Price of friendship

A twenty pound note

I don’t live particularly close to my closest friend; we keep in touch via long, witty (her), whining (me) texts, and meet up maybe four times a year for a breathless jaunt around Hull’s finest gown emporiums (Zara and Oasis) and a long lunch at for wherever we have a voucher.

We share a lot – misery at our working lives, exasperation at the uselessness of everyone else in our lives; vicious jealousy at anyone who has more than one pair of nude heels.

One thing we have always shared is a lack of cash. First world problems, I know, as we both have (albeit draughty) roofs over our heads, healthy and exceptionally bright children and are both, of course, intelligent and devastatingly attractive.

empty red purse

My purse, always

But there is never enough money to be able to relax – to go to Waitrose and not Aldi, to not have a purse bulging with loyalty cards, to not feel sick when the credit card bills arrive with their hideous inevitability.

It is all down to choices, mine more than hers. She is a not-by-choice single mum (though I don’t think she’d have it any other way now) and has become a full-time carer.

I married a man with more children than you can shake a stick at and decided to work part-time in order to chase after said children. Doesn’t stop me yearning for a weekend in Center Parcs with all the other middle classes though.

Things got pretty rubbish five years ago. Pretty ‘I’ve had enough of this shit I’m out of here’ rubbish. She was there as I staggered through it, offering concern and advice (‘Have some vodka’). She couldn’t make it all alright – but she tried.

She bought me a book I had been wanting (one about being frugal, as it happened) and tucked inside was an envelope with £100 in it.

I was overwhelmed, touched and appalled. You can’t accept money off friends – it just messes up the balance of the relationship. She had always given me bags and bags of outgrown children’s clothes, which were always gratefully accepted, but five purple twenty pound notes in a creamy white envelope was a different thing. And she couldn’t afford it – how could she?

I put the envelope back in the book and resolved not to spend it – I would give it her back ‘when everything sorted itself out’.

Years passed.

I never forgot the envelope. Every now and then I would raid it – once to pay for a school trip, once to buy a pair of much needed boots, once just to fund an emergency trip to the Co-op when I knew we were on our overdraft limit. At first I replaced the twenties I took out. At first…

an exam paper


Last summer my daughter was studying for the 11+ exam, in the hope of getting in a nearby grammar school. The test papers I got off Amazon were so perplexing I got hold of a tutor to walk her through them. This teacher knew her stuff, but was terribly expensive. What price your children’s future though, eh?

At the last session before the bloody test I realised I didn’t have the money to pay for the tutor, so scrabbled through my book for The Envelope. Inside, along with my friend’s lovely note, was the last twenty pound note. I handed it over with a leaden heart, as if I had failed our friendship. The tutor took it without a second glance.

After much stress and a few tears, my daughter took the test. It all seemed a long time ago when we found out this week that she has got a place at the school of dreams. I feel as if we have done the best we could to ensure she has every chance for a shining future full of glittering prizes.

This means nothing to my daughter. All she is worried about is leaving her friends. It is impossible to tell an 11-year-old this, but she needn’t worry. Friends – the true, solid gold ones – don’t just disappear. You might not hear from them for weeks, but they are still there, still hanging on just as you are hanging on and they never forget you – just as you never forget them, and the good things they have done.

Hear that? Not any more, you don’t

Blue cap milk bottles

We just started getting our milk delivered by a milkman again. This is ruinously expensive, but saves the 7am misery of discovering it’s black coffee and biscuits for breakfast.
But – and who knew? – milkmen (aren’t there any milkwomen?) don’t deliver in bottles any more. It comes in those massive plastic cartons. This is more convenient and keeps the milk fresher but just isn’t as nice.
The sound of a milkfloat clinking down the street at 5am is a sound you don’t hear anymore, as is the lovely glug of washing-up water as you rinse the bottle out before putting it on the front step for the morning.
You don’t read about sounds in history books, but they chronicle our age. How weird is it when there is a power cut and the house isn’t filled with the constant background hum of a dozen electrical appliances? Or those odd times when you are out at 3am and you can’t hear a single car?
OK, I’m not reminiscing about hearing the whinny of horses instead of engines or the town crier instead of the BBC (I’m not quite that old). But there are so many nearly dead sounds out there – cue list:

  • Bells – you don’t hear real bells much any more. I got a new telephone system thing and there are dozens of plinky-plonk ringtones but not one of them even tries to imitate an actual bell. Similarly, the church in our village has a tape that it plays every Sunday, because ringing the real bells is in danger of shaking the church tower to bits.
  • Telephone bell ringing on the street from a call box, or on a garage forecourt.
  • Segs (or drawing pins) on the bottom of boots (usually Dr Martens) – the clacking sound the cool boys wearing them make as they walk down the bus.

    Oh, the happy hours...

    Oh, the happy hours…

  • The eerie chimes of the PlayStation One starting up, and the pause and hum when you meet an important part of the gameplay and the game readies itself for a new level or a major battle. (I’m talking about the first appearance of the Licker in Resident Evil 2 **shivers**).
  • The long toneless tone after Closedown at the end of TV pogrammes, usually around 20 past midnight, after the National Anthem.
  • Car alarms going off down the street after a heavy thunderstorm/high wind/a sunny day. Car alarms were a new thing in the 80s, everyone had them fitted and they were a bit rubbish.
  • The swish of garden sprinklers in the 70s. Like car alarms in the 80s – everyone suddenly bought one.
  • Radio Luxembourg fading out to French programmes.

    old school blackboard rubber

    Fond memories of the day mild-mannered Mr Woodford hurled it across the English classroom

  • The soft whoosh of a board rubber on a blackboard. It’s all whiteboards now. Whoever owned the blackboard rubber factory must have gone bust.
  • A real alarm clock – ticking and then going off. Still makes me shudder with memories of getting up for school.
  • Rotary dial phones. Took ten minutes to dial a number, but it sounded good.
  • The cranking on of a camera film. Impossible to explain to anyone brought up with camera phones.
  • Typewriter keys. A right bloody racket when there were half a dozen of them being bashed away in a newsroom. And nothing has replaced the pain of jamming your finger down between the keys.
  • A ticking, chiming clock. Back to bells again.
  • A cash register. Like typewriter keys followed by a telephone bell chime. Double joy.
  • A ding-dong doorbell. People don’t do doorbells anymore. They text to say ‘I’m outside the door’.
  • Dustin lids being banged together or blowing off down the street, or the general noise and clanging of dustbin day.

    Old fashioned ring pull on a pop can

    The misery when the ring bit broke off and you couldn’t get to your drink

  • The sound of a ring-pull being carefully pulled off a can of pop.
  • Tin cans blowing down the street. Don’t know why this doesn’t happen any more – you don’t get people kicking cans down the street either. Are they all being recycled?
  • A china teapot pouring into a cup. Alright, I know people still have teapots (myself included) but mostly it is a bag in a mug.
  • A whistling kettle. Followed by the desperate pounding of someone hurtling downstairs, or in from the back yard, to grab it off the gas before it boiled dry.
  • The satisfying but slightly soft click when you manually unlock a car door from the inside by pulling up the knob.
  • The whoosh of flame when you light the grill or the oven or the gas fire in the lounge with a match because the ignition broke years ago.
  • A school bell being rung by hand.
  • A video cassette rewinding. Whirr and clunk. You still can’t convince me that DVDs are an improvement.

    TDK cassette tape

    TDK tapes – gone but never forgotten

  • Playing a cassette tape into your car – the plastic rattle as you miss the slot then push it in and it clunks into place.
  • Newspaper sellers shouting “Ler Fer” (Late Final).
  • The crackle of the needle hitting the record, the soft thunk through the speakers as it engages.
  • Rag and bone men, on horse-drawn carts, yodelling “Ergeeeeeeerrrb!” and giving you a balloon if your mum came out with an old toaster for them or something.
  • Dial up internet. It got so you could tell from the noise whether it was going to connect or not.
  • Whistling. No-one whistles anymore. Thank gods.


I don’t hide the cables anymore

Our walls are made of the kind of stuff sugar lumps are made of. They look perfectly sound and reasonable, but as soon as you go near them with anything approaching a sharp point they crumble away to dust. Most of our pictures are stuck up with a combination of No More Nails and Blu-tac.

Soooo, the phone socket just dropped out of the wall, leaving a big sugary hole and no way of plugging the phone in upstairs without extensive restoration work involving something called ballast.

I reconciled myself to not being able to hear the phone unless I was standing next to it, but my father-in-law, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of every electrical item Amazon has ever stocked, knew better.

US diner phone

Look at it! It’s so fabulous

For my birthday he bought me a jazzy new phone set up, which only needs one socket for the base phone while the rest of the handsets just plug into your proper solid British three-pin electrical affairs.

It took me fifteen minutes to plug it all in and set it up, and most of that was spent choosing the ringtone, which were all either awful, terrible or really, really shite. Now we have phones all over the house, and they light up and play electronic tunes and show the time as well, so we don’t need clocks anymore either.

new Gigaset phone

The new phone. Alright, it works, but stylish it ain’t

This is undoubtedly an improvement, but with each phone I plugged in, a little bit of my soul withered.

When I first moved into this house, I spent years slowly doing it up, trying to get it to look as close to how it would have been when it was built (1928) but with central heating, Netflix and super fast broadband, obvs.

I had paint specially mixed, sourced door handles from reclamation yards, painted a cocktail cabinet in nail varnish because I couldn’t find the right paint tones I wanted.

blue drinks cabinet

The nail-varnished drinks cabinet. See, it’s true

I had two phones – a clever replica of an American diner phone and an original chrome 1930’s affair, with a proper dial and real bells instead of a ringtone.

The diner phone has always sounded as if you are actually making a call in America, using a cocoa tin and a piece of string. The chrome phone, while crystal clear, took five minutes to dial a number (they were invented when you just called the operator) and you could never dial 1 to be put through to the complaints department or tap in your date of birth.

So, they were pretty useless as actual phones, but they looked bloody fantastic and sounded great every time that nice woman called, concerned about my lack of PPI claims.

I pulled up carpet to hide the extension wires, even stuck wallpaper over some cables, and dabbed others with paint to make them invisible, because I wanted it to look perfect.

It's not quite this bad...

It’s not quite this bad…

Is it the fact that I have grown up and stopped being so precious (I used to keep the DVD player in a drawer because it wasn’t authentic looking. Like, that was practical) that has made me just plug these new phones in, oblivious to whether they match the colour scheme (of course they don’t. I also once painted a TV bronze to match a room), and let their ugly cables trail merrily over windowsills and across the floor?

Or have I lost my sense of style, my perfectionism, have I let my standards slip, preferring convenience and the mainstream over authenticity and originality?

Or am I absolutely climbing too much up my own backside? Whether my phone matches my bookshelf shouldn’t really be dominating my thoughts in the weeks after a ruinously expensive Christmas at the arse-end of what has been one of the worst years for global upsets we can remember.

A friend, whose new curtains I was admiring, said she thought they were “too blue” but didn’t care. “When I was younger I would rather have sat here with a bare window than curtains I didn’t like. I wanted it all perfect. Now I live in the real world.”

And maybe that’s it. All the previous me, the one who ordered a mirrored bathroom cabinet from Italy because I liked its shape (**weeps at the thought of the expense**), had to worry about was how to hang an Art Deco mirror on a wall made out of brown sugar. Four children, three jobs, one husband and a near bankruptcy later, hiding a couple of cables has been shoved a bit further down the priority list. And it is a long, long list.

So this is our world now?

Donald Trump surrounded by Miss America contestants

Theresa May in a tartan Vivienne Westwood trouser suit

What’s wrong with a nice knee-length skirt and a cashmere jumper?

The front page of today’s Times has a full-length photo of Prime Minister Theresa May in a tartan Vivienne Westwood trouser suit looking, as my Grandmother would have put it “a complete bloody bugger”.
The leader of the country (albeit unelected leader) in Vivienne Westwood.
It’s like punk never happened.
President Putin

Russia – known for its great literature, music, ballet, architecture, vodka, prozzies…

On the same page is a story about President Putin, boasting that Russian sex workers are the best in the world. This is the president of one of the world’s most powerful countries, bragging about their whores.
It’s like Tolstoy never happened.

And all this two days before Donald Trump is inaugurated as US president.
It’s like hundreds of years of civilisation never bloody happened.

Old ladies’ handbags

Launer handbags, as used by the Queen
A small handbag covered in silver sequins

Gran would have sniffed dismissively at this excuse for a handbag

My Great-Grandma died when she was 96, so I have distinct memories of her. A small, slender woman with wavy, fair hair and an eagle eye, she always wore a coat with a fur collar, and usually a hat and gloves. And she always had a handbag.

This handbag was a thing of wonder. In smooth black leather, it had rigid sides and a catch that could take your finger off if you weren’t careful. It also weighed about 5lbs when empty – two tonnes when full.

And this one - how would you fit a fag case and your snuff in this?

And this one – how would you fit a fag case and your snuff in this?

I was reminded of her when I saw a picture of Our Own Dear Queen recently, also with a handbag. In fact she is never without a handbag, and rumour has it she uses it to send messages to her aides (looped over left arm – I am talking to a dullard; hanging from fingertips – my feet ache, fetch the car etc). What she keeps inside is also a mystery, although I like to go with a linen hankie, half a bottle of gin, dog treats and a snub-nosed revolver.

The contents of Gran’s bag were not a mystery. She was a good sport and would let my mother root through it. With the help of her, and my aunt, I have compiled a list of what Gran used to keep in her handbag – and it is quite a bit more than the Queen.

  • Coin purse
  • Note case
  • Tape measure (for checking the sizes of clothes in shops)
  • Pen
  • Diary
    Now you're having a laugh - it's a gold string vest, not a handbag

    Now you’re having a laugh – it’s a gold string vest, not a handbag

  • Address book
  • Half a bottle of brandy (“in case”)
  • Eau de Cologne
  • Comb
  • Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes – in a silver case
  • Lighter (never matches)
  • Manicure set
  • Emergency jewellery purse (she would carry a couple of gold rings and a change of earrings, you know, in case the weather changed and didn’t match her jewellery)
  • Snuff (yes, snuff – this is a woman who was born in the 19th Century)
  • Handkerchief
  • Asprin
  • Little Imps (devilishly unpleasant cough sweet things)
  • Alka Seltzer (after the brandy and Little Imps, probably)
  • Scissors
  • Needle and thread (for emergencies, like sewing up her ruptured arm after carrying the bag, presumably)
  • Powder compact
  • Lipstick
  • Rouge
  • Keys
  • Smelling salts

No room for a revolver – though all she would have to do is wallop a would-be assassin with the bag and he would go down as if felled by a cannonball.

The Queen with a black handbag

I bet it’s actually bullet-proof

No choice but to choose

A row of expensive double-door fridges

My youngest daughter goes to secondary school next year, and she gets to choose. We are lucky – the two nearest schools to us are Good schools (so Ofsted says) and there is a grammar school in the next county.
So where do we choose?

We went to Devon on holiday this year, and spent ages pouring over holiday cottages. Got it down to two – one in the middle of a town (too noisy? too busy?), one in the middle of a field (too remote? too cold?). What if we picked it wrong and spent the whole precious seven days wishing we’d gone to the other place?

Last year, we were given some money to buy a TV. It took us THREE MONTHS to decide on the model, the size, and the functions. (And just for the record, 3D is a useless gimmick).

The first time I remember being too spoiled for choice was twelve years ago when our fridge (actually my mum and dad’s old fridge) broke down. They coughed up the money for a new one as a Christmas/birthday present. It was the early days of the internet, so I didn’t have to go to actual shops, but could compare fridges online. It was impossible – did we want an ice-maker, or a chilled water dispenser, a fast-freeze function, a chrome and black finish or pristine white? One shop would give us free delivery, but was that as cheap as the other place where we would get a £20 voucher?

Alright, it is a nice position to be in, but wasn’t life much simpler when there was less choice? I don’t just mean the amount of time you would save, but the lack of personal responsibility you would have.

Tizer sign

Time was when the hardest choice of my life was between Tizer and Dandelion & Burdock

If we get the wrong school, it is our fault for choosing wrongly, and we could never forgive ourselves – same with the fridge. Would I curse myself every summer for not getting one with a chilled water dispenser? (No – but I still wish we hadn’t bothered with 3D – all those stupid glasses falling out of the cupboard).
When my mum and dad bought the old fridge (we’re talking early 80s here) they got it from Kays Catalogue and had a choice of three, the price rising with the capacity of the fridge (and no chilled water dispensers). They bought the one they could afford, thought no more about it, and got on with filling it with Yorkshire pudding batter, beef dripping and Tizer.

I had no choice about the school I went to. It wasn’t the best school, but it wasn’t the worse, and either way there was nothing I could do about it.

Sometimes, it has to be simpler to just get on with the cards you have been dealt with instead of wishing you’d gone into a different casino.

Research – the writer’s cul-de-sac

Styles For All Figures - 1920's underwear

I’ve written a time travel novel called The Clock Box, and enjoyed it so much I am half way through writing another one. The first one is set in 1926, the second in 1940. The reasons for this are plot-dictated, rather than any particular love of – or in-depth knowledge about – these eras. Even so, I reckoned I had read enough Agatha Christie to be able to blag my way through 1926 and seen enough war films to pull off 1940.

Not so. Name me a cinema you would expect to find in a small southern town in 1940. There are loads – Odeon, Gaumont, Rex. But you have to be careful. This is 1940, not 1946, so you won’t find an Essoldo – they came later. And don’t opt for a Union cinema either – they were taken over in 1937.

Essoldo cinema

An Essoldo cinema – the name was an amalgam of the names of the owner (Solomon), his wife (Esther) and daughter (Dorothy). This is where too much research takes you

While we’re on the subject – what kind of underwear did people wear in 1926? Not what was in the fashion magazines, but what did people actually wear? Was it all buttons and ribbons or were there hooks and eyes? When did elastic become widespread? Did fast young gels wear the same kind of pants as respectable housekeepers? (I have been writing sex scenes. Fastenings matter).

Woman wearing 1920s underwear

Can you imagine trying to get this stuff on? Can you imagine someone else trying to take it all off?

These are the cul-de-sacs research sends you down.

My day job is a sub-editor. This is a heavy weight I happily cast off when I dive into the fiction pool, but, like that nasty slimy seaweed that wraps around your legs, it keeps reappearing and dragging me under.

A favourite author of mine once said that while re-reading one of his earlier works he discovered that he had described the sun setting twice, about three hours apart, on one momentous day. He hadn’t noticed, and neither had his editor.

I would have done.

At a talk with crime writer Mark Billingham in Hull recently, he said a reader once contacted him to point out that a particular set of traffic lights featured in one of his books (Oxford I think…) had since been altered and it was now impossible to turn right there, as one of his characters had done. ‘You may wish to amend this for the next edition’ the reader said. Billingham laughed it off; at the end of the day, you can only do so much research, he said. You just have to go with the author, or the amendments will never end.

I would have amended it.

I spent a pointless afternoon trying to find out what food was served in hospitals during the war. They would be on rations, of course, but surely they would get extra portions? Of what exactly? I read loads of fascinating first hand accounts from nurses and patients, but apart from one fella saying he preferred it in hospital as they got better food, I drew a blank. Ended up culling it from a 1946 report of recommended menus from a charity that inspected hospitals (it later became the King’s Fund, and was founded in 1898, becoming a think-tank after the NHS was set up).

Oh, and did you know the American army officer’s summer uniform had a leather belt until 1941? After that it became a sort of hessian affair. And that Daimler produced a massive 7.1 litre car in 1926 that apparently was so quiet you could only hear the engine when the bonnet was open. And while I know from studying zoomed in pictures of these cars that they definitely had glove compartments, I can’t find out whether you could lock them from the outside.

Advert for a 1926 Daimler Double 6

A late 20s Daimler. Beautiful – but does it lock from the outside?

This is the stuff I pick up while researching and I have no idea if it is any use. I just know it eats into the precious time I have carved out for actually writing, and I invariably cut it short without finding out exactly what I need to know.

It isn’t just researching facts either. Language can make or break a book’s credibility. A crime novel set in the 1960s I read a few years ago lost me totally when one of the characters was asked how they were. “I’m good, thanks,” they replied. NO-ONE said ‘good’ like this in the sixties. It is a 21st century expression. They said ‘fine’ or ‘fab’ or ‘gear’.

Another one –  ‘balls-up’ sounds modernish, lewd, and probably American, so I was searching for a phrase like it that would have been used in 1940s England. Turns out balls-up is the perfect phrase. It came into widespread use in the First World War and while its origin isn’t clear – it may be navel thing – it has nowt to do with testicles. Who knew? Well, me, now.

I research too much and for too long. Part is procrastination, I know. Part is fear of getting it wrong and someone smugly pointing out to me that ladies didn’t wear elasticated suspender belts in June 1926 because they weren’t invented until July. Part is the journalist’s need to get it right. But the biggest part of it is my need to get inside the characters – to think, talk, eat and feel the way they feel, to see what they see when they walk down the street.

I think I’ll have to accept I need a real time travel machine for that.