An evening with Andy Burnham…

Thursday 14 October 2021

Going out on a school night? For the chance to hear Andy Burnham speak, I decide to give it a go!

It is almost a year to the day that Manchester’s Mayor was trending on Twitter as the ‘King of the North’. The nation watched on and the residents of the Northwest were gripped as he stood on the steps of the Town Hall in defiance of the Government’s tiering system and the decision to plunge our area into a set of restrictions without the funding to make these effective. Has this fight been vindicated? Some would say yes. The most recent update of the government’s performance during the pandemic, ‘Corona virus: lessons learned to date‘, drew this conclusion about the tiering system, not the words an administration committed, in name at least, to a ‘levelling up’ agenda, would have wanted us to read,

The two months between September 2020 and 31 October 2020 were an unsatisfactory period in which the comparative simplicity of the rules in place from the evening of 23 March onwards were replaced by a complex, inconsistent, shifting and scientifically ambiguous set of detailed restrictions. The rules had previously been a matter of broad national consent, but that sense of national solidarity began to erode, as the uncomfortable stand-off in Greater Manchester showed

Source: Corona virus: lessons learned to date (12 October 2021)

But even without this, for one may argue that, ‘hindsight is a wonderful thing’, what our region does remember, as this year’s local council elections verify, is that someone had the passion and bravery to take such a stand on our behalf. We actually mattered to someone in politics. And it is really for this reason that, when I hear that Mr Burnham will be speaking at an event nearby, my friend and I, purchase tickets, and set out to lend our support.

I must admit that most of the event is just fun; (hot) buffet, bar with (too much) red wine for me, lots of interesting people to talk to and plenty of laughter and entertainment. Even amidst this social frivolity however, Andy Burnham’s speech is a great highlight. His ‘3 point plan’, for our region and our country, is clear, positive and purposeful and, just as I found one year ago, I feel my mind and soul waking up from the slump of months of dismal, dreary political news and thinking, ‘Yes, there is a better way! Yes there is some point in standing up for what you believe in! Yes there is still a place for values and principles 2020s Britain! Yes, you and your work do make a difference.’

Isn’t that what we all need, as we battle through each day? To know that we have a purpose and that we do matter. It is certainly true for me. So even if I do find the Friday 6am alarm call, with a mildly hungover head somewhat of challenge, I am happy to affirm that, on this occasion, it was definitely worth it …

My son gets a haircut …

Saturday 9 October 2021

This weekend, Small-boy is booked into an appointment at my hairdressers instead of being sent on his customary walk to the local barber.

Have you taken leave of my senses?” I hear you wonder.

As both girls have flown the family nest to university, have I turned my poor son into a daughter substitute who must accompany me on coiffure outings to sip cappuccino, eat Biscoff biscuits and talk hair products with the styling team? Actually; it is probably the complete opposite….

This has actually come about from me listening to my teenage child! Yes parents of small children, be cautioned; the lovely days of kitting your child out with economical biannual trips to Sports Direct or the ‘F &F‘ aisles at Tesco and, similarly, perching them on booster seats at the hairdressers for a cost effective over-short, made-to-last-a-few-weeks cut, do not last forever! No, alas, those cheery, chubby toddlers, with their grubby hands and paint spattered cheeks only go and grow up … and start to make their own choices about what they wear and how they look! I could call it the ‘Teenage years‘ but, as lots of you will know, it can happen even earlier than that for the more determined offspring.

In many ways, I think I had an easier ride than some, particularly with Small Boy, who definitely made it to High School before he really gave his clothing or hair a second thought. But now he is pretty clear and… yes the word is ‘unshakeable‘ … about having his own look and style. And this, at the moment, means ‘growing’ his hair. And so it was that a few weeks ago he, peered out from under his unruly locks and threw into the conversation,

Mum, now that my hair is getting quite long, do you think I should get it cut properly… at a hairdresser who knows about curly hair?”

I suggest that the barbers are probably also more than capable of branching out beyond a ‘two on the sides and longer on top’ brief, but he remains unconvinced and eventually I think, ‘Why the devil not?‘ plus, it would be nice, however we achieve it, to see his face again and call my salon to make enquiries and the appointment is made.

After an hour of washing, cutting and scrunching, he emerges, looking a little unsure, but after a quick trip home to ruffle it up a bit and ‘thumbs up’ approval from both sisters on WhatsApp, off into town he goes.

‘Does it make the start of a whole new hair-cutting era?’, I ponder. Who can tell! The Teenage years are one unexpected roller coaster of surprises with unexpected highs and lows at every turn. And so they must be, for they are about a child taking those confusing, daunting but also exciting steps to adulthood and independence. And, I hope, being able to talk about, listen and, where appropriate, hand over autonomy (and budgeting) on simple things, like haircuts and clothes makes it a little bit easier to be there for the more challenging and difficult conversations along the journey too.

Well that’s my hope …

Running with headphones…

Saturday 2 October 2021

Just in from my first ever run with headphones! Bloomin’ brilliant and … why have I never done this before?

Why indeed? For me, there are two reasons and the first is quite serious. It is about safety; women’s safety. Several years ago, I was talking running with one of my friends and she told me that she had ditched the ear buds after being mugged by a man who had attacked her from behind and she had not ‘heard him coming’. And sadly, particularly in the week when the news is dominated by the heartbreaking testimonials from the Sarah Everard trial and female fear becomes, again, the topic of much media debate, my friend is not alone. From the NBC articles in 2018, Scared to run alone? Women runners share their best safety tip, running without earphones, in certain situations, comes in at number two.

“One important thing I have changed in my running routine is that unless I am around a lot of people or running on the boardwalk during the day, I no longer put headphones on,”

Christie Maruka, a fitness enthusiast who runs/speed walks daily

The second, I can only put down to the frantic nature and financial strains of single parenthood. For years, I simply could not afford a phone that had an earphone port! As for one that could play music or understood what a podcast was; well that was an even longer wait. My kids had them, as cherished birthday or Christmas present but for their poor old mum (let those violins play now!) there was no-one in my life who combined caring enough and earning enough to bestow such a gift upon me. But about 3 years ago, as technology advanced and prices fell, I did finally treat myself to a device that coped with more than just ‘calling and texting’ and could in fact take pictures and play sounds.

But that was several yeats ago; why the delay until today to finally attach a pair headphones? It’s time. Time for me to stop and learn how. If you are a single parent your entire life, it often feels, has no space for you. Frequently, you inhabit domains where you are the only adult and, hence, the first port of call for solving problems for everyone else. Amidst helping with homework, revision plans, clubs, friends, exam stress, health, future study decisions, driving lessons …. and so on you simply drain of the motivation to stand still and explore ways to make your own life a little bit easier or nicer.

So what changed this morning? Work panic … that’s what! Our new boss has introduced the team to weekly readings from book on leadership psychology. Last weekend, I left my copy at work and had to make my excuses at the Monday meeting and, as I wake up this morning it hits me that I have done exactly the same thing again! Yikes! What to do? My Kindle is dead and the only charger is now in Edinburgh with Prom-dress daughter. So I type ‘audio book’ into Google and 30 minutes later I: am enrolled on a 30 day free trial with Audible; have scrabbled around the house to find an only slightly damaged pair of headphones; have laced up my trainers and am ready to go. Necessity… very clearly the ‘mother of invention’ on this October morning!

And what of the safety worries? Well it is 9:30am and I do only run on busy roads, so I decide that it is the perfect situation to try and chip away at some of the limiting fears that can impede my life as a woman. In fact, my logical mind interrupts, road safety is likely to be a bigger peril to avoid today. I say my logical mind but it would be more honest to admit that I did recently read Paula Radcliffe explaining that,

“I actually don’t listen to music outside when I run. I prefer to be aware of what’s going on and in tune with my surroundings. Keeping an eye out for bikes or dogs coming out of nowhere, I like to be aware of that!”

Paula Radcliffe 2019

Whatever the reason, I set the volume to sensible level that still lets the background noise in, and set off.

And I love it. Both the run and the ‘reading’ fly by like never before. I definitely on the road to conversion, already wondering ‘what next?’ ; when I finish this book. Mmmm, maybe music …

Fags, scratch cards and Sky TV!

Thursday 29 October 2020

Today I buy my first ever scratch card! Let me explain why…

A 6 mile run takes me from and to the garage, as hardworking Windsor indulges in an Autumn service. I also rake garden leaves, file my tax return, turn the house upside down looking for Small Boy’s missing coat and get through tons of washing. By 7pm, my thoughts turn to a treat. But as I pour a modest gin and ginger, toxic voices on a local radio phone-in make me realise that I am really selling myself short and missing out on a whole world of wild living. Apparently the rest of the single-mum sisterhood are out squandering their child benefit on a giddy cocktail of fags, Sky TV subscriptions … and scratch cards?

Seriously? Who are these people?

They’ve been spurred into vitriolic action by the last week’s Free School Meals vote in the Commons. Here a majority of MPs chose not to extend the provision of holiday meal vouchers for our poorest families; an additional Covid -19 measure that was secured over the 6 week Summer break in response to a campaign by Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford (MBE).

Following the rejection of the Bill, the media is initially swamped with positive stories of local business and councils stepping in to provide free meals in place of central funds. Campaigner Rashford reflects on this spirit of generosity, avoiding any anger or political posturing with his comment that he ‘could not be more proud to be British’. However, at heart, Britain is not a united country. The splinters of division deepen as this current crisis wears on and the ‘undeserving poor‘ are always an easy target for those who thrive upon judgement and scorn.

Because this debate revolves around responsibility for ‘hungry children‘, parents in general and mothers in particular are quickly in the firing line for those aiming their guns at ‘state handouts‘. John Penrose, husband of NHS Test and Trace chief Baroness Dido Harding, blames ‘chaotic parents‘. Pompous, middle aged men blame modern women and reminisce about the ‘good old days’ when their mother’s fed the entire family for a week on a bag of turnips and a couple of potatoes and ‘no-one ever went hungry’. Personal responsibility is hurled like a weapon at struggling parents.

“Why should I pay for other people’s children’

Dont’ have children if you cant afford to feed them!”

As for single mums, well let me introduce you to the root cause of those empty food cupboards! It’s us… prioritising flashy mobile phone contracts, TV streaming services, cigarettes and alcohol … oh and let’s not forget the scratch cards … above feeding our offspring!

Is there any truth in these stereotypes? I search for some facts and find that whilst data on smart phones, and ‘on demand’ TV platforms does show a growth in ownership amongst ‘lower income’ families in the last decade, the proportions still do not match those of more affluent groups. Meanwhile, more conclusively, the CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) does report a sustained rise in child poverty between 2010 and 2020, and cites the proportion of children from lone parent families living in poverty at 44% in 2018-19. Both the TUC (2019) and the CPAG highlight a ‘jump’ in the proportion of poor children from ‘working families‘. The pandemic has made the situation ever more stark, a Guardian article this month highlighting the “surge in numbers” of pupils applying for free school meals.

In many ways I am lucky. Eleven years ago, lone parenting did not push me into the ‘eligible for free school meals’ bracket but it did transform me overnight from a woman who for 40 years had scarcely considered money, to a person who thinks about, worries about and loses sleep about it all the time. I will survive and my children will not starve but my point is this; shit happens! Having walked in these toughest of shoes, I know that these tired and clueless stereotypes of single mothers as “uppity and irresponsible women” (Boris Johnson 1995) are not only cruel and unfair, they also draw attention away from the real issues; those of deprivation, division and inequality in our 21st century society. They scream out about how little many of our leaders (and smug radio callers) know about the lives that the population lead.

Which is why I trust and align myself behind those that do. Marcus Rashford has used his profile to campaign for a fairer world than the one he grew up in. And speaking in the House of Lords, Labour peer Lord Griffiths whose family relied on free school meals in the 1940s also makes a striking contribution, describing how he ‘can still smell and taste the panic’ of holidays in what was a ‘threadbare existence‘.

Because when money is an issue on top of everything else, life is ‘threadbare’ in many ways, stripped of fun and an endless battle of stress and worry. One of the nicest posts I saw this week, came from a bakery who were delivering food parcels to local families and including a bunch of flowers, to “brighten someone’s day”. Now they really do understand!

It is at this point that I decide stick 2 fingers up to the snobbery and prejudice of the radio callers and buy my first every £1 scratch card. As I uncover my numbers, it a moment to dream of a carefree life, cushioned from financial crises by a windfall of a few thousand? Not really – 11 years have taught me that there never is an easy way out! It is however engrossing for 10 minutes and everything else melts away for a few blissful moments. In a life of sometimes relentless grind that seems priceless…

Half term’s here!

Friday 23 October 2020

Oh my goodness! The final bell of the day rings and a mood of unadulterated joy erupts throughout the building ‘Half Term’s here!’

I have spent the day wearing both my mask and visor, desperate to make it to the end of the day; the end of the week and the end of the half term without catching covid. I am on a quest to go nowhere near anyone who might cause a notification to pop up on the dreaded NHS test and trace app! I am practically sitting in the corridor for my performance management meeting. I skip and dance my way through 3 lessons, firmly fixed to the ‘teacher zone’ cordoned off at the front of the classroom. Just the last thing you want, after the toughest of two months in school, is the news that you have to spend half term isolating your kitchen!

Not that we can do much in a region cast, as expected, into Tier 3. Nonetheless for an exhausted team of teachers, the elation of making it to the finish line cannot be subdued today.  So how do I feel …. I put it in song. A song that I sing aloud to the wonderful pupils filing out through the year 11 exit …this song (stolen from Friends) … with the lyric changed to ‘Half term’s here!’

We are worth fighting for…

Saturday 17 October 2020

“…it is wrong for some of the poorest parts of England to be put under a “punishing lockdown without proper support for the people and businesses affected”. A Burnham October 2020

Manchester houses the People’s History Museum, a collection of Ideas worth fighting for’; the UK’s only museum entirely dedicated to sharing the stories of the revolutionaries, reformers, workers, voters and citizens who championed, then and now, for change and rallied for rights and equality. In the city which witnessed the Peterloo Massacre, the birthplace of the Cooperative movement and home town to Emmeline Pankhurst you find the perfect location for this national museum of democracy. And for me this week, Greater Manchester Mayor, Andy Burnham has reawakened that local pride in boldly challenging unfairness and prejudice.

It has been inspirational to have a public figure blast the ridiculous and insulting premis that North West residents flaunt ‘The Rules‘ more than people in any other city in the UK and are to blame for the dangerously high levels of covid-19 cases. Instead let’s highlight the levels of deprivation in our region which mean that more of our residents will struggle to socially distance because they: do live in crowded housing, do not have cosy ‘working from home with a lap top and wifi’ options and do have to use public transport. Instead let’s highlight the national disgrace of the ‘Track and Trace’ system which has sent key workers into hospitals and schools like unarmed soldiers into battle. Instead let’s highlight the resources needed to address the spike in infections cased by students, in a region that houses many of the nation’s finest Universities.

Above all, how amazing to see our mayor standing up and fighting for us. With a passion and conviction, almost shocking it is seen so rarely from our elected representatives, he has told a distant Government that the people of Greater Manchester deserve better. After months of aimless Lockdown gloom and despair, I feel inspired and alive and know what we are fighting for in this region at least. It is for human dignity and the quality of people’s lives. Now that is an idea worth fighting for. That matters and we matter too. And I have not felt that I matter for a very long time…

“(We ) are being used as canaries in the coalmine for an experimental regional lockdown strategy as an attempt to prevent the expense of what is truly needed”

Just a call…

Tuesday 13 October 2020

It is 6pm. I am just packing up for the day when my Eldest calls. It’s been a hell of a day.

Another

We confirm a member of the school community has tested positive for Covid-19′ day

Another

‘We are diverting all staff onto emergency cover until half term’ day

Another

Teach your lesson; post your lesson; live stream your lesson; everything three times your lesson’ day

Another

Your fault. Follow the rules. Don’t blame test and trace. Schools stay “open”. We’ve given you three extra weeks, … We’re all in this together‘ day

I push it all aside and tune into my daughter’s bubbly chatter.

It’s true, she has blown month one’s budget in just over 2 weeks and a giggly, joyful voice takes me through the mis-calculations and ‘very valid’ reasons why ‘money’s running a bit low’. I hear crazy tales of cinema bookings for Newcastle-under-Lyne instead of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the surprise of finding yourself in a screening of ‘Harry Potter‘ … instead of a romcom. I hear about mishaps with keys and the saga of a broken phone screen. I hear the cheerful acknowledgement that arriving in the North East with a suitcase full of crop-tops but no winter coat probably wasn’t her wisest move…

And I hear, life and laughter and happiness. And it makes me smile and at least for the rest of today, remember what living is really all about…

Sealant is tricky!

Friday 25 October 2019

I sashay tipsily through the front door to find that, whilst I have been at a fantastic wine event sampling ‘A Taste of Italy’, Prom-dress daughter has spent her evening assembling all the new furniture for her brother’s room. He has a chest of drawers. He has a bedside table. He has a trendy clothing rail. It looks terrific! I stand open-mouthed, in awe of her DIY prowess. I am bowled over with surprise and gratitude and overwhelmed with relief that this is one home improvement job I won’t be involved in. The household is only just recovering from my recent misadventure… with the bathroom sealant! Let me take you back …to Monday…

Monday 21 October 2019

As the teens are away, I earmark the start of half-term week for the task of repairing the sealant in the bathroom. I ordered the cartridge weeks ago and already, with only a few cuts and minor injuries, I have cleared the old sealant out. There’s a short delay; I find I have no sealant gun. But the oasis that is ‘Screw Fix‘ is but minutes from my home, and within the hour I am proudly unwrapping my first ever sealant gun. The instructions seem clear and I confidently snip open the correct sections of the cartridge, hook up with YouTube to uncover the secrets of loading the cartridge into the gun and I am ready. I feel euphoric! I feel invincible! I actually pose in front of the mirror, like one of Charlie’s Angels, brandishing my gun.

“You are good!“, I tell my reflection with a cheeky wink, ” Let’s go and seal that sink!”

You’d think at my age, I would have learnt that pride invariably comes before a fall!! I have indeed successfully snipped open the cartridge seal and the applicator nozzle, but I what I have failed to do, is to secure these two parts back together. As I start to to pump, the sealant seeps gloriously out of both the top and bottom of the applicator and plummets heavily into the sink. I try to remove it, but discover that silicone is sticky. It sticks to everything. My hands, my clothes, my hair, the sink, the floor, the door. In desperation, I manage to re-fasten the device and stem the flow, but I coat my hands, arms, body and bathroom even more completely in the gruesome glue. And I don’t stop here. For some unfathomable reason, I choose to plough on, ineptly firing sealant, sealant and yet more sealant at the gap in my sink. It is one almighty mess. With a face drained of colour and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, I survey the carnage… it has taken me less than 10 minutes, to completely ruin the bathroom.

I scrape the silcone from my hands with a towel, head to the kitchen for an emergency cuppa and put in a mildly hysterical call to one of my friends. By the time the rescue squad appears, I have managed to clean the floor and some of the bathroom units. My jumper, however, is in the bin and the sink itself is a horror story of silicone mingled with my blood. I am lead away and placed onto kettle duties.

It takes a good 2 hours for my heroic pal to restore and re-seal the bathroom to it’s former glory. I am still a sticky, sorry specimen of gratitude as I pour us a celebratory glass of fizz. My friend tells me kindly that ‘Sealant is tricky!‘ and I vow to never go near it again…unless perhaps Prom-dress daughter is at home!

Magical Manchester

Tuesday 22 October 2019

The teens return from a holiday with their dad tomorrow. That gives me 24 hours of blissful freedom and I spend them exploring my home town. It’s a day that comes as close to perfect as you could ever hope a day to be. Sometimes you don’t need to travel far for new adventure and experience, sometimes your just need to open your eyes and see what’s right under your nose.

My friend and I hop off our tram and straight into the Northern Quarter’s characteristic chaos of cafes. The Manchester skies are unusually clear and blue and we perch on high stools at an outdoor grilled cheese bar for a quick lunch stop. It’s simple, speedy and mouth-wateringly delicious and happily replenished we take a leisurely stroll through the lovely Victorian streets to a concert hall for a lunchtime recital.

I am not sure that I’ve ever been to a lunchtime concert before and it blows me away. We step out of the hustle and bustle of city life to enjoy an hour of peace and some beautiful piano playing. Mozart and Chopin fill the hall and fill my soul. I am transported far from all the worries and niggles that fill my mind on a daily basis … it is just amazing!

Manchester is famed for its lively bar and cafe scene, indeed it was recently dubbed “the most hungover city in the world”. So without too much difficulty, we find ourselves a bar to discuss the concert and over several glasses of Merlot, review the playing, catch up on news and generally while the afternoon away until it’s time to catch the tram home again.

I feel relaxed, happy and, at least for today, free of all responsibility. My mind is stirred, my heart is too. This is city life at its best. A 2019 Time Out survey ranked Manchester 15th out of the ‘48 Best Cities in the World to Visit’. Well I challenge those Time Outers to find me a city on this planet or beyond that can give me a better day than the one I’ve just had…

London Town

Sunday 20 October 2019

There is no better way to recharge the batteries than a change of location and after a terrific weekend in London, I feel like a new woman.

It’s the start of half term and the teens are away with their dad, leaving me free to hop on an Intercity train and head for the capital. It’s a change of place and a change of pace and it a few days to just be myself rather than an overstretched and sightly frazzled single-mum.

In under 2 hours, I am at Euston, meeting an old Uni friend and catching up over coffee. Armed with our Oyster cards, we head to Tate Britain for Mark Leckey’s O’ Magic Power of Bleakness exhibition. Leckey’s ambitious and theatrical show, takes us on a nostalgic trip through his younger years, and as contempories, his nostalgia matches ours and we lounge on the floor letting the clever images wash over us and feeling the year roll back, until we are teenagers again too. I really enjoy it and reminiscing about my childhood, with someone else who was also alive at the time is the perfect way to remind myself that, much as Iove being a mum, there is also a side of me that’s…just me!

And over a two day trip, London just seems to exude effortless style and endless opportunity. There’s great food, great cinema, great art, great strolling along the elegant streets and great striding through the muddy paths of the glorious Hampstead Heath. Above all there’s great company. It is a rare luxury having someone to talk to about everything from work and kids, to books and art. My Uni friends are a clever bunch and I do miss the College climate of learning and knowledge. Who knows, maybe I’ll go back and do some more study one day?

But that’s for some distant day, in the future. It’s ‘back up North’ that I’m heading now on the 16:17 from Euston. Mark Leckey’s familiar yet forgotten images of the the 70s, 80s and 90s remind me of how easy it is to overlook the happy memories stored in the ordinariness of the everyday, when you have the right people in your life. And even as we leave the bright lights of London behind and head for the less inspiring facades of my corner of the North West, rejuvenated by my short break, I am looking forward to being home again.