How to be a local person

I like to think that where I live is a village, but it isn’t really. It almost is; it used to be; but it isn’t anymore. I’m not quite sure what I’d call it now.

The problem is that it doesn’t really know what it is, either.

You see, we have a problem with immigration. You wouldn’t think so to look at us – in the shop, at the school gates, in the doctor’s surgery, the faces look the same and the voices are all pretty similar. Nonetheless, a richness of brownfield sites has been transformed over the past decade and a half into those kind of estates of detached houses which people like to sneer at, but which are just what lots of young families want.

So they (we) came, and they (we) multiplied. The result? A comfortable, prosperous, pleasant place to live – with an identity crisis. Those who were here before the new housing are left, baffled and rather resentful, turned inwards to each other. The newcomers, attracted originally to the prospect of life in a village, get involved in community activities, but that in turn sometimes leads to ill-will and silent feuding where toes are inadvertently stepped on.

Pressure on an over-subscribed school only adds to the problems: people whose children can’t get into the same primary which they themselves attended are (understandably, if unreasonably) unlikely to look kindly on those taking “their” places.

How do you belong to somewhere that wishes you weren’t there? Or, perhaps, how do you belong to somewhere which isn’t sure what it is? Travelling and living in Spain, I was always struck by the strong sense of local identity. A village would celebrate its own saint’s day in its own manner with traditions children inherited as their birthright; a fantastic spectacle to an onlooker, but one which depends by its nature on continuity and exclusivity.

Of course, places do change, and what we see as static and age-old would probably look very different to a visitor from a century ago. My village/suburb/whatever will doubtless take on a new identity over time, but no-one wins if we pretend that nothing was lost in the process.

Woman’s Hour

Despite an 11 year old who is generally awake later than we are, my husband and I still cling to the remnants of childfree evenings  courtesy of Netflix.

Our current boxset is Designated Survivor which, from the vantage point of episode 5, is a pleasingly bonkers tale of the US under threat. It’s perfect post-work viewing: no matter how bad a day you may have had at the office, it doesn’t come close to being catapulted without warning into being the leader of the free world.

Watching it last night through the wrong end of a bottle of wine, two of the three main female characters struck me. Hannah is a high-flying FBI agent with a nose for a plot; Emily a sort of Girl Friday to Keifer Sutherland’s accidental President.

Emily and Hannah are Serious and Dedicated Professionals. We know this because they don’t miss a beat despite personal grief (Hannah) and apparently work round the clock (Emily). But that’s not all. They are both impeccably thin, impeccably groomed and don’t betray by a wrinkle in their designer suits or hint of puffy ankles above vertiginous heels that they might be tired or fraught or somehow otherwise human.

Unrealistic images of women on screen are hardly rare. What was it then that made me pause for thought? Perhaps it was the contrast with the memory of my own look at work that day (trousers shiny, hair sadly not; a bare minimum of makeup thrown at my face in a sort of half-hearted tribute to Grown Upness) that made me realise that their appearance wasn’t just unrealistic, it was nigh-on impossible.

Because I’m 41, and because I’ve been living with this nonsense for a long time, I indulged myself by imagining what everyday life would look like if I tried to live up to this ideal of successful womanhood.

I would get up at 4am, to do an hour’s lonely exercise. A shower then, of course, before spending 30 mins carefully layering on expensive pigments (but not too many) and an hour or more ironing my frizzy hair straight so that I could look appropriately natural to be taken seriously. Clothes? I would ensure that weekends and a large chunk of my salary went on stocking a varied and appropriate wardrobe. Sure, this is all time and money which I currently spend caring for my family, but perhaps I should just sleep (even) less and work (even) more. I’m a woman, aren’t I?

Because I’m 41, and because I have decreasing patience for this nonsense, my hackles were still raised when I caught up with Weekend Woman’s Hour earlier this afternoon. Having a blissful hour to myself (in the kitchen, of course; I know my place) I listened in to a piece from Hull (one of the worst places in the UK to grow up as a girl, apparently) on International Women’s Day.

This is what the three young people interviewed said about their experience of girlhood:

There are more restrictions on girls and what they wear. “I had to think about how I looked at school, whereas before I had just thought about being there to learn”

There’s pressure: to look right, to send naked photos, to be attractive, to be sexy

“Around the age of 10 or 11…I felt pressure to look a certain way. I wasn’t allowed to be myself. I was trying to like make-up and be interested in hair, but I just didn’t really care”

The last speaker, though, had found a way to deal with this.

Now there is a lot less pressure on how I look. I turn up to school with messy hair, and no-one cares”

So perhaps, despite the apparent evidence, there are ways for girls to cope with the overwhelming pressure to become what women are supposed to be?


But the speaker in question, at around the age of 10 or 11, realised that they were transgender. Messy hair and haphazard clothes are not a problem, apparently, once you’re called James.

I wouldn’t presume to know anything of an individual’s circumstances on the strength of a 30 second snippet on the radio. James is entitled to privacy, and the respect of a stranger who has no idea what his life involves. My concern isn’t James, it’s the tone of the discussion as a whole.

Woman’s Hour – and Jenni Murray in particular – have had their fingers burned talking about trans issues in the recent past. That  might be why, following the above, the conversation moved blithely on, with not even the slightest attempt made to draw even the most tentative of possible conclusions from the stories told.

I have a 9 year old daughter. She’s been learning since she was born what society expects of girls, and I don’t flatter myself that what we say at home will counterbalance to any great extent the influences she receives. The best I can hope is that, like every woman I know, she will scramble through a variously miserable adolescence and early adulthood trying to find a way to make her given role fit, until she’s shrugged it into something approaching comfort or has found the confidence to discard it altogether.

Before I was 41, when I was already tired of this nonsense, I hoped that by the time my daughter became a woman she would no longer have to measure herself against the unrealistic, let alone the impossible.

I never dreamed I might have to convince her that it is the expectation, not her struggle to conform to it, which is the problem. That she doesn’t have to find aspiring to the impossible just fine in order to actually be femal after all. Or that Woman’s Hour, apparently, wouldn’t be in my corner for the fight.

Last Friday Night

There’s a pounding in my head…

I grew up in Newcastle. As soon as I reached my mid-teens, “going out” involved dressing up and heading to Dobsons in the city centre where Happy Hour meant you could buy a treble Bacardi and coke for £1.25. For less than a fiver, by 8pm you could be staggering merrily through the Bigg Market, chancing your luck with the bouncers, before teetering to the bus stop to catch the last bus home. House parties involved Diamond White and cheap lager; blurry fumbles on the coats and the crippling dread of Monday morning.

It’s a blacked-out blur…

The drinking culture was hidden in plain sight. As soon as I got my first Saturday job at sixteen, the hours between fitting customers’ shoes would be filled with veiled competitive tales of the night before. At school, then sixth form, the gossip of who had got most pissed and done the most outrageous things was a particular form of currency which seemed to buy admission to the coolest cliques, even as the rules changed and changed and changed.

Think we kissed but I forgot…

For me, emerging from a shy and bullied start to teenagerhood, partying seemed like a kind of get-into-jail free card. It seemed like the easiest way to change who I was, though I realise now it worked more like a badly-fitting disguise. A lot of the time it was fun, of sorts. But a lot of the time, it really wasn’t. Who I’d kissed? Well, I usually wouldn’t have been able to tell you. When you’re insecure to the point of turning yourself inside out; when you’ve learned, without quite realising it, that your value is inherently bound up in whether or not some bloke thinks you’re worth the honour of a shag, it makes a mockery of the vapid “empowerment” line we’re all sold. I wonder how many women, really, have sober one-night-stands – and why that might be?

Trying to connect the dots…

There have been two high profile cases recently involving alcohol and consent (fast becoming a caringly concerned gloss for “rape”). Two young men who, legal consequences aside, we’re given to understand have suffered the life-changing effects of innocently having sex with women so drunk that it required forensic examination as to whether or not they consented. The effects on the women are less important, it seems. “We must educate”, implore these young men, piously, presumably so that no man ever goes through the ordeal they have.

I agree we need to educate. But I think that the education we’re talking about is vastly different.

I have three young children: two boys, one girl.

I will fight like a tiger to teach my daughter that she is worth infinitely more than being considered fleetingly fuckable by any man. That she has the right, always and in every circumstance, to refuse consent to being penetrated. This is blunt language, but it’s a brutal world. And I am not so naive as to think that whatever I teach her will stand up against the cultural messages which tell her otherwise.


And my sons? The boys who, I suspect, will be the target of this “education”?

I will tell them that they have no right to the body of another. That their pleasure does not trump (in absolutely all senses) the integrity of the person in whom they seek to find it. That they cannot go through life assuming consent is the default, or that the onus is on their potential partner to demonstrate otherwise. That whatever she (and for the purposes of this, I do mean she) may  have said, or done, or suggested; whatever she wears, however she dances, however much she may have drunk, she never becomes a convenient excuse for release.

The bitter truth, though, is that they are all three educated all the time. Even though they’re still too young to be exposed to the kind of sex online which makes the stuff we saw as teenagers look like material for Topsy and Tim, they see pop videos and hear pop lyrics and read billboards and magazine covers which make it clear what society really thinks about their respective roles.

I don’t believe that alcohol reveals the true person, although in vino veritarse has a certain ring to it. But I do believe that it drops inhibitions to make people act in a way that they believe they are supposed to, in the way that they’ve been taught to, in a million subtle lessons we will never have noticed. And I believe that this, at least where sex is concerned, benefits one group far more than the other.

I am all for helping to educate our children and young people about the dangers of combining alcohol and sex. Just not, ever, to enable boys to find a way of safely screwing incapably drunk girls and getting away with it.







The Win in the North

I wrote on Friday that I was devastated. I am no less so today.

There are the silly things, like my daughter asking if the Europcar showroom we park next to in town will have to close now, or my son asking if Gareth Bale will still play for Real Madrid. And there are the not-so-silly things, like wondering if our employers and the many others like them will have a change of heart, or whether I’ll soon need to pack a passport when I  visit my best friend in the Highlands.

And then there’s wondering whether the people I walked past in the shops today had voted to stay or go, and wondering quite what motivated them in their choice.

On the news on Friday, a clip from a fish shop not far from here had the woman behind the counter explaining her vote to Leave, in part, on the fact that she’d never had anyone from Labour come in, while the UKIP bloke was a regular. It’s a throwaway observation, and it sounds like a sneer, but it says a lot of what I fear is true about the reasons behind a vote which, weighed on facts, feels verging on the suicidal for my region of North East England.

There is an ugly anger here, that’s been ignored for too long. Away from a few bright lights and a few, largely EU funded, regeneration projects, a lot of this area feels like it’s been on a decades-long decline out of the modern world. There are jobs and prospects here, for sure, but there are also communities which are folding quietly in on themselves, battered by the end of industries, yes, but reeling from a more-or-less unspoken narrative that living here is, in itself, a sign of fecklessness.

More informed commentators than me have written eloquently on how Labour took the area for granted while a bubbling resentment festered and grew, all the more poisonous for having no clear target.Thursday’s vote looks to have given Nicola Sturgeon an unarguable mandate to push for IndyRef2, and who can argue against the evidence of that solid block of yellow? But I don’t think we can look at the bitter lashing out of the North East and other similar regions without asking how the SNP have gone in a few short years from a more or less fringe element in Scottish politics to undeniable states(wo)manship.

Their greatest success, it seems to me, is not to have won people over to their politics , but to have painted a picture of Scotland and convinced them that it was a reflection. Tell people that they are special, that they have a unique identity which sets them apart, and perhaps they will come to believe it. Although the appeal depends absolutely on having an other against which to define self, the current SNP line is less rooted in overt English-bashing and more in a cleverly crafted appeal to Scotland to be better than that: to be the open, welcoming, progressive place it’s told it is.

Perhaps I am wrong, and there really is a dramatic shift in values from one side of the Tweed to the other. Perhaps there is something in the air, from the Borders to the Hebrides, which confers this superior nature, on natives and newcomers alike. Or perhaps, after all, being told you are a part of an attractive “Us” is something people want to hear. Hope sells.

So back to my embattled, embittered home.

We feature in the national press for our comically cheap housing stock as if too much of it isn’t out of the reach of those who grew up here; for the “undiscovered” beauty of our natural environment, as if thousands of us don’t call it home. Yes, there are occasional think-pieces on Our Friends In The North, but they’re too often earnest, anthropological studies, or worse still, some attempt at translation by someone who grew up here but now speaks fluent London.  There are periodic pops of astonishment that we have galleries and businesses and heritage which are world-class, and the perennial lure of a bolt-hole for the intrepid and/or savvy to escape London and raise their family on a (comparative) shoestring, with really great schools, y’know?

People with our accents don’t speak in the places of power; even when half of the Labour cabinet had seats up here, most of them sounded like they were southerners anyway. And, as elsewhere, people feel like they’ve been told that English nationalism is dirty and unacceptable. St George’s flags are flown, it seems to me, as much in defiance as in pride.

People here feel like they’ve been shafted, whether or not it’s true in all cases. Too many people feel that their only precarious chance to stay local and hang on to a livelihood is under threat from cheap, flexible labour from outside – even (or perhaps especially) where actual numbers of immigrants are low. When you already feel like you’re hanging on by your fingertips, or see plenty around you who are, it doesn’t take much to convince you to do what you must to save yourself. No-one else is offering to do it for you.

Who is selling hope here? The messages that people here are listening to are those which promise dignity, which whisper that control is still there for the taking; those who say: you were Great once, you can be Great again. If what we are seeing now tells us anything, it’s surely that people increasingly vote for identity over interests. Who can find a way to ride this tiger in a world of the disenchanted and disengaged who don’t know where or to whom they belong?

I do not, to be absolutely clear, equate the politics of the SNP with those of explicitly nationalist parties south of the border. The situation is far more complicated than that. But in assessing the consequences of Brexit, in considering what led near neighbours with fundamentally similar interests to make such opposing choices, we must not fall into the trap of  lauding Scotland and excoriating swathes of England without asking if perhaps it was the options on offer and not the motivations which were so very different


The day after

I am devastated.

It isn’t so much that I think that the EU is perfect (though, in Life-of-Brian-esque style, I can’t help remembering what it’s done for me: jobs in European companies, time studying abroad, straight bananas).

It isn’t so much that the nosedive in the economy frightens me; I don’t understand numbers very well, and have an unshakeable (though possibly unreasonable) belief that the whole thing is ultimately decided in the plush interiors of a few private jets and as beyond us mere mortals as the weather.

It’s just that it is so sad, and so very, very frightening.

We’ve had a campaign of fudged figures, halfhearted champions and a cynical, clinical manipulation of justified grievance for political gain. We’ve had informed evidence (in as far as either element could be true, given the momentous uncertainty that Brexit was always going to entail) pooh-pooh’ed as nothing more than so much self-serving bias. Who was every going to triumph, in a battle of slogans and half-truths on one hand and realpolitik on the other? It was always going to end in one side feeling bludgeoned by the status quo, or the other left bereft, watching what they once held in their hands, floating away on airy, empty words.

I didn’t vote to remain, so much as not to leave. I didn’t vote for the EU, but to prevent what we already see: economic uncertainty, political stalemate and the sight of countries and parties collapsing inwardly on themselves like a swarm of angry wasps.

“Take back control” was the will-o’-the wisp of the Leave campaign. But control is an illusion. We relinquish control every day in a trade off of freedom versus benefit. I abide by the markings on the lanes on the motorway to avoid being squished by a lorry, not because I don’t have faith in my car, but because I recognise that no matter how well-built it is, the laws of physics will determine its fate if it confronts 20 tonnes of metal. It is not unpatriotic to accept that this world is changing fast, and that there is heft in numbers, even if that comes with an inevitable drag in speed of movement. It is no less defeatist to point out that Britain can no more spring back into its former post-colonial position in the world than I, who was good at running at school, could suddenly claim a place in the Olympics track team.

Pride and belonging and identity are sharp swords. They bolster the confidence of those holding them, by virtue inevitably of the fact that they bar others from doing likewise. I am heartsick at the turning inwards of my country, at the inevitable forensic dissection of origin to determine who ultimately counts.

This referendum has laid bare the fact that most British people don’t understand how their own parliamentary democracy works, let alone how the subtleties and complexities of how that, its turn, plays into the EU law-making process. And today, we have a retraction of the key elements of the Leave campaign within minutes of victory, and people saying they’d voted just to make a point, but they didn’t really mean it. What price popular confidence in the political process now, as we go into this shadowy new unknown?




Do people still ask children what they want to be when they grow up? It’s not a question I’m aware of hearing these days; perhaps because the answer: “heavily in debt and renting till I retire at 94” is too guilt-engendering for the adult in question to cope with.

Shopping for children’s clothes last week, though, I saw that Next have grasped the nettle…sort of. Among the varicoloured bits of jersey were two T-shirts which flirted with the idea of one’s destiny in life:

Screen Shot 2016-05-22 at 11.29.49                Spot the difference?

A throwaway tweet got picked up and shared a lot later on. Some of the comments that came in – several of the characters are women; the Minecraft one comes in other primary colours; we buy my daughter’s clothes from the boys’ department – were true, and I worried that I was guilty of an overreaction; of espying bias and agendas where none are intended. After all, Next – to their credit – had some pinkified Star Wars tops in the girls’ range, so there was a bit more nuance than the two opposites I had picked on might suggest.

The thing is, though, that this stuff does matter. A T-shirt here or there might not make a tremendous amount of difference, but the drip-feed really does.So too does the rigid division from birth onwards of what belongs to each sex. Of course a girl could wear the Minecraft T-shirt above, but the fact is that many girls won’t, purely because it is displayed in the boys’ section and because they have the notion of what is rightfully theirs drilled into them from such an early age.

It’s not a novel observation that children’s lives are increasingly divided along gender lines of somebody else’s drawing. Clothes are pink or blue, purposeful or sparkly, practical or decorative. Toys – even the supposedly neutral options – come in two colour ways; doubtless to maximise revenue from discouraging hand-me-downs, but driving nonetheless an ever deeper consciousness of what belongs to “us” as opposed to what belongs to “them”. Do you think I’m over-exaggerating? You didn’t see the reaction of my then-3 -year-old son on holiday, discovering that the mattress protector he’d slept on all week was pink.

Children, by their very nature, generally want to conform. They are primed to observe, mimic and assimilate the structures and rules of the society in which they live. There is nothing innate about using a toilet, or cutting up food with a knife and fork, but we expect it as a given of a child entering Reception. Is it really such a huge jump to suggest that if we tell them that a certain set of attributes are theirs, that they are somehow therefore required to have them in order to fit in?

So perhaps it’s up to parents to counteract this pressure. Well, yes, but doing so against a whole culture which tells them otherwise is almost impossible. Although we had doubtless been guilty of buying our son clothes and toys marketed at boys, we’d certainly never banned him from pink or given him to understand that it was somehow lethal to his very being.

On one level, this is little more than a bewailing of a particularly virulent form of capitalism. Standard advice for those who find it problematic has always been to tell children that there’s no such thing as boys’ toys or girls’ toys, any more than we’d tell them certain jobs are just for men, or a particular way of being just for women. Which works, to an extent, right up until children also start hearing that the things that they like somehow in fact define who they are.

My 8yo daughter, in some ways all things “girly”, has a passion for playing with cars. Her latest birthday list features a kitten, new hair accessories, a go-kart and “new modern cars” to go on her car mat. An older relative, seeing her list, made a throwaway comment that she was a tomboy. She gave him a slightly funny look, then went off, in her sequinned leotard, to watch YouTube instructions on French plaits.

Later that night, though; curled up next to me on the sofa, there came in a quiet voice: “Am I half a boy?”. She’s seen CBBC programmes, after all, about boys who come back to school after the summer holidays in a dress and hair bows; girls suddenly allowed to join the boys’ team in exchange for a buzz cut and a new name. Of course there is more to all of this than that, but she is eight. That’s all she sees.

In fewer years than I care to calculate, the differences for my daughter will become less about which pages she’ll fold over in the toy catalogue; which range of clothes she picks her jeans from. Her body will change, and with it, the way the world sees and treats her. She will have to run the gamut of periods; of body hair and breasts and those who think they make her a form of public property to be assessed and appropriated. She’ll learn that if she goes out into the world with her brothers, she’ll be held to a different standard of behaviour; judged against a different set of codes if God forbid, things should go wrong.

None of this is new, of course. Nor does it mean that I think that boys breeze easily into manhood. But she is one of the first generation to hear another message alongside all of this; that if she finds what’s assigned to her restrictive, if she chafes at the confinement or even finds herself reaching more naturally for flat shoes and trousers and a slick of suncream rather than a full face of contouring, that she isn’t actually a girl after all.

These are deep waters, I know. I freely admit to a kind of ignorance here; a muddy sense of confusion between where opinions from the reading I’ve done meet prejudices and fears I may not be wholly conscious of.  I don’t know where we draw the line between teaching children that being different is ok, while ensuring that there is adequate support for those who need it. How we ensure that children have vocabulary and confidence to express what threatens their wellbeing, while not adding to all the causes that might threaten it in the first place. The truth is, this is new to most of us, not least our children themselves.

Maybe it’s no wonder we’ve stopped asking what they want to be when they grow up, after all.



Skiing backwards

Years and years ago, I read about a term applied to (or chosen by?) wealthy retired North Americans who ploughed their cash into giant mobile homes in order to overwinter in milder climes. There was  even a bumper sticker for them and their deluxe Winnebagos: “We’re SKIing”, they’d announce. “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance”.

I have no idea whether this is still A Thing, but it was a phrase that kept occurring to me during the years I was a stay at home mother. I felt, a lot of the time, like I was somehow frittering away something due to my children in the future. Saving was way down the list. Investing for their education, likewise. Hell, I was even depriving them of the example of an industrious working mother, with all the benefits I kept hearing came with that.

It was an insistent little niggle, not particularly assuaged by the knowledge that it was a luxurious niggle to have. I knew – I know  – that working far too often confers no such opportunity to build a buttress, however small, against fortune. In our case, though, provided I found a job which paid sufficiently to cover childcare, working would bring financial advantage…or, that whispering little voice kept suggesting, just put the children on a more level footing with their immediate peers.

I’ve written plentifully on here about the fact that having a parent at home full stop is perceived to be of little value. The papers seem to be full of the advantages of maternal employment on children, and study after study proving that they come to no harm through being cared for in a setting other than home. I have no doubt that either is true, provided that material circumstances are such to ensure quality of provision and a levelling of other factors domestically. I just wonder if, perhaps, in the perpetual race to demonstrate no ill-effects, there is a lost nuance of a benefit less tangible, yet no less real? There doesn’t after all, have to be one right answer.

When, half pushed, half jumping, I stepped into what I now know was a career break, it was as if blindfold, with no particular plan and little hope that I could go back to the profession I’d studied and trained for. Almost a year after returning to work, I still can’t believe my luck that it is, for now, working out. It is still faintly incredible that someone took a chance on me, and that I’ve ended up doing something interesting and rewarding, with the luxury and luck of supportive colleagues and near-perfect childcare. Along with the ever-present prompting from my resident Imposter Syndrome, who likes to remind me daily that I’m bound to cock it up soon, is a sense that is all too good to be true.

So far, so me. But what about the reasons for that career break in the first place? Are they thriving, now that I’m gainfully employed? Have I realised that I was, after all, squandering their dues by spending time at home with them? If I am being brutally honest, I think that this was one of my biggest fears when I went back. Fear that they would struggle with the transition, obviously; guilt that I was changing their lives so dramatically. Alongside that, though, a nasty little fear that I might have to admit that I had been wrong.

They are, of course, fine. There has been no sudden dramatic decline in their schoolwork; no outbreak of delinquency (or no more than they displayed previously). We don’t seem to have forgotten each others’ names, and they tolerate or seek out my company in roughly the same proportions as they always did. They are, in some ways, undoubtedly better off: I am better tempered, and marginally (though gratifyingly) more solvent.

Perhaps it’s a bad case of self-delusion, however, but I can’t honestly say that they, or I, were nett losers during the six years I was out of the labour market (excluding the birth of Number 3). There’s a relief, actually, in feeling largely the same. I still have the knee-jerk “It’s a job, love, not a fucking halo” reaction when I hear a particularly egregious example of Busy Working Mum-hood.

Yet how to quantify, how to value, how even to class as “gain” what they now no longer have? There are tiny details of their day-to-day lives I don’t share anymore. There are unscheduled, unlabelled hugs that don’t happen; walks and chats and games  that are replaced now with a briskly efficient-, timed-to-the-millisecond drop off and pick up. There is, on balance, less time – and how do you account for that?

It’s hard to write about this stuff without self-editing. So here come the caveats: of course I don’t think that every mother wants, or should want to, or should take any time out of her career other than that which biology mandates. Of course I appreciate that this whole vexed question is the domain of a relatively tiny privileged minority. But still, I see so many women who, after children, end up in jobs for which they are woefully overqualified, or scrabbling around to make a pittance peddling someone else’s dreams. I hear others who are working because, not to, would close a door forever on something they hold dear. Sometimes it’s a choice. Sometimes, a compromise. Sometimes, it really was the only thing going.

As much as it may sound it, this isn’t an exercise in smuggery. It’s just that, according to every available calculator, I am less than half way through my working life, and those few years out, in the overall scheme of things, don’t seem so much. And I can’t help wonder if my case (thank you, Imposter Syndrome, for as long as it lasts) really shouldn’t be such an exception. This isn’t about the choices people make; it’s about the circumstances in which they make them – and what could make it easier for time out with young children not to be an irreparable blot on a woman’s CV.

We have such a linear view of life, still; such a binary either/or approach to progress and achievement and worth. We’re programmed to stockpile for the future; armour our offspring as much as we can against their own forays into the world. But, perhaps, there’s not one single best way of investing; as we live longer and work longer and move around more, maybe a portfolio approach to building an “inheritance” makes just as much sense as anything else. Much more sense, in a lot of ways, than deeming anything which deviates from school-work-family-retirement as somehow doing things in the wrong order.

It’s an awkward exercise, I imagine, to shuffle a pair of skis in reverse. It’s hard to see what’s coming, and it’s fraught with the risk of capsizing. But perhaps, when you think about it, balancing on planks on snow doesn’t come that naturally either.


Tax Attacks

When I was a child, the concept of financial planning didn’t get much more complicated than aspiring to a NatWest piggy bank. My parents were teachers, their parents blue collar workers; the really rich kids we knew were the ones with BMXs whose dads were riggers offshore.

It wasn’t until my world (though not my bank balance) expanded that I glimpsed what really growing up with money could mean. Not “with money” in the sense of having enough to have a comfortable life, but in the sense of having money with a life of its own beyond yours; money which demands shelter, nurture and advice.

1980s privatisations notwithstanding, I’d wager that for most of us, managing our finances involves a bank account, a pension (if we’re lucky) and a debt or two on one side, maybea bit of savings on the other. Tax is the bit that comes off our pay at source, or the amount we stump up after a sweaty-palmed calculation in late January. We’re vaguely aware of bonds and shares, trust funds and investment portfolios, but in the way that we know aboutthe existence of, say, grouse shooting.

I am no fan of David Cameron, but I am not particularly surprised to hear of his family’s apparent benefit from opaque financial planning. Under a system where there’s a fine distinction between the legal status of tax avoidance and tax evasion, after all, why wouldn’t he?

The issue here isn’t so much the affairs of one individual or even one group. It’s the interplay between the infrastructure of taxation and wealth management which, to someone not privy to it, seems designed for a mutual benefit that is simply not available to those of us who earn, and pay, and see the ever increasing caps on ISA and Child Trust Funds as something utterly irrelevant to our daily lives.

Yes, I would like a light shone on tax havens and dodgy financial planning. More than this, though, I would like a simplification of the tax regime as it applies to those of us who just earn and pay what we’re required to; a recognition that the self-assessment system is hopelessly inappropriate for low income self-employed; an acknowledgement that tax credits are labyrinthine and complex beyond the understanding of many of those embroiled in them.

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing, they used to say. Perhaps it doesn’t, if you have someone to hold your hand and walk you through the intricacies, let alone help you find a way to minimise what you pay. The rest of us, though, who can’t afford such a luxury, end up too often on the wrong side of something we’ve never been taught to understand; something which seems designed to trip us up, and where, in the absence of expert advice, there seems to be precious little credit for good faith.

Thats the real scandal.

Voting With My Feet (An Open Letter to Nicky Morgan)

Dear Ms Morgan

I have three units (sorry, children) currently at primary school. Actually, they’re at a primary academy, since our Local Authority withdrew its education function five years ago and forced a wholesale conversion throughout the borough.

It’s a good one, I’ll give you that. We have a dedicated and visionary head, who’s doing Good Things from a business perspective while, crucially, remembering that her stock in trade is the lives and hopes of several hundred small people. Of course she’s bound by the double-entry book keeping of finance and performance figures, but she manages to give the impression that remembering the names of the children in her care and turning up to sing in Assembly matter just as much.

I was a parent governor for a while, approached in my triple capacity as church member, commercial lawyer and, most importantly, person in a cagoule at the coal-face of the playground and the classroom door. It was hard work: not just the meetings, but the rightly rigorous training too, but it was also an honour to do it and I was disappointed when a potential conflict of interest meant I had to step down.

It sounds like the chances of me doing it again are minimal, since you’ve announced that mandatory parent governors are to be scrapped in favour of skilled individuals (the two, apparently, being mutually exclusive). Thankfully, though, you’ve reassured us parents that we won’t be silenced: we will still be “consulted” when the school is making decisions, and, after all, we can still “vote with our feet” if we’re not happy.

I agree with you that the present system isn’t perfect. If the parent governors are voted for, they too often tend to be those who win a popularity contest. If they’re co-opted,  it’s usually because they’re the conspicuous, conscientious type who look like they might have a particular skill and the wherewithal to make meetings. Parent governors aren’t representative, but they are, crucially parents. They anchor the governing body to what should always be the primary consideration: the experiences of the children who attend the school, not the relative position on a performance table.

As for “consultation”, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and accept that you wholeheartedly believe this is a functional and democratic way of engaging the families of children at school. Sadly, experience shows that it is no such thing. On the one hand, most parents are either too busy or too apathetic to give a shit. When we converted to an academy, the consultation process involved a handful of responses. Perhaps it’s natural, since people see consultations elsewhere on matters that concern them – from planning applications to cuts to local services – providing little more than a fig leaf before the process continues in line with the decision makers’ wishes. Perhaps it’s just a sign of increasing individualism. Have you tried getting people involved in a local initiative recently, Ms Morgan?

The notion of voting with our feet as the ultimate veto is entirely of a piece with this notion of choice in education. The thing is, even as a sharp-elbowed, well-informed, middle-class mother with oodles of options, I don’t really want choice. Most of us don’t. We want our children to go to their local school, with the children who live around them, in the community to which they belong. We want our children to scramble into a little learning and a whole lot of socialisation; to acquire skills and knowledge and ambition that will steer them as they grow older, not forced tall and pale like so many little sticks of rhubarb ready to be judged at an allotment show.

We don’t want our children to go to the best school, we want them to do their best at their school. We don’t want to sit, each August, in front of a data dashboard of outputs of all the local educational establishments deciding where little Philomena will go in September. These are our children, not the supplier of our electricity or the insurance we buy for our car. We want to commit to schools and see our children grow and flourish where they are, not uproot them to pot them on in some whimsical pursuit of perfection.

And, of course, “voting with our feet” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Where I live, there is no secondary school within safe walking distance, which means free transport has to be provided. The council recently decided that this free transport would only be available to the school which is infinitesimally nearer than that to which 99% of children have gone and continue to go since…well, forever. That it’s woefully undersubscribed and serially failing is, I am sure, a coincidence, although it does mean that the council’s spend on secondary school transport is effectively minimal – demand for that school is met by a daily taxi, while parents spend £500/year to send their child off with their friends on the same fleet of buses that have always run. Precious little choice, however, if you can’t find the cash.

Please stop and think. Please listen. Not everyone who is complaining about the direction of education policy in this country is a refusenik who fails to see any benefits in your proposed changes. I think encouraging entrepreneurialism in schools is a good idea. Helping them capitalise on their assets in a sustainable manner makes sense. But education cannot and must never be turned into an entirely free market.This isn’t creating a level field. It’s allowing a lucky few to build a Noah’s Ark and leaving the rest to deal with the flood as best they can.


An A-Z of Parenting (the primary school years)


A is for Answers. Those you are asked for multiple times per minute, and those you get back instead of the “yes, of course Mummy” you were hoping for.

is for Bedtime. The hour of the day which is apparently light years earlier in your house than in every other home in the land.

is for Cuddles. Especially the stolen ones, and those ones when you realise with a pang quite how much they’ve grown.

is for Drama. Also Storm/Teacup; Mountain/Molehill. (Generally an object lesson in the difference in perspective, courtesy of door slamming, head tossing and a wail to the effect that you don’t understand).

E is for Examples. As in, trying to set a good one, and realising too late that the muttered remark at the idiot in the car in front was anything but.

F is for Food. Which is either a cruel and unusual punishment (anything with an air of vitamins about it) or What Everyone Else In The World Has For Tea (anything else)

is for Giggling. Quite possibly the best sound in the world, even when it’s accompanying a conversation about farts.

H is for Homework. During which time loses all meaning and half an hour becomes endless aeons of pain (see also D)

I is for Image. Also known as the sudden mechanism whereby 75% of the wardrobe becomes unwearable overnight.

is for Judgement. As in “trusting your own”. Easier said than done.

is for Knowledge. A commodity whose value varies. Priceless to you; approximately worthless to those you’re trying to share it with.

is for Love. Nuff said.

is for Minecraft. Lego THAT YOU CAN’T STAND ON. Genius.

is for Noise. A sort of aural collage of handstand thumps, FaceTime pings and the “pyow-pyow” of an imaginary battle with Stormtroopers.

O is for Optional Hearing. A strange condition which renders the sound of a sweet being unwrapped three rooms away pin-sharp, while the instruction to wash ones face is a muffled blur.

P is for Pyjamas. Items of clothing which are welded to bodies, especially ten minutes before it’s time for school.

is for Quiet. A largely forgotten relic of an earlier life which makes an occasional reappearance when Minecraft is engaged.

is for Radio. Capital in the car and on every other set within reach to ensure a wall-to-wall surround of the kind of music that sounds like someone’s hopping over hot coals.

is for Siblings. The components either of unbreakable alliances against you or implacable feuds you must resolve.

T is for Toys. Also known as random articles of tat which are of no interest whatsoever until it is time to leave the house or set the table.

U is for Untidy. Not so much a state as an apparent independent Being which wreaks untold havoc in the blink of an eye.

is for Values.There is nothing like passing them on to make you question your own.

is for Why? A question asked less and less, but which gets harder and harder to answer.

X is for X-Box. Like a youth club in your telly.

Y is for Young. They are, you’re not.

Z is for Zhurely that’s enough by now, I’m off for a glass of wine (see A-Y)


Inspire, Expire…

As Tori Amos almost said, I never was a coursework girl.

It isn’t so much that I have the big-match temperament, more that I am programmed to thrive with a metaphorical gun at my temple. I managed to garner a reasonably illustrious academic record procrastinating my way through the term in an impressive variety of ways (game of solitaire, anyone?)  and then sweating and weeping through a night of pre-exam cramming.

I’d like to say I’d grown out of it, but…the internet.

The internet is doubly the foe of those of us who would never consider doing today what could reasonably be put off until next week.

Firstly, it is nothing more or less than the Whole World And Everyone In It, there, always, just a thumb scroll away. Dangerous, when you’re of the disposition which finds vital import in  a tea towel that needs washing or a desk that needs tidying whenever a deadline looms.

Secondly, though, is that beyond the simple potential for distraction however,

*****pause while I check Twitter*****

is the insidious effect that seeing a world of possibility has on the mind which knows that tomorrow is always the first day of the rest of its life.

Don’t get me wrong. I like, as much as the next person, to read about those who’ve started over. Whether it’s a new life in Brazil, a spanking new career, kicking the booze, losing twelve dress sizes, finding God or simply reaching the bottom of the ironing basket, it’s heartening to know that people really do change things. More, that they really do change themselves.

But when I see these changes day-in, day-out; when they’re in blogposts and articles and Facebook memes alongside the ever-open Tesco tab and the daily emails from online retailers, the potential for transformation, for redemption, starts to feel a bit like a commodity. Like it’s available to order, whenever I’m ready; an offer with no expiry date.

Maybe I’d have thrived better in the olden days, with the priest thundering the threat of eternal damnation at me every Sunday and tortured gargoyles underlying the or-else.

Maybe we need some imagery for that secular modern-day equivalent of the soul that dies unshriven; the life that lives unrealised.

It’s very easy to kid myself that I have forever to get around to it all, when every time I see some kind of a miserable “before”, it’s in counterpoint to a “happy ever after” rather than an abrupt full stop.

“Remember, man, as you pass by” my grandad told me he’d seen written in a graveyard in his childhood, “as you are now, so once was I”. Perhaps it was a Cork stonemason’s early attempt at Instagram, but it has an impressiveness, to someone whose childhood was noticeably lacking in graveyards, that goes somewhat beyond that of an inspirational quote set against a sunset.

****some time later****

I wondered about how to finish this, but the usual bathetic attempt at uplift seemed hypocritical at best.

The abrupt full stop seems fitting.