Sunday, 22 December 2013

Feeling sorry for myself on my birthday.

It's my birthday.

I'm 37 today.

B is not here so I am single-parenting four children. He was working in Milton Keynes on Friday and then at a thing (the sort of thing you only get invited to twice in your life and that you don't, as a result, turn down, wife's birthday or no) in Oxford last night.  He is, I am told, now on the motorway heading home.  I expect him, with a delicious dinner he will have picked up at the motorway services*, probably around five-ish.
I am very tired, having been up 'til gone midnight wrapping presents and making an ice-cream igloo for those who don't like Christmas pudding.

The children are fractious and scrapping like small tigers, all teeth and claws and lots and lots of noise.

It is, in fact, just a normal day.  With the addition of a lovely new shirt, which I am wearing, and the promise of cake later when my sister and her boyfriend get here, the first of the Christmas arrivals.

So better than a normal day really.  And actually with four children under seven, an absent husband, and thirteen people for lunch in three days' time I probably shouldn't have expected anything else.

But it's my birthday so I'll cry if I want to.

Or laugh.  Because it appears that the children have internalised some of what B must have told them; as I type the screaming next door is taking on a topical note:


So near, but yet so far...


*Tebay, so while that is strictly true, it is also much, much better than it sounds.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Read with mother

What's your favourite bit of the day?

Clearly it's the five minutes after they're all in bed.  Isn't it? 
No.  Scratch that, it's the five minutes after they're all in bed and have stopped coming downstairs with spurious excuses about imaginary spiders and empty stomachs.

But apart from that bit, what's your favourite bit of the day?

When I stop to think about it, and am not racing through in the hope of bringing the previously mentioned moment forward by forty-eight seconds, it's the one in the picture.
 That moment, or something a little like it, because actually they each get individual stories (ish, S and A share, as they do a bedroom, but they do get two), happens in our house every day.  It happened every day for me when I was little too; it's just part of our bedtime ritual.  It would never occur to me not to do it, any more than it would occur to me not to clean their teeth.

But apparently that's not true of everyone any more. I hesitate to come out with a statistic, because if you google it, you get numbers varying from only one-fifth to a slightly better but still, to me, surprisingly low one-third, but whatever the true number, many, many parents don't read to their children every night, and many children are turning to screens rather than books to fill their leisure time.
So, to help me read with our children at bedtime, and yes, this is a sponsored post, M&S sent me some new pyjamas, and some lovely books.  The asked, too, why reading to the children was important to me, and what I felt we all got out of it.
 Now, clearly there's an element of preaching to the converted here: they're not getting me to do anything I wasn't already doing after all, but that's why I was happy to take their pjs. 

As I say, though, M&S haven't brilliantly converted a non-reading parent to a reading one with the bribe of a pair of Thomas pyjamas and a book of fairy stories, but what they have done is made me sit and think about why I read to them and what I think it does for all of us. 

And I think it varies as they get older.  For S and A still, and certainly M (who was, if the truth be told, much more chuffed with the pjs than the stories), there is, I suspect, an element of the story serving mainly to stave off the hideous prospect of having to go to bed, and it is their stories I more often race through unthinkingly, but it is also a calm time, a quiet time, a time which can redeem an awful half hour of whinging in the bath and help make the transition into bed just that little bit easier for all of us. 
For L though, it's increasingly about the love of the book.   At six and a half, she is beginning to understand that books can take her places she can never otherwise get to, and for me reading to her (and the fact that I won't let B do it is telling, I feel) is properly precious time.  We cuddle up in bed together and share something as equals, often something I remember from my own childhood: we're reading The Dolls' House at the moment, complete with my (approximately) seven year old handwriting in it, and last week I sobbed my way through the final chapter and a half of Charlotte's Web, while L looked utterly bemused (she's not got the whole loving books that make you cry thing yet, clearly).   She honestly said to me today (and I realise this is going to sound insufferable, but she really did say it): " I think reading is my favourite thing to do".

And there's the rub.  Because reading is my (or one of my) favourite things to do too.  And I couldn't be more delighted that she loves it.  But she's beginning to love reading more than she loves being read to.  She didn't get a story tonight because she said she'd rather read to herself instead.  This may partly be because she's got a Rainbow Fairy book (truly as hideous as it sounds) out of the library and I just can't bring myself to go anywhere near them (hence the library), but I think also she's just beginning to get the pleasure of losing herself in the book of her choice.

I don't think her time of being read to is coming to an end, but I do think, sadly, that it is time limited and I am not, as I had rather hoped to be, going to be the female version of the father who read to his daughter every night until she turned 18.  I hope we'll get to 10, maybe a little longer, but there will come a time when I no longer read to any of them, and I will miss it.

Still, at least I've got three more goes at Charlotte's Web before then.  Who knows, I may not even need tissues when it's M's turn...

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Giving good present.

As I say, it's A and S's birthday tomorrow.

It is also, today my Mum's birthday.  And my sister's boyfriend's.   On Sunday it was my cousin's.  It's my brother's on Saturday.

And eleven days later (with my own birthday in between, though fortunately I'm not responsible for buying the presents for that one) it's You Know What.  For which, not including the ones from You Know Who, I have to buy 49 separate gifts.

I'm doing a lot of shopping at the moment.  Stashed away in my secret cupboard with my highly confidential client files I've got playmobil and lego, cashmere and silk, chopping boards and mixers, games and puzzles.  Literally.

But actually the present I'm most excited by is the one I've just bought.

It's a Deki voucher.  Or three Deki vouchers.  £10 each for each of the girls.

Deki contacted me to tell me about themselves and the vouchers, but they aren't giving me anything to write this post. I am genuinely, boringly (I've told everyone I've seen since) excited by this.

Because Deki do micro-loans.  A small sum loaned by my children to someone in a developing country to help them set up a business, and (hopefully) in due course repaid.  And from my children's point of view, the best bit is that with Deki, you get to choose who the money goes to.  Deki is, I think (from a cursory google search), the only UK-based charity through whom this is possible.

So after Christmas and the consumption has died down, the girls and I can sit round the computer and decide.  Do they want to give their money to Lucy's restaurant in Malawi or do they think that Heleine's shop in Togo is a better place for it? 

Once they've decided, they lend their money, all £10 of it, to the person they've chosen.  And, hopefully, in due course, it comes back into their Deki account.  Once it does, they can, if they wish, cash it in and spend it on sweets, or, I hope, invest it in someone else. 

They will receive no interest on the money, but they should (Deki has a 99% repayment rate) get it all back.  Interest is charged on the loans but this is used by Deki's not-for-profit operating partners in the countries concerned to cover operating costs only.  Deki itself is a charity and its costs are covered by donations.

My children are still very young.  They have very little understanding of money, other than that it has value to other people, so I don't think this is going to teach them much about money or finance or lending, but I do hope that, at the very least, it will encourage them to take an interest in people with very different lives, and I'd like to think that Deki, or micro-lending generally will become a habit.  I certainly intend it to for me.

I don't want to sound smug or sanctimonious, but I genuinely do think that this might be the present we all remember long after the playmobil has been packed back into its box.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Party bags? Bah humbug!

It's S and A's birthday on Wednesday.  They'll be five. 

Pause for disbelieving intake of breath and how did that happen and gosh aren't they big type thoughts...

On Friday fifty-something children will be congregating in the village hall for a disco.   That's both primary 1 classes and a few hangers on... I know, we're mad, but the theory is that at this stage they're still young enough (just about) to be controlled (and I've cunningly invited both teachers too), and we're never going to invite the entirety of both classes ever again.  Ever.

Anyway, there will be cake, and singing, and candles, and gangnam style (heaven help me) and musical bumps and probably a sausage or two.

What there won't be though, whisper it, is any party bags.

No.  Say it loud. I'm stingy and I'm proud:


But actually, it's not just my tight-fisted nature.  Because there will instead be a book (£30 for fify books) and a small packet of haribo each.

But no party bags.

The girls went to Billy's party yesterday afternoon. They came back with this:

Now, I intend no disrespect to Billy's parents, who are hugely generous and put on a fabulous party for thirty children with magician (and real rabbit) and crisps and balloons and everything else you want if you're five. 

But then somehow they're also expected to provide this bunch of, quite frankly, tat.  I have no idea what half that stuff is or does - the little plastic figures for instance, or the things that look like suppositories. They rattle incidentally, but don't open, rather to the girls' disappointment.

The whole lot (chocolate coins, colouring books and the big blue hairbands excepted) went in the bin within ten minutes of bedtime last night.  It has not been missed.

And it's the waste that really gets me.  There are intelligent, committed workers in China or Bangladesh who spend their days and their human energy making this stuff.   It then gets shipped across the world, to get sold (because, as I say, I don't in any way fault Billy's parents' generosity) to people who mostly resent buying it, to get put into little plastic bags (also doubtless made overseas and shipped here in vast containers of more plastic rubbish),  to get given to children who neither need it nor miss it when it's gone, only to get thrown away and then, almost certainly, shipped back to China to get shoved in landfill.

How can any of that possibly be right?

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Big numbers for small people

B was in London earlier on this week.  He bumped into my sister on the tube.   They rang me together at the children's supper time and it made me smile.

"Girls", I said after they'd hung up,  "There are seven million people in London and guess who Daddy bumped into?"

They couldn't.  I told them.  They looked underwhelmed by the coincidence (although that sort of thing happens unstatistically often, don't you think?).  But it obviously got L thinking.

"Mummy?"  she said. "How many people are there in London did you say?"
"Seven million."
"Is that counting Daddy or not?"

Monday, 2 December 2013

NaBloPoMo - how did I do(e)?

I set myself a task for National Blog Posting Month (who came up with that one? They should be taken out and sho...).

Read a new blog every day.
Write a new post at least twice a week.

So how did I do?

Well, unlike my children (parents' evenings last week) it turns out I'm better at the writing than the reading.  I've read a grand total of three new blogs, although I am choosing to blame at least some of that on the demise of google reader and the failure of feedly - which I joined only to have it die on me about three days later.

Bad Harriet.

I've done better on the writing - 12 posts in a month working out rather higher than my target rate  - although I will have to admit to cheating.  It's now 2nd December.  I actually wrote this on 27th.  (And clearly I should have published it yesterday but I didn't get round to actually clickin the button.   Hey ho.)   I've done that rather a lot, if the truth be told: written in stits and farts (apologies, can't remember who came up with that one either, but I rather like it, and fits and starts doesn't have the same authenticity at all) two or three posts here, none there, all carefully timed so that it looks like I'm writing twice a week, when actually I'm not. Or not always.

But it's ok.  I set the targets so I can change them.

Which I suppose is rather the conclusion I've reached about blogging as a whole. It's my blog, and I'll cry/post/write/abandon it if I want to.

I'm not going to (abandon it) though, although I thought I might at the beginning of the month. Not yet anyway. I've enjoyed putting fingers to keyboard, and I've realised that it's up to me how and when I do that.  I'm nearly 37 and I'm only just working out that I can (within reason) mostly do what I like and that (within reason) what other people think about it really doesn't matter.

So if you're still reading, thank you.  And if you're not, you'll never see this anyway (but I hope you're enjoying reading whatever you are reading instead).

And I'm all enthused about a Christmas present post I've got brewing so come back for that soon...

Friday, 29 November 2013

How to save money on your passport application (or not).

You have identical twins.
And if:
They need new passports.

And if:
A passport application requires two photos.

And if:
Passport photos come in over-priced sets of four.

Do I really need to pay for two sets?  

Just a thought.

ps:  And if anyone from the passport agency is reading this, I didn't. Honest.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The tooth fairy problem

While I'm on the subject of the mythical creatures that wander round my house in the dead of night (feels like Piccadilly Circus round here sometimes - I'm thinking of making sure I put my dressing gown on when I go to the loo, just in case), I've got a problem with the tooth fairy too.

I'm not going to get philosophical here - although I am utterly bemused as to who originally came up with the idea of a fairy who gives you money when your teeth fall out (you can't blame 4th century Greek Bishops for that one, surely, and entertainingly the wikipedia page on the tooth fairy (yes there is one) says that the paragraph on her (his?) origins "needs expansion") - but that aside, the problem's much less complicated.

Once you've cleaned your teeth, gone to bed, turned the light out, remembered the stupid tooth fairy, got up, tripped over the shoes someone's left beside the bed, turned the light back on, scrabbled around in the loose change to find something sufficiently generous but not excessive (there are children in L's class who get notes), crept in, felt for a tooth under a pillow IN THE DARK (and please say I'm not the only one surprised at how small the teeth are once they come out), got it out, dropped it on the floor, wriggled around under the bed, found it, realised you've left the cash in your own bedroom, retrieved it, tripped over the shoes again, gone back, put it under the pillow, got back into bed and acted surprised in the morning....

....what are you supposed to do with the tooth?

Monday, 25 November 2013

The trouble with Santa

From wikimedia commons
It's still a month away, the C word.  So I feel I can be mildly (another c-word coming up) cynical.

But I've got a problem with Santa.

Three stories:

Last year, a friend of mine's husband was away for a few days in the middle of December.  I saw her for a quick catch up during that time, and she pointed out that her sons had seen Santa more that week than they had Daddy. (Four times as it happens: two toddler groups and two different nursery parties).

Also last year I was chatting to L about Christmas generally. She was asking about Jesus and we talked about the nativity story. 

Mummy, she asked me is that true?
Well, Jesus was a real person, but we don't know how much of the Christmas story is true.  Some people believe it all, but other people believe different things.
And what about Santa?

You can't do comparative religion with Father Christmas, it turns out.

And then there's the story, probably apocryphal, about the child who, when he found out the dreaded truth, burst into tears of betrayal: "But Mummy, you lied to me".

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not going to tell my children it's all a lie.  I'm not that uncaring about every other child in their classes for a start, and even cynical old me likes seeing their little faces on Christmas morning; but I am increasingly thinking the whole thing is a bit, well, odd.  

Don't you think it's rather a weird thing to do?  Where does it come from in the first place, this big conspiracy?  What difference does it make if the presents come from people who they know and who love them rather than from a fat white man in an odd outfit?   It's strange, too, that when we are increasingly advised to be honest with our children at all times (within the parameters of what they are capable of understanding) we all, or almost all, unthinkingly perpetuate this untruth.

But, and despite the oddness, I won't tell them, and I will keep hedging my answers with "What do you think?" and "Well, who fills the stockings then?"; the same stockings that I will also keep hanging up by the fireplace.  I will keep reading the Night Before Christmas and The Empty Stocking (which I love, even with my cynical hat on).  And I will keep hoping that, for the next month at least, they'll be slightly better behaved as a result...

But at the same time, when they do find out, I'll be ok.  I just hope they will be too.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Rise of the machines

I got a tube the other day.

Doesn't happen often, but I had to go to work.

I got on at Liverpool Street, and got off at Holborn.  Three stops.  About 3 p.m.  Full but not crowded.

I've just googled how many people you get in a central line train (what the internet is for, clearly).  There are 272 seats, and eight carriages, so there must have been 34 people sitting in my carriage.  Plus another 20 or so standing.

Only one of them was reading an actual book.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Old fiddle, new tricks

I've got a new hobby. 

I fiddle with Kirsty.

No really, I do. We get out our instruments and...

Ok, I'll stop being smutty, especially given you knew it was nothing that interesting anyway.

It is interesting though, for me anyway, because I've done something I never thought I'd do.  I've dusted off my violin, and every couple of weeks I go out and I play folk music.

And it's both utterly bizarre and utterly brilliant.

It's also both much, much easier than much of the music I've played before, and impossibly much harder.

There's no written music.  They don't even call it music.  Instead, very scathingly, they call it dots.  We sit there, in someone's front room, or upstairs in a pub, and someone plays a tune, and then everyone else picks up their violins (which I am having to learn to call a fiddle, but it is, as I had to explain to a friend the other day, exactly the same instrument) and plays the same tune, while I struggle to work out what note they started on and maybe work it out by the time they've finished.

Eventually, someone says Who wants the dots? and I, sheepishly, stick up my hand and say Me!

I just wasn't taught that way.   If you learnt music in school, or with a teacher at home, or whatever, you'll almost certainly have learned as I did. I was taught to read music, and the music, like the text in literature, is the thing from which all else flows.  A friend was recently telling me that she asked her daughter's piano teacher to teach her (the daughter) to play some tunes she already knew because she thought she'd enjoy it.  He explained that he doesn't give his pupils pieces they know because then they play by ear, and don't learn to read the music.

This is the absolute opposite of how, I am discovering, folk music works.  In classical, you play what you see; in folk, what you hear. So I find myself trying to unlearn my years of training, and re-educate my ears so that I can reproduce what I hear with my fingers.

But while sometimes that feels virtually impossible, parts of the folk are easier too. If the truth be told, I wasn't much of a classical violinist (and anyway I actually abandoned it and played viola from aged 15 to 24) but even allowing for that, and in my rusty state, the folk music (when I do get to see it) is technically easily playable, at least at the level I am at (there is some fiendishly difficult folk music out there, don't get me wrong - check out this from Fiddlers Bid at the Cambridge Folk Festival).  That, though, isn't what makes it feel easy. That's the non-judgmentalism of it.  Classical musicians are very snooty about folk, probably because the notes are, mostly, less technical, but for the rusty fiddler, the fact that if I get it right or I get it wrong no-one cares because we're all having too much fun just making the music is refreshing and welcoming and inspiring.

I loved playing classical music. I loved singing classical music (it's how I met B), and I'd love to do either or both again, but it's the folk that's getting my toes tapping on a Monday night.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Bring out the books.

And sometimes, unlike in my last, things don't quite work out the way I meant them too.

Not done so well on the reading a new blog every day front, if the truth be told. It's hard enough keeping up with the ones I know already.

And I've done even worse on that promise I made way back at the beginning of 2010 - to write about every book I read as I finish it.

It's over six months since I last did so.  And that's not because I haven't read anything.  It just appears that once every six months is about my blogging about books rate.  Rubbish.

Anyway, here they are, all (or all the ones I could remember) stacked up on my lovely new floating shelves (nice aren't they - although the big one (on the left) annoyingly is clearly designed for American books and doesn't really fit British ones).

So from left to right, bottom to top:

Afternoon Tea: The only book I could find that would fit the annoying American shelf.   Not something I've actually read as such.

Bring out the Bodies: I called this post after it. How could I not? And not just because I'm dragging skeletons out of the closet and imprisoned men from the tower.  Better even than Wolf Hall.  Anne Boleyn made me cry.

Nothing to Envy: If you read one book out of this lot, make it this one.  I don't read non-fiction, and I couldn't put this down.  North Korea, in as far as we in the West can possibly know it (and before the recent escape of a prisoner from one of the labour camps).  Terrifying, amazing, made me want to get out there and do something. Though clearly I didn't. 

Instructions for a Heatwave: I love Maggie O'Farrell, and if you want to read one of her books, make it After You'd Gone, or The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox both of which will stay with me in a way this one won't (and hasn't, though I only read it last month).

Gone Girl: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I'm still not sure

The House by the Sea: Picked up off someone else's bookshelf on holiday because everything else was in Dutch. I'd have been better off with the Dutch.

The Other Hand:  This has been sitting by my bed for about three years because the cover said it was so harrowing it would change my life, and I wasn't sure I wanted my life changed.  It wasn't that bad. It wasn't that good either.  

The Group: This was the first book this year and it's one I've wanted to write about ever since (why didn't I?).  It was written in 1963, but set in 1933 about a group of women who have recently graduated from an exclusive American college (Vassar) by a woman (Mary McCarthy) who herself graduated from Vassar in 1933.  I'll say 1933 again, because it still flabberghasts me.  These women have sex, they worry about contraception, they agonise about whether to work, to breastfeed, how to raise their children, how to maintain their relationships (both straight and gay).  It could have been written in 2003 and it makes me think of my grandmother in a whole new light.   It inspired Sex and the City.  Carrie Bradshaw of the 1930s.

The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: More non-fiction and utterly beautiful.  An object of desirability in itself.  I loved holding it, almost more than I loved reading it.

In This House of Brede: The antithesis of The Group. In '60s London a woman leaves her career and joins an enclosed Benedictine Order.  The world it portrays (both inside and outside the monastery - not a convent, I learned) is a world away from mine.  It made me cry too.

Knackered Mother's Wine Club: Wine education for the blogging classes.  I got to meet Helen, the great and the good of Scottish letters (and Radio 4) and (sort of) Joanna Lumley.  I can't promise that for everyone who buys it, but really, it's great even without it - B's been using it for wine buying tips too.

Nicholas Nickleby: I've not been doing very well with my Dickens this year either.  I enjoyed this, but I couldn't tell you much about it now, although I think that says more about me than the book.

Best Friends Forever: Tosh.  Sorry, but it was.  She wrote one called Good in Bed  which is still one of my favourite chick-lit type books, but this wasn't a patch on it.

The Clerkenwell Tales: Too clever by half.  I kept stopping to admire how clever it was and never actually started to engage with it emotionally.  Probably my failing again.

Trains and Lovers:  I know lots of people love Alexander McCall Smith, but I just don't.  I heard him speak at the Borders Book Festival and so I bought this because I liked him more than I thought I would, but I just didn't get into it. It seemed to skate over the characters rather than drawing them out, if that isn't to mix metaphors.

The Shadow of Night: I love nonsense like this.  Vampires, witches, daemons and another book in the trilogy to come.  Hooray.

Noughts and Crosses: Malorie Blackman is the new children's laureate and this, her first book, is a dystopian, star-crossed lovers fiction set in a world where the black crosses are in charge and the white noughts are the oppressed underdogs.  I could see what she was trying to do and maybe I didn't get it because I'm not black, but I just thought this sort of thing had been done better elsewhere.  I can't be bothered to read the others in the series, which doesn't say much. It has got me interested in black history though, so maybe she's succeeded better than I realised at the time.

I read Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson too.  I don't think I was its intended audience. 

Not sure what's next...

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Plans and poems

I love it when a plan comes together.

Blog more (I have) read more (I have) find new blogs (I have) get new readers (I have). 

And one of the new readers (the only one, actually, but still) writes one of the new blogs (sevenhundredwords), and she wrote recently about romance, and real life, and how the two don't often match up: and that happily ever after is often only the beginning.

And it reminded me of this, which I like so much I have kept on my pinboard, buried under takeaway menus, and old permission slips: last year's school calendar and money off vouchers, where I can see it...

It's by Liz Lochhead and it's called A Night In:

Darling, tonight I want to celebrate
not your birthday, no, nor mine.
It's not the anniversary of when we met,
first went to bed or got married, and the wine
is supermarket plonk.  I'm just about to grate
rat-trap cheddar on the veggie bake that'll do us fine.

But it's far from the feast that - knowing you'll be soon
and suddenly so glad to just be me and here,
now, in our bright kitchen - I wish I'd stopped and gone
and shopped for, planned and savoured earlier.
Come home! It's been a long day.  Now the perfect moon 
through our high window rises round and clear. 

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Irony in action

Two years, one month and a couple of days ago, when M was still being breast fed, I posted this Venn diagram of things my (other) children would eat.

Now M is (nearly) two and a half.  He'll eat many things: cornichons, olives and curried lentil soup included.

What he will not eat, however, are fish fingers.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

As any fule kno

But what does any fool know?

Do you know who I'm quoting? Do you know who this is, on the right?*

I can't imagine not knowing that, but then nor can I imagine not knowing, as I discovered no-one on Simon Mayo's radio show did a couple of weeks ago, that Artemis was (is?) a woman.

I can't imagine not knowing the basic plot of most Shakespeare plays (I'm a bit woolly on the Merry Wives of Windsor and Love's Labours Lost, among others), or most of the major Bible stories (at least all the ones that don't involve endless lists of "sons of").  I know my Greek and Roman myths, as you can tell, as well as which god translates as which from the one to the other.  I've got a general grasp of Norse mythology too.

I know my Kings and Queens of England, and what order they come in, though I'm rubbish at the Scottish ones.    I can put most of the countries of Europe on a map, and Asia, but not Africa.

But I don't know one end of the periodic table from the other.  I have no idea about Hindu mythology, or the Koran, or what the difference is between a Buddha and a Boddhisatva.  I couldn't tell you which were the Kings that got defenestrated, and I once went to a Norwegian independence day party in full ignorance of who it was that Norway was independent of (Sweden, as it happens).  Despite years of musical training, I have no knowledge of any music that doesn't originate in Europe or America.

Does it matter?  Does it make a difference what random facts I have and you don't, or vice versa? Why was I so horrified (lots of shouting at the radio) that no-one pulled Simon up on the fact that Artemis was unlikely ever to have been the lover of Aphrodite (although I think he called her Venus, just to confuse) - although come to think of it, the frisky types those Greeks were, anything's possible.

There's an American academic called E D Hirsch who came up with the concepts of Cultural Literacy and Core Knowledge.  Paraphrasing very drastically, essentially what he says is that to get on within a society, and specifically to understand the written word, you need to have a set of common cultural references - so reading my blog is much harder if you don't, say, know who Molesworth is, and reading Shakespeare is much harder if you don't know that Henry V came after Henry IV, and functioning generally in Britain today is tricky if you have no idea who 1D or Miley Cyrus are (I may have made that last one up, but sometimes it feels true).

We've all been in situations where everyone's laughing or shaking their heads over a common cultural reference, and we're the only one looking blank.  Wouldn't it be nice if that were never the case?

Michael Gove's a big fan, apparently, and when you look at it at the outset you can see the attraction (though not of Michael Gove personally).  E D Hirsch discovered that very bright students from disadvantaged (often immigrant) families struggled to understand the literature he taught in his classes because they just didn't have the frame of reference of the other students who automatically knew that Germany was in Europe, or that Mozart was a composer and not an artist.  They understood the words, but not the references (and inferences) made.

So he came up with the idea of a list - a set of cultural facts that everyone should know.

And this, of course, is where it gets tricky.  Which facts?  And who decides?  Because it's very easy, that way, to slip into Maoist territory: to control what people know and, in so doing to expunge, delete, do away with the other stuff they don't know.  And if you're doing that it's ever so tempting to get rid of the unpalatable and the unflattering.

It's particularly easy to see how that could happen with history, but it works with literature and music too:  Don't like Wagner? Don't teach him.  Don't want children to be exposed to difficult ideas in art?  Don't let them see Guernica or the Massacre of the Innocents or the Raft of the Medusa. And what about science?  Anyone want to join the FlatEarthers?

And though the original aim of E D Hirsch's theory was, as I understand it, to be inclusive, surely the end result is the opposite.  Because if everyone knows something and you're the one person who doesn't, you're excluded from the outset. 

I don't know that there is an answer.  In fact I'm sure there's not: because you can't get away from the fact (pun intended) that we all have a tendency to assume that people have the same cultural experiences we do ourselves - I've found that out living here: people go blank when I say particularly English things, and I have to have the children's school lunch menu translated for me.  And I'm only 350 miles from where I was brought up, not a continent or a generation away.   Nor can you deny, as Hirsch identified, that it is easier to read Dickens or Eliot if you understand the cultural references they make.

So however unattractive (when you take it to its extreme) the solution he drew, and that Michael Gove has allegedly adopted so enthusiastically, there is truth in it.

But then just because something's true, doesn't make it right.

I find myself descending into trite platitudes here, trying to find a conclusion rather than limply draining away, but maybe that in itself is the conclusion.  You can't conclude any more than you can draw up a list of the things everything should know, because this issue, like knowledge itself, is open-ended.  The fact that I know who Artemis is doesn't preclude me from also finding out who Lakshmi is, and each bit of knowledge I gain leads me on to more.

Maybe actually what any fule should know is that there's always more out there to learn.

* Iota does,  she quoted it in her last post too.  Obviously something Molesworthian in the air up here at the moment.   Click over there for some light relief in the form of a video (warning: it requires an element of cultural knowledge).

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Starting small

So I'm doing this whole posting more regularly thing.  And I will; I promise.  As I will also reply to all the lovely comments on that post.

But in the meantime, this, by Berger and Wyse, and from Saturday's Guardian, made me giggle.

And so to bed.

Friday, 1 November 2013

I've started so I'll finish

Here's an astonishing thing. 

It's over four years since I started this blog.  Four years and seventeen days, to be precise.

I realised that last week, about the time I was wondering whether to stop it altogether.

Because it doesn't seem really to be working for me at the moment - I'm not even reading blogs, much less writing them (as an aside, since the demise of google reader how am I supposed to read blogs? I'm leaping from one blog roll recommendation to another at the moment, like some sort of demented frog (reddit, reddit), which isn't very efficient and means I can never remember the goodies....).  Suggestions on a postcard.

So I'm not reading, and hardly anyone's reading me.  Which  may be because I'm not writing.  Or tweeting, or pinteresting or facebooking or pinning up posters on to motorway bridges, or whatever the zeitgeisty thing to do is at the moment.

But I was feeling demoralised, and bored, and a bit meh, really.  So I went back to the beginning.  And remembered that in October 2009 I was blogging so that:

I can work out how I feel and get myself on the track to that elusive Plan B; a nirvana in which I am happy and fulfilled, still manage to bring some income into the house and have time to give my husband and children the attention and love they deserve

Now, clearly I'm not there.  Anyone who's ever seen me stressed and bedraggled, surrounded by wet, hungry children and with only two pairs of socks and five shoes in the swimming pool changing rooms on a Wednesday evening could tell you that "happy and fulfilled" isn't always an accurate description.  But I sort of am there, too. 

When I started this blog my life was in flux - I didn't know what I wanted and I didn't know how I was going to get there when I worked out where it was I wanted to go.  And now I do.  Maybe. At the very least I am, for the moment, sort of where I want to be, even if there is a constant niggle in my head about what happens when M goes to school?.   I am, mostly (touch wood) happy, and I do (mostly) have time for myself and my family, and I am (astonishingly) bringing in an income.

 So maybe I've done it.  Maybe I'm not blogging much because I don't need to.

But then I don't really want to stop.  I don't really want to write much at the moment either, but somehow stopping would seem like an admission of failure, even though I'm not sure I have failed.

Apparently November is NaBoPloMo.  National Blog Posting Month.  Which is, obviously, nearly as silly as Pizza month (October) or Camping month (June) or Talk like a pirate day (September - personally I happen to love that one), but which, silly or no, I'm going to try and get into. 

So for November, every day I'm going to read at least one new blog,  and twice a week (because I'm not going to get over-ambitious) I'm going to post (so this is the first one).  And if at the end of it, I want to stop, I will.

And I won't have failed, I'll have just made a choice.

Monday, 23 September 2013

The one you really can't win

Did you know the average four-year-old girl asks 390 questions a day?

On a conservative estimate that means (assuming that M and L ask fewer than S and A, being respectively younger and older, and admitting that while L's questions are generally more complicated, - "Mummy, if all clouds are made of water, why don't all clouds make rain?" - M's are generally still variations on the theme of "What Mummy doin'?" and therefore easier to handle*) I am probably answering, on a non-school day (and every day for the eight months prior to that when I had two non-school-attending four-year-old girls in the house), an average of, I reckon, somewhere north of 1000 questions a day.

Is it any wonder I spend a lot of the time thinking "I can't win".?

Generally, of course, it works out ok.  But I realised yesterday there's one time you can't, ever, win with children.  One question you can't ever get right.

It's this.

When do we leave?

There you are, having a lovely time at the swimming pool, everyone thoroughly enjoying themselves (apart from the parents, because clearly having four small children of various levels of swimming incompetence is never going to be a relaxing experience.  Can't remember the last time I actually swam in a swimming pool) but it's lunchtime, or it will be by the time you've negotiated your way out, alternately frozen and scalded in the shower, caught athlete's foot and man-handled four still mostly damp children back into their clothes, so you say "Right everyone, time to get out".

But they don't want to.  So whinging ensues. Even despite the promise of fish and chips on the beach.  And, as everyone knows, whinging leads to irritation, which leads to more whinging, which leads to crossness, which leads inexorably back to whinging...

Yes, this was yesterday.  In Scotland
So the next time, mere hours later - after the fish and chips - playing on the beach you take the alternate route.  You say, "Ah, they're having a lovely time.  We haven't got anywhere else to go. We'll let them play a while longer".

Until they get overtired and have had too much....

See what I mean?  You can't win.

There must be a sweet spot.  A glimpse of a passing micro moment of a millisecond, when they and you are simultaneously ready to leave.  But I've never found it, or worked out how to identify it.

I can't imagine anyone else has, either.

*and not many of them are as amusing as these (can't say I've ever been asked for my opinion on air) - which inspired me to go and look up the stat (which I'd remembered but not blogged about before.  Thanks to Ms Carrot Crush for that.


Monday, 16 September 2013

Tweed to Tokyo

That's our adventure.  Summer 2020, we're going to the Olympics.   All six of us.   Overland.

For the millions of questions: the what, the how, the why.

The which route? 
The what about their education?
The how do we get from there to there?
The which visas do we need? 
The can we really go there? 
The can we really not go there?
The what happens to the house? 
The how on earth are we going to pay for it?
The what on earth are we thinking?

Well, we haven't worked any of those out yet, so feel free to let us know what you think. 

And for all of the answers and more; you've got seven years to watch this space.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The plastebo effect

I'm sure it used to be a kiss.

You climb a tree and scrape your knee, your dress has got a tear.  And what do you need (other than Julie Andrews)?  A kiss. Obviously.

Only not for the modern child, apparently.  Oh no, the panacea for all ills is not Mummy, or Daddy; not a cuddle, or a kiss.

It is, as any parent knows, a plaster. 

Blood not required.  No break in the continuity of the skin (technical legal term - don't say you never learn anything here) necessary.  Bumps, bruises, mild indignation, there's nothing that can't be cured with the application of a small piece of thin porous polymer-coated adhesive bandage (thanks wikipedia).  Ideally garishly coloured.

Or, even better, as I now know, a cool gel pack.  Preferably Mr Bump branded, but failing that the generic variety will do.

It all started with Boots, who emailed me over the summer asking if I would give them my health tips for going back to school.  There wasn't anything in it for me other than fame and glory if they used them but I wasn't busy that day (another tough day fishing the children out of the paddling pool probably) so I sent them something inspiring like:

Use a plaster for everything or
If no-one's looking  and you haven't got a cold it's fine to lick your finger and then wash their faces or
Make sure they go to bed early (then you get some peace and quiet) or
Catching vomit in your hands is better than have it go on someone else's carpet

Unaccountably, none of those made it onto the wallchart of tips and handy ideas they've produced (and of which you can see a small part below), but I do get a credit, and, even better and completely out of the blue, they sent me a goody bag (well, more of a goody massive parcel actually - does that make this a sponsored post?).

So I've got the wallchart, featuring my credit (though not, as I say, any of my tips - it's got lots of useful ones instead), some of those vitamins the children will actually eat, antiseptic wipes to save my sleeves, blister plasters (because one of us doesn't wear sensible black shoes with velcro), an enormous first aid kit (actually a bit scared to open that), and the blessed hot/cold compress, which, if I'd let her, A would be taking to bed with her.  As it is, she's inventing an ever more unlikely series of injuries all requiring it.  Munchausen's syndrome for the under fives...

So for that and for everything else (including all the bottles of own brand "calpol" and Peppa Pig sticky bandages I've bought over the years), Boots, I thank you.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Life, death and blackberries

Blackberries are serious business.

No, not for farmers, although I'm sure they are if you happen to be the UK's largest supplier to the crumble industry.

But I'm not talking about them (him? her?). I'm talking about me. 

To start off there's the whole what do you call them thing.  Turns out that if there's one sure way to prove I'm not from round here it's calling them blackberries in the first place.  Och no.  In this neck of the hedgerow they're brambles.  How that separates them from the plant on which they grow I don't know, although as I don't have a different word for a raspberry bush or an apple tree, some might argue my insistence on calling the twigs and leaves a bramble and the fruit a blackberry is somewhat indefensible.

Nonetheless I am sticking to it, and doubtless will meet fierce resistance from my children in years to come.  But then they think the fat man who comes down the chimney is called Santa, so clearly they know nothing.

Anyway none of that matters, because the important thing is not what you call them it's where you find them.

And having found them whose patch is it?

Because it turns out that blackberrying (brambling?) is a little known and under-reported turf war, rife with bitterness and controversy.

I should have known.  I should have realised last year when we were in the Lakes.  We went for a nice walk along a country lane.  There were blackberries, lots and lots and lots.  We were seen nibbling on one or two by a very pleasant, very smiley, elderly gentleman standing on his front doorstep as we went by.   We went back a day later to find nary a blackberry in sight.  Hedges denuded of all but the slightly hairy green ones that even I won't turn into jam.  And though I didn't see him at it I just know he was out there in the rain the night before defending his patch...

I've asked around and it's not just in Cumbria that people get proprietorial about their tangle of thorns, wasps and fruit.  Oh no! say friends who live up rural lanes.  Those are OUR brambles. (They're locals.  You can tell).  I can come and take some when invited, I'm told, but not too many and only under close supervision.

So now I've got a problem.  Because I'm new here (still. ish).  And we live in a town.  So I haven't got a patch.  And I want one.  And (here's the secret) I've found one.   Heavy with fruit and more ripening every day.  I've got ice cream tubs full in the freezer and I'm going to go off and get more tomorrow; hiding in the hedge every time a car goes past so as not to make eye-contact.

And no. I'm not telling you where it is.  It's mine.  As long as no-one catches me.

Lies, damn lies and you know whats

Excuse a briefly self-indulgent, unnecessary, honestly I know it doesn't matter really sort of post, sort of about blogging.

Or look away now.  I've got another one brewing that I'll put up in a couple of hours so come back then.

But yes.  Statistics.

Now, I know they don't matter, and I know that my blog is, if not my baby (I've got four of those already, don't need another one), my own project; and if I'm proud of it - which mostly, sometimes, I am - and if it does what I need it to do (mostly lie there quietly and be ignored at the moment) then it's doing all it needs to do and being all it needs to be.

But really.

Two years ago I won a national blogging prize.  For most of the year before that, and all of the time from then until April this year, I was, according to the Tots100 (yes, it doesn't matter, I know, yadda yadda) I was between 100th and 50th "best" (?), "most popular" (?), "most statistically relevant" (?) (see, I don't even know what it means, so really, why do I care?) parenting blog in the country.

Since March (75th), I have dropped a grand total of 586 places.   Which is impressive in its own way really.

And while I honestly don't really care (or at least not enough actually to do anything about it), I am simultaneously reassured, cheered and utterly bemused by the fact that blogger tells me that last month 18,082 people visited my blog.

Hello, whoever you are...

Oh, and the impressive looking chap?  He's the Duke of Wellington.  He didn't care about statistics either.  And I found his picture (by Sir Thomas Lawrence, apparently) on wikipedia commons.

Turns out (I've just checked, 24 hours after posting this) that he cared so little for statistics that he didn't actually say it.  It may have been Mark Twain, it may have been Disraeli, it may have been someone else entirely.  But as no one knows and the good Duke is more handsome than either of the others (though Disraeli does share my birthday, and Mark Twain had an utterly brilliant 'tache) I'm leaving him up there.

Monday, 2 September 2013

An awfully big adventure

So there we were, B and I, sitting on the terrace, with a glass of something bubbly, looking at the view and thinking: "isn't it a shame that holidays only last two weeks".

And B, whose father was (and is, at 69 and three quarters) self-employed and who therefore took holidays to suit him and the family more than the rest of us generally can, said "I think I'm entitled to a sabbatical at some pointWe could have a long holiday then."

And I said: "Let's not have a holiday.  Let's have an adventure.  I'd love to have an adventure".

Which is sort of true and sort of not, because although this idea is mere weeks old and probably years off, I'm already worrying about all the practicalities.  And grinning every time I think about all the possibilities.

Because I really think we might do it.  Pack ourselves, our lives and our children up and go.


Well, that's the thing. We have a tentative plan, to be slightly less tentative soon, but for the moment (until next week at least) I'm keeping it under wraps in case it doesn't come off at all.

But I'd love to know:

Where would you go?  You've got the world.  And four children.  And six months or so.

Money (because this is entirely hypothetical at the moment) no object.

Where should we go?

Friday, 30 August 2013


It is quarter past two.

So far today I have washed and dried my hair, got dressed and put a face on (doesn't happen often), got four children their breakfast, walked to school and back, been to Lidl and Sainsbury's (for the stuff I can't (or won't) get in Lidl), done some research into the advisability of the school parent council becoming a charity (anyone got any thoughts?), baked a cake with M, made some ice cream with M (he was very good at the clearing up the spoons bit), cleared up the kitchen, done the washing up, sat and read three stories on the potty (him not me), had lunch (B made that), made some Thai curry paste and checked that the rooms are ready for our friends who are coming to stay tonight.

And now M is in bed and I have so much spare time on my hands I'm blogging. 

That hasn't happened in months.

And I need to appreciate it.  Because you know what will happen.  Give it three weeks and I'll be whinging about how little time I have, and how I need to clean the skylight and fill in the plaster holes in the children's bedrooms and do the ironing.  All of which have needed doing for the last three years, but now, suddenly, will become pressing (no pun intended) instead of easily ignorable.

Because I have time.  I have three girls who are, so far, happily trotting off to school every morning, and grinning and hugging me when they come out. I have a boy who is not getting anywhere with potty training but is otherwise having a lovely time at home with just me and who still sleeps in the afternoons.  I have a new whole free day to myself on a Thursday (even if I did spend yesterday - the second such Thursday - working, which was precisely Not. The. Point.).  I have days to fill and stuff I want to do in them. 

I have an incomplete tax return too, but I'm ignoring that one.

I have time.

And I am going to appreciate it.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The End

Where did four and a half years go?

Not to mention 53 days (Or 1,272 hours.  Or 76,320 minutes)

Today was the end.

Or the beginning...

Monday, 1 July 2013

Mug logic

If you only ever use the mugs you don't like, you'll never smash the ones you really, really do. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Holiday doublethink

Ah! The Summer holidays!

They start tomorrow.

I'll repeat that for those of you in England (or probably elsewhere) who may be reeling in disbelief.  Yup, the Summer holidays, in this particular corner of Scotland, start at 3.15 tomorrow afternoon and don't end until Tuesday 21 August.

And, despite the fact that the weather is being accommodatingly very Summer-holiday-ish (although not swimsuits-outside-worthy quite yet), I am reminded of Nineteen Eighty-four.

No, not because that was (although it was, I'm sure) a particularly fine Summer holiday (we probably went to Frinton), nor because Summer holidays are my personal room 101 (far from it), but because of doublethink.

I find myself, as I contemplate the next six weeks, simultaneously thinking both:

Oh, hooray! The Summer holidays!  Less than 24 hours to go! No  alarm, no routine, no uniform, no dragging tired children out of bed or forcing them to do homework in a snatched hurry between bites of breakfast.  Long lazy days of doing nothing and enjoying it.  Hooray for the Summer holidays!


Oh help! That makes it 53 days. Or 1,272 hours.  Or 76,320 minutes before I get five seconds of peace.

Can't wait.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Could this be the world's most patronising email?

A little while ago I read a post over at Muddling Along Mummy (whose lovely news is still making me smile).

Anyway, her post (about the contradictory, non-specific and generally unhelpful advice given to pregnant women) reminded me of a book I was given when pregnant with L.  Called something like How safe is my baby? (or possibly How safe is your baby?) it simply set out the actual statistics for the various risks and let you make your own mind up. 

I'll allow you a little gasp of astonishment at such a horrifyingly trusting idea.

I found it rather helpful, as books go, and when I'd finished with it, I posted it to a friend, who never received it.

Some years later, Hannah's post reminded me about it and I thought I'd get another copy to send to a pregnant friend.  Only I can't find it.  Nothing on Amazon, nothing on google, nothing on the second hand and out of print books sites I frequent.

After a bit of detective work, I identified two likely publishers and sent them both polite emails wondering if it ever had been on their lists, and apologising for the fact that I wasn't absolutely 100% certain of the title.

I got the following (names changed to protect the innocent) in reply:

     Dear Ms...

      I'm sorry to report that the title is not ours, so I can't help you.
      The best way to find it, is to get onto the Internet and go to Once on the site find and Click on BOOKS.

      Once inside Books, type Your title into the Search Box and you
      should have a good chance of finding the title you can't actually

      Good Luck



Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A nest of (uniformed) vipers

Remember Gulliver's Travels?

I don't, not really. Don't tell anyone but I haven't ever read the actual book, although I did have a highly excellent (probably ladybird) illustrated version. 

As I say, I don't remember much about it, but I do recall the Big-endians and the Little-endians. Two separate factions of Lilliputians (technically, I now learn from wikipedia, some were Blefuscans, but we'll gloss over that bit, as I suspect my source text did) caught in vicious internecine squabbles about which end of an egg is up.

Personally I'm a little-endian, but I can cope with the alternative, if I must.

Anyway, I digress.  The point is that this has nothing on what's going on at school at the moment.

We have a new(ish) head.  She has arrived with a lovely, equally new, broom, with which she intends to sweep clean any corners she's not so keen on. 

One of those corners is uniform.

As it happens, I think she's right.  Bearing in mind I went to a school that required me to have (and my parents to invest large sums of money in), in addition to my every day uniform, a full length cloak (with lined hood), as well as a blazer, a boater and a suit for Sundays, asking everyone to look reasonably neat in matching sweatshirts and polo shirts (secretly I'd rather they were wearing proper shirts but you can't have it all) doesn't seem to me too much.  And, if the truth be told, lots of the children, particularly the older ones (whose parents, I suspect, have wearied of that particular battle) were beginning to get rather scruffy.  I also happen (and I realise it makes me sound a bit Daily youknowwhat) to think uniform makes a difference.  We dress up for things that are important and we make an effort for people we respect, so I think asking children to dress smartly encourages them to think of school and what they do there as something that matters.

And most of the other parents agree.   There is universal approval for the idea that the children should be neatened up a bit.

There is no agreement on how.

The playground is full of secretive huddles of whispering parents you are frightened to approach for fear they'll ask you what you think.  Are you a Little-Endian or a Big-Endian?  Should jerseys be red or black?  Trousers be black or grey?   Have they realised that the local supermarket doesn't stock black?  (Though that particular problem seems rather chicken and egg (whichever way up) to me.)  Can girls wear trousers? Or cardigans?  What if it's cold?  And where do you stand on the irresolvable problem of gingham dresses?

Everyone has their preferred choice and everyone has a (invariably contradictory) story about some child hauled before the head for wearing it.

And no-one, but no-one (and yes, I include myself), is saying anything about the new literacy programme she's also introduced.