Living in homes, not houses

We all have them, those houses we remember from childhood, the ones we carry with us and remember the layout, the smell and the feel of.

For me three houses made an impact on me in adult life. The first was my aunt’s, a big, arts and crafts style house down a potholed lane that lead to open fields. There was a stream at the bottom of the very long garden, window seats in the bays, shelves of books, an open fire and a piano. These were all things we didn’t have at home and I loved them. But at the same time the grandness of this house instilled in me a discomfit of being in big, monied houses, I can never quite relax or shake the feeling of feeling like a chimney sweep, afraid to move or sit anywhere for fear of dirtying the furnishings.

The second house couldn’t be more different, a council house belonging to my 18-year-old self’s boyfriend’s family. The grass was often long, the wooden gate hung wonkily on its hinges, the lounge carpet was flattened and had seen better days, and there was always a slight aroma of dog. But, I was always made welcome, cooked a meal after working my shift at the local pub and I always remember feeling relaxed and very much part of the family in that house. The third house is rather a succession of different houses my family lived in as I was growing up, but they all shared the same name; the three-bed semi.

When the time came to buy my first house, I remember standing in the sunny kitchen of the house that I went on to buy and nearly 20 years later still live in, and feeling completely at home. The wooden floors reminded me of my aunt’s house, the edge-of-a-council-estate location meant that it was both affordable but also not gentrified, and lastly it was a 1950s three-bed semi. It also happened to be in a street I’d lived in for a couple of years pre-school. It was achingly familiar.

Years later, I’ve now got my own bookshelves, tatty out-of-tune piano, bay window seat and wood burner. All those things that stuck in my mind as a child I’ve now got in my own home. My window seat is the special place for me and my son to sit with our breakfast bowls perched on the windowsill while we look outside on the front garden. When he’s long grown up, in my mind’s eye I will always look over to that seat and see my curly-haired son up on his knees, prefixing every question with ‘mummy…’ while eating his bowl of cereal.

I was reminded of all this by conversation I had earlier in the week when I was chatting to someone who was explaining that they’d recently moved house. Listening to her, her reasons for buying her house were completely emotional and were articulated so well that I longed to ask her more, but feared being intrusive. She talked of the terrace she’d bought and how it had reminded her of her grandmother’s house. And her grandmother’s house, when she was a child, had always been somewhere she’d been well fed, loved, felt warm, safe and secure and always made welcome. Her adult house purchase had been made out of nostalgia, out of bringing back those simple feelings that the best homes have. That’s the thing about houses, they are so much more than bricks and mortar, and at a time when our dominant value system puts worth on a house’s market price rather than its position at the centre of our lives then I think we overlook the importance a home has to our souls. Estate agent speak talks of proximity to good schools, room sizes and neighbourhoods yet rarely articulates the feel of homes. From the minute I walked in mine all those years ago I’ve been in love with how safe it makes me feel, how it’s weathered me through many storms, and last year, when a friend commented on how full of love my house is, she simply couldn’t have said anything better.

ANTIDOTE: Value your home for what it’s worth to you and your family, not what it’s worth to the market or as a status symbol.

The first world problems of kids’ birthday parties

I know I sound churlish, but I really do have a difficult relationship with children’s parties. Yesterday we went to the daughter of one of our close friends’ sixth birthday party. It was a disco with an entertainer in a village hall.

We walked inside from a beautiful sunny day and were met by lots of small people running around a darkened room while seriously loud, almost club-like loud music was playing. Not kids’ music or tunes, but club music, with videos. A five-year-old girl walked in wearing scarlet lipstick. I sympathised with our son, who, when faced with his unfavourite things; darkness combined with noise, turned around and tried to go back out.

Eventually we coaxed him into the melee and we retreated to help out with the food in the kitchen, where endless packages of crisps, biscuits, cakes and popcorn were opened, and decanted into bowls. The bin got more and more full; I kept trying to distract myself my saying that my son was enjoying all the mayhem, as was the birthday girl. Surely my unease was just me being a misery, after all what’s a few plastic containers, cups and plates being chucked out if it made a few children happy? But on a sunny Saturday in June this will have been replicated up and down the country. All those plastic containers, so brief in their use, casually discarded and forgotten about, just destined for landfill. Towards the end our son made a bid for the door, for grass, freedom and sunshine. I, meanwhile, helped with the tidying up; taking a big plastic sack of rubbish out to the bin, thinking of how carefully I try to sort things out at home for the compost bin, the fire, the recycle. How I try to be a better gatekeeper.

There must be a way of jumping off the kids’ birthday party merry-go-round with its attendant pressure to invite the entire class and to be bigger and better. Surely they are symptomatic of our out-of-sync way of living? We in the 21st century create and live in ‘a volcano of waste’ and it’s morally as well as materially unacceptable for us to just carry on as if this standard of lifestyle can continue ad infinitum.

So, what do we do this year when it comes to our son’s fifth birthday? Do we not do it at all and opt out of the whole thing? Or do we do a greener version with homemade food at our home? I mentioned to my friend that I dread the gifts at birthdays and Christmas and that I really hate the current trend for piling up your kids’ presents on these occasions in front of the fireplace and Facebooking about how much they’ve got. I suggested that I could put on the invites not to bring presents, but she looked at me like I’d just said I was going to vote for Lord Buckethead.

After the party we drove home past the woods near where we live and decided to opt for a family walk. It was such a palate cleanser, greenery, sunlight and mud. I may have imagined this but our son seemed to relish the freedom and natural feel of being in the woods running around looking for logs and bridges to cross. I certainly did, I could feel my shoulders drop as I soaked up the bird song and crunchy leaves underfoot. I feel much more at home in the woods than in noise and endless plastic containers (not that the woods are free of plastic litter, but that’s a subject for another day), but maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m the one who’s out of tune? But then I think to myself, as I try to swim against the tide, what if I’m the one who’s right and they’re wrong? Such existentialism doesn’t sort the to-birthday-party or to not-birthday-party dilemma though or our love of the disposable. First world problems.


Kids have too much stuff!

Well, today’s been interesting. Last night, our four-year-old had one of his ‘I’m not eating that it’s disgusting’ mealtimes. No, we hadn’t dished him up roasted worms with a side of undercooked slugs, but just a small bowl of bolognaise. Cue me having a meltdown, as I’m exhausted with mealtime battles, and locking at least half of his toys away.

So, today has been a toy-lite day, and a day where I meticulously made my son tidy away whatever he had finished playing with before he took something out away. I’m not normally like this. A usual day is more an indoor/outdoor freeplay day. But I’ve got to do something about the mealtime battles and it occurred to me that maybe paring down our days a bit might have an impact. I’m not sure what made me think this, but certainly when I looked back over this week I realised that my son had been bought (and not by me): a small box of Lego, a Kinder egg, a water pistol, a farm machinery set, a bag of Haribos, a writing book and pen and a revolting sticky man that you throw at the window and he crawls down. That is when he works and isn’t covered in fluff. Anyway I digress. This week hasn’t been particularly unusual, he gets bought things every week by well-meaning grandparents.  Whenever I say that I’m grateful but could they please buy him a little less, I’m accused of being mean and not thinking about my son’s wellbeing. But last night I started thinking that actually it’s all this stuff is what’s not good for his wellbeing.

So, today as an experiment we had a not-leaving-the-house day with no playmates round. No television, although in my defence it’s very rarely on during the day, half  his toys locked away, including the big items such as the farm, railway, all cars etc and rigorously applied mealtimes sitting properly at the table and not his little table.

The change in his behaviour this morning was really noticeable. He did two jigsaws by himself, then went on to play with different themed toys throughout the day, which were put away afterwards and to which he devoted a reasonable amount of time before moving on to something else. He didn’t even notice the toys that weren’t there, at all.

Before when I’ve said to his dad that he’s got too much stuff (and in fairness he already has a lot less than a lot of his peers) I was basing my thoughts on theory but today has demonstrated that he has eaten better and played better during a much calmer day than we usually have.

I also normally spend lots of time with him on our days off, or facilitate his play, today I cleaned the house and apart from the odd cuddle and time spent chatting left him to it. The problem now is, knowing and believing that I do that too much stuff and not enough calm is genuinely not good for him, how do I go on from here and ask grandparents not to buy him so much stuff? Today may have been a fluke, and I’m sure he’ll return tomorrow to looking as though he wants to vomit when faced with a plate of food that includes fruit or vegetables, but I do feel like I’ve hit on something, so it’s something I’m going to keep up with.

Hang on to your plastic, it might be worth something!

I’ve been having a tiny declutter this week. Another five bags of assorted items to go to the charity shop, well, after they’ve sat in the hallway for a week or so, as I’m good at bagging and less good at actually dropping off.

As part of the purge I went through the kitchen cupboard, you know the one. The one that buries you alive as everything falls out of it, so you have to snap the door shut quick to keep it all contained. Well, not for me anymore. I tackled our plastic container cupboard today, and I was so doing, I recalled something my brother said a few months ago about Tupperware (other brands are available). His argument was that pieces of this kitchenware should be passed down between the generations as family heirlooms. Sounds odd doesn’t it? I’ve got crockery, as does my mum, that was her mum’s, and it’s treasured and used as such. But plastic containers just wouldn’t be revered in the same way would they and I wonder why, because they’re practically indestructible (unlike china) and so would last for a very long time.
It got my thinking about our attitudes to plastic as a material. I know with my son’s toys, the wooden ones are the ones we treat as special, whereas the plastic stuff is mostly the stuff I can’t bear as it breaks easily and tends to be at the cheaper and more disposable end of the toy spectrum.  Interestingly I kept some of my toys in our loft that I’ve handed down to my son and they have all lasted incredibly well, (apart from the doctor’s kit where the case fastener has broken, but hands up, I did that in childhood!).

So, I can only conclude that plastic’s sheer universality and the price value we put on it as a result means that it’s unlikely we’ll start writing, ‘and to my best beloved wife I leave my second-best set of Tupperware containers’ in our wills anytime soon. But maybe it’s one of the things we need to change our viewpoint on in order to prevent so much of it being simply thrown away or ending up in the sea. There must be a correlation here between the tonnes of it that end up as litter and our casual regard, for what it actually a remarkable material. We could start by introducing a bottle-return scheme where customers are paid back 5 or 10p for each bottle they return. It would have a two-fold effect of (hopefully) encouraging to think in terms of plastic as being a valuable material, and also help keep it off our streets and seas. #PlasticFreeJuly

Some of us grow in the gutters


I’ve tried looking at things from a snail’s perspective, I really have. I can see how the stem of a sunflower or courgette plant looks succulent and too delicious to resist, but seeing as they never seem to think about how I feel to come down in the morning to find my beloved seedlings munched away to slimy stalks, then this year I decided enough was enough.

My cunning plan involved buying myself a whole load of guttering and attaching it to my garage wall as well as some trellising I have along the drive. Ha ha! I thought as I screwed in all the brackets and rather counter-intuitively drilled drainage holes in the solid plastic, this will fox the blighters!

Added to the fact that I don’t have a huge amount of garden space, and a four-year-old who likes to play hairdressers with my plants and secateurs, guttering gardens seemed like an ideal solution to my small-space, small-child and snail problem.

Having had the summer to assess their success, I can report that they seem to have offered a 100% snail deterrent and the best lettuces I’ve ever grown. To the point that we (almost but not quite) got sick of lettuce leaves.

My gutter gardens have been a spectacular success. As well as the lettuce I’ve grown spring onions and mara de bois strawberries, which hang over the guttering edges at eye height just waiting to be eaten. I also put some netting up against the trellis and grew about 15 pea plants up them. Okay I’ll never be self-sufficient in fruit and veg, but being able to go vertical and grow things safely away from slimy trespassers has restored my faith in being able to garden organically in an urban back garden.

The only downside I noticed was that the relative shallowness of the guttering means that the soil dries out quicker than in pots, although the ones where I used vermiculite this was less of problem. It also depends on where you site them. The garage gutters get full-on blasts of sun for half of the day so they need more water, whereas in the shadier drive trellis down the side of the house, the soil stays moist for longer, although the windy spells we had over the summer again meant that at times the soil needed more water.

Reluctant to see them stand empty over the autumn and winter I’m going to try some broad beans, winter spring onions, winter lettuce and maybe even a few cabbages to see how they get on.

Having seen this idea so many times on Pinterest I’m amazed it took me this long to give it a go, and next year I may squeeze a few more in along some other vertical spaces. They are a perfect complement to my container growing, and it’s been a joy this summer to finally be able to outwit the snails having tried everything under the sun in other years including nemotodes and copper tape, all to no avail. Slimy beasties 0, gutter gardens 1.