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Archive for the ‘Domestic’ Category

A week ago it was my grandmother’s birthday.

Nanna lives all by herself in a little council flat in central London, a flat with a tiny paved square in front which is filled with carefully tended pot plants, like a leafy bubble in a grey, concrete world. I phoned her, as you do, and my timing was spot on, because she’d just put her birthday lunch in the oven – a pork chop with stuffing, roast potatoes and veg followed by her homemade banana custard, which she’s dished up since I can remember – and so I caught her sitting down, which must have been a first. Perhaps she’s slowing down, but then I guess that’s allowed at 93.

My grandmother, Florence Heathcote, during her military days.

Everyone marvelled at Queen Elizabeth, but she’s a mere sprightly, well-cared-for 85.

Let me tell you a little about this remarkable woman, my grandmother, born Florence Alice Rose in 1918, now Florence Heathcote. She looks like all grandmothers should in her pastel polo shirts, with a halo of soft curls – washed and set at the local salon on Thursdays – and spectacles permanently on her nose. But her eyesight isn’t failing at all. No, she already had glasses in the picture I have of her  during World War Two. In it she’s wearing a tie, a uniform and a military-style peaked cap set at a jaunty angle – “ooh, that was very naughty of me,” she chuckled when she gave me the photo – but then this portrait was an official identity photo, taken when she was serving in the Royal Air Force in Bombay in 1943.

Her ration card shows that she bought a surprising number of cigarettes. I’ve never known her to smoke but maybe she did back then, or maybe she had a thriving micro-business selling on fags to the troops. I like to imagine she had a naughty side like that, something to match her non-regulation hat angle. Oh, and she bought a lipstick on her ration card too. Good woman.

She remained in active service until 1951, rising to the rank of Sergeant, then went back to Britain and worked, quietly, stoically, for the telephone company until she retired. She married my granddad several years after his first wife – my mother’s mother – died too early, and never had children of her own. She happily took on all of us though, crocheting us dresses, hoarding Dolly Mixtures for my mum, and arguing with my dad about politics. We went to visit her once and couldn’t get up her street because some mad IRA chap was waving weapons about. We went around the back way and had to crawl under the windows in the stairwell so he wouldn’t see us.
Well, that’s when she wasn’t visiting us in South Africa bearing gifts of Smarties (in tubes!) and ever-more pastel crocheted jerkins, before patiently potty-training my sister, or cheering on Manchester City or gardening or making lemon curd or shouting at the cricket on telly or striding about the lakes and parks of the world, reminding children not to talk with their mouths full. She threatened to tie my legs to the chair for swinging them at the table.

One of Nanna's newspaper cuttings. (Yes, that's her in the background, but don't tell.)

I went to see her last year, and she met me at the door holding a walking stick, but her grip on it was so light she could have been Liza Minnelli interrupted during a (gentle) tap-dance to New York, New York. Her legs “aren’t what they used to be” she said, although when I left she walked me all the way to the canal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d left her stick at home.

I turned to shout goodbye from the banks and she stood on the bridge, firm and unswerving, waving until we rounded the bend, and I felt tearful, knowing she was 92 and wondering if I’d see her again.

But still, now 93, she continues to walk everywhere, taking her wheelie shopping bag for her groceries and wool. The wool is very important, because she keeps her fingers nimble knitting hats for premature babies. She makes baby blankets for charity too. Sometimes stillborns get buried in her warm hats, she told me, clearly a bittersweet point of pride to a lady who has lived for so long.

The day previous to her birthday she made herself a pile of her favourite lemon biscuits as a treat, and her beloved Manchester City winning the FA Cup was her own personal birthday present. Not that she watched the match though. “I couldn’t,” she said, “The stress would have killed me.”

She’s of another era entirely, and we didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but perhaps that was my fault, my unyielding temper, because she’s still mentally flexible. When I called she was delighted to hear from me and chatted brightly about everything, from her much-loved new HD satellite telly (she’s a demon with technology) to her great-nephew, who’s “unf… gay”. “Oh dear, I nearly said he’s unfortunately gay, but we don’t say things like that anymore,” said Nanna. “He lives in Manchester with his partner, and they’re happy, which is all that matters.”

Yes, she’s still completely mentally flexible, able to oust her prejudices and bend to changing times, even graciously accepting that her favourite great-niece has moved in with a chap. “Her father was a bit upset,” she said, “But I told him that people do things differently nowadays, and it’s their world.”

There won’t be a big obituary in all the papers or a state funeral when my grandmother eventually dies – possibly years after me at the rate she’s going –  and nothing will be said of her in the history books, even though she’s surely quite remarkable in this age of gimme and impatience and fame. So, while she still lives, I feel the need to shout that she’s an inspiration and a marvel, both her and the others that remain of her generation, the formidable, useful, capable, polite, principled, quietly noble generation, the generation that did what had to be done, that Just Got On With It, the generation that “looked after number one” very last of all.

We should treasure them now, and learn from them while we still can.

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All the talk of Obama’s visit to Ireland today, brings me back to the evening of his inauguration, January 20th 2009, when Himself came home to find me on the kitchen floor.

On my knees.

Surrounded by the usual mish-mash of baby changing paraphernalia – sudocreme, wipes, tiny nappies and – ahem – masking tape. SKY News was blaring on the TV, the spuds were boiling over on the hob and there was the distinct smell of overcooked fish emanating from the oven.

‘Eh – hi honey I’m home!’ he ventured, the tentative tone to his voice giving away his unease at the sight of his obviously grumpy, pregnant wife on her knees, immersed in chaos.

‘Don’t even start’, I spat.

‘Oh, right. Where is she?’
‘Where is she? Where is she? Well I’ll tell you where she isn’t! She isn’t here tending to her responsibilities like she should be.’ I brandished a half-dressed baby doll by one leg, nappy half masking-taped to her bottom.

He nodded a pathetic attempt at understanding and turned away, but I could see his shoulders start to shake with poorly disguised mirth.  He’d seen this coming and he was right.

It was all my own fault. As a mother of a two-year old with another on the way, I had decided it would be a great idea if Santa brought a baby doll, complete with nappies, bottles and a soother. All in the way of preparation for the new arrival. And in my defence, it had been a huge success. To be really honest, the exact level of success far exceeded both my expectations and my wishes.  Baby Millie was changed and fed to a routine that would put the most militant of nannies to shame. And to be fair, for those first three hours on Christmas morning, my enthusiasm surprised even myself. I supplied cheap wipes, an empty tub of sudocreme, an empty tub of talc, all in the name of education and preparation. I may even have shed a hormone induced tear as the brand new Mammy rocked her plastic newborn with the words, ‘Go to sleep my liddle baby.’

I was thrilled of course at her dedication to the project and thought it boded very well for the prospective welcome of the new sibling. Then, things started to slide slowly out of control. Due to my over exuberance on the paraphernalia front, baby Millie needed a changing bag. No problem. Mammy had a spare one. Great. Then empty tubs no longer sufficed. ‘She needs reeeal cream!’ was the wail. Then every time Baby Millie left the house over the course of the Christmas holidays, her little pink nappy bag had to be packed. Bottles, wipes, nappies… Her buggy had to go in the car; her car seat had to be strapped in…

‘But it’s a doll!’ He groaned one day as I ran back into the house to grab Baby Millie’s soother.

‘Not to her,’ I hissed.

By New Year, reality had sunk in. It seemed that not only was Daughter No. 1 being groomed for the new arrival, but so was Mammy. Instead of enjoying my last few tiny-baby-free months, I had given birth ‘prematurely’ to a plastic nightmare. Sweet, pink, innocent Baby Millie had shot me squarely in the foot. And it hurt. Not only could I now remember only too well the chaos a new baby brings, I was also starting to feel the exhausted pain and weariness of a modern ‘granny-before-her-time’, left holding the baby of her teenage daughter, at a time when she should be ‘finished with all that palaver’. Only this daughter wasn’t heading out to party with her friends. No, this one was abandoning nappy changes mid way through to resume a jigsaw, the words ‘You do it’ carelessly thrown over one shoulder being the only, ominous, similarity.

Of course Himself thinks it’s hilarious.

Well, the laugh will be on the other side of his face when I tell him Baby Millie needs a new buggy. After all, you can’t expect the child to push that flimsy plastic-rubbish down our potholed driveway. Yes change was coming to our house. As for Barack, I just loved that man. I know I supported Hilary in the early days, but even I know now, that she wouldn’t have brought the same wave of hope, of revolution, of thanks. It helps that he’s easy on the eye. It even helps that he smokes – ah sure you’d need him to have some bit of boldness about him. Oh, Mister President

So back to the evening of his inauguration. I know she was only two, but I decided that the day was too historic to let slide. Dragging her onto my knee I explained that the man on the screen was going to save us all, that he was a great man, that he was the first black American President. And then it suddenly occurred to me that his colour would mean nothing to her. That she was possibly belonging to the first generation for whom colour actually made no difference. After all, several of Barney’s little gang of friends were of various races and no comment had been passed yet.

Abandoning the history lesson lest I create an issue where none existed, I instead spent a half an hour teaching her to chant with her little fist in the air ‘Yes We Can!’ and sure she loved that.

Great Stuff.

And then it was time to change Baby Millie again and that was when Daddy walked in.

Finally getting off the floor, Baby Millie, changed and safely hidden behind the sofa for the evening, I called the child prodigy to come and show Daddy her new trick.

‘Who was the man on the TV, Belle?’
‘Ehmmm,’ she thought for a minute.
‘Come on Isabelle, What was the nice man’s name,’ I asked sweetly, whilst silently sending the telepathetic-message-of-a-pushy-parent We’ve practiced this, don’t let me down!

‘Obaba!’ she cried gleefully, the strange scary look in Mammy’s eyes having the desired effect.

‘And what does Obama say?’ I encouraged with relief.
And with that, she raised her little index finger in the air and exhibiting all the strength, belief and determination demonstrated by the great man himself she pointed straight at Daddy;

‘Yes You Will!!’

And now, two years later, she’s four. And she has a little sister and they knock lumps out of each other over Baby Millie and the three-wheeled-all-terrain buggy that Daddy was eventually forced to buy. Today, President Obama is coming to Ireland, and this time I’m going to have another go at the history lesson. I’m going to sit them both down, and let them see him on the screen, and hope that they’ll take at least some of it in.

Because Change is Coming.  I can feel it. I felt it with the Eurovision last week and I felt it again, even stronger, when the Queen of England walked on Irish soil for the first time.  And even though I don’t even claim to understand rugby, I felt it again when Leinster staged one of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time, to win the Heineken Cup on Saturday.

Can Ireland stage it’s own comeback? Not to the heady heights of the Celtic Tiger, but to dignity, pride and the feeling that all will never be lost.  Can we combine the energy of Jedward, the determination of Leinster and the beauty, grace and acceptance of the Ireland we showcased so flawlessly last week? Can we stop trying to be something we’re not, and instead relish all that we are?

All together now, girls…

‘Of course we can!’

Margaret Scott-Darcy lives in Kildare with her husband, daughters and a variety of animals. A full time accountant, she is also currently working on her first novel. Her blog MotherWorkerWriter can be found at www.mscottdarcy.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mgtscott. 

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Here’s a bizarre dichotomy to consider: corrective rape. Yes, raping a person to make them see the error of their ways. I wish I could tell you I’d made it up, but it seems it’s all the rage at home, in South Africa. Now take a moment to consider and remember the following women, all victims of corrective rape, all black, all young, all lesbians, all dead:

* Noxolo Nogwaza — raped, stabbed and stoned to death in an alleyway in Kwa-Thema, near

Eudy Simelane - murdered.

Johannesburg, in April, simply for being a lesbian. She was also a mother. Her eyes were pushed out of her skull, used condoms littered the scene, a paving stone lay near her crushed head, and there was a beer bottle against her vagina. She was 24. Her name means peace.

* Luleka Makiwane — contracted HIV when she was raped by a cousin hellbent on trying to “prove” she was a woman, not a man. Cock does that, you know, it sorts the women from the men. Luleka ultimately succumbed to Aids.

* Nosizwe Nomsa Bizana — gang-raped by five men, and now dead from crypto meningitis, believed to have been contracted during the attack, or possibly as a complication of the trauma she suffered.

* Nokuthula Radebe — strangled with her own shoelaces and found in an abandoned building with her pants pulled down and plastic covering her face, at the age of 20.

* Eudy Simelane — gang-raped, brutally beaten and stabbed to death at the age of 31 because she was a lesbian. Eudy was a talented footballer who had played for the acclaimed South African national women’s team. She worked with the handicapped and was an HIV/ Aids counsellor. Her naked body was found dumped in a ditch.

These are some of the 30-odd women known to have been murdered in my homeland in the last decade merely because of their sexual orientation. Countless more have been raped for being lesbians, a crime now dubbed “corrective rape” because the perpetrators seem to believe that a violent, demeaning shot from the old meat injection is all it will take to make lesbians see sense and realise that a penis is what they needed all along. This is precisely what happened to Millicent Gaika (pictured), a lesbian who was raped and beaten for five hours by a man she knew who said he was going to turn her into a woman.

Millicent Gaika after being repeatedly raped and beaten for five hours.

Yes, I know: it’s about as logical as suggesting a gang of gay thugs raping a straight bloke will change his sexual allegiance, but some people really are pig-ignorant, illogical and deluded, while bloated with dangerous machismo and immense hubris.

Stupidity and ego are a toxic combination. Some men think their love is all you need.

Let me get one thing straight though: on paper, South Africa is one of the most progressive places on the planet when it comes to gay rights. The country’s post-apartheid constitution was the first in the world to stipulate that nobody may be discriminated against due to sexual orientation, or gender or race for that matter. South Africa was the first country in notoriously homophobic Africa (where 37 countries outlaw homosexuality completely) and the fifth country in the whole world to legalise same-sex marriage. There’s none of that civil union lark. Lest the First World feel smug, please note that 42 Commonwealth countries still have homophobic legislation on their statute books.

Equally, South Africa was the first republic to provide non-heterosexual people with the same rights regarding adoption and military service as heterosexual folk. We’re very proud of our constitution. Well, some of us are.

In the thriving cities and metropolises, being gay is pretty much accepted, while there are Gay Pride parades, and there is a thriving gay scene.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t always filter down to the boneheads on the street, to the cretins who see lesbianism as a direct affront to their manliness, an insult, a rejection of the lads, and something they must self-righteously fix with a brutal beating from their own beloved love truncheon. It’s a growing problem as the poison of homophobia seeps through the dust and the shantytowns.

Yes, rape as therapy.

Gay rights' protesters remember Eudy Simelane.

Countless women are raped each day because of their sexual orientation. One estimate based on calls to a Cape Town-based action group alone puts the figure at ten a week in that city’s informal sprawl. Last Thursday (5 May), a mere 13-year-old girl was raped in Pretoria’s Atteridgeville because she was open about fancying girls.

Yet, very obviously, rape is not a cure for anything at all, and being raped has never changed a person’s mind — except, perhaps, to confirm a woman’s suspicions that some men are barbaric and, in the case of gang-raped lesbians, to confirm that they were right all along.

Finally,  possibly ten years too late, the South African police are setting up a task-force to tackle the issue.

What is needed, however, is a complete change of mindset, a realisation that in every civilization since the beginning of time between three and ten percent of the population were gay. It’s seen in frescoes from Pompeii, in ancient Greek mythology, from Michelangelo to Marlene Dietrich, from Ottoman sultans to Oscar Wilde, from King Shaka to Billie Jean King… It’s frequently seen in the animal kingdom too. It was rife and widely accepted in Africa before the missionaries came.

And why should anyone care what another adult does with their own genitalia anyway? What goes on between consenting adults is nobody else’s business at all. Not that any of this is consolation to the families, friends and lovers of all the victims of corrective rape, or any salve to the jagged memory of Luleka, Nosizwe, Nokuthula, Eudy and Noxolo, whose name means peace…

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Yes, we’re all being told to make do and mend and embrace craftiness. But actually, making stuff yourself often isn’t cheap. So let’s hear it for Regina de Búrca, who offers a guide to being crafty on a budget.

I come from a long line of women who knit, sew and crochet. My forebears’ sole purpose of making things was to saving money. My grandmother’s Aran jumpers were undoubtedly beautiful yet their main function was a practical one, while my mother was a prolific dressmaker who made everything from our ‘good room’ curtains to my Communion dress. She taught me how to sew so that I could make clothes and repair them. But by the time I grew up, culture had turned disposable and the importance of skills she taught me had dwindled.

In the past, craft was often a necessity, not a hobby.

It wasn’t until my grandmother’s death in 2002 that I became interested in craft work. When we had the heart-breaking task of packing away her things, I was reminded of the significant role crafting had played in her life. We found her ‘work box’ – a hand-decorated box containing a wealth of supplies, neatly stored away with a half-finished jumper and blanket. I decided I couldn’t let her legacy go to waste and so I took them all home with me.

My grandmother’s forte was crocheting; something I’d had little experience of. When I went online to find resources to teach myself properly, I discovered that the world of handicraft had changed dramatically. Once an old-fashioned, staid pursuit, the art of crafting had become subverted; reclaimed by a dynamic, sassy generation who wanted to make things for the fun of it and had set up initiatives such as the ‘Stitch and Bitch’ groups.

I have been making things ever since then. But my approach to my hobby has changed over the years. At first it was simply a relaxing and rewarding way to spend my time. But as my salary has decreased and my expenses have gone up, I couldn’t justify spending more on say, making a jumper, than it would cost to buy one, so I gave up crafting as an overindulgent hobby.

However, it wasn’t long before I missed it. The last time I moved house, I happened upon my grandmother’s work box. I thought back to the times when making things was a good way to save money, so I became determined to find a way that I could save cash while doing something I loved so much.

It has been challenging – there will always be cheaper alternatives to homemade clothes and accessories. It is impossible to compete with mass-manufactured low-price products. But what I have found is that the items I make myself endure longer than many budget items I have purchased, so in the long term they can work out cheaper.
Here are my top resources for craft supplies on a budget. Some are online, others based in Dublin. I would be very interested to hear of any other budget retailers that I don’t know about, particularly around the rest of the country!

Wool

My first port of call for wool is always The Liberties Market in Dublin 8. It is the cheapest place I have found in the City, and the best choice when looking for wool for a pattern that requires a lot of the stuff.

The ‘special offers’ section of the Spring Wools website is a treasure trove of unusual wool and knitting kits. They deliver quickly, too!

Etsy’s knitting supplies section is useful.  it’s the most economical place I’ve found for specialist wool, I’ve found some really unique types here in the past.

I keep an eye on Aldi’s and Lidl’s special offers – they often sell bags of wool.

Charity shops can sometimes stock it – a friend of mine once bought five balls of mohair wool for two euro in a charity shop on Capel Street! Granted, I’ve scoured all the charity shops in the area to find a similar deal but haven’t… yet.

Fabric

The fabric wholesalers, TWI in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square is the most budget-friendly walk-in fabric shop I’ve found – . It sells an amazing range of fabrics.

http://www.fabrics-n-stuff.co.uk/ is the cheapest online fabric retailer I’ve used. The service is fast and the shipping costs not too painful, so needless to say, I’m a regular. Their range isn’t as extensive as most online sites, so often I enhance the fabric myself using batik techniques or sewing on collars or feature pieces (see vintage market in the ‘Other’ section, below).

The clearance page on Fabrics.com has some great deals. It has the best range of budget fabric that I’ve found online, so that excuses the postage costs… just.

The fabric supplies section on Etsy is an Aladdin’s cave of fabulous materials of all kinds -

The ‘Online Fabrics’ special offer page has some good deals – but with £10.99 postage costs regardless of weight of the package, I only use it for a big order no more than once a year. Don’t forget to request samples – they are 75p each for a fat quarter. Each customer gets a maximum of ten samples.

Best way to stock up on low cost fabric is to ask any backpackers you know who are jetting off – they can pick up stunning pieces in places like Morocco or India very cheaply.

Patterns

My all-time favourite craft site is at Craftown. From patterns to easy to follow illustrated guides, the website is a fantastic resource for all other types of crafting.

The member-only http://www.freepatterns.com/ is a wonderful site. Once you sign up (for free) you can download their patterns in PDF format. They also have a e-newsletter service, which provides interesting tips on various kinds of craft work.

The All Free Crafts site is an amazing compendium of patterns. And with no login to set up, it’s very accessible.

Other

K & M Evans sells supplies for teachers and sells a huge variety of paper and paint and lots of other crafting tools, for much cheaper than high street art shops

Vintage markets are great places to pick up buttons, collars and other pieces of fabric that can be repurposed. I keep track of the fairs in Dublin through Vintage Ireland’s Facebook page.

The Craft Council of Ireland has a ‘for sale’ section on its website that sells everything from pottery kilns to screen-printing frames.

The supplies section on Etsy is a super resource for all types of craft work.

Aldi and Lidl sell the cheapest sewing machines I’ve found. I got mine in Aldi a couple of years ago for 70 euro.

Freecycle is a great place to find crafting staples such as sewing machines and dressmakers’ dummies.

DIY stores can be the cheapest places to find glue, wire and paints.

One of the main ways I save on my craft budget is by pooling resources with my friends. By sharing things like sewing machines, Lomography cameras, tile cutters (for mosaics) and bookbinding tools, we have access to far more supplies than we would normally. And it follows that we all have a shared knowledge base, so we save on tuition fees as well.

Handicraft in itself has added value because it can be so fulfilling -there is something very satisfying about making your own things. It brings me joy look at what I have made over the years, in particular the jumpers and blankets co-crocheted by my grandmother and I. I hope it’s a tradition that will be kept up through this generation and future ones.

Regina de Búrca hails from the West of Ireland. She has been a Liverpool FC fan since the age of four. She writes books for teenagers and has a MA in writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. She currently lives in Dublin. Twitter: @Regina_dB

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I should be…

As I sit here writing this I should be putting the towels in the washing machine.  I should be sorting through the rest of the washing, putting colours on one side, whites on another and delicates somewhere else. I should be hand washing the delicates.

I should be reading the children five books six times a book, squeezing out metres and metres of Play Doh poop out of the new Play Doh poop maker, building a train track for precipitating disasters, digging the sword for the Playmobil pirate out of the dust bag in the vacuum cleaner and teaching them to play the violin and piano in unison. (The children or the pirates, either way it’s my job)

I should be vacuuming, cleaning the kitchen, washing up and washing down the floor. I should be ironing.

I should be sorting my drawers so I don’t go into the jumble every morning and come out dressed like I’ve been to a jumble sale.

I should be organising the never-ending re-registration of my car and a savings account online.

I should be budgeting for the rest of the month and sending a long email to my friend who I haven’t seen in ages.

I should be baking something wholesome for the whole family.

I should be grooming the dog whilst paying the bills over the phone (“EIGHT ONE OH ONE..SIT!…no, sorry, not you”).

I should be writing up pitches and sending them to all the contacts I can muster and following it up with cheery positive phone calls that result in arse-aching rejection.

It’s endless, what I should be doing instead of writing this.

Or should I?

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Sometimes I get incensed as I stare at the tattered remains of my brilliant career, clutching weakly at the frayed fringes of what I like to think I once had or might have been, before I moved far away from home to be with a man simply because I loved him. Would he have done the same? Well, he didn’t, which perhaps says enough.

Anyway.

I like to think I helped him with his destiny, but some days I feel I put my own destiny in a box in a cupboard then moved continents and forget it was there. It’s easy enough to do when you’re a woman in love, when there are children, when your salary is a pittance compared to his, but still, perhaps I left part of myself behind somewhere.

Or did I?
Do any of us have a destiny or do we just get lucky? Or unlucky?

My brilliant career such as it was — half-witted, half-hearted, half-baked, half-arsed, two-thirds fantasy even – seemed to die, but then so had so many careers before. I was a nurse briefly but loathed the polyester uniform and the broad, flat-footed lecturers with their pep-talks about avoiding intern doctors and their advances.  

I was a waitress and a barmaid, a bank clerk and a check-out girl, and I can do the twirly wrist thing that makes a fabulous peak on softserve ice-cream, thanks to my tenure in a dairy parlour called Milky Lane.

I was a journalist for many years, still am, I hope, and I had a great gig on a daily paper in South Africa, but, like I said, love got in the way. Or that’s my excuse. Maybe I got tired. Maybe I got lazy.

I’ve written three books, although I suppose they’re nothing more than manuscripts really, blinking computer files that no publisher wanted, yet still they taunt me every day on my hard drive.

And once, for a moment in time, I was even a poet…

I was 19 and working near Johannesburg at what was then Beecham, the Aquafresh people, and I was the bored receptionist living on a diet of Smarties, magazines and desperate snatched conversations with people who walked through my little prison, where I sat shut away from the company on the wrong side of the glass security doors. In my sunless brick box, passing sales reps felt like serendipity, their cheap Golfs were chariots to a better place. Anyway, no doubt tiring of me yawning at the visitors, the personnel department agreed to give me extra work, and so I was charged with sending the photocopied rejection letters to the countless, faceless people who applied for non-existent jobs in our factory. Remember Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where poor Charlie’s dad spends his days screwing the lids on toothpaste tubes? It’s bizarre to think how many people were queuing up to take his place. And we had a machine for screwing the lids on anyway.

So I’d address the standard rejection, scrawl a signature, lick the envelope shut, stick a stamp on it and crush someone else’s dreams, hundreds and hundreds of them each day. But one morning a grubby letter arrived with no return address, hand-printed on a torn sheet of paper, with just a plea to meet the writer at the factory gate, to give him work please, to give him a job.

The man was called Marais Qulu, of No Known Address, County Homeless. I showed it to the HR person, begged him to try to find the man.

“Jennie,” he said, “Do you know how many people queue outside the factory gates every day?”
The question was rhetorical.

I wrote a poem about it, or rather a terrible attempt at one, but still 21 years later I remember it by heart and, soaking in my cesspit of self-pity of late, it came back to me like a slap from my younger self.

Thousands queue for 200 jobs offered in Durban, South Africa. (Picture: Reuters)

It’s called “The Aims of a Job”:

Here I sit
fat as shit,
got a job
Grinning a bit.
Mister Marais Qulu
(he’s a Zulu)
has no job,
like you and I do:
“There is nothing food.
I am write this letter to you
with the aims of a job.

The writing is just as terrible as I recall, I don’t know if he was Zulu at all, but in the current world climate (lashing rain, with more expected) it’s just as apt. And as Japan is shaken and washed away, as people lose their homes, offices, possessions, security, children, their very lives just because the world doesn’t play fair, as they scramble for food, for fresh water, for warmth, I know how lucky I am that I can afford to stare out of the window, that I have the full tummy and the spare time to lament my battered dreams. A room of one’s own? My God, I have several.

Marais Qulu: in hope, I googled his name. No results were found.

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Back on the Shelf

Those ornaments will have to go....

Two years ago we had a major refurbishment and extension carried out in the house, involving work to every room. We emptied the whole place and moved out for the duration of the build. All our books were packed into boxes and moved to the attic. The room which had previously housed them was being turned into a bathroom, so we drew up great plans for built-in shelving to accommodate them in the ‘new’ house.

 

However, budgetary constraints meant that the shelving plans had to be, er, shelved. After four and a half months, we moved back in, thrilled with the new-look house. But the books stayed where they were.

During the intervening two years, I’ve been quietly fretting about them. Were they being destroyed by damp or mould, nibbled to shreds by rodents? Fear of said rodents prevented me from visiting them in their attic prison to check on their welfare.

Last weekend, we finally set them free. A carpenter had built three MDF shelf units for us and we had spent the previous two weekends painting them in readiness (two coats of primer and two of eggshell – who knew it was so much work?). Father and son were despatched to the attic to drag down the dust-covered boxes.

What a joy it was to open those boxes and reacquaint myself with so many old favourites. Most of the fiction is mine, and I loved nerdishly arranging it alphabetically on the new shelves, from Adams to Zusak. Each box brought back a memory. There was The Passion, the first Jeanette Winterson I read, given to me by a book-loving, bookselling old flame. He also introduced me to the unforgettable character of Ignatius J. Reilly, star of A Confederacy of Dunces, one of my all-time favourite books. A very short-lived interest in science fiction was represented by a few John Wyndham titles, the first of which I picked up at the second-hand book stalls I used to visit on London’s South Bank. I was slightly horrified to discover that I own not one, but four – four! – novels by Tony Parsons. However, my inner literary snob was consoled at the sight of all the Paul Auster and Ian McEwan books – two of my favourite writers.

Some books seemed to be missing. Where was The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, memorably and incisively critiqued by an ex-member of my bookclub with the harrumphed words “Lesbian this, lesbian that, lesbian the other”? I’m sure I own a copy of The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen but did not come across it either. I began to have dark thoughts about the people who may have borrowed these and other titles and failed to return them. However, as I read lots of books without actually buying them, it’s possible they were never mine in the first place.

Job completed, I stood back to admire the filled shelves. They looked great, and made the house look better too. Glancing through the TV pages, I discovered there was a whole evening of programmes on the BBC marking World Book Night – a fitting way to end the day.

With time running out this month to track down our next bookclub book, Cutting for Stone, or to order it online, I have downloaded it to my husband’s new iPad. It’s a great novelty, my first time to read a book electronically, and it won’t be the last I’m sure. But it won’t keep me out of bookshops, and the great discoveries to be made by browsing within.

We’ll just have to build more shelves.

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