Farewell to Belfast

Next month, almost 13 years to the day that my parents moved their lives across the Irish Sea, they will return to the island of their birth. For the first time since I was 22, I will live on the same land mass as my parents.

It’s been quite a decade-and-a-bit. When they left, I was wrapping up my History MA in London and my sister was finishing her 2nd year of uni. Now, she’s been married nearly a decade; and I’ve completed another two degrees and got ordained along the way. While they were away, we both became something akin to “proper adults”.

Dad’s face ready to adorn the college wall. 

This past weekend was their leaving do at the college where Dad has been principal. Mim and I went along, both because we were invited, and because we wanted an opportunity to say a decent goodbye to a city that wasn’t our home but did feel almost like one.

As something of a surprise to my parents, Mim was asked to sing grace and I was asked to make a speech. We conferred, and decided that our mission was to embody the episode of Friends where Monica desperately tries to make her parents cry during a toast at their wedding anniversary; while Ross barely needs to try for it to happen. [We are cruel, cruel daughters who know their mother very well!] With her reference to our 1991 sojourn in Massachusetts in choosing grace, Mim scored immediately. Evidence [make up stained serviettes] would suggest I was similarly successful!

I think my words to the community of Edgehill & beyond are worth sharing here, because I meant them and they say a lot about what Belfast became for us as a family. [This isn’t exactly what I said, as I didn’t use my notes, but this is what I *meant* to say…]

“Thirteen years ago, we weren’t really sure what our parents were letting themselves in for. For the first time in our family’s life, we weren’t going to be coming with them on this move and we weren’t sure what ‘family’ would look like for them here. But what Mim and I would like to thank you all for is the way in which you have been family to our parents during their time here. In fact, not just them, but us too. Every time we’ve visited, we’ve been touched by the way in which we’ve been welcomed by people that we see barely once a year!

Nothing demonstrates the “family” more than the way in which people responded to Dad’s accident last week. [There was a cyclist V cyclist incident that left him with a few broken fingers…] That the President drove him to hospital despite it being Conference. That Brendan sat with him for hour after hour waiting for his op. That meals were provided while Mum was away this week. We need never have worried!

And Belfast has become a family home to us too. Despite never having lived here, we have our favourite places to have tea; eat breakfast; drink cocktails; and walks on the beach. I’ve worked on essays in the deserted college library during Christmas holidays, waiting for a signal from the dining room window to say that food is ready.

I was reflecting two weeks ago that one of the best things our family’s time at Edgehill has given me is obscure knowledge about Northern Irish politics – which suddenly became very useful in the aftermath of the general election! While other English people were being berated for suddenly acting like experts on this part of the world, we could claim a vested interest in the topic for over a decade!

So thank you. Thank you for being ‘home’ for thirteen years – the longest this family has been based in my parent’s entire marriage!

To conclude, I felt it only appropriate to include a quote from one of Dad’s favourite theologians: Karl Barth. (In fact, when I was at college, I made a point of including a Barth quote in every assignment – it became a fun challenge. I am my father’s daughter!) “Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.” [Church Dogmatics III]

There is much joy in this place, and for that we are truly thankful.”

Final Belfast meal at The Dock Café in the Titanic Quarter. An excellent place to say goodbye!

On Monday, as we prepared to head to the airport for the final time, our parents asked us what our favourite Belfast memories would be. I’m not sure that we really did justice to their question – partly because we’d had a running joke that our favourite things about Belfast were all food related – but also because there’s an awful lot to consider given 13 years of a relationship with a place. But I’ve had a think, so Mum & Dad, here’s my answer:

  • Food. We joked, but honestly, the land of tray-bakes, the Ulster Fry, wheaten bread, potato farls, pancakes… I could go on. We walked around the AMAZING St George’s Market on Saturday morning practically drooling over all sorts of goodies. I now need to learn how to make Fifteens and Mint Aero bars. And wheaten. And where to find buttermilk locally.

  • The beach. When have we ever lived 20mins from the beach?? Crawfordsburn was a favourite (with the bonus of spring bluebells too), but the walk at Holywood filled a need over the weekend.

  • The culture. Northern Ireland is a very different place to England – not least because of the impact of the Troubles. Understanding a bit more of that culture is one long-term result, and I strongly recommend that you visit Belfast and NI if you haven’t been before, if only to try and get a handle on just how different it is and why we need to *not* ignore it.
  • The people. See above! It was always fun hanging out at the college (not least because of the scones that used to be found at morning tea), but it was also lovely to feel a part – albeit a very distant part – of Belfast Central Mission, to which our parents belonged.

Farewell Belfast. You will be missed, and I may be back. Thanks for everything!

Discovering your family’s twin…

It’s not uncommon to discover that those with whom you become friends in later life have had an upbringing similar to your own – like attracts like after all. But there are occasions on which this fleeting similarity turns into a vision of an almost identical childhood, and quite frankly, there is one particular set of friends where the similarities are now spooky. It’s less “Oh! How funny! We had that too!” and more “Ah, ok, yes we had exactly the same thing…again.”

The Kilverts and the Clutterbucks have known each other in some form since 1997. Clutterbuck Maximus (myself) and Kilvert Maximus (Jenni) met through singing, and our younger siblings joined the happy singing throng a year or two later. It’s been nearly 19 years and it’s now official that we practically had exactly the same upbringing.

Minimii & MaximiiWe are so cool that in 2008 we had Minimus & Maximus hoodies created! Clutterbucks Minimus & Maximus (left), Kilverts Minimus & Maximus (right). The Morris sisters (centre) literally did share a childhood with the Kilverts…

It began with the simple things: similar values around after school activities and wholesome holiday adventures; clothes from 80’s classic retailer Clothkits; and a lack of frivolous games (looking at you Mr Frosty). It’s the kind of thing Buzzfeed could turn into a listicle, which if posted on Facebook would garner likes from a good number of friends.

Then it turned out that on more than one occasion, there was the possibility that we would actually have grown up together. In 1982 my family moved to Wealdstone in Harrow where Dad became minister of the local Methodist Church – the very one which my friends’ family had attended until a move to Harpenden a little while earlier. (This particular gem was discovered by our mothers while on the London Eye, they realised they had mutual friends as a result.) Over a decade later, there was a possible job in the very same town – it ended up not being a match, but had it been, I would have met Jenni two whole years before we actually did.

This past week featured a long discussed trip to Belfast for the Kilverts & Clutterbucks [well, the Kilvert, Clutterbuck, Barrett & Monks] – I think we’ve only been talking about it since 2004! We were fairly certain it would be a success because Belfast is wonderful, and despite them having spent less time with our parents than we have with theirs, our identical childhoods would ensure all would be fine. And it was.

As if to affirm our theory, during the trip we found physical evidence that cemented it. Our arrival coincided with the delivery of a box of photos sent by my aunt to my mum for safe keeping. [Fascinating in itself, especially due to some ridiculously strong genes that I’ve inherited.] Perusing the photos was an amusing pre-dinner activity (thank you aunt for including more than one photo of me naked in a paddling pool), not least because of a few similarities that cropped up.

First of all, photos from my third birthday, featuring an incredible Postman Pat cake, baked by my mother just hours before she went into hospital to have my sister.

Liz's Postman Pat

The Kilvert sisters recalled a similar cake baked by their mother and a text was sent to obtain photographic evidence:

Upon seeing the photo, my mother exclaimed “But we had the same dress that Gill’s wearing!” The rest of the family murmured agreement, and we (well I) carried on sorting through the box of photos. One was identified by my sister as ‘the epitome of sisterhood’ – given the disgruntled look on my face in the presence of my younger sibling.

The epitome of sisterhood

And then we realised, the dress I was wearing was the very same dress mum had identified in the Kilvert photo (albeit with the collar a bit tucked up under my chin). Voila:

One could argue that it’s simply a coincidence that is likely to emerge from being born in similar years and brought up in the same culture, but I think the Clutterbucks and Kilverts would like to see it as a sign from heaven that our friendship was always meant to be!

Oh, and we had a pretty nifty time in Belfast too. Much cake was eaten (although, as my mother commented, we never ate a whole piece – preferring to divide all cakes between us!) and the best and worst of Irish weather experienced. As always, the time passed too quickly!

Plane selfieThree of #4gotoBelfast on board their flight.

Girls at the dockEnjoying Belfast’s ‘honesty box’ cafe – The Dock – and their red-hot heating!

Girls at CausewayAt the Giant’s Causeway the day they take the postcard photos…

Giants Causeway Panorama


Ingredients for a surprising day

Take a date 2 months earlier than the event being celebrated, for maximum surprise factor.
Ensure those co-ordinating possess epic planning skills.
Find an excellent group of people who can keep secrets and sustain the surprise.
Maximise contacts who can enhance the day immeasurably.
Allow to brew for several months, then watch the surprising day unfold…

It has become Clutterbuck practice that 30th birthdays are celebrated in surprising way. This time 3 years ago, I had just discovered that I was being taken to Paris to celebrate mine. Time seems to have flown, and since Christmas, plans have been afoot to celebrate my sibling’s approaching birthday.

Our birthdays are late July, but thanks to her planned excursion to America’s East Coast and the limits of school holidays for a teacher, we fixed upon a date nearly 2 months before the day she actually turns 30. There was no Eurostar to Paris, but instead, a couple of days in London doing fun things – the nature of which she was completely kept in the dark about.

You might be thinking that a day in London doesn’t really compare with a weekend in Paris, but if you add in enough surprises, it does. Mim is terribly at weasling information out of people (in that she’s very, very good at it), so keeping things secret was an absolute imperative. Knowledge was strictly on a need-to-know basis – even her husband and father remained utterly clueless, just in case! But all involved kept the day’s plans under their hat and, my goodness, it was worth it!

Mim thought she was having 24 hours of fun with her sibling and mother – which she did, but with many extra lovely people thrown in too. We lulled her into a false sense of security with dinner and cocktails the night before. Mum took her on a nail-biting trip on the Emirates Skyline the next morning (how I wish I’d been with them to see their reactions – neither like heights), followed by a boat trip down the Thames, en route to meet me for brunch at our favourite bread themed restaurant. All good.

Bar buddies Cocktails for three. Obviously. 

The surprises of a trip on the London Eye (her very first), afternoon tea and concluding with a trip to see Les Mis would probably have been more than satisfactory. After all, she must be one of the last drama teachers not to have seen the world’s longest running musical! But what made the day especially surprising was the steady drip of surprises…

  • The arrival of four unexpected friends while we took a tea break at the RFH. The mother of two of our favourite friends might have been a coincidence, but it was soon clear that her daughters were due to arrive any minute. Their company might have been predictable (although nonetheless very appreciated), but the appearance of Mim’s favourite uni chum was not. I patted myself on the back for that effort.
  • Tickets for the London Eye were distributed. Mim suspected this might be on the schedule, but still, she didn’t know for sure.
  • Arriving at our afternoon tea destination and being greeted with “two of your party have already arrived” – Mim may have thought our party was complete, but no. Some people had even made the journey from Gloucester to celebrate.
  • Gloucester friends’ London based eldest daughter was an added bonus, arriving during a Prosecco break at my flat.
  • A dash through the West End culminating in the distribution of tickets for a long-loved show – courtesy of another of Mim’s uni chums who sourced the tickets for us. In his words “Anything for Mim!”

Girls on the EyeOn board the Eye.

I love it when a good plan comes together. I love it even more when it’s abundantly clear that absolutely everyone has had an excellent time – not just the birthday girl!

Tea Time


In praise of Karen

There was more than a tinge of sadness this evening as I caught up on last week’s episode of Outnumbered. As the final episode of series 5, it’s almost certainly the last ever episode and all in all [no spoilers] I think it rounded off the series well. The fabulously awful Aunty Angela returned; Grandad was involved (although not seen); past incidents were referred to; and ultimately, things seemed to be working out ok in the Brockman household.

I wasn’t just mourning the end of a TV series that I’ve always enjoyed (despite those who criticised it for being the epitome of middle class England – I loved it for the fabulous children and their use of improvisation), I was mourning the growing up of children I’ve known for seven years – when the youngest was just 6. Unsurprisingly, given that these are real children, not Simpsons characters, they had to grow up.

OutnumberedOutnumbered, 2014

When this last series began last month (which is also when I began writing this post, albeit on a slightly different angle) there was much consternation amongst fans regarding just how much this youngest child – Karen – had aged. Quite why we were all surprised is a mystery. It had been nearly 2 years since the last series, and was now at secondary school. She wasn’t going to stay 6 forever…

Outnumbered 2007Outnumbered, 2007

Everyone in my family has had a soft spot for Karen. Her ability to say just the wrong thing at exactly the right time was in evidence right from the off. When the last episode ended this evening, I went straight back to episode 1 of series 1. [Thank you iTunes freebie several years ago, which slightly makes up for the fact that I have no idea where my DVD of series 1 currently is.] In it, Karen regales her bemused father with words she learned the night before, when over-hearing her parents argue. It’s fabulously real and utterly hilarious. Throughout the early series, all the best moments were Karen’s. Two of the best also happen to involve the church…

First up, series 2 episode 2, ‘The Dead Mouse’. Hands-down the best example of how liturgy meeting a modern context, and an excellent use of a cheese sandwich. Karen conducts a mouse’s funeral:

“Dust to dust. For richer and for poorer. In sickness and in health. May the force be with you. Because you’re worth it. Amen and out.” Genius.

Secondly, why you should be careful in getting involved in theological discussions with children. This is more a Ben moment, but Karen’s interjections are fabulous:

But do you know why my family particularly liked Karen? Because in many ways she embodied some of the things that me or my sister did while growing up. The guilt-tripping of a mother after the mouse death? Totally my sister. The grilling of a vicar? Me. My Dad even brought it up in the letter he sent me on the eve of my selection conference for ordination! His tip was to treat everyone with respect, even idiots – a reference to ongoing list of idiots that Karen kept in early series, which was reminiscent of something I had done at the same age. (I think I may have had an idiots’ notebook…)

However, series 5 Karen was different. I did not have as much in common with a 12 year old Karen. A Karen who intimidated her swimming competitors in an effort to win, because she was that competitive. [Well, I’m competitive, but not psychologically intimidatingly so…] She didn’t use punctuation correctly. [As if I would stoop to that level!] She was struggling with school. She was convinced her lost hamster was alive and living in their home’s crevices. Life was not going brilliantly for Karen.

It wasn’t until the penultimate episode when a chink of light appeared in this darker world. Karen had a brief return to classic form, having written a detailed letter of improvements her school could make, and sent it to the school governors. The Headmistress (played fabulously by Rebecca Front) wasn’t impressed and called her in to talk, giving her a talking to that seemed to do what nothing in the preceding 7 years had done – repressed the irrepressible.

Maybe, just maybe, Karen will turn out to be as well adjusted as those who preceded her. She too could be an eccentric, but well loved, secondary school drama teacher or a vicar-to-be ready to answer a new generation’s precocious questions.

Here’s to all the Karens of the world – may they not tolerate fools gladly for as long as they live!

A jubilee surprise – or two

I love a good surprise, thing is, not everyone appreciates them. In our family, it’s well known that our Dad is not a fan. [Christmas Day 2000, my Dad receives a copy of ‘How to train your puppy’ and a dog lead, indicating that his wish to own a labrador is finally being fulfilled. He spent the rest of the day asking my mother worriedly if she was sure…] However, our Mum is a fan – I still delight in the memory of my surprise visit over to Belfast nearly four years ago.

Birthdays are meant to be full of surprises, but mostly they’re restricted to presents. Mum certainly had her fair share of those – Dad did well with a spa day for her imminent trip to Oz, while the daughters excelled themselves with a monogrammed purple leather satchel (she thought we were psychic!). But there were two other surprises that took a fair amount of sororal networking and organisation…

Firstly, the birthday cake. Now, you’d think a birthday cake would be a logical thing to organise for a 60th birthday party, wouldn’t you? Not if you follow my father’s logic of thinking, apparently. Mum was organising the bulk of the festivities (Dad doesn’t really do parties) but refused to organise the cake (understandably). We ascertained less than 2 weeks before the big day that no cake had been ordered – the reply to our email asking if there was one said “do you think she wants one?”. People ALWAYS want birthday cake!

That night, around 11.30pm, I fired off an email to two of my mother’s friends in Belfast asking for help. Within half an hour, we had a response from both of them and a potential cake contact. To quote Mim’s Facebook status the following morning: ‘Mim loves that urgent cake-related emails get instant replies.’  Within a few days we had an excellent cake maker on board, in fact, the baker of cakes for Mum’s favourite Belfast cafe. It was collected under false auspices and went down a treat at both parties. [Yes, my mother had two birthday parties on the same day…she wasn’t going to be outdone by the monarch.]

Yes, I failed to get a photo of the birthday cake.

The other surprise was person, or people, related. Amongst the invitees to the parties were our former next-door neighbours in Gloucester. They sadly declined, on the grounds that they were off to Verona later in the week and Belfast’s a long way from Gloucester, which was fair enough. However, in the month leading up to the big day, a plan was hatched – I was to meet Juliet and Doris at Birmingham International and take the same flight over on the Sunday morning and they’d return with Mim the following day. Dad knew, so that room arrangements could be made, but Mum had no idea.

Arriving from the airport, we sent Doris up to the front door while we hid behind the car. A squeal from Mum alerted us to her reaction – she genuinely couldn’t believe her eyes! Bless. (We tried to persuade Doe to greet her with “I heard there was cake, and lots of it.” but I think she was too overwhelmed.) It really was the icing on the cake of a very special day – and illustrated just how duplicitous we Clutterbucks can be…

Guest of honour – using her first ever ‘proper cup’ (with extended pinky) 
and enjoying a triple-layer cream scone.