Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Bunting, cupcakes and singing in the rain.

Aren’t bank holidays supposed to be relaxing?

Seriously.  Leaving aside the minor issue of the baby who has decided that sleeping is cheating, I am about as relaxed as a particularly tetchy rattlesnake on speed.

 It seems to be a particularly British trait to go entirely overboard in preparation for big celebrations, and then need another holiday to recover from them.  This mentality also seems to exert its power over every other aspect of your life, so a royal wedding or a sporting victory comes around and before you know it you are baking cupcakes, pinning up bunting, power-cleaning the entire house, quilting cushions and mowing the lawn.  It’s as though a sort of collective “Everything must be perfect!” madness descends as the whole nation succumbs to a particularly virulent strain of WeWillHaveFun-itis.

In the Chaos household everything was exacerbated by the fact that Dody and Teeve, the decorators, finally finished last Monday.  They hadn’t been gone an hour before I was missing them.  I had rather got used to being gently mocked in stereo from random corners of the house.  However, the more pressing problem was that they had left a scene of utter carnage behind them.  Nothing was in the right room and everything had been moved from room to room so many times that every pile contained a bizarre mixture of clothes, toys, sewing equipment, cycling kit, cosmetics and books. 

So I set to it.  Thomas was at nursery on Wednesday, and Ben was recovering from his bronchiolitis with some epic naps.  I was utterly confident that a few hours of dedicated tidying would set the house in order in time for the jubilee weekend.  I’m not sure exactly why it was so important that the house was tidy for the jubilee – I don’t think I was under the impression that the queen might come calling and run a white-gloved finger along the bookshelves – but I was driven on by a faint sense that it would be unpatriotic and Not The Done Thing to celebrate such a historic occasion without the books being in proper alphabetical order.  In any event, we had visitors coming, and although I am pretty confident that they would not have driven home chuntering “Did you see the state of Consummate’s skirting boards?” all the way up the M4, I did think it was probably a good idea for them to actually be able to sit down, and maybe access the spare room without fear of being buried alive by an avalanche of maternity clothes, stray hangers and old bank statements.

Perhaps a few hours of dedicated tidying would have set the house in order.  Unfortunately, what I was doing could in no way be described as “dedicated tidying”.  An impartial and unsympathetic observer might well have described it as “wandering about aimlessly”, or possibly “making more mess”.  Eventually I gave in to the inevitable and grovelled to Ben’s gran who obligingly removed him for a few hours allowing me to embark on some slightly more effective aimless wandering.

I might have been a little les stressed about the whole thing if I hadn’t had such a lengthy list of other things that needed doing.  When the suggestion of a village jubilee party was first raised, I had blithely offered to bring festive cupcakes and some quiches.  The party was now looming rather large on the horizon and I had neither cupcakes nor quiches.  HWSNBN’s sister offered to make some of the cakes but that still left a fair bit of baking to do.  I had also come up with all sorts of jubilee-themed ideas which had somehow become Stuff Which must Be Done.  I had, for reasons that now escape me, started work on a rather nice, pastel union flag play mat for Ben, and had a pile of fabric assembled for some posh bunting.  I eventually had the sense to give up on the playmat but I was doggedly determined that there would be bunting.  No matter what, bunting would happen.  Particularly after our across-the-road neighbours, despite being in their eighties, managed to decorate their cottage with an impressive quantity of flags and bunting.  I would not be out-bunted.

As Friday wore on it became clear that I was not going to get the house tidy.  However, I could just about see tidy.  If I stood on tiptoes and leaned a bit to the side and squinted a bit I could see tidy. 

There it is.  Over there on the horizon. 

Or maybe not tidy, as such.  More a state in which it might be possible to visualise tidiness. 

Things were looking up.

And then, on Saturday, disaster struck. 

Just as I was considering beginning the bunting process, I discovered something truly terrible.  During a short walk with my friend to let the kids run off some of their horrible energy, I glanced at the village noticeboard.

There was a timetable for the jubilee party.  I had entirely overlooked the fact that there was a children’s fancy dress competition.  Now this might not seem like such a massive problem.  If you leave aside my insane over-competitiveness. 
I can’t. 
Leave it aside, that is.  Even in the midst of the carnage, I still found the energy to want to win at all costs.

So now I had a list of tasks that included making bunting that was better than our neighbours, baking cupcakes that were nicer than anyone else’s, cooking quiches that people would think were the best quiches ever, and producing a competition-winning fancy dress costume.

Stress levels rose to dangerous heights once again.

Ben was sorted.  He was the proud owner of limited edition Jubilee Pants. 
Thomas was a bit more of a problem.  And then I remembered a costume that my presumably also uber-competitive mother produced at great effort for me at the age of 5.  I decided that I could replicate this in the space of a single evening, in between getting children into bed, baking another batch of cupcakes, decorating the existing ones and starting work on the quiches.

So Saturday evening was spent brandishing whisks, wooden spoons, scissors, glue and wine, and occasionally issuing threats to move out of the village if my efforts weren’t properly appreciated.

Sunday morning saw the completion of the bunting, the first quiche and the icing of the first batch of cupcakes. 

It also saw a frantic phonecall to HWSNBN’s mum with a request for an early arrival with some extra icing sugar and two more quiche dishes.  She turned up armed with the requested items and some useful suggestions.  One of those was “if you try to use an electric whisk on butter and icing sugar in that tall jug, it will go everywhere.”  Unfortunately, I interpreted “go everywhere” as “produce a small amount of splatter.”  I felt I could live with this, wafted her advice away and pressed the start button.

I have always wondered what effect a nuclear bomb would have if dropped on a cake factory.  Well, I haven’t.  I’m not that weird.  But if I had, I would have been given my answer on Sunday morning, as a mushroom cloud of icing sugar exploded from the jug and coated everything within a 10 foot radius in fine white powder with just a hint of liquidated butter.

Excellent.  Cleaning the entire kitchen was now added to the list of outstanding tasks.  I was swiftly banned from having anything else to do with icing sugar and dispatched to finish Thomas’s costume. 

Despite my best efforts, we were finally ready to leave our bunting-festooned house.

It began to pour with rain.

I was undaunted.  We would have fun.  Umbrellas were located and all party-related paraphernalia was piled into the buggy under a waterproof coat and off we went.

As we walked down the lane, water pooling round our feet, I noticed that HWSNBN had developed a distinctly trudge-like walk.  He was also not sporting the appropriate look of patriotic excitement.  I pointed out that this was very far from the spirit that won us the war.  We are British.  We do not trudge.  We stand under brollies, eating cupcakes and keeping calm and carrying on.

God save the Queen.

HWSNBN remained un-jollied.  Even when we reached the party location and discovered the truly exciting fact that we had not only a small marquee, but also a pair of gazebos, he continued to be un-British about the whole thing.  Fortunately everyone else appeared to have succumbed to WeWillHaveFun-itis, and the entire village threw itself into Organised Fun with the kind of gusto that is only seen when the British gather together under a sodden British marquee, knee-deep in wet British grass, balancing plastic union-jack themed cups and damp red, white and blue paper-plates while talking about the British weather and the British monarchy.  There was even a slightly soggy rendition of God Save the Queen.

My smile did slip a little when I discovered that the fancy dress competition was, in fact, non-competitive.  There would be no losers.  And more to the point, no winners.  I just about restrained myself from shrieking “Do you know how long that bloody thing took to make?

There was a further hiccup when Thomas categorically refused to wear his costume which was, to be fair, a little droopy by now.  Fortunately HWSNBN had the presence of mind to resort to outright bribery, hissing “I’ll give you cake if you put it on.”  This at least got him partway through the fancy-dress parade.  Unfortunately, some spectacularly short-sighted organiser decided that the parade should pass the cakes.  The parade therefore ended minus one RAF pilot who had made an emergency landing beside the cake table and was refusing to move.

Oh well, at least it meant that someone ate one of my slightly flat, rather lurid coloured cupcakes.

There were a few breaks from the rain as the afternoon went on.  Unfortunately the jubilee treasure hunt did not take place during one of these and HWSNBN got the opportunity for a bit more wet trudging round the village due to my inability to pass up any competitive activity.  Nor did the rain hold off for the Traditional English Tea, meaning that the entire village attempted to huddle beneath a very small gazebo, periodically tipping rainwater out of some rather nice bone china teacups and grinning determinedly at one another. 

Around teatime, everyone was showing signs of recovering from the WeWillHaveFun-itis epidemic and, apart from a few lingering stalwarts who were indulging in a spot of drunken welly-hoying, people retreated to their homes.  I determinedly ignored the fact that the colour was running out of my bunting and down the newly-painted front-door.

HWSNBN was not so restrained.  The bunting was removed.

The following day, it became clear that the epidemic was not quite over when I decided, for complicated reasons with which I will not bore anyone, to attempt to organise eight small children in front of a union jack for a photograph.

It did not go well. 

This pretty much spelled the end of my jubilee-enthusiasm, and I spent the evening sprawled on the sofa, watching crowds of people waving flags and listening to not-particularly good performances at the jubilee concert.  It occurred to me to wonder what it is about events like this that get us all worked up.  Is it really all about saying thank you to one, admittedly, very nice, steadfast lady for sixty years of service? 
I think it is about more than that.  Although I hope the queen has had a nice time and isn’t too bored about all the obsequious thank-you speeches that she has had to listen to.  Because to be fair, she must be thinking “yes, yes, one gets it, the nation is grateful” by now.  But it’s not just about the queen.  Not by any stretch of the imagination.I think it is about remembering everything that has happened over the last sixty years, and even beyond that.  Patriotism is a bit unfashionable these days.  We don’t often get a chance to say “You know what?  We’re not that bad.  We’ve done okay.”  The Queen is a symbol of that.  When we wave flags and come up with complicated ways to celebrate the jubilee, what we are really doing is taking a rare chance to celebrate all the good things about being British, to say “Well done us.  We’re still here.  Still marching on with bunting and buns and making the best of it.”

God save the Queen and all that.

[waves flag from prone position on sofa]


  1. Can't believe the fancy dress was non-competitive!!! My kids' school did a fair trade cake competition not so long ago where they DIDN'T TASTE THE CAKES. I am so with you on all that - and totally overdoing it only to collapse in a crumpled heap at the end of it.

  2. It might have been a good thing if they hadn't tasted the cakes in my case!