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 …

Sometimes you deserve a treat …

Saturday 25 September 2021

I did set out to have a dry month but, as I finish another demanding week of September 2021, I am dreaming of a G &T, a Sicilian lemon flavoured shot of deliciousness … and I decided to indulge and feel not a second or remorse. No, I think I deserve it! And here is why:

1) I survive teaching GCSE Spanish (in addition to my usual mathematics)

A deluge of staff having to take their own children for PCR tests, causes the teacher absence rate to rises rapidly and allows the dreaded “rarely cover” to re-appear on timetables. And so it is that I find myself directed, for a double lesson of Year 10 Spanish last thing on a Friday afternoon.

Now I have never learned Spanish, however, back in 2018 when I helped my Eldest revise for her GCSE Spanish speaking test, she put me through such a relentless schedule of practice that by the end, not only was she ready to shine but I reckon that I could also have scraped a respectable grade 3! So, I get off to a confident start in the classroom,

Wow miss, you actually sound as if you are Spanish!”

one pupils observes, as a I navigate through an opening activity with aplomb. Alas, as we get deeper into our translation skills my limitations become only too apparent. When I try to help one puzzled pupil by suggesting that “Enrique’s favourite activity is taking photos of a sacred family?” a very lovely, and linguistically able girl, calls me over and whispers “Miss, it’s The Sagrada Familia, a very famous church in Barcelona.” She then gives me a little shrug, as if to say, ‘Should we tell the rest of the class?’

Of course we should! I call the group together to look at pictures of Gaudi’s basilica, I throw in the tale of my friend and I being mugged in Las Ramblas, when I actually visited Barcelona in the late 80s, as several hands shoot up, I hear several other holiday and passport disasters. Thereafter it is agreed that, if other self-help strategies fail as we work through our questions, (familiar vocab; cognates, dictionary, working partner) and we need to ‘ask an expert’ that the expert is clearly not me, but rather several nominated pupils dotted about the room.

2) I converse civilly with the local anti-vaxers

As covid vaccination is now rolled out nationally to the under 16’s, this protest group, with noise, banners and pamphlets, migrate to the locality of English high schools. Our Head handles it really well. After conferring with local school leaders and hearing the cautionary tale of Headteacher who sent out the Senior Leadership Team en masse, whereupon they became embroiled in the confusion and, in the local media coverage, were presented as being part of the protest, we are far more low key. We are sent individually to politely greet any anti-vaxers we encounter, recognising their right to opinion and protest but gently reminding them not to put leaflets into pupils’ bags without their consent, nor to attempt to stop pupils who just want to get into the school building without talking to them. So far, so good… but I think this addition to our work duties may well last beyond the end of this calendar month!

3) I complete my ’60 running miles in September’

Gosh; so much harder than my January, ‘run at least a mile a day‘ quest. To keep up to date, I aim for 2 miles per day but, I discover that this means finding close to 20 minutes of daily ‘me-time’ and in September 2021, this has been a tough ask. So I push myself to finish early, with some longer weekend jogs, and feel overjoyed as the Strava clock tells me I’ve made it. I am full of relief to be free of the relentless demands of finding the time and route for a suitable 2 miler … as is my very sore right ankle. On the upside; I do feel good and pretty proud, plus all my pre-covid work clothes now fit me again. Who knows; by next week, where a staff social has made its way onto the calendar, I think there may be a fighting a chance that I’ll be able to fasten up my little black party dress too!

4) We make 4 journeys to the vets

Poor Boris has really struggled in September 2021 and is still not cured. We have now: clocked up over 80 miles of driving to and from the exotic pet specialists; spent over 10 hours, stuck in rush hour traffic, waiting in car parks or consulting with vets; administered many eye drops and other medicine and endured many many days feeling anxious and worried as he continues to look troubled and out of sorts.

5) I have missed first 1 and now 2 uni-girls for 23 days and only told them so once … or maybe twice

Yes, probably the biggest challenge of the whole month has been adjusting to life with two of the squad living in other cities….and that is a mission I’m definitely a long way from fully accomplishing but at least I’ve mostly managed to sound bright and breezy on our calls.

So all in all…I think I deserve a little tipple and in fact it is amazing that I made it this far without a small reward. But let’s not stop with me. Look back at your September, I’ll bet you’ll find plenty of reasons to treat yourself too!!

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. Take 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…

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….

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…

Flowers…

Sunday 25 April 2021

Flower,  they have become my weekly treat

It all began in Lockdown 1. As people, fearful to leave the covid-safety of their home and fortress, flocked to sign up for online grocery shopping, I, a confirmed devotee of the doorstep delivery was forced off the schedule for the first time in about 10 years.  Yes a decade of  whipping through the weekly food shop with a swift half hour of laptop clicks from the sofa … came to an abrupt end. It was simply impossible to get a slot unless I could foresee fluctuations in the food cupboard at least a fortnight in advance.  So it was farewell to the time-saving lifeline my brother had signed me up for the week I became a single parent, and … hello to the supermarket shelves once more.

Was it terrible? Can I be frank; it really wasn’t. Let’s face it, there wasn’t much else to do! But, as I was often the only person to leave our house for an entire week, I found myself feeling duty bound to return to the homestead with treats to boost morale. We stocked up on alcohol, we groaned under the weight of endless snacks and I bought flowers. And long after, the unhealthy options have dwindled away the beautiful blooms have stayed, because…who doesn’t love flowers?

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Monet’s Water Lilies, O’Keeffe’s White Iris; artists have been drawn to the beauty and evocative qualities of flowers for centuries. In poetry Wordsworth immortalised the daffodil and the poppies of Flander’s Field, so fragile yet so resilient, are honoured as our symbol of remembrance in John McCrae’s poignant verse. Flowers are woven into popular culture too, from the ‘Flower Power’ of the 1960’s to  Portugal’s Carnation Revolution; today, in fact, marks the anniversary, in 1974, of the peaceful overthrow of the Estado Novo dictatorship, where carnations, placed into soldiers’ rifles became the enduring image of the movement.

As I wander happily around Tesco’s flowery displays however, I think I am mostly drawn in by my own fond memories of flowers? As gifts go, they are hard to beat! Its is many years since I turned eighteen and I do struggle to remember much about the day, but I can still picture my boyfriend appearing at the door with a bouquet of 18 red carnations. I know that I got married with white roses. The flowers on my desk the Monday morning after I dropped my eldest child off at university made me smile .. and made me cry. Because, of course, flowers are beautiful and it is undeniable that bringing the loveliness of the natural world into our home never fails to lift the mood or brighten the room.  But I think flowers are even more than that. They say , ‘you’re special‘  ;  they say ‘I’m thinking of you‘ ;  they say ‘you matter‘.

And, during the craziness of this pandemic,  that’s a message it’s been important to being home every week from my trip to the Tesco aisles. In fact, even as we thankfully start to return to normal,  I think I might hold onto our new floral tradition. A lovely lasting legacy of this strangest of covid-years…

Milestones

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Twenty six days into my 2021 resolutions, I have 26 runs and 82 km on my Strava . Gracious me, that’s over 50 miles!

Throughout January, inspired by Ron Hill and his 52 years and 39 days record of running every day, three and a half weeks of tootling around the block every day, and a little bit further at weekends has brought me to this landmark. Incredible! Who knew that a 10 minute jog on a daily basis could add up so quickly!

I am ready to stop though. Yes, come the 1 Feb, I will be giving my running shoes a well earned rest. I have really enjoyed the daily dash. I go a little bit further each week. I go a little bit faster too. I feel energetic, oxygen fuelled, clear skinned and bright eyed. More importantly I feel calm, refreshed … and self-indulged. And this is why I love a New Year Resolution. Whilst psychologists may decry resolutions as needless self -pressure to impose upon an already demanding world, and even the health and well-being experts queued up to espouse this view as we finally consigned 2020 to the history books, I think the complete opposite. I find that our new year tradition is one of the only times in the calendar when I do focus on myself. It may only be 10 short minutes each day, but it is , nonetheless, time when I just think about me. Not my teens. Not my job. Not my mortage. Not the sometimes bleak future….just me… and my crazy January goals! And as 2021 dawned, after a year when the demands, stress and, above all worry, about everyone and everything had threatened to crush me , I needed this more than ever.

But I realise tonight, as I burst back into the house, trainers muddy, leggings soggy and face glowing with the cold, that I am better. And that means, that 5 days from now, it is time to stop. Because I am ready to get back, back to the grind and the gruelling but above all the glorious roller coaster of life a mum, an educator and someone who thinks life is about probably about something more important than kilometres and run schedules! Of course I’ll still do my weekly 10k, I might even do occasional circuits of ‘the block’ but its adios to charting my progress, checking Strava every evening and thinking that a day without a run is a failed one!

On the news today there is a far grimmer milestone . Covid deaths in the UK top one hundred thousand for the first time. It certainly puts life into perspective. I need to start focusing on the small contribution I can make to this current situation. Because if miles are covered one step at a time, who knows what we can achieve with many individual efforts to see this through and play our part. Rejuvenated by my month of running , I now have the energy and strength to try again…

“To get through the hardest journey, we only need to take one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping…”

Chinese proverb

Schools are back!

After months of school closure, September 2020 sees millions of children in England make a welcome return to the classroom.

Henry Beaumont (The Guardian August 2020)

For me, it starts with a day of teacher training. In an inspiring opening session, we learn that, bucking the national trend, referrals to our local safeguarding team have rocketed during lockdown. A shocking statistic without doubt, but I find it incredibly motivating too. It demonstrates just how important it is for us to be taking our place back in the community we serve. In recent weeks, the media have made much of ‘lost learning’ and no-one can argue against this being a significant driver in the decision to see all pupils back in the classroom. But a school is even more than that to some of our young people. For many, our seat of education serves primarily as a place to mix with friends, soak up knowledge and prep for exams. For others, it is clearly also a haven of stability, routine and refuge.

When our pupils do return, it is in their hundreds. By Friday we have over 1200 young people in the building. Yes, we have 5 entrances. Yes we have 5 different breaks. Yes we cannot move for hand sanitisers, face masks and one-way systems. Yes the times of the day are bewildering – I actually pack one class up 10 minutes early for lunch sitting 3! But fundamentally, in all the ways that matter, it feels gloriously back to normal. We might all be wearing face coverings, but that doesn’t change the people underneath. The chatter, the laughter, the hustle and bustle all seem to breathe life back into the very fabric of the building. A school really is its people.

Running up and down 3 flights of stairs many time day does take it toll however, and I eventually abandon my stifling mask in favour of a visor, made by the DT department. In the canteen, one of my new pupils calls me over,

Miss, you look as if you’re ready for that game. Where you have a name stuck to your forehead and have to guess who it is. Do you know that game?”

“Know that game? I love that game. In fact we will be playing that game in our last lesson before Christmas. We can all be famous Mathematicians!”

“Ooh like Py…thagoras! That Greek guy you told us about. The one who doesn’t eat beans!”

Another pupil, joins in,

“Or hytop…hypon…hy …oh I can’t even say it!!”

Hypotenuse“, I finish with a proud smile. “You have all been listening. I’m impressed!

A third pupil leans over,

“Miss, can you get me one of those?”

A visor? Leave it with me!” I say with a grin, moving away

And in moments like these, more than the day the Premier League came back, more that my first visit to the pub, or first post-Lockdown haircut, I feel as if life has started up again.

Who knows how long it will last. Each day the number of new covid-19 cases creeps a little higher, although fatalities remain low. As teachers we train for remote learning, blended learning and catch-up learning. Risk assessments are reviewed weekly and only get longer. We remain in a precarious position. But with attendance topping 96% for us this week, and reported to be between 91% and 100% in a wider national survey of schools, there are clearly a lot of families hoping the school gates remain unlocked long into the future …

Who plays a concerto 6 weeks after giving birth?

Tuesday 28 July 2020

Windsor, our trusty Toyota, is driven away for his first set of repair jobs this week and, as a result, we find ourselves stationary for a few days. In many ways, it feels like a flashback to early Lockdown. We paint the bathroom. We redesign the conservatory. We auction old furniture on Ebay; our first ‘non-cot’ bed becomes ‘my own big bed‘ to another child; the kitchen table is signed up for a very glamorous new life at a Night Club in town! There is one difference however, I finally put up a music stand and tootle some oboe notes …

Usually, I’d battle through the parts for my nearest concert. But, as Covid-19 has ruled out all rehearsals since March, I have to dig into my older folders and my past repertoire. And I find The Bach Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin. Oh what memories! This is the first full concerto I ever performed in public and it took place 6 short weeks after Small Boy was born!

If you are an expectant, first-time, musical mum, do not try this! It was utter madness. But Small Boy was not my first child, he was my third. Additionally, in over 3 decades of living at the time, no-one had ever invited me to play a concerto before. It was just too good an opportunity to miss.

I was in the very early, unannounced stages of pregnancy when the unsuspecting conductor offered me the job. I agreed enthusiastically, my outward face a picture of smiles and assurance. On the inside, my mind a whirlwind of rapid, mental arithmetic, trying to fathom whether or not I’d be tootling my part in the concert hall or from the Delivery Suite itself! Of course I worried about being too tired. Of course I questioned my sanity. But I recall being cheerfully egged on by my mum,

There’s no avoiding tired; the choice is tired and happy or tired and miserable!

And so I did it. I worked like a demon right up to the day my waters broke, juggling my job, two toddlers and Bach with, at times grim, determination. I allowed myself 2 weeks off, when we first brought Small Boy home and then, as he marked his 15th day in this world, I resumed daily practice. The moment ex-hub crossed the threshold from work, I would hand over care of three under 5s and vanish to the back room for an hour of playing.

It didn’t matter that the violinist was a precocious 17 year old virtuoso. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t fit into any concert clothes, (my lovely mum bought me a roomy soloist-style sparkly top). It didn’t matter that I was completely shattered. I powered through with adrenaline and joy, reaping the benefits of all the pre-birth practice regime. The performance was terrific. It also led to tons of other gigs and concerto offers; my golden era of oboe playing.

Today, as I stumble thought the notes, I realise how much my technique and stamina have deteriorated over the last 15 years, particularly since moving North. Nonetheless, I find myself wondering,

Do I have another concerto in me?’

Hey, I’m the woman who performed her first concerto less than 2 months after giving birth so, to this or indeed other new challenges, … never say never…