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April 10, 2014

On Sue Townsend and Adrian Mole

adrian-mpleI can’t think of many books I loved when I was 8 that I still love now but only 500 times more. The first time I read an Adrian Mole book, I was too young for it, and couldn’t figure out what he was talking about when he was measuring his “thing” and I had a few curious ideas what “spots” were. See, it wasn’t just that I was young, but that the books were foreign, and I didn’t know who Noddy was so really didn’t understand about his wallpaper. Like many young protagonists I read when I was even younger than they were (hello, Holden Caulfield!) I took Adrian at face value and so it took me awhile to realize that Lo The Flat Hills of My Homeland probably wasn’t a very good book. But it didn’t matter, because by the time I figured it out, I loved Adrian Mole, following all his adventures right up until The Weapons of Mass Destruction, which came out in 2004 and which everybody at my workplace in Japan passed around until the book was in tatters.

Adrian Mole was integral in my love affair with England, which was long-lasting and huge with life-changing consequences. I am sure that it is from Adrian Mole that I first heard of bunting (strung up during the Royal Wedding in 1981) though I didn’t know what that was either. I can trace my obsession with commemorative tea-towels back to the Charles and Diana one that Adrian Mole’s dad hung on the front door in lieu of proper festivities. I moved to the Midlands in 2002 because I knew of it from Adrian Mole and I thought it was kind of funny (and plus I had no money so couldn’t afford to live in London). And there I met my husband, whom I dragged to Skegness because Adrian Mole had gone to Skegness and I thought that was funny too (and it was! Stuart hadn’t believed me. English people don’t have as much fun doing ironic Adrian Mole lower-class things as you or I do, but they are totally missing out). I still tease Stuart on a regular basis about his Adrian Mole-ish 1980s Margaret Thatcher childhood. He’s since told me who Noddy is. 

Oh, Pandora Braithwaite (who became an MP!). It is from Adrian Mole that I first heard the name Germaine Greer. I love that his mother became a radical feminist, and also that she regretted not naming Adrian “Brett”. Bert Baxter and his Woodbines and beetroot sandwiches and his Alsatian, Sabre. In later years, Adrian would impregnate a woman called Sharon Bott. How bully Barry Kent became a poetry sensation. And Nigel, who started a gay club at school, and Adrian was worried because now everybody would think Nigel was gay. Mr. Lucas next door, and Mrs. O’Leary (who gave a glimpse of her knickers while stringing bunting, if I remember correctly), and Mr and Mrs. Singh and all the little Singhs, and Big and Bouncy and Malcolm Muggeridge. Adrian Mole was so totally subversive, probably the naughtiest books in my school library. I am so glad that nobody ever noticed.

I love Sue Townsend. I read her other novels too, Rebuilding Coventry and Ghost Children, plus The Queen and I, which was terribly funny. I am quite sure I will reread Adrian Mole for the rest of my life, and they will never cease to make me laugh out loud. And so I was sad today to learn that she’d died at just 68. It’s a real loss that feels personal to me.

November 26, 2013

Disaster Series: Our Trip to England

We were already quite sure that travelling to England with two children was going to come with its challenges, and when Harriet threw up the night before we left, it was almost funny. Almost. Like how bad can things really get? It was sort of an amusing way to top off the whole experience, but then vomit turned out not to be the top, no, but instead just the beginning of the experience. She woke up in the morning even sicker, her eyes rolling back into her head. A couple more hours of sleep transformed her back into someone human-seeming, but we knew that we still had trouble on our hands.

IMG_20131119_020217The flight itself turned out not to be so bad, and Harriet threw up again just once. Iris was fine, and doesn’t sleep for long periods anyway, so her short naps in the carrier were to be expected. Neither Stuart nor I slept at all that night, but we arrived in Amsterdam pretty proud of ourselves for having survived the longest part of our haul. We had breakfast in the airport, bought Holland souvenirs, and arrived to board our connecting flight in plenty of time… when we realized that we were missing our passports.

It was all very curious. I’d kept all our travel documents together, and we still had the children’s passports. We couldn’t understand where ours had gone. Operating on sheer panic (and completely no sleep, remember?) I raced through the airport to see if we’d left our passports in one of the shops we’d visited. At the gate, Stuart and the very kind airline staff unpacked our carry-on baggage three times. They were as desperate as we were that we get on the flight, but when the passports failed to turn up anywhere–no dice.

We missed the flight and were sent to file police reports for our missing passports. With the police reports, we’d be able to leave the airport in order to go to our respective consulates and obtain emergency passports. To make things even more complicated, our respective consulates are in different cities. This was the point at which we thought perhaps we’d have to live in the airport forever, which seemed so much easier than running after consular officials. We were totally exhausted, and then had to call our family in England to let them know we wouldn’t be arriving that afternoon.

We had to wait for the real police to arrive after the immigration police called them about our predicament. They were kind but a bit incredulous, which we understood because the story of our missing passports made absolutely no sense. “I”m going to have to ask you to unpack your things one more time,” the officer told me, which I thought was completely ridiculous. There is only one place where our passports could have been due to my impeccable organizations skills, plus we’d unpacked our stuff three times already.

Or rather, the airline staff and Stuart had unpacked our stuff three times already. I hadn’t unpacked them once, and when I did, the first place I looked was inside the pocket of my new computer bag, and there are passports were. “Thank fucking God!” exclaimed my husband. “I knew they were there,” said Harriet the Horrible. “Every time,” the police officer said to me, “they’re somewhere in the luggage.” Me, I was relieved, but now a bit disappointed that the ending to this story had been so incredibly stupid, that I’d never be able to write an essay about the time I wandered around Amsterdam without a passport like Theo Decker in The Goldfinch, that our passports hadn’t been pick pocketed by a Russian thief called Boris, but instead, I’d just packed them somewhere dumb.

With the problem solved and no one having thrown up in ages, we raced to the flight counter to get on the next flight to Manchester. On the basis of our looking exhausted, and schlepping two small children, airline staff took pity on us and booked the next flight, charging us for administrative costs only. We had breakfast again, and within a few hours, we were in the air again, flying to where we were supposed be. And we even got there!

IMG_20131119_100308Only problem was that our luggage didn’t, which would have fine, except that our luggage included the carseats without which we couldn’t leave the airport. And so we had no choice but to wait for our stuff to arrive on the 5pm flight from Amsterdam, sitting in the Arrivals area at Manchester Airport, whose sliding doors open and open and it’s so cold in there. And because this is the north of England in November, it wasn’t long before the sun went down. We hadn’t slept in oh so very long, and when the luggage arrived, we still had an hour’s journey by car ahead of us. I drove while the children cried, and my eyes ached.

IMG_20131124_063603We arrived though, and fortunately we were in a land where I wouldn’t have to cook or do laundry for the duration of our stay. The next morning I even got to sleep all morning without a single child in my bed while wee Iris was held by her grandmother. I ate Dairy Milks for breakfast, drank strong strong proper Northern tea, had a full English breakfast and afternoon tea in a single day, bought too many books, was terrified while driving down oh-so-narrow windy roads at 50 miles per hour but never once crashed into anything, breathed in the sea air, walked on cobblestones, had fun with family, celebrated Stuart’s birthday, read lots of books, and decided that chocolate-covered digestives are the food I love most in the world.

1385327191562It was exhausting though. Harriet continued to be ill, and then passed her cold onto Iris who is far too little for such a plague and now she’s still sick with the most agonizing cough. Iris also refused to sleep in her own bed at all, and so she was basically on me for most of the week, and one gets tired of such things quickly. Halfway through our stay (and mostly because of jet-lag, I think) Harriet started coming into our room in the middle of the night and crying that nobody loved her, which had the effect of making nobody love her. I was crabby, and nobody loved me either.

IMG_20131124_065849It was a very good week though, and so wonderful for our English family to meet wee Iris for the very first time, and for Harriet to have her first English visit that she will remember. Fun to be by the seaside and exciting to imagine our next trip back when Iris is a bit bigger, and how much further we’ll all be along by then. (Gulp. This is wonderful and terrible. Six months ago today, we were celebrating Harriet’s fourth birthday and Iris was just over a week away from being born. How very far we’ve come since then. How much road ahead there is to travel, but how quickly it all speeds by…)

IMG_20131122_121404I do love England. Land of green, rolling hills, unceasing cups of tea and tiny cars. And of bookshops, oh yes. I’d purchased Love Nina by Nina Stibbe, and it delighted me during my first few days of vacation. (I’d been hooked by a description of the book as “Mary Poppins meets Adrian Mole…”). After hitting the bookshop in Waterstones, I’d bought Mutton by India Knight, whose novels are always such a pleasure. I read that book for the rest of the trip, and will get through the rest of my English stack in the next few weeks. I did make the mistake of reading the Guardian’s Books of the Year piece after visiting the bookshop, and now I mustn’t rest until I have a copy of Hermione Lee’s Penelope Fitzgerald biography for myself.

IMG_20131125_034659We were owed something for our flight home, I think, and fate delivered. Harriet watched movies and Iris went in and out of sleep, enough in for me to read an entire novel. A short novel, Alice Thomas Ellis’s The Other Side of the Fire, but a whole novel still. Amazing! And they gave us ice cream en-route. It was great. Our luggage arrived back in Toronto with us, and we took at a cab home and nobody had a meltdown. It was a miracle, probably because our journey the week before had been such a disaster. It all comes out even in the end, I guess. And all and all, it was a very good time away.

April 30, 2011

Project Tea Party

The best thing about being married to me is that you get to spend whole mornings up to your elbows in marzipan. Because I was determined that we would make a battenberg cake for our royal wedding tea party. And today we discovered that just how Queen Victoria got so fat– it’s because you have to trim top and sides off the cake before you ice it, and it takes inordinate willpower to not eat the scraps–they were delicious! The marzipan too, even though it was too sticky. I got Stuart to construct the cake once I’d baked it, because I’m terrible at things that require attention and patience. He did a bang-up job, and the cake was delicious (then devoured). We also served these strawberry jam tarts, which were incredible (and easy). And scones shaped like teapots, which is the best thing I have ever imagined. This photo was taken before we took the sausage rolls out of the oven, and they were delicious too, although store-bought. Tea was served in the big, beautiful teapot I received as a wedding gift and that spends most of its time getting dusty on the shelf because I fear breaking it. So it was nice to use it. I also liked an excuse to pull out my teapot table cloth from Honest Ed’s, and I think the Queen probably has one similar.

And then Nathalie Foy took the (battenberg) cake for hostess gifts, bringing me actual perfume scented like a Barbara Pym paperback: “sweet, and a bit musty, a lot like Pym’s world come to think of it.” I read in the papers that the Duchess of Cambridge was wearing an identical scent yesterday.

April 28, 2011

Royal Wedding Tea Caddy

My mom is nice because even though I refuse to lend her my books (and actually, I refuse to lend my books to anybody), she’d give me anything of hers that I wanted. On this weekend, the anything of hers I wanted was the Royal Wedding tea caddy that her friend had brought her back from England. I am not sure why I didn’t bring Royal Wedding tat back from England myself– I don’t think we ventured into shops that much except for bookshops, and if I’m not mistaken, the tat wasn’t out in full force two months ago anyway. But it did get to be a problem as the big day got closer and closer, and I found myself without a Royal Wedding commemorative anything. And all the Royal Wedding tea towels are are sold out. India Knight has reported bunting shortages all over London. This is terrible! I hardly need this, in addition to the stress of needing to learn to bake battenberg cake by Saturday afternoon, which is when my Royal Wedding Tea party begins (a bit after the fact, I know, but the wedding was never the point anyway. The cake was). So thank goodness for my mom, and for my Royal Wedding tea caddy. Which of course I will cherish now for all the rest of my days.

April 11, 2011

That damn reflection

That damn reflection really doesn’t do the window any justice, so I invite you to go see it for yourself instead. It’s the Royal Wedding Window at Good Egg in Kensington Market, and it’s a wonderful celebration of all things bookish, British, potty and teapotty. I loved it.

March 21, 2011

My Adventures in the Land of Books

Our last vacation was in the land that books forgot, so I was excited to get away to England, the storybook centre of the universe. Whenever we go to England, we always come back with enough books to fill another suitcase (especially that one time), and this trip was no exception. Though I had less luck in the charity shops than I was hoping for– they used to be rife with 1960s Penguin Paperbacks but they’re all gone now, and now all that’s left are copies of Jenny Colgan novels that came free with a copy of Cosmopolitan. And the children’s books picks were rubbish in the charity shops, but I suppose I can imagine why the second-hand children’s book market might have its challenges.

The only books I ended up getting in charity shops were I Am Not Tired and I Will Not Go to Bed by Lauren Childs at the Oxfam in Ilkley, and Tyler’s Row by Miss Read at The Panopticon Shop in Glasgow (which is a charity shop to rebuild a theatre that burned down in 1938, and we sort of got turned off their cause when they made Stuart wait out in the rain with the pram). I also got a Brambley Hedge treasury at the Oxfam in Fleetwood.

And though I didn’t end up buying anything, the Oxfam Bookshop in Glasgow was beautiful– much more boutique than charity shop. It was in the same square as the massive old building (now vacant) that used to house Borders, and I was informed that the loss of that store had been a tragedy– it had been a wonderful place. We also had a good time in the Waterstones in Glasgow, which looked like not much from the outside, but as I rode the escalator down to the lower level, revealed itself to have this hidden middle section between the two floors, sort of like the half-floor in Being John Malkovich, and also a coffee shop, with made my reluctant partner in bookshopping a very happy man. We found the children’s section, and Harriet hurled picture books, and then ate part of a sandwich that she found on the floor.

I was thrilled to discover The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley, because independent bookshops are few and far between even in England, and also because this one was bustling. The store has gorgeous window displays, a great selection, and seemed like a thriving community hub. There was a line-up at the till, and another woman there to pick up her special order. I delighted in the selection of Penguin merch, and bought a tote bag, and also Old Filth by Jane Gardam (and now I have to read The Man in the Wooden Hat). I also like The Grove Bookshop in Ilkley because their website boasts a “fast and efficient ordering system [which] means the vast majority of customer orders arrive the following day.”

We spent our second-last day in London, and had scheduled bookshops a-plenty. I was so happy to have a chance to visit Persephone Books, and actually, I’m grateful that budget constraints forced a limit of one book only, or else I would have bought the place out. Their books are so lovely, the shop so homey (but crowded! With Persephone books! Can you imagine anything more wonderful?), and I wanted to paw everything. To keep my fellow-travellers happy, I’d pre-selected my purchases so there was less browsing than you might imagine, but if I’d started, I never would have left and would no longer have a family.

I also enjoyed visiting the London Review Bookshop, which was not too far away. The Cake Shop proved disappointing, sadly, as it was too small to accommodate Harriet’s stroller or Harriet, and was crowded with people discussing existential things who probably didn’t want to listen to Harriet talk about her bum. I bought The Tortoise and the Hare here, though I’d been debating another Rachel Cusk instead, being that day in the thralls of her book The Lucky Ones. And I am a little bit sorry now that I didn’t get the Rachel Cusk books, because she’s so great, and I never found another of her novels in a bookshop the rest of the time we were in England.

Under Waterloo Bridge, I was happy to see the booksellers again, as well as a bit of sunshine. I didn’t buy anything because nothing immediately struck my eye, and because Stuart and Harriet were being very patient but I didn’t want to push them too far. I am sure if I’d browsed just a little while longer, I would have come up with one treasure or another. (I also wonder if the fact that I found less treasures amongst the used books this trip is because it’s now been a few years since I bought everything Margaret Drabble ever wrote.)

We spent the rest of our London day at The Tate Modern, and I enjoyed exploring both its bookshops with their wonderful selections of children’s books. It was especially exciting to see Sara O’Leary‘s beautiful Where You Came From on display, amidst some fine company.

We spent our last day in Windsor, where I tried and failed to find a bookish treasure in the charity shops (including a wonderfully stocked Oxfam Bookshop, but everything good they had, I had already). We stopped in at the Windsor Waterstones and bought Harriet The Gruffalo and Alfie’s Feet, and I tried and failed to find a Rachel Cusk novel to buy, just as I would do the next day at the airport. Regrets, I’ve had a few.

But not too many. Our trip was full of bookish wonder. I arrived home with a most respectable stack, and what’s more, I’ve since read each and every one of them.

March 6, 2011

Below stairs

My Anglophilia is really curious when you consider that if I’d lived in England back when times were really merrie, I would have worked six days a week in a cotton mill and my husband would have been killed in a coalmine, because truly, this is the stock we descend from. If I was in a Barbara Pym novel, I would probably be the charwoman. Virgina Woolf would have kept me safely below-stairs. Class is such a funny thing, easy to overlook when we’re reading Rachel Cusk back home in Canada, but while reading her during the few days we spent in Windsor, I realized that I’m not the kind of woman Rachel Cusk writes about at all. I have never seen such well-dressed women as those I saw pushing expensive prams up and down Windsor’s cobblestone streets, whose accents were so cultivated I could scarcely understand them, which didn’t matter because they weren’t talking to me anyway. These women made me terribly ashamed of my shoes, perhaps for good reason.

Nevertheless, it is my great fortune to be a Canadian married to an Englishman, because it means my English indulgences also fulfill familial obligation, but moreover that said family puts us up in the spare-room and entertains the baby. It means that I get to call myself middle-class, and that Kate Middleton is also middle-class, even though her parents are millionaires and she has nice shoes. It means that I can go rural-England crazy again (too much Midsomer Murders) and start lusting after a floral-printed garden spade with matching Wellington boots. I start raiding farm shops for delectable sausage. It is a good thing we get to come home from England, because I’m so annoying when I’m there, and my husband would probably divorce me if we stayed too long.

Last week, I bought a gorgeous new string of bunting from a woman who has survived the recession by going into the bunting biz. It seems the English are stringing a lot of the stuff these days, while stiffening their upper lips, and it’s kind of admirable. So many empty store-fronts– it’s devastating, really, in a way we barely fathom over here. And maybe it’s just spring time, but things do seem to be beginning to make a turn for the better. The tulips are up, and there are buds on the trees. Here, there is just fresh snow.

We had the most wonderful trip. I bought all kinds of books, but managed to read almost all of them en route, so it’s like I didn’t buy any books at all (very frugal). Stay tuned for an upcoming post about our literary escapades. In fact, stay tuned for upcoming posts galore, but only about our trip, because I can’t think of anything else right now. Real life will come back quickly, I’m sure, but we’re still not finished our washing, I’m still not finished reading my new English books, and there is a bar of Dairy Milk still to be devoured (but not much longer).

March 5, 2011

What we had to declare

February 28, 2011

We love Ilkley. Thank you, Jackson Brodie.

Today Harriet stayed home with her grandparents, and Stuart and I drove to Ilkley in Yorkshire (which is very close to Burley Cross country). I wanted to go to a Bettys Tea Room after reading Starting Early Took My Dog (which should probably receive a commission for our visit). Jackson Brodie certainly did not mislead us: if the Bettys girls ran the government, indeed, there would not have been recent economic disasters, or disasters of any kind. Tea was completely delicious, definitely the best we’d had since Saturday, and I was particularly in love with the woman having her breakfast at the table across from ours’ (“Anything else for ye, Vera?” they asked as she was preparing to go, as she tied a kerchief around her hair).

We had fun exploring the town afterwards, visiting the best butcher in Britain, and the Grove Bookshop, a fabulous independent bookshop whose business was booming. We got a steak and kidney pie at the former, and at the bookshop, I got a Penguin 75 tote bag, and Old Filth by Jane Gardam (which I’ve had out of the library twice, but have always had to return before I’ve had a chance to read it).

February 27, 2011

Can Lit?

I br0ught a few Canadian novels with me, but have actually forgotten that Canada was ever such a place, so they’ve remained unopened in my suitcase. Instead, I’ve delighted in three epistolary novels in a row. The first was Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, which wasn’t remotely English, except for the umbrellas on the cover, and that was enough– I really liked it. Next was Burley Cross Postbox Theft, which was absolutely brilliant– I loved the ending. And on Friday, I read Felicity and Barbara Pym by Harrison Solow, which was even stranger than Nicola Barker’s novel, if such a thing was possible, but I adored it. The novel consists of correpondance from an academic to a student undertaking the study of liberal arts at an American university who is about to begin a seminar on Barbara Pym. Who is unclear about why she should bother to read Barbara Pym, and the academic is unscathing in her criticism of the student’s point of view, of her limitations. Unbashedly snobbish (but not in all respects. She recommends Miss Read and Jilly Cooper’s Class in order to understand Pym’s world), as she takes down the student for her own provincialism and then proceeds to outline why we should bother reading Barbara Pym, as well as how we should approach the liberal arts, which is by drawing a connection between impeccable literary analysis and the wider world. Connections between the insular nature of Pym’s village life and ideas of the earth-centred universe, and the island mentality of the English anyway. Absolutely fascinating, and though I appreciated Barbara Pym before I read it, I picked up her Less Than Angels next, of course, and I am a better reader now.

This weekend, we had a wonderful time in Glasgow with good friends (two of whom hopped over from Ireland for the occasion). The drive was lovely, the city was so vibrant and beautiful, and the sun shone and shone and we haven’t paid for it yet. Plus, we had afternoon tea at the Willow Tea Rooms, and had the kind of fun last night that is only possible in the company of the Scottish and the Irish. Tomorrow, to Yorkshire, and then a drive down South, then a day in London, and a day in Windsor, and before we know it, we’ll be home again, home again (and happy to be there. Though apparently, there is snow?).

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