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(Too) great expectations

20 Feb

the-view-from-dover-castleLast week was half term but this made little difference to my economic circumstances, so through a cunning (and winning) combination of kind friends, family, childcare and a 12-yr-old fired up to find her own entertainment, I managed to fit five days into four and take Friday off.

We would, I decided, have a proper day out, something which weekend commitments and work often put paid to.

I was really excited about it. I love hanging with my kids and in an ideal world – one where people funded me just to ‘be’ rather than to ‘do’, and one where school-years education was absorbed by osmosis rather than in-school attendance, that kind of ideal world – I would do it all the time. We had never been to Dover Castle and Friday, I decided, represented the moment all that would change.

However, lurking darkly in the back of my mind is the knowledge that the optimism generated from anticipation prior to a day’s adventure is rarely matched by the actual experience. Someone – usually more than one someone – is not in the right frame of mind to enjoy, and I am left trying to work out why actuality doesn’t always reach the heights of expectation. 

I think that word, ‘expectation’, turns out to be to blame. I want it to be great, not just Facebook-photo great, but actually in-real-life great. And because we’re all in the same boat, looking forward to being in the same place at the same time with no other demands, we all have the same aspirations.

No surprises, it’s impossible to match reality to these over-high expectations. It’s why in our household the impromptu (which I am absolutely rubbish at) tends to be the most successful, because no-one has anything to anticipate; but being impromptu when any attempt at it needs to be scheduled to the n-th degree, to fit in with everything else, contradicts the term and as a result doesn’t work.

Looking at it rationally, with sky-high expectations filed firmly under ‘give yourself a break’, it was a great day, when viewed upon a normal plane of greatness. We saw some fascinating exhibits – the Dover Castle War Tunnels and hospital are highly recommended – and spent the day together mostly out in the almost-sunshine without interruption. Yes, L2 became hangry on the way home, and had a ‘moment’; yes, L1 was overtired and started the very early morning off with a little bit of weeping, but why should it be those incidents that I allow to loom large in my memory when the rest of the day was what long-term memories are made of?

A perfect day is one in which we are together, and one where we can be honest and genuine with each other, without any grudges or long-term repercussions; we take the rough with the smooth because there’s no need to paper over the cracks with family.

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An unsure start

11 Feb

locked-doorEarlier this week I read George Monbiot’s encouraging piece about rebuilding society from the ground upwards. Crammed with examples of positive initiatives that local communities had devised and implemented themselves, the piece provided a glimmer of hope showing normal people taking control and making a difference, slowly healing fractured communities and as a result building tolerance, inclusivity and empathy in their local area. A powerful legacy: what that comes down to is making the everyday world a more palatable place. And doing this breeds enthusiasm to do it more. As Monbiot puts it, “a dense, participatory culture that becomes attractive and relevant to everyone rather than mostly to socially active people with time on their hands”.

And then, then, only hours later, it’s back to the usual frustration as I read a piece about the accelerating pace of Sure Start Centre closures. Now, these are not community initiatives, but they are initiatives designed to help the community, so their closure runs in direct contradiction to the hope-filled narrative that supporting people at grassroots level will generate greater returns and build a community that people living there can be proud of.

It’s not a direct correlation, Monbiot’s concept of rebuilding society and Sure Start, but it’s close enough to be a tangible example of the consistent lack of focus from the current government on supporting people to make change within the minutiae of their lives which will be magnified to much greater change as time passes. When I lived in Walthamstow through the dizzying disorientation of a first baby, social activities organised by Sure Start provided an excuse to leave the house that I didn’t have to find the wherewithal to arrange myself; and I know that for many the organisation performed way more crucial roles than that. For people who don’t have family support in the vinicity, or an urban family to fulfil the same safety network role; for people who are struggling with trying to do the right thing in any aspect of childrearing; for those whose questions need personal not generic answers; or even for those who need to sit and nurse somewhere accepting that isn’t their own home, Sure Start was invaluable.

And now, with 350 centres closed since 2010 and a mere eight new ones opening; well, it’s clear that the support for so many adults at the start of a brand new lifestage, and children at the start of a brand new life, simply is no longer there.

This again symbolises the lack of attention to the vulnerable which is becoming the hallmark, probably the most lasting legacy, of our current government. The DfE says they are ‘committed to giving children a good start’, and claim that they are ‘investing a record £6bn in childcare per year by 2020 [which] includes extra support for disadvantaged families’, but if Sure Start is scaled back, and there is no sign of anything specific being implemented to take its place, what does this look like? The evidence – or lack of any – points to yet more empty words, and another void in communities at crucial lifestages.

 

Horton Hears A Who-am-I-to-be-silent?

30 Jan

horton-hears-a-who-am-i-to-be-silent

I’ve not written on this blog for ages and ages. 

I’ve not written because I have been angry for a really long time, and so the urge to write has left me. This is because writing about what has made me angry will make me more angry about it; or writing about other things that still exist that don’t make me angry feels like fiddling while Rome burns. 

I haven’t simply been angry. I’m sad too, very sad. We will be the next generation that has to apologise to its children for the catastrophic disastrous mess, the ongoing motorway pile up of decision making that’s leaving our country, the services we hold dear, the principles our country is supposed to uphold, unrecognisable, decimated. And the same thing is happening globally on a scale which looks set to wreak even greater, perhaps irreversible, havoc. I have been uncomfortable that I have been inarticulate, but I have had nothing to say that has felt like it could address the torrent of horror unfolding, flowing into the future.

And as I say, it’s not just anger. A lot of the time what the news tells me leads to a sadness that creeps underneath celebrations and erodes the ordinary joys of life. Even feeding the birds in the garden, watching them devour what I give them to stave off winter starvation, has made me despair. What’s the point of supporting nature, I have thought, if the leader of the (allegedly) free world is a climate change denier with our own unelected Prime Minister in his pocket? They’ll die out soon as the ice caps melt and the air quality plummets (did I mention I was mired in negativity?); am I simply prolonging the inevitable?

This weekend, though, was a watershed for me. I need to fight through the silence. A wise friend asked me why I was not writing; I explained; she pointed out that now more than ever all voices, however minor and inconsequential (like mine – I have no illusions!), should be raised. No voice should stay silent against the rising tide of all that’s wrong.

In the shower, I thought about this. And a little sentence from a little book came into my head. Dr Seuss’s ‘Horton Hears a Who‘ – which is of course the story of the oppression of a minority group – the Whos, dwelling in miniscule Whoville – by a more powerful group, the Wickersham Brothers (this tale is ringing curious bells), a virtually voiceless group only heeded by one individual (the elephant Horton) who is himself oppressed and tortured for his support of the Whos (allegory alert!!) – has this sentence towards the end, as the Mayor of Whoville exhorts his citizens to action:

“We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts!
So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!” 

It’s the participation of the single previously silent Who that makes sure the Wickersham Brothers hear the cries of Whoville. The Wickersham Brothers change their tack; they view Whoville as a town of living things and vow to protect them, those who are more vulnerable than they are but who have the same unequivocable right to life.

Okay, so I’m not Horton. It’s difficult to stand up as one person with no involvement in the workings of the political classes, and even less influence. I’m not very brave at all.

But I cannot be the single silent participant, however quiet my voice alone may be. I have to be an honorary Who. I have to raise my voice along with the other voices trying to be heard protesting against the horrors unfolding around us daily, until, like the Whos, there is a loud enough chorus to be heard. Time to be silent no longer.

Brain in need of a reboot

17 Feb

No room in the brainMy brain has neither enough space nor sufficient individual compartments for the current pace of parenting. My memory has about 533kb spare; I can identify this clearly as that is the point where my phone refuses to cope with any more functional data requests and tells me it is ‘critically low on storage’, and I have to ‘manage storage’, which I do by backing up photos and deleting the latest round of offspring selfies and apps downloaded to battle boredom at points where things like car services and haircuts have exceeded duration expectations.

I haven’t yet found an app for automatically managing my mobile storage issues; and it seems that for managing the storage settings in my brain, well there isn’t an app for that either.

So the circuitry is starting to fizzle at the edges. Often I am trying to say something while speed-thinking something else, which goes horribly wrong in all processes; words are incorrectly substituted and children stare at me blankly, saying ‘Chicory?’ in a quizzical manner, leading me to realise that I have combined teeth-cleaning instructions with an attempt to recall the name of the leafy veg from earlier, which has ended badly for all concerned. Or I can picture the word clearly written in my head, but it will not translate to making the exit via the medium of speech. 

I do try and concentrate on one thing at a time, but I have a feeling that mono-focus starts and ends with the world of work.

To be fair, I think the main problem is to do with the number of queries and reminders parenting seems to require on an hourly basis. It definitely isn’t helped by my children’s insistence that I need to have two entirely separate conversations with each of them simultaneously. Sometimes I will congratulate myself on having seamlessly answered one question immediately followed by a second, asked within the same milli-moment, then realise (after some hours of panic and initially fruitless searching) that I have put my purse in the fridge so the chain of logic has simply broken down at a different, less immediately obvious, point. The numbers of items I have lost track of because I have been doing something useful with them while concurrently ensuring something else happens are legion. 

If I could select the files to delete in order to function efficiently in the here and now, it is clear to me what they would be. The stash of embarrassing memories 1994-2001, for a start. The ones that make me curl my toes still, they have no place here. And that would, to be fair, liberate several gig, maybe even a terabyte. All the lyrics to ‘When will I be famous?’ by Bros, I think they can go away now. Obscure back routes between various no longer visited mid-Kent locations are no longer necessary to be saved, particularly since we purchased an up-to-date sat nav. 

But they stubbornly seem to remain, so I will be seeking my purse in domestic appliances a while longer, I fear.

Rash words, Jeremy

2 Feb

Two hands, I believe

On Friday I took the car to the garage. It had a slow puncture, or so I believed, which needed to be addressed, and potentially a new tyre fitted. I told the nice mechanics at our usual garage what the problem was, and they took it to the bowels of the building for their diagnostic treatment. In the meantime L2 and I played Poisonous Creatures Top Trumps, which I would recommend heartily.

The mechanics came back to me with startling news. My diagnosis was wrong! The tyre was intact; it was a thinning of the beading around the wheel hub leading to minuscule quantities of air making a bid for freedom whenever we drove on it. Careful application of fresh sealant, no new tyre needed, job done.

Honestly, who would have thought that I, with no car mechanic qualifications or experience to my name, could have got that wrong? Well, probably most people would have assumed it was highly probable that I could be incorrect. Tyre’s deflating; it’s got to be a small hole in the tyre, right? Well, actually, not right. But then I am not and have never claimed to be a car expert. Insane idea. My diagnosis of the car’s issue was based on assumption of what as a layperson I believed to be likely. Doesn’t mean that it’s going to be the case. And that’s why I took the Zafira to the expert.

In 2014 I applied the same principles to my small son’s not-well-ness. His symptoms, to me, appeared remarkably similar to those expected for glandular fever. I Googled it, and voila! Glandular fever fitted the bill. Good old Google, giving us the answers we want since 1998. Crikes, I thought, poor kid, glandular fever’s nasty.

However, because as evidenced by my taking the car to a mechanic, and entrusting electrics to an electrician, and so on, I am a fan of the concept of the expert, and because the small boy had a spectacular temperature that wasn’t shifting, I popped to the out of hours GP at the hospital to have my glandular fever diagnosis confirmed.

But! Who would have thought that the symptoms of pneumonia are the same as glandular fever (to the unpracticed Google reliant amateur diagnostician, at least)? Thank goodness for the professionals, who got it right, treated my son quickly, kindly and correctly, and stopped something nasty becoming something very nasty indeed.

Jeremy Hunt, shame on you. As Health Secretary your duty of care extends to the nation (God help us) – we are meant to look to your advice to know what to do. Advising the population to turn to the Internet for knowledge that takes our doctors decades to learn, practise and perfect, is madness, and dangerous. You have pronounced some idiocy in your term of office, but this is simply demented.

Chilled to the bone – a book review of The Bones of You by Debbie Howells

5 Aug
IMG_1998Debbie Howells’ The Bones of You grabbed me from the very start. Howells tells the story of an apparently normal, borderline idyllic, English village where residents are wealthy commuters or work in agricultural or traditional ‘country’ pursuits, which is devastated by the murder of eighteen year old Rosie.
Most of the book is told from gardener, horse lover and mother of one of Rosie’s friends, Kate’s perspective, as she finds herself pulled deeper and deeper into the mystery of what happened to Rosie.
Through Kate we feel grief for Rosie’s death, as she attempts to comfort her own eighteen year old, Grace, and navigate her through the terrible task of coming to terms with what has befallen her friend; we feel empathy for Jo and Neale, Rosie’s parents, as through Kate’s eyes Howells draws a picture of devastation and disbelief; and we become intrigued as Kate is, almost against her and our own will, as she finds she cannot leave the crime alone.
Kate is a well-drawn picture of a woman who suddenly finds herself without a key focus of her life, as her daughter Grace leaves for university. It feels like her at times almost obsessive fascination with the Rosie case and Rosie’s family, particularly her mother, Jo, happens because she is trying to find a niche, to be needed as her daughter needed her before she struck out for her independence at University. This clever positioning makes Kate far more than a channel for the storytelling, and gives her character some real complexity and a very human face.
On one level The Bones of You is a straightforward whodunnit; but it has other levels much more complex than that, which is what made it such a compelling read. Of course I wanted to find out who murdered Rosie, but through clever use of flashbacks told in the dying Rosie’s voice, as she watches her life play back before her eyes, I ended up wanting to find out because I liked her as a character, and felt deep sadness for this young girl, forced to become mature way beyond her age, who had apparently seen her own tragic fate. Through the use of Rosie’s narrative voice, filling in gaps in our understanding and her back story, the novel also became a well-written exploration of abuse, its perpetuation and ongoing impact, and the different forms abuse can take. All told as a narrative, without authorial explanation, a clever technique for filling in the background and, since we uncover information as our lead characters Kate and Rosie do, providing various characters with motivation for murder, so names on the list of suspects ebb and flow, keeping me guessing almost to the end.
While I did guess ‘whodunnit’, I’m left with a sneaky suspicion this was through luck not detective insight!
With summer holidays upon us, this would be the perfect book to sling in your luggage – but don’t make it the only one you take. If it fascinates you anywhere near as much as it fascinated me, you’ll have read it in 48 hours!

Eat everything*

10 Apr

 

 On Tuesday I made a meal so disgusting that it could only be defined as left-overs from the start. It never attained the dizzy heights of being referred to as an actual current meal. At the first bite it was designated ‘something Daddy might like to try’; then swiftly downgraded to ‘the flavours might improve after a night in the fridge’; before plummeting unceremoniously to ‘let’s just put this in the bin’. I hate wasting food, so this is a dramatic and unprecedented decision which can only demonstrate how unpalatable the recipe in question – or at least, my interpretation thereof – was.

Although I can’t believe that substituting dried basil for fresh would have made such a sweeping 360-degree change as to make it something that normal people could actually eat. 

It got me thinking though about some of the unpleasant things I have made and / or sampled in the name of ‘why on earth not’. Even after having children I have never felt especially constrained by what ought in the name of all that’s holy go together in a culinary venture vs what should never be even loosely coupled. The kids stoically tolerate my cooking – L2, infamously and with my ongoing apologies to his first childminder – was initially post-weaning fed almost exclusively on quinoa (quinoa-with-x, ‘x’ being whatever seemed a nutritious ideal rather than a natural quinoa partner) which I can’t pronounce but was so fascinated that he actually ate that I was continually using to check he still did. 

It goes further back, too. There was the incident of the now infamous ‘water chestnut surprise’ – the ‘surprise’ of the title being that water chestnuts could ever be considered within a bolognaise sauce. And even more dim and distant, the dinner party I hosted just before my gap year travels began, when I flung entire sweetcorn (baby, ok, not full-size, my optimism has some boundaries) straight into a frying pan for a stir fry and wondered how on earth they were still one step less than al dente basically, ever.

Hope here is two-fold. Firstly M loves to cook – otherwise no-one could ever come round here to eat, ever. And secondly I am developing reserves of patience – or at least, now bothering to mine them – and will accept that a recipe is there for a reason. Just not that particular Koh Samui Thai salad recipe…

*almost