Turnip Lanterns and Singing Skeletons – Hallowe’en Then and Now

When I was a small child in Sunderland in the 1970s, there was only one accessory to have on Hallowe’en – a turnip lantern.

Back then in the north east, you seemed pretty sophisticated if you put mayonnaise on your salad instead of salad cream. Avocados were referred to as ‘avocado pears’ and considered to be objects of extraordinary exoticism.

So what did we know from pumpkins? Turnip lanterns were the thing.

Each year, my mum would carve out a turnip for me with an air of grim duty. This process required an amount of muscle power generally only required by removal men or lumberjacks.

When she was done, she’d attach a string handle to it and pop a candle inside. Then, accompanied by my dad, I’d carry the lantern off to the back garden to hunt for ghosts – the smell of burnt turnip drifting nauseatingly round our heads.

These days in north London, things are just a little bit different. The shops are crammed with every imaginable kind of Hallowe’en-themed tat. My ten-year-old got told off by the security guard in Tesco yesterday for activating the entire display of 50 singing skeletons simultaneously.

Hallowe’en is now a fantastic excuse for middle class oneupmanship. Each year, the pumpkins on the doorsteps round where I live are carved with ever more ornate images. Tonight, there were haunted houses and flying bats, witches on broomsticks and leering skulls.

Hedges were festooned with cobwebs, severed hands poke through letter boxes, spiders dangled menacingly from the doorways. On a nearby street, a pair of legs dangled out of a dustbin.

I’m not sure what carvings to expect next year: the shower scene from Psycho? A scale reproduction of Highgate Cemetery? Or perhaps there will be a pumpkin which hasn’t been carved at all. Its scariness will derive from the subversion of our expectations.

I feel I should claim that back in my Sunderland childhood, Hallowe’en was much better. We didn’t spend money; we didn’t gorge on sweets; we didn’t show off. I should point out that Hallowe’en is now utterly crass and overwhelmingly commercial: the true spirit of it has been lost.

In actual fact, turnip lanterns were really shit. Bring on the fancy pumpkins, the cheap Tesco costumes and the obscene quantities of sweets – that’s what I say.

I would love to hear about your Hallowe’en experiences – past or present. Please let me know in the comments section below.

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How to Bake a Middle Class Birthday Cake – a Guide

This is the cake I made last month for my daughter’s 7th birthday. The fact that it exists ticks many of the right boxes in the middle class world I live in:

  1. It took me hours of effort and concentration. This shows what an engaged and wholesome mother I am and how much I love my daughter.
  2. I can post a picture of it on Facebook, allowing my friends and family to say suitable things about how impressed they are. (It doesn’t matter whether they really are impressed or not – this is the joy of Facebook.)*
  3. It allows me to do something fun and creative in a way that isn’t really acceptable as an adult with most other media.So I can’t, for example, paint a picture and stick it on my wall like I could when I was a kid – because I’m rubbish at painting. I can’t knit a scarf with wonky edges and dropped stitches because people would just think it was embarrassing.

    The very act of producing something artistic as an adult carries with it an unspoken implication that you yourself think you’re pretty good at it. But not so with your children’s birthday cakes. They are produced out of love, and therefore people will admire them if they look good and forgive them if they look awful.

  4. AND… and… best of all… this entirely self-serving exercise has the incidental benefit that your child is properly and utterly thrilled with the result. So you can pretend throughout that you’re doing it entirely for her.

A couple more tips:

The taste of the cake itself is, surprisingly, not that important. Though being not only a middle class London mum, but a Jewish middle class London mum, I do mind quite a lot if the end result doesn’t taste good.

You should preferably do the whole thing at night time after your child is in bed, and stay up till the early hours perfecting it – ideally while also having to go to work the next morning. This increases your score in all of the above categories.

The doll on my mermaid cake is, incidentally, a special one designed for the purpose. Her body is just a spike, so when the cake is cut and all is revealed, there is a risk of the more delicate party guests being permanently traumatised.

Doll pick

Good luck, and do make sure to sound suitably self deprecating when people admire the result.

* Any notion that this entire blog has been written in order to show off my cake is entirely false and without foundation. Shame on you for even thinking it.

I would love to hear about your birthday cake-making experiences – triumphant or disastrous. Please let me know in the comments section below.

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Why don’t we talk on the phone any more?

In the early 1980s, my dad, brother and I would watch Doctor Who, religiously, every Saturday afternoon.

(Religiously is perhaps the wrong word, because being Jewish, we shouldn’t have been watching TV at all on a Saturday afternoon. But anyway…)

My dad would sit in his special armchair, with me aged seven or so on his knee, and my big brother squashed in beside us. This was a good set-up as it made sure we were well protected from the Daleks and any other aliens who might wish the Doctor ill.

One day, though, we were out on Saturday afternoon, and we realised that we hadn’t remembered to video that day’s episode. My mum was at home but – disaster – we didn’t have any cash to phone her. What to do?

You remember how it was with red telephone boxes… you didn’t have to put your money in till the person at the other end answered? You’d hear ‘Hello!’ and then you’d put push in your 5p.

So, we dialled our home number, and when my mum said ‘Hello?’ we simultaneously shouted ‘DOCTOR WHO!’ before we were cut off.

Just to be sure, we phoned again.

‘Hello?’ said my mum, sounding a little bemused this time. ‘DOCTOR WHO!’ we shouted over her.

The third time, her ‘Hello’ was starting to sound slightly hysterical…

It worked, though. When we got home, my long-suffering mother had understood the message and duly recorded the episode.

None of which has got anything to do with why we don’t talk on the phone any more – it was just a quirky story about telephones.

The thing is, I think if you’d said to us that day:

‘In the future, everyone is going to carry tiny rectangular computers in their pocket. If they want to communicate with someone they’ll be able to choose either to:

a) dial their number and talk
or
b) type a message to them on a miniature keyboard and wait for them to reply…’

…and if you’d then asked us which method people were likely to choose more often, I’m pretty certain we would have answered ‘a)’.

We would possibly have added, ‘Derrrr’… except I don’t think that sound had been invented at the time.

But we would, of course, have been wrong.

So why do people (including myself) treat most phonecalls as stressful, intrusive and unnecessary? I really don’t get it. And yet, I really do embrace it.

The other day at work, I needed to contact the IT department. Being reasonably new to the company, I asked a colleague how to do so.

She helpfully picked up my phone, dialled IT’s extension, then handed me the receiver, leaving me in a state of panic.

‘Oh my god. She’s expecting me to talk to them? I didn’t want their phone number – I wanted their email address! This is sheer madness!’

Luckily, the IT department clearly felt the same way, because the call went to voicemail and I was able to put the receiver down (without actually leaving a message, obviously), find out their email address and write to them instead – like any sensible person.

It only took them 24 hours to get back to me. What more could you ask for?

*******

So, do you dislike using the phone, and why?

Or do you love doing so, and hate that no one picks up any more? 

Please let me know in the comments section.

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The Perils of Sarcasm

As anyone familiar with Ray from the Mary Whitehouse Experience will know, the propensity to be sarcastic can get you into all sorts of trouble. Ray is the man cursed with a sarcastic tone of voice. You can watch him here.

"What a personal disaster."

“What a personal disaster.”

When I was at university – it was in the early days of email – an Australian friend sent me a message to say that he’d heard that a rare type of walrus had been sighted off the coast of the UK and had I seen any? He was, he explained, a walrus enthusiast.

I replied that while I hadn’t seen any walruses, if I happened to spot one while walking through Cambridge I’d be sure to let him know.

“Thanks – that would be great,” he replied.

He then signed me up to a walrus aficionados’ e-newsletter.

I quite enjoyed reading it, actually. It was a little window into a world I would ordinarily never have known existed.

Of course, it’s well known that it’s really difficult to convey tone of voice in an email, and you therefore have to be extra careful what you say. I’m not good at taking heed of this. The problem is, I also run into trouble when talking to people face to face – particularly strangers.

My husband Anthony suffers from the same problem. A few years ago we were in the Lake District with our four-month-old baby. (This was the same trip on which we acquired All Terrain Pushchair Walks, South Lakeland – click here to read more about that.) Out on a walk, our son began screaming hysterically in his pushchair.

A passing lady said in consternation,
“Gosh, he doesn’t look very happy, does he?”
“That’s because he’s starved of affection,” Anthony replied.
“Oh dear!” said the lady, clearly alarmed, and scuttled off looking as if she were about to call social services.

Having failed to learn from this encounter, I make sarcastic comments to strangers all the time. I imagine I’m being funny.

Given that sarcasm tends to consist of saying the exact opposite of what you really think, if the person you’re talking to doesn’t realise that you’re being sarcastic, it is excruciating. The chances are you’ll come out of the encounter looking stupid or crazy, or quite possibly both.

And yet… it’s difficult to give it up because sometimes – just sometimes – the stranger I’m talking to gets the joke and laughs. And so my comment allows us to make an immediate, genuine connection that no amount of small talk can create.

It is almost never worth trying to dig your way out of these situations by explaining yourself. That just leads to embarrassment all round. I tend to just swallow the misunderstanding, grit my teeth, and accept that this person now thinks I’m socially or intellectually deficient.

Perhaps the answer is to carry a sarcasm sign around with me, like Leonard does for Sheldon’s benefit in the Big Bang Theory.

Leonard

If I hold it up whenever I’m being sarcastic, I’m sure that will solve all my problems.

NOT!!!!!
😉 😉 😉

*******

Have you ever found yourself in trouble due to being sarcastic? Or do you hate it when other people are? Do let me know in the comments.

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The Introvert’s Guide to Audience Participation

This week in Highgate Woods, my three-year-old was standing on a platform at the top of a climbing frame, staring through a telescope. Casting around for something to focus on, he called to me below,

“Mummy, do you want to be looked at?”

I thought that was an interesting question. DO I want to be looked at?

As an archetypal introvert, I will never, ever put myself in the spotlight without prior warning. I have never, for example, put my hand up from the auditorium in response to the sentence, “I need a volunteer”. I don’t get how anyone is prepared to rise from their comfortable, anonymous seat and go up on stage – especially given that, in most cases, they have absolutely no idea what they’re going to be required to do.

During my work as a children’s book editor, I’ve had to face lots of daunting tasks. I’ve negotiated tricky contracts, conducted delicate editorial discussions with recalcitrant authors, and represented my company in a variety of countries.

But the single most terrifying experience of my career was when I escorted one of my authors to perform at a literary festival. As I sat in the audience watching his session, he announced that he was going to sing a song about a crow. “During the song,” he continued, “I’m going to keep pointing at different people. If I point at you, you have to caw.”

So I’m sitting there thinking, “He’s going to choose me. He’s bound to. He knows me. In a minute, I’m going to have to caw. Like a crow. But I can’t caw. I can NOT caw. I don’t know how. I can’t even caw in the privacy of my own home with no one listening. I think I might actually be about to die.”

As the song progressed my heart beat faster and faster. The author pointed at one person after another and each one cawed with greater or lesser authenticity. Meanwhile, I grew ever more certain that my time was coming…

He never did point at me – but I still haven’t got over the terror of the occasion. Whenever I see or hear or read about a crow, I break into a cold sweat.

We went recently to see a live revival of the 1990s improvisation show Whose Line is it Anyway?.

LT-Themes-Whos-Line-Anyway_770x400

During the show, a female volunteer came up on stage with her handbag. She had to be prepared, she was warned, for it to be emptied by the actors.

I tried to imagine myself in the same position. We’re in the Adelphi theatre, among an audience of 1,500 people…

Actor: Please would you come up on stage and stand there while I empty your handbag item by item?
Me: No I won’t, fuck off, are you insane?

Then, at the end of the first act, the audience were told they had a job to do in the interval. In the foyer were slips of paper. We had to write on them random lines of dialogue, and these would be used during act two.

Immediately I lit up. This I could do! This I LOVE to do!

I dashed down to the foyer, fuelled by adrenalin, elbowing people out of the way, and spent the entire interval scribbling down dialogue. Every now and then I’d bark at my poor husband Anthony to go and fetch me some more paper, and when the communal supply started running low, I tore each piece in half to make it last longer.

And did they pick any of my sentences? They did not, the bastards. Clearly they have no discernment. None.

So returning to my three-year-old’s question: Do I want to be looked at?… Obviously, the answer is no.

But do I want to be read?

Oh, yes. Yes, I really do.

*******

Have you ever found yourself unexpectedly on stage? And what happened? Do let me know in the comments.

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Onion Goggles, Lemon Holders and the Joy of Specialisation

One of my oldest friends – we’ve known each other since we were nine – is hearing impaired. When we were children, she had a machine in her bedroom called an ‘S’ indicator.

IMG_0083

Its purpose was to help her to articulate the letter ‘S’. Basically, you hissed into it and a dial moved to show how ess-ish your S was.

I really like the fact that this machine existed – something designed to do one small task and to do it properly.

I have an automatic mistrust of objects intended to do lots of different things.

Shampoo and conditioner in one? No! I don’t want to wash and go! I want one thing that is really good at cleaning my hair and another thing that is good at making it silky soft. (Not that that I’ve ever discovered the latter – as anyone with very curly hair will appreciate.)

Sofa beds? No! They make really rubbish beds and really rubbish sofas.

And what about those restaurants that offer you a choice of pizza, burritos, chow mein, chicken korma and toad-in-the-hole? How much faith do you have that any of those items is going to be cooked to perfection?

In 2005, Anthony my husband and I visited the Lake District with our 4-month-old baby. We went into a local bookshop and said ‘Do you have any books that might help us work out where we can go walking with an all-terrain pushchair?’

‘This might do the job,’ replied the bookseller, and handed us a book called:

All Terrain Pushchair Walks, South Lakeland

IMG_0081

I found this immensely satisfying – even more so in the knowledge that if we were to visit the north of the Lake District in future, we’d be able to buy All Terrain Pushchair Walks, North Lakeland.

And speaking of ‘Lakeland’, the pleasure I take in objects designed for one purpose helps to explain the fact that my favourite shop bears this name. For the uninitiated, Lakeland is a kitchen and household shop that specialises in the most extraordinary range of kitchen gadgets. My own kitchen is crammed with its strawberry hullers, apple corers, banana bags, tuna can drainers and more. Much, much more.

Here, you can see me modelling my onion goggles – cleverly designed to stop you ‘crying’ when you chop onions.

Image copyright © Isaac Reuben 2015

Image copyright © Isaac Reuben 2015

They have the added benefit of making me look sexy, too. At least, when I forgot to take them off before answering the door to the Tesco delivery man, I think that was the effect they had.

Anthony has inherited from his German grandma a fork which is intended, exclusively, to hold hot new potatoes so that you can peel them.

IMG_0079

Many is the time it has saved me from that well-known menace of burned fingers caused by hot-new-potato peeling.

And yet, some of my most valued kitchen possessions are – unaccountably – mocked by visitors to our house. One example is this set of containers designed to store left-over halves of – respectively – tomatoes, lemons, onions and peppers.

IMG_0084

No longer do I find mouldering bits of fruit or vegetable wrapped in clingfilm and forgotten at the bottom of the fridge drawer. It surely goes without saying that no household should be without them.

Which is why, when I opened my container for storing half a lemon a while ago, and found that Anthony had put half a lime in it, it was a very difficult time for me.

IMG_0082

Our marriage has survived after some counselling, but it was touch and go for a while.

So, what objects do you appreciate for their highly-focused purpose… either at home, or in your professional life?

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The author apologises for the repeated references to lemons in her posts, and would like to assure you that she will attempt to give equal precedence to other fruits in future.

Egg Shakers and Three-Legged Races: My Uncoordinated Life

So, I’m on a bit of a roll with the stuff-I’m-rubbish-at theme. Last week I talked about having no sense of direction, and this week, it’s all about coordination.

Yesterday, I found myself at a drumming workshop. As you do.

That’s me with the red hair and Ruth two places to my left.

The teacher was a tiny woman called Ruth, and though she looked like she might be blown over if someone sighed a bit too loudly, she radiated an extraordinary energy. We were a motley group of drumming novices, and yet she was able to communicate, with absolute clarity, when we should stop, start, get louder or softer, copy her rhythm, or just bash the drums like maniacs. She used her entire body to do this and it was extraordinary to watch.

At the end of the session, Ruth bid us put our drums down because we were going to do a clapping exercise. To a beat, we alternatively had to clap our hands together, then clap the hand of the person to the right.

‘Don’t go too fast’ she warned, ‘or you’ll get confused’.

What do you mean we’ll get confused? I thought to myself. This is easy – I can handle it no problem. I’ve got Grade 8 distinction on the viola for goodness sake – I can manage to clap my own hand then clap someone else’s.

Then, as the clapping continued, Ruth set us singing to the beat. ‘Still fine’ I thought, smugly. ‘No problems here.’

Then, still singing, Ruth took one of those rattly percussion eggs out of a bag. Instead of clapping her neighbour’s hand, she put the egg in it. On the next beat she passed another egg, and then another, and these eggs started to be passed round the circle to the beat.

Despite the fact that I’d been watching this whole process and understood what was happening, when the first egg was put in my hand, my brain went ‘Oh my god what’s that?’ and I dropped it. On the next beat, another egg arrived in my hand. This one surprised me exactly as much as the first one had and I dropped that one, too.

With rising panic, I told myself to concentrate. ‘The eggs are coming!’ I told myself. ‘Expect the eggs!’

And it worked for the next beat – I managed to keep hold of the egg and pass it on. But the next egg gave me another shock and I dropped it… and the next. Soon there were rattly eggs all around my feet. I stopped trying to sing, clap or pass eggs and just started to laugh – properly and uncontrollably. The tears-down-your-cheeks kind of laughing.

Throughout the workshop I’d watched Ruth use her body – to communicate, instruct, dance and make music – all with an apparently effortless grace.

I walked out of the room, feeling a complex range of emotions – I was glowing with the cathartic experience of laughing till I cried, chilled out from the drumming, and slightly mournful that I couldn’t experience the joy of moving like that so naturally.

I’m not sure why any of this came as a surprise to me. I’ve always had problems with co-ordination. Had I been born in this century, I’m pretty sure I would have been diagnosed as dyspraxic, but in the 1970s and 80s, the difficulties I had with sport, dancing, writing, organising myself and finding my way about (see last week’s blog – Getting Lost in My Own House – Life With No Sense of Direction) meant I was called all sorts of other things – none of them particularly scientific sounding.

During the rattly egg incident, I was vaguely aware that I’d had this precise sensation once before – that of helpless laughter in the face of a total failure of co-ordination that didn’t really matter. It was sports day 1981. The three-legged race. Zoe Passfield and I were a team. We’d practised faithfully in the playground for many days. We were poised at the start line, raring to go.

When the whistle blew, we ran two steps, collapsed in a heap, and spent the rest of the race prostrate on the field, giggling hysterically and making no attempt to get up. I’ve always remembered that moment for its strange sensation of real joy in the face of absolute defeat. It was good to experience it again.