Olympic Fever

Monday 26 July 2021

I am due in work at 10am today and am nearly late…because I am glued to the BBC’s Olympic breakfast. Olympic fever is well and truly starting to set in…

For Team GB, it is a fest of good fortune, on a day quickly dubbed as ‘Magic Monday’ by the commentators, with 3 gold medal performances and everyone one of them is a great story. Adam Peaty, a man who carried the weight of the world on his young shoulders, so great was the national expectation, swims to success in the 100m breast-stroke. His relief, his joy, his pride, in becoming the first British swimmer to defend an Olympic title are palpable. By contrast, for Tom Daley partnered by Matty Lee, this first Olympic gold for diving brings a fairy tale ending to a journey that began in 2008 in Beijing when Daley, as a 14 year old athlete was propelled onto the international stage and into the hearts of the nation. Their podium ceremony is incredibly emotional and I am just recovering with my second cuppa of the morning when onto my screens comes the amazing Tom Pidcock. In a jaw dropping performance on the mountain bike, he destroys the rest of the field to take gold. He is cool, controlled and completely assured … until the moment he crosses the line where once again the emotion and tears takes over.

I haven’t even made it our of the house yet and I am completely drained! This festival of sport just brings wave after wave of drama. In terms of the sport, where margins between triumph and heartbreak can be measured in brutal fractions of seconds, or tenths of points, it’s edge of the seat, occasionally, as in Taekwondo, watch behind a cushion, stuff. And with such a plethora of events, this can be relentless.

But, for me, what really distinguishes the Olympic Games from other sporting occasions is the engagement with so many personal stories. So many tales of commitment, so many hours of training, so much sacrifice, so much gratitude for coaches, for friend and for families. Pidcock has won gold weeks after breaking his collar bone. We’ve watched Daley try and try again to become an Olympic champion and the nation knows of the challenges he has faced in and out of the diving pool. In an astonishing interview with his girl friend, we learn that Peaty, the definition of dominance and confidence in the pool, lives a life where ‘every second’ is built around training and sheer hard work. Away from Team GB, the man who wins the roadrace wins Ecuador’s first gold medal for quarter of a century. Anna Kiesenhofer, an amateur rider with a mathematics masters from Cambridge, stuns the world to triumph in the women’s equivalent.

Just incredible.. if utterly exhausting and I am only a few days in! Can I make it through 2 more weeks of tears and cheers? I think I might just be too addicted to stop now…

Talking about running…

Thursday 22 July 2021

Yuk, yuk and triple yuk! My garments are literally sodden with sweat as I return from a short run this morning; my first in nearly 2 weeks. Do I regret choosing one of the hottest days of the year to dig out my running shoes again? Not for a second; my head needed this!

In his book, ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘, Murakami, observes,

Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that…”

And whilst is would be clearly ludicrous for me to draw many life parallels with an award winning novelist and regular amateur marathon runner, even as a steady 10K jogger this chimes with me. Takes this week for example…

Like most teachers, I crawl to the end of the academic year and the long Summer Holiday dawns with me too exhausted to think, feel or do anything, beyond basic auto-pilot mum duties. So for days I do nothing but shopping, washing, taxi-ing … and paying for lots of things. I lounge about. I loaf about. And as for exercise; I shun it completely. I am “too tired to run.” It is “too hot to run.” I need a “break” from my run.

By mid-week, do I feel rested and refreshed? Alas, I do not. I feel smothered in sluggishness and hemmed in by the humdrum. As the main adult in the house, there are more important things I need to be doing; creative tasks; decision making tasks; project planning tasks…but these just seem overwhelming. My head is a muddle and I hover on the edge of gloom and despondency.

So this morning, despite little sleep, a bunged up nose and the searing sun, I haul myself off for a bit of pavement pounding. And I feel instantly better. Settling back into the familiar running rhythms is reassuring. I am out of the house. My route is peaceful and spacious. The brain fog lifts and an order for the day begins to dance into place. By the time I am home, showered and sipping my first coffee, I am filled not only with energy but also enthusiasm for the day ahead.

To be tentatively heading ‘back on track‘, feels a wonderful relief, so I briefly ponder ways to maintain this level of motivation and focus? Should I commit to some exercise goal throughout the Summer? The magnificent Murakami aims to run 6 miles per day to maintain the ‘stamina and endurance’ needed to support his writing? Yikes, that is beyond me! More realistic would be re-vamping my January homage to Ron Hills, of ‘running at least a mile a day’. I sip on my coffee and decide to give myself a few days to decide. In the meantime, I elect to put distances aside and go day-by-day. Today is today and tomorrow, I will go for another morning run…

Show me to the flat pack…

Saturday 17 July 2021

Sometimes, as I am scooping spiders out of bathrooms, battling with the lawnmower, jolting around the estate with learner driver Prom-dress daughter at the wheel or shoulder-barging Small boy at basketball, I do appreciate that single parenthood equips you with skills you never foresaw when discussing your life plan with the school careers advisor. And this weekend, marks a true Everest of personal achievements….

After a few covid-19 delays, we are collecting my Eldest from her new student house in the North East for the Summer. She calls midweek with a request,

“Mum, could you bring a screwdriver and hammer on Saturday? I’ve got to make a chest of drawers.”

And so it is, that just after noon and a drive up the A1, I saunter into the student kitchen brandishing our family tool box and drill.

Oooh how professional! ‘ coos one of her housemates.

And it makes my day! I feel like some empowered, positive role model of female capability and follow my Eldest to her room with my head held high!

What the lovely students don’t know, but the rest of my household do, is that I only really have one professional piece of kit with me in the car… and that is my middle child. But in the searing heat of a third floor attic room, I have been inspired to play my part. Prom-dress daughter has the plan and gives the directions but, doing exactly what I am told: I drill, I hammer and I dowel like a trooper.

We stop for lunch out, in the vibrant and trendy cafe-bar area my Eldest now lives in and, then return to complete our mission. What a triumph! Never has a pretty basic set of drawers looked better in my eyes. The sweat, the plastic burns (long story), the occasional splinter … all worth it! It was, I have to concede, as a former scorner of DIY, strangely satisfying slots and fitting it all together. I celebrate with a murky cup of tea, from the student kitchen that has just run out of milk, and then we hit the road.

My younger pair share a Spotify Account, and we sing our way back down the motorway to their assorted play lists. Weary but happy, we arrive home midway through Saturday evening.

Have I morphed into some building stereo-type, I ponder as a I wave aside a gin and tonic and treat myself instead to a couple of cold beers? And possibly it is the beer talking as I announce that our next holiday project is demolishing the dilapidated old garden shed …. ourselves. Let’s see if I am still as enthusiastic after a good night’s sleep…

Oh to be young ….

11 July 2017

At around noon, Prom-dress daughter, three of her friends, assorted luggage …and a mini fridge, set off, in a very small Fiat 500, en route for my mum’s caravan in Wales.

‘Oh to be 18 again!’

Laughter and excitement fill our house as they all assemble. I pop briefly into the lounge, in an attempt to discuss the route, but am waved away with confident flourishes of Google Maps and leave them discussing the far more important issue of what to add to the car playlist! And, as bottles of gin and fizz are cheerfully clanked into the car boot, I realise that now is also not the moment to check if anyone has brought ‘a waterproof‘ or a ‘pair of stout walking boots’. No this is the glorious age when you are old enough to start breaking away parental supervision, sensible shoes and practical plans, and life can be centred on fun, friendship and freedom. And I don’t feel overly worried or anxious as I wave them off…I just feel envious! My mind wanders back to the halcyon days of my own youth and those early  ‘gal pal’ holidays.

Me, as a teen

My first, aged 16, was also at my parent’s caravan. Ours was an epic journey indeed, involving a National Express coach, a train followed by a steam train, a local bus and then dragging our bulging bags and cases through the caravan park. Once there, I have no idea what we ate and doubt we had a raincoat between us. What I do remember is sunbathing on the beach with a crackly radio permanently set to the ‘Radio 1 Roadshow’, occasional and very tame night-time adventures at the ‘caravan club’, lots and lots of laughter and delightful days drifting by without a care. And that is the feeling I miss, now that I am a grown up.

I say this even after a week when music makes a magical return to my world. The curtain raiser; a trip to the Bridgwater Hall. And here, just as I am sipping on a cheeky white wine spritzer with the opening chords of the overture rising through the auditorium, my phone pings with a request to  play in an actual concert. 

I’ll confess I feel a little stunned at first,  because I am 16 months out of practice. However, I resolve to ‘go for it, slug back a little more alcoholic courage and reply with a ‘yes!’  I spend my week digging out reeds, working on my parts and rediscovering the challenge of scheduling meals, work and life around rehearsals.  And it is great. Great to be making music with others again, great to be part of the noise…but it’s not the same as being 18.

At eighteen, I was touring the wonderful Veneto region with the city Youth Orchestra and don’t recall giving my part, my reeds or any solos a second thought. In truth, I’d struggle to name the programme for a single concert! At that young age, it was all about the friends I roomed with, post-concert drinks, bleary-eyed breakfasts, sunshine and adventure in exciting foreign settings …without a parent in sight. Old enough to taste independence but still too young forthe weight of responsibility. Was it, for the briefest of windows, a golden age?

Who knows, but here’s to a fantastic holiday for my daughter and her lovely friends. Lets face it, after 16 months of pandemic, they all deserve it. Make memories, make it laughter- filled and, above all, make the most of being young….

When ‘Thank you’ just isn’t enough…

Tuesday 29 June 2021

With Teacher Assessed Grades safely dispatched, it is the perfect moment to deliver messages of thanks to the incredible teachers who have guided Prom-dress daughter through her A Levels over the past two impossibly challenging years…

I settle down at the kitchen table with a pack of ‘Thank you’ cards and, pen poised…  I start, I stop, I chew the lid, I make a coffee. Just where to start? Just how to find the words?

Why, you may ask, have I not waited until Results Day? Well that bit is easy; because grades and achievements are not really the point of me writing to them today. The lessons my daughter has learned during her two years at college surpass any set of results or gold lettered certificates. They have taught her that she is far more capable and confident than she ever realised, and that is invaluable.

Prom-dress daughter struggled to speak at Nursery. My little girl just waved as her name was called out on the register, and received an award when,  7 months in she found the courage to respond with the words ‘here‘. She was described as ‘timid‘ on her transition to High School report and, I lost count of the number of times at Parent Evenings that I left knowing only that her teachers wanted her to ‘contribute more’ or that she was ‘very quiet‘ in lessons. Now, following a traumatic occasion when I locked verbal horns with an unfortunate English Teacher, I was forbidden, by all my offspring, from saying anything at all at Parental consultations, so I may have wanted to suggest  ‘Look if you want her to contribute, why don’t you just ask her a question?’ but I instead I just bit my tongue. And perhaps I am glad I did, because it was all to change when she went to college.

Our local college is huge and I was mildly terrified that my quiet girl would be lost in the crowds. But the opposite happened. Teachers took a real interest. They assessed in detail. They gave careful feedback. They knew my daughter inside out. At Parent Evenings I learned about her academic strengths, how clever she was and how ready she was for Higher Education; and not once did anyone focus on her shyness. When challenges, such as presentations, came, they didn’t just tell her to ‘be more confident‘, they showed her how to be, by preparing and practising in advance. And she flourished. Highlight of the two years for me? Was is the top mark for her History coursework or an A* in a Maths assessment? No! It was the day she came home to tell me that she had taken part in ‘role play’ in a Philosophy lesson; simply astonishing.

Quite how they managed this amidst the chaos and disruption of covid-19, I’ll never know. I think they are just gifted. I think they radiate vocation and care. I think they are fantastic!

I take a deep breath. I take the plunge. I start to write. 

What to say, when ‘Thank you’ just isn’t enough…”

I fill both pages of the card. I hope my words do them justice. I hope they like fizzy wine. I hope they know that their work changes lives. I hope they know that there is no more important role in life…

The NHS deserved better, we all deserved better…

Saturday 26 June 2021

A day after the story of his affair with a government aides hits the media, Matt Hancock, The Health Secretary, finally resigns. For me, although allegedly not for his boss, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, this is beyond doubt the only correct decision to have made. Why? Because so many deserved so much better than Hancock.

Firstly there is the NHS, our NHS, the epitome of a national treasure, even before covid-19 overtook our lives. They surely deserve a more fitting figure-head.

In 2017, The King’s Fund in a publication, ‘What do the public think about the NHS?’ marking the 70th birthday of Bevan’s formation of a national health service, found unwavering support the system. At this time, 4 in 5 of us had, consistently held the view that ‘the NHS is crucial to British society and we must do everything we can to maintain it’. And throughout the pandemic, respect, gratitude and sheer love for the heroic efforts of our exhausted doctors, nurses and carers has known few limits.

So when the call came to ‘save lives and protect the NHS‘ is could not have been a more important one. People did make heartbreaking decisions and NHS staff did live and work through horrific times to support them. So Hancock’s breach of the very covid regulations he exhorted us to follow, is an immense and shocking betrayal. Of equal gravitas, moving forward, is the reality that he would have had absolutely zero credibility in promoting further health care messages and any necessary restrictions and this, at it worst, could endanger lives and threaten our beloved health service. It was just not good enough for our NHS; it was completely untenable for him to continue.

Secondly there are the volunteers who have supported the vaccine roll out. On Saturday morning, I munch my bran flakes watching the BBC news report from a Vaccine Drop-(£in Centre in York, made possible by an enthusiastic set of volunteers. Ten of thousands have responded to the call to ‘Get the Jabs Done’, given their time freely and braved the elements to push forward a Vaccination Programme, in whose glory Hancock was only too eager to bask and boast. And an amazing programme is has been.

So, how galling for them to hear that, as they shivered in the rain at a local sports centre, Hancock’s favourite university pal, was snugly housed in the Department of Health on a £1000 a day job as an ‘aide’. No-one seems able to articulate why she was there, nor what the salary covered. Was our former Health Secretary just looking to improve his kissing technique? If so, Louise Rennison’s hilarious ‘Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging’ is now on Amazon from £0.99, and would have left a few more pounds in the coffers! But seriously, if this aide has had some impact on the pandemic or national health-care, can we know what it is? Surely our wonderful army of unpaid volunteers deserve this at the very least.

Thirdly there is the public at large. Don’t we just deserve better people to lead us? Is it too much to ask that we can respect and look up to those that we vote into the positions of highest power and privilege, as opposed to watching toe-curling videos of them smooching around their offices, like teenagers behind the bike-sheds? We hear that the government agenda is about ‘re-building better’. Please can this start with some professional development on leadership and standards for the Cabinet? Those who make decisions always need ethical frameworks to work within. For our MPs, I understand that this is the ‘Ministerial Code’ and that technically Matt Hancock did not break this. But, for goodness sake Matt, to quote your own guidance, it is not just about technicalities at times like this,

“People need to not just follow the letter of the rules but follow the spirit as well and play their part…”

Matt Hancock January 2021

Finally, there is his family. Now I am not here to pass any judgement on the state of anyone’s marriage but, the fact remains that his wife and children have had to see all the images, comments and memes as well. Whatever they decide to do,they will need time to communicate, listen, repair and heal. And surely from Day One, of this mess Hancock should have gone to spend time with his children rather than spending another minute trying to hang onto his, and I quote his boss here, ‘totally f***ing useless‘ attempts to run our Health Service. They just deserve so much better…

She’s got a ticket to ride…

Saturday  June 2021

With A’level assessments over, Prom-dress daughter heads off  to the North East to spend a few days with her sister.  Her only worry? The train… its is her first solo journey…

My middle child struggles with the unknown, she always has, and a 2 hour train trip, with one change, on her own for the first time, has pushed her completely out of her comfort zone. We drive to the station in strained silence and sitting outside a nearby coffee shop in the Saturday sunshine, her panic even spills into a few tears. Once again, we go through the  route, where to find platform info, how to open the carriage door and where to put luggage. I give her a reassuring hug and  she tries to calm down.

Wondering if I have underestimated her anxiety on this occasion, I offer to persuade the attendant to let me through the first barrier so that I can see her get onto the first train. How I love her reply!

“Do you know what Mum, I think I just need to go for it and do this on my own!”

And she does. I have my phone ready and I probably get over 25 texts in the next 10 minutes, checking and asking about absolutely every detail. But, as my lovely girl finds, that she has actually successfully boarded the correct train without any help, I know that her confidence has rocketed because I scarcely hear from her again. One brief text letting me know that the change at York has gone well and then… nothing at all. It is my eldest who lets me know that she has arrived safely and it makes me smile… it takes me back to Day 1 at High School…

Day 1 at High School was the bus journey.  We’d done a dummy run and for extra support on that first morning, we’d arranged that I would shadow her on the bus too. I’d get on, sit as far away as possible, avoid eye contact and generally act as if we’d never met. But, if anything went wrong, I would be there.

It worked a treat, but the clearest memory I have is of the moment we all disembarked. By this time there was a throng of unformed pupils all treading the route to the school gates and I can still picture my daughter turning round and giving me a tiny wave… it was a wave goodbye, a wave to say ‘Okay on my own now Mum’ , a wave for me to let her find her own way. And I often say that by the time she came back home that day, she was already a different child. More confident, more independent and more free.

And I think I know that when she comes home next week, she’ll have changed again and be a different young woman to the one I dropped off this morning. More sure of herself, more ready for autonomy and more excited about opening the door to embrace the opportunities that life offers as you start to make your own way in it.

These are important milestones and good steps to take. These are times to feel quite proud, as a mum, to sit back and let them be ‘okay on my own now ‘

Mum moment…

Friday June 2021

It’s Friday night and everyone is okay! Quick… pour me a drink!

As mums and dads across the land will tell you, the life of a parent can feel like a life of worry at times. So, when the occasional oasis emerges from those desolate plains of teen- anxiety, stress and tension, it is more than enough reason to celebrate.

This week, I have a child who has passed First Year Medicine, a second who has completed all her A’Level assessments and a third who has a grade 6 piano distinction, a box of KFC and …. a wall chart for Euro 2020, which is currently keeping him more than happy!

So , at least for the next 2 hours, no-one needs help; no-one needs money, no-one needs … me at all! It’s bliss and I intend to make the most of it. So a longer post for my beloved blog must wait until tomorrow! I have got serious amounts of bubbly wine to consume…

Relationships by numbers…

Sunday 6 June 2021

You hear some strange things on the radio in the middle of the night…

Somewhere between teacher assessed grades, mass testing and track n’ tracing, work stress has made the grim descent into insomnia. Although I invariably zonk out effectively enough in an exhausted heap; by around 2am I am awake again, tossing and turning fretfully in a fruitless quest to return to the illusive REM-cycle. When my mind is really racing, I switch the radio on, hoping for distraction, and this is where, a few nights ago…I discover the notion of numbers linked to social and workplace interaction. It is claimed that,

You can only maintain so many close friendships

The central name in the debate is evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, best known for 150, his namesake ‘Dunbar’s number’. Dunbar claims that this is the number of ‘stable relationships ‘ we are able, cognitively to maintain at once. It is his ‘wider circle of friends’ number, the amount you’d expect to see at your wedding, or imagine at your funeral, as opposed to your closest most trusted companions. On the radio, the guest expert applies this number to the workplace too, as the number where you could know each colleague not only by name but also know something of them as a person: their role, their family, their interests, their ambitions. Its suggested that although variation is inevitable, this is a suitable number for that sense of unity and community that hallmark effective organisations. When employee numbers rise too far above this, our expert continues, some businesses choose to open a second office or warehouse to break the workforce down into more sociable sized units.

Now this draws me in because 150 is pretty close to the number of colleagues I work with and all of this is certainly true for us. Additionally too, it catches my imagination because, as a mathematician, I have a long standing fascination with the seemingly mystical existence of numbers and number patterns in society, in music, in art and in our natural world. Oh yes, our wonderful cardinals refuse simply to be confined to the dusty pages of some academic tome!

Hence, as this audio item moves onto explore other numbers, I find myself wide-awake. The theory examines various friendship thresholds. Five is the ballpark for close friends – shoulder to cry on friends, the ones who share your happiest (or saddest) news first friends. It is proposed that this is why we so often see quintets, or their near neighbours, winning appeal in popular culture; Enid Blyton’s Famous 5, Friends, Scooby Doo‘s sleuthing squad and numerous rock and pop groups.

There is a long conversation about fifteen. In the relationship ranks, 15 is ‘best friends’ – around the number you’d have at a regular birthday meal, on a hen party weekend or those you’d call upon to look after your children. The radio discussion suggests that this stronger bond makes a suitable number for sporting teams and even expands to include Jesus and his disciples in the category.

From 15 they jump to 50 and then the renowned 150…

I lie there thinking it through for my life: reliving the times when friends did drop everything to support me and who they were, picturing the faces at my 30th Birthday Party or the various work teams I have contributed to and which worked well and which … less so. There or there abouts … those numbers work for me, although for a statistically minded soul, there is not a lot of space between 5 and 15 for variation! And I strongly suspect it was the clarity of definition of roles, rather than the size, that made several work teams successful or not. I imagine this could be an easy theory to challenge… from various directions.

Nonetheless, possibly akin to counting sheep, as I attempt to recall and count those who came to my Wedding I find myself drifting pleasantly off into a wonderful spell of sleep. I decide, whatever it limitations, that this is the theory for me after all…

Victoria Station…

Saturday 29 May 2021

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport…”

Love Actually: Richard Curtis 2003

Well it’s not Heathrow for me today, it’s Manchester Victoria; my Eldest child is coming home for a week and I am planning, with great excitement, to pick her up

Victoria Station, a grand old 19 Century building and my favourite railway terminus in the city. Not all love it, as I do. In fact, in 2009, it was named the ‘Worst Station in the UK and has since been significantly renovated. But that cannot have been a vote about the architecture; the Victorian facade, the lovely domes, the charming tiles on the interior and,  for me, the very best feature –  those evocative destination signs posted on the station front, which seem to capture the excitement of travel and exploration in bygone centuries. Surely it was just an outcry about facilities and repair?

I like to think that it was. And, as I have stood watching the teens playing Christmas Carols with our local band over many years, I have certainly been grateful for the new roof. I am also a fan of the delightful Java Bar Expresso, deliciously tucked into a corner of the concourse and the perfect spot for bit of reading, dreaming or just people watching.  And that is the vision I have, as I hop out of bed to face the day. Arrive early, a fancy Italian coffee, me, my kindle and a hour of tranquility. Utter bliss after a really tough and stressful term at work.

Alas… it does not quite turn out that way. Around midday, as I, still rather sweaty from an early run, am catching up on some chores my phone pings. My daughter’s arrival time is a full hour and a half earlier than any of us were expecting! So it is ‘adios’ to hopeful Brief Encounter images of me in any coffee bar, enigmatically perusing my novel, and instead, a mad dash to shower, tame my hair and dive into the car. Prom-dress daughter further shatters the concept of sumptuous solitude by leaping into the seat beside me… but thank the Lord that she does. Mid-Manchester is an anarchy of traffic roadworks and…closed car parks. As the clock ticks down, I find myself, in growing panic careering round the city centre streets unable to find any spot to stop in and, in desperation, flaunting occasional ‘bus and taxi only’ zones!  But teens, at least my teens, don’t do hysteria. My middle child just taps into some ‘map-app’ on her phone and takes charge, calmly and commandingly steering me to the front of the station where her sister, plus friend are ready to jump in and head homeward.

We catch-up, we share funny stories, we talk through any worries and we head out for an evening meal.  Even if everything didn’t quite go to plan, this feels like a pretty good start to half term. Manchester Victoria – alas, it was not a day to stop and sit and drink in your charm and style but it is a day to thank you for bringing my girl home!