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…

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…

Road Trip!

Friday 28 June – Sunday 30 June 2019

Oh my goodness- what a weekend! My brain is fried and I am almost too exhausted to speak, after a whirlwind of Open Days, concerts, shopping and ….driving!

Friday is Nottingham Open Day for my eldest and I. At home, Prom-dress daughter has slept at a friend’s house, and so we only have Small Boy to worry about. He has managed to lose his school bus pass this morning, but it’s his lucky day. I am far to preoccupied to launch into my usual ‘that bus pass cost me good money!’ tirade. We simply drop him off on the way and then hit the motorway.

Having been promised a heat wave, we have donned summer outfits and view the clouds and drizzle of Yorkshire, and then Nottinghamshire, with slight alarm from the windows of our trusty vehicle. And though dry, it is distinctly chilly as, upon arrival, car safely parked, we step out to explore the University campus. We really enjoy the day; mixing talks and tours with the chance to look at lots of accommodation. The promised sun does eventually make an appearance too, and the first leg of our trip draws to a close with a stroll back to the car, ice cream in hand.

We now set the SatNav for …Newcastle! As the marvellous machine recalculates our route, it’s time to check in with the rest of my teens. Small Boy has successfully made it to my mum’s house. A weary Prom-dress daughter, a little jaded from her night of prom-ing, has, impressively, managed to get herself to a College Induction Day, and a rehearsal in one piece and hopes to join the others shortly. It all sounds good, and with the navigation device promising a 2 hour and 45 minute trip to the North East we set off…

Over 4 hours, and much Friday night rush hour traffic later, we are driving past the Angel of the North and finally checking in at the Holiday Inn Express in Newcastle! It’s been a very long day and after sharing Pizza, nachos and a cheeky glass of Prosecco at the bar, it’s PJ and telly time, then sleep!

By 9:30 am, on a very sunny Saturday, we are sitting, triumphant in our summer outfits, in the Medicine talk at Newcastle Uni. By 1:30 pm, having done Bio Medial Sciences, Neuro-Science, Chemical Engineering and two hall of residence tours, we are ready to hit the road and head home.

Travel fatigue is now beginning to set in. My right ankle (old running injury) and right arm are pretty sore and my eldest sighs like an old lady as she casts her shoes off in the passenger seat. Nonetheless, our spirits are high, possibly veering on hysterical – we find everything amusing, from ‘no hard shoulder’ signs to the M62 Summit sign- as we head back to our corner of the North West.

We are home by 4pm, whereupon an anxious Prom-dress daughter, who is preparing for a week of work experience (at an architecture firm ‘down south’), announces that she has ‘no work clothes‘ in her wardrobe. My eldest also needs to stock up on provisions for her Duke of Edinburgh Gold expedition. And so it is that, after a quick cuppa and pressing a few buttons on the washing machine, we are off to the shops and eventually sit down, to a take-away curry, at about eight.

Next morning, it’s off to York Uni for my eldest, whilst Small Boy, Prom-dress daughter and I set out for the drive ‘down south’ to deliver our would-be architect to her dad. My arm and ankle are now strapped up to ease the pain. The bandages work well and our outward journey is a jolly one. We while away the motorway hours with ‘I Spy‘ , ‘Guess who‘ and much laughter. ‘Guess who‘ features lots of rappers from Small Boy and figures from Elizabethan England from Prom-dress daughter… I do struggle to get a turn!

The return journey is far less fun. Not only does Small Boy feel a little deflated to be travelling back without his lovely sister, but I am now very tired and find myself drifting off at the wheel. I do stop to revive myself, with coffee and fresh air, but it uses up time and we only just manage to collect my eldest from the train station as she returns from her third Open Day in an many days.

We dine on the dregs of left-over curry, and just have time to nip out to buy a new bus pass for Small Boy before my eldest and I race to a local city hall for her concert. My beautiful girl takes my breath away with some stunning solo playing and for a happy couple of hours I do relax and clear my brain of the logistical load it has carried for the last few days.

When we do arrive home, I gaze catatonically at the TV for less than an hour before turning in. Tomorrow is July and tomorrow is also Duke of Edinburgh Gold expedition, a concert for Small Boy, Prom-dress daughter’s first day at work experience, oh and a full day of work for me. Do you know what, tomorrow can just wait for a few hours…

Festival Time !

Sunday 16 June 2019

This week I hear that The Cure are playing Glastonbury and it makes me smile because, back in 1986, when I hitch-hiked to Glastonbury, they were the headline act. Unfortunately on that occasion, I went for a ‘little lie down’ in my tent and managed to sleep through the entire set! I briefly contemplate pulling on my green wellies and heading South Westward in 2019 to see if I can actually hear them play this time… but I realise that the full-on-festival chapter of life has probably passed. The Buxton Festival, that’s more my scene these days! And it’s to Buxton I head today, for a concert where I have agreed to dep for an oboe-playing friend…

It’s my debut performance with the Buxton Musical Society, the friend I am depping for is a brilliant player, the only rehearsal before today’s concert is today’s rehearsal and … I am not the best with directions. Taking all of this into account, I set off ridiculously early and am calmly on the approach to Buxton when I hit local roadworks and grind to a complete halt. And so it is that instead of making an elegant and timely entrance I race in, flustered, windswept, my head pounding and …. spectacularly late.

The rehearsal is in full swing and I have completely missed one of the pieces. From this point on however, my stress levels are eased and soothed away, for this is the Buxton Music Society, who, I am to discover, are the loveliest of people. They are delightfully posh and I crash into the middle of much guffawing over an anecdote about ‘the young Simon Rattle‘ and someone called ‘Jonty‘. But as I stand there looking forlorn and a little frazzled, they divert their cultured and eloquent tones to making me feel like a VIP, rather than a hapless and hopeless time keeper. Calmed with hot tea and kind words, I am soon in my seat and ready to play. The orchestra sound superb, which means that, as I float my oboe notes into the mix, it’s easy to sound good too, and I am soon really enjoying myself.

As the rehearsal ends, talk turns to tea. My friend has told me that I will ‘be fed‘. Expecting a few sandwiches and a long wait in a cold church before the concert, I have loaded up my Kindle and put some work into the car boot. But, oh no, this is not the Buxton way! I am collected, with 3 other orchestra members and driven off to the home of a Musical Society member for an amazing home cooked meal and just outstanding hospitality. As I tuck into my second helping of crumble and custard, I notice that my headache has gone and that I am feeling relaxed, content and very well fed. It is certainly rare but very agreeable to feel this well looked after, and it clearly suits me! I chat enthusiastically about ‘triumph’ of our hosts’ fine fireplaces and share musical moment and musical acquaintances with my fellow orchestral colleagues. It is gloriously civilised and I love it!

The concert goes very well, with committed performances from the orchestra and choir, and the young violin soloist, in particular, is astounding. It’s after 11 when I finally arrive home. I may have missed The Cure back in 1986 but today, not missing all of my rehearsal and not missing any of the concert or my fabulous meal, seems like more than a fair exchange…

The beginner’s guide to…. Open Days!

Saturday 15 June 2019

Today my eldest and I head South for a University Open Day. But it’s not any old ‘South’, it’s the city where the children were born and I lived for over 10 years. So I am confident, I am calm, I am pretty ad hoc with my planning … and I learn the error of my ways!

We are on the road by 6:30 am and soon cruising down the motorway. It’s a familiar route I’ve driven many times but, as there are several ‘Queue Likely’ warnings, I boldly decide to experiment with a slightly altered course. Not my wisest move, as it turns out. I miss several key junctions and, even with my eldest using her navigation skills to get us back on track, we probably lose half an hour. (It suddenly strikes me that all my kids are pretty impressive with a map. I fear that with my sense of direction it’s become one of life’s necessities!) Despite the detour delays, we make time for a coffee stop, turn the volume up loud on the radio and sing our way merrily down South … until we hit the traffic!

We are about 2 miles from our destination when we grind to a complete halt, and we are still sitting in the jam as the time for our first Talk comes, and goes. Several packed buses, speed past us, in their designated bus lane, mocking us with their ‘Main Campus’ destination signs. My eldest chooses this moment to remind me that there had been a ‘Park and Ride’ option. I now regret waiving aside the regular emails the University sent me, trusting instead to the claim that “I know this town”!

Still I do know my way around and remember a pretty handy place to park, when we eventually clear the traffic. And then we dive into the throngs and the cut and thrust of the modern University Open Day. Blimey, a lot has changed since I trundled around my Universities of choice, back in the 1980s! In my decade, it was a day off college, eating marmalade sandwiches on the train, meeting a student, having a quick tour of the lecture halls and accommodation before heading back home for tea. Absolutely no-one came with their parents! Today, the entire city centre is taken over by Open Day visitees and their attached families. Student guides, in brightly coloured T-shirts, congregate on every street corner, handing our maps and giving directions. There are traffic wardens, stopping the traffic to shepherd the crowds across the road, pop-up food stalls and drinks stations. It’s insane! It’s bewildering!

But, whilst I am a chaos of dis-organisation, frantically failing to make sense of a University map, made soggy and dog-eared by the torrential rain, my eldest has done her homework. She waves her phone expertly at student guides, to register us for a terrific schedule of pre-booked talks and lectures. We have an amazing tour of some Science labs, where lecturers, passionate about their subjects, actually blow out minds with their knowledge, brilliance and enthusiasm. Suddenly I know that this is the world for my girl. She has had the sense to prepare as well for the Open Day as she does for everything, and that why, despite a slightly delayed start, we get so much out of it and she will get so much out of a University Education. I feel super-proud to be her mum.

We sing our way back up the motorway and finally arrive home at 8 pm. I have had plenty of time to learn some lessons. Here they are, as my tips for other beginners to the Open Day carousel:

  1. Do book overnight accommodation if you can: our 14 hour day was a bit of a killer!
  2. Do have a look at the road map and plan your route in advance.
  3. Do read the emails the Unis send you and follow their advice on parking: I am first in the queue for any future Park and Rides on offer!
  4. Do think about what your child wants to get our of University life and book the tours and talks to match
  5. Definitely do look forward to some fun quality time with your brilliant child and enjoy every minute, including the road trip itself!

To Gothic Spires and Birthday Cake

Saturday 8 June 2019

Woohoo, following a few false starts, with my tentative steps back into the dating world, I go out on a really great date!

We do theatre, we do roof-top drinks, we do food but above all we do laughter, at some points I am actually shaking with unstoppable laughter. My date is clever, easy to talk to and incredibly funny. He also does flowers, such a large bouquet in fact, that the waitress notices them and asks me the occasion. I nonchalantly fib that it’s my birthday and only blush slightly when, at the end of the meal, a large slice of birthday cake appears and the restaurant hears me serenaded with an Asian chorus of birthday song!

Fun-filled as the evening is, that’s where this liaison ends. For several reasons there is no romantic ending to relay. Nonetheless, it leaves a lasting impression because it reminds me of how much I love the company of an intelligent and cultured man who makes me smile and, more than that, makes me feel comfortable with being myself. Because I find that I am funny too, in fact I had forgotten how many great stories and anecdotes I have gathered over the years.

It’s fantastic being a mum and it brings me lots of happiness, but it’s terrific to just be yourself on occasion too, and to reminisce about your own childhood … with someone who was also alive back then! Some of my stories remind me of the amazing friends I have journeyed through life with … and I have not been in touch with some of them for ages. I think it’s time to reconnect and I do. I spend a very happy evening messaging some old pals, even finally embracing the 21st Century world of Apps to reach the more far-flung. It’s a joyful experience and the wonders of new technology suddenly make the world feel like a much smaller, funnier and more friend-filled place. Now that has to be a lasting and lovely legacy of a great night out. As for the Gothic Spires…well that’s a private joke….