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Wife in the North by Judith O’Reilly

October 10, 2008

Amazon US link for Wife in the North
Amazon UK link for Wife in the North
Web site for Wife in the North
PublicAffairs; August ’08
352 pages
Book provided by FSB Associates

Rarely do I come across a book that doesn’t suit my reading style but this is one of those. When I do I remain neutral and make no judgments. Me, I’ve never been able to adapt to reading books that are written what I consider ‘British style’. Some British authors ‘Americanize’ their vocabulary and some don’t. Ms. O’Reilly uses British vocabulary, references and slang. 

I also can’t relate to all the references to her children and the issues surrounding her life with her children. I haven’t ever been a mother and, don’t intend to become one, except to feline kids who share my life.

I read 67 pages before setting this book aside. I’ve include links to both the US and UK Amazon sites so that you can read reviews from other readers. These readers/reviewers appear to have enjoyed the book because it’s getting about a 4.5 star rating out of 5. I’ve included a link to her blog. I’m also including articles written by Ms. O’Reilly so that you can get a feel for her writing style.


Raising Kids in the Country
By Judith O’Reilly          

Arriving in the middle of the countryside fresh from the city with a young family, it is fair to say I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I grew up in the city; the countryside was something you saw on TV if there was nothing on another channel. As an adult, I believed the city to be my right, my natural home. You might spend a week in a holiday cottage somewhere green, and usually wet, but that was as far as it went. The countryside, my dear, was another place.           

My husband and I spent 17 years working in London. With two young children and another on the way, I finally gave in to his pleading and agreed to move to the North-East coast of England. We followed the dream, but living the dream is not necessarily easy. For a long time, I found it isolating. Living four kilometers from the nearest village took getting used to. Particularly when my husband was back at his desk in London for weeks at a time. At dusk, the children asleep, I walked out of the whinstone and sandstone cottage in a row of what used to be farm labourers’ cottages — the other cottages are holiday homes and empty most of the year. I looked out onto pastures where sheep and cattle graze; in the distance, a narrow blue-grey strip of sea and a lighthouse on the rocky islands off the coast. I waited for the lighthouse to blink, for the bats to notice me, swoop down and then away. I thought: “Ok, so this is it then?”

It is a cliché but true nonetheless — a happy mother makes for a happy home, and I struggled to get to grips with the world around me. The city girl took a while to become a country woman. On the very few occasions we went out for supper, conversation was of  wheat prices, laminitis and European Union agricultural subsidies — conversations that made you want to borrow a gun from the farmer sitting across from you and shoot yourself. While country pursuits like hunting and shooting, I viewed with blank incomprehension, if not downright hostility. As for pointy-toed shoes with attitude, there was far too much mud for heels.

Only when I slowly started to develop friendships did I appreciate the country for what it was and what it had to offer my family. The village school had just over 40 children. My son’s previous school in the city had more than 400. These mothers were my way into the world around me, prepared to offer their time and friendship. In the city no-one drops by they are too busy, they presume you are too busy and anyways, they live too far. Here, fellow mothers dropped by coffee or called to say “How about the beach?”

In the UK, a letter signed by 300 academics, authors and childcare experts last year, warned that children’s health was deteriorating because they are losing the chance to play outside. They blamed computer games, parental anxieties and academic pressures. My children take the beauty of the heathered moors, the rolling fields and swaying barley crops for granted and I could afford to feel smug as they climbed trees, built dens in the jungle garden and adventured in the dunes on the beach.  Instead of Nintendo DS’s and X-boxes, body boards and footballs filled up my sons afterschool lives. 

We do homework in the kitchen on the table infront of the Aga, a massive brooding range that throws out heat and makes the world a better place to be on a cold and damp November day. Nature too has become a teaching aid. I swapped hands-on interactive learning areas in city museums, for walks in the woods. We gathered brambles, collected conkers and made elderflower cordial. Not that I could teach them the difference between one tree and the next. I left that to my husband who suddenly revealed himself to be a man who knows which a sycamore and which an ash. I have to say — I still do not know the difference. Instead of spotting fire engines and police cars, the boys spotted tractors and combine harvesters.  My eldest informed me he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up. He knows that this boy and that boy have farms. And this is still a world where the farm is passed down the generation. In city life, if you were lucky and the family home didn’t disappear in retirement home payments, you might expect to leave your semi-detached house to your children. (Presuming they would sell it and use the proceeds to fund a conservatory.) But in the country, there is an expectation that the farm will go the children and, hopefully, one of them will work it. As a newcomer, I wonder: “Will they want to?” I had to break the bad news to my own boy. We weren’t farmers. We were lookers-on. I suggested he might be an astronaut instead and fly a rocket round the stars not a huge wheeled tractor through the mud. 

And good grief but farming looks like hard work. A constant round of animal husbandry and ploughing and planting and harrowing and harvesting.  But I do not see food anymore as a simple fact of life. I see it as the end result of dedication and enterprise; the children too are aware that what they eat is grown and husbanded. They have drunk raw milk and lived to tell the tale, eaten their mother’s burnt bramble jam. They know she sheared a sheep and gave it the worst haircut of its life. They followed the hunt and have been to too many country shows to count. Sometimes, they talk about London and soldiers and the life they left behind. Mostly they say: “No” when I say “Do you remember when we lived in the city?”

©2008 Judith O’Reilly

Author Bio

Judith O’Reilly was the education correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, where she also reported on politics and news, and worked undercover on education, social, and criminal justice investigations. She is a former political producer for ITV’s Channel 4 News and BBC2’sNewsnight. A freelance journalist, she started her blog, in 2006. She lives in England.
Tee-time and Me-time 
By Judith O’Reilly         

Mothers live in a permanent state of guilt.  How come men don’t? Mothers are guilty not just about whether they work and how much they work and should they work and where they work. But they are also guilty about what they do with the few moments they can call their own. A classic example of the difference between men and women is spare time, quality time, what is known in the parenting business as “me-time”. As a mother you don’t get a lot of it. What do you do with it?  Maybe if you are very dedicated and have not given up entirely on the woman you used to be, you go to the gym or for a run? Maybe if you are normal, have a hot bath and watch that thing on TV that you read about. What you don’t do — unless you are very unusual — is play golf.


I had never seen the attraction of golf; the clothes for one thing. All those pastel colours and slacks. But I was invited along and I do like to give things a go. As a woman, I also like to look the part while I am doing it. Move me to the country, and I will buy a tweed cloche and wellies; invite me to a golf club, and I will buy a pale pink golf shirt, sun visor and one pink leather glove. (You only buy one glove for reasons that defeat me. Perhaps there are a lot of one-armed golfers?) And golf shoes of course. They are desperately  fussy about the shoes you wear. 

A friend said he would take me golfing; we tried but it was pouring down so we only made it as far as a drink in the clubhouse. I made the mistake in the intervening period of wearing the pink shirt. (What can I say? It was new.) This meant that when we tried to play golf again, I had a lovely stain of pasta sauce just where the baby girl rests her head when you lift her out of the high chair and carry her upstairs after dinner. I did not have time to attempt an industrial strength stain removal. Instead, I tilted my head so that my hair which was shoulder length and frankly, badly in need of a cut, would cover the stain. It worked but I looked as if I was slightly simple or needed a neck brace.

One of the attractions of golf are the views from the courses; the one we went to has sandy beaches, pounding waves, a castle built on a basalt crag, islands off the coast and lighthouses.  All that beauty and you spend your time looking at or for a small white ball. I would stand, legs slightly apart, hands gripping the club, I would attempt to keep my left arm straight as I swung the club then I would bring it down in a fluid motion, entirely missing the ball. I think the damn things jump. It reminded me so much of playing rounders at school that I almost broke out in acne. Rounders  is similar to the American sport of baseball but generally played by girls. Then, I could never decide which I found more traumatic batting or fielding. There I would be in my games skirt and my immense grey sports knickers, rounders bat gripped in my sweaty hands. I would stand sideways on. I would look at the girl about to throw the ball. I would grip the bat a little harder. I would think: “This time, I am going to hit it.” She would throw it. I would thrash the air with my bat and the ball would sail by into the hands of the backstop. I hated that game. Even now, the thought of it depresses me. That must be why golf courses have those little sandy oases with the rakes: when it gets pressured, the players can unwind with some Japanese gardening. They do make life difficult for themselves though. As we walked the six holes we played, I noticed various gullies and ravines, gorse bushes and hillocks. If they levelled the ground, they would find it so much easier to play although they seemed happy enough wandering around with their teddy bears. Or maybe that was just the chap I was playing golf with. Apparently, if you have a soft toy covering the head of your club, it shows you have a sense of humour and do not take the game too seriously. Right. That would be why they have so many rules then because they treat the game as a bit of a laugh.

They have rules for everything:

Rule 1-1/4 “Player Discovers Own Ball Is in Hole After Playing Wrong Ball”

Rule 1-2/4 “Player Jumps Close to Hole to Cause Ball to Drop”

or this one

Rule 1-4/3 “Flagstick Stuck into Green Some Distance from Hole by Practical Joker”

or Rule 1-4/10 what you do in the event of a “Dangerous Situation: Rattlesnake or Bees Interfere with Play”

or my personal favorite Rule 2-4/17 “Player in Erroneous Belief Match Is Over Shakes Opponent’s Hand and Picks Up Opponent’s Ball”

Having trawled the rule book of around 500 pages, I guarantee lawyers like golf. But it is fair to say, despite a chronic inability to hit the ball, I enjoyed my game of golf more than I ever enjoyed a game of rounders. My friend said as we drove away: “If you want to take it up, you’d have to have lessons.” I said: “How can I do that? I’m working: I’m supposed to spend any spare time I have with the children.” He said: “Well, men do it.” I said: “Exactly.”

©2008 Judith O’Reilly

Author Bio

Judith O’Reilly was the education correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, where she also reported on politics and news, and worked undercover on education, social, and criminal justice investigations. She is a former political producer for ITV’s Channel 4 News and BBC2’sNewsnight. A freelance journalist, she started her blog, in 2006. She lives in England.


The Blame Game
By Judith O’Reilly          


As a parent, you accept from the start that it is all your fault. Every last inhibition, weakness and thing that goes wrong in your child’s life is down to you — however old they are. If they get bullied, bully, pick the wrong course at university or marry the wrong girl, it is all because you did it wrong. As a parent — deep-down, you know you suck. You know it is not the kid’s fault (however old the kid is) — you made a hash of it.           

You drank a glass of wine when you were pregnant which is why your nine-year-old has ADHD. You had a caesarian which is why he has “trust issues” with women. You threw him out of the  house when he was 21, papered over the steam-trains to turn his bedroom into your craft room and he never got over it. You did not throw him out of the house and he is still there at 28 and counting. You smacked him; he grew up to have a problem with authority figures and cannot hold down a job. You did not smack him; he grew up to be a bastard. You let him have a small watered down glass of wine with Sunday dinner and he became an alcoholic at college. You did not let him touch alcohol at home and he became an alcoholic at college.

You said he should have some fun while he was still young and he went travelling in the Congo and got murdered for his wristwatch. You said he should get a job straight after college, he ignored you, grew a beard and is still travelling eight years later. You made him write thank you letters for gifts he did not want, and he is an ungrateful wretch who has never thanked you for ruining your figure and eating up your life. You never made him write thank you letters for anything or to anyone, and now his children do not write thank you letters however much cash you put in with the card. You feel it is your fault whether they are a killer or a victim. If you taught them to avoid strangers or to reach out to strangers who then betray them. As a mother or a father you accept the guilt, responsibility and shame and live with these things. 

I  have wondered watching Sarah Palin if she blames herself for Bristol’s teenage pregnancy. I am willing to bet most hockey moms would. Palin is an amazing role model for a daughter — whether you agree with her politics or not — she is a mother to five children and could end up President. Even so, if she didn’t have some heartwrenching “What did I do wrong?” conversations with the First Dude over Bristol’s predicament, I would eat my moose burger. 

Stupidity, misadventure, tragedy can scoop up and swallow down a child in a blink and you know what? It is not necessarily your fault. Nice kids can grow up and do bad or idiotic things however hard their parents tried to bring them up to know the difference between right and wrong. The problem is too many parents blame themselves for every damn fool thing their children do. They say children never forgive their parents. Not true. Parents do not  forgive themselves. Being a mother is misery. Years of fear your children get hurt one way or another, years of disappointment their lives aren’t exactly the way they thought they would be. Worst of all, that conviction rolling and crashing around inside that if you had done things differently, it did not have to be this way. You know as you clutch your coffee in a worn, chipped mug that boasts you are the “World’s Best Mom” or the “Number 1 Dad” that you could have done it so much better. You know that your innocent children are paying the price with their health, sanity or happiness for your own deep and terrible failings as a mother or a father. When bad things happen, it is natural enough to grope around in the darkness for someone or something to blame. The itinerant loner who took advantage? A bad crowd?  God? But deep down you are not telling me that a parent does not blame themselves for  whatever fate throws at her beloved child and however that child turns out. Suck it up — it’s your fault. You should have done something, been there, stood in front of the speeding bullet and caught it in your hand.  

Surely though if parenting is about anything at all, it is about teaching your children to be responsible for their own decisions and actions. You wouldn’t claim credit for a book that is not your own or a picture you didn’t paint, so why feel the necessity to take on your children’s screw-ups or bad luck? Let them own that really big mistake. Don’t crowd them out of the spotlight when the jeering starts. There is enough research out there that indicates “helicopter” parents hovering mercilessly over their children from kindergarten and into the jobs market are not doing anyone any favours. In the same way, insisting that every bad thing that happens is “all my fault” is just one more way a parent lays claim to her child’s soul. Sometimes you have to step away and leave them to it.   

©2008 Judith O’Reilly

Author Bio

Judith O’Reilly was the education correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, where she also reported on politics and news, and worked undercover on education, social, and criminal justice investigations. She is a former political producer for ITV’s Channel 4 News and BBC2’sNewsnight. A freelance journalist, she started her blog, in 2006. She lives in England.

Wife in the North is published by PublicAffairs at $14.95.







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One Comment
  1. October 27, 2008 7:56 am

    Some decent books to check out – thanks!

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