Monthly Archives: August 2012

Reviewed: Beacons Festival

Giving out the name of your blog when it’s called ‘My Shitty Twenties’ is always fun, especially in front of little ears. Still, all those Ts sound good through the ventriloquist-tight teeth of one reluctant to say something out loud. It’s a scenario I found myself in at Beacons Festival last weekend, much to the amusement of box office staff.

“It’s a Tumblr about Portaloos,” I said.

As it turns out, a lot of the overheard conversations at the festival were about toilets, or lack of them. I could write a blog post about it, but I won’t, because we didn’t let it ruin what was a wonderful weekend.

There were four of us in our party: my friend Claire, her broken finger, me and Tom. Count the bags-on-wheels and we made a pretty sorry caravan. When we arrived, after two trains, a minor bus crash and a taxi, a kindly dad helped us shift our camping gear.

“We’ve been here since Thursday,” he said, “The kids love it; it’s like a mini holiday.”

I was a bit envious then that we hadn’t been able to make it down until Saturday – Funkirk Estate was gorgeous, surrounded on all sides by hills, easily accessible from the local town, small and simple to navigate.

Making ace shadow puppets

The family camp site was full, but I half-expected that given our late arrival and the ‘first come, first served’ warning on the website. We pitched up elsewhere, but still had access to the family facilities. Whilst the Breakfast Club didn’t have the hotly-anticipated cartoons, it did deliver story-telling and workshops in a space that was warm, comfy and dry. Those three words are bliss when it’s a boggy one: Saturday afternoon was glorious (clear, paraglider-peppered sky that turned pink at dusk,) but Sunday was barely light, very wet and squelchy underfoot.

Stand-off between fox and sea monster

The brilliant Ladybird team worked tirelessly to provide muddied children with all manner of entertainment. Elsewhere, the Into The Woods tent was a colourful but calm space and home to one of my festival highlights: a screening of We Are Poets, a mesmerising documentary about some of Leeds Young Authors‘ journeys to compete in USA poetry slams. As the film ended and Claire and I sniffled a bit, some of the stars took to the stage for a surprise live performance and Q and A. (Tom’s questions: “How far away was it when you went to America?” and “What are your favourite bands?”)

Speaking of bands, we’re up to Sunday, shin-deep in mud and I haven’t mentioned music. The line up for Beacons was ace, but there’s no point in trying to see someone in particular when you’ve got a child in tow. On Saturday afternoon, Tom flung himself about to a bit of Bok Bok, which delighted his fellow ravers. Later on, Ghostpoet provided rhymes and goosebumps – and I got to see a whole ten minutes of Andrew Weatherall’s set before Tom’s batteries ran out. But the big one, the reason why Tom was so excited, was the Sunday night headliner…

Toots and the Maytals are best heard in the sunshine, so I wasn’t sure how it would go in a dark marquee. We took Tom back to our tent for a pre-gig siesta and when we emerged, the site was draped in thick mist. It all added to the finale atmosphere, but what Beacons was lacking was an outdoor stage. Big tops might keep rain off, but venturing in with a little one is daunting, especially when the ground’s a quagmire. Dads tried to heroically hoist their kids up on to their shoulders but struggled to balance in the sludge. Tom was gutted when he realised he couldn’t see Toots, but we hung back and the power nap paid off: he danced his way all through the dazzling set, which included Funky Kingston, Monkey Man and the ubiquitous 54-46 encore (Toots’ voice is so good.) At the end, a friend who didn’t have a broken finger found us and we managed to raise Tom above the crowd. He must have glimpsed the band for 30 seconds, but he was made up.

“That was amazing! I can’t believe it,” he huffed, red-faced, all the way back to the tent.

The Beacons bill obviously attracted grown-up music fans, but the provision for families was excellent. Yes, there were issues with toilets, but who goes to a festival expecting pristine loos? This was the first year for Beacons and it was clear that a lot of hard work and dedication had gone into making it happen. Yes, they should have ordered more Portaloos, but after all the fuss, they’ll be making sure they get that right next year.

I’d love there to be an outdoor stage, but the music, site, décor, children’s stuff and atmosphere were all spot on. Next time, we’ll try to arrive on Thursday and have that mini holiday.

Over to Tom:

“I loved Beacons because it was a festival I could really boogie at.”

There you go.

This is a review post: our tickets to the festival were free.

“Really boogieing” to Toots and the Maytals

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Everybody needs good ones

Four years ago, on a Friday afternoon, I heard a cork pop and raucous laughter coming through the wall from next door. I had a new neighbour. Louise is my age, kind, funny and lovely. She quickly became Tom’s Auntie; she baked with him, she decorated his bedroom, she took him places in her car – all things I couldn’t do. Louise watched Tom grow from a two year old in a buggy to a six year old who couldn’t wait to show her his wobbly teeth and school reports.

Louise was my saviour, too; driving me out to the countryside for long walks and chats, lending me her step ladders (and steadying them) when I needed to change a light bulb, helping me shift furniture from one end of the room to the other (and back again.) Sometimes, if I had a stack of washing up to do or clothes to put away, she would come and sit and chat to me while I just got on with it. We had nights out, we had nights in, we went on holiday together. I listened to her, she listened to me, one day I want to return all the favours she did for me. When I lost all my confidence in my writing and myself, she talked me out of it and encouraged me to keep going. Whilst most of my friends live far across the other side of town, Louise was only ever a couple of slipper-clad footsteps away.

I often accidentally referred to Louise  as my housemate, because that’s how it felt. I would hear her coming in from nights out when I was up writing late. That distinctive laugh through the walls became my reassurance that Tom and I had company, that we were never truly alone in our little corner of the city.

Last week, I was walking across a sun-drenched field in Oxfordshire when I heard that ever-so-slightly-dirty laugh come from inside a nearby tent. I’d won tickets to Wilderness festival (posh, sunny, wonderful) and one of the reasons why I’d entered the competition was because Louise and I had talked about going.

“Is that you, Louise?” I said, panicking for a second that it might be someone else.

Of course it was though, that laugh. I was four hours away from home, in the middle of a thousand tents and it had still managed to reach me.

Louise got a new job a few weeks ago, so she doesn’t live next door any more. I am really pleased for her, but God, we miss her. I keep half-going to call her and ask her what she’s up to, then remembering she’s not there. Tom keeps asking after her as well.

When I got back from Wilderness and the weather was reasonable, all I wanted was one of our ritual summer walks. The raspberries are out now and we would have let Tom pick them while we talked about the weekend.

Sometimes, people ask if it’s hard on your own. It doesn’t feel like it is most of the time, especially if it’s all you’ve ever known. But it’s definitely easier when you’ve got good people to support you. And unless you’ve got a housemate, people don’t get much closer than your next door neighbour. I often joke that Louise didn’t know what she was letting herself in for moving in next to us, but she always smiles and says she thinks it was meant to be.

Thankfully, Louise keeps coming back to visit. It’s not quite the same as it was when she was just through the wall (we often said we’d make a hatch so we could just climb through into each other’s houses) but I know she’ll always be around. When your family’s tiny, lovely people really make a difference. The last four years were definitely happier for Louise being there. Tom and I got so lucky with Louise – and that blummin’ laugh.

(Time to stop sniffling and readjust.)

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Sweatshirts and Set Squares

It’s getting dark earlier, confused trees are beginning to shed their leaves and the high street is awash with comic sans signs that look like they’ve been written in wax crayon. All this means one thing: Back to School.

Those three words don’t trigger half the amount of doom in children as they do in parents. (Even more so when the phrase ‘Back 2 Skool’ is used – but that’s another post.) No one wants to think about autumn in August. The bombardment of special offers, sweatshirts and set squares makes me want to skive the big school shop – and that’s precisely what I used to do. But after three years of struggling to find what I need and ending up paying over the odds at the eleventh hour, I have realised it pays to be organised.

I got an email from Most Wanted, the magazine of vouchercodes.co.uk, telling me that the average cost of sending a pupil back to school is £121. That seems absolutely ridiculous, especially in the current climate. No wonder so many families can’t afford to kit their children out in the correct uniform. The thing is, I don’t think it should cost anywhere near that if you plan ahead. Most Wanted challenged me to get Tom classroom-ready for £80. A doddle, I thought – and there’ll be change…

Trousers: M&S are as good at school staples as they are at superfood salads and their Outstanding Value Trousers have always served us well. There are a host of supermarkets out there selling trousers without frills which I am sure are just as good, but Tom’s a bit of whippet and the elasticated ones just don’t stay up. These have an adjustable waist, are water and stain resistant and best of all, they never need to go near an iron. These are not just any grey school kecks… Pack of two pairs: £9

Polo Shirts: A white polo shirt is a white polo shirt: after a few months of baked bean juice, paints and playground muck, it takes on a new life as a duster. In the meantime, you don’t want to have spent too much on it. That’s why I am trying Aldi’s this time, at £1.25 for a pack of two. If they’re as good as their Disco Biscuits, they’ll be just fine. Two packs of two: £2.50

Sweatshirts: These can only be bought directly from the school. I haven’t bought any for two years, because I bought Tom a good size up when he started in 2o10. If I can get through the scrum at the receptionist’s hatch on the first day back, they’ll be £8 each (I think.) Ideally, we could do with three as they often get grubby, but I’ll stick to two for now: Two sweatshirts: £16.

Shoes: These are the biggest drain on the school uniform budget. If your child has particularly wide or narrow feet, you can’t afford to scrimp on them. Thankfully, after the breakneck speed at which toddlers’ feet grow, things seem to calm down a bit once children hit school age. I’ve been really lucky with Tom’s last three pairs of school shoes, by Ricosta and Clarks, all of which have lasted a whole year of school sprints and playground scuffs. Unlike girls’ shoes, which seem to come decked in butterflies, petals and fairy lights, boys’ footwear is pretty straightforward, meaning as long as you get the right size, they should be happy. Clarks are now letting you book fitting appointments online, which means no horrible queues and more chance of getting a pair in your child’s size. Getting measured by the pros is an event in itself (although it’s all digital now – I miss those machines that close in on your feet.) One pair, £36

That’s it for us. I’ll probably use the change for a haircut that’s not done by me with the kitchen scissors – and maybe that backup jumper. It can be tempting to buy new underwear, socks and coats to mark the start of a new school year, but if your child doesn’t need them, don’t do it. Tom’s coat and PE kit from last year still fit, he doesn’t need stationery and he has the standard issue book bag from the school.

Total: £63.50

Change: £16.50

Ways to save:

Snip name tags off old garments instead of buying new ones (or just use a Sharpie in the first place.)

Buy cheap PE pumps instead of fancy trainers.

Always go for the biggest size you can get away with. If your boy shoots up overnight and ends up with half-mast trousers, snip the ends off and make them into shorts.

Deal in coats on eBay: Quality, warm coats are expensive brand new, but you can usually pick up something markedly cheaper and hardly worn in an auction. Sell your child’s old school coat on there too – you should get a decent price if it’s in good nick.

If you’re really struggling with the cost of school uniform, speak to the school – most have boxes of used items that can be bought for pence. If you are throwing your old stuff out, spare a thought for those who can’t afford new uniform and hand it to the school.

If you’re on low income or benefits and you live in England, you may be entitled to help with the cost of school uniform. Find out more here.

Vouchercodes.co.uk gave us £80 to spend on school uniform.

What my head looks like when it thinks about buying school uniform.

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Pain Relief

“What’s up, Mum?”

“I am really missing our neighbour, summer’s stopped again and I’ve got period pains.”

“Boys and men never ever get period pains, do they?”

“No.”

“That’s not fair on ladies.”

“Ha.”

I went upstairs to clean the bathroom. When I came downstairs looking for Nurofen, there was a plate with the torn-off end of a loaf of Soreen and the last chocolate mousse on it.

“Is that for me?”

“Yeah, to cheer you up.”

“Wow, thank you.”

“Also, I recorded one of your favourite programmes for you.”

“What was that?”

“Charlie and Lola.”

I used to watch that with him when he was two or three. It must have been back then that I told him I like it.

So we curled up on the sofa and learned about hailstones and thunder and I forgot about the Nurofen (until he went to bed.)

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Five Week Month

Summer is here (allegedly) and although it feels like everyone should be claiming a discount because it’s broken, it still costs a bomb.
Not only are there a load more fun ways to fill weekends at this time of year, but there’s extra childcare to be found. If you’re a parent, unless you’re a miracle worker / teacher / have access to a nanny of some sort, it’s a puzzle.
Tom has been going to a football academy, which is working well on three levels:
a) He enjoys it, keeps fit and is in the great outdoors
b) He is getting better at football, which is always useful in the playground if you’re a boy
c) I don’t feel guilty about the fact that I don’t know anything about football and would never in a million years be able to teach him
The thing is that the childcare and summer fun all need paying for. Not only that, August is a FIVE WEEK MONTH. If you get paid the last Friday of the month and you think you are getting paid two weeks on Friday, take a deep breath and look at a calendar. The last day of the month is cruelly a Friday, which means you’re not getting paid for another three weeks (sorry.) Gone are the days of the emergency credit card (and therein lies half the problem, in all its horrible maxed-outness) so you have to look at other ways to bridge the chasm between when you hit your overdraft limit and when you get paid.
What can you do? Well, last week, my friend and I held a photo shoot in the alley behind my house. We got some great looks from the neighbours as we ‘styled’ a load of polyester dresses and atrocious jumpers (no idea where they came from) with a pair of hipster glasses and my cat. Honestly – put all that against the graffiti on the back of my kitchen and it looks like Hoxton (and drastically increases the amount people are willing to bid for the clothes.)
If flogging vintage clothes isn’t for you (or you were never stupid enough to buy a dress that you were never going to wear in real life,) you’ll have to think of something else. You could also take all the coppers that are knocking about to one of those clattery machines and have them turned into real money (if you’ve ever hoovered up a two pence piece and not fished it out of the dust, shame on you – you’ll regret it now.)
Another thing you could do would be to sell gold (although if the sum total of all the gold you’ve ever owned is one tangled Elizabeth Duke chain in the ballerina jewellery box at your Mum’s house, you might struggle.)
Finally, if you write a blog, you could always look into monetising it, even if you never thought you would.
In case you hadn’t noticed, this post is sponsored. 

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Beacons Festival 2012: Family-friendly and Ace

You know I wrote a blog post the other day about festivals with children? Well, Tom and I have just been invited to Beacons Festival – and I think this little Yorkshire beauty could be just the ticket for parents who fancy dipping their toe in the mud.

Sadly, summer put paid to the first Beacons Festival last year when the site flooded the week before the gates were due to open. The team behind it seem a dedicated bunch and they’ve managed to fix things so that the festival is back for 2012 – on a new site and with an amazing line up.

If you’re looking for a small, friendly one packed with things for little ones to do, you’ll find it in Skipton the weekend after next. It all starts with the family camp site: if the thought of Portaloos brings you out in an antibacterial handwash sweat, you’ll be pleased to hear this area has lavatories that flush and everything. And – here’s the genius bit – there’s a morning breakfast club, where mega early risers can watch cartoons from 7am (so much better than colouring in in the tent.) In the evening, the same area will offer bedtime stories – and there are places for nappy changing and breastfeeding for those with babies in tow.

Tom was made up when I told him that the Ladybird Project is coming to Beacons. We last stepped into their big red tent at Kendal Calling, and he loved the crafts, clown cricket (with water bombs instead of a ball), parade and workshops. (It also comes with the comfiest hammock-seats on the planet; perfect for tired parents but almost impossible to get out of.) As well as the Ladybird lot, Beacons are offering story-telling, fancy dress and giant Scrabble.

Sunday’s headline act: Toots & the Maytals

Enough about stuff for children, though – what about the grown-ups? Some of the acts on the ace line up would impress even the most discerning festival dad. There’s plenty of exciting new stuff on the bill (including lots from Manchester and Leeds), mixed with some great established acts. If there are two or more of you, get some sort of a shift system going and you should cover all you want to see. You can see the full line up on this clever interactive poster, but some of the highlights include Roots Manuva, Mazes, D/R/U/G/S, Pins, Clock Opera, Wild Beasts, Factory Floor and Andrew Weatherall’s latest project, A Love From Outer Space. Tom is most excited about Sunday’s headline act, good old Toots and the Maytals. He loves his reggae and a couple of Toots tracks have made it on to his Spotify playlist, so he jumped up and down and said yes a lot when I told him he’ll be seeing him live.

Thinking of giving Beacons a whirl, but not sure if you fancy the full weekend? One of the best things about this one is that you can buy one-night tickets. These are still available for Saturday and Sunday night. If you do want to go the whole hog and camp for the weekend, tickets are cheap and include camping for a whole four nights, so you could turn it into a miniature holiday.

Beacons Festival takes place from 17th-19th August on the aptly-named Funkirk Estate, just a short taxi ride from Skipton train station. Weekend tickets cost £84.50 and include camping from Thursday through to Sunday night. Children’s tickets cost one English penny. One-day / night tickets from £34.50. All available here.

We’re very excited – and we’ll report back right here on our return.

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Mothers and Maeve

Today a headline stopped me in my tracks.

‘If Maeve Binchy had been a mother …’

and the sub heading:

‘Does a female novelist need to have experienced motherhood to truly understand human emotions?’

…then a caption, beneath a photograph of the late Maeve Binchy, which although most probably written by a sub-editor, added to the bizarreness of it all:

‘Maeve Binchy, who had no children on whom to lavish her affections’

The offending article was this one , by Amanda Craig in The Telegraph.

Let me confess: I have never read anything by Maeve Binchy. This is probably partly because she’s one of my Mum’s favourite authors. I grew up seeing her books damp and crumpled next to the bath, then buying her latest release and wrapping it up every other Christmas Eve. I don’t know why the fact my Mum read her stuff put me off, probably because we didn’t share the same taste in music or anything else, but I’m sorry I never took a look and I intend to do so now.

I might not have read any of Binchy’s books, but I do know that she was a talented and successful author. I couldn’t quite believe that in the immediate aftermath of her death (not that it would be any less shocking at any other time), someone was trying to say she might have been a better writer had she been a mother. I read the article, expecting Craig to answer the question at the top with ‘no’, but she basically concludes that Binchy would have been a better writer if she’d had children. The tone of it makes it sounds as though Binchy should have had children and the fact is, she couldn’t.

Although I am currently writing about my experiences of having a child, this ‘being a mother makes me holier than thou’ attitude is humiliating and offensive. It’s as though mothers are part of some smug club that peers down at those who haven’t experienced the joy of a leaky nipple. Everyone can experience and express human emotion, regardless of whether they’ve had a child. When I was pregnant with my son, I was told by health professionals and other parents that life would feel complete and I’d be enveloped by an all-consuming love the moment my baby was placed in my arms. Don’t get me wrong, I love my son immensely, but this widespread belief that you will feel suddenly whole the second you have given birth doesn’t happen for everyone. Personally, I was shaking, trying not to think about the fact my insides were being stitched back in and attempting to fathom what the heck I had done.

Thankfully, despite the absence of the widely promised moment of transformation, my love for my son was a fast grower. We’ve developed an incredibly close relationship that is as much about companionship as it is the traditional parent-child dynamic. I imagine my experience of motherhood is very different to that of people in a more conventional set-up – and that’s just it, isn’t it? Every relationship is different, be it between lovers or mothers and their children. We can learn about the way things work for others from observing the humanity around us – and good writers don’t need to give birth to be able to do that.

If those who haven’t had children can’t know love well enough to write about it, what of those who have never found their soulmate? In recent years, I haven’t had too much in the way of serious romance: I don’t meet new people through my job, time is scarce and having a child makes things complicated. My experience of true love is pretty limited, but does that mean I would struggle to write fiction about it? I hope not. I have listened carefully to and comforted friends going through almost every type of romantic struggle imaginable. To meet someone who you care for, with whom you agree on all the important things, who you fancy so much you think you could devour, whose mind you adore and who you want to be with so constantly and so closely that it’s impossible to be apart – Jesus, that is the ultimate (that’s how it goes, right?) It’s elusive for me, but I think I could still write about it.

Although Craig’s article talks about motherhood in the context of writing, there’s a notion that generally, those who haven’t experienced parenthood can’t fully know the human condition. And it’s nuts. What about homosexual writers? Developments to allow them to become parents have only happened relatively recently. Would a childless lesbian, for example, be less capable of enlightening than a straight woman who had gone through ‘the ring of fire’ as Craig calls it? Of course not.

Craig doesn’t say ‘mothers make better writers’ but she might as well. There are those who choose not to have children and there are those who desperately want to have them and cannot. I detest the notion that having a child makes you complete as a woman, or in some way emotionally superior. As Stella Duffy rightly points out in this excellent response to the article, you don’t see male writers being judged over whether or not they’re fathers.

There are different kinds of love. Not all of us experience all the kinds of love in our lifetime, but good writers can research and observe real life enough to be able to accurately write about them all. Having children is not the only way in which a woman can be complete. The attitude behind Craig’s article is an insult not just to the memory of Maeve Binchy, but to writers and to women, childless or not.

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