Saturday, 28 May 2011


We are going for our annual pilgrimage to Centerparcs on Monday and so this weekend I'm packing. How can it possibly take me two days to pack for a minibreak? It's ridiculous I know but there you have it.

So first I'm washing, drying and ironing the contents of the linen basket. It's not that there'll be much call for school uniform in the forest but somehow it needs doing before we can go. Then I have to steal what I think is required from the wardrobe of each child before they decide to wear it and get it dirty. But what to pack. Space is limited as there's not much room for luggage in a car packed to the gunnels with children. I scan the weather forecast, a pointless exercise and one that only makes things worse. So I pack long sleeves, short sleeves, full length and cropped, underwear, sleepwear and swimming kit. That must cover it surely? Not much left in their wardrobes but I plough on regardless.

The big two pack for themselves. This worries me. If I don't keep my wits about me we'll end up with indecently short shorts, a couple of vest tops and no underwear. I make suggestions and remind them how miserable it is to be cold. Reluctantly they include more suitable items.

I don't pack for my husband. I just nag him.
'Could you make sure everything you want to take is in the wash  by tomorrow please?'
'Could you let me know how much you're taking so I can leave space?'
'If you don't give me your stuff now you'll be going in what you're standing up in.'
Of course, he doesn't understand what all the urgency is about. It's Saturday morning. How can it possibly be a priority right now? That is because he does not have a maelstrom of lists crashing around inside his skull like I do. For him, the trip involves attaching bikes to the car. The rest just happens.

Finally, I consider my own attire. I always fall into the trap of thinking that five days in a forest means scruffy clobber and then feel like a tramp for the whole week. So I've packed nice stuff which will make me feel better whilst I'm there but will require for more careful laundry on our return. C'est la vie.

Food next. Yes I know there's a shop there but it's so much easier to sort it before we go. Then I need decent knives because the ones there don't cut, the wherewithal to make good coffee and the papers that we haven't got round to this week. And I'm on the homeward stretch. Books, chargers, plasters, insect repellent, bike locks and we're nearly there.

I sometimes wonder how everyone else does it and whether it is such an all consuming task in other households.  I like to think it is but I'm not entirely sure. And come Monday morning we'll either have it or we won't and it won't be a disaster one way the other. But now, in the thick of it with forty eight hours to go, I'm busy and I need to get on!!

Monday, 23 May 2011


Today I'm not that busy. Oh there's stuff to be done. The flotsam and jetsam of a weekend with a houseful needs returning to its rightful home. There's laundry and some mopping and a trip to the supermarket wouldn't be a bad idea but none of it is urgent. And as there's not much happening tomorrow or the next day I can look ahead and see a whole cathedral of windows of opportunity. Consequently I'm on a go slow.

I don't function well without pressure. When there's stuff to be done I adopt my 'I'm a busy woman' stance and I beetle about with a sense of purpose. Cakes needed for school fair? No problem. New contracts required for uber demanding client? You'll have them by lunchtime. Christmas in less than six weeks? Sorted. Because the more I have to do the more I achieve. I suspect I'm not much fun to live with as I sigh and tut and shout my way through the day, moaning that no one ever does anything except me and genuinely expecting everyone to genuflect and nod in respectful awe as I sweep past.

Today I have things to put off. Tedious household tasks are eyeing me from the edges of my peripheral vision and laughing scornfully. I have some work that my boss emailed over but the instructions include the fatal words 'There's no rush' so it has joined the long queue of things awaiting my attention but not really getting it. Instead, when I came back from school I wasted time on social media whilst convincing myself that it's good for my soul to get out there and chat, did a bit of light organising and now I'm writing this.

But does it really matter? It all gets done eventually. They will all come home and they won't notice if I've mopped the floor. There's always something for tea even if it's sometimes a bit touch and go and everyone had a clean and ironed shirt this morning. I will get to it all when I'm in the mood, which apparently is not now. In the meantime I will entertain myself by typing 'Procrastination' into google and seeing what comes up. Actually, I already did that......

Thursday, 19 May 2011


My eldest came  home with a letter from school yesterday. It was inviting her to participate in a long standing French Exchange arrangement through school. We have less than forty-eight hours to respond and pay a non returnable deposit and so I have been deliberating as to what we should do.

I did a French exchange myself when I was her age. It wasn't a school arranged thing. I flew by myself, my first time on a plane and was met at the airport by total strangers who spoke little English. My host had a broken leg which was unfortunate and so I spent most of the week in the apartment watching French television. I missed home horribly but I think my French improved. The girl, whose name I have forgotten then came to stay with us, didn't smile or speak for a week and that was the last I ever heard of her.

What happens with the children from Coutances is very different. They arrive en masse, the students having been matched to a hopefully like-minded child beforehand. They attend their host's school and various group activities are organised. If she falls lucky with her host it might be fun. But will it do her French any good?

I am certain that there are huge benefits to be had by spending time in a foreign country with someone who lives there. She will get a real taste of French life and that is something that I can't replicate. When we have been to France as a family it has been as tourists and whilst we do our best to speak the language and point out differences between our two nations, it is not the same as actually living amongst it for a while? Absolutely not. But will it make a difference to her GCSE French mark? I very much doubt it.

If it were just about her going to France for a week I probably wouldn't really give it much thought. But her host has to come back here and that's where the trip goes awry. Firstly, we have no spare room and in saying that I don't just mean a room that no one sleeps in. Our house is packed. Every spare inch is utilised every day. We don't even have a lock on the bathroom door as there's never just one person in there at a time! This is a problem to which there is no obvious solution. Also, we are very busy. Just because one child has a guest doesn't mean that everyone else's lives can be put on hold. And if I'm horribly honest, do I really want a potentially surly teenager to fill my house, turn their nose up at my food and cost me a fortune in ungratefully received outings? Well, no.

I know being a parent is all about sacrifice and Lord knows I am prepared to put my children before my own needs. But in this case it is my view that the potential benefits are far outweighed by the certain disadvantages. I feel like I am supposed to say yes because I should strive to give my child every opportunity in life but there is little about this trip that she can't get from other aspects of her busy and privileged life. I feel almost bullied into letting her go and that I am somehow failing her educationally if I refuse.

So what to do? Do I let her go and endure the return visit knowing that the chance of the trip enhancing her knowledge of French is minimal. Or do I follow my head, knowing from life's rich experiences that it is likely to be unsatisfactory and say no? Who said parenting was easy?

Saturday, 14 May 2011


Next weekend, like Cinderella, I am going to the ball. It's not the one with glass slippers and unavoidable clock chimes. This one is organised by the PTA at the primary school that my children attend and it is reputably a good night out.

I say reputably because, whilst I have been to the school ball before, that was many moons and several PTA committees ago. Having attended every year for quite some time, we suddenly stopped going.  There were two reasons for this and both of them are inextricably linked to the peculiar quirks of my personality. Firstly, I'm not awfully good at pushing myself forward. When the first two children were at the school, there was a group of parents that I'd got to know reasonably well. It was therefore quite easy to muster numbers for a table-full. But then their children grew up and moved on. I stayed connected to the school though my younger two but now had no obvious group of friends and lacked the courage to ask people outright if I could sit with them. So I didn't go.

The next reason is even sillier. The venue changed from a hotel in town to somewhere a twenty minute drive away and with the change went the element of control which is the lifeblood of my existence. If I can't leave somewhere when I want to, then I'm very unlikely to go. I know it's mad but there you have it. That's me. So, as I couldn't walk home, I stopped going.

But this year, the organisers brought the ball back to town so I screwed up my courage to ask a couple if they would like to come with us and now the tickets are bought and we are all set.

But what to wear? Remember I am four or five years out of the ball going circuit. What are the ball gowns of choice for a forty-four year old girl these days?

My first ball was the Law Ball at Manchester University in 1986. It was a smart do at the Midland Hotel and I had a blue dress with a big bow on the bum. I bought it in Laura Ashley, which at the time did a mean line in flouncy frocks. Back then it was easy. If you went to a ball you wore a ball gown. They were, in the main, hideous but we all looked equally awful so it didn't really matter.

But last time I went to the school ball it seemed that anything went. There were some formal dresses, some shorter cocktail dresses, some things that you might wear out to dinner and one or two shockers that really shouldn't have been worn out at all. So what's a girl to do? I have a few dresses that might do but I'm really not sure. What I would like to do is sneak up there, see what everyone else is wearing, nip home and dress accordingly. Sadly, that option is not awfully practical so I am going to have to make a decision all by myself.

But it's hard. If you go somewhere dressed in the wrong thing it can totally wreck your night especially if, like me, you're not a big drinker and can't hide your embarrassment in the bottom of your wine glass. So I have decided to carry out a little fashion parade in front of my family and see what they think. I have two realistic options I think. I did have three but then my fourteen year old tried one of them on and looked fantastic in it which immediately resulted in its relegation. Hopefully, the advice of my own little band of Gok Wans will be sound and I will turn up looking at least like I'm at the right do and hopefully looking nice.

Sometimes, it would be so much easier to be a boy.

Sunday, 8 May 2011


So the first year of my six year marathon to get an English Literature degree is almost over. All assignments have been duly completed and marked and I just have the end of module assessment left to tackle. However, since I began, the academic environment has changed and is now looking somewhat different - about £27,000 different.

Studying with the Open University means that my contact with other students has been somewhat limited. However, I am a member of a facebook group of people all doing my course and currently standing at over 1,000 strong. The reasons why people are on the course are many, varied and endlessly fascinating to me. Hardly anyone seems to be just there for fun and there aren't nearly as many Third Agers as I had supposed. Instead there are lots of people who need a degree to change their life's direction, progress their career or because their health prevents them from following the more traditional route.

There are also a fair few young people who are going down an online route because it is simply far more financially viable. Not only are the fees considerably more reasonable but distance learning allows you to fit your studies in around a job so that you can support yourself as you go and don't have to incur all the expense of living away from home. I've been very impressed so far. The course material is excellent and leaves what I gleaned from one or two of my flesh and blood lecturers standing and the support that I have had from my tutor has also impressed me.

And this has got me thinking. Until now I had only really thought of two possibilities with regard to my own children's post school education. Either they would want to go to university or they wouldn't. I kind of assumed that they would want to go and that making a sizeable contribution to the cost of that was something that we, as parents, would strive to do.

But is that the right approach now? I  Back in '85 when I left school, going to University was what me and my friends did next. We took our A levels and either got the grades and went where we'd hoped or we found a place through clearing and did something that sounded like it might be fun. Very few chose a different path. However, a lot of the people at the OU seem to be deciding that incurring the necessary levels of debt with no guarantee of an increased earning power at the end is not a risk that they are prepared to take. Many of them seem to have rejected the traditional appeal of a brick university for the flexibility of a course undertaken in your own time and at your own pace.

The downsides of this are obvious though. My second degree is a personal challenge and something that I am somewhat self indulgently fitting in between my other commitments. How far would I have got I the cut throat world of corporate law with an LLB from the Open University? Obviously I can't know the answer to that but  I can have a jolly good guess. But maybe as more and more people choose to undertake their higher education in a less than traditional way, these stigmas will be eroded?

Now that it's become so expensive and will result in a lifetime's debt, youngsters may begin to wonder if it's really for them. Unless they have a vocation or are truly bright, is it really the right decision to delay entering the work place for three years or might they be better finding a job and then studying for a degree should they need one in an alternative way? Maybe there are other ways of skinning the cat? Just a thought.

Monday, 2 May 2011


So a commoner has married a prince and with that unlikely union has realised the dreams of generations of little girls. When I was a child, I was constantly being told that only princesses could marry princes but it didn't stop me having the odd daydream about being whisked down the aisle in a fairy tale dress by my prince charming to a waiting horse-drawn carriage. I wonder if Kate Middleton had the same childlike fantasy.

Anyway, looking at the pictures of the happy couple in the Sunday papers got me thinking about what we wish for and life's harsh reality. I never aimed particularly highly with my dreams. I didn't have the wherewithal to be a scientist who could discover something vital or an inventor of a household object. I had no particular talent that would set me apart on the sports' field or the stage and life wouldn't allow me to marry a prince. But now, as I beetle along in my day to day existence I do wonder at the normality of life.

I, like billions of others, get up, trundle my way through the quotidian chores, relax a bit and then go to bed. I try to do my best, to make sure that the bit that I do is done properly but if an alien sucked up my house in a giant vacuum cleaner no one, bar my immediate friends and family, would notice. I think it's fair to say that I'm not really making a difference to the world order.

Then I got to wondering whether this was a disappointment. I suppose I have the advantage of never actually wanting to be a household name so there has been no catastrophic fall into reality for me. Over the years I have toyed with the idea of what vast wealth might do to my life but I have always been too pragmatic to harbour any more fanciful dreams. The difference is that decades ago life was all ahead of me and something remarkable might have been just around the corner. Now I can take a pretty good stab at where I'm going. It's not disappointing as such but I have caught myself voicing the age old cliché 'Is this it?'

Of course, I am not complaining. My life is good, great in fact. And whilst it might feel a bit like everyone else's, of course it isn't because its mine. But I think I now know that I will never marry a prince or be invited on to 'Desert Island Discs' to share my life story with the nation. I'm just an ordinary woman living an ordinary life and trying to get the most out of every day of it. Something more exciting might have been nice but if it's not meant to be then I can happily settle for what I've got. And  who knows? The unusual bit might be lurking just around the next bend.