls I was beset by a fit of coughing, the force of which seemed to further dislodge my womb lining so that it soaked through to my nice frock. “Nice to see you Mum! Sorry I look like I’ve haemorrhaged, any chance you could nip up to Boots for me?”

AAI* is always good in a crisis and produces the needful, which I’d (of course) forgotten to bring. “How dreadful dear, but sure won’t be long until you’re rid of the damned things. I wasn’t much older than you when mine buggered off for good.” So I’ve hot flushes to look forward to next. It just keeps getting better.

Bring back the Red Tent I say! No need for Always Ultra, just a shared space with friends; the peace to sit, off the hook from chores and responsibilities, sipping wine together until the fecker had passed. Maybe our sisters back in Biblical times didn’t have it so bad after all.

I’m off to find the Feminax, night all.

*AAI is an acronym for my mother who is Almost Always Irked by something, or somebody. (Frequently me).