mumsnetBack along, my family and I swapped a house for a three-acre field in Devon and a leaky caravan where we lived off-grid for two years. Sadly, we failed to get the planning permission we needed to stay. We are now back within four walls, with a proper loo and everything in a cottage in Dartmoor. So this is now a blog about living ethically amid a fabulous landscape with our home educated kids while we adjust to being 'normal' - for a while... and what we plan to do with our land next

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

'I want croissants for breakfast,' demanded eight year old Zena earlier this week. 'I haven't got any,' I replied. 'Well you can make some,' she said. 'I wouldn't know where to begin,' I said. 'Well,' she reposted 'that Raymond Blank can do it.'

Raymond Bloody Blanc, if you please! This is what my daughter expects of me with my tiny temperamental oven in an overcrowded four-berth caravan. Still, this exchange did have the effect of rendering me speechless in what had hitherto been a voluble morning conducted at volume.

It has to be said that there are times that all is not peace and harmony in our wee living space. Mornings and evenings tend to be particular flashpoints, entailing as they do the putting away – or getting out – of beds and bedding. Children have to be ejected from sleeping bags and chivied to stow them away before anything meaningful can be achieved. This, they are reluctant to do. Then there is the squabbling that starts first thing – and for which I am hopelessly ill equipped to deal without the benefits of several cups of tea and a sturdy breakfast. So soon, too, I am behaving like a child shrieking and carrying on in the grip of low blood sugar levels while the morning hours tick away.

I tend to get overly upset about this and have to remind myself that even the most functional family might reasonably expect to be tested at times by our living arrangements. There is no privacy, no quiet place to go if you want to recharge the batteries, on top of which are the deprivations – screens, in the kids' case, and the internet and hot baths in mine. And I won't even get started on the mud.

I've been reading a useful little book called Think Yourself Happy, by Rick Norris. In it, he explains how easy it is to fall into a pattern of negativity – for instance, to remember only the disagreement we had at the end of what had up to that point been a lovely harmonious day.

Positive thinking is kind of essential in maintaining sanity. It's so easy to get bogged down by the difficulties – but actually it is overcoming those difficulties that makes this whole venture such a worthwhile exercise.

Back before we moved onto the land, I was explaining to an open-mouthed Guardian colleague that five of us, two cats and a dog would be living in a small caravan. 'You'll all go mad' he said – somewhat prophetically. At the time I quipped that on the contrary, while his world fell apart because the capsules hadn't arrived for his Nespresso machine, I would find happiness in something as simple as a hot tap.

In fact, this has turned out to be very true – I really do derive enormous pleasure and satisfaction from little conveniences. Today, for instance, I had my monthly bath – an event which I look forward to and savour. This particular bath is in a colleague's bachelor apartment – one of my roving Friday night crash pads. I love Ed's flat because it is the antithesis of my usual life. It is spacious, male, organised and uncluttered – guitars adorn the walls and interesting books are arranged in neat and pleasing symmetry. Lying in the bath this morning, I tried to work out how many caravans I could fit into the flat, and decided it would be about twelve. That's floor space, incidentally, not actual caravans.

What I need to do is adapt these positive feelings for those times when things aren't going so well and remind myself that when the children are exchanging blows, 'im indoors is being miserable and the cat's in the butter again, that this is all to be expected and perfectly in order.

But I'm still not making any bloody croissants.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Busman’s holiday

I’m on holiday at the moment. When I say ‘holiday’ – what I mean is I am off of work. It is not a holiday, in the sense of taking recreation and leisure. I am sure that I am not alone as a parent, and certainly as a home-educating parent with children always at home – in seeing work as a kind of respite. I love having my kids around all the time, but parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world. There are no right or easy answers – despite what the childless, or people whose children have long grown up, think. It’s amazing how easily many days slip into unproductive chaos, so that at the end as I survey the mess through the tattered remnants of good intentions and patience, I feel that nothing has been achieved other than that time has creaked inexorably on .

Work, however, is different. I am a sub-editor. It is my job to package copy into a designated space, check it all makes sense, write a headline and picture caption and send it on its way. This is done to a deadline, which gives the work a beginning and a very satisfying definite end – at which point it is gone, yesterday’s news. It’s about as opposite from parenting as it is possible to be. No loose ends, no half-finished jobs, no sense of a hundred things left undone. It’s neat – and I like it very much, as I do my colleagues who are generally highly intelligent, witty and fun and don’t usually tell me they hate me, or that I am ruining their life merely because I suggest they should eat their mashed potato if they want any apple crumble.

I work part-time so I can be at home with my kids, which means that money is tight and time off work is spent at home, as opposed to say, horse riding in Patagonia. Therefore, I don’t view time off work with particular pleasure and sometimes actively wish I wasn’t on holiday at all.

This was most memorably demonstrated about a year ago. We had just got a new kitten who was being bullied by our older kitten – her brother from a previous litter. It turned out that all he wanted to do was pin her down and wash her ears, but at the time we didn’t know that and thought he wanted to rip her head off. Anyway, we had to keep them separated and the new kitten inside. I left the house one Friday off work to take my daughter to her dancing lesson. When I came back an hour later, the front door was wide open with no sign of the kitten. It was cold and there was already a heavy frost – and I had visions that the older cat had driven her away into the night where she would surely die of cold and starvation. I spent half an hour checking the busy road near the house for mangled bodies and then went off across the fields in the dark, looking for a black blob little bigger than my hand. It was after I stumbled over for the fifth time that the thought occurred to me that I would, all things considered, far rather be at work. For those who like a happy ending, the kitten turned out to be asleep in a drawer and is now a very contented cat.

So, time off work is not always successful – and this is no exception. I had originally booked the time because we should have now been planting trees. But there are no trees to plant as we are awaiting news about a possible woodlands grant, so instead we are carrying on with the trailer, which is being converted into living quarters. I, therefore, hastily convened a trip to friends in Bristol, which was a roaring success – too much so, in fact. My friends live in a warm, comfortable house in one of the city’s more salubrious suburbs. The children filled their boots with new friends and lots of screen time and I spent two days in a happy haze with good food, decent showers and people that I love. Then we returned home to our small, cold, electricity-less caravan that smells of damp in a village where we can’t help but feel a little unloved. ‘I want to go back to Bri-hi-hi-stol,’ sobbed Zena. ‘I want to live next door to Noah and Barney,’ she wailed.

I knew exactly how she felt.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

All in a lather

I’ve become something of a connoisseur of launderettes. Given that the vast majority of people nowadays have washing machines and tumble driers that leaves a narrow, but interesting, range of people who use launderettes and their availability says much about the demographic of a town. Exeter, for example, has quite a few – but it is a university city with a fair amount of other educational establishments such as international schools. Hence it has a large student population possibly in need of somewhere to do their washing. Our two nearest towns are Crediton and Tiverton. To my knowledge, Crediton has no launderettes whatsoever – the subtext being that everyone who dwells therein is in possession of a shiny washing machine. Poor old Tiverton, however, well it has about five – and that figures, it just feels a little more down at heel and deprived.

It’s a couple of decades since I had to use a launderette, but it is much the same – the usual mix of faulty machines, warm soapy smells, single men, foreign workers, travellers and people washing their double duvets. There’s a kind of camaraderie that exists – you can’t watch someone else’s smalls going round and round in the machine next to yours without feeling a little bond grow between you.

But that’s not always the case. Last Sunday, for instance, I was alone in the launderette stuffing mud-spattered clothes into a machine with little hope that they would come out much cleaner. About halfway through my laundry bag, I came across a long, plump and energetic earthworm. Now, I accept that most people don’t have earthworms in their laundry, but then most people don’t keep their washing in a caravan awning.

Anyway, I carefully placed the worm on top of the machine on a comfy glove and continued putting in my washing. At this point, three Polish men entered the launderette. They made a merry group as they arrived chatting and laughing, but this stopped as if by a switch when they saw me and my earthworm.

OK, I admit, I may have been talking to it at the time. I may possibly have been telling it that it was lucky not to be boiled alive on a hot wash and that I would find it a nice municipal bush if it would bear with me for a minute or two.

The men stood uncertainly at the door and then sidled around the shop perimeter, keeping me firmly in their sights. They were clearly not taking any chances with the crazy worm lady. Taking a leaf out of John Wayne’s book, I decided the maxim ‘never apologise and never explain’ was best employed in this instance. I shut the machine door with a flourish, set it on ‘start’, smiled boldly at the men, picked up my new friend, and left. As I drove away from the launderette, I looked in my rear-view mirror. All three men had come out into the street and were staring silently in my direction.