Monday, 25 March 2013

The F word

F is for forty. That is how old I will be in a couple of weeks. I always thought I'd have a big party, like I did on my thirtieth, but I'm just not in the mood. I still feel ill, and I want to save the party for another time, if and when I'm feeling better.

F is for fibromyalgia. Or perhaps it should be f***ing fibromyalgia. This is a chronic pain condition I may or may not have. The rheumatologist I saw said it was a possibility, although he wouldn't make a "diagnosis" as such - in fact, there are no real diagnostic criteria for this disease. The fact is, doctors don't know what causes it, and they are still working on how to treat it. And the symptoms seem to be very different for different people. None of this is at all helpful. I'm taking a new drug now, which is supposed to alleviate the symptoms, but we'll see. After all, it may not even be that. But the medical profession appears to have run out of other tests to do on me, so what other choice do I have?

F is for friends. I have some good ones here, who are supporting me, and some back in the UK who are doing all they can from a distance.  I'm grateful also for my blogger friends - your comments always make the day better.

F is for future plans. It's hard making them when I feel like I do. But they have to be made. We are leaving America in a few months' time. I'm having to organise removal firms, and think about school uniforms, and finding somewhere to live.

F is for Florida. We're about to go there on holiday. I need a break, and I'm hoping the sun, sand and sea might do something for me. After all, you never know.

Friday, 22 March 2013

My best friend's wedding

I mentioned in my boarding school post that I had three very close friends during these years. Two of them got married years ago (one while she was still a student), and the third has remained unattached until very recently. She's had a few boyfriends over the years, but I never really clicked with any of them, until last summer she brought her latest partner over to New York and we met up. They had already moved in together, and immediately I could tell that they were right for each other, so it was no great surprise to hear, a few weeks ago, that they are getting married.

One of the real downers about living abroad is that you have to miss out on occasions such as this. I really can't fly back to the UK in May - we're moving back in July and shelling out for another flight, when we're in the middle of trying to move, is just unrealistic and unaffordable this year. So I won't be there to see this girl I've known for over 25 years tie the knot. While I wouldn't say we are still "best friends", we still met up regularly while in London and there will always be a special understanding between us.

Since I've been in the US, I've missed out on several 40th birthday parties and at least two other weddings. Several friends have also had babies who I have yet to see. While of course this isn't the end of the world, I do feel that this is the stuff of which memory is made: those moments and milestones won't happen again. Seeing the photos on Facebook just doesn't quite cut it.

So on the May bank holiday I will be wishing I was a virtual guest at my friend's wedding in Warwickshire. She's also one of the last of my friends to get married, so in a way it feels like the closing of a chapter; the wedding years. Getting glammed up and dancing the night away before stumbling back to some B&B and trying to find the key. Drinking too much champagne in country churchyards, Oxford colleges and formal gardens; all those typically English weddings we've been to. The one in Norway where we all jumped in the fjord at midnight (that really happened). The one in Devon where the marquee nearly blew away in the wind. The ones we took the children to as babies, fearfully shushing them in the church.

I just hope I get to go to some more before the next generation start getting hitched....

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Motherhood and beyond: 2005-2013

I really thought I was ready for children. I had the pram, the cot, the nappies and the nursery all prepared; I had done the NCT classes, read What to Expect When You're Expecting, and kept fit and healthy throughout my pregnancy, even riding my bike up to six months pregnant (actually, I can't really believe I did that now. Was I mad?)  I was calm and felt ready to take on the world.

Littleboy 1 was nine days late into the world, but when he came, he came quickly, like the force of nature that he still is. Four hours after having my first labour pains in the hairdresser (where I had gone out of boredom and frustration at the baby not coming), I was having an emergency C-section at St Thomas's hospital after what turned out to be a placental abruption.

The trauma of his birth, and the three nightmarish days I spend in the hospital afterwards, with Littleboy 1 screaming his head off most of the time and refusing to breastfeed, left me a nervous wreck by the time I got home. The first few weeks of his life are a bit of a blur, and were followed by a period of terrible insomnia which I now see was a kind of postnatal depression/anxiety, although I refused to really believe that at the time.

Littleboy 1, just home from the hospital.
However, once he reached three months old, both Littleboy 1 and I reached a turning point. He calmed down and became a gurgling, happy, delightful baby; I calmed down too and started to enjoy motherhood. Suddenly I realised that we were living not far from the heart of Nappy Valley; an area tailor-made for families. Whether it was walks on the Common, trips to the Wandsworth One O Clock Club or Mother and Baby cinema showings, there was always something to do and friends to do it with.

After nine months or so, I started doing some part-time work again. After a few weeks of trying to work with the baby at home (big mistake), I found a local childminder, although this eventually turned out badly- she fussed constantly that Littleboy 1 wasn't wearing enough "layers", and tutted over his fussy eating. He was her first "client", but when she took on others, she advised me that he wasn't taking too well to the interlopers (he had thrown a toy at one them) and would have to go elsewhere.

Affronted, I found a local nursery, and just in time, too, for I was already pregnant with Littleboy 2. While this had happened earlier than we had planned, we were happy; until a problem presented itself with the pregnancy. I had placenta previa with intermittent bleeding, which meant an enforced stay in hospital until the baby was born - which was likely to be early. We quickly hired a nanny and then began a very stressful few weeks, with The Doctor and Littleboy 1 (aged 18 months) visiting me in hospital every day. Littleboy 2 was eventually born at 35 weeks, and spent a week in the NICU, a frightening time for all, after having breathing problems in his first few hours.

Littleboy 2's first Christmas - he was so tiny and sleepy.

The hospital were reluctant to let him go home until he gained weight, and by this time I was desperate. I did everything I could to persuade them that he would be OK, even waking him constantly to feed him (he spent the first week of his life mainly asleep, and is still very keen on his bed). By the time we got him home, just in time for Christmas 2006, I was exhausted, but relieved that all was well. Somehow, the strain of having two kids to look after was nothing compared to all I'd been through, and I adapted to it pretty well. The best advice a friend once gave me was "make sure you get out of the house and do something once a day". And we did.

By late 2007, I was working three days a week, two of them in a PR agency owned by my friend Nota Bene (who then started his own blog) and spending Monday and Friday with the kids. I was content, but somehow felt an urge to write something other than features and press releases. As a teenager, I had written hundreds of stories, poems and even started a few novels, but since then all my writing had been journalistic rather than creative. Then, I read the book Petite Anglaise, about an English blogger living in France, and about the same time read Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson, which satirises life in Notting Hill (where my husband grew up, so rather familiar). I wondered about starting a satirical blog about life in Nappy Valley - after all, there was plenty of material.

With my two boys just before our move to America

And in January 2008, I did. I wrote about music classes in Nappy Valley here. And then I wrote about losing my pram (a true story) and about a hellish visit to soft play. And eventually people started commenting on my blog, and I on their blogs.

And the rest, my friends, is history. You can read it all here. We moved to Long Island in 2009 and since then I've been charting our experience as Brits in America. The last eight years have been some of the most eventful and momentous of my life. The births of my lovely children, a move abroad that I will never regret, some ups and downs and some unforgettable experiences..

What with the illness that has been plaguing me since last October, the last few months have been probably the toughest of my life. Now we are facing a new challenge; a move back to London. But looking back has been therapeutic, and now I just need to hold onto the hope that life can be great once again.

Monday, 18 March 2013

A time of transition: 2000-2005

On holiday in Sicily in 2001.
By 2001, I had been promoted at work and was now news editor of the magazine I worked on. This involved being in charge of a team of seven reporters, managing the stories they were working on, editing them and deciding what went where in the magazine. It was a busy, stressful job but I thrived on it; finally I felt like I had become a real journalist. I loved the thrill of excitement when we beat our rival magazine to a scoop, and ferreting out industry secrets. We worked hard but also partied hard; particularly around Christmas, we were out virtually every night at great restaurants and glamorous agencies.

Meanwhile The Doctor was also working hard; he'd joined a South London-based training scheme, which had precipitated our move from Highbury to Clapham, where we bought a run-down Victorian terraced house. At weekends, we worked on doing up our house, and travelled whenever we could; the new low cost airlines meant that weekends away in Europe were relatively cheap for young professional couples without kids. We went skiing every year and in the summer, had fun holidays with friends such as renting villas in Italy.

Looking glammed up on my 30th birthday

These were happy years, but there were also troubles in our wider family life; my father remarried, but unfortunately it did not work out, and meanwhile my father-in-law was miserable after the death of his wife. Christmases were especially hard; without mothers to hold the family together, families particularly suffer at this time.

In 2003 I turned 30, and around this time I think I began to feel restless. Some of our siblings were starting families, but we did not yet feel we were ready. Meanwhile, many of our friends had spent years working abroad, or had gone travelling for a year, and, probably spurred on by my childhood abroad, I wanted to do the same. In truth, my hectic lifestyle was also starting to pall a bit; and sometimes I felt like The Doctor and I were like ships passing in the night, particularly when he was on call for the weekend.

By the Mekong river in Laos, one of my favourite places on our fourth month round the world trip
So in late 2003, I resigned from my job and The Doctor arranged a sabbatical. He had always wanted to do a PhD, and now he had a chance to take a break from his training and study for a few years. Before that started, we booked a round the world ticket with Trailfinders and, on New Year's Day 2004, set off on a four month trip. Our destinations included Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam; Australia and New Zealand; Tahiti and Easter Island; Bolivia, Chile and Peru, and finally Belize. I wrote about it here, so I won't go into all the detail again, but it was a fantastic, eye-opening trip which I am so utterly glad we took the time to do.

We got back feeling refreshed and energized, and I started to establish myself as a freelance journalist, working from home and writing for a wide range of different magazines. But by now I was also impatient to have a baby. My sister had had her first child, and some of our old friends were also starting families. 

By the end of 2004, I was pregnant with Littleboy 1. A whole new chapter was about to begin.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The keen young hack: 1995-2000

Wedding day, 1998
Getting a job in journalism in 1995 wasn't easy. The most recent recession was easing off, but we weren't yet in the new media boom of the late 90s. Junior editorial positions on magazines were few and far between, and insanely competitive; if you wanted to work on a newspaper, it was extremely poorly paid, likely to be located somewhere you'd never heard of, and also insanely competitive.

I really wanted to live in Bristol, to be with The Doctor, but jobs there were even harder to come by, so I reluctantly started applying for jobs in London. That summer, The Doctor and I shared his flat, but by September it was all to come to an end. I got a job on a magazine about printing and publishing technology. While it wasn't my ideal thing by any means, it paid twelve thousand pounds a year and was situated just off Oxford Street. It was decided I would live with my Dad, in his flat in the Barbican (he spent the week there and the weekends with my mother in Suffolk). I bought a new outfit from Jigsaw to celebrate, said a tearful goodbye to The Doctor, and reluctantly headed up to London on the train.

I spent two years at the company - a small publishing firm. Mainly, it was mayhem. They ran three magazines out of two chaotic offices that were a health and safety nightmare.  At one point, the shop downstairs was being demolished and we had to a climb a rickety ladder up to the first floor to get to work. In the other office, everyone chain-smoked and the air was heavy with the smell of fags and dirty coffee mugs. We had one computer with internet access (very exciting at the time) and everybody took turns to use it. The company's finances were dodgy (it went bankrupt a few years later); it was not unknown for paychecks to bounce, if you were the last to pay yours in.

The magazine was monthly, and the last week of every month before we went to press was crazy; my editor tended to leave everything to the last minute, despite my attempts to be organised. One morning, I came into the office to smell a musty smell; our production editor had actually slept in the office, having finished at 3am. On the plus side, my boss hated flying, so sent me on all the press trips on which he was invited. I travelled about once a month, mainly to Europe but also to the US, usually flying business class and staying in luxurious hotels. The companies we covered - the likes of Agfa, Kodak and Fujifilm - had big budgets for entertaining the press (probably because writing about products such as scanners was deeply boring). While I can't say I ever truly "enjoyed" the job, the travel was fun, and I met some lovely people at the company, (including my good friend U, who blogs at Four Down Mum to Go).

I lived in London for the week, and went to Bristol to see The Doctor at weekends, where our student-type life continued. All the time, I was still trying to get a job in Bristol or nearby; I had several interviews, but they all came to nothing. And The Doctor was stuck there; even when he graduated, medical students there were supposed to do their first year of work in the Southwest.

By late 1996, we were getting to a frustrating stage in our relationship; how were we going to be together? The Doctor solved it when he proposed to me, atop the Ridgeway in Berkshire. Of course, I accepted. As my fiance, he would move up to London and attempt to get his first job there. Despite dire warnings from his fellow medics that this would be career suicide, he got a decent first job at Barnet Hospital and we moved into our first flat, a basement in Highbury near the old Arsenal stadium. Things were looking up. I eventually managed to escape the dodgy publishing firm for a beauty trade magazine, while he moved to the Hammersmith hospital. The following year, we got married. It was a wonderful day, sunny and happy, and we followed it with an idyllic honeymoon in Venice and Tuscany.

And then six weeks later my mother died.

I don't want to go into all the details on my blog, out of respect for her memory and because it's another whole tale. But obviously it was a very sad time, for me and my whole family. It took me a long, long tme to get over it, and just when I was starting to, another terrible thing happened; my mother-in-law also died, at the end of 2000, just a few months after being diagnosed with leukaemia.  

It was a traumatic time for both The Doctor and me,; it hadn't exactly been the greatest start to married life. In response to all this trauma, I did two things; I threw myself into work, and I also went slightly wild, keener on late nights, pubs and parties than ever before. The combination of the two was pretty perfect for my next job; working on a magazine covering the ad industry, where long Soho lunches and champagne-fuelled agency parties were par for the course. The dotcom bubble was growing, London was awash with money and by the end of the year 2000, I was a hardworking, hard partying editor on a respected business magazine.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Student days: 1990-95

I loved my years in Bristol. Particularly summers drinking Pimms at the Avon Gorge hotel, on the right of the famous Suspension Bridge. 

In 1991, I headed off to University. The sixth form had been a much better happier time for me at the school. Although I missed life in Hong Kong, on the plus side my parents were now living in Suffolk and the rules had been relaxed at school, which meant that you could basically go home any weekend. Increasingly, I did that. I worked pretty hard for my A levels, and won a place at Bristol University to read English (having flunked the Cambridge interview, probably in part due to a bad cold and confessing that I liked to read chick-lit).

That summer, I went Inter-railing with my schoolfriend J. We spent a month slumming it around Europe; sleeping on trains, staying in Youth Hostels, even sleeping on the beach in Cannes one night. We partied in Perpignan with a group of French squaddies; sat round campfires on the beaches of Corfu with English public schoolboys; chased a mugger in Barcelona to retrieve J's wallet; shared a dusty pensione with a couple of Americans we randomly met in Rome's railway station. It was a fabulous month; I came back slim, tanned and totally ready for University. But I hadn't yet found one thing I wanted; a real romantic relationship.

Bristol was a revelation to me compared to the strict regime of school. Now I could do pretty much what I liked; there were barely any rules or regulations (other than not smoking in the halls of residence, and I didn't smoke anyway); you could sleep in till noon, drink yourself senseless, have boys in your room overnight. My English degree seemed to involve very few lectures. I found this a little unnerving at first, and wasn't quite sure what to do with myself half the time, but I quickly made friends with the people on my corridor in my hall of residence. They were an eclectic bunch, and one of them, a medical student, was to become my future husband. I wrote a little about our courtship here. It was the first time I had been in love, and was to shape my life forever.

Once I was part of a couple, University was a wonderful time for me. I had left behind the strait-laced boarding schoolgirl, dumped Laura Ashley for lycra and was out to have a good time. The Doctor and I had a strong band of mutual friends and Bristol was a great place to be at university; in the summer, we'd have picnics on the Downs and drink Pimms at the Avon Gorge hotel next to the Clifton suspension bridge; in winter, there were plenty of cosy pubs at which to hang out, unless it was Wednesday, in which case you went to the Students' Union bar. Academic work took a bit of a back seat however; although still an avid reader, I took little real interest in my degree. I graduated with a respectable 2.1, and a big dilemma as to what to do next.

Other than my early dreams of acting, I had always wanted to work in the media. I considered advertising and PR, and even had a few interviews at firms with graduate trainee schemes. But what really appealed was becoming a journalist, so I applied to do postgraduate journalism at Cardiff University. There was just one tiny problem; I had failed to do any kind of student journalism while at Bristol, having been too busy partying. The tutor at Cardiff told me as much; she would put me on the waiting list for a place, but I HAD to get some experience.

So, that summer, I went off and worked as an unpaid intern at the Bristol Evening Post and at BBC Wildlife magazine; I did a typing course; I won a competition to get onto Cosmopolitan's student advisory board. The latter involved two lunches at the Groucho Club (how glamorous!) and a week of work experience in London at the magazine (which mainly seemed to involve getting lunch for then editor, the fabulous Marcelle d'Argy Smith. I remember it well; she liked a smoked salmon bagel). Meanwhile, I kept on telephoning Cardiff, asking them if there was a place yet, and updating them on what I had been doing work-wise. Eventually, two weeks before term started - a result! I had a place. By chance I knew a friend of a friend from Bristol who was also going to Cardiff; I got in touch and we ended up sharing a flat.

Although I missed The Doctor (I travelled to Bristol every Friday night, coming back on Monday morning), and wasn't too enamoured with Cardiff itself, I enjoyed the work side of things far more during that postgraduate year. As well as honing my writing skills, I actually thrived on learning stuff like shorthand and journalistic law; somehow it seemed much more practical than my English degree. I made some more great friends (including the lovely M who has her own blog, Circles in the Sand) and finished the year with a distinction in my postgraduate diploma.

I was now a fully qualified journalist. The next challenge was to get a job.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The reluctant boarder 1984-89

The town where I went to school. The imposing school buildings are on the far right, up on the cliff

In 1984, I started at an all girls boarding school in a seaside town. Just like in Enid Blyton's stories, the school was perched right on the cliffs of the coast. There was a rough shingle beach, the North sea in which we were strictly forbidden to swim, and beach huts behind which people went to smoke and snog boys.  (That sure didn't happen in Malory Towers).

I had an idealised vision of what boarding school was to be like. The girls would be tomboyish, and full of pranks, always up for a midnight feast. Teachers would either be firm but fair, or eccentric and tease-able. We'd be having so much fun we wouldn't have time to miss our parents. Would we?

I think my heart first started to sink when we arrived at the first year girls' boarding house and noticed a "bath rota" pinned to the noticeboard telling us at what point in the week could we have our bath. Basically, three times a week, once with a hairwash. There were no showers, not even a shower attachment, so you had to wash your hair in a sink and rinse it with a cup.  (It turned out that the first year girls were instantly recognisable in school from their greasy, unwashed hair.) And the bathroom doors did not have locks, so that Matron could come in and check you were actually in the bath (as if you wouldn't be, considering how infrequently you could wash).

Then there was our housemistress, Miss J. She was a  Northern Irishwoman in her mid 40s, with chalky white makeup and a cross around her neck; creepily charming to the parents, but with unsmiling bird-like pale blue eyes that hinted at a bitter core. It turned out she was renowned throughout the school as an utter sadist.

She spent her time drumming into us that we were horribly spoiled, and that if we were homesick, we were awful girls for letting our parents down. In the first three weeks, three girls tried to run away. Others sobbed themselves to sleep at night. I wasn't one of them - the initial excitement hadn't yet worn off - but after the first half term back with our parents - after which mine returned to Hong Kong - it dawned on me that a)I lived here now b) I didn't like it and c)I really, really missed my parents and my home.

The next few years were tough. In the first year, Miss J made my life a misery; no doubt she saw me as a spoilt, privileged little expat and my lively streak was ruthlessly suppressed.  Later on, while I made some good friends at the school, and there were some pranks and mischief and fun and and hilarity in the dorms I never really came to enjoy boarding, and basically lived for the school holidays. (If you want to know how I feel about my own kids and boarding school, I wrote it about here).

In the second year, I was finally rid of the grim Miss J and moved into the senior boarding house. This was much less strict (you could have luxuries such as a shower, and a hairdryer! and you could phone your parents more than once a week!) and our housemistress was firm but fair, more in the Enid Blyton mould.

Unfortunately, I happened to have been grouped with a handful of spiteful, snobbish bullies who made my life a misery for at least two years. Together with three other girls (who became my close friends, something I posted about here), I was mercilessly picked on. Looking back the reason is clear; we were misfits. Unlike them, the three of us were not from a Sloaney, East Anglian county-type background that involved dogs and horses and hunting.  We were also all relatively "brainy".

At one point, I begged my parents to move me to another school and I believe they seriously considered it. Might it have changed things? I just don't know. I guess it was a learning experience. I learned to avoid the bullies, and meanwhile forged a strong bond with my friends. But for a few years, I became a quieter, more withdrawn person, losing the confidence I'd had as a child. My self-esteem plummeted; for years thought of myself as an unattractive "swot" - well, that was what those bullies said about me. Looking back, I can see that this was just not true; I was a perfectly good-looking teenager (thought not in an obvious way - I didn't know how to apply make up and my dress sense tended towards the unfortunate Laura Ashley style popular at the time), clever and still good at acting (I was always in school plays and gained high marks in my LAMDA drama exams). But, like an anorexic looking in the mirror and seeing a fat person, I just could not see it.

At least back in Hong Kong, I felt like my old self ; confident and outgoing, rather than the shyer person I had become at school. As teenagers, my friends and I had a ball: roaming the streets of Hong Kong buying cheap clothes and plastic jewellery with our pocket money, or hanging out at the club playing tennis and swimming. Christmas holidays were the best.  There were New Year's Eve parties (which always involved Scottish dancing and charades), Christmas carols and cocktail parties galore. At 14 on New Year's Eve, I had my first kiss behind the garages behind our new home, a colonial block of flats up on the top of the Peak.

At 15, I met my first boyfriend, on the plane to Hong Kong from school. It wasn't a grand passion by any means, but we had fun going to the cinema together and attending our first grown-up "balls". Then another boy came on the scene; we also met on the plane ( a funny story; Jason Donovan, then at the height of his post-Neighbours fame, was on our flight, and he tried to persuade me to come and get his autograph with him. Sadly, the stewardesses would not allow us). He was much older (21), could drive AND his parents had a boat, which he could also drive. While again I wasn't madly in love, the boat and car were definite bonuses. I was beginning to come out of my shell.

And then in 1989, everything changed again.

First: the school announced that they were changing the criteria for the sixth form, a ruse by the new headmistress to make it more academic. (Sadly she failed; five years later, the school went bankrupt). Anyone who did not achieve at least five Cs at GCSE would have to leave and go elsewhere.  I was ecstatic. It meant the group of bullies, who had no hope of this level academic achievement, were forced to leave. Having gained an academic scholarship, I went into the sixth form far happier than ever before at the school, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

But after one half term of the Lower Sixth, there was life-changing news. My father announced he was leaving his job. There were various reasons, plus, my mother was unhappy; she wanted to live in England again. The combination was enough for him to resign and move the family back to the UK, where we owned a farmhouse in Suffolk. That Christmas would be our last in Hong Kong. I understood the reasons, but deep down, I was devastated. Hong Kong was my home; I would never, ever think of England in the same way.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Growing up expat: 1978-84

The next post is about the six years I spent as a schoolgirl in Hong Kong; a happy time in a magical and extraordinary world. As a young girl I grew up with islands; with jungly undergrowth and creepers; with the salty and sometimes rubbishy smell of Hong Kong harbour; with building sites and mangy dogs and boat trips and bright lights at night.

Hong Kong in 1976

Hong Kong in the late 70s and early 80s was changing rapidly; it sat somewhere on the cusp between being the colonial outpost it had been in the mid 20th century and the international business centre it is today. When we arrived, in 1976, many grand colonial buildings still stood; not only landmarks such as the Hong Kong Club, but beautiful old apartment buildings and houses. However, as each year passed, these were rapidly knocked down and replaced with giant tower blocks; concrete mixer trucks and scaffolding were an everyday sight, and the sound of clanging from a building site was a major source of complaint.

In colonial Hong Kong, most expats led a life of relative wealth and privilege. As a merchant banker (in the days before it became a dirty word), my father was entitled to weekends on the company "junk" (a large wooden motor launch, rather than the traditional boat with a sail).

Together with the other bank families, and various friends, we would set off from Aberdeen Harbour, then teeming with sampans, floating restaurants and the ubiquitous mangy dogs. As the boat cruised to a beach, or to one of Hong Kong's outlying islands, such as Lamma, the adults sat down below tucking into the first beer of the day as we kids would sit on the boat's top deck and play, sing and laugh in the wind.  Then, we'd spend the day swimming, diving off the top of the boat (if you were daring enough), exploring the beaches and coves, and taking exhilarating rides in the speedboat while adults waterskied behind it. We returned in the late afternoon, salty and sunburned, tucking into fruitcake and tea as the sun went down. I don't remember if we went every weekend*, but it seemed like it. Basically, it was an all day party.

Aberdeen Harbour, 1984

As another legacy of colonial culture, every expat in Hong Kong also seemed to belong to a "club" of some kind. There was the Country Club, the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, the Football Club. We belonged to the Ladies Recreation Club, which by then was a bit of a misnomer, as it was no longer just for "ladies". Instead it was well-known as a family-oriented club, with swimming pools, tennis courts, a playground, gym, library and social activities like Christmas parties and kids' film screenings. I learned to swim there and did a weekly gymnastics lesson; other afternoons, we'd just hang out there after school, us kids running from pool to playground with little parental supervision, only stopping to snack on Maltesers or eat a supper of chicken satay, while our parents sunbathed or chatted on the terrace.

In the 1970s, another perk of my father's job was first class travel airline around the world with his family. Each summer, he had the option to fly back to the UK with a round the world ticket. Before I was 10, I had visited places including Japan, Thailand; Sri Lanka; Kenya; The Seychelles; Taiwan;  Malaysia; the Phillipines; Hawaii, New York; Los Angeles and more. I had no idea how privileged we were, although when we did visit relatives in the UK, I always had a sense that our lives were completely different to theirs.

My sister (right) and I, on holiday in the Seychelles.

As expats, my parents seemed to lead a glamorous life, attending and hosting dinner parties, cocktail parties, and fancy dress parties. Every expat in Hong Kong had a Filipino maid or Chinese "Amah", so childcare was not an issue when going out; watching my mum apply her makeup and perfume for an evening out seemed almost a nightly ritual**.

Meanwhile, I was enjoying school. Our gifted music teacher, Mrs Ryan, had trained at the Guildhall School of Speech and Drama and devoted her life to developing our talents as actors, singers and musicians. I played 'cello (badly) in the orchestra, piano at home (rather better), performed in plays and took Guildhall examinations in speech and drama every year. When I was 10, my class performed the children's chorus in a professional production of Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Hong Kong's City Hall; an experience I shall never forget. For years, I yearned to go on the stage (and maybe I will always regret not doing so).

Then, in 1981, we had a brief hiatus. My father was transferred back to the London office; we packed up and left Hong Kong, thinking for good. I was excited about the move. I couldn't remember life in England and my mother always talked nostalgically of "home'. I was sad to say goodbye to my friends, but our first few weeks back in Essex involved snow, winter and Christmas, and this was incredibly exciting. My sister and I donned a new uniform and went to a local private school; where you sat at old fashioned individual desks with inkwells, learned French and ate ghastly tapioca-style school dinners.

However, six months later, either fate intervened or one thing had become clear - we all missed Hong Kong. (Well I assume so - I can't ask my mother what she thought, and I think she must have had mixed feelings). My father took a new job with a large Asian bank, we sold our house in Essex and shipped everything back to the Far East.

Our school building (like so many things in HK) had been demolished while we were away, and the school was now temporarily situated in Victoria Barracks (now a park I believe), old army accommodation right next to the lower terminus of the Peak Tram. We now lived next to May Road station (apparently the world's steepest tram station) in Mid Levels, so my sister, friends and I travelled to school on the tram every day. My mother also taught as a supply teacher at our school, although she never took my class.

The Peak Tram in the 80s - we lived in the building pictured directly to the left down the hill.

So what was I like at this time? I was an enthusiastic child, did well at school and was fairly talented at drama, frequently winning prizes at Speech and Drama festivals where we'd compete with other schools. I was fairly popular, with many good friends, some of whom I keep up with to this day. But I also had a naughty streak at this stage; I know that I was basically turfed out of Brownies for some misdemeanour, although I cannot now remember what it was, and there was the terrible time a friend and I were caught throwing an orange juice carton out of the Peak Tram window. There was a witch-hunt at school about it, and I never owned up, although I was convinced the headmaster knew it was me.

And then suddenly I was almost 11, and taking the Common Entrance for boarding school in England. Again I was excited. I had read all of Enid Blyton's boarding school tales Malory Towers and St. Clare's, and thought boarding school would be all midnight feasts, high jinks and spiffing fun.
Unfortunately, I could not have been more wrong....

*My father tells me it was around every three weeks, depending weather. 
** Again, according to Dad, it was definitely NOT every night...

Sunday, 3 March 2013

My first five years; 1973-78.

Before I begin this series of posts, I have to acknowledge that it was inspired by Melissa at Talk About York (formerly Home office Mum), who has been summing up each decade of her life as she turns 40 in a series of incredibly well-written posts. As I am also nearing this landmark, I started to think what a great idea this was. I'm not only doing it for myself, but for my children - who really knows about their parents' lives after all, unless said parent is a celebrity and writes an autobiography? And, to be honest, I'm also doing it to remind myself of who I am, at a challenging period in my life where I sometimes lose sight of the person I have been for the past 40 years.

I did face a few challenges. I started writing this and realised no way was I going to fit everything I want to say into five posts. So I'm splitting it into eight posts, each covering around five years. If that is simply too much to wade through, look away now. Another challenge is lack of any photos - all our family albums are currently sitting in my sister's garage, and my own non-digital photos are in a cottage in Berkshire. And so I've had to rely on the internet to find relevant pictures for this post. But - it's amazing what you can do with Google these days. Finally, there's the fact that my mother died in 1998, and is not around to fill in some of the detail. (Dad, if you are reading, perhaps you can correct me on any point).

So: the first five years.

I was born in Harold Wood Hospital, Essex; within the London borough of Havering, so I suppose I can legitimately call myself both a Londoner and an Essex Girl. My mother was a teacher in a primary school nearby, my father worked in banking in the City. Around the time of my birth, they moved to Hutton, near Brentwood, buying a Victorian house.

 I found this image on Google Streeview! It looks very different from how it did in the 70s.

My mother, who had a passionate dislike of modern houses, always said that our house had "character". And she was right. At the back of the house was a conservatory, with a magnificent grape vine growing from its ceiling. These grapes hung down in succulent bunches in summer, attracting many wasps. I believe my parents tried to make wine from them, but never succeeded.

Our garden was large and wide, with a shady area down the end that I used to find vaguely exciting, large blue hydrangea bushes (to this day, I love blue hydrangeas) and a silver birch that was planted to commemorate my birth. And there was an outside loo in a brick outbuilding, which always had spiders in it.

What else do I remember? The hallway was painted deep purple, and when my baby sister was born, her nursery was painted deep orange. Years later, I would live in a house with a purple dining room and (pale) orange nursery - painted by us. There's a starting point for a Dulux ad (can I copyright it, please?).

But one day, everything changed. Here's a vivid memory; one day, in 1976, my father threw me up in the air in bed, and said: "We're going to Hong Kong today!"

I remember nothing about the aeroplane journey (which took around 22 hours in those days. Presumably it was hellish for my parents, with a six week old newborn and me, aged three). I often wonder what was it like for my mother, arriving in a far-off country with two small children in the days before the internet and emails.

My mother in the 1970s, walking on The Peak

Obviously as a child, I was unaware of any of this upheaval. I remember only little vignettes; visits to the beach with with buckets and spades, and an elaborate routine of cleaning the sand from our feet before returning to the house, involving buckets of water carried by my mother. Shopping in Central, and visits to the narrow "lanes" which sold tiny children's shoes and huge rolls of material for making clothes. Visits to Stanley market, with its mangy dogs and rattan baskets of rotting vegetables and stalls selling piles and piles of denim jeans.

I caught whooping cough, which seemed to me to last for ages, and perhaps it did. Every day I would ask my mother "Am I better now?" and she would say "Nearly." They must have been worried about my weight, because I remember always having to be weighed on the bathroom scales. 

At some point I started preschool, at the house of a New Zealand woman called Mrs Pryor.  It seems amazing now that she actually ran a preschool in her own ground floor apartment, but it seemed to work well. We played outside in a large communal garden, and ate Ritz crackers at breaktime. Mrs Pryor had an adopted Korean daughter called Sonya, who was my friend, and this seemed very intriguing. At this point I am sure my mother was talking about the idea of adopting a Vietnamese refugee baby. (She couldn't have any more children, having suffered from pre-eclampsia during my sister's birth). It didn't happen. I wonder what life would have been like had she done so?

Google Streetview strikes again; this is the road where my preschool was.

And finally, when I was five years old, I started "big school", at Glenealy Junior School in Hornsey Road. The next five years are naturally much clearer in my memory, and were to be some of the happiest of my life.