The Guardian Crossword

Saturday 18 January 2019

Well what d’you know! Dry January Day 18 and I find that I can actually do some of the cryptic crossword. Are my brain cells re-awakening?

Reading the newspaper, just once a week, was one of last year’s New Year Resolutions. I thought it was a brilliant idea. My eldest was starting to think about University interviews, Prom-dress Daughter’s English teacher had recommended it. Small Boy always seemed genuinely engaged with the world and gifted with a brain that hears something once and never forgets it … I actually thought he would enjoy it.

“Let’s all choose one article to read each week and discuss them over mealtimes.”

I was heard to suggest, like some middle class twerp. The teens were unanimous in their response,

“No Mum. We won’t be doing that!”

And true to their word, they never did. Oh I lie actually. There was one, and only one, occasion when the newspaper did get opened. That was the day when Small Boy and I had an epic row. I eventually flounced tearfully out of the house. Upon my return, I found my son, who knew that he had really upset me, sitting in the lounge eagerly leafing through the Saturday Guardian and greeting my appearance with a peace offering of,

“This is a very interesting newspaper Mum!”

That incident aside, it was so rare for the supplements and reviews to even make it out of their (compostable) wrapping, that by mid-February I decided to save myself a weekly £3.20 and shelved the plan.

This New Year however I stayed with friends who do take a daily paper. I read a few articles and … more importantly … rediscovered the cryptic crossword! My lovely mum taught me how to tackle the challenge of the ‘non-simple’ crossword setters, many years ago. On our long summer holidays, at the family caravan in Wales, we’d sit together over the crossword every morning. And each year, by the time the days began to shorten and the August sun take an autumnal turn, we’d both be pretty nifty at the thing. Not so at New Year 2020 alas. I was totally rubbish and managed about one clue (a pitiful anagram), over the course of several days!

Nonetheless, today, as I push my trolley past the kiosk at the supermarket, I decide that I will resurrect my Saturday Guardian resolution. Not so much for the teens this time, but for me. And this afternoon, coffee in one hand and pen in the other I sit down to pit my wits against ‘Brendan’ setter of Cryptic Crossword No. 28 033 …. and I find that I can suddenly solve a fair few clues!

Can this really be the lack of alcohol? Let’s face it, there are many things it could be, but I am claiming this one as a Dry January triumph … for two main reasons. Firstly, my brain has definitely felt clearer, sharper and less ‘foggy’ for quite a few days now. But secondly, that apart, I have felt absolutely no other benefits from my days of abstinence. My waist is no thinner and, laid low with a viscious, energy-sapping cold bug throughout most of the first month of 2020, I feel cheated of the promised boost to my health and vitality. So as I face another 13 days partying the nights away on Diet Coke and Schloer, I draw upon the motivation that my mind at least, if not my body, may be heading back someway towards its former glory.

Anyway time for me to get back to my crossword. Six more clues stand between me and a chance to win that coveted prize of the ‘Can you solve my problems?’ paperback. 1 down anyone….

Family meetings…

Sunday 12 January 2020

Small Boy slides into the kitchen, his face alight with excitement…and hope?

“Mum, can I have a corn snake for my birthday?

Well that’s a conversation stopper… at least for a moment! But we are all there. It is Sunday after all, the one day of the week when my culinary skills extend to breakfast. Prom-dress daughter breaks the silence with a simple ‘Whaaaat?’ My eldest starts Google-ing facts about corn snakes and their living habits. Small Boy waves pictures of ‘cute‘ snakes at us. I take a swig of my tea (wondering, not for the first time, why I thought Dry January was such a good idea) and soon something resembling a ‘family meeting’ is in full flow. But I think there may be a family out there that needs a meeting even more than we do today…

Although only one full week in, world events have seen 2020 explode into the annals. Australia continues to battle bush fires that have devastated the ecosystem on a terrifying scale. Tension between the USA and Iran, following the death of General Qasem Soleimani, has been intense and, at its height, the press did debate the likelihood of a third world war. In the UK however, the story that has dominated the news reels has been the decision of Harry and Meghan to ‘step back’ from their roles a senior members of the British royal family.

I am not a major ‘royalist’ but I do have a theory on the national fascination with The Windsors. To my mind, it stems from them being family and whilst they do things that our familes do, (they marry, they have babies, they get their first jobs, they celebrate landmark birthdays, they grow up, they mess up) they do it all with the ceremonial glamour and style that wealth and privilege afford. And in this light they become a family we can all watch, discuss and debate. And because we all understand families, we all have something to say. Is it a step to far to suggest that, for centuries, we have had our very own brand of the Kardashians in residence at Buckingham Palace?

More seriously, if we look back to the abdication of Edward 7th, less than 100 years ago, we can see that the royal family, who have now relaxed their stance on marriage, reflect the changing views of society on the family and other issues. Their role, in modelling acceptance of today’s more varied family unit is a really important one for me. I also admire the Queen, who has (nominally) ruled our land for 67 years, for allowing the younger royals freedom to branch out and work on issue close to their own hearts. Princess Dianna shaking hands with an AIDS patient in the 1980s, Prince Harry more recently speaking out on mental health have all shown the power of the younger generation to challenge prejudice, to remove stigma and to make progress. Elizabeth 2nd is a true matriarch and I am sure she will be able to steer the family through their current dilemma, (which appears to be, an admittedly complex twist, on the age old problem of one son deciding that he doesn’t want to ‘join the family business’). In her long reign, the Queen must have dealt with far greater quandaries.

Could she spare some advice for me on the issue of the corn snake I wonder? My eldest announces that they ‘eat mice’. Prom-dress Daughter says ‘no way!’ I venture to ask if ‘any reptiles are vegetarians?’ Small Boy agrees to look into it and we head off to make some enquiries about non-mice-eating pets at the local pet store….

The End of September

Monday 30 September 2019

As the sun sets on another September, it’s a good time to reflect upon the last 30 days.

Now I use the term ‘sun’ metaphorically, because the skies have actually pelted us with rain for most of the last 30 days and there are flood warnings in place across much of the UK, as the ninth month of the year comes to an end. I also read that 2019 has been the wettest across the USA as well. Is it a result of global warming and the alarming acceleration in the impact of humankind on the plant? Greta Thunberg would certainly say so, and September has seen this remarkable young woman deliver her passionate address to the UN Climate Action Summit, supported by further waves of, predominantly youth Climate Strikes, across the globe.

Closer to home, my young people have also has a productive month. My eldest has finally completed her personal statement, applied to Uni, started partying with avengeance, as the entire year group begins to turn 18, … and booked her driving test. Prom-dress daughter has made an impressive start to College life, joined the Production, re-joined the gym, signed up for various trips and blows my simple-mathematical mind, as she ponders her philosophy and history at the dinner table. Small Boy has ambled on quietly, possibly a little lost, as the girls have taken up a lot of my attention, but he seems okay.

As for me, well I did secure one new work opportunity but wasn’t successful with the other. So, whilst 1 out of 2 isn’t bad, I search on for a substantial change in my working life. Maybe my fortunes will change in October 2019? It’s a month when Mondays all fall on multiples of 7, which is always a bonus for me. I resolve to apply for at least one new job per month, pour myself a glass of wine and bid a fond farewell to a pretty good September, for the young people of the world as well as three I live with…

Fantastique Day!

Saturday 21 September 2019

As Saturdays go, that was a pretty perfect one!

The morning sees the resumption of Saturday activities for the teens freshened up with a change of location. And this, in turn means exploring a new run route for me. I swap my well-trodden tracks, through a scenery of urban streets and sassy bars, for parkland and lush greenery. It is glorious in the warm September sunshine, the oxygen coursing through my veins and fuelling my heart with energy and optimism.

The afternoon takes me to a rehearsal for a performance of the dream-like Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz. Mine is a small part, the ‘off-stage’ oboe player in Movement 3. I find myself positioned in a dark dusty side room for my solo, with only a partial sight of the conductor and totally hidden from audience view. One of my GC (Group Chat) friends makes me laugh out loud with the comment that this sounds like a metaphor for her life, and I think that it many ways it probably is for mine too. Perhaps all parents feel that, much as they strive to play a beautiful part in the symphony of life, their contribution can feel a little invisible at times. But I don’t feel unappreciated this afternoon. The solo may be written to sound distant but it is so haunting that I absolutely love it and many member of the orchestra are kind enough to compliment my playing very generously too.

The additional bonus, of only appearing in one movement, is that my rehearsal time is very short and frees up the afternoon for catching up with the teens, doing the laundry, sorting out the weekly shop and doing my share of ferrying to volunteering … and to parties. I experience an usual sensation of being almost on top of things.

And tonight I am relishing a chilled glass of white after an awesome concert. My little moment goes well, but above all I am blown away by the Symphony itself, which I hear in full for the first time this evening. It’s testament to a great orchestra , where players commit fully to a truly emotional performance, but it’s also the music itself . Bernstein describes it as “a first musical expedition into psychedelia and it certainly sends me home on a real high.

Feeling ‘fantastique’, long may it last…

Tao of Glass and end of term

Sunday 21 July 2019

On Thursday, I try to cast aside my end of term exhaustion and head out for the evening to see ‘Tao of Glass’ , a world premiere piece of theatre, produced by the Manchester International Festival. This one will divide opinion, but I find it a mesmerising performance; visually stunning, very emotive and gently humorous.

However the final 10-15 minutes feature our protagonist lying on a revolving stage, next to a Steinway recorder playing an original piece of Philip Glass music, recorded by Philip Glass himself. It is beautiful and very relaxing …a little too relaxing as it transpires. I nod off and have to be nudged back into wakefulness by my companion. Next morning, it is still only in this semi-awake state, I stumble through a half-Friday to reach the end of term.

And so the sun sets on another school year and a hectic few weeks at home. As I collapse into bed, I am feeling shattered, dizzy and very unwell. I don’t emerge again until today and I have little idea where the previous 40 hours have gone.

Teens welcome me back to the world, and fill me in on the missing day and a half. They’ve certainly made the most of it! The girls have lots of shopping bags, all three have been to the cinema and Prom-dress daughter informs me that she’s cancelled her violin lesson! Oh well, reassuring to know that I’ve reared three independent souls, who can survive the odd day without a fully-functioning parent in the house. Thank the lord for my mum, who will doubtless have ensured that no-one starved, and bring on the Summer holidays…

Becoming ‘Mum the Brave’

Mother’s Day March 2019

‘Happy Mother’s Day!’ pings a cheery text from Small Boy at precisely 7:37am British Summer Time! It is earlier than I was hoping to wake up, after a late Saturday night concert, but it does make me smile. Small Boy is in France, so probably doesn’t know that our clocks have ‘Sprung Forward’. In any case it is now a family tradition that Christmas, my Birthday and usually Mother’s Day too, start at some ungodly hour with my boy crashing enthusiastically into the bedroom with a tray of breakfast! The girls, by contrast, are far keener on their weekend lie-ins and so it’s very quiet house that greets me, as I creep downstairs for my first cup of tea. I decide that it’s the perfect time, on this National Day of Maternal-ness, to contemplate life as a mum!

The biggest change, that I can see, is that parenthood, life or maybe just becoming older and grumpier has lead to me being far more… forthright at best, and … confrontational at worst. ‘Quiet’ was always the adjective used to describe me at school and I am pretty sure I was a fairly diffident young adult too. Years ago for example, I recall how in a, now legendary, family incident my mum took on a grumpy ice-cream seller in Harlech, who was picking on one of the kids. It was she who defended our family honour and earned herself the title of ‘Nana the Brave’. The name stuck for years and if ever the kids faced a tricky situation I’d advise,

‘”Try and sort it out yourself, but if that doesn’t work …. we’ll send in Nana the Brave!’

This morning, I’m struggling to remember when we last called upon my mum to sort out any such issues. She’s still there, as fearless and feisty as ever, but I think that somewhere along the line … I became Mum the Brave!‘ It is me who was likened to a ‘Tigress defending her young‘ by a teacher when I disputed her comments at Parents Evening. (Let’s gloss over the fact that I have since been banned, by all 3 kids, from speaking any more than is absolutely necessary on such occasions!) It is me who takes on any retailer, any institution or any person who thinks they can mess with us. Hey, I’ve even taken on rodents this month!

So more outspoken for sure but is this is a single mum trait? You certainly do have to tough up and find your voice to survive, and to ‘smash it’ …well that’s a whole new level of determination. Read the incredible Dame Susan Black’s story for true inspiration. Whereas my ‘Mum the Brave’ exploits usually revolve around riding to the rescue of my family, she uses her strength to flourish in her own career too and to motivate other women to do the same…and that’s something I’ve been less good at. And I know it’s my next big challenge….

But today is Mothering Sunday, Small Boy calls to tell me that he’s having a star named after me and I decide that conquering the world of work can wait for 24 hours. Today of all days it feels pretty great just to be a mum!