Tuesday, 30 December 2014

I could be a poet

Hello and seasons greetings to you - I hope this finds you with a happy heart and in rude health.

I'm conscious I've been light on posting this year which is in part due to an irresistible urge to write poetry.  It's something that I've done for a very long time and if you've been to my Facebook page recently, you will have seen (and heard) quite a number of them.  Rather than keep them in just the one place, I thought I'd share them here too - they'll have normal titles from here on in but because I'm introducing this one, I get to use a line from one of my favourite Ian Dury songs :) 


At Christmas
Enter my house at your peril
The rooms are like bomb-sites
The children are feral

New guests arrive
As the last are departing
Our brains in a funk
And everyone's farting

The days are a haze
We slump and we list
We're fed up of Twister
And being half-pissed

Last week we were lively
Fresh-faced and perky
Now our skin's gone to pot
And our insides are turkey

The mere thought of port
Makes me want to heave
I shan't touch a drop
At least 'til New Year's Eve

Soundtrack: What a Waste - Ian Dury and the Blockheads

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Get Through It

What a week to be a working parent.  The children are hanging on by their fingertips to get to tomorrow when 1.30pm brings the end of school and the official start of Christmas.  They are puffy-eyed, over tired and bordering on hysteria with what next week will bring.  The curriculum has gone out of the window to be replaced (much to the children's delight) with dvd-watching, clearing out cupboards and a nativity that for all its beauty (and the best camel outfits ever to grace a church) sounded like a doctor's waiting room such was the level of coughing.  Book bags spill over with Christmas cards and sweetie wrappers as the healthy eating policy gets crushed under a sea of Quality Street from the teachers.

We are Wolves

And while they're at school I'm still working to pre-Christmas deadlines whilst accepting deliveries, sending cards and adding ever more to the festive food list - the closer we get to the 'Big Day' the bigger our appetites get - we are wolves, salivating at the thought of turkey and upping our cheese intake to make sure we at least eat something with the bottle of port waiting patiently in the cupboard.

Now where *is* that
last tree chocolate?

Sunday Best

I am trying so hard to be focused but there is part of me wishing these next couple of days away.  I'm eager to join the children in their revelry, up for letting my hair down and dreaming of those few days when I point blank refuse to do any washing.  Let the jeans and t-shirts fester in the basket, we shall wear our Sunday Best to breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I can't wait until nothing but the next game of UNO and trying to find a tree chocolate matter, and to savour that moment of giggling and shushing on Christmas Eve when we sneak the presents under the tree.  They say Christmas is just for children but I know different.


And it's not just me - the playground is full of parents who are knackered.  We too are puffy-eyed, over tired and bordering on hysteria.  We too are hanging on by our fingertips before we can take time off; empathising and encouraging each other to give it one last push before we run out whooping and yelling into the December air - we can taste time off and it tastes like Christmas.  So come on grown-ups, one deep breath and just a few more days to go - we can get through it.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Soundtrack: Tender by Blur

Monday, 24 November 2014

Seventy Four, Seventy Five

Hopefully I won't get
'egged & floured' this time!
In six months I'm going to be 40.  It feels a bit exciting as I love a 'big' birthday, although I'm not sure of the significance of this one compared to my 18th and 21st unless there's some legal thing I've missed which means I get a double-strength vote or am allowed to ride a unicycle through Westminster while dressed as a horse.

I guess it's supposed to be a point of reflection, a time to think about how far you've come, count your blessings and stick a flag on summit that is reaching official Middle Age.  But what does that even mean now?  We're all busily extending our teenage years well into our fifties, refusing to give in to M&S elasticated trousers and continuing to go out when we really ought to be hosting civilised dinner parties instead.

Some people use it to attack their 'Bucket List' but I used up a whole load of that stuff (and probably nine lives) in charging through my teens and twenties because partly I had a 'life is short' rocket up my arse thanks to the death of my dad when I was a teenager, and partly because I knew jumping out of aeroplanes would be a less responsible thing to do once I became a mother (despite stating frequently I would "never have children" I guess there was always a part of me that secretly hoped I might).

What is good about this impending milestone is that it means a lot of my friends are turning 40 too, bringing ample opportunity to celebrate - and a welcome change from invitations to ferry the children to and from village halls and soft play centres where you stand about and drink lukewarm squash while your children get a serious sweat on and cry that they don't have enough Hula Hoops.  This has brought about some already very memorable parties and the realisation that when you get a group of grown ups together without their children, you find the same jokes you shared when you were 14 still have the power to make you cry with laughter.

Over the past couple of months I have....

  • Been in hysterics over memories of old school teachers, and spat my drink out as former classmates confessed to being the source of phone calls about "massive willies" 
  • Used words that were once terms of abuse as terms of endearment - I don't know why my year group used "skippy cotter" but we did.  So there.
  • Marvelled at how ten - even twenty years after last seeing someone - they still look the same as their class photograph from 1987 (minus the terrible brown and green uniform - see picture..)
  • Danced like a woman possessed.  No, hang on a minute, like a sixteen year old girl who is awe-struck that bands like the Happy Mondays and Jane's Addiction even exist
  • Bellowed "no future" with some other mums whilst hurling ourselves around a living room to the Sex Pistols 
  • Hugged friends - current, new, long-lost and found again wrapped in bear hugs and embraces

These parties have been awesome, emotional and above-all life affirming.  A chance to come together, reflect on the girls we were and the women we now are; so if this is what being 40 is all about then you can bring it on :)

Soundtrack: '74 - '75 The Connells

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Get the Balance Right

I had a great time catching up with some friends and former colleagues at a conference yesterday.  We spoke a lot about our families and when it came to the women who had children, we reflected on how it had felt to return to work and the impact it'd had (and was still having) on our families overall.  As a group of women, we were in a fortunate position; well paid, in jobs that stretched us intellectually and able to contribute to the emotional, financial, and practical aspects of family life.  We talked about the way in which being able to support yourself increases your sense of self-esteem but also the challenges that come when you have two parents that are working.  Who does pick up and drop off?  Who collects the kids if they're ill?  How do you make sure you're present for each other, your children, friends, wider family - yourself even - when you feel like you're pulled in a hundred directions?  
We talked too about how our partners and husbands felt, how it is for them and how much choice they feel they have when it comes to how much time they dedicate to work and family.  In some instances, they have less.
Do I stay or do I go?
When considering my career, I made a definite choice to remain in the corporate world until after I had children. This was in part because I was enjoying the lifestyle and opportunities the job afforded, but also because the maternity benefit offered by my employer was first-class: six months on full pay. I heard a rumour that there was an employer offering twelve months on full pay, but they were in the automotive industry and I didn't know squat about cars. Still don't.
Life-changing events
I asked my husband the other day what he would have done if he'd have been offered access to that kind of benefit.  Unsurprisingly he said of course he would have taken it.  The thing is, for most men, the only way they can get that level of paid leave is for a different, and much less positive, kind of life-changing event: having a terrible accident, a nervous breakdown, or becoming seriously ill.
Getting the balance right
I know plenty of couples where the woman earns more than her partner. Couples where it would have made practical and financial sense for dad to stay home with the children (and where this is the option they would have preferred) but whose employers offered something measly like one week of paid leave on top of their statutory entitlement. Hardly enough time to get used to changing a nappy without getting pee'd on...
Shared parental leave
Come April 2015, there will be a small step in redressing the balance with the advent of Shared Parental Leave (https://www.gov.uk/shared-parental-leave-and-pay/overview) but let's face it, statutory pay doesn't scratch the surface when it comes to paying the bills. What I'd be really interested to see is employers who are currently offering generous maternity packages considering making these available to their male workforce. It would take some doing but given that organisations already need to consider the requirements of adoptive and same-sex couples perhaps it could become a reality.
And if it did happen - would it make any difference?  Would we see an exodus of dads from the workplace and mums going back to work more rapidly?  Would either of these be a bad thing? There's only one way to find out - I wonder who will be brave enough to go first.  And if you know a business that is going first - let me know!
Footnote - a shortened version of this post can be found on my LinkedIn page.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The funeral

I wasn't sure if I should go at first.  My grief wasn't as acute as everyone else's.  No tears waiting  to be shed, no memories to reminisce over, no noted absence were I not to show up.  But this was family, so I decided to go.  Thought it would be the "right" thing to do.

And so I went. Went into a pub and was recognised.  Hugged, remembered, loved.

Faces different but the same.  Years of absence compressed, forgotten, unimportant.  It felt good to be there, amongst the generations, taking my place in the family tree.  

"How are you?"   ...   "How's your mum?"  ...  "How old are you now?"  

We travelled to the service where so much of my flesh and blood had arrived they couldn't all fit in the chapel.  We stood outside, hearing stories through the loudspeakers that talked of a man well lived and well loved.  A poet, a dreamer, a builder, a father.

"He was my friend"   ...   "We married each other on a beach"   ...   "They're not supposed to take one of ours"

We go back to the pub, share stories and photographs and remark on the names planted generations ago but still present today.  We are the set of each other's jaw, the shape of our noses, the curve of our brows.  We gaze across the room, marvel at the amount of lives one man can touch and wonder if we really are all related.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Wonder Woman?

I have always been someone who wants to fix things.  Not mechanical things you understand - my brain is not orientated to dealing with the nuts and bolts of a bike or an engine.  The stuff I like to fix relates more to bad situations and feelings.  I hate seeing people upset, angry, sad, frustrated, put upon.  I hate it because I've felt it and I also know how it feels when people help you to feel just a little bit better - a hug, a sympathetic ear, a useful phone number, a lift when it's pissing with rain or someone to pack your bags at the supermarket because your baby is screaming and it is quite evident that you are about to scream too because you can't get the Shreddies to fit in the bloody bag and comfort your infant at the same time.  I witnessed a beautiful example of this recently as a shopper sat and held the hand of an elderly lady who couldn't remember her pin number and so couldn't pay.  It was making her cry because it had happened before and she was embarrassed.  And the kind shopper and the shop assistant at the till told the lady it was alright, and it didn't matter - they'd find a way to sort it out, and we all forget our pin number sometimes, because in keeping our details safe we tie ourselves up in ever more complicated knots of numbers and letters and punctuation marks.  Bloody banks.    

With all of these wonderful vibes going round what I hadn't expected to learn was that there are times when my urge to assist needs to be toned down, and naturally the lesson has come from the wisest people in the house - the children.

Returning home from school one day my daughter told me about something that had happened that seemed unfair to her and so I offered to contact the school.  In return I was treated to a good minute of "Whydoyoualwayssaythat?! Aaarrgh!! You're so annoying!!"  Turns out that she just wanted to vent, just like grown ups do and (as one of my friends later pointed out) if my husband complained about work, I wouldn't call his boss - so why was I trying to fix every tiny issue the children present?  Despite the delivery of her message, what my daughter said made me take stock and so I returned to where she was sat, exasperated at my inability to detect she is growing up, to explain that my being annoying and embarrassing comes from a good place and that I would wait until she asked for my help before volunteering to speak on her behalf; sometimes us parents can't help these things.  And she smiled, and wasn't angry any more about what had seemed so unfair during her day, or her annoying mum.  

In my rush to fix I had forgotten to listen properly, putting my pants on over my trousers and attaching my cape when I didn't need to come to the rescue.  For all the times when I have needed to be on high alert in my life, there are dozens more where I have created more drama than necessary, and where my wanting to be helpful has overshadowed what I'm being told.

So I'm going to try to be more wife and less Wonder Woman, more friend and less Fantastic Four, more mother and less...um a superhero beginning with 'M'....you catch my drift.  In doing so, perhaps I'll tune in better to when I'm really needed - I'll hang on to the cape just in case.

Soundtrack: The Theme to Wonder Woman

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Kill Your Television

I saw a woman in the cafe of a swimming pool hand her baby an iPad to play with.  It was to distract the baby so she could chat with a friend.  I wanted one of two things to happen:
1. The baby would do what all babies do: vomit - right onto the iPad
2. The baby would do the other thing that babies do when they're given something: throw it on the floor.
I did also hope that her mother might just have a book.  You know, one of those nice ones for babies designed to stimulate and delight them (and withstand dribble, vomit and throwing).  But no, she didn't have one of those.  Just a piece of tech that cost hundreds of pounds that no doubt she'd have a paddy about if it got dropped on the floor. 
Maybe I'm just a massively judgemental cow, but I don't care.  I have been validated by a Steve Jobs comment - yes, really!
I read today that Steve Jobs was a low-tech parent.  Despite leading a company whose products are the tech equivalent of crack for some people, causing them to rob their mums and queue in the rain for hours just to hold a piece of white plastic that they would then download Minecraft and Bruno Mars albums onto, he explained to the journalist Nick Bilton back in 2010 that he would "limit how much technology our kids use at home.”  
Isn't it highly hypocritical of me to make a living from the technology industry and not encourage my children to use it?  Am I harming the likelihood of my daughter pursuing a career in technology because I don't let her spend time playing on my tablet pc?  No, I don't think so.  My children are still at primary school - there's no reason for them to spend hours with a screen in their faces or hands.  I have come to this conclusion through my own technology usage which is thus: 
They can wait until ooh, they're at least fourteen before we tell them they need to earn their keep.
I am guilty as hell of this.  It is the adult equivalent of picking your nose.  I'm trying to do less of it.
Chatting with friends
Let's face it, nobody has a land line any more so keeping up with the friends we've made over the years would be almost impossible without email and Facebook.  And even if we did have land lines, picking up the phone to a friend will cause your children to shriek in your ears / strip off / start tearing the house apart in order to end your conversation - it's just not possible.  The children's friends are at school.  Where they go every day.  For six whole hours.  
Who am I kidding?  See: Distraction.
I've downloaded some apps to help me with my fitness goals because I'm lazy and need a kick up the arse to stop me from getting a massive arse.  Children are naturally geared to behave like chimpanzees jacked up on a hundred bananas - if we spent more time playing with them or like them, we'd be a hell of a lot fitter.
Of course there are times when technology makes it possible to cross oceans and keeps families together who are miles apart, but my issue is with putting devices into the hands of very young children as a means of occupying them.  What I know from my own experience is you're a click away from content that is unsettling at best, terrifying at worst, even with parental controls.  That when you download a game intended for children, it might show you an advert offering 'explicit pics of people you know' (thanks Talking Tom app).  I know owning a smartphone can make you behave furtively - even blatantly rudely as you check it whilst sat with another person.  It can also make you very angry, I have thrown at least one mobile phone in my time and the language I have used when my 'smart' phone has crashed is pretty choice.  
Naturally there are times when the children think it's unfair or have a nuclear-strength tantrum because we've turned off the tv but it doesn't take long until they find something else to interest them.  Either that or we have tear ourselves away from our own devices to properly pay attention to them which is no bad thing.  
This was further underlined this week when my five-year-old son was "bored" because I'd turned the television off so I encouraged him to write out some party invitations.  Seeing him holding a pen, concentrating on carefully writing his friends names out was a very emotional moment for me.  No tech, no screen, just a pen, some card and watching him develop a true skill that will last him the whole of his life.  It's low tech, but I love it.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Are You Running Up That Hill?

These seriously need scuffing up a bit....
When was the last time you properly sprinted?  For those of my friends that race competitively, yes, I know you probably did that at 5 o'clock this morning, but for those of you that aren't yet an Iron Man or Woman, when did you last run like you did in the 100m at school? Or like you did when you were five and you were being chased by a parent who was threatening to tickle you?
Having been in part inspired by an ad (Nike perhaps?) where a woman is sprinting along a pier, I decided to give it a little try. When I'm out running I do build in some interval training (or if I'm out of breath and stop, I count it as interval training ;) ) but never do I go for an all-out, lung bursting sprint.  And so I decided that I ought to fix this fact the other day and really went for it.  And my hands started fizzing, my head started throbbing and my chest pounded in quite an alarming way but it was so exhilarating that I wanted to laugh out loud. I was also very grateful for living in the countryside which means that you can do these kind of things (largely) unobserved - had I tried this down the Oxford Road where I used to live in Reading it's highly likely that people would have thought I'd either:
a. Stolen something
b. Was being chased by someone who wanted to steal from me
Anyway, what the hell has this got to do with anything? Well it made me question how enthusiastically I am pursuing my goals in life in three specific ways:
1. Am I putting every ounce of effort in?
2. Am I challenging myself
and crucially....
3. Am I enjoying myself?
Depending on the day, the answer isn't always a resounding yes, but I'm working on making sure that it is. I know that life can be cut very short.  I also know it can be very bloody long but with a quality of life that is massively eroded thanks to poor health.  So during these years when I have the brain, body and willing to do something with my life, I owe it to myself and the people that I love to get out there and do it, and not in a half-arsed way either.    
But how to keep on top of these things?  Well one way is making a public commitment; sharing goals with friends and family, so if I bang on about stuff to you, or on here, I'm hoping you'll see it less as harping on and more as finding a way to stop myself from chickening out of things :)  I've also taken the rare step of downloading an app - this one's a beep test that I'm hoping by virtue of improving my speed is also going to remind me to keep sprinting towards my goals.  Perhaps I'll get there just a little bit faster :) How about you?  What will you do?

Note: A shortened version of this post appears on my LinkedIn profile.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Get up, stand up

A few weeks ago I went along to an event called the Vagina Dialogues which, rather than being a group discussion about vaginas (which in itself could have been a raucous affair), was actually an evening of thought-provoking entertainment designed to facilitate a conversation between us about our experiences of motherhood - whether as a mother, or having been mothered.

I had expected that I would come away with a few insights, which I did, but what I hadn't anticipated is that it would lead me to performing stand-up.

We were asked to make ourselves a promise - the usual workshop thing of committing to paper something that you'll either stop, start or continue doing - and mine was "I will be more honest and less afraid".  We were also asked to write down some goals, for which I had included "attend an open mic night".

It's funny how writing a few words on a bit of paper can grab you.  Having looked at my list I asked one of the staff at the venue if they did open mic nights to which the reply was "yes, there's one in three weeks actually".  I called the box office and asked if there were performance slots available and they freed one up for me.  I told a friend I was going to do it and then couldn't back out....

And with this mic, I silence thee
horrid inner critic!
I felt nervous as hell, pacing the kitchen rehearsing aloud in the days before, and then on the eve of the gig I watched my son, daughter and their school friends perform songs, skits and poems in front of each other and hundreds of parents.  These children aged between four and eleven have been taught to enjoy performing and in the process are picking up some incredible life skills - did I miss that lesson or did the process of growing up rub some of that out?

In the end it was a great experience - life affirming, liberating and confidence building.  Thankfully it was held by the very supportive team at New Greenham Arts who welcome first-timers (trying to take on a Saturday night Jongleurs crowd may well  have ended very differently....) 

What I learned was that being honest with myself about something I wanted to try helped me to silence the little voice that makes me afraid of what other people might think.  And that feeling the fear and going for it is not a sensation we experience often enough as adults.  And that there's still lots to be learned from our honest, unafraid children.  Now that is a good lesson in motherhood.

Soundtrack: Get Up Stand Up - Bob Marley

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Washing Line

Dry? Yes. Soft? No.
Washing line
When the weather's fine
How I love your simplicity
You save money on my electricity

But a line alone is not enough...
Unless you like towels that are rough
Until that's solved, I can't retire
My lovely, soft towel, tumble dryer

Monday, 14 July 2014

I Don't Want To Talk About It

A couple of months ago my daughter brought home a road safety DVD, the aim of which is to help parents teach their children to safely cross the road.  It says that most children are not safe to cross a road unaccompanied until they are ten years of age.  

A few weeks after that I receive a letter to inform me that my daughter's PSHE lessons will include a cartoon depiction of sexual intercourse - I just hope it's not between Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse - Mickey will go nuts!  Joking aside I can't help but wonder how a child considered not old enough to cross the road is seen as old enough to watch a depiction of the technicalities of sex - it doesn't seem to make sense.  

I'm not a prude, or naive.  Both children know precisely how they were born - even if my son does insist on referring to it as when babies are 'laid' (I blame the fact that we keep chickens) -  we told them the truth on that one as soon as they asked.  The children know that conception (most of the time) requires a man and a woman and a 'cuddle' but beyond that they haven't pressed to find out more and so I feel a bit sad that the decision to discuss this is being made by someone else.  Now, we could opt out of our daughter seeing the video but I think it is probably better for her to watch it rather than have it described to her by a fellow class mate with a vivid imagination, or one who's suffering from the shock of realising that her mum and dad do that thing, or one who might see it as great sport to make something up ("yeah - the man puts willy in the lady's belly-button!").

There's loads of very useful stuff too - explanations of puberty, body changes, hormones, emotions  - all things that will be here sooner than we'd like and it would be wrong to pretend it's not going to happen, but sex?  Do we really need to cover that right now?  In the context of our daughter's life so far, it's (hopefully) at least another lifetime away for her and her peer group, even if as parents we joke that we hope it's at least another twenty...

Maybe I am getting too het up about what is, after all, just a 'fact of life', maybe our daughter will do little more than express utter disgust or mild hilarity.  Maybe she already knows....  This being uncharted territory for us as a family, perhaps this worry comes from not having talked about it before.  My own experience was (if my memory serves me right) being shown a video of childbirth at school which did a great job of making all the children say "I'm never, ever having sex!!" and being given a book called 'Woman's Experience of Sex' by Sheila Kitzinger by my mum which became quite a talking point for me and my friends.  With a more mature mind I can appreciate its frank, even-handed explanation and illustrations of post-birth vaginas, masturbation and sexuality but at the time it served mostly as a tool to amuse and repulse me and my pre-teen friends.  I am forever thankful that its pictures were black and white, there were a lot of them *shudders*.

One friend has, very kindly, provided me with perhaps a more suitable book to help support the conversations that we're going to have to have - a nice practical one with not too many pictures that give you nightmares.  I'm sure it will be fine, I'm sure I'll discover that our daughter knows more than we think but if I'm honest, I don't really want to talk about it.
Photo Credit: www.sxc.hu
Soundtrack: I Don't Want to Talk About it - Everything But The Girl (you could have Crazy Horse or Rod Stewart but I'm picking this one :) )

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Kitchen Bin - You Stink!

Oh kitchen bin, you stink!
I think
Next time I won't leave it so long
To empty you
Your almighty pong...
Reminds us all, when we've forgotten
Hot weather makes your contents rotten

Monday, 7 July 2014

Ain't No Time to Play

The boy is worried.  As his first year at primary school draws to an end he's said more than once "I won't get to play as much when I'm in Year One".  The same thing happened with his sister and it is true.  Reception class is awesome - lots of time outdoors, play-based learning and just a reading book plus a little spelling for homework.  They even get afternoons outside where the whole lesson is geared around the natural environment - something inspired by the Norwegian outdoor learning model.  Come Year One, these will stop and he'll be bringing home projects that are impossible for children to do independently and so become 'family homework'.  That's on top of the reading, spelling, and times tables.   Little wonder he doesn't want to move up.

Now I think we are a family that is very much invested in our children's education.  We pay attention, help, take an interest and support them.  But it all feels a bit sad to know that they are being primed and geared from the age of five for exams and 'getting ready' for secondary school.  Short of taking them out of the state system and going for something like the Dolphin or a Montessori school I felt a bit hamstrung.  If the school focuses more on academic instruction than play then what can I do?  And then something happened in our bathroom to wake me up.  My daughter came to find me to ask me to play, and to my shame, I uttered the sentence "I can't, I'm cleaning the shower".  Now this was factually true - it is hard to participate in a game when you're wearing rubber gloves and have a container of Flash in one hand (unless you're into some really specialist stuff) but I felt like a pretty crappy parent when I heard myself say it.  Even my daughter gave me a look that said "yep mum, that's pretty much the lamest sentence you've ever said to me."

Tickets please!  Photo (c) tptoys.com
So the gloves came off and within a moment I was running around the garden with the children playing 'tickets please' where essentially one person gets to be an irate ticket inspector while the other two fail to show the correct ticket for going down the slide.  Within half an hour I was on my front on the slide with both children balanced on my back.  We all took skin off our knees, fingers and elbows (who knew plastics slides could be so injurous?!) but we were all also laughing like drains - not cleaning them.  So as the summer holidays come closer and the play days at school drift away I'll be paying more attention to how much playtime we're enjoying, not how grubby the bathroom looks.

Soundtrack: No Time to Play - Guru


Thursday, 3 July 2014

An Ode to Waitrose Coffee Cups

Waitrose coffee cups
What is up
With you?

Left in piles
In the aisles
By customers who should know better
Than to place their empties in the feta

Whilst sourcing 'essentials' they suck and sup
From their corrugated sippy cup
I want to take these folks to task
And hit them with a tartan flask

So show some bloody manners please

Don't leave your cups amongst the cheese!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Hey Boy, Hey Girl

I came across the campaign Pink Stinks the other day (www.pinkstinks.org.uk) - it targets "the products, media and marketing that prescribe heavily stereotyped and limiting roles to young girls" and I'm with it.

I'm quite sick of seeing everything from Kinder Eggs to Lego being separated out via the use of packaging into ones that are 'for boys' and 'for girls'.  Since when did a chocolate egg containing a crap plastic toy become gender specific and since when did it matter whether you were a boy or a girl to make something out of bricks?

I'm lucky that within my daughter's peer group many of her friends have mothers with interesting careers - she sees that it's equally possible for a woman to be a scientist as it is to be a sculptor, social worker, 'person in IT' (come on, even when I did it the kids didn't have a clue what my actual job was!) or teacher.  It feels essential to me that she knows all of these options, and more, are within reach.

And then, in amongst this rejoicing that my daughter sees a world of possibility is a never ending parade of Disney Princesses, feminised Nerf guns, and even entire shops with aisles that are dedicated to 'boys toys' and 'girls toys'.  For her, this results in a conflict between the role models in her life and what companies want her to believe she should like for the benefit of their bottom line.  She's smart enough to know the purpose of the advertising but I would be naive to think that it doesn't influence her, or to fail to recognise views and opinions on what boys and girls 'should' like hasn't influenced every generation before hers.

At this early stage in her life I'm fortunate in that the images she has access to can be managed to a certain extent.  We can make sure she doesn't see Rhianna with her tits or arse hanging out at an awards ceremony (again) when we're using the internet together.  We can stop Page 3 coming into the house.  We can give her positive choices that help her her value herself for who she is, and her achievements, rather how she looks.  But it's far, far harder when it comes to the question of toys and attitudes that tell our girls they should want princess figures and pedicures and our boys they should like diggers and guns.  

But it's not just a question of 'telling' the children that the advertisers are wrong.  Oh no, it's got to be balanced with not being too vitriolic in my opinion of toy princesses with big plastic tits and come hither expressions.  For her to make a choice, her own choice, I need to tone down the face that looks like I've just picked up a dog poo when we walk through The Entertainer.  But until they get shot of the pink packaging, that's going to be hard to do...

Soundtrack: Hey Boy Hey Girl - The Chemical Brothers

Monday, 23 June 2014

Marry Me

Marry me
Take me in
Know my sin
Be my charm
Safe from harm
Marry me

Marry me
Take my hand
Wear our band
Seal our bond
To beyond
Marry me

Marry me
Kiss my lips
Trace the tips
Mine to yours
Distant shores
Marry me

Marry me
And we shine
Souls combine
Time is still
If you will
Marry me

Thursday, 19 June 2014

You Wear it Well

What happens to your sense of style once you have children?  The first inkling I had that mine had taken a vacation was on a weekend in Bath many moons ago with some of my NCT friends.  We were strolling around in the sunshine and I noticed a proliferation of pretty tea dresses.  Where had these come from?  Why had we not heard about their sudden popularity and why were we the only people not wearing them?  I felt somehow cheated that what was obviously fashion news had evaded my radar - it's not that I particularly wanted to wear one, it was more that I didn't want to feel so surprised by not knowing what was happening on the high street.

It's continued in much the same way since - I went to Reading a couple of months ago and noticed four people wearing deer stalker hats in one shopping centre alone.  Are these now a 'thing' or are there just a lot of young hunters in the Oracle?  I can't tell and it irks me.

I think it has a lot to do with your social life and location.  Without the nights in town and oodles of time to browse shops with your friends the only place you can take your sartorial cue from are the folks around you, the internet or the Boden brochure that appears to fall through the letterbox every week (incidentally any top that's described as "fun" by a model quoting her favourite thing in life is "cupcakes" is not getting within three hundred miles of my wardrobe - grow up!).

And as much as we try to retain our individuality, we are most definitely influenced by those around us.  I found myself wearing the same dress and coat as a colleague when I used to work at Microsoft, we both looked lovely but it was a bit weird.  But then given we were similar age / similar job / similar tastes was it really so strange?  There are items I have bought on recommendation or because I've seen someone rocking a look that I had been too shy to try.  Some purchases are down to practicality (every mother in the village has a coat with a hood) and some I cannot explain - why on earth is it that I own so many scarves now?  Never needed one in my life and since having children I appear to have developed a dependency on them - one of my friends even has separate cupboard space for hers.  Can someone explain this please?

It's not reserved to the girls either - there are shifts amongst the men too.  It takes a bit longer and may involve the buying of kit for cycling / running / DIY but it definitely happens.  We women notice these things and are secretly pleased our husbands are still trying :)

So when I ended up in London a short while ago and found myself in Benetton (a place I hadn't shopped since I was seventeen) it was a revelation!  I bought a pair of jeans with rips in because I liked them even though a small part of me worried I was only a Grolsch bottle-top away from looking like Bros.  I stared at what people were wearing on the train, in bars, at the theatre and it was really exciting - especially the woman who was wearing a beautifully patterned bow tie undone on top of a crisp white shirt.

It made me realise that I do miss fashion and not in a 'I want to blow my cash on something that will last a week' disposable-fashion kind of way, but in the way of appreciating fabric and styling and looking good or wearing great high heels just because.    

Working from home and doing the school run on foot gives me limited opportunities to indulge this.  Or does it?  Maybe tomorrow I'll work from home in these :)

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Move any Mountain

Lots of happy coincidences and serendipitous meetings have been taking place over the past week but let's start with today.

As a means to provoke thought and debate amongst students at my old senior school about their future careers and aspirations, I was asked to go in and talk about my story of  going from being a pupil at the school through the corporate years to becoming a writer.

I may have been small (and covered in eggs & flour,
such was the way we celebrated birthdays at my school)
but I was already planning on moving a few mountains :)
Whilst driving over, I heard a Radio 2 phone-in on the hot topic of how children of working-class white parents (a category I would have been very much put in when I was a teenager) tend to fare less well at school than children of other ethnic backgrounds.  I didn't get to hear the whole programme but I did hear a lot of "I blame the parents".  What I would have liked to have heard is the children's perspective, I think they would have had some interesting things to say - I know I would have had an opinion when I was fourteen (and twelve, and three...never did learn to keep quiet :)).

I decided during the talk that rather than try to describe to the pupils what I'd done, I would read them some extracts from Reasons to be Cheerful that dealt with being a teenager, education, my first foray into work and the relevance of rap music to my career.  After all, I'm a writer, kind of made sense to..

I also decided that I really ought to back up my claim that I could write a decent bit of verse by writing them a rap - although it is entirely possible I was more Pam Ayres than L'il Kim...

It's about the potential we all have to effect change, the possibilities that can come from positivity and just getting out there and going for it.  I'm not yet brave enough to record it as one of my favourite bloggers and fellow seeker of truths Chris Packe but watch this space :)

It All Starts With You

Here’s a question for you
Can a white woman rap?
Will I carry this off
Or will it sound …….rubbish

Here’s another – is the future
Of your own making?
Is life what you’re dealt?
Or is it there for the taking?

If you’ve been told
“You’re a waste of space”
Can you still be successful?
Can you still find your place?

Do you think life’s pre-destined?
Or that you have choice?
Do you choose to hear a positive
Or negative voice?

If you want to get somewhere
If you have that desire
Go find the example
To which you can aspire

Who gets to decide
What we each will become?
Think it’s “different for them”?
Think it’s “alright for some”?

I would challenge that view
That it’s written in the stars
The paths our lives take
Are all choices of ours

Want to work in big business?
Create software, form bands?
Whether you’re something, or nothing
It is in your hands

Your process starts here
You can shape your ambition
Set out what you’ll strive for
Earn recognition

Just think for a moment
How you would define
Your future to be
And say “This is mine”

“I own who I am
And what I will be
It’s within my control
It’s starting with me”

Make yourself a promise
To prove others wrong
Keep a positive outlook
Be fearless, be strong

Believe you can do it
Make it come true
Stay focused, stay hopeful

It all starts with you

Soundtrack: Move any Mountain - The Shamen (for my friend Nina, and for the times we spent rapping along with Mr C :D )

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Young Ones

Rik Mayall is dead and as one of my friends remarked "a generation of British people is in mourning" - how right he is.  

I have come to learn that when the Young Ones first aired I was seven...which makes me wonder what on earth my parents were doing allowing me to watch it and thank them heartily for some frankly lax parenting.  I revelled in the danger of the programme, of Rik (with a silent 'p') Vyvyan, Neil and Mike living a squalid student house with a talking hamster, a psychotic landlord and the likes of Amazulu, Madness and Motorhead popping up in their lounge (as well as cars and boxes containing vampires).  My primary school playground was awash with conversations about the delicious deviousness of the programme, the violence, the language, the spectacle of Vyvyan losing his head after sticking it out of a train window.....

We watched Alexi Sayle chant 'Doctor Marten's boots' and enjoyed the vicarious thrill that comes with knowing that you are watching something that grown ups will not approve of, even if you don't entirely understand what's going on.

I was bought the Young Ones book by my parents one Christmas (and once again I tip my hat to their understanding of precisely what I wanted but didn't dream I'd get) and still remember the excitement of the cod-graffiti inside, the references to what vindaloo and ten cans of export-strength lager does to your insides ("don't let the bottom fall out of your world, let the world fall out of your bottom..."), and Rik's odes to Cliff Richard and Felicity Kendall that didn't exactly chime with his position as an anarchist...

The Young Ones was my entry into grown up comedy and a warm up to the joy of Ade and Rik belting the hell out of each other, and the gas man, with frying pans in Bottom.  And as I look across those people who would have been my playground pals, they're all sharing memories of Flash, Alan B'Stard, the Comic Strip, Man Down and Drop Dead Fred.  Rik in all his frying pan throwing, crotch-thrusting, acid-tongued, nimble-footed, loose cannon glory, thrilling and funny, sharp and just a little bit dangerous.  He will be missed. 

Soundtrack: The Young Ones - Cliff Richards

Monday, 2 June 2014

I Hate You So Much Right Now!

I thought that I had experienced it all - whether between me and my oldest brother when we were growing up, or between my own two children - I thought I had pretty much covered every possible thing that children can argue over: what to watch on the television, who sits where in the car (and which window they get to look out of), who is believed to be cheating in a game, and who gets to play with the baby building blocks that have long outstayed their welcome.  Been there, done that, got the memories of rolling around fighting on a brown swirly-patterned carpet in front of a massive wood-framed television to prove it.

But no, as it turns out I hadn't quite covered everything as I discovered when my children fought over a mooring ring.  Yep, that's right.  A piece of metal embedded in a piece of concrete. For those of you yet to encounter the child-entertaining qualities of one of these things, here it is:
I wonder if Argos sells these.....

I managed to take the picture in the brief moment when both pairs of hands were not clutched around it, knuckles white, palms gradually taking on the scent of rusted metal and batteries thanks to the heat generated by their basic desire for this most vital part of being a brother or sister: being the one that wins.

As there is no way to 'share' a mooring ring, they settled for pushing, shoving, shouting and all while being close to the canal.  They were supposed to be watching 'crafty rafters' being cheered across a finish line, not fighting to the near death over something that is designed in the interest of safety.  I decided that if they were going to fight, they could do it somewhere they'd be less likely to drown.

Resigned to having to move, but still trying to get the last touch on this most precious ring, they took it in turns to shout "I HATE YOU!".  To each other, about each other, and within earshot of other people.  It was exasperating, upsetting, tiring, and more than a little embarrassing.  And then I remembered that it passes and that one of the best things about children (when they're not shouting so loudly that it makes you want to pretend they're not your children), is that they don't bear a grudge and that they don't really mean it, even if they do feel it in the heat of the moment.  Within ten minutes they were friends again, making each other laugh and being kind to one another.  The moment had passed, the dust had settled and peace was restored.  The mooring ring was released from their grip, the battle for supremacy already becoming a memory and as we made our way home all sibling smiles, I allowed myself an indulgent look at my now happy children and made a silent vow to never, ever go on a canal holiday.  

Soundtrack: Caught Out There - Kelis

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

I Started Something

Yesterday marked the publication of my first book for children: Mr Reuben and the Mole.  Mr Reuben is a character that I started thinking about over three years ago; sending scrappy photocopied sheets of paper to friends and family before graduating to my much beloved Moleskine notebook where I hand-wrote the stories again and drew colour illustrations so that I could take Mr Reuben to the local primary school and try his tall tales out on some very patient 5-7 year olds.

This story in particular has changed from one that was written in verse to being delivered in straight prose, the edits have been numerous and at one point in publication I literally did have to bin the whole process and start from the beginning again.  The cover has changed three times in the last month but finally Mr Reuben has made it from my imagination into the outside world and I'm just a little bit excited.

There are many tales about him to be told, most of which are still living in that notebook, all of which will need some tweaking but he's out of the blocks now and it feels like the start of something special - I can't wait to see how he gets on!

Third time lucky on the cover!

Just what is Mr Reuben so worried about?
A few story planning sketches
Soundtrack: I Started Something I Couldn't Finish - The Smiths 

Friday, 16 May 2014

There She Goes

She propels herself through the water; head down, body sleek, arm over, then through, the water.  Legs kicking, not splashing.  Concentration creating flow.  Grace, strength and power creating movement that looks effortless.  Her head glances to the side; face just visible, to catch a breath before turning back to join the water.

I am watching, rapt.  The noise of other people becoming a background thrum as I soak up the sight of my girl swimming lengths of the pool. Confident, strong strokes that I have not seen before and couldn't replicate myself.  No looking round and seeking approval, no searching to see if I'm watching.  I can't believe I've got the chance to see this.  I can't believe I am her mother.  

I want to phone my husband, to tell him what I can see and that I wish he was here, but for once in my life I resist the urge to grab my phone and try to soak up every last microscopic detail of the moment.  

The swimming instructor is pacing alongside the pool in time with her and he pauses as he sees me.  "Bet you didn't know she could do that eh?  Look at her go."

He walks on, and I watch her go.

Soundtrack: There She Goes - The La's

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Walk of Life

This morning, I finished the Moonwalk - 26.2 miles through London and part of an incredible 15,000 people who raised £3.5 million pounds collectively (and counting!)

My legs are singing with aches & pains, but my head sings with the story of the team I was part of, and you can sing along too!  It is of course - Walk of Life by Dire Straits.  


Here come Emma saying
"Roll-up, sign up
Join Compton Crackers, we'll be on our way"

Here come Lindsay saying
"I'm gonna do it, 
I'll get us training in the hills today"

We put on trainers
We hit the footpaths
Oh yeah we hiked all day
We got lost and got blisters
But Claire could read a map, and soon we found our way

And Lorraine got over her fear of bush-wees
And our long walks gave our husbands some strife
All for the walk, all for the walk of life, all for the walk of life

Here come Vic J saying
"Pimp those bras girls
I got a bucket of pink dye today"
Here come Sarah and she's raided a craft shop
Beads, bows and buttons and prosecco - yay!

We glued the ribbons, we sewed the buttons
Oh yeah the bras looked great
Some were big and some little
But all were made with love on decorating day

And Becky thinks it's all so embarrassing, 
And Evie's skills are sharp as a knife
Close to the walk, close to the walk of life, yeah the walk of life

Here comes Toni saying 
"Facebook, Twitter
Let's raise some funds the social media way"
Here comes Ben and he's the 'Cracker Tracker'
Puts us in the S-Max, takes us to the train

We get to Ascot, it's full of drunkards
Those boys, they can't behave
Get to Twickers - it's rugby
There's so much fancy dress to watch the game today

And finally we get to Clapham Common
And then we make our way to the start line
To do the walk, to do the walk of life, mmmm to do the walk of life

Here come London and it's close to midnight
We hear the horn & then we're on our way
Hi-vis helpers saying "You're gonna do it"
Seeing the landmarks take our breath away

We count the miles off
As couples walk home
Oh yeah - wine makes girls sway
They're all drunk and, we're sober
But we cheer each other on and we forget our aches

And we crossed the line knowing all of our efforts
Might help your husband, daughter, mother or wife
We did the walk, we did the walk of life, yeah we did the walk of life..........

For Becky, Claire, Emma, Lindsay, Lorraine, Sarah, Victoria, everyone who supported us and everyone who supported the Moonwalk!!