The Single Best Piece of Advice On Life

I’m in the middle of writing my second novel – working title Eight Messengers, although one of the messengers is currently refusing to play ball, so it may well turn into Seven Messengers. Then, of course, my agent and my editors will start wading in, and it could become Four Messengers. And by the time we’ve done several rounds of structural, line and copy edits, it’ll be The Lone Messenger. Or something else entirely.

There is nothing more daunting than starting again, staring at a blank page, especially since I have convinced myself that my first novel, which is being published in the spring, is going to be a total flop. I have obviously been fooling everyone, including myself, pretending to be an author, and I might as well hang up my laptop now and stick to writing shopping lists and inane tweets about my puppy.

(If you are interested in reading inane tweets about my puppy, you can find me on twitter, @cpooleywriter. Oh God, I may have to change my twitter handle to @cpooleyunemployed).

During one of my bleakest moments, I managed to extricate my head from the giant piece of cake I’d been mainlining in despair for long enough to Google how do I write a novel? Google suggested a book called Bird by Bird. Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, which sounded like it could be the answer.

It turned out that it really is the answer, not only to several of the problems I was having with my writing, but to many of the issues I’ve come across in life.

Anne tells this story:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilised by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arms around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”

This, I realised, was exactly my problem. I’d become immobilised by the enormity of the project, by the fear of having to extricate ninety thousand words of story from my own head. (And, as my husband likes to tell people, she can’t just write down any old words, you know. They have to be in the right order and everything. He is, as you can see, very proud of me).

All I needed to do, said Anne, was to focus on one bird at a time. Because the truth is, if you can write one good sentence, you can write a good paragraph. And a few good paragraphs become a chapter. String a number of those together and eventually you have a whole book.

This mindset was so transformational, that I started thinking about the other major hurdles I’d encountered in my life (instead of focussing on the aforementioned novel).

Four years ago, I quit drinking, which – after years of downing more than a bottle of wine a day – was not an easy thing to do. I read everything I could get my hands on about how to get, and stay, sober, and pretty much everyone seemed to agree that the key to success was taking one day at a time.

I understood the importance of this, since the thought of never, ever being able to have a glass of red wine with Christmas lunch, a toast of champagne at a wedding or a nightcap by the fire on a snowy evening filled me with utter despair. Again, the enormity of the task was overwhelming. Even the idea of one day – twenty four hours – without something to take the edges off seemed insurmountable.

But I found the thought of having to take one day at a time rather depressing. It made me feel as though I was never going to beat this. I’d never be able to look into the future with hope and optimism; I was always going to be stuck in the mundanity of the present moment.

What I wish I had done instead was to tell myself this: Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird. Because that was what I did. I faced each challenge as it came – the first twenty-four hours, the first Friday night, the first sober party, the first sober birthday, the first *whisper it* sober sex.

And the amazing thing about taking it bird by bird, is that eventually you end up with something. You create a whole, beautifully bound and illustrated record of penguins and emus and lesser spotted woodpeckers. And you know that if you can complete that huge project so successfully, then you can do it again.

Which was just as well, because eight months after I quit drinking, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

And, yet again, the enormity of the situation was overwhelming. As soon as I started looking ahead to all the things I was going to have to face – telling my children that mummy has cancer, having part, or all, of my boob removed, radiotherapy, potentially chemotherapy, a life lived in fear of recurrence and spread – I would be frozen with terror.

What I learned was to take it bird by bird. I realised that I could only focus on the very next hurdle, whether that was an MRI scan, a sentinel node biopsy, or getting through a class coffee morning without breaking down.

Eventually, all those birds added up to a whole project, which I handed in, received my ‘all clear for the time being’, which is a kind of B+ in the oncology world, and now I just need to hope that I’m never called back for a re-mark.

As you can probably tell, I’ve developed a bit of a girl crush on Anne Lamott, so I looked up her fabulously wise and witty TED talk: Twelve Truths I Learned from Life and Writing, and, in one of those strange co-incidences, it turns out that she recently quit alcohol too. Anne says:

“In the end, I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.”

Anne Lamott

…which I am seriously plagiarising whenever I’m asked why I don’t drink.

So, if you’re trying to stop drinking, or write a novel, or deal with any of life’s major challenges, just whisper to yourself bird by bird, buddy. I promise, it’ll help.

If you’d like to read more about my first year without alcohol, you can find my memoir (described as Bridget Jones Dries Out), The Sober Diaries, here.

There’s more on the Life In the Hot Lane Facebook Page, including a fabulous piece by Lisa Timoney on why we shouldn’t dress for our age. ‘Like’ page to stay updated.

Things Technology Has Robbed From Us

I like to think that, despite being (late) middle-aged, I am pretty up with technology. I blog. I’m on Instagram. I have loads of the latest apps, some of which I use. According to my iPhone, I spend a stupid amount of the day on ‘screen time.’ I love the way technology has enhanced my life (with a particular shout-out to Audible, Spotify and Netflix), but there are some things technology has stolen from us that I really, really miss. Here they are, in no particular order:

Slamming down the phone

I love smart phones. Like a millennial, my iPhone is surgically attached to my hand. I have mild panic attacks at the idea of running out of battery. But I still miss old-fashioned telephones. I miss putting my finger in the dial hole, and that little noise it made when you release it. I miss twirling the coiled cable round in my fingers. And I miss the satisfying heft of the receiver in my hand.

But, most of all, I miss the ability to SLAM IT DOWN IN ANGER. Or frustration. Or just to make a point. I know you can still ‘hang up’ on an iPhone, but just pressing that little end call icon has nothing like the same impact – on you or on the person on the other end of the call. You don’t get the thunk of the receiver hitting the cradle. They don’t get the whiny insult of the dialling tone. Sure, you can throw your phone across the room à la Naomi Campbell, but unless you’re as rich as she is, it’s an expensive point to make.

The TV Times

I love the fact that I can watch the best TV shows whenever, and wherever, it’s convenient. I like being able to binge-watch a whole series of Killing Eve or Fleabag over just a few days. But I really, really miss appointment-to-view TV.

It is very, very rare that we sit down as a family to watch the same show at the same time. This makes me rather sad, as some of my most vivid childhood memories are of watching shows like It’s a Knockout, The Two Ronnies and The Generation Game as a family. All of us yelling out “Don’t forget the cuddly toy!” at the person doing the conveyor belt challenge and laughing at The Phantom Raspberry Blower of London Town (anybody else, or just me?) I’m not sure that memories of watching Stranger Things in your bedroom on your phone, while your brother plays Fortnite and your sister watches PewDiePie playing Minecraft on YouTube will have the same resonance.

When the whole nation saw the same programmes simultaneously, there was that wonderful feeling of bonding, of joint anticipation and then the joy of sharing our experiences in the school canteen or over the water cooler at work. Who shot JR? Will Ange ditch Dirty Den? Who is number one on Top of the Pops?

And who can forget the bumper double-edition of the TV Times at Christmas, and the family debates over which films we’d watch on Christmas Day?

Boredom

My generation spent an awful lot of our childhoods saying I’m bored! to our despairing parents. Our kids rarely do that, because they can fill every spare minute with some sort of technology. In fact, they become so unused to boredom, that taking their technology away becomes a huge battle-ground.

But boredom, in some ways, is good. It is in those moments when you have absolutely nothing else to do that you come up with ideas, you solve problems, you invent games and stories and notice the wonder of the world around you.

Steven Spielberg says “Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone.”

We need more boredom, or we will have less magic.

Photo Albums

I know it’s possible to print out your digital photos and stick them in a proper album with hand-written captions, but who actually does that any more? I keep meaning to, but the more time passes and the backlog builds up, the more insurmountable a task it becomes.

It’s lovely having all your recent photos to hand, so that you can shove them in the face of the unsuspecting stranger when they ask about your children, or your last holiday, but it really doesn’t beat the thrill of turning the heavy pages of a leather-bound album and laughing at the stupid fashions and lopped off heads.

Do you remember the excitement of going to collect your newly-developed photos from Boots? The anticipation of seeing if any of the shots were as good as you remembered them? Of picking out the handful of the best ones, sticking them reverently on the page, and writing the names underneath for posterity? A Facebook memory just doesn’t have the same power.

Proper maps

Angelina Jolie said “Anytime I feel lost, I pull out a map and stare. I stare until I have reminded myself that life is a giant adventure, so much to do, to see.” (Then she sticks in a pin and goes to adopt another child).

I have to confess, Google Maps is one of my most-used apps. I never feel lost, wherever I am in the world.

But isn’t feeling lost, then finding yourself, one of life’s most satisfying achievements? There is something lovely about unfolding a proper map and working out where you are in relation to everything else. Or even just revelling in being lost, and discovering people and places you’d never have found on the beaten track.

Back in the nineties, whenever I discovered someone who’d recently moved to London, I’d gift them a copy of the London A-Z. It was symbolic. In that little book lay the key to everything – to all of London’s many mysteries and promises.

The little blue dot of Google Maps, moving along a small screen of a few streets, holds nothing like the same sense of wonder and anticipation.

Would I swap all the convenience of today for the nostalgia of yesterday? Probably not. Instead, I try to remember that today’s latest thing is tomorrow’s nostalgia. One day, our children will be telling their own children, via the microchip implanted in their heads, how they miss that obsolete rectangle of obsession which they’d called the iPhone.

Do tell me what you think technology has robbed from us in the comments below!

There’s more this week on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook Page including the seven girlfriends who’ve bought their dream mansion so they can retire together. How cool is that? ‘Like’ page to stay updated.

Why I’ve Reclaimed my Name

One of the most exciting moments of being an author is receiving an advance proof copy of the book you’ve sweated blood and tears over for months, or years even. For me, it’s even more thrilling because of the name on the spine, and on the top of every left-hand page throughout: Clare Pooley. My maiden name. The name I thought I’d lost. The person I’d temporarily mislaid.

I changed my name when I got married, nearly eighteen years ago. I didn’t think twice about adopting my new husband’s surname. For me, it was a show of love, of commitment. It was a sign that I was entering a new phase of life. It was also, I believed, a pre-requisite to starting a family; a family who would all share the same name.

It did strike me as a little archaic and anti-feminist that women should be expected to take their husband’s name, rather than vice versa, but I accepted that as a quirk of tradition, like the royal family, Morris dancing or playing conkers.

For the first five years, I was happy about my new name, because at work I was still Clare Pooley. It got a little complicated sometimes, like on the occasions where I’d turn up at an airport with a ticket booked in one name and a passport in another, but it was manageable.

Then, when my third child was born, ten years ago, I quit my job in order to spend some time as a stay-at-home mum. I also lost my name in the collateral damage.

I didn’t think this would bother me. After all, having one name instead of two made life an awful lot simpler and made me feel less schizophrenic. I hadn’t realised how much the name I’d lived with for thirty-nine years was bound up with my identity. When I lost my name I also lost my sense of self. I felt as if I only existed as someone’s wife, or someone’s mother.

“A name represents identity, a deep feeling and holds tremendous significance to its owner.”

Rachel Ingber

Now I wonder why we women abandon our identities so lightly?

There are, of course, options.

You can elect to keep your own names when you marry, but this can make things tricky if you have children. Whose name do they take? If they use your husband’s, you constantly have to explain to people that you are, actually, their mother. It can also make things really tricky at airports. A friend of mine, who kept her maiden name, was travelling with her ten-year-old daughter who used her father’s surname. At passport control her daughter was asked “Is this your mother?” “No”, she replied, resulting in a three hour interrogation at customs. When they finally emerged, her mother asked why she’d said no. “I thought it must be a trick question,” her daughter replied.

You can double-barrel, link both your names together, although this can be a bit unwieldy and look slightly pretentious. It also wasn’t an option in my case, as my husband’s name was already double-barrelled and super long. Our poor children complained at nursery school that they’d often end up missing much of break time as write your name on top of your painting before you go wasn’t as easy for them as their friends.

My favourite option, and one being used increasingly by same-sex couples, is to splice, or mesh, your names. When Dawn Porter married Chris O’Dowd, for example, she changed her name to Dawn O’Porter. This strikes me as brilliantly equitable and creates a name your children can share. It’s also a great metaphor for marriage – you each bring part of your history into the relationship, and you both have to compromise. Although my name isn’t ideal, obviously, as who wants a mash-up with Poo?

“Letitia! What a name. Halfway between a salad and a sneeze.”

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

I still remember vividly the first time I used my maiden name again, nearly three years ago. I had a meeting at Hodder & Stoughton, who were interested in publishing my memoir – The Sober Diaries (only 99p on Kindle for a limited time only – just sayin’) I turned up, incredibly nervous, at their huge, shiny offices alongside the River Thames and walked up to reception. “What’s your name?” they asked. “Clare Pooley,” I replied, and in my head a little voice said yay, baby, she’s back.

“My great-great-grandmother walked as a slave from Virginia to Eatonton, Georgia. It is in memory of this walk that I chose to keep and to embrace my ‘maiden’ name, Walker.”

Alice Walker

I still use my married name for all family and social events, but my maiden name is the one I publish under, and it makes me feel like my life – instead of being a game of two halves – has come full circle. I think back to that little Clare Pooley, reading by torchlight under the duvet and dreaming of being an author and whisper to her: we did it.

There’s lots of new stuff on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook Page, including a brilliant article on alcohol and the menopause by Ann Bauer. ‘Like’ page to stay updated.

My Top Five Summer Reads

I am addicted to reading. I’ve read about fifty books since the start of this year. I’ve started, but not finished, about fifteen more, since I’ve recently made the life-changing decision that there’s no reason to finish a book if it’s not really your thing when there are so many others out there to explore.

The problem with reading so many stories is there just isn’t enough space in the inadequate filing system of my brain to store them all, so I forget the vast majority almost as soon as I’ve turned the last page. This can be extremely irritating, as I’ll often buy a new book and get to chapter 3 or 4 before it all starts feeling spookily familiar and I realise I’ve bought it before.

Once in a while, however, I read a story which, for some reason, doesn’t get immediately deleted, but nestles in my brain and refuses to budge. The books on this list have all done just that.

Daisy Jones & The Six – Taylor Jenkins Reid

First up is Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. This is the story of a fictional 1970’s rock band, but you quickly forget that Daisy and the Six don’t actually exist. More than once, I found myself reaching for Spotify, so I could download their seminal album. This feels less like a novel, and more like an utterly engrossing Netflix docu-drama. It’s crammed with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and a bewitching heroine who refuses to settle for being someone else’s muse. I didn’t just mourn this book when it ended, I mourned living in a world without Daisy and her music.

Sweet Sorrow – David Nicholls

I totally love David Nicholls, despite One Day being the only book I have ever thrown across a room in anguish because of that ending. So, when I heard he had a new novel coming out I managed to blag an advance proof copy from the lovely people at Hodder. Sweet Sorrow did not disappoint. It’s a gloriously nostalgic tale of first love and, as ever, Nicholls makes you laugh and cry and read out whole paragraphs to anyone in the vicinity, because it’s just too good to keep to yourself. When I finished Sweet Sorrow, I wrote on Twitter that Nicholls’ stunning prose makes me want to tear up my debut novel and never write again. Nicholls sent me a lovely direct message in reply, so now I love him even more.

Our House – Louise Candlish

If you like a gripping, twisty thriller, then Our House is for you. I was hooked from the first pages, as Fi comes home from a weekend away to discover someone else moving into her family home. This is almost painful to read, as deceits come to the surface and Fi’s perfect life unravels. Even months after reading this one, my stomach lurches whenever I see a removal van in my street.

Queenie – Candice Carty-Williams

Queenie has been described as the black Bridget Jones, but that description doesn’t really do her justice. Like Bridget, Queenie is totally screwed-up and insecure but with the biggest heart. Like Bridget Jones, this book is laugh-out-loud funny. But Queenie is way more raw, uncomfortable and real than Bridget Jones ever was. I went to see the fabulous Candice Carty-Williams talk about Queenie at The London Library. I imagine it’s the only time anyone has ever said ‘anal sex’ out loud in the Reading Room.

The Doll Factory – Elizabeth Macneal

I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but The Doll Factory is every bit as magical inside as the outside suggests. Set in Victorian London, at the time of the Great Exhibition, the descriptions are so vivid that you can hear, smell and even taste your surroundings. The Doll Factory is a glorious gallop of a tale about love, art, collecting, and the fine line between passion and obsession. And, as if that weren’t enough, there’s a wombat.

Do let me know what you think of my top 5 reads in the comments, and please add suggestions of your own. Happy holidays to you all.

This is the Era of Women Over 40

Kylie Minogue, June 2019. Photo by Clare Pooley.

This year’s most talked about female headliner at Glastonbury was no millennial. She was 51 year-old Kylie Minogue, who I first came across more than thirty years ago when she sported mechanics overalls and a perm as Charlene in Neighbours.

She’s come a long way, baby. Kylie not only delivered a phenomenal performance, she also bought the audience, and herself, to tears by talking about the last time she was booked to headline on the Pyramid Stage, back in 2005. She’d had to cancel in order to start treatment for breast cancer.

(I’d love to think that I share Kylie’s talent, or pert bum, or superhuman energy levels. Sadly not, but we are both breast cancer survivors, so I feel a deep affinity with her and am convinced that, should we meet, we’d be immediate BFFs).

When Kylie released Locomotion, back in 1987, she was a bubbly, energetic 19 year-old who made everyone smile. She’s still all those things (except being 19, obvs), but now she has real depth and wisdom. Like all women of her age, she has a back story filled with heartache, triumphs and disasters, and she’s come out the other end, better than ever. Kylie doesn’t just give us songs, she gives us hope.

“Life is about love and experience and learning and evolving, and I am richer and thankful for all of the experiences in my life.”

Kylie Minogue

And that’s the thing about ‘older’ women. They may be less taut than your average millennial, but they’re usually more interesting.

I posted an article by Kate Muir in the Financial Times last week on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook Page. Kate talks about how actresses used to become invisible on their 40th birthdays. Yet recently, most of the most vibrant, fascinating and talked-about female characters on screen seem to be ‘older women.’

“I remember, as I was hovering around 40, I thought each movie would be my last, really.”

Meryl Streep, 2016

Sandra Oh, in the wonderful Killing Eve, is 47. There is no way Eve Polastri would have been as interesting a character if she’d been a similar age to Villanelle. Eve has lived a little. She’s accumulated skills and foibles and understanding that make her a tougher opponent, and a more mesmerising woman.

The cast of Big Little Lies includes Nicole Kidman, 51, Laura Dern, 52, and Meryl Streep – who’s just celebrated her 70th birthday.

And what about Olivia Colman? She’s now 45, but her career really took off when she was awarded the Best Actress BAFTA for her role in Broadchurch at the age of 40. Since then she’s won an Academy Award for Best Actress in The Favourite, has played the fabulously evil step-mother in Fleabag, and is soon to appear in The Crown as the actual Queen.

“I’m not pin-up, thankfully. I’m not suggesting I feel unconfident. I am beautiful to my husband. I am beautiful to my friends. I feel sexy and all those things with the people I love.”

Olivia Colman

The publishing industry also seem to be catching on to the fact that people want stories about real, individual, multi-layered ‘older’ women. We are fed up with women our age being secondary characters and fitting lazy stereotypes; wearing sensible shoes, being uninterested in sex, and struggling to work their iPhone.

A recent survey, in association with Gransnet and Harper Collins (HQ), found that 51% of women over 40 believe that older women in novels are clichéd, and 47% felt that there were not enough books about middle-aged or older women. So hurrah for Lisa Milton, HQ executive publisher, who has launched a fiction competition for women over 40, writing about a lead character over 40.

This really is the era of the ‘older’, wiser, more battered yet triumphant woman. I am 50. Hear me roar.

There’s more on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook page, including Lisa Timoney’s incredibly poignant piece on the Sandwich Generation, and a wonderful New York Times article on older women embracing power. ‘Like’ page to stay updated.

I’m Going to be a Matriarch

Last week, I posted an article from the Wall Street Journal on the Life in the Hot Lane Facebook page. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Darcey Steinke knew she was going to write a book about menopause when she read that two of the only creatures to go through it are human women and killer whales. Instead of disappearing into the murky depths, she learned, the whales become leaders of their pods.

Since then, I’ve become a little bit obsessed with the idea of the middle-aged killer whale, commanding full authority over her pod.

Elephant society also coalesces around a dominant female, usually referred to as the Matriarch, although sometimes described as the old cow, which is altogether less aspirational. The elephant matriarch is not elected after some show of strength, but rather she earns respect through her wisdom, confidence and connections with other elephants.

So, I have decided that I am going to become a matriarch.

You see, matriarchs don’t spend vast swathes of their day doing housework, for which they get little or no thanks. Oh no. They just sit in their throne-like chair (which no-one else, not even the dog, would dare to sit in) and issue instructions to the assembled mass of their adoring family.

Matriarchs don’t have to deal with an endless litany of complaints about where someone’s stuff has been moved to and didn’t we have pasta just yesterday and why is my hoodie in the wash when I NEED to wear it today? No-one would dream of talking to the matriarch with anything other than the correct amount of deference and respect.

“You want poetry, you listen to Neil Diamond. You want good advice, you listen to your mother.”

Sophia Petrillo, “Golden Girls.”

As you may have guessed, I’m rather a long way off achieving matriarch status, so I’ve been doing some research, mainly by re-watching old episodes of Downton Abbey (the things I do for you). Here’s what I’ve learned:

The first thing you need is a good matriarch name. Now Violet has one already – she’s a flipping Countess. You could, of course, insist that your family start calling you Countess, or My Lady, but the danger is that you start looking a bit class obsessed, and this is not about class, it’s about power.

The time to insert your matriarch name into the picture is when you first become a grandmother. This happy event is (hopefully) way off for me, so I have loads of time to prepare. ‘Granny’ is not a good matriarch name. It’s way too cuddly and cutesy.

I’ve googled some alternatives, and humbly suggest the following: Oma, GiGi, GamGam, or Nonna. My current fave is ‘Nonna’, as it has slightly dangerous mafia-style undertones, whilst sounding deceptively harmless. Or I may just go by initials. ‘GM’, perhaps. That should discourage any over-familiarity, although it makes me sound a little genetically modified.

Once you’ve announced your new name, you need to dress accordingly. No ‘fading into the background’ in beige and slippers for the matriarch. Oh no! It’s statement dressing all the way. It doesn’t have to look good. It certainly shouldn’t even try to appear sexy. It just has to get you noticed.

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple, With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me.”

From ‘Warning’, by Jenny Joseph

The next step for the aspiring matriarch is to start pronouncing. This is different from just saying stuff. You need to deliver sound-bites of wisdom. Don’t worry, they needn’t actually be wise, so long as you say them with enough confidence and gravitas, people will believe them to be so.

“Principles are like prayers; noble, of course, but awkward at a party.”

the Dowager Countess of Grantham

It doesn’t matter if your pronouncements are rather embarrassing either. In fact, this is a wholly good thing, and just revenge on your children for all the sleepless nights they’ve inflicted on you over the years. Talking about sex, loudly, is de rigeur for the accomplished matriarch.

“In my day, a lady was incapable of feeling physical attraction until she had been instructed to do so by her mama.”

the Dowager Countess of Grantham

And, finally, the matriarch should never apologise and never explain. She must not show weakness. Otherwise she risks losing her position in favour of another ‘old cow.’

“How you hate to be wrong.” – Isobel

“I wouldn’t know, I’m not familiar with the sensation.”

the Dowager Countess of Grantham

So, there’s no slipping quietly into later life for me. It’s killer whale all the way.

There’s lots more on the Facebook page including the full article which inspired this post, a wonderful piece by Lisa Timoney on the wisdom she’s picked up from her eighty-year-old mum and, of course Throwback Thursday.

How a Puppy Changed My Life

I’m still not entirely sure why I decided to get a puppy.

I suppose it was partly the need to take my mind off a significant birthday. Also, now my youngest child is ten years old, life is getting much easier, and I think I felt this rather masochistic need to shake it up a bit. To get out of my comfort zone. And then there was the pester power. Once you let the word puppy out of the box, however tentatively and speculatively, you just can’t cram it back in.

And so it came to pass that, four weeks ago, Alby – a border terrier puppy, named after Dumbledore – came to live with us.

“A boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.”

Robert Benchley

Otto, our ten-year-old dog, dutifully played with the young pup for about half an hour, letting his toys be stolen and his ears be bitten. Then he looked at me, and his eyes said Okay, I’ve been a good host, now when is he going home? I did have some sympathy.

I’m often reminded of those Dutch day-care centres, where geriatrics and toddlers help look after each other. Otto and I are both a bit long in the tooth, a little jaded by life, but suddenly we’re in the company of this ball of energy and enthusiasm.

We’d both rather forgotten how to appreciate the joy of a good walk in the sunshine, a game of tug-of-war or an afternoon kip. Now we have a constant reminder of how incredible life really is.

“Dogs have boundless enthusiasm but no sense of shame. I should have a dog as a life coach.”

Moby

Alby has other skills too.

Things have been a bit stressful in our house over the past few weeks, as two of the the children have exams and I’ve been trying to finish the final edits on novel one while wrangling some sense into the outline of novel two, so the children have started calling Alby ‘Support Puppy.’

Whenever anyone is having a hard time, someone shouts: Bring in Support Puppy! and within moments a squirming, happy ball of fluff is placed in the arms of the sufferer. It’s totally impossible to feel stressed while holding a puppy.

“Happiness is a warm puppy.”

Charles Shultz

Alby doesn’t just spread the love in our house; he does it wherever he goes.

When you take a puppy on a walk, everyone you meet beams at you. Surly teenagers in hoodies turn into cooing children. Traffic Wardens put down their cameras. Everyone feels a little bit warmer, more gooey inside.

My son, now thirteen, and starting to be a bit interested in girls, has discovered the ultimate power of the puppy.

He asked me to bring Alby to the school gates at pick-up time yesterday. As soon as he spotted us, he rushed over, cradled the puppy in his arms, and walked back into the throng. Within seconds he was mobbed by girls, all desperate for his attention, all wanting him to shower the puppy love in their direction.

“My little dog – a heartbeat at my feet.”

Edith Wharton

So Alby, despite the hit-and-miss house training, and his fondness for chewing expensive trainers, is here to stay. Even Otto has fallen for him.

Just when you think your heart can’t possibly expand any further, you find a puppy shaped space, right in the middle.

As always, there’s more on the Life in the Hot lane Facebook Page, including Lisa Timoney on why men shouldn’t have the monopoly on the mid-life crisis! (Check out Lisa’s new website – Lisa Timoney Writes). There’s also Throwback Thursday, with a discussion about bizarre office rituals from the 80’s and 90’s. ‘Like’ the page to stay updated.