Do You Love Me? The 9 year old’s guide to teenage angst.

It's Not Your FaultLately I have been reliving my teenage years, in a way that only a woman turning 40 can. I’ve started drinking cider again for a start.

I feel the need to mention that I also went to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. Not only was this a welcome return to my life before children, it is also the play I studied for A level English, so is guaranteed to transport me back to self-indulgent melancholy.

The opening scene (thank God they’d moved To Be Or Not To Be back to roughly where it’s meant to be) saw Hamlet, in full teenage angst, listening to records in his bedroom. Although it was Nat King Cole rather than Nick Cave, we all knew how he felt.

This regression had also been sparked by the startling new research that Goths are more likely to be depressed. This led to much mirth and mutterings that people get paid to do this sort of thing. Now whilst not a full blown goth, I did have one of those tassled skirts and had a fondness for wearing purple and amplifying my paleness. And I did love a bit of teenage angst. Nothing too dramatic you understand but a general “Noone understands me, you just don’t know what I’m going through” kind of thing; I wrote some truly terrible poems. Obviously on the surface I was relatively perky and functional but this was only a symptom of just how terribly complicated I really was and only added to my tragic isolation. Noone even noticed.

This all came hot on the heels of a difficult week. My 9 year old had been something of an uphill struggle. Tired from returning to school, frustrated that we wanted him to eat vegetables and have a shower, all of the wheels had fallen off and we were witness to some extraordinary displays of pre-teen emotion.

He was a temperamental horse refusing every fence. It’s difficult to know what to do with his melancholy when he’s refusing to eat or calmly rearranging furniture or throwing things down the stairs – more in defiance than temper.   So much so that I was slightly concerned that half way through the Act II I’d heckle Cumberbatch to get a bloody grip and be nicer to his mother.

I think back to myself at that age and how I would never have dared to behave in such a way to my parents. This was the 80s and such things were not done in my house. But then Dear God I wanted to, all of that frustration and outrage festering away with nowhere to go.

My son is amazing (obviously) in many ways. He can be effortlessly charming when he feels like it, persuading even the most reluctant souls that something is a great idea. He is kind and has a fierce sense of justice. He is fearless and thrill seeking and is able to judge things instinctively, often in mid-flight. He’s not a model student by any means, but he is sharp. He has a logic which causes him to pick holes in everything. He won’t accept things blindly but constantly needs to try it out for himself to see if there is a better way.

These are all the things that make him wonderful, but also make you, on occasion, want to get him in a headlock and scrub his head. He’s an awkward bugger and will argue black is white (I don’t know where he gets it from). He always thinks he knows better, often ignores what you tell him. He rarely seems to look for approval. I have often said my parenting manual will be called ‘Kids Who Don’t Give A Fuck About Stickers. He is hardly ever still or quiet and we are often exasperated.

What was difficult was that, with this ill-temper, came his constant insistence that we don’t love him, that we prefer his younger brother and that he has no place in the family. He packed a case and announced he was leaving!

As a parent this is hard to hear. I cannot imagine ever being able to love my children more fiercely than I do. There is no obvious reason for him thinking that we prefer the other one. Admittedly, he does suck up to us a bit more. He can turn on the soulful eyes when required and is a little more, shall we say, straightforward. He fills the niche left by his older brother and as a result is largely careful and diligent. He has his own brand of stubbornness but it tends to be a little less confrontational – you may read that as ‘doesn’t send me into quite such a rage’.

There is something which makes my first born feel that it is his very nature that we’re objecting to, rather than the leaping over furniture.  That the things we find frustrating are so wrapped up in who he is, that there is nothing to be done. Compare this to his brother who simply doesn’t like wearing trousers.

I had to explain that actually feeling like you don’t belong isn’t always a bad thing. Some of the greatest people felt a bit different to those around them – the key is to find other people who feel that way too and stick together.   There is nothing that he could do that would make us not love him. “Even if I murdered someone?” “Well, I admit we’d be disappointed but yes, even if you murdered someone”. He then decided that this was brilliant as this meant he could do what he liked. We pointed out that although we will always love him, the things he does can still make us angry, or sad, or proud, or excited – and he gets to choose which one, and so do we.

There have been consequences to it all, but on the understanding that it is because we love him, not because we don’t, that we have a responsibility to turn him into a civilized human being – one that washes and eats brocolli.

And then it occurred to me that all of this is just practice. Just like rollercoasters practice danger, and ghost stories practice fear, all this drama is just practicing loneliness, practicing sadness, testing how far you can push people before they tell you to bugger off. All my teenage angst, far from making me depressed, gave me a jolly good rehearsal for the times when genuine sadness, grief and loneliness struck. Life might be rubbish but there is a comfort in melancholy because you know the drill. Tori Amos and that bit about the “too too sullied flesh” will make you at least feel like you’re in good company.

In the end, all you can do as a parent is keep telling them that you do love them. Over and over again. I was reminded of that bit in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams keeps telling Matt Damon that it’s not his fault until he eventually cracked.

It’s easy to take it for granted that our children know that we love them, but no harm can come for telling them as often as possible, even when we feel like it the least. And that we love them because of the annoying bits, not despite them. They need the chance to have a go at being angry and misunderstood in the comfort of their own home, before they try unleashing it onto the big wide world.

Sometimes, I think that might be asking a bit too much of everyone but we can only do our best.

Please can someone pass me the cider.

50 Shades of Laundry: In Defence of Christian Grey

fifty_shades_of_grey_lego_trailer_stillAmongst the hype, the Lego and the dubious marketing efforts, there’s a growing backlash against 50 Shades of Grey

A campaign #50DollarsNot50Shades has been launched encouraging people to boycott the film and donate to domestic violence charities instead. Pressure groups and websites I usually support have got on board, arranging cinema protest and inspiring numerous newspaper columns.

However I have to say I disagree and, like a knight in shining armour, feel the need to defend Ana and Christian from their critics.

I liked it. There.  I’m not proud.

Now I love a bit of intellectual sneering as much as the next person. I will be the first to admit that they are not good.  However, this is pornography. And just as you don’t hear many men lamenting that Debbie Does Dallas lacks the cinematography of Citizen Kane, I’m not quite sure you can judge this by the same standards as literature.

It’s a clunky, clichéd ‘colour by numbers’ approach to fiction. She is always inexplicably banging on about her subconscious and really needs to give the whole Inner Goddess thing a rest. There’s a bewildering obsession about his trousers being on his hips (I’m not sure where she thinks other men wear theirs).

I’m also not the target market for this sort of thing. Despite my carefree exterior I am remarkably prudish. My favourite film is Brief Encounter and I’d far rather my heroine’s had soot in their eye than bodily fluids.   I’m also embarrassed by any direct mention of intimate body parts and immediately transported into a Victoria Wood sketch and the moment is lost.

That aside, I do think the critics of 50 Shades are missing the point. Their argument is that it romanticises abusive relationships and encourages naïve or vulnerable women into coercive or controlling relationships.

50 Shades is a sexual fantasy. More than that, it is a fantasy written by a woman, directed by a woman, for women. It is possibly the first example of mass market mainstream pornography aimed solely at women. It is unlikely to be the fantasy of anyone who has survived an abusive relationship or been assaulted and I accept that it can trigger a lot of painful issues for many people. I am not someone who believes that everything a woman does must, by nature, be feminist and should be supported.

However I do feel incredibly uncomfortable that groups of women are taking the internet to tell another group of women that whatever fantasies they may have or enjoy are wrong.

For crying out loud it’s been a long journey of sexual liberation to get to this point and women are already carrying enough guilt around with them without making them feel that they are responsible for the domestic abuse and rape of other women.

Fantasy is by its very nature an indulgence in what we don’t have. These stories have always existed. Growing up, my romantic ideals were a bizarre combination of Heathcliff, Sean Bean in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Father Ralph with a few Lost Boys thrown in. Christian Grey is not really my type (too weasely) but I must confess that my feelings towards Oliver Reed’s Bill Sykes are so against my feminist principles that I can no longer watch.

It’s also a ludicrously unrealistic portrayal of abuse. Christian Grey practically wears an ‘I’m an abuser’ T shirt with flashing lights, bears physical scars of his own troubled past and makes her sign a contract fairly early on to essentially agree to be abused.

Real life abuse is, in stark contrast, marked by its mundanity. They don’t start out abusive. They begin as doting, charming, loving with the gentle erosion of self-confidence and self-esteem. Often the victim doesn’t even realise what’s happening and when she does, by then it’s too confusing or frightening to leave.  The painfully slow storyline between Helen Archer and Rob Titchener is a far more realistic portrayal.

Men rape women, men abuse women and men control women. It’s a message that groups such as Everyday Victim Blaming constantly reinforce.  I find it hard that the focus is then on women for being complicit in the culture of abuse rather than the perpetrators.

Far better to concentrate on male culture. I am partial to the odd thriller but even I have grown increasingly uncomfortable at the level of casual, sadistic violence against women. Tombstone, Liam Neeson’s latest outing, follows the standard ‘anonymous pretty girl in peril’ format with mutilation and torture scenes that are shocking simply due to their normality. I would argue that this has a far greater influence over its largely male audience and their likelihood for contempt towards women.

All this gives the film more importance that it needs.

Surf_Liquid_546816-885441In reality, 50 Shades of Grey is really just a film about washing. I was greatly alarmed and amused to see Surf’s Limited Edition 50 Shades washing powder, complete with handcuffs, but actually it makes perfect sense.

It has become such a massive phenomenon because most of us are just knackered. It would never have been successful 30 years ago. I read a Jackie Collins as a teenager, and from what I remember there were a lot of power suits, high flying dominatrix kind of women wearing stockings and no knickers. However these days most women have tried that (maybe not the no knickers bit) and realised it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

What 50 Shades represents is not a consensual BDSM relationship but a total lack of decision.

I am married with 2 children trying to run my own business and remain vaguely interesting. My days are made up of endless decisions, logistics, and calculations that leave me exhausted by the end of the day. It’s not the manual toil, but the mental processes that are overwhelming.

A story where the central character has no autonomy and is required to make no decisions whatsoever is remarkably appealing.

I read 50 Shades a couple of years ago but the bits that stayed with me were not the sex. They were

  1. That scene where she wakes up in VERY expensive sheets to find that the clothes that she’d left on the floor in passionate abandon had been washed, ironed and put away for her and there were some new ones that had miraculously appeared.
  2. There was always food in the fridge, ready prepared just needing to be taken out and eaten.
  3. He buys her a car. She did not consult a single Which report on safety or fuel economy.
  4. She wasn’t even expected to park the bloody thing.
  5. There’s a whole section on her being really tired from all the sex and then having a really long sleep.

Now I have been with my husband for 20 years. I genuinely have no need for a handsome multi-millionaire with a sex dungeon and a large chopper (snarf snarf). However, we often get to 6 o’clock and realize there is nothing to eat. It took a long time to decide what colour to paint the hall. The nights when I’m exhausted from a night of non-stop sex (kinky or otherwise) are arguably less frequent but last week I was awoken at 3am to discover my 5 year old got into my bed and weed all over me.

So actually if you want to spend 30 minutes in the bath reading about total subjugation knock yourself out …. before you get out, realise there are no clean towels and go downstairs to help your husband look for his keys.

I would love to hear your views and this is in no way an attempt to take away from the incredible work that charities such as Women’s Aid do.  Therefore I have and would encourage everyone who does decide to see the film to still make a donation.

Ched Evans: A criminal who could once kick a ball.

ched evansIt was a rainy night in Soho.   I was a 19 year old student and, separated from my friends, found myself alone in Piccadilly Circus at 2am. I had been drinking quite a bit and had not taken a coat. I had only just moved into my new student house and, although armed with my trusty 1-4 travel card, I hadn’t a clue how to get home. I started to panic and was more than a little bit tearful. A man started walking alongside and chatting to me. His name was Norman. I explained I was a bit drunk, a bit upset and didn’t know how to get home. He told me to follow him. He took me round a corner and down more than a couple of side streets to a taxi rank. A car pulled up outside. He opened the door for me and I got in. Then he turned the driver, gave him a £20 note and said “She lives in Kentish Town, can you take her home?”

In the past 20 years I’ve often thought of Norman and the night that didn’t change my life; the night where nothing happened.

The Ched Evans case made me think about it again. This week he was released after serving half of his sentence for the rape of 19 year old girl. He has issued a statement apologising to his girlfriend, not the victim you understand. All debate now turns to whether or not he should be allowed to professional football play again.

A lot of the comments and opinions spouted have made me feel more than a little nauseous, not to mention news that Evans is fast tracking his appeal.  The vehemence of those defending him is astounding.

It’s no secret that I hate football, or more specifically, hate more than a few footballers. It pains me that my youngest son loved the World Cup so much. I hate the thought that he might hold any number of overpaid, entitled, self-serving morons up in any kind of high regard.

I get that it’s not just kicking a ball around a field, football is supposed to mean something. That’s why, as an entertainment business, it is worth so much. Fans are obliged to put their hearts and souls into these players, encourage their children to don their names on their backs and care whether the ball goes in or not. Personally I recommend their criminal convictions are added as a category on the Panini sticker captions but this is unlikely.

It’s not even about the technicalities of a criminal conviction, or of the definition of rehabilitation. It’s just about common decency. And so it came to pass that, during the World Cup, our breakfast conversation was ‘What would happen if I was Luis Suarez’s Mummy?’ and then, weeks later I had to explain a) why he was still allowed to play and b) why one of my son’s friends still wore Suarez’s name on his shirt. Why I had to explain why I wouldn’t allow John Terry’s picture on a wall.

Evans doesn’t deny what happened. The only thing which is disputed is whether she was drunk enough for it to technically counts as rape. Here Evans’ defenders fall over themselves to come up with reasons why it wasn’t, attacking the victim and launching campaigns to say why actually turning up to a hotel room to watch your friend have sex with a drunk stranger and then ‘having a go’ yourself is all perfectly normal.  OK he might be in the dog house with the Misses but move along, nothing to see here..

The fact of the matter is that we, yes even Judy Finnegan, still have such an appalling attitude to sexual crime that we fall over ourselves to prove that it wasn’t the fault of the accused. The trailer for the Moral Maze today, that bastion of reasoned debate, belied just how warped our attitude is. We don’t treat it as the violent crime that it is.  We assume that the girl must have ‘asked for it’ in some way. She was drunk, she was chatty, she led him on, she was walking home alone. It is easier to explain it away than look at the real cause.

Rape is not about sex, but about power and entitlement. It is about man categorizing women as lesser beings, as disposable and there to be taken. The inference in the victim blaming that goes on is one of ‘we’ve all been there mate, could have happened to anyone’ If it had been a man who had been raped in similar circumstances no one would be arguing that he only had himself to blame.

That is the reason why Evans can never play again. This has nothing to do with rehabilitation. Football clubs have a responsibility to represent more than just passing a ball around. Just as Gary Glitter doesn’t get much airplay these days, and Rolf is unlikely to reappear on Animal Hospital this side of Christmas. I’m not even going to get into Pistorius. Any kind of professional, lawyer, doctor, teacher, CEO would not have had their seat kept warm for them whilst they served their sentence. These are not the kinds of people that we want to hold up in high regard, sentence served or not, no matter what their talents.

I spend my life trying to teach my children to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. I do not teach them that if you try hard enough you will be elevated to such a position where ‘the right thing’, let alone the law, no longer applies to you. Nor do I want them to think that it is up to others to protect themselves from their violent behaviour, rather than to just treat people well in the first place.

As always, with great power comes great responsibility, and that responsibility to be a decent human being should be a prerequisite for being allowed to be paid millions to walk out in front of a crowd.

If I’m looking for role models for my children, I think I’ll stick with Norman.

Clarkson, go home

Dear Jeremy, or may I call you Jezza

ImageYou and I actually have a lot in common.   Apart from the fact that my husband quite likes both of us (actually possibly you more than me), we both come from relatively small towns. We both had working class parents who worked hard and did quite well for themselves. We were both relatively clever and so left to seek our fame and fortune in the big bad world.

I, unlike you, actually returned to the town of my childhood, the town where you, the voice of the working man, now send your children to boarding school. I believe we frequent the same Pizza Express.

Therefore, because of our kindred spirit, I thought you would appreciate me explaining a few things about the current pickle you are in.

I, although younger than you, grew up around a fair amount of casual racism. Wiggy, Waggy and Wally was my Gran’s preferred book at bedtime. When asked where Mum was, I would often be told that she’d ‘run off with a black man’, and we had an affectionate name for the corner shop that was largely based on the ethnicity of its owners. My Dad thought Alf Garnett was hilarious, and not in the satirical way it was intended. My parents were not bad people, they were not BNP members although my Dad did have an unfortunate fondness for Margaret Thatcher.  I am not disrespecting their memory to say this and I’m not patronising them when I say that they didn’t know any better.  In fact, I would go so far as to say they were incredibly kind and decent.  However, hey – it was the 80s.  Just as we didn’t wear seat belts, or thought Vienetta was classy,  they were ‘of their time’.

This is not that time. I am not that time.  I grew up, I left home, moved to the big city and learnt a lot about life and the world outside my small town. I can honestly say I have never used the language of my childhood as an adult. It could well still be in my head somewhere. It has never slipped out, it has never been uttered when I thought no one was listening, taken out of context or mumbled.

I just don’t say it.

The reason I don’t is not because I don’t believe in free speech, or want political correctness to go mad. It is because it is wrong. Not just to huge number of people it is used against, but also to me. That is because I am not racist.  Therefore, as someone who is not racist, I neither use these words nor allow others to use them in my company, overheard or not.  You see they are not just words, they are weapons that have been used for generations to put people in their place. At it’s very root, this is the language of slavery, of oppression and violence. It doesn’t matter that you use these words mischievously, or out of context, and you haven’t got a baseball bat in your hand. These words matter.

We are quick (quite rightly) to denounce people who desecrate or vandalise war memorials, even though they mean nothing to the offenders. Whether it’s mischievously spray painting Churchill or absent-mindedly mistaking a monument for a urinal. They are symbols which mean something to us, and to others. They matter.

The Sun, and many of your fans, may leap to your defence saying that ‘hard to believe this was once innocuous’, but it was NEVER innocuous. It was never innocent or a bit of harmless fun. It was an expression of power and humiliation. We just, on the whole, never used to care that much. But we should care now.

You knew exactly what you were doing. This did not just pop out like ‘fuck’ when you’ve stubbed your toe. You had a decent run in, and had the forethought to pause, switch to mumble mode and carry on regardless. This was no slip of the tongue. This was a deliberate attempt at straight talking, no nonsense, I just don’t care Clarkson. It was no more a genuine mistake than the ‘slope’ comment, or gag about the Mexican, or the murdered prostitutes.

You’re not stupid. Much like Farage, you have made your career on your ability to connect with the common man (and it usually is men) when you are largely anything but. You have earned millions of pounds, both directly from and off the back of the licence fee because you claim to represent average people – straight talking, what everybody’s thinking. MY MONEY. You’ve earned so much money that, just like the city bankers, you think you are too big to fail. Like an ungrateful indulgent child you are constantly pushing the boundary of that power to see just how far it goes, like nicking tenners from your mother’s purse.  Poor Carol Thatcher couldn’t survive a similar ‘off camera, off the cuff’ remark and her Mum used to BE the Prime Minister, never mind just have dinner with them.

Possibly the world’s greatest thinker once said ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ and everyone needs to remember that. In a time when bananas are still being thrown at footballers and wannabe politicians think Lenny Henry should move to a black country, it’s about time you took that responsibility and showed people how to behave, showed them what is acceptable and what a ‘thoroughly good bloke’ really looks like. I will tell you now that it is not a man who thinks it’s big and clever to not so accidentally use racist language in a humorous context and then cowardly grovel in order to keep his job.  I’m not sure you know what a thoroughly good bloke is.

So Jeremy, go home.   Honestly love, for your own sake, put your feet up, count your money, shout at the telly and let someone decent have a go.


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.


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 ***