Time Out

A couple of things over the last few weeks have reminded me about this blog and sent me back to re-read old posts.

It’s so lovely, after several years away, to revisit snippets of a period that now seems a lifetime ago. Not only are the small children I wrote about no longer any such thing, with hormones and height replacing tantrums and toys, but I’m in my second job, third house and twenty second month of not drinking since I last blogged regularly. 

And then, of course, there’s the fact that it would all probably feel unrecognisable even if I’d written it last year, given how 2020 has panned out so far. 

It’s made me realise, in that Thought for the Day kind of way (I may have been away for ages, but trite – apparently – never dies) just how weird time has become. I’ve come to appreciate that the daily routine of up and out (and roundabout), were to me somewhat as the corset was to the Victorians: constricting and uncomfortable, sure, but also conferring an illusion of form to what would otherwise be prone to shapelessness. 

People say that this unoccupied time has been a gift, and it absolutely has, but I’ve been an ungrateful recipient. I’ve been forced to acknowledge, yet again, that left with days to pattern as I will, the results aren’t impressive. Trying each morning to provide structure and purpose for everyone from scratch, in the absence of anyone telling us what to do or anywhere we have to be, requires piecing together a mosaic of a million unspoken efforts – and I am not very good at it.

Today and tomorrow mark the end of this school year for us. So far, the only thing which has borne any resemblance to what I’m not yet ready to call the old normal has been the issuing of reports which, in the case of secondary school, have been all about once unfamiliar concepts like Teams and distance learning, while primary has had the admirable honesty to admit that I am far more likely to know how my child has fared since March than they are. And that’s it, year done. 

It’s brought it home to me how much, especially with children, our lives are calibrated against the seasonality of the (school) year. There are the small weekly patterns, but then the bigger markers of Halloween and Christmas shows; parents’ evening and the Easter service; sports day and end of term discos and the summer fete. Holidays punctuate the months, signifying a break which may or may not amount to much more than the simple absence of school, but carving the year into domino-sized chunks which knock each other along seemingly without input from us.

There’s been none of that since March. The days have taken on a sameness and a speed which is hard to reconcile with the busy drag of Normal. At the beginning of lockdown, the first signs of spring were tiny reasons for hope, reminders that things renew and return. Now, four months later, with the weather decidedly unhelpful, holidays cancelled and weeks of working from home with bored and mildly neglected children on the cards, the tiny whispers of autumn feel more like a threat. It’s hard, in the absence of the usual last few weeks of grubby polo shirts and school trousers flapping inches above the ankle, to reconcile myself to the fact that this summer is already well under way, and that the new term, with all its challenges underlying  the welcome return to school, is really not that far off. 

I think subconsciously I’ve been imagining that we’d get injury time added on at the end of all this, whenever that might be, to make up for all the missed milestones. And of course, we won’t – the children are exactly as much older as they would have been under normal circumstances, exactly as much closer towards all of the nexts and the news that they have to go through as they grow up, although some of them will have to happen differently, at least for now. Life is never a given, we know this, and yet expecting to be able to mark off the passage of time in a way that feels familiar to us is no a privilege no less real for having been utterly taken for granted.




The House That Brexit Built

Today is the first anniversary of the Brexit vote. We could be celebrating with traditional games, like “Pin The Star On Her Majesty’s Hat” or “Whose £350m Is It Anyway?”, but since it’s not a national holiday (yet), we’re stuck with commemorating or commiserating as we see fit.

Whatever your feelings, I think it’s fair to say no-one really knows what’s going on with Brexit, or what it really means. Perhaps that’s why we’re awash in metaphors and analogies instead. Philip Hammond was lambasted yesterday for suggesting that the process of leaving the EU could be done in stages, like moving house (apparently innocent of the fact that for most of us, home occupation is a fairly binary concept).

The house analogy is one I’ve been guilty of using too, though.

For a while now, the practicalities of Brexit have made most sense to me if I imagine the UK as the grumpy owner of a mid-terraced house.

She’s annoyed at the noise from the neighbours.

She doesn’t like that the loft space is shared.

It winds her up that if next door has a problem with the sewage, she has to let the water board into her back yard to check the drains.

They tried to explain the party wall thing to her when she moved in, but she’s never yet got over the fact that she’s under obligations to the people on either side to keep their houses upright.

She complains so long about the whole set-up, that the landlord of her local pub (whose brother does those fancy patterned driveways and has a van with “builder” on the side) sees a potential solution.

“You wouldn’t have all those problems if your house was detached, pet.”

It doesn’t happen all at once, of course. She’s there most nights, but there are pub quizzes and bust-ups and karaoke nights. When it’s quiet, though, he mentions it again.

“You should talk to my brother”, he says. “He could sort it out”.

And so, one day, after the people two doors down had a massive party all weekend and a front window got smashed, she’s had enough. She rings the builder for a quote. He’s honest with her:

“You’ll be a different woman. None of that nonsense from next door. No more knocks on the door from the gas man wanting to check your neighbour’s meter; no more worries about the cracks in your shared wall. I’ll get your house out of there; you’ll be miles better off”

And so he did.

It’s not quite the same, of course. A lot of the bricks got broken, and some turned out not to have been hers after all. The roof doesn’t quite fit, since the tiles had to be cracked to get them off, and it ended up costing her a lot more to the neighbours than the builder had originally said.

She couldn’t quite stretch to buying a piece of land, but luckily the builder had a patch he agreed she could rent.

Services? They’re getting sorted, but it turned out that the gas and electricity didn’t go that far up, and she’s just waiting for her new landlord to get onto them when has a minute.  And actually, they go over her old neighbours’ land first, so they have to give their approval, but it all should be fine.

Shouldn’t it?


This is why I am so angry about Brexit. Not really with those who voted to leave, but those who pretended it was possible that “the UK” could be moved wholesale out of a structure which has shaped us; those who promised that the past could be reclaimed; those who suggested that often legitimate grievances about the status quo could be solved by taking a sledgehammer to much of what protects us.

So, sorry, no: I’m not over it.

Happy Brexiversary.



The invisible children

Luckily, I’m past the stage of needing to use the Parent & Child parking spaces at the supermarket. I still play the game of “spot the invisible child”, though: eyes peeled for that strange phenomenon afflicting people who nab a convenient place presumably on the basis of owning a parent, or having once been a child.

There are ripe pickings for “spot the invisible child” in politics, too. On a more serious level which I’m not qualified to discuss, there are severely disadvantaged youngsters whose plight – whether poverty, neglect or special needs – too often goes unmentioned. The invisible children I’m concerned about here, though are those within the current hot topic of “childcare”.

To listen to politicians and most media coverage, you’d be justified in thinking that it’s an issue which applies only to tots. There are endless reams of thinkpieces on the harm or otherwise of paid care for babies and toddlers; endless (and fiendishly complex) policy wrangles around entitlement to free childcare (or is it early years education?) for the 3s-and-unders.

And then, once those same tots hit school age, any suggestion that their wheareabouts outside lesson time might be problematic becomes harder to spot than a babyseat in the back of a souped-up Fiesta with go-faster stripes.

Childcare, it seems, is only really something which the powers that be (and the powers that want to be) can conceive as being of concern to parents until their offspring toddle into Reception.

There are occasional salvoes about Breakfast Clubs! and After School! and Holiday Sessions! all with costings and logistical underpinnings which make Labour’s current manifesto woes come across like an excerpt from A Beautiful Mind and which combine to convey the impression that it’s not really that big a problem; that such things are nice-to-haves, rather than vitally necessary for the majority of us needing or wanting to combine work with parenthood.

It goes without saying that childcare costs are prohibitive for many families with very young children, and that this is a significant barrier to many women returning to work after maternity leave. Solving, or at least easing, this, however, is of limited value if the same woman then feels compelled to leave work a few years later when someone needs to be at the school gate at 8.55 and 3.20 each day, or the only holiday clubs are between 9 and 3 and she works 8.30-5, an hour away, or her teenager could really do with having a grown-up around to shove and cajole him through exams.

Subsidising her preschooler’s childcare is great, but it’s of little help when she’s then faced with 6 weeks of summer holidays and an eleven year old (thinking of no-one in particular) who can’t be relied upon to find a matching pair of socks, let alone be home by himself for ten hours a day.

Living away from family, I’ve experienced first hand the difference that affordable on-site wraparound care during the primary school days can make. In my case, it has literally been the difference between being able to return to work or not. Being fortunate enough to have an employer who takes the question of work-life balance and family commitments seriously, I’ve likewise learned how flexibility during holidays and illness can make combining work and care responsibilities possible. Even with these advantages, reaching the end of primary school with my eldest feels a bit like falling off a cliff; talking to other parents, I know I’m not alone in this, and yet it never even seems to warrant a mention.

I’ve yet to hear a single politician outline seriously how they’d strive to ensure the advantages of childcare and flexibility I’ve been able to access thus far would be made available to all parents, not just a lucky few.

As for any acknowledgement we’d care at all how things will work at eleven and over? It’s empty space, as far as I can see.

The fact that so many families muddle through due to grandparents on hand, or mothers (and it is almost always mothers) being forced out of work and/or into low paid or local roles shouldn’t be taken as evidence of a system that’s working. Achieving equality in the workplace and assessing the needs of those who need to balance earning and caring responsibilities needs to go well beyond the nappy years.

I remain passionately in favour of families choosing how best to structure their finances and employment to meet their own changing needs, but restricting employment options can’t be a good thing when so many of us will work for 30 or 40 years after our children start school, both on a personal level and in terms of maximising tax and NI intake.

There are not as many opportunities for cute photo ops with winsome toddlers, sure. But there’s definitely a bigger picture to see here.






Slight Return

When I was contemplating returning to full-time work after a six year career break, I cast around on Twitter and among friends for clues and tips and reassurance that I wasn’t Completely Mad for even considering it. There was lots on how to get organised, but very little that told me what it would actually be like. Almost two years in, what would I say to someone asking me the same question?

  • Be brave

I expected the tiredness and the logistical challenge of combining work and a hectic family life after the luxury of a few years where I only had to consider the latter. What I didn’t realise was how exhausting dredging up the courage to go in, day after day, till I found my feet again would be.

I was terrified on a daily basis, for a long time, in a way that I didn’t recognise from pre-career-break work, and in a way which I no longer experience now. I had a mantra of “don’t look down”: visualising myself on a tight rope, I willed myself to focus on putting one foot in front of the other and refusing to contemplate the horrors lurking should I slip.

Little things I once and now again take for granted: composing an email, approaching someone senior, giving an opinion or advice which I know could come back to bite me should I be wrong, were draining in a way I simply hadn’t expected.

Battling imposter syndrome is nothing special, I know, but it took every ounce of energy I had to fight it down when it was armed with the ammunition of that time away from the office.

  • Be selfish

Wankerish as this sounds, I was brought up to believe in service to others, and having been acutely conscious of the additional time I had available while not working, like a lot of people I tried to volunteer where possible and fit in lots of social commitments with friends and family.

Volunteering and working are not mutually exclusive, of course, but it took me almost a year of becoming increasingly unhappy and ill to realise that a break while I reacclimatised to work would have been best all round. It wasn’t the lack of time which was the issue, so much as the need to prioritise family and my own mental well-being with space wherever possible not to be “in demand” from external sources while we all got used to our new normal.

Again, two years in, I now have the energy and headspace to start to be able to fit things in to the spare time I have available, but in retrospect it would have been helpful to have felt I had permission to take a step back. As with the friends point below, it’s natural to feel it important to prove a point – look, I can work and still do everything too! – but those who really care about you won’t be bothered either way.

  • Losing friends and inconveniencing people

Very much related to the above. Maybe this was just me, but it was hard to realise that to some people I considered friends, I had only every really just been valuable by my presence. A stay at home mum is a useful social acquaintance: able to step in at short notice, lend a hand in groups and  generally help move things along by the simple virtue of proximity to home during the hours when others are in the office or on the road.

Not everyone, of course; going back strengthened some lovely friendships by making me realise who was a friend because of who I am rather than what I could do for them, but it wasn’t an easy thing to process in the midst of readjusting back to work when I could have done with a bit of support, and it’s something I wish I’d been prepared for.

  • Be happy

I used to scoff at the idea that having a happy mother was a tangible benefit to children, perhaps because I just didn’t realise that I was bored and rather miserable by the end of my time at home, but it’s been true in our case. I’ve been incredibly lucky in a supportive employer and access to great, affordable childcare, without both of which it possibly would have been a very different story.

Terror notwithstanding, I felt even in my first day that way you do when it’s only on starting to eat that you realise you were famished. Tiredness notwithstanding, I am simply happier with the boost to my confidence and self-esteem which returning to work has given me.

It has been, and continues to be, hard. I miss my children, they miss me (and the luxury of not being in wraparound childcare) and I simply don’t have the degree of involvement in their daily lives that we once took for granted. But they are happy, and they continue to thrive, and we’re all more than managing.

If you’re reading this and wondering whether going back to work (or stepping back in to a more demanding job after a period of doing something to fit in around family commitments) is for you, I can’t give you an answer. All I can say is that it was the unquestionably the right thing for me.

Oh, and good luck.

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.

A problem not shared…

One of the inevitable consequences of spending far too much time on social media is a high level of awareness of awareness days/weeks/months.

Tweets or Facebook posts with a particular colour ribbon, personal blogs, link to variously devastating or heartwarming stories are a significant feature of my timelines.

I know, now, much more than I used to about a whole range of illnesses and conditions, which can only be a good thing (apart from the hypochondriac tendency to wonder if I’m spotting some of the early symptoms in myself or my children).

The tweets and posts more often than not, especially over a period of time, tell me things about friends or acquaintances which under other circumstances I would perhaps never have known. They are a glimpse into the lives behind the smile at the school gate or the friendly chatter in the park; an often dark hint at pain or struggle which otherwise would go unseen.

There is no way in which I think that the breaking down of taboos around illnesses – both mental and physical – is anything but positive. The burden of sickness is heavy enough without the additional load of shame, or the bitter feeling that the suffering should remain unseen.

On the grander scale of national public life, hearing about the problems of celebrities and others  can help the rest of us speak more freely to family, friends and colleagues, even if tolerance and acceptance are not as forthcoming as they should be.

Sharing and talking can help dispel misplaced ignorance and fear. They can prompt an earlier visit to the doctor which could change or even save a life.

Nevertheless, on the more intimate scale of everyday life, it can create a strange combination of knowing and unknowing. I might act differently – consciously or otherwise – to the friend of a friend I know via social media has ongoing problems with depression than to her neighbour who has never mentioned any such thing but could be in just the same position.

I’m sure there has always, in any given situation, been an unspoken hierarchy of suffering, sympathy and consideration; but has it become accelerated or even unbalanced in this world of increased, yet partial, openness?

Raising awareness and speaking out are vital, but so too is remembering that they can only ever create a set of known knowns. A problem unshared is a problem still, whether it’s public knowledge or not; some people don’t want to tell, and though chipping away at the factors which mean that is the case is vital, some never will. Sometimes I worry it’s the ones who stay quiet who need the help the most.

It’s tempting, especially nowadays when social media means so many of us do consciously craft an image of ourselves, to see what people say about themselves as a kind of full disclosure, but it’s worth remembering that things may remain unsaid, yet sore.

I’m not a fan of inspirational quotes, as I’ve said before, but this one remains true.

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle

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 not 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 inevitable virtue of the fact that they bar others from their grip. I am heartsick at the turning inwards of my country, at the inevitable forensic dissection of origin to determine who ultimately counts. Who, ultimately, will decide what is “British” enough to be acceptable?

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, in its turn, plays into the EU law-making process. And today, within scant minutes of victory we have a retraction of the key elements of the Leave campaign, 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.