Monthly Archives: October 2012

Women in costumes

One thing I am not sad about is spending Halloween in France, as that means my exposure to something that really makes me want to hurt people is limited. I was reminded of it yesterday when I saw a ‘slutty schoolgirl’. Of course, this woman was British. She was, I’d guess, in her late thirties. Her costume was too small and too tight. Her belly was hanging out. Bearing in mind everyone else was dressed as a witch or a skeleton or some other such halloweeny thing, I did wonder why she’d chosen ‘slutty schoolgirl’ as her look.

But she’s not alone, and it’s a peculiarly British thing, I’d guess.

Last time I went out in Manchester, it was for a hen party. We were a small number. We weren’t in costumes. There wasn’t more than an inch of superfluous fat on display.

However, we were the only hen party that looked in any way dignified.

Slutty pirates. Slutty nurses. Slutty schoolgirls. Slutty you-name-it. Cheap nylon costumes with cheap accessories, bought, more often than not, from some cheap ebay site. Or, worse still, bought from Ann Summers.

Most of the women, I’d guess, thought they looked marvellous. They had too much make-up on, cheap wigs, inches of cleavage squeezed into too-small corsets that weren’t really corsets at all, leaving all the spare fat to seep out over the edge in the least flattering way. Then ridiculous stripper shoes, more often than not abandoned at the edge of the dancefloor. If I were a man, I’d be terrified. Tiger Tiger in Manchester seemed to be full of these hen parties and I can see why the gay village has ousted them.

I think those cheap costumes say a lot about a woman’s self-esteem. I simply don’t think you can have any if you wear a costume like this:

I tried to get a picture from Ann Summers to prove a point, but unfortunately, it’s not so click-and-link easy. I wanted an Ann Summers one for a reason. Ann Summers. It’s underwear. At a push, it’s lingerie. It’s something for the bedroom. It’s designed for interior spaces. It’s not supposed to be worn by an army of women out to prove how many friends they’ve got by inviting everyone they know. I know women who go on a hen party virtually every weekend. They’re hen party liggers.

And Ann Summers, it’s not even nice or sexy underwear. I have friends who are on the kinky side of life and who go to grown-up parties, and not one single woman in the place would be caught dead in something made in China out of nylon. It’s silly, cheap underwear that never lasts long and actually makes you look worse than you do without underwear. It doesn’t fit right. It doesn’t look good.

The same with these costumes.

What’s worse is that if you do a search, as I just did, for ‘sailor costumes’ to prove a point, you get a page full of skinny, perma-tanned women with a lot of leg wearing stripper shoes and too-short costumes that should definitely not be worn by a normal, average English girl.

To me fancy dress is just that: a costume. Not underwear.

And definitely not cheap underwear.

What’s even worse is the costumes for men in comparison.

They look like this:

The men’s costumes are funny, if a little cheap-looking. They’re covered up. There are no posing pouches or smalls to be seen.

Either, then, this is a conspiracy by men to get women wearing their underwear in public. And to be honest, most of it makes me want to gip. If I were a man, I would NOT want to see the average, lardy, milk-bottled thighed, over-weight, badly nourished northern girl wearing this costume. I might like to see an over-inflated model in it, sure. But I would have nightmares about seeing real women wearing it.

So if the men aren’t behind it, and let’s face it, Ann Summers was set up by a woman, then it’s woman-inspired. Other women are convincing their ‘friends’ to do it, and telling them they look good.

If I were a mean, bitchy woman, that might be a good way to get all of my so-called friends to look foolish, so that I could have the pick of any man there. If I thought I looked vaguely good myself, I might encourage my friends to look less good than me.

But I’m sure most women have enough self-awareness to know when a better-looking Mean Girl is setting them up for a fall.

So that means women are doing this to themselves.

Which makes me wonder why.

Why would any woman do this?

Do they think they look good? They cannot, of course. I never saw my sister look as elegant as she did when she was almost all covered up. She never needs to show her lady-bits to get attention. I’d go as far as to say all of my friends are beautiful because of their personalities and their smiles. Most of them have got body hang-ups, and those who haven’t, like me (because I just don’t care!) wouldn’t put themselves in an outfit like the sailor girl costume above.

In all honesty, I blame the Spice Girls. They were the first women to get up on stage and bear all, often in not very flattering outfits, especially at the beginning when they were chubby and podgy and pale and English. Forget the latter-years uber-polished Spice Girl. I’m talking Wannabe Spice Girls, where they were all in need of good nutrition and a bit of airbrushing, alongside a designer. After that, we raised a nation of girls who thought ‘girl power’ meant wearing a silly, too-small flag dress, or being dressed like a leopard-skin transvestite.

I think the Spice Girls outfits are a good example. They were young, they could get away with it. If they hadn’t grown up glamorous (and there’s a word with history) then it’d be worrying. And that’s the problem.

The Spice Girls grew up.

The women who copied them did not.

And they’re still wearing offensively-revealing costumes, with pasty muffin tops and fat spilling out from places it shouldn’t.

It comes back to one Ginger Spice song. Look at me.

Some people equate wearing less with getting attention, obviously.

I wish someone would go out and say a great big No! to the women over 25 who are still in underwear-costumes. Yes to dressing up like The Pink Ladies. Yes to dressing up in Bay City Rollers costumes. Yes to being silly and being fun. Yes to cheap costumes. But no to underwear. A big, firm No!

Unfortunately, Halloween brings out the worst in these women. Slutty witch. Slutty vampire. Slutty devil.

Funny how you never see Slutty Zombie or Slutty Ghost, isn’t it?

Anyway, if you are my friend and you ever wear a costume that needs ‘slutty’ prefixed to it, expect me to wag my finger and say No! I speak as an active member of the Fashion Police and of the Women’s Healthy Self-Esteem club.

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Standing on shifting sands

1989. I was sixteen and a band came out of Manchester, a band so wonderful and amazing they could never live up to their own hype. That band was the Stone Roses. In 1990, I went to Spike Island with a whole lot of other people – I’d guess over 20,000 – and it was a crazy, wonderful time.

This is one of my favourite tracks, though I should really have put the first Stone Roses album on my Desert Island Discs. The brash monotones and acid colours of the 80s gave way to the much more pessimistic 90s, when Nirvana and Pearl Jam would become my most-listened-to bands. I can’t think of a more Much Love Monday album. Not unlike many other bands who change the tone of everything that everyone is listening to, they found it hard to live up to the hype.

So what am I loving this Monday?

Firstly, forest walks. The garden’s kind of slowed down. My vegetable patch is no longer uncontrollable. Heston is a boy who has a lot of energy (don’t get me started on his new-found friendship with César, labrador-hobo-extraordinaire, who turns up in my garden to play and then takes Heston out on walks around my village… Heston was standing at the front gate yesterday, all giddy, like ‘look at me! I’m outside!’ and he was so pleased with himself it almost felt horrible to lock him back into the garden and seek out one of César’s many escape-holes that Heston had managed to follow him through.)

I won’t lie to you. I’m also hunting for mushroomy-treasures.

I have a mini-mushroom obsession. The day I find my first cep, you’ll hear me crowing about it from China. Every time I read a story about a 2 kg cep being dug up, it just excites me even more.

Plus, my dogs are cute when they go out for walks. They love a walk.

Today, we saw a deer just eating a little lunch at the side of the road. Deer here are kind of small. They’re not much bigger than the hares, which are MA-HOO-SIVE. I’d always expected deer to look like the big red stags in the parks in England, but no, these babies are tiny. Roe deer are small even compared to me. Heston stands at 22 inches now, and a roe-deer is about the same size.

Not only did we see a deer, but we also came across a dormouse. I should say one of the dogs came across the dormouse and I’m guessing it was preparing itself for hibernation and was a bit slow, but it was soon a meal for a dog. And then it was regurgitated. I managed to throw it away before it could be eaten again. Heston is a bit like Lennie in Of Mice and Men and I half expected him to go after it again.

It’s also good weather for jumpers, scarves, hats, gloves and thick socks. I like this weather. Fires are good. I’ve burned myself three times in the last two days on the fire – mainly because I pull my sleeve up to put the log in and then I catch my arm on it. My dad suggested gloves, but since I wear gloves to do it, I need some of those cow-birthing gloves. Cow-birthing gloves made of asbestos. It’s hot-water-bottle, electric blanket, two-duvet weather, when it’s nice to feel warm and you’re not so cold that you mind, but cold enough to really enjoy warm beds and blankets and fires.

It’s ten degrees in the day, the sun is out, the leaves are crisp, there are lots of people walking about and ferreting in the undergrowth.

Also a time for sticking on films and getting into an art groove.

I’ve got my concept for my Christmas cards this year, and I think you will like it when you see them. They’re a little more colourful than last year, though still very ‘me’. Black outlines, lots of text and fonts. I’ve also been using acrylic and inks rather than water colour for them. I’ve done a handful and this next week, I’ll finish them off. I showed them to a little girl today and she said ‘What are you doing??! It’s not Christmas! It’s not even Hallowe’en yet!’

I like to be prepared.

I’ve also been working through classic films. Last night it was 12 Angry Men. It was the first time I’d watched this classic. I thought it’s funny how the world has evolved to the point where racists no longer feel comfortable (on the whole) sharing their views with all and sundry, but in all likelihood, put a black kid in the box and you’d have the same situation. However, the likelihood of having a jury of 12 angry men has ceased to exist. Now, if only we can beat both racism and sexism out of the entire world for good in the next 50 years… I also thought the actors of the latter years were much less handsome and shiny and polished. Bar Steve Buschemi, we favour a flawless cast these days. I watched Dark Matter the night before, and I’m quite glad Tim Burton favours weirdness from time to time. 

I’m also Much Loving this Monday article about how lucky we are: 4 big predictions about the future. You don’t usually die of a broken bone. You aren’t as likely to die as a result of a crime, a war or an act of terrorism. Even the poorest have access to some of the lifestyle features of the richest, like mobile phones and the internet. I remember working in Sheffield in 1995 where only 70% of the families had a washing machine and only 30% had a car. As for living forever, well, at least I might get to read all the books I want. Lovely children’s author Elizabeth Laird told one of my classes that even if she read three books a week for the remaining twenty years she expected to have good vision, she’d still only be able to read 3,000 books. I might have twice that long. 6,000 books is not a lot, really.

That brings me to my final Much Love. The Hunger Games trilogy. Just finished it yesterday and I feel a bit bereft. I’ve moved on to some Stuart MacBride, but it’s not the same. I’m not feeling it. Plus, not much love for the hasty epilogue. It needed another chapter or so. I don’t like it when stuff is over so quickly.

Finally, you know I’m a tree-hugger, so much love to my sumac, which is 50 shades of splendid right now.

I love autumn in all its splendid fires of dying. I love it in its soft browns and muted greens. I love it as it fades and as it pops. Sometimes it goes gentle into that good night, where the leaves fall like a soft rain and sometimes, like my sumac, it goes out in a blaze of fury. Ii o-tenki, desu ne?

On not knocking it until you’ve tried it

My uncle tells a story about firefighters in Blackpool. They of course have to do all the fire safety stuff at all the clubs in Blackpool, of which the famous ‘Funny Girls’ drag club was one. The very flamboyant owner enjoyed his visits from the firemen, and one one occasion said: “Ooh, we bend over backwards for firemen….” as only a gay man in drag can do. Innuendo R Us

My very-straight uncle said “Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it…”

He didn’t try it, so he didn’t knock it.

Still, it’s kind of an important thing to remember. I said yesterday about having fingers in lots of pies, and mostly that was a survival strategy from my very early days when I worked in a hotel a couple of nights a week, collected milk money on Friday evenings and worked in a greengrocer’s on Saturdays. In fact, having lots of fingers in lots of pies was what enabled me to survive when I quit teaching in schools.

When I started teaching, my take-home salary after my pension, national insurance and tax had been deducted was £795.00. With the rent on a room in a shared house standing at about £300, that would have left me with about £495 – £100 a week – for all my shopping, petrol, bills, clothes, insurance and car. I had little option other than moving back in with my mum, which at least allowed me to buy a £500 car off my ex. The insurance was about the same price. Paying that loan back took another £100 a month out of my salary. Part of the problem was that the first month, you work in hand, so you have to buy clothes, petrol, food etc, with that. Not that I had a debt to run up, but that first month without any pay took me five years to catch up on. Luckily, my mum let me pay her £100 a month for food and lodgings – way cheaper than it really was.

Still, at 23, you don’t want to still be living with your parents and you want a little life of your own. I carried on teaching, of course, but picked up a bar job and some tutoring. Between the two, it gave me another £100 a week, which made it easier to buy a new car – £500 cars are filled with problems and I’d spent a lot of money trying to sort out a problem on the Ford, so I bought a little Peugeot. It cost me £130 a month, which I thought was a total extravagance.

As soon as I was able to mark GCSE papers, I started doing so. It gave me the equivalent of another month’s worth of salary. In 1998, I was up to £895.00 a month and a £17,000 salary a year. It was just enough to get a mortgage on a house, but I still kept doing the pub work and the tuition and the examining. I also started marking SATs, and though I was violently opposed to the test itself, somebody’s got to mark it and that person might as well have been me.

As you can see, my fingers in pies came from a real need to stay afloat financially.

Still, I did other things as well.

I’ve always been mad about night school and other classes. I did A level Art at night school and when I finished that, I did A level Spanish. Then I started on a photography course. That morphed into a three-year night school course. I also did a Masters in my spare time.

But each of the things I took on allowed me to do something else. Marking GCSEs and SATs gave my teaching the edge. That quest for just a little extra cash turned into a lifeline a few years later.

In 2003, I was made team leader for both the SATs and GCSEs, which instead of netting me the usual £3,000 or £4,000, netted me double. But don’t get me wrong, I did it at the same time as a full-time job in which I was already working 11 hour days.

By 2005, I was being dragged off to dark hotel rooms to remark rogue markers’ work, which netted me another £3,000 for 3 weeks of work in a dark room under constant supervision.

So, finger in the teaching pie, finger in the marking pie.

I also said yesterday that I spent a lot of time putting my resources online. Luckily, Andy was an internet whizz and I did the ECDL at home under his tutelage. I got Word-savvy and Excel-savvy and PPT-savvy way before everyone else in teaching did. When the school got money for ICT training for its teachers, the head asked me. She was a mean, mean woman who hated me, so for her to ask was an extra privilege.

And I’ve always been a girl with a sense of foreboding. The future is something that’s coming and you’ve got to be prepared for it. I never, ever thought it was any good moaning about change and progression or government-induced initiatives. What good does moaning do? Besides…. don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.

So we tried it. It wasn’t that bad. And the fact that we were just about the only department in Lancashire moving forward when everyone else was trying desperately to hold on to the past and not change, or adapt in the least-uncomfortable ways possible meant that when I went for a job leading this change in 29 schools, I got it. It was a culmination of all my squirrelling away of activities, of marking in dark corners, of using every single moment of spare time as a way to improve financially.

People forget that. People looked at me in 2005, as the youngest (at the time) consultant in the North-West, the least ‘experienced’ time-wise, and yet the most experienced, experience-wise. And they think I got there by luck. That I was blessed. That I knew the right people.

Bah.

I got there by spending every single hour they spent in the pub, or on holiday, or watching TV, in working minimum-wage jobs that took a huge amount of time and doing them well so that eventually they became good wages for less time. When they were doing I don’t know what, I was teaching after-school classes for £6 an hour.

And there were sacrifices, make no bones about it.

I sacrificed all the time I could have spent with my family and friends and watching television or just chilling out, or sleeping. The biggest regret I have about my time with Andy is that we barely saw each other. We were both so keen to improve. And we did very little actual relaxing. We worked maybe til 7 or 8 each day and we went to the gym. And at weekends, we did extra stuff, like creating web-pages or creating tutorials.

But by keeping doing everything, by keeping my fingers in lots of pies, and putting them in other pies, it gave me ways to live on my own means. Not only that. Things that started 14 years ago as a way to earn a little extra ended up as ways in which I earn my main crust: tuition, marking, writing. That Masters in process consultancy I’d picked up over 4 years, essentially an extended reflection on how individuals and organisations can change and develop and how best to manage that change suddenly meant I had another bow in my quiver.

I think by the end of my teaching career, I’d attracted a fair share of bitchy onlookers who forgot that to get where I did, I’d had to work more than they did, harder than they did, with less pleasant people than they did. While they had families and children and half terms where they walked the dogs or went on holiday, I worked.

Believe me, that had some psychological payback when I realised the people I worked for didn’t give a shit about me and all my work had been for such little respect or reward. That’s why I decided I’d never work for a school again. But when I made that decision, I had lots of other things to do instead.

So don’t knock it til you’ve tried it, and those small two- or three-hour extras every week could end up being the mainstay of your life in twenty years. You never know.

 

Making your own luck

I don’t know what it is about people who say ‘Oh, you’re so lucky’. It presses a little button right inside of me. I have to say, these people are invariably women too, which makes me even more angry.

Those of you who know me would actually say I’ve had plenty of disadvantage. It’s a little bit more than some of you, and a little bit less than others. I feel lucky. I was born in a G8 country in a time of relative calm and quiet and whilst I might joke to say ‘I was born with a plastic spoon in my mouth’, in reality, being born into the world I was – that was luck. Everything that’s happened since then has been sheer determination.

Yes, that’s what I have in spades. Sheer, bloody-minded, cheeky determination. Anyone who knew me from a child would know that is my one defining characteristic above all others. Dogged persistence. Dedication.

For those of you who only know me in a virtual world, you’ll probably not know something about me. I don’t talk about it much. That’s because I think about it about ten times every year, and usually because someone else brings it up. I have a congenital deformity of my hands. I have a few shortened fingers and a couple of little stumps.

I think it’s bothered me as much in life as having a big nose might. Some people might find it bothers them all of their life and have surgery to make it ‘normal’. Others might turn it into a charming part of their personality. Some people would let themselves get weighed down by it and be bullied by it; others are just going to do stuff and never ever think about it.

And although I don’t think about it, it’s a large part of my determination, I think.

Funnily, two events have brought this back into my mind. One was a particularly bleugh-evoking Criminal Minds yesterday. A woman was born with a congenital deformity in it. Her husband was obsessed with ‘fixing her’. Another was the fact that someone said to me (a grown-up, no less!) ‘oh, how AWFUL for you…’ when she saw my hands and asked what had happened.

As awful as having brown hair and hazel eyes, I guess.

Anyway, it taught me a lot about accepting your lot and it made me quick to fight off bullies. I can’t think of a single person who ever said a thing to me at school, except one. A boy called Jamie (who went on to become a heroin addict in Blackpool – that’s what kind of boy he grew up to be…) called me a name. I punched him in the stomach and tied his scarf too tight around his neck then ran away. He never did it again. I guess that’s humiliating for a boy. And I’ve taught all kinds of rough children, none of whom have ever mentioned anything about it beyond occasional curiosity. I would think that most people who know me think about my hands precisely as much as I do. Not often at all.

I have vague memories of going to doctors, maybe in Sheffield, who wanted to make it easier for me to do things and operate in various ways. I might have been less than five, so whether those things are true or not, I don’t even know. After that, my only memory is a riding school who wanted to put me in the disabled class because I might not be able to hold the reins. As a still-keen horsewoman, you can see how little THAT bothered me. We went to another riding school and it was never a problem. In fact, the only thing I’d be upset about is that I’d like to have played the guitar or the violin or even the flute and those things were just out of my reach. I put them to one side and never got bothered because it’s kind of like wanting to be invisible or be able to fly. It’s just not something possible for me. And that’s fine. I can’t say I care much about it. I can play the piano and that in itself is probably a great stride further than early doctors would have thought I would be.

Anyway, my determination has a bigger, more influential factor (besides my stubborn Gramps who was determined beyond determined on my behalf) which was my school and the position of women in the world.

I’m of an age where I still had huge concerns about wearing trousers to my first ‘grown-up’ job interview. I was told not to. That was 1995. That’s only 17 years ago! I wore trousers anyway. On purpose I think. I wanted to be clear on what type of person I was. Or, more importantly, what kind of woman I was. I was a woman who wore trousers if she felt like it.

Ironically, for working-class women, being a woman counted for little. You worked. You worked as hard as a man and you got paid less. You had children and you still worked. That’s some of my ancestors. For middle-class women, like several other ancestors, you could work until you got married. Then you became a house-wife. So I have two teachers way back there in the annals of my history, and both had to quit work when they got married. It was only ever middle-class women that needed to burn a bra.

But precisely those women are the ones who should have had access to the same things men did too. Colleges, Universities, jobs. We should have been able to do what they did. There’s still a huge problem with girls taking up physics, chemistry, electronics, engineering.

In my secondary-school world, women were the school. Top to bottom. There were about six male teachers, but they were about as efficient as the proverbial fish without water. Women rocked. In a girls-only school, Chemistry A level was as well populated as French A level. It’s why I count so many engineers and scientists among my friends now.

So being a girl was just about my biggest disadvantage of all. You only have to look at the typical senior management structure in the schools I worked in prior to 2000 to see the picture. The head was a man. The Chair of Governors was a man. The deputy in charge of time-tables and classes and learning was a man. The deputy in charge of pastoral care was a woman. Heads of department were generally men, unless it was food technology. The only way women got to power was by being larger than life, like Sheila Teasdale, the head of Modern Languages at my first school, or behaving like a man. The second school I taught at was a little different. The usual patterns still applied, but the head was a woman.

Or she had breasts.

That’s about as female as she got.

She’d risen to the top by behaving like a man.

I wanted to be a little different. In fact, one woman showed me it was possible to rise to the top without being a complete bully. She was the female deputy at my first school. Sure, she was head of pastoral care, a traditionally female role, but she had not given up her gentle side. She was also about as determined as you can get, but quietly so.

Anyway, she gave me a book. The title of the book sounds really cheesy. It’s ‘The Nine Secrets of Women Who Get What They Want’ by Kate White. It sounds like a book about bitchy, manly, bullying women, or women trying to find a husband. It’s neither. Sadly, it’s out of print now, but yesterday, I had a right good tidy-up and I unpacked it. It got me thinking about all that determination and ‘luck’. It’s funny how much that book shaped me. I think it gave words to qualities and beliefs I already had, and it justified my behaviour in other ways.

Her advice was simple. Covet what other women have that you want. Admire successful women who have qualities you like. Copy them. Learn from them. In fact, go and ask them if they’ll mentor you (long before mentoring even existed) Be a glutton for all the advice any woman can ever offer you. Don’t be a pit bull or a prima donna. People will hate you. Be the best of what you already are.

Those are all fairly cheesy, hackneyed tenets. But her other advice is just me all over. Bite off more than you can chew. Don’t wait for the right moment. Be too big for your breeches. Don’t sit tight. Don’t rest on your laurels.

So I did. I plugged away. I wrote. I improved. I read books. I copied other women’s style. I sold myself. I am the biggest marketer of ‘Brand Me’ ever. I put my name on everything.  Nothing was too small a task and everything could lead to something bigger. I started sharing my resources on a prepubescent internet. Then someone asked me to take part in a national project. Then I wrote articles for magazines. Then I got a phone call to ask me if I could step in and write a chapter of a book as someone had dropped out. The rest, as they say, is history.

I think this is very true of many, many things in life. You make your own luck. You do the work, and THEN the results come in, in ways you can’t even imagine. Writers, particularly, think that the most talented will find a book publisher and that publisher will see their innate talent and they’ll get published. Actors are the same, I guess. Nope. I’m out there finding ways to write myself, getting myself published. And the best thing is that then people ask you for stuff, not the other way around. From having shared all my resources on the internet in 1998, I now get asked to write stuff. I gave a little and got a lot in return.

There’s a tenet in that, too, though.

It’s got to be good. In fact, it has to be so much better than everything else out there that it blows their stuff away and makes it look crap. And I do that by working harder, by working smarter, by being endlessly self-critical and by being endlessly analytical. I think that’s my piece of advice. Don’t be afraid of making other people look crap and making yourself look like a swotty boffin. Beat deadlines, do more, be there earlier, stay there later and do it all with a smile. Put fingers in lots of pies and then when one pie turns out to be rotten and filled with dog turds, you have got other pies to choose from. To be a woman, even now, you have to be so much better than the men in order to get half the attention they get. It’s still a man’s world. That doesn’t bother me any more. It’s not a secret that I KNOW I’m better than most men out there writing textbooks. And that’s why I keep getting asked to do it, in spite of myself.

Wow. A long blog covering all my entire life. And all to explain why I hate it when women say ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. You’ve got xx and xxx and xxxx’. It hasn’t come without cost, and it hasn’t come by luck. So to those women who think I’m ‘lucky’ to be able to survive in La France Profonde, I’ll say this:

 

Funny that, isn’t it?

p.s. though… the harder I worked, the more jealousy I attracted. :/ You’ve got to be teflon these days, to make it through the Mean Girls.

Not much room for a fun guy

The forest near me is positively brimming with mushrooms right now. The rain and coolish temperatures have caught them all sticking their little heads out from the leaves and the papers are filled with stories about the finding of 2 kg ceps and huge puffballs. Unfortunately, I am not so much of a mushroom connoisseur (shouldn’t that be connoisseuse?!) to know which are edible and which are not, no matter how many people tell me which one is edible. I’m pretty sure I’d be okay to say ‘yes’ to a cep, especially since there’s only one bolete that is very poisonous and it’s quite different from the others. So for now, I just take pictures and draw them! And, of course, make bad jokes about them.

I love the fact that the verb to describe things growing in France is pousser – or to pushI like to imagine Mother Nature being told to push and the mushrooms pop out like little creatures. The earth is definitely pushing out a lot at the moment.

The forest where I go is a state-owned forest called the foret de la Braconne, of some 3,000 hectares. It sits right next to the army base and kind of straddles the N141 motorway. It gives good walks on well-marked pathways, where you can pick a well-signed route or make your own way. As a limestone karst area, there are lots of valleys and gulfs and chasms and caves. On the north side, there’s the ‘grande fosse’  and the ‘Devil’s fosse’ and then in the centre, there’s the fosse limousine, where skeletal remains have been found from years ago.

There are maps at the parking spots, but I’ve not yet found a map you can carry with you. However, at 14 km long, split by a motorway and a main road, and 4 km across, you’re not really likely to get lost, though it feels like it. I’ve got a blue map that is about as detailed as you can find in the shops, which has all the main trails on, but I’d like one with all the trails on. Impossible, I know.

The other good thing is that the hunts in the forest are well organised and there are areas strictly for recreation and areas strictly for hunting and rifle practice. That means it’s a lot easier to steer clear of the hunts. Both today and yesterday, I drove past a lot of cars at the Maison Forestière, realised there was a hunt on and drove on to a spot more known for mushroom picking and walkers.

At the rond point de chez Touchet, you don’t normally see another car. Today and yesterday, there have been five or six. I keep bumping into people who leap out of the woods at bizarre moments, carrying nothing more than a basket like that which I’d expect Red Riding Hood to have. Wicker baskets are good to keep mushrooms fresh and let spores drop back to the ground. There’s a lot of disturbance in the leaf mould under the trees and I guess there’ve been a good few people poking it with sticks to unearth treasures.

I’m mainly looking at ferns and leaves for a few art projects, but I’ve been keeping an eye out for mushrooms. Heston, it is now decided, is now part flat-coated retriever and as you’d expect with anything with bits of labrador, collie, shepherd and retriever, he’s bouncing. He’s a bouncing, bounding dog who needs a good two-hour exercise every day. Yes, every day. And if he doesn’t, he chews. He’s not wantonly destructive, just bored. He laps the garden. With an acre, you’d think that’s enough to keep him busy, but it’s not. Poor boy, with all that energy coursing through his veins.

Today, I did the same walk I did yesterday with Mme V. Heston’s favourite bit is the newly-returned Bandiat river.

Here you can see my little Tilly going in for a drink. Heston rampages around splashing as much as he can. Who’d blame him?

Heston’s generally rampaging round a tree. Further down, there’s electric fencing which gave Heston a shock today. Silly boy. He whimpered a bit but it seemed to have done its job.

These two do love a walk.

Anyway… the mushrooms. There is one I feel confident in deciding what it is. It’s not easily confused with anything else, it’s not edible and it’s not even slightly appetising.

It is…

… the vile, slimy and vibrant yellow ‘yellow brain fungus’ or tremella mesenterica. I think. I’m like 90% certain. It’s either that or someone was very, very ill. As you can see, it’s on a deadwood trunk, which is its favourite place to be.

Then next up is something that I’m guessing is from the pleurotes family, or oyster mushrooms to you and I. I think they’re old ones though.

With 600 varieties, I’m not pinning myself down more than that. To be honest, it was the underside that gave it away.

So the stem is a crucial part of mushroom identification, and this has one. I’d hazard a guess at an old branched oyster mushroom, but this is why I don’t eat them, because I’d be dead before long. What will be worse is if some expert comes along and says my mushrooms would make a fine meal, because then I’ll be cross. But I can tell they’re all old or yucky, so I doubt that very much.

Anyway, whilst I was down having a right good look at these little fellas, a big bouncy fella came along.

And the only other function of my daily walk is to get generally distracted by things and imagine I’m in a fairy story. I’ve got a red coat, and if I get myself a mushroom basket, I’ll be perfectly attired.

And I say it’s alright

For those of you of a weatherly-inclination, like myself, you might have been waiting for the sun too.

Despite the drought, it’s been a wet and weird year here. What with the long, cold winter and the heavy snow that stayed on the ground for three weeks, then the wet, wet, cold spring and a summer that only really materialised in July. And it’s rained here for practically a month, with odd days off in between.

That brings some benefits, like it’s unseasonably warm.

Mostly, though, it leaves me crabby and cross. I can’t go outside. I can’t get in the garden. The dogs are bored. Tilly won’t go for a wee in the rain so there have been accidents. Heston doesn’t care so he goes out and plays in the rain and gets all muddy. The chickens haven’t been dry for days. We’ve snatched one or two walks here and there – only two last week. Last Monday it was fine and and sunny, but since then it has rained. And rained. And rained.

Our river’s still not back though. That’s a little weird.

It’s a river on a limestone karst, so it disappears down various holes at points and runs underground. It’s only visible when the water table is high or there’s been a lot of rain. Given that the garden is now in standing water, the water table is definitely high, and we’ve definitely had a lot of rain. 109 cm in October so far. A metre of rain.

Anyway…

The rain leaves everything in my house feeling damp, so even though it’s not been cold, I’ve had to put the fire on just to keep things dry. I put my hand under my pillow the other morning and it was almost wet. My armchair felt slimy. It’s yuck.

Then I feel like I should be apologetic for not wanting the rain, especially since my garden depends on it. And it was getting incredibly dry – we’d had two months without barely a drop. It was a welcome visitor.

Now I’ve had enough of it. To be frank, that had happened a week last Sunday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Thursday. A Friday so wet I couldn’t take Heston over to play with his brother. A Saturday with driving rain. A Sunday that was recovering-damp.

This has lots of consequences. Firstly, I was in such a foul mood for most of the week that I couldn’t bring myself to write. Second, what I did write was largely directed at stupid people on internet forums and I went into the fray willingly, knowing that I was only doing it because it was raining. The rain makes me nadgy. There’s another good Nana word for you. I was nadgy and I went through the internet looking for people to ‘help’ and ‘correct’. This is my thought process. “Oh, I know… you’re in a terrible mood and you’re bored. Let’s go and see if we can find more people in a terrible mood who are bored, and let’s all use CAPS LOCK on our words to show how ANGRY we all are and HOW RIGHT we all are…”

So I dipped in, then removed myself quickly from the forums of angry, bored, nadgy people.

The rain does have some benefits. Firstly, you’re obliged to stay indoors. Rain is the universe’s way of giving gardeners a rest. Second, you’re able to take up creative pursuits. Thus, I have been catching up on a lot of stuff and doing a lot of reading. I’ve planned my Christmas cards and I’ve started painting them. I’ve also been hooked into The Hunger Games trilogy – loved the first book. I loved the film as well. It’s not intellectual or complex, but it’s a ripping great yarn. Think Greek Tributes-meet Roman colosseum- meets The Running Man and add a little romance in there and you’re on your way. So the rain is a welcome cultural break for me. I also watched Snow White and the Huntsman which was also epic. I love fairy stories, especially fairy stories for grown ups. Give me Angela Carter any day. If you’ve not read The Courtship of Mr Lyon, for a twist on Beauty and the Beast, her short stories are a little sumptuous literature – a Belgian chocolate in a sea of cheap Cadbury’s. That’s not to say a bar of Dairy Milk isn’t glorious, but sometimes, something small and perfect is just wonderful.

The rain has also given me the excuse to put the electric blanket on and put the feather duvet on top of my duvet, to stop everything being moist. My bedroom is the first candidate for a new double-glazed window (sized and priced and waiting for taxes to be paid and the weather to clear up) since my bedroom window has a hole in it big enough for a lizard to get through. Whether that will stop the dampness being quite so… persistent… I can only hope.

Plus, since I’ve taken on November resit marking (yes, I know, I’m a martyr to the cause, especially when the pay is so brutally bad and the cause is so unworthy) as it will give me at least some pocket money and the most important thing is to get those children the right mark. If I didn’t do it, you could guarantee someone worse than me would. That’s not a very nice way to put it, but it’s true. All A grade markers (yes, we’re graded!) are asked to mark. Some can’t. Some won’t. That means that then, B and C grade markers are asked. A C is ‘satisfactory’ marking. Would you want your paper marked by a ‘satisfactory’ marker in such a subjective subject as English? Not sure I would.

Anyway, the money will give me the opportunity to get over and see family in the New Year, so hurrah for that.

So I’ve managed to convince myself the rain isn’t such a bad thing and now let’s hope it looks more like this today:

Bring me a few days of blue skies and let me dry out a little!

Take Tuesday: Numbers

You know I’ve only got one number in my head this year!

Although it means I’m going to have to work hard through November, I hope I get to go back to the UK at some point in December for some hard-core 40th birthday partying! I’ve also got lots of things lined up here, too. Hoorah!

A funny thing has happened this morning, and for no particular reason.

I am empty of words.

Hmmm.

Maybe it’s because I did a lot of conversational classes yesterday and right up until the wee small hours, I was talking, talking, talking.

I’m going to have a cup of tea and some breakfast and then my words might return.

You may find… from time to time… complications

Today’s Much Love Monday is brought to you by the very mellow happiness of Curtis Mayfield.

I was going to go with a Fishbone song, since Fishbone are doing a concert at the Nef in Angouleme on Wednesday. I finish at eight thirty on Wednesday, so it’ll be a long day and a frantic drive to catch them, but well worth it. I’m very excited. It’s been a long time since I last saw them. It couldn’t come at a better time: a wet Wednesday in October can’t fail to be funked up by Fishbone. I’m pretty sure the last time I saw them might have been almost 20 years ago, and I’m pretty sure it was October too. I think I wagged off Friday lectures, came home on the Thursday night and went straight there from the train station with some Manchester friends. You might understand my excitement when you realise I get to go to about two or three concerts a year now, and before, I used to write gig reviews for all kinds of big northern papers and magazines, and get paid to go to them! Ah, how my life has changed! One of the first gigs I ever went to was The Sugarcubes, who were playing at the Manchester University Students’ Union on Oxford Road. It was 3 hours of bouncing and dancing with the very young Bjork. I’m pretty sure I lost a shoe. I don’t know for sure, which is weird. You’d think you’d remember whether you lost a shoe or not. After that, it was all downhill. I used to spend most of my money from my various jobs going to see bands – and I got to see the little ones get bigger and bigger – each time, they’d hire a bigger venue. Some got old. Some split up. The coolest gig I ever went to was in someone’s front room in Clapham in London. I’d walked over there with my friend Alex from where we were staying in Brixton, picking up Turkish takeaway rice on the way. I don’t even know whose house it was, only that a strikingly beautiful black girl was singing the most amazing stuff. It turned out to be Skin who would later go to sing in Skunk Anansie. That’s pretty cool, to me anyway. Manchester is, of course, the home of much musical talent of its own, and such talent attracts talent. As England’s kind-of second city (sorry all you other pretenders, like Birmingham…) most bands came to play there, and still do. And yes, you can find the little dark basement clubs as well as the huge arenas. The best gig I ever went to was The Guillemots at the Academy. It was magical and that’s all I can say. I’ve seen a lot of bands who I love, but they blew me away completely. Manchester does have great venues. From the now defunct International I and International II (and International III!) which were on the far-away side of town, out towards Stockport, I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers play to a packed club of 500 people. Then there’s the awful but classic Manchester Apollo with its velvet curtains and 1960s decor, where I saw Megadeth (I think!). There are stadiums, too, though the best was the old Manchester City stadium at Maine Road where I saw David Bowie, then Oasis on their first major tour. From Love/Hate to Pretty Boy Floyd, Alison Moyet to A-ha, I’ve seen a whole lot of music in Manchester. So Much Love Manchester. I miss you a lot. I don’t miss the rain though and I don’t miss the scallies. A scally, for all you non-Northerners, is a naughty boy or girl. I think I’d hazard a guess and say it comes from the word scallywag. Chavs to some, les racailles to the French… No Monday Love for them. I’ve got Much Love for autumn, because this means fires. I’ve had two now, mainly because the armchair was feeling decidedly sticky and damp. There’s a real damp in the air – it’s rained pretty much every day since the last week in September. That’s nigh on 4 weeks of hit-and-miss rain, which is making me come over all Mancunian once again. Maybe that’s why I got so excited by Fishbone. If it rains a lot, you want to get inside, don’t you? I’ve also got Much Love for the delightful Geninne D. Zlatkis, an artist living in Mexico She does things like this:

which inspire me hugely.

I started doing some zinnias in a very similar style, as you can see in the top right.

Then I got a little more me and started doing some other stuff, just playing around. It’s obviously mushroom season at the moment, so a few of those came into my art, as did the scabiosa which I thought might be fairly easy to do.

I was just kind of playing around and getting back into sketch mode. It’s been a while. I tend to only dig them out in autumn and winter and then they get put away again. I love wash and ink – it’s the cartoonist in me, or the tattooist, I guess. I was watching a (really terrible) film – a new one with Simon Pegg – and just having a play about, Geninne-style.

I’ve also been working on these butterflies.

I’m warming myself up for Christmas. I made all my own cards the last couple of years and really enjoyed doing itIt’s mostly about giving someone a little something more meaningful for Christmas. I don’t do very many – only about 30 or so – I guess that’s quite a lot! And I do about one a night from now until the end of November. Last year, they were kind of simple – all black and gold like this:

Though I did some reverse pointillism ones too and some geometric shapes.

This year, I’m thinking I’m going to be a little more wash-and-ink, though I’ve not really thought much about it yet.

Anyway, Much Love to craft-time and how the autumn brings out the indoor creative geek. Much Love to the calm and cold that’s about to descend.

Enjoy your own Monday – may it be filled with funk and colour.

Putting the garden to bed

I said this at this time last year, but the autumn is really the end of the year for me. That six month mad dash through spring and summer is over and now it’s time to slow down. I’ve got a few garden tasks to do, such as plant a few bare root trees later in the year, and the continued digging over I do of the vegetable plots, but by and large, the pruning is done, things are harvested and there’s just a gentle meander into the really cold bits.

The good thing about this is that I get to take the dogs for walks in the time that used to be filled with the garden. I took Heston for his first ‘off-lead’ experience this week. He’s been walking on the lead with me for three months and he’s pretty good, but I want to know he can go off lead too. And he was fabulous!

He’s not my best friend at the moment though, as I caught him and César yesterday with a chicken in their mouths. Naughty boys. César was swiftly ejected from the garden. He could see I was cross, so he went straight out, very meekly. Heston got a smack on the rump and the angriest ‘No!’ he’s ever heard. The poor chicken disappeared under a bush missing half its back feathers. I thought they were moulting, but it’s clear that Mr Heston has been getting himself a mouthful of feathers from time to time. Bad Books and Doghouses for Heston.

Still, when it’s too moist to garden, go for a walk.

The trees provide a natural umbrella, and though it’s damp, you hardly feel it. Lucky for me, I’ve got the huge Braconne forest on my doorstep. A five-minute drive and I’m in the thick of it.

It’s got lots of natural trails and then lots of forest tracks for the people going in and out to hunt. Hunting is restricted to certain parts and they’re always clearly signposted, plus you can see all the cars, so it’s easy to tell where not to go. Not so easy round here at the moment. I keep getting cornered by hunters and ending up doing massive walks that I don’t mean to, just to avoid going past them. I’m not so scared they’d shoot me or the dogs (though I kind of am… let’s say the hunter’s day starts with a tipple, continues with a tipple, stops for lunch for a big tipple and ends with more tippling…. there’s a reason they have to wear reflective jackets) but I’m scared that their dogs might come across my dogs and all hell would break loose.

So the forest is great right now because I can have an uninterrupted walk.

To be honest, the younger me wouldn’t have been able to live here with all these hunters. I’d have hated it. I can see the farmers’ point that things need to be kept under control, but a deer is still a thing of beauty, as is a wild boar. Last year, something ate my chickens. I don’t know who or what, but I don’t want to shoot the poor, hungry beast that did it. Even those foxes with blood lust – it’s just an animal thing. Call me sentimental or unrealistic, but sending a posse of fat, drunk men out with their poor dogs who often live in squalid conditions is no way to keep the animal population under control. Mostly, they miss, judging by the number of shots that are made. I’d rather those little piggies were kept under control by a clinical and efficient sniper, not hounded to death and finally shot, exhausted. What’s worse is that sometimes the hunters are so bad at hunting they get into the habit of feeding the animals at certain times, just so they can go and kill them. Lazy.

Anyhow… controversial subjects aside, I can walk in the forest with ease and I know now to stick to signed paths, having been lost a number of times. It’s a little worrying.

But Heston was a superstar.

 

He sniffed at stuff, he trotted off up the path, he ran himself ragged, he waited for me if we got to a bend. And in typical Heston style, he splashed in every single puddle.

I’ve started plotting our walks on Google maps, so I can see where we’ve been going and how long they are. These walks take about 45 minutes and are about 5 km. As he gets older, we’ll do longer ones.

Tilly just trots at her own pace, usually not very far from me at all. She’s such a sweetie.

And the only other thing I need is to video Heston playing with Noireau, the cat. Noireau is definitely the one in control. He chases Heston all across the garden and pounces on him. Not bad for a blind cat. Lucky Noireau that the vet fixed him and he wasn’t too badly injured or that the vet decided to put him down. He’s a very lovely, lovely cat. And lucky me to have a Noireau in my life.

I think this an awful lot about Tilly: I just don’t know how anyone could give her up. She’s such a delight. How could anybody just pass her on to someone else and not even care if she was okay or if that person isn’t using her to make a fur coat. But the same is true of Noireau, if he was someone’s pet before – and I can’t quite believe he wasn’t – unless he became socialised at the vet’s whilst he recovered from surgery. He’s such a people-loving cat. He sits on my knee, he cuddles, he sleeps by me, he talks.

Anyway… winter gives me more animal time, and that’s never a bad thing.