family

Older, Wiser, One Guinea Pig Down

Birthdays are often a time when a little reflection and soul searching are in order and once a year I try to find the time between cake and wine to indulge in such things. This year is particularly pertinent as everything is about to change for me, but most comforting are the things that stay the same. My birthday inevitably involves a pilgrimage back home to visit the family, an event that was especially exciting this time around as next week I will be taking up residence very near the family seat once more.

Birthdays are always celebrated at my grandparents’ house. Nan insists on doing all the cooking and there is always a protracted argument after the meal about who gets to do the clearing up. Weirdly, the fight for this dubious privilege plays out in an identical fashion each and every time. It begins when anyone dares to start stacking plates and Nan insists that we should ‘leave it’ and that she will ‘do it later’. Someone – usually Mumsie – then says ‘it’ll only take a minute’, at which point everyone at the table stands up to either assist Mumsie or to stop her in her tracks (depending whether you are on the side of pro-clearing up or anti-clearing up). Increasingly raised voices from the anti-clearing up side squeal ‘Leave it! Leave it!’ like there is some kind of pub closing time fight about to erupt, while the pro-clearing up side insists ‘I’m not clearing up, honestly’ as they proceed towards the sink with armfuls of used crockery. Then, Nan will have another glass of wine and scold the pro-clearing up team, who continue to insist that they are not clearing up at all. This goes on until everything is cleared up and put away and we can all move on to coffee as if nothing untoward has happened.

Another family birthday quirk is taking unseemly amounts of glee at something awful happening on the special day in question. This year, my brother was delighted to inform me that my birthday was ruined because Daisy, one of Mumsie’s guinea pigs, had died that morning. This was quite sad news but I didn’t consider it birthday-ruining. But my brother insisted – my birthday was ruined, so there you have it. Mumsie declared thoughtfully that Daisy was now ‘with the angels’ and noted, somewhat off-handedly, that there was ‘one less little mouth to feed’.

The rarely-seen Little Brother and a disturbing scene where my family came under attack from a unicorn

I feel that the passing of a family pet should be noted, but it’s difficult to know what to say about Daisy. Her entire existence consisted of little more than squeaking, eating continually and doing tiny poos all over the place. The most notable thing she ever did was die on my birthday. She was a nice little thing, very fat with lovely pink feet. She is survived by fellow furry poo-factory Fluffy, who is slightly more notable in that she is prone to weeing on your leg in addition to squeaking and eating.

The dearly departed Daisy (left) and (right) Fluffy in mourning

The arrival of my 38th year sees me still unsuccessful at maintaing coherent personal endeavours, but happily my literary output remains solid, if not a little improved over the last twelve months. The news of my return to my home town has given rise to the surprising speculation that I am planning a return to the police. The amount of people who have contacted me about this is astonishing, so much so that I almost considered it. The enthusiasm for this prospect is most flattering, but all in all I don’t think it would be a very good idea. They don’t even have proper hats any more so I’m afraid the whole thing is out of the question.

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This is a proper hat

And so I find myself fairly satisfied with my years on the planet thus far, my hat collection continues to grow, along with my circle of curious and delightful friends and acquaintances. As ever, I shall strive to work harder, do better and be better. But I shall also remember to follow the example of Daisy and make sure I take the time to worry about nothing more than squeaking and eating.

Ode To Mumsie

Sunday 11th March is Mothers’ Day in the UK, originally a celebration falling on the fourth Sunday of Lent when Catholics and Protestants would visit their ‘mother’ church but now hijacked for commercial purposes of selling greetings cards and charging over the odds for a pub lunch. Nonetheless, it is a nice opportunity to celebrate mothers and motherhood and be thankful for the tireless patience of those special women who brought us into the world.

All mums are special and I am no different from anyone in thinking that mine is the best. She is the actual best. Regular readers will know of Mumsie; not only is she the butler-seducing star of Who Shot Tony Blair? but she pops up in many of my adventures and even has a lecture hall named after her in The Vanishing Lord. Being a mother isn’t a walk in the park for anyone, but Mumsie has had a particularly trying time of it.

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My entrance into this world almost killed her. After an endless labour, she ended up in intensive care and I was nipped out through the emergency hatch in the nick of time. Being the stubborn little tiger that she is, this episode did not put her off and she kindly popped out a little brother for me eighteen months later. For many years, I didn’t see this as much of a favour, quite frankly, but I’ve got used to him over time and, if pressed, will confess to loving him very much. Our father left not long after and from then on it was just the three of us, with Mumsie taking on the additional role of dad with typical aplomb.

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Families come in all shapes and sizes these days, but in the early 80s, attitudes were different. Being a single mother was met with an unpalatable mix of consolation and revulsion and even as a child I was all too aware of the pitying looks bestowed upon us with underlying judgement. There was never much money about and sometimes we were cold, but love, fun and laughter were abundant. With quiet dignity, a stiff upper lip and mindless optimism, Mumsie showed us and the world that there was no cause for shame and nothing to fear.

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Mumsie is fearless. With only herself to depend upon, she turned her hand to anything and everything. Fixing cars, cutting down hedges, putting up fences – she just got on and did it. She taught us, through her own example, the importance of being able to stand on our own two feet and not have to rely on anyone for anything. Of course, knowing that she is there waiting in the wings plays a huge part in having unshakable confidence in my own independence. And she is still the first person I turn to in times of crisis, achievement or just plain oddity. She has never been much of a cook, sadly, but luckily I had my Nan to instruct me in the revered kitchen arts.

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Bringing up teenagers is not for the faint of heart – a teenaged Lucy was certainly a handful. I ran away from school, cut off all my hair, had unsuitable boyfriends, dressed like Tank Girl for a couple of years and got my nose pierced whilst waiting at the bar in The Racehorse after being expressly forbidden from pursuing this course of body modification. I was horrendous for a time and Mumsie must have gone through Hell, but she artfully managed to navigate the lines of guidance and interference – always giving me space to make my own mistakes whilst being close enough to rush in and pick up the inevitable shattered pieces of my numerous poor life choices. She told me that she never worried too much about me, however, as she says ‘the Devil looks after his own’. I like to think that instead it is her influence in my upbringing keeping me from deviating too far from the straight and narrow. Throughout these fractious years she never let me feel that she wasn’t proud of who I was and supported my boisterous explorations of finding my place in the world. Now, I try to live my life in a way that will make her proud and show my true and deep appreciation for her exceptional fortitude during this time.

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Mumsie is sort of a mythical creature. I have only seen her cry once, only heard her fart once. This latter occurrence filled me with such delight and surprise that I immediately rang my brother, and told everyone at work about it the next day. I hope the times I see her cry are few and far between, but I await further outbreaks of flatulence with gleeful anticipation.

So here’s to all the mums! The women who gave us life, show us the way, never let us down. To the mums near and far, to the mums watching over us in the everafter. My mum is tiny in stature but her heart and spirit are enormous and I am proud to share her with you all. If I can become even half the woman she is, I’ll be doing alright.

As If By Magic, The Shopkeeper Appeared (I Am Mr Benn’s Love Child)

Finding myself in a kind of literary limbo – waiting for news about my new book release and the next stages of a couple of other projects – I decided to decamp from sleepy Cambridge for a few days to the illustrious streets of South West London, to quell my itchy writing fingers and clear the mind in preparation for all that comes next. I have family links to the Putney area and thought that now would be a good time to investigate a couple of particular family legends originating from my Nan’s side of the family.

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My grandparents have always been a rich source of unlikely tales from way-back-when, especially my grandfather and his naval exploits. Whilst he hails from what was once the rough-and-tumble East End, decades before the fashion of creeping gentrification, my Nan came from the slightly more gentile area of Upper Richmond Road in the South West. Her father owned a large, double fronted tobacconist and sweet shop, where Mumsie remembers sitting on the huge wooden counter as a child, sucking the sugar off the bonbons before putting them back in the jar. Heath and safety regulations were presumably somewhat more slack in the 1950s than those we enjoy today, but one hopes that the young Mumsie had nothing but the best interests of customers’ dental health in mind at the time.

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Never short of quirky characters in our family, Mumsie had a cousin called Tom who at the time was famous for walking his pet chicken, Phillip, up and down Putney High Street on a piece of string. In days long before the easy availability of cameras, the only record that remains of this scintillating piece of local history is the word-of-mouth recollections of our good selves. Hoping that such a sight might have caught the interest of locals at the time, I intended to search the local history section of Putney library to see if any photographs of Tom and Phillip existed and also to track down my great grandfather’s sweetshop, which by now is likely converted or even demolished.

Mumise was very small at this time (she isn’t very big now, to be fair) and my grandparents’ memories are foggy after eighty six years, so no clear information about the location of the sweetshop is forthcoming. Despite being unable to trace this elusive emporium, nor finding any pictorial evidence of the enterprising Tom and Phillip, a happy couple of hours were spent exploring both the historical records and lively streets themselves.

Putney is perhaps the closest thing to Cambridge that you can experience in London. Here you will find the starting point of the legendary Oxford and Cambridge boat race and the banks of the Thames boast boat houses of varying grandeur, homes to all manner of top-notch rowing clubs. The bright, crisp afternoon was perfect for wandering along the river, watching a bit of rowing and hunting for another historical location – Festings Road.

For those of a certain age, a certain bowler hat-wearing children’s character by the name of Mr Benn needs no introduction. Created by David McKee, Mr Benn was a smart London gent whose address was the only slightly fictional 52 Festive Road (next door to McKee’s own address at the time of 54 Festing Road). Every day he would leave his house, dressed smartly in a black suit and bowler hat, to visit a fancy-dress shop where a mysterious shopkeeper would inexplicably appear and suggest he try on an outfit. Mr Benn would dutifully don the outfit du jour then leave through a magic door and embark upon an adventure related to his costume.

This was a successful quest and I merrily hummed the Mr Benn theme tune and jauntily announced the infamous catchphrase of ‘As if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared!’ with the kind of gusto you can no doubt imagine. So pleased was I with my own adventure, that I had to go to a nearby public house to raise a glass to the fellow who served as an early influence of my love of bowler hats. Sharing details of my endeavours of social media, as one does in this day and age, I was delighted to receive a tweet from Mr Benn himself! His Twitter feed suggests that he spends less time in costume shops these days, preferring to visit classic car shows, but the similarities between our profile pictures leads me to believe that I might be his love child.

Mumsie has some explaining to do, I suspect.

More bowler hat adventures!

First Lady Of The Keys – Amazon UK   Amazon US

The Vanishing Lord – Amazon UK   Amazon US