Thursday, 31 March 2011


Today is a day with no plan. They don't come around very often. Invariably there is something that shapes the time between the school bells. Some work, some studying, coffee with a friend, cleaning the house. But not today.

So. What shall I do with all this unscheduled liberty? It's raining and blowing a gale and so, being a fair weather kind of girl, that excludes anything that involves me being outside. I have lots of ideas. Top of the list is some research for a new story that is slowly taking shape in my head. Then I have a book that I'm trying, without success, to get into. I have a couple of knitting projects which could use some attention and I have some fabric waiting to be sewn into a bag.

Then we move into the slightly less appealing options. I could bake. I could catch up on my Sky + viewing whilst tackling the ironing pile. Hot on their heels are the things that I should do. Sort out the pantry. Clean the windows inside. Mop the downstairs. Tidy the children's wardrobes.

You see how quickly my day can deteriorate from an exciting window of opportunity to just another list of chores? And it's always the same. I have some time that I could spend doing something fun and frivolous but what I end up doing is feeling bad and cleaning something.

I think the problem lies in it being a whole day. I wake in the morning fully intending to treat myself to a totally self indulgent experience. You've earned it, I tell myself. And what's to stop you taking a day out to do something just for you? But there are those that might say that that's what I do for part of most days and they would be right. And so the niggle starts at the back of my head.

I do the school run, come back home and just before I begin doing whatever it is I'm going to do with my time, I just have a quick tidy up. In doing that I notice that the floor could do with a hoover and as the washer is empty I might as well just run a couple of loads through. An urgent call from my eldest for something that she desperately needs but has forgotten sends me flying up to school and suddenly it's half past ten.

The couple of loads of washing won't dry themselves and then I realise how much bigger the ironing pile will be when they come out of the tumbler. Then I remember that I have some veg in the fridge that would make a great soup for lunch but only if I chop it and cook it.

And there you have it. The day that had nothing in it is suddenly full of stuff and I haven't yet done any of my lovely self-indulgent things.

There are two things that I always forget on days like today. Firstly, there's never nothing to do in a house with four children and secondly if I think I can be happy pleasing myself all day I am deluded. Unless I actually leave the premises, I cannot cope with whole days off. I need my 'me' time in nice containable chunks of not more than two hours at a time and then I can feel like I've earned them. So if I run round all morning doing housewifely tasks, I can feel that I have justified my rather peculiar existence and sneak in a cosy hour on the sofa with a book.

And there you have it. I've talked myself out of my day off and into just another day like all the others. And wasn't it easy?

Tuesday, 29 March 2011


My children recently watched 'Billy Elliot' and it has given rise to all kinds of questions. Who was Margaret Thatcher? Is she still alive? What's a picket line? Aren't boys allowed to dance?

If you have never come across the story, 'Billy Elliot' is about a boy who wants to do ballet but is being brought up in a working class environment where boxing is more the norm. It is set during the Miners' Strike in the 1980s, hence all the questions. It has been a very strange experience for me to explain something that the children think as history but which I lived through and have clear memories of. But stranger still has been my emotional response to those recollections.

I was in the sixth form when the miners went out on strike. Whilst not particularly politically aware, I could not avoid the news stories and so had a fairly clear idea of the issues. However, there aren't many pits in middle class Ilkley and I didn't go to rallies or gigs so I only ever saw things through the tv screen. For me, as a young adult, the focus was all on the picket lines, the brutality of the riot gear and what Billy Bragg had to say about it. When it was all over and such of the miners that still had open pits to work in went back, I took my 'A' levels and my adult life began. I never really gave the strike more than the odd thought as I drove through Sheffield.

So I was somewhat taken aback to discover my reaction when to trying to explain what had happened at that time to my children. My throat closes, my voice wobbles and the tears flow unchecked as I talk about picket lines and collection buckets in a way that it never did at the time. I'm not sure my political opinions have changed that much so there must be something else about me that is different now to then.

And of course there is. Now I am a mother with a family of my own and suddenly the whole history takes on a different slant. I have an empathy that played no part in my make up back then. Now, in my imagination I can put myself and my children in the position that the miners' families were in. I can more readily understand the suffering that they endured as they fought for their jobs and the passion with which they believed in what they were doing. And that makes me cry.

It is yet another example of how much richer my life has become as I grow older. The range of emotional responses that I discover  I have is much greater than it has ever been in the past and my reactions to things regularly surprise me. When I was a girl, I could never understand why my mother cried when she heard children singing. I thought she was barmy and over emotional. Now I get that completely and although I don't always do it, I think I can understand why she did.

 But I'm not certain and that's rather the point. I couldn't tell you precisely why I respond with tears when discussing the miners and what they went through. But I do cry and I never used to and that must mean that I am changing as I grow up. And I think I like that.

Saturday, 26 March 2011


As regular readers will know, not least because I have wittered on about it endlessly, I spent the best part of last year penning my first novel. Despite numerous self deluded daydreams, by the time I'd finished I was pretty certain that this was not the book that was going to propel me into the literary spotlight. However, I thought it might not be totally without merit and was interested in a third party's perspective. I hit upon the idea of sharing it with my book group.

When I bounced this proposal off various people, I was met with two responses. 'You're brave!' from my friends and 'You're mad!' from people who knew a little about the publishing world. Still, always one to plough my own furrow, I soldiered on regardless, distributed copies to the relevant people and waited for the crucial meeting of my critics.

The evening began with the usual chit chat and when I could bear the suspense no longer, I brought the meeting to order and the dissection of my novel began. Now, I had a fair idea of the merits and flaws of my work and I know the members of my group and their literary likes and dislikes pretty well so I wasn't expecting any shocks. My greatest fear was that they would all smiled at me glibly and said it was good because then I'd know they hated it.

But they didn't. Within ten minutes they were in hot debate about the credibility of my characters and whether teenage girls would really have hitched to London as a dare. To an outsider, the meeting would have seemed to have been progressing along our well worn path. We were a group of well educated, well read women robustly discussing a novel and all reaching different conclusions.

Of course, for me it was a little different. Each time they said that they wanted more of this and less of that my insides squirmed. Sometimes, their criticism was so fierce that I thought that perhaps they had forgotten that the author was in the room. But then maybe this was a good thing. They discussed my book, chewing it over backwards and forwards in minute detail for at least as long as we spent on Ali Smith last month. If nothing else, it had provoked debate and not everything we read does that. Almost worse was when they said that they liked a scene or a character or the writing style. Never good with compliments, this was nearly as difficult for me to take as the criticism.

Despite almost begging them to stop a couple of times when I thought I could bear it no longer, after about an hour we wound the discussion up and conversation floated back to something more general. I collected my copies back in, thanked them for taking the time and walked home, breathing deeply of the the crisp night air and processing what had just happened.

And now how do I feel? Well, in all honesty I feel inspired to continue. I shall take what I've learned both from the writing experience itself and from sharing my work and crack on with the next one. All I need is a good idea and then who knows?!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011


I've never been cool. It doesn't bother me. I reconciled my wishes with reality many a moon ago. When I was a child, I didn't fit into the popular group. Instead I had a small gang of loyal friends who were occasionally lured away by the temptation of the cool kids but generally floated back to us second or third tier inhabitants before too long.

On reflection, I think it would be fair to call me a swat. I behaved in class, always did my homework and tried my hardest most of the time. Too school for cool, that was me. I had my life plan and that was my focus. I rarely let things distract me. Even my boyfriend played second fiddle to revision.

But it wasn't easy, never quite making the grade with the Queen Bees. It is natural to seek approval and to be bathed in the golden glow of the class favourite's attention was something that I craved just like everyone else. It was just that my drive to do well was a stronger draw.

Now that I'm 44 I couldn't care less. I am what I am and people can take me, foibles and all or leave me untalked to. Apart from the odd wistful glance at gaggles of giggling women, being popular is neither here nor there to me. But this is something that has come with age. It is not the same for my children.

As far as I can see, not much has changed in the scary world of school. There are still the 'too cool for school' mob, strutting about and ruling the roost, graciously giving and then retracting their favours with wanton abandon. Very occasionally you find a child that is highly popular with all groups and yet pleasant and motivated but it's still a rare commodity.

Beneath these kids there are a wide selection of less cool groups and each child, despite any aspirations that they may harbour, knows exactly where their place in the pecking order is. My task is to ensure that my children are happy with where they have landed, as indeed we all have to be. I need to show them that being in with the in crowd holds very little benefit in the long term. Cool seems to equate to distraction, cheek and underachievement as far as I can see and none of these attributes lead to school success which I consider to be highly important.

 And yet, when you are a child, all these things have a irresistible sparkle. It is hard to see how ultimately unsatisfactory it can be to modify your behaviour and looks in an attempt to fit into a place that you were never destined to be. Even if you say the right things and wear the right clothes and laugh at the right jokes, the popular crowd can still drop you like a hot potato on a whim and then what is left of your true self?

I try to ensure that my children's self esteem is strong enough to survive the vicissitudes of the playground. I repeat, ad nauseam, my mantras that being cool is not always the best policy and that it is always better to be true to yourself than try to ape those around you. But my heart breaks every time I wipe away their tears because they have been inexplicably mocked or ditched.

But ultimately it is a lesson that everyone has to learn for themselves. And until you do I think it's a struggle to find true contentment, which is what we all strive for for us and our loved ones.

Sunday, 20 March 2011


If you have a good memory, you may remember me blogging last summer about how I was finished with pets. I was so self righteous and determined  in my view that pets are more trouble than they're worth. I firmly believed that when our one remaining guinea pig shuffled off this mortal coil, I was going to draw the line and we would become a totally human household.

But then I had to conduct a spectacular and very public U turn when I was unable to resist the lure of two beautiful kittens. I know. It's pathetic but there is it. The kittens arrived last October. Two little bundles of fluff and mischief to delight and worry us in equal measure.

And now they are six months old. They are quite a lot bigger and a little bit wiser than they were when they first arrived and have made such a difference to our household that I can't really believe that I ever said no more pets.

But something that I didn't bargain for when I welcomed them in was the impact on my stress levels. It's not that the kittens misbehave. In the main, they are pretty good, staying on the floor, eating their food not ours and not disgracing themselves on my soft furnishings. They even keep the mice that they catch outside.

No, the thing that is causing the heart ache is their tendency to roam. They seem completely incapable of just playing in the garden. I suppose that they have farm cat genes so it shouldn't have come as any great surprise that they might wander. And boy, do they wander?

The first time that the black one wasn't there when we got up, we had an incredibly difficult morning as I imagined the worse and tried to pretend that I hadn't to the children. He turned up at lunchtime and immediately I hotfooted it to Timpsons and got discs cut for their collars with our phone number on. I imagined that we would only get a call if the kittens were squished at the side of the road. How wrong I was!

The phone must ring most days with some cat loving neighbour asking me if we have lost a kitten. I had no idea that so many people would be concerned for their welfare. Dozens of well meaning folk have rung to say that they are worried about them. Either they are up a tree or playing near cars or just investigating other people's kitchens. If the land line rings, you can pretty much guarantee that the call will be kitten related.

I am training myself not to fret. I have enough to fret about already without including errant kittens. I know that they are cats and they will wander at will and with microchip and collar disc we are likely to hear if anything horrible happens. But I'm not sure that the stress of not knowing where they are is what I signed up for when I took them in. Perhaps I should view it as good practise for when the children get older? I wonder if I can get phone number discs for them?

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


There has been a big argument on the internet today surrounding comments that Sarah Vine made in The Times about Professor Brian Cox's Wonders of the Universe television programme.

To roughly prĂ©cis her argument, Sarah Vine seems to be saying that science should be presented by 'the sort of person who's too brainy to notice that drip-dry brown polyester is no longer in fashion.' She complains that  having a young, sexy presenter  some how diminishes the subject and ' irritates viewers with some knowledge and distracts the rest.'

I and a legion of Prof Cox fans beg to differ. You may remember me blogging a few months ago about how sexy astronomy has become. After the Star Gazing Live series, Amazon sold out of planispheres and telescope sales were up by an extraordinary percentage. This is a measurable indication of how inspired people were by the programmes to get out there and gaze at the skies for themselves. Who knows how many future Nobel prize winners may have been inspired?

Science has never really been my thing. I am an arts girl through and through and only took Physics 'O' level because it seemed the best of a bad bunch. But as I get older, I am more and more interested in all things sciencey. And I'm happy to admit that having someone who is both extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his subject as well as being easy on the eye has whetted my appetite.

Sarah Vine seems to think that this is a bad thing. A programme that relies on interesting locations and a dramatic soundtrack to support its points is anathema to her. Presumably she has a problem with natural history shows, which have been using these techniques for decades, as well.

What she seems to ignore is that it is precisely because science has always been so stuffy and taught by unappealing men in polyester trousers that the numbers of people studying at University has been on the decline for years. This coupled with the worrying low number of girls that study science after school is surely grounds enough for a major overhaul of how we address science in this country. I, for one, think that anything that gets people taking an interest in science has to be a good thing. If that turns out to be wide angled shots of Prof Cox walking into a sunset with an orchestra booming behind him then so be it. The science remains the same.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this whole discussion is that Sarah Vine is married to Michael Gove, the man in charge of Education in this country. Let us hope that pillow talk in their house does not lead the country back into the scientific dark ages. And in the meantime, may the BBC find other vivacious and interesting scientists to front programmes on chemistry and biology and hopefully kick start a whole new generation of scientists.

Sunday, 13 March 2011


I read an article recently that said that a parent should spend fifteen minutes a day with each child on an individual basis. According to the report, you should put the time aside and spend it doing only what the child wants to do. This, apparently, increases the child's sense of belonging and self-worth. So, I have four children - that makes an hour a day. How hard can that be?

Hmmm. This type of report is always thought provoking and makes me examine how well I step up to the mark. I fear I fall far short.

It's not that I don't see my children. I am always here when they are. But rather than spending time together, we all sort of orbit each other like a bunch of slightly erratic satellites. I am generally in the kitchen sorting post or cooking or ironing something. They beetle in and out to request food or help with homework or to recount some interesting tale. But time actually spent on a one to one basis?

It was worse when they were smaller and needed my help with getting down the pens or doing a jigsaw or setting up the lego. A little voice would pipe up with a request for assistance and time and again I would hear myself say - "I'll be there in a minute" or "Just let me....." I did try to get there when I'd finished whatever vital task I was working on but they had often lost interest in the project by then and wandered off to pastures new.

Now they are older and more independent they generally don't even bother to ask for help, just mentioning their intended action casually as they flit through the kitchen. That makes it even worse. Whole days go by when all I do is housework around them. Good job the report writers didn't visit my house.

It's not that I don't spend any time with them on a one to one basis. I try to make sure that the lines of communication are kept well and truly open with my teenagers and will seize any opportunity to gently pry into their worlds over a cup of tea or perched on the end of their bed. I read with the little ones individually each day and talk to them about their day on the way home from school, listening to their tales in turn. And one advantage of having lots of children is that there is always someone to play with and the dynamics change the whole time.

But 15 minutes when they pick the activity? Nope. It simply doesn't happen. And the children seem to be OK with that. They know that I'm here if they need me and they have each other. Is that enough? I think so. I hope so.

Friday, 11 March 2011


I came relatively late in life to skiing. I was 25 when I first donned those unwieldy boots and took to the snow in nervous trepidation. I loved it at once although it took slightly longer to develop any level of competency. I managed to squeeze in four trips before the birth of my first child and then followed over a decade of sad resignation to the fact that there was no longer any opportunity for me to ski.

So last year, when an invitation to a girls' trip landed on my facebook page, I jumped at it with very little prompting. I begged and borrowed some kit and when at last I found myself at the top of a mountain again, it almost felt as if I had never been away.

After a few slightly shaky runs down, I regained my ski legs and by the end of the second day I was skiing slopes that would have daunted me back in my heyday. During the three days that we were there, I skied more red runs than I had done in the whole of my previous experience. And I didn't fall. Not once. Whereas on my previous trips crashing into barriers, tumbling over children and sailing down slopes on my backside had been common occurrences, this time I remained vertical no matter what the mountain threw at me.

Of course we went again this year. A repeat trip to the same place with almost identical personnel. Another fabulous few days with plenty of skiing and no incidents. But this time I started to wonder why my earlier trips were so very different to the later ones.

The answer is very clear to me. Competition. It is something that barely features in my world these days. I am happy in my own skin and rarely feel the need to compare myself with others. Indeed, I actively steer clear of it which is no mean feat in Ilkley. But back then it was different. My first two trips were with people that I worked with. We were a mixed bunch both in terms of sex and ability and I wanted to prove myself. I went fast because I could and because I didn't want to be left behind. Even later, when I skied with my husband, I felt an uncharacteristic need to show him that I was capable and could hold my own against him on the slopes.

But in the company of women it is very different. Who cares who is the fastest? The pecking order of ability was very obvious, with me falling somewhere in the middle but that was just accepted as fact without anyone feeling the need to prove anything to the others. There was, in some cases, the need to prove something to themselves but in an environment of genuine support rather than thinly disguised one-upmanship, it is much easier to combat any misgivings and win.

The motivating force behind most of the decisions made on the slope was a desire to ensure that each of us skied to the best of our ability. This was achieved either by the stronger skiers helping the weaker ones or by everyone feeling confident enough to express what they really wanted to do without fear of reprisals. And as a result, I skied better and for longer knowing that all I had to do was what I felt comfortable with.

It's an attitude that I shall try to weave into the rest of my life now that I'm home. Trying to support others rather than using them as a springboard to showcase our own skills is not only far more satisfying but seems to result in everyone achieving their best and that has to be a better outcome doesn't it?

Wednesday, 2 March 2011


On Sunday I am going away. I am going skiing with a group of girlfriends. It is a repeat of a highly successful trip last year. The chalet is gorgeous and right on the slopes. The hospitality is fabulous and the company lovely. There are spectacular views in every direction and I'm hoping to get some paragliding done as the icing on the cake.

Sounds idyllic doesn't it? And I'm so ready for a break. One of the downsides of being a stay at home mum is that every day is the same. Be it Wednesday or Sunday the house still needs sorting, the food preparing, the children caring for. There is never a day off. So having the opportunity to go away and recharge my batteries is such a luxury.

But it comes at a price. As any mother will know, I can't just pack and leave.There are mountains to be climbed before I get to ski down some. Firstly I have to sort the childcare, calling in favours wherever I can. Covering four children and their plethora of activities is no mean feat and no small ask. I have to work out who needs to be where when and how they will be transported. I need to sign off every part of their lives in my head so that I know that it is all arranged and will run smoothly.

Then there is the food. Meals planned, bought for and where possible cooked and frozen is the order of the day. My husband has to work all day and then come back and do my bit on top so I need to make it as uncomplicated as possible. And it's Shrove Tuesday whilst I'm away so there must be eggs and lemons in the house!

And then there's my course. Next week's work needs to be completed so that I can relax when I finally get there and not fall behind.

But these are just the practicalities, the matters that need to be sorted so that I can leave. Harder to deal with is my head and the wide range of emotional hurdles that I have to negotiate every time I leave town. Guilt comes first. I am getting a break. It means that everyone else has to run even faster to cover what I do. No one else gets to swan off for four days - just me. That makes me feel bad and is almost enough to stop me arranging trips in the first place.

Then, in a couple of days I will decide that I don't want to go after all. I will start to fret about the children and how they will cope without me to do their thinking for them, read their stories, check their spellings and generally be mother? In reality, I suspect that they will barely notice that I'm gone. They are generally either at school, out or asleep but I firmly believe that my place is to be here when they return. And I won't be. That's hard for me to reconcile with my need to be without them for a bit. 

Next comes the fear of disaster. What if the plane goes down over the Alps? What if I break my leg and need an army of people helping me out when I get home? What if I get caught in an avalanche?!

Sometimes I wonder if it's really worth going away at all? It is all so difficult to achieve and isn't the benefit outweighed by the stress leading up to it? At this point in the week, then quite possibly.

But on Sunday morning, when I walk into that airport knowing that I can now no longer do anything about anything, it will all miraculously float out of my head. I know that I will stop thinking about everyone else for a few precious days and concentrate on me instead. And when I come home, I will be ready to leap back onto the roller coaster of family life and take that ride at breakneck speed until I get the chance to go away again. And when I think about that, I know that all the heartache will be worth it in the end.

 Roll on Sunday.