A blog recording the thoughts of a mum of one who does a lot of voluntary work because it's more fun than resuming her career and is a bit worried about the state of the nation.

Friday, 24 December 2010

An ex-husband on the sofa

When a couple separates I mostly tend to think "Well, they weren't that well suited, maybe it's for the best - I still like them both, more likely to see her, but no problem having a cup of tea with him should it arise etc etc." But on just the odd occasion I think "This is completely bloody incredible, I do not think I will ever speak to him again"(it's always a "him" isn't it?!).

The separation of my former Latin American neighbours fell immediately, and more conclusively than any previous situation I had ever known, into category 2. If I just mention that he left her two days after she discovered she was pregnant with twins, having been quite insitent that they should have more children, although she suffered from very bad post-natal depression after the first one, you will probably be able to see why Latin American ex-husband shot to the top of the "do not darken my door" category, overtaking oil-trader husband who shut down the joint bank account leaving his wife having to borrow money to buy a pint of milk.

Well, time moves on and, after the return to Bogota, the birth of the twins, the divorce, a few more years and mucho agua appearing to have flowed under various Colombian bridges, it seemed that relations had become considerably more cordial between ex-husband and my amiga. Finally it was time to elevate oil-trader ex-husband back up to the top slot (for a particularly swanky incident involving an ill-timed holiday to Mauritius) and to let bygones be bygones (a.k.a. lo pasado, pasado esta).

So when I got an email in early December asking if ex-husband could sleep on our sofa for a few nights whilst dealing with some business in the UK I thought "Well it will be a bit of a squash what with the Norway Spruce, but the money he saves staying here will add to the maintenance he can pay so why not?" He arrived, he was as charming as ever, I discussed his financial problems and the state of the Colombian economy with him for hours, we all got on fine. A few friends looked at him hard in the High Street and said things like "Haven't you got twins now?" but it seemed as though we were going to get through the four days in a smooth and civilised fashion.

Then the snow came, Heathrow shut and a short visit has become a long visit. Ex-husband has sunk into a depression and lies on the sofa under a blanket listening to internet news from Bogota and drawing bubble diagrams. I have sunk into a cold with washing-machine head and lie on my bed in a darkened room brooding about the fact that I can't lie on the sofa looking at the lights on the Norway Spruce. This period has gone on for days. Everytime ex-husband and I drag one another out to a coffee shop on the high street we bump into my daughter's class teacher who seems to have nothing to do but hang out with her girlfriends now term is over. I feel too weak to explain that ex-husband is not, in fact, my daughter's father, although he came to the carol service last week and I spend a lot of time in Starbucks with him.

But at last the blessed Richard Branson has come up with a flight back over the Atlantic for ex-husband - on Xmas morning and from Gatwick to which there is absolutely no form of public transport whatsoever. My daughter has been persuaded that the presence of a large Latin American on the sofa will not deter Santa from delivering down the chimney and my partner has been persuaded to rise at 6am for a lovely jaunt down to Sussex. My cold is lifting and I feel Xmas cheer finally beginning to swell within me! Feliz Navidad!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Sarah Palin read my blog

I am still not doing too well when it comes to the technical aspects of having a blog. I have moved on slightly from the early days when I had no idea where to find it again each time I wanted to hold forth and had to google, but, since being accepted into the British Mummy Blogging Association a couple of weeks ago I have realised that I have a long way to go. Quite apart from Cath K backdrops, beautiful photos of hoar frost overlaid with whispy writing and offers of free make-up, other bloggers have all sorts of extras, such as statistics showing that people have actually visited their blog, usually many times from the UK and a few times from Benin and North Korea.

After delving into the tabs at the top I finally found a page that showed a couple of URLs and a map of the world with the USA and Alaska shaded in. This seemed to indicate that, possibly, someone had looked at Big Soc. Banshee (twice). For one brief moment of insanity I thought "One of each? But I don't know anyone in Alaska except....and I imagined Sarah Palin and her daughter Bristol, during a break from moose shooting, gathered round the laptop in matching hockey jerseys..." But quickly I realised that this was not likely because Sarah Palin is a very busy mom and political leader with no interest in what sort of Christmas Tree I will be buying.

Probably the tab was referring to the servers on which Big Soc. Banshee is hosted. Let me hope fervently that they have no connection with Wikileaks because I have so far failed to work out how to back up my ramblings even by printing them out. Were it all to go down now Big Soc. Banshee would sink without trace almost unread. I have not yet got to the stage of sending out the jolly Xmas email mentioning O-so-casually to a few people that I never see that they can read my thoughts, now and then, on Blogger.

But it is only "almost unread", because one amazing thing has just happened. I have acquired a follower! I find the whole idea of "followers" delightfully evocative of knights on horseback and pageantry and other Philippa Gregory-like images. My follower is "Very Bored in Catalunya" - but even a bored follower is massive when you have previously been unfollowed. I'm not sure of the etiquette about followers, so I will just say "I salute you Bored One and will follow you also - even unto the end of the blogosphere"!

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Becoming precious about the Christmas tree

In my twenties I used to put a string of Woolworths' fairy lights round my Swiss Cheese plant. And that was it - because mostly I was out.

Since then I have become more and more precious about the Christmas tree. It started with a build-up of horror at other people's tree tastes, including flashing lights, pink and purple decorations, and colour-themed or fibre-optic trees.

It has now developed into an extreme dislike of Nordman Firs which I spend this time of year inviting others to share. This dislike is:
1. aesthetic - their needles are not the right shade of green;
2. traditionalist - they are the johnny-come-latelies of the Xmas tree world;
3. social - the fact that they are sold as "non-drop" encourages namby-pambiness: getting pine needles in your socks is part of the Xmas experience;
4. sceptical - because it didn't seem as if the "non-drop" part was true when I did buy one in about 2004 so they could still be a danger to pets' paws;
5. environmental/political - because even if they are not imported from Denmark they are mostly grown from seeds gathered by underpaid women in Georgia;
6. practical - they are too wide so if I buy one that is the right height we are unable to get into our living room without climbing over the sofa.

Accordingly I now spurn the school Christmas tree sale, which is a non-drop-opoly, and seek out a Norway Spruce usually from a makeshift Xmas "Wonderland" further out of London where they only accept cash (the British Christmas Tree Growers Association ensures that it is locally grown - www.btcga.co.uk).

Of course the sensible and environmentally-friendly thing to do would be to ditch the tree altogether. Over the last few years I have developed a modern Xmas tree known as "the Christmas Twigs" (silver birch branches with tasteful white lights and silver balls) which gets in the way in the kitchen.

But if we went tree-free where would we hang our massive collection of red, green and gold fairtrade baubles not to mention the glittery sellotape inner ring with added sequins that my daughter made at nursery? I am unable to contemplate that sacrifice yet!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Thoughts about sports

Save school sport! I am very surprised to find myself writing these words as I wasn't exactly keen on sport when I was at school. Needless to say, with all the publicity about modern children becoming obese and getting rickets because they never go outside, I have become keen in a secondhand sort of way. This is probably a bit hypocritical - but then some aspects of parenting are hypocritical I find (discuss?).

Today my daughter was ordered onto the icy playing fields for compulsory participation in the Year 5 football tournament. Her five-a-side mixed team was down to four due to illness: one medium-tough girl in goal, herself and another weedy girl huddled together trying to keep out of trouble, and one very small boy who tries hard but doesn't quite cut the mustard. Their team (Yellow 3) played five minutes each way against a team containing Superboy. Superboy's Dad astroturfed the garden when he was three and he now plays for Fulham under-10s. My daughter thinks Yellow 3 lost by about 6-0 but says she wasn't really watching.

Also today David Cameron has been hanging out with Prince William and David Beckham trying to persuade FIFA to give the UK the World Cup in 2018, despite our nasty nose-poking journalists who keep fussing about bribery, not to mention our budget deficit. It doesn't seem to occur to them that trying to bag another top event when we've not even got the Olympics out of the way could look a bit greedy.

There is a link between these two paragraphs (unbelievably!). My daughter's chilly morning was organised by the local School Sports' Partnership which arranged for teenagers from the local comprehensive to run the tournament. It ensures that lots of different sports are available in schools, including ones like cheerleading and trampolining which are persuading teenage girls to stay active (whilst remaining firmly indoors with make-up on). It also organises sports' tournaments between schools ie. healthy competition which is surely the Tory party's sort of thing? And, of course, the UK got the Olympics because we took all those children to Singapore and promised that we were going to do our utmost to give everyone a chance to enjoy sport which is how the School Sports' Partnerships came to be set up.

But because School Sports' Partnerships are a Labour Government invention they are being scrapped and every school is being given the "freedom" to go back to spending hours ringing round other schools and saying "Send your first and second elevens over on Saturday afternoon for a match and we'll make everyone who isn't good at rugger watch". How very short-sighted!

There is, of course, a non-sporting reason to hang onto school sport too: our rich British sub-culture of school-sport funny stories. My daughter had me in stitches re-enacting the way in which Yellow 3 retreated as Superboy thundered down the pitch. Nothing remotely so much fun ever happened to me at my very dull junior school where we mainly threw bean bags into hoops. When Superboy attains Beckham-like status in time for the 2018 World Cup she will have a wonderful anecdote to dine out on or put in her very own blog!

Friday, 26 November 2010

Lighting up

Every year there is a lighting up ceremony in the suburb where I live to celebrate the beginning of Christmas. The local town hall was merged into a bigger suburb many years ago but the building is still there with a patch of green in front of it and a couple of London plane trees. They get adorned with bluish fairy lights, and the dentists, who bought the town hall when it was deeemed too old-fashioned for council offices a couple of years ago, kindly allow the lights to be plugged into their supply. Luckily the lights don't get switched off as soon as they stop drilling at night.

This year we had a proper local celebrity to switch on: Dame Jacqueline Wilson, prolific author of kids' misery lit., who lives in another suburb nearby. After some carols from the Rotarians, Dame Jacqueline told us that she likes coming to our suburb because it has really nice shops, and wished us the Merry Christmas that is denied to so many of the children in her books (she didn't actually say that.)

Then we all set off to do the rounds, which, in my case, means being dragged by my daughter into all the shops that I don't normally go in because they look embarrassingly empty and sell pointless things like tiaras and candles with bits of orange peel in them. There was one shop that had raced to open that day and didn't even have a name yet but it seemed to sell nothing but Italian biscuits. We also visited the ex-bathroom shop that now sells wood-burning stoves, probably mainly to people like me that have "Country Living" aspirations.

The good part about it all is bumping into friends all round the circuit and having a free drink with them. The estate agents and hairdressers are particularly generous with the mulled wine and mince pies. The new independent self-employed persons' network, which is full of parents from the school, were also dishing out "Celebrations" and hot toddy. I suppose there is a sense of community here which is a lot better than nothing so I should be grateful for that and not be (overly!) cynical about life in an "urban village".

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Civil times

Another form of justifying not working to self is going on courses so today I went on a course called "Business planning for the voluntary sector", expecting to pick up some tips about setting out spreadsheets clearly and so on. But at least half the course was about the context we are in, sometimes called "the operating environment" ie. "What's going on and what will happen next?"

The first thing I learned is that "The Voluntary Sector" is now the last-but-one-name and that, if you failed to talk about "The Third Sector" during the last Government, you now have to bypass that name and talk about "Civil Society". Civil Society is not the same as the Big Society, because the Big Society is supposed to be everyone, not just those of us who are already volunteering who can be smug about having a special name because we are "in the vanguard" (as the Socialist Workers used to say).

People on Civil Society courses are very civil to one another, and drink a lot of tea with crooked little fingers, but they are not very civil about the current Government. Soon they may not even be civil to one another, because, as well as the competition for what's left of grant money, something called "the personalisation agenda" is introducing competition into the provision of services for those people who are still judged worthy of state help. Instead of being told to go to a particular day centre or to have meals on wheels, they will be given their own budget to spend on what they like. We've already seen headlines in the tabloids about the disabled man whose going to spend it on going to prostitutes, but until now it hadn't really sunk in that if they want to keep their organisations going the man from the disabled riding association will be going head to head with the lady from the music therapy trust in the battle for budgets. They were completely bemused.

Not all of this seems bad to me. I wish we'd been able to buy days with a chainsaw gang for my father-in-law instead of sending him to the dementia centre: he would have enjoyed it far more. This summer we went to a lovely children's farm in the Netherlands which was partly staffed by mentally handicapped people who spend their budgets there. In the environment sector we have already dipped our toes into the world of "meaningful daytime activities" by taking on people with mental health problems to help with outdoor conservation work. I don't think I'll be spending my budget at a day centre if I'm ever old and decrepit enought to get one: I'd much rather be on a horse or feeding the chickens.

But I wonder if this is all a big con. Civil Society may spend a lot of time drawing up its business plans with nice spreadsheets, and then find that hardly anyone who isn't ninety five and in a wheelchair with dementia actually still has a budget. At that point organisations will have to close down because their clients are not quite old, disabled or distressed enough. Then the level of incivility towards the Government will go through the roof.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

The school reunion

Last weekend I went to a secondary school reunion. I went to a girls' school so it was sixty or so women drinking white wine in the staff dining room and doing a lot of screaming and admiring of how little we had all changed. There was a buffet with salad and some very chocolatey puddings and a lot of old photos on display.

A few things struck me. At the last reunion I went to (after 10 years) it was the actresses and those who had travelled that we admired: they tended to be the ones who had done arty subjects. Now it is the scientists that have come through. I am so proud to have been at school with women who 1. Arrange all the smear tests and mammograms for people in Nottinghamshire; 2. Run their own GP practices 3. Are Government Advisor on how to save what's left of marine life round Britain's coastlines.

The divorces. I know lots of people get divorced nowadays but at least half of those who had ever been married had also been divorced at least once. I suppose I used to think it was people who married very young who had to give it a second try, but these women married in their late 20s and early 30s. Does going to an all-girls school make you bad at choosing men!?

The genuine desire to keep in touch this time round. "Ten years is too long to wait" we all wailed as the school caretaker came to turn the lights out at 11.30pm. There has been much emailing and there will be a picnic next summer. Inevitably, there is now a Facebook group which is filling up with photos of women and their daughters - "Look at her Lolita-esque eye make-up: what shall I doooooo? She's not like we were!"

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Down in the Forest

I have spent half-term in the Forest of Dean. My mum was born a Forester and has a huge store of anecdotes about her girlhood. A vast clan of my ancestors hung out in a place called Primrose Hill, which has better views and a more friendly ambience then the one in London and has probably never been visited by Sadie Frost/Law or Kate Moss. Most of the clan worked in the tinplate works or on the River Severn, but they also had a good time drinking homemade alcohol, betting, bickering and going to chapel.

A few years ago I started to research the family history, concentrating first on such mysteries as "Why did Aunty Ivy have to be hidden every time a man called Fryer on a bicycle came up the road?" (he was her estranged father) and "Who was the lamented and absent Aunt Lizzie from Saul?" (the abandoned wife of a seaman whose unfortunate marriage had left her stranded on the wrong side of the Severn).

To my amazement my bemused Forest second cousins often knew the people I had found out about on Genes Reunited, but had sometimes forgotten that they were related to them: "O yes she's that nice woman from the chemists in the Co-op" or "Curly-haired big bloke, drives a green truck". Having grown up with not that much family around and now a bit short on descendants, it seemed incredibly careless to have forgotten that nice people with trucks were your own flesh and blood. I began to realise that when my mother's family had had to move away she had only kept up with a few of her favourites amongst the vast smorgasbord of relatives on offer.

This has left me brooding about my displacement: would my life have been different if I'd grown up in a place where ties of blood bound me to half my neighbours and been really fearless and outspoken? Would we still have been hiding kiddies to avoid access visits from unreliable men and have banded together to stop Primrose Hill Post Office from being closed? Would we be fighting together to stop the Government selling off the Forestry Commission and half the Forest of Dean with it? Sorry parents but I like to think my Big Soc. mentality has its origins in a genetic memory of what was lost when you reinvented yourselves as Londoners!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Comprehensive Spending Review Blues

As a very debt-adverse person I quite approve of trying to cut down on all that interest that we seem to be paying. As a household where neither of us pay higher rate tax we will get to keep our child benefit. As an OAP (with the sort of index-linked pension that was phased-out about 30 years ago) my mum gets to keep her free TV licence and winter fuel payment as it would be too fiddly to think of a way of taking it away from her (her tax return?). As an environmentalist I welcome the Green Investment Bank. As the daughter-in-law of a man with Parkinsons I don't need to worry that he will be taken off invalidity benefit and sent back to work as he is now 65 (had they interviewed him he would definitely have tried to bluff his way back in, preferably to a job that involved wielding heavy implements). Sigh of relief and happy then?

No of course not. I am worried about everything. All the local authorities that are going to lose money will cut the grants that provide core funding to the voluntary sector no matter what David Cameron says about Big Soc., the local dementia day centre is shutting, far more people will need advice on how to cope with less money from housing and welfare benefits but there will be fewer advice centres and no legal aid to provide it, eighty thousand families will have to move out of London to live in B & Bs in Hastings and Luton, and the Environment Agency will no longer have enough staff to inspect polluters. We even have to worry that too many cuts will lead to a double dip recession with less people paying taxes and then we will end up in as much trouble as the Irish.

So I am going to have to take a closer interest in the figures, read Robert Peston's blog avidly, and try to work out whether we can cut the deficit by clamping down on tax avoidance, bankers' bonuses, digestive biscuits for civil servants and red tape for charities and small businesses (even though most of the money I earn is from helping them to cope with it). But no doubt I will never get my head round it so I am going to spend the next few years feeling cross but without the economic understanding to fight back articulately.

Friday, 8 October 2010

The Big Soc. Speech

David Cameron has set out his vision for the Big Society at the Tory party conference. I didn't watch it live but I have read it on a website, accompanied by a photo of him grinning a bit tentatively without showing his lips.

I am sympathetic to what DC has to say about the need for people to change the way that they think about themselves and their role in society. Yes, a lot of people do seem to think that if they pay their taxes (or not) someone else will sort everything out. I like the fact that he says that the state of the nation is determined not just by its government and those who run it but by "millions of individual actions - by what each of us do and what we choose not to do". I like his call for people to take the initiative and work together to get things done.

I confess that since becoming a bit more old and settled and moving to a suburb I have been rather shocked by how many affluent people don't seem interested in life outside their immediate social circle and day to day routines. It's not that I expect everyone to want to carry out undercover investigations of the Japanese whaling industry or fret about tar sands extraction in Alberta, but working together to sort out the swimming rota and find the best builder to do loft conversions is not going to get the UK very far down the road to Big Soc.

However, I part company with DC about whether Big Soc. is really "a brand new start" for Britain. A percentage of the population has always behaved in a big soc. way and many charities and other organisations, large and small, have been initiating and supporting community action successfully for a very long time.

There's something deeply irritating about the way in which politicians like to wipe the slate clean and get rid of their predecessors' initiatives and branding (and quangos) even if these are perfectly compatible with the ideas of the new administration. I heard an impassioned talk recently by a man who had set up an amazing social enterprise on his run down estate in Luton. It was about to receive funding from a programme launched by the last Government which would have create lots of jobs for the long term unemployed. At the 11th hour the programme was withdrawn by the new Government and the money had vanished, even though everything they planned to do was completely Big Soc. and DC had begged him to be in the Tory manifesto!

So I hope the Conservatives will be able to persuade more people that they will enjoy getting involved in their local communities as opposed to sitting in front of the TV every night. But please DC can you stop pretending that we are having a totally new start and try to minimise the number of new documents to read, new conferences to go to and new forms to fill in, as it will cause months if not years of delay.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Tips from the blogosphere

I have been looking at other people's blogs hoping to pick up a few tips: how controversial?, how often?, how pretty? etc.

My partner's colleague has a blog which she describes as "mainly a record of cakes I have made". There are photos of her lemon cupcakes and chocolate brownies but not a lot of writing: she obviously keeps the recipes secret or in a cookbook. Blog as photo album. Must find a few photos to liven mine up.

My ex-boss has a blog called "The Triple Crunch Log". This sounds as though it is about cakes, particularly his Xmas baking, but is actually about climate change, running out of oil and the financial crisis. He started it during the credit crunch, which noone talks about much anymore. This ought to be a lesson to me as I have adopted a name that will probably date very quickly.

Ex-boss' blog contains some full and frank denunciations as ex-boss is permanently at war with the whole of the oil industry, and has an ongoing personal feuds with a well-known journalist and a successful green entrepreneur. I realise that I am a pretty wimpy blogger who must acquire a bit more backbone. I haven't told anyone about my blog yet and am planning to try to persuade people that I don't know to look at it first. Next stop friends in Australia. I will delay telling anyone local about it until my daughter is at secondary school and I only have to appear once a year for parents' evening in dark glasses(I don't think she will be in any sports' teams or plays).

Ex-boss is a bit erratic about filing copy on his blog, but a woman who applied for a job at one of the charities I am involved with this summer has a blog on which she has written 4 entries in 2 years. Perhaps she is trying to signal that she works so hard on her day job that she has no time for blogging? Or perhaps the rather depressing content (refugees, female circumcision etc.) means she needs a long time to recover between entries.

Next I looked up a proper mummy blog which a colleague's daughter-in-law writes. She is an ex-journalist and he billed her as "very big in the mummy blogging world". Her blog is a blow-by-blow account of life with baby twins, currently particularly focused on getting them onto solid food. "J ate two teaspoons of mashed carrot at 11.30am but P was not interested - perhaps his 2nd bottle was too late this morning". Apparently an avalanche of free buggies that fit through doorways and double potties have been product-placed with her. She has over a hundred "followers" who are presumably also at the plastic bibs and ice cube tray stage.

What would my equivalent be? "M left her pants tangled up in her school trousers on the bathroom floor again - perhaps she was thinking about her maths homework. I need to wash the bath mat." Are there pants-detangling devices that could be product-placed in our household?

So I'm still feeling my way but have reached a few conclusions. Mum-subjects will be discussed when of interest, otherwise mumminess will have to chunter along in the background and not be allowed to crowd out other interests. I'm ten years on from mashed vegetable cubes: it was lovely but now I will aim to write stuff that I might want to read again in ten years time. And illustrate it with a few photos of cake.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Big Nostalgia

As the autumn begins I am in my run up to the 10th anniversary of the only time I ever gave birth. South west London is so full of women with big bulges and/or prams that I don't normally notice them (although I do give up my seat on the bus!) but at the moment I find myself staring and marvelling at how fast the time has gone.

I can just remember what it was like not be able to do bend forward to do up my own shoes, and a day in which the most activity I could manage was walking down the road to the Post Office to buy a stamp. I stopped going to work in mid September in the midst of an office move because I couldn't lift anything or find anything. However I was still struggling to finish a lengthy guide to the legal aspects of campaigning against incinerators for an organisation that had already paid me to write it several months earlier: I'm glad I did actually get it done or it would have been another year (and maybe a few more incinerators!). My dad's friend Graham came to install a new bathroom and I went to visit my sister in Hastings on the train, which was unbelievably bumpy. She bravely drove me home although the fuel protests had erupted and she had no idea if the men in deckchairs outside the BP depots would let the petrol out for her return journey.

I was determined that the baby wouldn't arrive early. My partner was working up in Wakefield and not due to finish until the day I was due to give birth. Although dates mean nothing at that stage, I took great comfort in the fact that first babies are always late, and I clung to the belief that if the women from my ante-natal class who were due before me had not yet produced then I was safe. My friend over the road was due on the same day and it was her second so I convinced myself she would be going first.

Luckily my daughter hung on for an extra three days and, after a long day that began at 4am, was finally born at 10pm. Meanwhile my friend over the road popped into the hospital at 3pm, gave birth in the next room half an hour later and went home again at 7.30pm. I think I would have found that a bit too quick and scary!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Back to school

Back we go, no longer keen enough to have an early night, clean the shoes or even empty last year's shavings out of the pencil case. But keen to see friends again following a two week holiday in a damp part of the Netherlands with only parents.

The new class teacher is not really new as she is entering her third successive cycle with the group of 90 now known as Year 5. There is a new girl to replace the one who went to Australia and didn't cry: she has already lived in Australia, Germany, Hong Kong and Sweden. At 9 and a quarter, this is her fifth school.

The new Chair of the Parents' Association is also Australian, as was the one before last. (NB. Perhaps the Tories need to raise their quota on Antipodeans to help get Big Soc. off the ground?) Interestingly this Chair is a man. He works full time so will not be able to hang around the playground taking directions from the headmaster, placating the caretaker, manhandling the tea urn and repacking the Parents' Association shed when an avalanche of Costco crisps slides out into the mud. He got the job because nobody else could be persuaded to do it having seen how much of all of the above was involved: he wasn't there to watch it happening twice a day. He was told it was all about chairing a meeting once a month and delegating. I know, because I was called in to advise last term when a no-Chair constitutional crisis unfolded. My contribution was to suggest that it was probably better to ignore the constitution. (It said noone else could be elected until there was a Chair, meaning no cheques could be signed so no tea bags purchased for after school football tea trolley on Thursdays etc.)

My own school duties include looking after the Nature Area, a quiet half acre woodland oasis tucked away in one corner of the site which has somehow avoided being sold off for development. Whilst I was on holiday last week a huge chestnut tree crashed into it from an adjoining block of flats and a tree surgeon is needed to remove it.

I have also succumbed to being class rep this year as part of a "team ministry" with two others. It was pointed out that we were the only vaguely sociable mums with email not to have done it so far. Our class has approximately 25% "non combatant" parents who have never helped at a stall or come to a social event. If the little society that is their own child's primary school doesn't interest them I wonder what the chances of them being interested in the big one that is coming are?!

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Good to Great?

I have been reading the Book "Good to Great" by Jim Collins: it has been highly recommended by diverse friends. Once I had got over the fact that one of Jim's top eleven successful companies was Fannie Mae, the sub-prime mortgage corporation that helped bring about the whole global recession (he wrote the book 10 years ago), and another was tobacco empire Philip Morris, I began to enjoy his analysis.

Apparently there are a number of factors which an organisation has to have in place to move from doing OK to being really successful(all this is measured in financial performance terms with no reference to how caring or green it is hence the inclusion of Philip Morris where the senior staff apparently see themselves as freedom fighters!).

Successful companies have leaders who are quietly inclusive but very focused with small egos; they get the wrong people "off the bus" and the right ones "on the bus" before they decide on their strategy; they spend a lot of time debating things; and most of all they develop a "hedgehog concept". This means that they decide what they are going to specialise in by creating a synthesis of what they are passionate about, what they think they can be the best in the world at and what they can earn money from; then they stick with it.

My colleague tried applying this to our local environmental network but the synthesis of being passionate about saving life on earth, being good at getting people to do things for free (possibly not the best in the world though compared to Jesus Christ, Lord Baden-Powell, headteachers of primary schools etc.) and, err, hoping some money would come along from the Council, indicates that more synthesising is needed.

But at least I now have the winning formula to apply to my own faltering work life (I think calling it a "career" at this stage would be over-egging the pudding). I can see how women end up running very specialist little businesses eg. supplying cupcakes to the Russian embassy. I will be synthesising saving the planet, gardening, eating, chatting, correcting other people's spelling and punctuation, drinking tea and trying to spot the money and will see if it gets me anywhere.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Holiday comings and goings

At this time of year friends who used to live here come back to visit with their kids, friends pack up to leave, either permanently or temporarily, and friends reappear in time for the new school year after an absence living elsewhere.

I find it interesting to see how their children deal with the upheaval. I remember a moment of terror during my own childhood when it was suggested that we might move to Dundee. I cowered at the thought of going to a new school where I would sound funny and it would be really cold. My own daughter has announced that she wants to live in our house "forever". She finds even the idea of moving down the road deeply traumatic despite her desire for a bigger garden filled with lavish guinea pig accommodation.

Some children just don't seem bothered. My daughter was quite indignant when one of her classmates left to move to Australia last month because the girl failed to cry, unlike all those she was leaving behind, including most of their mothers. The fact that the departed one has an Australian mother and granny plus cousins and aunts, has often been there on holiday, will be living near the beach in a bigger house, presumably with masses of room for guinea pigs in the garden (or the equivalent marsupial), so presumably will feel very at home very soon, made no difference to my daughter's view of the situation.

The young visitors who seem to get the most out of the toing and froing are those who go for two to three years and come back at least once a year to visit. Their visits are a social whirl of picnics and sleepovers, and often they go into school for a day or two to rejoin their former class. They also keep in touch via their mums' Facebook efforts. I've seen several returnees slip back into the swing of things so effortlessly that it's made me wish we'd bunked off somewhere warmer for a couple of years.

The unknown timescale and destination are unsettling. One family left quite suddenly last Autumn. Their first destination was the East Coast, but it was likely to be the West Coast after the first year, or possibly they might come back again, or maybe they would go somewhere else (the husband is a change management consultant!) My friend reported that her eight year old daughter was at first very homesick for England, and then entered a state of existential crisis about where "home" was which she is only gradually emerging from now it has been decided that they are not moving on again but are staying in the same place on the East Coast.

Another friend took her children to live in Cambridge five years ago when they were eight and four. They often asked to go home (meaning the house they had sold here) for the first few months but gradually adjusted. On occasional return visits they claimed not to remember anything or anyone very much. Now they have unexpectedly come back to live here aged thirteen and nine and it feels like starting again as they haven't kept in touch with many people. (Of course you always bump into people who say "Haven't seen you for a while, what have you been up to?")

So the key to moving with children seems to be either to convince them that they are going on a series of giant holidays punctuated by yearly deja-vue trips back to school and pals, and will be returning, or to convince them that they have never been at home where you are but are now going home. Sorted!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Dripware and Dementia

Have spent the last few days in Wales helping to sort out my father-in-law's entry into residential care. He suffers from Parkinson's disease and dementia and is not easy to care for so large numbers of social workers and medical people have been involved in supporting my mother-in-law over the years.

It has felt like there has been a certain amount of resistance to taking him into full time care as he is only in his sixties and likely to be there for many years which has big cost implications at a time when the local authority and NHS are facing massive cuts. He needs medical care and close supervision and has proved difficult to manage in some of the local residential homes which he has sampled during respite breaks. I'm afraid most homes are more geared up for pleasant older ladies who enjoy singing than former engineers who are too shaky to feed themselves one day but capable of dismantling fire extinguishers and walking out and hopping on the bus because they are bored the next day!

So, having elected to accompany my mother-in-law to the care meeting, (the other option was staying at home to put flat pack furniture together), I found myself at the local hospital in conference with five psychiatric social workers and nurses. He has been attending the day centre there for several years and they have done a wonderful job of keeping him reasonably happy, partly by convincing him that he is working there as the gardener. The centre attempts to raise some money from selling items made by the attendees and I was particularly drawn to some teapots decorated with multi-coloured drips of paint. But I don't think dripware teapots are going to go very far towards funding these facilities which are sanity-saving for carers like my mother-in-law. They can only use unqualified volunteers for very limited tasks like making the tea so the Big Society can't help much.

Luckily everyone at the conference agreed that the moment for residential care had arrived. We managed to wade through the forms and find the right bank statements and letters from the benefits agency in time for him to take up a place which had come up at a home ten minutes down the road where he will hopefully be happy. However, even understanding the financial position has been difficult and led to us needing help from the Parkinson's Society who is having to negotiate with social services about how much of a financial contribution mother-in-law will have to make. I can see that volunteers who understand benefits, pensions and the difference between NHS and local authority funding are badly needed.

Meanwhile my daughter spent a dull couple of days helping with the flatpack bedroom suite and deciding which clothes her granny can make for the Build-a-Bear teddies now she has more time on her hands.....

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Big Green Soc.?

At a conference for charities and social enterprises last week the keynote speaker said in an ominous voice "I advise you to consider the Big Society as what you have been waiting for".

In the spirit of morphing seamlessly into whatever shape is needed to get money, we have been musing on this at meetings of the local environmental network. We think we have already been pretty successful at what professionals call "mobilising social capital" and what most of us call "getting people to do things for free" which seems to be the Big Soc.'s big idea. Now we are wondering whether we should stop talking about conservation and carbon reduction and start talking about participating in the "Big Green Society". I think this sounds more like a student prank in which people chuck green goo over one another than anything else. Could it be just what we need to get lots of unemployed recent students on board? I am already visualising a delightful media stunt and I'm sure it will be easy to round up a lot of children in old clothes given the time of year.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A shattering phone call

I was just mentally formulating a jolly post about the end of another school year when I received a shattering phone call.

A local nanny, who has looked after one of my daughter's friends for most of the last 5years and has also acted as a live-in housekeeper to the family, rang me from her mobile sobbing with fear. She had not been getting on quite so well with the parents of the family recently and a huge row had suddenly broken out that evening, starting with accusations about the laundry and ending up with the apparently fairly drunk parents screaming at her to leave and the husband slapping her on the face. She had fled from the house and was on the way to stay with a friend.

As a result of this horrible situation she faces the loss of her home, income and probably right to remain in the UK (she is from Latin America). People like her enable middle class parents to work and earn a large joint income, yet I wonder if her employers have been even paying her the minimum wage or paying tax and national insurance on her salary. They do not appear to have observed any of the niceties that they would have been bound by in their professional lives, eg. appraisals and notice periods.

After some hasty research I have suggested that she contact a small charity called Kalaayan that seems to specialise in helping abused domestic workers and I hope they will be able to advise her. However I imagine that this is just the sort of small charity that the Big Society programme will pass by since its clients exist at the margins and their rise and fall has no impact on official statistics about unemployment and welfare spending. She is the victim and I will help as much as I can but I am feeling sick and tearful myself about the whole situation and angry about the way in which people with many advantages appear have treated someone so powerless. I don't relish the thought of seeing them over and over again as our daughters grow up with this always in my mind.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A Mummy Blog?

I have been thinking about whether or not this is a Mummy blog. Mummy blogging is hip at the mo because it has featured on "Woman's Hour" and it is now a recognised genre with a pleasant clubby subculture. Ranty blogging with insufficient mum content may be a bad move leading to lack of blogospheric chum linkages.

As I understand it, a Mummy blog is written by a mum and is mainly about how difficult it is to juggle looking after children and retaining a sense of self. A mummy blogger usually has several children, but less is permissible if the mummy is divorced and/or has a large dog.

Do I have enough of this sort of thing going on? I've only got one child who is nearly 10 and easy to look after these days: mostly she entertains herself and just looks a bit weary when the tea gets burnt yet again because I have wandered off to check my email. I have never been at all interested in marriage, although if I had married any of the collected exes 1978-1998 I would certainly have been divorced by now so I am not divorce-unimaginative. Can I really tick the "mummy blog" box if I slip into going on about irritations that are not parent specific, such as the lack of a proper system for dealing with lost property on London United buses? Can I make up for the feebleness of my reproductive record by going on about my mummy and my other mummy (ie. his mummy) and my fears that the goldfish are going to breed again this summer?

I expect there is a tool somewhere that measures in percentage terms how closely a blog matches the mummy blog model. Until I find it I shall just have to chuck in the odd anecdote about how I met the Mayor when I had a full potty in the bottom of the pushchair and keep my options open!

Monday, 19 July 2010

Big Soc. Banshee: The Name

This is a blog about how unpaid work has begun to take over my life and has provided a comprehensive distraction from looking for that several-rungs-down-the-career-ladder part-time job which is the lot of the ex-professional woman with caring duties. From helping at my daughter's school to propping up local environmental groups, I've been doing this Big Society thing for years. It's not only stopped me from earning very much but has led to a healthy neglect of domestic stuff. So I am looking forward to sticking my oar into the Big Soc. debate. I don't suppose it will end there as I have so many opinions about all sorts of things and far less chance for a debate than when I just went to college/work and then out with friends every night.

Whilst choosing a title I dipped briefly into the mummy blogosphere. Many of the names reminded me of the title of a library book which my librarian sister once named as the-one-that-most-made-her-shriek-with-laughter-whilst shelving: "Bishop's Wife But Still Myself". I didn't really want to go down that route so I've decided to go for something broader and sillier.

I shortened "Society" to "Soc" because it rolled off the tongue better and sounded a bit more questioning of the concept and jollier. It also reminded me of all those Socs at University: Gaysoc, Wimminssoc, Godsoc etc. Plus it has much better rhyming possibilities e.g. "Does the Big Soc. Rock?", although I shall not be neglecting the possibility that there is a "Big Society Soriety". Lastly, I thought the abbreviation might help me avoid showing up on google searches: I am the last sort of women that local Tory associations want to be inviting along as I look a bit manky most of the time.

"Banshee" is probably overdoing it a bit: the wailing will often be implied for those who look beyond the attempts at humour, understatement and use of rhetorical questions e.g. "Who do you think you're kidding now Mr Cameron/Clegg?". Banshees are traditionally Irish and warn of impending death. I can do Celtic origins (I'm sure I'll be blogging about them sometime) but hopefully no deaths will result from the writing of this blog which I intend to be a mainly uplifting experience.