Saturday, 24 December 2011

THE FATHER CHRISTMAS FIB

Complicated fib, this Father Christmas thing.

It's great when they are little. As long as they aren't terrified out of their wits by the prospect of a strange, bearded man wandering around the house at night, then the magic is irresistible. They go to bed. Empty stocking. They wake up and....ta da... presents.

But then it starts to get tricky. Whilst I am generally delighted that my children are curious and question the world around them, I wish they would just take Santa at face value. Each year the plots and sub plots get more complicated as their enquiring minds develop. I have to think with the speed of a master criminal just to keep one step ahead of them. The occasional slip up is to be expected. If caught out, I change my story and move on. If I'm really stuck, I fall back on the rather feeble explanation that it's all magic.

Some of these may sound familiar.

'Yes I think Santa shops in Next too.'
'I'm not sure why Auntie June's present is wrapped in the same paper as your gifts from Santa.'
'I don't think Santa brings expensive electronic gadgetry for bedrooms.'
'I think he does have a budget.'
' I'm not sure it's a good idea adding something new to your letter at 5pm on Christmas Eve.'

You get the picture. But I have children of two ages. Whilst the Little Ones are on the cusp of discovery as far as the Father Christmas myth is concerned, the Big Ones have long since moved on. With various nods and winks they assist me with the conspiracy and wouldn't dream of spoiling it. But it is also important to maintain a degree of mystery for them too. Tempting though it is to discuss the complications of the lie with them, I have resisted.

Older children also bring a whole different set of problems with them.They go to sleep late. I go to sleep early, particularly when here is a family infused cooking fest to be dealt with the following day. This is another area where a degree of foresight on my part would have been helpful about fifteen years ago. Why did I encourage the excited toddler to place their stocking on their bed instead of hanging it on their door handle? Could I not foresee the difficulties I was creating for myself? Of course not. And so I sneak about trying not to rustle as they lie there pretending, for the sake of good form, to be asleep.

Of course I adore the excitement that goes hand in hand with the Father Christmas story but if I'm totally truthful, I shall not be sorry when it strikes them just how very unlikely it is and we can all happily pretend. Until then, I will track his progress with my Norad app and marvel at the speed with which he covers the ground.I will leave out mince pies and carrots and savour that moment in the morning when they see that, yet again, the magic has not let them down.

Merry Christmas to you all and may Father Christmas bring you everything your heart desires... because it is magic after all!

Monday, 12 December 2011

IT'S MY CHRISTMAS TOO

So, the tree is up and the house is full of twinkly lights. It must be nearly Christmas. And there are various other tell tale indicators of the impending festivities.

1. Every available spare inch of inaccessible cupboard space is filled with surprises.
2.We have run out of blu tac.
3. Each time I leave the house I come back to cards informing that a selection of delivery men have failed to deliver something.
4. My lists have sub-lists.
5. My voice is getting higher with every passing day.

I love Christmas but I think I like this bit best. This is the moment before the panic of forgetting the Stilton or a gift for the teachers has fully taken hold. This is the moment when I can listen to tacky 80s Christmas hits and still feel festive and nostalgic. At this stage, filling my freezer with tasty morsels still seems appealing.

Sadly, experience tells me that this remarkably calm period won't last. Already every evening is filled with a party or a show or both. This means that as the Big Day approaches everyone will get increasingly exhausted and consequently irritable. And then the children will break up from school and suddenly the order that I have spent weeks creating will be destroyed. They will try to eat everything that I have prepared. They will make tails out of tinsel and scatter sparkly coloured strings all over the floor.They will spring surprise gift requests on me at not quite the last minute so that there is just enough time to source the item before it's too late but with scant regard for my stress levels.

I will get more and more wound up as I try to ensure that everything to do with Christmas Day is as perfect as I can make it. I will scream and shout and moan that no one but me ever does anything and if they're not careful I'm going to cancel Christmas. I will spend the day itself in the kitchen striving to make the food the same as it was last year so that no unfavourable comparisons can be made (as if they ever would be.) I will collapse in front of the telly at the end of the day and feel ever so slightly let down that all my work has vanished in less than twenty four hours.

So, if I know all this, why don't I do something about it? Does it matter if the kids eat all the chocolate before Santa comes? Will anyone but me notice if there's a bit of dust? As long as the meal has the main component parts, does it matter what else there is? Of course it doesn't? The person who sets the hurdle so high is me. I want it to be the best that it can be so that I can be proud of it when it's all done and think to myself 'I did that!'

But I've decided there needs to be some give and take. This year, I'm not going to spend the time between now and then getting in a tizzy and feeling badly done to. So I have a new strategy which I'm hoping will result in a more relaxing holiday for everyone. In my preparations, I will aim for angel on the top of the tree but if reality happens to be the glittery bauble three branches down then so be it. After all, it is my Christmas too!

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

WHAT DO YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU GROW UP?

"I want to be Prime Minister!" announced one of my children over breakfast yesterday.
"Great idea!" I replied. "And what will you do?" There then followed a list of reforms that were planned, some more practical than others. Of course we both know that she is highly unlikely to take office any time soon and so the conversation was a kind of game.

But what happens when they really want to do something that's either highly unlikely or actually beyond them? Should I encourage them to follow their dreams or manage their expectations?

This is something that I think is becoming warped for all kinds of reasons. You only have to watch the X Factor auditions to know that something has gone wrong. I know it makes good telly to have the world's most tuneless singer caterwaul on national television only to be knocked back by the sniggering panel. Invariably the dumped performer makes a fuss, issuing threats to Simon Cowell and his ilk that they have missed the next big thing. What interests me is why did they think they had what it takes in the first place? Did no one take them on one side and point out the glaring truth about their lack of talent?

Historically, we British have always had a tendency to underplay ourselves. We didn't like to make a fuss, show off or get ideas above our station. Everyone knew their place and stayed there. By contrast, the first time I went to America I was immediately struck by how different the attitude was. If you wanted it and worked hard it could be yours. The only thing holding you back was you and all that. And lots of that attitude seems to be finding its way over here. Our previously inflexible class system is breaking down and there is far more social mobility than there used to be. Everyone is encouraged to do what they want and not be held back by old fashioned and preconceived ideas.

And all this is good. It's great in fact. Until you start telling everyone that they can achieve anything. Obviously there is our national obsession with celebrity but I don't just mean that. What if you have a child who loves animals? He is encouraged by his parents to believe that he can be a vet notwithstanding that his academic record will preclude him from achieving the necessary grades. Is being honest with him about what his future holds stifling his ambition or ensuring that his life is not blighted by disappointment?

The current system of grading students doesn't help. Previously, the grades would be distributed by percentage with the top 10% getting As. This meant that it was clear to all, not least the students themselves, where they might best pitch their ambitions. Is it any wonder that with so many students obtaining the top grades they all believe they can take on anything? But it's not true. We are selling them a lie. Of course there will be the odd one who under achieved and can outreach what seems to be their lot in life. But how many straight A students at GCSE have what it takes to study to be a doctor? And how would they know?

So what do I do? Do I let my child believe they will be a ballet dancer or a prime minister or a brain surgeon and hope that they are not too disappointed when they work out that it's not going to happen? Or should I manage their expectations towards something that is realistically within their grasp and have them wonder what if?

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

MIND MAPS

As you may know, I am studying for a degree in English Literature with the Open University and last night I had a tutorial. It's only the second one of this module and we are feeling our way somewhat as we try to work out what makes our fellow students tick without asking them any direct questions. Or maybe that's just me.

Anyway. last night's activity, as a precursor to the next assignment, was to compare and contrast two pieces of prose. This struck me as a tricky exercise. Apart from both being written in English, I was struggling to see anything that the two pieces might have in common.

My tutor suggested that we might like to use some kind of visual system to assist us in identifying the similarities. Colour coding perhaps? Or a mind map? At this point I nearly left. A mind map? On an English Literature course? What was the world coming to?

We broke into two groups, coincidentally split by gender and the girls set to on our out-sized piece of paper with our felt tips whilst the men shuffled awkwardly in their chairs and then scribbled some notes on the back of an envelope. Afterwards, my female tutor commented to my group that the results of the exercise were entirely predictable on gender grounds alone. Actually, I believe that the results had less to do with gender and more to do with age.

My group consisted of me and two much younger students whilst the men's group all had a good ten years on me and therein lies the root of their and my discomfort. What exactly is a mind map? What is its function and how can it possibly assist me in ordering my thoughts when it resembles something out of Star Trek and has no discernible order? I was brought up to write only in grammatically correct sentences. Numbered points were permissible at a push and possibly bullet points in an emergency. At no point in my education was it acceptable to allow my imagination to run amok all over the page. That was called a doodle and might result in a detention.

The colour coding I can just about get my head around. I am a girl after all and happy to play with coloured pens at a drop of a hat. Plus, I could see how that might work. Highlight all the narrative points in red, imagery in yellow, argument in green etc.. There is an ordered kind of logic to it. But the mind map concept seems a step too far for my stifled mind to deal with. I left the idea in a dark corner of the room where it could do no harm.

But if truth be told, I would love to have the kind of mind that can map itself with complicated twists and turns and connections marked in ever narrowing veins across the page. I like the idea of shaking my mind and watching what comes out in random order rather than the neat, down the page control that it usually displays. So I'm going to have a go - not with a compare and contrast task: I know my limitations- but maybe I could mind map Christmas or the plot for a story? After all, I like to think that I'm still capable of a new trick or two.


Tuesday, 15 November 2011

A UNIFORM APPROACH

The school attended by my older two children is bringing in Business Wear for the sixth form. A list has been drawn up of what constitutes 'business wear' which is useful because no two businesses seem to define that the same way these days.  And our school is not alone. Certainly around here most of the sixth forms seem to have gone down the same path.

I have been trying to work out what I think of the idea.  As ever in these matters, I begin with what happened when I was at school, which coincidentally was the same institution. We wore uniform, after a fashion. Blue skirt, blue jumper, white shirt. How this was interpreted was pretty much left up to us and in my case was a combination of what I could afford from my meagre allowance and what I could get past my Mum. We were a scruffy bunch - no two ways about it - but at least when I got up every day I knew exactly what to wear.

Things have changed since then. To distinguish between the children who are at school by law and those there by choice, uniform was scrapped for the sixth form. Perhaps the powers that be anticipated that the newly found freedom would be exercised stylishly like the French or prepily like the Americans. But we are English so what they got was a mixture of quirky, sexy and downright scruffy. Something needed to be done.

The something is the Business Wear. In theory, the sixth form will look well turned out with a pride in their appearance and an attitude that is ready for learning. In practice, they will all spend a lot of money on their own interpretation of the rules which may or may not match the school's and in time, I suspect, many of them will end up looking almost as scruffy as they currently do.

There seems to me to be an obvious solution. Why not just wear school uniform whilst you are at school? All the reasons that make a uniform a good idea are just as valid no matter what age you are. A sense of identity, a great leveller, a remover of distractions, putting on a uniform reminds you of what it is that you are meant to be doing, in this case learning.

It appears that I am old fashioned in this view. Apparently, the sixth formers want to feel superior to the rest of the school, to distinguish themselves from it. But, and here I seem to be terribly controversial, they are still school children. It seems to me that in this, as in so many other things, they are being allowed to grow up before their time.

Of course they are on the cusp of adulthood and about to step either into the working world or leave home for university but they haven't quite done it yet. Whilst I felt invincible at 17 and 18, I now know that my life had barely begun. Why thrust upon them the realities of the adult world before they need to face it? Should we not encourage them to be children for as long as we can? Address them as pupils, give them a uniform, make sure that they respect those around them. And then, when their wings are fully formed, nudge them slowly out of the nest and into the real world to discover it for themselves.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

DOMESTIC DISASTER

My washer broke down this week - words to send a chill down the spine of any woman. Of all my time saving devices, my washing machine is the one closest attached to my sanity. When it breaks, it as if someone has lopped off my right arm at the shoulder and then wiped the soggy end on my whites. It is a domestic catastrophe of biblical proportions.

My machine stopped mid-cycle and refused to play any more. It was one week out of its manufacturer's guarantee. We had had lots of letters through offering us appliance insurance and I had dutifully looked at them, researched their services on the internet and decided that it would be better to save the cash and then use a local man if we ever had a breakdown. Happy with my plan, I recycled the letters in the sure knowledge that as the machine was so new it was a wise decision.

So when the machine died so shortly thereafter, I cursed and stamped loudly and then rang my Guardian Angel, my brother, who took away and washed load upon load to get me through the weekend. Day one survived.

On day two, I dived into action with my emergency plan and rang the local man. He doesn't have a mobile so he doesn't ring you back until the end of the working day. I described the machine and the fault. He sucked his teeth and said that the machine was too new and complicated for him to fix but that I would have a five year parts guarantee. A day lost.

It's funny how when you have no washing machine you suddenly have the desire to wash everything that you possess. Cushion covers, coats and curtains all caught my disapproving eye and suddenly became high priority matters as my mind began to panic. On day three I rang the manufacturer who promised to have a man with me by day 6. That would be quite a backlog. After four days there were 24 shirts alone. I went out for coffee and took loads with me to spin whilst we chatted.

Day 6 arrived. The call was from 8am until 6pm. I arranged for someone to cover my school run and began to wait nervously, desperately hoping that whatever the fault was, the man  would have the part with him and could fix it on the spot. He did. He replaced the brushes, worn out in just a year and soon my house was again filled with the reassuring whir of the machine.

The seriousness of a broken washing machine is something that all woman understand. When you mention it, they adopt a look of horror, tinged with an flicker of relief that their machine is in full working order and either offer heartfelt sympathy or the use of their machine depending on how well they know you. It's a kind of domestic solidarity that I have come to rely on and which reminds me that we are all in this together. On the darker days, that knowledge is worth a lot.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

HOLIDAYS NOT EN FAMILLE

My baby is going away today. I wish she wasn't. I like to have everyone at home where I can touch them if I need to! It's not like it's the first time or anything. Brownie camp, school trips, a couple of music festivals and endless sleepovers mean that I regularly say goodnight to her in her absence. But this is different and a first for us. She is going on holiday with another family.

This concept is alien to me. I never went away with anyone else when I was a child and I never wanted to. It was the four of us and my brother and I played with whoever we managed to hook up with when we got there. Perhaps going away with your friend's family was less common then - or maybe it was just that no one ever invited me?

Now that I have my own family it would never cross my mind to take anyone else with us on the rare occasions that we all leave Ilkley together. Numbers are obviously an issue but with four children we are also pretty self sufficient. There is always someone to play with and the top two and bottom two are best friends, although they are sometimes reluctant to admit it. Adding someone else into the mix just causes trouble and fights where there weren't any before. With others around we get positioning, showing off and petty jealousies which never surface in the safe surroundings of your siblings.

But now I have to get my head round my child going on holiday with someone else. Will she be safe? How many of my ludicrously long list of dos and don'ts will be flouted? Will she come back slightly different to how she was before? I'd rather she didn't go. It leaves a big hole for the rest of us to try to fill.

And yet I have to say yes. Once I am sure there are no safety concerns then the rest of it is just a problem in my head. Keeping my family at my bosom and never letting go might be what my instincts are telling me to do but it's not in the best interests of my children. They need to explore the world and make discoveries for themselves and that includes seeing how other families function. And other families don't have the safety in numbers that we have. Mixed sex broods, big gaps and missing offspring all mean that sometimes there is room for a stowaway on a trip away. My child is vivacious, entertaining (if not a little loud) and polite. I hope she will make an attractive addition to a holiday grouping.

It's only three days and whilst she is leaving the country, her destination is Wales so I have no concerns about her getting lost. The family that she is going with are lovely and she will no doubt have a wonderful time and return a little bit more independent and worldly wise. And whilst she's gone I will tidy her bedroom and wait bravely for her to come home brimming with laughter and stories of her exploits.


Thursday, 20 October 2011

EXPLODING EXPLETIVES

I love to swear. I know I'm not supposed to. I'm a responsible parent, in control of my faculties and with an extensive vocabulary at my disposal. But sometimes only a swear word will do. Nothing else seems able to capture the moment as eloquently as an obscenity.

There are three main occasions when I feel the need to resort to inappropriate language. For, after all, I wouldn't want you to think that I'm f-ing and blinding at the drop of a hat.

1. In the face of sharp pain or immediate disaster. Into this category I would place stubbing my toe, for example. It really hurts. A nice round swear word is almost akin to morphine for taking away the pain. And surely you would forgive an outburst if a pint of milk were to smash to the floor or I drop the box of hundreds and thousands?

2. Frustration in extremis. Fridays are a good day to catch a frustrated expletive round here as that's the day I clean my house from top to bottom only to have my efforts annihilated within fifteen minutes of the kids getting home. I know it would be more appropriate to say 'For goodness sake' as I chase after them trying to rectify the damage but it just doesn't cut it.

3. Surprise - either good or bad. It doesn't really matter but both are likely to elicit the same response.

Whilst I have a fair few choice options in my armoury, I am not an arbitrary swearer. I only really use variations on two words. They are certainly not the most offensive but neither would I expect to hear them coming from the mouths of my children. My children are not allowed to swear. Oh dear me no. I'm not even happy with the ubiquitous OMG from them. I pick them up on it every time and will tut if their friends swear in my presence too, making light of it but nonetheless making it clear that we don't do that in our house. And that's how I was brought up. We absolutely did not swear. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever heard my dad use foul language even now.

What a hypocrite I am then as I regularly utter inappropriate expletives in front of my children. They roll their eyes and tick me off. Someone even suggested a swear box which I scoffed at because it's not that I can't control my swearing. Quite the reverse. If I swear in public, other than possibly in case 1 but sometimes even then, I will have made a calculated decision to do so. I will have considered all the ways in which I can express myself and, for whatever reason, have selected the swear word as being the one that most clearly expresses what I wish to convey. And that, I believe, is the way language should be used.

And so, somewhat arrogantly you might quite fairly say, I tell my children that when I am sure that their vocabulary is wide enough to give them as vast a range of possible options as I have, when I can see that they have not just sworn as a lazy response to what has happened or, worse still, out of a sloppy habit and when they completely understand the social effects of the way that they have chosen to express themselves then I might be more forgiving. But they aren't there yet and so they aren't allowed to swear. Until that day however, they are learning from a master!




Saturday, 15 October 2011

TO ZAP OR NOT TO ZAP?

I'm trying to make a decision. Should I have laser eye surgery? Or not?

I've been wearing contact lenses all day every day for almost thirty years. First hard ones in the 80s which were like little domes of glass. Solid, unforgiving, frequently lost on pub floors and regularly cleaned with saliva. Yuk! After trying various other types over the years, I now have daily lenses - the ultimate in laziness. No cleaning and you can pop then out wherever you want and throw them away.

But my eyes don't really like them. Shorter wearing times, deteriorating vision as the day progresses and corneal ulcers have all dogged my steps over recent years. But I loathe wearing glasses. You can see and feel them all the time and, with the recent fashion for rectangular lenses, there is always a blurred world around the edges of the clear central picture. And don't get me started on the impact on specs wearers of living in a damp climate.

I looked into laser eye treatment over a decade ago and rejected it as being impossibly expensive. Then in 2006 my husband had his done and again I was tempted. But it was too hard. Ferrying back and forth to appointments with three children in tow was unrealistic and sleeping with plastic cages over my eyes was not on option when I was up in the night feeding babies. So my vision went back on the back burner and on we went.

But this recent bout of steroid eye drops, trips backwards and forwards to hospital for endless checks and of course the risk that if the ulcers continue I might ultimately damage or lose my sight, has brought the whole idea back into focus.

So this week I went to see if laser eye surgery was an option for me. I spent two hours being tested and scanned, pupils dilated and eyes dyed yellow. They explained which operation I should have, how it would work, what results I could expect and what the risks were and they sent me away with a large pile paper and a decision to make.

As ever with me, the decision making process doesn't follow the path you might expect. I think I am pretty sure that the surgery itself is fine. Of course, success is not guaranteed but the odds are pretty highly stacked in my favour. It carries a level of risk but so does stepping out of my house and if I'd never taken any risks, my life would have been far less rich.

But it is going to hurt and recovery will be slow and uncomfortable because of the type of surgery that I have to have. I know pain and inconvenience shouldn't bother me. I've had four children after all. But it's hardly something I relish, especially when it's inessential.

Also, I will need reading glasses at once. Again, this is something that I've been waiting for as, one by one, all my friends have succumbed. Balancing the pros and cons, the better scenario is probably being able to see properly but need reading glasses than not but it does feel a bit like I'm doing a deal with the devil. 'I'll give you the power of sight but don't think you're getting away scot free.'

I think I will probably go ahead and just score a week or so from my diary to allow for recovery. Consistent amongst the numerous people of my acquaintance that have had it done and recommended the surgery to me is the phrase 'I wish I'd done it years ago.'  So, the date is fixed  and whilst I can cancel right up to the moment that I'm in the chair, I think I'll be there. After all, as I recently said, rhetorically and with more than a touch of irony, how wrong can it go?!

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

TEACH YOURSELF COMPUTERS

I could never describe myself as computer literate. On the wall above my desk there is a sketch of a PC with the words.

     'Hello. This is your computer speaking.
     You have no idea what you're doing, do you?'

It sums up how I feel pretty accurately.

About three years ago, made nervous by the way my primary school age children were able to run rings round me technologically and fearful of where this gap in our knowledge might lead me, I got myself a laptop. I have been more or less baffled ever since.

I'm not scared by computers. I trust that I can't do too much damage and that if I always read the pop up boxes, especially the ones that ask me if I'm really sure, then I should be OK. But I do find the whole thing terribly exasperating. Because I am self taught, I am sure I always find the most tortuous ways to achieve things. Photos in particular are an issue. I have all my photos in named folders in date order, as you might expect but when I get a new camera load in to be sorted, I have to set aside a good day and a half whilst I laboriously move them all about to where I want them. And the photoshop thing that opens each time is a complete mystery to me. I had a go at a bit of gentle editing but I'm not entirely sure where the computer saved the results to so I just forgot that I'd ever tried.

My computer tells me that its hard drive, a term I've never really got to grips with, is almost full but I have no clue as to what I should be deleting. My husband nearly had heart failure when he realised that three years worth of deleted emails are still there. Well, I clicked 'delete'. How was I supposed to know that all that did was move the redundant message from one folder to another?

You see, that's the trouble. No one has ever shown me this stuff. When I worked in an office I had a secretary to do everything related to computers. Back then, we hadn't even started emailing outside the office. So ask me to set up word document with anything more complicated than a few italics and I'm howling in frustration. Why does my numbering go awry? Why does the type keep returning to bold unbidden? It's all a mystery. It's like trying to understand Chinese without first mastering the alphabet.

I think I may have inadvertently fallen down an abyss between two stools. I am not of my parents' generation who believe the internet to be a bad and dangerous place and a nice, handwritten letter is much the best way to go. Similarly, I have never been educated or worked in an environment where computers are just taken for granted.

I think I would like my life to fall somewhere between the two extremes. Google is great but it's important to be able to use a dictionary. Sat nav is marvellous but maps are sometimes more effective. And if someone can explain iTunes to me, I'll be forever in their debt.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

SECRETS

Secrets. What do you do with them? So exciting when first told, they hang around your neck like Bilbo's ring, causing you to double check your every utterance in case you inadvertently give something away.

Nice secrets are hard enough:

                                       'Surprise party!
Don't mention it on pain of death.
 RSVP to this Box Office in Outer Mongolia.' 

I find that I lose the power of speech with the person concerned. Instead of day to day chat, I am reduced to inconsequential small talk which makes me appear at best dull and at worst as if the person concerned  has offended me in some unspecified manner.

Presents - they're another. You plan ahead and choose the most perfect gift for your loved one. But then you have to button your lip. You're dying to share your knowledge so that they too can bask in your cleverness at finding just the right thing. But you can't. Then doubt creeps in. What if they don't like it? Perhaps you ought to check that you've been thinking along the right lines? It's no wonder the kids struggle to keep their mouths shut after they have finished the wrapping.

But what about bad secrets? What do you do with those? Not long since, I told a friend a bad secret involving someone close to them. How did they react? They shot the messenger. Did I say shot? I meant obliterated with a bloody great blunderbuss. I won't be doing that again.

However, what if the secret affected me and mine? Would I want to know then? After my recent experience, I have given this a lot of thought. The people that I have related my story to all looked at me with horrified faces and told me in no uncertain terms that they would want to know whatever it was that I knew. But would they? Really?

One of the disadvantages of living in such a small and inward looking town is that no matter what you do, someone will find out. I tell my children this with great delight. 'I know everyone,' I say. 'You step out of line and someone will tell me.' But would they? Perhaps they, like me now, think it wiser to keep their own counsel rather than risk an adverse response.

After careful consideration, I have decided that I would want to know and I trust my closest friends to tell me. Because, for all the humiliation that it might cause, all the feelings of doubt and disbelief that are likely to rampage around my mind, if I don't know about it I can't sort it. If I continue in blissful ignorance of some fact which, if it came to light, would make me behave differently, then in the long term, I will be poorer. I will have missed the opportunity to try and put right the wrong, straighten the path. I like to think that I am grown up enough to rise above the pain that the revelation might cause and just be grateful that someone had the courage to tell me.

But if you do hear something bad about one of my lot, tell me when I'm sitting down!



Monday, 3 October 2011

PARENTING - HOW HARD CAN IT BE?

When my children were small I remember how those with more experience than me always said the same thing.

"You think it's hard now? Just wait until they're older."

Whenever I heard that, I just used to smile wanly through my veil of exhaustion and hope that they were saying it for effect. After all, it couldn't get any harder than two children under two and a full time job crammed into four days on next to no sleep. Could it?

In my turn, I repeated the adage to those with children younger than mine. I remember almost causing a stand up row at a birthday celebration by asserting that it was, in fact, true. The older they get the harder it becomes.

Now that I have emerged, almost unscathed, from pre-school hell and have two teenage children to boot, I feel able to be more circumspect in my consideration of the issues. Parenting is tricky, whichever stage you're at. It is hard with very young children because they are so demanding of your time and sleep is at such a premium. But it's not challenging. They cry, you work out what is wrong and hopefully sort it. They smile, your heart melts and all is well.

Pre-school years, my own personal nemesis, are hard. Dealing with a child that thinks it can when actually it can't is frustrating to say the least and I found the constant repetition soul-destroyingly dull. 

I look back on my life with four children aged 7 and under and compare it to how it is now. When they were little it was relentless. I had no time to call my own. Even leaving the house was an effort.  I was time poor and would have given my right arm for an uninterrupted cup of coffee. But I now look back at the things I agonised over and laugh. How I fretted about whether I should allow my child a break time snack of jam sandwiches? How I worried about why the teacher wouldn't tell me precisely where in the class my little darling sat in terms of intelligence?

Fast forward to now. By comparison, my days are easy. The children are all gone for hours on end. My evenings are filled with ferrying them backwards and forwards which isn't hard and I no longer have to jam everyone in the car with me every time I go anywhere. But the parenting? That's something else altogether.

Last week alone we encountered exclusion from school for possession of drugs, chemically induced abortion and oblivion due to alcohol. Not the actions of my children as far as I'm aware but children not that far from our lives. Not the children about whom you might knowingly shake your head but nice ones from nice homes with nice parents just like me. 

This is where things get tough. I'm starting to understand what those prophetic parents must have meant. Keeping your children safe from an ever-encroaching adult world, helping them to make grown up decisions when they are nowhere near being grown up and hardest of all doing it without driving them straight into the path of the thing you are seeking to avoid.

When they were little, all  I had to do was say no and stick to my guns. Now the decisions are bigger, more important and may make a difference to how the rest of our lives pan out. I'll confess to being a bit overwhelmed by it all, feeling my way in the dark for a light switch that keeps moving. All I can do is keep on doing what I think is right and hope that it all turns out for the best. Deep breath Imogen.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

TV IN THE DIGITAL AGE

So Ilkley has entered the digital age. Last week, the analogue television signal to our little town was turned off and now if you want to watch you have to do so through Sky, cable or a set top box. Apparently.

I know this because of the irritating advert campaign that has been running for the last year. However, I have no meaningful understanding of what this actually means. I don't suppose I need to know except that the way the four 'real' channels and the Sky stuff is now distributed around my house is different and what I can watch where depends on the wiring and the age of the set. Apparently.

Now I don't mind change and I try to embrace technology but I have to confess that I struggle with modern television. I'm not one of those who says that everything that comes from Sky and cable is rubbish. If you are discerning and pick carefully, there are some really good programmes and some of the repeats have a kind of comfort factor, like an old sweater or a fire on a chilly night.

My gripes with modern TV lie in the sheer embarrassment of choice. When I was a child there were three and latterly four channels and video recorders could be found in only the very smartest of houses. This meant that everyone watched the same programmes at the same time. We would wait all week for an episode of Starsky and Hutch and then spend the next day discussing it with our mates and quoting chunks of dialogue at each other.  There was a kind of sociability about our viewing. Just look at the viewing figures, numbers that producers today can only dream of.

Now, the chances of you and your friend having either watched the same programme or watched it at the same time are very slim indeed. Discussion is stymied because someone in the room will have recorded it and not managed to catch up yet. Others are weeks behind because the series link button allows you the luxury of recording something without even realising that it's on.

Family viewing is another casualty. Whilst there were moments when I wished I wasn't watching with my mum and dad, generally when the TV was on it was family affair so we would be found in the same room doing the same thing.

I know I could insist on selecting and watching programmes with my children but our viewing habits haven't grown up like that and they watch things that hold no interest for me. So they sit in one room with America's Next Top Model and we sit in the other with Spooks.

I know that modern TV is convenient, that I can watch what I want on demand and pause it if the phone rings but I think I preferred it when you either watched or you missed it. So as we enter this new, exciting and somewhat mysterious digital age, I can't help but remember the good old television of my youth with more than a little wistfulness.




Wednesday, 21 September 2011

CRISIS OF CONFIDENCE

It's been nine days since my last post. My output has dropped from at least twice a week to...well, to who knows what. I did think about stopping, either permanently or at least until something worthy of comment happened to me. That would be the easiest thing, I thought. But then I've never been awfully good at the easiest thing. Instead I revert to type. I analyse. I work out what has caused the slow down in output and try to figure out how to fix it.

Well, what has caused my uncharacteristic silence is easy to identify. Nothing to write about. Simple. But then I have to ask why I have nothing to say. My life hasn't been particularly devoid of excitement over the last week or so. In fact it was my birthday so that alone could normally generate a least three decent ideas. It is true that after 313 posts there is a danger of revisiting old ground but let's be honest, who is ever going to notice except me?

So, my analysis continues, if life has continued apace with plenty of material to go at, why have I not sat down and written anything? Lack of time? I don't think so. I waste masses of time. I can always find a slot to put pen to paper.

Confusion strikes me now. I have subjects to write about. I have time. I have written nothing. Why not?

Of course, I know why not. My personal soul searching is just a thinly disguised attempt to take myself to places that I don't want to go. I know exactly what's wrong. I write loads when I'm feeling either:
a) supremely self confident that what I publish is witty or thought provoking or both and will elicit a positive response from those who read it; or
b) I don't care whether people think it is or not.

Ergo at the moment I feel neither of those things. When you start to worry about what people say or in my case, don't say about what you choose to reveal in such a public forum then suddenly it becomes too difficult to do. I fret about how my words might be misinterpreted. I harbour concerns about the impact that my public laundry service might have on those that I love best. Sometimes I even worry what my mum and dad might think.

And then suddenly there's no spark, no devil may care attitude and no blog!

I like to blog. I like that it makes me organise my thoughts into some kind of coherent argument. I like the record that it is forming of our day to day life which will be there when we have all forgotten what got us steamed up. But most of all I like that I can say what I think without fear.

So I need to ditch the worries or it won't work. I need to rediscover the me that doesn't care what others think on the basis that if they hate what I write then they won't bother reading it. Most importantly, I need to remember how to not take life too seriously. So please stick with me. Normal service should be resumed shortly.

Monday, 12 September 2011

PUSHY PARENTS

Someone suggested that I was a pushy parent last week. It grated. I have never considered myself in those terms. However, the suggestion did give rise to some musing on the point. I've been wondering what I see as pushy, how I believe I differ from that description and what those around me might think ( although I have to confess to being relatively unconcerned about the latter.)

When we were children, my brother and I had pretty strong ideas about what constituted a pushy parent. Our parents did not come close and, with the security that that knowledge provided, we mocked mercilessly those that we thought did fit the bill. Certain of our friends' parents were to be avoided at all costs and we took a kind of pride in keeping our own achievements well under our bushels, proof positive, we believed, that we were not the product of a pushy environment.

When my children were babies, I was very aware that it was a thin line that I walked. How easy it would be to tip over into being something that I had mocked. In groups of women, their names now lost in the mists of time, I soon discovered that no one really listened to what was said about a child that was not their own. They were simply waiting for a gap in the conversation where they could insert some other amazing detail of their own offspring's development. I missed proper conversation. I went back to work.

At school it was the same. Mothers telling me loudly and often about how far up the reading tree they were. Entries for school competitions which had the tell tale signs of an adult's hand. Parents whose path to the Head's office was so well worn that they could walk it with their eyes closed. That was not and still is not me.

So why might I be perceived as pushy I thought. Well, my children are busy. Perhaps that's it? Maybe busy children can be equated with the style of parenting that allows for no gaps in the schedule lest boredom creep in. But our busyness is organic. The children's enthusiasm, joie de vivre and, dare I say without sounding pushy, talent has filled their every spare moment. In many ways it would suit me if they didn't show such vigour and we had some more downtime but I see my role as a mother to facilitate their desires as long as it is prudent to do so.

I suspect the downfall of my reputation as a non pushy parent has been facebook. It is the perfect platform to show how proud I am of my children's achievements (although, ever conscious of reaction because part of me does care what people think, I keep a lot of their successes back.) This may be seen as boasting, something my brother and I ridiculed but I believe hard work should be rewarded with praise and I am always pleased to see the achievements of other people's children trumpeted in a similar manner.

At the end of the day, we are all doing our best to bring up our children. I hope that I am helping my four to grow into rounded, confident and happy adults by supporting and encouraging them and providing advice and guidance when they reach a crossroad. If this is pushy then bring it on. I happen to think it's what parenting is all about but none of us will really know how we've done until they are grown and by then it will be too late!


Thursday, 8 September 2011

THE JEANS DILEMMA

Driving through Bradford yesterday, I chanced to sit in a queue outside a sari shop and so had plenty of time to admire the outfits in the window. They were beautiful. The fabrics, some in strong, jewel colours, others more subdued and elegant, were all delicately embroidered with metallic thread and there were beads and sequins to accentuate the designs and add sparkle. I could have walked in and bought any one of them.

Then I looked down at my own attire. Jeans of course, on their second day and so slightly bagged at the knee and with a paler patch where I fell and rubbed the indigo out. A nice enough top, grey cotton with lace but nothing special. None of it could be called smart and nothing came anywhere close to making me feel like a woman.

Now you may say that the only person who controls what I wear is me and therefore I only have myself to blame if I don't feel that I can hold a candle to the women in their saris. And this is of course true. I am solely in charge of my own wardrobe and consequently the image that I  project to the outside world but I am also a product of my environment.

When I worked in an office in the 90s I tried to look the part. Suits, blouses and heels were the order of the day every day. But then my home became my workplace and things changed. I needed practical clothing, stuff that I could wear to crawl around on the floor with the children, that could withstand constant washing and would protect me from the elements whilst walking around town. Jeans. They fit the bill.

I've been wearing jeans for over ten years now. There is a brief spell in the summer when I cast them off but generally that's what I'll be in. At the start of every season I peruse the catalogues and make half hearted decisions to smarten my wardrobe. Sometimes I even buy things. A skirt perhaps or some tailored trousers. But they don't get worn. They either aren't comfortable or I never find the perfect shoe. And most days nobody actually sees what I have on underneath my coat so there hardly seems any point making an effort.

But I do miss dressing as a woman and making an effort. Heels make you carry yourself in a particular way and if you are wearing a skirt you have to think about how and where you sit. I have now reached the point where I have barely anything feminine in my wardrobe. If someone were to invite me somewhere smart for lunch I would have to go shopping first. I watch 50s films and long for an age when clothes had structure and were well tailored instead of soft and designed to hide a multitude of failings. And yet if I bought these things they would never get worn.

I know myself well enough now to know that there's no point planning to change my image this season; nothing will change. However, staring wistfully at those beautiful garments yesterday did make me wonder whether perhaps I ought to make a little more effort.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

THE DISNEY DREAM

One of the many reasons why I love 'Pride and Prejudice' is that it is so relevant to me. I, like Elizabeth Bennett, am constantly leaping to conclusions based on ill founded ideas and then having to change my mind. A case in point is our family's recent holiday to Disney World in Florida.

I'm happy to admit that taking the children to Disney was something that I felt we ought to do rather than a burning ambition. However, having decided that the ages of the children made this an optimum year, we booked. I was pretty certain that it would not be for me despite having no concrete evidence on which to base my decision. I imagined small, overcrowded spaces filled with screaming children. I visualized men dressed in unconvincing animal costumes and expected banal platitudes at every turn.

Boy was I wrong? The Disney parks are huge, clean, immaculately manicured. The paths between areas are wide with perfect flowerbeds and water features. There was no litter and no signs of wear and tear on anything despite the huge numbers of people passing through each day. And it all ran like clockwork. Getting all those people through the queues and on to the rides is no mean feat but it was achieved with order and decorum. At no point did my children moan whilst waiting because there was always something to look at or do to keep them entertained.

Even leaving the park was trouble free. We watched the fireworks at Epcot on our last night. There were thousands of people there who all left at the same time as us and yet we were in our car and on the road within 15 minutes of the show ending. Incredible.

So, once I'd relegated my prejudices to the back of my mind, I got on with the task of enjoying myself. We were there for 14 days and were at a park for 12 of them. I had imagined that we would be able to bear no more than a week of it with quieter days in between. In fact, as it turned out we spent our quieter days at Disney's water parks and had no time off at all. There was too much to do to sit still for long. However, having commanded a mission to Mars, taken part in a disaster movie, watched countless 3 and 4D shows, spent some time on safari in Africa and driven a car on a test track (amongst countless other things), I found that I lost my grip on what was real. It was all rather intriguing.

Yes the Disney message is all a bit mushy and over sentimentalized. Memories are made here. Dreams can come true. But somehow I found myself buying into that because, fundamentally, that is what I believe too. Work hard, aim high and seize the day is not a bad mantra for life.

I don't need to go back. We had a fabulous holiday but the world is a big place and I feel I have taken from Disney what it has to offer me. However, I would now have no hesitation in recommending the American Disney experience to anyone, no matter how sceptical they are. Of course, Orlando is big and brash. The roads, the cars and the portions are all huge but the customer service is exceptional and the attention to detail is second to none. The Disney experience is something that I don't think we could do here. We don't have the space and our attitude is all wrong. But there with the American 'can do' philosophy it works like a dream. And dreams can come true!


Thursday, 11 August 2011

PAINTING THE FORTH BRIDGE

I'm a tidy person by nature. I like things to be straight. If a room isn't as it should be then I can't relax in it until it is. And of course, if I can't then neither can my family because I will huff and puff and make a huge fuss until it's all sorted.

It was the same when I had a busy job. To ensure that nothing got overlooked, I had tidy piles of paper dotted around my desk so that at any moment I could see what was still awaiting my attention. This was how I maintained the illusion of control for myself. My boss had a room that looked like a bomb had gone off in it. I used to hyper-ventilate just standing on its threshold. Paper was piled upon paper upon paper so that it was impossible to find a flat surface on which to work. And yet, if you asked him where anything was he could immediately lay his hand on it. He had control in his chaos - his brain was clearly bigger and with better wiring than mine.

Unfortunately, being anal about tidiness does not always sit happily in a house with four children. They fail to understand how important to my mental well being a tidy house is and I cannot comprehend how they can walk into an ordered room and destroy it in a matter of seconds without even a nod to its former pristine state. So it's a bit of an unhappy mix and I have to bite my tongue and close my eyes to it to save myself from going mad.

I do have some understanding though. Don't tell my kids but I wasn't a tidy child. I too had drawers that were so crammed full of stuff that they wouldn't close. The catchphrase 'Don't open that cupboard! Things fall out!' could have been written for me. Too much stuff, not enough space and no interest in achieving more than the merest modicum of tidiness to get my mum off my back. That was me. And, it appears, is them.

Task for the summer - sort my eldest's room. The others need attention but hers was the worst. We tackle it storage unit by storage unit. The desk, the bedside table, the vanity unit and finally the wardrobe. We do it together. She is good at throwing away and we fill bag after bag of clutter in a satisfyingly Cathartic manner. The result is impressive. A place for everything and everything in its place. There were even clear spaces waiting ready to be filled. It was great. I feel calm and she is pleased.

It lasted less than a day. Fresh ironing hidden rather than hung up. Toiletries left on the side rather than in their newly allocated spot. Bags, scarves, clothes, magazines all not where they were supposed to be. Previously this blatant disregard for my tidiness would have resulted in a minor explosion of anger but slowly I'm resigning myself to it.

I'm not giving in. I remain unchanged. If it's not tidy I twitch. That's just who I am. But I can't make them who I am. They will learn to be tidy or they won't. There is nothing that I can do about it. I hope they will have enough respect for me and their environment to make some sort of effort but if I want the house like a new pin then I'm afraid that that is going to have to be down to me. At least my square metre is straight!



Wednesday, 3 August 2011

JUMP? HOW HIGH??

An article in The Sunday Times got my goat this week. To be fair, I was determined to hate it when the tag line read  'How do the Nation's Top Mummies get their kids eating veg?' Already my hackles were rising. Exactly who are these 'top mummies'? Do they give out awards? Can we all vote? As suspected, the article was actually referring to celebrity mummies. Those mummies who have to give their children to someone else to look after whilst they are out becoming famous and making plenty of money to then spend on vegetable gurus who can tell them how to make their little darlings eat vegetables. ( I did warn you that my goat had been got!)

I didn't read the article first time round, so incensed had I been by its basic concept but as I turned the page my eyes were drawn to a plateful of bright orange spaghetti and yet again I was sucked into the text. The recipe began with a nice little suggestion as to how to make it a hit with your children. 'Ask your children to arrange the carrots in order of size.. get them to count out the sage leaves.... encourage them to smell the sage and talk about its lovely silvery green colour.'

God give me strength. This is such a ludicrous suggestion that if I hadn't been weeping I would have laughed. Perhaps if you only have one child, do not work and have patience of Job this might be a good wheeze? Now, I may be on my own in this regard but in my house food preparation is a much a chore as cleaning the bathroom. I want my food, albeit freshly cooked and wholesome, prepared and cooked with as little fuss as possible. As I chop vegetables there will be someone playing tig around the island, another telling me that if they don't eat ' in like five minutes' they are going die, someone needing help with homework, someone trying to tell me something trivial about their day which is clearly a coded message for something more important that I have to decipher and I will be clock watching to make sure that I time the meal to fit in between the various extra curicular classes that that evening holds in store. There is absolutely no time for counting carrots.

And this is what makes me cross. All households are different. We all have different priorities and ways of doing things. But as far as I can see we all have one thing in common. We are all just doing our best. So reading in the Sunday paper that it if I do not engage my children in the cooking process I will not get them to eat vegetables, that this makes me second tier to the 'Nations Top Mummies' and consequently a failure as a  parent is unhelpful at best and downright irresponsible at worst. Being a parent is an incredibly difficult job, made worse by constant comparisons with others and the enormous list of things that we are supposed to achieve, eating vegetables being just one of them.

My children do eat some vegetables and the list of what they will contemplate gets longer every year. This is a result of living in a house where vegetables are served as a matter of course. I pity all those mothers, particularly those with children much younger than mine, who opened their Sunday magazine to be hit over the head with how inadequate their parenting was because they do not count vegetables with their off spring. Come on Media. Give us parents a break.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

My given name is Imogen Jane Bromley and so it was until I reached 28, got married and, following age old tradition, took my husband's name. Growing up in the 70s with a name like Imogen was a challenge. It's hard to imagine now that the name is so prevalent but back then it was unheard of. When introducing myself I generally had to repeat my name more than once. Adults smiled politely and then didn't call me anything for weeks. Children just said 'What? That's not a real name.' etc etc. I was 18 before I even heard of another one that wasn't famous and in my twenties before I met one.
 
It was character forming. If someone was talking about Imogen then it was always me. That was just how it was, good or bad. And Bromley was relatively unusual too. Even by the time I was an adult and announcing myself on the telephone at work, the secretaries would only get one name or the other first time. When I changed my name there was less of an issue. Clark is so easy to get hold of that Imogen proved to be less of a stumbling block.

I'd been married for a year when I discovered that there was another Imogen Clark. She is a solicitor working for a City law firm and she works within the same discipline as me. I didn't like it one bit. I wasn't used to sharing my moniker with anyone, let alone someone with whom I might reasonably be confused.

There are, of course, thousands of Imogen Clarks. Imogen has been in the Top 100 names for years now and Clark, even allowing for the rogue 'e' at the end of some versions, is a Top 20 surname. I used to ask my husband how it felt to have people shout out his name in a public space and it not be for him. I think he thought I was mad but to me it was the strangest thing. It's more common now of course but when mothers shout at their own little Imogens I always turn round.

This is all writ large for me these days because of my blog and more specifically my stat counter. The counter tells me how many hits the page gets each day and the links that have been followed to get there. So I know that when people search for 'Imogen Clark' on google, it's not always me that they're looking for. There's an author for example and an Australian indie/folk singer with the sweetest voice. Someone once even posted a comment that they loved my music. I had to tell them that they were acting under a misapprehension and that the Imogen Clark whose life they were reading about was not the one they sought.

I have toyed with the idea of setting up a closed group on facebook for everyone with my name just to see what a diverse bunch we actually are. I might still do it but even though I think it would be great fun, something still holds me back. Somewhere in my head I am still that unique child with the unheard of name and I am unprepared to share.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

HAVING FUN WITH LEG-WARMERS

It's high summer. My garden is in full bloom. The children are playing barefoot on the lawn late into the evening. I wait all year for this. But lo. What is this falling through my letterbox and landing with an ominous thud on the doormat. Could it be the sound of Autumn/Winter catalogues arriving?

I should know better than to look. Instead of anticipating what comes next, I should be enjoying what we have now. But I can't help it. The lure of cable knit sweaters is too much. So I have a little peak. After all, what harm can it do? It's not like I'm wishing away my beloved summer or anything. And what do I see? Girls in jeans and boots with long-length cardigans and tousled scarves. And leg-warmers.

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I've always been quite attracted to leg-warmers. Even in the 80s, when they were only worn by fitness freaks, Fame wanabees and Bucks Fizz, I really fancied a pair. And here they were, in my new catalogue. I want some. I need some. I am absolutely not paying £36 for some.

I know. I'll make some. I can knit. I made fingerless gloves and wrist warmers last winter. These are just the same only longer. I need a pattern though. Whilst they are simple and I am a competent knitter, I need to have success guaranteed or I'll lose heart. I need a pattern that looks like the one in the catalogue.

And so I begin to trawl my way through the knitting sites. I come across hundreds of leg-warmer patterns but none of them are quite right. You see my requirements are very specific. A simple rib is not enough. I need a cable too. But if it's complicated and I have to concentrate whilst knitting then I will go wrong and lose interest. It's a very fine line between looking right and lying unfinished in the bottom of my knitting bag.

After what seems like hours, my vision is starting to blur but I still  have no perfect pattern. And then I find it. Not too complicated, the exact rib to cable ratio. Marvelous. The pattern is free and I click on the PDF file, my heart beating a little faster in anticipation of Autumn walks and kicking through leaves. The pattern is in Japanese. I hit translate which makes the surrounding adverts intelligible but leaves the pattern itself a mass of squiggles. Damn.

Undeterred, I decide to go with my second choice of pattern and visit the helpful women at my wonderful local wool shop Create. They are full of sound advice, won't laugh at my desire for simplicity and the result, assuming that I don't lose count and get disheartened, should be just what I'm hoping for.

This way I get to do something non screen related in the evening and by the time the nights are drawing in and jeans and boots are de rigour, I should be sporting a natty pair of leg-warmers. Or the yarn will be lying in the bottom of my knitting bag. tangled with the mess of other unfinished projects, waiting for today's enthusiasm to re-emerge. It's a hard one to call.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

WHY I HATE FESTIVALS

We went to a festival this weekend, Deer Shed in North Yorkshire. It is billed as being kids and family friendly and I would have to agree with the tag line. When I arrived, the field was full of happy people. There were men doing battle with tents, children playing on space hoppers, mums with plastic glasses of Pimms, rainbow jumpers and lots and lots of smiling faces.

There were oodles of creative crafts for the children to try, interesting stalls with quirky handmade stock to purchase and fabulous food stalls with hardly a chip in sight. There was a circus tent and the music and the beer tents. There was plenty of fresh water to drink and the loos were remarkably clean. The organisers had thought of everything.

My family had a wonderful time. There were plenty of people there that we know from home and the children formed a huge feral pack and careered around the site wallowing in the unaccustomed freedom. The adults found a place to act as the base and spread blankets surrounded by camping chairs so the children always knew where to return to if their nerve failed them or they ran out of cash. Everyone looked happy and relaxed.

Except me. I hated it.

 As far as I am concerned, it had no redeeming features whatsoever. I arrived half way through the weekend and left again before the day was out. Of the two days and nights that my family was there, I managed seven hours but I would have happily left after three.

So what's wrong with me? Why am I swimming so hard uphill when everyone else is happy to grab a rip tide and enjoy the ride. The list of things that I don't like about festivals is so long that to even begin to mention them makes me sound like a fuddy duddy killjoy. Sadly, it seems that I am the only person of my acquaintance who doesn't love it. Despite mentioning my view tentatively to a wide range of people, I have yet to find anyone who replies 'I know exactly what you mean. I hate it too.' I am completely on my own. I did wonder whether some other people didn't enjoy it quite as much as they made out but were happy to go with the flow but I saw no evidence of this.

I'm not going next year. I shouldn't have gone this year but I felt guilty when the rest of the Clarks were so keen. I am hurt and upset that I am incapable of doing something as simple as sitting in a field for a weekend to please others. It is probably just selfish of me not to smile and pretend that I'm having the best time and I'm sure that the others must think that I'm weird or mad or both.

Perhaps I should cultivate my slightly eccentric demeanour, begin wearing purple now rather than in old age? Then people will say 'Oh it's only Imogen. Don't mind her. She always was a little odd!'

Perhaps they already do.

THE POWER OF SUGGESTION

I was listening to a science show on the radio. It was about the relationship between science and the world of the psychic phenomena. It made lots of interesting points about the need for humans to have explanations for things, particularly in times of stress although the existence of anything paranormal was poo pooed.

As part of the programme, they asked the studio audience to conduct an experiment. It was introduced as a way of finding who had the most imagination. Of course, what it was really about was susceptibility. I was at home on my own so I joined in.

So. If I could now do a straw poll of my readership, I wonder how many of you would say that I, self-confessed sceptic and truster in science, would fall for something as simple as that? Alternatively, you may feel that I have some powers of imagination and a tendency to believe the unlikely which might be revealed by such a test. I suspect you could all have a pretty good guess as to which side of the line I fell.

Actually, the key word is 'susceptibility'. With my logical, rational head on I cannot be convinced of the existence of higher powers, ghosts and communications from beyond the grave. But I would like to believe in fairies, am highly credulous, easily deceived and like to think I can be open minded.

Of course I fell for the experiment hook, line and sinker. Even as the instructions were being spoken, I was aware that I was being manipulated but when I opened my eyes it was obvious that some stronger part of my brain had taken over and decided that I was, unwillingly or otherwise, going to cooperate with what I was being told to do.

Of course, this isn't the first time that my susceptibility has been proven. A hypnotist came to the Students' Union one night when I was there. Guess where this is going! We had to lace our fingers over our heads and the ones who couldn't separate them when he'd finished suggesting things to us were judged suitably susceptible and had to go up on stage. There were about twenty of us. Without giving any indication of how he did it, the hypnotist quickly identified those who were pretending and sent them back to their seats. This left me and nine others to make the show.

It's a strange experience, being hypnotised. I was aware of what was going on the whole time. I knew that the things that he was asking us to do were silly or required  a leap of imagination - invisible chairs, dripping ice creams, alcoholic water - but somehow it all seemed perfectly sensible and quite ordinary.

So, from this I must conclude that I am someone to whom things can be suggested and I will believe them. I am Derren Brown's dream audience member. Despite my professed logical outlook and pragmatic approach to life, there is something about the way my mind works that makes it open to things that don't make much sense. But should I be bothered? Does it reveal yet another massive character flaw? I suppose I rather like to think of myself as having imagination but isn't that just a nice way of saying that I'm a mug?

Actually, all it means is that I can be hypnotised. It doesn't follow that I will start attending seances and believe that a woman with a crystal ball can predict my future. It is fascinating though and I would love to talk to a hypnotist about why their powers work on some people and not others and what it is about my brain that makes me susceptible. It's probably just my tendency towards gullibility but I like to think that that's part of my charm!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

A MOMENTARY LAPSE

6

            Natasha Blakeman sat at the table in her well appointed kitchen and wept. In the next room the twins were fighting over a toy train or a book or a jigsaw puzzle. She had no idea exactly what. She no longer cared. In a bouncy chair by the table leg Lily was crying. Her little fists were bunched in anger and her screwed up face was squeezing out real tears. Natasha put her fingers in her ears and tried to block out the sound but the piercing cry continued to sear straight through her brain. Hot tears coursed down her cheeks.
            ‘Will you all just shut up!’ she screamed. For a moment, the sudden and unexpected sound made Lily stop crying and she looked with curiosity at her mother but then she redoubled her efforts as the shock of the sound hit her. Natasha, horrified both by her outburst and the effect that it had had on her daughter, knelt down beside the bouncy chair. She struggled with the buckle as she tried to release the screaming child from the straps that held her safe and the unforgiving plastic clip nipped her finger. Ignoring the pain she freed the baby and held her close to her chest, rocking her back and forth instinctively.
            ‘I’m sorry, Princess. I’m sorry,’ she repeated over and over through her tears. Noah and Jacob stormed in to the room, both desperate to put their side of the story before their sibling.
            ‘Mummy! Jacob said I was stupid!’
            ‘ Noah took the tractor and I had it and its mine.’
            ‘No it’s not. It’s mine. Uncle James bought it for me for my birthday didn’t he Mummy? Didn’t he? And you can’t have it. I want it back. Give it to me now.’
With that, Noah hit Jacob on the arm with the length of train track that he had in his hand.
            ‘Boys! Stop it! Can’t you just play nicely? Please.’ Natasha knew that begging her four year old sons to behave would not have the desired effect but she no longer had the energy to apply the strategies that she had read about in her many parenting manuals.
            Jacob, generally the more sensitive of the two realised that his mother was crying and immediately abandoned the fight with his brother to hug her. His small arms were too short to wrap around both his mother and sister and so he focused on Natasha’s shoulder instead.
            ‘Mummy, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?’
            Noah, realising that his brother was about to steal a march on him by showing compassion, came to hug her other shoulder but Natasha could see that he was still pulling faces at Jacob as he did so. Balancing Lily precariously against her chest, she put an arm around each of the boys and pulled them towards her in an awkward embrace. Stalwartly, she tried to regain her composure, hating that she was showing this alien, vulnerable side of herself to her children but there was no stemming the flood of tears now that they had started. Her shoulders heaved and she sobbed, snatching her breath in uneven gasps. Her long brown hair stuck to her damp face but she had no hand free to wipe it away and so she left it there, not caring how she looked.
             Lily had stopped crying, placated by the contact with her mother and the twins, tired of competing for her attention, were struggling to get away. She released them and they scattered, all concern for their mother forgotten in their desire to move on to the next thing.
            A blood blister had formed where her finger had caught in the buckle and it glistened on her skin like a ruby. She knew she would have burst it before too long, not having the self control to allow nature to take its course but for now she would let it be. How had her life got to this? Crying in a heap on the kitchen floor? She was a controlled and competent woman, laid waste by the marauding monsters that were her children. That was not fair. The children were not bad; they were just children. She would cope. All she needed was some sleep and everything would slip back into place just as it had been before. She was pretty sure that every mother had moments like this, when the enormity of the task they had been given overwhelmed them. Of course, you would never tell from the outside. By the time the little family was seen in public at the twins’ preschool tomorrow, all would be calm and a picture of order. The twins, in their matching blazers and shorts, Lily in some adorable but not entirely practical dress and she with freshly laundered outfit and blow-dried hair. It was all a fa├žade really, a conspiracy that all mothers were party to but that no one would discuss.
            The phone rang. James maybe, although unlikely. More probably her mother, or James’s. She let it ring, waiting for the answer phone to reveal the identity of the caller. She heard her own voice, unnaturally bright and cheerful, inform the caller that the Blakemans could not come to the phone right now. The irritating beep filled the kitchen followed by the strident tones of Rosemary Blakeman.
            ‘Hello dear. How are you? You must be out. Bother. I just wanted to firm up the plans for the weekend. We are so looking forward to seeing you all. I’m arranging for Matthew and Kate to come over for lunch on Sunday so that will be nice…’
            As her mother in law got into her stride, Natasha thought briefly about picking up the phone and speaking to her. That would save her having to call back later. In all honesty though, she really could not face the pretence that a conversation with Rosemary at this moment would involve. She left the phone on its cradle and, feeling a little guilty at the deception, listened to the remainder of the message without getting up.
            ‘….so if you could give me a ring and let me know what sort of time to expect you that would be lovely. I’ll put the travel cot in with you and James. I hope that’s OK. We can always have a swap around if you’d prefer somewhere else. Anyway, I must go. Hope you’re all well. Love to James. Bye.’
            A click signalled the end of the call and Natasha shuffled herself and her daughter across the floor so that her back rested against a cupboard door. Lily had fallen asleep. Natasha knew that she should put her down and go and spend some time with the twins but instead she stayed where she was and closed her eyes. The smell of Lily’s feather-soft hair was divine and she breathed it in as deeply as she could, breathing out again reluctantly. It was nearly four ‘o clock. She would have to do something about tea for the boys soon. Perhaps she would just do a carpet picnic and then aim for an early bath. James was unlikely to be back in time to help her so she might as well get the whole bedtime process over and done with as soon as was realistic.
            A weekend in Bath. She could do without it but at least Rosemary would cook and there would be plenty of people about to keep the twins entertained. It would be nice to see Matthew and Kate too. They were such an earnest couple, Natasha thought. Matthew a replica of his father in so many ways and Kate, so serious and focussed. The Blakemans had always had Natasha pegged as the driven career woman of the family but it was obvious to her that Kate was just as determined. You only had to look at the way she was keeping them all waiting for a grandchild to see who wore the trousers there. Rosemary seemed to think that it was a biological issue but to Natasha it was obvious that Kate’s childless state was by design. At this moment she was almost envious.
            Well, she could not sit here all day. Buoyed up by the early to bed strategy, Natasha carefully stood up with the sleeping Lily still in her arms. The baby did not stir and delicately Natasha returned her to the bouncy chair leaving the vicious buckle unfastened. Gently she sidled to the kitchen door and, closing it behind her, went off to find out what the boys were up to.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

THE SUMMER HOLIDAY

'There's no point going to school for the last two weeks of term.'

So affirmed my daughter at the breakfast table this morning. It appears that what, in my day, was the fun run-down to the summer holidays after the drudge of school exams is now a bit of a drag. Without exams there has been no discernible end to the academic year and so it is about to go out with with a whimper not a bang.

'We are playing board games in Spanish.'
'Well that sounds like fun,' I say, brightly. 'Do you have enough of that kind of vocabulary?'
'No mum!' she says, with distinct undertones of exasperation. 'In Spanish. Not in Spanish.'
'Oh,' I say, weakly. 'Well that will be fun as well....'

I give up. I decide against pointing out that even if they had finished earlier, the last two weeks would have been the same. And anyway, they have Celebration Day for working hard all year to come and daughter two won the Super Tutor Group challenge and will be rewarded with an afternoon at the Lido so it's hardly doom and gloom.

Conversations like this though serve to remind me (as if any reminder were necessary) that the summer holiday is almost upon us. Six weeks of long, hot days swinging in the hammock and sleeping in the tent. The days that childhood memories are made of.

I take an extraordinarily hands off approach to the long vac. We  do barely anything that requires a car or organisation. Instead, we all kick around here, occasionally venturing out to town for supplies. Kids come. Kids go. I make food and we all achieve very little. It suits us. We work hard as a family during term time and it's nice to take our collective feet off the gas.

Or at least it is for a bit. Granted the first week is normally a challenge as we all hunker down into our new lifestyles but after that, we generally have a few weeks of unadulterated mucking about. But then I start to twitch. I long for silence, or what passes for silence around here. I dream of having to be up and out before midday. I even start to look at the calendar and work out how the new term's ferrying will work out.

I love having my children at home. Of course I do. I love it when everything stops and we can eat when it suits us and not be constantly watching the clock. But I do miss a bit of structure to my days. With not much to do, I sort of slip into a malaise and before long just walking up to town becomes too much like hard work and gets put off to another day.

I think the problem is that the holiday is just too long. Four weeks would be perfect. Time for us all to relax, recharge and re-engage. After six weeks, they have forgotten what shoes are for or the meaning of the words 'Hurry up!'

This year I have rather cleverly placed our summer holiday in the last two weeks so we will only get four weeks at home. As a result, I'm not quite as daunted as I usually am. I have books to read and things to write and I have drawn up a cleaning rota. But by the time September comes, I will have had enough and will be raring to meet all the challenges of the new academic year. By October, of course, I will be mourning the death of yet another summer and crying out for a break.

Friday, 8 July 2011

HIDDEN PEOPLE

Last week my friend went on a course. Billed as 'Vikings and Volcanoes', it was designed to be a day's romp through the highlights of Iceland but actually they seemed to spend rather a lot of time talking about elves.

This caught my interest. Whilst it flies in the face of what I consider to be my logical intellect, I have always been strangely drawn to magical creatures. Fairies, mermaids and unicorns have resonated highly with me since childhood. I love the idea of there being a parallel world existing side by side with ours which we fail to see either because we aren't looking or because the ability to notice is reserved to special people only, like children. So although I'm pretty certain that there aren't any pixies living in the wilderness at the bottom of my garden, I would be delighted if someone proved me wrong.

And so back to Iceland. What I gleaned, second-hand from my friend, is that in Iceland a belief in the 'Hidden People' is both prevalent and totally acceptable. Elves, seen only by those that the elves choose to give the power, feature heavily in the country's folklore and traditions. You must never throw stones for fear of hitting them and building projects have been put on hold whilst sites have been checked for signs of elf settlements. Apparently, houses like this one are built in gardens to ensure prosperity.

I'm not sure what it is about these ideas that appeals to me. It's certainly not believing in something that I can't see and which defies scientific explanation. I could do that here along with millions of others and be in good company. I think it's more to do with there being a possibility that we don't know it all. I like the thought that something could have slipped through the net and be laughing at us here on earth whilst we fix our attention on the cosmos and ignore what's going on under our noses. I also love the idea of living somewhere where it's perfectly acceptable to believe in elves after you leave Infant school, to have minds so open to the extraordinary that it makes it seem like anything could be possible. If we close our minds to everything that is not supported by rational reasoning then there's no room for the imagination and that would be a very dull place to live.

Try as I might, I know that I am unlikely to see a unicorn in a shady glade or a colony of mermaids in a rock pool. But I would really like to believe that fairies or elves, pixies or sprites happily coexist with us and that this could explain some of the more mysterious questions of life even if I never actually see one.




Tuesday, 5 July 2011

SPEAKING TO STRANGERS

I walked to school carrying a Lego model yesterday. It was an intricate reconstruction of a some scene from a Harry Potter film which my youngest had spent ages building and wanted to produce at 'Show and tell'. And so, I took the responsibility of transporting it safely to school in one piece thus seeking to avoid the inevitable tears that would follow if it broke on the way.

I appreciate that this in itself is not terribly interesting and unlikely to hold my reader's attention for long. However, the response that I got was. I didn't notice to start with. The first few people that we passed smiled broadly at me and, being a friendly soul, I smiled back. After all I do try to engage with the people that I pass on my daily saunter to school. When I noticed drivers of cars smiling at me as well, I began to think that perhaps there was something else afoot.

I was brought up to acknowledge the people that I pass in the street. If my path crosses with someone else's, I will generally smile and say hello. If a stranger waits for me to pass at a narrow place, I try to thank them. This, as I was taught as a child, is common courtesy and costs nothing. I know it doesn't happen everywhere and that if I tried smiling at random strangers in a city centre I might get more than I bargained for but here in my little sleepy town it's what I consider to be the done thing.

Except that it's not. People younger than me rarely make eye contact. They will be texting or plugged into their ipod and it doesn't seem to cross their mind to recognise that they and I briefly share the same air space. Old people will generally speak if they're spoken to but often look so shocked that someone has said  'Good morning' that I fear for the state of their hearts. They clearly no longer expect a stranger to speak and sometimes I do just to challenge them (which isn't really the point, I know).

Which is why it struck me as so unusual when so many people made eye contact and smiled whilst I carried the Lego creation. With me walking with small children and carrying a toy they were happy to speak. Is that because it gave them an excuse to communicate, a point of reference? Was the sight unusual or comical enough to jolt them out of their private world? Did I just look less threatening armed with Lego rather than my ubiquitous phone (which I do always try to stop looking at as I pass people out of some strange sense of decorum.) Do we now need an excuse to communicate with one another? I fear we might.

There are lots of people, mainly those younger than myself to be fair, to whom speaking to strangers would never occur. I consider this to be a break down in manners and is something that needs to be addressed before all sense of community is lost. But  this was different. These were people who were happy to smile at my son and his model. It was as if they had simply got out of the habit of tipping their invisible hat and saying hello.

 Well, I for one, think it's a shame. I am bringing my children up to acknowledge those around them although I am sure there are those that would say that I'm playing fast and loose with the 'Stranger Danger' rules. I want to live in a world where talking to someone new is not greeted with suspicion. I am thinking that perhaps I should amass an array of interesting and noteworthy objects to carry around with me just to prompt a response. And I think that everyone reading this should acknowledge a stranger every day just to appease me! That would be a start.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

NON-COMPETITIVE SPORTS' DAYS

It was Sports' Day at our primary school this week. In fact there are two - one for each key stage. The one for the younger children is labelled a Games Afternoon, presumably to distinguish it from what is held for the older ones. The emphasis seems to be on taking part rather than winning but stickers are given out for the first three places and points collected to see which house is best so there is an element of competition.

The fashion over recent years has been to make the day less about winning and more about fun. I can kind of understand the thinking. Not everyone can be good at sport. I never shone on the sports field. I wasn't bad : never the first to be picked for a side in those awful line ups but never the last either. I would cringe when it got down to the final two or three children. They would stand waiting, either pleading with their eyes not to be left until last or pulling at the hem of their top, eyes cast down, longing for the humiliation to be over.

I don't know if they still choose teams like that. I'm sure they don't at our primary school. However, it seems to me that in trying not to damage the self esteem of the youngsters in their care, the school is overlooking some major issues. Firstly, not everyone can shine in the classroom. Some of the children find their talent on the running track and yet, for fear of not upsetting the ones that are less able, they are reigned in. Can you imagine if they did that in lessons?

"I'm sorry Janie. I know you are the best story writer in the class but today you can only use words with less than two syllables that begin with a t."

It would be ludicrous wouldn't it? And yet that's exactly what happens to a talented athlete?

The second issue is the inconsistency that having a non-competitive Sports' Day brings with it. For the rest of the year, sport is actively encouraged and sporting success in football, cross country or swimming is encouraged. Photos of smiling team members are printed in the local press and the trophy cabinet takes pride of place in the reception area. But on Sports' Day, lights need to be kept firmly under bushels for fear of upsetting the less able. Confusing.

And of course what about the rest of their lives? Life is, whether we like it or not, one long competition. Learning to deal with that is an essential life skill. Of course, we can't all be good at everything and it is important that children learn that as early as possible. They also need to know how to be gracious in both victory and defeat if they are going to be successful. Our focus should be ensuring that their self confidence is strong enough for them to deal with life's ups and downs rather than shielding them from failure.

At the end of the day, Sports' Day should be fun for as many children as possible. If the range of activities is wide enough, then every child should have an opportunity to do well. The egg and spoon race, for example, tends to favour the quiet, thoughtful child who is able to focus on the task in hand and is not tempted to run. At the same time however, give those who are genuinely gifted races that really test them and let them compete amongst themselves.

I rarely won anything at Sports' Day and I think I've turned out OK. Kids have far more sense than we give them credit for.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

SPEEDING

On the way to my eldest's saxophone exam I got caught by a speed camera. I had no idea until the letter plopped onto my doormat. In my defence, I thought I was driving under the limit but I wasn't and it was a fair cop. By way of punishment for my crime, I was given the option of points and a fine or attending a Speed Awareness course. So, rather than tarnish my previously unblemished licence, I signed up for the course.

I went by train and having beetled about in the bowels of Bradford for a bit, I finally found the training centre. I was more than a little apprehensive as I mounted the stairs to reception. What would all these arch criminals look like? Would I be able to tell that they were wrong 'uns by just looking at them? Would I stand out? Of course I didn't. I was met by a room of about fifty other people all trying to look nonchalant and none of them looking like serial law breakers. They were mainly men older than me but there was a typical cross section of the population there.

I'm not a great driver but I don't drive fast and I am quite good at reading the road ahead having had it drilled into me by my dad all those decades ago. So my attitude when I went in was to listen to what they said and learn what I could but safe in the knowledge that my crime was entirely accidental and hopefully not to be repeated. I soon changed my tune.

The course was very cleverly presented in a non-judgemental way. At no point did we feel preached to or that fingers were being wagged. But what it did do very effectively was make you think. We thought about our excuses, our driving habits and, most importantly our responsibilities. The most difficult session was when we saw footage of an accident and watched interviews with the parents of children who had been killed on the road. Being a mother of four and having hit a child in my car myself (http://imogenclark.blogspot.com/2010/02/accident.html) this was particularly hard for me to watch. In fact for a lot of the time I was focussed on the weave of my top rather than the screen with my nails jammed into my palms to hold back the tears.

But of course this was why we were there - the habitual speeder, the innocent speeder and those who suffer momentary lapses of concentration. It doesn't matter which type you are. The end result is still the same.

It was a useful day. I relearned lots of things that I'd forgotten about breaking distances and chevrons and I decided that I would never let my daughters ride in a car with a teenage boy! I passed the course. My licence remains clean. It did cross my mind however that speaking to us was a drop in the ocean. Only two people there had been caught on a motorway. The rest were just like me - going too fast in a built up area. Momentary lapses of focus, irritation at a slow bus ahead, trying to save pointless seconds by racing the lights. And we were all as likely as anyone to cause an accident. But what about all the rest? The ones who aren't caught or take the points instead. What about the mothers screaming at their children in the back of the car? The van drivers on their mobiles? The business men checking the address of the next appointment on their sat nav? Perhaps they should all be made to sit and listen for a while just so they remember exactly what that momentary loss of concentration or judgement could mean.

I know that the desired effect of the course was to make the offenders think. Well it worked. I hope everyone else thinks too.