New Pencil Case

Christmas is not at home to Joy

There. I’ve said it.  There is no place for joy at Christmas.  That is not to say that there is no place for happiness, of course there is, but joy is asking too much.

There has been a tension in the air over the past couple of weeks that is almost visible, not so much a winter fog but a lightening storm crackling behind it, ready to break out and set fire to the Christmas tree.  The pressure to be joyful.

Everyone, mainly me, has been in a terrible temper.  It’s more than just the ‘Mum’s gone to Iceland’ cliches of too much shopping and preparation, it’s all a bit darker.

My husband will say ‘I told you so’ as he has been miserable about Christmas since the day I met him.  However, to me it always comes as a bit of a shock. I love Christmas.  I still get excited about the decorations, the food, the Hazlenut Baileys but these days that Christmas spirit is harder to earn.

Someone talked today of FOMO.  I am not down with the kids so had to have it explained to me:  It’s the Fear Of Missing Out;  the constant feeling that someone, somewhere is having a better time than you, or actually seeing that better time plastered all over Facebook as digital confirmation of your social suicide.  They were talking, of course, about the never ending onslaught of festive social engagements, invitations and celebrations that you are obliged to accept, that make us overtired and overwrought.

This year, I don’t have that excuse as my diary has been fairly festive free, a poor show.

However, Christmas is all about what we’re missing, and that’s what makes everyone in such a filthy mood.   We are ordered to concentrate on how lucky we are but, like a dieter trying not to think about stollen, it’s the gaps, which normally lie unnoticed on the wall, which are suddenly swathed in tinsel and fairy lights.

I find the run up to Christmas hard because my parents are no longer here.  This is not recent, or remarkable, but the ghosts of Christmas Past weigh heavy.  I am not alone in my missing pieces.  For every person complaining  or arguing about who’s coming for Christmas, there’s someone wishing they had somewhere to go or someone to invite.  For everyone complaining about their overexcited,  ungrateful children there is someone who would be grateful for any child at all.  And for all the empty chairs at tables there’s someone looking at the person sitting opposite and wondering whether they wouldn’t all be better off somewhere else.

I should actually be spending this evening writing my Christmas cards, but I hate to do it.  It’s a reminder of my failings and the friends I’ve neglected; the ones that I should call or visit, or just keep in touch with more often, if only life (and Twitter) didn’t get in the way.

I’ve realised that my Christmas glass has become half empty, which just makes me even more cross at my own grumpiness.  If any one is still reading I’ll be a little disappointed in you.

We don’t even allow ourselves self-pity.  Christmas is a time for joy and goodwill to all men.  So amongst the neverending onslaught of happy, perfect, joyful families we are surrounded with images of those worse off than us, the homeless, the children in poverty, the lonely.  We’re wedged.

Obviously we all live like this all year round, it’s just that at this time of year it is in such sharp relief and we spend so much bloody time talking about it.  We shout loudly about the shiny side of our lives and shove the dark bits up against the wall, pretending that all we’re just stressed about how much wrapping there is to do.

Bailey's - the true spirit of Christmas.

Bailey’s – the true spirit of Christmas.

There’s a reason that It’s A Wonderful Life is such a Christmas staple.  It’s a tale of one man’s regrets and wonderings at what might have been, whose guardian angel shows him where to find his happiness –  maybe we all need to invent our own Clarences at this time of year.

So the only thing to do, in this FOMO world (I’ve just stabbed myself in the eye so you don’t have to) is to roll with the punches, forget about the overriding need for joy and concentrate on the happiness.

If you are after a Christmas theme tune, I can only suggest Tim Minchin’s White Wine In The Sun .  It has the right amount of cathartic melancholy for my Christmases past but is everything I want my children to feel about Christmas in the future.

Tim_Minchin__I_ve_said__No__to_Baz_LuhrmannI didn’t go on the Christmas night out, instead I shared a quiet bottle of wine with a friend.  After all, the really joyful nights out are always the ones that happen on a random February evening.

I haven’t made a Christmas cake, or mince pies, or artful table decorations, but my children have got through an awful lot of glitter at my kitchen table, which will still make me smile when I’m finding it in April.

We are continuing our tradition of eating out for Christmas lunch (thank you Grandad) but my husband and I will have our annual War of the Trifle.  Arguably noone needs that much cream in their lives but it is our unspoken way of inviting our mothers for Christmas.

I will be making Ham in Coke but only to prove that I am, and always will be #teamnigella

I’ve opened the Baileys.

And now I, once again, feel better about the world and ready to embrace the happiness that the festive season should bring.  The children are wound up and primed, the extended family have their trifle spoons at the ready and I’ve ruthlessly sorted the toy cupboards.

It really is a wonderful life.

Merry Christmas.

What I learnt at school.

Hurray!  It’s September and it’s new pencil cases for everyone.  I would love to say that I’ve spent the summer having epic adventures of enlightenment and discovery but in reality, I’ve sat in a variety of adventure playgrounds with a rum & raisin cornet.  A few castles, the odd zoo, but mainly picnic blanket.

The new term has been a momentous one.  Son 1 has made the small and yet giant leap from infants to juniors, and Son 2 has entered the world of Reception.

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As I stood in the other bit of the playground today I was taken by an overwhelming sense that I’ve done all this before.  I can’t quite believe that the revolving door is still spinning and I’m back in the foyer.

The journey through infant school was filled with joy, terror & uncertainty in equal measure (and that was just me).  Maybe this time will be different.

His clothes are a little bit too big, his shirts are ironed (it won’t last) and he is showing a disappointing lack of clinginess.

To quote Peter Cook , “I believe I’ve learned from my mistakes and I’m sure I can repeat them exactly”.  So for my benefit, as much as anyone else’s, here are my Notes To Self.

1.  It will be just like when you were at school

For you I mean, not your children.  The school playground essentially gives you the ideal ground to repeat your high school years, with all the neuroses and insecurities just that little bit more embedded.  Cast your eye around the concrete and it will all come flooding back.  There are the cool ones, the glamorous ones, the melodramatic ones, the shy ones, the bitchy ones and the downright odd.  It is more than likely you will belong to the exact same group you did before, so stop kidding yourself.  The best strategy however, is to smile benignly at everyone, because they might be very nice.   The nicest ones might not even make it to the playground very often – so keep your eyes peeled. Remember those first few weeks at University when everyone asked what A-levels you did?  Do that (although I would recommend ‘which one is yours’ as an opening gambit’).  There will be at least one occasion where you are convinced someone is giving you evil icy stares because they hate you, or your child, but actually they are probably just having a really rubbish day, or are hung over.

2.  Your children will probably be nothing like you when you were at school.

I was a swotty sort, always eager to please, first with my hand up, very much the model student.  Your 4 year old child might not be like this.  There is the slightest chance that they might not actually be arsed with school at all.  They might not be able to sit still, concentrate, behave, read, write or seem to be able to do very much that is expected of them.  This is fine.  They will not necessarily fail their exams in 12 years time.   Leave them be, read them a story and keep repeating to yourself  ‘children in Europe don’t start school until they are 7’

3.  You know nothing of what you were like at school

In an effort to inspire and energise my Year 2 child, who was not really applying himself, was easily distracted/distracting and struggling to finish his work, I decided to dig out my primary school reports to show him how wonderful I really was.  Having no parents around, there was no one to stop me.  And I quote (aged 8) …… ‘satisfactory but rather slow to complete’, ‘she can write well but doesn’t always push herself to do so’, ‘often talks too much’.  They went back in the cupboard.  That’ll learn me.

4.  Someone will steal your child

And replace them with another.  By the beginning of week 2, the gentle apple of your eye that you have nurtured and moulded will have morphed into a hideously stroppy, irrational monster.  This is also fine and you can rest easy that they will be nothing like this at school.  They have tried really hard to control themselves for 6 hours, listen, concentrate, be kind and play nicely and they just can’t manage it for a moment longer.  It seems unfair, especially as your time with them may now be much shorter, that you get the worst of them but there you have it.  It’s called parenthood – suck it up.  They will come back eventually.

5.  Choose your battles

There will be times when someone upsets your child.  They will be mean either physically or emotionally and you will want to rip their scrawny little arms from their sockets.  This is frowned up.  On the whole, they are just learning too and a gentle discussion about friendship strategies is always wise; a quiet word with the teacher if you are concerned.  Do not tell your child to hit them back or begin a monumental turf war with the other child’s parent in the playground, culminating in a rumble in front of the cake sale.

N.B.  There may also be a time when your child says that no one will play with them, which will make you want to cry.  However, it is more than likely that what your child means is that nobody wanted to play the very specific game he wanted to play as they were already playing something else, so he went off in a huff.

6.  Be prepared (and get yourself a craft box)

The words World Book Day might have passed by unnoticed in your life up until now but it will now take on a whole new sinister tone (as will Children in Need and Easter Parade).  All children will at some point be required to come to school dressed as their favourite character from a book.  A BOOK!  And just for the record, I am judging you.  Darth Vader is not acceptable (you know who you are).

And that’s it.  Before you know it you’ll be considering Biff, Chip and Kipper to be legitimate name choices and wondering muttering to yourself that ‘they didn’t have number bonds in my day’

We Need To Talk About Nigella

nigellaNigella and I go back a long way.   By way of explanation, my Dad bore a striking resemblance to Nigel Lawson and my Mum decided that Nigella, back when she wasn’t that famous, was a good role model for me.  She used to ring me at University to tell me when she was doing the paper review.  Nigella’s first husband, John Diamond, had cancer at around the same time as my Dad and I would regularly read his column, desperate to hear the things my Dad had never been able to say out loud.  Her book Feast, was released just after my mother died and, I must confess, I repeatedly read her chapter on funerals and grief, before turning to my own ‘gin and carbohydrates’ therapy of choice.

And then she sorted out her eyebrows and started licking spoons and we grew apart.  However she has remained my fantasy big sister who would, one day, invite me round for a massive crumble.

Still, I’ve have always associated her with frailty and stoicism in the face of adversity.  Therefore I felt a fierce and familial sense of protectiveness when the pictures were published over the weekend.  The calculated callousness of his actions, her apparent attempts to placate him and his subsequent dismissal of what happened are shocking.  I would like to think that if I were on the next table, I would have intervened, would have asked if she was alright, maybe I wouldn’t.  The reaction to them has also been revealing.  There has been the fair share of apologists and all round cretins looking for a cheap laugh (none of whom I shall link to here).  There has been consternation that this attractive, successful, confidant woman, could be treated in such a way.  Cries of ‘leave the bastard’ fight against others who claim that it may not be that bad.  Saatchi himself says that it was ‘a playful tiff’.

There are others who feel that discussion of someone’s very private pain is inappropriate and intrusive.  Accusations fly that someone’s suffering is being used to sell newspapers and is grubby.  Like the people on nearby tables, the instinct is to look away as it is none our business.

Now I don’t actually know Nigella, or any facts about her relationship and it’s not my place to speculate. (maybe it was just friendly banter, but it didn’t look like it).  However how human beings treat other human beings is everybody’s business.   I wonder how many would have said that if it had been the waiter he had attacked.  There should be no closed doors to hide behind.  As a society, we have a responsibility to shout very loudly that such behaviour will not be stood for.

I’ve written about this subject before but what this story proves is that the issue of domestic abuse is not a simple one.  It is not confined to drunken men beating their wives on council estates, nor is it the domain of mousey women at home who can’t stand up for themselves.  The recent cases of Rihanna or Justin Lee Collins should have proved this already.

I have several friends who have suffered from domestic abuse at some point in their lives.  What links them all is that they are all successful, outgoing, confident women.  Or at least they looked like it at the time.  All of them thought that they were strong enough to handle it, did not want to admit defeat. Very few of them ever made public the exact reasons they left or aggression they suffered.  Their ex-partners continue, untainted and untroubled, possibly treating all the women that followed exactly the same way.

Why people choose the relationships they do is a complicated business and nobody goes looking for one.  The fact that it is someone you love who inflicts such pain or control doesn’t make it less painful, it makes it worse.  It is difficult, when you’re in a relationship, to see the line between protective and controlling, between ‘passionate’ and violent.  Where does ‘powerful’ turn into bullying.  Romantic literature is full of dark, brooding men who are terribly complicated and flawed and we turn them into heroes, desperately searching for the one strong capable woman who will rescue them.  In real life, knights don’t have shining armour and very few get to ride off into the sunset.

The reason men and women find themselves in abusive or destructive relationships, or remain in them, is not something I can answer.  However the statistics are horrifying.

Just last week, Parliament voted against a clause in the Children and Families Bill to introduce discussion of healthy relationships into the national curriculum. These are the same MPs who have cut funding for refuges and removed Legal Aid from people leaving abusive relationships.

Whether MPs felt that it wasn’t a real issue or that it was appropriate for schools to discuss is anybody’s guess.

For the rest of us, it is important to call it when we see it and to not look the other way.  To say, very loudly and often, that it is not OK to treat another fellow member of the public like that, especially when you are married to them.   That putting your hands to someone’s throat is not getting your point across, neither is putting your hand over their mouth playful, it’s being a violent and intimidating bully (Daily Mail link which now makes for disturbing reading for all sorts of reasons).  The fact that your partner doesn’t immediately leave you is not proof that it was OK.

It is not simply a question of teaching victims to stand up for themselves, just as teaching women how to avoid being raped reinforces myths and prejudices and puts the responsibility in the wrong place.  All too often the emphasis is on the victim, not the perpetrator.  It is not a feminist issue, it is a societal one.  Just as with racism or child abuse, standards of behaviour in society need to be crystal clear.  Boys and men must be shown, by everybody, that, no matter how rich, powerful and successful they are, violence and intimidation will not be tolerated, laughed away or swept under the carpet.  It’s not big or clever and they must be held to account.

So, even if she would rather we didn’t, we need everybody to talk about Nigella.

*** If you are worried about a friend, or indeed your own relationship, this information could be useful ***

Girls, you only have yourselves to blame. For everything.

Must try harder. It’s no secret that there aren’t enough women in the boardroom, or politics, or on TV. The reason is, we just not putting the effort in. We lack drive, confidence and ambition. What would Margaret Thatcher say? The Government are planning to send information packs to parents of teenage girls to set them straight, and fill their pretty little heads with aspirations so that some day, many years from now, they might do something worthwhile.

And yet, just a few days later, women doctors are being blamed for the crisis of the health service. Not funding cuts, not an aging population, not the ‘worried well’ but women who will insist on having children, even when they’re a doctor.

“When they go into practice and then in the normal course of events will marry and have children, they often want to go part-time and it is obviously a tremendous burden training what effectively might be two GPs working part-time where they are ladies. I think that is something that is going to put a huge burden on the health service,”

This wasn’t said by some aging Tory grandee in the House of Lords. This was said by Anne McIntosh, a female M.P. and former lawyer.

And there it is. In a nutshell.

Boys, as you were. Girls, shame on you for not having the required ambition when leaving school but wobetide you ambitious types if you want to keep your job AND see your children.

Closest you should get.

Closest you should get.

Women now, it’s true, have infinite choices and opportunities. They can work full time with no children, with children, part time or not at all. Whatever the choice, many women will ricochet between guilt, frustration and confusion as to what that choice should be, and what the rest of the world thinks of it.

It is the eternal conundrum that society needs a constant supply of healthy, educated children to grow up and pay their taxes but that, inevitably, someone needs to look after them until they get there. If you can work and take care of children, but not at the same time. Added to that the general day to day tasks which explode exponentially with children, and the “have it all” generation of women is slowly realising that they actually meant “do it all” and we’re knackered. And it’s still all our fault.

I have always been firmly of the belief that flexible working is the saving grace of modern parents. The Government would love to rely on nurseries and extend the school day and cut holidays in a bid to be ‘family friendly’, but actually, most children and parents quite like each other. A simple solution to spiralling childcare costs would be to find ways to rely on paid childcare less.

However, feminism will always have a job to do until these are no longer considered women’s issues to solve. When men, when considering parenthood, make those same choices and have those same opportunities.

I remember a conversation with some friends last year. My friend is one these evil G.P. women who only wants to kill you for part of her week, whereas her husband works long hours, often away from home. Wouldn’t it be lovely, I said, if you could both work 4 days a week instead. Same family hours worked, more even split. My male friend said “I would love to work 4 days a week but, in my situation, I couldn’t because I’d still be expected to do 5 days work in 4, and it would be career suicide.” Welcome, dear boy, welcome.

But he’s right. There is an unnecessary stigma attached to part time working and the reason is that it’s really only the women that do it. They tend to be low paid and low status, or career limiting. However, slowly, that is changing. Recruitment agencies such as Timewise Jobs are doing a lot to convince companies that high level positions can be done in less time and more efficiently. The more it is considered the norm for men to apply for these roles the less stigmatised it will become. The more men phone in to say they can’t come in because their child is sick, the less demonised all working women will become as a result.

As a society, we risk throw years of training and experience down the drain because 25 hours a week isn’t good enough, whilst forcing others to work over 50. And however much Ms McIntosh might resent maintaining the training of 2 doctors instead of one, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than starting from scratch even though they have nearly 40 years of working life left. Never mind that I might want my doctor to have some kind of empathy with me and my children.

My own career frustrations have always boiled down to the fact that I would love to be Director General of the BBC, if only it were offered as a from home, 9 til 2, term time only contract, and I’m not naïve enough to think that the country can run on us all doing 3 days weeks. However, an expectation by employers that men and women will take an equal share in family life is not a pipedream.

One of the reasons many parents (especially mothers) set up their own businesses, is that they can fix their own hours and are not subject to the 9 to 6, Monday to Friday constraints of the office. However, it is not an option open to everyone. The rest rely on employers to recognise that quality work can still be done in less time, more efficiently or not necessarily within eyesight. This is to be encouraged.

I am lucky that my husband regularly works from home, and we both often work in the evenings, after the children have gone to bed. Hopefully our sons will grow up with the assumption that it’s not just Mummy who gets their breakfast and helps with the homework (although I doubt my husband has ever woken up in a cold sweat about World Book Day).

There will always be people who say it could never happen, that businesses would never survive, but their predecessors said that about reducing the 6 day week, introducing the minimum wage and going out of their way to make sure people didn’t lose limbs at work. Government incentives to encourage homeworking, tax breaks for flexible contracts and a real investment in fibre optic broadband would cut commuting time, reduce travel costs, childcare costs and benefit far more people than the billions spent on HS2.

The alternative is that we inspire girls to achieve their wildest dreams, until they give birth when they must make a stark choice that their partners are not expected to make.

It is not the girls that need the leaflets, it’s the boys.

The Couple That Breaks Down Together

It is not an exaggeration to say that I am a car widow.  My husband loves cars, all of them.  On our first date he let slip that he could tell the model of a car by the sound of its engine (arguably I should have run then).

The current, and most longstanding, love of his life is his MG Midget.  It’s red.  He bought it shortly after we were married and there she has remained – like Camilla Parker Bowles but a little more dainty.  I’d be lying if I said that it hadn’t been the source of some tension. There is much time spent in the garage, there have been some hefty repair bills and a good deal of time pouring over eBay for the perfect accessories and baubles to demonstrate his devotion.

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Time is precious.  Like any couple with small children, things get tetchy and battle lines are drawn.  There are arguments over the bins (he says he’s the only one to take them out but that’s because he never notices when I do so I stop taking them out and then ………. ad infinitum).  I claim he loves his car more than he loves me, he claims that it’s not true but the car doesn’t whine quite so much (I beg to differ on that).  Although we spend a lot of time together, this tends to consist of eBay at one of the sofa and my blossoming relationship with Paul Hollywood and Dermot O’Leary at the other.

We decided that a little compromise was needed.  He arranged a weekend away involving a night in a lovely hotel followed by the Arden MG Club Heritage drive to Shelsey Walsh Hill Climb.  I offered to arrange a reciprocal weekend of afternoon tea and baking demonstations but he declared I was being churlish.  We used to do this all the time – before we had children.  We had a working knowledge of the best Alastair Sawday had to offer. Sunday mornings were spent in bed listening to The Archers and reading the paper, rather than swimming lessons and washing.

Favourite cousins were drafted in to babysit, overnight bag was packed and off we drove into the sunset.

We arrived at the Wood Norton Hotel, Evesham.  It’s a beautiful building with a sweeping gravel drive.  It had everything I look for in a hotel: elegant yet quirky upholstery and wood panelling as far as the eye can see.  The room itself was glorious.  The bathroom was one of those glass cubes built behind the bed with a shower so unbelievably good that I almost flooded the bathroom.  The high bed required a slight leap to get onto it, and the bedlinen was pure and white and lovely.  I was a 4 year old in a Lego shop, with a copy of The Observer.

My husband was equally thrilled with the Heritage run.  The mass gathering of classic cars is always a fine sight.  That feeling of mutual admiration as men nod appreciatively at each other and ask random questions that I don’t understand.  There was an impressive display of Wicker picnic baskets strapped to the boot.

We set off, more or less in convoy through the Worcestershire countryside, tulip diagram in hand.  The sun was shining, the roof was down and small children waved excitedly as we passed through dainty villages.  I was suddenly reminded that once upon a time I loved this car – its dials, and switches and lovingly crafted labels, as it trundles along just a little too close to the ground.  I also realised I had forgotten that I used to love how much my husband loved this car, and how happy it made him.  We didn’t have The Archers and I’d completely forgotten about the whole hair issue but, apart from that, it was a perfect summer’s day.

Then about 5 miles from our destination, the clutch started to jam.  This was not going to go well.  With some brute force, we managed another couple of miles but then everything gave way.  The clutch, the battery, our dignity all lay broken half way up a particularly troublesome hill.  Luckily, we were not short of flat capped volunteers to push us into a nearby car park.

Now at this point I should mention that the last time we broke down in one of my husband’s “cars” was over 10 years ago in a rally-prepared Hillman Imp that my husband had bought by mistake.  We broke down at 11pm on the M1 in -3 conditions with an expired RAC membership.  We returned home at 4am with mild hypothermia and an even frostier relationship.

However today, it would seem that the sun did shine on the righteous after all.  As luck would have it, we had arrived slap bang in the middle of Stanford on Teme’s village Bake-Off competition; Cake and The Archers would not allude us after all.

We were greeted by a raffish chap in a tweed shirt who owned a battered Triumph TR6.  More Kenton that Matt Crawford, he commiserated enthusiastically.  After phoning the RAC, we were handed 2 glasses of wine by a cheery man who joked about us being here to buy the £10m manor house, currently up for sale.  The baking prizes were announced and someone else promptly gave us more wine and ushered us towards a rather lovely lunch and our choice of cake.  The raffish chap’s 4 year old daughter sat with us with an opening gambit of  “my Daddy said he made the pie but he didn’t, he bought it from the farm shop”.  We were given more wine, politely lost the raffle and had an animated chat with the local landlord about the plight of the British music festival.

Everybody was so friendly and genuinely kind.  I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon, apart from maybe returning in two weeks for the duck race.  My husband was consumed with a mixture disappointment that we never made it to the hill climb, and suspicion that I’d somehow engineered the whole thing.

And so we returned, to happy exhausted children.  The £4 replacement seal has been ordered and I’ve emptied the bins.

Next year, we’ll make it to the hill – honest.

Time, which is all we have

Life has been busy recently and there has been little time for writing.  There has been a wealth of material ….. Thatcher, Katie Hopkins, Michael Gove.  All the usual suspects.  However something has happened this week which has stopped me in my tracks.

A friend of mine died.   We were not close, and indeed hadn’t seen each other for nearly two decades.  However we were classmates all through high school and, through the modern wonders of Facebook, had got back in touch.  We commented on each other’s lives, shared jokes and admired each other’s children.  Her updates were always positive (not like my cynical old gripes).  They weren’t boastful or showy – just contented and grateful for her life and her family.  Her love for her children, family and pupils was clear to see. On Tuesday, her status said that she had enjoyed a lovely day in the sun.  Yesterday, it was updated to say that she had died.

She had a good heart, better than most.  My fondest memory of her is trekking up a mountain in Wales on a school trip, as I told her an elaborate tale of how they mined Kendall Mint Cake in the Lake District.  She was so good-natured, I have no idea whether she was just humouring me or did actually believe me; she did get me up that mountain though.  And she played the piano beautifully, in that way that only those who really can do, playing it without thinking or realising that their fingers are moving.

And now she’s gone.

There has been a kind of numbness amongst us.  All our stresses have suddenly paled into insignificance out of respect for the overwhelming grief her family is facing.  It has caused us all to stop and take a moment.

I have spent some time this morning reading my end of sixth form notebook, which everybody had signed.  We went to a girls’ Grammar school at a time when we were all expected to save the world single-handedly, leaving men trembling in our wake.  Every entry is full of hope & bravado, bordering on  arrogance, for everything we were going to achieve, all the places we were going to see.

She wrote.

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As explanation, I should point out that we applied together, and neither of us got in. She was far more philosophical about it than I was.

I am not Chancellor of the Exchequer (although there’s still time).  Like so many of my classmates, I am a mother, juggling everyday tasks, work and family.  I live half a mile from where I started.  Very few of us have saved the world.  However she is right, none of it has made a mile of difference.   On the whole, we have normal happy lives full of normal happy things which we take for granted on a daily basis.  We complain of missed opportunities, misfortunes and injustices but most of them are anything but.  Marie has made a massive difference to her pupils, friends and her family.

On the last page is a quote from Ernest Hemingway, written by Mr Hartley, our Latin teacher.  Given our girl-power credentials, feel free to replace the ‘he’ with ‘she’

It reads:

There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and Time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring.  They are the very simplest things but, because it takes a man’s life to know them, the little new that each man gets from life is very precious, and the only heritage he has to leave.

I think Marie has left us all a great deal.

Philpott – Why we’re still looking in the wrong place

Mick Philpott is a nasty little man.  An idiot, but a nasty idiot nonetheless.  One who will be spending the next 15 years, at least, in prison.  I have watched enough crime documentaries in my time to realise that this is no criminal mastermind.  And yet the story has received more coverage than any crime of recent times.

In essence, The Philpott media story is of a man, subsidised by the state, who controlled the people in his life for his own ends, with horrific consequences for his own family.  That isn’t particularly unusual.

Six children have tragically lost their lives, but that is not what is making the news.

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What is making the news is how Mick Philpott spent his life, and how he came by the money that he lived on.  The conversation has now shifted to how the popular press are covering how he spent his life and how he came by the money that he lived on.

Once again, just like in the Savile case, politicians and influencers are using the suffering of children as ammunition in their own self-interested battles.  Now George Osbourne wants a go.

However those six children remain dead and the discussion is in the wrong place.

Cases like this happen all of the time, and they will continue to happen.  Look at how the Daily Mail reported the case of Christopher Foster.  He was a millionaire who set fire to his house, killing his wife Jill and daughter Kirstie, because he was in danger of losing his fortune.

Here was a ‘striver’.  A man who had worked his way up from nothing to achieve vast riches, a product of the capitalist, entrepreneurial system.  And therefore the story is pitched a little differently. We are supposed to feel pity for this man, or at least a deal of understanding.

 “The position of his body suggests to Enid and others his motive was one of love  -  trying to protect Jill from the humiliation of his financial troubles.”

And he actually meant to do it.

“But Foster’s impending financial ruin makes his actions consistent with a man who would sooner murder his own loved ones than endure the shame of penury.”

Not poverty you notice, but the loss of the ridiculously, disproportionately extravagant riches he had been enjoying until that point.

The unifying theme in these two cases, like so many others like them, is one of control.  A man’s need to control the the world around him, and particularly the women in his life.

I have no idea what went on inside Philpott’s idiotic little head but I doubt the loss of the £1,000 in benefits that he was losing was the real issue.  It was the loss of control over a woman who had the audacity to leave him.  It was the need to punish her, a need so strong that he didn’t give his children a second thought.  He didn’t want them to die – he just thought that he had control over everything, even fire.

The chances are there will always be people like Christopher Foster and Mick Philpott, just like there will always be men like Savile.  It isn’t the welfare system that creates them, or Jeremy Kyle.  The world is full of nasty little people.

But actually Philpott would be not be a story without the women in his life, to skivvy for him, to give birth and look after his children.  He’d be a loud old man in a pub corner.  It was the women who received the majority of the benefits, even though both did also go out to work.  Their wages and benefits that they and their children were entitled to, were paid directly to him.

It’s difficult to feel sympathy for Mairead Philpott.  Any woman who can put her own children in such mortal danger is difficult to comprehend.  Why she would go through with it, why she would cover it up?

It is difficult to understand why a woman would ‘be prepared to go to any lengths, however humiliating, to keep him happy’.  This included allowing another woman to share her husband and have his children.  It’s very easy for me, as a privileged woman, to say how could you!

However, that is the trouble with controlling and abusive relationships.  All of his relationships were abusive, and the judge’s sentencing remarks make for chilling reading.  This is a man who had already been in prison for viciously stabbing a partner who left him and who abused every woman he was with.  People find it all too easy to sit in judgement, to ask why people didn’t leave, or speak up or complain.  The argument goes round in circles.  People ask why vulnerable people (usually women) don’t speak up, don’t say no, don’t get out.  Then, if they do, no one cares, no one believes them, or they have nowhere to go.

It is no surprise that all the women involved were in their teens when they got involved with Philpott; vulnerable and with few options in life.  It’s not an excuse.  It’s not to say that, today, standing in the dock, she deserves sympathy.  However in countless places around the country, there are teenage girls entering into similar relationships and few of them will end well.

To nick Tom Stoppard, ‘There must have been a moment, when we could have said no, but we missed it”.   And we will keep missing it.

If you look around you, there are still high street shops selling T-shirts making light of domestic violence.  Look at the Rochdale case, and the ‘lifestyle choices’ young girls were accused of.

One of the largest group suffering in abusive relationships are teenagers and single young people in need of a home receive no help, often with only the Mick Philpotts of this world to turn to.

He does need you love, but you don't need him.

He does need you love, but you don’t need him.

Young girls listen to Rhianna standing by her man and think that it’s OK. Controlling and abusive men are romanticised into misunderstood heroes.

We still have an education system where your success owes a lot to the sharpness of your parents’ elbows, leaving those with a rough start even worse off.  Sure Start centres have been closed down and women’s refuges are full and under funded, leaving abused women and children in dire situations with fewer and fewer choices.

I don’t have the answers, but I know they won’t be found by using the tragic death of six children as an excuse to make people poorer, with fewer choices and opportunities.

In the same week that the Government has cut benefit payments, is discussing cutting the minimum wage, has withdrawn legal aid for those seeking divorce or leaving abusive relationships, it’s probably time we put a stop to powerful men, determined to get their own way, doing irreparable damage to the very people they claim, on television at least, to care for.

Like I said, there’s a lot of them about.

Childcare again – because it still makes no sense

Today was another day for shouting at the radio, and then shouting on the radio.

At last the Government has unveiled its plans for financial help for working parents.  It has been months in the planning and the subject of bitter negotiation (apparently).  All are delighted an agreement has been reached.  I shall dig out the bunting.

Cheers Dave!

Cheers Dave!

It was heralded as a major boost to ‘hardworking families’.

However, on closer inspection, all is not what it seems.  It seems that this is yet another ill thought out policy which ticks a box on the To Do list without actually giving any thought to how it will work out there on the coal face (where all those hard working families live).

To look at the maths.  Working parents will, from 2015, be allowed to claim back 20% of childcare costs up to £6,000.  Under the current system, parents can receive employer vouchers which are exempt from tax.  This means, in reality, a 32% saving on the first £243 a month, or £486 if both parents work.  This is about £1,800 saving on a cost of £5,800.  Most parents’ costs are far greater than this, but there you have it.

The new system will give a £1,200 saving on £6,000.  It’s less, but it will be per child.  So a family with 2 children will save £2,400 etc.

However, there are flaws and anomalies which cause the policy to make no sense, or at least, penalise as many families as it helps.

It doesn’t come in until after the next election, which is quite frankly no good to anyone.

It is only payable if BOTH parents work.  “But why would you need childcare if one parent doesn’t work?”  I hear you cry.  Well, maybe one parent has lost their job and is looking for work, but doesn’t want to lose a childcare place.  Maybe, one parent has been at home looking after children for some time and now needs childcare to retrain, or gain some qualifications, or work experience.  Under current regulations, the working parent would be able to receive vouchers to cover childcare costs.  Under the new system, they will get nothing.

Never mind the fact that it is also yet another policy that completely undermines the concept of Independent taxation.

Secondly, it will begin by only being applicable to those children under 5.  At the moment, childcare vouchers are available up until the age of 15.  Therefore every parent who currently uses childcare vouchers to pay for before and afterschool care, holiday clubs etc. will now receive no help.  It has been said that it will ‘expand’ to cover children up to 12 but no timescale has been given.

Single parents will benefit, and that is a positive result (just don’t tell The Daily Mail).  The only other beneficiaries will be working couples with two or more children under 5.  Everyone else will be worse off.

I’m known for my cynicism but I can’t help feeling that the Government has another agenda here.  It does nothing to tackle the underlying problem of soaring childcare costs.  It gives another excuse to trot out the rhetoric of hard working families and rewarding strife, whilst taking money out of the back pocket while they’re talking, hoping that no-one will notice.

However, I’m someone who’s all about the solutions not the problems, so here is my own little mini budget-recommendations.

  1. Increase the threshold of current voucher scheme to a realistic level and incentivise employers to register for schemes, including help for small businesses.
  2. Don’t bother introducing vouchers for the self-employed.  Just allow them to write it on the their tax return.

There, done.

But more important than that, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the Government’s, and society’s attitudes towards parents, especially those who work.  Accept the reality that, as an economy, we need people to be in work and we need people to raise educated and capable children.  Current thinking in the press and politics at large, is that parents are a burden on employers and the state and should be begrudgingly endured.  I know I shouldn’t read the Mail Online comments but I tire of comments along the lines of ‘you had children, why should we help you pay for them’.  Well because basic economics will tell you that the economy needs people to spend money if it is ever going to recover, and there is no group in society more easily parted with ready cash than parents.  They just don’t have very much left these days.  And because working parents and their children will be paying for your pensions love, and your winter fuel allowance, and your NHS care when that hip finally gives up the ghost.

What would be revolutionary is a culture that reduced the need for paid for childcare, rather than pitting generations against each other.  An expansion of flexible working for men as well as women, including incentives for more school hours, term time only contracts; affordable housing and a decent transport system which cuts down on commuting time; an investment in technology that promotes the ability to work from home.

Now there’s an idea.

Now We Are Four – party like you mean it

My youngest son is now 4.

In the words of Vinnie Jones, ‘It’s been emotional’.

On reflection, this momentous occasion seemed to propel me into some sort of maniacal frenzy which almost led to my unravelling.  I have no idea why.  I would love to think it was born out of the overwhelming desire to make my child happy and give him the birthday of his dreams but the jury’s still out.

I decided that, being 4, he needed a party.  I conveniently forgot the fact that he doesn’t like parties; blocked out that I’ve had to unpeel his fingers from the car door and coax him from my knee at every birthday party he’s ever been to.

A party he shall have.

I considered a local soft play centre but then remembered that they are hell on earth.  As my nearly 7 year old headed off to Laser Quest, it occurred to me that the ‘Pass the Parcel era’ is all too fleeting.  One minute they’re crushing Organix crisps into the carpet and the next they’re demanding bowling and a sleepover.  No, keep the music playing as long as possible and go old school church hall.

15 children, a musical statue, a sandwich and a balloon.  What more could a child ask!

It was to be a Batman party.  He loves Batman, it would be great.  I began to see the cracks however when he began vetoing the invitation list on the grounds that they didn’t own a Batman costume.  Superman, Spiderman, Buzz Lightyear would not be tolerated.  Only Batman would be allowed.  This could spell trouble.  I had a vision of him standing at the door, like a tiny sullen bouncer sending pint sized superheroes on their way.

Never mind, the excitement of the day will overshadow his draconian dress code and all will be well.

To the cake.  I had decided to make a Gotham City cake and also some jaunty POW iced biscuits for the party bag.  I’d seen them on Pinterest – how hard could they be?  And so began the baking frenzy. There was something strangely satisfying about lovingly distributing blood red icing with a tooth pick whilst watching Silent Witness on iPlayer.  Emilia Fox may dissect a good body but she has nothing on me with a piping bag.

The following day I proudly showed my son my triumph; his eternal awe and gratitude would be mine.  ‘I hate it’ he said ‘I wanted a bat cave and I don’t like biscuits’.

Holy Sandwich Tins!

Holy Sandwich Tins!

This was not going well.

When party day arrived, things were not much better.  He didn’t want to go, declared he would prefer to stay at home, claimed to dislike all of his friends and still would like me to conjur up a bat cave cake.  I put my head down and ferociously cut Batman shaped sandwiches.

My husband grew ever more bewildered.  He followed instructions well enough but they were all met with a slight shaking of the head and a ‘why are you doing this again?’

The actual party was OK.  He refused to greet his guests or receive the presents but he warmed up soon enough.  Everyone else seemed to have a lovely time bashing each other over the head with balloons.  The only real protest was when he refused to play pass the parcel until the very last layer, at which point he joined in and objected loudly when he didn’t win.

But all in all, parcels were passed, candles were blown, party bags distributed and we all escaped unscathed, with only a few emotional bruises.

It’s only now that I realise that this is in fact the joy of being 4.  The ability to tell it exactly as it is.  Of course he didn’t want a party; of course he wanted a Bat Cave.  My motivation probably ranged from guilt, through peer pressure to a disturbing need to store up some emotional blackmail when he announces he’s not coming home for Christmas is 20 years time “I made you a Gotham City cake you ungrateful oik!”

From here on in, we teach our children to manage disappointment with politeness and grace, to be aware of other people’s feelings and expectations, to ‘be nice’.

But, at 4 years old, just for a brief and shining moment, it really should be all about them.  It’s their party and they really can cry if they want to.

*** I would like to add that I am writing this as a diversionary tactic in order to delay sorting out the thank you notes, which in due course will bring on more guilt and self-flagellation ***

Childcare: No parent is asking for less attention, however good at fractions.

***Update***  In the months since writing this post, following the announcement of the reforms to childcare ratios, there has been almost universal opposition to the proposals. It has even caused the online parenting sworn enemies Mumsnet and Netmums to join forces.   Mumsnet invited Childcare Minister Liz Truss to take part in a webchat.  Due to massive opposition across the Mumsnet boards – in multiple threads as well as on the webchat – they are now backing the “Rewind on Ratios” campaign led by the Pre-school Learning Alliance. If you’re against the changes, sign the petition and share the link. ***here endeth the update***

This was originally posted on January 29th 2013.

Shouting at the radio is part of my normal morning routine.  It waxes and wanes through outrage and indignation into resignation and despair.

The present Government provides ample ammunition.  Sometimes, I think they are doing it on purpose.   Whether they’re dismantling the NHS or trying to build a train line through my favourite pub garden.  This morning’s announcement on childcare reform was enough to snap me, whiplash like, from despair straight back to incredulity.

Apparently this Government understands the problems childcare can bring.  Apparently it understands the needs of modern families.  However, I strongly suspect that their experience of childcare headaches involves trying to find a nanny who’ll fly economy with the kids.  I am willing to put good money that none of them have ever attempted to take care of 6 two year olds.

It is a policy born out of think tanks and workshops.   You can picture the away day with them all wearing their party hats and coming up with the next radical solution.  Except that they forget that these are numbers, or budgets, or P&L lines, these are children whose parents, on the whole, actually quite like them and want the best for them.  It is the same process which revolutionised school dinners, making them suddenly cheaper and more efficient on paper, without anyone giving a thought to what was actually in them.

thick_of_it_4-3

I have used a variety of childcare over the years.  When I first returned to work, still living in London, my eldest son went to a fairly low cost (i.e. only slightly crippling), friendly kind of nursery in an old church hall with ridiculously cheap rent and kind, warmhearted staff.  Sadly, after a while the church decided that the rent was indeed ridiculously cheap, changed its mind and the nursery closed.  He then went to a far bigger and more expensive ‘chain’ nursery that cost more than half my salary, look very professional but had massively high staff turnover and an incompetent manager.  That was the only choice I had if I wanted to work.

When son number 2 came along, now out of London, we decided that he was a little more sensitive than his older brother and a nursery didn’t seem right for him.  We found a wonderful childminder nearby who he has now been with for over 3 years.

I had all of the angst, guilt and hand wringing about each and every choice.  Although cost was a consideration, it was never just a numbers game.  Never, at any point, when collecting the children or paying the bills did I think ‘if only there were more children here’.

However it would appear that this is the answer to the nation’s childcare woes.  Not cheaper rents, not Government subsidy, not investment in training, not more tax relief. No, let’s give childcare workers more children to look after.  It’ll be fine though, because they’ll have been on a course and have a maths GCSE.

My childminder is amazing in her ability to calm toddlers and get them all to move in the same direction (a skill that eludes me) but even she would struggle to ever leave the house with 6 of them.  I don’t actually think the Government understand childminding at all – why parents choose them or how they work. I genuinely think they are confused as to why people don’t just get a nanny.

So really, the new rules are only practical when applied to nurseries – but even then they make no sense.  The reforms aim to reduce costs and raise the quality and pay of staff.  It can’t easily do both.

I find it very difficult to believe that nursery fees will go down significantly.  Staff will command more pay for having more qualifications to look after more children but the costs will stay the same.  And even then, all the GCSE’s in the world are still going to leave you with one pair of eyes, arms and one lap to sit on.  Parents want to know that their child will be loved, and cared for, and attended to.  I can think of no parent who would believe this represented better care for their toddler.

What I suspect it will do is raise the profits of private nurseries, with little being passed on to parents.  I fully expect to see a rise in ‘gold star’ nurseries which proudly display their child ratios in their glossy prospectus, and have the fees to match.  Like the private school system which shout their small class sizes from the rooftops, the gap between what people can afford will grow ever wider.

For the rest, they will have the existing safeguards removed and be forced to choose the only childcare they can afford, which is now worse than it once was.  It is a difficult decision at the best of times to decide to leave your children with someone else.  For many, with crippling house prices and rising bills, they don’t even have a choice.

There are countless other ways to reduce the cost of childcare without compromising safety or quality.  It doesn’t feel like these have ever really been on the agenda.

For a government that claims to know the dilemmas that families face, it is seems an odd move.

I’ll admit, it’s not their oddest, but that’s no excuse.

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