Sunday, August 14, 2011

My Big Fat Family Holiday

I'm somewhere in Devon, I couldn't tell you where. I'm in a barn (a converted one) with 6 adults, 5 teenagers, 3 dogs and lots of laminate flooring.  Dogs and laminate flooring do not go together.  The constant tapping of claws on floors is driving me slowly mad. But in the depths of the South Hams, no-one can hear you scream.......

We set off from Wiltshire two hours late in a hail of shouting and recriminations at The Boy and The Girl. Both had failed miserably to do the jobs I had asked them to do.  The Boy was glowering and The Girl was firmly attached to her iPod with a Whatever look on her face.  The Husband, conveniently away filming in Bulgaria until Christmas, phoned to wish us Bon Voyage, knowing full well that this, our first holiday with my extended family, would likely be holiday hell rather than holiday heaven.

Moira, the SatNav, was chatting away gaily, which was just as well, as The Children certainly weren't.  I'm rubbish at long journeys. Within an hour my eyes start to feel heavy and the only known remedy is a Starbucks skinny latte, or, at a push one from Costa.  But the road to Devon is just that, a road. Not a motorway, most of the time not even a dual carriageway, and not so much as a Wild Bean Cafe.  Eventually Moira told me that I would be turning left onto the M5. Hallelujah! There was bound to be a service station. Sure enough, Exeter Services appeared on the roadsigns. We turned off. We were halfway back to Wiltshire by the time we found it.  Moira was very upset that we had deviated from her chosen route.

The service station was heaving. You could tell it was practically the only one between Exeter and the rest of the known world.  It was like a French service station at midday.  The man at Costa was overwhelmed. 45 minutes later I was the proud imbiber of a lukewarm, bitter latte and a hot chocolate with marshmallows and cream that refused to be whipped - I know the feeling!

We set off again on the last leg of our journey. Moira was anything if not confident and cheefully instructed us to 'Turn Right on Blackwell Road'.  Road was somewhat over-egging the pudding. Small, narrow lane with grass growing up the middle was a bit more like it.  We followed the road, as instructed.  It was one car wide with high hedges on both sides.  'Follow Blackwell Road for two miles', Moira told us.  Blackwell Road got narrower, the hedges got higher and we ran over a squashed chicken.

"Mum, was that a...." asked The Boy. "Yes".

'Turn right on road' shrilled Moira.  You know you are in trouble when the road doesn't even have a name. By now the hedges were touching both sides of the car.  'Turn left on road'. That'll be down the one signposted 'Unsuitable for Motor Vehicles' will it Moira, you cow!   By now The Children were starting to take a bit of notice.  "Where are we Mum?" asked The Girl.  Damned if I know, I thought.  We turned left up  a narrow lane which seemed devoid of road surface.  'Continue off road', said Moira cheerfully. Now if I'd been in the Disco, I might have, but the low slung Audi is not exactly built for off-roading.  Vorsprung Durch Technik it might be but the Technik hasn't quite stretched to 4 wheel drive and hydraulic jacks to lift it up over the potholes.  I decided to reverse back into a farm gate we had passed. Backwards, round  a bend on a narrow lane would appear not to be my forte. Never mind. I'm sure the scratches will polish out.

I reached the gate and reversed in. There was an almighty crunch as I grounded the car on a lump of tarmac. There's no tarmac on the road but there's a big pile of it in the gateway to a field. Go figure! I told The Boy to take off his flaming headphones and help me navigate. Moira was just intent on sending us round in a circle and back to where we were. We decided to outfox her by setting off in the opposite direction, trying to navigate back to where we had turned off the main road, defying the instructions sent to us by the owners. Why is it that we always think the SatNav knows best?

Wherever we turned, it led to another tiny, narrow lane. We passed a tractor with a hen sitting in the driving seat. It watched us with black beady eyes as we drove past.... and then when we went past again.... and then again the third time.  In 45 minutes we hadn't seen a single living soul except for the hen and a rabbit.  "We could get lost here and no-one would ever know" said The Girl helpfully. The Boy starting humming the theme from 'Deliverance'.  The chicken watched us go by again.  The instructions said we needed to take the second turning on the left. There was no turning on the left, or the right for that matter.

Eventually we found the main road.  Moira told me to go left 'Eff Off, Moira, I'm going right'.  The Boy sighed. "It's the wrong way Mum".  I don't care. At least the road is big enough that you can fit two cars side by side on it.  Eventually we reached the sea. The barn is most definitely inland.  Moira suggested turning up a road that was half the width of a suburban driveway. I declined her invitation.

Eventually we ended up back on the same road we'd started on.  The idea of spending a week in the car lost in the lanes of the South Hams of Devon was starting to look  a distinct possibility.  The Boy snatched Moira from her holder.  "Right, I'll sort it out" he said punching away at Moira's screen.  "Turn down here" he told me. "But we've already been down here god knows how many times. Look, there's the bloody chicken again!"  "Actually it's a different one" came a voice from the back seat.  "Trust me" The Boy told me calmly.  We set off down a lane which we could have already driven down several times for all I knew.  Eventually we came to a sign that said  'Private Property'.  I stopped the car. "Keep going" said The Boy. "But it's someone's house."  "Just drive Mum, we can get out the other side". Don't you just hate it when your kids are right.

My phone rang.  Thank God that at least I had a signal.  Maybe they could send us a police helicopter to guide us out of this maze of identical looking lanes.  It was my brother.  "Where are you... and where is this bloody place we are supposed to be staying?"  "No idea to both" I told him.  We rounded a corner to find him and his two children parked in the gateway to a field.  "The Boy says it's the other was so you'll have to turn round".  A 35 point turn later and we were all heading in  the right direction.  Half a mile further on it started to look familiar.  Google Street View familiar that is.  The Boy smiled smugly.  We were here. 2 hours late and nearly out of petrol but we were here.  The Big Fat Family Holiday could begin.

It's the Devon Flag in case you were wondering


Thursday, August 11, 2011

What next?

I've done a lot of shouting at the television recently. I'm probably not the only one. Shouting at the mindless yobs who have burned and looted parts of the country. Shouting at the idiot parents who try to excuse it by saying their kids have nothing to do or, faced with compelling evidence that their offspring have, in fact,  gone on a looting spree in JD Sports, still refuse to accept it. Shouting at the Birmingham Chav do told us 'if they respe't us, we'll respe't them' - in your dreams, love. Shouting at the liberals who are trying to excuse it with claims of social inequality - some of those already convicted included a teaching assistant, a graphic designer, a web developer, a social worker, a postman and the daughter of a Kent millionaire. If that were the case then countries with real social inequality would be a state of almost constant unrest.

In the UK people who are unemployed are given cheap or free housing, money to live on, free healthcare, free dental care, free prescriptions, free school meals, free or heavily subsidised further education.  What more should we give them? And in return for what? For nothing. For turning up once a fortnight at the Job Centre. If you teach people that they can take without any sort of social responsibility then it's no surprise that they grow up with a sense of entitlement that they don't deserve.

I think the blame lies in many areas. I blame the media (of course). Even the most ordinary girl's magazines show clothes and accessories that are often way out of reach of many people. The myriad slebrity magazines that clog up the newsagents' shelves have pages and pages of  supposedly aspirational characters blinged up in expensive designerwear,  role models are WAGs and popstars often of low/no talent.  TV talent shows catapult people to instant fame without the need for the years of hard slog that many really talented people have to put in.  But ask yourself this. If they were really, genuinely talented, would they need a talent show? The over-riding message is that you don't need to have any great gift to get rich. You don't need to work hard and if it doesn't just fall in your lap well then it's someone else's fault.

I also blame the government for being complicit in giving people a sense of entitlement that they often don't deserve. They dole out money to people with no requirement for something in return.  Benefit claimants talk about being 'paid' as if unemployment is actually a job. Pay is something you receive for goods or services, unemployed people provide neither.  Benefits should come with some sort of social responsibility attached, be it cleaning graffitti or visiting the elderly. Something to give them a reason to get  up in the morning and possibly a sense of belonging to a community. 

I blame Job Centres. They aren't Job Centres, they are Benefit Processing Offices. They have no interest in helping their clients find work. For the most part they seem to be manned by people with only a little bit more enthusiasm for work than the people on the other side of the desk.  Their job is to process paperwork, usually with as little grace and politeness as possible. They should be taken out of Government control and handed over to organisations that might actually want to do something to make a change.  When I walk past our local Job Centre, I'm hard pushed to imagine what sort of job half the young men, unwashed, tattooed, pierced sitting on the wall chain-smoking, could possibly do.  There should be a holistic approach to finding them work, starting with the need for a good bath and clean clothes.  They should be out doing community work so that they don't spend their days lazing in bed or playing video games. Is it any surprise that often when they get a job but can't be arsed to get out of bed to go to it.  If you've spent the last six months in your pit until midday, it's hardly surprising.

And video games.  As Steve at Bloggertropolis noted, a generation bought up on violent video games might just lose the ability to distinguish between reality and virtual reality.  There is no need for Grand Theft Auto in civilised society.

Poor parenting and the breakdown of the traditional family undoubtedly plays some part as does political correctness and the liberal intelligentsia, all of which have undermined our society in different ways. Parents who claim that their children, up in court on looting and disorder charges, are 'good kids' are doing them a huge disservice. They aren't good kids. They are criminals.

I don't blame education although the school which employed Alexis Bailey as a teaching mentor, despite convictions for criminal damage, should be asking itself some questions  today. In our country we have a great education system, trust me, I've experienced another one so I can draw comparisons. It's free and it offers the kind of support to disadvantaged students that you just don't find in many other countries.  But after that, it is down to the individual. They can choose to learn, to better themselves, to prepare themselves for working life. Or they can chose not to. Perhaps we need to make it more difficult to follow the second path.

I also don't blame the police.  They are damned if they do and damned if they don't. After the kettling of the student riots, liberal journalists took pen to paper to roundly criticise their heavy handed policing.  As the police were hopelessly outnumbered by rioters, they had little choice but to stand back. The right wing press were immediately on their case.  In Manchester last night, the police went in a little bit more decisively. By the morning, the BBC were showing clips from YouTube suggesting that the police were being a little bit too decisive.  As a country we need to decide where we stand on this. In France, the CRS, their version of the riot police, go in hard. They get results.  Do we want effective policing or do we want lawlessness and disorder?

But I've also been cheering at the TV a lot. At the quiet dignity of the Reeves family who saw their 100 year old business, which survived the Great Depression and two World Wars, razed to the ground by their own countrymen. At the restraint of the father of Haroon Jehan who called for restraint, despite having lost his son to a hit and run driver. At the Kurdish community in North London who outnumbered the rioters 3 to 1 and drove them off the streets and away from their businesses. At the armies of people who turned up in London to help with the clean up, at Homebase for giving away free brooms and dustpans and brushes to anyone who joined the clean up crews.  At the revulsion shown by so many young people at the actions of their generation.

What happens next is up to us all.  We can get lost in a mire of infighting, blame and counter-blame and political grandstanding.  We can throw more money at the jobless and less money at the police.  We can say it's down to social inequality.

Or alternatively we can take a  long, hard look at ourselves. Ask some hard questions and take some tough decisions about certain parts of our society.  Is it down to government cuts, immigration and jobs or is it about greed and consumerism? Should our society be more about human rights and less about personal responsibility? Should people get something for nothing or should everything come with some sort of personal and moral price tag? Who do we help next?  The poor disadvantaged looter who fights social injustice by stealing a plasma TV from Curry's or the people who lost their homes, their possessions, their livelihoods and even the children at the hands of their neighbours.

Good things can come out of this. It could be a defining moment in our recent history. But it's up to us to use it to create the sort of society we want and not allow those with their own agendas to take the lead.

Monday, August 8, 2011

We're all going on a summer holiday

.... well actually we've been but Sir Cliff hasn't conveniently sung a song about returning from your anuual sejourn in foreign climes.  Well I'm sure, dear Reader, you have been wondering at the reason for my cyber silence for over 2 weeks (what do you mean you hadn't even noticed?).  It was that time of the year when we decamp to France so The Girl can do her High Security Music Camp. It works like this. I pay 500 euros and she spends a week in France putting on a musical from scratch, sleeping in a dodgy tent, being fed on cheap food. But she loves it and I love her so I cough up.  It also gives us a chance to catch up with our lovely friends w1.hich is a definite plus even though they are now spread a bit further and wider than before.

People talk about the difference in culture between the French and the English, usually by comparing French High Society to Chavs but let's not go there, but for me, the difference was slightly more basic, lavatorial even.

1.  The toilets have no toilet seats. What in God's name happens to them all?  They start off with them but within weeks they are gone. It's as bigger mystery as the whereabouts of the Scarlet Pimpernel.  Is there a Phantom Potty Seat Pincher?  Is it really true the French women don't get fat so the ones that appear to be just have a stolen toilet seat shoved up their dress?  If anyone has any ideas please do let me know

2.  The toilets have no toilet paper.  The schedule on the wall clearly shows that the toilets were cleaned half and hour ago so where has all the toilet paper gone?  The same way as the seats maybe?  All I know is there is nothing worse, when you are already suffering screaming thigh muscles from hoving above the seatless porcelain pan, to discover the toilet roll holder is empty and you now have to try and scrabble around in your bag for a suitable replacement, the bag which is of course on your knee because...

3.  The toilets have nowhere to hang up your bag.  I absolutely refuse to put my bag down on a toilet floor. Think about it.  It's not the cleanest of places, particularly in France (and some other countries to be fair) but with nowhere to hang your bag you put it down on the floor, then later at home, you put your bag down on the table, then you eat lunch and voila! E-coli

4.  The hand driers don't work.  If I had a euro for every time I've been in a French toilet and found the hand drier to be Hors Service, I'd be living in a mansion in the country.  I do have a sneaking suspicion that it's because post-lavatorial handwashing in France is an optional rather than a mandatory procedure. Just remember that when you go to the supermarket

5.  O.M.G! Shock... Horror.. sometimes you don't even have a toilet pan. Has somebody stolen that too?  The so-called Turkish Toilet (or squatty potty as I like to call it) is supposed to be more hygienic but that's not a theory that has been borne out by my own experiences.  I had the unpleasant experience of going into a toilet in Agen, a relatively bourgeoise town, to find the filthiest toilet I have ever seen.  I instantly lost the desire to pee and headed for the door. The handle was sticky. With what I can only guess. Never mind, I could always wash my hands.... except that I couldn't because there was no sink.

I could possibly be accused of having something of a fixation on Squatty Potties, having blogged about them before  but that's only because they are so universally awful.

But on to nicer things - well not the weather because that was awful for most of the time, I mean, 14 degrees in July? - it was lovely to see some of our dear friends, now all spread a bit far and wide sadly which meant we just couldn't fit everyone in.  It was less of a pleasure to run into the founder members of the local Coven of  Sour Old Hags at the village cafe.  They had already heard of my arrival  ("What? Daily Mail Wylye Girl". Sometimes don't you just wish for a little bit of dementia). They were huddled round a cauldron bubbling over with oeil de gecko and foie de grenouille or I suppose it could just have been a table, with faces like slapped culs - I am so bilingual!  There was an almost audible intake of breath at my audacity then they were desperately disappointed when Monsieur M, who for reasons known best to himself was sitting with them, leapt up to give me a kiss and have a long chat.  I wished them a cheery good morning. They glared at me with mouths turned down like so many dead trouts and stayed silent. No wonder their poor husbands were sitting inside nursing alcoholic drinks when the sun was barely over the yard arm.

We stayed with lovely friends who, bless them, had postponed leaving on their holidays for a day so we could spend time together. As ever the welcome was warm and the conversation lively. They let us have use of their house while they were away in return for catsitting the oldest Persian cat in France, at an impressive 21 years old, although as she has a UK passport the French were recognise her claim.  I won't lie and say I wasn't concerned that she might chose my watch to shuffle this mortal coil and on more than one occasion I stood over her to check she was still with us but I'm happy to say that she survived our tender loving care.  All I can say is I hope that I am that sprightly at 92+ (I can't give you her exact age because the Purina 'How Old is Your Cat' calculator only goes up to 19.

The following day we delivered The Daughter to High Security Summer Music Camp, where, for a significant sum of money, she stays in a municipal campsite in a dodgy plastic tent that resembles a Turkish Bath in the daytime and a fridge during the night, and puts on a musical from scratch, including props and scenery, in a week.  She loves it and we love her so we stump up the cash and off she goes.  It attract students from all around the world, many of whom are at drama school and the standards are high.  This year was the 10th Anniversary so they were putting on a cabaret, with songs from the last 10 years' productions and a gala dinner, but more of that later.

On Monday we went to Agen so I could buy some linen curtains. We stupidly thought we would get something to eat in the evening. In a reasonable sized French town, in the peak tourist season. You'd think wouldn't you.  But no. Apart from the Station Buffet as recommended, bizarrely, by Rick Stein, everywhere was closed. I keep thinking that there must be another buffet in another station because it's average at best and in the evening it is THE place to go to find a lady of the night. It's distinctly seedy.  After two hours of looking we had lost our appetites and in the end we went home for sausage sandwiches.

Next stop Albi. We jumped into our very nice Citroen C5, a free upgrade from Avis, thank you very much, and headed off to some other friends who live there.  They are guardians of a very lovely property which belongs to....we I couldn't possibly say but it's for sale if you've got 1.5 million euros stuffed down the back of your sofa.

We spent a day in Albi. I am in love with Albi. It's a well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site. Go, go tomorrow.  The Cathedrale de Ste Cecile is wonderful, all Gothic austerity on the outside and serious frou-frou on the inside. And the Jardin de la Berbie behind the Musee Toulouse Lautrec is stunning in an very formal and anally retentive way. Photos... photos I hear you cry. Unfortunately they are all on The Husband's laptop which is in Bulgaria. But that's a story for another time.  Lunch was a steak which had been briefly shown the pan and which was a bit like sucking an open wound but at least the waiter opened our bottles of water between his thighs with great panache rarely seen outside of Thailand.

After three days of great food, conviviality and lots of Trivial Pursuit we headed back to try and fulfil the long shopping list of clothes The Girl suddenly needed and spend a night with some other friends who live among the vineyards of Cahors. Yet more conviviality and great food.  I was asked if I miss living in France. Despite the lovely setting we were in, the answer was still no. I don't miss it. Not one bit.

The following day was show time.  The Girl had had to learn 17 song and dance numbers. One of the choreographers had worked on Fame in the West End and had taught her enthusiastic bunch of amateurs the same routines.  The show was marvellous, the food less so. If you ever wanted proof that food in France can be complete rubbish, this was it.   The starter was tinned peaches stuffed with pate of some sort reposing on a deep bed of grated carrot, very deep.  The main course was Mystery Meat cooked with olives and peppers and watery rice.  Some thought the meat was pork, others lamb, some even tuna. Most didn't eat it. It had a curious smell of baby's nappies.  Hooray for the cheese course, which was at least edible and the tarte tatin, mass produced by still quite tasty.

The Girl was fabulous, making a wonderful Maria in The Sound of Music, a talent she no doubt gets from her mother. It was, no doubt, a very tiring week. The Girl came up to us at the end and promptly burst into tears, half of exhaustion, half of sadness that it was all over for another year. She decided she wanted to stay another night at the campsites so we headed off to our comfortable beds while she headed off to another night being knawed by mosquitos.  I've never really understood the French predilection for siting their campsites around lakes.

The following day was the big trek home. The Husband had been working in Manchester so he had flown out of Liverpool while we had flown out of Bristol. We were all flying back to Liverpool then driving back down to Wiltshire. The flights from Bordeaux leave from Le Billi, a poorly air conditioned metal box which is your punishment for flying with a low cost airline. All the flights were delayed. It was distinctly Third World. Eventually we were called for our flight. The departure gate had about 8 seats. We waited... and waited.... and waited some more. Eventually the Captain turned up, which is never a good sign.  He had noticed a nick in one of the tyres and needed to get an engineer to come and confirm that it was OK to fly.  Thank God it wasn't  lunchtime or we'd have had a 2 hour wait.  We all sat down on the floor. Within minutes, the two couples in front of us were swapping birth stories. Call me old fashioned but give me a good bit of Southern reserve any day.

Eventually, two hours late, we arrived in Liverpool.  You know you're in Liverpool when the woman at Border Control looks like a WAG. Down South they are generally paunchy middle aged men with the pallor of an uncooked sausage.  She was all beehived and eyelinered.

So that was it, another year, another trip to France. Next year I fancy Barbados. France was much as I found it last time. It's a shame to see two local boulangeries have now become franchises and the prices are horrendous.   We bought a kilo of sausages and a cote de porc in the market and it came to 30 euros! And petrol was far more expensive that I pay here in Wiltshire.  I certainly couldn't afford to live there.

Next week we head off to Devon for a  holiday with my extended family. We've never done it before and it will either be a huge success or a terrible disaster. Either way, it should provide some good blogging material!