6 months down…

Sunday 28 June 2020

Half the year has gone…

6 months down

January, February, March. It began so well. It began so eventfully. We got Boris the Gecko. We got University offers. My eldest turned 18. Small boy chose GCSEs, cemented his place on the Basketball team and got his first girlfriend. Prom dress daughter rehearsed for the college production, completed Duke of Edinburgh walks and dashed of brilliant essays on Kant, Hegel and Descartes. I played Beethoven and Bartok. I ran. I wrote…posts for this blog, posts for an American blog.

Then came Covid 19. And it all stopped. March became April became May became June. Suddenly, half the year was gone. Stalled. Vanished. Wiped out. That’s how it feels some mornings. On better days, I’d soften to ‘Different‘ – a chance to slow down and reconsider values and priorities.

Thinking back, I can still picture the final Friday I drove home from full-time, face-to-face work. I can recall how I felt, what was on the radio, who was in the house, what we ate … I can remember every detail. The next 14 weeks? That all becomes far hazier.

No, that’s not entirely fair. Whilst much of it is an indistinguishable blur, my very own version of Ground Hog Day made duller without Bill Murray, some events do stand out, and there is a common theme. The high points have been about people. Faces on the screen Zooming or WhatsApping or Skypeing in for a call. Faces on photos bringing memories from the past. Cheeky bank holiday wine with the neighbours and wonderful socially distanced beers in the park. Lockdown forced us to stop racing around to achieve our usual “important stuff “and, in the space, magical moments came from the time to listen properly to friends and family. Maybe I know them and appreciate them even better than before?

So have we been cheated out of life over the past quarter? I’ll confess, I still worry that we have. Because our “important stuff” still is incredibly important. I worry that the gaps; in learning, in opportunity, in personal growth, will be impossible to bridge and may have consequences for years to come for my lovely trio of teens. But maybe I am unduly pessimistic. The psychologist Maslow, would doubtless say so.

Maslow’s hierarchy of need

Near the base of Maslow’s pyramid is safety, the level Corona virus forced upon us as a nation. As we paused, did we find more time to value friends, family and relationships? Missing people. Missing company. Missing being together. It was undoubtedly the theme of countless radios debates and social media posts. If Maslow’s motivational theory is correct, it suggests that the personal accomplishments, that characterised the beginning of 2020, can drive us again but will only benefit from first tending to more fundamental foundations; recognising the human need to love and be loved.

It is an attractive notion. There will, in time be evidence too. Several studies have been commissioned to examine the effects of the UK Lockdown, including one, at Strathclyde University, focused on the positive aspects of staying at home. In the meantime, for my kids and for me, here’s hoping the optimists are right!

Towards a new normal?

Sunday 21 June 2020

Over the last fortnight we have talked more about the Black Lives Matter protests than Covid 19. Not only does this suggest that we are starting to move away from an existence dominated by the corona virus, it also invites reflection upon the world we want to build, as we emerge from many weeks of Lockdown. Do we want life to go ‘back to normal‘ or do we want to create a ‘better normal’?

This week, major British cities continue to see Black Lives Matter marches and the appropriateness of statues and popular culture to the history we want to learn from and value is debated widely. Poverty is also on the news agenda. Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford, drives a government U-turn over the issue of summer holiday food vouchers for our most disadvantaged children. Twitter takes the decision to permanently ban far-right commentator Katie Hopkins from its platform, for violating the hateful conduct policy. Could we really be heading for a more tolerant and fair society? Whilst I hope so, I fear we may still have a fight on our hands. The ruling classes seem unlikely to share their power toys quite this easily! One battle-ground this week, footballers and MPs, illustrates the challenge.

Small boy and I rejoice over the restart of the football premier league. We order a take-away and tune in for the match, where players wear shirts that display a blue heart badge in tribute to the NHS and on the reverse, in place of names, the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’. Ahead of kick-off, we admire the dignity with which opposing teams observe a minute’s silence, in honour of front line health workers, and then also ‘take the knee’ to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But it appears that Boris’ boys are not ready to welcome this group of sportsmen into the ranks of influencers any time soon.

Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, dismisses the knee gesture as ‘a symbol of subjugation and subordination’ originating in Game of Thrones. And who can forget the criticism rained upon football clubs, and no other profession, by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, for using the Goverment’s furlough scheme to pay staff?

Given the sacrifices that many people are making, including some of my colleagues in the NHS who have made the ultimate sacrifice… I think the first thing that Premier League footballers can do is make a contribution, take a pay cut and play their part.

By contrast, the chief executive of NHS Charities Together has not only welcomed Premier League players getting together to help the service cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic but has also noted that

This is what footballers have always been like….What they wanted to do here is come together as players and say ‘NHS, we’re rooting for you, we’re behind you’, and hopefully that can inspire other people to do the same.”

Marcus Rashford epitomises the courage of one young footballer to use his platform to enact positive change in society. So, why the reluctance of our leaders to recognise the contribution that the wider footballing community can undoubtedly make towards a fairer Britain? Many commentators point to class and race issues. At least a third of Premier League players are from BAME backgrounds, well above the UK average. Additionally,  Sutton Trust report found that only 5% of British footballers went to private school. The report investigated the educational backgrounds of ‘Britain’s leading people’ – those considered to have influence and prestige. Out of all the sectors, football was the only one where you were less likely to have gone to a private school than the national average. (Source: Novaria Media).

It is food for thought, Rashford describes as our systems as,

not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked

Is it the case that, even if you do, our ruling parties will view you as a group less worthy of respect than their more expensively educated peer group? Or see you as a threat to their power and influence and hence an easy target for scapegoating?

As we emerge from Lockdown, the Black Lives Matter movement has momentum, and the ‘undeserving poor’ have some high profile champions. For many, our society seems kinder, united around better values and ready for change. Do any of our leaders however share this conviction, or will they instead want us to steer us back to their normal. Time will tell…

Lockdown week 12: The cooking rota

Saturday 13 June 2020

Twelve weeks of ‘Staying at Home’ and I finally wake up to the idea of a cooking rota! I may have been slow out of the starting blocks on this one but, even with a few hiccups, it is definitely worth the wait!

Did I say ‘woke up to the idea’? Meltdown moment would be a more accurate description! Over 2 months, of having to plan and serve up twice as many meals as usual, has weakened me. But with stress cranked ever higher by work deadlines and a battery of difficult decisions, someone bouncing into the kitchen and innocently asking,

What’s for tea mum?” finally tips me over the edge.

I rant. I shout. I despair. I blub. And, as even a trusty cuppa fails to revive me, the cooking rota is born. Small Boy nods and shrugs. My eldest whips up a spreadsheet. Prom dress daughter asks if she can choose her own recipe,

I am following this really great vegan YouTuber !”

In the end, they all opt to design their own menus. In fact they all appear quite excited. I career around the Supermarket, filling my unwieldy trolley with: sriracha, spring onions and balsamic vinegar and then wait for the week to unfold.

Small Boy is up first. If he’d only checked that we had some oil in the house before deciding to feature ‘home cooked fries’, things might have gone more smoothly! I am summoned into the kitchen to survey a mountain of carefully chopped potato pieces and one very empty bottle of frying fuel! I call up the stairs for my Eldest to run him to the shops and settle back down, for a rare moment with a good book.

Fifteen minutes later, she pops in to watch some TV. When I look a little puzzled and ask where her brother is, she tells me she told him to ‘walk‘. It’s quite a trek …and I am starving, so I take pity upon my youngest child and head out to collect him. It is a good job I do. I spot a disconsolate figure shuffling home empty-handed and discover that, despite two full circuits of the one-way aisles, a sorry Small Boy “couldn’t find any oil. I help with the shopping and we are soon home ready to carry on cooking. There is no deep-fat fryer, so we improvise with the vegetable steamer and by 7pm are all sitting down to our first cooking-rota meal.

It looks great. It tastes great. So good in fact that Small Boy wants to save the oil to use again. I make the mistake of pondering aloud, how we will store the vat of still-hot fat. None of us, alas, are quick enough to intercede as Small Boy, enacts his bright idea of re-filling the original containers and two plastic bottles meet their end in the oily heat. We recycle the unfortunate, shrunken remains in the blue bin and set the oil aside as a problem for another day.

Prom dress daughter’s ‘Bang Bang Cauliflower’ and ‘Sweet Potato Lasagne‘ from my Eldest are served up with far less drama and are also totally delicious. Their food is fresh. It’s flavoursome. It’s new. I realise that it has not only been a real treat for me to get a break from cooking but the three of them have also dragged our family meals out of the rut of my tired, old cuisine. Moreover, I think they enjoy it!

So, ‘Three Cheers‘ for vegan YouTubers and any other sources of my teens’ inspiration. Variety and creativity are definitely back on the menu. Let’s hope they are here to stay! Bring on week 2 of the cooking rota…

Real Neat Blog Award, congratulations, nominees!

Image result for real neat blog award

About the Award

In 2014, the Real Neat Blog Award was created to recognise the many bloggers whose blogs deserve more attention.

The kind petrel41 sent me this award and, in accordance with the rules, I am now delighted to be nominating you.

So, the ‘rules’? Designed to promote interest in our BLOGS but entirely voluntary, even if your name is not Dominic Cummings, (I’ll confess, I struggled to see how to follow them for a while and went for a new page!)

  • Put the award logo on your blog.
  • Answer the 7 questions asked by the person who nominated you.
  • Thank the person who nominated you and add a link to their blog.
  • Nominate any number of people linking to their blogs and let them know you nominated them by commenting on their blogs.
  • Come up with 7 questions for the people you nominated.

My Nominees

  1. Pointless Overthinking
  2. Rose Girl’s World
  3. Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice
  4. Wee Ginger Dug
  5. Pilates Leeds
  6. Ramblings of a Rookie Life
  7. The Perfect Juggler
  8. Silent Pen
  9. H.J Tanner
  10. Solo Mum in Aus

My Questions

1. What is your most visited blog post of 2020?

2. If you could have a ticket to see any live act, who would you pick?

3. How have you coped with Lockdown?

4. What is your favourite quote?

5. Nature or nurture?

6. What advice would you give your teenage self ?

7. Can you name politician you admire? If yes, who?

Lockdown week 11: Decision Time?

Saturday 6 June 2020

Week 11 demands that I go into work three times. On the downside, it’s a return to early alarm calls and commuting; by Friday I actually have to put fuel in the car for the first time since April! On the upside, I escape my four walls and … someone else prepares my lunch!

My pros and cons aside however, one thing is certain, schools are only going to get busier over the next few weeks. We can probably stumble on until the end of July in the current conditions but, with the prospect of a new academic year in September, someone at some point is going to have to decide, ‘Is our aim to educate or socially distance?’, because schools cannot do both effectively.

At the start of June 2020, UK Primary schools were allowed to open to three year groups. In High Schools and Colleges, pupils from Years 10 and 12 will be permitted to return to school from June 15th. There are strict social-distancing guidelines in place which have required school leaders and Governors to work around the clock preparing lengthy risk assessments. For pupils and parents, smaller class sizes result in most children only skipping through the school gates on a part-time basis and continuing with their home-learning otherwise. And in terms of up-scaling pupil numbers, it is a model with many flaws; easier to solve if we are happy to operate as a Youth Club with restricted clusters and the cleanest hand ever seen, but far more daunting if our aim is education.

Without a substantial investment in recruitment, it is difficult to understand how schools can spread staff across both face-to-face teaching and high quality home-learning. Essentially, if only half the pupils can be fitted ‘in school’ on any day …. where are the other half? What are they doing? And who is supporting their learning? They could be ‘live-streaming the lesson‘ I hear you cry. Well, again, even with the substantial investment needed to gear all schools and homes up for such an arrangement, it leaves the question,

Why are half of us, buttoned into school shirts, perched on disinfected chairs and working at 2m spaced desks whilst others apparently get the same education from their kitchens?’

I would argue that it is because they do not get this. I would argue that there is no substitute for the real classroom experience. Amongst many different educational theorists, my current favourite is the controversial Professor Michael Young, advocate of ‘powerful knowledge’. I do believe that learners are entitled to lessons built around the amazing ideas and concepts you would rarely encounter in everyday life or outside an place of learning. I do agree with Professor Young, that such a knowledge based curriculum equips more pupils with the cultural capital needed to move up, not merely on, in life and hence helps to bridge the shameful socio-economic chasms that divide our educational system. You might expect therefore that I would be content to see a diet of facts and figures served up to pupils on some static powerpoint, equally suited to home- or class-based learning. But you would be wrong.

My core conviction is that education is driven by relationships and needs inspirational teachers at the wheel. Unapologetically, passionate educators who light the fires and open teenage eyes to that wonderful wealth of knowledge: a love of literature, an appreciation of art, the beauty of mathematics. Committed motivators whose voices say,

Keep going, you can do this!’ and

Have you thought about studying this further at college?

And incredible as education is, school life is even about so much more than this: friendships, teamwork, shared experiences, the school production and growing as a person. Schools are a community; they are about being together.

So, schools and education – a precious thing indeed. Social distancing – a critical component of our fight against a global pandemic. I think we just need to decide which is our priority for the Autumn, because I an unconvinced that we can do both well…

Lockdown week 10: That’s life…

Sunday 31 May 2020

My parents may have been member of the Elgar Society, but they were also huge fans of iconic Rat Pack singer Frank Sinatra. He was the soundtrack to my Dad’s wake and this week, as I hear Small Boy jazz-handing his way through the intro to ‘That’s Life’ it starts to lift my mood…

I am in need of a small morale boost because Week 10 of lockdown does not start well. I get turned down for a job. An exciting, challenging new role, featuring travel, data and lots of writing is dangled before my eyes and then snatched away. I think I’d be pretty good at it, but I do accept that, in an online interview from my kitchen, I struggled to sparkle.

Rejection! Always such a blow. And so I resolve to set aside a little time to indulge in disappointment before picking myself up again.

Space to be gloomy, however, in a socially distanced world? Well it’s tricky! There’s no pub to retreat to. No rehearsal to take my mind off things. No long drive – well unless I masquerade as a senior government aide! Nowhere in the house to escape from my children and their volley of teen-centric demands. My only option is to go out for a run. So I do. I am out for over an hour. And as my feet pound the pavement, round and round in my head, Frank cheers me on,

But I don’t let it, let it get me down
‘Cause this fine ol’ world, it keeps spinning around
…”

And do you know what, Ol’ Blue Eyes, you are right! The uplifting anthem seems to chase away the cloud of negative thoughts and clear my brain for recharge. Is it the familiar, easy melody? Is it the fit of the lyrics ? Is it merely an overdose of exercise endorphins? Is it simply the joy that comes from a precious 70 minutes to myself? I cannot say. What I an certain about however, as I eventually sink in sweaty relief onto my sofa, is that I feel better. Not just about the job but also better about the the last 10 weeks, the scary prospect of the next chapter of Covid and careering on through life itself.

The ups and downs, and let’s be honest the last couple of months have dealt up plenty of both, will keep coming. But, mirroring my run, for every uphill struggle, eventually there will be a glorious downhill. All around, living, loving, time itself; they play on, inviting us to join them and add to the tune. It feels suddenly reassuring to be just a little part of something much bigger.

Tomorrow the calendar page announces that 2020 has made it to June. Here’s hoping that when it comes to the first month of Summer that Frank is singing for us all…

That’s life
That’s what all the people say
You’re riding high in April
You’re shot down in May
I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top in June
..”

(That’s Life : Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon circa 1963)

Lockdown week 9: Rules…

Saturday 23 May 2020

Dominic Cummings, should he stay or should he go? It’s a no-brainer for me.

Who cares about good looks? It’s a question of doing the right thing. It’s not about what you guys think.” Dominic Cummings (Senior Advisor to PM)

The story is headline news. Dominic Cummings, Senior Advisor to Boris Johnson, is found to have travelled over 200 miles, to his parents’ home in County Durham. Why? His wife was displaying Covid-19 symptoms, and he feared so would he. In consequence, they planned to use the support of their North East family to help with childcare. On the face of it, a very reasonable and sensible plan. The issue? This all took place in the first week of the UK Lockdown and flaunts key directives in the Government’s Covid code.

The phone-ins, the opinion polls and the columnists have not stopped on this one. The Cabinet rally around, their aide. Michael Gove argues that, “caring for your wife and family is not a crime” and indeed it is not. Some callers to the radio debate shows challenge me to think about “what I would do in the same situation”. And I actually do not know. But I do know, that others did not follow Mr Cummings, in allowing their instinct to override Government guidelines. Instead, to support our national effort, they made huge and heartbreaking sacrifices when faced with similar situations. What I think, moreover, is that whatever I did choose to do is entirely irrelevant on this occasion because Cummings and I are not comparable, even as parents. I am a key worker, a mum and a daughter trying my best to follow the spirit of the Government rules. Mr Cummings is the senior advisor to the Prime Minister, a member of SAGE, integral to strategy decisions at the highest level of Government. He may not be an elected representative, but, as Boris’ right hand man, he must accept the level of accountability that comes with a role of such privilege and power. It is imperative that he ‘walks the walk’ as opposed to merely, ‘talking the talk ‘of the administration he serves and influences.

So, Mr Cummings, you may quip that appearances do not matter. For you, I would argue, they absolutely do. In accepting such a pivotal job within Number 10, you gave up the luxury of opinion to interpret and stretch the government guidelines to suit your own circumstances. In its place you accepted the weight of responsibility that accompanies this highest level of public office. And, for me, even if with genuine oversight rather then arrogance, you have fallen far short of these expectations. In so doing, you undermine the very messages you have shaped and sold to us as those that will ‘Save Lives and Protect the NHS’.

Others, including Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, have accepted their lapses and resigned, with honour, for similar actions Is it time for you to go as well? Undoubtedly yes.

Lockdown week 8: A moment of magic

Sunday 17 May 2010

Cleaning the blinds! Have I reached a whole new lock down low?

We have now completed eight long weeks of socially distanced living. This week restrictions were eased a little and we moved from ‘Stay Home’ to ‘Stay Alert’. In an attempt to kick-start the economy, many more people were encouraged to return to the workplace. The Teaching Unions and the Government locked horns over the proposed re-opening of primary schools. Golfing, tennis and ‘going fishing’ were all given the green light and we were allowed to meet up with a family member, at a 2 metre distance, on a park bench. Not many of these changes do much to fill up my calendar however and so ….

And so, I find myself actually parting with hard earned cash to order an astonishing, tri-pronged, duster-socked blind cleaner. Buffing my blinds back to glory is the mission of the day! Now, even the most modestly house-proud amongst you probably needs to cover your ears as I make a confession. In the eight years I’ve lived in this house, never once have I cleaned, dusted or given a second thought to those poor blinds. Happily, however, my slovenly ways do now offer several advantages. One, as a blind-cleaning novice, I can be forgiven for any idiotic purchases of cleaning products or devices. Two, as I toil and sweat over many years worth of grime and grease, the impact is incredible.

Yellow? Why no! Those Venetians in kitchen are actually white!

But three, I can now thank the good Lord that today aside, I have never wasted a single other minute of my precious life on jobs like this! A WhatsApp from my lovely Mum pings in and I take the cue to stop for a very welcome coffee break.

My Dad – in the Museum directory!

The caffeine is wonderful but the message brings a moment of sheer delight. Whilst I have been scrubbing away with my plastic trident and anti-static spray, Mum has been busy with internet research. Buried on an directory of cinema organists, at a museum in Essex, she has found an entry for Dad. It is unbelievable. I phone immediately to hear the full, triumphant details of her sleuthing. It is an epic tale but, believe it or not, the trail began with a Covid-drawer clear out!

So, maybe it is wrong to scoff at all the corona cleaning and declutterng. A little time, out of our usually frantic lives, to rediscover old treasures and revisit past memories is definitely an opportunity we should cherish. Who knows what gems we may uncover? Blind cleaning however – just don’t do it …

Lockdown week 7: VE Day

VE Day Anniversary 8 May 2020

Many years ago, a friend bought me a box of fortune cookies so that I could start each day with a crunch of biscuit and, of course, a wise inspirational motto! This was my favourite,

“Hope is like food, without it we die

And where better to start lighting Lock Down with a ray of hope, than on the 75th Anniversary of VE Day itself.

Some parallels with our current situation are evident, but the chasms of difference far more striking. World War 2 – 6 long years. World War 2 – 75 million lost lives. Conditions on the fronts, unthinkable. At home, families battling the Blitz, evacuation, rationing, separation and loss. Lock Down really does not compare. But with everyone staying at home, it is true that we do find more time than usual to reflect upon and mark this notable date in the diary. Street parties are the order of the day! Ours is scheduled for 4pm, and it turns out to be a more stylish event than I had planned for….

The 75th Anniversary is marked with a Bank Holiday, so I am not working (much) and, instead, am already having a lovely day. One of my friends Zooms in for a long and leisurely coffee in the morning. Another whisks me off to Dublin on a virtual tour of the Guiness Brewery, in the early afternoon. This is a taste of life as I used to know it. Sociable, lively, boozy and fun. I am drinking in the buzz of Temple Bar when my eye drifts to the road outside and I am jolted back into reality. Houses on our street are festooned with bunting. Driveways proudly showcase elegant table and chair sets, table cloths, wine coolers, flowers, and cake stands. I realise that the old rug in my car boot, purchased at a music festival in the mid 90s, is simply not going to cut it. I hastily bid farewell to Ireland’s capital and re- focus on my own front lawn!

We just about make it. I dig out an old, batik cloth, from a trip to Indonesia in 1989, to hastily cover the piano stool, which is carried out, masquerading as a table. My iced buns, scattered on a plastic picnic plate, already look dangerously close to melting. Small Boy is swigging his second Koppaberg before we’ve even ventured out of the front door. But, just after 4, gripping two bottles of Cava, we scramble onto our weather-worn garden chairs ready to party.

And it is terrific. All our neighbours are out. There is 1940s music on the play list. There is sunshine and smiles and lots of sparkling wine. We meet people we lived beside but, in the busyness of 21st century life, never found time to speak to before. And all this from the social distance of our front gardens.

“It feels like we’re on holiday!” slurs one of the Cava crew.

And they are right. It does. It feels different. It feels special. It feels amazing, however high the hedges, to be in the presence of other people. A 7-week break certainly makes you appreciate what is important in life. On Sunday, we will all gather as a nation to hear if the current Lock Down restrictions are to be relaxed a little. Whether or not conditions ease, this brief glimpse of life back in society, in public, in company has given me a the boost of strength I’ve been lacking in recent weeks. I know I can see this through with more drive and determination from now on. Hope for the future, it makes it all worth fighting for…

Lockdown week 6: May

Sunday 3 May 2020

May! Oh my goodness. Was there an April ? How many weeks since I last saw a pub? Did I dream it, or was there once world where we used to eat somewhere other than the kitchen? Was I ever challenged by goals greater than clearing out the garage? Will life ever get back to normal?

The giddiness that marked the start of Lockdown now seems like a very distant memory. Whereas my eldest dyed her hair pink 6 weeks ago, this weekend, I have to confess to my slight relief, she purchased the chemicals to turn it back to a glorious, chestnut brown.

Prom dress Daughter redecorated her room and it looks terrific! The lime-green and peach colour scheme she chose 5 years ago is gone and in its place, we have clean, crisp, white walls and one feature splash of lilac. However her shopping list for new furniture, fixtures and fittings , a carefully, crafted creation as long as … lockdown itself has been put on hold and with it her motivation for each day ! (Cruel Covid means that none of our tips are operational and I have forbidden the dismantling of old beds and desks until they open their gates once more.)

Home schooling – what a roller coaster! More late marks for Small Boy this half term than in his previous 10 years of schooling, as I battle daily to get him our of bed. Prom dress daughter is sinking, under a sea of essays on complex , self-taught topics, and anxiety over the impact of all of this on UCAS predictions. My eldest, powerless to do anything about her exam grades and future now, does all the work sent, but without any of her signature drive and enthusiasm.

Gosh 6 weeks is a long time and they are struggling. No friends. No going out. No escape from each other. No break from me! I know that it is my job to fix them and I do try. I am trounced at basket ball most afternoons. I am there for Boris the Gecko’s bathtime. I turn my hand to homework. I try to be a counsellor, careers advisor, cocktail mixer and confidante… But the truth is that I am not good enough. No-one is. To quote the wisest of cultures,

“It takes a village to raise a child

And I am only one. One definitely stretched and certainly stressed single mum, who is finding the going very tough…