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Things must change

Sometimes I think this must be what it is like to have a comfortable retirement. Every day, I go out into the garden, potter, pull up a weed here or there, think about which plants are in the wrong place and can I move them; I gain pleasure out of discovering which survived a move last spring and are putting out their first, tentative shoots. Most days, I go for a walk with my daughter. Not too far and nothing too strenuous, just around the block or down the lane and across the field (we saw a deer the other day); we soak up the early spring sunshine and delight (well, I do, anyway) in the faint fuzz of green that is beginning to decorate the hedgerows, the freshness of the ploughed fields.  There is, despite my anxiety about the news, always the news, a positive to be found in my relative privilege; a home on the outskirts of town, a small garden, a daughter and two sons who don’t need me to supervise their every move.

If you care to look, there are plenty of good things. There is more time with distant family, my parents and my sister; it’s easy to be consumed by working life, to put off the phone calls and wait for news second hand. This crisis has prompted us to create family group chats, video calls and, when we at home have become tired of constant requests for bingo, they have stepped into the breach to help us out. And all those thousands of volunteers. Deliveries for the vulnerable, stepping up and into roles they wouldn’t usually do. Countless people making useful things, from re-purposed pillowslips, a drawstring conversion so frontline key workers don’t have to shake the laundry out, to masks and scrubs and 3D printed visors. Communities are reaching out, beyond the 2m distance. It seems that government is surprised that the people have acted to protect their loved ones. It gives you a lift when the anxiety fades.

It is always there, though, just under the surface. While I’m in the garden I can pretend, if I choose not to notice the clarity of the air, the silence punctuated by birdsong and the occasional wail of an emergency siren, that nothing much has changed. It’s the Easter holidays after all, and we’d be hanging out at home, not doing very much regardless of what was happening in the world. But everything is different. Check out ladies are putting their lives on the line every time they go to work. I feel like giving the bin men a round of applause. There is a strangeness about it all; the burgeoning spring, birds nesting and trees bursting into blossom, the results of two weeks of sunshine following an interminably wet winter are a strong contrast to the constant reports, the rising numbers of disease and death. We, the privileged inhabitants of 21st Century Western Europe are getting a taste of the knife-edge lives of our ancestors. It hasn’t taken long. The cracks in our communities have been sharply focused. It makes you think.

The other day I posted a Thread of Things. You can read it and the comments/additions here. It’s a brief list of ideas that I think would make our lives better, once the danger of this plague has passed and we can all breathe freely again. I was pleased with it and I told my dad (he doesn’t approve of video calls, so we had to make to with the phone – the house phone, no less). After we’d discussed the relative improvement of our respective gardens and considered whether it all might be getting a bit competitive, we talked about how many of my ideas are not so much a description of how things might be as of how things were.

 

After I’d written this, it occurred to me that this desire to go back to an era when people felt more ‘heard’ and more at the centre of policy-making that there might be something of Brexit about it, so I am re-publishing my thread here, with ideas in more of a logical order (as opposed to as they happened to pop out of my head) and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  • Housing standards. Regulation on the size, occupancy and outdoor/green space for dwellings
  • Cost of living, in particular mortgage size. People shouldn’t have to have two people working flat out to pay the rent/mortgage.
  • Price of food. We have become gluttons. We can choose anything and have it any time. We have lost the specialness of foodstuffs and that needs to change. Supermarkets as the mode of distribution – we should probably think about that a bit more
  • Abattoirs. I know it’s not the most lovely of things, but there needs to be more, smaller ones so that animals are not transported so far.
  • A continuation of working from home for at least part of the week where firms can. This would have all sorts of improvements for everyone.
  • Working practices and contracts. Self employment should not have to happen because it’s cheaper for firms to have people be self-employed rather than employ people properly (see: builders and gym workers – I suspect there are more) – the same goes for zero hours contracts.
  • There needs to be a greater recognition of the responsibilities of private life in public work. We need greater capacity in our workplaces to ensure that people can have time away from work if they need it. We could start with public service jobs.
  • More bank holidays. I’d have at least one between September and December, and possibly increase half term to ten days in October on health grounds.
  • Local authorities. a. We need them and they are massively understaffed, particularly in the area of social care. We need people doing face to face things like meals on wheels and being home helps  b. Disability social care – for adults and for children. We cannot carry on like this.
  • Regulation of water and water supply. This needs to be done by a person not remotely – and we shouldn’t be relying on a single reservoir to serve whole portions of the country.
  • The role of competition in public service. Competition is not what brings about better public services. Public services are not businesses. Good supervision and accountability is what makes improvement.
  • I don’t really need to say anything about ownership of public utilities do I?
  • Education – to start with, a focus on wellbeing rather than exam success (although the two are not mutually exclusive). Wouldn’t it be great if we took the opportunity to look again at how we could make our system properly inclusive
  • I do think that capacity (lack of) is a major contributor to strain in education, health and social care work. We need more people doing the work and more admin staff to support.school term length (thanks to daughter for this one) 8 weeks is too long.
  • Terms should be no longer than 7 weeks max.
  • Do I need to say anything about change for the accountability system in education? Anyone want to say what they think it should look like?
  • Education – funding for higher education (you know what I think about that, right?) I’d wipe out remaining debt for students who had to pay, too.
  • A set of regulations about car use/emissions in towns and cities. Quality of air would help us all to live better lives
  • Air travel. We don’t need to be zipping around the globe like demented bees. One flight (there and back) should surely be enough. Any more and it comes with a serious price tag
  • A review of the role of charities, in particular where they are performing the functions of the state. We cannot rely on ‘good will’ for essentials.
  • The constitution. I’m not convinced on the need for a written constitution, but I do think we could have some constitutional reforms for better clarity and greater checks and balances. E.g. a redesign of the upper house with room for proportional representation.

 

Screech

OK. I’ve done my screeching. I’ve squawked at the telly, the children (the husband ran away to the garage), the colleagues, the twitter. The only person I haven’t screeched at is my mum (she has taken care not to ring me tonight). I’m all screeched out.

I’m confused. I’m fearful. I’m worried for myself, my husband, my kids and my wiser family. I’m worried about my team, my class, my school. I’m worried and I’m sad. Sad that we may be out of school for so long that I won’t be able to say goodbye to Y11 leavers, to help the new little ones find their feet with their first few visits. I’m worried about what will happen if we/they stay away. I fear what will happen if we stay together.

So that’s that. I’m worried about a whole load of variables that I can’t control, that we have people in charge of Things who inspire me with negative amounts of confidence.

Yesterday, I talked a bit with my team and I told them a story. I explained to them that I was no longer able to be in school. That my health, and that of my family was forcing my decision. That I was afraid – but that I was used to fear.

I told them about when Sam was born. I told them that at that time, the future looked bleak and frightening, full of heavy responsibilities that I didn’t want and was scared to take on. And then I told them that I had a choice, and that I made a choice.

I guess that’s what I am doing now. Making a choice.

Fear is a powerful foe. It dominated your thoughts and sends you in a spin, it makes you behave in ways that, well, I guess all those people who scrapped over toilet rolls are wondering why they did it (or they will one day anyway). It poisons today, even though the sun shone and the daffodils grew, the birds started making their nests in the trees, oblivious to the storm raging in the hearts of the human population.

There are still good things. There is love and laughter, friendship and community. There is bravery and resolution, team work and ingenuity. There is care in our community.

There will be rage, yes. I will no doubt find my fingers making way to this page to tell you all how cross I am, but tonight I am telling myself my story. Don’t let my fear of tomorrow poison my today.

We need to talk about taxes

It is a source of some amusement to various friends and relatives of mine that my closest supermarket these days is a Waitrose. Not that there is anything wrong with Waitrose, you understand; it’s more expensive, granted, but for the odd pop (OK, a bit more than an odd pop, never let it be said that I am a paragon of domestic organisation) it’s not bad. The main trouble, for me anyway, is not so much that it is expensive, but that you always come out with more than you had intended, and a load of stuff you hadn’t realised you needed.

There are things about it that make me feel out of place though. If you happen to run out of essentials on a Saturday afternoon, the car park is enough to have you creeping through it as if you were seventeen again and you happened into an exclusive boutique when you were exploring the shops one day. My tatty little old banger doesn’t really match the long-nosed shininess that will be parked there. And, as well as feeling not unlike an Eliza Doolittle at the races, there are a number of things there (and in all supermarkets, to be fair) that irritate me.

The constant supply of strawberries and other out-of-season fruit and veg. That annoys me. (Food miles and the loss of seasonality). The sheer amount of food on display (I try not to think about the waste). The packaging (yes, I know that certain kinds of packaging prolongs food life). The ranks of tomatoes, carrots, bananas or apples, all perfect and not a blemish to be seen. The fake, pre-packaged, divorced from the real world, hygienic nature of it all. If I stop too long to actually think about what I am doing, I go from serene (well, sort of) to stampy in a flash.

The thing that really bugs me though, every single time is those charitable tokens. I can never work out what the rules are for a start. Do you get one for every so many pounds you spend? Does it depend on how many children you have with you and how likely a fight looks like it is about to ensue? Why don’t you get them if you use the self-service check out?  So many questions I don’t have time for.

And then, when you’ve got one in your sticky paw, you have to decide where to put it. I guess I could just take pot luck, but I can’t help myself. There’s a sign and I just have to read it. If one or other of my kids are with me, I have to encourage them to think about where they would like to put it. And then I find myself with all sorts of awkward questions. Such as, why are schools raising money to replace their kitchens? Why are all manner of things that surely ought to be publicly funded, vying for a fraction of a donation? When did charitable giving turned into some sort of popularity contest? Have we really gone so far down the road of individual responsibility that what should be paid for through taxation is instead provided through some sort of sense of guilt or judgement of worthiness, either us or them?

This can’t be right, can it?

The Sea, The Sea

Last summer I made a promise to myself: I, after many years of paddling at the edges, would swim in the sea. Growing up in South Devon, swimming in the sea (apart from at Teignmouth – my dad worked for the water board and knew all about the sewage outflow up and down the coast – nothing like the way it is today) was something I did a lot when I was younger. The beach was only ever half an hour away and my mum often used to decide, during that 3 o’clock lull when everyone had run out of ideas and were knocking around the house bored and starting to bicker, to take us there for an hour or so to play.

When we got older, we ventured further afield. Dawlish Warren, with its unchanged straggle of tatty booths and arcades and floor-level rusty trampolines was cast aside in favour of Exmouth – a bit more of a trek but apparently more desirable in terms of the posing possibilities presented by a long, beach-side road along which the town’s youth would drive, windows down and new-romantics blaring, despite the tide, which would drag you half way along the coast before you knew what was happening.

Before last year, I can’t quite remember the last time I swam in the sea or why I got out of the habit. It could be because all the times I have been to the beach in the last eighteen years I have been accompanied by my children, and the paraphernalia (and need to sit guarding said paraphernalia) that taking the kids to the seaside entails. Instead of frolicking in the ocean blue, I have been the one to hold hands, hold towels, pour children in and out of wetsuits and brush sandy toes, in between judging sandcastle competitions and attempting to calm an increasingly paranoid husband that he is not burning and neither is he about to pass out with the heat.

Then of course, there is the logistical challenge of getting changed in order to take the plunge when one is a fully-fledged adult. No longer do bath towels cover a person up in the way that they did during childhood. Running around in towelling underpants and a pair of flip flops is…well, let’s just say that the advent of child-bearing has brought upon me untold swathes of body consciousness that bear no relation to those flashes of awareness from my teenage years. I’ve got at least three swimming costumes and a sarong sitting upstairs in my chest of drawers, but most of the time all that preparation, all that decision making (get changed before and go in the cozzie, or after and struggle to get non-sandy pants on) all that breathing in seems like too much effort.

For years I have dabbled at the edges and, once I’ve got my toes in the water, chickened out. I don’t know about you, but the sea, the sea that laps the coast of South Devon anyway, is an awful lot colder in reality than it looks. Maybe it’s the contrast to the sweat-sticky beach, maybe it’s the fact that it is, actually, really, really cold, maybe I’ve gone soft in my old age; whatever is, for years I have been content to stay in the shallows, nothing higher than my shin getting wet (unlike my parents, both of whom separately accompanied my children to the waters’ edge and came back soaked from head to toe), the challenge simply being to be there and get back in one piece. But last year, tired of being the bystander, the carrier of bags and general dogsbody and enabler of other people’s fun, I decided, come what may, to take a swim in the sea.

So I did. Despite the jellyfish (you wouldn’t think it once you were in it, but the water temperatures were higher last year and with them came more jellyfish than a girl could shake a stick at) and the boats coming in and out, depositing children and cricket sets onto the sand, despite the wind and the crowds, to the encouragement of the wet-suited lady who warned me not to get stung and the squealing excitement not only of my own children but their friends who came and joined me, I did it; I swam in the sea. It was freezing and funny, joyous and shocking, scary and empowering: it was good.

And, having achieved the thing that I set out to do, I felt good.

 

 

A Tale of Gloucester

For seventeen years, I lived not far from Gloucester. Like many English cities, it has a river and a cathedral; like all English cities, it is a city of contrasts. If you went there sightseeing you could come away with an impression of a majestic and historic settlement. You’d start at the cathedral (taking in a bit of the Harry Potter gloss and marvelling at the fact that a couple of mediaeval kings and their close relatives are buried there), travel along the Via Sacra, admiring the mosaic tiles installed by early 21stCentury City Bigwigs, passing through the newly developed docks (very posh) and fetch up at the museum. There, you’d learn about the Emperor Constantine (very big statue) and have the opportunity, should you arrive at the correct hour, to go back in time to visit the underground foundations from the Roman era. There’s even gold coins in thin pull out drawers to examine, treasure found in Gloucestershire fields.

If you went shopping, you’d have a very different experience. You’d have to make your way past the empty shops, the e-cigarette place, the tatty looking party shop and the smokers outside MacDonald’s on your way to H&M. It can feel as if all the money has been sucked away, diverted to Gloucester’s wealthier neighbour, Cheltenham. The mechanical clock and beautiful mediaeval architecture don’t quite make up for the litter and the hanging around, down at heel air of the centre of town on a week day. When you drive behind County Hall on your way to the car park, you can see the peeling paint and shabby interior of the office block behind the grand steps and columns of the imposing façade on Northgate. It’s a bit of a metaphor for the place.

I worked there for four years, more or less. Like the city of the past, Roman at its founding, the Gloucester of today is full of people who have travelled there to settle and seek a better life. I enjoyed working in such an interesting multi-cultural setting, one with well over a hundred languages spoken, teaching children whose families had, not so long ago, come from all over the world. They often brought home to me that so much of what I took for granted was particular to my own experience, growing up in a different time and place.

I remember one lunchtime, standing at the window with a group of Year 4 children, goggling at the rain and the enormous puddle that was rapidly forming in the playground as the drains were overwhelmed. Never one to ignore a teaching moment, I commented in my best teacher-of-young-children voice, ‘goodness me, it’s a good thing Dr Foster isn’t visiting today’…only to be met with a sea of blank faces. While Dr Foster and his visit, during the rain, was a part of my cultural upbringing, it wasn’t a part of theirs, even though they lived in Gloucester itself. I’m not sure they really enjoyed me teaching them the nursery rhyme, but I gave it a go anyway. It was a privilege to play my part in helping these young children to make sense of the world they now found themselves in.

If you were to visit Gloucester for a day out today, you’re most likely to find a cultural monument to a fictional mouse (a Tailor of Gloucester gift shop I believe – or there was, anyway – in the overhung lane that leads from Northgate to the Cathedral Close), rather than the good doctor. While you will find a rather grand bronze of the Emperor Constantine on his horse, you won’t find a Dick Whittington, with or without his cat or all his worldly goods, tied up in a red spotted handkerchief and hanging off the end of a stick, off to make his fortune in the city where even the streets are paved with gold; London.

So what is the point of all this tale telling of a place I no longer work, no longer visit for a quick dash to Clarks or Marks and Spencer because the parking is easier and I only want to pop? Well, you see, there are those who would like to claim that mobility, socially and economically, is a new thing. It’s a product of the EU or education or a post-war government policy or neoliberalism or globalism or something and it is contributing to a breakdown of the family and we should all get back to the old ways.

But it’s not a purely modern phenomenon. We might have travelled up and down the east coast of England, following the fishing fleet in the 19th Century. We might have gone to hiring fairs, to indenture ourselves for a set period in the 14th, or signed up as an apprentice, or gone to someone else’s castle to learn how to be a knight. In the Olden Days, we might even gone to London a poor boy and ended up as mayor and spawned a legend.

People have always travelled in search of a better life; they have always taken a chance and left their family and friends behind, taken the sadness of missing loved ones today in the hopes of a better tomorrow. It’s not easy, and I guess whether it is good or bad depends on what you are leaving.  But let’s not pretend that we have, like teenagers discovering sex, invented something new, or worse, that you can only live close to care.