The Ballad of Fifth-Form Square

“We know not whether laws be right
Or whether laws be wrong
All we know who lie in gaol
Is that the walls are strong
And each day is like a year
A year whose days are long.”

This is an excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Goal, which I was reminded of the other day when I had a call from Bea’s school to say she was being ‘internally suspended’.
“That sounds dreadful,” I said. I imagined Bea being hung by her arms from the beams in chapel by a bungee rope. Actually being internally suspended entails being taken to a room in fifth-form square (where the fifth form live) and left there, alone, for two days. You are let out only for meals. Sadly for Bea her sentence coincided with the hottest day of the year.
Meanwhile Olivia, having finished her GCSEs was camping on the Norfolk coast. While Bea was in bed staring at the ceiling for the 705th time that minute, Olivia was enjoying the view. “It’s so beautiful,” she wrote to me in a text message. “We are looking at the stars.”
Which of course brings me to another Oscar Wilde quote. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
In Bea’s defence, that is probably what she was trying to do when she was caught committing her crime of climbing onto the school roof. Incidentally my mother-in-law, who was here when the call came through, admitted that she was an appalling roof climber at school and constantly in trouble. “But I gave it all up by the age of 12,” she added. Very wise.
At the end of this term the girls, for the first time ever, are going to be in separate schools. Olivia will leave boarding school to do her A Levels at a day school in Oxford. We have rented a place I have affectionately named “the little house” and during term time this is where you will find us. It is little, but it’s charming, and now stuffed full of furniture from Peter Jones and crockery from Emma Bridgewater. It is also a five-minute walk from M&S, so frankly it can be as little as it likes. Olivia will be studying French, Spanish, English Literature and Religious Studies. We have the first three sorted; a French neighbour to the left, a Spanish one to the right and I can help with the English Lit. We have yet to find an expert in RS but this being Oxford I’m sure it won’t be difficult.
But Bea’s internal suspension did get me thinking about how best to punish Olivia if she misbehaves. There isn’t much room to suspend her in the little house. I suppose I could ground her, but then again no one seems to go out any more anyway, they just talk to people online. Punishing the children for bad behaviour is something I have never been very good at, and I was extremely relieved to leave it to the professionals at boarding school. I’m not sure I’d be capable of incarcerating Bea in a room for more than five minutes. When we lived in Abu Dhabi I was always threatening to take away their phones or stop their pocket money but I never did. I blame my mother, she was far too nice to me. But I suppose if the worst comes to the worst and Olivia behaves truly appallingly, Reading jail is not far away…

Wife-swap? No thanks, just the house…

This morning I was woken up by John Humphrys. Happily he was not in my bed, but on something called a Sonos system, which sprang into life at 6.30am. No sooner had I got over the shock of that when there was a loud thudding sound from a speaker downstairs. ‘Who starts a disco at 6.35am?’ I wondered. I had, was the answer, or rather another Sonos speaker had sprung into life, greeting the rainy Oxford morning with some rather lively music to work out to.
Yesterday’s awakening could not have been more different. I was woken up by birdsong. It was probably just as loud as John Humphrys, and as impossible to turn off. (Although this morning I did eventually find something under the bed with a mute button that seemed to do the trick.)BobCarolTedAlice
Nowadays people no longer swap wives; they swap houses. We are onto our second house swap here in Oxfordshire. The first was with some friends who own a beautiful place deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. It was your classic rural idyll, an Aga, creaky floors, fresh milk delivered from the local dairy, tennis court (courtesy of generous neighbours) and village pubs. Yesterday we moved into a stunning, newly renovated house in town. It was designed by a Scandinavian architect, so I feel completely at home. The kitchen come living area is incredible. A large island (heaven) and steps down to a dining and sitting area, with glass doors for walls that open up onto the garden. Rupert says he feels like he’s on a golf-tee.
The house is beautifully decorated, reminiscent of a luxury boutique hotel, but with the added bonus of no other irritating guests. And all this fabulous technology (the induction hob is a lesson in physics all on its own) must be doing wonders for our neural pathways.
When we moved in yesterday it did occur to me that while not quite as intimate as wife swapping, there is an element of the very personal involved in a house swap. You are often letting complete strangers, with whom you’ve only had email correspondence, into your home. They could leave knowing more about you and your personal habits than a lot of your friends do. Our house swappers will certainly leave knowing more about our cat than most people do. It’s a very clever concept though, based on a mutual desire to travel and of course trust. You look after mine, and I’ll look after yours.
I guess that is the only downside. Because you are a guest, you are constantly fretting about breaking anything in a way that you never are at home, or would be in a hotel. There is also the stress that they may show up at your house and hate it. Although I can’t imagine anyone hating Sainte Cecile, although our bathrooms are really rather shabby in comparison to the elegant ones here.
I am very much looking forward to our month here. I will work of course (back to Abu Dhabi on Sunday) but when I am not I will be nipping down the road to M&S for food and getting to know Summertown, where I will be living once Olivia starts school here in September.
And now that I have managed to silence Mr. Humphrys I am going to enjoy the view from my bedroom window over the St John’s college cricket pitch, slowly unpack my clothes and decide which wide-screen TV to watch the test match on. Assuming I can work them that is…

A very French village affair

News reaches me that Swedes recycle 99 per cent of their rubbish. Never one to be outdone by my compatriots, I am recycling this column first published in the Sunday Times. You will be pleased to hear that since this exciting episode things have calmed down and the bakery is now run by another family. The bread has improved as well…

Our location three kilometres away from the nearest village normally insulates us from local gossip. But news reaches me of a tale so gripping that I feel I cannot ignore it. Besides, it says a lot about life in rural France.
The story is centred on the most important building in the community – no, not the bank, nor the bar not even the post office. It’s the bakery. It is not my favourite bread shop – the range is a bit limited – but occasionally I have glimpsed the baker in the backroom, rather a muscular, handsome chap covered in flour. His wife sold the baguettes and croissants. A bohemian figure with long highlighted hair and a penchant for grungy outfits, we were quite friendly, partly because she shares a name with one of my daughters.
However, last weekend, when I went to get a loaf, I was served by a rather pretty youngster with long blonde hair. Where, I asked a friend, is the baker’s wife?
“You mean you don’t know? The whole village has been talking about it.” She steered me towards the local bar, and over a cup of coffee, outlined the sorry tale.

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It turns out that a couple of years ago a Parisian moved into the village with her husband. She became best friends with the baker’s wife. They spent many happy hours together in the shop talking about fashion, food and other French obsessions. But as Coco Chanel was fond of observing: “My friends, there are no friends.”

For when the baker’s wife went to visit her ailing mother, the baker took the opportunity of getting close to the Parisian woman. He may not be the first baker to be caught with his hands in the wrong bag of flour, but when his wife discovered what had been happening in her absence, she took it badly. She repacked her bags and left; nobody knows where she went.

The Parisian thought this might leave her free to move in with the handsome baker, but he apparently rejected this kind offer. This was the cue for her husband to get involved. He went down to the bakery with his shotgun and loosed a couple of rounds into the windows. Whether he was aiming at the baker, we don’t know, but it does seem a bit of an odd reaction to take it out on an innocent building.

What we do know is that the baker has got rid of two women who were beginning to show their age and apart from the damage to his windows, has come out of the whole saga unscathed. Moreover he now has a younger woman handling his baguettes.
“As long as she doesn’t end up with a bun in the oven, he’s had a result,” says my friend. What interests me is the reaction of the rest of the village. They are delighted to have something to talk about. It’s the biggest thing since Le Pen defeated Jospin in 2002. (Zidane’s World Cup head butt pales in comparison.)

There are now regular pilgrimages to gawp at the gun-shot wounded windows; much more interesting than the normal evening pastime of going to the bus stop in your slippers, carrying a deck chair and sitting there watching the traffic go by.
“You’ll notice the police haven’t been involved,” one village senior told me. “That’s the French noblesse oblige. If a man has been cuckolded then he is perfectly entitled to take a few pot shots at your window.”

There’s not much sympathy for the wronged wife. “She was always very grumpy,” says another villager. “She would look at me and say ‘what do you want?’ when I came into the bakery. ‘Some bread,’ I felt like responding, ‘isn’t that bleeding obvious?’”
Many locals think the baker might now spend more time on his bread, thus improving its quality, although the foodies in the village still make the journey into the local town for their banette moissons and apple tarts.

The Parisian and the cuckolded husband are said to be still living together in domestic disharmony. Apparently they have taken a floor of the house each, and eat at different times. God knows where they get their bread from.

What is also interesting here though is the French attitude to infidelity. No one has condemned the baker as a cheat and a cad. Everyone thinks he’s a jolly good bloke. When I asked another villager if he wasn’t shocked by the goings-on at the bakery he looked amazed.“Shocked?” He said. “This sort of thing has been going on since before time began.”

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I remember a friend of mine telling me the story of a woman who lived outside Toulouse whose husband had an affair with the local postmistress. Instead of turfing her husband out she asked a friend if she could borrow her house.
“What for?” said the friend.
“I need to seduce my husband,” was the wronged wife’s response.
She got dressed up in some sexy underwear, invited her husband round and performed a striptease routine. I can’t imagine an Englishwoman reacting in the same way. She might borrow a friend’s house to murder him in so as not to get any blood on her own carpets, but certainly not to show him her latest matching underwear.
De Gaulle once said that it is impossible to rule a country with over 350 types of cheese. Maybe it is the sheer variety of everything: bread, wine, strange vowel sounds and so on, that make fidelity more difficult for the French.

Strangely enough they seem more able to resist culinary delights than temptations of the flesh. I remember an extremely chic and slim Parisian once telling me about her little trysts, always carried out with maximum discretion in smart hotels around town.
“What else can’t you resist?” I asked her. “Croissants for example?”
She looked horrified. “I haven’t had a croissant in over twelve years.”

I should think the baker’s wife has gone off them as well.

Marvellous May

This is a short story I wrote for a Harper’s Bazaar competition last year. Rather irritatingly I didn’t win so here it is, published for the first time…

Marvellous May

My husband is hated by almost every woman in the county. They hate him for a variety of reasons, but all of them linked to sex.
Some hate him because he had sex with them a few times, and then stopped. Others hate him because he is trying to have sex with them. And then there are those who loathe him because he hasn’t tried to have sex with them. Yet. They are affronted not to be asked to the party. They can’t join in the banter with the other ladies about Julian’s wandering hands and voracious sexual appetite.
Not that I am ever included in this banter of course. They all try to hide his behaviour from me. “Oh poor May,” they sigh. “She’s so marvellous the way she puts up with him.”
They’re right. I am marvellous. I have been married to Julian for 25 years. We have had two children together. They are grown up now. Sadly he still isn’t.
But today is the last day I will have to deal with it. I have picked today because it’s his favourite day of the whole year. It’s the hunt, which he leads, and loves almost as much as illicit sex. Hunting combines everything Julian most enjoys. The tight clothes, the dashing steeds, the thrill of the chase. And our cocktail party is the perfect culmination to a perfect day. Or it is if he manages to extend the mounting to at least one or two of our hapless guests.shutterstock_157838480
He will succeed of course, because if all else fails there are the old favourites: Kim and Susan. Susan and Kim. Who came first I wonder? They used to be best friends until Julian started having an affair with them both at the same time. And now they hate each other more than most of the other women in the county hate Julian. I can’t really understand it, and of course the reason for their falling out has been “hidden” from me and blamed on an argument about a chestnut mare they both wanted to buy. This morning they are both at the stables, mucking out. I walk past on my way to discuss the antis with the police accompanied by my best friend Alice.
“Morning Julian,” shouts Alice when we see him striding towards us, immaculate in his hunting kit. Even I find him quite handsome in his hunting pink. He is a good-looking man, despite being 50, with a full head of grey hair and a good body, which he is too vain to lose. ‘The Silver Fox’ some of the less bitter women call him. “I see you’ve got your minions doing your dirty work for you!”
Susan sticks her nose out of one the stables. In fact her nose is so enormous it’s the first thing one sees a very long time before the rest of her appears. I often wonder how he manages to kiss her without knocking himself out.
“I am NOT one of his minions,” she spits. Poor Susan, even if she hates my husband, she can’t bear for Kim to get on his good side again, and back into his britches. It’s like an addiction for the pair of them. They just can’t keep away. She is about to continue protesting when she spots me and slinks back into the stable, taking her nose with her.
Alice is the only person who dares to talk about my husband’s serial shagging openly. She treats it like a big joke. Julian is terrified of her. He constantly tries to seduce her too of course. If there’s a horse in the stable Julian hasn’t yet ridden, he has to give it a go. She tells him if she’s ever that desperate she’ll let him know. Which has only heightened his desire. He’d love to sleep with Alice; she would be the ultimate conquest. She’s attractive, and more enticingly, a lesbian. Julian views an attractive lesbian like the contemporary equivalent of an invitation to a duel. It’s a matter of honour.
“She just hasn’t met the right man,” he’ll say to me, preening himself in front of the mirror.
“I’m sure you’re right, darling,” I respond, much in the same way I used to agree with Will, our eldest son, when he told me he was going to become an astronaut. He’s an insurance salesman now. A lovely boy, but certainly never bright enough to become an astronaut. He went on to Oxford Brookes, a ‘fake’ university as Julian calls it. I prefer the word ‘new’. My youngest, Louise, is cleverer. “Takes after you,” Alice says. She is now in her third year at Edinburgh.
Whatever happens after today I have got them to this stage, they are adults, they are in charge of their lives, I think I can justifiably say that I have done my duty. Of course Julian would say he has done his duty by paying for it all. Alice always calls sex a terribly destructive force, but I think money is worse. Julian has used money throughout a lot of our lives to justify behaving badly and keeping me in my place. As an investment banker he earns a fortune, in fact I don’t remember a time when we were broke like most young couples are. We just never seemed to be missing anything. So at 26 I gave up my badly paid job in publishing to become Marvellous May; the textbook stay at home wife and mother.
I have myself to blame though in many ways. “You’ve created a monster,” Alice tells me. I suppose I was always a bit scared of him, always slightly grateful that he married me. He was so glamorous and outgoing. I was fine looking, but not one of the stars of the set like he was. Even if I had the title and the upbringing, while he went to a grammar school, which left him with a sense of inferiority he has spent most of the rest of his life trying to hide. He applied for Eton but didn’t get in. And his parents said it was either Eton or state school. They weren’t prepared to sell the house for anything less. I don’t think he ever forgave Eton.
When we got married I let him get away with not changing nappies, I allowed him to do nothing around the home while I ran everything, and then a few years later I let him sleep with whomever he wanted to and all because I felt I couldn’t grumble. One of the reasons I felt I couldn’t grumble was that we had everything. Holidays, cars, houses, fine wines, nice clothes. I have a credit card with a limit of 30,000 quid. I can buy myself a horse if I want to. But of course that sort of large purchase would be down to Julian. Like my Range Rover. I know when they bring out a new one because it’s on my drive before the paint has dried.
“Another guilt car?” Alice will ask when she sees it. I suppose it is. But what that bastard of a husband of mine has worked out is that the guilt works both ways.
Since Will and Louise left home I have found it more and more difficult to justify doing nothing with my life. What have I contributed to the world except for two middle-class children? I suppose I have kept a lot of Range Rover factory workers in blue overalls over the years. But I could have done more. Marvellous May doesn’t feel so marvellous about herself.
“It’s not too late,” Alice says. Maybe she’s right. But it’s almost as if I can’t even think about it myself. Like so much of my life, it’s hidden behind the façade of my Queen Anne house. The proportions are perfect. An arched doorway with a tall white-framed window either side. On the next floor, three windows, aligned with the door and the two below. The top floor roof has three small attic windows. On each corner of the roof sits a chimney. If you move just one element the effect is ruined.
And the new Range Rovers complete the picture parked on the wide gravel driveway.
The hunters have returned, exhilarated and high from the day’s events. They managed to trick both the antis and the weather, sheltering from a hailstorm in the woods and avoiding hedges where the antis had hidden barbed wire in order to cause maximum damage to the priceless horses.
The cocktail party has begun. Here we are, gathered in our beautiful drawing room. There are two roaring fires, one at either end of the room giving out enough heat to further redden the already ruddy cheeks of the hunters. There is a comforting hum of guests enjoying themselves, relaxing and sipping champagne, safe, rich and happy. The lights are just low enough to hide the wrinkles creeping up on us all. The young are all in the kitchen daring each other to drink hideous concoctions and planning the night ahead at some party or other where they can behave like their parents used to.
Would all of us behave like Julian if we could get away with it? Isn’t it more fun doing what you want than what you’re expected to? But then that’s growing up I suppose. I don’t really blame Julian. I don’t hate him for his adultery. I used to. He hurt me very badly the first few times but that was back at a time when I cared. Luckily some defense mechanism kicked in about ten years ago and I stopped hurting, and stopped caring really. I think I fell out of love with him. He can still affect me, for sure. And if he really turns on the charm, or makes me laugh I can remember a time when all I wanted was him. I wonder if there ever was a time when all he wanted was me? I think there was, maybe very early on, before Will was born. It’s almost like my love for Julian mellowed with each child. As if they took a slice of the love I used to have for him. He didn’t help himself, of course, by sleeping with every woman within a twenty-mile radius. But maybe he wasn’t solely to blame? Was I in part responsible for him starting to stray? And did it then just become an unbreakable habit?
I’ll never know now. I watch my guests mingling, having fun, looking forward to the gossip or scandal that surely must result from this evening. There is usually something to talk about in the weeks to come. Four years ago a German prince ended up naked in the fountain despite the fact that it was almost freezing outside. Makes you wonder how they ever lost the war in Russia. Last year we had a group of antis crash the party. Julian got his gun and scared off most of them. A couple of the girls stayed on, young, pretty things, clearly rather taken with the comfortable scene indoors and happy to drink champagne rather than running off into the cold wet woods with their activist boyfriends. Julian ended up sleeping with one or both of them I’m sure. A couple of years before that the guests performed a topless can-can at 4am. I was in bed by then, but Alice told me all about it. I wasn’t that sorry to miss it. I think at my age my days of topless dancing are probably over. My husband, seemingly, is still in his prime.
It’s interesting isn’t it, that men only get more attractive as they get older? The George Clooney effect. Yet another one of life’s little jokes at the expense of women, like periods and childbirth. I sound bitter. I’m not. No, really. I’ve been very lucky. And I don’t begrudge George Clooney a thing. I’d even be thrilled to discuss the whole issue with him, topless, if he asked me. But it does sometimes seem a tad unfair that my husband just seems to get more attractive, while I become increasingly invisible.
Just after midnight I am going to sneak away. No one will notice, one of the advantages of being invisible. Julian will follow soon after, and make his exit as nonchalant as possible. He is always careful; I think he enjoys the subterfuge almost as much as the actual sex. I am convinced it wouldn’t be as much fun if he weren’t deceiving me, which is why he has stayed with me so long. I’m sure a little part of him still enjoys his revenge on the upper classes. I watch him prepare the ground, flitting from person to person carrying a bottle of champagne so it won’t seem odd when he walks out of the room. No one, with the possible exception of Susan and Kim, will think to follow him. They will just assume he’s gone to get another bottle, ever the attentive host. Only I know where he’s really going.
I have been planning this moment for months. I’m not sure what the decisive moment was. I think it might have been when Alice pointed out that he is going to be unbearable when he is too old and ugly to seduce women any more. “There is nothing more irritating than a man with nothing to do,” my mother used to complain when my father had retired. I think that made me realise that I’d just had enough, that I was not really living, just partly living. And that after all these years it was in my power to get my revenge on him. His little Don Juan gig would soon come to an end with no wife at home to berate him. Where’s the fun in behaving badly when there’s no one to hide from or to tell you off?
Now the moment is here it’s almost like watching myself in a film. I have rehearsed each move over and over in my mind. I walk out of my drawing room for the last time. On my way to the planned rendezvous I double check that Alice has loaded up the car. Everything is there. Most of it has been packed for weeks, hidden under our bed. I have been planning every detail of my new life down to what to wear to lunch with my old colleague who is now CEO of the publishing company I used to work for.
Alice is waiting for me by the stables. She smiles when she sees me.
“Ready?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, approaching her.
She puts her arms around my waist and kisses me. It’s a surprising sensation, being kissed by a woman. Not because it’s a woman per se, but the kiss is so gentle compared with a man’s kiss. There is no roughness as her tongue moves into my mouth, no force, just a softness that I have never experienced with Julian.
After about 30 seconds we hear his voice.
“Well, hellooooo ladies! Don’t let me interrupt you!” He is thrilled at the prospect of a threesome in the hay, until I turn around and face him. His delight turns to panic, then confusion, then fury. I can almost see his brain computing the scene, trying to make sense of it. He’s too stunned to speak. His wife, the ever-patient Marvellous May kissing the woman he has come to the stables to seduce. The woman whose text this morning excited him even more than the prospect of the hunt.
Alice hands me a white envelope.
“Julian,” I say passing it on to him. “In this envelope is a letter from my lawyer stating the terms of our divorce. I’m not going to be greedy, I know you earned all the money, and I won’t take your precious house and horses from you. I will however move into our London home. And you will pay me alimony of 10,000 pounds a month, which will cover the children and my costs.”
Julian takes the envelope. The money will hurt, especially giving it away without retaining control of me. Handing it over with no guilty secret to atone for. I can see the blustering is about to begin. I need to be brief.
“I have just sent an email to the children, asking them to come for lunch with me next week so I can talk to them. Please don’t try to turn them against me. It won’t work anyway, but if you try to I will tell them what I’m sure they already know, that you have slept with almost all my friends.”
“How dare you May? I won’t stand for this,” he shouts. Time to get out of there.
Alice nods and we start walking towards the Range Rover.
“Get back here this instance,” he yells after us.
I almost turn back I’m so used to doing what he tells me to.
Alice takes my hand and keeps me moving forward. “He doesn’t have any power over you,” she says gently. “You are the one that gives him the power. If you ignore him he can’t do a thing.”
I’m shaking when we get to the car so Alice says she will drive us to London.
“He knows the game is up,” says Alice, reassuring me as she starts the engine.
Julian hasn’t followed us, which surprises me. I half expect him to run in front of the car, apoplectic with rage. I’m still terrified he will ruin everything. I can’t wait for my new life to begin.
The wheels crunch over the gravel. I look back at the façade of my house lit by the full moon. The perfect proportions fade into the night as we drive away.

An 80s’ icon…

Never mind what everyone wore to the Oscars. This is clearly THE jacket to be seen in this week. There I was innocently knocking up a soup last night when my daughter sent me a text with a picture of a jacket from some trendy website with a picture of me on the back. It’s tough to discover one is an 80s’ icon while chopping carrots.IMG_2945
The other thing that is tough is telling my children not to do stupid things to their hair, wear ridiculous clothes or anything else really when the evidence of my own teenage misdemeanours is on the back of a piece of white denim.
I have looked at the website where they sell the jacket but can’t find it. I can only assume it’s already sold out. I saw some other jackets, all for around £250 quid. Am half thinking of demanding royalties.
And before you ask if I was trying to look like Boy George, the answer is no, he was clearly trying to look like me. Have you seen him on the back of a jacket recently? I think not….

What to wear, or not to wear?

I am back at Viva Mayr for the first time since 2008. I landed late last night and have woken up to a snow-covered landscape. The staff all wear white, thus matching the surroundings. In fact some of the clients are in white too, but you can tell they are clients because they shuffle along in their spa slippers, those horrid contraptions that make you sound like an old person, and their outfits are the Viva fluffy white dressing gowns.
One of my main dilemmas yesterday was what to pack. Granted this is not an unusual dilemma for me, but there were many factors to consider. First it is minus 3 degrees here. So I needed warm clothes. But then again if you’re in a spa you don’t really go out? But what if you want to go out? And then at the end of this trip I have Bea’s confirmation, and I am not going to that in old person’s slippers and a fluffy white dressing gown.imgres
Having unpacked I have realised I have nothing to wear. It is boiling hot inside the clinic, I may as well have planned for a holiday in the Caribbean. The numerous pairs of jeans, three polo necks and two fur gillets will be of no use whatsoever. I will have to wear gym kit for the week.
Of course I have ventured out of my room to check out what the others are all wearing. So far nothing too maddening. By that I mean nothing that has induced a bout of ‘outfit envy’. There is a young lady, I would guess early to mid twenties, who looks just like Bridget Jones. She is wearing some extremely floppy pyjamas and a dressing gown that has seen better days. She is shuffling around in the old person’s slippers to complete the look. I think she’s probably extremely pretty but it’s hard to tell under all the layers of comfort clothing. She looks downcast, maybe even heartbroken à la Jones?
The rest are mainly in track-suits or gym kit. There are a couple of Arab girls wearing flip-flops, not a bad call, and certainly beats the slipper look.
I saw one woman in jeans and shoes, but she must be new.
The men are ALL wearing their white dressing gowns, which makes me think they have packed nothing but suits, the fools. But it is only breakfast so maybe we will all dress for lunch or dinner? I was hoping there might be a spa shop where I could replenish my wardrobe but sadly there isn’t. So I will just have to wear some more gym kit, or maybe the hideous jeggings I packed on the proviso that I never wear them anyway and can throw them away if they don’t work here.
My main aim though while here is not to locate the ideal outfit but to write a book. Some of you may remember The Viva Mayr Diet, a book I wrote with Dr Stossier (the man who runs the clinic) in 2008. We have decided to write a follow-up book. Title yet to be determined, but the main theme is ageing (my favourite topic) and how to age in a healthy (that is Viva Mayr) way.
Off I shuffle now to do some research….

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.