Monday, 22 September 2014


Morning. I awake to the sounds of gulls shrieking. The sky is misty blue, the air fresh and fragrant. Our apartment backs onto the dunes at Camber Sands, so we can’t see the beach but we are near enough to smell it, hear it. I glance at the time, 7.49. Felix is still asleep; a minor miracle. It has been an age since I have woken before him and it feels odd, like putting a shoe on the wrong foot. I check on him, his cheek is pressed tightly into the bed, his breathing deep and even. I pad down the stairs and make myself a cup of tea, write my thoughts in the notepad while the sun rises and floods the balcony with warmth and light. It is a beautiful place; dune grass and cactus grow in the communal gardens of the eco apartment complex, giving the place an exotic, almost Greek feel. Swallows dart and swoop between the buildings, their streamlined black bodies like arrows. I am full of joy.

8.17. Felix sleeps on. I leave a note and do the thing that I always say I will do and never do; I go for a run on the beach. The sun is warm and kindly on my skin as I scramble up and over the dune. Although it is mid September the weather is summery, the sand cool and soft under my bare feet. I race down the side of the dune towards the beckoning sea; it glints and sparkles like a tray of sapphires. The beach has been combed and is pristine, the track marks giving it the appearance of a vast athletic ground. I start to run, my feet
digging into the powdery sand and slowing me down. After just a few paces my calves are burning but I carry on, fixing my eyes on the curve of the bay in the distance. The dunes are to one side, green and ancient, the sea to the other. There is no one on the beach, I am alone. My heart beats a wild tempo but I carry on, drawing the morning air into my lungs to counteract the burning there, until eventually I collapse onto my knees, my breath ragged and laboured. The sea winks at me. Eventually I rise and walk into its cool embrace, feeling the soft briny water wash away the sweat and exertion. The tide is on its way in but still I have to walk some distance before the water comes near my hips. I dive into the waves and feel the shock of cold as my head goes under, but I experience it as pleasure not pain. Mind over matter. I float on my back, bobbing with the waves like a bottle.

‘If you want to feel depressed, go to Dunguness’.

We drive from Camber Sands in bright sunlight. Another blue sky day, 20 degrees or so, the sun warm and yet mild above. As we approach Dunguness a strange tinge appears in the sky like a shadow. I have read about Dunguness, seen it on Coast. I know it is ‘Britains only desert’. We drive past wooden houses and shacks, randomly dotted on the stony expanse. The dirty fog thickens as we drive into the centre of the desert; it has the strangest colour, yellow-grey like the depiction of a fart in a Beano comic. There was fog this morning on the beach at Camber but it was beautiful, a dove-grey mist that covered the beach like lace. The sickly fog that rolls over Dunguness only heightens the dismal feel of the place. We park next to a sad looking pub called the Britannia, ‘The only pub in Dunguness’ it declares boldly. It feels like a threat. The power station looms ominously, a blot on the already forbidding landscape. We wander down a wooden walkway towards the beach, Felix strapped into the backpack, the modern lighthouse uttering regular calls declaring the fog to approaching boats. The beach is a desolate expanse of brown pebbles, the lapping sea muddied by the underlying sand. With the thickening ochre mist I feel like I entered the sepia world of an old photograph. It is one of the most depressing places I have ever been, bringing to mind the T.S Eliot’s Wasteland. ‘A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water’.

The old lighthouse, the only thing of note to visit in this barren wasteland, is closed. Weekends only it declares. We are left to wander like lost souls in purgatory, glancing nervously at the power station in the background. It was not the drabness of the landscape that bothered me; as a matter of fact I am quite partial to an austere landscape every now and then, it is cleansing for the soul. But Dunguness held an unspoken menace that crept into my very bones and made me feel like screaming ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’. The vast openness of it, with its scattered homes like the remnants of an Armageddon was interesting, painterly even. I can see how artists are drawn to the place. But always the spectre of the power station caught the eye, looming darkly on the spirit, suffocating any joy to be found there. Apparently the inhabitants of Dunguness receive free energy, a kind of pay off for having to live under its shadow. It seemed to me a cheap price for the stifling of your soul.

The oddest thing happened as we drove out and away. As soon as we were some way down the road the sickly mist started to lift, thinning perceptibly as we reached the outer edges of the desert. As we drove towards Camber we left the stifling cloud behind entirely and re-entered a beautiful September day, a world of sunlight and blue sky. I glanced back at Dunguness, wondering about those lost souls stuck in their eternal gloom. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that the weather changed just as we arrived and left, but it felt to me that the very landscape of Dunguness makes its own weather, a kind of perma-gloom that envelops this sad and dispiriting place like a filthy coat, shielding it forever from the welcome, warming rays of the sun. Perhaps this is what some people seek, a smog to dull the beauty of life, a dark nuclear shadow to blight their every day, a kind of penance for happiness. A pub so sad it would make me teetotal. To live in a barren pebbly wilderness that stretches flat and drab as far as the eye can see, the only features man-made and ominous. Only the lighthouse relieves the eye of Dunguness’s ugliness, and it is simply not enough. It is worth visiting if only to be glad to be gone.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


Angel puff…it just slipped out on the bus the other day. A nickname of such cloying sweetness it would make Barbara Cartland turn in her grave. It sits pinkly radiant amongst such other gems as my love, angel boy, sweet love and Mr Milk. What is it about babies that inspires such nonsense? That turns the normal adult brain into a giant cream puff, sickly sweet and oozing. Could it be their satin-velvet skin, so poreless and perfect it demands to be stroked and adored? Or it is their tufty gossamer hair, as fine and soft as the fluff on a dandelion. Their plump, rounded faces, eyes as wide as a bush baby and sweet rosebud lips. The earnest attempts to communicate, mamamamama and dadadadadada and nanananananana. Or just the smile they give you when you do a peek-a-boo, face lit up like Piccadilly Circus. Wait I know, it must be the sleeping baby; that irresistible bundle of plump sprawled limbs curled in the cot, making soft sighs and murmurs as they dream sweet baby dreams. 

I was never one to coo over babies, immune to their clumsy, milky charms. In many ways I didn't see the point of children till they were a little older; once they were up and talking, walking, climbing trees, drawing and interacting I was much more at ease. Babies terrified me with their helplessness , their dependancy. The floppy necks and uncoordinated limbs of newborns freaked me out, like marionates with broken strings. During pregnancy I worried I would not cope with a newborn, that grub-like creature that eats, sleeps, cries and soils the nappy. It all seemed so one sided, so draining. Due to the factors of Felix's birth I was not overwhelmed by love, or any emotion apart from relief, when I held him for the first time. Over the first days and weeks we bonded but still I did not feel the overpowering rush of emotion I had hoped for. It was at around six weeks, when he first smiled, that I began to understand what it was all about. I woke on Sunday morning to Felix grinning at me from the cot. It was a lightbulb moment; not just the smile but the feeling that his personaility was starting to shine through the fog of being a new mother.

Now it's like a button has been pressed and I can't turn it off. I am captivated by Felix; his development is as swift and exhilarating as a hare in the grass. Seeing the evolution of a newborn into an almost toddler puts me in mind of a garden coming to life after a long winter. At first nothing much seems to happen, a few green shoots, buds tightly wrapped on branches, the smell of sap rising. Then as the warming sun shines down, incrementally stronger and longer each day, the garden starts to dance. Leaves appear; the lime-bright first leaves of spring, grass shoots up and blossom begins its wedding procession along the branches. That first burst of growth is magical, but what follows is a riot. Flowers of every hue and type burst open, creating a carnival of colour, while blossom petals fall like confetti on bright new grass studded with daisies. Leaves darken with chlorophyll until everything around is shaded, and wildflowers colour the verges with cornflower blue, poppy red, buttercup yellow. Nature's firework display is in full effect. This is how it feels to raise a nearly one-year-old, to be in thrall to the full force and ingenuity of Nature.

But it's not just Felix, I am now officially into all babies; newborns, toddlers and others. I'm helpless in the presence of infants. Like a desperate politician I want to kiss and cuddle them all. I rubberneck at newborn babies in prams, exchanging smiles with tired looking mothers, wave at toddlers, pull faces. I kiss and cuddle the children of my friends with ardent adoration, loving their button noses, their chubby arms, their developing personalities. I look at myself and see a baby-lover, and I'm surprised by the change in me. Oh who am I kidding? I've fallen down the rabbit hole and plunged deep into the syrupy sweetness of a treacle tart, and the worst thing, is I love it...

Sunday, 7 September 2014


“Play is the work of children”….. J. Piaget

Felix adores the playground. After breakfast we chuck on some clothes and trundle down the road, and as I crank open the gate he starts to vibrate with excitement. We play on the swings, we do a few supervised slides, explore the pit of wood chips, touch the tree. Our local playground is a dilapidated affair and I used to think it bleak, but the more time I spend there the more I appreciate its gentle charms. For some reason it has escaped the wave of refurbishments that has transformed most play areas, and stands as a reminder of times past. The main playframe is hopelessly outdated; the peeling paint and halfhearted attempt to resemble a space station striking a pathetic note. And yet everyday I see children playing happily on the drab metal platforms, the power of imagination transporting them to galaxies beyond our knowledge. In the corner sits a huge sycamore, its branches arching gracefully overhead, a protector of all who play there. The grass underneath is luxuriant and impossibly green, shaded by the tree-umbrella is has escaped the baking heat of summer. Felix plays happily amongst the vivid stalks, using the trunk as a pull-me-up, occasionally craning his neck to gaze at the massive canopy. In the past week his desire to walk has become overwhelming, and as we have precious little space in the flat the playground has become his training ground. His plastic walker is slung over the buggy bars and released into the arena where he seizes upon it and races about with glee, the light of triumph shining in his eyes. 

Spending so much time in playgrounds has triggered a flood of memories from my own childhood. The new play areas are a world apart from the death arenas of years past, full of spongy sprung floors to cushion any falls and ergonomically designed rides that minimise injuries. The ugly metal climbing
frames of old have been banished to the scrapheap, and nostalgia fills me as I think of those rusty scarecrows ripped from their moorings after decades of loyal service. A few still remain; stark reminders of a time when town planners envisioned a Brutalist urban landscape clad in metal and concrete, all hard edges and man made materials. Not really the stuff that kids should play on but we made the best of it, weaving fantasy worlds amongst the austere metal frames, our knees and elbows scraped raw by gravelly falls. In contrast now there is a welcome return to wooden playframes set in woodchip pits, offering a soft fall and an evocative smell reminiscent of childhood trips to the Polish woodland, where the profusion of pine and cedars released their evergreen perfume throughout the forest. Amongst the sprung floors and newly planted trees a new generation of swings has sprung up like inverted mushrooms. These giant saucers hang hammock-like from thick log supports, often with three or four kids piled high as apples in a basket, pushing frenziedly and shrieking with delight as the saucer threatens to go the full 360. 

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold” said Joseph Chilton Pearce, and I have started to understand the playground as a microcosm of life. Everyone is at different stages of development, playing out their dramas, choosing their rides, scared and excited about taking the leap into the unknown. Pain and joy, rejection and acceptance, fear and courage, many complex emotions are explored for the first time amongst the swings and the slides and the seesaws, and it is our job as parents to put ourselves in the tiny shoes of our offspring and remember the power, the vital importance of play.