Category Archives: Stories from my past

Don’t Judge a Bureaucrat by its Cover

I know prejudice is more often than not an error of reasoning, but I have to confess that I am inclined to harbour the occasional preconceived idea about certain types of jobs and the people who do them. The obvious example of this is the way I feel about anyone whose daily bread is earned by imposing and enforcing parking fines.  I DO understand that we probably need some rules about where not to park – if we didn’t we’d probably end up with ambulances full of heart attack victims gridlocked in a sea of static hatchbacks like imaginative ideas in a democracy. And if we have rules, we probably need someone to go around and remind people what those rules are. But humans are nothing if not hypocritical, so while accepting that the system should probably exist, I still secretly think that people who work in it are inflexible, blindly obedient, bureaucratic types without a critical faculty between them.

carol-beer-computer-says-no-1

So when, a few years ago, we received a parking ticket, I responded in my usual manner – which is to make like an ostrich and pretend it wasn’t happening. Here is the exact letter, with bits blurred out for privacy purposes:

parking ticket letter

You can tell this was some time ago because parking fines are considerably more than £40 now. But the tone of these letters hasn’t changed – all shouty and officious. You can almost imagined the stiff, grey, purse-mouthed bureaucrat who came up with that gem. Nothing here to challenge any prejudices.

Spouse was going through one of his phases at the time we received this uptight little letter (he goes through phases a lot – there’s been the Nationalist phase, the conspiracy phase, the Hindu phase and the Fungiculture phase, for example – and he has asked to have ‘Death: It’s a phase I’m going through‘ carved on his gravestone). The phase he was in at the time of the letter was his Discordian phase (if you know what that means, you will see where this is going). So he wrote the parking department a letter.  Here it is (in two parts because I am rubbish at I.T.)

discordian letter 1

discordian letter 2

This letter entertained us immensely. It may have been juvenile and unlikely to achieve anything, but I particularly enjoyed the little dig, ‘those investors in people’.  So we sent it off expecting no real response apart from the next computer generated demand.  But this is where the story gets wonderful.  I absolutely love having my worldview jiggled about occasionally, and when the next letter arrived from the council it did just that. When I opened the envelope I had to read the contents three times before I could believe what I was seeing. And when I did, it just filled me with joy. It still does, years later. Proper happiness. Somewhere in what I thought were those dusty grey corridors of blandness, there was a man who could do this:

parking ticket letter 2

The moral of this story is probably something to do with diamonds in lumps of coal or pearls inside oysters and books and covers and all that whatever. I just read the letter again, and it’s rendered me incoherent with pleasure.  You’ll have to draw your own conclusion.

My grandmother’s drawings

I’ve been blitzing the house today. My kitchen is so clean I’m scared to go in it and I’ve filled a box big enough to sleep in with recycling from the spare room.

This afternoon I started tackling the bookshelves and piles of paper and crap that surround them and became absorbed in… well…. everything: academic books from perspectives that now irritate me, brochures for holidays we could never even conceive of affording, pretentious poetry books I forgot I had, spouse’s slightly alarming political books, science books I keep not quite getting round to reading… and that sort of thing. I also found some more personal things: a purple flowery book of drawings and stories I wrote when I was small, a collection of significant poems I collected when I was a teenager, and a black hardback book of my grandmother’s drawings.

Looking through them reminded me vividly of her living room. It was painted a light coffee colour and featured paintings that her mother had done; a harbour scene of a jetty surrounded by red wooden houses, and my favourite – a representation of my great-grandmother’s weaving room with a floor-length blue patterned curtain swept aside to reveal shelves of yarn and weaving equipment. There was an old oak settle with a cushion that she had woven the cover for, and a massive extra cushion with a really itchy also-home-woven green cover. Inside the settle were all her Christmas things – wooden stars, hearts and goats, little Father Christmasses made by my Auntie Helen, electric candles, a plain white wooden angel with wispy hair like a little old lady and a candle holder in the shape of a lady with a wooden dress and a round nose.

My grandmother must have learned to weave from her mother and she did try to teach me, but I was far too teenage to take it on board. I regret that now she’s gone, of course. And I felt that very strongly when I visited Golant church this year where her woven cushion covers are still in use on the pews many decades after she made them.

My grandmother's weaving
My grandmother’s weaving

There were two cupboards in my grandmother’s living room on either side of the fireplace. One was next to her chair and contained her braid-weaving equipment and the other contained drawing books and a huge (or it seemed huge to me when I was small) tin of felt tips. I loved that tin of felt tips. It was made by Caran d’ache and what was splendid about it was that it didn’t seem to be made for children. My grandmother was the only grown up I knew who used felt tips, and these ones were in a tin instead of a rubbish plastic folder. Each one had a special niche so you could arrange them neatly by colour, they felt nice when you rolled your hand up and down them and the tin made a satisfying gentle click when you opened or closed it. They were so POSH.

And it was these very felt tips she’s used for her sketches in the book I found today. If you’ve ever coloured in with felt tips you’ll know that they can be quite a blunt instrument, so I find it interesting that she chose to use them instead of pencils or paint, but I suspect some of these drawings are ideas for weaving and the felt tip might be more precise – appropriate for the precision of designs for the loom.

These last two pictures are more meaningful to me than all the rest. When my brother and I were little, we used to find those little flat, green bugs (I now know they’re called Shield Bugs) really cute. My grandmother called them, for reasons I still don’t know (is it Swedish?) ‘Fifs’, and she told us stories about the Fif family and their children, Fif, Fifalina and Fifalotta. In the book there are two drawings that can only be of the Fif family. Here they are.

fifs 2 fifsOne excellent thing about having creative relatives is that you have something left of them when they’re gone. I have prints and drawings by my spouse, one painting by my mother and one by my dad’s cousin, some of my grandmother’s weaving and other paintings by my aunt and my great grandmother, and also this book of sketches. My creativity is largely digital, though, so I wonder if I’ll have anything physical to hand over to my sons when I’ve kicked the bucket.

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Thank you for my life, unknown man.

missing drain-coverThere was a feature on the radio this morning where listeners were invited to express gratitude to people who’d done splendid things for them and who they’d never had an opportunity to thank.

As I listened to a man thanking a music teacher for introducing him to Beethoven, I suddenly remembered that I have someone I’ve never been able to thank, and this person has made a significant difference to my life. Significant indeed, because if he hadn’t happened to drive down a street in Threemilestone 38 years ago, I wouldn’t even have a life. But there’s no way I’m going to listen to my own voice on the radio, so I’m thanking him here.

When I was five or six I used to hang out a lot with Jonathan next door. We usually played Robin Hood (the cartoon fox version), but on the day in question, some workers had left the cover off a drain on our street and it was full to the brim with viscous, gloopy mud.  The obvious thing to do under these circumstances is to find some long sticks, lie face down on the pavement and start stirring and sloshing and squelching. So that’s what we did.  It was extremely enjoyable, as you can imagine.

After a while, Jonathan was called in for his dinner (I was mildly middle class, spouse would call it ‘tea’), and the mud and I were alone together. You can see where this is going.

I decided I was going to get my stick much deeper into the gloop now that Jonathan’s head wasn’t in the way of the hole, so I wriggled forward, reached my arm as far in as I could and slid gently face-first right into the drain with one arm outstretched in a Superman pose (not like in my erroneous illustration).

me in a hole

So there I was with my red shoes and white socks sticking up out of the drain hole; helpless, upside-down and presumably slowly realising that at any moment I was going to have to start inhaling mud and dying (I wasn’t a stupid child). I can’t remember how long I was there, but it couldn’t have been very long before I felt a firm grip on my ankles and an interesting sucky squelchy feeling as I was pulled rapidly backwards out of the drain.

I can only imagine the image my rescuer beheld once he’d plonked me the right way up on the pavement. I was a bewildered human-shaped mud-being with incongruously clean red shoes and knee socks.
Not meI remember the man asking me where I lived, and me just pointing to my house because I didn’t want to open my mouth in case mud got in. Then the man took my hand-shaped appendage, led me to my front door and knocked. My mum opened the door with my wailing baby brother in her arms and encountered a strange man and a mud apparition. All I remember next is being plonked in the bath and hosed down. I don’t know if the man explained in detail or if my mum really took in what had happened, and I don’t know if she thanked him properly, but he actually did save my life. Our street was completely empty when Jonathan went in for tea; there was absolutely nobody about. I don’t know where this man appeared from, but I’m bloody glad he appeared from somewhere, because if he hadn’t, I’d have had to give in and inhale the mud.

So thank you for my life, strange man 38 years ago. I expect you’ve told the story of the pair of red shoes sticking out of a suburban drain a few times. I would if I were you because to me, you’re a hero.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Home

Being my mother’s daughter, aesthetics has always been a big thing for me in terms of home. My mum never feels completely at home in her dwelling place unless she has made it look and feel the way she wants it to. She lives in a lovely Cornish cottage with wobbly cob walls and beams, but her aesthetic is essentially Scandinavian (which makes sense because she is Swedish), and she had been unhappy with her small, dark kitchen for decades – unhappy to the point of wanting to leave the house. But last year, she and dad had an extension built with a new kitchen that fits her need for light and clean lines and now she is incredibly happy in her home. Here’s a picture of it when it was just finished:

parent kitchenAlthough my aesthetic is a more cluttered one than my mum’s, it has always affected how contented I have felt in my dwellings to the point that, even when I have lived in squats, caravans and benders with almost no money at all, I have tried to find ways to make them please my eye, or at least feel like they belong to me in some way.

In the squatting and travelling world most people had next to no money, and all our furniture and possessions were found in skips or given to us or bought from jumble sales, resulting in what could politely be called an ‘eclectic’ style of home decor. Looking at some of these pictures now it seems funny to think that I loved these rooms in one way or another. Today, I would pay a lot of money not to live in them.

The first is a shot of my first home away from home. It is the top room in a three storey squat in Falmouth in the early eighties.

my room 10 quay hillThe carpet, chair, chair cover and bobbly lamp shade were skip finds, and the pictures were either lifted from gigs or torn out of magazines. I can’t remember where the painting came from. It looks like squalor to me now, but I really liked it then.

The next one is also from the eighties. It’s a squat bedroom I had in Hackney, London. I had a thing about purple in those days, and I spent about a week’s food money on paint. There was no B&Q with shelves and shelves of coloured emulsion then, instead you had to go to a specialist paint shop and pay what seemed a LOT of money to have a pot mixed for you if you wanted a colour other than magnolia or white. The effect in this very old and tatty photograph is – as you can see – pretty garish. I think the red wall hanging was made by my grandmother and is now sadly lost.

london squat roomMy second purple room was in a squatted flat on Stamford Hill Estate.

stamford hill estate roomThe next picture is of the inside of a caravan we lived in on some wasteland when son 1 was small. We had no running water, no electricity (hence the tilly lamp), very little money and no toilet, and we used to visit the local tip regularly because in those days you could buy things for a few pence. We glued some hessian wallpaper up and made curtains from some material we found there. The table came from my parents’ house (I think) and I covered the kitchen cupboards with cut out pictures from magazines and books. Again, I wouldn’t want to live in it now, but it felt very much like home in 1992.

caravan united downs

But this post wasn’t supposed to turn into a bemused peer into my domestically cacophonous past – it’s supposed to be about home and personal aesthetics. It was triggered by a visit to the home of a much loved friend yesterday. This friend, T, has fallen in love with a man, R, whose home is now hers too. Their home is one of the most wondrous places I have ever been, partly because it is incredibly rooted in family and regional history, but also because R has such a strong aesthetic that it saturates every corner of the place. His aesthetic is kind of timeless but in parts surprisingly modern; it’s very traditional but also includes elements of eccentricity that prevents it looking like every other envy-inspiring home in Country Living magazine. Here are some photos.

R and T’s home knocks me for six every time. I find it almost impossibly beautiful, and my friend H and I regard it as a very special treat to visit. Yesterday, however, this wondrous place struck me as even more of a home than ever before. The air had shifted in some way, and it took me a while to realise that of course this was because there has been a new addition to the place – one that brings with it mess and chaos and the need for an occasional plastic object. Here it is:

Seeing how this unutterably lovely little bundle of disruption has affected this place, I realised that although I’ve yearned most of my life for a home I find aesthetically pleasing (and have now finally got one that’s almost there), it’s not the aesthetics after all that actually make the home.

In fact, the times when home feels most homely are when our aesthetics are being disrupted: when we have Christmas in mum’s perfect kitchen and there are people and dogs and mess everywhere; when an otherwise tastefully decorated Christmas tree is hung with odd lumps of paper and glue made by a child’s hands; when there’s a curled up cat and all his cat hairs rumpling up the sofa cushions; when spouse puts a Darth Vader head he found in a skip on the bookshelf next to my tasteful antique map of Cornwall. A home that is TOO visually beautiful can feel a bit intimidating, and I have visited people’s houses in the past that have given me hideous inferiority complexes. Aesthetics will always be important to me because I’m a visual person, but I’m not looking for perfection any more. Perhaps I can put up with the flimsy fake brass door handles I inherited with this house after all.

carlisle_brass_fg27_georgian_shapped_lock_handle

P.s. If you would like to experience the joy of visiting R&T’s house, they offer various types of accomodation at various times of year. Please see their website for further details.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Love (and more words than there should be)

We’re not a family that talks about love much. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel it – not at all – just that declarations of love can seem a bit insincere to our oh-so-British ears. This is particularly so when the word ‘love’ is flung about a lot in a relationship. To us it has impact only when used sparingly; anything else smacks of insecurity to our cynical ears.

So when son 2 was born and turned out to be a little package of enthusiastic and unabashed love it was a bit of a revelation; we were used to our more reserved toddler who really only wanted cuddles when he was sad or ill, and even then accepted them graciously rather than actively engaging with them like son 2 did. It has always been very easy to give love to our second son because he was born with a nature that invited it. It is harder to be sure that son 1 knows he is loved because he has become more and more detached from us as he has grown up.

Son 1 had a more difficult time growing up than son 2. When he was born we lived in a caravan on a traveller’s site with no running water, no electricity, no sanitation and drunk people all around. I was too immature of mind to deal well with my new responsibility and knew little or nothing of the psychology of children. I became post-natally depressed and if it wasn’t for my spouse, things could have been a disaster. He faced responsibility with determination, compassion and even a little joy. He got up and did the night feeds and woke me up for the morning feeds by singing along to cheerful songs on the radio and handing me a cup of tea.

We loved son 1 tremendously, but we weren’t the finest of all parents. We were very poor, we didn’t know what we were doing and we were tired and stressed much of the time. It wasn’t the best start for a sensitive young boy, regardless of how much we adored him. We made a lot of mistakes. When we moved into a house and son 1 went to playgroup and then primary school, he was only too aware of our difference from other parents. We were still big-booted, pierced and grubby and we didn’t have fitted kitchens or smart cars. He felt this acutely, but rarely said anything about it; he instead spent his time with other families who were more securely rooted in the ‘conventional’ lifestyle that he preferred.

Our son is now 21 and at university. He is independent, clever, witty and stylish and we are incredibly proud of him. When I think of him, however, I am always a little sad because he remains quite detached. It’s nothing serious or terrible, but he wouldn’t choose to spend time with us; he doesn’t really know what to talk to us about and he resists engaging with our interests and humour. Having son 2 has shown me what a parent/child relationship can be and at the moment I don’t have this with my firstborn. It saddens me to my stomach that he was the one who had to suffer the brunt of my parenting mistakes and that son 2 received all the benefits of what we learned from them.

But, son 1 does phone us when he has a problem and he did turn to me when he had his heart broken. I take solace from this and have a secret fantasy that one day, when he has children of his own, he might understand. In my fantasy, he is a famous fashion designer or journalist or publicist or something, and he’s on Desert Island Discs. He chooses a record that has something to do with his childhood and he says, ‘I was a very different person from my parents, but I realise now how much they loved me.’

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