It’s a long way down…

On our way to the south of France from England, Leo and I passed the time listening to Desert Island Disks podcasts. One of the best ones was Bear Grylls. He spoke about his decision to climb Everest as he lay in hospital with a broken back.
It was in part this that inspired our adventure today to a rock we have named Wright’s rock, about a mile from the house. I have a vague memory of climbing it once before, but I was sure there was a path. Today there was not. And as we stood looking at the sheer stone rock-face we were going to have to climb to get to the top I felt less like Bear Grylls and more like the vertiginous coward I really am.FullSizeRender 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My husband was all for it. He has some new walking boots and wanted to try them out. Leo was keen too, and started climbing immediately. I stomped off in a downward direction convinced they were both going to fall and refusing to watch. It was all about to end in tears when Olivia came to the rescue, discovering a slightly less horrendous way up that involved crawling under a tree.FullSizeRender 2
We all made it to the top, which had seemed impossible ten minutes earlier. “There,” said my husband, surveying the stunning views. “We’ve all achieved something today.”
“Let’s go home for a cup of tea,” I suggested. And we started looking for a way down. No one ever really talks about getting down, it’s all about reaching the pinnacle, getting to the summit, scaling the heights etc. How come no one ever mentions getting down?
The way down in not to be underestimated, especially not when you are dealing with bare cliff-face. My husband admitted that he had put us all through the adventure of climbing up to make sure we weren’t deprived of that lovely sense of achievement. “But I’m sure there is a path down somewhere,” he smiled.FullSizeRender 5
I thought about killing him on the spot, but decided to wait until he’d found the path.
He didn’t find the path, so we had a rather harrowing descent, mainly on our bottoms. I have never been so happy to see a gravel track in my life.FullSizeRender 3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The moral of the story is two-fold; definitely push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you’ll feel great afterwards (and really enjoy your cup of tea). But don’t forget about the way down. While I was happy to get to the top, I was even happier to get to the bottom.

Bullying: how to spot the signs and put a stop to it

I am delighted to present a guest blog from my great friend Floss who runs a brilliant website called uktherapyguide.com. Her son was very badly bullied so she speaks from experience. 

In my work as a psychotherapist and my life as a mother, I have witnessed the long and short term effects of bullying. At least 70 % of my clients have experienced bullying at some point in their lives, often for the first time at school. I used to be surprised that bullying was a common denominator in the narratives of stories of so many clients, but now it is predictably present.

The feelings brought about by being bullied on a daily basis, fear, isolation, chronic anxiety and helplessness, can create a deep cavity of sadness. The victim can be left with a distorted core belief that they are somehow at fault. Children, often boys, hide incidents from parents, because they don’t want to ‘worry’ parents or show their vulnerability. Often, pleas for help are brushed aside and diminished, compounding feelings of loneliness and desperation. In addition, there will always be the cases where the child has experienced bullying at home by a parent from an early age and this is likely to form the deepest cavity of all.shutterstock_108866654

While we are made up of an infinity of memories etched on our minds and bodies, when we have a bad experience it can distort the good memories and lay a shaky foundation for the future. Being humiliated or hit, tripped up, laughed at, told you are bad, ugly, stupid, fat, skinny on a daily basis can create a distorted world view. Such negative roles are often re-enacted in relationships, friendships and the work place. Victims of bullying are more likely to repeatedly attract bullies into their lives via behaviours and unconscious processes, unable to break free of this vicious cycle and their familiar role.

“I didn’t want to go out in case I bumped into them and I was anxious a lot of the time.

“It started with bitchy, unkind comments, little comments that would just chip at me and make me feel small. Then the others would join in, laughing at me. I started cutting myself, it was the only thing that I felt I could control. I hated getting up in the morning and in the evenings I just wanted to cry.”

Sometimes with maturity comes a moment of clarity, when those that feel broken and fragmented realise that they are yet again in the familiar territory of pain and angst. For some, this “eureka” moment might lead them to reach out for help through therapeutic intervention. Sadly the majority of victims of bullying remain imprisoned in their past, haunted by their trauma and terrifying experiences. Sometimes, when the suffering becomes too much, they turn to self harm and in extreme cases, suicide, because it feels like the only option left open to them.

We all know how vulnerable our children are and we strive to teach them to be open, kind and gentle. Sadly, the world does not always operate on a level of reciprocal kindness and respect. As their guardians, we need to be vigilant to the signs of encroachment on their sensitive delicate worlds. We need to arm them with the tools that will safeguard them on their journey.

My son is now a secure and popular young man, with a positive sense of self and a good understanding of right from wrong. However, when he was about 8, I started to notice that my bubbly, talkative little boy had become withdrawn and no longer wanted to play football and other sports. It preyed on my mind, but I was pretty busy with work and didn’t really notice just how troubled he had become. One day I received a call from the school to say he had had a ‘little accident’, nothing major and there was no reason for me to leave work.
It was only when I arrived to pick him up form school, when I was met by his grazed and bloodied little face, wide-eyes staring up at me, shocked and confused. His mouth was covered in blood, his lip swollen and embedded with gravel and his front tooth cracked, the nerve hanging out like a tiny little worm. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, but he didn’t cry, just held my hand very tightly.
I took him home. I was so terribly upset and angry, particularly as I had trusted the schools claim that at it was only a little accident and that there was no need for me to come. After a lot of cuddling and reassurance he slowly peeled away the resistance and let me into the world that he had been living in, for the past 4 months, since the beginning of the school year. He told me how a group of older boys had started to pick on him. They would push him over in the play ground, hit him, kick him and tell him he was shit at football and couldn’t play. This had been happening daily, becoming more extreme culminating in the ‘accident’. The boys had tied skipping ropes around his legs and ankles and started to pull him, face down on the gravelly play ground floor.
I was horrified. How had this happened at school? Where were the teachers, where was his protection? The school, when I confronted them, were ambivalent. They denied any knowledge of bullying and refused to deal with the children who had been the aggressors or approach their parents. My son was left with long term damage to his teeth and the scars of the repeated intimidation. In the end, we decided to change schools and place him somewhere with stronger leadership that would not foster “bully culture”.

“I didn’t understand what I had done, why they hated me. I hid it from my parents. They would only worry and if they got involved, it would be even worse.”

Luckily, the new school was very different, dealing with the children as individuals and confronting unkindness in an open and immediate way. My son gradually regained his confidence though I was still wary, watching for signs of the distress that I missed, leaving my little boy in such a vulnerable position.
A couple of years later, I began to see subtle changes; withdrawn behaviour, mood swings and a loss of confidence. This time, I recognized the signs and was able to intervene, speaking to the school and finding him some outside support. Talking to a trained professional (I called him a “coach” rather than a therapist to destigmatise it) helped him to process his feelings and move beyond this experience and break the pattern before it became habitual.

Now, I know to watch for the most common indications of bullying:

-Low self esteem

-Your child suddenly seems withdrawn and is spending lots of time alone and is quiet.

·-Self harm

·-Suddenly not being included or engaging in with their ‘friendship group’

· Not participating in school activities

· Over or under eating

· Lack of energy

-A marked change in character, whereby your child unusually appears anxious, angry, detached, distant or tearful.

Some of the above are of course all part and parcel of normal teenage angst. Yet, if you do have any concerns about your child, act on them, because nothing is lost by showing concern. Try find a quiet moment to have a chat with your son or daughter to ‘check in’, preferably out of the family home and in a neutral and relaxed setting. Avoid attempting to talk when you are busy, driving the car or when time is a pressure. Make the time to engage, observe body language and really try to be present, listen and hear what is being communicated to you. They may not want to tell you, but continue to be vigilant and available.
Cyber bullying is yet another way for those with negative, unprocessed feelings to project them on to others from afar. As it is usually done anonymously, the attacks can be vicious and deeply humiliating, spreading like wildfire across social media.
If it transpires that things are not as they should be, the best advice I can give any parent, is to act on immediately, nip it in the bud. Do not ignore your child’s reality; do not hope that that it will go away, because bullying scars run deep. Early intervention can be crucial in dissolving the impact and collateral damage.
Some suggested Action points:
-Keep a watchful eye for significant changes listed above.
-Act immediately.
-Talk to your child alone in a calm way in a neutral environment.
-If you child has asked you not to get involved, to let them ‘sort it out”, put your own time limit on how long you will wait for signs of improvement before intervening.
-Remember you are the parent and your child’s protector.
-Early intervention can limit damage.
-If the bullying is taking place at school, contact the school and ask them what their policies are and insist on complete confidentiality.
-Try to help them establish friendships with ‘good friends to reduce the feelings of isolation. Invite them to your house so your child can feel safe.
-If you are not happy with the schools reaction and procedure, set a time limit on how long you will wait before escalating the matter to the board of governors
-If you have a gut feeling that you need to exercise damage limitations, go with that and move your child to another safe school, but always be very open with the new school about why you are moving your child and notice their reaction. Ask them what they are going to do to help your child settle in and regain his confidence.
-Keep on checking in with your child and if the impact is great then find a therapist, or buddy to talk to. At this age it can help to have a same sex therapist to avoid awkwardness. If it happens again, they will most likely need help; you cannot keep moving and behavioural pattens are set relatively early in life.

Therapeutic intervention is sometimes viewed as a defeat, as the end of the road. It is really the beginning. You can not see the scars of bullying but they exist beneath the skin like a thousand cuts. Dealing with these issues will prevent them from festering. There is no more important and valuable gift you can give your child than the tools to resolve their problems and conflicts both in the present and in their lives ahead. A different kind of unique relationship, one that is neutral, safe and containing, where they can discover they have the power to make different healthy choices. That is a priceless gift that endures the test of time.

Pesky Neighbours…

The Brits and the French have been sparring intermittently for the past 1,000 years. So far no one has managed to land the killer blow. In fact in recent years there has been a dangerous outbreak of entente cordiale, at least off the rugby pitch.

Hostilities have now been resumed in the Aude, the only twist being that this time it is between two British camps. John and Faith Dyson bought a retirement home in a small village near Toulouse in 2004. They had only eight months to enjoy their French idyll before the house next door was bought by a couple of Brits. The new neighbours, the Dunlops, announced their arrival by immediately objecting to the fact that the Dyson’s overlooked them. In addition, that they had access through their driveway to their front door.

You’d think they might have thought about that before they signed the compromis de vente, but they didn’t. The two couples have been fighting about it ever since, if not a hundred year war at least a decade long one. It started with the Dunlops putting a sign up saying ‘You have no right to look’. Look at what I wonder? It rather reminds me of sitting next to someone at a dinner party who tells me they are terrified of speaking to me incase it ends up in the papers. ‘As if anything you would say could possibly be of any interest to anyone,’ I am always tempted to respond.

imagesThen the Dunlops parked their van in front of the Dyson’s door, thus forcing them to use a side entrance. The denouement came when the Dunlops built a wall across the front of the Dyson’s house, plunging it into darkness. In a particular French twist to the tale, the villagers have now got involved in the dispute.

Unlike rural England where everyone would hide behind their net curtains, around 100 of the 258 villagers marched on the house and tore down a barricade that had been erected by the Dunlops to obscure the Dyson’s view. Although I guess the other 158 are still sitting on what is left of the fence?

On the whole British expats moving to France don’t run into these sorts of disputes. France is such a big country (more than twice the size of the UK but with the same population) that people tend to be a little more relaxed about a square foot of land that may or may not be a right of way or an oleander twig touching your car.

We moved to rural France in 2000 and so far things have worked out well, although we do live in the middle of nowhere. Even so, I can’t say we have been left totally alone. For example just a few months ago the post office informed us they would no longer deliver letters to us unless we installed a letterbox at the bottom of the drive, which sent us into a slight panic. But these are minor irritations compared with what might have transpired living as we did between a pub and car park in Sussex. Every day there seems to be some hideous story about someone plotting to murder their neighbour or at least chop down his Leylandii.

In France, however, the Dysons are in a minority. I haven’t come across another saga like it, which is why it is in the papers I suppose. First of all you are unlikely to have the misfortune of another Brit moving in next door. Secondly, you would hope to leave these sorts of petty arguments behind you when you cross the channel.

You can of course run into dreadful people wherever you live, but the sorts of dangers though that lurk in France are more to do with the powerful system of government than individually pesky neighbours.

I know of one couple who moved to their dream house in the Languedoc region of France only to find the council had the right to take away more than a quarter of their garden and build a housing estate on it and the adjoining field. They have now sold up and are back in the UK. This kind of thing is terrifying enough in a country where you’re familiar with the laws and the language. Try dealing with a land dispute in rural France where the local town or village council is all-powerful and everyone speaks incredibly quickly, often with thick local accents. I do, however, blame the people who sold my friends their house. This issue was mooted at the time and they swore blind that the council would never use its right to build. They were not canny French peasants as one might expect, but another foreign couple whom my friends trusted implicitly, in part because there is a kind of camaraderie between expats there. Clearly up to a point.

The fight between the Dunlops and the Dysons is an anomaly. This is not what usually happens when you move to rural France to get away from it all. Most of the time you really do end up living the dream. Obviously you can get unlucky, but you could get unlucky anywhere. I still marvel at the walks around us, the starlit nights and the cicadas drowning out the sound of the children arguing.

Chances are you will be fine in France. Unless of course you happen to end up next door to another Brit. In which case you might think about selling up immediately.

To board or not to board…?

People (mainly other mothers) are always asking me how I feel about the fact that we sent the children away to school. They have now been at boarding school for a year and a half and I’m still not really sure what I think of it all. Having never been to boarding school, it was not one of those things I was adamant I wanted to do, although I could see the benefits and was jealous of my friends who went.

It all started with a bike ride. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher, returned from a bicycle ride with the realisation that he no longer loved his wife and told her that they must separate. My husband returned from cycling in the Languedoc hills two summers ago with a similar epiphany, although his concerned the children, not me. “We must send the children to boarding school,” he said, before going upstairs for a shower.

When a man comes back from a bike ride with something to say, one is forced to listen and, sometimes, even to act. In fact, our children’s education had been worrying me too.

We had been based in Abu Dhabi for six years by then and I felt there was something missing from their lives. One of our friends from France summed it up when he came to stay by saying that Olivia was “running on empty”. There just wasn’t enough to stimulate them in Abu Dhabi, at least not in terms of education. I still don’t believe that a school that finishes at 2.30 pm can possibly be teaching them enough. Added to which, it was expensive. And as we were spending our own money we decided we would rather spend it on something more worthwhile.IMG_1590

As I said they have now been boarding for a year and a half. There is no doubting the benefits. All of them have flourished. Leo has developed into a gorgeous little gentleman and already knows more than I do about just about everything. He has captained his school football and cricket teams. Bea has turned out to be a school superstar, with great grades and masses of extra-curricular activities such as the school play, musical theatre and netball to mention a few. Olivia has become a lovely, confident and capable young lady, who is on track to do really well in her GCSEs this year and has made friends I think she will know forever.

There are so many upsides; the education (obviously), the people they meet, the things they do (Leo’s school just raised money for Afghanistan by reading poetry for 24 hours in a tree-house, nuts I know, but what a lovely romantic idea), the sport they play, the values they learn, the bonds they make. But what are the downsides?IMG_1962

I suppose the biggest one is that I miss them. OK I won’t pretend to miss the everyday drudgery of the school run, the homework, and the endless bickering. But I do miss not seeing them every day and not kissing them goodnight. The girls are much better at keeping in touch with me than Leo, so we skype or talk every day and I love hearing their news, but sometimes I won’t hear from him for ten days, which is tough. I rely on texts from another mother to know how he got on in his football matches. And of course I wake up in the middle of the night wondering how he is.

The truth is of course, he’s fine. He’s more than fine. If he weren’t fine I would hear about it. We have had some bouts of homesickness from all three and I can confirm the saying about boarding school that ‘you’re only as happy as your most miserable child’. A year and a half in though they are all pretty settled and I think would be horrified at the thought of going back to school in Abu Dhabi.

I suppose the reason I say I’m not sure what I think about it is that although I know it’s the best thing for them, it may not be the best thing for me. And I still can’t help wondering if we are all missing out on family life. Having said that I worked out the other day that they have five months at home so we do have plenty of time together as well.

I don’t think there always is a right or a wrong when it comes to children. Maybe there is just a middle ground that works and for the moment this is it.

In search of a satchel

Any mother (no, not fathers in my personal experience) of children going off to boarding school will know that after the stress of saying goodbye to the little loves, the next most stressful thing is the dreaded LIST of belongings they can take. This includes everything from a (named) lice comb to underwear (in Leo’s case, only white allowed) to duvet covers, wellington boots and that’s before you’ve even started on the uniform.
On Leo’s list this year was a satchel. It had to be black, and it had to be a satchel, not a backpack, or a briefcase. I can’t tell you how hard it is to find a good old-fashioned black satchel. At least for less than 200 quid. Finally I stumbled across a website called George Isaac Satchels. There it was, the PERFECT satchel. Available in every colour, even pink! I was suddenly transported back to an era of Enid Blyton and bad pub food. Ideal. So I ordered the satchel in what I thought was enough time, ten days before the start of term.10584034_430689887069509_6160658568260076944_n
Term began and there was no sign of the satchel. I called the company, got an answer machine. I emailed, no reply. Happily Leo was so involved in the beginning of the football season he didn’t really mind.
Another week passed. Still no news. I emailed again. It’s on its way I was told. They are handmade in London so can take up to 20 days. Should be there this week. The week came and went, still no sign of the satchel.
“It’s an internet scam,” thundered my husband. “You fool.”
“I do really need my satchel,” said Leo when I saw him at his first football match.
I wrote again. A reply came back from Joanna saying she would check the tracking order as soon as she was back from hospital.
I asked her if she was all right. “Yes fine, just having my chemo.”
So, as it turns out George Isaac Satchels is far from an internet scam. Joanna set up the business to raise money for the Wessex Cancer Trust. So if any of you need a satchel, or even a handbag (see pic) then I can highly recommend them.10650014_453198214818676_5739416338499512332_n
Just be sure to order in plenty of time…

https://www.facebook.com/GeorgeIsaacSatchels

http://www.georgeisaacsatchels.co.uk

The end of topless sur la plage?

A few days ago we went on a family picnic to a lake close to our home in the south of France. After a rather pleasant lunch of saucisson, baguette and brie washed down with rosé wine, my husband and I left the children to play while we took a stroll around the lake. At one point we came across a woman lying flat on her back wearing nothing but black bikini bottoms and a pink towel covering her head. Even without seeing her face you could tell she was of a certain age. We immediately stopped chatting and tiptoed past her. In part, we didn’t want to wake her up, but there was also the feeling that we were intruding on something private, almost something we shouldn’t be seeing. It struck me then how rare it is to see a pair of boobs on display in France, at least from a woman below the age of 50.
The magazine French Elle, know as ‘the bible’ here, ran an article last month heralding La Fin Du Topless Sur La Plage? – Is this the end of topless bathing on the beach? The magazine concluded that yes it is, and that only two per cent of women under the age of 35 now sunbathe topless.images
When we first moved to the south of France in 2000 there was still quite a lot of topless sunbathing on the beaches but nowadays, letting it all hang out is no longer de rigueur. Why is this?
In the sixties, Brigitte Bardot led the way in St Tropez. It was the sexual revolution and French women’s breasts were at the forefront. Bardot topless on the beach was synonymous with equality. Wearing a monokini was a sign of liberation, freedom of choice and youth. Now it has become the opposite.
“For a French woman today, not showing her breasts is a sign of liberation,” says Chantal, a 28-year old accountant I meet on the beach at Espiguette Plage, close to Montpellier in the South of France. “The fact that we can cover up, that we don’t need to display everything shows we are in charge of our own bodies, that we decide who sees what, and when they see it.”
This sentiment is echoed by her friend Justine, a 30-year old bank clerk, who adds that the shift in attitude has in part been brought about by the proliferation of porn on the Internet. Breasts on the beach are no longer the innocent manifestation of a social and sexual revolution; they have been somehow tarnished by the porn industry. If you expose your breasts, you are cheap. Or rather nudity has become cheap, at least in public.
“It is women who are forced to work in this disgusting industry who have to show their breasts. Educated career women do not,” she says. “The female body has been stolen by the porn industry, which uses it as it pleases. By covering up we are saying that we will not be part of this debasing of women. We are making a stand.”
Needless to say both Chantal and Justine are wearing bikini bottoms and tops. I ask them where they bought them from. Monoprix says Chantal, Eres says Justine. As with a lot of things in France, fashion plays a big part. Eres is an exclusive French swimwear and lingerie house that claims its products are “body architecture”. And it’s tough to have much influence on a body with just a pair of skimpy bikini bottoms. I am sure there is an element of fashion behind French women’s reluctance to get display their boobs. As Julie, a 32-year old French friend of mine who lives in Montpellier says: “Going topless would seem very 1970s, rather like having hairy armpits and wearing flares.”
The trend to cover up seems to have affected more than just the nation’s beaches. Ségolène Royal, former presidential candidate and now Minister for Ecology, recently tried to force women to cover up in her government ministry by declaring a ban on the famous French décolleté, or low neckline. Her argument was that they were to work not to show off their assets. She didn’t succeed, because even if a French woman doesn’t want to show her boobs, no one has the right to take away her liberty to do so. Royal was forced to make a public retraction on twitter.
How much the covering up on the beach is influenced by the fashion houses wanting to sell two bits of material for vast amounts of dosh as opposed to one is hard to say, but the union-style mentality is still extremely obvious in France. When Bardot got her boobs out in the Sixties a whole nation of women followed. Now a whole nation of women have put their boobs back in. During my day on the beach, the only French women I saw sunbathing topless looked like they’d been there during the sexual revolution. The others were German and heavily tattooed. And there is nothing seductive about them at all.
“Sunbathing topless makes you look old and unfashionable,” says Manon, a 34-year old graphic designer from Montpellier. “It’s the sort of thing my mother did. I never have. It makes you look old and at the same time it’s very ageing. The skin on your breasts is very delicate and sun exposure is not good for it.”
Health is one of the biggest factors driving French women to cover up. For a nation of Gauloise-smoking, coffee drinking rebels this too is a new trend. “It has become very retro to sunbathe, topless or not,” says Claire, a 38-year-old French friend of mine who lives in the Aquitaine region of France. “Everyone now knows the damage the sun does to your skin. I wear sun screen every day, even in the winter, and most of my friends do too. There is nothing more ageing than all that crinkly skin on your décolleté.”
Despite their reputation for smoking and drinking coffee, you only have to walk into a French pharmacy to see how seriously French women take their health and the effect it has on their looks. Almost three-quarters of the shelves are stocked with lotions and potions for slimmer legs, firmer buttocks and clear skin, magical cures that may or may not work but certainly sell well. If there is one thing they know about, it’s how to make the best of themselves; and it seems they have come to the conclusion that being almost naked in public is not a good look. As Claire says: “It is quite rare to see any under forties here sunbathing topless unless they are German, Dutch or ‘daring’ British. Elegant French women tend to be quite understated fashion-wise and we think pretty and strategically-placed fabric is far more alluring than flabby flesh. I have never sunbathe topless in public mainly for this reason, but also because of the damage the sun does.”
French women are programmed to seduce, and French women find undressing for a lover (or being undressed) much more seductive than showing up naked. Why take away all the mystery and allure? In this instance less is not more. It’s all about the joy of slowly opening the package, peeling back the layers to discover the prize within. “No man will be bothered to seduce you if you give him everything on a plate, they want to have the fun of the game, even if they know you’re a sure thing,” says Julie. “My husband still enjoys removing my underwear, even after ten years of marriage and two children. And I love playing the game with him, it keeps our marriage alive. ”
Clothes are there to make men think about removing them, to make them imagine what lies beneath and the promise of untold pleasures and beauty if they could just get there. As the author of the French classic book Bonjour Tristesse Françoise Sagan said: “A dress makes no sense unless it inspires a man to take it off you.”
As I leave Espiguette Plage I spot an attractive blonde woman sunbathing topless. I see she is reading a book in French. Have I found the only remaining French topless sunbather under 50? No, she tells me, she’s Swiss.

In Search of Charm

We are staying with some lovely friends in France at the moment where I have come across a brilliant, and indispensable, book. It is called In Search of Charm and was written by a lady called Mary Young in 1962.imgres

We are told in the blurb that Mary is the “Principal of the Mary Young Model School and Agency in London and the organizer and chief instructress of courses on poise, dress and personality”. It goes on to say that in her book, Mary “shows how to set about becoming that charming young woman you would like to be”.

My girls and I looked through it and were horrified to find that we have spent our entire lives walking into a room THE WRONG WAY. I quote: “The secret of a good entrance is to come in without commotion, closing the door behind you with both arms behind you so that you are looking into the room. The picture is even more attractive if you slide yourself into the middle of the door so that you are ‘framed’ as it were.”

We have now spent hours perfecting the entrance, as Olivia demonstrates, Mary would be proud of us. We’re still working on the exit.IMG_1850
Another top tip from Mary is how to walk up stairs. “Young woman, you should go up those stairs like a bird in flight, lightly, daintily, with feet dead straight and treading on the ball of the foot only.” Easy peasy unless you’re carrying armfuls of laundry or firewood.
Mary covers many more topics, such as hands and feet. “Did you know,” she writes, “that neglected hands can undermine your confidence?” And “Do you know that your feet should be scrubbed with soap and water and rinsed in cold water every morning and every night, and in fact as often as is convenient?”

Other subjects include personality, voice and laughter, etiquette, and even how to maintain a perfectly charming figure through her “three-fold attack” which is essential reading. First point is to “use the body in all its normal everyday activities beautifully and correctly. Second is “eat to live” and NOT the other way round. Third is “exercising, but in particular becoming an enthusiastic walker, and breathing deeply and rhythmically”.

Obviously a lot of the advice Mary gives (especially pertaining to the length of gloves we should all be wearing) is outdated. But I thought it was a fascinating insight into just how much you can do yourself to create a good impression. As Coco Chanel said “There are no ugly women, just lazy women.” And although Mary (and Coco) belong to a different era, I don’t think it does young ladies like my girls any harm at all to read about the importance of posture, manners and clean nails. I’m not sure why these things are no longer viewed as important, but they don’t seem to be. And actually they really can make a difference. I thought one of her best lines was the following: “Do you realise that in the sum total of your appearance one wrong or uncared for item can ruin the whole?” Now where did I put my gloves…?

Good parenting

The other night I had a drink with a friend of mine who had just had lunch with her parents. She took a sip of her wine and sighed. “For everything they’ve ever taught me, I may as well be an orphan,” she said.

My friend had what I would describe as a pretty traditional upbringing; two siblings, no divorce, living in more or less the same house throughout her childhood. The complete opposite of mine I suppose.

But her comment really got me thinking about what does make good parenting?

523931_466908883349736_884495519_nWhen my father was on his deathbed, barely aware of his surroundings, I told him he’d been a great father. He practically sat up in shock, sending the tubes flying. It made me laugh at the time. I wish we could have laughed about it together and talked, but he could no longer really speak.

Of course when I said he’s been a great father I didn’t mean he’d changed my nappies, driven me to and from school, cooked me beans on toast for tea and so on. What I meant was that without him I would have been, as my husband puts it, “an infinitely less interesting person”.

While he may not have taught me anything about the practical things in life, such as the importance of saving money on the rare occasions you have it, he taught me so many other things such as the importance of words (he used to read dictionaries like novels), humour (he would never lose his sense of humour, apart from when I was unable to recite Dante) and learning. When I finally stopped being a drop-out and decided to go to university I was in a quandary about what to study. “The important thing is not what you study,” he told me. “The important thing is that you study.”

He said so much that I will never forget. One of the best pieces of advice he gave was to “chiedi Bach” that is “ask Bach” if you have a problem. The idea is that you listen to Bach and the answer will come to you. It is not fool-proof, but a lot of the time it works.

IMG_2051I guess my point is that the fact that he said things I will never forget means they were significant. And surely one of the points of being a good parent is to be just that? And to teach your children to live well, and not be an idiot. Of course my father was an idiot in lots of ways, as we all are, but he got away with it, because he taught me so much that made me become less of one.

If we can make our children less idiotic we have done a good job. And if we can do that without being mundane or boring so much the better. I really don’t want to be remembered solely as the kind of parent who came up with tips on how to clean an oven, or which building society account to opt for. And if that makes me a bad parent then so be it.

Two takes on Matisse

When we were in London last time Rupert, Leo and I went to see the Matisse at the Tate Modern. It was fabulous, if a tad crowded. One upside to living in Abu Dhabi is that wherever you go, you are practically alone. Leo and I wandered through listening to the “instructions” as he called them and I am now a convert to those things. They really do bring an exhibition to life.
This morning I received two takes on the Matisse; one rather improbably from Top Shop, in its email newsletter. The other from my good friend Simon Fletcher, an established artist in his own right. Top Shop focuses on the colours and vibrancy of the exhibition, it’s nicely put together and even links his cut-outs to crop-tops in case its readers are waning. Below are Simon’s thoughts:

Matisse papiers decoupé at the Tate modern, London until 7th September 2014

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue”
H. Matisse

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I didn’t know why it was called ‘l’Escargot’ when I first saw it as a boy but I loved the colours and dynamic; I envied ‘La Danse’ and marvelled at the simplicity of the idea of three arches with figures moving through them.

Henri Matisse 1869 – 1954 has always been an inspiration for me since my teenage years. He defies categorisation and enjoys a unique position in 20th century art somewhere between abstraction and figuration.

Seeing his colour develop from his first Fauve period, the portrait of his wife (portrait with green stripe 1905) and the early landscapes, the Moroccan paintings and interiors of his middle years to the last paintings before his illness in 1941, the pink nudes, the great still lifes, is to map a joyful journey. There are no political statements in his art, no social significance, just exciting, stimulating use of colour and forms.imgres

Illness marked at least two important milestones in his life the first being when, recovering from appendicitis in hospital, he was given a box of colours. The effect of his first attempts to paint inspired him to quit his job as a lawyer’s clerk and enrol at art school where he met and became friends with painters who would eventually form a loose movement which became known as the Fauves. On seeing their work exhibited a critic had written that it was like seeing wild beasts (fauves) together and the name stuck. The second milestone came when he was recovering from surgery for intestinal cancer and, unable to stand for long he turned to coloured papers and scissors to create his famous late works, the papiers decoupé.images

Illness turns us inward, the forced inactivity allowing lengthy reflection about our past and possible future and there is no question when looking at the work of this last period of his life that Matisse had come to it at the perfect time to complete his oeuvre.

In these works we can see a consummate artist at work using all the various and complex skills acquired over many years of creativity: knowledge of the human form, of plants and animals and of course that last and most difficult thing, a mastery of colour. Few painters I think have had such an ability to create harmonious compositions using a powerful palette of rich colours. The success of these works and their enormous popularity is largely due I believe to the careful placing of evocative shapes which suggest plants, animals, flowers, figures etc. but which never impinge to the extent that our imagination is trapped by them – he leaves us free to make associations in our own way from the sublime choice of colours from deep magenta, through ultramarine to gold ochre and black.

Simon Fletcher 2014
www.simonfletcher.org

Rugby versus football, a game of two halves

At the end of a very stressful and long football season, I think I have stumbled upon a universal truth.

Everything that is wrong with football could be corrected by adopting the ethics, morality and general good-bloke-ish-ness of rugby. (Cue picture of Jonny Wilkinson). images

This is never more obvious than when you channel hop between the Six Nations and the Premier League. I was actually astounded by the contrast. Think about what REALLY annoys you when you’re watching football. First and foremost, stupid refs getting things wrong. How does rugby deal with this? If there is a potentially dodgy decision on the rugby field there is an instant replay and the ref makes a decision based on that replay. He doesn’t make a decision based on what the home crowd wants, or what his myopic Liverpool fan of a linesman has seen, or thinks he has seen. The fact that football rules say you can go BACK and look at the replay once the match is over is just ridiculous. Either you have video evidence or you don’t.

Second really annoying thing about football: the diving and writhing around in agony if a player is so much as looked at. What happens on the rugby pitch? They are ignored, and left to deal with it. The game is not stopped unless it is a serious injury. And actually in rugby it probably would be a serious injury because rugby does not attract the namby pamby theatrical types football seems to favour.
Third really annoying thing about football? Time added on. or so-called “Fergie time” as it used to be known. Ridiculous. If play is stopped just do what they do on the rugby pitch and stop the clock. Having added time is open to such a lot of abuse. Again football gives the ref the power to dictate the game. And how many refs do you really trust?

Fourth really infuriating thing? Much as we sometimes loathe them, arguing with the ref is JUST NOT RIGHT. Shut up, accept the decision and play on. You never see a rugby player harassing the ref. So undignified.

If we had more rugby-style morality and rules in football, the players might be more popular and the game have a little more credibility. As things stand most people when asked about Premier League players say they are spoilt, overpaid and generally not very nice (apart from Frank Lampard that is, cue picture of Super Frank).images-1
Rant over. Enjoy the end of the football season. And next year, watch a bit more rugby.

As my father-in-law always says: “Rugby is a game for yobs played by gentlemen, football is a game for gentlemen played by yobs.”