Thursday, 19 April 2012

work is the last thing on my mind

The first holiday I went on after becoming a mother, when my daughter was maybe 11 weeks old, was miserable. I spent the entire week raging at the injustice of life. Parents of young children, I discovered, don't have holidays: they simply transpose their home life elsewhere, leaving behind at home everything that makes the parenting of young children fractionally easier, a sliver more bearable. Now that my daughter is five, and her brother three, holidays are less desolate but still difficult: without the toys that can keep them blissfully quiet and occupied at home, they become more dependent on me for entertainment and encouragement. We've just come back from a week in Athens visiting family, and I was struck anew by their seemingly limitless capacity for boredom, the seething vehemence of it. That and the appalling brevity of their attention span. Every game of let's pretend and simon says descended into a competition between us, to see who would lose interest first.

Last time we visited Athens, those inevitable moments in the day when television offered salvation were filled with a three-part viewing of The Sound of Music. To the adults' collective astonishment, my daughter was mesmerised by it: by the children, of course, the songs, the cheeky, spirited Maria. (A year later, and after repeated viewings, she startled me by asking why Germans are bad. That took a lot of dismantling.) This time I had the foresight to bring some DVDs from home: all released by Disney, all made by They Might Be Giants in collaboration with a bunch of (I'm assuming) independent animators and film-makers. Now I haven't had time for They Might Be Giants since 1990 or whenever it was when Birdhouse in Your Soul lodged itself in my brain and refused to budge for what felt like eight years. But these DVDs are unspeakably brilliant. They're all educational, which for a pain-in-the-butt middle-class mother inclined to pretension like me is a massive point in their favour; one deals with the alphabet, one with numbers, one with science. But that would be as nothing if the songs were rubbish; if, like most music allegedly made for children, the songs actually appealed only to grown-ups too self-absorbed to allow anything that doesn't fit within their parameters of taste airspace in the home. Until TMBG, the one magnificent exception I had encountered to this was the Crayonettes album Playing Out, a work of staggering genius that accords the imagination of children the greatest respect. TMBG's albums work in a similar way: they commune with kids rather than foist stuff upon them. And they do that using exquisite pop melodies, irresistibly catchy choruses and a delicious sense of humour. They got better as they went along: Here Come the ABCs (2006) is good but not a patch on Here Come the 123s (2008), which contains possibly my favourite song of the entire set, Never Go To Work:

How perfect is that? It's silly and oom-pah-pah-y and so deliciously subversive: why go to work when you can practise trumpet every day? When my kids both turn out to be fifth-division indie popsters – and my daughter is already badgering me to help her record her first album, much to the horror of other music writers on the Guardian, who believe our first responsibility as parents is to prevent our offspring contributing to the superfluity of dreadful music out there – it won't be my fault: it'll be the fault of that song.

We've had Here Comes Science (2010) since March only, and until this holiday I hadn't been in the room while they'd been watching it, but I think it's going to turn out to be my favourite. This song staggers me every time I hear it:

It crams into three minutes pretty much everything I learned in two years of Chemistry GCSE. If I were being picky, I'd say the song moves way too fast: I can hardly keep up with all the facts, let alone the kids, and by the end I feel exhausted. But I love the subdued note of awe, the jerkiness of the phrasing, as though the song is constantly struggling to deal with its own truth: we are made of dirt and stardust. I love this song, too:

The words might de-romanticise shooting stars but the lonely whippoorwill music, the twinkling dance of voices, radiates melancholy romance.

As with so much else in my life, my feelings about holidaying with the kids have shifted since reading Adrienne Rich's Of Woman Born. She's forced me to address the chasm between my romantic sense of possibilities and the cold, hard facts of my parenting. I've quoted so much from this book there doesn't seem much point in stopping just yet, so here is the passage about one summer holiday with her three sons that sounds so idyllic it pricks my heart every time I read it:

We fell into what I felt to be a delicious and sinful rhythm. It was a spell of unusually hot, clear weather, and we ate nearly all our meals outdoors, hand-to-mouth; we lived half-naked, stayed up to watch bats and stars and fireflies, read and told stories, slept late. … At night they fell asleep without murmur and I stayed up reading and writing as I had when a student, till the early morning hours. I remember thinking: This is what living with children could be – without school hours, fixed routines, naps... Driving home once after midnight from a late drive-in movie, through the foxfire and stillness of a winding Vermont road, with three sleeping children in the back of the car, I felt wide awake, elated; we had broken together all the rules of bedtime, the night rules, rules I myself thought I had to observe in the city or become a “bad mother”.

I console myself with the thought that her sons were aged five, seven and nine at this time: you can do so much more with older kids. Certainly the theatre-going options expand: unlike Lyn Gardner, it never occurred to me to engage with theatre for children until I had some myself, and it never stops surprising me how much work there is, and how thoughtful and beautiful and moving so much of it is. On Friday I took my daughter to The Dream Space at the Globe, which was faintly discombobulating because Tom Frankland is in it, and I hadn't entirely appreciated how odd it would be to watch him bouncing around in a participatory show. Although she didn't articulate it quite so pointedly as me, my daughter and I agreed that we would have liked a lot less of the goblin Puck playing havoc with the lovers plot, even though Mummy recognised that it was cleverly done, and a lot more time exploring every nook and cranny of the properly magical fairy forest. She was seriously unimpressed when I told her she had to exit the little green bower on the hill and sit down for the story: why listen quietly when you can play?

That night I finally caught up with Forest Fringe at the Gate and had a blissful night: no point me writing about it because Andrew Haydon has already said anything I might want to say over on Postcards (I take his embarrassment about knowing nothing about science and raise it: I'm married to a third-generation scientist and constantly make him laugh with my woeful ignorance). No, wait, there is one small thing: I was much more unnerved by Chris Thorpe's practice of emptying out his pockets on to the stage than Andrew appears to be. It instantly made me think of every single movie I've ever seen in which the criminal hero arrives at the prison gates and has to empty his pockets before being taken to his cell.

Then on Saturday I saw Mercury Fur for the first time and gave myself a serious bash on the shin for not having done so before. What an astonishing play this is: bright and volatile as a naked flame. I can't remember the last time I wanted to hold hands with the stranger sitting next to me at the theatre, but that's what Mercury Fur does to you: makes you long for human contact and connection. As it turned out, the stranger sitting on my left hated the play so much that he walked out in the middle of the second half (to be fair, he was right next to the door). He found it gratuitously violent. To me, its violence was terrifyingly real. When I got home I read reviews by Jake Orr, Matt Trueman and Honour Bayes and marvelled that all three of them had described Ridley's vision of east London as dystopian, because to me it wasn't far-fetched at all. A bit extreme, maybe, but in my corner of London people die in drive-by shootings, kids are caught in gang cross-fire, and a teenager tightly clustered with his friends on a street corner at 7pm on a blustery evening will announce with a desperate, clenched seriousness: “I'm not supposed to be alive.”

But that isn't the only reason I was surprised by my theatre-neighbour's horror at the play. To me, the heart-blood of Mercury Fur isn't violence but compassion. The love in this play is so furious it's frightening. Every relationship is as tender as a bruise. The way Eliot and Lola melt into each other when they kiss, the way Eliot clutches his brother Daniel, the way Daniel and Naz hold their hands to each other's hearts, eyes growing wider with every pulse: these are fairy-tale romances, quivering but proud in the face of maleficence. That's what makes the violence unbearable: they all want to protect each other, but everything about this world – our world – militates against it. The other thing I read when I got home was Lyn's excellent interview with Philip Ridley, written in response to the play's first disparaging reviews. And there it was: “It is a play about love.” The kind of love that every now and again when I look at my children sends an electric shock through my system and makes my eyes burn with tears.

My neighbour left at about the point when it becomes apparent what's going to happen with the meat hook, and I now can't remember if he was there or not for what I felt to be Eliot's key speech, about the butterflies – midnight blue with crimson specks? I can't remember – that root out any suicidal thought in the taker's mind and make it happen. Kids dying without having to do anything more than open their mouths. Eliot is distraught: despite everything, despite all the horror surrounding him, he believes in life, in future dreams, not only for himself, his nearest and dearest, but for his whole unknown generation. I don't think my neighbour would have seen this, and I can't quite understand why not. I've thought a lot about that scene in the last few hours after watching Headlong's thrillingly unconventional trailer for their new season. I love that it's essentially a pop video, not least because their choice of song shows exquisite taste. But I've been feeling seriously troubled by its air of suicide chic. At the risk of revealing the acutely personal, when I've been there, there hasn't been a single chic thing about it. It's snotty and bloated and terrifying. But maybe I'm just taking the video a bit too seriously.

I'm pessimistic enough to know in my bones that we're all going to hell in a nuclear rocket, but live in hope, not nihilism. Yes, we need social change on a grand scale, but that doesn't excuse selfish behaviour on an individual level. I'm getting a lot of nourishment from John Holloway's Crack Capitalism at the moment: his central argument is that grand revolutionary politics tend to replicate the capitalist system they profess to abhor; better are the small, tentative strikes against the system that crack through its surface to suggest a new life beyond. I'm particularly excited by his insistence that we connect the acts of rebellion enacted by a guerilla leader and a housewife in her kitchen. I don't do demonstrative politics: I don't even have a politics label on this blog. I won't camp in a field in the height of summer (maybe if I did, I'd have more bats and stars and fireflies in my life), let alone outside St Paul's in the depth of winter. What I can do is stand resolute in the face of pressure from the extended family and make a series of small, deliberate decisions about how I conduct myself: walking the kids to school in the rain, using jumpers rather than radiators to keep warm, minimising waste. Of course, the minute you start saying things like that you just sound like a horrifically worthy nimby-poop. But that's because no one respects the housewife in her kitchen and everyone thinks guerilla leaders are supercool.

A couple of weeks ago I had a fun half-hour with Scottee recording something for his Lecterner project, a series of alternative-education podcasts that sets out to prove that you don't have to go to school to get smart. I talked at length about cake, and surprised myself by how fervent I sounded. Over the past year or so, one of the big changes I've made in the house involves the oven: if I'm using it, it's got to be full. As there are only so many savouries I want in the oven at one time, I've started experimenting with fast-action cake-making to fill the space. It doesn't count if you do a Nigella and bung everything into the processor: that's still using electricity. Muffins are brilliant for this: you throw the wet ingredients over the dry, give 12 stirs with a wooden spoon and bang, they're in the oven. I made this lot last week and they came out particularly well:

Raisin spice muffins

250g plain flour – 3 tsp baking powder – 125g light muscovado sugar

a shake of cinnamon, a shiver of ginger and a shimmer of allspice (which probably translates to 1, 1/2, 1/4 teaspoons, but I can't be sure)

200ml yoghurt – 50ml olive oil – 1 tsp vanilla extract – 1 egg

100g raisins

This is preposterously easy. Put the dry stuff, bar the raisins, in the mixing bowl. Put the wet stuff in a measuring jug and beat it about with a fork. Pour wet over dry and stir until they make friends. Throw in the raisins, then pack it all into 12 muffin cases. Bake at 175 degrees/around gas 4 for about 20 minutes. And THAT'S IT. I should warn you, the mixture is pretty stiff but it comes out of the oven fluffy and squodgy just as a muffin should be.

So there it is, number one on my 13-point programme to destroy capitalism: revolutionary baking. And in the unlikely event you don't know why it's 13 points then welcome to this (I know it's not the same album, I just happen to love it):

And then, oh joy, this:

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