Category Archives: Ranting

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.

 

 

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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?

 

 

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.

 

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.

HeadInBook

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.

 

 

Not Being the Missing Type

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 11.39.36

On Friday, I had a brief chat with the wonderful Leigh Kendall (@leighakendall) on Twitter after she posted a link to her blog on blood donation with the statistic that new blood donors have decreased by 40% in recent years.

The internet is full of information on how important it is to give blood. I don’t propose to duplicate all of that here, because I am no expert and there are plenty of people who are.

Instead, I want to just tell you how easy it is.

I know that there are people who can’t give blood for medical reasons. I know that there are others who are genuinely terrified of the prospect. But if you’re neither of those, if you’ve always meant to do it but felt a bit uncomfortable, if you would like to but don’t know quite what’s involved, then I’m your woman.

First, go and visit http://www.blood.co.uk (https://www.scotblood.co.uk if you’re in Scotland). Put in your postcode and choose whichever of the forthcoming sessions near you suit you best. They are even ranked in terms of distance, with little maps. Simples.

Do you work miles from home and aren’t around during the day or can’t always guarantee you’ll be back in time for an early evening slot? Use your work postcode and nip out in your lunch break, or, if you work in a large organisation, suggest that they come to you. When I was a solicitor in a big law firm, the bus used to park outside the office for a day and anyone who wanted to could take a short break from the office to go and do their bit (insert jokes here about blood-sucking lawyers in reverse).

Once you’ve made an appointment, you’ll get a letter in the post reminding you, together with a very straightforward form to complete and take along with you. You’ll also, a few days before your appointment, get a phone call from a lovely person in Northern Ireland just checking that you haven’t forgotten can still make it.

When you turn up on the day, you’ll be asked to drink a pint of water to make sure you’re hydrated (this makes it quicker and easier to give blood). You will be asked to read a card to check you haven’t done anything in the past or since your last donation which could mean you aren’t suitable to donate. You’ll be called – pretty quickly – to chat through this in a little screened cubicle and have your finger pricked to see if your blood sinks in a test-tube (thereby demonstrating, apparently, that you are not anaemic. If you are – and I often am – you’ll have another sample taken and checked in a different machine, and if you still don’t pass muster, you leave without donating and with a faint sense of failure. Just me?)

All being well, you return to the waiting area until – again quickly – you are called up to a seat. You can choose to use your left or right arm, if you have a preference. The chair swings back so that you are comfortably reclined with a view of the ceiling, your inner arm is swabbed and a needle quickly inserted (you can ask for an anaesthetic wipe beforehand). Your arm rests on a cradle next to you. And that’s it.

It stings a bit. I find that it feels a bit unpleasant (but I’m a bit squeamish). You might have a bit of bruising afterwards. It really, honestly doesn’t hurt. You don’t see the bag filling up (it’s under the chair) and if you don’t like watching the needle in your arm (I don’t) you can look the other way. You just lie there for ten minutes or so, gently squeezing your hand and wiggling your feet to keep the circulation flowing, and when the bag is full, a little alarm goes off and the nurse comes over to unplug you. You hold a little cotton wad against the needle site for a few minutes and are put upright until everyone’s sure you’re not dizzy. If you are, you get a bit longer on the marvellously comfortable seat. You then go and sit down and have a drink and some biscuits and the chance to make your next appointment right away. The whole thing should take no more than an hour.

You can’t give blood if you are pregnant or for six months thereafter. You can, however, give blood with a baby in tow. I’ve taken my youngest with me from being a few months old and had no problems whatsoever in leaving him in the pushchair next to my side. Now that he’s older and can be trusted not to run around, the staff put a chair next to me for him. My older children sit in the waiting section, which I have always found to be in the same room (you may want to check). They all love coming, because people make a bit of a fuss of them and they are treated to biscuits at the end!

So that’s it. In my experience, over the past almost two decades and in lots of different circumstances, I have found giving blood to be straightforward, efficient and pretty manageable.

It really matters. The #missingtype campaign is aimed at highlighting why we need blood. Hopefully, this post might convince you that you can help fill the gaps.

graphic taken from www.blood.co.uk

Child Benefit

For the purposes of my own amusement, I’m imagining that I have the chance actually to pose these questions to anyone who could or would answer them. I wrote extensively about the changes to Child Benefit which were introduced in 2013, unashamedly from a personal perspective.

Since then, I’ve tried to keep away from it, not least for fear of being accused of a narrow-minded jealousy rather than a genuine desire to understand what was happening to a fundamental part of our welfare system which has been central to the notion of social security from its inception. Increasingly, I no longer care how my motives are construed.

Today, No10 has confirmed that there will be no cut to Child Benefit, although there is still talk of restricting it to the first two children in each family. I welcome announcements that it is to be protected, but I would also like to ask: what is it paid for? I can’t find up-to-date figures for the overall cost of Child Benefit, but it appears to be around £12 billion per year. That’s a lot of money. Surely we deserve answers as to the grounds on which it is spent now that it is no longer universal?

It is impossible to argue that it is paid on the grounds of need. Presently, a family with an annual income of up to £120,000 could claim some amount of Child Benefit, provided that their earnings were split between them. A family with a single earner who made half that loses it all. Neither family could be claimed to be in any way to require financial support, given the extent to which both figures outstrip average incomes, but it seems peculiar that money is freely given out to groups who are by any measure considerably better off than those who don’t qualify. When it was a universal benefit, there was a principle behind paying Child Benefit with which many could disagree, but at least it was a use of public funds which could be justified by pointing to the reasons behind that principle. Now, it is little more than an expensive, arbitrary sop.

Is it, no matter how clumsily, a means of encouraging all parents into employment? Contrary to many reports, the changed regime doesn’t just penalise single income families (whether they have one or two parents). It also hits hard at those where one earner is above the threshold and the other earns a much smaller amount. A woman working at or near minimum wage level is considerably worse off in terms of childcare costs and take home wages than a colleague earning the same amount whose partner earned just enough to still entitle the family to retain Child Benefit. If anything, cutting Child Benefit from higher-earning employees makes it more difficult and less attractive for their partners to work in part-time, low-wage roles which are those which may be most family-friendly – particularly if the high earning partner has work commitments which make them less able to help out. Again, not the most pressing of social problems, but one which deserves an answer alongside the other, more serious, systematic injustices which squeeze parents between sanctions, benefits and work.

The cuts in 2013 were reported to have saved over £1 billion. Good, if that money is going to support children and families in need. It is hard to justify any money going “for nothing” to the well-off (see also childcare support for families earning up to £300,000) when people are reliant on food banks – although I don’t accept that one causes the other. But why are no journalists challenging politicians on the hard questions behind the current status quo?

It is hard to understand why hard-working taxpayers (to use the loathed and much misused phrase) are subsiding a system of benefits paid apparently on little more than a whim; more, are seeing benefits for which they are ineligible paid to those who are better off. It is hard to understand why, in this climate of “difficult decisions” and “hard choices” cuts are made to the incomes of those demonstrably in need while payments to those who are anything but are maintained.

Are journalists and media commentators afraid of being accused of sour grapes over their own lost Child Benefit, a cut which so many were so keen to welcome loudly in print presumably for fear of the same pointed fingers? They should find their courage. I understand the scant tears at the original cuts, but this isn’t about whining to get something back, it is about holding a government to account for awarding public money in a manner which, if applied to almost any other circumstances, would sound laughably absurd. Silence in the face of an ongoing random payment of benefits is dangerously close to complicity in its eventual dismantling.

On wife-bonuses, Lucy Jordan and being trusted to read the map.

By some cruel quirk of fate, I was a lanky redhead teenage girl in the early Nineties, when every other film seemed to feature a lanky, redhead leading lady. There is nothing quite like ticking off the constituent parts of beauty on your fingers to make you realise, sadly, that it’s a sum that will never come right without the addition or subtraction of something far harder to quantity than leg length or hair shade. On paper, there was nothing to stop me being Julia Roberts…but, try as I might to live in books, the world isn’t made of paper.

It wasn’t just Julia Roberts, of course (and oh, though I now see so many things in it to make me cringe, what sixteen year old girl didn’t dream of being her in Pretty Woman?) There was Nicole Kidman too, though she betrayed me twice over by going blonde and by marrying Tom Cruise. And there was Geena Davis, most especially in Thelma and Louise, which I watched over and over again, wallowing in not even trying to check my sobs at the end. I only watched it again recently, more genuinely upset at the tales of the two women’s lives than I understood enough to have been back then.

I’m still no Geena Davis, and I am quietly, bustlingly happy in a way that precludes a one-way road trip of any kind. I still find myself preoccupied, though, with that sense of the small incremental choices and curtailments, conscious or otherwise, that drive a life along a particular route; prey to the dawning realisation that some destinations are closed to me now as the likelihood of driving through Paris in a sports-car with the wind in my hair (although, provided someone else was at the wheel, I’d still welcome the chance).

This summer sees a milestone birthday (to hell with the coyness, I turn forty). I love the gifts that the years have brought me: an awareness of self, a valuing of others, a peaceful resignation to the state of not being Julia Roberts. It’s not the birthday itself that I mind, so much as the timid sort of existential crisis that comes with hitting forty as a housewife and a mother and little else. Demonstrable achievements feel as distant as dreams, now;  being Someone outside of the house an alien, exotic concept.

I need to plot my course for the next phase of my life, and I’m struggling to find my starting position, let alone identify a destination. Of course, there have been many forks in the road before now. Every choice closed off other options (and oh, how lucky I have been to have the choices that I have had). Maybe it is just the fortyness of forty, but the decisions ahead of me now feel definitive in a way that others haven’t. I’m entering the next decade of my life just as my youngest starts the adventure of school, and I’m needed, as much as ever, but in a distorted kind of way that squeezes me around the shapes of my children’s lives and leaves me unsure where they end and I start. Questions about work and career, about what I want and what they need, leave me wondering how to draw the boundaries without handing over too much of my own territory or encroaching too much upon theirs. There’s no sat-nav for this journey; no right or wrong turns, just a weighing up of what matters most, now and in the future, and accepting that something has to give.

There was much coverage earlier in the week of a strange phenomenon among uber-wealthy wives on Wall Street. Trading in their educations and careers for a gilded kept existence of social climbing and gym fanaticism, some have turned to negotiating with their breadwinning husbands (though “bread” seems an inadequate word for the dizzying sums we’re talking about here) to set measurable targets which bring the promise of a bonus payment beyond that of mere lifestyle accoutrements. I bang on often enough about women’s work – wife work – being undervalued, but even I don’t think that this is the right way to redress the balance (although nor do I think that navigating the social x-ray infested waters of Manhattan society sounds like a picnic).

What I disliked most, however, was the tone of the coverage. According to one headline, these women “think they deserve” the bonuses; others quickly spun a quirk among a freakishly wealthy microcosm of an alien society into a more general attack on what one called the “defensive manoeuvre” of the argument that being a stay-at-home-parent is a real job. Here’s the thing. I worked after I had babies. I am trying, actively, to get back into work, after a few years of half chosen/half imposed career break. I haven’t spent my time at home in a ceaseless loop of nurturing, I haven’t spun and spoon fed my way through a form of motherhood superior to that practised by my working sisters. But I refuse to accept that my time at home has been neutral at best. I agree that by contributing to the family income I will be helping my husband and setting my children a good example; that by using my skills and education I will be more fulfilled as an individual and quite possibly happier and less frustrated. At the same time, however, I can see that my presence here has allowed my children the advantages of activities they love, and lazy imagination-filled holiday mornings in pyjamas. It’s given them ambling walks to and from school, a swift collection when they are poorly, the security of a certain routine every day at 3.20pm. These things aren’t everything, I agree. But hopefully the fact that I am preparing to give them all up means that I am allowed to say that nor are they nothing. Why do we fall so easily into this trope that women who stay at home make their choice out of laziness, fecklessness or cupidity?

Gone, in the main, are the suggestions and downright insistence that a child being cared for by someone other than its mother is detrimental; gone too, thankfully, are mainstream pieces arguing that a woman’s place is at home. In their place, however, is a new accepted reality: that a mother who isn’t in employment is in some kind of vacuum, neither contributing nor occupying anything of value.

Fashions come, and fashions go. There are lanky redhead leading ladies still, but (I am reliably informed) the look to aim for now, equally unrealistic for most, is that of the opulent lips and derrieres of a new generation. It’s the same with motherhood, isn’t it? We start with where we are and what we have, and we rock it the best we can.

A light touch

When I was ten, my dad bought me a typewriter. It was a heavy, black thing, keys stiff with use, that ate up the ribbons that almost nowhere sold any more. 

Originally made in the 1960s, it had served out its time in a school, helping girls (because it was, in those days, always girls) learn vocational skills that would get them a job in an office when their formal education was over. By the late 1980s, it no longer prepared them adequately; they needed to become familiar with the grainy beige electronic word processors that had their brief moment before computers took over and men learned they could type too. 

So it was that the old secondary modern, which took pupils from the special school where my dad was head, sold the old models off cheaply and I – who had been begging for a typewriter – became the proud, if slightly perplexed, owner of a little piece of history.

 Along with the machine came a handbook full of exercises. I sat for hours, bashing away at the keys, copying out strings of numbers and sentences about quick brown foxes until I had taught myself to touch type. Long before my first computer lessons at secondary school (which, hilariously, happened for the first year without there actually being any computers in the IT room at all) I was competent on a keyboard – although it wasn’t until university that I actually needed to produce work that wasn’t handwritten. Like riding a bike, though, the skill hadn’t left me: it carried me through dozens of winging-it essays and straight into postgraduate temp work, where I could hold my own in typing speed with trained secretaries. Later, when I had a secretary of my own, I was no longer allowed to use my secret weapon, being told that it was a waste of my employer’s time to do for myself what they were paying someone else to do for me. 

I still like typing; still enjoy the process of tapping words out onto a screen. The children think there is something of magic about it, being, as yet, more familiar with the idea of swiping a surface to make things happen. 

Last night, I found myself taking dictation from my nine year old, who, at the eleventh hour, has written an entry for the Radio 2 500 word story competition. There genuinely wasn’t time for him to do it himself, but as I typed his words, I found it almost impossible not to correct them; not to add punctuation, right a spelling, amend a 21st century colloquialism in what was, frankly, a spot-it-a-mile-away Tolkien rip-off. I don’t think his story stands any chance of winning, and not just because of the glaring mistakes. But the temptation to improve his odds just a little, the parental itch to nudge it every so slightly in the right direction; they were hard to defeat. 

It’s human nature, I think, to look at what we don’t have (or, as parents, what we can’t provide) rather than what we have (and what we can). I know, how could I not, that by being warm and fed and secure my children are immeasurably better off than far too many in this country, let alone around the world; yet I still fret about their education and worry if we’re doing our absolute best for them. I know that they are incredibly rich in love and stimulation, yet it rankles when I look up and see children with experiences we can’t afford to provide. 

I hate the jibe of “sharp-elbowed” when applied to parents, and not just because I feel the sting personally. When we manoeuvre, consciously or otherwise,  to improve our children’s chances, we’re doing it less out of ambition than fear; fear that they will somehow lose out if we don’t try to throw the game a little in their favour. 

I only half-followed the wrangle last month between Chris Bryant and James Blunt over “privilege” in the arts world, and whether being from a particular background was a help or a hindrance in a career there. I probably ought to have read their actual letters, but having seen the fall-out on Twitter, with my timeline dividing into neat camps attacking and defending the principle of private education, I decided that I had enough low-level conflict between my children to keep me going that week and turned my attention elsewhere. 

I may, therefore, be utterly wrong in saying this, but it felt like a shame that the question of “privilege” in terms of a child’s chance of success boiled down simply to whether or not her parents paid for her schooling. We can’t talk enough about the ways in which one child accrues advantages, material or otherwise, which are unavailable to another. Of course you get a head start if you have private music lessons and specialist maths tutoring, but there’s also an immeasurable boost in knowing that you’ll have breakfast each morning, and knowing that if you get miserably soaked on the way home from school, there’s a warm house and dry clothes waiting for you when you get in. How to quantify the advantages of expensive enrichment classes, let alone having someone who talks and listens and encourages. If it’s ludicrous to suggest that talent doesn’t exist across at all levels of society, it’s just as much so to try to deny that certain settings allow it to flourish far more than others – or to fail to question what we do to help. I learned to type because my dad, through his job, had access to a typewriter. His dad, though; a miner turned steelworker? It’s hard to see what material advantages he was able to give his sons.

If my son were to win this cursed story competition, it wouldn’t entirely be unrelated to the fact that he found a copy of The Hobbit in his bookshelf when he was seven, or that he has a mum who, along with reading it to him, had the skills to type up his subsequent derivative attempt. She – I – gave him a huge head start – even if I didn’t correct his spellings.