Wednesday, 29 June 2011


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


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 ( 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.

Sunday, 19 June 2011


Well what an adventure we have been on this week.

All four children have been performing in Billy Elliot at the prestigious Alhambra theatre. Those regular readers will know that it has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride for us all.

To begin with, it was my eldest's baby. She is the one with the stage in her dreams but I wasn't sure that auditioning was the right thing for her to do, coming on the back of the four big shows that she had already done this year. I soon changed my mind. Then she missed the auditions because she was away with school. More tears and trauma. Then she was too tall for the part she wanted, which promptly went to her younger sister. Stoical acceptance on her part and great maturity shown all round. Then her little siblings, having strut their stuff in the panto earlier in the year, were invited to take part and her little brother stole the show by being the smallest on stage and delivering his appalling swearword line with great aplomb. Not easy for a hormonal teenager to deal with. But she did.

The trials of casting completed, we then moved on to rehearsals. Complicated schedules which took over Sundays and ate into great chunks of the rest of the week so that other things had to be sacrificed. More tears as commitment to the show was explained and difficult decisions were accepted by them all. It got to the stage where they might as well have dragged their mattresses up the road and moved into the Upstagers' Barn.

In and amongst all the preparations, they also competed for a place to perform at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London's West End. We had a long day and a late night attending the heats in York and then the bittersweet news that Upstagers had been chosen to perform but the scene concerned only contained the Little Ones. More tears and tricky moments.

And then it was show week. We all suspended the rest of our lives and I ferried backwards and forwards to Bradford, shoe-horning meals in where possible and plaiting hair and mopping brows in my wake. The children were excited and nervous and anxious to do their best. Backstage the atmosphere was tense.

But the opening night was a triumph. The appreciative audience laughed and cried their way through and showed their delight with a standing ovation, the first of many that the show received. Comparisons were made, by people in the know, with the West End production and the children buzzed. The night that I was chaperoning backstage I was struck by the team work of the whole cast and crew. The older ones, none of them more than 18 but with a maturity beyond their years, focussed on the task in hand but still had time for a smile and a ruffle of the younger ones' hair as they flew past each other for costume changes. Even the primary aged children dealt with the long periods in their dressing rooms between scenes calmly and without causing trouble.

They played to full houses and standing ovations and as the word got out about how good the show was more and more people flocked to Bradford. Even Billy Pearce, long-standing star of the theatre's sell out annual panto, donned his 'Coal not Dole' sticker and expressed huge admiration for the show.

And now the run is over. My children are wandering about my kitchen as I type looking more like zombies than theatre stars. We will now have a sharp descent as the adrenalin fades and all that remains is the bone numbing exhaustion. Today will be a parenting challenge. But nothing can replace the experiences that they have shared this week. I hope that the confidence that they have gained will stay with them and that they will be able to hear those cheering audiences in their heads for the rest of their lives.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


I've always been a bit shy. I suspect it's rooted in my nomadic childhood. I've often wondered whether, if we hadn't moved house every three years or so, my confidence might have been higher. I guess that's something that I'll never know but by the time I was 17, plunged into co-educational schooling again after a few years at a single sex establishment, I was suddenly nervous in company.

It's not just me of course. Most people have some areas of social discomfort and everyone's different. Put me in front of a room full of men in suits and ask me to present about something that I understand for half an hour or so and I won't bat an eye. Leave me in a pub or a party on my own and I am a quivering wreck. I'll skulk at the edges and hope no one speaks to me. Or else I'll dance and forget that they are all there.

So the internet has been a revelation to me. I have been facebooking and blogging for years and am happy to confess addiction to both. I'm content to chat to anyone and I will put my head above the parapet on any subject that interests me. It's a type of behaviour that's most unlike the flesh and blood me.

At first I thought that my propensity to open up and be honest with people that I barely knew was because I spend most of the school day alone and I was lonely. But that's not true. I do spend my days in a solitary fashion but that's through choice. There are plenty of real places that I could go for human interaction if I wanted but I rarely do.

Then I worried that I was replacing real life conversations with virtual ones because it was easier. But that's not it either. I do talk to real people as well and hardly any of my close friends are on facebook. It must be that, like many others, I'm just not shy in writing. I am happy to have all the conversations online that I would never get involved in face to face. After all, it is highly unlikely that the diverse and frankly mismatched group of people that are on my facebook page would ever be in the same room at the same time. Even if they were, I would probably just make small talk or sit and let others do the talking.

It's fun, this communication lark. Most of the time. I get to have incredibly diverse 'conversations' with all kinds of people and I can rant or laugh at the world in my blog at the drop of the hat. Sometimes though it gets confusing. The difficulty with talking to someone without seeing the whites of their eyes is that it's easy to misread the mood. Because of the time lag, comments get out of sync and things that are meant in a light hearted manner get misunderstood, hence the wide range of punctuation expressions. I used to think that I ought to be able to express my meaning adequately by a careful use of syntax. Now I'm not averse to the odd winky face if required.

It's very different in the virtual world of my teenagers. They have grown up communicating without speaking. One look at their facebook pages leaves me horrified. Their friends and they are direct to the point of harshness but in a few movements the conversation has moved on and it is, in the main, forgotten. Contrast that with me who will walk into a row on facebook bravely and then spend two days fretting.

Overall, I love my virtual world but I have to remember that notwithstanding my assumed bravado online, I am still a bit shy, a smidge over-sensitive and likely to over analyse things. I sometimes think I should have a month's embargo and see where it takes me but then I think perhaps I think too much!

Thursday, 9 June 2011


There are never enough hours in the day are there? It's such a challenge to get through the stuff you have to do and reach the things that you want to do. I do say this rather sheepishly because, what with my toy job and all my children being at school, I have rather lost sight of what it's like to be so busy that you can't think straight, so busy that one more request will bring your whole world crashing down on top of you. But it's all relative isn't it, so notwithstanding that my current lifestyle is somewhat more pedestrian than once it was, I shall continue with my train of thought.

I am approaching the end of a two week half term holiday. It's been fine. Only half the children are at home this week and they are well beyond needing constant attention. In fact, as long as I stick my nose in on them every hour or so and produce food at regular intervals, they pretty much organise themselves these days. But children at home inevitably means more chores and so the time that I usually set aside to pursue my own activities has been severely curtailed.

And I have something that I want to be doing - really badly. What I really want to be doing is getting on with novel number 2. You may recall that last year I had lots of fun trying to write a book. It was so much fun that I'm having another go. This time, however, rather than writing about generic things that could happen to anyone in a vaguely described northern town, I have a real location and characters with interests wider than their family and friends.

This has opened up a whole new chapter for me in my favourite game of  'Let's pretend I'm someone that I'm not'. I am having to do research just like a real writer. I have spent ages following virtual tours of places so that I can describe them with a convincing level of detail. I have pulled up pictures of houses and churches in the relevant area to get a feel for the type of architecture and materials that they might be built in. I've even had to work out which clocks you could hear chime in a particular spot. It's a hoot!

And this takes me back to my original theme of lack of time. Of course, I'm not an author. I'm a stay at home mum with four children and a long list of domestic tasks to complete on a daily basis. Although I read that proper writers take themselves off to their inspirational studies after breakfast with a steady supply of strong coffee and an instruction not to be disturbed until lunchtime, this is not how it is for me. Either I leap out of bed at some unfriendly hour to grab and hour or so of peace before they all arrive demanding breakfast or I snatch twenty minutes here and there between loads of washing which is not conducive to creativity.

I long for a whole morning, or even an hour, when I could just put pen to paper with my mind entirely focused on the task in hand. My little ideas, starved of attention, are starting to flutter off out of the window to pastures new. Maybe next week I will let my fantasy life do a swap with my real role and shut myself up at my desk, letting the rest of my world go to rack and ruin. Oh. You have no idea how tempting that is!

Saturday, 4 June 2011


We're just back from a week in the woods. Not the wild kind with no civilization to speak of and a bear around every tree stump but the contrived and created type where the next door lodge is but a stone's throw away. We go at this time every year and have done forever. At the end of each trip, I tentatively suggest that the elder two might have grown out of it and we might give the next year a miss. Each time I get a resounding 'No'. They love to go and so we go.

It's easy to see the appeal of the place for the younger two. They are happy pretty much anywhere and there there are bikes and no cars and an enormous swimming pool and acres of forest to explore. It's less obvious in relation to my two teenagers. There are no computers, a patchy phone signal, no friends nearby and they have to spend a week in close proximity with their siblings.

But they don't seem to mind. They are happy watching birds, careering round the site on bikes and playing endless rounds of tree stump tig. Gone are the mobile phones and the skype. They stop wearing make up and fiddling endlessly with their hair and who cares what they're wearing. There's no one there to see.

This attitude made me wonder and two things crossed my mind. Firstly, whilst 14 might seem terribly grown up, particularly when I see my eldest and her friends dressed up for a birthday party, she is still a child. She is still happy climbing trees, flying down water slides and playing crazy golf. Yes, she and her sister are on the cusp of another stage in their lives but just at the moment they have more in common with their younger siblings than they might believe. So, give them the opportunity to play and that's what they will do quite happily.

Secondly, it was easy for them to play because there was no external pressure on them. Who would see that their hair was a mess and that they had no mascara on? No one that mattered because they were unlikely to see any of our fellow guests again. We all know what it's like to worry about what others think but for all I tell them that it doesn't matter, the views of others still frame most of their actions at home. But in the woods they have a chance to be themselves again without fear of not fitting in or being left behind and it's refreshing to see. My children being children whilst they can.

So we shall go to the woods again next year and the year after that until they finally say that they don't want to go. I hope that day is a long time coming.