Pulling down the blinds – a true story

We are mid-way through a big house build project. As part of the build, we had the windows changed. The new ones really do make a difference to the noise from the road, but when they were fitted, the blinds in our bedroom were removed. The fitters put them up again, but inexpertly. So for the last few months, we’ve mainly just left them shut. It’s a bedroom. We’re generally asleep in there. The blinds are going anyway when the whole room gets redecorated.

Yesterday, the decorators wanted to check how much paint they’d need for the bedroom. So I opened the main blind. It’s not the first time I’ve done it, but the cord was so tangled I’ve tried to avoid doing it too often. Every previous time, I’ve carefully shut it again afterwards. Yesterday, I forgot.

Fast forward to the evening. Normally I’m the first adult upstairs, putting the kids to bed. Yesterday I was out at a community meeting, so it was my husband’s turn. Guess what? Annoyed that the blind was a) open, and b) not working perfectly, he yanked the cord and the whole thing came down.

By the time I came home, he was seething. It was the decorators’ fault, for wanting to look in the bedroom. It was my fault for permitting it to be opened rather than just switching a light on, and my fault for leaving the blind open when it was bedtime. He was ridiculously angry. I realised in part it was frustration with the build overall, and also that he hadn’t succeeded in fixing it back up and had broken our children’s reach-the-sink stool when standing on it to try. “I’m fed up with all this,” he complained. “Stupid blinds that fall off on me and I’ve had to throw a stool away because this room hasn’t been decorated yet.”

I picked up the blind, stood on a suitable-for-adults tough plastic stool and eventually managed to balance it on the top of the clips that hold it up – one had cracked when he pulled the blind down. It wasn’t perfect, there was maybe a centimetre of gap at the bottom where the cords had stuck and I could not get it flat, but it was maybe 99% acceptable given the imperfect situation.
“Don’t touch it again,” I told him. “It’s carefully balanced. We’ll need to get an expert in to set up the new ones when the room’s redone.”
“Don’t tell me not to do things I wasn’t going to do anyway,” he sulked.

About half an hour later, I was loading the dishwasher when I heard a shout. I ran upstairs. My husband had again pulled down the blinds.
“It was all wrong!” he said. “There was a chink and I wouldn’t have been able to sleep with all the light it would have let in.”
I was a bit cross. “Well now there’s no blind at all,” I said. “You’ve pulled two of the clips out of the wall and I’m not even sure if it can be put up again.”

It took me nearly 20 minutes – during which I heard again how it was all someone else’s fault except the actual blind-destroyer – but eventually, at nearly midnight, I managed to loop the cord over the remaining wall clips and suspend the blind. There was now a fifteen centimetre gap at the top of the blind. This was considerably worse than the balanced blind – perhaps 80% acceptable due to my hard work, but the best we were going to be able to make it. After all, neither of us are window blind fitters.
Until we actually went to sleep, my husband maintained that it would be easier to get sleep with the light coming in through a big gap at top of the blind than to suffer a tiny gap at the bottom.
Of course what we really need is to push on with the redecoration, and get new, tailor-made blinds on all three bedroom windows, that blend in perfectly with the rest of the room’s new colour scheme, but – even though we both know that – it all seemed to fly out the window when we got obsessed with a narrow focus on the short-term window covering.

What did we learn?:
* due to circumstances beyond our control, the state of the blind overall was not what we would want in an ideal world. But for the purpose we had – sleeping in a darkened room – it was sufficient;
* having the blind up was better than trying to cope without the blind all together which would have resulted in street and car lights visible all night and – when the bedroom light was on – greater exposure of us to the street outside while in our nightclothes or getting dressed;
* the option to purchase alternative window coverings was open to us, and always had been. We were not precluded from getting amazing curtains, it was just that having blinds made sense for those windows;
* in any case, we had already had the blinds fully operational for some time, and were going to purchase new ones when the room was redecorated in a few week’s time;
* besides, it was bedtime, you can only purchase window coverings if the shops are open or if you have the time to wait for internet purchases to be deliveries which tend not to be instantaneous (we’d still have been curtainless last nigh and probably a few nights more, even if the end product turn out to be great longer term);
* resolving the room’s need for redecoration soon would alleviate the whole window covering issue. Impatience with a bigger process was not only unhelpful but downright damaging to our interests;
* when something goes wrong unexpectedly, the people that caused the situation to occur may be multiple, but it is not helpful to blame others and refuse accept your own role in the process may not always be entirely positive, because that damages relationships;
* experts in something unrelated to the issue at hand – such as window fitters and decorators – can cause more problems when they wade into a similar but unrelated field – such as blind fitting – but non-experts will regard the two fields as indistinguishable and not understand why they got it so wrong;
* sometimes valuing what you have when it is 99% acceptable is better than demanding 100%, and risking bringing a whole structure down on top of you and ending up with something less good or no blind at all;
* there are people in life that – when something doesn’t work out as they wish – scream, shout, look to blame, look to say I told you so and that the whole disaster is not what they thought would happen. There are others that find an alternative stool to stand on and make the damned blind workable.

BFF wanted

“You and me
We used to be together
Everyday together always
I really feel
That I’m losing my best friend
I can’t believe
This could be the end…”

The song, Don’t Speak by No Doubt, is about the breakup of a relationship. It’s about the end of love. When we think of love, we always think of sex, romantic love, or possibly family love. But the loss of friendship hurts too.

Do you have a BFF? Most people do, if you believe what you see in TV and read about in magazines.

I love my friends. I don’t see enough of my friends. Distance, and time due to childcare are mainly to blame. But I realised that, with the exception of my husband, no one would – if asked – name me as their best friend.
Those competitions? Win one for you and one for your best friend? Most of my friends would be surprised if I won the second one for them. They’d be touched but also embarrassed.
Oh.
Do I have that role in her life? She doesn’t in mine.

I have a good friend I see every day. She’s probably the best friend I have at the moment, although I know that the BFF spot is already taken in her life. We have much in common but enough difference to be interesting. She’s fun to talk with, hugely intelligent, entertaining, caring, endlessly kind. Now her  job has moved and within three months, they will have moved across the country.

I feel like I’m in mourning.
Oh, we’ll stay in touch, I have no doubt about that.
But it won’t be the same as the immediacy, the interweaving in each other’s lives that we have right now. I’ll help and support my friend through everything she needs over the next few months and beyond as best I can, just as we have done for each other over the last months and years.

But I think everyone needs friends close to them.
The internet is amazing, it keeps friendships alive, but you also need people close by that love you and care for you. You need to be able to help each other out in practical and not just emotional ways.

Part of me just wants to curl into a ball and cry. I need to shake myself out of it, go out and be me just as well as I can and hope that I’m lucky enough to find another friendship that feels as happy and easy as this one.
Part of the trouble is that by your 30s, finding friends is so often about breaking into long established friendship circles. NCT and school gates can help, but you have to want to do it and for others to be responsive to your overtures.

So, good friend wanted.
BFF wanted.
I can promise laughs, support, intellectual conversation and a fascination with the world. And cakes. And wine. And a need to exercise.
WLTM similar.

The Cold Shoulder

Another cookery post. I’ve been looking for ways to make the Sunday roast more exciting. We’ve tried not having a roast at all. We’ve tried whole and partial ducks, pork, beef and chicken. We’ve slow cooked, pot roasted and normal roasted.

Today, I tried something a bit different. My husband bought a bone-in shoulder of lamb and a bag of salad. He hates salad, so it was clearly aimed at me. But I turned that into the basis of a delicious meal for the whole family for Sunday lunch, but the title of this post is a clue – it takes rather a long time to cook at such a low temperature.

Slow-cooked Shoulder of Lamb with Salsa Verde

15 minutes to prepare, 4.5 hours cooking

1 bone-in shoulder of lamb (ask for one that serves about 4 people)
1 bag watercress and rocket salad
1 teaspoon chopped mint
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons lemon juice + set of a lemon if you are using fresh lemon
1 teaspoon child flakes
(3 anchovies, finely chopped)
Seasoning

Preheat oven to 200c. Snip the lamb all over with scissors to make tiny pockets in the meat and fat.
Put the mint and half the garlic into a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil.
Chop the salad down to chopped herb size. Put one third into the bowl, season and stir. Rub all over the lamb.
Put the lamb in the oven, ideally in a baking tray that has a rack in the bottom.
After 15-20 minutes, turn down to 110c. I know it seems low. Cook for four hours. (If you are brave try at 85c for six hours – not tried it myself, but a friends with a meat thermometer swears by it! This is why I called this the cold shoulder.)
Remove from oven, cover in foil and rest for 10-15 minutes. Watch out, the bone will be hot to touch.

Salsa Verde traditionally contains anchovies. If, like me, you are not an anchovy fan, this works just as well without. Mix the rest of the olive oil, the rest of the chopped up salad bag, the rest of the garlic, all the lemon juice (and zest if you have it), the chilli flakes, and a LOT of salt and black pepper in a jar. Lid on, shake this and put it in the fridge for use later. It comes out a gorgeous bright green colour.

I served the lamb in a couple of different ways, some chunks, some shredded. I added roasted butternut squash cubes (or mini roast potatoes for the kids), with steamed carrots and asparagus. And red wine. Absolutely delicious. The salsa verde really cuts through the fat too.

Cake with no eggs – apple and cinnamon

   

 Kids home ill today, which always ends up meaning baking. But without any warning of illness, I don’t have the right ingredients in. I don’t even have enough flour and butter, and no eggs at all…
But they’re ill and clamouring for cake.
Ok then. Let’s see if we can make a fabulous cake with only random ingredients…
And we can! This is an awesome, fruity, light cake. I was amazed!

Store-cupboard Apple and Cinnamon Cake

5 heaped dessert spoons of soft brown sugar
5 heaped dessert spoons self raising flour
3 heaped dessert spoons polenta
2 heaped dessert spoons natural fibre boost powder (Matt Dawson branded)
4 kids’ little fromage frais, apricot flavour
2 apples, finely diced
1or 2 dessert spoons cinnamon
8 dessert spoons olive oil
2 dessert spoons lemon juice

I mixed all the above together, and baked for 1 hour at 190c.

I mixed the last of my icing sugar and butter together with some more lemon juice to make a toupee of butter cream icing on the top. It’d be great to kid myself that with the polenta, fibre powder and fruit this approximated to healthy, but it’s cake at the end of the day, and a lovely one too. After all, if you can’t have comfort food when you are ill…

Easy Hollandaise for diets

So I am trying to lose some weight. This time, my husband is trying too so it is feeling a bit easier, I feel more supported.

It’s a bit low GI, a bit low carb, quite a lot of portion control. I can’t fast, so 5:2 was just not going to happen. My husband won’t have anything to do with things he thinks are faddy. He won’t do Harcombe, the diet which some have my family have yes successfully because he doesn’t want to separate carbs and protein-rich meals. I am happy doing that, but actually I think the rule may be less about the science of protein v carbs and more about making sure making sure you definitely make a minimum five fruit and veg by swapping out carbs.

Sunday lunch. I made gammon. Baked aubergine slices for me, four tiny boiled potatoes for my husband. Carrots. But how to tie it all together?

Hollandaise. I was a bit nervous, but having read several “easy” recipes I thought, why not? I’ve got a couple of egg yolks kicking around from the number of egg whites required in diet recipes.

Here’s mine… Annotated.

Easy hollandaise

2 egg yolks and the equivalent amount of olive oil, six tablespoons of butter, pinch of cayenne/ hot paprika, salt, juice of one lemon.

I stuck the lot into the blender. It didn’t look right. I suddenly realised I should have melted the butter first. I transferred the whole lumpy lot to a small saucepan and put the heat in for about thirty seconds while using the hand blender. Apparently the blade friction combined with the heat of the melted butter cooks the egg yolks, so the heat is kind of important! After blending it smooth, I put the gas back on for another minute and blended a little longer. It started foaming and turned into fantastic orangey-coloured (as I used hot paprika for the kick!) lemony flavoured hollandaise!

It’s high fat, obviously, but carb free and I would say the amount this recipe delivers is fine for four dieters portions.

Bon app!

Easy Banana Cake

Ok, I should probably confess that this amazing recipe came about by accident. My son came home from school with a week’s worth of fruit in the front pocket of his backpack. The apples were salvageable for another day, but the bananas and pears were definitely turning a bit brown.

“Yuck,” said my toddler, after demanding ‘nana for about ten minutes before I remembered where they were likely to be (my son had put them next to the fruit bowl, obviously, not in it where I’d have spotted them in a few seconds). My husband has a pathological hatred of wasting food, so I decided to use up the fruit in a cake.

While my son got his school shoes on, I skimmed the internet for banana cake recipes. There were “ultimate” banana cakes, and “best ever” banana cakes. The method for both of these seemed to involve putting the cooked cake (in the pyrex dish you would obviously naturally bake a cake in) into the freezer for a rapid image1chill. Who has space like that in their freezer? Ours is crammed with chips, ice lollies, ice cream, frozen herbs, frozen peas, fish fingers and assorted meats and fish that we buy and suddenly realise we can’t plan a meal around before the use by date.

I decided “really good” banana cake would do, and eventually settled for “easy” banana cake with cream cheese frosting from an Australian website. I love Australian food websites, they are often no-nonsense and have the temperature in celsius and the measures in both metric and cups. Also, I’d got a pot of quark in the fridge that outlasted the blackberries it was supposed to join on top of a flan case, so the icing sounded a great idea for really using things up.  After delivering my son to school, I popped into the shop for eggs, the only real missing item…

Once I started, I realised I’d misread, and I only has two squashy bananas not four, and not enough icing sugar so I had to make chocolate cream cheese icing (it works, think about the Dairy Milk and Philadelphia cream cheese you can buy!).
The end result is so delicious for an improvised recipe, it deserves to be recorded for posterity, so here goes:

Stick the oven on at 180c and butter a 20cm/8 inch silicone cake tin, which needs to stand on a baking tray.

2 eggs
125g (half a block) butter
315g (1.5 cups) golden sugar
2 mashed bananas
2 mashed pears
1 tspn vanilla essence
buttermilk made with juice of 1 lemon and 100ml milk

Mix these all together. I used a turn-the-handle hand whisk but you can probably use a food processor.

Then fold in:
1 tsp baking powder
220g (1.5 cups) self-raising flour

Pour carefully into silicone tin. Bake for 1 hour. Check it’s cooked by sticking in a skewer or narrow blade knife. Leave it for ten minutes, then turn it out onto a rack.

In a bowl, mix:
half a cup cocoa
2 cups icing sugar
1 pot quark (I guess other cream cheese would work too)

This blends nicely to a nice bitter chocolate creamy icing and a quantity that will spread right over the top of the cake and down the sides in one thick layer. You could probably split the cake horizontally and put some in the middle if you want, but it doesn’t need it.

Yum.

Pink for a Princess?

Welcome to the world, Princes Charlotte of Cambridge. You are only a few days old, but in your honour, the Royal Mail are producing pink stamps and Westminster is being lit up pink.

You may not even have worn anything pink yet.

You probably don’t even know if you like pink yet.

But don’t worry, you will.

You see, there’s a sweeping assumption in our capitalist economy that women like pink.

You only have to walk into the toy aisles of any supermarket or store to find that girls like pink. They must do – so many of their toys are pink. Their toys? Yes, we know those are for girls because they are pink. It’s an unwritten gender identifier.

Women must continue this love of pink into adulthood– there are pink versions of mobile phones and computers, and the dominant colour of mother’s day cards and gifts this year was again pink.

Pink is soft. Pink is feminine. Girls are sugar and spice and all things nice, so pink is for them.

The colour name comes from the flower (as it does in other languages, albeit a different flower, usually rose). Girls like flowers, so pink is for them.

Always has been this way.

What do you mean it hasn’t?

Some people get very upset when they hear that pink for girls, blue for boys, is not innate and is in fact only a convention that is around one hundred years old. They write angry comments on the Internet about trying to turn boys into girls and things just ARE, so GET OVER IT.

But it is nonetheless true that the pink-blue divide didn’t really happen until the first decades of the twentieth century. The reasons appear to have been a combination of technology, and fashion.

Until this point, babies of whatever gender tended to wear white clothes (yes, boys in white dresses and long hair, something probably regarded as horribly feminising today!) which could more easily be boiled clean and which couldn’t fade unlike the dyes in brighter clothes.
Boys were more likely than girls to wear pink, because men wore red uniforms and the convention was that boys were simply small men. Blue was associated with the Virgin Mary and so a more feminine colour.

This changed when sailor suits became fashionable – it was the height of fashion to dress small boys in these blue and white outfits and, with the advent of faster chemical dyes and mass production of children’s clothes, it was easier to dress children in colours more generally.

The transition of pink to a colour for girls took place gradually over the 1920s-1940s. Somewhat more horribly, its softer, feminine connotations were one of the reasons it was chosen as the colour of the Nazis’ symbol denoting homosexuality during the Third Reich.

But it’s SCIENTIFIC FACT, the online comments tell me. Little girls like looking at pink more. Well no, it appears that the test which “proved” this actually found that both adult men and adult women prefer blue tones, and that at the margins women preferred the red-purple spectrum and men the green-yellow, but children and the colour pink itself were not actually tested (thanks Wikipedia!)

More worrying is what pink has come to symbolise.
It is used as shorthand for what is expected of little girls, and by extension of women.
The focus of “girls’ toys” is so often physical appearance, shoes, clothes, nurturing and motherhood, art, romance, and domestic chores, as if those are the only things in adult women’s lives. Make the toys doing that pink, covered in hearts and sparkly, and you send the message that the subject and the colour things are interrelated.

It certainly works- my toddler identifies pink things as “mine” – if it is pink it is definitely hers and not her brother’s, so she chooses pink for exclusivity and to support her sense of self in opposition to her brother (who actually doesn’t mind pink!)

The focus of “boys’ toys” is so often war, action, saving (in the superhero sense), science, technology, mess and trouble, and blue, black, dark green, and sludge colours. Include no female figures, or write “no girls allowed” on the front, and girls soon learn that these are not toys aimed at them.
Pink is only a problem when it becomes a barrier to children discovering their own interests, either because they learn to reject what is not “appropriate” according to their peers, or because an adult simply never thinks to give them a toy because it is for the “wrong gender”.

In the same toy range, boys get play tool kits, girls a play make up purse.
Boys get a whole train set of boy characters (girls get one or two added-in pink engines) while girls get a whole dolls house of women and baby characters with cupcakes to eat, and boys get maybe a “Daddy” or a boy with a football, if they are lucky.

Boys get war games, superheroes and science kits, girls get pink play versions of domestic appliances, princesses and they can have a science kit as long as they use it to make perfume or cosmetics.

I’m not saying one set of toys is superior to the other, just that there are some assumptions being hidden behind the colour pink and it is being used to stereotype our kids.

We should be aware of it.

If we have become accustomed to it to the point that we RAGE VIGOROUSLY against anyone suggesting that it is not the natural order of things, then we have a problem.

At this point, we often meet the just-ignore-it brigade.
“If your daughter wants a toy aimed at boys, she can.” But how much better if it was just a toy, that didn’t make her feel a bit excluded?
If a boy wants to play with a pink toy, he can, of course, and we’d support him in so doing. I just wish no peer or social judgement would be made of him, that he won’t have assumptions made about him, his masculinity or his sexuality?

What we tell our children in our words and actions and assumptions is not consequence free. But it is our job to try and help them to be themselves just as hard as they can be.

What I’m trying to say is that, if a real Princess wants to wear a plastic tiara, sparkly plastic high heels and a pink nylon dress to pretend to be a “princess”, she can.
Equally, if she wants to wear trousers, get muddy, fire weapons and make weird coloured science experiments she can do that too.
But she can also pick and choose, no child is a stereotype and finding what she loves to do and be is the secret of happiness.

There’s more than one way to be a girl.

There’s more than one way to be a princess.

Let’s hope Princess Charlotte has the freedom to work out what she enjoys, even while the world’s media try to watch her every move and commentate on it.

 

Ashford town centre: revival

Dear local politicians – we have a problem with Ashford Town Centre. It doesn’t work. Here’s why, and what to do about it…

ashford Adam Coulton

The Problems

1) Town Centre retail doesn’t cut it

  • There are far too many hairdressers, charity shops, discount stores, betting shops and estate agents,  and not enough shops to actually buy essentials. How can these shops afford the rents but others can’t?
  • Ashford town centre has no shop selling fitted shoes. Children need school shoes, that necessitates a trip into town (which with pester power and attractive shops around bringing additional spending), but that town cannot be Ashford.
  • The retail units are too small – M&S and Debenhams in Ashford don’t stock a big enough range to be attractive to a broad spectrum of shoppers, so they lose out. They are therefore not the destination stores that they could be.
  • Without destination stores, other stores cannot flourish unless they are competing to offer bargains over quality. Independent stores, such as Savia, are closing down.
  • In any case, the traditional high street no longer reflects how most people shop.
  • The parking is expensive compared with the delivery charges on internet shopping.

2) The Designer Outlet shopping is an alternative centre

  • People go for a shopping trip to the centre they can walk around and where they can park for £1. With a footfall of over 3 million a year, this is a success story.
  • The outlet is too far from town for shoppers to easily choose to go between the two.

3) The non-retail side of Ashford is played down

  • The town centre has still got some history and heritage, but the tourist office is hidden and doesn’t even offer the two walks guide any more.
  • The memorial gardens are the only significant green space centrally, but don’t offer anything except grass for young children.
  • Revelation St Mary isn’t as full as it could be.
  • Cafes are scattered, you have to choose which part of the town you want to go to to get coffee. those that are there haven’t thought through who their clients are likely to be – no space for push chairs, no children’s area, no outdoor seating.

The solutions

Some radical thinking:

1) Retail alone is not the answer:
Ashford is not a city filled with students with loans to spend, and is too close to Canterbury, Maidstone and Tenterden to compete with all the destination stores they have. In any case, the sort of units available to stores don’t seem to match what people say they want. A town needs more than just filled units, it needs people to want to go there. So Ashford needs something different.

2) What does Ashford have?:

  • There is a thriving craft scene. Many of the businesses that went into the (now closed) pop-up store were crafty in some way.
  • Ashford has a railway heritage and is conveniently located for business and tourism.
  • Ashford has an international station.
  • Ashford has a giant outlet shopping centre away from the town centre, and other satellite destination zones (John Lewis, Eureka park etc.)
  • With the arrival of residents in the Panorama building, the town centre will have residents! There are also quite a lot of families in the villages and estates around Ashford (just think about Repton, Orchard Heights, Singleton, Finberry, Park Farm/ Kingsnorth, Kennington, Willesborough, Great Chart, Stanhope, South Ashford and that’s just the first three miles from the town centre!) but Ashford has little for families in the centre.
  • Ashford has plans for Elwick Place, including a hotel and a cinema, plus decent restaurants. Elwick Place spans the gap between the International Station and the town centre.
  • The Borough Council is buying Park Mall. This gives local democratic control over a significant area of town and a chance to do something with those empty units…

3) So…

Start with the outlet. yes, expand it. But if you do that, it needs to link to the station (that’s probably on foot but it needs to be safe, well lit and frequently used) and to town. An irregular bus service won’t cut it. Instead, the transport needs to be the destination. That means something like this…

CnstSent07…although there is something a bit Simpsons about a monorail (this one is a Hitachi, photo from the linked webpage). But given the investment needed for the set up and the cost of running, that’s clearly a no-go. So, instead, you need one of these…

petit_train2_560

This is the Petit Train Touristique at Le Touquet, as pictured on the town’s tourism website (NB the weather is no better in Le Touquet than in Ashford). Great Yarmouth has one already, but no photos easily available online. You can even get these little trains with disabled access and luggage space.

This is not just something for parks or seasides. Ashford has a great railway heritage so it is entirely fitting to have a little train for transport as well as being an attraction for tourists in its own right. The point is, if you have regular little trains, people are more likely to get on it at the outlet and therefore get a chance to see the rest of the town. People in the surrounding area who do not come into Ashford may bring their kids for the ride. As I said, the transport IS the destination.

4) Think beyond retail. Think Residents

The Council has bought Park Mall – they could just flatten it!
Seriously, given the number of empty units in the town, Poundstretchers could take its pick elsewhere in the town, same for the hairdressers, tanning salon and DJ supplies stores. Wilkinson’s could probably stay where it is, or even increase in size taking over a number of empty units elsewhere, which would be very welcome.

This would give an opportunity to either put in a hotel (necessary if tourism and promotion of Ashford as a best placed place to stay took off), or, more likely residential housing. I guess they’d propose flats but wouldn’t it be great if these could be family homes, with room to spare for gardens and a play park.
Either would help general regeneration – people in the town centre need services, places to eat out, things to do and, yes, shops to shop in. In any case, the town centre is about to get more residents with the conversion of the ugly Charter House office block to decent flats.This means entertainment in the town centre will be needed that suits younger urban residents with disposable income- that’s restaurants beyond fast food, too.

5) Or, think more radically.

The town needs rezoning  because rather than an eclectic joy it feels a mess – there’s the bandstand for live music but flanked by the 99p store it doesn’t send a positive message about the town. The cafes are randomly off down Bank Street, and on the lower High Street. Relocating the cafes in a group around the bandstand would create a positive, outdoor ambience for the centre.
Given that Poundland has just taken over the 99p Store, I wonder how much longer it will stay there taking that prime central site anyway?
The tiny Tesco could relocate to the old Blockbuster or Pizza Hut buildings where it could help regenerate that end of the High Street because people actually want to go there. There are few places in the centre of Ashford where you can buy decent bread!
Demand more historically sympathetic shop signage, and fine businesses and landlords that do not maintain historic buildings.
01_184034176_31b16621d320by20lin20mei
There’s a lot of empty shops and grubby blank walls – make Ashford a town of murals. This has been done successfully in Sheffield (Tasmania, Australia), Nar Nar Goon (Victoria, Australia, pictured below by Leon Sims on the melbourneourhome.blogspot.co.uk website), Jonesboro (GPicture 018eorgia, USA), Angoulême in France, in Brussels, Belgium (the picture here is from the inspiringcities.org website, by Lin Mei), and all over the world to attract visitors. Where the murals are culturally appropriate, which both of these examples are for the locations they are in, this can look amazing. It would also be a chance to reinstall the town mural in the town centre, which has been in storage since the library was rebuilt as the Gateway Plus Centre.
While we are on an arts and culture theme, Revelation St Mary is trying hard with classical music and opera, but honestly, stick on a few more 1990s bands and you fill the place and keep it in business. It’s a question of matching dispensable income and the group that has it to what you provide. Ashford’s not quite in the space of high arts at the moment.
harmonic-motion
But really, Ashford needs a USP. The town’s big thing is arts and crafts. So my most radical proposal is this: buy a Toshiko Horiuchi-MacAdam installation (big, beautiful crochet thing that kids can play on, really fun and usable indoors or outdoors, see one pictured here on the roof of MOMA Roma and another below in Japan, taken by Masaki Koizumi). Install it in the centre of Park Mall and use that as the centrepiece of an arts and crafts revival for the town. If you did this in Park Mall, you could invite Emporia, Cross’s, the sewing centre etc to move into the units around it. If kids go to play there, then adults need coffee, so that’s more units needed, and little independent craft shops attract local foods shops, and local shops… You might even attract outlet shoppers if you really go kid friendly and set up a heritage trail too. Destination play, reached by Destination transport. Now that’s a town worth a visit.
crochet7
So, dear politicians of Ashford, here’s my challenge to you. Think a bit more radically about what the town centre is for in the 21st century and how we actually shop. Look forwards, not just backwards, preserve and protect heritage where we still have it, but be willing to replace mid-20th century rubbish with something new if it will attract destination stores. Remember the residents. Rezone the town, think about what makes us unique, and take a risk. After all, if any more shops go, we really will have nothing to lose.
Thank you. Feel free to get in touch if you want a bit more consultancy on the future of Ashford.

Late Fragments and life

Imagine you have picked up a book.
The heroine of the story is a freckled, grinning girl, you know you are going to want to be friends with her. She is also seriously clever, well read and confident. You could feel jealous, but she’s too nice for that.
Where would you want that character to take you? Imagine she takes you into the world of politics, into 10 Downing Street, listening to opera as she works late into the night, briefing the Prime minister on horribly tricky issues, becoming the youngest ever female senior civil servant.
Then out, giving it all up for love and pursuing a Masters Degree, then out again, chosen by the former Prime minister to head a charity working to alleviate poverty in Africa. She thrives, it thrives and all is going brilliantly.
As you root for this woman, working hard and surely with a brilliant future ahead of her as a stateswoman, she becomes pregnant. Like Margaret Thatcher, she produces twin boys, a Lean In-friendly efficient way to have a little family and return to a career. She lives on her blackberry, “changing the world one paper clip at a time” as she puts it.
If you thought the book best as a happy story, you might end it with a wedding to a soul mate with a shining star in the ascendant.
But life doesn’t just stop with a wedding. The woman has cancer. After remission, it returns and it is terminal. The husband, the boys, the amazing life will all be left behind. All this achievement before death, on Christmas Day, at the age of just thirty six.
The title of this blogpost is a clue.
This is not my story. It’s not a novel.
This is an obituary.
Kate Gross, my fellow civil servant. We worked together for just one year in a small but intense, intensive and high powered team in the Cabinet Office. Ridiculously more talented than me, inspirational to me in her working life and – I discovered one day after I ran into her at Victoria Underground station and we stopped to chat, then renewed our acquaintance on Facebook – a charity CEO, talented writer and cancer blogger whose words at www.kateelizabethgross.wordpress.com draw you into her world. Poetic, poignant, witty and yet so hard to read when you are of the same age and have children that don’t understand why you are suddenly hugging them tight with tears in your eyes.
I realised how big an impact Kate had had in the world not just by the national press coverage of her death, the lives changed in Africa, the social media flurry, but when talking about her with my own family after Christmas, my brother said “you knew that Kate? She was in the paper- the blogger who was at Addenbrokes? She had loads of followers for that blog.” Kate Gross, making a success of dying with dignity and spreading the calm, the peace that she found (and some thoughts on practical organisation for afterwards) for people around the world who may have faced or yet may face what she did.
My heart aches, not just for Kate but for her family, and everyone more closely in the spiral that she describes who by definition are more affected than I am by her death.
I am cross that the world has lost someone of such talent, sad that her writing is confined to the blog and to just one book, “Late Fragments”.
Kate had just started the publicity for publication of “Late Fragments” and appeared on BBC Radio 3 in “Private Passions” telling more of her life through music. I defy you not to cry when she talks quietly about her recent baptism and the show ends with “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”. She said she didn’t want to be told she was brave, courageous or I don’t know how you do it. But she was, in everything she put out to the world, and many people wouldn’t do all that she did to make it all just a little bit better for everyone else.
But rather than just read a short obituary by a former colleague, please pop over to Amazon or drop into your local bookshop and buy “Late Fragments” and read for yourself the words of the frankly scarily awesome Kate Gross.
It is named for a Raymond Carver poem, perfect, poetic and short. There’s an irony there.
Kate, I wish I had got to know you better in the short time we overlapped in London. I’m so glad you found happiness, and felt blessed.
You probably didn’t know it, but an act of kindness from you changed my life. In the pain of a relationship that broke up, I needed to find a new church. You suggested one your friend went to and arranged for her to meet me so I didn’t have to walk in alone. That church rekindled my interest in my faith.
And, well, heaven is supposed to be a place of contentment both with proximity to God and because he loves us, allowing us personal fulfilment- I’m certain that If God needs something done he has just gained the perfect person to do it.
You inspired many, including me, with those words on life, and I intend to use my year off work to make the most of my family, smell the roses, write the book, and live, really live.
Thank you.

A cup of tea for Jesus

I was listening to a sermon.
Shocking, I know, if you watch church services on TV you would assume that sermons are the dull bit of a church service where most people doze or daydream. (Maybe I watch The Simpsons too much).

Anyway the passage being preached was Matthew 25:43, the verse that was being preached to was the bit where Jesus says (in the ESV):

I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.

This is a challenge.
We live in a world where political dialogue is about the “other” – the limitations needed on immigration, who is worthy of state support. Actually accepting a stranger into your household would be a risk deemed foolhardy- murder, rape or robbery would surely follow.
And with headlines about crises in the prison service, and prison guards having to get hep jabs just in case, who would visit unless they had to?
And as with hospital visiting unless it is friends or relatives who has the time?

I know myself – I’m not a spiritual hero.
So the sermon got me thinking and I recognised that while I clothe the needy (usually donating clothes via charities), and donate to our food bank (with some unease- I heard the CEO say he wanted a food bank in every town but I would prefer that our brilliant welfare state be properly funded to support those in need rather than a return to the pre-20th century approach that the church and civil society should provide), this sermon was a challenge to me.
What if it was Jesus sitting at the roadside? He of course says it is him (Matthew 25 again):

‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

So how can I do nothing with this clear message in front of me?

I can argue I don’t do nothing- I worked for a homelessness charity and would always donate money to them rather than hand over cash because of the risk of fuelling self-destructive drink and drugs.
I can think about the charity donations and the churchgiving, and maybe I can feel I do my bit and be thankful for the life I have that means I can do the giving.
But that’s Pharisee thinking.

Jesus as always makes things a bit less comfortable.
So with this sermon still ringing in my ears, I got off the bus to walk to work. There was a man there in a battered old leather jacket: “spare any change for a cup of tea?”
Argh!
I walked on. But I felt awful.
He was there the next day too. I walked past.
And the next- I took a different route.

Then I considered what I was doing.
I was so bothered by what a sermon at church asked me to think about that a specific situation was calling on me to act.

So what to do?

The next morning I stopped at a coffee shop and got two cups of tea.
“Sugar?”
“Oh, yeah, I guess.”
I took a handful and a stirrer and got on my bus.
On the way I started to wonder if I was doing the right thing.
What should I do, hand it over and walk off?
Stay for a chat?
What if he refused it? Maybe he doesn’t actually want tea?
Would it just be massively embarrassing for both of us?
What if I got mugged for my bag/ phone etc. through showing I was a soft touch?
What if once I had done this once he expected a cup of tea every day?

He wasn’t there.

So I did the same the next day.
And the next.

But he hasn’t been back.

I can reflect that God gave me a chance to see how I react to a specific challenge from a specific sermon.

Or I can think, I hope that man is ok. I hope he has a good reason for not being at the bus stop asking for change for a cup of tea and that his life has changed for the better. I hope his story has a happy ending.

And if I see him again I will buy him that cup of tea.