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Tuesday, 8 July 2008

them were t’days, and the price of everything

My mother, never shy of having the last word, fixed a scary eye on F9, jabbed at his brand new watercolour set and said,
“In your mother’s day, that would have been a Christmas present.”
“Yes!” I said, a schoolgirl again (grateful variety), “My Guide uniform was my birthday present!”
“Oh, but the belt was lovely,” said my mother, “not like now. Has he said 'thank you'?”

F9 sat, face forward, his lips imperceptibly pursed, acknowledgement of these interesting facts: nil. His hand curled a little tighter round the paint box.
It seemed that a further last word was needed.
My mother leant forward.
“And in my day, a second hand one of those would have been a Christmas present.”

We had been to Bristol, to the RWA,where my brother and father had photographs in the current exhibition.
I had bought F9 a little watercolour box since, in his day, we encourage any hint of interest in a wholesome activity. Indeed we pounce on it and throw in a pad, a pen, and a notebook, too. I forbore from mentioning that the paints only represented 3 bottles of wine and, quite frankly, the purchasing had also doubled up as mollification. Words had been exchanged representing Health and Safety on the till operative’s part and intense interest in climbing on the balcony rail on F9’s. If you can get out of anywhere these days only £20 the lighter, whether in bribes or unnecessary purchases, it has to be called a triumph.

But somewhere between my childhood and his, things have indeed changed. Further back in time, my grandfather famously had only three toys while growing up, and one of those might have been a wooden spoon. Clearly he didn’t know he was born.

In Borders, I came upon my brother wasting money on crappy books featuring unicorn detectives or puppies knitting jumpers. Pink, swirly glittery covers bearing phrases like, “dreams can come true” and “friendship saves the day.” The stuff to send your thoughts selachimorphal, anyway, (which is a big word to do with sharks).
Later, I asked him what he spends a week on his daughter, on what might be called “extras,” ballet, horses, crappy books.
“Only about £30,” he said.

Luckily, my mother was out of the room, possibly instructing her hamster in New Moves (the hamster is the only one left who can realistically fall under her instructional arc), for that would have surely called for a Sharp Intake of Breath, £30 representing what our private school fees worked out at a week. The signing of the school fees’ cheques was always a black day in our house, shrouded in tiptoeing and nervous smiles; my father’s magnificent signature a flourish of desperation on the small rectangle.
“I’m only as good as my last job,” was the phrase implying a circling of wolves at the door.
Councils were at it even then, social realignment. Because we merely lived a mile from the good local grammar, we had been allocated the other, a seamy sink with only 6 pupils (what would be called students today) in the combined sixth form. Childhoods were famously short there. My father was exhorted by the head to do anything, anything at all, rather than sacrifice his children to that school. So he sold his collection of miniatures and off to private school went we.
On Saturday, I was able to explain the reasoning behind his cryptic crossword clues (luckily merely the Telegraph and therefore easy) which I think went someway towards recompense. Finally, a sense of money having been well spent.
That I only know what a fly agaric is being down to Babar was something about which I kept quiet.

Back in those days, the days of uniform as presents, our idea of humour was to peel off the stickers from a large item, say dog biscuits, and laboriously re-position it on something like mustard.
Out would stretch my father’s innocent hand and a frown would develop as focussing brought terrible truth.
“£3.50!” he’d breathe, sick to the stomach. Then, quick as a flash, “That’s 70 shillings. 70 shillings!
“Life’s expensive,” we’d say.

“You look after those paints,” was said at lunch.
The price of things, and the age of things, all relative, all important.
“Don’t patronise me,” wheezed F9, “I’m 9th oldest in my class.”

My mother was tending the hamster. Apparently he was sorting out his bedding. Making a bloody mess I’d’ve been told, doing that to my duvet.
The irony of it is that the one creature in our midst who truly does not know he is born is that hamster. The ease of the thing’s life defies belief. My father dipped a paw into a tin and retrieved a rock cake. My mother makes daily batches, her interest re-kindled by a pigeon they rescued. Which they called Frances (or Francis). Apparently Frances (now dead) liked rock cakes.
The hamster is not treated to rock cakes but I was wise enough to resist asking why. Age confers some sense, wariness the rest: you’ve got to feel strong to take on my mother at the best of times, let alone over the thorny issue of the most expensive bundle of fur in the world. I would have been treated to an irritable frown, and a “no no no, hamsters can’t digest Anchor butter.”
What they can digest is broccoli, and not bog-standard broccoli, either, my sharp glance told me, but Waitrose tenderstem broccoli. Presumably flown from Kenya - I dread to contemplate that creature's carbon pawprint. And laid, what’s bloody more, very Michelin, in same directional stripes on a mini-saucer, very shiny.

The hamster had to go to the vet recently.
“The what!” I shrieked, thinking what’s wrong with the bin. “What did that cost you?”
“Only £30,” my mother said, “very reasonable, in the circumstances.”
I did not enquire after the circumstances. As far as I could see, £30 equalled fifteen hamsters, one and a half mollification sessions at the RWA, or 9 bottles of surprisingly nice cheap wine. Or, if you must, for we all have our standards, 6 ghastly books about do-gooding unicorns.
Moreover, the most indulged hamster in the world has more toys on each layer of his, get this, his glass palace, than my poor grandfather could even dream of. Not one of them a wooden spoon, but colour co-ordinated to keep boredom at bay and enhance his SATs' score.
Sensory-deprivation comes there none, hamster-wards, each bauble over a hundred shillings’ worth.
Perhaps that is the true reason she was eyeing the water colours so and, next time I visit, there will be an easel propped in the corner of the glass palace and the hamster crashing about in a beret.
It had better be bloody grateful is all I can say.


Exmoorjane said...

Ho ho ho.....just what the doctor ordered on this gloomy day. Yes, oh yes, I too was a child of few toys (mainly saucepans and wooden spoons and, how sad is this, a bathroom rug slung over a chair which I loved with a passion as my pseudo rocking horse). I sobbed the day my mother said we really had to have the bathroom mat or we'd slip on the lino and break our necks.
Funny isn't it, the way such love and attention is tranferred to pets. SWCBM's was the dog of course - the possessor of truly human characteristics and supernatural intelligence.
Bitter, moi? Never. Love your equations: x hampsters = x bottles of cheap wine - x paint sets.
THe PP costs a cool 45 bottles of cheap wine a month, I reckon. Put that in your hampster cage and spin on it!! jxxx

Frances said...

Milla, this posting really took me a bit down memory lane, bringing lots of smiles, but also leaving me a bit wistful.

I think it grand that F9 has got a watercolor set to set his imagination loose. One of my favorite Christmas presents ever, ever, was a bottle of india ink, and a pen and a collection of penpoints (is that the proper term) in various sizes, and some paper. My dad gave them to me, and it was a great encouragement.

(Also very much agree with the notion that there are an awful lot of showy, shallow, junky books for sale in book stores these days.)

Best wishes!

Eve said...

I well remember the pain of returning home for a holiday to discover that mother was feeding a baby bird every two hours and so would not have time to feed me...oh.. and BTW the horse was cold so if I wanted my blanket back I'd have to go and discuss it with the evil old nag (horse).

mountainear said...

As EJ says what a good read on this miserable day.

Was reminded of the birthday when I received a grey school jumper and black and yellow school scarf. I was 17, vaguely rebellious and understandably ungrateful. I would have loved those water colours. sigh...

Dumdad said...

It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about the Four Yorkshiremen trying to outdo each other about how poor they were as lads.

It ends:

You were lucky to have a lake! There were a hundred and fifty of us living in t' shoebox in t' middle o' road.
Cardboard box?
You were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down t' mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep wi' his belt.
Luxury. We used to have to get out of the lake at six o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of 'ot gravel, work twenty hour day at mill for tuppence a month, come home, and Dad would thrash us to sleep with a broken bottle, if we were lucky!
Well, of course, we had it tough. We used to 'ave to get up out of shoebox at twelve o'clock at night and lick road clean wit' tongue. We had two bits of cold gravel, worked twenty-four hours a day at mill for sixpence every four years, and when we got home our Dad would slice us in two wit' bread knife.
Right. I had to get up in the morning at ten o'clock at night half an hour before I went to bed, drink a cup of sulphuric acid, work twenty-nine hours a day down mill, and pay mill owner for permission to come to work, and when we got home, our Dad and our mother would kill us and dance about on our graves singing Hallelujah.
And you try and tell the young people of today that ..... they won't believe you.
They won't!

P.S. I loved the image of the hamster as a painter with easel and beret!

Edward said...

My dear girl, I do SO hope that your mother hasn't/doesn't read this. Top blog as ever, natch.

KittyB said...

Always impressed by E's loyalty and the fact he actually reads your blogs i.e. it matters to him. Sweet.
Anyway... super blog, dear.

Elizabethd said...

Great reading. I want a hamster that paints pictures. Wearing a beret.

softinthehead said...

Great post - full of nostalgia. How did we ever survive. I remember getting a bedside lamp for one Christmas and being totally thrilled - I can just imagine the expression on my daughter's fourteen year old face if I had tried that!! Welcome back - it's been a little while.

Elizabethd said...

By the way, you have an award waiting on my blog for you.

Faith said...

As always you wring a laugh out of me, Mrs. Serious. Times have changed and we no longer live in 'black and white' as my youngest, when little, thought I used to do! I think a watercolour set is a good investment. Maybe you could suggest your mother puts paint on the hamster's feet and offers the painting to Saatchi? or don't you dare?

I'm glad you mentioned the wolves at the door. I beleived in those wolves - Daddy was always talking about them when I was a child!

Milla said...

My mother has phoned. Has read. Chortled. There is a god. (thanks to all for comments. I never do that bit, but always mean it. I do my mental thank yous by visiting your sites. But you know that)

Anonymous said...

Love the hamster equation. I remember coming into the kitchen as a child and finding the tea towel covering a home made apple pie bobbing up and down of its own volition. Strange, I thought, and lifted it up to discover one very sticky, long haired hamster having a wonderful time!
They don't know they're born....

ChrisH said...

Ah, mothers, don't yo just love 'em! I love the thought of your son's fingers curling round his new paint set, bless him. Given what you've said about the hamster he ought to be protective of it!

lampworkbeader said...

Eat your heart out 'Wife of the North' or whatever you're called. All real human life dwells with Milla in Country Lite!
Brilliant blog! Sorryy the exclamation marks, they just slipped in...

Preseli Mags said...

Thanks for such a great laugh on a horrid rainy day. I initially thought the hamster was F9's, fool that I am. I can't wait to see its first masterpiece. As for presents, as a six-year-old I remember getting pants and tights. Yawn. We have House Rules about presents now. And one of my children has that book about the unicorn detective knitting a puppy. It's a classic. xxPM

nuttycow said...

What is this nice but surprisingly cheap wine M? Always on the look out ;)

Pressie will be posted this weekend. I PROMISE (and if it isn't, withold all information about aforementioned wine)

Fennie said...

Another wonderful piece, Milla. The idea of the hamster in beret, palate in hand and painting on an easel in the glass palace - what? I wonder. Maybe the head of John the Baptist - always start with something simple as I used to say to the children.

I fancy my old stepmother would have found your Mother suitable company. Stepmum liked little furry animals, to whit Pekinese dogs and gerbils, which are like hamsters but longer. She had the impression that they never drank, for some reason, and we were prohibited on pain of their dying from giving them any water. So they died anyway, poor things. And that was the end of the gerbils.

menopausaloldbag (MOB) said...

I have an award for you at my place,

Potty Mummy said...

And tell me; did your mother have to lick 't gravel off road for 't breakfast?

LittleBrownDog said...

Oh, Milla, Milla, Milla - what a lovely, lovely blog, as ever. Did make me chortle with much recognition (tho' I was never lucky enough to get a guide uniform for my birthday, alas...)

£30 at the vet's sounds a snip to me (was it indeed the snip, by the way? Perhaps best not ask...) Only recently, it seems, I wrote a cheque for ninety-something for sex-change-guinea-pig's bosom reduction (and money well spent, I'd say).

And talking of money, you know that wine you tipped me the wink about the other day? (taps nose in conspiritorial fashion) Well, I don't know whether you should go bandying it's name about, but since then, it went up to £3.35 in Tetbury, and when I popped into the quick-E-mart-style mini Tesco joint in Chippenham, it had gone up to £3.45! Well, I almost put it back, but even at £3.45, it's a very palatable bottle and a well known local wine snob to whom I may or may not be related in marriage saw fit to quaff the best part of a bottle the other night.

This is now reaching the proportions of my now infamous deleted blog of not so long ago, but promise will resist urge to delete, however long and rambling it seems in the cold light of day. Will just finish by adding I thought this one of your very superist blogs. Ever. And I love you. Mwah!

the mother of this lot said...

If I ever wanted to wind my dad up I'd say something like 'You do realise that kitchen roll was nineteen and six don't you?'.

Then I'd stand back and watch the fireworks!

LittleBrownDog said...

PS - meant that last remark in a drunken way, rather than a creepy way... ;)

DevonLife said...

oh Milla, you've made me laugh right out loud on the train as I've read your last two blogs. Meat and blackberry pie! AA Gill! Hamsters! RWA! All just beyond marvellous. Am keeping a low profile (shhh) first tax bill quickly followed by three others. It'll be a miracle if I'm out of Holloway by Christmas. You could buy a ski-in ski-out chalet in Banff for the money I'm being hounded for by the IR. Fake my own death? Maybe. I could come and hide in your palatial kitchen! Behind the wine rack!

But while there is Chicken korma and sauce toasted sandwiches on the menu I will fight on. Determined to see my net-a-porter bills recognised as a true business expense. They laughed Milla. In my face.

Shhh you never saw me. Who said that?

WesterWitch/Headmistress said...

Ah hah - I had a paint by numbers set once for Xmas - which I adored and I did say thank you. I also got a proper puppet once - how amazing was that.

Now Cyd gets the best 'Taste the Difference' Salmon - which I hasten to add is Scottish - which means it was caught in Scotland - shipped to the fish market in England and sold and then shipped back up to Scotland again . . . so only a . . . ahem . . . minimal fin print. Well us mothers with kids who are making their own way in life need something to control

Mean Mom said...

You were joking about the Guide's uniform as a birthday present, weren't you?

My favourite toy was a blackboard and easel, which my father made for me, as a Christmas present, one year. Otherwise, most of my toys existed only in my imagination. We were so poor in the Black Country, you know. Not as poor as in Yorkshire, though, apparently.

Youngsters aren't the least bit interested in how things were in anyone else's day. Mine certainly weren't, anyway.

Will the hamster be exhibiting, do you think? Can't wait.

OK. Right. I haven't published either of your comments, at my place yet. I was working my way through my list of favourite bloggers, giving out invitations, but you pre-empted me and now we are both confused.

You are on my list of Favourite Bloggers, which is in my sidebar, towards the bottom of my page. The idea is that you take any of the awards shown on Wednesday's royal post, that you fancy, or do not have. Would you like to come back, help yourself to whatever you want and leave another comment? I think your first comment was probably appropriate, though. It certainly made me laugh, anyway. Must go. Now I've written a blog on your blog and I'm slightly embarrassed.

Maggie May said...

I t was funny! However................ I do think that the more children have, the more they want & the less satisfied they are! Not that I would deny your little chap his paintbox mind!
Hamster is a pampered little beast!

Mean Mom said...

Sorry, I'm back. Should have said before the <3 is a heart on its side. I had to look it up, when I first received the award. I am laughing, now, at the thought of your reaction to this.

blogthatmama said...

I didn't realise what the 3 thing was either. Hilarious post. A work colleague once had a guinea pig that had a painful prolapse. When the vet operated there were complications and it cost him £400. Yes, unbelievable. Two days later he buried it in one of the finest single malt whisky oak casks you can imagine. His two children were devastated.

KAREN said...

Painting by Numbers were always doled out at Christmas when I were a lass, and I DID appreciate them.
'But that was the Olden Days,' my lot whined when I mentioned it. I'd just refused them a PS3 and offered this titbit by way of an explanation. They were less than interested.

We once forked out £30 to be told that my daughter's hamster wouldn't last the night. I could have told her for nothing but I didn't want the incident dragged into Therapy down the line.

DJ Kirkby said...

Okay...I've managed to stop laughing now and can breath again. How are you so impossibly funny about such ordinary experiences? How?

CAMILLA said...

Milla honey, corker of a blog, just brilliant. Ah takes me back to when I had my first set of paints with wee brush and a little pot of water to whisk it clean, sadly I never did become an artist, but what fun painting anyway.

Love the idea of Hamster wearing beret to paint pictures.


Sass E-mum said...

Other people's sense of value can defy belief. I 'love' how my aged mother in law works in a local charity shop - to support a nearby hospice. But she always buys everything with a 'staff' discount. Bonkers. She's also changed her three piece suite four times in the past year. But each time it's been a second hand 'bargain'. Double bonkers.

Blossomcottage said...

I will not be bottom of the list now, I have just added you to my "Blog Roll".. no dear not "Bog Roll" So I will be able to trot over to Milla's Comedy Store as soon as it opens and have a jolly good laugh.
My best friend was once given a chainsaw by her husband on her special day, he said it would save having to think of anything else as he needed one.
The first animal I was asked to inject as a vet nurse was a hamster, not only did the berludy thing bite me but their skin is so thin the B12 fluid that I had injected squished out again through the skin, of the course the two vets that asked me to do the injection knew it would happen and fell about laughing when I yelled.

Angel said...

That was so funny Milla-I am sitting here and still tittering and blossoms post at the end has just set me off again.

You are very clever.

Bloody hamster indeed.