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The Virtue Signal

I can’t quite believe that it was so long ago that I started this blog. In 2013, S was still a little boy, with little boy legs and a little boy voice. Now, he is a man grown, if a somewhat short one. In a rush of enthusiasm, and finally getting things off my chest that had long sat there, suffocating me, I wrote post after post, two, three times a week. It was cathartic and freeing. Finally I was managing to DO something – even if it was only tapping on a keyboard that ended up broken. Looking back from tonight, tired after nearly two years in school in the middle of a pandemic (I have gone home at night, honest), I can’t quite believe I had the energy (or that level of irritation). Today, tonight, I am all but all washed up, guarding my energy carefully so that I can make it to the end of term.

And I’ve writing enjoyed it – largely. I’ve enjoyed telling my – our – story, hoping to enlighten, to change a few minds, to make a point. To give myself an outlet for a creative energy that had nowhere to go. I’ve not written much lately because that energy, the stuff I am guarding so carefully now, is, if not all used up, in need of a bit of rationing. If you’re a teacher, you’ll know. You’ll know if you, or your family members need to look after themselves in the winter. Sometimes I think about it and I feel a bit sad – because finding my tribe, readers who engaged with me, who agreed and often disagreed with me, was a joy. I even won an award for it and that was lovely – especially for someone more used to being told she was wrong than right. I wrote a book.

Not that I particularly mind criticism about this blog though. I mean, I can take it or leave it – it’s mine after all – and often it makes me think, think deeply and be better (or that’s what I hope, anyway), especially if I’ve written something in a rush. The time it got my goat though, (not the time someone told me to get in the sea – although I didn’t particularly enjoy that experience!) was when someone accused me of virtue signalling. I got cross about that.

The thing about the virtue signal, you see, is that there’s an awful lot of it about. I’ve been seeing it lately particularly in response to this Down’s Syndrome Bill (you can read the draft here) , a private members bill sponsored by Liam Fox MP. All sorts of people, including those who voted for austerity, for cuts to services to disabled people and their families and whose policies starve local authorities of the cash they need to meet their obligations properly (I could go on, but I’m going to stop because I can feel my temper rising) have posed for photos, tweeted their support, declared what good people they are because they support people with Down’s syndrome (in general, presumably, because the Bill doesn’t say much – yet).  I saw that signal the day I was shouted at in a public place for asking a few questions and having expectations of inclusion (only one person helped me and it wasn’t the ‘friend’ from church). I see it every time a connection with disability is trumpeted in order to make the trumpeter look better – and it annoyed me and it hurt me that someone was accusing me of the very same thing.

I guess it’s an understandable assumption. Many people do it. They make out they are marvellous people because look at all the charity work they do or the selfless giving (Children in Need can just get in the bin with that one) when they are anything but. It can even be a cover, because who could ever think that a person who supports people with Down’s syndrome would ever do something not nice. It’s not a new thing and I got annoyed because I don’t write this blog because I want to look good – I want my SON to look good. I love him and I put that love on show because I want people to understand something about love – not about me.

I do worry though. I do worry that my words, my thoughts, my digital footprint could be used in a way that I didn’t intend; that someone could, because THEY want to look good, hijack what I was trying to do, and twist it, turn it into something it was never intended to be. My Battle Weary post – my most read for some time – did that contribute to the bias away from inclusion that we see today? Did I contribute somehow into making out that Down’s syndrome was a special case because reasons and other people can bother about Them Others, because that’s what I write about? Will the words I wrote about the children I taught and how much they matter, will they be lost in the push for a single issue issue?

A wise man once told me that you need to be careful about how your words (in his case educational research) are taken because there are unintended consequences. You have to be very careful, he said, how you frame things, because people take it the wrong way and use what you said to justify a policy decision that is almost exactly the opposite of what you intended. Nancy, he said (well, he didn’t say Nancy, he was speaking to a room full, but you know what I mean), do your homework, don’t rush and get your communication thought through carefully before you start. 

Otherwise, YOU’LL be the virtue signal.

A letter to my sister in law, who died last April

When I saw you I ran out of words. Not like me I know; I don’t usually find myself casting about for things to say. Most of the time it’s a case of asking me (politely) to stop talking, or at least let someone else get a word in. I’m sorry that it happened, it wasn’t what I intended.

I meant to remind you of when we first met. Do you remember? Lying in the spare bed in your room, chatting in the dark, an easy conversation and an even easier lie in. Giggling in terror in the back of the car as we hurtled from pub to grocer to butcher to somewhere where they sold spoons (but not the right ones). You had a job in a pub; you told us all about the steaks, sizzling on stones, and balanced the plates all up your arm.

And the day I took you trying on wedding dresses. I’d got married the year (or was it two?) before, so I knew the ropes (sort of). I bossed you into different dresses until you found a style you liked and then, in typical style, your mum made the dress and the ones for the bridesmaids too, while you sewed your invitations. I’ve still got it somewhere, I think, where I keep precious things, together with my memories of your interest in things and how they work and what they do.

I’m not sure if I’m in your wedding photos. The top of your head is only just in mine, visible if you know where to look, hiding in the background with your dad and your new boyfriend, the man who cares for you so tenderly now. You are wrapped up in a shawl your mum made you wear, because that’s what people wore to autumnal weddings – or something like that. I played the piano at yours, hiding under my big hat, do you remember that?

And after weddings (not so long after yours as mine) there were babies, first yours, then mine. Do you remember sitting on my sofa and telling me all about the maternity clothes you weren’t buying because you were getting yours from Dawn French and then you’d be wearing them after? And do you remember christenings and birthday parties and tea at your mum and dad’s and in-car DVDs that only needed a Light Tap to make them work the right way round but while they entertained your kids they caused mine to overflow. There were family weddings we did and family weddings we didn’t attend and Ruby Dos in the garden. A holiday. Competitive cakes. Do you remember?

You were my alliterative sister for more than half my life, my birthday twin. I don’t want to think of you with sadness, and I know you didn’t want that, but I am.  We are.


There is a beach at Lyme Regis where you can walk in the footsteps of dinosaurs, if you know where to look and the time is right. I’ve never managed to find them, although I do have a lovely photo of my daughter, aged 6, standing on an enormous ammonite, wrapped up in boots and a yellow coat with a furry hood, protected from the cold, Easter wind, too young to understand the significance of the event, but impressed nevertheless at the strange rock formation standing proud from the hard, wet sand.  When the tide is in, and the cold, grey sea laps against a closer shore, you’d never know they were there. They are covered up, hidden by the ordinary circumstances of the everyday.  

If you hadn’t read the information on the website or on the noticeboards, you probably wouldn’t realise that you were standing on a rock-frozen giant seashell, even without your overenthusiastic parent explaining. You’d assume that the shapes that swirl gently across its surface were created by the smoothing action of sea. You’d think that there was nothing special about this set of rock pools, that the crabs and starfish and sea anenomes were living nowhere more spectacular or interesting than anywhere else along the shore and that little girls exploring there would need nothing more than a bucket and one of those nets that hang on the end of a slim bamboo pole and a mother to exclaim on a sunny rather than a cold and windy day. You wouldn’t know that if you looked with different, more informed eyes, you would find endless echoes of lives gone by, etched forever into the earth, reminders that things were not always as they are now.

I’m not a particular fan of dinosaurs, it must be said. I never coloured them in or had posters on my wall (although I do seem to remember, from my own dim and distant past, being taught a song about triceratops), but I am fascinated by the fact that they left their mark. Millions of years sit between them and me and yet their footprints still march across the shore. And it’s not just the natural wonders; a good cathedral will have me awed, a castle ruin, a mosaic floor. Monuments to the past from which we have come.

But the dinosaurs didn’t last forever. One meteor and they were gone, snuffed out like a candle. For millennia no-one even dreamed of a lizard as big as a bus. The tide came in and it went out; the secret footsteps lay undisturbed and children played on ordinary rocks. Castles and cathedrals rose and fell, testament to changing times, victims of war and greed, thunderbolts and gravity. They, too, sank into the ground, falling asleep after years proclaiming conquest, human and divine.

And there they waited, a snapshot memory of loss in stone, biding their time until the soil fell away or the tide went out and we wondered and understood what had been exposed.  

The Mask


I have a selection of books from my childhood that sit upon the bottom shelves and that the husband periodically tries to throw away (without getting rid of a multitude of build your own model aeroplane plans, I hasten to add) and which I occasionally come across when looking for something else and take an impromptu trip down memory lane. It happens a lot because I am invariably looking for something I have put in a Safe Place. This last week though, I haven’t so much found a long-lost book, more thought of it and smiled inside. It stands amongst the corner cobwebs with the pink Abba annual and the book of famous forgeries, next to the fairy tales and the world atlas, part a set of hardbacks you’re supposed to keep because otherwise why would someone have given them to you, many Christmases ago?
On the front cover sits a young woman on a horse, attractively backlit and wearing the kind of knitted jumper someone’s mum would have made who understood the need for everything to be oversized rather than fitting nicely, it’s title “Teenage Beauty” enticing the young-and-interested-in-growing-up to the exciting secrets contained within. Inside its still-glossy pages there is advice about spots (everyone gets them), sleep (you need a lot when you are a teenager) and eating healthily (you are what you eat, drink lots of water, your cheekbones will magically appear when you are in your twenties), exercise (find something you enjoy) and washing (do that lots). And, of course, hair and makeup for all manner of different occasions.
Not for the teenaged me the guidance of the youtube star and beauty blog, instead I had my trusty manual (honestly, I took a lot of it word for word and looked very odd indeed for long periods – how my mother kept her mouth shut is beyond me…actually, it isn’t entirely, at around the same time – 1986 – she was reading ‘how to bring up teenagers’ books) and devoured magazines, making my way through Jackie and Mizz and 19 and Smash Hits and graduating to Cosmo and Elle (and never Good Housekeeping, I mean, why?) and soaking up the problem pages, the relationship analyses and how to make the best of (and decide which are) your best features. My sister used to practice on me (she made me look like I’d been punched in the face once, possibly intentional) and I on younger relatives in turn (she never let me return the favour, funnily enough).
I learned from experience that following the instructions on how to apply those blushers that had four shades including highlighter wasn’t necessary, and neither did anyone (apart from people in books and magazines) call it rouge. I spent hours perusing the makeup shelves in Bodyshop (and the soaps and the shampoo and the hair dye) and slowly built up a small collection of powder and paint that moved beyond the clownish (my dad delighted in buying makeup sets for his daughters, the more garish the better for some reason) and the electric blue towards Heather Shimmer and lots of (black) eyeliner (why did no-one call it kohl?), a little for the day and more when going out. Which was a lot, at one time.
And then I started work. And then I had a family. And makeup became something that was squashed out, something I had little time for. I’ve always been one of those people who would rather spend those extra ten minutes in bed, rather than getting ready, you see. I’ve never been one of those women who wouldn’t leave the house unless they were properly done, hair and nails and everything; I’m more the sort who’d forget to wash it off, or forget I had it on and rub my eyes in an effort to make myself wake up. Forgetting to take care of myself is a long-running theme.
And slowly, over the years, makeup became something different. It aged and solidified into a mask; a cover up to hide the fatigue or the sadness; a show. Lipstick to create a smile. Concealer to hide a bad night. The more makeup I wore, the more there was to hide. Yet another uniform to put on for the working day; a professional face.
And now? The mask is gone. The real, tired me is on display and makeup has changed its role again. No longer concealing, hiding, but performing an act of self-care.

Thank you to everyone who joined in my twitter thread on makeup.

Going Back to School

Are you ok? I mean, really ok? Are you ready to go back to school?

I mean, let’s be honest. The lockdown has not been easy. Despite a garden, a bedroom of my own (if you don’t count the husband), (relatively) easy access to food and toilet roll (admittedly, it took us a while to get ourselves a supply of flour), a family who actually get on well with each other and kids who are (relatively) low maintenance, it’s been hard. And I’m in a relatively privileged position. I dread to think how it’s been for people who haven’t had the same access to resources we have.

And are you anxious? Speaking for myself, I never used to be so grey. I have the start of a silver streak that starts just to one side of my forehead that didn’t used to be there. Anxiety has been my constant companion since the messaging about underlying health conditions kicked in (you know, the one about how you don’t need to worry unless you have one). It might not dominate my so-called sleeping hours in quite the same way as it did in March and April, but it is still there, making me jumpy, driving my desire to stay away from pubs, to stay at a distance from my parents, to keep on washing the shopping.

The sudden loss of social support systems, friends, colleagues and family, for an extended period, has been… traumatic. We have had to adjust to a world in which the antibiotic-ed certainty has been whipped away, where suddenly post popping through the letter box has become suspicious and visits to the doctor are no longer comforting but frightening. I’ve grieved for the lack of hugs from my mother.

Honestly, if you haven’t been out, even if you’ve only been bored and you haven’t gorged on graphs of death and devastation, even if the losses in such numbers haven’t touched you and you think that you’re basically ok, you need to adjust to being back in school. You need time, time to plan, to settle, to visit and see that everything is safe and controlled, manageable, to get used to the ‘new normal’. You need time to say hello to colleagues missed, to laugh together over lockdown haircuts (or lack of) and realise how much you’ve missed each other.

You need it – and so do they.