Category Archives: Good times

A curious encounter

It’s Friday night, and we’ve arranged to meet a small group of friends for dinner. There’s one other woman, the wife of one of my partner’s friends – a film producer in her fifties whom I’ll call Bronwyn. I’ve previously been introduced to her but we’ve done no more than exchange pleasantries, and I’m looking forward to getting to know her better.

Within minutes, I realise that this isn’t going to be an evening for female bonding. Bronwyn’s conversation focuses almost entirely on her rigorous exercise regime, involving hex bars, circuits and a personal trainer. She makes eye contact only with the men; at one point she nonchalently drapes her arm around the back of my partner’s chair, even though she barely knows him. It’s a blokeish, possessive gesture that feels like a provocation – whether directed at him or me, I’m not sure.

Then, half-way through the main course, the Big Reveal: off comes her jumper to expose a tight vest top, more suited to a gym than a smart restaurant. We get an eyeful of muscle and sinew, coupled with sly glances at the men to make sure they’ve clocked her upper body (they all have – it’s impressive). The room is slightly chilly and there are goosebumps on her arms, but it doesn’t seem to bother her. It’s clear that she’s very proud of her physique and has dressed carefully in anticipation of this moment.

Finally, she acknowledges my existence: ‘Do you work out?’, she asks, with an arch glance at my soft belly and nascent bingo wings. It’s an opener that she knows will lead nowhere, and all the more irritating because there are lots of things we could have talked about. She has an interesting job and three teenage children, and she’s lived for many years in the city I love. We could have indulged in easy chat about work and family, and gone home feeling that we’d found common ground. But it’s clear from the outset that she isn’t interested in having that sort of conversation, still less in seeing where it might lead.

At the end of the evening, we pay the bill and get ready to leave. She does the two-cheek kissing routine and tells me how lovely it was to have a proper chance to meet me at last. Is she totally deluded or just going through the motions? I briefly consider telling her that I find her rude, vain and self-obsessed; instead, I smile broadly and concur, while resolving never to waste time in her company again.

Perhaps part of the reason she riles me is that she reminds me of my old self. While I was never very interested in exercise, my appearance was central to my self-esteem. Influenced, no doubt, by my tenuous relationship with an adulterous father, in my teens and twenties I gained affirmation from ambiguous friendships with men, regarding other women as potential competitors. I was the sort of woman other women didn’t warm to; I had a turbulent emotional life and quite a lot of casual, unsatisfactory sex.

All of that changed when I had children. Suddenly, I was in a world of women, having conversations about breastfeeding and sleeping patterns that now seem utterly dull but felt like a lifeline at the time. We met in cafes and playgroups, sleep-deprived and disorientated, hunkering down to share experiences and advice. Sometimes it felt as if we were survivors of a shipwreck, washed up far from home, coming together to figure out a survival strategy. I’ve lost touch with many of those women but I won’t forget their kindness and support, and there are one or two whom I still regard as close friends.

In the post-childbirth phase, many of my male friends drifted away, leaving me to doubt their original motivation. Perhaps I’m no longer seen as viable – or is it simply that middle-aged men tend towards apathy when it comes to maintaining a social life? Either way, I’m not really bothered; these days, I prefer to spend time in the company of funny, clever, complicated women.

The curious thing about Bronwyn is that she seems never to have grown to appreciate female friendship. Instead, she’s locked into a hyper-competitive, self-regarding mode of behaviour that most of us outgrew two or three decades ago. I’m annoyed that I didn’t find a subtle way of conveying to her that she was behaving unacceptably, but I also wonder how she has reached this stage of her life without finding a kinder, more nuanced way of relating to others. With her body-sculpting and her relentless flirting, I can’t help but feel that she’s missing out.


Dismal. And?

I came here to be entertained, not to be abused. My main preoccupation as I wander around Banksy’s Dismaland is how to compose my face so as to avoid public humiliation. A wry, ironic half-smile seems to steer a sensible course between gormless day-tripper and pretentious hipster, but I fear that it may be interpreted as genuine amusement by the deliberately surly, depressive attendants, one of whom has just invited my neighbour at the ticket barrier to share the joke with the rest of the class.

The same attendant, sporting Mickey Mouse ears and a pink hi-vis jacket, inspects my ticket and tosses it to the ground. In Cinderella’s Castle, where swarms of paparazzi snap the gory aftermath of the princess’s carriage crash, another looks me up and down with disdain and says that he can see why I don’t want to pose for a souvenir photograph. I spend most of my visit trying to avoid attracting their attention, skulking head-down like a diffident teenager who’s failed to hand in her homework.

I had high hopes of Banksy’s seaside bemusement park, having found his 2009 takeover exhibition at Bristol Museum genuinely clever and subversive. After a while, though, his work begins to look less like cutting social commentary and more like the output of a prickly sixth-former with a B grade in AS-level art. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that we’ve become too accustomed to his themes. He has a bit of a thing about social injustice, consumerism, surveillance and the police state – and that’s about it.

It’s true that Dismaland includes some interesting work by other artists. I particularly enjoy the freak-show tent. Scott Hove’s bizarre wall-mounted cakes are decorated with horns and fangs, while Ronit Baranga’s ceramics are straight out of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Bowls and plates sprout gruesomely wet mouths and questing digits, while tilting teapots scuttle across the tabletop on fingertips. It’s genuinely disturbing: the stuff of nightmares.

Unfortunately, a lot of the other pieces (including many by Banksy himself) resemble lame one-liners. A police water cannon serves as a makeshift fountain; boatloads of grim-faced action-man refugees sail on the pleasure lake, several of their number already floating face-down in the filthy water; and a copy of ‘First Among Equals’ balances on top of a pile of kindling in the Jeffrey Archer memorial fire pit. Meanwhile, Jason Headley’s spoof meditation film repeatedly exhorts us to empty our minds of all that bullshit and think, ‘Fuck that’. It’s the sort of puerile humour worthy of Viz comic.

Then there’s the question of how the exhibition relates to its surroundings. Banksy’s fans often applaud him for remaining loyal to the West Country, but Dismaland could only be located in a down-at-heel seaside town like Weston-super-Mare. By choosing this setting, with its amusement arcades, fish and chip restaurants and seedy B&Bs, Banksy is telling us that he regards Weston as a bit crap. This seems unfair: it’s a verdict that ignores the dramatic sweep of the beach and the elegant Victorian buildings that line the seafront.

I’m troubled by the suspicion that Banksy is sneering, not just at Weston-super-Mare, but at his audience. His contempt towards us seems to be exemplified by the black balloons on offer bearing the caption, ‘I am an imbecile’. It’s true that many of the visitors are annoying; I lose count of the number of people who insist on viewing the exhibits through the medium of their iPhone. One of the few things that genuinely amuses me is the blank white hoarding with two adjacent holes for a head and a hand, allowing visitors to be photographed while simultaneously taking a selfie (such postmodern irony!). Still, let’s not lose sight of the fact that these people have collectively made Banksy into a millionaire. He might show a bit of gratitude.

I leave Dismaland feeling glum, half-expecting the checkout assistant in Marks & Spencer to greet me with a grunt and toss my change on the floor. To that extent, I suppose the exhibition has left an impression. Ultimately, though, my disappointment is almost on a par with what I felt when satirist Charlie Brooker married celebrity television presenter Konnie Huq: you can no longer snipe cynically from the sidelines when you’ve joined the establishment. (I once had a bit of a crush on Brooker, but that’s another story.)

The truth is that a rich, successful artist can’t pull off counter-culture. Banksy can try all he likes to conceal his identity and keep the preparation for his shows under wraps; as soon as the gates open, the media scrum descends and you can get all you need to know from online reviews and photographs, so that there’s little to be gained by actually coming here. Little, that is, apart from a dressing-down by an out-of-work actor wearing Mickey Mouse ears.


We spend the last fortnight of the summer holidays in the Cantabrian mountains, where dogs doze in the humid heat and plump figs drop from the tree outside our bedroom window. In the mornings, after the bread van has come, we pack a picnic and wander up steep, stony paths; through low mist and dappled woodland. Afternoons are spent in the garden reading in the shade or playing three-and-in with the children. Later, as the sun sets, we sit in the village bar eating tapas and getting pleasantly drunk on the cloudy local cider.

One of our morning walks brings us to the ghost village of Sebrango, high in the Picos de Europa, where griffon vultures circle overhead. The signs on the path read ‘Prohibido el paso’ but walkers have reclaimed the route and occasionally pass through. It’s a tiny cluster of four or five stone houses, with a few barns and outbuildings scattered around. There are no cars and most of the houses lie in ruins, their terracotta tiled roofs broken and open to the elements. Electricity pylons lean at a crazy forty-five degree angle, severed black cables draped around their metal skeletons.

Sebrango lies in the shadow of a mountain, and last year the village was all but obliterated by a massive landslide. A vengeful or indifferent god sent thousands of tonnes of rocks and rubble hurtling down the mountainside; the few remaining residents were evacuated just in time. Today, a slew of dust and debris remains cordoned off on the slopes above the village, where lemon balm and mint have taken root in the scrubby earth.

I enter one of the ruined houses, feeling like an intruder among reminders of the people who lived here: a pair of dusty walking boots, an empty egg box and a rusty fridge. Timbers jut through shattered ceilings. On the upper floor, a door leading off a hallway opens directly on to fresh air and a sheer drop. Downstairs, next to the kitchen, there’s a small single-storey bedroom containing a double bed. A huge boulder has smashed through the rear wall of this room and come to rest on the mattress, snapping the wooden bed frame in two and lifting its front feet off the ground.

In the middle of the village, a lone house is still carefully tended by its owner. Any structural damage has been made good and the woodwork is freshly painted. Geraniums bloom in window boxes, roses clamber around the front door and green shoots poke through in the neat vegetable garden. Is the owner still in residence, or does he come back to visit? Is it obstinacy or tenacity that prevents him from abandoning his home, as the others have done? Does he imagine that life can somehow be restored to Sebrango; that if he sits it out for long enough the rocks and debris will retreat up the mountainside and his neighbours will return?

Tourists like us, with our travel insurance and guide books and tidy stash of euros, could never understand what it’s like to live like this. Sebrango humbles and horrifies me. It makes me want to run home to the city, with its noisy bars and multiplex cinemas and twenty-four hour traffic, where my closest brush with nature is the urban fox who trots across the street, and the only intrusion of the elements is the minor irritation of a leaky skylight or a rattling window-frame.

Out of control

To mark the start of the school holidays, we take our children camping. We’re joined by friends who have daughters of a similar age to our sons. For two blissful days, the children play in the woods and stream bordering the campsite, out of sight (but never quite out of earshot), while we sip wine and snooze in the sunshine. They return at dusk, grubby and elated, to toast marshmallows and tell ghost stories by the campfire before tumbling into their sleeping bags. This heady freedom, we tell ourselves, is the stuff that childhood memories are made of.

The paradox is that there’s nothing spontaneous about this trip. It’s a carefully choreographed experience in which nothing is left to chance. We book the campsite weeks in advance and hold detailed discussions about the food and equipment that we plan to bring. On the morning of our departure, we park the boys in front of the television and frantically cram holdalls into the roof box, fretting about whether we’ll get away in time to claim the best pitch and avoid the thunderclouds that threaten overhead.

On arrival at our rural idyll, the stage-management continues. The children are plastered in sunscreen and insect repellent. The country ramble through dappled woodland is marked in highlighter pen on the map. The picture-postcard pub where we eat lunch, with its tastefully Farrow-and-Balled dining room, is the product of an evening’s research on TripAdvisor. I’m reminded of Rachel Cusk’s scathingly perceptive description of ‘that family you see out on a Saturday afternoon, with their cycle helmets and their fear of strangers and their fourteen varieties of apple juice in special beakers, [who] wouldn’t stop to help you if you were bleeding to death in the road’.

My urge to create the perfect camping weekend is partly due to the fact that we live in a city, where the ever-present threat of cars and the imagined censure of other parents combine to make us cautious. It would be almost unthinkable to let a six-year-old out to play unsupervised in our street, so we shepherd the boys from football club to play-date. The upshot is that, on the rare occasions when some degree of freedom is possible, it’s hard to relinquish control. Remove the traffic and the need for constant vigilance, and it’s no surprise that my anxiety finds a different outlet, manifesting itself in the kind of meticulous planning more suited to a trek across the Andes than a camping trip in the Cotswolds.

Back at home, most family experiences end up being milked for maximum emotional and educational value. I’m not alone in this. Down at the local park, there’s a whiff of desperation about the father exuberantly chasing his child around the sandpit while impersonating a lolloping yeti; or the mother keeping up a loud commentary on clever Finlay’s attempts to negotiate the monkey bars. We’re incapable, it seems, of just letting our children be – a product, no doubt, of middle-class competitiveness and nagging guilt at working long hours.

That’s why our camping expedition, with its increased scope for benign neglect of the boys, is such a precious interlude. It’s fun for the adults, too. Much as I love my sons and enjoy being around them, their undiluted company is sometimes (whisper it) just a tiny little bit boring. Occasionally, I crave a glass or two of prosecco and an adult conversation rather than, say, the hundredth unanswerable question of the day about Lego or loom bands or Lionel Messi. So why does our trip have to be so carefully stage-managed? Why can’t I shake the superstitious notion that our family life might come crashing down around us like an Ikea flat-pack unless it’s meticulously constructed, with all the nuts and bolts in place? Life is to be lived, not controlled. Sometimes I’d do well to remember that.

On happiness

A friend of mine recently commented that most of the women she knows don’t seem very happy. Despite being married with children, comfortably off and in good health, they moan constantly to her about their husbands, offspring, houses and jobs. My friend is a positive person who just gets on with life and she doesn’t understand why these women complain all the time.

I do. There’s a lot of fun to be had from moaning – not to mention whingeing, ranting and bitching. Nothing drags me down more than relentless cheerfulness; to quote Aldous Huxley, there’s something curiously boring about somebody else’s happiness. Indeed, I’d argue that the very fortunate have a moral duty to gripe from time to time, if only to remind the rest of us that they, too, have their problems.

In any case, it’s no great revelation that the pursuit of happiness often ends in dissatisfaction, especially when it involves the accumulation of material wealth. Many of my old neighbours have moved away from our terraced street to large detached houses, only to find that they’ve lost something intangible in the process. They chased what they thought they ought to want – sweeping lawns, off-street parking and electronic gates. It turns out that the things they left behind – front doors that open directly on to the pavement, postage-stamp back gardens and the proximity of a busy high street – foster a sense of community that’s lacking in the tree-lined avenues further out of town.

I’m bemused that happiness is something we wish for our children. ‘I just want you to be happy,’ we say, using this as justification for buying them an endless supply of consumer goods and ferrying them around to sports clubs and friends’ houses in their spare time. When I contemplate my sons’ futures, I can think of so many things that would come higher up my wish-list than happiness. What about kindness, consideration, reflectiveness or thoughtfulness? Don’t these qualities make a far greater contribution to the common good?

Our modern obsession with taking our emotional temperature every five minutes hasn’t served us well. When it comes to encouraging this corrosive self-scrutiny, the psychoanalysis industry has a lot to answer for, with its therapy-for-therapists model that resembles pyramid-selling. The point, surely, is that happiness is elusive. You’re occasionally aware of it at the periphery of your vision, like a faint constellation in the night sky, but as soon as you try to examine it, it slips out of focus.

So, instead of happiness, I’ll settle for contentment. The things that make me content might look a bit like a lowbrow version of Woody Allen’s rumination in the closing scenes of Manhattan on things that make life worth living: a long list beginning with Groucho Marx and ending with his lover’s face.

My own list would be a random assortment of food and drink, songs, smells, places and people: a blueprint of a life. It would include cheese, chocolate, oysters and red wine (but not all at the same time); the scent of furniture polish, cut grass and freshly ground coffee (ditto); the music of Bobby Womack and Leonard Cohen; the memory of my parents dancing to December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons; the Liverpool waterfront on an autumn evening; the tiny village we visited in south-west France, long before we had children, where swarms of pipistrelle bats fed on insects under the streetlight; my first sighting of the New York city skyline on a bus from JFK airport; and sitting on a windswept beach in Pembrokeshire watching my sons play football with their father and grandfather.

Naturally, none of this prevents me from having a good moan from time to time. Still, I have to admit that, in comparison, happiness seems like such an irrelevant, frothy little emotion.

Cocktails, headbands and pools of sick

Never a joiner, I’m usually left cold by the prospect of a fancy dress party. It often ends up feeling either silly or pretentious. What’s wrong with a night out that involves nothing more than turning up, having a few drinks and staggering home again? As with the modern curse of the three-day hen do in Barcelona, it seems a bit presumptuous to expect your friends to make all that effort on your behalf.

Yet I have to admit, I loved Saturday night’s Great Gatsby party. It’s not often you see a group of middle-aged people infused by excitement and glamour, their paunches concealed by sequins, tassels and elegant three-piece suits. For a few precious hours we downed cocktails with youthful enthusiasm, danced like demons and flirted with no real danger of transgression. It was a euphoric two-fingered salute to our responsible daily lives – we may be in our forties but, hey, we can still do it!

Of course, this is the sort of thing youngsters get up to every weekend. A couple of years ago I saw the photograph ‘Girls’ Night Out’ by Martin Parr in an exhibition at Bristol’s M Shed. It depicts a group of young women on Whiteladies Road in Clifton, known locally as ‘the Strip’ and famous for its throbbing student bars. It could easily have been a tawdry scene – four raucous women wearing short, tight skirts and too much make-up – but instead there’s something exuberant and joyful about the image. Perhaps it’s just the effect of the street lighting but a transformation has taken place, making the scene seem magical and full of possibility, the women transcendent and lovely.

The reality is somewhat different. Come Sunday morning, all the locals know that you have to sidestep broken glass and puddles of congealed vomit on the Strip. And so it was after the Great Gatsby party. At school drop-off on Monday, the glitz and glamour had evaporated. Once again, we were just a group of harried parents with grey skin and crows’ feet. There were tales of late-night escapades in taxis and on bathroom floors, most of them involving losing personal possessions, being violently sick and falling asleep in one’s party clothes. A fair number of us had spent Sunday dry-heaving and dozing on the sofa.

Perhaps, after all, there’s wisdom in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: ‘It’s a great advantage not to drink among hard-drinking people. You can hold your tongue, and, moreover, you can time any little irregularity of your own so that everybody else is so blind that they don’t see or care.’ I’ll raise my glass to that.