Wednesday 22 May 2013

Bath-etic tragedy

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mother

Last week I made the mistake of throwing away the bath toys, a ruinous act that prompted my six-year old son to say he could never forgive me. The drama that ensued contained elements of a Greek tragedy: mother-son ructions, moral failings, hysterics and even some soul-searching. Who would have thought that a string-bag of decaying bath toys could have sparked such a crisis? Such are the vicissitudes of family life. One minute it's plain sailing and the next you are caught in the eye of the storm.

Bath toys: Thomas the tank engine, ducks and a pink tortoise
Reprieved at the last hour
It all started with a spot of belated spring cleaning. In a rare fit of enthusiasm, I went through the house like Kim and Aggie on speed. Jigsaws were dispatched to Oxfam, wardrobes were ransacked for old clothes and dogeared drawings from school 'mysteriously' found their way into the recycling. 

So far so good. Then my tyrannical eye alighted upon the bag of bath toys, each covered in a veneer of black mould. Middle child (my son) barely noticed them anymore and the mould, I decided, presented a health hazard to Non-walking toddler. Into the wheely bin went Thomas the Tank Engine, stacking cups, one puffer fish, a pink squirty tortoise and several yellow ducks.

Fast-forward to bathtime. Middle child was lying stretched out in the bath, refusing to wash himself while I rubbed Non-walking toddler dry.

"Mum, where are all the bath toys?" he asked languidly. 

"Oh, I threw them away. They'd gone mouldy."

"What?" He sat up.

"We'll get some more."

"You mean you threw away my squeezy Thomas the Tank Engine?" he wailed. "That was my favourite!"

"Darling, they were covered in mould! It wasn't even worth cleaning them."

"And what about Torty? Please tell me you haven't thrown away Torty!"


"The pink tortoise - that was my absolute favourite. I can't believe you've done this!"

Inevitably tears and lots of shouting (from him) followed... and persisted all the way until bedtime. Never mind, I thought as I switched off his light to the sound of distant sobbing under the duvet, he'll be over it in the morning.

Bathtime, day two, continued in much the same vein. He even muttered the immortal words: "I will never forget this, Mummy, not ever." On day three, he told me, "I can't believe what you have put me through." (See earlier reference to Greek drama.)

Needless to say, I was losing my nerve and sought advice from friends and family. One advised that next time I should "transition" the toys, in other words park them in a cupboard until their absence has gone safely unobserved. My mother advised, "Don't give in - you need to let him know who's boss." Hmm... 

Day four found me rifling through the wheely bin in the front garden, only to discover a now fetid bag of bath toys, coated in dead leaves and the entrails of the hoover bag. After half an hour of scrubbing them with hot water and Dettol, I returned them to the side of the bath. As soon as I picked Middle child up from school, I told him I had a surprise. His reaction was euphoric and he has been playing manically with the toys ever since. 

"Do you forgive me now?" I asked tentatively.

"Sort of."

"Sort of? After every thing I did to get them back..."

"Alright, keep your hair on, I forgive you," he said, giving me a magnanimous hug.

When I told my mother, she was outraged, but I still think I made the right decision. Knowing Middle child as I do, the purge of the bath toys would have become a stain on his childhood. I also had another (self-justifying) motive. By returning the toys, I showed Middle child that if you want something bad enough, and you are willing to persevere, you might just succeed. Not such a bad life lesson. What's more, Torty and Thomas lived to see another day. Now that's a happy ending.

Hermaphrodite Mum is a fictional creation of Emma Clark Lam
Previous posts by Hermaphrodite Mum:

Tuesday 14 May 2013

How Jeremy Irons saved us

Last week I encountered the actor Jeremy Irons in the flesh. With his slacks tucked into black boots and his thespian swagger, he was a man to capture an audience. What's more, he might just have changed my life for the better. You think I exaggerate? It started with a trip to the cinema to watch Mr Irons' documentary Trashed about the toxic effects of consumer waste. Afterwards, the audience had the chance to discuss the film with Mr Irons and the writer/directer Candida Brady. 
Jeremy Irons by a mountain of rubbish in Lebanon (in 'Trashed')
Jeremy Irons contemplates rubbish on the shores of Lebanon
Credit: Laurence Richards   © Blenheim Films

It proved an evening of contrast and emotion: stunning scapes of the natural world juxtaposed against visceral images of rubbish piled high on Mediterranean beaches, Vietnamese children deformed by exposure to Agent Orange and sea life crippled by the consumption of plastic. All of this coated by Mr Irons' mellifluous voice, a rousing soundtrack and the sensation that I had just witnessed something that would change my habits forever.

I like to think of myself as conscientious person - I recycle, I carry a foldaway shopper in my handbag and I wash my dishes with Ecover. However, I am not sure I have ever felt so deeply the importance of recycling or appreciated the scale of damage our society is inflicting on the natural world. A hundred years ago, human waste consisted largely of natural materials - wood, wool, paper - but now we are throwing away plastic at a gargantuan rate. Whereas natural materials break down rapidly, it can take centuries for plastic to decompose.

In the world's ocean gyres (areas with circular currents), hundreds of square miles have been transformed into a soupy mixture of saltwater and plastic. Inevitably sea creatures consume the plastic and suffer immediate effects, or more insidious declines in fertility. It is believed that killer whales (at top of the food chain) could die out in our lifetime. "I am sort of depressed about the sea," Mr Irons told us after the film, "in a big, big way."
Candida Brady and Jeremy Irons on the set of Trashed
Credit: Laurence Richards   © Blenheim Films

Bringing it closer to home, our excessive waste also threatens to have an impact on our own health. The film made a strong case against landfill sites and the use of waste-to-energy incinerators, some of which were shown to release cancer-causing dioxins into the atmosphere. Agent Orange - a powerful weedkiller used by the US during the Vietnamese war to destroy jungle cover - also contains the compound dioxin. The Vietnamese believe the chemical is responsible for high instances of genetic defects in areas that were sprayed. In a powerful scene from the film, Mr Irons stands in a home for some of the children affected, his eyes lambent with suppressed emotion.

At the end of the film, Mr Irons' voiceover declared that we were at a "tipping point". Still in a state of shock, I interpreted this as a negative development, but others in the audience saw room for hope. They were inspired by San Francisco's drive for zero waste, as well as recycling plants that have created new jobs and a way of managing our reliance upon plastic. A man sitting in the front row told us he worked in waste management and admitted he learnt more from the documentary than he had from working in the industry for 10 years.

The main thrust of our discussion post-film was how to change opinion, just as campaigners did with seatbelt-wearing and drink-driving. The European Union is currently looking at banning non-recyclable plastics, including the ubiquitous plastic bag, but grassroots support is also needed. Ms Brady is showing her film in schools, in the hope that our children will build a more environmentally conscious society. As for me? During a shopping trip at the weekend, I firmly rebutted all attempts to put my purchases in plastic bags. "Have you not heard about this film called Trashed?" I asked one bemused retailer.

Mr Irons - on whose celebrity Ms Brady intended to "hang" the film - said he got involved because he thought the subject was "terrible, but also curable". Let's hope we can find some alternative medicine before we tip over into terminal decline.

This post has been reproduced on the Trashed website.

Thursday 2 May 2013

Innocence at large

Review: The Innocents by Francesca Segal

As a mother, I slightly dread the teenage years. All that recklessness and rebellion to contend with, not to mention underwear over saggy jeans and raging hormones. A friend who teaches in a secondary school assures me that teenagers are endlessly fascinating. They see the world in a unique way and are constantly challenging their environment. Yes, fun for the dispassionate observer, but a bit of a trial for any parent obliged to witness her offspring's lovely experiment with liberty. 

Earlier this week I joined a Mumsnet webchat with Francesca Segal, author of the prize-winning novel, The Innocents. She described this tension between conformity and freedom as a universal conflict. "Navigating between social pressures and individual needs is one of the fundamental challenges of growing up." In her book, Francesca uses a close-knit Jewish neighbourhood in North London "to explore questions and dilemmas that face almost everyone, coming of age - independence versus security; one's own needs versus the needs of a community." 

Wednesday 24 April 2013

The art of good lamp-making

People watching: 
Karin Willems, co-founder of Zenza

About seven years ago the renowned Dutch designer Li Edelkoort helped to kit out a restaurant in Paris' Galeries Lafayette. As part of her scheme, she chose to accent a modern, white space with Middle Eastern flair. Hammered brass lights were hung above the restaurant's tables, casting their shadowy patterns onto the tiled walls. A new trend was born: the lamps were featured in Harper's Bazaar and an explosion of interest followed.

Karin Willems and other founders of Zenza, a Dutch producer of home accessories
Karin with her husband Hussein
and business partner Yasmina
The company behind those lights is a Dutch producer of handicrafts called Zenza. Last week I interviewed co-founder Karin Willems, who has just launched the company's newest store in Rotterdam. The company prides itself on crafting handmade home accessories, using oriental designs and artisanal techniques. It operates mainly as a wholesaler, but has two other stores in Amsterdam and Maastricht. 

About 18 years ago, Karin spotted the lights in a souk in Egypt - they were traditional lamps with closed bottoms for burning oil. "We made the design cleaner, more modern and easier to use with an electrical system," she says. The company's design mantra is to reinterpret objects of the past, giving them a more contemporary feel. The lamps have been Zenza's best seller ever since. Last year, Heineken even used them in an television advertisement to sell beer.

Lamps designed by Zenza, a producer of home accessories
Zenza's lamps are crafted by hand in Egypt
Karin maintains that her company is not run on conventional lines, using business tools such as strategy and research. "I always follow my heart and rely upon my taste and intuition," she says. "That's who I am and how I do it... and I like having the right people around me." 

Not surprisingly, the company was forged out of a relationship: while Karin was visiting Cairo's souk 18 years ago, she met and married Hussein. At first, he wasn't keen to join Karin's fledgling venture in Amsterdam - he offered to help carry boxes until he found his own way. It turned out he had a gift for dealing with customers so he stayed on. Now he also helps Karin with her designs, often handling the more technical aspects.

The couple have a daughter and moved to Egypt three years ago so that she could grow up in two cultures. Unfortunately, their move coincided with the recent political upheaval. "In the beginning it was very exciting, adapting to a new culture," recalls Karin in a soft voice. "But it is a difficult time now and people are losing their businesses and there is all this sadness around us. Now I admit I am counting the days until we go back to Amsterdam." As an exporter, Zenza is not so affected by Egypt's troubles.

Furniture designed out of mango wood by Zenza, a producer of home accessories
Workshops in India make wares out of old print blocks
The company has its own factory in Cairo and also provides microfinance to various workshops making its goods. "We didn't want to be everyone's boss," explains Karin. The workshops often repay Zenza's loans in six months and are able to hire more staff as required. The company also uses the workshop model in India to produce furniture made out of (sustainable) mango wood. 

Karin is committed to maintaining ethical standards and is "very confident" that Zenza operates on a fairtrade basis in Egypt, providing safe conditions for workers and paying good salaries. With a degree of honesty, she admits that it is harder to achieve such standards in India. "I am sure there is not child labour and I am sure the mango wood is not harvested illegally, but it would cost me so much time to find out more." Despite having an agent in India, keeping tabs on Indian suppliers is one of the challenges Zenza faces.

Lamps designed by Zenza, a producer of home accessories
Zenza's lamps have caught the attention of designers
The company is also, to some extent, a victim of its own success. Demand for its lamps is outstripping its capacity to produce - many of its retailers in the UK are out of stock. Karin is ideologically opposed to mass production, but it can take months to train up new craftspeople. "Good things take time and I don't like it, but this is our reality. We don't want to compromise on quality." 

Remarkably Zenza seems to be weathering the slowdown in consumer spending, even bucking the trend in Rotterdam. Some of the local outlets for Zenza's products have been forced to close down, giving the company a unique opportunity to open its own shopfront without treading on any toes. With all this going on, you wonder how Karin ever gets time to rest. Although Hussein sometimes tells her that he doesn't want to hear about work for a while, she finds it hard to switch off. "Even on vacation, I see a new material, or I find a location for photo shoot," she says, laughing.

On paper, such squeaky clean credentials make for good marketing. During the interview, however, Karin's passion for craft and fair trade come across as genuine. It appears to be a peculiarly female success story: a design-winner bred out of intuition and generosity, rather than hard-nosed business nous.

UK suppliers of Zenza's products include John Lewis and Pomegranate Living with Style. Zenza's lamps also recently featured in Homes & Gardens magazine. Please note that I was not paid or incentivised in any way to write this article.


Wednesday 17 April 2013

Dream catching

What a difference a week makes! Only a few days ago we were about to rent out our house and move to a sunnier clime (possibly Cornwall) to embrace the good life. Now the summer term has started, my husband is back at work and we are once again 'safe' in the old routines. As you might have guessed, we have just returned from a week's holiday: the perennial time for hatching harebrained schemes and entertaining fantasies of jumping off the treadmill.

Genki cafe, St Agnes, Cornwall
Anyone for a smoothie in compostible plastic?
Some people, however, do manage to pull it off. During our aforementioned holiday in Cornwall, I was talking to a friend about this - her theory is that we tend not to make any dramatic changes to our lives until we reach rock-bottom. In her case, after a relationship broke down, she skipped England for Kenya, where her life has since blossomed.

Last week, on our pilgrimage to the beach in St Agnes, we happened upon a cafe called Genki (translates as 'health and happiness' in Japanese). It provides a winning combination of lemon drizzle cake, barista coffee and granola, all served up with a cosmopolitan-cum-surfing vibe. Our daily diet of cake and flat whites became a highlight - the "best bit of the holiday", according to our son. Owen and Natalie Lewis, who own the cafe, are relaxed and friendly hosts. With their tousled hair, good looks and rude health, you could well believe they grew up on a surf board down in the bay.

Natalie and Owen Lewis, owners of Genki cafe, St Agnes
Natalie and Owen Lewis
Imagine the surprise when we discovered that they spent six years pursuing careers in Japan. Natalie taught at the British School in Tokyo, while Owen was an equities sales trader for a US bank. Owen candidly admits that six years of the high life in Tokyo - drinking and eating out - eventually lost its lustre. "You have to ask yourself what's your ideal life," he says. "Some people have their ideal life in a place like Hong Kong, but I realised I was not a city person. I was becoming someone I didn't want to become." These days after work, Owen is more likely to be found surfing or fishing than drinking in a bar.

Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and subsequent nuclear disaster, also played a part. Nothing like a radiation leak to focus the mind - the couple left behind a beach house in Fukushima, the site of the nuclear power plant that suffered equipment failures in the wake of the tsunami. Health and happiness on Cornwall's breezy shores was a more appealing prospect.
St Agnes beach, Cornwall
An idyllic life by the sea?

At the end of our holiday, we attended the wedding of an old friend. She is one more example of someone who sought another path. She swapped a flat in London for a house perched on a cliff in St Agnes with wall-to-wall views of the sea. Now she has married a Cornishman and is expecting her first baby in July. 

All of this makes me think it is possible to achieve a dream, if you are determined enough. Perhaps one day we too will down tools and make for the nearest beach! The difficulty is that our nice existence in Oxfordshire is a little too comfortable. There is some solace in that - we obviously haven't hit rock-bottom. So until the quake breaks, we will be sitting tight, dreaming about a new life by the sea... 

Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot. "This was such an enjoyable read and the quality of the writing was what made it so. I could not put it down as the plot was so meaty with so many twists and turns." -- Amazon review

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Work in progress

Today I am posting an excerpt from my new novel about a young woman trapped in a ruinous marriage in Jakarta, Indonesia, during the 1970s. 

Sunset in Bali
The sun deserted us within minutes...

The journey ended as the wheels of the aeroplane struck the tarmac with a deafening roar. I stared into the face of an airhostess and decided that Death wore a batik uniform and crimson lipstick. Over our heads, the rain hammered upon the cabin like gunfire, while the wind sucked at the egg-shaped windows. As the plane listed from side to side, I gripped the hands of my two little girls and opened silent negotiations with God. We were three hundred passengers holding our breath, waiting for an engine to blow or smoke to billow out from the wing. My eyes sought out the airhostess once more, scanning her features for any trace of panic. Her mouth remained composed, still fixed in a faint smile, her lips ghoulish in the dimmed light. At last, the plane came to a juddering halt. A hoarse cheer broke out, followed quickly by the snapping of seatbelts. It was all over – we had arrived. My hysteria shrank back down like a defeated genie into its lamp.
It was dusk by the time we staggered across the runway, crumpled and exhausted. We had endured forty-eight hours of travel, with eight pieces of luggage, a pushchair and a wooden crate. I thought I would be used to it by now, but the trip still knocked me for six. There were pustules of vomit on my jeans from where my eldest child had deposited her evening meal and my swollen feet filled up every crevice in my shoes. It was a journey to shake body and soul.
Within minutes of arriving, the sun deserted us, tunnelling down to another part of the world. I inhaled the soupy air and straightened my spine. It was a reflex – partly a reaction to the cramped cabin, but also a stiffening of resolve. Jakarta, we have returned! That said with defiance and weariness. After a summer away in Sussex, expatriate life was about to resume. While we swung croquet mallets in an English garden and caught up with the relatives, it was like someone had lifted the needle off the record player. Now, with a little crackle, the music would begin again.
When we reached the baggage hall, Simon disappeared into the rabble by the carousel, to collect the suitcases, while I ushered our girls over to a bank of seats. Two flights had arrived at once and there was general confusion as to whose baggage would materialise first. Outside the window, our jumbo jet melted away into a twinkle of lights, which swam in fluorescent waves as my eyes struggled to focus. A muscle in my left lid went into spasm. The urge to close my eyes was overpowering. Everyone had managed to sleep on the plane apart from me – the girls sprawled on the floor at our feet, Simon swathed in blankets. Ever watchful, I sat condemned to a numb kind of wakefulness, queasily aware of the body odour drifting over from across the aisle. Now sleep was calling me. The babble of the baggage hall was oddly soothing and I felt myself falling gently off a cliff… until a small jab on my forearm brought me back round.
“Mummy! Katie won’t let me have any of her water,” complained a voice by my side.
Slowly, automatically, I reached into my hand luggage for a flask to give to Hannah, my youngest. She took one swig and then flew back to her sister, invigorated. Both of them had been fractious and tearful when we left the plane, but now the excitement of arriving had given them a jolt of energy.
“Katie! Hannah! Please! Calm down,” I called after them. My glance flickered between Simon’s head, now floating above the crowd at the conveyor belt, and the girls in mid-flight. “Shush now, Daddy will be cross.”
After a while – I lost track of time – Simon and a porter returned with our luggage piled high on a trolley. I was too tired even to check the cases, an unusual omission for me.
“For God’s sake, try to get the girls to behave,” Simon snapped, before heading off to sort out the paperwork for the new dog.
During our summer in England, my husband had finally relented and allowed the girls to adopt a russet cocker spaniel called Dixie. For too many hours the poor animal had been holed up in a crate, two rows behind us on the plane, whining for her freedom. When we stopped in Bahrain to re-fuel, I watched out of the window as Simon gingerly led her around the plane. She eventually peed beside the wheel of a nearby truck as impassive soldiers looked on, cradling their machine guns. After Simon returned to his seat, he looked at me as if to say, this was all your bright idea.
More minutes ticked by in the baggage hall. I felt a dull ache rolling through my body – I was thirsting for a cigarette! With some sort of sensory memory, my fingers began twitching in my lap. The girls clambered across the floor, pretending to be donkeys. Where in the world had Simon got to? Girls please! Get up off the floor, it’s dirty. I gazed out across the marbled tiles and spotted my husband in the distance, arguing with an official in a blue uniform. Simon’s head was jutting forward, shooting words into the space between them. Something was wrong. Hauling myself to my feet, I tottered over in my sick-spattered trousers, trailing small girls, a porter and a squeaking trolley in my wake.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s the bloody dog,” said my husband tersely. “There’s an issue with the paperwork.”
That was Simon to a tee – controlling, aggressive, persuasive. He turned his back on me to continue his negotiations.
Selamat datang,” the customs man said, ignoring Simon and beaming across at me. “Welcome to Indonesia, Nyonya!”
Despite my malaise, despite the ache in my head, despite bloody everything, I smiled back. It seemed the thing to do. For the dog’s sake.
“How can we resolve this?” Simon cut in, his voice officious.
“I am sorry sir,” said the man with another oily smile, “but you are not permitted to bring this dog into Indonesia. It is against our regulations. Your paperwork is not in order.”
He jabbed his finger accusingly at the documents on the table in front of us.
The pulse in Simon’s jaw started to throb. His fury was like ice in my veins. I almost pitied the customs official – he had no idea who he was dealing with, poor soul. Dixie whined pathetically in the background, scrabbling at the door of her wooden crate. I held out my hand to her through the mesh window. There, there, little one. It will soon be over. One of the girls started to cry again – Hannah – she had a knack for tuning into emotional static. Katie leaned despondently on the crate with her arms hanging by her side.
“Give me your gun then,” Simon said.
“Sorry sir?”
“You heard me. Give me your gun.” Simon gestured towards the man’s holster. “If I can’t bring this dog into your country, I will have to shoot her with your gun.”
The breath was sucked out of me, my fingers snagged on the mesh. Katie gave a yelp of dismay. “No Daddy, please!”
The man gaped at Simon, his mouth hanging open, revealing an array of yellowing teeth. “One moment please,” he said and disappeared into an office by the side of us.
Inside my head I began to scream. No one deserved to die. Not yet, anyway.
Then the official came back. “Go, go!” he said, waving us through with a dismissive hand.

Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot

"This was such an enjoyable read and the quality of the writing was what made it so. I could not put it down as the plot was so meaty with so many twists and turns." 
-- Amazon review