New Year resumé

We and our children stayed in a couple of converted barns in Shropshire about 10 minutes’ drive south of Bridgnorth. This time according to the (after all sensible) decision of the parents we split into an atrociously overcrowded family house (3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, 3 couples, 4 kids, 6 dining chairs) and a guiltily spacious no-kids / singles place (me, Matt, B, as well as A for 3 nights and C&T for New Year’s Eve). All the partying took place in the other house so we could look after the tots.

The barns were not bad – mixture of Ikea and old wooden furniture, some pretty bedrooms, nice lighting, Velux windows and plenty warm. The low point was the waterproof sheet which meant that Matt cooked us like dim sum every night until I ripped it off, and a squishy bed which rolled us together in our steaming pool of sweat. The high point was the tiny shower room with enormous radiator. There were 5 related grey stripey cats, 3 horses, 2 pigs, a goat that looked like a pig and a pond full of carp which we left alone despite the free fishing permit.

On New Year’s Eve C&T arrived with – naturally – a box of wigs. We had a massive Indian take-out and played games including partnered one-handed present wrapping and one which worked better last time but was still pretty funny involving different people reading aloud sentences from different bad novels and progressing through in parallel – a mixture of Jackie Collins and Biggles works best, probably. Also our old faithful squeak piggy squeak and the After Eight game. An insistent woman from one of the other cottages we’d politely been turning down for the past 24 hours turned up at about 7.00 for 3 glasses of wine and yet again at quarter to twelve with her 3 teenagers which was a bit strange but we were trollied by then and got over it. I mostly drank Marstons beer and rum with chocolate soya milk and creme de menthe all week. Everyone in our house got a virus except me – I can’t remember the last time I had a cold, we’re talking years and I keep tempting fate.

We watched only a couple of films – Crash (the Paul Haggis one – I think it’s great but it cleared the room!) and Spike Lee’s Inside Man which I really enjoyed. Much game playing as is the case when family commitments keep you in the house instead of the pub. Over the course of the week we played Articulate, Balderdash and a pub quiz from Matt’s mum and dad, which for some reason had to be boys v. girls with much gloating and ill feeling over the course of it. Girls won, thank the lord. There was a thread of male piggishness throughout the week with Nuts, Zoo and Maxim appearing all at once in my barn on the second day. I acted more horrified than I actually was to compensate for the general over-tolerance by the others (no women). But actually they were horrifying, particularly the ‘How to Shag Like a Super Hero’ feature in Maxim. Reading it I almost felt as if I were a different species of human. At that stage I began to entertain the idea of making 2008 my Year of Women instead of Year of Animals. Women v. Animals – an unhappy choice for a vegan. A choice of my own arbitrary fabrication, admittedly.

M, B and I walked a lot with whomever could get away. The last one, an 8-mile circular walk on Long Mynd from Church Stretton, was magnificent. We climbed along Carding Mill Valley in light snow for maybe a mile. It was hard to drink our water because it had got so cold that it altered your core temperature quite alarmingly but it was beautiful to see the bright snow showers across the valleys and peaks.

We were investigating a frozen pond when we met a local woman and her husband. She was home for Christmas from Chile where she works on a European astronomy project. She was finding it hard for various reasons including that she couldn’t use the telescope for the kind of work she was interested in – it was dedicated to different projects and minutely accounted for in five-minute slots. The other problem was that she was 28, wanted to start a family but was on short-term contracts with little hope of gaining tenure unless she worked hard on her publications for the next 7 years or so. Junior astronomers have to be very mobile. She said that most of them are men whose wives and girlfriends are lower-paid, less-skilled and generally more moveable. The women on the other hand tend to have partners who are equally or more skilled – her husband was an economist who had not found work in Chile. She said that the tiny minority of women who make it in astronomy are the ones who are in a position to, and inclined to, behave like men – postpone or forego a family and move their partner around with them. If you want to have anything to do with the nursery it’s still hard to be a woman – you end up in the kitchen again. So she was expecting to leave astronomy. We talked for about a mile but then they peeled off down Ashes Hollow.

We turned towards Little Stretton in a scouring wind. I had brought my balaclava along for a joke but as it worked out I wore it all the way down while the others spent a mile swearing as their faces were flayed by a -1° wind carrying tiny pellets of snow.

Instead of going ahead and having it ready by the time we caught up we were all supposed to stop for what promised to be about half an hour so B could cook a pot noodle on a mountain in wind by heating up near-freezing water on some kind of tin stove. To my relief and silent deadpan satisfaction his survival matches all failed and we just ate our sandwiches (at Barrister’s Plain) in 10 minutes losing heat like bastards. By the time we started again I couldn’t feel my fingertips. Compared to B there’s a lot I’m not keen on doing for a story.

There’s still a tyre swing in the woods coming back into Church Stretton. And I still can’t lift my own body weight.

I fucked up most of my photos again. Lots of kit, not much know-how. Sigh.

Matt has a new company car, a Citroen C4 which is the most comfortable thing I’ve driven in ages. It’s an automatic with a funny manual option where you change gears with paddles on the steering wheel. To me driving feels like being in an arcade game – I absolutely detest it and only do it out of fairness to Matt. I picked him up an iTrip for his new iPod but it quickly became apparent that the pirate stations in London have used up practically the whole spectrum making it hard to find a reliable space for the iPod to broadcast to the car stereo. They don’t tell you that. Outside London it’s much better.

All in all it was a good week and I’m sorry it’s over.


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