Wednesday 24 May 1995
I was mentally running through all the life-threatening diseases that turn one's limbs into lead and one's head into bedlam when a neighbour who works as a practice nurse at the local GP's surgery rang, to call off an arrangement involving children. The reason? Her daughter was ill. "So am I: it feels terminal," I replied, running through a terrifying list of symptoms. She laughed. "You've got the summer flu, we've already seen lots of it at the surgery".
I immediately felt much better - though the flu hung around for three more miserable days, and I have dragged myself back to work reluctantly. Mystified though, that the flu has become an around-the-year bane, as ineradicable as ground elder or brambles in the garden of life.
But every cloud has a silver lining. The main result of having flu is that I've been lying in bed, free to read a new book. Charles Rennie Mackintosh (Thames and Hudson World of Art, pounds 6.95) takes a scholarly swipe at the myth that the Glasgow architect was rejected in his lifetime. It also points out that some of his famous furniture was not very well made or comfortable (having once suffered a meal a la Mackintosh I certainly back that). The author, the unassuming architectural historian Alan Crawford, is a long-standing friend and not unused to controversy - in the Seventies we campaigned successfully to prevent the demolition of Birmingham's Victorian central post office.
He wants to make sure the public isn't gulled by the Mockingtosh gifts industry, creating "gross distortions of his work". There are Mackintosh picture frames, Mackintosh wool cardigans and Mackintosh silver jewellery, though the arty Glaswegian actually made none of these articles. So I asked Alan which were the most faithful buys, for those of us who can't afford pricey copies of his chairs. For a pure Mackintosh experience he advises reproductions of his flower drawings and French paintings, sold by the Hunterian art gallery in Glasgow, which holds the biggest collection of his work. The price? A modest pounds 3.50.
Lying in bed, feeling weedy and helpless, I was idly listening to Woman's Hour about an experiment in bringing up a girl without sexual stereotyping. One of the key things seemed to be encouraging her to be adventurous and to use tools.
I think this is far more widespread than many people suspect. I belong to a generation of women who have to call the AA every time a tyre goes flat. Nor have I mastered the black art of changing a plug. But my daughters are extremely handy, thanks to their schools' technology lessons. While my nose was buried in the Mackintosh book I heard a strange clanking going on downstairs. An American kettle barbecue had been languishing in a box ever since I bought it. The instructions looked daunting and my husband hates barbecues. But my 12- and nine-year-old daughters fell upon it, unsupervised, and put it together before I could say "We have no charcoal anyway."
My only quibble is that their schools seem to have abandoned lessons in needlework and cooking, while knitting and crocheting are unknown skills. I suppose it is down to me to pass on these homely practices. Just as my father was lumbered with putting on all those plugs, I don't want to be the only one, in a household of six, able to sew on a button.
Much hand-wringing goes on over the unsuitable television programmes children watch. But there is a little-explored reverse phenomenon: all the programmes adults don't watch because there are children around. I'm not only talking about 18-rated films, post-watershed dramas or serious documentaries unfortunately screened when they want to watch Animal Hospital, or the latest passion, Bugs.
I mean soaps. I would love to be able to join in the Brookside debate about Mandy and Beth Jordache's sentence and feel free to imbibe a bit of inner-city depression from EastEnders. But I know my children are longing to expand their list of approved viewing into all the soaps (bar Coronation Street): they simply need me to make them legitimate by watching first. But I am so appalled by the nightly hold Neighbours has over them that I refuse to be tempted.
When would they do homework, music practice, or simply talk if they watched two or three more soaps each night? When I'm around I stage crafty diversions to see if I can make them forget Neighbours has started. The first barbecue, with them glowing at its success, achieved just that.
Are we really all going to buy our wine on the Internet? What I'd really like from home shopping is a weekly delivery of all those basics the supermarkets expect us to drag home. If you could put in an order from your computer screen for boring things like kitchen paper and mineral water, it would be fine. It would also free one to go shopping for the nice things - such as clothes. For a month I have been trying to find the time to buy a swimsuit - in the end I ordered one from a mail-order catalogue. Under-shopped women condemned to frustration would be a thing of the past.
"I nearly bought the chipmunk," said my husband. "It was so sweet. But the shop said I shouldn't. The assistant said they were very fast and needed to be kept in a special shed."
Well, thank God for small mercies: had the great animal hater gone soft? While the eldest girls were at a gymkhana and I was sleeping off the flu he had escorted the six-year-old to the pet shop, to keep the promise that she could have a real pet to live in a real cage. She wanted a snake. I said she'd have to join another family if one came home, and suggested another hamster. But the last short-lived one made a bad impression by biting her.
So we are now the owners of two gerbils, Lucky and Licorice, who squeak and run around the carpet inside a perspex ball, but whose life expectancy has me worried: one already seems to have a wonky leg. A friend came round to inspect them. "Mine has just starved to death," she said. "It ran behind the washing machine and wouldn't come out. Then we found its body weeks later."
I tottered round for some sympathy from a friend but found her children and husband have just badgered her into accepting a puppy (she is at home all day). Hateful pets, we agree.
But within five minutes the puppy is sitting on my knee and biting fingers in adorable puppy fashion. "If you ever want to leave him with us just bring him round," I find myself saying.
What if he caught the gerbils?
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