Leaps of Imagination

The Daily Telegraph reported earlier this week that Richard Dawkins said that reading fairytales to children was “rather pernicious” because it encouraged them to accept the supernatural. He apparently said it was “statistically improbable” that a frog if kissed would turn into a prince.
I think he may rather have shot himself in the foot with this one. He now says he has no more to say on the  subject of fairy tales.
Scientists, in order to make discoveries often need to make leaps of the imagination.

The reason we tell our children tales of princes and princesses, dragons and witches, talking animals, flying carpets and magical objects is not to get the to believe in these things.
It’s part cultural – we have a shared national and international culture of sharing traditional tales. We all come from people who told stories – Terry Pratchett talked about humans as not as homo sapiens but as pans narrativius, the storytelling ape. Our ability to communicate ideas and abstract thought unconnected to our immediate environment is stimulated in children, and adults, through fiction and fantasy.  In the times before mass literacy, oral history was essential to show us where we came from and where we are going. Telling stories is what makes us us.
It’s partly about ethics – telling stories helps us develop empathy – putting ourselves in the place of others. Children love larger than life characters and creatures, knowing whether to help someone even though they are an elf is vital to understanding that even though someone doesn’t look like you, they are still worth your time. Cautionary tales too, and graphically horrible things you would hope never to see – a wolf sliced open and the live grandmother hopping out – are also useful in encouraging thought about the implication of situations without scaring the hell out of the children*.
And it’s partly about building imagination. Scientists need imagination to make breakthroughs, even to start from the simple question “what if…?”

Oh, and on the way to school yesterday, I asked my son if he thought a frog, if kissed, really could turn into a prince.
“No,” he said, “but a caterpillar can turn into a butterfly.”
How long did it take humankind to work out that a caterpillar and a butterfly were two stages of the same creature, transformed in the chrysalis? There were probably many dissected chrysalises along the way. I don’t know, but I bet whoever worked it out grew up listening to fairy tales.

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* PS delighted to hear that as someone raising my children with knowledge of the faith that shapes my life, this is not now said to be considered by Dawkins to be tantamount to child abuse. I would also agree that a parent threatening a child with burning in hell for not minding their Ps and Qs is not acceptable, but nor is it what Christians should be doing if following Jesus.

What is it good for?

This is a weird year to think about war, peace and the world we live in.

The first world war broke out 100 years ago – millions died in “the great war”, “the war to end all wars”.
But then 70 years ago today was D-day. 22,000 British flags marked thank you have been placed in Normandy reminding us of the sacrifices made for our freedom, liberty and democracy.

Did these two world wars end all war? No, every year since, there has been a war somewhere in the world. It’s easy to forget this from our lives here in western Europe, peaceful even if in times of austerity.
But we have these lives because people like us, in my grandparents and great grand parents generations were willing to fight, plan, drive ambulances, tend the wounded, see the deal to make peace – to serve.

They did this, sometimes willingly, sometimes through conscription. Why?
In the long term, so that none of us would ever have to again.
In the short term, they fought to stop the spread of a nationalistic, fascist ideology that turned people against their neighbours.  In seeking to find someone to blame for economic and social problems, this ideology scapegoated the “other” whether foreigners, gay people, disabled people, trade unionists, Roma people or Jewish people. Scapegoating turned to persecution, persecution to death on a massive scale.
We can pretend that similar ideologies didn’t have any traction here in the UK. They did – the British Union of Fascists claimed 50,000 members in 1934. But they didn’t win out, partly because the BUF was unable to hold a large scale rally without mass brawling, and partly because of horror at the Night of the Long Knives in Germany which cause a big drop in the BUF’s membership.  Don’t forget that Oswald Mosely wanted negotiated settlement, a publicly popular stance until the invasion of Norway. The Duke of Windsor, formerly Edward VIII, also favoured appeasement. If it hadn’t been for Wallis Simpson being a divorcee, our history could have been very different.

Some may have fought because they believed in their country right or wrong.  Some may not have given one jot about the things we talk about when describing our country e.g. monarchy, but they fought anyway. Because they thought it was the right thing to do. Becuase they were asked to.  But they came from the whole spectrum of political belief. They fought alongside men from the empire, flew alongside Polish and Czech pilots.
They killed and were killed, with civilians dying as well as the forces in numbers never before seen.
The flag waving crowds after the war certainly seemed to be proud to be British. It’s not a sin to be pleased where the accident of your birth has landed you, and as Cecil Rhodes is supposed to have said “to be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life” (NB at that time English and British were used as synonyms. Uncomfortable now, but true. Must be, heard it on QI). But I guess what I’m trying to get at is that it takes a big leap from feeling pleased about it to believing you are somehow inherently better than other people because of it.
And it is uncomfortable to realise that in times of economic austerity, we again face choices.

What happened after the wars is really important.
After the first world war, as much pain as possible was inflicted on the losers – starvation, economic disaster and humiliation which as we now know lead to the rise of feelings of unfairness, seeking to blame anyone that is “other” and turning neighbours against each other while looking for someone to stand up for them.
The response to the first world war sowed the seeds of a second.

Thomas Picketty describes the period of the mid to late twentieth century as an aberration, a period in which poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity were addressed in a way that had not been before. Things couldn’t go back to the way they were. In war, traditional social class had been stripped back a bit, and the post-war election resulted in a victory for an ideology promising a fair distribution of resources and the creation of the National Health Service, which even today has resonance as a symbol of this access for all.

So there was more opportunity and equality in the late twentieth century than ever before. Or since.
Today we talk about social inequality, we talk about diversity and inclusion and we try to value difference and use it as an asset to our economy and our society. But we are already in a world of greater inequality with a gulf between the super-rich and the workers which is bigger than at any time since the 1930s, and are apparently on our way to making this irrevocable before 2050. Workers?  Well, unless you are hugely senior in financial services, a pop or film star, a business magnate or inherit a fortune, that means you. The prediction is that we are the last of the middle classes that may actually achieve the dream of a comfortable life.
We need to think about whether this is what we want. We have let the post-war dream of more equality slip from us a bit, and we need to decide if that is what we as voters and workers and a community and as individuals actually want.

Closing ourselves off will not help us.  We may be an island, but we are not a boat. We can’t just up anchor and sail off into the mid-Atlantic. The world carries on around us and we have to engage with it in order to have an economy that allows us to access the way of life we hope to have.
That means we need to talk about the EU.
I would say just for a minute, but I’d be lying. We need to talk about it a lot, because as an issue this one is certainly a bit more complicated.

Belonging to the EU costs us about £1.81 per household per day in the UK (that’s £3 if you insist on the often quoted £55 million a day figure which is gross not net). Not belonging wouldn’t give you all of that £1.81-£3 back in your pocket, by the way. There are costs to handling everything ourselves too, we’re just being told that’s not important right now because the principle of independence is self-evidently more important.

There seems to be a body of people in the UK that think that we are dictated to by a EU superstate and that this is not what all those lives, 100 years ago, 70 years ago, were spent saving us from.
The differences between a brutal, fascist dictatorship and the EU should be obvious.  A few years ago I would have said it was – obviously it still is, but it gets complicated when the EU does things that look dictatorial in the context of the Euro. More of that in a minute.

But for the UK, which is not in the Euro, there is a clear difference. We have a say in EU rules, we have a British Commissioner, British representatives in the European Parliament, British officials in the Commission and other EU bodies, our Ministers are in the Council of Ministers and our Prime Minister in the European Parliament.
As a big member state, we have a big number of votes in the Council. We can “get our way” by working together. We build coalitions. And yet the last four years has shown that we have a long way to go before we are able to discuss the concept of coalitions in political power in any sensible way without screams of selling out.
As a big member state we also have a large number of seats in the Parliament. And yet we say that we are dictated to? We send as our representatives people who say they are not going to represent us in the discussions that take place because they are ideologically opposed to those discussions taking place? We did this to ourselves.
France has done the same, of course, voting Front National. And in so doing, two of the three big member states have weakened their position in the Parliament, and the third member big member state has the most seats in the largest parliamentary group. With supreme irony, give the context, that member state is Germany.
So if you didn’t vote, perhaps inspired by Russell Brand saying not voting is sticking it to the man or just because meh, thank you. Your lack of interest means that those who did turn out have a disproportionate level of political power.
Think about it this way.
We say we want people that will stand up for Britain. We do, at every level of the EU. We’ve even negotiated to ensure Eurozone decisions don’t adversely affect us.
Since when did standing up for Britain have to be No, No, No? Oh that’s right. Handbag time. Right outcome, unfortunate long lasting effect on what “we” expect to see in negotiation.
Why isn’t getting the right deals in negotiations without threatening to walk away also seen as standing up for Britain? Because it is, in a much less polemic way. Doesn’t have the same ring to it, though, does it?

We can’t isolate ourselves, because the world will not let us.
It’s actually simple, but it looks complicated when you explain it.
If we are in business and want to trade there are international rules, and there are different standards required of the products we make. We have to meet those standards.
The difference being in the EU makes to us there is that we pool our agreement to a certain set of standards so that our products that we make for our home market are also automatically in line with the massive trading bloc from which we sit 23 miles off the coast of the main landmass (and share a land border in the island on the other side) – a single or common market, if you like.
Then, as a bigger bloc, we have more clout in agreeing standards with other big markets: the USA, China, India, the BRICs.
If we left the EU to set our own standards, we would be unaligned with the bloc next door and would basically be told what the standards would be both by them and by the other big markets. We hear that other, smaller-than-us countries than us have successfully made deals, but for some reason we never look at the quality of those deals. Chile’s deal with the USA was just time to comply with US standards!
So what would we gain? The freedom to be told what to do by other big markets.

We also need to work together to combat bigger challenges: the environment, foreign policy issues that affect us all, crimes where the perpetrator tries to use going abroad to escape arrest and prosecution (the costa del crime?). We can say that there is no man made problem with our environment (despite greater than 95% scientific consensus that there is).  We can say we can handle everything else bilaterally with other countries. But the EU is an existing mechanism for dealing with these things and costs us very little really- if we are worried that everything costs a lot, it seems strange to want to duplicate effort in this way.

One price is seen as unfettered EU immigration. There’s a lot of myths out there about what EU migrants to the UK can “get”, much of it untrue, some true, but the government seems to be acting to close some of the gaps in UK legislation so that we are bolted down to the max. But if EU migrants contribute £1.34 to the economy for every £1 of benefit given out, are more likely to start businesses than indigenous Brits, and are roughly proportionate in number to the Brits living in other EU countries, why is there so much vitriol?  If the problem is we have pressure on our public services, surely we should be asking why we are not spending that 34% economic contribution equivalent on providing more school places, hospital beds and GP appointments? Why are we not pressuring house builders to build more houses? May be it’s not that we are full but that we have stopped building the homes we need (less than 10% of the UK is urban, once you add in gardens, parks etc, you are still at an amazingly small percentage, 13% of land designated greenbelt, that still sounds like a lot of potential brownfield and non-greenbelt potential out there…)! I digress, but when it comes right down to it, we seem to be unable to discuss immigration without one side saying “racist” and the other saying “we’re full and they don’t speak our language”.

I’m not saying that the EU is in any way perfect.

Some of the things that have been done recently are so far from the freedom, liberty and equality that are supposed to be at the core of the EU that I feel queasy. Imposing a government, when economic turmoil in one country could have brought down the economy of 17 others? Ok it was short term, emergency and only in a coupe of countries and saved the day and elected governments are now in place, but this is not the democratic dream, is it? And if your past is full of dictatorship or puppet governments, as is the case for many now-EU members, this is not what you want your membership of the EU to mean.
Nor is the European Parliament’s power grab ideal for selling the idea of the EU as getting more democratic. The spitzencandidate process was an attempt to choose the Commission President by the Parliament choosing in advance individuals that would be backed by the major European Political party groupings.
But this looks like it goes beyond the constitutional rights of the European Parliament, surely? The Treaty says that the outcome of the EP elections should be taken into account by the Council, that is to say the Heads of State and Government, but that is not the same thing as imposition of a specified individual because of their party affiliation regardless of experience. Traditionally, EU leaders have sought a consensus figure. All that is required under the Treaty is for the one they chose to reflect the appropriate political background. And with a lack of decent coverage of this process in the media, not just in the UK, most voters across the EU showed a complete lack of understanding that their vote for a party equalled support for an individual of that party to be the Commission president. I do understand that this was about getting a link to the electorate, but really this seems a very ham-fisted way of attempting to retrofit a democratic element into selection of the Commission President.  As I write, debate on who will take up the role of Commission President is ongoing. It may work, it may be accepted as the way to do things in the future. Or it may not. We’ll have to wait and see.

Then there’s the Common Fisheries Policy (much better now), the Common Agricultural Policy (needs a big shake up still), the waste of money that is the monthly Parliament trip to Strasbourg, the Euro (it didn’t have to be this way but the Euro is to blame for a lot of the undemocratic stuff mentioned above), the embedding of liberal free market principles in binding supranational law… hang on, why are the right wing commentators complaining about that bit? Oh no, that’s left wing commentators.

That’s a lot of downsides, right?  But being in means you can negotiate to make the bits your are less keen on better. As long as you build your alliances.

And there are big benefits well worth £1.81-£3 a day to my household.
Any pro EU list always starts with clean bathing water, no rip-off roaming charges…
I’d also say increased GDP; being a magnet for inward investment from companies from the rest of the world looking to access the EU market brings jobs; a community intellectual property and trademark, competition law, only having to deal with one set of rules rather than 28; better air travel with more routes and rights if your flight gets cancelled; the right to travel, study, work and live anywhere across the Member States, including in retirement; medical treatment on NHS terms anywhere in the EU if you have an EHIC card; guaranteeing social rights including parental leave and equal pay (a big deal for workers – especially women- in employment, but might not mean much to the self-employed I guess); and finally enhancing our chances of prosperity while Germany shows us that membership is not what hampers us from increasing our trade with the rest of the world (they export a higher percentage of their goods outside the EU than we do and don’t even have the headstart that the Commonwealth* could offer).

But there’s a really big benefit that is worth remembering today. The EU is all about making war between us impossible.
After the second world war, there was a push to get European countries to recognise that for peace and prosperity they needed to work together.
There was a requirement to work together to get aid under the Marshall Plan.
And the pooling of resources, starting with coal and steel, meaning that the Member States did not have the capacity to go to war with each other again formed that very first ECSC Treaty. The EEC, the European Economic Community that followed, encouraged working together with common values include liberty, democracy, a respect for human rights and basic civil liberties, and rule by law.
This shows us that the EU is rooted in trying to ensure peace across our continent. Yes, ours. The one we sit just 23 miles off the coast of. The one that was accessible by foot 9000 years ago and is now, if you really had to and could walk through the tunnels without getting flattened by a train. And arrested. I digress again.

Working together with our neighbours in an organisation in which we have a say in the decision-making is not betraying what our forefathers fought and died for. But we need to make sure that organisation cannot become something that does not represent us and our values, those founding values, of liberty, democracy, human rights, civil liberties and the rule of law that came out of those dreadful wars. We can do that from the inside.

We are also free to choose to have none of it – decide that we are too different to our neighbours, we want to pull up the drawbridge, and that when we encounter difficulties those that are “other” are the ones to blame for our economic or social woes… (it’s strange how those words keep coming back).  The reality is that it wouldn’t change the globalised world we live in, nor will it mean others won’t have power over us in terms of trade, finance, what our currency is worth. We’d just be that bit less influential in setting the terms.

I would not dare to presume to know whether those that died on D-day, or in the first world war, would have been in favour of the EU if they had survived to see it.

But thanks to them, we will settle these decisions on who we are and what our role is in the world with pens and paper, not guns and bombs. Words, not violence so everyone can make decisions that affect their lives freely and fairly. That’s what they fought for. Restoring that is all that war can ever be good for.

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* Just as an aside, on the Commonwealth, why does it have to be EU or Commonwealth as a focus for trade? Why can’t it be both/ and? And given that Australia – rather than feeling rejected by the UK as one of its ministers said when Britain joined the EEC in 1973- views itself as an Asian economy these days, who says Commonwealth countries are looking to become bigger trading partners with a EU outside the EU?  Churchill may have had a vision of a United States of Europe (with Britain outside heading her empire of course) but the Commonwealth is not the empire and it feels sometimes that the lack of appreciation of the change of the UK’s global status that is what’s stopping us really getting into the EU. We are a significant world economy, a G7 member, but we’re not head of a global empire any more. And it is not unpatriotic to say so.

 

The ten surprising things about being a parent

I am a mum of two. As the littlest one is now old enough to be fun, I joined in my local NCT’s challenge to talk about the things that surprise you as a parent.

I’m not surprised at the love, protectiveness, fun and joy involved in being a parent, but here’s some things that have surprised me most…

1) changing your own children’s nappies is not nearly as bad as you imagined, and is good training for laughing off the potential disasters you’ll deal with potty training.

2) going in to see teachers at school is scary, even though you are a grown up, work, have friends or family that are teachers etc. etc.

3) it genuinely is easier with a second child because you have the confidence and not because they are easier…

4) you will find yourself saying things you never thought you would have to:
“please don’t lick the sculptures”
“she is not a wookie, take that furry hat off your sister’s back”
“you’ll turn into a chicken nugget”

5) you might be more upset by your child trotting happily into nursery without a backwards glance to you than by tears and clinging!

6) you do eventually learn to sleep again, a whole night, in your own bed with only the person you chose to get into it with…

7) even if you want to be your kids’ friend, you have to be the grown up. Even if you don’t feel like it. It is your kids’ turn to be the children. (This one can be really hard to accept)

8) but you may not have buried your inner child as deep as you thought. Doing messy and silly stuff with you kids is fun!

9) you will be able to explain anything through the medium of star wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Horrible Histories or whatever else they get obsessed by.

10) everyone will say how much your kids are like you/ your partner/ other relatives in looks and personality. It is fun for a bit but ultimately they are their own people and your job is to love them unconditionally, to help them to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be. Everything else is method.

Peas and preternaturally sensitive princesses

For homework this week, my son has to tell a traditional tale orally. The class has already done as a group the ones I would normally have suggested, so we have rehearsed together a six year old friendly version of the Princess and the pea…

Once there was a prince who had to get married.
His father had seized the throne and chucked out much of the old things of the kingdom, including the last of the previous royals.
(You don’t want to ask what happened to them, as the prince once had).
The people weren’t happy – they had loved seeing the little curly haired Princess Olivia whose family had been deposed.
But when you are crushed under the yoke of serfdom, one set of royals are pretty much the same as another and the folk traditions had more or less continued as they were and people just got on with things.
And here was the Prince’s problem – only a married person could rule. Since his father’s death, his mother had ruled as regent. But she could only do so for a little while. She was getting old and getting tired and wanted to go on holiday in Mustique for the winter months. He had to find a wife.
Every little girl in the kingdom, serf or aristocrat, was raised to believe that they were a princess. They all wore pink and had little tiaras that they popped onto their heads at every possible occasion.
“So I can marry anyone?” said the prince.
But the queen regent was having none of it. “You must marry a real princess”.
But how could he know who was a real princess?
The queen dusted off the palace library’s guide to etiquette and traditions of the kingdom. “A princess must be sensitive”, she read.
“How on earth can we test that?” asked the prince.
“Let’s put something small and hard under something soft and see who can feel it”.
“Oh. How will that test whether she’s compassionate?”
“Compassion? What’s that got to do with anything? What you need, my boy, according to this book is a girl with sensitive skin”.
“But mother, I don’t…?”
“Who’s queen?”
The prince sighed.
“Now”, said the queen, “I’ll make a list of all the eligible princesses from the nearby kingdoms in alphabetical order. You need to order twelve mattresses and a pea”…
-
So Princess Annabel came to stay. She baulked at the ladder in her suite and refused to climb it. Sensitivity to heights wasn’t what the queen ordered, so she was out.

Bulky Princess Bertha found and ate the pea.

If you wanted a princess who could pee through a dozen mattresses, then soggy princess Caroline would be perfect.

Princess Davina spilt ribena in the bed and Princess Elaine left in shame. Princess Fiona said thanks but she was happy with her husband, Shrek.
Princesses Gabriella, Henrietta and Isabella were off to America.
Princess Jasmine insisted on sleeping on her own magic carpet.
Princess Katherine was looking after little Prince George. The queen quickly crossed her off the list, not because she was already a queen-in-waiting but because she had only married into royalty.

And so it continued – every princess that was really a princess still had something wrong with her.
The prince suggested he be allowed to seek a wife among the kingdom’s commoners.
The queen refused to give up. The cry of the gulls was just at the edge of hearing, the white sand almost between her toes – she had to find the right real princess.

One dark and stormy night, there was a knock at the palace door. The head butler answered, and told the bedraggled girl there to go away.
As she turned to leave, he said “Wait. How did you get past all the guards in the grounds to reach this door?”
The girl pushed a curl out of her eye. “I just – it’s funny, I just sort of knew, like I had been here before”.
The butler squinted at her. “What’s your name?”
“Olive, sir”.
“Olive from where?”
“I don’t really know, sir. My family fell on hard times and we had to leave my hometown when I was very little. This was my first visit to the city, and I got lost on the way back to my lodgings”.
The butler looked again. Could it be possible? “Stay there”, he said.
The butler scuttled off to see the queen. “Ma’am? I may just have found you a real princess!”

The prince came down to breakfast the following morning, and found his mother in a state of some excitement.
“Oh darling, wonderful news, just wonderful. If my hunch is right, a real princess has just wandered to our own front door!”
“A real princess?”
“Oh yes. Banished from her home, raised in impoverished circumstances and now returned to reclaim her birthright. And she solves all our problems. If it is Princess Olivia in the pea suite, we have a true princess, and the whole nasty business of your father winning the throne by conquest can be overcome by a dynastic match as I had hoped in the first place…”
“Princess Olivia?”
“Yes. Now, if she can just feel that pea…”

The prince headed down to the pea suite. Olive was by the fireplace, drying her hair with a towel.
“Olivia?”
“Olive, sir. I mean your majesty”.
“Sir is just fine. Olive”
“Yes, sir, Olive. On account of -”
“It’s Arthur, by the way, not that I would rule as King Arthur. I’m thinking of changing it to Henry. Less portentous”.
“Do you think so? I shouldn’t like to live my life worried about something as silly as that. But then I’m named after a bitter fruit with a heart of stone  – imagine if that affected my personality!”
“You’re right of course. But King Arthur suggests magic swords and wizards and then where would we be?”
“Camelot?”
The prince laughed. “I like you, Olive. Listen, I need to tell you something”.

-

“Mother? Can I introduce Olive?”
The queen looked up from her kippers. “A moment, Arthur. Now, my dear”, she turned to Olive, “how did you sleep?”
“Thank you for your kindness, I should have had the most comfortable night ever with that many mattresses”, said Olive. “I have never before had to use a ladder to get into bed. Well, may be just once before, the night I slept in a hayloft -”
“As you left your home behind? Oh my dear how perfectly dreadful for you”, said the queen.
“Should have had?” asked the prince.
“Yes, sir. How could a dozen mattresses not be comfortable? And yet I have a pain in the small of my back”.
If the queen had not been queen, she would have punched the air in victory. “Arthur dear, would you leave the room please?”
The prince left and the queen immediately demanded to see Olive’s back. There was a small mark, purplish red, like a large pea.

-

A few weeks later, Arthur was crowned king.
His mother left the palace immediately taking only sunglasses, a bikini and a retinue of servants who had passports.
And Olive? She decided not to become a shopkeeper like her parents. The delicatessen business turned out to be less stable than her father had hoped, so he was retiring. But her sisters Rosemary and Flora promised to rebuild the business in the capital city if Olive became queen.
Olive liked making King Arthur laugh. They decided to date a bit before getting married to see that they really could get on in the long term. But they couldn’t help reflecting on the happy coincidence that her olive-shaped birthmark that gave her her name looked just like a pea if that was what you wanted to see…

Boards, breastfeeding, Forum furore!

Last time I had a baby, having access to a parenting forum kept me sane. This time, I’m torn between clinging to the support they can give and wanting to throw the computer across the room in frustration!  I’m not going to go into now why I don’t share too much personal information and am suspicious of those asking what our other halves do, seek photos of our babies, our locations etc. – if I gave all that out I might as well not use a username pseudonym.
which come across as simply trying to extract data from us all. A few thoughts, posted here because to post them there would be to become one of the people that wind me up….

1) everyone’s comments are not equally valid
I’m sorry, but expertise and experience matter. In the internet age, anyone with an electronic device can offer a view but that doesn’t make them in any way qualified or sensible. You see this on TV programmes all the time, where Sue from Whitby and Ray tweeting from Croydon are afforded as much airtime as the expert panellists- the public are generally a bit suspicious of experts these days and social media and the internet afford many opportunities to seek out only those voices that validate your existing opinions and dismiss what you disagree with.
Let me show you what I mean.
I happen to know a lot about SIDS, and having seen its impact on people I love, I have sought out the best and most recent advice in order to reduce the risk as far as possible for my children.
Top tips for cutting chances are not to overheat your child’s room at night; to lie them flat on their backs; to use a crib;  do not prop them with blankets, cushions etc.; not keep them in car seats or rockers for long periods; put them feet to foot in a crib; use a baby sleeping bag and not add more clothes or blankets than the manufacturer advises; not to co sleep; to use a dummy in the first year once breastfeeding has been established and to try to breastfeed.
Almost every day there is a post on the forum on one of these issues.
And some women, who have decided to do things a certain way say my child only sleeps on his tummy or I put mine in his 22c bedroom in vest, gloves, babygro and 2.5 tog grobag, or I co sleep so the baby can regulate to my heartbeat.
The poster, usually a first time mum says, wow, thanks good to know it is OK.
If anyone questions it, these women say well it works for me, or our parents did this with us and nothing happened to us. Or it’s been done for centuries, all over the world, so it must be OK. I’m entitled to my opinion as you are entitled to yours.
Well that’s just great. It never occurs to them that they are the lucky ones, the blessed ones who survived. The point about research and advances in human knowledge is that they are just that, advances. We do, sometimes, know better than we did in the past. Infant mortality from SIDS has declined as more families have followed the advice. For me, I value the expert advice. Sometimes in a Pratchettian armpit of a bad night, I’d dearly love to keep my asleep-but-screams-if-put-down baby into bed with me, so I don’t have to get up again, but I don’t.

2) If you doubt the expert advice, you’d better have a good reason
This is not a contradiction with point 1. Weaning, drinking in pregnancy and vaccinations serve as the examples here…
To understand the weaning issues, you first need to know about breastfeeding. Back when I was at school, I joined a campaign against Nestlé because they were apparently telling women in the third world that their formula was superior nutrition to the mother’s breast milk (there may have been a small element of truth to this where the maternal diet was poot quality). The mothers therefore spent money that could have been spent on the rest of the family to buy formula milk they didn’t need and making it up with dirty water, which endangered their babies. To fight this, the World Health Organisation issued guidance on breastfeeding – mothers in developing countries should breastfeed exclusively until 6 months when babies should be healthy and weaning should start. This avoided the dirty water issue, if not the maternal diet issue.
I have mixed fed both my children having had serious issues with breastfeeding that no end of breastfeeding counselling cannot correct. People are often surprised that I use formula because frankly, I am articulate, middle class and buy organic food. (I also use disposable nappies, albeit eco disposables…) Put simply, I thank God that I live in a country where formula is easily available as without it I wouldn’t have been able to feed my babies, wet nurses being rather harder to come by than in the past.
I weaned my son at 20 weeks, within the NHS guidance at the time of 4-6 months. He was drinking over a litre of formula a day and still hungry. He loved food – I did baby rice and purees rather than baby led weaning because he was under six months and I was afraid he’d end up choking on bits.
For my daughter, I’m told the guidance has changed.
All babies everywhere should be exclusively breastfed for six months, and follow-on formula milk is unnecessary as nutrition can be gained from the food and continued breast milk (or first infant formula).
As a second time mum I say pah! This feels like the breastfeeding lobby getting at the guidance. My child needed to be weaned before 6 months. He is not an average, or a statistic, he is my child and I have to take decisions for his health. I also gave him follow-on milk. He inherited his father’s childhood extreme tonsillitis and so didn’t take in as much food as he should have, so the additional nutrients were useful to him. The same will be true for my daughter.
Weaning has been advised at different stages over many years, but while I feel six months is being recommended as a political timing, shorter timings have physiological reasons against them. Some of the mums on the forum have been advised to wean at nine weeks, twelve weeks, fifteen weeks. But early weaning appears to have a link to IBS so should they be doing so? Some of the other mums are very outspoken but mostly this is due to personal experience. Others cannot control themselves and accuse other mums of trying to damage their children.
There are some claims that weaning before six months causes childhood obesity. Who knows if that is the key factor in childhood obesity- I’d love to know how you control for the other factors.
Besides, there are some frankly amazing claims made for breastfeeding many of which relate more to the parents that generally persist in doing it than the act or the milk itself, and I can’t help but feel that this criticism of weaning before six months may actually be related to concurrent factors. More of which in a minute.
Is this any different to the well we were all right, there will be another expert along in a moment vieview re SIDS above? I’d argue yes, as weaning doesn’t put lives at stake.

By the way, while trying my best to breastfeed I do worry about the pressure women are put under. I was told by a breastfeeding expert the first time that feeding my child formula was like giving him a MacDonald’s. I was made to feel like a bad mother because I couldn’t feed my child without help. A health visitor this time round pointed out that even the most dedicated organic vegan would surely give their child a MacDonald’s if the alternative was see them starve to death…

Many women could not follow the guidance to only drink moderately in pregnancy, and children were being born with foetal alcohol syndrome. So the guidance was made easier – don’t drink at all. But the majority of lightly drinking women had no problems so current NHS guidance is pragmatic and adds that if you do drink 1-2 units a week is the maximum appropriate level. Again, there are women that insist that even a drop of alcohol, any time in pregnancy, could be the drop that causes foetal alcohol syndrome. I can’t help feeling that this is on a par with nothing but breast milk must touch your babies lips in the first six months, that there is more nuance and individual circumstance that ought to be taken into account.

As for vaccination, most people know now that the apparent link between MMR and autism was not real. But as the measles epidemic in Swansea shows, flawed data in research coupled with a public suspicion of experts as above meant that no matter how much assurance of safety followed, enough people decided against vaccination to constitute a public health risk. Getting your child vaccinated is not just about your child’s health, it is also a public good. There will be others that cannot have the vaccination and if the rate of immunisation in the general population is high enough then they will be protected too. Vaccination, along with scientific research into SIDS etc. has dramatically reduced infant mortality. And that’s a fact, even if you personally don’t like it.

Refusing vaccination has bigger societal consequences than when to wean in the long run. Deciding when to listen to experts is vital.

3) sometimes you have to look at things in the best light and realise you are not being “got at”
In a hospital in Australia, the Special Care Baby Unit offers formula milk for formula-fed babies and meals to breastfeeding mothers. A pro-formula feeding group on Facebook claims that this is discriminatory against mothers using formula because they would have to leave their sick children to go and spend money in the hospital canteen.
I suspect that, from the hospital viewpoint, this is simple: their responsibility is to feed the patient either by providing the milk directly, or indirectly via the mother. The welfare of the parents is a very secondary consideration. However, if you are in an open plan ward and mums are asked whether they breast or bottle feed and are given food or not accordingly, then it probably feels like penalising them for their feeding choices.
So there are two very different ways of looking at the same situation. As will all things maternity, and particularly when children are not well, hormones and emotions run high and it would be easy to feel judged for not breastfeeding even if that was not at all the basis on which the decision re feeding parents may have been taken. As a mixed feeder, I assume I’d get a meal… May be I’d not get a dessert!

The forum boards are full of this kind of thing, and also people taking things very personally. They write things to each other on a forum that they would never say face to face(unless on the Jeremy Kyle Show).
There is a school of thought that posting on a forum makes you fair game for anyone that wants to comment.
Some people post to provoke debate, or worse to provoke arguments. Some people even post a message to say they are leaving a forum as they have been offended, which of course is provocative of itself. While internet forums might be the ultimate democracy, the undermining of the expert view is dangerous, especially when the alternative is a free for all of disinformation. Oh, and try not to say anything you would not want said to 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…

Doctor Who Next?

Aaaaaaaarrrrrrrgggggggghhhhh!
Matt Smith has announced he is leaving Doctor Who.
I’m not bothered about that- he’s done four years and moved the character into new places, he’ll be in the 50th anniversary special and regenerate, as David Tennant’s Doctor did, in the seasonal specials at Christmas.
That’s a good innings in modern Who.

Complexity and loose ends:
So I’m not worried about a regeneration. No, my arrrrggggghhhh is because I find the uninformed press and forum stuff so irritating.
Doctor Who is not nearly as complicated as people seem to think. My five year old can follow the story, albeit that he will repeat-watch episodes until he does.

It can be a bit annoying when the writers seem to leave loose ends but usually there’s a tiny payoff somewhere that deals with it, even if some time later.
For example why did the Silence want to keep the Doctor from Trenzalore? We assumed they shared Mme Korvarian’s loathing of this warrior figure that dominated history but don’t know for sure and at the moment. After “The Name of the Doctor” it looks like it was actually to keep the Great Intelligence from removing him from time altogether, so their plan was to kill him before he reached Trenzalore as a less damaging solution to a Doctor-free universe? The Big Bang 2 universe reboot at the end of new series 5 deals with the exploding TARDIS/ cracks in the fabric of the universe issue by making it all never have happened. So we don’t have to know more than that unless we are dedicated fanfic writers.

Mostly it is clear though…
But most of the stuff being thrown around on the fan sites at present is just annoying because it suggests that they have just not watched the programme they claim to love.

Let’s see…
Is River the Doctor’s wife? Yes, of course, both characters have said so repeatedly. It doesn’t matter if the marriage is in an aborted time stream, there is a whole story with them happening off screen as shown by the shorts filmed as DVD extras (in the series 6 box set).

Is Clara really the Doctor/ the Doctor’s mother/ a regeneration of River/ the Rani? No she’s the girl born to save the Doctor.

Is John Hurt a past or future Doctor? At the end of “The Name of the Doctor” the caption introduces him “as the Doctor”. We know that the eleventh Doctor recognises him, even though he’d tried to forget him. We suspect that he is what the Doctor saw in his room at the hotel in “The God Complex”. We also know that the Doctor does not always recognise his future self – David “10″ Tennant and Peter “5″ Davison in the Children In Need short “Time Crash” show this… So John Hurt is a past Doctor. Probably. The costume suggests a combination of Paul “8″ McGann and Christopher “9″ Eccleston. I doubt that is accidental either. And in the episode the Doctor is clear that the figure is him, but not The Doctor any more, the one that broke the promise that goes with the name.
Given the costume clue and the words, I suspect that he’s a version of the Doctor from the Time War. The one that killed Everyone and sealed the Time War. The biggest mass murderer in history. The one from being whom we know the Ninth Doctor was running and seeking redemption.

Guessing is half the fun though.

Do numbers matter?
There’s so much debate about whether that means that the Doctors need to be renumbered. Is Tennant really Eleven? Is Smith really Twelve? And why then was there so much made of Eleven during Smith’s tenure? (His first episode was “The Eleventh Hour”, his God Complex room was number 11, Clara says that Amy Williams’s book’s best chapter is eleven…)
Partly this is because in the old series’ of Doctor Who, the Timelords always claimed to have 13 lives. A Sixth Doctor story “Trial of a Timelord” introduced The Valeyard (pronounced Va-Lay-Yard), an incarnation of all the dark aspects of the Doctor apparently from between his twelfth and final regenerations.
So why the fuss? The key thing here is that in most TV series leaving open the possibility of twelve other actors being able to take over a role would be plenty. But Doctor Who has existed in many formats over 50 years. 50! And with an average tenure of four years thirteen actors is not enough to keep this successful series running much longer, and that cannot happen when it is so loved and such a money spinner for the BBC. What can be done?
Well, just as the Valeyard can be the Doctor without the numbering, surely John Hurt’s character can be an incarnation without numbering. That means no one has to be renumbered, but doesn’t deal with the thirteen regeneration problem.
Bringing back David Tennant- a frequent fan cry- might also be possible storywise, but again not a
Long term solution.
The best bet is to just grab the Doctor’s throwaway line from the BBC spinoff series “The Sarah Jane Adventures” episodes “Death of the Doctor” in which he tells Clyde Langer that he can regenerate 507 times. Can it just be changed like that? With Matt Smith as the Doctor and Russell T Davis as the writer, SJA stories are certainly canon. And besides, wibbly wobbly timey wimey. It’s only a TV series.

And the Next Doctor?
What about who should play the Doctor after Matt Smith?
There’s the usual ridiculous speculation in the press, from Rupert “Ron Weasley” Grint to Catherine Tate, Zac Effron to Dame Helen Mirren. Facebook fan sites keep suggesting American actors, and there are questions about appropriate ethnicity, gender, age etc. that are making the news.
I don’t need the Doctor to be a woman. I know, feminist blogger, you might find that surprising. I feel like a big fuss is being made.

A Female Doctor?
The Doctor’s appeal is not (unless you are a truly tragic fan girl) sex appeal, it is the joy of the adventure. There’s no reason why it could not be a woman from that perspective. Timelords can switch gender- the Doctor talks about this in the context of the Corsair in “The Doctor’s Wife” (“ooh she was a BAD girl”). So Timelord mythology allows for it.
I’m sure Helen Mirren, Danni Harmer, Olivia Coleman and all the other amazing women being touted in the press would be brilliant as a Doctor-type character. But for me, the Doctor is male because there are plotlines that get put forward for female characters and others for male and until scriptwriters, editors, producers etc. can write as well for three dimensional female characters without resorting to sexual threat, indecisiveness or handling the issue of motherhood effectively as the major motivator for action, then I’d rather not see the character changed so dramatically.
To accompany the male lead, there have been a series of strong female companions in the modern series. That’s strong in the sense of headstrong and a bit arrogant, but it is better than just screaming “Doctor! Help!” at every opportunity like sidekicks of old. And he hasn’t had romantic relationships with all of them. Moving on from Rose and Martha by introducing a companion as best mate, a married couple (and a wife!) allowed the sexual tension elements to take a backseat, which was good for story purposes.

Does the Doctor have to be white?
There’s a brief running joke in Doctor Who that he’s not been ginger yet. Rather like Greebo, Nanny Ogg’s cat in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series when briefly transformed into a human, the Doctor has at his last two regenerations expressed disappointment at not being ginger. Some people seemed to misinterpret Matt Smith’s words “still not ginger” but no, this was a pro-redhead statement. Casting Damian Lewis or Rupert Grint as the Doctor would neatly cover this issue, but I think both are unlikely.
Leaving ginger hair aside, race is a different matter. I don’t think that the programme, its makers, viewers or the BBC are institutionally racist. The Doctor is a timelord, not a human, but his appearance changes. There is no reason for his skin to always be Caucasian. And there are fantastic and already successful actors who would be amazing in the role: Adrian Lester, Dev Patel, Patterson Joseph, Chiwetel Ejiofor, each would make the role his own. Doctor Who has raised race in earth time travel before via Martha Jones, the first black companion, in “The Shakespeare Code”… And decided not to make it an issue.
Throughout the Russell T Davis and Stephen Moffat eras, colourblind casting of characters means that key roles (such as Mickey Smith), minor characters (Donna’s husband Sean Temple or Doctor Moon) and mixed race relationships are not a big deal but the norm.

Kissing Jack?
Despite the increased amount of kissing (companions male and female, air kissing everyone) and soap opera will-they-won’t-they required to make a hit of new Who in these sex-filled times, other than references to his family in the past, the Doctor is not about having sex – indeed the Doctor sees no reason not to give a newly married couple bunk beds! Whether Captain Jack Harkness’s 51st century “omnisexuality” or Amy’s agreement to be the bridesmaid at her friend’s gay wedding, Doctor Who presents homosexuality as a normal part of life – just as it should be, and not a “gay agenda” as some critics tried to say.
So sexuality is not an issue in casting the Doctor. Russell Tovey, who has already appeared as Midshipman Alonso Frame in the Starship Titanic Christmas special “Voyage of the damned” and high up in the betting to be the 12th doctor would be the first openly gay Doctor if he got the role.

The Doctor is over a thousand years old…
When Matt Smith was cast, he was the first Doctor younger than me. The press kept asking if he was too young. His acting showed that age is no impediment for an actor of his calibre, especially given that the character is now more than a thousand years old. One of the worries was that a younger character inevitably mean more of a relationship focus to the show. It didn’t – the Doctor treated relationships like an eight year old, a bit yuck, a bit oooooh.
The bookie’s favourite at present is Ben Daniels. He’s exactly the sort of actor I would cast: older, a little grizzled and giving the impression of both capability and having more going on than it at first appears… he was brilliant in The State Within, and he’s already appeared in Merlin which is kind of a standard for British science fiction and fantasy roles… But that almost certainly means he won’t get it.
The Doctor Who team never seem to go for the predictable choice. And the show is better for it.

The Doctor is English- isn’t he?
The Doctor is an alien. But a very English one. And the show has a very English feel and sense of humour. This doesn’t mean that the lead would have to be British, but it does mean that there is an expectation that the character sounds a certain way. David Tennant played the role English despite his own accent being Scottish. Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor had a northern English accent rather than RP, but still was English.
I feel a bit differently about whether an American could/ should be cast.
Neither old nor new Who has been afraid of going to America. We’ve had Daleks in Manhattan, the Silence in Utah. Captain Jack has an American/ Canadian accent despite being from the Boeshan Peninsula space colony.
This is entirely reasonable. The Doctor can travel anywhere in time and space, he loves earth and would not avoid one of the big continents. And the BBC cannot afford to ignore it offend its biggest overseas market for programmes, particularly if co-funding is available.
British actors are making it in America. Damien Lewis (Homeland) and Hugh Laurie (House) do excellent American accents but are British. Jonny Lee Miller is clearly having a whale of a time playing (British) Sherlock Holmes in (US show) Elementary, even if he does have to talk about “cell phones” to be understood. And we know Gweneth Paltrow and Renee Zellwegger both did convincingly British accents as Jane Austen’s Emma/ Helen in Sliding Doors and Bridget Jones.
But weirdly for a show based around an alien that can go anywhere and any when, Doctor Who is English. As the Starz co-funded series of Torchwood showed, relocating to the USA and having a strongly American cast can be going too far from the British roots, and can serve to undermine the integrity of the show that attracted viewers in the first place.
You may still have an interesting show, but not what viewers thought they were watching. One thing is clear from fan forums – if you want to do that, do it as a reboot for a US film, not the BBC TV series.

So who will be the next Doctor? Given the announcement, it is likely that the new actor has already Ben cast and is desperately trying not to tell a soul. Well, black/white, gay/straight, male/female, this role is one of the prizes of British television. Whoever gets it will be one lucky actor indeed.

The world post Mrs T

Whatever you think of her politics, Mrs Thatcher had a massive impact on Britain and around the world.

Her death today, peacefully, from a stroke marks the end of an era. For one thing, I was two when she became Prime Minister. Her union-crushing, cabinet-squashing, war-waging, handbag-wielding characteristics defined a way of being Prime Minister against which all of her predecessors have been judged, no matter how different the political circumstances in which they govern, even 34 years later.

For women, she was the first female Prime Minister. But while she used her femininity to her advantage especially when dealing with the private school and nanny brigade of men that formed her cabinets, she famously said that she owed nothing to feminism.
She promoted few women to the top ranks of politics, and did little to further the lot of women in society. Perhaps if you are the wife of a millionaire you see little need to help women balance their work and home lives if you chose not to.
But she is so totemic that she still inspires women of all political persuasions onto politics and any woman seeking to hold that top office will always be compared to her. And not just in the UK – Angela Merkel is forever described as Germany’s iron lady, and as a woman of the centre right the Thatcher comparison is apt.

It is interesting that Thatcher was sometimes misunderstood.
While she said that there was no such thing as society, the rest of the quote makes clear that she expected individuals and families to look after themselves rather than expect things to be handed to them, and then to look after their neighbours, not because the government said that society was to be structured so, but because her Christian upbringing and normal human decency meant this was the right and proper thing to do.
And on Europe, the much alluded to Bruges speech that set out her eurosceptic position looks positively pro-EU moderate compared with some of the language used today. She was after all the woman who agreed the Single European Act, the legislation that paved the way for the single market, which is one of the most far reaching and positively regard pieces of sovereignty pooling legislation ever agreed.

Mrs Thatcher made the role of Prime Minister presidential. In part this was because of her personal affinity for Ronald Reagan and the American way of doing things. In part, it was because she truly believed herself the most competent person for the job. But through her overshadowing of cabinet government (so brilliantly sent up in Spitting Image – Thatcher and the cabinet out to dinner “I’ll have the steak” “And the vegetables?” “They’ll have the steak too”), her embodiment of the nation on the world stage, holding her own alongside the USA in the cold war imagery… She set the tone for the cult of the leader and the televised Prime Ministerial election debates and the sound bite culture that is second nature for us now.

Thatcher was the most successful Prime Minister in terms of winning elections until Tony Blair. While we might talk of Prime Ministers of the future being the “heir to Blair”, we shouldn’t forget that Blair himself was keen to show himself to be as strong a leader as Thatcher had been, and ever Gordon Brown sought to bring a little authority and star dust to his premiership by wheeling out Mrs T to pose by the famous front door of No 10 Downing Street alongside him.

There is bound to be a load of comments about whether the world is a better or worse place after Thatcher, mourning and comments on the decline of the nation since in the right wing press and ding dong the witch is dead from the left wing commentators. I’m sure we’re about to get the state funeral debate.

But one thing is clear, she changed the political debate in Britain.

Life since Thatcher is different.
The cold war is over.
The “enemy”, the other, is much less easy to define.
The Falklands are still British.
The selective education system that enabled a middle class bright but poor girl like Thatcher to get to Oxford, get a good job and give her experience of work outside politics is reviled. Many politicians these days have not worked outside the political world.
The UK is still part of the EU although there is less consensus about what the EU is or should be and do than those simple days of rebate debates and ever closer union bicycles.
Britain retains its place at the world’s top tables, but the power balance in the world is shifting east, far east.

It is not possible to understand British politics today without knowing about Margaret Thatcher.
Not bad for a grammar school girl from Grantham.
That’s some legacy.

Talking about the town

Today I was lucky enough to be part of a session at Ashford Borough Council on regenerating the town centre.  I’m not going to use this blog to repeat everything said there’s indeed, although it wasn’t made clear what rules applied I’m fairly confident Chatham House rules would suffice – but attending the session got me thinking again about what I should want out of my home town.

Ashford’s situation has changed a bit in the time that we lived here.  When we arrived, Ashford’s Future existed, with grandiose schemes for making Ashford truly Best Placed in Kent.  But a change of government funding policy and the overall impact of the economic downturn has put paid to that.

About 18 months ago, I was asked to speak at a Council awayday about my thoughts on Ashford 2030- the vision for the town in the next few years.  While my thoughts remain in a similar vein now, I’m aware that nothing can really happen unless funding is available, and in a recession both the public and private sectors find this hard to come by.

Now, Ashford has achieved Portas Pilot status.  This means funding is available for some things, and a snapshot of these shows that the priority areas are thought to be making the most of the market, connecting the designer outlet centre with the town so that the town can share in the estimated 5-7 million visits made there each year, and seeking arts-based development (something the neighbouring town of Folkestone seems to be doing successfully).

So I promised a few thoughts that flowed from all this…

1) Why come into town? Who is it for?
Today, rightly, the focus was on footfall. From my perspective, wrongly, it focused solely on footfall in the town centre rather than looking at the circumstances affecting that…a town centre accompanied by an outlet centre, an out of town park with restaurants and the cinema, ringed by the third biggest Sainsbury’s in the country, two Tesco extras, a Waitrose, an Asda… These things affect the High Street as much as what is actually here or not here because all of these things can be described as coming to Ashford but they are not complementary and do not feed each other.
By ignoring these factors, the towns similar to Ashford information generated felt wrong – it did not seen to bring up those with similar challenges (Swindon, Maidenhead, that sort of place) – just those with similar footfall.

More interesting is the demographics, information also potentially accessible via the 2011 census. Folkestone may well be prospering by matching its retail to its demographic- Primark, TK maxx, Peacocks. Ashford, it seems has a large, affluent, family-based group of consumers who are not being sufficiently catered for in the town. While I might feel that the fashion offering is generally either too young or too old for me, it seems the silver surfer generation feel that it is not for them either. And as the two social groups with most disposable income, this is not a healthy situation for a town.

Tenterden has many of the more upmarket retailers and those stores have indicated before that with a store there and another in Canterbury, they wouldn’t also be looking to have one in Ashford. So simply increasing market share of available consumers is not a simple matter.

Everyone always talks about pop up shops, but while they are OK if you already have regular shoppers, I can’t see how they attract new visitors or, more importantly, attract long term investment in an area. Similarly the trend for street food has not yet reached Ashford, but while street food vendors have lower overheads than hospitaIity units in permanent buildings,that lack of permanency means no long term legacy when they decide to move on.

And as for hospitality in Ashford, independents seem to keep disappearing but while there are pubs and coffee shops, I’ve found little for the mums and kids beyond fast food. I like the occasional McDonalds as much as the next woman, but what if you want to have hummus in preference to chicken nuggets?
The “nice” restaurants are outside the town centre, in Kennington, Tenterden, Mersham-le-hatch, Mersham, Bodsham… But if you’ve got to travel anyway (all of these are car journeys from Ashford) it is also in Wye, Canterbury and Folkestone’s regenerated harbour – and all of those are on the same high-speed train line as Ashford. Destination food that might lead me to spend time in the place I get it from. That’s one thing Ashford is really missing.

2) Transport: a mixed blessing
In identifying competitor towns, the tendency is always to think local. Canterbury, Folkestone, Maidstone, and slightly further afield Sevenoaks and Tonbridge Wells might seem like the natural alternatives, but for a day out shopping many Ashfordians head to Bluewater (40 minutes by car, the same by train-and-bus combo), or to London.
While there have always been commuters in Ashford, the arrival of a 38 minute high-speed link to Stratford and St Pancras International means an influx of relatively affluent families looking to spend London wages in cheaper and more rural surroundings. Season tickets at over £6000 a year are such a chunk of income that many look to get their money’s worth. So weekend trips are effectively “free” and shopping at Westfield Stratford is only half an hour away with a massive food court.
Also, without retail at the station in Ashford, I often shop on the way home from London so my wages are gained by M&S food hall at St Pancras rather than in my home town. This is daft.

The problem though is also more local. I always laugh when monorails are mentioned, remembering the conman in The Simpsons, but seriously the 50p bus ride between the outlet and the town is not doing much to encourage interchange and a fifteen minute walk under a damp railway bridge is not really going to cut it either. So feature transportation might be a worthwhile investment – something that means the kids pester to be allowed to do it (a bus ride to the hospital yesterday was described by my son as a fun day out so this is not as ridiculous as it may initially sound). And a monorail might well do just that.

3) On foot, on street parking or online?
If I need something quickly, I’ll pop into town. Particularly if I have to have something in my hand that day.
But it depends what I want. So while apparently there’s no reason why a town Ashford’s size should be sustain a music store, if there’s no hmv there anymore for that last minute birthday present, I don’t go elsewhere, I hop onto Amazon and get it delivered to the recipient’s door. Even if it does mean I won’t have it immediately.
If the small retail units in town mean that what I need (maternity clothes, big bras) are not stocked, then I’ll go online. Some retailers in town now offer to do this for me (hats off to Debenhams) which at least guarantees them the sale and I’m no worse off as delivery to home is free and only takes the same time as ordering it from their website at home would take.
Internet shopping is after all simply a glorified form of mail order, but with access to a range of products no high street could reasonably be expected to stock. But it is a threat to the high street.
I don’t think about driving into Ashford – I live within five minutes of one part of the town centre, but many people cite parking charges as prohibitively high. The lesson from Swindon seems to be to ignore the clamour to raise revenue through high parking charges and recognise that an unattractive offer becomes even less attractive if you are charged excessively to experience it.

4) Ashford is a European town
When we look for ideas we so often look to America. Some of the idea as concerning alternative rent and rate models are certainly US in origin. But the nearest non-London provisional centre to Ashford isn’t Southampton (as the Meridian TV region would have us believe). It is Lille. And getting there takes less time than you might think from Ashford, given our transport links.
No self-respecting French town would dream of talking itself down. There are syndicates d’initiative everywhere, and everywhere boosts its heritage and local produce.
Ashford is uniquely placed to take a similar approach. We should embrace the railway heritage, mediaeval buildings, 760 year market charter…
We should have an artisan farmers’ market selling local produce – the sort of thing the sadly departed Rachel’s deli sold and Evegate has a bit of. Quality is key if you want to attract regular shoppers.

Conclusion
The classic problem with Ashford is that to get it right it would be better not to be starting from here. There is a leisure park where the commercial sector should be, empty buildings and a planned commercial quarter where that leisure park should have been linking the station to the town. A new much welcome and needed John Lewis at home is going into a greenfield site outside the town rather than the vacant space between the town centre and the railway.
There’s so much space that could be used for retail but hard to know which stores are intending to fill them. And Ashford has 50% more occupation of retail by the charity sector than ought to be expected in a medium town with this population.
But we are where we are.
I think we are finally asking the right questions.
But this is a complex problem, and we need to make sure we are not reaching for simple answers just because they don’t cost as much as really investigating what can done and taking some calculated risks.
Who knows, it could make this medium sized market town really a lovely place to live.