Morpurgo, Music and the Mozart Question

IMG_1935How do you explain the holocaust to children? If you are going to try, the good news is you can do it as engagingly and sensitively as Michael Morpurgo does in his current stage show “The Mozart Question”.

In a rare treat, the former children’s laureate was in Ashford, Kent today at Revelation St Mary‘s (the town centre church which is a stunning arts venue in its spare time). Accompanied by Alison Reid, violin soloist Daniel Pioro and the Storyteller Ensemble string quartet, Morpurgo tells his short story with drama and humanity.

The Mozart Question is NOT in the Da Vinci Code mould, using a famous historical name to build an improbable and inexpertly written thriller.
Instead it is the fictional story of Paulo Levi, a fifty year old virtuoso violinist who is interviewed at short notice by a cub reporter who has heard him perform and knows only that she must not ask the Mozart question.
Using well known classical violin music (which was slightly different from the selection featured on the 2012 CD of the show) to tell the tale, with Pioro stepping into the roles of both Paulo and his father.
The music left my 7 year old totally unable to sit still (sorry if you were there and thought he was fidgeting, he finds it easier to listen to music while moving I found out today!) His absolute favourite’s were Monti’s Czardas and Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – super fast violins-  and something he referred to as a Barber’s Shop Quartet. I explained that this last one is actually completely different music, but it’s a good term to use without totally giving away a nice surprise scene.

There were some lovely moments of humour, real poignancy and Morpurgo’s love of both language and music shines despite the potentially difficult material about the role of orchestras in Nazi extermination camps. I managed not to cry. But this was a performance primarily for children, so I asked my son to name his favourite bits:
– “I liked the story. It was really sad and happy at the same time”;
– “the fast music was really good. I played air violin when it came on”;
– “Mummy bought me the book, so I could read along a bit. The pictures in the book helped me listen a bit more”;
– “I was a bit scared about going to meet the author, but he was really nice and shook my hand”;
– “I wasn’t completely sure what The Mozart Question actually was, but I think there were three really… why did that music calm people down when they were going to die? Does that bad thing happening with the music make the music bad to listen to? And was his daddy silly to not want to hear it?” (These three questions emerged over the hour after we saw the show).
Once home, it was also the perfect opportunity to explain about Naziism and what happened to Jewish people, gay people, disabled people and more who didn’t fit in with that world view. He was a bit worried about using the shower tonight, a bit sad, and didn’t think anyone should decide that four million people should be killed. Then he decided to play Star Wars figures. It’ll be interesting to listen in and see if those games change as a result.

As always when taking a child to a performance, you have to be relaxed about how they are. At the beginning, my seven year old said loudly “Which one is he?” I replied that the author was the one in the red shirt. “Oh. He’s really old, isn’t he?” says my son.
He asked repeatedly why one violinist wasn’t playing at first (this became clear five minutes later), and later, during a quiet moment e asked why one spotlight wasn’t on.
But for a 75 minute performance without interval, I was really impressed that he basically listened, even if he squirmed.

At seven, my son reads confidently but has so far only read Morpurgo’s “Kaspar, Prince of Cats”. He was inspired with today’s performance though, so I expect we’ll have the full library soon.
Having bought the book that was performed, we hoped to get it autographed but it turns out Morpurgo is a fellow sufferer of RSI. Instead, he handed out signed book plates and came around chatting to everyone and shaking hands. What a nice man!
I mentioned how much my wriggling child had loved the music and Morpurgo asked if he learned an instrument.
“Not yet.”
“I think you will very soon,” says the author.
When we got home, my son announced he wants to learn the violin at school next year.
And he wants to play the Monti.
That alone was worth the entrance price.

Seaside Poetry

A proud Mummy post today. My big kid was set homework this week which should have been right up his street. The “beachcomber” topic that they have been following at school is interesting to him, but he is suffering from end-of-term-itis and really didn’t fancy doing extra poetry on the theme of creatures in rock pools at home.

Once I’d explained that he had to do it and no, I wasn’t going to do it for him, he sat down with me and decided to 1) do the poem on just one rock pool creature and 2) research that creature to get the information to go into the poem.
He also had to make sure there was an adverb, an adjective and a simile…

This is the result – an acrostic poem. Getting there was a bit blood-out-of-stone but worth the effort in the end…

The Beadlet Anemone

Aggressive animal, stings like a bee;

Nobbly blue beads on a blob of orange jelly;

Exciting red tentacles wave slowly to and fro;

Mouth on its bottom; slippy-slidey foot to go.

One hundred babies will come out of it one day;

Nestled in its rock pool, eating its prey.

Enemy anemone, keep away!

 

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.

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.

 

Lego Egg-on-face shaped silliness

 

 (Image from blog at today’s parent.com)

Over the past week there has been an absolute outcry about the latest issue of the Lego Club magazine. I don’t have my own copy because my little Lego club subscriber gets the boy-oriented edition in which the item didn’t feature.

The item in question was something you would see in any women’s magazine, how to get a haircut that flatters your face. I’m sure when producing the magazine the Lego team just thought, well that’s what girls like, beauty tips, spa days, cupcake recipes… And do you know what, they do.

They didn’t really have spa days as a thing that normal people did when I was growing up. Spas were health farms- dreaded places with austere diet regimes and hard work, not pampering and luxurious body oils. If someone had told me about spas, I would have loved it. My best birthday present when I was seven was some pink, brush on peel off nail varnish and a bag of eleven brushes and combs (30 years on I thought I had broken the last brush, but no, my mum turned up with two more!) 

The thing is, while my best friend and I wanted to be Snow White and Rose Red (now there’s a fairy story that Disney hasn’t covered), we also liked imagination play, running around, reading, cooking, trying to find a climbable tree, building space buggies with Lego Technics, played with Sindy (Barbies were too vulgar),  dressing up as all sorts of things and people, maths games, fuzzy felt pictures, making potions with all the stuff in the bathroom… Obviously we liked clothes, and playing pop stars, and curling our hair and girly things too, even ending up as models for painter Dianne Flynn but – and this is the important bit- we did all of these things.

My experience of growing up was multifaceted, and I know I am lucky that my childhood sounds like a Joyce Grenfell sketch. It was a time of confidence and happiness. I didn’t worry about how I looked, and even pre-Harry Potter getting glasses was ok for me – if they called me speccy four eyes at school I must’ve been too busy off doing fun things to hear it.

Which is why it is sad that girls today are being pigeonholed. Why should their toys be pink plastic irons (mine was cream coloured metal!), why should their science kits be for making lip gloss rather than indoor firework snakes, why are  building blocks coloured pastel pinks and purples “for them” rather than part of the whole rainbow available to all kids? Why are there now three girl-oriented Lego ranges, one linked to Disney princesses and two in the same limited palette offering spa options?

Can’t girls be interested in more than just how they look nowadays?

Which brings us back to the Lego Club magazine. Haircuts to suit face shapes.* Because girls of seven ought to be worried about whether their hair looks prettier cut a different way? No, Lego, just no. Your are best when your figures are standard, yellow faced, interchangeable. Where what the best hair looks like is a question of which one clicks on that matches the character the player is building for the story they are telling. Stay in the games, get out of the real world. You have already made long-haired, big-eyed special (non-compatible with normal Lego) Lego Friends figures, then shortened the Lego Friends clothes, exposing midriffs, showing more leg. Now you are explicitly making those Friends characters tell our girls about what is beautiful. Just no. I think the backlash is telling you you have egg on your faces with this one. I hope you have haircuts that make them the prettiest they can be…

* sorry about the link to the Daily Mail. The reader comments underneath show what the problem is! 

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.

Drum roll…

For anyone that hasn’t read my old blog at www.thoughts.com, you may not be aware that I started blogging because I was on maternity leave and needed my brain to be used for thinking about something more than nappies.
Six years on, and I’m on maternity leave again.
I haven’t blogged about my pregnancy in any great detail because frankly I think others would find it boring- is her blood pressure up? Does she have group B strep? What does that protein trace mean? Does she have gestational diabetes? Goodness, how do you get a baby that size out?
Suffice to say, after a bit of a stressful pregnancy I am today officially “low risk”. That means that I should be able to have a water birth!
I remember well from last time that it can all vanish on arrival at the hospital, the illusion of choice in how to give birth swept away by the need for monitoring and the unexpected. But today, I’m feeling positive.
There’s no reason to think that I’d be refused use of the birthing pool on BMI grounds, no need to assume the worst in terms of strep or pre-eclampsia, she’s a big baby but we now know that my tiny firstborn was the anomaly! So, as long as she hangs on in there 2 more days, we can have the water birth… Drum roll, please…

New for 2012…

Hello again!  It’s been a while, but I’ve had a lot going on that have taken me away from the online world.  If you think the blog has been underused, then my Twitter silence will have come as no surprise…

So what’s new for 2012:
– I’ve tried and failed as yet to get excited about the forthcoming London Olympics.  It might be the greatest show on earth but for me it’s a few months of transport hell;

– My newest novel attempt has reached 28,000 words. Please ask me more about this!

– We have a whole bundle of health issues going on chez Rose22joh, and are praying for a swift and happy resolution;

– I can blog about the EU again if I feel the need – and there’s a lot going on that could do with some reflection.

– I’m TIRED!

So voila: this year’s offerings are likely to be on writing, politics, parenting, faith and of course feminism. Probably.

And the fact that my New Year post is up before February? I’m counting that as a win!

Mums and work: tell Rebecca it gets easier but only a bit

Rebecca Asher is – depending on your point of view – either a whinger who doesn’t understand how life works, or a modern woman who has discovered she’s been sold a pup.
As a journalist, she seems to have got published a feminist book that many of us have effectively written in blogs, talked about in playgroups or NCT get togethers but have not got the time or energy to write down on paper.  She’s called it “Shattered: Modern Motherhood and the Illusion of Equality“.
Very clever.  I’d say shattered is just how most new mums feel.
The essential question is:
I’ve been educated as well as any man, secured a high flying job as well as any man, earned my own money, built a social life, but – now I’ve married a man and had a baby and my life revolves around their needs- was this all a lie?  Are we really any further on than the 1950s?

And the honest answer is: it’s a bit more complicated than that.

I know exactly where she’s coming from.  There’s no easy answer.  Misogynists on the comments forums at the Guardian say that “you want to have your cake and eat it“, or “you should’ve thought of that before having a baby”.
Comments also call her spoiled, that it’s all a sense of entitlement that’s been frustrated and not a legitimate complaint.  Often there’s a comment from someone saying something like I hold down two jobs, I’ve got four children and you don’t catch me being all self-pitying.
Or, I did all this twenty years ago and it’s tough but you do it…  To be honest, I dislike those replies more than the misogynistic ones.  After all, they seem stuck in the view that things have to be the way they are, defeatist rather than simply offensive…

There is no real feminist answer to this problem.
Feminism focuses on work, treatment of women and sexual politics (including the avoidance of children) but this element of the majority of women’s lives is controversial for feminists.
Instead we have conflicting values at play here.  Let me show you why.

I want to work.
Work helps me feel a sense of self-worth, justifies the education that previous generations of female campaigners fought for me to be able to have, enables me to use my mind and skills putting something useful into the world, and have income to spend to make the money go around.

I want to raise my son.
I went through a lot to have him here safely, he is the most precious thing in our lives, I don’t think anyone else can raise him as well as his father and I can, he’s lovely, funny, interesting, cuddly, and I want to be with him.  I enjoy the camaraderie of early years motherhood (both online and in person) and, unlike Rebecca, I positively like the singing at toddler group (I’d better as I lead it!)

We have allowed the debate to become polarised, to become a choice.
Are we “real mums” who stay at home?  The household lives off their partner’s single income while they raise the children, balance the budget, avoid disposable nappies, chocolate and sweets, do baby signing, eat organic vegetables from their own plot, make the easter bonnets for the school competition and act as taxi service, PA, life coach, chef etc. etc.?
Or are we “real women” who go out to work?  We juggle career with home life responsibilities, earn our own money, build our careers and become the women we hope we can be, living as full, active members of the workforce.  And so our children go to daycare, and other people help with collecting them when the work deadlines have to take precedence, and we come home to collect overtired children that have been learning bad behaviour from the others they’ve been left there with…
Neither satisfies.

Society constantly undervalues the roles involved in childrearing.  Intelligent conversation, answering questions through exploration, reading together, learning tool use and acceptable behaviours… we have treated these as menial labour, partly because of an erroneous assumption that childcare involves a lot of gloriously free time (I learned otherwise – not all babies sleep in the day time), partly because looking after children ends up resulting in lots of genuinely menial work (more washing than you could ever imagine, feeding, napisaning the “real” nappies and tidying after toddlers).

In business, we are always told that the most important and valuable asset that a company has is its people.  Then look at the pay of childcare professionals, up to and including qualified teachers, and tell me that the pay really matches the long term investment that we as a society are making in the next generation of workers…

Then look at attitudes towards mothers in the workplace.
Leave aside the idea that it is middle class women that have benefited from feminism at the expense of working class men.
Despite the skills learned through parenting: multi-tasking, time management, compassionate communication (as one Guardian commenter described it), persuasion (getting my son dressed and out the house is sometimes the most difficult negotiation I have in a day)… none of these things matter one jot because they were away from the office and were not meetings-based skills (if you chair the PTA, that counts).

We are not the society we were in the time of the baby boomers.  Unlike our parents who are retired (and therefore able to help with the childcare?  But having done it once, why would they want to again?) we expect to work into our late sixties, to have minimal pensions, live into our eighties.
But we know that the penalty of taking time out of our labour market for childrearing impacts for the long-term.  So why allow 50% of the population to have their careers permanently scarred because of their gender and not their talents?
And just as our careers have to last longer, the need to be carers for partners or parents kicks in too.  The vast majority doing this at present are women – but that is generational.  What are today’s mums of young children going to say if it is them that this burden falls to again – because they’ve already lost out on career development through childrearing?
One woman commenting in the Guardian comments said she resented mothers expecting to pick up their career where they left off because they should accept the penalty for having had a baby and “working at 75% for 10 years” but a father was better than a bachelor because he has to work to support the family.  I’m horrified that another woman would say that.
I’m all for a right to request flexible working for all, including part-time working, but this commenter’s attitude shows there needs to be social pressure not only on companies but also with co-workers to ensure that working parents are not being made to feel guilty that they need to use leave, and work their conditioned hours so that they can spend time with their children rather than always the pressure to stay longer, and quantity of work appearing to be valued over quality.

And don’t think this is just a middle class issue – how many mothers working per hour in jobs that just about fit in with available childcare or school hours can’t get promotion because of not being able to take on the more awkward hours?
And if you drop out of the labour market, how will you get back in?

We need proper, high quality childcare available term time and holiday, recognising both the needs of the child in terms of care and learning, and of the parent in terms of a happy place to let their children develop which also allows them to work.

In the workplace, the first issue is one of recognising employees as humans not just resources.  Everyone has a life outside work – it ought to be a prerequisite!  But while being a champion skydiver is something to be respected and time allowed, accept that parents ought to put children first, or carers their care-ee first. Be clear that this is understood and they’ll be grateful for the flexibility and more dedicated and loyal as a result. Normalising shared parenting  – say, meaning that each parent has four days in their office each rather than five and three, now that would really help.

Finally, no one tells prospective parents what hell awaits them: birth, post partem life, colic, sleep deprivation, sore nipples, breasts as public property, being constantly covered in someone else’s bodily fluids…
This new job, at least in the first few months, one that is not limited in terms of office hours. So the men complaining that they’ve gone to work all day and why should they be handed a screaming bundle on returning home miss the point – the parent out to work may have worked nine hours but so has the parent looking after the child, and that evening caring time should be shared.

But it gets easier.  And after a year or so, they’re a delight.  When they go to nursery, you realise you’re sharing your house not just with an extension of you but an individual with thoughts, feelings, options, preferences, ideas and a whole life ahead of them which is theirs, not yours.  And with wrap around childcare you can even work!  Now, what to do about school journeys and school holidays…

But let’s challenge the perception that life isn’t fair and women should just accept it.  We do the next generation a disservice if we can’t persuade fathers that their role is with their children in person, not just as the wallet in the workplace, and employers that letting employees be themselves will help their wellbeing and their productivity.

The Anything Cupcake Mix

My toddler has a new hobby: baking. I discovered recently that he bakes once a week at nursery – he has usually eaten his biscuit or cake before he gets home so I have rarely had the chance to see the results – but he came home this week saying that he had made a red nose and digging in his bag revealed a smiley face cookie with icing and a glace cherry.

So we’ve been cooking at home too. He corrected my crumble the other day (I’d made it with flour and butter and his help but just as I was about to use it he said “no Mummy, you need to put sugar in it now then rub it some more”) and told me the timing (“it goes in d’oven from 11 to 12″ – in actual fact it took about 50 minutes).

So we’ve started baking cakes. It’s great fun when he has friends round, and an easy and tasty way of spending some time together in the afternoons. To date, we’ve made peaches and cream cupcakes, and adapted the recipe to be banana and toffee, triple chocolate, summer fruits, and vanilla and raisin. Baked at 180 degrees in a fan oven for 15 minutes (for mini cake cases) or 25 minutes (in the standard size silicone cupcake cases) these are speedy and fun.

Here’s the basics:
150g sugar
150g butter
Beat these together with an electric whisk.
Beat in 1 egg.
Add 150g self-raising flour – I’ve never yet found a need to sift it.
Plus a pinch of baking powder.
Beat in 2 further eggs.
Add in your flavours. I recommend big chunks of chopped banana and bits of dark chocolate (put half a bar into a plastic bag, seal the top and bash with a rolling pin to break into suitable chunks.
Stir in so these are distributed evenly.
Spoon into cake cases – I’ve found it fills 12 larger and 12 smaller cake cases usually, but sometimes a few fewer.
Cook as described above.
These timings will give a slightly soft and springy centre.
Cool on a rack, after peeling off the silicone cases.
These can be eaten just as they are, or with a buttercream cupcake icing (butter beaten into icing sugar and cocoa powder) piled on top, or a frosting (water or and appropriate fruit sauce beaten into the icing sugar and drizzled over).

Yum.