How To Make a Village in the City

I grew up in a small hamlet of a small village on a wide Yorkshire moorside.  As kids we loved lecking out on the moors, free from adults; the world our playground.  We had a little gang of about eight kids.  We built dens which fell in our heads.  We terrorised the local farmers. We fished for minnows in streams and blew home rosy-cheeked whenever we fancied.  Once, there were roadworks in the village.  We rode our bikes down just to use the real-life traffic lights.  

We were suspicious of off cumdens.  We gossiped.  There were two ladies who lived together at the top of the track who loved each other, like that. They once argued so fiercely  that blood came out of their ears. There was one black kid who lived in the village, and her mum was French.  If someone was a bit bookish and strange, people knew it, and mentioned it.  You heard it from someone who’d heard it from someone else, who’d probably been discussing it in the Co-Op.   You never knew the exact words that were said.  It was me, of course, who was a bit bookish and strange.

As teenagers, we had to be driven everywhere.  We didn’t go to the local secondary school.  We were spoilt and entitled and chose one further away that was supposed to be better (it wasn’t) and posher (it thought it was).  So our social lives were suspended between the village kids and the other, posher, rural market-town kids.  I fitted in with neither.

We were older, nearly Uni bound, when our parents divorced.  Our dad loved men, like that, and everybody knew.  You didn’t know the exact words that were said, but they knew.  The talking bonded them all together, as gossip does, and excluded us, as gossip does.  But we were on our way away by then.

We chose to bring our own kids up in London.  No free-range tiddler-catching moor days for them.  But no one black kid in the village, either.  No bother about who loves whom, like what.  We’re all off cumdens here, and bookish and strange is a good thing – or just a thing, and good is relative.

But just as those idyllic free-range days were not so rosy in reality, so the free-and-easy city anonymity is something of a lie.   As a stay at home mum, I feel guilty for staying at home, just as working mums feel guilty for working and part time working mums feel guilty for what they’re not doing at work when they’re at home and what they’re not doing at home when they’re at work.  So because I feel guilty about staying at home, I joined the PTA.

Now, because PTA concerns are by its nature petty, and the details tedious even to those who take them on, I’ll gloss over the details.  There was an event planned, and a fuck-up occurred. And the fuck-up resulted in disappointed children, which will always set the  village tongues wagging (though in a Yorkshire village the children would just have to Think On, or Shurrup Mitherin’ or something).  Anyway – this is important – it created a division between working and stay-at-home parents.  The fuck-up wasn’t mine, and in fact I had tried very hard to avoid just such a division.  There it is.

The School Gate social minefield feels difficult to navigate on the best of mornings.  On the morning after The Grand PTA Fuck Up, somebody came to stand next to me in the class line ‘in solidarity’.  I was grateful, of course, but as a by-nature paranoid person who grew up in a small village, into my heart fear was struck.  Throughout the day, it continued.  People apologising for us getting abuse for something that wasn’t our fault.  People showing support.  Things discussed, debated and mulled over in private groups spewed whispered and deformed into public space.  We didn’t know the exact words that were said, but we knew it was worse than bookish and strange.

It takes a village to raise a child – and if we have children where there is no village, we will make one.  The school is a village.  Our street is.  Somebody was talking about me outside my house yesterday when the windows were open – I couldn’t hear the exact words they said because I covered my ears, but that’s a village, right there.  And then there’s the other, newer, village we’ve created ourselves: the virtual village.  Social Media.  Twitter, the town crier; Facebook the Parish Newsletter, connecting cityfolk to each other in ways reserved for yokels in times past.  And Whatsapp, the chat in the Co-op, where you might hear the rumour later but you don’t know the exact words said.  It bonds groups together, as gossip does, and it excludes, as gossip does.

So two things I’ve learned, and a third my Yorkshire childhood taught me and I’m clinging to.  The first is that villages are made of gossip and children, and that if you have the children you can’t escape the village (or the gossip).  The second that social media may feel intimate but it is about as private as a village Co-Op.  Be careful with the words you say.  And the last that really, it’s just a PTA event, and that one way or another – it’ll be reet.

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And the Greatest Of These

‘I don’t believe in Love as an abstract,’ said 20-year-old me, probably over a pint and a cigarette in the Student Union bar.  After all, I knew everything then.

What I think I meant was I didn’t believe in romantic love as a thing that is fired with an arrow and makes your eyes go all heart-shaped.  What I probably meant was I don’t think anyone will ever love me.   What I definitely meant was I have no idea what I’m talking about but I want to sound grown up and cynical and cool.

Today, the times are interesting.   Every news report, every announcement, every result of every vote, tells something worse.  Alliances drifting.  Barricades building.  Scrote-bags soliloquizing.  The times are interesting and the times are frightening.  War is coming.  I hope it isn’t.  God, I hope it isn’t.  But it feels like it is.

I fear for my girls.  My little, clever, funny girls.  These future women.  For them I don’t accept these boundaries that close in around this tiny, stupid island. These girls will fight – but they will not be canon fodder.    They will not be pussy to be grabbed.  This love is not gentle; this love is not kind.  This love is fierce.  It is war.

And Trulove – a silly, soppy name made up for its initial.  I don’t believe in the magic powers of true love’s kiss.  But I do, really.  This love is a life-raft in roiling seas.  It’s sanity in the madness.

So, what makes us get out of bed these mornings?  What makes us able to do the things that must be done, and must be done again?  What makes one foot move in front of the other?  What fears war and makes it?

It’s Love, of course.  My eyes are all heart-shaped (and, for now, my fingers are in my ears).

 

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6 Ways in which Christmas is already doing my nut (in).

Christmas doing your nut in already?  I’ve decided to speak out after 3 years’ silence in a handy and entertaining listicle.  Because, as every lazy blogger knows, there are a finite number of ways in which anything does anything.  Fortunately.

1. The Shops

I had a moment of epiphany during a zombie shuffle round Intu (Formerly known as The Glades) Bromley.  It struck me, suddenly and forcefully, that neither I nor any of my fellow over-hot and spaced-out shoppers queueing to buy 50 quid boxes of plastic manufactured by 5-year-olds on the other side of the world was enjoying ourselves even a tiny bit.  You know what, Andy Williams On The Loudspeaker?  It just wasn’t the Most Wonderful Time of the Year in Toys R Us Bromley that day.  It wasn’t.

2.  Adverts.

Does anyone seriously, really – seriously, like, actually – give a shit about the Christmas John Lewis/M&S/Sainsbury’s ads?  Or is all the excitement and mystery made up by them to advertise the adverts?  You know it’s not a gender-reveal party for the next Messiah and they just want you to buy stuff, right?

Oh, and, Johnny Depp, you don’t look cool in this ad.  You look like you’ve either lost your glasses or forgotten what you came in the room for.  Senior moments, eh.

sauvage

3. School

Is it Christmas Jumper Day today or Nativity Costume Day?  You have to take a pound in, do you?  You don’t know what for.  OK.  There’s a raffle.  Of course.  Or the Christmas Disco.  Which you needed to have a ticket for three weeks ago and now you can’t go.  Everybody else is sending everybody else Christmas cards, are they?  Stop crying darling, we’ll sort it out (to self in mirror).

4. The snot.

In the last 4 weeks: Pickle got scarlet fever, Trulove got tonsillitis, Pickle got a cold.  I got the cold.  Trulove got the cold.   Pickle got the cold again, Ziggler got the cold.  Pickle got impetigo.  Trulove got the cold again.  I would put a cross on the door but judging by the fanfare of rattling phlegm which daily passes our door, there’d be no point.  December, thou joyous month!

5. The general pissing-in-the-wind pointlessness of it all.

Guys, we do realise there’s an international humanitarian and political shitstorm raging while we’re circling our preferred Christmas telly in the Radio Times, don’t we?  Have we all decided to stick our fingers in our ears and hum until after The Season Of Delight On Small Children’s Faces That’s Soon To Be Wiped Off By The Steam-train Of Global Facism And Scary Unpleasantness As It Thunders Nigh?  Or are we hoping it’s just going to go away?

6. I said six

So there shall be six, and here’s the sixth.  Number six. Yup. Voilà.

Merry Christmas, readers.  And Gor’bless us, every one.

 

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Five.

Ziggler turns five next week.

Our love, these days, is mercurial.  Sometimes, I’m great. I am pretty, kind and I smell nice, and I’m just the right kind of squishy.  Other – I’ll be honest most – times, I am the spawn of Beelzebub. 

On Tuesday, she said between sobs that everything in the whole world was MY FAULT (I wanted her to eat an apple).  On Wednesday, she came downstairs for a cuddle after lights out (she couldn’t sleep and had missed me at school).  On Thursday, I was a schweinhund (she wasn’t invited to Daffodil’s for tea).  And so on, to exhaustion.

Now.  I am not perfect.  I probably don’t let her have enough chocolate biscuits.  It may well be that everything in the word is my fault.  I must admit to feeling quite smug about my incredible power, destructive though it evidently is.

I love my children with my gristle, but you know what? It is a tiny bit difficult to actually like someone at the moment their rage-filled spittle is showering your face because you didn’t bring the car on the eighth-of-a-mile school run.  And as that, no doubt, makes me a terrible mother and a hateful human being, I have decided to dedicate this post to Ziggler, and the wonder of Five.

Ziggler turns five next week.  I remember five.  Roly-poly, wide-eyed, hold-up-all-the-fingers-on-one-hand Five. 

She reads everything. Cereal packets, calendar entries, adverts on bus shelters, and the front of the Viz annual somebody inadvisedly left in the bog.  She writes tiny stories about prinssesess, leaves little notes for Trulove to find when he gets home, and adds ‘a toi for Ziggler’ at the end of my shopping lists.  She knows everything about dinosaurs, and realised the other day that Trulove and I are herbivores.  She doesn’t find things funny, she finds them hilarious.  She’s incredibly proud of the boncano, complete with glittery lava, she made at school.   

She skips everywhere.  Ballet skipping.

She starts a bit of gossip with a scandalised ‘DID YOU KNOW mummy…?’ and then tells me who went on the Thinking Chair that day, and why.  She herself will NEVER, of course, go on the thinking chair.  Unthinkable.  She pretends to be a stripy towel-covered rock after bath time. Pickle and I have to be astounded it has appeared in the living room, and try to sit on it.  It ends in tickles.

She wears one plait and one pony tail in her hair.  “Not bothered,’ said she, when I said people would ask her about it all day.  And she’s not.

And so, lovely, exasperating Ziggler turns wonderful, topsy-turvy five.  She’s embarking on a childhood she’ll remember, and one that will form her grown-up self.  And so, I tell myself, I’ll gloss over the tantrums, and insults, and rage.  Ziggler’s world is getting bigger and more exciting every day.  And I am safe. 

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The Marvellous Secret World of the Day.

Come closer.  Check behind you.  ‘Lean in,’ as the Americans say.  Here’s a secret.  We stay at home parents know it.  Retired people know it.  Freelancers and gas engineers probably know it.  People who’ve taken the day off to move or the morning off for a dentist appointment know it momentarily, but soon forget.

During the day, in London at least, people who are not at work are nice to each other.

There.  I’ve blown it open.

Neighbours greet each other in the street.  People help you on to buses with your buggy, and passengers on the bus stand up for those more in need than themselves.  Passersby smile at your toddler as she sings her way along.  You easily find a table at lunch and waiters and waitresses smile and take an extra five minutes for a chat.  The toddler lunch-rush at 11am is a much more relaxed affair than the actual lunch-rush which begins an hour later, since the point of a toddler’s 11 o’clock lunch is generally to pass as much time as possible with the added bonus of a few crumbs making their way into your kid’s mouth.  Fellow customers smile indulgently at your Cinderella-clad screaming three year old.  Somebody is always available and willing to hold the door as you leave.

Posties really are cheery and they even shout ‘good morning’ as they whistle their way down the road (with the exception of the lady who drives a van delivering parcels round our way.  She beeps her horn and chucks your parcel at you with a grunt before squealing off in a cloud of burnt-rubber smoke.  My mate down the street told me the only time she’s seen her smile was when she – the postwoman – nearly knocked her – my mate – off her bike.  But she’s probably got a lot on). 

Recently I’ve been feeling a bit Januaryish.  The drudgery of the school run, the nursery run, and the drizzly dash from one to the other.  The frustration of food refusals, tantrums and the Heath Robinson nature of the day with small kids.  My feet have been dragging and shoulders hunching, my mood dreary-hearted and filled with ennui.  Also, I think, I really need a job, before my brain is finally devoured by the fearful and self-propagating laundry creature.

But today was Saturday and we were all at home, together.  A walk through the park and lunch out seemed a relaxed way to spend the day.  We fought for a table in the cafe and the waiter was perfectly polite but distant, hurried.  Sharp-elbowed Pickle had found a swing free in the packed playground and was not best pleased at having to get off it.  We’re planning a new bathroom and  thought it a good plan to have a look in the bathroom showroom down the street (yes, I KNOW).  Amongst other horrors that occurred in there, we got told off for letting Pickle open and close a ‘very expensive’ toilet lid (lucky the man didn’t see her other crimes against sanitary ware).  On the bus on the way home everyone studiously ignored my three-year-old as she stood, holding on for dear life as we lurched over speedbumps and round corners.  Then a guy in a car revved his engine aggressively as we crossed the road in front of him.  And we were there FIRST.   Staying at home has its definite down-sides, I thought, as I flipped him the bird in a white flash of rage.  But you would never have a day like this in the Marvellous Secret World of the Day.

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Inspiring Women: The launch of a national campaign.

Before I mention that I LEFT THE HOUSE last night and before I begin on my usual self-obsessed internal travelogue,  let me tell you about the important bit.  Inspiring the Future: Inspiring Women campaign was launched last night at an event hosted by Nick Clegg and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez in Lancaster House.  Ten inspiring women – women with successful and high-profile careers – were invited to ‘speed network’ with one hundred London school girls, exploring career interests, choices, and routes to success.  This was the start of a campaign to get successful women into state schools nationwide,  talking to girls about their futures, their passions, and how to realise their potential.  Have a look at the website http://www.inspiringthefuture.org/news-events.aspx.  I’ll tell you more later.

Anyway, there was this swanky reception afterwards at Lancaster House, with Nick Clegg, and Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, and the ten inspirational women including Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge, and Fiona Bruce (have I owned up to my Antiques Roadshow addiction yet?), and Carolyn McCall, CEO of Easyjet, and Carrie Longton, Co-founder of Mumsnet.  And there was wine, and canapes, and people in suits who had been in the real world all day talking to actual people who can take their own selves to the loo, and I WAS THERE.

I volunteered to go thinking it wouldn’t happen and when it was confirmed I was of course thrown into wild-eyed panic.  What would I wear?  What would I say while mingling with high-powered professionals and politicians in a governmental mansion?  How would I stop myself swooning and curtseying in the presence of such amazing women?  And what the hell would I wear?  Shit!  Shit!    There were no excuses.  I’d volunteered myself.  My mum happened to be around to babysit, and I had scraped together an outfit. 

So with Pickle hanging, wailing, off one arm, I applied mascara with the other, readied myself and managed to sneak out while they were eating their bangers and mash.  And then as I travelled through London at rush hour – as I have done a kerjillion times before – I remembered that actually I’m still a proper person.  I can catch trains.  I know which door to choose on the tube.  I am a grown-up and a Londoner.  And then I was stopped by a film crew making a documentary about female genital mutilation and did a quick vox pop for them and felt like quite a competent, intelligent, grown-up Londoner, which was a pretty good way to arrive at a frankly terrifying networking event.

At my northern comprehensive school it was not The Done Thing to have crushes on fellow schoolgirls as I’m led to believe (by Mallory Towers) it is at girls’ boarding schools.   But if I were a schoolgirl now I would have an unashamed crush on Miriam Gonzalez Durantez.  She spoke with such passion about the Inspiring Women campaign and and in doing so she won my complete and quite possibly fawning support.  Generally I like to fence off a cynical little corner of my heart when people are plugging a concept, but this time I couldn’t.  ‘75% of women still work in the five Cs of employment’, she said.  ‘cleaning, catering, caring, cashiering and clerical.  There is nothing wrong with that – but girls should also feel free to make a difference in science, IT, engineering or maths if that is what they like.’  I was nodding.  Maybe I imagined that somebody cheered.

’55 per cent of girls aged between 11 and 21 say they feel there are not enough female role models.  However, in reality, there are not only enough female role models, but a surplus of them’.  Yes.  I know loads.  I know women who are architects, scientists, teachers, web managers, psychologists, doctors.  I know genealogists, management consultants and project managers.  I know women who work for tech companies, universities, and the police.  And those of us at the coal face, who are bringing up girls to be clever, ambitious and curious.  The idea of the project is that we are all inspiring women, and if we can give up one hour a year to go into schools and talk to girls about all the fascinating opportunities there are out there, girls can feel more able to do what they like.  And that might be catering and caring but it might be gardening, computing or making scientific discoveries. 

After the speeches I was able to elbow my way to Salma and Wahida from Mulberry School for Girls.  They are currently organising a conference on International Relations in their home borough of Tower Hamlets. They had loved the networking event, they said, eyes shining.  They had loved Fiona Bruce because she was so kind and had been so honest about sometimes feeling small.  What had they learned?  ‘That we are as good as anyone,’ they said, and the defiance in their voices told me they meant it.  What did they think I should say to my girls, I asked, who are two and four?  ‘Make them believe they can do anything,’ was the response.  ‘And send them to the Mulberry School so they can do things like this.’

I managed to mingle a bit, and met some great women from LinkedIn, The Womens Room, and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP.   I was not going to tap Dame Barbara Stocking on the shoulder, or interrupt Thea Green, CEO of Nails Inc, partly because I didn’t know what the hell I would say to them if I did.   I’ll admit, I felt a bit of a fraud as a small-time blogger and Stay at Home Mother.  But if I learned anything from my Night In the Real World it was this: we’re all inspiring, us women.   Collectively we have done loads of amazing things, large and small.  Historically we’ve been restrained by lack of good careers advice, lack of access to female role models and limited expectations of what we ought to do.  But if we can help this generation of girls feel they can do anything, then, well, they really could do anything.

Before I left, I introduced myself to Carrie Longton, Mumsnet co-founder.  After all it was Mumsnet that allowed me to attend at all and I wanted to thank her for the invitation.  She was friendly, gracious and unintimidating and I managed not to swoon.  Might have accidentally bobbed out a little curtsey though.

For more info about Inspiring Women visit www.inspiringthefuture.org.  Please take part!  You could be helping turn young women’s career dreams into achievable ambitions.

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I hate Page 3.

Don’t get me wrong. I love boobs.  My own in particular have nourished my two children, provide a useful extra storage space for small toys, loose change and my car keys, and have probably saved me from drowning on a couple of occasions.  Other people’s boobs, too, are fine in as far as they concern me at all.  And if men find boobs sexy, well, great I suppose.

I’m not objecting to boobs, naked or otherwise.

All my knowledge of the life of a page 3 girl comes from a soft porn book called Shameless that Sausage and I found in a holiday cottage once.  Its heroine was discovered at 16, left home, changed her name to ‘Honey’, and shacked up with the photographer who spotted her.  Then she went on to shag descriptively a succession of rich but sleazy men before eventually fleecing one for millions of pounds, enrolling on a business degree course and settling down with her old Geography teacher with whom she’d been in love all along.  Realistic? Doubt it.  Many people argue that getting your tits out for a newspaper is empowering, and that page 3 girls choose to do it, make a good living and are not exploited. Not sure who first thought of the word ’empowering’ to describe wapping your baps out for the breakfast-table crowd but I’ll bet he’s bubbling in a golden jacuzzi, one of his investments on each gouty paw as I write this. I sincerely doubt that no page 3 girl was ever underpaid, or groped during a photo-shoot, or exploited in some other way.   However I’ll accept all this if necessary.   In some ways I hope it’s true.  It’s beside the point really.

I’m not complaining about the women who get their boobs out.

Objectification is one of those words that’s chucked around so often we’ve forgotten what it means.  The definition from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: to treat (someone) as an object rather than as a person.  And when someone is running their eyes over the topless form of, let’s say, Danni Wells, I’m not convinced they’re thinking about the fact she’s from Coventry and was training to be a beauty therapist when her  ‘potentials’ were spotted.  Nope.  She has become a body rather than a person – specifically, she has become a pair of boobs.  (It’s worth noting here that while I was doing my research on Danni Wells a). I could only find her vital statistics and b). I came across a wiki called ‘Boobpedia’, two facts that really got on my, er, tits but rather illustrate my point). And if one woman has become a pair of boobs, then what do the rest of us become?  How do we differ?

I’m not arguing against porn.  As long as it’s viewed in private by adults and made by adults who are themselves not being exploited it’s a different beast (with two backs, fnurp).  I don’t believe that most porn is made without exploitation and I do take offence at the grotesquely submissive nature of porn’s portrayal of women, but ultimately I can avoid it.  And I can avoid my daughters seeing it.

Not so page 3.  A busy commuter train, filled with professional, capable women going to work.  A cafe, where my young daughters are enjoying fish fingers and chips for lunch.  A van outside a school, where teenage schoolgirls jostle each other on their way home, hemlines high.  All places I have seen men ‘reading’ page 3, enjoying the 45p thrill of seeing a pair of knockers with legs and a face.  Surrounded by women and girls who are no different from those with their breasts exposed in the newspaper. Women and girls whom men have a perfect right to view as items for their sexual perusal: permission is granted by the easy and mainstream availability of images like these, right next to a news piece about David Cameron’s last speech, in a newspaper sold on eye-level shelves in the newsagent.  The men know it and the women know it: We Are Our Tits.

‘Don’t buy it then’ is more or less what Cameron himself has to say on the subject.  Here he spectacularly and no doubt intentionally misses the point.  Nobody can be arsed to deal with this issue. Page 3 is so low-level, so inconsequential, so vote-winningly popular.  Politicians don’t like to spar with The Sun and politicians like Cameron don’t have to think about its wider impact on women.  I’m sure he’d tell me to calm down dear.

Anyway nobody can be arsed except Lucy Holmes who started the No More Page 3 petition about a year ago and the women and men who’ve signed it.  It needs more signatures.  Please sign it.

I feel very strange talking about Ziggler and Pickle’s tits.  I hope when they develop them those boobs give them all the joy and handiness that mine have given me over the years.  I hope, though, that it’s a personal joy and they don’t feel that their boobs make them fair game for a bit of a leer and a squeeze.   And I want them to know that the whole of their person is important — how sexy they are, not so much.

If getting rid of page 3 is a single step on the way to our girls having that knowledge then let’s begin the journey.  And if it isn’t, what do we sacrifice?  A few men’s midday stiffies and some bubbles in a tycoon’s jacuzzi?

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