Frasier as Prologue
There’s an episode of Frasier which explores his need for tranquility and solitude after Martin, his father, moves in with him. This is illustrated by an elaborate display of him plumping the cushions, pouring himself a glass of sherry and playing gentle classical music as he prepares to read his book alone. However, Frasier’s enjoyment is stymied by interruptions from Eddie the dog, the doorbell, the phone, and so on… if I’m not mistaken the same episode, or a further one on the same theme, concludes with Frasier throwing his father’s chair out a high window into the street below in a Freudian accident! It’s very funny if you haven’t seen it - one of the great Frasier farces. However, this isn’t a post about Frasier, but I did feel something akin to his frustration whilst trying to prepare to read Margaret Atwood’s highly acclaimed and much anticipated The Testaments by first re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale. How hard can it be to simply read a book?!
Frustrations only a Lover of Reading will Understand
There were many obstructions to reading The Handmaid’s Tale. Firstly, I had to dice with death to reach it from my bookshelf in preparation for my reading it on my plane journey to Bangkok. Alphabetized of course so ‘A’ for Atwood was at the very top! Secondly, my reading was prevented by irritating and irritated passengers on the plane. These included a nobby-know-it-all man who was sure I was in the wrong seat (I wasn’t); a very posh lady who, with her XXL sized makeup bag and abundance of Gucci hand luggage, considerably over-spilled into my area, (the irony being that she had been moved after complaining about her own oversized and overspilling neighbour); and an intemperate non-English speaking man across the aisle whose gesticulations and rants clearly demonstrated that my reading by my iphone torch light (oh, the overhead lighting had been too bright for the aforementioned (now in need of beauty sleep) passengers) was disturbing him. In the end I gave up trying to read The Handmaid’s Tale on the plane and instead satisfied myself by watching a couple of episodes of the eight Prime Time Emmy Awards winning series adapted by Hulu. (This, by the way, was excellent, but all good scholars know that the reading must precede the viewing whenever possible!)
Determined to be philosophical and patient (even though The Testaments was burning a holy hole in my very core and I had a whole further book to get through first) I decided I’d read The Handmaid’s Tale on the way to Hua Hin instead. My marvellous Saint Mick of Thana (honestly, not to gush, but he is the best husband ever) had booked us into the Hilton for the long weekend. Things continued to go wrong delaying my reading. After a completely rubbish day at school and after being on the (what felt to me very late) late shift at a school event (I haven’t seen him for six weeks after all) Mick broke down on his way home. He had to leave the car under a dubious looking electricity transformer and an even more dubious Thai buzzing electric spaghetti of wiring on a flooded road in the middle of a thunderstorm and hope to not hear any fire-engines. Eventually the car was towed and once fixed the next morning we finally departed. However, after all the drama and having not seen Mick for six weeks, I felt the least I could do was actually chat with the old fella on the journey, so the reading was once again delayed.
Hua Hin, as always, doesn’t disappoint and the book at last – eureka - is read!
The Handmaid’s Tale – Nostalgia
As far as I know, Margaret Atwood is a pretty ‘out there’ author, offering inspiration and online writing advice. This would be great for IB students to tap into. I even think I read or heard on a radio interview somewhere that Atwood has a scheme where she ‘pair writes’ with a new author and acts as their mentor. If I haven't got that wrong (which I possibly have, how incredibly cool. She is one of those people that I’d invite to my dream dinner party, I’d probably be so star struck that I would just gawk in awe and say nothing whilst our elderly and incontinent dog Wizz, did her trick of wanton weeing beside the guests!
I first read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 18 or 19. I loved it then, but I love it even more now. If there was ever a book (and even better, a sequel) for a nostalgic 50 year old to revisit and reflect upon this is it. It is brilliant. I’d give almost anything to (just one last time) sit down with a group of students and study it together. Faces of students I’d taught jumped into my mind continually as I read – Elyse, Vic, Petra, Hanoi, Leonardo, Michael. We’d have an absolute ball soaking up the text and debating the themes within. Honestly, there is just so much to dissect and chat about, it’s absolutely a first-rate read which I’d highly recommend. If anything it feels even more relevant now than it did thirty years ago. It’s made me determined to revisit all of Atwood’s other books too and check out what I missed. Oryx and Crake, as well as being a love story, is of course such a great text for exploring environmental issues with. As a teacher, fiction can keep topics intensely personal whilst completely de-personalizing them and thus avoiding conflict in the classroom (does that even make sense?) As a Harry Potter fan it seems like Atwood is constantly ahead of her time - a much more relaible version of J.K Rowling’s Professor Trelawney, with the added extra of talent beyond belief thrown in for good measure.
Margaret Atwood’s Brilliance
Atwood keeps the ‘I’ at the centre of all her writing. It is through the minutae of the representation and portrayal of individual life that we are able to so successfully explore the global central themes of societal oppression, religious indoctrination and environmental concern. A real beauty of her writing is an unspoken acknowledgement by her characters, usually the protagonists, that this is the case. She demonstrates that rarely, probably never can a utilitarian society reflected in whatever type of dystopia portrayed, (or rebellion against the dystopia) suppress individual and personal want. For example, Offred guilitily rushes through her account of her affair with Nick.
I think what re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale reminded me of the most is how marvellous a tool fiction is to explore world issues and also how fiction (for me anyway), more than anything, else gets to the crux of exploring the human condition (whatever that means!) Her references to the misuse of Islam on which to blame all world problems; the dangers that having a little power brings; and the skills repressors have of using the oppressed to oppress further, gave me plenty of food for thought. I guess historians and sociologists would do the same by studying real-life societal issues (Brexit perhaps!), but for me it is only by escaping society that I can start to understand it. Let’s face it, it is also good to escape, though having said that reading Atwood is not a passive activity.
The paradox of the utter insignificance of the individual juxtaposed against the absolute significance of that same individual is never far from the surface of her books. This leaves the reader with their mind blown, their energy levels in overdrive and their desire to make every moment count; resolute, as for all of us life is transient and short. With this in mind, I was very saddened to see yesterday that Atwood’s long term partner died whilst Atwood had been in the UK promoting her new book The Testaments. Sad news indeed.
Anticipation of Atwood’s The Testaments
Back to the sun, sea and sand in Hua Hin. I am recovered from my journey, full from a very large breakfast and admiring the view. I am replete and ready to reverently open the pages of The Testaments. I hope that I don’t get my lovely new hardcopy spoiled by reading it on the beach, but if I do such is life! I have avoided all reviews and sincerely wish for the following: that I do in fact get to find out what happened to the central characters in The Handmaid’s Tale; that I learn how the utop/dsystop-ia fell (I know from the epilogue to Handmaid that it did indeed fail); and that the book doesn’t fall into anything as banal as an exploration of whether Offred chooses Luke (if he is alive) over Nick. That would be very disappointing. However… I shall see. I won’t be blogging again until I’ve read it.
Travelling with a Grown up Family
There are lots of tips for handling holidays with tiny-tots or teenagers, but far less information around for managing harmonious travel with grown up, or almost grown up children. These are my top tips for ensuring a harmonious time, rather than a holiday from hell
Time Out Don't feel you have to do everything together all of the time. Your kids are used to being independent so let them have some space. If they don't want to do everything with you and just want to 'chill' at home don't sweat it, it doesn't really matter if they don't tick off everything on your 'sight-seeing' agenda.
Treat your Family Like Friends Although I'm a firm believer that parents should be 'parents' to their off-spring and not their 'friends', I relax this rule a bit on holidays. After all in the same way you choose which friends to travel with you are choosing to take your grown up kids away with you. It makes sense to therefore afford them the same level of respect that you would your actual friends. If that sounds too 'goody-goody' to be true, it really isn't - all I mean is wait untli they are not there to have a moan and gossip about them!
Timings Know yours (and more likely your kids) tolerance levels of how much time they can spend together as a farmily unit before everyone starts driving each other mad. It is quality not quantity that is important! So if after a week or two your grown-up children want to dump you and go back to their uni friends for a few days don't take it as a personal snub. Guilt tripping them is not a good plan. #Just saying!
Phones Do not comment on screen time usage. They are grown ups and can use their phones as much as they like. I was going to say don't feel obliged to foot the bill for extra 4G data when travelling in remote areas, but who am I kidding, just pay the bill!
Reminisce Presumably if you are travelling with grown up kids it is because holiday experiences have been fun in the past. Take a trip down memory lane and reminisce about the good times you've had together.
Play Games In my opinion you're never too old to play cards after dinner..
Assign Roles Keep the whole family engaged in the trip by involving everyone in the planning of the days and the assigning of organisational roles such as navigator or restuarant chooser. If someone doesn't like their role agree to swap the next day.
Keep Busy Have plenty of things to do, Just like when the kids were little ensure there is reading material on hand, cards, games, and plenty of activities to participate in. Be active and keep the endorphines pumping with plenty of brisk walks!
Join in the Fun Joke, be daft, relax, have fun. Be prepared to be the butt of the kids jokes (to a point!)
Be Vulnerable The kids are grown up and it is ok to share with them what it means to you to spend time with them. This will make them feel valued.
Be your Best Self (Well at least for some of the time!) If you are like me half of the conversations that you have with your 'grown up' kids, will be about practicalities and organisational things. Use this time to really connect at a deeper level. Chat with the kids about their lives and even perhaps share stuff about yourself. Ask questions (without being too nosey!) seek their views, and remember and respect what they have to say. In essence, be your best self.
And if all that sounds too much like hard work remember that they are grown up and don't have to come. With that in mind (shock, horror!) my final tip is:
Take a Break from the Family! I've had the time of my life with Mick and our girls on our recent NorthCoast500 Land Rover adventure. Without an ounce of sarcasm, my gratitude book overfloweth. I've loved it. Also, since returning I've enjoyed spending time with my own parents. (I wonder if they are giving advice to their own friends about managing time with a middle-aged interfering daughter?! Maybe, maybe not!) I do though have a quick mini-break planned for next weekend too, and there won't be a family member in sight.!
What was that about being my best self?! It seems it's harder than it looks, but never mind! Watch this space for my next post on the value of nurturing friendship!
During our Northcoast500 adventure we’ve experienced the ‘same same, but different’ features of the guesthouses we’ve stayed in. From luxurious window seat views in Myrtle Bank at Fort William; to characterful local warmth and hospitality offered at The old Manse in Lochcarron; to the efficiency of the tartan carpeted Corriness House at PoolEwe, by Loch Ewe; to the spaciousness and comfort in The Old Surgery in Ullapool; to the magnificence of the scrumptious breakfast and stunning scenery at Aiden House in Durness; all the places we’ve stayed in have been good. Some have been excellent, going the extra mile to ensure we’ve had a very enjoyable stay. Drawing on our experiences of this holiday here is my checklist of what a good guesthouse should have. It is important to me that we find great places for all the family. Whatever the age of kids, it still feels important to be a great mum to them. Talking of which, check out this post here from the Human in Training Blog.
Great Guesthouse Checklist
Eco-Friendly Approach. At The Old Manse we loved the provision of every breakfast jam under the sun in their original sized jars from which we could help ourselves. This was waste free and far preferable to peeling open small packets of butter, jam and marmalade, for the waste to end up in landfills. In the same vein the refillable shampoo and conditioner receptacles were welcomed at Aiden House and are less likely to be taken as a 'souvenir' too I imagine!
Staying in guesthouses has not been a stuffy or staid option and has enabled us to travel round a lot, whilst having a little bit of luxury to compensate for bumping in around in a landrover for several hours a day. I’ve been quite envious of the bikers roaring off on their luxurious triumphs and Harley Davidsons, but let’s face it I couldn’t update my blog from the backseat of a bike and I haven’t seen any four seater motorbikes. We’ve seen some amazing places, along our Northcoast500 route and Lazarus the Landrover has served us well squeezing into places that campervans can’t access. Most notably the magnificent Bealach Na Bar pass between Lochcarron and Applecross - I wasn’t at all scared by the single pass traffic and the very steep drops!
The guesthouses we chose are considered quite good value for money and typically priced for the NorthCoast500 route. Travelling with grown up kids needing their own space does bump up costs, but what can you do… we don’t want to leave them at home and gone are the days when we’d all bunk up together. Would I come back and do it all again? Definitely. Have I got a favourite guesthouse from the above. Yes, but it wouldn't be fair to say which it is.
(Since posting this article I have come across a great travel guide about Ulllapool that one of my readers,Graham Grieve has written, Do check it out here.)
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Day 2 of our ‘Northcoast 500 in Scotland trip has started fairly well. We’ve waved off MrytleBank Guest House in FortWilliam. The staff were very friendly, with their ‘wee this’ and ‘wee that’; the view from our room was stunning; and the facilities were excellent (just as well as we were all obliged to stay inside yesterday afternoon and channel hop between the cricket and the tennis.) The tyre swing was a hit with my kids (yes, I know they are allegedly grown up), so all is well in our world. The locals keep telling us to enjoy the beautiful weather, but I did nip into the town this morning to buy a new, very reasonably priced fleece, just in case the breeze picks up. We are in Scotland after all.
My plan had been to wear my landrover t-shirt (a gift for Mick that was too small!) for a departure shot each morning in front of Lazarus, but I’ve realised that this will create a whiffy rather than cool vibe so I’m having to rethink that idea. I’m feeling a little nostalgic as I love this time with just the four of us, but wondering how much of this ‘same same’ we can have with the kids before the ‘different’ starts. I’m starting to wonder if we are quirky ‘holiday makers’ or if all families are like ours. What do you think?
Same Same - Family
Different - Family
It’s time to dump Tim. Mick picks out Sexy Serena as our new SAT Nav Guide. I object and choose the more straitlaced Jane, she has a direct, no-nonsense, trust me voice. I think she sounds reliable until I hear her lilting and teasing ‘roundabout’ inflection. Can we really count on her to get us to our destination? Our first family trip for a while and our first road trip in the UK for absolutely ages. We’re in Mick's new Landrover. No comment!
We’re leaving Broughton in Lincolnshire and heading to 'Broughton Place' in Edinburgh for two nights. Home from home perhaps, perhaps not. Mick announces that he is unimpressed with the bed and breakfast we are going to. I agree. The reception staff’s clipped English pronunciation phone voices and ‘the computer says no’ approach to changing the date of our trip was not the Scottish welcome we were hoping for. Our stoicism, or is it stubbornness, is admirable. Fine - if we can’t change the booking we’ll bloody use it, even if it means listening to Mick’s Scottish accent all the way there.
Jane claims it is only a four and a half hour drive to Broughton from Broughton, but the AA Breakdown Insurance, prudently joined prior to departure, claims it is six. Time will tell.
It is, of course, peeing it down with rain.
We’re four minutes into the journey. I have eaten a bag of prawn cocktail flavoured Walkers crisps and I’m halfway through my first cheese and cucumber sandwich. Delicious, though already a little squashed. I’m not greedy, it’s just that whilst the rest of the family lingered over coffee, muesli and yoghurt, I was forced to frantically tidy the house. Everyone knows that towels need to be straightened and the toilet bleached just in case burglars pop by. We do have standards. I wish we had some wholenut chocolate to munch on. How far is it to the first ‘pit stop?’
Eight minutes into the journey. We’re greeted by a flurry of traffic cones closing off two lanes of traffic and get stuck behind a big yellow van driving in the remaining single lane. It’s driving slowly, very slowly. Time for another sandwich.
The kids are bickering: “She’s lying to you.” High-pitched squeaks and giggles.
I’m making factual observations about the new (23 years old) car.
“It’s steamed up in here.”
“Well open the window.”
“Surely it has a de-steamer thingy.”
Annie announces she will take music requests later but she is starting us with a ‘chill’ playlist. I’m not sure what a playlist is, but it is soothing. So far we’ve listened to Stop This Train by John Mayer, Beyond by Leon Bridges and Top of My List by Lime Cordial (I’d never even heard of them before!).
Twelve minutes into the trip and Mick asks for a can of diet coke. He has to shout above the engine noise, though he denies this. Perhaps it will settle down into a purr soon - the car, not Mick, though the idea of a purring Mick amuses me. The request for the can of coke is relayed to the back and the can is retrieved and passed forward from the big green eski-bag. It is refreshingly cold. I silently reflect that even the ’50s perfectly coiffured housewives, unlike me, probably didn’t always remember the eski-freezer packs. A fleeting sense of smugness coarses through my veins. Mick delights in having found a little spot in the dashboard to keep his can of diet coke in. And he raves, “as it is in front of the vent, my drink will stay cold as well as upright!”
He loves his car. I almost smile.
Jane tells us to take the exit and meet the motorway. Delay signs flash aggressively at us in orange text.
As a family of four we’ve had hundreds of road trips. Our first ones were also in a landrover back when we lived in Tanzania twenty odd years ago. We gave it a name – Larry. This isn’t like us, we’re not the car naming types, but in memory of Larry, it seems only right that we give our new landrover a name too. Lazarus fits.
I remember distinctly breaking down in Larry, near Morogoro National Park. I was left with my parents and a six month old baby as Mick headed off into the unknown seeking help. His final action before he left was to pass my dad an extremely large, heavy spanner, “just in case”- in case of what? Eventually, we were towed home in the dark on a busy motorway. The car lights gave up the ghost and my poor mum waved a flag out the back window of the car alerting other traffic of our presence for the duration of the journey. My parents didn’t visit Tanzania after that. This trip down memory lane makes me worry a little bit about Lazarus’ reliability, though to be fair, so far we are bombing along.
We have now got things ‘off to a tee’, so whether you’re travelling with a seven month old or a seventy year old, if you follow these tips you will be guaranteed a good journey, even in a landrover as old as time itself.
I just asked Mick for more tips about how to make journeys smooth and enjoyable. From his sarcasm soaked driver's seat (and why does he always insist on driving anyway?) his response was to suggest that the driver requests silence from the passengers. I’m not sure if that is because of the racket the karaoke queens are now making in the back seats. He’s now trying to back track and claim he was joking! We’re an hour into the journey, so it is definitely time to stop for chocolate and to remember that we are on holiday!