Wednesday, 29 February 2012

In which I immerse myself in art; or, a visit to my imaginary friend

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Today, I went to the National Gallery, to look at the women.

I love the National Gallery with a fierce love. I love the building. I love the swanky marble entrance hall. I love the parquet floors and the jokey guards (they joke with each other, not one) and the gangs of schoolchildren. There were at least four gaggles this morning, and they were having a ball.

There was one group which particularly took my interest. I was making a rather laborious set of notes about a schoolmistress by Chardin, which happened to be right next to that vulgar, blowsy portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Drouais, when they all came and sat down beside me, so I was able to observe them for a while.

They were a very eager, mixed group, all colours and creeds, I should guess; perhaps about seven or eight years old. Their excellent and serious guide was asking them all kinds of questions about what they saw when they looked up at the Drouais. She did not tell them who the picture depicted.

‘What can you tell about this lady, just from looking at her?’ she asked.

Many hands shot excitedly up.

‘She is a posh lady, because of her smart clothes,’ said one.

‘Yes,’ said the guide, pleased and loud, so the whole group could hear. ‘She was a posh lady.’

Hmm, I thought, sceptically. Not quite as posh as she would have liked. Those naughty French aristos at court were very sniffy about her, with her brand spanking new marquisate, given to her by the king.

More suggestions were now flooding in. ‘She likes reading,’ called out one child.

‘She knows how to play music,’ cried another.

‘She is very fashionable,’ said another, in rather awed tones.

I thought that was fascinating, because the dress in the picture is a horror; busy with patterns, guyed up with lace. It had nothing to do with modern fashion at all. Yet, somehow, the child had drawn the absolutely correct conclusion that it would have been the last word in smart ladies’ outfitting in the 18th century.

I had work to do, and so I could not linger any longer. I did not have time to stay and see their reaction when the guide told them that she was the famous mistress of a French king. I wondered how she would explain to a bunch of small children what a mistress was, or even how she would phrase it. The King’s special friend?

What was interesting though, and in some ways rather enchanting, was that they were all so enthralled by this dead, white Frenchwoman. The children were almost all what is rather horribly described as from minority backgrounds; their parents were probably first or second generation immigrants. Their grandparents or great-grandparents would possibly have lived in Pakistan, or India, or Africa, or the West Indies. Yet there they were, in the marbled hallows of the British National Gallery, looking up at a French court favourite, their eyes wide with wonder and interest.

Perhaps I am romanticising this too much, (and assuming and extrapolating) but I liked the idea of the ease of the cultural cross-over. Maybe it is because there is something in very young children that does not court difference; they see humans as humans, and find the aspects of common fascination. It is only later that barriers get erected, and everyone must be divided into groups, and otherness becomes a thing.

Whatever it is, I loved watching those small, upturned faces, learning, observing, longing to answer the question.

It was interesting too to go to that gallery for a discrete, working purpose. Normally, when I am in the south, I run in there, every trip, and look at my three favourite pictures. I almost always do not have enough time (there is never enough time). So I go always to my most beloved Titian, the portrait of the unknown young man, painted in 1515, as fresh and vivid and filled with clarity as if it were painted yesterday.

Then I run to the other end of the building and have a quick look at Van Gogh’s Cornfield with Cypresses. I am not keen on the much more famous sunflowers, which sit two pictures along. They are too blatant and yellow for me. I like the gentler, bluer Van Goghs.

Then, then, for my final big treat, I walk a couple of rooms along and find the mighty Stubbs portrait of Whistlejacket. I am ashamed to say I don’t know much about this picture, or this horse. I have no context. I just love it because it is so marvellously vast, running from floor to ceiling, and that it is so boldly about the horse.

There is no background, no jockey, no stud groom, no charming turf or architecturally pleasing buildings on the horizon. It is all equine, unabashed.

The horse is in his pomp, half rearing, looking boldly out from the frame. Even though he is clearly a horse that was bred and trained for domestic purposes, as far as racing can ever be described as domestic, there is a wonderful flight of wildness in his gaze and in his physicality, as if he is harking back to his ancestral past, when his predecessors were untamed things that ran across some nameless plain.

I took a quick look at all those pictures today, but I was there for my book, and so it was to the ladies I went. I looked at the nymphs, the goddesses, the society wives, the calm mothers, the saints, the tired Toulouse-Lautrec women of the street, the muscular Degas acrobats, the elegant Gainsborough aristocrats, the widowed queens, the serving girls, the calm, contained Dutch matrons.

I concentrated, I thought, I took notes. After three hours, I suddenly knew I could not look at one more thing of beauty. I get aesthetic overload quite quickly. I once went round the whole Uffizi in forty-five minutes. I was twenty years old, but even so. I do wonder if there is something about the brain: there is only so much high beauty it can take in. Or perhaps that is just my odd brain.

There was one last thing I had to do. It has become my absolute pilgrimage, every time I am back in the dirty old town that is London. I took the side way out, down the staircase, through the café (rather elegant, and filled with happy, genteel women having lunch), and out into the Charing Cross Road. Another sharp left, and I was in the National Portrait Gallery, my favourite of all the favourites.

I wheeled past the shifting, swelling crowds desperately trying to get in to see the Lucien Freud exhibition, tripped up the shallow flights of stone staircases to the second floor, ran through the Carolean gallery, where poor old doomed Charles I looked slightly finished, on his great big horse, and into the very last room at the back.

I sometimes wonder if anyone ever goes there. It is the farthest point of the gallery, leading nowhere; you have to know where you are going and why you want to go there. It is the 19th century political room, filled with dark-suited men who did things like pass the First Reform Act. It is a shivering, turquoise green, with a vaulted silver ceiling. I think a silver ceiling is the last word in chic, but that really is just me.

There, on the south wall, is the fellow I have come to see. He is my favourite man in London. I love him so much I cannot count the ways.

‘Hello, Lord Brougham,’ I say, in my head. ‘You are a handsome devil.’

He is nothing to do with my work, or my life, or anything at all. I could justify all this by telling you of all the important historical things he did, of his high ideals, of his extraordinary parliamentary work. I could also tell you of the artistic merit of his tremendous portrait. All this would be true. But sometimes I am wholly superficial. I come to gaze on him because he is absurdly beautiful.

He stares down from his green wall, a half smile on his 19th century face. I think, as I always do, how deliciously well dressed he is, how elegant is his hair, how fine his features. I think, without any sense of dissonant oddity, that he looks rather pleased to see me.

I sometimes do wonder why I tell you all this. Horses, dogs, hills, American politics, psephology in general, the human condition, Lord Brougham: here are all my nutty little obsessions laid bare. I hope you think, as I do: each to each is what we teach. Otherwise, I am really in trouble.


No photographs of the day today. I did actually take my camera with me on the train, so I could give you a lovely vista of Trafalgar Square, but it turns out I forgot the memory card, so that was no good. I am going to do something I rarely do, and give you other people's pictures. Here is some of the beauty on which my tired eyes rested today:

Chardin's schoolmistress:

29th Feb Chardin schoolmistress

Degas, After the Bath:

29th Feb Degas after the bath

Van Gogh, Cornfield with Cypresses:

29th Feb Van Gogh cypresses

Stubbs, Whistlejacket:

Mrs Siddons, by Gainsborough:

29th February Gainsborough Mrs Siddons

My imaginary friend, Lord Brougham:

29th Feb Lord Brougham

It's quite shaming, having an imaginary friend, especially when you are forty-five. I never had one as a child. I think I rather looked down my nose on those people who did. Still, he's better than a seven foot pink rabbit.

And I know it is a bit of a crazy juxtaposition, but of course there must be the Pigeon, on whose beauty my eyes never tire of gazing:


Tuesday, 28 February 2012

All about the smalls

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

It is very, very difficult to stay grumpy when things like this happen:

I was sitting at breakfast, drinking my black-as-pitch coffee, the kind that is so strong you can stand the spoon up in it, eating my bacon, and half-thinking about my work for the day. The two older children had just left for school. The Four-Year-Old was noodling about with the dogs.

Suddenly, she presented herself at my side, quivering with excitement.

‘I am going to get dressed,’ she announced. One sort of felt she really needed a soundtrack to go with this pronouncement, something heavy on the string section, with a bit of brass going on.

‘That is very thrilling,’ I said. ‘Are you going to choose your own special outfit?’

‘YES,’ she shouted, in delirious delight. (Imagine if one still got that same thrill from the mere fact of getting dressed. The endorphin level would be off the scale.)

She then raced down the corridor in her furry boots, singing that truly terrible Celine Dion number about Near, far, wherever you are, at the top of her voice, chased closely by three equally excited black dogs.

It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in my life.

I do not know when she started singing Celine Dion songs and I am not going to ask.

One of the Dear Readers suggested music as a remedy for the grumps yesterday, and I wonder now if that is not right. When I am at home, I suddenly realise, I sing a lot. I do wild shouty singing in the kitchen, when I am making my supper. I sing practically every morning, as I walk round the block with The Pigeon.

Because of being so far in the north of Scotland, away from houses and people, a big part of my walk is in the places where one cannot be overheard. So I can belt out Turning Japanese, or St Dominic’s Preview, or Simple Twist of Fate, or, a more contemporary favourite from the little mop-tops that are Goldheart Assembly, King of Rome, without fear of being overheard.

I can’t do that here, because I am in a house full of people, and because it is the south, and there are not quite the same empty spaces where people cannot hear. (Although there is one little hidden wood I have my eye on that might be fine for belting.) Anyway, since I always like a new, half-baked theory, my new, half-baked theory is that perhaps my body is missing the singing.

The Four-Year-Old returns.

She has made the Pigeon a card. It consists of indecipherable calligraphy, quite long.

‘I’ll read it to you,’ the small person says.

She reads.

‘Dear Pigeon, Thank you for coming on this day, I love you very much, and I know you like Noddy books’.

‘That’s a brilliant card,’ I say. (I feel slightly tearful. How does such a very young human remember the whole thing about the Pigeon and the Noddy books? It was almost a week ago. I am forty-five, and I can't remember what happened yesterday.)

The Four-Year-Old beams.

‘I’ve got one for you too,’ she says. She looks at me with a dark, knowing look. ‘It’s not pink,’ she says.

We have this continuing conversation, because her favourite colour is pink, and mine is not. In fact, I do not really like pink at all, except for the occasional flash of very dark cerise. Occasionally, the Four-Year-Old likes to check.

‘Do you still not really like pink?’ she will say, her head on one side.

‘No,’ I say, because one must never lie to children. ‘I like green.’

She clearly thinks this is quite peculiar, but she lets it go. I can see her thinking: just humour the old girl.

My card, which is not pink, says, according to its reader: ‘Thank you for coming. We have had an enormous day.’

‘An enormous what?’ I ask, as she reads this out. I want to check.

‘An enormous day,’ she says, with more smiles.

I love the idea that our day has already been vast. It is only eight-thirty in the morning. The Today Programme is not even over. Yet, there have been huge doings in this house.

The Four-Year-Old looks at me gravely. ‘I have to go back to my office,’ she says.

‘Good plan,’ I say.

I turn to typing, at the dear old kitchen table. The small person sits herself down with her notebook and her pen and her fold of stickers, and settles to serious work. She is quite absorbed now, silent, concentrating, focussed. She knows exactly what it is she is doing. I am, and shall remain, deeply impressed.


That all happened about eleven hours ago. In the meantime, I have done work, ridden the mare, made fruitless attempts to organise my time and map out logistics, and picked up my telephone to find a text message. I do not get very many text messages. I am not one of those people whose telephone hops and hums and squeaks and bleeps all the time. I quite often leave it off for days and do not even notice.

This text message was a dilly. It made me shout: OH YES. (You see the whole capital letters thing is really dying hard.) Oh, oh, oh, I said aloud. That is the best thing in the whole world, I said.

The third of my great-nieces was born this morning. The text told me that she arrived in rude health, weighing a tremendous eight pounds, and that everyone is doing well.

I've been worrying a bit, in the back of my mind, because I always do when a baby is on the way.

The news that all is well comes as both vast delight, real profound happiness, and great relief.

When I drive north this time, when I throw the car round the final mountain bends to my house, I shall have a whole new human to meet. It seems like an absolute miracle to me. When I left, there was not a person. Now there is.

Even as I write that sentence, even through the fog of tiredness that comes at the end of a long day, I smile.


Again, what with everything, I'm afraid there was no time for photographs. I do wish I were better at the organisation of time, but I suppose it is as well to know one's limitations. Hours run away from me like water. Here are a few random pictures from the last few days:

28 Feb 5 26-02-2012 18-14-15.ORF

28 Feb 7 24-02-2012 16-40-06.ORF

27 Feb 2 28-10-2011 14-07-07

27 Feb 4 26-02-2012 17-51-00.ORF

28 Feb 7 24-02-2012 17-06-13

Here is the lovely little mare, again, who went very sweetly for me today. She really is a tremendously nice person:

28 Feb 1 27-02-2012 13-49-40.ORF

Her slightly punk hairdo is because she was hogged, for her previous work. It is growing out, and soon shall be smart and normal.

Some elegant black and white Pigeon photographs:

28 Feb 11 24-10-2011 14-28-55

28 Feb 12 07-07-2011 16-15-01

With her friend in the south:

28 Feb 13 19-02-2012 18-09-13

And the three small people, who today have a new sister:

28 Feb 8 28-06-2011 15-41-41

If she is anything like as sweet as they are, she shall be a very, very splendid girl indeed.

Monday, 27 February 2012

In which you do not ask how I am, but I tell you anyway

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

There is an old definition of a bore. It is: the person who, when you ask how they are, tells you.

The British way, of course, is to say: Fine. Even if your dog has run away to join the circus, you have lost your job, crashed your car, invested your savings in a company whose accounts manager has decamped to the Cayman Islands with the profits, when someone inquires how you are, you smile, wryly, and say: I’m fine.

If things are very, very bad, you may elaborate slightly. Could be worse, you might say. But the ironical smile must still be there. You never, ever say: absolutely bloody awful, actually, how about you?

This is the danger of a blog. Blogs need a hard core of authenticity, to be any good. No one really wants to read about a shined up, glossy, gleamy, perfect life. That just makes everyone feel sad and inadequate, by comparison. Comparisons, are, after all, the number one enemy of modern happiness. The new science of well-being is always pointing out that people would be quite happy with their old telly, for instance, if they did not know that the couple next door have just bought a fuck-off plasma screen. It’s the keeping up with the Armstrong-Joneses that kills contentment stone dead.

So there is a very fine line to be walked between truthful and honest, and incalculably boring. No one wants an endless, undifferentiated wail. That’s no way to start a week.

This is why my fingers are pausing over the keyboard. I am frowning at the screen, wondering if there is a way round the thing. Perhaps I should just do a nice little riff on the Oscars, even though now I am forty-five I have no interest in the Oscars. (In my twenties, I used to sit up with my friend The Actor until five in the morning, watching the whole damn thing and shrieking at the bad frocks and the gushing speeches.) Maybe I should do a serious thing on Syria, or an examination of the Chancellor’s doomy statement about poor old Blighty being broke.

And in any case, it’s not as if it was an awful day. I did some work; I had a ride. It was a good ride. I started to remember strength in my legs I had forgotten; the old muscle memory came back. Heels down, toes up, elbows in; trot on, trot on. There was even a lovely moment when I was riding loosely with one hand and The Cousin laughed and said, ‘Oh, are we doing the Argentinian fashion?’

But this Monday has been mostly a day of extreme grumpiness. Oh my God, I was grumpy. I am not usually a creature of moods. Even if I wake up in a bit of a mood, I can usually bash my way out of it by hopping myself up on coffee and looking blatantly on the bright side. I can sniff out the silver lining in a cloud like a truffle hound on the scent.

I don’t mind emotions. Emotions are good, strong, honest things. I get sad, I get angry about things that deserve anger, I get excited, I get happy. That’s fine. That’s all human condition, in its many varieties. It’s the blah, pointless, formless, nothing moods that kill me. They don’t come very often, but one hit today, for absolutely no reason. It’s like a black heaviness, dragging the body down, paralysing the mind, pressing the head down like a horrid iron hat.

Come on, says my rational, empirical mind. There is a reason for everything. What is at the root of this anomie?

No bloody buggery reason, shouts the irrational mind, which wants to be left alone so it can go and sulk in its room like a moody teen.

Even the Pigeon avoids me when I am in this mood. She goes and has a nice walk with the Four-Year-Old instead, which is much more fun. They both come back looking inordinately pleased with themselves.

I’ll work my way through it, I think. I do work. No change.

I’ll cook my way through it, I think. I make carrot soup and winter salad. Nothing.

I take some iron tonic, which has absolutely no effect.

I’ll drink my way through it, I think, as the clock strikes seven. I get out the Guinness. Guinness, what could be more delicious and nutritious? (My father did not even regard it as alcohol, but more like a health food.) Nada. Still furious.

I even find myself doing that fake smiling, because I once read somewhere that by moving your mouth into a smile you release endorphins into your body. The body does not know, apparently, the smile is not real. It reacts as if the happiness is actual, and reacts accordingly. That’s some stupid bad science, I think, as the filthy mood persists.

There is nothing for it but to admit that there are days when I am not mistress of my own ship. Some days, I am just a grumpy old lady. It’s not pretty, and it’s not clever, and it’s not funny. It is just what it is.

Better in the morning, I think, with the last grain of optimism I have in me. Everything is always better after a good night’s sleep. Some days I have to give up, and this is one of those days.


Far too livid to take the camera out today, so here is a small selection from the last few days:

27 Feb 1 26-02-2012 17-51-00

27 Feb 3 26-02-2012 18-14-53.ORF

27 Feb 5 26-02-2012 18-14-15

27 Feb 5 26-02-2012 18-15-38

27 Feb 7 24-02-2012 16-40-06

27 Feb 8 24-02-2012 17-59-35

27 Feb 9 21-02-2012 18-17-34.ORF

Just look at that Pigeon face:

27 Feb 11 26-02-2012 18-16-27


This is the lovely little mare I rode today. I really have no business feeling grumpy when I have something as delightful as this to ride out on:

27 Feb 22 27-02-2012 13-49-57.ORF

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Bit of a Sunday night ramble

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

No blog yesterday, for which I have scant excuse and can only offer apologies.

I always say this when I miss a day, and I always think how bizarre it is, really. Shall the Dear Readers log on and then throw up their hands in fury and disbelief, because there are no new words? I admit that the dearth of Pigeon pictures might cause serious grief in some tender hearts. Since I get to gaze on her glorious face each day, it does seem selfish and derelict not to share her with the group.

You may be able to tell from that opening paragraph that it is Sunday night after a long weekend. It was a lovely weekend. I drove to see one of my other godsons (not the one in this house) play in a match. His team did not win, but he played rather beautifully himself, with high determination, and took defeat with good grace. I was very, very impressed.

There was the lovely thing of a gathering of the very, very old friends. I am slightly obsessed with the really old friends. I’m not sure if it is a thing of middle life, which happens to everyone, or if it is slightly specific to the sharp sense of mortality which has come upon me since my father died.

Rather oddly, the godson’s match was played at the school where my two brothers went. I had not been there since I was five years old; I remembered, vividly, going there with my father, who dressed for the occasion in his best blue suit, in a vain attempt to look respectable. Actually, Dad brushed up very well, but no amount of suiting could disguise the reckless, roguish look in his eye, the absolute lack of respectability with which every atom of his body was infected.

On top of that, the road I took went past the church where Dad is buried. I did not have time to stop, this trip, and I wondered if I minded about that. In the end, I decided I did not. I went there when I was down here last, just before Christmas, and I was glad I did, but it was just patch of rough grass. There was no human there, nor even the sense or spirit of one. It was just a lovely, ancient, English churchyard, still and serene and silent.

Anyway, I’m not sure whether it is to do with any of that, but I grow more and more keenly appreciative of the old familiars. There were five of us, all bound by old histories and mutual fondness.

Three of us were at the same college together, when we were eighteen. University life was not like a glossy American movie or an episode of Friends; we did not really have gangs or cliques. But if I ever had anything like a trio, it was with the two men I saw yesterday. I admired and adored them, and, almost twenty-seven years on, I admire and adore them still.

When I see them, I get all those years of history in one, undilute shot. I get all the laughter and conversation and jokes and teases and memories, telescoped into a single, discrete point. It’s like an existential jigger of Jack Daniels.

I also like that we fall instantly into old patterns, however long we have not seen each other. I like that our default mode is to take the piss out of each other, in the gentlest and most affectionate way. I think it might be a bit of a British thing. It’s a faint parallel to the line about no man being a hero to his valet. It doesn’t matter how grown-up we get, or what professional successes we may have achieved, to each other we are still those idiotic teens, who used to slouch around with questionable hair.

One of the many, many fine things about the old friends is that as long as they are around, there is absolutely no chance of getting too big for one’s boots. That is another thing which I think more and more important, the older and older I get: any hint of hubris must be guarded against. I have no coherent theory for why I think this so vital, but I do. (I mean, there are the obvious reasons, but I think there is more to it than that.)

One final thing, before I stop typing, because typing is dangerous at this stage of an evening, and almost always descends into pointless ramble. The thing I forget when I come south, and immerse myself in family life, is that the blog goes very heavy on the domestic. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that; some of the finest writing I read on the internets is concerned with domestic life. It’s just I always have a faint sense that the neglect of the news, the big events out in the world, is a mild dereliction.

But then, absurdity on absurdity, when I do do a big political post, I am always overcome with angst, fearful that I have banged on or pontificated or just plain bored you.

One day, I shall find the golden mean, and then I can retire.


Some quick pictures, because there must always be a visual, even on a tired Sunday night.

Late afternoon light:

25 Feb 7 24-02-2012 16-38-56

26 Feb 4 26-02-2012 18-14-53


26 Feb 1 26-02-2012 18-14-20

26 Feb 2 26-02-2012 18-14-28

A random tulip shot:

26 Feb 8 24-02-2012 16-55-52.ORF

One of the lovely dogs of this house:

26 Feb 9 26-02-2012 18-15-17

There was a very sweet canine moment, when I returned from my trip. I let the Pigeon out of the car, and the two younger dogs were lolling about on the lawn. The minute they saw the old lady, they dashed towards her, and leant their bodies against hers, and licked her face in high excitement, as if to say, where have you been? I am embarrassed to say that the Pidge is a little bit snooty about this. She does not return the affection in kind. She puts her nose in the air, and takes the fawning as if it were her due, as if she is some storied empress, and they her grateful subjects. She pulls rank, without shame.

You see the grandeur:

25 Feb 10 26-02-2012 18-16-22

I feel, as I so often do, that there should be some neat, pithy, final line, something to pull the whole thing together. I want always to end with a bang, not a whimper.

I search my brain. There is nothing left. It is just time to stop.

Friday, 24 February 2012

A tired salute to the family people

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I really want to write this entire post in CAPITAL LETTERS. I always tell my students, in the writing workshops I give in the summer, not to use capital letters, or exclamation marks, unless absolutely, categorically necessary. Exclamation marks are what Scott Fitzgerald called laughing at your own jokes, although this is not always the case. Sometimes, it’s just too much jauntiness in one sentence.

Capital letters, on the other hand, feel like failure. If italics and vivid vocabulary won’t do it, then the writer is not trying hard enough. But when you need to give the impression that you are yelling through a megaphone, in rank disbelief, when you want to do the literary equivalent of red in the face and palms raised and head shaking, sometimes capitals are the only resort.

I do this little riff every time I come here. The regular readers will know I love almost nothing more than the three weeks twice a year with The Cousins. I love the house, I love the country, I love the dogs, I love the children, I love the grown-ups. I love the kitchen; it is sheer luxury to cook in, and has many utensils which I lack. I love it all.

But, family people, I write, every damn time, I DO NOT KNOW HOW YOU DO IT.

I was going to write:


Then I wondered if that was being rankly sexist. There are fathers in the picture too; I know the dads do important work. Statistically, the fathers do not put in the hours in the way the mothers do, but statistics are a very blunt instrument. Also, I am not an expert in family life.

But the reason I am ranting in great big CAPITAL LETTERS is that someone was four today, so there has been a birthday party. The Three-Year-Old is now The Four-Year-Old.

The day was lovely and adorable and seminal and every tiny moment should be recorded for our family posterity, and I would love to tell you about it, but I am too tired. I cannot think or type or make sense. I am on my knees.

Yet, I hardly did anything. I wrapped one present, and made some cheese straws. I bought some flowers for the table. It was the Mother who plotted and planned and wrapped and cooked and organised and remembered.

It is the remembering, I think, that really marks the mums, and I might be completely out of order, and empirically incorrect, but oh, oh, the amount of things that must not be forgotten. And I don’t mean the birthday cake candles and the card from the dogs, written at eleven o’clock last night, with special paw prints drawn on it. I mean all the things that a newly-turned-four person loves and needs and wants, and some of the things she does not even know she wants or needs; the things that run from sandwich fillings to preferred colour.

Admittedly, the father in this house is out of the country for work, but my strong suspicion is that when it comes to this kind of occasion it is the mothers who are the magnificent major-generals, and major-domos, and major-everythings.

So that was why my first instinct was to put the mums in caps. But really I do mean you PARENTS. YOU ARE BLOODY MIRACLES.

This level of tiredness is something for which I cannot find words. And it’s not as if anything dramatic or awful happened. It was enchanting. Everyone had a delightful time. The small people were impeccably behaved. The whole thing was a riotous success. There was a pink cake, for heaven’s sake. THE MOTHER MADE A PINK CAKE. (Sorry, there I go again. But really.)

The birthday girl could not have been happier. She ran around in her pretty dress singing Happy Birthday to Me, which made me laugh quite a lot.

I just do think that to keep a family ticking over, let alone happy and fulfilled, is work of the highest, most remarkable order, and I wish it got more credit. I wish it got lauded and rewarded in the way that acting in a film or heading a Footsie 100 company or being an Arctic explorer does. Running a hedge fund or trekking the frozen wastes is a piece of piss compared with the complexities and relentless needs of bringing up small humans.

I know there is the reward of the heart, and of course that should be enough; certainly it is enough. But I’d like a bit of public applause, for those guiders of tender young spirits. There should be a few ceremonies, a moment with The Queen, a party or two, for the parents who manage to produce well-rounded young people.

As I write this, my crabbed fingers crawling over the keyboard, my battered brain wondering if it is making any sense at all (answer: probably not), the Nine-Year-Old is lying on the floor gazing into the eyes of my old Pigeon. The dog gazes back, with the limpid eyes of love. The Nine-Year-Old says, to no-one in particular: ‘This is what she likes.’

She rubs the ancient canine in the very particular place just above the ear where she loves to be rubbed. They both sigh, in unison, a little unified picture of content. That is why it is all worth it, I think. That’s the point.

And, just as I am waxing a little sentimental, The Nine-Year-Old's friend, who is staying, says, in a conspiratorial whisper, cocking her head at me: 'What is she doing?' (I am typing this at the kitchen table.)

The Nine-Year-Old says, matter of fact: 'She is doing the blog.'

'The blob?' says the friend, horrified.

The Nine-Year-Old breaks into peals of delighted laughter.

'The BLOG,' she shrieks.

'I don't know what a Blob is,' says the friend.

She is not at all impressed.

She is right. It is a blob. I love that it is a blob. It shall be an official Blob from now on.

I know my place.


A couple of quick pictures for you.

The snowdrops are out:

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The flowers I bought for the birthday table:

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This is the kind of concentration required for putting the finishing touches to the special pink cake:

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More flowers, picked by the birthday girl from the garden:

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My cheese straws. I was quite proud of them:

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The arrival of the cake:

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And the half-demolished pink glory. You do see:

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Meanwhile, the Pigeon catches up with her sunbathing:

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The blinky eyes. THE BLINKY EYES. Oh, bugger it, it seems that capital letters have got the better of me today, and that really is all she wrote.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

In which I bribe you with dog pictures

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Out in the world, there are Events. Inside my head, there is the swooshing sound of white noise as my last remaining brain cell flies out of my left ear.

Luckily, the Three-Year-Old has some words of wisdom for you.

As I was sitting vacantly in front of the computer, staring fruitlessly at the screen, my command of the English language fled for the hills, she put her head on one side and said:


‘Yes?’ I said, looking up, glad of the diversion.

‘Some people,' she said, seriously, 'don’t know what they are doing. And some people do not know where they are going.’

I was slightly taken aback. I paused, unsure of the correct response.

‘That is very true and wise,’ I said.

She nodded, and went back to what she was doing. She was perfectly grave. I thought I heard the bat squeak of consolation in her voice, as if she was implying that I was not alone. As if she understood.

That’s all I have for you, I am afraid. I know I always bash on about how I am going to give you pith, usually after some lunatic rambling post that goes on for 1400 words. Then, when there is pith, I hear the show tune fire up in my head: Peggy Lee in her prime, her voice like smoke and silver, singing, ‘Is that all there is?

That is, in fact, all there is.

There shall be more tomorrow, when I have reclaimed some of my faculties. In the meantime, I bribe you with dog pictures.

It’s worth a shot:

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That Pigeon really should be on commission. She should have her own agent, by now.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Story time; or, the bears are very growly

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Sometimes, during these trips to my cousins, the Three-Year-Old and I get to hang out together, just the two of us. We are very, very old friends. I first met her when she was three weeks old and I came to stay for a week. She smiled at me. Everyone said it was wind. I knew it was not wind. She looked right at me and smiled.

Now this has become family folklore. ‘Tell me about when I was a baby and I smiled at Tania and everyone said it was wind,’ she cries. Sometimes her mother has to act out the whole story as if it is a little sketch.

This morning, we are having one of our special times. It is just her and me and The Pigeon, who is flaked out on her very smart new shearling rug, which I bought two days ago from a nice man in the market.

‘Right,’ I say, quite business-like, because there is a lot to do today. ‘Have you got your colouring book?’

‘Yes I have,’ she says.

‘So you can do your work and I shall do my work?’

‘Good idea,’ she says.

We settle down at the kitchen table. It’s all very industrious for a while. Then she tears from the room, rampages upstairs, and comes back with a huge book of stories.

‘What’s this one about?’ she asks me, pointing.

I look at the picture. ‘It’s about the circus,’ I say.

‘Very good,’ she says.

Here is the amazing thing she does. Or at least, I think it is amazing. Maybe all three-year-olds do this. She sits down, opens up her book, and even though she cannot officially read, she reads the stories out loud. She just makes them up as she is going along, but acts as if she is speaking them from the words on the page. It keeps her enthralled for half an hour at time.

Sometimes there is a proper narrative, and she will tell a bit of a story. So we’ll get something like this:

Deep in the farm, one day, many moons ago, there was a horse, of course.And then she will read quite a long tale about a horse.

I assume she has had this sort of thing read to her in the past and is half-remembering it. I do not imagine that many three-year-olds would say things like ‘many moons ago’ off their own bat. I think that many moons ago is a tremendous expression and I resolve to use it more often.

Then there are times when it sounds as if she is doing some kind of jazzy scat, just free-stylin’:

‘With scary claws the lion roars, here to go we watch the show.

The ballerina comes along; you can see her.

The parrot flies; we met a parrot; he met a boy and said hello; hello he said back, you are a very nice parrot.’

Then it gets a bit more surreal:

‘Silly and struggle and dragons to believe; and two little girls and a horrid old bicycle; throw out the flight.’

‘What does throw out the flight mean?’ I ask.

She grins all over her face.

‘The turtle went on the aeroplane, of course,’ she says, as if I am a bit thick not to get that part.

Then she grows pensive, turns a page, says:

‘The beauty of her love was a unicorn.’

Well, that’s a lesson we can all learn from, I think.

The story changes again. This one is snappy, quick, and filled with rabbits:

‘The three little sweet rabbits, they liked playing tag with fun. Lots of things they liked to do by the duck pond, when a little man came to go fishing. His sister and his mum were very nice.’

I ask a question: ‘What happens to the fishing man when he sees the rabbits?’

She narrows her eyes, thinks, smiles. ‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘Because they are hiding in the long grass.

Then we play with the dogs for a bit. The two other black dogs have come in and are lolling about, gazing at us with yearning eyes.

The Three-Year-Old suddenly decides that she must read The Pigeon a story. She calls the dog over, settles her down on one of the enviably smart dog-beds that they have in this house, sits down next to the old hound, picks up the book, and slowly reads:

‘Noddy was going to find a chicken, he looked everywhere but he couldn’t find a chicken at all. No chickens allowed, said The Captain. Noddy didn’t know what to do.’

She looks up. ‘Does The Pigeon like Noddy stories?’ she says, very seriously.

‘Are you joking?’ I say. ‘She loves Noddy stories.’

She goes to get another book.

‘Do you think The Pigeon might be scared by bear stories?’ she says, holding up a book with a huge brown bear on the cover.

‘Only if the bears are very growly,’ I say.

She puts her head on one side. ‘I think they are quite growly,' she says. 'Perhaps you had better come and read it, in case we all get scared.’

She looks at me with enormous eyes. She looks around at the dogs, who are also looking at me with enormous eyes.

I see that there is to be no more work for me, just now. I have been smoothly outmanoeuvred by one of the finest minds of her generation. I know when I am beaten.

'Let us read the bear story,' I say.

And I can tell you, that bear was very, very growly indeed.


A few quick pictures of the sweetness. My indoor pictures are rotten really; the flash just makes everything look awful so I refuse to use it, and the limitations of my camera are exposed when it comes to low light. The Olympus PEN is brilliant and a real treat, but it is not an SLR, nor ever promised to be, and it is at times like this that it shows.

But a bad workman blames his tools, so I shall really have to take responsibility myself. The point is not to give you a pin-sharp, perfectly composed photograph, but to show you in visual terms some of what I have been talking about.

Three-Year-Old, supervising feeding time:

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The amazing thing about The Pigeon is that you can pull her ears, hang on her tail, tickle her nose during her breakfast and she will not snap, growl, or even look askance. She has a very, very good line in resigned faces.

She also loves attention from the small people:

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Three-Year-Old doing excellent dog training:

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And reading the Noddy story:

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I've bleached her face out in the last two, which is why the light is a bit funny. I don't know if I'm being much too precious or paranoid, because lots of people put adorable pictures of their children on the internet all the time, with no ill effects. It's a sort of strange privacy thing, I think, the same impulse which leads me to give everyone, including the dog, a pseudonym.

Perhaps it is because the blogging and tweeting and doing things on Facebook is all so new, and no one quite knows what the unintended consequences will be. When I go and visit The Young Niece's Facebook page from her first term at university, I put on my most auntly aunt voice and say things like: 'One of you might want to be Archbishop of Canterbury one day'. They don't care. They put their lives up on their walls for everyone to see and they do not give it a second thought. Perhaps the young people have it right; all the old politicos always say that sunlight is the best disinfectant, after all.

In the meantime, I am gently protecting the privacy of my subjects, even if it means my photographs look slightly hokey.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The old king and the young king; or, family life

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Those of the old familiars amongst the Dear Readers will know about my sojourns in the south. I suddenly thought perhaps I should explain for those of you who are recent to the blog.

My most Beloved Cousin is married to a man who has to go abroad in the winter for his work. It is a pure climate thing; his professional life does not happen in frosty old Blighty in the winter months. So, each year, around November and February, he goes to South America for a few weeks at a time. It is at these times that I pack up the car, make a bed like something out of the Princess and the Pea on the back seat for the Pigeon, and charge down the M6.

I settle in, with The Cousin and her three young children. There is The Godson, who is the oldest, and then the two little girls, my small relations, and their two enchanting black dogs, who are spookily like my own Pigeon and her sister, the great, departed Duchess. We have made this a tradition for about the last five years, and each time it gets sweeter and more happy. I am a huge believer in the extended family.

In terms of blood, it is quite stretched. The Cousin and I share a great, great grandfather. But we have spent the last twenty-seven years of our lives being friends, as well as relations, and in our more sentimental moments, we like to think that perhaps that blood is bit thicker than water.

Often, I arrive after The Old Fella, as I have taken to calling her husband, even though he is really not that old, has gone. He drives off to Heathrow, and I pitch up the next morning. But sometimes we overlap. This is one of those lovely times. It is very touching watching him go through the rituals of goodbye. The tiniest cousin is three, so that is mostly hugging. The middle cousin is nine, so tonight, he sat with her patiently, and went through her guitar practice. He listens to her intently, nods his head, makes suggestions about chords; he encourages; he takes her seriously. It is frantically touching.

With The Godson, who is really quite grown-up now, it is the playing of games. Chess, sometimes, or, for a special treat, one of those computer things I do not understand. They are playing this now, as I write. It is the stage in men’s lives when it is the old king and the young king. The boy is getting really good at things, good enough to beat his dad. As I type, I hear him saying: ‘Dad, I am going to whup your ass.’

Whup your ass???’ I say, in my most great-aunt-ish, PG Wodehouse cloven hoof-ish, Lady Bracknell faced with a handbag-ish voice. ‘That’s no way to talk to your father.’

The Godson ignores me. He gives a sliding, sideways smile. He knows better than to listen to me when I use that voice.

‘You’re going down, Papa,’ he says.

Papa is taking it seriously now. He is leaning back and forth. They are way beyond the stage when the father graciously loses, to save the child’s pride. I remember, suddenly, my own father thrashing the hell out of me at Monopoly. He always did it with such deprecating charm. ‘Oh, darling,’ he used to say, with a dying fall, as I landed on Park Lane, which he always owned. ‘I’m so sorry.’ And then he took all my money.

Back in the immediate present, the father is playing for his life. ‘Yes, yes, some of that,’ says the Papa. ‘You like that?’

The Godson’s eyes widen. He realises he is in for a serious battle now.

There is a pause. I have absolutely no idea what is going on. I have never owned a video game in my life. The nearest I get to it is playing a freakishly difficult form of solitaire on my computer.

The Godson’s voice pipes up.

‘Dad,’ he says. ‘Why are you not using your drone?’

Yeah, Dad, I think: why are you not using your drone.

I don’t know why I think this is all so enchanting, but I do. There is a strange thing that happens when you decide not to have children, as I have. People think it is because you disdain family life, because you are bored by children, because you cannot see the point. On the contrary, it is exactly because I see the point so acutely that I decide against. The way I see it, the analogy I always come back to, is that just because I have fingers, it does not mean I can play a Schubert sonata. This lot do Schubert. It is a glorious thing to watch.

When I say that, I don’t mean it is picture book, magazine perfect, movie glossy family life. It has its up and downs, as all families do. Sometimes, people are grumpy and scratchy, but the really revelatory thing is that is not the end of the world. Five minutes after any human scratchiness, there is howling laughter. They know each others’ foibles. They tease and rumble and finish each other’s sentences. There is a deep history here, the kind that a family builds over time. I admire it in the keen way that you admire something you know you do not yourself have the talent to do. I keenly appreciate that I am part of it, twice a year. What there is in this house is an awful lot of love.

Perhaps I am finding the Old Fella’s last night particularly touching this trip because my own dad is gone. I am a huge admirer of fathers with their children at ordinary times, especially the fathers of my generation, who are so different with their sons than their own fathers were with them. But this time the arrow is tipped with poignancy, because I can see with acute clarity, the shared heart that exists with the papas and their babies.

The battling pair are finishing now.

‘Yes. YES. Victory,’ says the father. ‘Even with the worst choice of weapons.’

‘Fluke,’ says the boy, saving his amour propre. ‘Pure fluke.’

‘Two all,’ shouts the Papa.

‘There has to be a decider,’ I shout, all traces of Lady Bracknell gone.

And there will be. I put my money on the Godson. I think there may just be a new king.


Rather few pictures today, on account of it being awful outside. I attempted to take some arty pictures of fruit, I'm afraid.


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The dog pictures are not awfully good, because I took them inside, with a low light. But they were too sweet not to show you.

Pigeon, looking very serious, because, if you look closely, there is a tiny biscuit at the bottom of the picture, and she is waiting for my signal:

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Completely fagged out now:

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Doing special blinking:

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And that really is enough of that.


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