Hair-cut!

Wednesday 5 August 202

‘Hallelujah!

After 6 months of hair-style wilderness for the females in our house, I finally secure us an appointment at the local salon. Does it feel momentous? Why yes it does! So much so in fact that I even take before and after shots. Hairdresser Nina, you are a ‘magician!

The set up at the Covid-aware salon is an impressive one. Staff have changed their working hours and shifts to create separate teams. Hand sanitiser, masks and visors are everywhere. Customers now have to hang up their own coats and the frothy coffee, with a Biscoff biscuit, is a thing of the past. Nonetheless, it is an hour of more pampering and attention than I can remember for a very long time … and Nina has surprising news!

“Your hair is in a great condition!”

Yes it is overgrown. Yes it has lost all shape. Yes with a cute animal mask I could re-invent myself as a lion. But none of that is news to anyone that knows me. My Gaelic roots ensure that I have always gallavanted through life with a signature crown of ‘crazy hair’, capable of reaching epic proportions in the wind and rain. What is less well know, however, is that my hair takes my stress. I pick it. I twirl it. I tear it. I damage it. I have been ruining my locks since high school. Some years are worse than others. A year or so after my marriage break-up, it was so patchy I actually treated myself to hair extensions to give my real hair a chance to recover. It worked brilliantly. Not only was I warded off touching my hair by the fear that the costly tresses would fall out, but it also won me over psychologically. I saw how great my hair could look if only I could mend my ways.

Hair extensions (2011)

Sadly no effect lasts forever and the ensuing decade has been one of highs and lows for the old barnet. What I was not really not expecting was that 5 months of social distancing, which I have found a real struggle, would help, But it has. The ever-supportive Nina is delighted and fusses over my curls like a proud parent. I have to conclude that although it has been decidedly dull and dreary at times, Lockdown has clearly been less stressful for this stretched single mum than our pre-Corona calendar. My hair is doubtless very grateful. I am left trying to avoid scratching my head as I try to square the circle of returning to the best parts of ‘normal’ without ramping the levels of stress right back up again …

Staycation…

Sunday 2 August 2020

What a week! Challenged to keep myself sane with no car and then the re-introduction of Lockdown across Greater Manchester?

Originally, it was scheduled to be a few days of fun, as the teens, cases bulging, piled out of the house for a holiday with their ‘down south family’. After 5 intense months of solo-parenting, my calendar promised plans of hopping about for a few bright lights, late nights and fizz-fuelled reminders that sometimes to be a good mum, it is important to forget about being a mum! However, with trusty Toyota Windsor out of action, not only threatening to blow a 4 figure hole in my bank account, but also putting the brakes firmly on any road-trip plans, I call my more distant pals to cancel and gear myself up for an economical staycation.

I replan with gusto. I set up some local lunches and meetups for the second half of the week. To fill a couple of days near the start, and to save a few more pounds, I decide not to pay someone to tame the overgrown wilderness we call ‘the garden’, but to tackle it myself! For a confirmed horticulture-phobe, this turns out far better than I hoped.

I call upon one person to give me a lift to the garden centre and before I know it a team of gardening experts emerge from the ranks of friends and family to lend a hand. There is, as I’d feared, lots of back breaking work, clipping and clearing. Indeed, by the time we finish, the stack of garden waste bags, appears to re-enact the final scenes of the ‘Feeding of the 5000

” …and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over” (Matthew 14 v 13-21)

But, to my great surprise there is also creativity: planting, colour, design and beauty. And those bits, I do enjoy. Gardening – who knew it hid such secret delights?

Call it a divine domino effect, but as our honest efforts and toil catalyse the garden into some sort of shape, I roll seamlessly into the the more social events of my stay-local week. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I manage a Prosecco and strawberry picnic in the park. As I am dropped off, I allow myself the foolish optimism of thinking that the week is really going rather well. That same Thursday night, smiling and tipsy, I flick on the TV and the news report on the Greater Manchester Lockdown, freezes my grin and brings me crashing back to sobriety.

… from midnight tonight, people from different households will not be allowed to meet each other…” (Matthew Hancock)

Oh my goodness! For this single mum, the return to social restrictions feels like the prison door slamming shut. Saturday night restaurant plans – up in smoke. Monday lunch plans – down the drain. No-one even allowed in to help with the garden anymore! Those divine forces clearly have other plans for me this week … at least there’s gin in the cupboard …

A second driver …

Saturday 11 July 2020

Tonight marks my first trip to the pub for over 100 days and suddenly the insane amounts I pay for monthly new driver insurance seem worth every penny!

After weekend upon weekend of ‘Ninja Warrior UK‘ and re-runs of every James Bond film in the catalogue, a Saturday Night ‘out’ beckons . Woohoo – what a prospect! I straighten my hair. I dig out scent. I try a dash of lipstick. I brush down a jacket and polish my heels. I seek teen approval on several jewelry combinations. And I am ready. There is only one snag. The pub is miles away…

Living , as we do, on the edge of Manchester, public transport is terrific …or was. The messages about using it, as we stutter out of Lockdown are not wholly encouraging.

“Consider all other travel options …”

Plan ahead, allow extra time…”

If your are travelling, wear a face covering, keep your distance from others, clean your hands frequently …

So when my eldest offers to give me a lift, I am overjoyed.

Being the only driver in the house is a major pain in the proverbial for countless lone parents. In hectic non-Covid times, it was undoubtedly the source of much of my mental and physical exhaustion; single-handedly juggling the impossible logistics of four very busy lives. And for me, so rarely was there a break from the challenge of timetabling and delivering all our transport, that I once actually burst into tears of gratitude when a colleague offered to pick me up for a work’s night out! And tonight it feels very much the same.

Having a co-driver has come at a cost. New driver insurance is jaw-droppingly expensive. My eldest passed her test many month ago and we finally took the costly plunge as she turned 18. It has meant some sacrifices, money is only finite after all, but I have no regrets at all about postponing a few other plans. For me, it has meant reducing stress and occasionally feeling carefree. And that, after 10 years of single-parent grind is simply priceless. It is a life line I wish I had been able to afford sooner but, as is sadly so often the case in our strange society, it is those of us most in need of a break and some support who are least able to afford it.

Still better late than never! I am driven to my night out. I enjoy a pleasant evening in a NorthWest bar dipping its toes back into the night-time economy. The highlight however… my lift home. Yes, as the clock strikes 10:30pm, my carriage in the form of trusty Toyota Windsor, pulls into view and home we go. We laugh, we sing along to Heart 80s. We are warm. We are dry. We are happy.

A second driver, for me it is a single parent game changer!

6 months down…

Sunday 28 June 2020

Half the year has gone…

6 months down

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

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

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

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

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

Maslow’s hierarchy of need

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

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

Lockdown week 12: The cooking rota

Saturday 13 June 2020

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

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

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

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

I am following this really great vegan YouTuber !”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown week 11: Decision Time?

Saturday 6 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep going, you can do this!’ and

Have you thought about studying this further at college?

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

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

Lockdown week 10: That’s life…

Sunday 31 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown week 9: Rules…

Saturday 23 May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lockdown week 8: A moment of magic

Sunday 17 May 2010

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

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

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

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

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

My Dad – in the Museum directory!

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

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

Lockdown week 7: VE Day

VE Day Anniversary 8 May 2020

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

“Hope is like food, without it we die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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