Dear Leo and Miller,
I’ve said before how lucky you both are to see so much of your grandparents. Not everyone is lucky enough to have both sets within such easy reach.
I want to tell you about your Popa, my Dad. My wonderful and impossible Dad who surprises me every day and after 37 years I am still trying to figure him out. Kind and contradictory, sensitive and confrontational, he is a maddening typhoon of charm and temper. He still tells me what to do and sometimes I still listen. The best advice I have from him that I want to share with you wasn’t even directed at me – he said it to Uncle Max or Uncle Freddie when they were teenagers. But it could just as easily have been applied to me at that age: “If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows.” You don’t have to be the one causing the trouble; just being there in the mix is bad enough, so don’t run with a bad crowd, is basically what it means. And he is right. The other memorable piece of advice he gave his children is less profound but still a useful lesson: “Don’t stand in piles of leaves because there’s probably dog poo underneath.” Those were his parting words to me when I went off to university and I think of him and what he said every time I see piles of Autumn leaves on the street.
You both shriek with glee when he comes to our door, so you’re clearly enamoured with him already and I can see the feeling is mutual. He’s delighting in a new batch of fans to appreciate his fart jokes and juvenile sense of humour. To help you on your way to a harmonious and lasting relationship with this force of nature, here are 11 things I think you should know about him. Remember children: knowledge is power
- He loves bikes, brass handles and locks, dogs, fried bread, tools, Vintage TV, golf, books… And he can never get enough of any of them.
- He likes animals a lot. Over recent years he has trained a black bird in the garden, which sits watching him and flies to meet him at the back gate for breakfast. He is convinced it also understands what he is saying. It’s actually quite amazing and I want you both to know that this is not normal: most people can’t befriend wild creatures. He definitely has some kind of gift with birds in particular.
- All he wants for Christmas and birthdays is £20 and a giant Toblerone. Don’t try and be thoughtful or clever and get him anything else. You will be thanked with a stony silence at best.
- He spends a lot of time in charity shops and auction houses. Some are hits, some are misses but the sheer scale of the amount of stuff he buys means there’s a winner for both of you at least twice a week. He has an excellent eye but also no editing function, so manage your expectations when he says things like “What size shoe are you again?”
- He hates Americanisms and will not talk to someone if they use the word “guys.” Life-long friendships have been severed over this. If he even overhears someone say “guys” he launches into a rant. (Same with “train station”: it should be “railway station.”) And if he asks how you are, never, under any circumstances say “good.” Say anything else. It would be better to say “none of your bloody business” than “good.” This, above all, sends him over the edge. Rudeness doesn’t bother him: poor command of English really does.
- He is funny. Very very funny. And when he’s on top form, no-one can touch him.
- He wants Bat Out of Hell to be played at his funeral. And there is a really long Meatloaf documentary (saved in Sky Planner) that we as a family call ‘The Happy Place’ which never fails to shunt him out of a bad mood.
- Watching television with him is a painful and stressful experience that should be avoided at all costs because he only likes golf, MASH and Vintage TV (and ‘The Happy Place’, see above) and will give you a live, running commentary on why everything else is shit.
- He will try and help anyone and is absolutely brilliant at giving lifts. His generosity with lifts knows no bounds and he always says yes. But he’s not big on road safety so be prepared for a stressful ride in a chaotically messy car with cardboard boxes full of books on every seat. And please remember to put your seat belts on because he doesn’t bother with them and drives around all day with that beep beep warning sound going off the whole time.
- It is a complete and utter waste of time trying to argue with him. About anything. Seriously, don’t bother.
- If you do Ebay searches for him (usually for obscure bike parts or discontinued telescope lenses), he will love you forever.
I have a thousand more things to tell you about Popa. Hilarious and exasperating and brilliant stories. But the above information is a handy overview and even if you skip the first 10 and just do 11 – you’ll be fine.
Dear Leo and Miller,
It’s International Women’s Day today. I was looking through some photos to find a good one to include in this letter and I found one of my Granny, Freda, one of the best women I have known. It made me smile and think of something she told me when I was a teenager which I would like to share with you. She said “If you are going to smoke, don’t do it on the street. And for God’s sake don’t buy packets of ten because people will think you can’t afford twenty.” Obviously this isn’t good advice: good advice would be don’t smoke at all. But I love it all the same because it sounds just like her. Everything was about keeping up standards. You did things properly, you followed rules (written and unwritten ones), you gave a good impression at all times. I also remember her telling me you should always take your coat off when you go to someone’s house, even if you were cold (and I am always cold) because it’s rude to keep it on. Don’t interrupt. That was another one. I still haven’t quite got the hang of that one… But I cling on to them nonetheless: little standards of behaviour to remember her by.
One sadness I have is that neither of my grandparents met your Dad. They were great people and he would have loved them.
What I remember about them most was how composed they were. I never saw either of them get riled up about anything. Maybe I just didn’t see it or maybe they hid it well but the impression they left on me was one of grace and impeccable manners and of not complaining. They were both pillars of calm and good behaviour. Maybe it’s a generation thing. My parents seem like big kids to me (in the best way) but my grandparents were always grown-ups. As a child, I distinctly recall there being a brand new box of man-size tissues on the back seat of their immaculate car (green jag) at all times and being very impressed at the adultness of it: I dream that one day my car will be like this.
Freda loved perfume: she was big on fragrance. Maybe that’s where I get it from. When I worked in London, kindly editors would sometimes take pity on me and give me freebies from the beauty cupboard and when it was perfume I always took it home for her. The last one I gave her, the one she was wearing before she died, was Sicily by Dolce & Gabbana which smells like lemons and sunshine and nights abroad. I still have the bottle.
I want you to know that she was a wonderful woman who influenced my life more than you could know. (How wonderful her husband was is for another letter.) So I urge both of you to pay attention to what all your grandparents tell you (and you’re lucky to have all four) because they know a lot about life. Much more than I do. When you turn into awful teenagers, they will be the only ones who still see the good in you. Grow close to them and you will never have a bond like it. Imagining their reaction might make you stop and think before doing something reckless. It certainly prevented me going down a few stupid paths… I have to admit that I did sometimes smoke in the street. But I always bought twenty. She would have been so proud.
Dear Leo and Miller,
I am worried my letters are too boring and you won’t read them. But then I take comfort that JS also starts his letters like this sometimes: full of fear that what he’s writing isn’t interesting enough for the reader. My boring life and John Steinbeck’s boring life are very different however. He’s just come back from a research trip in California, has been in correspondence with the President of the United States about the migrant crisis and (from what I can gather) is just about to embark on an extra-marital affair. So he still has some fairly interesting topics to discuss. I have nothing, certainly nothing to (literally) write home about. At this rate I will have to do something dramatic in order to raise my subject matter.
It’s officially Autumn and this time of year is very special to me as it reminds me of when you were born Leo and life changed. At the time, we were living in a first floor flat that was surrounded by lots of trees and by this point in the year, out of every window, we were confronted with a riot of bright red and orange and yellow. The most beautiful view was out of the nursery window and it was a joy to do nothing more than sit and feed you just staring out of the window. I had read somewhere that listening to Classical music was a good way to create a peaceful environment in a baby’s room. Normally, I pay absolutely no notice to advice like this but for some reason I followed it and now I couldn’t be without Classic FM playing in the background at home or in the car or anywhere there’s a radio. I have learnt nothing about Classical music and couldn’t identify one piece of music from another but I am very attached to it all the same. It’s another transporter to a special and new time when everything became different and new and amazing overnight.
The flat I am talking about was my grandparents home and I loved that it still smelt like them – their furniture and polished brass and just the air in the place. It smelt grand and so grown up and it never lost it the whole time we were living there. It makes me sad that they didn’t meet you. They didn’t meet your Dad either. But I know how much they would have liked him. I think of them a lot and never more so than when I’m trying to teach you both manners. They were big on manners and things being done properly, in good grace. They were the best of people. I will tell you lots more about them.
Dear Leo and Miller,
Reading more of Steinbeck’s letters is certainly having the desired effect. Some people need physical exercise to keep a positive frame of mind and I have decided that I need good literature. It’s nourishing for the soul and quiets the mind. Even when it isn’t actually offering any advice, just reading something well written is comforting in itself: it can gather your thoughts for you. AA Gill (another writer who I think is brilliant) puts it like this “Writing, for me, is the great organiser. It’s while I’m writing that I think most deeply about things.” That’s what I hope, in some small way, these letters can offer you two. I’m not suggesting you are going to be blown away with any skills of mine but I am going to quote lots and lots of stuff that I read or hear that I think is note-worthy and which can help you navigate your way through difficult times. And I don’t mean devastating life-changing times, I really mean the little every day disappointments or worries that can slowly gain momentum and cause the most damage to a person. If I can provide even the smallest reassurance or just a distraction – then that makes me happy. Because life can be really really tough. But is always worth it. Always.
While we were on the subject of AA Gill he also said this which I think is good. When asked what people should know about him, he said: “‘Well one is that I’m a Christian. And I believe in being honest – that’s really important – telling the truth. I suppose to be kind whenever you can be. I also want to have an optimism about people – I would rather leave my wallet on the table and have it nicked once or twice than have it chained in my back pocket.’
I do have something quite important to tell you in this letter. Well, it’s important to me and consequently you. Leo, I have put you into nursery on a Monday morning (which take you up to 3.5 days per week) and Miller, your Granny (my Mum) is going to look after you on a Monday morning. And the reason for this is so I can be totally selfish and have four whole hours every week where I can please myself. Recently I have been feeling strange. Not myself, not quite right. It felt like I was craving something but I had no idea what. I wasn’t unhappy but I felt that I had to change something. It slowly dawned on me that what I was craving was time on my own. To the point that I would deliberately forget to buy something from the shops during the day so I had the excuse to go out later on my own. This is bad. This is ridiculous. I was getting excited to go to Waitrose to buy bread just because it meant 20 minutes by myself. So I have made the decision to basically get rid of you both every Monday morning so I can do the things I enjoy that have absolutely nothing to do with you, such as – playing with my clothes, ringing my friends, sorting out boxes of photos, reading fashion magazines full of clothes I can’t buy anymore. These activities have become luxuries because of time: you two take up a lot of time. They seem trivial but they are important because I do them alone and doing them makes me feel like me. And I cannot lose myself just because I am a parent. Karl Lagerfeld (a genuine legend) said this (which is slightly extreme but I agree with the sentiment): “Only being interested in yourself lets you be more available for others. My mother said “You should never sacrifice yourself too much because afterward you’ll have nothing more to give. So think about yourself, then you can be interested in others and be useful.”
I love you both very much but I am giddy with excitement at the thought of being totally alone in the house to do whatever I want. I had a brief taste of that freedom yesterday and spent it re-arranging my wardrobe and filing receipts. I won’t lie: it was bliss.
It is our wedding anniversary today and we are going to the cinema. Which is our favourite thing to do. Even if we don’t go and see a film, we still go to the cinema, specifically the Tyneside Cinema. It is a wonderful place that I hope is still going strong when you are growing up.