Is World Book Day a Waste of Time?

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Where’s Wally?

After a decade of being a school parent and at the risk of sounding like a party pooper, I have a confession: World Book Day stresses me out and I think the real purpose of it is being lost.

In the beginning, it was fun to think of who to dress up as and assemble a costume for my kids, but now I have to make my 10-year-old wear one, with the threat that everyone else in the class is doing it, so he must.

In reality, most kids raid their dressing up box and put on their favourite costume; a Disney Princess for girls or Spiderman for boys. But what have comic /film characters got to do with decent kids books? Very little. And I’m sorry but wearing a costume doesn’t encourage children to pick up a book. Most parents don’t have the time or the money to make or buy a new costume every year, so they let them do it. My household is no different, except superhero costumes have been deemed too babyish for many years.

The depressing fact is that this day has become totally commercialised, with companies vying to provide you with costumes for your little cherub at over inflated prices. Plenty of people buy them too; they feel they have to so their kid doesn’t miss out. And I’ve heard that smug parents in solidly middle class areas compete to see who can sew the best outfit. Isn’t all this emphasis on what your child looks like rather missing the point? How about spending money on actual books instead!

My son’s junior school does do some good book related activities, like a book swap and cushion and a clue, where the children wrap up a book so the title is hidden and then bring in some clues so that other children can guess the title. So why not make these the focus of the day and add in story telling and creative writing, rather than stressing out parents and a lot of children by wanting them to dress up too?

I have two boys. The teen is an avid reader and has been ever since he learnt to read. The pre-teen is the polar opposite; he’d rather do anything than get out a book. Yet they have both been brought up exactly the same: read to at bedtime since they were babies, given a variety of books to read and encouraged at every opportunity. They’ve also watched their parents reading every day; all the things the experts tell us to do if we want our children to be life long readers. It frustrates us no end that he isn’t interested but putting on our well-used Harry Potter outfit this morning, won’t make any difference.

I’m sorry if you feel differently but I’m looking forward to World Book Day next year when we’ll take part in this pointless dressing up exercise for the last time. In the meantime I’m going to be thinking of how to deal with the real issue; getting my son to read.

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The joy of flash fiction

Recently I have discovered the genre of flash fiction. I particularly like the category of creative non-fiction, where you re-imagine an actual event. Usually you have a tight word count, say 500 words, and at first I found this really difficult but now I like the challenge and I think it’s improving my writing and editing skills. Why use 5 words when 1 will do?

Here is a story I wrote today about that moment 30 years ago when Mum and Dad took me to Liverpool University, said goodbye and left me in my room all alone…

Liverpool's famous waterfront skyline

Ilona

On an overcast October day, there is an unusual amount of activity in Chapel Street because it’s time for my parents to take me to university.

Liverpool will be my home for the next three years, while I study geography and prehistoric archaeology. A large, bustling, grimy city, it couldn’t be more different to the reserved village I grew up in, where there is one bus on a Sunday and even the neighbourhood cats have nothing to do.

I prepare myself for this adventure eagerly, going into town to buy some new clothes: denim jacket, jeans, a couple of stretchy mini-skirts and some red leather ankle boots. Then I childishly label all my new stationery and books with my name and room number and get my hair cut.

Dad gives me his late mother’s trunk. Light brown, with bands of reinforcing leather, it’s slightly squashed at one end where it was stored upright in Maggie’s garden shed for decades, and covered in labels from long ago trips to European destinations. I love it instantly and fill it with my clothes and bedding. A new kettle and mug set that work colleagues have given me are also packed, along with my books and rickety bike. I’m ready.

We climb into the blue and white camper van and set off along the motorway. Arriving at the leafy campus hours later, the first thing Dad does is haul a yellow box of apples out of his van that came from work and look for someone to give them to. Spotting a second year student called Jez, he walks over and asks if he’d like them.

Jez is unfazed by this unexpected question and accepts Dad’s gift, saying “Yeah they’ll eat,” while I cringe and avert my eyes.

My room is on the top floor and we struggle up several flights of stairs with my luggage. Single bed, desk, chair and sink make up its utilitarian furnishings and the walls are scuffed. But the sun shines through the double doors which look out onto the leafy quad and it quickly becomes home.

Mum and I unpack and then she keeps asking me if she can do anything else. I say no repeatedly and finally realise that she doesn’t want to leave.

“I think it’s time you left. Supper will be on soon and I need to go to the dining hall,” I say impatiently.

We hug. Mum sheds some tears, Dad looks sad and then they’re gone.

Feeling tense and wanting to get the first hurdle over, I persuade myself to go downstairs. “Come on! You’ve been desperate to leave home for months. This is your chance to start again,” I tell myself.

I brush my hair, grab my handbag and lock my door. As I make my way to the stairs, another door opens and a slim blonde girl walks out. We exchange hesitant glances and then introduce ourselves. Her name is Ilona and she becomes my first friend.

THE “I’M DOING IT” CONVERSATION

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Our teen

We have a pretty good teen on the whole. He walks the dogs on his own, pops to the shop for me when I’ve forgotten something for tea, lays the table and is very concerned about politics and the environment. But he is 13.

This morning I was sitting in bed reading another blog about parenting and laughed out loud. My other half wandered out of the bathroom and asked why.

“I’m reading a post on Facebook about a teen who never answers his mother when called and then swears blind that he did,” I said. He smiled and said, “Well our version is the ‘I’m doing it conversation’.”

Let me enlighten you…

Several times a day, I’ll call up the stairs and ask our teen, who spends most of his time in his bedroom, to do something.

Me: “Can you get in the shower please.”

Teen: “OK Mum.”

Five minutes later not having heard any movement I’ll climb the stairs to his room, suspecting that he’s engrossed on his phone or reading a book and not doing what I asked.

I open the door to find him lying on the sofa.

Me: “Why haven’t you got in the shower?”

Teen: “I’m doing it!” in an aggrieved tone.

Me, through gritted teeth: “No you’re not, you’re lying on the sofa looking at YouTube/reading your book.”

Teen: “Well, I’m doing it now!” picking up his phone/book and retreating again.

Me, in a stressed tone: “Come on, give me your phone/put the book down and go do it.”

Teen with his best flounce and putting down the offending article: “OK”

Objective achieved I retreat to the kitchen, grumbling under my breath. I wouldn’t mind so much if this was an occasional occurrence but this conversation plays on a loop all week and then when we get to Monday morning, oh joy, it starts all over again.

It isn’t only mine I know, teens all over the world do this as part of the letting go process. But it would be nice if, for once, the teen did things the first time of asking; there would be less stress all round.

Whenever I see parents with small children, I come over all nostalgic and think “You don’t know how easy you have it!”

What Is Love?

Today being Valentine’s Day, my Facebook feed this morning was full of pictures of hearts and flowers accompanied by soppy messages. But a post by fellow writer, Judy, made me smile, as she got right to the heart of the matter as usual. She inspired me to set my own pen to paper.

Like many an old tradition, this day for lovers has been hijacked by crass commerciality of the worst kind, which just makes me cringe. To be brutally honest, most of the things we’re supposed to do today, leave me cold. As I have been with the same man for 25 years, at times a long and very difficult journey, this is what I think love is really about…

Is it about a card with a badly worded message? No, it’s having a husband who works a 12-hour day in London without complaint to support his family.

Maybe it’s an overpriced bunch of roses? You’re wrong, it’s reading Harry Potter to your son every night for two years as he loves the books so much.

Is it an expensive watch, carefully chosen from the local jewellers? Not at all. It’s walking the dogs in the pouring rain without argument because someone has to do it.

Perhaps love is expressed by a beautiful pearl necklace? Not really, far better to have someone who’ll put the washing in without you asking and do a big supermarket shop.

How about a meal out at the latest place to be seen? Not for me. I’d far rather be brought a cup of tea in the morning from someone who knows that I’m the “mummy monster” without it.

Surely, a weekend away counts for something? It’s a kind thought but a truer test of love is not telling your wife how much danger she and their son are in as she struggles to give birth to him.

Oh come on! Doesn’t your favourite bottle of wine mean anything? It’ll taste pleasant but living with someone who knows from my expression or tone of voice exactly how I’m feeling and soothes me with a kind word or a gentle caress is worth infinite bottles of plonk.

Love is being there through the good times and the bad, facing the unexpected together and not letting one another down. It’s knowing that most of the time family life is mundane and repetitive, as well as stressful and relentless and not walking away because you’ve tired of it. It’s about committing to one person, even though some of their habits drive you crazy because you know they’ll always be there for you.

My husband is actually in Barcelona on business today, while I keep the kids entertained in grey, drizzly Wales but neither of us minds at all. When I arrive home in a few days, after a very long drive, he’ll come out and unpack the car, order us all pizza and help me put the children to bed. It’s exactly what I need him to do. No more no less.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’ve Got The Peri-Menopausal Blues

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It’s been 6 months since I posted on here. What can I say? I’m busy! Among other commitments, I’m doing a wonderful post-graduate diploma in journalism with the London School of Journalism which is really broadening my horizons in terms of career paths and pushing me to write things that I would never have considered before. It’s also showing me that actually I can achieve whatever I want to if I put my mind to it; a very necessary boost to my self-esteem.

For our last assignment we had to write a 5 minute talk for a radio show, on any topic. Inspired by a hilarious conversation I had with friends on the way to a Christmas party, this is what I came up with. Sit down with a cuppa and imagine Jenny Murray introducing this on Woman’s Hour…

If you’re a woman, it’s an undeniable fact that eventually you’re going to go through the menopause. Just as your body changes as a teenager, growing breasts and hair in alarming places, one day the periods you’ve endured for years will come to an end.

But how much do you really know about the process? In the same way that no-one tells you what giving birth is actually like, nobody discusses the menopause either. Is it embarrassment, in the same way that many of our mothers refused to enlighten us about sex, or indifference, because it’s only a “women’s issue” and therefore something we should just get on with by ourselves? Perhaps it’s a combination.

Actually, your periods don’t stop over-night; usually it takes several years, as your oestrogen level gradually decreases. This process is combined with many other symptoms and is called peri-menopause.

During a recent phone call with my own mother, I confided that I may have reached this point.

“Why, what’s happened?” she asked.

“My periods are getting closer together and I’ve been having awful dreams. I’m convinced that somebody’s in the bedroom and they’re going to attack me, or sometimes I think the house is falling down.”

“Oh, I had the same experience and thought I was going mad,” my mother said. “One day I mentioned it to the doctor and he was really offhand and told me it’s a very common menopausal symptom.”

There were two other facts I learnt that day: you’re likely to start your menopause around the same age as your mother and the whole process can take years and years.

“Oh that’s just fantastic I thought,” slamming the plates into the sink as I got off the phone, “It’s bad enough that I’ve put up with periods and PMT for decades and now my mother’s telling me I’ll experience years of physical and mental carnage before my menopause is complete.”

It’s a good job I was alone in the house, as my bewildered dogs were subjected to some very choice words.

So let me enlighten you about the delights of the peri-menopause. Most women will experience night sweats, waking up in the small hours soaked to the skin and desperate to shed their pyjamas. You may even fling open the bedroom window, although it’s November and freezing outside.

But feeling too hot isn’t limited to night time. Whichever deodorant I choose, I simply cannot stop myself sweating profusely, whenever the room gets a little too warm or I exert myself physically. I’m forever going to the toilet when I’m in company, not to empty my bladder, but to freshen up.

You’ll also find that your hormones go completely haywire. Think PMT on Ecstasy and you’re getting close. Things which never stressed you before will have you throwing tantrums like an A-lister, and you’ll be forever apologising for your behaviour. Many women also suffer from a lack of confidence and feel depressed.

As well as hormonal changes, you’ll experience physical symptoms, like your periods getting closer together. Sometimes you’ll get three weeks between your cycle, if you’re unlucky, only two. If I were you, I’d invest in some Tampax shares, because you’re going to be giving them a lot of unwelcome profit.

It’ll be hard to keep your weight down too. The mood swings will make you want to buy up the chocolate aisle in Tesco, but eating it is the worst thing you can do. Try and wean yourself off it now, because when your time comes, every single bar will end up on your middle, whether you like it or not.

And although the urge to have sex is a primal instinct, you’ll find yourself preferring to lust over men from a safe distance, rather than actually getting your kit off. When the opportunity arises, instead of eagerly participating, your ageing body will switch off your libido and tell you to go to bed and read; leaving your partner unsatisfied and you guilty and stressed. And if you do feel overcome with desire, your body will play another trick on you by making that essential part of you drier, so that sex becomes more difficult physically. Just how cruel is nature?

So what can you do to survive the onslaught of physical and mental symptoms that accompany peri-menopause? If you can’t bear having periods every fortnight then you could have a coil fitted, although be aware they aren’t suitable for everyone. Some people have had them removed after an adverse reaction. Having Hormone Replacement Therapy (or HRT) also relieves the symptoms and is very popular.

Eat a healthy diet and do some regular exercise; it’ll keep that spare tyre at bay and improve your mood. If you’re suffering from stress or anxiety, seek out some counselling and take up an activity which improves your mood and gets you out of the house.

Above all, find some friends who’re going through the same thing; sharing your anxieties will lessen them and help you stay positive.

Underneath it all, you’re still the same person and just because you’re getting older, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still enjoy life.

Brexit: the most profound decision of our age

Thank you for all the views, keep them coming and please share.

Anecdotes of an Alto

I voted to stay in the EU and many of my friends did too. Some of you didn’t and that’s fine; it was your choice to vote whichever way you wanted. Politics is something I rarely discuss, let alone write about but I can’t simply ignore an event which will have a huge impact on all of us, so I’m trying to put my thoughts into words. Feel free to comment but please keep it civilized; I don’t want any of the vilification that has happened on social media to take place here.

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Going to bed last Thursday, I was complacent about the result of the Brexit vote. I knew it was going to be close but I still thought the Remain side would win. Stumbling downstairs to make a cup of tea the next morning, this quickly turned to shock when I looked at the news headlines: “What on earth…

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Brexit: one year on

A year ago the political earthquake that was Brexit happened. Now our political leaders seem determined to push us over the cliff despite many reasonable voices telling us not to go. Sitting talking to friends last week, most of us said that given the chance of being able to earn a decent living we’d emigrate, such is our despair at what is happening to this country. It’s not just Brexit but the lack of investment in education, social care, health and essential services like the police and the fire brigade that also concerns us. My children too often talk of going to work in a different country once they are grown up. They don’t feel that their future lies here. 

Here’s a reminder of the post I published a few days after Brexit. Once my exams are over, I’ll write something more.

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Going to bed last Thursday, I was complacent about the result of the Brexit vote. I knew it was going to be close but I still thought the Remain side would win. Stumbling downstairs to make a cup of tea the next morning, this quickly turned to shock when I looked at the news headlines: “What on earth have we done?” I thought.

Until now, I’ve never taken much notice of politics but the result of this vote has finally shaken me out of my middle-class bubble. Yes, I exercise my right to vote but being a Labour supporter in a Tory heartland, I genuinely feel that my voice doesn’t count for much; I just go and vote on principle. Last Thursday felt completely different though: this time my opinion would actually matter and after dropping my son at school, the first thing I did was walk across the park to the polling station.

Why did I vote to stay in the EU? Because although the institution is a bit of a lumbering behemoth, I thought the positives strongly outweighed the negatives and because staying in felt like a vote for co-operation, tolerance and diversity, all values I hold dear. The only way to change the EU for the better is to stay in it, went my reasoning. And as the Leave campaign had been totally hijacked by fears over immigration and nationalist slogans like “wanting our country back”, any sound economic, social or political reasons for leaving hadn’t reached me by the time I cast my vote and they probably wouldn’t have swayed me, such is my dislike of Nigel Farrage and Boris Johnson.

And what do I think nearly a week on? For the first time ever, I’m fearful for the future. The country may go into recession again, racist attacks have increased sharply, prices will probably rise, jobs will go and the surprise result has created political turmoil, the likes of which I have never seen before.

I didn’t vote for David Cameron but I didn’t expect him to resign immediately. Maybe I’m a bit naive, but to me this effectively says: “I’m not man enough to sort out the crisis I’ve plunged us into, someone else please do it.” And Labour? If ever there was a time to stand united and show what they can do in a time of turmoil it’s now. But what do they do instead? Turn on their leader, who was elected by an overwhelming majority of the party membership. Yes, I understand the argument that we’re heading for a General Election and the party don’t think Jeremy Corbyn will win, which is why Labour MPs are trying to force him out, but to me it feels like the country is leaderless just at the time when we need a firm and decisive hand.

And what kind of message does our decision to leave the EU send to the rest of the world? It must feel like a kick in the teeth. Sorry we’re just going to sweep 40 years of co-operation under the carpet because a small minority – 36.4% – have decided that it’s in the country’s interest. “Hang on a minute,” I hear you say, “that’s the wrong number, it was 52%!” No, the turn-out was 70% not 100%: do the maths. My feeling and it’s only a feeling, don’t shoot me down, is that most of the country didn’t want this result and yet to the outside world my opinion and my values don’t matter. “Democracy” has happened and we have to live with it. I think one of the reasons the Remain camp are so upset is because Brexit has been a PR disaster – British people now come across to the rest of the world as racist and inward-looking, and that includes those of you in the Leave camp who I know aren’t.

Thinking about what to write today, I came to two conclusions. The first of them is that many people didn’t understand the repercussions of what they were voting for. There aren’t many people I know who could give you a coherent and convincing argument as to why we should’ve stayed in or left, and I have friends who cover the whole spectrum of society, young and old, rich and poor.

Not many people seem to know how much we benefit from EU funding for example. I found it ironic that the areas where the Leave vote was the strongest, were the ones who have most benefited from regeneration funding given to them by the EU. Did you see that report in the paper about people in Cornwall worrying about losing their EU funding, when their county voted to leave? I think you’ll find the phrase is: “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

In all honesty, I believe that we ordinary people shouldn’t have been allowed to vote on such a complex issue in such a simplistic way; just a simple yes or no majority, without a second or even third vote was foolhardy. Yes, really. “Oh but then you’re denying people their democratic rights,” I can hear you say. Maybe but if we’re going to have such a vote, surely it’s better that we really understand the issues before deciding what to do. I think the campaign on both sides failed to educate people properly, it just tried to scare them into doing what they wanted. And I suspect this vote had little to do with the EU really but was a protest against the failures of successive governments to tackle the serious problems our country has had for decades (like lack of housing and under-funding the NHS) and the gulf between rich and poor, which is widening again.

The second conclusion, which is a far deeper and more serious issue, is that what has happened is down to the repeated failure of politicians to listen to their electorate. Now lets keep things in perspective, EU immigrants make up a mere 5% of our population but because the amount of resources we have in terms of schools, doctors and housing etc hasn’t kept pace with this influx of people, these facilities are being stretched and people quite rightly are complaining.

I have myself, when I’ve rung the doctor 10 times on redial only to be told I can have an appointment in a month. Milton Keynes has one of the fastest growing populations in the country and the health service around here is on its knees because it cannot cope and many local schools are oversubscribed too. We need more resources for our growing population, but all the time funding for things I consider necessities continue to be cut. The complaints of ordinary people have become louder and louder over the last decade but they haven’t been listened to and of course people blame immigrants; they are an easy target. It feels like we’re just told by most politicians, “this is a time of austerity and we all have to tighten our belts”, and yet again the problem is swept under the carpet.

Like many of my friends, I have watched with alarm and not a little fear as Ukip has risen to prominence: they target people’s fears and fill them with false hope. And we aren’t the only country in Europe where the Far Right is gaining support – look at Poland, to take one example. Nationalist pride like that is what caused all of the wars of the last century: it is one of the reasons the EU was set up, to prevent us from repeating the mistakes of history and why I feel it is a tragedy that we have decided to leave.