Saturday 4 January 2020
Last year, my January resolution was ‘No Man-uary.‘ Not the greatest of challenges I have to confess, as the first 31 days of 2019 did not often call upon me to beat a trail of eligible suitors from the door! So for 2020, I have taken on a much sterner test, ‘Dry January’…
‘Dry January’ is not a new concept, indeed the first campaign, by Alcohol Concern, occurred in January 2013 and gathered momentum, as adults rallied to recover from the huge Christmas hangover. On our shores alone last year, the British Liver Trust report that approximately 1 in 10 of the drinking population signed up to a ‘Dry January’. And the phenomenon, of giving your body a 31-day holiday from booze, has spread globally too. Alcohol Change estimate that around 20 percent of downloads for its Dryanuary-tracking app are outside the U.K.
Yet I had previously thought it a ludicrous notion.
‘January is bleak enough‘; ‘Parenthood is tough enough’; ‘I don’t drink that much anyway?’; ‘Isn’t a daily glass of red wine good for your health?‘
were all reasons I’d used to opt-out. I reassured myself that I could do it if I wanted to, it was simply that I’d chosen not to join in. But this year, as I gaze upon the mountain of spent bottles in my blue bin, I decide that it is time. Time to ditch the hangover and time to see if 4-plus weeks without alcohol really do make me feel any different. Will it reduce the waistline? Will it boost my energy? Will it improve my sleep patterns? And, above all, will I be able to do it?
I have to say, I am feeling pretty determined, if only to silence the worrying chorus of incredulity coming my way as I embark upon my quest.
“I’ll believe that when I see it!” laughs Small-Boy, as I announce my resolution. “A fiver says that you will never manage it!” adds my eldest.
Even the Tesco delivery man is doubtful,
“Are your sure love?” he gasps, unloading the cans of Beck’s Blue Alcohol Free Lager, “How about starting next week?”
Hey I’ve already done 4 days. I have survived our annual girls’ night out at the Theatre without a glass of fizz and I have coped with our first nose piercing (Prom-dress Daughter) revived only by a strong cuppa! I have also drawn upon my experiences of other alcohol-free episodes, such as three 9-month pregnancies without a drop of liquor. Back then, my (now Ex-) hub would brighten our evenings by purchasing lots of exotic, non-alcoholic drinks. His thinking was, if you feel like a drink, have something exciting and delicious that’s alcohol free to choose. And so that is my plan. Alcohol-free beer in week 1, to ease me into the ways of abstinence and then enjoy exploring the wonderful world of elderflower presse, ‘aqua libre’, mocktails, smoothies …
Next week, it’s true, I am back to work, but bring it on! Me and my trusty Beck’s Blue have got this….
Sunday 12 January 2020
Small Boy slides into the kitchen, his face alight with excitement…and hope?
“Mum, can I have a corn snake for my birthday?“
Well that’s a conversation stopper… at least for a moment! But we are all there. It is Sunday after all, the one day of the week when my culinary skills extend to breakfast. Prom-dress daughter breaks the silence with a simple ‘Whaaaat?’ My eldest starts Google-ing facts about corn snakes and their living habits. Small Boy waves pictures of ‘cute‘ snakes at us. I take a swig of my tea (wondering, not for the first time, why I thought Dry January was such a good idea) and soon something resembling a ‘family meeting’ is in full flow. But I think there may be a family out there that needs a meeting even more than we do today…
Although only one full week in, world events have seen 2020 explode into the annals. Australia continues to battle bush fires that have devastated the ecosystem on a terrifying scale. Tension between the USA and Iran, following the death of General Qasem Soleimani, has been intense and, at its height, the press did debate the likelihood of a third world war. In the UK however, the story that has dominated the news reels has been the decision of Harry and Meghan to ‘step back’ from their roles a senior members of the British royal family.
I am not a major ‘royalist’ but I do have a theory on the national fascination with The Windsors. To my mind, it stems from them being family. They do things that our familes do: they marry, they have babies, they get their first jobs, they celebrate landmark birthdays. The difference is that they do much of it publicly, with the ceremonial glamour and style that wealth and privilege afford. And in this light they become a family we all watch, discuss and debate (and because we all understand families, we all have something to say.) Is it a step to far to suggest that, for centuries, we have had our very own brand of the Kardashians in residence at Buckingham Palace?
More seriously, if we look back to the abdication of Edward 7th, less than 100 years ago, we see how rapidly the royal family have since adapted, reflecting the changing views of society on the family and other issues. Their role, in signalling acceptance of today’s more varied family unit is a really important one for me. The Queen, who has (nominally) ruled our land for 67 years, should also be admired for allowing the younger royals freedom to branch out and work on issue close to their own hearts. Princess Dianna shaking hands with an AIDS patient in the 1980s, Prince Harry more recently speaking out on mental health, both illustrate the power of the younger generation to challenge prejudice, to remove stigma and to make progress. Elizabeth 2nd is a true matriarch and I am sure she will be able to steer the family through their current dilemma, (which appears to be, an admittedly complex twist, on the age old problem of one son deciding that he doesn’t want to ‘join the family business’). In her long reign, the Queen must have dealt with far greater quandaries.
Could she spare some advice for me on the issue of the corn snake I wonder? My eldest announces that they ‘eat mice’. Prom-dress Daughter says ‘no way!’ I venture to ask if ‘any reptiles are vegetarians?’ Small Boy agrees to look into it and we head off to make some enquiries about non-mice-eating pets at the local pet store….
Saturday 18 January 2019
Well what d’you know! Dry January Day 18 and I find that I can actually do some of the cryptic crossword. Are my brain cells re-awakening?
Reading the newspaper, just once a week, was one of last year’s New Year Resolutions. I thought it was a brilliant idea. My eldest was starting to think about University interviews, Prom-dress Daughter’s English teacher had recommended it. Small Boy always seemed genuinely engaged with the world and gifted with a brain that hears something once and never forgets it … I actually thought he would enjoy it.
“Let’s all choose one article to read each week and discuss them over mealtimes.”
I was heard to suggest, like some middle class twerp. The teens were unanimous in their response,
“No Mum. We won’t be doing that!”
And true to their word, they never did. Oh I lie actually. There was one, and only one, occasion when the newspaper did get opened. That was the day when Small Boy and I had an epic row. I eventually flounced tearfully out of the house. Upon my return, I found my son, who knew that he had really upset me, sitting in the lounge eagerly leafing through the Saturday Guardian and greeting my appearance with a peace offering of,
“This is a very interesting newspaper Mum!”
That incident aside, it was so rare for the supplements and reviews to even make it out of their (compostable) wrapping, that by mid-February I decided to save myself a weekly £3.20 and shelved the plan.
This New Year however I stayed with friends who do take a daily paper. I read a few articles and … more importantly … rediscovered the cryptic crossword! Now that was a trip down memory lane. My lovely mum taught me how to tackle the challenge of the ‘non-simple’ crossword setters, many years ago. On our long summer holidays, at the family caravan in Wales, we’d sit together over the crossword every morning. And each year, by the time the days began to shorten and the August sun take an autumnal turn, we’d both be pretty nifty at the thing. Not so at New Year 2020 alas. I was totally rubbish and managed about one clue (a pitiful anagram), over the course of several days!
Nonetheless, today, as I push my trolley past the kiosk at the supermarket, I decide that I will resurrect my Saturday Guardian resolution. Not so much for the teens this time, but for me. And this afternoon, coffee in one hand and pen in the other I sit down to pit my wits against ‘Brendan’ setter of Cryptic Crossword No. 28 033 …. and I find that I can suddenly solve a fair few clues!
Can this really be the lack of alcohol? Let’s face it, there are many things it could be, but I am claiming this one as a Dry January triumph for two main reasons. Firstly, my brain has definitely felt clearer, sharper and less ‘foggy’ for quite a few days now. But secondly, that apart, I have felt absolutely no other benefits from my days of abstinence. My waist is no thinner and, laid low with a viscious, energy-sapping cold bug throughout most of the first month of 2020, I feel cheated of the promised boost to my health and vitality. So as I face another 13 days partying the nights away on Diet Coke and Schloer, I draw upon the motivation that my mind at least, if not my body, may be heading back someway towards its former glory.
Anyway time for me to get back to my crossword. Six more clues stand between me and victory. “1 down anyone?“
Friday 24 January 2019
After a busy week, Friday comes to an early end. I am too ill to make it through a full day and am sent home. I wonder if ‘looking after yourself’ is a mantra I should take more seriously?
It is probably about 6 days ago that I first start to have pains in my finger. I stick a plaster over it, but by Tuesday, the whole thing is such a swollen and angry mess that I call at the Pharmacy on the way home. ‘Infected‘, is the swift diagnosis, ‘You need to see a GP!’
Wednesday morning, at 8 am sharp, I am on that phone. I call the Doctor to be told that I can have an appointment … on 4th February! So I give up and get on with the day. It’s a super-frantic day as it happens. No break, no lunchtime, post-work training, followed by an even later meeting and then home… to fill up with petrol and set out in the gloom and fog for a 3 hour drive to Newcastle.
A final university interview for my eldest takes us to the North East and what a great part of the country it is. We check in just before 10 pm, feeling weary and jaded but the warmth of the welcome from the staff is amazing. They make us nachos. They help us with maps. They wish us lots of luck for the interview tomorrow. But even they look rather alarmed as I struggle to sign us in…my finger is now the four times its usual size!
Not much I can do about it the next day however, as my eldest runs the gauntlet of another MMI circuit. Newcastle university looks stunning in the freshness of a January morning and, as my daughter disappears into the building, I settle on a bench outside thinking how wonderful it would be to study here and how I just don’t know how to cope with another disappointed drive home if it goes badly. I want to do something to help… so I say a decade of the rosary (Catholic readers will understand!) … and then, as a wave of panic begins to take hold, I say another to calm myself down. I am just about to soothe myself with a third when another mum sits down clearly wanting to chat. Hurriedly hiding my malformed hand underneath my scarf, I put aside my prayers and launch into conversation. She is a delightful woman, (you could say heaven sent) and time passes quickly. When my eldest emerges, she is in an upbeat mood, ‘Not great, but the best I could’ve done!’ she smiles. Well that’s good enough for me! We grab some lunch and then actually sing our way back down the motorway. I am so high on relief that, for a few hours at least, I forget about the stabbing sensation in my finger.
Back home, I throw some food together, before my eldest and I set out again. She has an evening concert. It’s an all-ticket event for local dignitaries, as opposed to proud parents. So I just drop her off and although I am now feeling shattered, the pain in my finger is so miserable that I decide to be sensible and head to the Walk-in Centre. Sadly we are no longer in the North East.
“The waiting list is full”, snaps the receptionist and steers me out of the door.
Which brings me to today. I plan to fit in an early visit to the Walk-in Centre. I arrive at 7 am. There’s a huge queue. There’s a 1 hour wait and my first meeting of the day is at 8:15 am. I give up. I drive to work, whereupon one of the first-aiders, recoiling in horror at the sight of my poor, grotesque digit, firmly applies a huge blue plaster. I am starting to feel rather peculiar and queasy. At break-time I am finally sick and my boss send me home, insisting that I get myself checked out.
This time I resolve to camp out at the Walk-in Centre. When I am seen, a lovely nurse takes one look at my finger and prescribes a 7 day course of anti-biotics. With kindly concern, she also suggests that I give myself a boost with ‘multi-vitamins’, explaining that I look ‘very run-down’. It stops me in my tracks. It’s a blink-back-the-tears moment. For a second I feel that, busy as she is, this woman notices that I don’t just need ‘fixing’ I need a little bit of care too, and that’s pretty rare in the life of a parent. Thinking hard, I do recall my Ex, back in the mid-90s, once driving from Liverpool to Manchester with cough medicine, because I sounded a bit croaky on the phone. But that’s over 20 years ago! Quite a long time to spend looking after everyone else, rather than ever feeling looked after myself!
So I do treat myself to a tub of ‘multi-vits with iron’ and turn optimistically homewards, contemplating ways to take better care of my own health and well-being. I don’t make it into the house however before getting a call from Small Boy’s school, announcing that he has been sick and needs collecting. A text from my eldest flashes across the screen, reminding me that we have a friend staying tonight. And, as I eventually do turn the key in the lock, Prom-dress Daughter appears claiming to have ‘tonsilitis!’
I rather fear that, like most parents, ‘looking after myself‘ is just going to have to wait … hopefully not for another 20 years!!
Saturday 25 January 2020
“When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,” (Eric Cantona 1995)
I awake to the news that “Twenty-five years have passed since Cantona launched himself into the crowd at Selhurst Park” What a story that was! Opinions raged at the time, and still do today, about the jaw-dropping incident and its legacy for football. But one fact is indisputable. Following the kick, that quote and his subsequent return to Manchester United, Eric Cantona secured his place as a legend at Old Trafford.
These days I am nominally a Manchester United supporter. In 1995 however things were very different. It was the height of the ‘ABU’ (Anyone But United) era, and the relentless vitriol directed at my home-town team had stirred the tribalism in my veins to a fever pitch. I was a young teacher in Leeds and it seemed that there was no place in the land that Manchester United hatred was stronger. My housemate referred to us as ‘SCUM’. The Saturday night streets regularly echoed to a chorus of ridiculously offensive football chants about the Munich Air Disaster. It was vile and it had transformed me into an obsessive fan. I was glued to radio commentaries. I was encylopedic on fixtures, league positions and transfers. I paced the kitchen like a restless panther on match days. I begged my brothers for a loan of their season tickets. And in the centre of all of this … was Eric. Transferred from Leeds to United in 1992, the charismatic Frenchman had quickly become the talisman. The footballing magician who turned Alex Ferguson’s squad from a good team … into a great team.
So the Kung-Fu kick, and the (fully-deserved) ban were tense times. The seagull’s quote, uttered at a press conference when his custodial sentence, was replaced by community service, left me non- plussed. The 1995 title slipped away and, if media reports were to be believed, it seemed that Eric would too. However, he did return, it’s alleged in response to a piece of managerial brilliance by Alex Ferguson. Whatever the reason, he strutted back onto the Old Trafford turf, lead the team to the 1996 title and the rest, as they say, is history.
Oh Soccer Aid – another occasion when I tried to compensate Small Boy for the daily penance of living in a house of females! We saw the match advertised on the TV and spontaneously bought tickets. We asked loads of other people to come along but got no takers and so, one soggy Spring afternoon, we set off by ourselves. I was pretty nervous and justifiably so, for we were innocents abroad. The traffic, as we approached the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ , was indescribable and eventually we abandoned our car on a dodgy side street, paying some shadowy figure £10 to the privilege of parking on his drive.
“Please don’t argue with him Mum!” pleaded Small Boy.
But even I knew better on this occasion. Not entirely sure if I would ever see the car again, we followed the hordes to the stadium. The atmosphere was electric and, buoyed with enthusiam, I bought Small Boy a flag. As we set off for our seats however the security guard had other ideas. With barely concealed contempt he pointed at the flag, shook his head and flicked his eyes towards…a mountain of flag sticks. All fingers and thumbs we added our pole to the pile and then, giggling slightly with our limp piece of flag cloth made our way onto the terraces. By this time, I thought ‘in for a penny…’ and we gleefully blew my hard-earned cash on overpriced junk food and unhealthy drinks. It was great… a true bit of mother-son bonding!
The match was terrific too, a fully star-studded cast of celebrities, Olympic athletes and former footballing greats and then… mid way through the second half a slightly portly but unmistakeable figure ran onto the pitch, Cantona! There was a second of stunned silence before stadium erupted with joy and emotion – I actually saw several grown men cry. We felt for that moment, fully part of the great history of our great team. So I am not condoning his actions but tonight I shall raise a can of…Becks Blue … to Eric. For the memories, for the titles, for the sparkle of magic dust … and for that Soccer Aid match for me and my boy.
“If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking: ‘I’m Cantona. How big are you? Are you big enough for me?” Sir Alex Ferguson.
Friday 31 January 2020
Another January draws to a close, but this is no ordinary opening slog of dark and dreary endurance. It is one where, just as I pause to proudly cheer “I did it!”, I find myself bowled with joy because my eldest really and truly ‘did it’! She went and got herself that University offer…
I did Dry January! Today I reach the end of a 31 day alcohol-holiday for my body. Tough times at first – bottles of white wine gleaming like exotic jewels of temptation on the supermarket shelves. Turning the key in the lock after a late night rehearsal but not relaxing with a glass of whisky, it all felt very dull. Was it worth the perseverance? Absolutely! From the middle of the month, I rediscovered a natural tiredness and slept like a baby most nights. And today, as I prepare to wave goodbye to total abstinence, my skin is clear, my stomach settled and water, how I crave H20, seems far more refreshing than … anything. Above all however, I have fallen a little bit in love with my clearer, fresher mind. This old brain won’t ever revive the glorious romps of my 20s, I know that, but without doubt, it is sharper and speedier this month than in the previous 5 years. Alcohol, yes it was difficult to give up, but for me, giving up fog-free thinking, now that will be impossible. I think my drinking habits are reformed for ever. “Eek!“
Today also marks ‘done it’ for my course of antibiotics. My finger still looks pretty awful but it is usable again. I can write once more. I can turn on light switches. I can rummage for keys on my bag. And I can at long last, return to playing my oboe – hip hip hooray! But it doesn’t quite end there. This is Friday, which means that I ‘do’ a run! It’s a gruelling and windswept ordeal tonight, but my run buddy drags me around the muddy course. By the end, my mood is high; and it is about to go stratospheric.
I am just collapsing into my car when the mobile rings. It’s my eldest,
“Mum, Nottingham have given me an offer!!!”
Joy, pride, relief, incredulity, all these emotions and more flood the system. So much hard work, so much stress, so much waiting, but suddenly it all seems worth it. My girl, against all the odds, has ‘done it’, and she edges ever closer to her medicine dreams. I am completely over the moon. Forget your fizz and cocktails; this feels like a high that will never end.
So I bid you a fond farewell January 2020 … possibly the best January ever!!
Friday 7 February 2020
This week is double birthday week in our house. Small boy careers further through his teenage years and my eldest turns 18…
As 18 is a landmark birthday, I agree to a small gathering. We stock up on snacks and festoon the house with balloons, banners and bunting. And, at 7:30 pm sharp, the house is invaded by about fifteen sixth-formers, brandishing bottles of booze and alive with youth, energy and party spirit. They are delightfully polite but as the music strikes up and my careful array of plastic glasses is cast aside, in favour of larger beakers and…just glugging it from the bottle, I sense that I am pretty irrelevant. I resolve to ‘leave them to it’ and retreat, to hole myself up in the dingy den inhabited by Small boy and his xbox .
By 8:30 pm, it already feels like an endless siege. The noise is incredible. There’s singing. There’s shrieking. There’s laughter. There’s …. my hoover…? Small boy, racing to take up sentry duty at the door, reports a sighting of ‘Vanish Carpet Cleaner’ disappearing into the lounge. I crave a large whiskey, but I have work in the morning and force myself to swig on a Diet Coke instead.
I make a half-hearted effort to persuade Small boy that ‘Netflix with Mum’ could be as much fun as gaming with his mates, but he is unimpressed. Accepting (inevitable) defeat, I balance my lap top in one hand, my coke in the other and head upstairs. Prom dress daughter, looking calm and unperturbed, is plugged into her phone and writing an essay. I decide to get on with a bit of work too. At least it’s productive… if not quiet. Endless troops of teens giggle and gaggle their way in and out of the bathroom and at one point a party goer, who has got drink all over her hair, pops tipsily in to ask for a hair dryer!
At 10-ish, I pack Small boy off to bed and am tuning my radio into Question Time when he bobs excitedly back into my room.
“Mum …. did you hear that? Something’s smashed!”
We venture down together to find the merry bunch sweeping (and hoovering) up the remains of one of my glass bowls.
“Mum!” slurs my eldest affectionately, “Don’t worry we are all ok!”
As no-one is actually injured, and my hoover is clearly having a night to remember, we wish them all lots of fun and head for bed.
And that’s the last I hear as weariness takes over and, in the middle of a BBC debate about Tracy Brabin’s off-the-shoulder jumper, I drift off to sleep.
In the morning … all is quiet … all is tidy… all partying is over. And, as I set off to work, I know I have learned a valuable lesson. When Prom dress daughter turns 18, I am going out for the evening!!
Friday 14 February 2020
Valentine’s Day! It is the national day of love and my teen household is a flurry of cards, soft toys, red envelopes and dreamy smiles. Prom-dress daughter has a party. My eldest, groomed and glamorous, heads out for cocktails, just as a grinning Small Boy arrives back from a cinema date … and then proceeds to wrap his love-struck lips around slice upon slice of pizza. It makes me jig It makes me smile. Because there is nothing better in this life than the thrill of being ‘in love’. That giddy cloud nine feeling when your face cannot stop beaming, your mood is sky high and nothing gets you down. Or is there….?
The thing about that first magical flush of ‘in-loveness’ is that it never lasts. And it’s not the thing you miss in a break-up. You miss the deep connection and the bond that’s come from years of experiences together, happy and sad, and an understanding that doesn’t needs words anymore. You miss, not so much the person, you ‘miss us’ the unique partnership that you once made together. And one of my best partnerships at the moment …is my family.
I’m going to be truthful, my family life is teenagers. At it’s worst, it’s like World War 3 at our place. Somewhere in the middle, it’s a relentless set of logistics, many dismally dreary, to organise with me, rather alarmingly, ever at the helm. But at it’s best … at its best it’s in-jokes, communal songs, crazy card games, unstoppable laughter and shared joy. It’s also team work in a crisis and we’ve had a fair few to deal with – 21st century life is tough for teens! And at these best of moments, the happiness I feel, all consuming overtaking happiness, really is the best feeling in the world. Let’s call it by it’s name, this is love … and it actually is all you need…
Monday 17 February 2020
It’s half term week. What better feeling for a holiday than the sensation of sand between your toes? Except in our case the gritty granules on my kitchen floor come not from a dreamy white Caribbean beach but from the new vivarium in Small Boy’s room … as, his birthday present, Boris the Gecko arrives!
It’s not our first experience of the world of pets. Small Boy, in particular, absolutely loves animals. Sadly for him, I do not and as I am the only bill paying adult in the house, his dreams of owning a dog are definitely on hold until he owns his own place! I do feel guilty about it. Single parent guilt – the fear that despite every effort and sacrifice, your kids will miss out and pay the price for the marital breakdown – and so smaller animals have been our compromise. We began with gerbils, just a few months after my Ex left. Then came the guinea pig and Prom-dress daughter’s fish. Boris, however, is our first reptile.
We battle the gecko, used to warm climates of the world, and all his equipment home in the middle of Storm Dennis! Upon arrival, Small Boy starts pacing about like a nervous new father, avidly reading books and leaflets on gecko care and watching numerous youtube clips on each and every procedure. Nonetheless we soon have the vivarium set up and just face the challenge of food. Gecko’s eat live insects! The pet shop have given us a tub of crickets and a pair of plastic tweezers. How difficult can it be? Pretty darned tricky it turns out. As we attempt to lift any out, the pesky little creatures leap sky high from the tub… and onto Small’s Boys bedroom floor. We make chase with our tweezers but one or two do escape to freedom before we get any into the vivarium itself. It’s a hilarious and chaotic scene but I am sure we will improve!
By contrast the gecko looks very relaxed moving around his new home. I leave my son, dusting insects with calcium, viewing online tutorials on feeding techniques and watching over his new arrival with wonderful care and concern. Welcome to the family Boris!
Friday 21 February 2020
“This is Manchester, we do things differently here” (Tony Wilson)
Tony Wilson, ‘Mr Manchester’ himself, opened one of the earliest bars in the area we’ve called Manchester’s ‘Northern Quarter’ since the 1990s. It is even rumoured that he influenced the name! Whether or not that’s true I’ll never know but, after a glorious day exploring the chaotic and characterful streets of this corner of my hometown, I am very confident that he would love the place…
Our adventure starts in style with ‘Street Art‘ , a Skyliner walking tour of the Northern Quarter. I sport, sensible shoes, gloves, woolly hat and a raincoat. The weather is dismal. But the wind and rain cannot dampen our spirits as the tour guide opens our eyes to secret sights and delights on the pavements we’ve walked many times … but never really seen.
There is stunning art – huge and beautiful murals that touch the soul and stir the mind, creative mosaics that capture the iconic faces and places of our northern home and lamp posts decorated with tiny individual ‘rock-star’ bees. The absolute highlights for me, a proud Mancunian, however, are the details that link us back to our historical and industrial roots. The distinctive ceramic street signs are white on blue for the streets running East/West and blue on white for the streets running North/South, symbolising the ‘warp and weft’ of the weaving tradition in this area. Looking up, we see sculptures of exotic birds and other animals, celebrating Tib Street, once affectionately known as pet shop paradise. Looking under a doormat, we find clues to a previous Italian ice cream trade. High above the gates of old fish and fruit market are facades decorated with scenes depicting the hustle and bustle of Victorian life. Another market now houses the Craft and Design Centre. Our wonderful guide makes us look up, down and all around… how can I have missed it all …. for so many years?
Even with all these visual treats, two hours in the chill of a North West winter take their toll. Donuts and coffee, at a cafe housed in a former weaver’s cottage, followed by a sumptuous afternoon tea, are the only ways to thaw out as we prepare to re-enter the Northern Quarter of the 21st century.
It is now an area famed for its vibrant bars and eateries. Finding somewhere to imbibe is easy, but finding a ‘hidden bar’? Now that is more of a challenge! And, as the darkness of evening begins to creep across the sky, it seems like the perfect way to round off our outing. Fascinated by unearthed artistic discoveries by day, thrilled by secret drinking dens by night. We make our way to our first, through a doorway disguised as a stack of wooden beer crates, into the elegance of a cool cocktail bar. Just like our walking tour, it is another eye opener!
It is also utter fun. It is light years away from my usual routine. It is the perfect end to my half term. It is Manchester …
Saturday 29 February 2020
Leap-year day! I make myself a strong morning cuppa and sit down with a stack of mail to contemplate the day ahead. It’s mostly junk. I tip out the contents of an Asthma Lottery envelope, fully expecting some ‘extra raffle tickets’ to fall out. But it’s a letter. I am a winner. Blimey … I am quite a big winner. I read and re-read the letter in disbelief. I scrabble through the papers looking for the cheque. Can it be true? Prom-dress daughter reads the letter for a second opinion. She thinks it is. The two of us start to jump around the lounge, then three of us and then four. What a great start to the day!
Now I do feel the need to clarify. When I say a big win, it’s only big in relation to our usual £25 triumphs. I am not about to give up the day job… even for a day! However it is a big enough win for the Asthma Lottery to ask if they can use my name in publicity and, to my great amusement, to offer the services of a ‘model’ to represent me visually!
You’d think that would be the highlight of the day, but it is not. That comes at precisely 2:15 pm. Small Boy is off into town, to buy crickets and sand from the petshop … and then to head onto a date! But I am not ferrying him around the unique logistics of this trip. My eldest is! Yes, I have finally managed to fund car insurance for my lovely girl, who passed her test many months ago. There’s no denying that it is a hefty financial hit, but today, as the two of them set off with a bundle of car keys, and for the first time in 10 years, I don’t, it feels worth every penny!
I actually don’t know what to do with myself at first. My afternoon suddenly has a full extra hour of peace and quiet … and pleasing myself. It’s unheard of. It’s unnerving. It’s magical and it’s not to be wasted. I am heading out too today. In an hour and a half I am setting off to Yorkshire, for a meal and a night at ‘The Opera’. Do you know what. I am going to get ready, properly ready. Hair washed and straightened ready. Full face of make-up ready. Lotion and perfume ready. Matching earring ready! Try out more than one outfit ready!
It’s a whole new world, and I think I could get used to it, every day, not just on this (unexpectedly brilliant) extra day…
Saturday 7 March 2020
Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and, in celebration, Parkrun are on the radio this morning, encouraging women to join them this weekend. It is true that this national running organisation does attract female members, indeed they make up 52% of the registration. The sadder statistic however is that, whilst they constitute over half of those who have signed up, women make up only 44% of actual participants in the weekly 5K. Of the 1.8 million registered on Parkrun, 650 000 women have yet to take part. I wonder how many men too have signed up but not taken that significant step of actually standing on the starting line. It seems such a shame, because running can be wonderful for the heart and soul. There will doubtless be many reasons behind this but one issue I have pondered recently is the value of the timing chip. Do we really need to record times and ranks and aim to ‘beat personal bests’ every time we pull on our running shoes? Does competition actually motivate people to take part in sport and exercise or does it just put up more barriers? Does a list just reinforce the fear that you are ‘not as good’ as everyone else? Is it time to ditch the Garmin and try ‘no times’ for a change?
I am no anti-competition zealot, in fact I am quite the opposite at a personal level. I recall coming ‘second in category‘ once in a Parkrun and immediately spending the next few weeks running to the point of vomiting, in an attempt to come ‘first’. On one 10K, I broke the 55 minute barrier and was so thrilled that I worked my finishing time into the next computer password-change at work! My worry however is that I am not the target audience for the latest national fitness campaign. I have always been pretty active: a child gymnast, a school long jump champion, a uni netball player, a regular (before I became a single parent) at aerobics, yoga and even adult ballet! I don’t need running to get active. I choose my trainers to keep up a decent level of fitness because running is friendly, free, flexible… and has never involved childcare .
The people the government needs to reach are the half of women and the third of men who are not active enough for good health. In their 2020 report, Health Matters, Public Health England outline the significant benefits of exercise for our physical and mental well-being. They also explore the difficulties for adults not engaged in sport and activity. These are varied and, in some cases, complex but most barriers are internal ones and I find their fear that exercise is ‘not for people like me‘ a little heart breaking. Would those battling to find the confidence to move to a more active life really be helped by a timing chip? Competition, yes it is great if you are a competitor. But if you’re not? If you are the name at the foot of the list how does that feel?
I once took the kids to Parkrun. Two were fine, but Prom-dress daughter got in a panic about the number of people in front of us compared to the dwindling amount behind.
“What if I am last?” she whispered tearfully.
“I really don’t care if we are last ” I encouraged her in reply “In fact I will be proud. We are out here running and keeping fit and that’s what really matters.”
But it wasn’t what really mattered to my daughter that day and she refused to finish. The same child ran happily around the laid back and festival feel of the Race for Life 5K and has recently completed a 6 hour Duke of Edinburgh hike. Her fear was the list and the label. Because for every top 10, others must be condemned to be in the bottom 10.
I may have stumbled across running because of single parent circumstances but now I love it. Love the oxygen in my lungs. Love the freshness in my face. Love the strength in my legs Love the calmness in my mind and lightness in my soul. Love the feeling of life and vitality. I claim there’s a ‘runner’s glow’, a joy that comes from just being out there and feeling your body move. And, whereas I have long since lost any of the toy medals you get given at the end of a ‘race’, this feeling stays for ever! And I would love to empower more people to experience it.
I did once post on a Parkrun forum the notion that this event could become the one timing-free race in the running calendar. It went down like a lead balloon (I still quake at the memory!) And probably rightly so. One very valid point, in a tide of perplexed pb-obsessed outrage, was with over 2 million runners Parkrun have clearly found a winning formula so why meddle with it. And they are right, I have absolutely no right to hi-jack their event. So perhaps instead, when I have retired and have some time, I’ll set up my own event. A strava-free zone, where ranks, times and judgement are vetoed. It’s our pace, our distance, our minds and bodies growing stronger with every step and we just ‘run because we love it’.
Tuesday 17 March 2020
Gosh, corona virus, where to start?
As covid 19 takes a grim grip of the UK, a dark cloud of anxiety seems to spread across our skies. Our enemy is hidden but unstoppable, swiftly and silently seeping everywhere and bringing consequences, as yet unknown. And it leaves me shellshocked.
I am sure that I will get used to it, but events have moved so rapidly in recent days that I am not there yet. A week ago in my household, we were just merrily washing our hands to a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday!‘s, and feeling pretty invincible. Today I drove to work along an empty motorway. My mum has been told to isolate herself for several months. I have difficult decisions to make about when and how to withdraw Prom dress daughter, a severe asthmatic, from the life she currently leads. Every event on my calendar has been wiped out. Supermarket shelves are bare. At work and at home, I am surrounded by anxious teenagers caught up in a suddenly chaotic and uncertain examination system. I see at least four frightened colleagues sent home and I try to timetable over the cracks …
It feels as if the world I know and understand is simply shutting down. And no-one I know has even begun to feel ill yet. So who knows what happens next. I am used to feeling stressed. I am used to feeling overwhelmed. I am used to feeling sad. I am just not used to feeling quite this scared …
Saturday 21 March 2020
Schools close this week for the foreseeable future. I know that I shall really miss the teenagers I work with Monday to Friday. They bring joy, hope and optimism for the future and at the moment that is exactly what we all need…
Friday is a highly emotional day at work. We say a sad and sudden farewell to a stunned set of school leavers. It is so much earlier than planned for this set of young people, who find their rite of passage: their final weeks together, their examination season, their prom swept away by the corona virus tidal wave. The final assembly of 2020 is incredibly moving and incredibly tearful, as we all come to terms with the reality that these amazing pupils, we were expecting to work with for 3 more months, are leaving our school community today and not coming back. At least proceedings end on a humorous note. The Head of Year is presented with a pack of toilet rolls and some dried pasta. We laugh. We laugh together. We laugh out loud. And for a fleeting moment, in this whirlwind week, life feels almost normal again.
As I drive home however the panic, the sense of unease, the disbelief begin to take hold again. Confirmed cases of the virus in the UK have rocketed and pubs, cafes, theatres and concert halls are ordered to close from tomorrow. I switch off the car radio and complete my journey in grim silence.
Back at base, Small Boy has done just one day at home and the great buffoon has already managed to lose two basketballs ‘over the hedge’ and into our elderly neighbours’ garden. I send them a note of apology and my mobile number in case they need anything. In terms of supplies for us, I am hopeful that the family cupboards and bathroom will soon be fully stocked again for, after a long wait, tonight is the night that I have a supermarket delivery scheduled.
Just before 9pm, my groceries arrive. This was the only slot left one week ago when I booked it and my order includes … toilet rolls! It is salvation. I am excited. I am relieved. I am … soon in floods of tears as, not only toilet rolls are missing, roughly two thirds of my items are not included in the crates. The thought of another horrendous battle at the supermarket tomorrow looms and it is simply soul-destroying. Every morning I’ve been this week, pre-work (7:15am) and again every evening post-work (6:30pm) in a fruitless quest for bathroom essentials. At the end of a stressful, sleepless week, at the end of such a strange and sad day, it is just too much.
But it’s not only at work that I learn about life and kindness, determination and drive from young people. I have my own brigade of brilliant bambini at home too. My eldest makes me an emergency cuppa, takes the crumpled shopping list from my hands and tells me that she will sort it all out. And the next morning she does. It maybe Saturday, but at 7am I hear the front door close and the car engine start up. And by 8:30am she is back. She has queued and crusaded courageously around the crazed Tesco aisles. No toilet rolls, of course, and an eclectic mix of groceries but to me, blinking back tears, it looks like manna from heaven.
So, as an extraordinary week comes to an end and we stumble through the days as if in a bewildered dream, I feel proud and privileged to live and work with the teenage population. They light the gloom with hope …
Thursday 26 March 2020
At 8 pm tonight we stand at our doorways with our neighbour to ‘Clap the Carers’. And we do clap! We loudly applaud and cheer the magnificent NHS workers who have heroically battled the spiralling number of UK corona virus cases on the front line. They have seen unthinkable sights and suffering, risked their own lives and sacrificed time with their own families for each of us and our country. They are indeed the most critical of all the workers in a society that usually values other more highly. In a world that has transformed itself in a matter of days, this now seems obvious. It is a moment to unite behind a better set of values, but how long will it last?
The life I was living one week ago now seems as a distant memory. Go back two weeks and I start to feel as though I am currently living in a dream. We are now not allowed out of the house except to work, shop or enjoy one daily run. My mum and my middle child are not allowed out at all, for the next 12 weeks. All school trips are cancelled. School exams cancelled. Concerts cancelled. Sport cancelled. Pubs are closed. Non-essential shops are closed. Galleries closed. Restaurants closed. Essentially any life outside of work and home is over for the next few weeks for us all.
Some parts of it are quite nice. I now have a job that actually finishes at 5 pm each day, instead of invading my evenings. I go running with two of my children, instead of by myself. My eldest, suddenly free from exam stress, bustles about shopping, cleaning and cooking meals. She buys board games and new packages for the Wii. She makes plans to redesign the garden. She even signs up for the NHS Army of Volunteers… did I not mention that my girl is unstoppable! Prom-dress Daughter is redecorating her bedroom and the bathroom. All three help each other with school work. We definitely feel like an even stronger family unit and some commentators speak of closer community bonds in the wider world. But of this, I am more sceptical.
The press and social media platforms soon shift their attention to criticism and blame of anyone and everything that moves. A nation are told to ‘stay at home’ and then lambasted by the press for for ‘stocking up’ on food and provisions. A nation mends their ways and starts popping out to the local store to just ‘get what they need’ and social media screams abuse at them for not ‘staying at home’. The PM advises us to get out in the fresh air and on a sunny weekend that is what families do. They head for mountains and beaches and unfortunately for them, so does everyone else and the over-opinionated demand a ‘lock down’ or ‘fines’ for the sinners.
And I say … it has only been a week everyone! People have been asked to adapt and change their lives beyond recognition in a week. We are trying, most places I need to go to look like ghost towns, but it is confusing and scary and we don’t get it all exactly right all the time. We worry about jobs, about money, about loved ones, about an unseen enemy. I see ventilators on the news and I am dragged back to the horrors of Prom-dress daughter’s last hospitalisation for asthma. Wouldn’t it be nicer if we just all remembered to ‘Be kind’ – wasn’t that our national pledge earlier in 2020? Educate and remind gently. Support and explain. Really look out for each other and help each other to make sense of a rapidly changing and terrifying situation.
Hey, even if I am in not a dream, I certainly fear am too much of a dreamer . Good luck everyone. Keep safe and well …
Sunday 29 March 2020
The weekend comes to a close with a family game of Bingo, on Zoom!
Zoom Zoom Zoom, suddenly everybody is talking about Zoom! The video conferencing platform, designed for the world of business, appears to have become the vehicle of choice for people searching for way to keep in contact, without leaving home. My brother arranges for the entire family to hook up to Zoom as a boost for mum. This lovely lady has accepted her corona sentence, of indoor solitude for 12 weeks, but isolation is not her natural state. No, better adjectives for my mum would be outgoing, sparkling, fun -loving and mischievous. In consequence, she finds the prospect of 3 months on her own daunting, to say the least. Let’s hope face time can soften the blow!
Bingo is pencilled in for the weekend. The teens and I experiment by calling mum mid-week for a practice. It’s a good job we do. I am a bit of a luddite anyway, and go round in circles, stuck in a meeting with myself for about 20 minutes! When we finally make contact, there is much excitement, which descends into hilarity as mum cannot figure out how to leave the meeting and, long after she has bid us ‘farewell’ and pottered off to make her tea, can be heard clattering around in the kitchen. I realise that it’s the most laughter we have shared for quite a while. And laughter is great medicine!
As Sunday dawns, we set out on a quest to have all out jobs done by 7 pm, the appointed Bingo -hour. We start with shopping, for us, for mum and for one of her friends. My mother’s list is much more exotic than our staples, with its poached beetroot, ginger tea and ripe avocados. And that probably explains why we waste so much time searching the half empty shelves for her ‘Partridge sachets‘, which eventually turn out to be a predictive text version of ‘Porridge‘! On the eerily quiet roads of a Covid-ruled world, however, we make up time on the drive to mum’s house, where we enact a contactless swap in the porch; groceries for bingo cards! Pausing only to wave through the window, we hasten home to complete the rest of our chores.
By 7pm, the car is cleaned, the house spruced, work emails sent, a roast dinner enjoyed … and it is ‘Eyes Down ! We ‘zoom‘ in from the North, South , East and West of our green and pleasant land. The Bingo set was my Dad’s and I believe dates back to the early 1960s. Bingo is the way we finish our annual family Christmas party every year without fail and so we all know the rules, the calls, the ‘clickety clicks‘, the ‘two little ducks‘! It is the perfect way for us all to launch an era of virtual connection in these strange times. For us Bingo is familiar, Bingo is fun, Bingo is family ….