Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The 40th Challenge: Challenge Number 8 – Dine In a 2-Michelin Star Restaurant

This has to be the ultimate in greedy challenges. If you recall, I said right at the start of the challenge year that I hoped this would be my birthday present from Dave. This meant that my 40 challenges had to be called 39 steps, as the 40th would have to happen after the completion of the others and therefore probably after my birthday. Dining in a two-Michelin star restaurant was a crazy ambition given our circumstances and finances, but I just hoped that somehow we would pull it off.

I have eaten in four one-Michelin star restaurants. Three of them were in Edinburgh, where Dave and I used to spend my birthday every year after we moved to York, at a time when we were still tinkies (two incomes, no kids) and had money for luxuries. All three (Tom Kitchin’s The Kitchin in Leith, Number One at the Balmoral Hotel, and Martin Wishart’s in Leith) were superb. Unfortunately, I only went to the latter two while pregnant, which meant that nearly all the starters (raw fish, pâté, mouldy cheese) and desserts (raw egg, booze, mouldy cheese) were off the menu, and certain foods were still making me a tad queasy, resulting in me having to make a hurried swap of one of my main courses. The fourth Michelin-starred restaurant we went to was The Star Inn at Harome in Yorkshire, which was thoroughly disappointing for the price, gave me a migraine, and subsequently lost its star.

So even though any sort of meal in a restaurant is a huge and rare treat these days, posh or otherwise, I still felt that now it was time to up our experience, and our bill, and try out the next level. I always had Le Manoir Aux Quatr’ Saisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire in mind as my two-Michelin starred restaurant of choice. Naturally, its reputation went before it. I’ve also found Raymond Blanc’s slight eccentricity but thoroughly decent charm and expertise very entertaining on television over the years, and have even read his autobiography. And also my aunt happens to live half an hour’s drive away, and she is the one member of my family from that generation who offers to baby-sit Charlotte.

You can only book a table at Le Manoir three months in advance, and lunch is much easier to get into than dinner (where overnight guests at the hotel always have priority). But alas, lunch isn’t cheaper than dinner on a weekend. Nevertheless, on December 9th, we rang to secure our table for the Saturday after my birthday, and got in to the 12.15pm sitting without difficulty. I then just had to wait, and hope that we would all be well enough on the day for the meal to go ahead. (These things are never a given with a near permanently germ-infested toddler in tow.) I didn’t even dare let myself get excited about it.

We travelled down on the Thursday, as there was another birthday treat in store for me during our trip. My family had all clubbed together to give me the very special gift of a pamper day at historic health farm and spa Champneys in Tring. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. What a place. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite so grand and luxurious. (It brands itself these days as a health "resort" rather than "farm" and its vast size alone makes that a fairly apt description.) It’s amazing how quickly just a few minutes in a Jacuzzi can make you feel better, let alone a Jacuzzi outside under a canopy in beautiful gardens in front of a Rothschild mansion. And this before you start on the sauna, steam room, plunge pool, thalassotherapy pool, platters of fresh fruit in the drawing room, and darkened quiet zone full of twinkly lights, recliner chairs, whale music and duvets. Included in my day were a facial and manicure, which served to remind me just how little time I get to care for my appearance these days. But they felt so good. My skin was visibly glowing afterwards. My aunt came along too, just to check it was all OK for me. This was only my second ever full day away from Charlotte. Dave took her to the model village of Bekonscot in the morning and to a soft play centre in Aylesbury after lunch, as it was chucking it down. And he was absolutely shattered by the time the rejuvenated me breezed in just before Charlotte’s bedtime.

Then it was the day of the lunch. And despite all my fears, it all worked out magnificently. We explained to Charlotte (very unused to being looked after by other people) that Mummy and Daddy were going out for a special lunch, and that she would stay with Auntie Shirley, and she could play with her trains, go to the park, eat baked beans, watch CBeebies as much as she wanted, and that we would be back after her nap, and she was perfectly accepting of the whole arrangement. If we’d left out the CBeebies part, she might not have been so complacent.

And then we drove off to paradise. A lot of the Michelin star grading system is based on the hospitality and ambience of a place, rather than the food. As you will see, the food was of course without exception exquisite, but what was so striking was the warm welcome we received from the moment we arrived, and the absolute comfort of our surroundings. The manor house dates from the 14th century and was built by a Frenchman, which explains its architectural style of Loire chateau meets Cotswold cottage. Inside is full of pale wood panelling and beams, and it manages to be light and airy despite its small medieval windows. There are huge fireplaces and cuddly sofas everywhere. Everyone greets you with a friendly smile. There is a lot of French spoken, and we became “madame” and “monsieur” to all. But all the staff seem genuinely pleased about your visit. There is not the slightest trace of snootiness about the place. There is no judgment made about your appearance, despite my aunt insisting on brushing off encrusted rice cake from my tatty old coat before we left. Nothing is too much trouble for anyone. The toilets are so spacious and luxurious I laughed.

We had arrived early and had planned to spend a little time wandering around the beautiful grounds before lunch, but the heavens opened as we pulled into the car park, so we just went straight inside and opted for a post-prandial stroll instead. The gardens are lovely at any time of year – the earth of the vegetable patches was mostly bare, but there were still interesting statues and sculptures everywhere, small ponds and secret paths, as well as a Japanese garden and tea house.

We were shown into a lounge and we just sat back and let it all happen. Snuggled up in front of the fire, we perused the menu and tried not to panic over the prices on the wine list, which often ran into hundreds if not thousands of pounds. Thankfully there were plenty of by the glass options (and this was only lunchtime after all, with one of us driving), even if a single glass cost more than we might hope to pay for a whole bottle elsewhere. But there’s no point going somewhere like that to then have to be entirely abstemious. You have to just go with the flow and worry about the credit card repayments another time. We ordered non-alcoholic cocktails as an aperitif – a virgin mojito for me, and a camparino for Dave, both refreshing palate cleansers. Then a plate of canapés arrived, and our mouths began to warm up to the gastronomic experience of a lifetime.
Canapes and menus on a cuddly sofa in front of the fire

There was an article in the Guardian this week about whether or not it is bad manners to photograph your food in a restaurant. Well, it probably is, but I had my blog post and you, dear readers, in mind. But I switched the camera flash off, and took just one shot as quickly as possible so that I would minimise disturbance to other diners. For some of the courses you will see that I forgot about taking a photo until I had already eaten some of it, as my senses were just too keen to jump in.

Our meal ran as follows:

The canapés – smoked salmon on toast, caraway pie, salt cod potato and ham balls on red pepper ketchup, goats curd with manuka honey on an oat cake.
The salmon is missing

Chosen from the bread basket - beer and mashed potato bread, sundried tomato ciabatta, raisin and pecan loaf, and a miniature French baguette, with a choice of salted or unsalted butter.

Washed down with - one glass of a Southern French Sauvignon Blanc, one glass of a Chassagne Montrachet, one glass of a Burgundy Pinot Noir at £22 (the waiter neglected to mention the price when he recommended it just before the main courses arrived) and half a glass of an English wine which was a bad choice of my own just before dessert.

The dishes of the Les Saveurs de Mars seven-course tasting menu (cue Masterchef style voiceover):

1. Ceviche de noix de St-Jacques, caviar et orange de Séville
(That’s raw scallops and something normally only in marmalade to you, on radish and fennel)

2. Saumon fumé mi-cuit, raifort et concombre
(Warm oak-smoked salmon, horseradish and what Charlotte pronounces cucumbugger)

3. Oeuf de poule, purée de cresson, jambon de jabugo, noisettes grillés
(Posh ham and eggs with hazelnuts and watercress slop)

4. Caille des dombes rôtie, chou rouge, vin rouge et canella
(Quail with red cabbage, red wine and cinnamon gravy, plus butternut squash two ways, turnip, onion and chestnut)

5. Fromage bleu Crozier, noix de pecan, gelée aux baies de genievre
(Irish blue cheese, cheese mousse, roasted pecans and juniper jelly on wafer-thin deep-fried bread)
Half the cheese has already vanished

6. Gelée de fruits exotiques, jus de noix de coco et feuille de kaffir
(An unbelievably clever ravioli with a shell of tropical fruit gel, with kaffir lime and coconut sorbet)

7. “Citrus”
(Lemon custard encased in lemon white chocolate on a lemon biscuit, with lemon and basil sorbet, grapefruit jellies and lime marshmallows and an added birthday touch)
Candle already extinguished

Happy diner

Rounded off with: peppermint tea (or coffee for Dave) and a plate of petits fours – a licorice mini-Magnum, lemon macaroon, chocolate and marmalade biscuit, mini brownie, pistachio and lavender nougat, rhubarb and ginger jelly, and a nut caramel cream.

Licorice mini-Magnum and lemon macaroon no longer in view

What can I say? It was all perfect. Even flavours that I don’t normally much care for, like horseradish, were in flawless balance and proportions. Everything melted away in our mouths, allowing us to taste every single ingredient whilst leaving us with a unique and complete overall flavour too. The textures of the baked produce (breads, pastry etc) were simply incredible. Nothing could compare.

The bill? £335. Ouch. Plus a new mobile phone for Dave, since his - rather worryingly - went missing while we were there, even though the staff did their utmost to help us find it. Without a doubt, my most extravagant birthday present ever.

I would give anything to go back, stay the night, live the dream one more time. But it will no doubt be at least a decade before I do.

Charlotte went down with a streaming cold just as we arrived back at my aunt’s. For once, her timing was truly impeccable.

Et voila. I'm done. 40 challenges for 40 years. My journey is complete.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Challenge Number 7 (and others) – Repeat

March 6th 2013. The dreaded big day of the four-oh had finally arrived and I’d been so busy finishing up my challenges that I had failed to organise myself a party. I knew that a big and exciting weekend lay ahead (more on this shortly) but I still wanted to do something a little bit special to make the actual day itself memorable. Not least because I feared the possibility of last-minute cancellations for said big weekend. (We are definitely overdue a vomiting bug, you see.) Part of me (or, truth be told, an awful lot of me) wanted to run away and hide (preferably in a luxury hotel) but as Dave had taken the day off work I felt it would be rather mean to not spend my birthday with my family.

My only briefs to Dave about the day was that I wanted my first lie-in in two and a half years, come what may, and that I wanted to drink champagne at an inappropriate moment. So the night before, Dave slept upstairs in our attic with instructions to take Charlotte down to the lounge as soon as she woke, I had our bedroom door firmly shut, ear plugs rammed in, the duvet over my head, the black-out blinds down... and what flipping time did I wake up? Ten to seven. Just like every other day of the week when Charlotte chirrups us awake. I didn’t get up straight away, mind, but I didn’t get any more sleep either.

Eventually I had a shower and went downstairs to be greeted by my very excited daughter shouting “Mummy! Birthday! Presents! Sweeties! Charlotte will have one. Just a little one,” which could only further ingrain (and endear) her as the chip off the old block that she truly is. I didn’t give her any of my sweeties though, since naughty Daddy had bought me 40 champagne truffles to mark my 40 years. Yet this wasn’t the champagne at an inappropriate moment, as Dave then produced a miniature bottle for me to down with my breakfast: a breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and a pain au chocolat.

A colourful (and alcoholic) breakfast

It dawned misty and rainy; weather conditions that weren’t going to change for the next few days, when it started to snow instead. Sigh. So much for my birthday heralding the spring. Dave had written in my card that we shouldn’t just be celebrating my birthday, but the completion of all of my 39 steps too, so that’s what we set out to do, with a little homage to several of the better challenges along the way. So after my brightly coloured breakfast (challenge number 11), we set off to Whitby, one of my favourite Yorkshire places, where we went to the beach at high tide and played football in a downpour. This served as a reminder of our trip to see Brazil vs New Zealand at the Olympics (challenge number 21) and to mark our being on an island, just like we were on Jersey (challenge number 26). Alas, the inclement weather and tidal-sized waves meant there could be no repeat of outdoor bathing challenge number 28, but I did get my snowboots wet at one point while wading into the water to retrieve the errant football. Even though Whitby is more famous for being the opening setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Stoker’s contemporary Charles Dickens (challenge number 22) was also known to holiday here. And I was armed with a birthday gift of beautiful green mittens knitted by Sam, who gave me the 40 challenges idea and was keen to encourage to keep up my new crafty skill (challenge number 15).

No amount of tickling would make Charlotte look at the camera

Daddy has England ambitions for his daughter

Soon it was time for lunch, and what could have been a better choice than the lobster thermidor at the Magpie Cafe, a repeat of challenge number 7 (completed on Jersey)? Whitby was fairly desolate in the deluge, so for the first time ever, we didn’t have to queue, and had a choice of tables once inside. Most people go to the Magpie for the whale-sized portions of haddock and beef-dripping chips, so I felt I ought to explain to the waitress why I was ordering the most expensive thing on the menu by quite some distance. She wished me a happy birthday and I thought no more of it until just as we were about to ask for the bill, when suddenly she emerged from the kitchen with a candle atop a miniature Victoria sponge cake. With typical Yorkshire tact, she then shouted, “Right, everybody, we have a birthday! Stop what you're doing and sing for Rebecca!” and made the entire restaurant perform Happy Birthday. Charlotte may love birthday presents and sweeties and cakes but still hates the song (remember challenge number 31?), so she burst into tears. She was quickly calmed by being allowed to eat most of the cake. Victoria sponge maybe, but for a brief moment amongst Yorkshire's finest, I felt as if I had slipped into a Victoria Wood sketch.

The Magpie's Lobster thermidor with battered courgettes

Time to move on, and another bleak and foggy drive across the Moors took us back to York, where I had promised myself afternoon tea at that other classic Yorkshire eaterie, Betty’s. Once more against tradition, there was no queue here either. And because I wanted to drink champagne at inappropriate moments, it had to be the pink champagne afternoon tea. Betty’s may not seem very German-speaking these days (challenge number 25), but its founder, Fritz Bützer (who subsequently changed his name to Frederick Belmont while living in Bradford) definitely was, since he was born in the Swiss Alps. And Betty’s is nicely situated in St Helen’s Square, opposite the original Terry’s shop, factory and restaurant, which links to my York chocolate tour (challenge number 13). And there was much chocolate involved in afternoon tea. And since I was having a day off, there was also much bread not baked by me (challenge number 34) and jam not burnt by me on the scones (challenge number 29). Charlotte, allowed to shovel down cake for her second meal of the day, was in heaven. And there was no singing this time. Betty’s may seem dead posh, but it is incredibly child friendly, which is probably a bad discovery. I don't think I have ever felt so full as I did when we left.

You get more sandwiches than this -
I'd been too busy eating to remember to take a photo

When we left Betty’s, it was already dark. Time had run away with us. I had arranged to meet a friend for a drink in town at eight, but somehow had to get to a parents’ evening at Charlotte’s nursery in between. There was no time to go home to change, so a repeat of my cocktails in a glamorous dress challenge (number 6) would only be able to involve the cocktails. I also had to make an emergency trip to Marks & Spencer's to spend some birthday money on a small handbag, so that I didn’t have to take a changing bag full of nappies and snacks out on the town with me. Dave then took Charlotte and the changing bag home. And Stripey of course, who had been with us throughout the day (challenge number 16). I drank more wine at the nursery parents’ evening which helpfully disguised the fact that I had turned up slightly drunk in the first place. (Bad Mummy.) Then I headed back into town to meet Claire for the biggest gin and tonic of my life.

A lot of Hendricks and cucumber

It turns out that being 40 isn’t so bad after all. Cheers!

Monday, 4 March 2013

Challenge Number 18 - Retake

Hello, me again. To feel a little better about turning 40, I decided it was time to re-attempt my crazy hair colour challenge. I have a new hairdresser now. She is fantastic. I can give you her number.

Now, it's not fluorescent pink, blue or green, but it's definitely bold. As you will see, unfortunately this attempt still has hues of our front door in it, but it's not an exact match. In fact it's more of an exact match to the background colour of my blog.

But everyone has noticed the difference this time. And because this hairdresser uses decent products, it hasn't ruined my hair either.

Two days to go til F-Day. Feeling a bit shaky now.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

The 39th Step, And The End Of My Challenge Year

So that’s it. My Beethoven piano sonata was the 39th Step. And just in time, as I turn 40 next Wednesday. There's just the little matter of a special birthday lunch remaining before I tick off the last of my 40 challenges. It's all arranged for the Saturday after my birthday - we just have to hope that the little lady doesn't start vomiting 20 minutes before we are due to leave.

Over the past year I have:

..completed an introductory British Sign Language course, translated a chapter of Die Vipern Von Montesecco from German into English, played a Beethoven piano sonata, learned about the history of chocolate and sweet manufacturing in York, written Charlotte a short story, solved a medium level Sudoku puzzle, learned to count to 100 and three swear words in Welsh, read Hard Times by Charles Dickens, drunk cocktails in a party dress and heels, drunk German beer in Leeds, eaten lobster for the first time, eaten something different coloured for breakfast every day for a week, grown broad beans, cucumbers and tomatoes, had an Italian cookery lesson, burnt raspberry jam, made and iced Charlotte a birthday cake, baked over 40 loaves of bread, organised for a new window to be fitted in our attic, built a table and two chairs for Charlotte all by myself which are still standing nearly a year later, learned how to knit and make stained glass, sacked my hairdresser, snogged Dave on the back row of the cinema, volunteered at a couple of NCT nearly new sales, been to the Olympics and my first international football match, bathed in a Lakeland tarn, swum over 40 lengths of a swimming pool, done pilates every day for a month, stood in mist on the summit of Snowdon, seen the Queen drive past in a car, met an Olympic torch bearer, been to Clifford’s Tower, been on the Settle-Carlisle Railway, spent a week on Jersey, been to Clapham in North Yorkshire and Clapham in South London, been to my former home towns of Bishop’s Stortford and Crouch End, taken Charlotte to The Deep no less than three times, and made a Christmas box for a needy child.

I did not get to meet Noel Edmonds. 

Oh, and I wrote a blog about the whole thing. Which I have absolutely loved doing. And don’t really want to have to stop. Thank you to all those who have taken the time to read it. I wasn’t really expecting anyone to be interested so I was surprised to see how many of you were. There was a definite trend towards people reading posts which involved me doing something ridiculous – dressing up, having bad hair, wearing a swimming costume. But the entry that has been read the most times (nearly 200 hits) was the one about chocolate, so I suspect that one is being picked up by a few tourists on Google. Which is quite exciting really. Either that, or I owe a lot of people KitKats. Anyway, I hope that you have learned a little bit more about me by reading the blog. And I hope that everyone who set me a challenge found it completed.

Without wishing to turn this into some sort of Oscar-acceptance speech slush, I must also say a big thank you to my lovely husband for all his support during the challenges, for driving me across the country on my mad-cap missions without a word of complaint, and particularly in the latter months, for taking Charlotte away from me for a few hours here and there so that I could write and learn as required. Dave is turning 40 in December, and while he won’t be doing 40 challenges himself, he does hope to run 40K spread over four 10K races, for which he is now in training. 

But at least three friends that I know of have taken up the challenge mantle in a similar form. Nice to know that I have inspired some of you and that the idea lives on. (I in turn was inspired by a friend so can’t take any credit for the challenge idea anyway.) One friend is doing 13 challenges for 2013, one is doing 40 challenges for the year after her 40th birthday, and one is going to take a decade over it and do 40 challenges in her 40s. I wish you all the best of luck! It’s all about what’s comfortable and manageable for you in your current circumstances  – challenges in this sense are all about new experiences, having fun and – if you are a mother – perhaps attempting to reclaim a bit of your own identity and a little time to yourself. Though of course if your children participate in your challenges and enjoy them, then they are all the more rewarding.

What did I learn about myself while doing these challenges? Primarily that I have a small child (not that I was unaware of this previously), and my life is never going to be my own again. Without Charlotte, I could have swept through the challenges I set myself in no time – and would have therefore been able to have been far more ambitious. But it doesn’t matter – I’ve so enjoyed the sense of accomplishment that completing each task has given me. It’s an important lesson in overcoming perfectionism – you can get a far greater sense of achievement over the tiniest of things than all the big things put together.

And I’ve learned that I need some sort of structure in order to be able to pursure sports or hobbies – like a set goal, or the knowledge that people are watching and waiting to read about it. Whenever I have been at work, I’ve craved free time to do arts and crafts, to write, to get fit. Yet when I do actually have a moment, I haven’t taken up these things as readily as I should have. It’s certainly a lesson for future retirement (should any of us be able to take it) – activities do need to be mapped out and formalised, otherwise days can slip by in apathy. But at the moment, my priority is always going to be sleep if I get a second to myself.

I also realised that I am also not very good at doing things for charity. I prefer paid employment to voluntary work, it seems. But as an update to my “do something for charity” challenge, I believe making the Christmas box for a needy child fitted that bill nicely. I have also been volunteering as the local representative for the NCT coffee group in our area for the past few months. Not that pro-actively, it must be said, but volunteering nonetheless.

It certainly struck me how much my mind went back to my school days while writing about these challenges. Is that in fact where I left my true self behind, or is it just because that was really the last time when the world was my oyster and could do anything I wanted, even though it definitely didn’t feel like that at the time? I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to being the person I was then, totally lacking in self-confidence and in a horrible transatlantic relationship. Though I was someone who still had a touch of creative flair, had foreign languages at the height of their powers and was still competent at playing the piano. I just didn’t believe it at the time.

Am I any nearer to knowing what I want from life? Yes and no. To be physically stronger, to make time for that hobby, to go back to work, to translate. To not hang out at toddler groups and manage tantrums over sharing every day of the week. But what the challenges have done is shown me that despite all the limitations of motherhood I can still do all sorts of things when I set my mind to them, and that lurking within me are all sorts of abilities that I thought I might have lost. But it must be said that no matter how hard I have found the past two years, Charlotte will always be my greatest achievement.

This year has been a fantastic journey for me. But looking back further, a lot can happen in ten years. On my 30th birthday, my mother paid for me to spend a day at the Sanctuary day spa in Covent Garden. The following day I went out with her and my godmother for lunch (also in Covent Garden) to a smart French brasserie, then Mum came back with me to my rented one-bedroom flat in Earlsfield to help me set up a party I was having for my friends, a party which involved juicing piles of fruit and making cocktails. That weekend, I headed off with my boyfriend Dave for a luxury weekend break at the Hotel du Vin in Winchester. I was working full-time as a translation project manager for the European Captioning Institute in Fitzrovia. Dave had moved into the flat just three months prior, having got a new job as a political assistant for Surrey County Council. Which was just as well as paying rent for a one-bedroom flat (the first time I had been able to live by myself) was killing me financially, even though I was getting mates’ rates as the flat belonged to a friend. That year Dave and I got engaged, Dave proposing beside the harbour in Stockholm as the sun set into a very late-night dusk, with dozens of hot-air balloons flying overhead. Then Dave got another new job as a cabinet officer for Barnet Borough Council (which is in itself a sign of the times – local government vacancies were in abundance). His new job and increased salary meant we could afford to buy our first home together, our one-bedroom flat in Crouch End. Once we moved into the flat, I quit my stressful job a few weeks later and went freelance. Briefly, everything seemed to be working out perfectly (I wasn’t facing eviction, was happy at work, happy in love), but it was a short-lived happiness as the following summer, Mum was diagnosed with cancer three weeks before our Lake District wedding, and died six months later. My godmother, also present at that 30th birthday lunch, now has Parkinson’s to battle with.

So a lot of cruel things can happen in ten years, but a lot of good things can too. In the past decade I have seen so many amazing sights – the Pyramids, Petra, Pinot Noir growing on a New Zealand vine, the Pedrera in Barcelona, the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. And those are just the ones beginning with P. Though none of them can even come close to the moment when we met Charlotte for the first time. All of these things mean that I have never doubted that this is a beautiful world, even at the hardest of times. I hope that this belief will remain as steadfast over the next ten years.

Who knows what they will bring? I take nothing for granted, and will endeavour to take the rough with the smooth, the good with the bad. And I will continue to set myself challenges along the way. Because this has been just great.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Challenge Number Four - Perfect A Beethoven Piano Sonata

My brother set me this challenge. And being a professional musician, he knew how hard I would find it, since the majority of Beethoven piano sonatas contain at least one movement which is virtually unplayable. He also knew just how rusty my piano playing was.

I started to play the piano when I was seven years old. My grandmother on my mother’s side played well and one weekend when we were staying at her house in Roundhay, she gave me a lesson, teaching me to read music and learn the notes of the scale in a surprisingly short space of time. Brains must be geared up to learning symbol systems (letters, numbers etc) quickly and easily at that age.

Thereafter I convinced my parents to let me have piano lessons. In typical fashion, they located the cheapest teacher in town and they also found out that a friend was selling an old workhorse of a piano third-hand, which they duly bought. To be fair, my parents’ financial situation was fairly dire at the time - this was during the height of the recession of the early 80s, with interest rates at 15%. My mother was at home full-time with me and my brother and not earning any money, and my father had been told to relocate from Harlow to Wakefield or face redundancy. In fact that’s probably why we were up at my grandmother’s house in Leeds in the first place - we must have been house-hunting. So it was possibly not the best moment for their daughter to announce that she wanted to take up an expensive new hobby. (The move north never happened in the end though as my father was subsequently redeployed in Harlow.)

So my first teacher was fairly rubbish, which my brother would confirm. You’d like to think that it doesn’t really matter in the early stages but actually it does. Particularly, for example, when a teacher never mentions things like the need to keep time by counting when you play. I can’t keep time to this day. My rhythm is always at best rubato, and at worst all over the place. But at least this teacher wasn’t strict with us – my mother always told us tales of how her piano teacher had rapped her over the knuckles with a ruler whenever she made a mistake, which is why she gave up playing the piano at a very early age.

But I made progress, nonetheless. However, when I was about 14, the term before I was supposed to take my Grade 8 exam, my piano teacher suddenly ditched me, announcing that I was now too advanced for her. So I started learning with the lady who held the Associated Board exams in her house. This was in fact my main motivation for lessons with her - I thought getting to regularly play the piano I had to use in exams would give me an unfair advantage (since otherwise you had to just go in and play it cold, with no idea of how it would feel or sound). What I didn’t know when I signed up was that that teacher didn’t let her riff-raff pupils play that piano, a baby grand in her living room. No, we were stuck in some shed out the back to play on a bog-standard upright.

My new teacher said there was no way I could take my Grade 8 at the moment and needed to go back to Grade 6 level music to work on my technique. Which I was fine with, in principle. But there is work on technique and work on technique. This new teacher was beyond pedantic. She was painstakingly slow about everything she did, from writing notes to rifling through music to explaining anything to answering the door. And she would make me play the same bar over and over again for an hour. And it was usually a bar of a technique exercise rather than a piece of music. The only piece she ever let me play was the first page of a Bach Invention.

What’s worse was that she had a smelly old cocker spaniel called Amadeus who used to sit on my feet and fart. And when he wasn’t farting, he howled along to the music about as musically as you would expect a very old dog to howl. To this day, I cannot abide the smell of dogs. Even though hardly any dogs are as smelly as Amadeus, the slightest whiff of puppy sends me straight back to those tortuous hours of piano lessons. After a year of dog farts and only playing bars of technique exercises, I was about ready to slash my piano-playing wrists, and gave up.

Thankfully, after a year or so away from lessons, I began to miss it, so sought out another teacher. A really lovely new teacher had just joined the music department at school and she offered piano lessons. I had a lot of fun learning with her, and she quickly spotted (from my ever-present rubato) the sorts of music I would like to play, like Débussy Preludes and Chopin Nocturnes. She did try and make me take my Grade 8, and I even submitted the application, but a few weeks before the exam I cracked, and withdrew. It was too much to take on in my A Level year, most of which I spent on anti-depressants as I was suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Piano exams involve so much more than playing pieces – scales and arpeggios, aural tests and sight reading. It was the aural tests that were always my downfall, not least because I was terrified of singing on my own in front of somebody else. But even performing the pieces for a stranger was a daunting enough prospect, especially in the formal situation that is a music exam. There were too many other exams looming in my life at that stage, and I just wanted music to be a hobby and therefore enjoyable. It’s hard to have fun playing the piano, as it’s very much a solo instrument. You don’t get to play in orchestras or bands that give you a sense of camaderie, silliness or a social life like you do if you play something like violin or flute. And playing a piano to accompany others is a very different kind of skill, which I never really got the hang of. Probably because no one else does rubato quite like me.

I had no confidence in my ability either. It didn’t help that my father’s idea of encouraging me as a child was to take me to see Alfred Brendel in concert, then turn round to me at the end and say “Well, you’ve got a lot of practising to do, haven’t you?” Obviously, it was brilliant that I got to see Alfred Brendel, one of the world’s greatest ever pianists, but why did my father have to make a direct comparison between my eight-year-old self, who had barely anything other than Für Elise in her repertoire, and a genius? (A genius who had been playing for seven hours a day for nearly seventy years?) Could my dad not have compared me with my peers, like someone in my class at school? Or even himself, who couldn’t play a note? (Though I am genuinely sure it was his intention to be encouraging.)

And then there were the nerves. They completely took over whenever I had to sit a piano exam or – worse – play in a church concert. My legs would turn to jelly and my shaking, sweaty fingers would slip off the keys. No matter how much I’d practised I would feel like I was sight-reading the music in front of me, and I’d make mistake after mistake after mistake. Even though the audience at a church concert mostly consisted of very deaf old ladies and the church piano was so horrendously out of tune that even the right notes sounded like mistakes, I was totally unable to put the performance into a rational context and rise above it. Every time, I would run off the stage in tears at the end. From being a teenager onwards, I flatly refused to play for anyone.

Then I left home and I couldn’t play any more anyway as I had no instrument. That’s the trouble with learning the piano – you can’t take it with you. You can buy portable electronic keyboards, but even those are massive if they have the full range of octaves you need to play most classical pieces. For 12 years after I left home I was either travelling, living in student accommodation or in a small bedroom in a London flatshare, none of which gave me room for a piano. At university I joined a music society which gave me the right to book practice rooms on campus, which all had pianos. But by then I had got more into singing (an instrument you can always take with you) and was having weekly lessons, so I usually used the practice rooms for that instead, and let my piano playing lapse completely.

Once I was living in London, I only got to play the piano when I was back home visiting my parents. Even when Dave and I bought a flat together, it wasn’t possible to have a piano, as not only was the flat on the first floor, but the lounge was round an L-shaped bend from the front door, and pianos don’t bend. It could have been winched in through a window, but that level of Laurel and Hardy style palava was not something we were prepared to consider, as we knew we wouldn’t be living there forever anyway.

So when we moved up to York, it was a deal-breaker that whatever house we bought would have to, without question, have room for a piano. And so it did, and we paid to move my piano from Bishop’s Stortford up to York. The piano is a Welmar, made in Clapham, funnily enough, where I used to live in London. Sadly, the Welmar workshop closed down for good about the time that I lived there, unable to compete with the mass production lines of the likes of Yamaha in Japan. The piano has a lovely tone and a very light touch, though I have to say that – after all that - it isn’t very happy in our house in York. It seems to go off-key within weeks of being tuned, which it never did before. I can only attribute this to the air in our house being so damp and cold. It’s also in a centrally heated room for the first time, as well as being in a permanent draught. And steam from whatever is cooking in the kitchen comes into the dining room as there is no door to block it off. I am also slightly concerned that it has a dead mouse in it at the moment, but that’s another story.

But soon after the piano’s arrival came the realisation that I couldn’t play that well any more. Funny that, if you don’t practise for nearly 20 years. The only music I owned was Grade 8 level stuff that I could no longer get my fingers round. And psychologically, taking myself back several steps just felt humiliating. It’s that memory of what I used to be taunting me. I could remember how I used to play the pieces, but no longer had the dexterity or nimbleness of touch required to manage the speed or the dynamics that they should be played at. We live in a terraced house, so I was very conscious that the neighbours were all being tortured by my musical massacres. I did intend to seek out a few lessons, but at the time I didn’t know anyone in York who could recommend a piano teacher.

And once we had Charlotte, I had no opportunity to play at all. I could (and should) have been serenading her with lullabies as a baby, but she wasn’t going to find anything about my clumsy renditions soothing. The only time I could practise was when she was asleep, but as her bedroom is directly above the piano and we had the terror of Waking.The.Baby, I never dared.

So I was very grateful to my brother for setting me this challenge, to make me play the piano again and face some of my demons.

First, I had to pick a Beethoven sonata to learn. One immediately sprung to mind. I had heard Steven Osborne play it in a wonderful concert at the Jack Lyons Concert Hall a few years ago. It had a beautiful second movement and glorious section in the first where the left hand crossed over the right. I looked through my books of Beethoven piano sonatas until I found the right one for the tune I had in my head. It turned out to be the Sonata in G, opus 79, composed in 1809, with movements Presto alla tedesca, Adagio and Vivace. I liked the fact it was in G major, as it reminded me of some crazy man I once met in a Crouch End folk club who said that Seth Lakeman was “really, really BORING!” because he always played his pieces in G. Somewhat annoyingly for my challenge, Beethoven had given this particular sonata the sub-heading “Sonata facile” or Sonatine, as if he was deliberately giving someone an easy ride. But Beethoven’s version of easy still gives you two movements that have to be played at lightning speed, full of runs and arpeggios, and a the third movement that has whole sections of triplets against semi-quavers, which are an absolute bugger to master. And then you turn a page and Beethoven makes the first of the triplets be a rest, and the whole thing goes completely to pot.

Then I had to get the piano tuned, since it had sat idle for so long. The tuner said the damp had made the wood swell a little and the keys therefore very stiff, so he spent a whole afternoon taking the piano to bits and adjusting the actions. Anyway, I was slightly heartened to realise that it wasn’t just a complete loss of muscle control and ability making me find it so hard to work the piano. He definitely made a vast improvement to the touch of the keys and my runs became a little less stumbling. What he couldn’t do anything about was the loss of vision I have experienced as the result of ocular migraines, which have left me with permanent blind spots, particularly when looking at black on a white background. This means I now find it difficult to see the lower stave for the left-hand. But I can work around it.

Then I had to find time to practise. I needed an empty house, which I never had. I occasionally got a bit of time on weekends if Dave took Charlotte out somewhere. But it was never going to be enough. However, after the terrible twos finally got the better of me, Charlotte started to go to nursery one morning a week in December, so this gave me about an hour extra a week to work on my Beethoven playing. Gradually, the sonata started to take shape. There are some sections that without hours of practice every day, I am never going to resolve. I can hear exactly where needs the work and how it needs to sound, but there isn’t the scope in my life to achieve that level at the moment.

So to complete the challenge, I felt I had to play it for someone. (I realise that in theory this should probably have been my brother, but he lives 200 miles away.) Knowing so many more people these days in York, I do now have a friend who is a piano teacher. She kindly gave me some time one morning while Charlotte was at nursery. I was really nervous beforehand, but being with a friend put me more at ease. And maybe over the years, overcoming grief and childbirth, I have just learned to be a little less afraid. My friend asked if it was OK to write some notes while I played. What I was quite surprised about was that her notes were actually things that were good about the performance, rather than bad. (Mind you, I could have told anyone the bad myself: the rhythm, the dynamics, the inability to maintain consistent tempo, the missed notes, the jerky tension that predominates throughout...) And she actually liked my rubato. But apparently, I did learn something with the pedantic dog-owning teacher from hell, as she said my hand position was excellent. The lesson gave me a few pointers on how to work on the sections with the triplets and plenty of other things to think about.

The main one of which is that life is too short to be scared. When it comes to playing the piano, I no longer have anything to fear. 

So I was actually going to put a video here of my Beethoven piano sonata, for all of you. I was even going to let you listen to my total balls-up of the third movement. Even though on my computer, the sound and video play out of synch which makes me look like I am miming. Yes, I really was going to play the piano. In public. Even if my dad thought it was crap.

But Blogger won't upload the videos. Boo hiss.

So a perfect Beethoven piano sonata? No. For that I could point you towards my CD of Daniel Barenboim playing it faster than is surely humanly possible with an almost celestial grace. But able to bash it out? Yes. Better than that even. At times.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Challenge Number 16 - Write a Short Story

This ended up having to be a short story for Charlotte, as I just didn’t manage to find the time or inspiration to write something more grown-up. But that’s OK, I think. Besides, all the adult stories I could come up with had morbid overtones, involving Second World War bombing, post-natal depression, or the death business that will be the centrepiece of my great as yet unwritten novel, The Funeral Hotel. So writing a children’s story was not only quicker but also much more fun, and it’s so personalised that I have an interested audience (almost) guaranteed.

You will quickly see that I am no Julia Donaldson. This is not a tale of a tiny snail and a great big grey-blue humpback whale, or a Gruffalo’s Child feeling bored, or a school many moons ago that taught young dragons all the things that dragons ought to know. It’s a story about a little girl and her toy monkey, and in a moment of careless anger the monkey gets lost. It is hardly the most riveting of adventures, and it's a bit too long, but any parent whose child has to take a favourite toy with them wherever they go can probably relate to the panic involved when that toy goes missing.

And full marks for effort to me for looking quite ridiculous taking photographs of a cuddly toy at various locations around York. Anyone familiar with Stripey and his rather disgusting levels of hygiene will think he looks suspiciously clean in most of the photographs. This is because I had to use our back-up Stripey, since Charlotte won’t be parted from the real original Stripey for long enough to let me take pictures of him on his own. (Won’t be parted from him for long enough until she randomly drops him somewhere, that is.)

So – enjoy. I plan to make up a photobook of the story for Charlotte when time allows, but for now she is happy reading “Stripey on the cuter”. Though she still prefers Mr Tickle.

The Adventures Of Stripey The Monkey: Lost!

Once there was a little girl called Lottie, and she had a little toy monkey called Stripey. Lottie loved Stripey very much. She snuggled up with him in bed every night. She wanted to take him everywhere she went - in the car, in the push chair, on her trike, out for a walk in the park. 

The only place she didn’t take him was out on her sledge in the snow, because monkeys don’t like snow very much.

But sometimes Lottie was a bit careless with Stripey, and would drop him out of her push chair. Lottie’s Mummy always tried to watch out for Stripey falling on the ground so that she could pick him up again. But Lottie’s Mummy didn’t always see him. Mummies often get distracted.

It was always stressful for Lottie’s Mummy when she realised that Stripey had gone missing, as she knew that Lottie couldn’t fall asleep at night without Stripey. And Lottie’s Mummy didn’t like it when Lottie couldn’t sleep, as it meant that Lottie’s Mummy couldn’t sleep either. Fortunately, Lottie’s Mummy always managed to find Stripey before bedtime.

One day, Lottie and her Mummy were on their way into town. Lottie’s Mummy gave Lottie some of her favourite rice cakes to eat. Stripey was hungry too, and he asked Lottie if he could have a rice cake. But Lottie didn’t like sharing things. So she didn’t want to give Stripey a rice cake. She got angry and threw Stripey onto the ground.

They had just reached some traffic lights. Lottie’s Mummy was busy watching the little red man opposite and waiting for him to turn green to tell them it was safe to cross the road.

This meant that Lottie’s Mummy didn’t see Stripey land on the ground. Stripey called out for help, but the cars on the road were very noisy so nobody heard him.

Poor Stripey was alone on the pavement. He tried to run after Lottie. But Lottie’s Mummy turned a corner with the push chair and Stripey couldn’t see where they went after that. So Stripey had to guess where Lottie and her Mummy had gone. He decided to look in all of Lottie’s favourite places to see if he could find them.

First Stripey tried the park. Lottie loved the swings and the slide and the seesaw. Stripey had a go on all of those, but he couldn’t find Lottie anywhere. 

So he went to the ponds to see if she might be there. But she wasn’t. 

Stripey asked the ducks on the pond and the doves near the dovecote if they had seen Lottie but they weren’t very helpful at all.

So Stripey went to the river. Lottie often spent hours watching the boats sailing up and down. But today there were no boats, and there was no Lottie. 

And Lottie wasn't up on the bridge with the benches that she loved climbing on.

So Stripey went to the train museum. He had a lovely time seeing all the big steam engines and the turn table and the model railways, but he couldn’t see Lottie anywhere.

So Stripey went next door to the station to see some more trains, but Lottie wasn’t there either.

So Stripey went into town. He knew that Lottie liked running up and down the ramps outside the dinosaur museum, but she wasn’t there either.

Then Stripey remembered one last train that Lottie liked to visit. So Stripey went to the shopping centre to find it. But Lottie wasn’t riding on the train today.

So Stripey went to the ice cream café. Lottie was the café’s best customer, but not today.

By now, Stripey was very worried indeed. He had been to all of Lottie’s favourite places and couldn’t think of any more. What if he never found Lottie again?

He decided he had better go home. He hoped that wherever Lottie and her Mummy had been, they would soon need to go home too. Stripey was very tired now. It was getting cold, and he was worried that it might snow. Stripey didn’t like snow AT ALL.

It was a long, hard journey. Stripey had to rest a lot.

At last he reached Lottie’s front door. He was overjoyed to see that CBeebies was on the television, which meant that Lottie was home. Lottie and her Mummy must have been just ahead of him at one of the places he had been looking.

But Stripey couldn’t reach the doorbell because it was very high up, and his paws were so soft that Lottie couldn’t hear him knocking on the door.

Stripey could hear Lottie crying and calling out his name. “Stripey! Stripey!” He could also hear that Lottie’s Mummy was cross with Lottie. She was saying, “Where did you leave him? You must be more careful!” Stripey knew that this meant that Lottie and her Mummy had realised he was missing and that they were looking for him. But he couldn’t make them hear that he was just outside the front door! What was he going to do?

Stripey thought for a minute. And then he remembered the two cats, Ingo and Otto, that lived in the house with them. They also were too small to reach the doorbell and had soft paws that wouldn’t make a noise when knocking on a door. 

So Ingo and Otto had a special door called a cat flap that they used all the time when they needed to go in and out. But it was round at the back of the house. So Stripey set off again to find it. He had to walk all the way to the end of the street to get to the alley that led to the back yard. Stripey was so tired, but he knew he had to carry on if he was going to be able to stop Lottie crying.

Eventually he recognised the right gate. Using his best monkey skills, he climbed up over the back wall, jumped down, and found the cat flap in the yard. 

It was quite stiff but Stripey managed to push it open. He climbed through and landed in the kitchen.

Stripey fell in a heap on the floor and was simply too tired to go any further.

Fortunately, Lottie heard the cat flap banging. Lottie loved Ingo and Otto almost as much as she loved Stripey, so she came running into the kitchen to see them, hoping they might cheer her up, even though they usually ran back outside again whenever they saw her. 

But it wasn’t a pussy cat she had heard, it was Stripey! Lottie was overjoyed to see him. And so was Lottie’s Mummy. Lottie’s Mummy had to lie down for a few minutes to recover from worrying so much about where Stripey was. She had worn a hole in her sock from pacing up and down.

Stripey was quite dirty from all his adventures and needed a good wash.

Lottie said sorry to Stripey for not sharing her rice cakes. She said from now on, she would share her food with him whenever he wanted. And she promised that she would never throw him out of the push chair again.

That night Lottie and Stripey curled up in bed together, cuddling one another tightly, and everybody in the house slept through until morning.