Suri Cruise and the right to be six

Suri Cruise is six years old and very, very rich. My eldest child is nearly five and has but a few quid stored away in a lonely Child Trust Fund.* Neither of them have done a day’s work in their lives, but Suri Cruise is loaded and my son isn’t. Still, at least my child can have a tantrum in the Disney Store without the Daily Mail writing him off as a precocious brat from hell. Continue reading


Comment on my new blog design (not that I, like, care or anything)

Official statement:

Following several in-depth pieces of quantitative and qualitative research, backed up by the findings of a focus group (all of which took place in my head), I have decided to reposition the Glosswatch blog brand. I do so not without serious misgivings. The overall brand identity – and the feelings of familiarity this can inspire in loyal followers – is not something with which I would wish to dispense. However, I have, for quite some time, been thinking that my blog looked a bit shit and furthermore that the rubbish design may even have led some to assume that I’m more of a twat than I actually am.

Basically, I have changed the theme and tagline of the blog. And I am really, really embarrassed about having done so, because it looks like, you know, I actually care about this blog. Whereas what I’d want people to assume is that it just kind of “happens”. Continue reading

Career mummies: The whole truth

Yesterday at work I was on the road visiting clients. The colleague with whom I usually travel was off, so I’d been asked to take along a younger member of staff, to help her gain experience. When I say ‘younger’, I mean quite a bit younger. The colleague was fresh from university and in her first job. She still lived at home with her parents (as should anyone fuckwitted enough to have been born later than 1987). As we drove along, she asked me lots of questions about my life, work and experiences. I started to feel like we were in a film. A terrible road movie looking at female relationships across the generations, a movie in which lessons are learnt and bridges are built. As the questions mounted, I started whether the M5 was in fact a bluescreen.

At one point she said the following:

It must be really hard, working full-time and having children. How do you manage?

Continue reading

Breastfeeding: Like Marmite, insofar as it isn’t

There are many things in life which are, as the saying goes, like Marmite. The Smiths, Ann Widdecombe, gerbils … you either love them or you hate them, and there’s no in-between. That’s just how they are. Other things, however, are not like Marmite. Take Marmite itself, for instance. I can take it or leave it. I might fancy a bit on my toast but hey, if there’s none left to scrape out of the pot, no worries; I’ll just have a bit of marg on its own. Everyone talks about the great Marmite divide, but let’s be honest – marmalade’s the real deal breaker in all of this.

I’m inclined to think this way about breastfeeding too. Just as you can’t eat a Marmite soldier without being told you love it, women who breastfeed are all encouraged to believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that they’ve decided  breast is best. This doesn’t mean that they can’t talk about the difficulties. It doesn’t mean they have to pretend it’s easy. But once you breastfeed, it tends to be assumed that you most definitely “heart” having a baby on the tit. Continue reading

Proposal for a CBeebies show: The Chums of Normality Wood

CBeebies – they’re a bit sexist, aren’t they? By that, I don’t mean the cute  yellow blobby peeps; I rather like them. I mean the people behind them. Because the smiley blobs, they’re just a front. A front for the blind, unquestioning promotion of patriarchal and racial dominance. This has been made clear to me through years of being a shit mum who plonks her kids in front of the telly while she indulges in a bit of washing up. But hey, I don’t want to make a fuss. The only thing worse than being a mum who plonks her kids in front of the telly is being a feminist mum who then makes a massive fuss about it afterwards.

Rather than embark on another mad feminist rant, I’ve resolved to look at things from a different angle. Inspired by the CBeebies formula, I’ve decided to create my own TV series! Just call me Oliver Postgate (or rather, one of the many latter-day rubbish versions thereof):

The Chums of Normality Wood

A story of four friends finding their way through the moral maze that is life, here represented in the form of a wood, containing lots of twisty metaphortastic pathways on which to get lost.
Continue reading

Young people: Get rid of your sodding phones!

Mobile phones are bloody brilliant, aren’t they? From inauspicious beginnings in the 1980s, it’s amazing to see how far they’ve come. Take mine, for instance. I can use it to send emails, access sat nav, download music, sell all my worldly goods on Ebay … in fact, I even used it to start writing this very post. It’s fantastic, isn’t it? You start to wonder if there’s anything a mobile phone can’t do. I mean, it can’t give you money or opportunities or choices, or even a roof over your head. But to be honest, that doesn’t matter. Because in lieu of that, it provides everyone with an excuse as to why you shouldn’t have that anyway. This is particularly true if you’re young.

You might think young people today are having something of a shit time. The qualifications they’ve worked for are mocked and discredited; further education saddles them with decades of debt; apprenticeships pay them a pittance, while an entry-level job is now an “internship” on no pay at all; most young people will never own a home, but can no longer claim support to live somewhere that isn’t theirs; they’re told not to reproduce when they’re young but not to leave it till they’re old; they will start their adult lives in debt and end them in poverty. But hey, sod all that. Just look at them: they’ve all got mobile phones! Continue reading

SlutWalking: A new variant

How do you eat your chicken? It’s a serious question. Get it wrong, and it could lead to all kinds of trouble.

It’s something I’ve always suspected, but it was finally spelled out to me this morning, in a tweet from the Guardian’s Eva Wiseman. This referred to a London Evening Standard article from April this year, covering the trial of now-convicted serial rapist Brian Witty. In his own account of events, offered as part of his defence, Witty claimed that he first encountered one of his victims in a bar, where she was eating chicken “suggestively”. The Standard interprets this as “in a way that replicated a sexual act”. It’s surprising, to say the least. We all knew chicken was versatile, but had you ever considered that?

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how far back into encounters rape trials seem to have to delve. I can understand the argument – you need to know how a relationship developed in order to understand whether or not it was plausible for the accused to assume sex was consensual – but it’s always seemed a crap argument to me. As far as I understand it, it’s fair game to be up for it until the very last minute, or to spend the evening in a right strop before going on to have consensual sex. Oh, but I’m not thinking about plausibility, am I? Silly old me. But then, as I’ve tried to suggest in a previous post, plausibility does seem to come perilously close to defining rape-ability. Once you’ve done something an up-for-it girl might do (this might even include being up for it, only then, and not later), bang goes your chance of a fair trial, long before anything’s even happened.* Continue reading

Aiming for the squeezed middle

Have you had a go on the Guardian Breadline Britain income comparison tool yet? Go on, it’s fun. I’m not sure exactly what the purpose of it is, though. The only thing that seems certain is that whatever label you get given – in poverty, on the edge of poverty, squeezed middle, right up to super-rich – you will feel bitter about it and sense that, somehow, you’re the one who’s really worst off.

I had a go at it and found myself to be in the very top category – super-rich. This surprised me – I know we’ve fallen on hard times, but it comes to something when my own life constitutes living the dream. Then I realised that I’d accidentally added in an extra nought (my propensity to do stupid things like this being one of the many, many reasons why I am not super-rich after all). So anyhow, I had another go. It’s amazing the difference a nought makes. Turns out I am in fact on the edge of poverty.

This allocation also surprised me. Financially, I’m not doing brilliantly, but I didn’t think things were that bad. To describe myself as “on the edge of poverty” feels, to me, a little like glory hunting. In the grand scheme of things, life’s just not that bad. I suppose “on the edge” means if the slightest thing goes wrong (or the “accidental” third baby makes an appearance), I could be in serious trouble, and that’s possibly true. But hey, let’s not get all dramatic about it just yet. What would be the point? After all, things could be about to change for the better. Continue reading

My year of housing benefit shame

Right now, I am in the bath, messing about on the netbook, which is resting on a pile of books on the bathroom bin. The book at the bottom is The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. I think that is symbolic. I haven’t actually read The Wealth of Nations – it’s my partner’s book – but hey, it’s symbolic anyhow. Because I’m thinking about money and the men who decide where it goes.*

I am so fucking annoyed about the Tory plan to cut housing benefit for the under 25s I don’t know where to begin. Indeed, my head might explode with sheer annoyance at it all. And that would be a bad thing, because mine is the head of a taxpayer. And I won’t be paying much tax if I don’t have a head. Continue reading

David Cameron: Politics of the playroom

This morning my eldest child’s school had the photographer in, so I took him and his younger brother in early for a picture. I’ve got the proofs and order form with me on my desk right now. They look gorgeous. Really, totally, absolutely gorgeous. I look at it and I feel incredibly proud. Or at least I would do, if I didn’t know that five minutes before those photos were taken, I’d been in stressed mum from hell mode, and telling them to “grow the fuck up”.

I don’t usually swear at my children. I’d been having a bad morning. The kind of morning so bad, even knowing that the feckless are having benefits cut can’t ease the pain. Even so, I feel totally ashamed. I’d feel ashamed even without the swearing. What am I, a grown woman, doing telling two tiny people, aged three and four, to grow up? God knows they’ve been doing their best.

The person who really needs to grow up, of course, is David Cameron. I mean, yes, my children can be annoying sods. They’re used to having everything done for them. They’ve never had to worry about money. They think the way they live is the way everyone lives. But that’s because they’re little. David Cameron, just what is your fucking excuse? And yes, that’s swearing. But I think that’s the very least you deserve.

Like your average four-year old, Cameron seems to think it is in some way realistic to order the world in response to resentment. Here’s him quoted in the Guardian:

We have, in some ways, created a welfare gap in this country – between those living long term in the welfare system and those outside it. […] This has sent out some incredibly damaging signals. That it pays not to work. That you are owed something for nothing. It gave us millions of working-age people sitting at home on benefits even before the recession hit. It created a culture of entitlement. And it has led to huge resentment amongst those who pay into the system, because they feel that what they’re having to work hard for, others are getting without having to put in the effort.

Yes, it’s just not fair, is it? Waaaaah! *stomps off to room. No Playstation time for me tonight* But seriously, David, if you think it’s realistic to have policies based on playing off entitlement against resentment, you must, surely, know this: huge numbers of people, working or not, resent your own privilege and sense of entitlement. So what are you going to do about that?

I am not exactly Miss Underprivileged. I went to Oxford University when I was 18 (this was back in the day when you even got small grants. Which is just as well. I’d have found it a right bugger to get to lectures every morning if I’d been sleeping back home in Cumbria every night). When I arrived at Oxford, though, I didn’t consider myself particularly privileged. I’d been the only person in my school who’d even applied. I’d worked really hard. I thought I deserved my place. I still, kind of, think I did, at least as much as anyone ever does. But this is where I went wrong: I thought that just because I worked hard and got what I wanted, anyone could get what they wanted by working hard. That anyone who didn’t was a bit of a loser who deserved to be where they were. This was, of course, complete bollocks. But sadly it took several terms of being around people far, far more privileged than me for me to work this out (what with me being, fundamentally, a selfish sod).

I have heard it suggested that as you get older and acquire more stuff, you become naturally more right wing. That you become a liberal “mugged by reality”. This hasn’t been my experience. But then, perhaps I haven’t acquired enough stuff yet. David Cameron, well, he’s always had lots of stuff. No wonder he hasn’t the slightest perspective on what it’s like to be without it. Even so, I don’t think having stuff is a sign of maturity. Certainly not in this day and age, when children can no longer expect to achieve the same standard of living and wealth as their parents did (as my dad kindly informed me on Saturday evening; in an odd way, I was actually quite touched). In some ways, I think the resentment politics proposed by Cameron is the politics of someone who has never, ever had to grow up.

People like Cameron find themselves with all the toys in the playroom. Then the minute someone else wants to play, they’ll be screaming it isn’t fair. Those are their toys. Of course, you might add that this in itself isn’t fair. But then you’ll get told that life just isn’t fair, and why did you expect it would be? (Toddler Cameron does have flashes of pseudo-maturity, at least.)

So anyhow, there I am, swearing at my lovely, beautiful kids. The kids I think I am allowed to have (although you never know; perhaps I’ve failed on account of not having a partner who can support me not working. It’s confusing). Anyhow, really I need to be swearing at David. He at least totally deserves it. But I’m not taking him for a school photo shoot afterwards.

So, who’s going to be operating the feckometer?

Cameron to axe housing benefits for feckless under 25s as he declares war on welfare culture.

Mail on Sunday headline, 24th June 2012

Have you ever wondered how much feck you possess? Don’t worry – you don’t need to know what feck actually is. Me, I haven’t got a fecking clue. However, I still have a pretty good idea that feck-wise, I’m doing better than most of my neighbours.

I live in a former council house on a poor estate. We could have bought a much smaller house in a different area – one with a far higher concentration of feck – but this was the house we wanted (it’s big and it’s near Bargain Booze. Who could argue with that?). Many of the people who live on my street don’t work. I’ll be setting off early in the morning to drop off the kids at school whereas they’ll be, um, setting off early in the morning to drop off the kids at school, too. But they’re probably hungover. And they might be having a fag on the way, before going back home to watch Jeremy Kyle.

Many of our neighbours have more children than we do. Here’s me, thinking we can’t afford to have another child, and there they are, breeding like rabbits. Only rabbits who smoke. And who don’t have any feck left in the burrow. Obviously I am very resentful about this. Every day I think ooh, you, you, you feckless people! How dare you even exist without possessing the requisite amount of feck! 

Fortunately David Cameron is feeling my pain:

Speaking exclusively to The Mail on Sunday, Mr Cameron said: ‘We are sending out strange signals on working, housing and families.’

He argued that some young people lived with their parents, worked hard, planned ahead and got nothing from the State, while others left home, made little effort to seek work and got a home paid for by the benefits system.[…]

‘A couple will say, “We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents. But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?”

Yeah, Mr Cameron! These people, they don’t half piss me off! I mean, speaking personally, I didn’t actually get engaged and live with my parents and try to save before getting married and having children or any of that bollocks. I’ve always just bumbled along being middle class. It always seems to have worked out, just about, for me. I’d obviously like a better economic environment, in which things weren’t quite so difficult for working parents. But still, in the absence of any policies that are going to make working and having children more affordable, yeah, let’s just have a go at people on benefits. It’s the very least we can do.

If I’m really honest, I wouldn’t say I worked out of some great desire to be “good”. If anything, I read the pronouncements of politicians such as Cameron and get a huge desire to change my behaviour just to be “bad”. But I work so I have prospects and a future. I work so I don’t feel trapped. I work so I feel I’m using the skills I had the opportunity to gain. I don’t do it because of my feck, whatever that is. It has crossed my mind that, if everyone around me on our estate is having such a great time, I could try to join them. But it doesn’t look that much fun from where I see it. It’s hardly winning the lottery. They’re not working because they don’t know what else to do and how else to be, and no one, as far as I can see, is giving them the opportunities to change or making change affordable.

Cameron claims that “at the moment the system encourages people not to work and have children, but we should help people to work AND have children”. I agree. Working and having children is hard emotionally and financially. I can think of many possible solutions – increasing childcare vouchers, encouraging childcare providers to fit around shift patterns, working to decrease the pay gap, investing in depressed communities to ensure that there are jobs – but cutting benefits for “the feckless” seems an odd one to start with. It won’t make things any easier for most people. I don’t know, perhaps if my neighbours get evicted, I’ll be able to do the school run marginally more quickly, then I might get to work earlier, then I’ll get a pay rise, then I’ll actually be able to afford the nursery fees I’m paying for anyhow… Is that the thinking? Cause I’m not sure that’s going to work. Hell, I don’t even know if I’ve got enough feck to make this doable.

Well, thankfully it won’t be me who has to operate the feckometer. Because knowing feck all about the morality behind it, I just wouldn’t know where to start.

Postscript: Since writing this post, it still looks like everything’s going badly wrong, but I have at least worked out the answer to the original question: it’s obviously Father Jack.

Oh piss off, having-it-all-career-SAHM-whatever women

So, I started reading that Anne-Marie Slaughter piece in Atlantic magazine on Why Women Still Can’t Have It All. I started reading it, but bloody hell, I found it hard work. Perhaps I’m just tired. Perhaps I’m just tired from all the effort I put into having it all.

I’m not actually all that good at having it all. Or rather, I’m totally ace at the “not seeing much of the kids” side of it, but the “super career woman” bit – well, I wouldn’t rate me much on that score. Certainly not in comparison to Slaughter. This is a woman who has dropped out of her high-powered Washington career to spend more time with the kids and yet still – still! – she gets to piss all over the piffling achievements of women still clinging on to all the shit jobs they can find:

I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women: I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.

Presumably Anne-Marie also sticks a broom up her arse and sweeps the floor as she walks along. I mean, good for you, Ms Slaughter. Seriously. You’re really fucking amazing. Quite how this puts you in a position to comment on the compromises made by lesser mortals isn’t, however, totally clear to me.

I mean, yeah, it’s always difficult getting the work-life balance in order, even, as Slaughter comments, “with bosses as understanding as Hillary Clinton and her chief of staff, Cheryl Mills”. Often it’s just a total bummer (with or without the broom). Here’s how it was for Anne-Marie:

My workweek started at 4:20 on Monday morning, when I got up to get the 5:30 train from Trenton to Washington. It ended late on Friday, with the train home. In between, the days were crammed with meetings, and when the meetings stopped, the writing work began—a never-ending stream of memos, reports, and comments on other people’s drafts. For two years, I never left the office early enough to go to any stores other than those open 24 hours, which meant that everything from dry cleaning to hair appointments to Christmas shopping had to be done on weekends, amid children’s sporting events, music lessons, family meals, and conference calls.

Yeah, tell me about it. Do you know how I cope with all this, Anne-Marie? I generally manage by fucking up. By always being the parent who forgets it’s non-uniform day, always being the colleague who’s late for early morning meetings, just generally always being “that person” who has to live with Allison Pearson narrating her every move. It’s not an ideal solution, sure, but once you come to terms with it and accept the essential fucked-up-ness of it all, it’s surprisingly bearable. And the bonus is, by doing all this, you get to have cute kids and a roof over your head. Result!

I don’t think there is anything necessarily gender-specific about my situation, or indeed Anne-Marie’s, other than that it’s arisen from working patterns failing to keep up with social change. I don’t have a househusband, therefore there’s no one there to pick up the pieces, yet workplaces still treat employees as though that extra person is necessarily there. And some employees do have stay-at-home carers as their partners. However, if you’re one of those who doesn’t, there’s a limit to how much flexibility you feel able to ask for. We should still keep on asking, though. Otherwise, why are we all working? What’s it all about? *rests hand on chin, philosophically*

One thing I definitely don’t believe is that there should be a special kind of guilt reserved for mothers. It’s not that I don’t sometimes feel it; it’s just that I know, fundamentally, that it’s not right. I think that’s part of being a feminist, and knowing that while, individually, I am a tosser, theoretically, as a woman, I am the equal of any man (apart, of course, from Jarvis Cocker). This is in many ways why I find the positioning of an article such as Slaughter’s genuinely discomforting (aka totally fucking annoying). She doesn’t seem to say much that I don’t also think (so how come she’s on telly and not me?). Yet it all feels so mummy-centric, so focussed on mummy identities and mummy responsibilities. There does, undoubtedly, need to be a shift in how businesses understand the commitments and responsibilities of employees. If not, it will mostly be women who lose out. Even so, I find myself cringing at assertions such as this:

Being able to work from home—in the evening after children are put to bed, or during their sick days or snow days, and at least some of the time on weekends—can be the key, for mothers, to carrying your full load versus letting a team down at crucial moments.

It’s not just the obsequiousness towards businesses (god forbid that anyone should just take the day off when their child is ill); it’s the demand that women still bear the “full load”, whatever the situation. Apparently it’s not our perception of motherhood that’s at fault; we just need new working hours.

There’s an unpleasant strain of essentialism running through Slaughter’s arguments. She doesn’t want to make workplaces more family-friendly; she wants to feminise them:

I […] want a world in which, in Lisa Jackson’s words, “to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman.” That means respecting, enabling, and indeed celebrating the full range of women’s choices. “Empowering yourself,” Jackson said in her speech at Princeton, “doesn’t have to mean rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.”

No, it sure doesn’t, whatever the fuck all that might mean. Presumably I need to watch more Oprah and it will all make sense.

I am, I suppose, just really sick of this whole fucking debate and the gender politics and assumptions surrounding it. The suggestion that there is anything remotely new about an older, successful woman turning around and saying “hey, this having it all lark isn’t so easy!” is ludicrous. You get it in the Daily Mail every week (thanks, Lorraine Candy). Sure, Slaughter is trying to be more constructive than that, but it really isn’t helping. Feminists did this, big shoulder-padded career women did that, SAHMs got sneered at, the career women had regrets blah blah blah blah blah. Do you know what really happened? Women tried to make the best of the opportunities offered to them but still struggled to gain ground because a) some people are sexist and / or hold restrictive views about what men and women can and cannot do [see Jackson quote above], and b) businesses are greedy and have been permitted to become even greedier. So it’s bloody difficult to ask them to treat you like a person, whether you’ve got children or not. And if your starting point is “ooh, I’m a mummy, please please please can I work at home and pull my weight while my toddler dies of consumption?” you’re not going to get very far.

Fundamentally, I am sick of mummies being put in boxes – SAHM, career woman, regretful part-timer. We do it for controversy, and debate, and entertainment. It’s become an abstract intellectual exercise. Do you know, it’s reached the point where we’re all so knackered, we’re starting to forget these aren’t just labels; these are our lives.

The GCSE / O-level debate: Everyone’s a bloody expert

In all the kerfuffle over GCSEs and the potential return of O-levels, one question remains unanswered: why doesn’t everyone just ask me? After all, I’m the sodding expert. If ever there was a moment where I could say “hang on, I know stuff!“, this, surely, is it. And given how often I rant about stuff about which I know nothing, I really ought to take the opportunity to rant about an issue about which actually, for once, I have something to say.

In case you’re wondering, here are my actual credentials regarding the education debate:

  1. I’m a parent
  2. I read the Daily Mail
  3. I did exams, once.

That’s pretty good going, isn’t it? Oh, but there’s some other stuff: I have a job that is linked to education. I actually read exam specifications! And past papers! I even read some this week! BUT I’m not a teacher or an examiner, therefore I’m not just in the business of covering up the fact that I am, apparently, crap at my job. Hell no, I work in the private sector, so I’m totally efficient and shit. In addition to all this, my partner used to be an academic (i.e. he could have been writing exam specifications for me to read) except he’s now training to be a primary teacher (i.e. he’s gone thick and lefty and useless, and I get to see this transformation at close hand). And in case all this wasn’t enough, I am, like, dead clever. I have an MA from Oxford and a PhD from Cambridge, so Michael Gove should love me.* Especially as I went to a grammar school. I am just totally Gove-tastic, me.

I was thinking of all that this morning when I was reading an Independent blog post on how useless young people, sorry, GCSEs are. It’s written by Liam O’Brien, who got 9 A*s at GCSE in 2005, but isn’t about to get overawed by his own success: “But even as I sat the papers, I was aware that these grades were completely worthless“. Which is obviously news worth passing on to all those millions who don’t get 9 A*s. How mega-thick must they be? Even I find it hard to imagine such a level of thickness and I’m dead clever, me.

Liam is annoyed about all of the GCSE subjects being too easy, but he has a particular go at MFL:

In the most recent French reading paper, students could obtain a mark for recognising that “piscine” means swimming pool.

Well, I’ll tell you something, Liam – it does! Piscine does mean swimming pool! And actually, getting a mark for that is a real achievement if you’re 16, since first you have to overcome the urge to die laughing at the fact that the French swim in something that sounds like “piss” (what, you mean you never did that?). Well, piscines aside, Liam goes on to tell us exactly how GCSE MFL exams work:

In modern foreign language and Latin classes, we would sit O-level papers as practise [sic.] for the real thing, safe in the knowledge that nothing as difficult would ever appear on the real exam. In some cases, a C grade would translate to As and A*s. In those days, language papers required some understanding of the subject. Now, it’s a case of whether you’ve adequately prepared your strict vocabulary lists because – never fear – there will be nothing “off-road” on the exam.

This is, you might be surprised to know, complete and utter merde. In each of the GCSE specifications 60% of the marks are for speaking and writing, i.e. productive work which does not rely on simple vocab recognition (in addition to this, 20% of the remaining marks are for listening, which relies on vocab recognition in an entirely abstract context, in which you can’t see the speaker. This is hard. Especially if someone says something that sounds a bit like “piss”).

Speaking and writing are currently examined using controlled assessment. As a method this is rubbish and MFL teachers hate it. This is of course because they are teachers and therefore lazy and useless. Or actually, it might be because they’d like to do some actual teaching and controlled assessment gets in the way, involving extended preparation periods during which teachers cannot help students even if they’d like to. Some students use the preparation time to memorise work and then reproduce it. This is not a great way of encouraging fluency in communication (and it is often exposed when students face an unexpected – unexpected! – question in the speaking and can’t string a sentence together). Basically, controlled assessment isn’t working. But it’s not because it’s easy or because it’s a mere vocab test. Only someone who can’t be arsed to examine the problem up close would suggest that.

I’m not saying such a person is necessarily stupid. They might, for instance, have 9 A*s at GCSE. I’m just saying that if we want to improve achievement in a subject such as MFL, we should do so by finding assessment methods that encourage actual fluency, and not just by making the subject “harder“, whavever that means (cryogenic floatation tanks rather than swimming pools? I don’t even know if such things exist but hey, they sound a bit more hardcore than the sodding piscine).

Whatever the problems with current exams, I have serious issues with journalists and people in general trying to downplay the value of what students achieve (sorry, I’m meant to say “pupils” aren’t I? Don’t want to be bigging them up, although actually, you could interpret my use of the word “students” as a way of downplaying the achievements of university undergraduates as well). I don’t think GCSEs are perfect. However, I find it bizarre that we are talking, not about improving learning and knowledge, but simply about “hardness”. It’s dead easy to write hard stuff. You could, for instance, just get academics to set university-level exams for people at school (oh, hang on, we’re meant to be doing that). It doesn’t improve knowledge and its delivery in any significant way.

I would love young people to be passionate about languages. My own view is that this can be done through greater cultural engagement, and fewer meaningless scenarios in which you talk about the different items you store in your pencil case (and don’t get me started on what’s in “ma chambre”. You don’t want to know). I don’t hold with claims that GCSEs are “a national disgrace”; on the contrary, I worry more about the future of MFL when it’s being suggested that the main reason for learning a language is to beat our “competitor” countries on the education league tables (intercultural understanding? Donnez-moi un break). This seems to me, fundamentally, to push against valuing knowledge and creativity, precisely the things which make learning useful (both personally and perhaps, dare I say, economically).

Well, that’s what I reckon. And you should listen to this because I, like, know stuff. A bit. For once.

*A previous post on this blog does mention the fact that I failed my PhD first time around. Which might suggest I’m not a total genius. However, young people experiencing academic failure is also Gove-tastic. Hell, I tick all the boxes!

Playdates: Bound to end in disaster

I had a day off today so, rather than languish in after-school club, my eldest came straight home. As an added bonus, he brought a classmate with him. It was a pre-arranged playdate. I was the one who organised it but believe me, I really wished I hadn’t.

I cannot stand playdates. Each one constitutes several hours during which I constantly feel seconds away from total heartbreak. The tension is unbearable. I’m the only one who feels it, but I’m not the one whose heart would be broken. It’s my son for whom I fear. I can’t stand the thought of him being hurt.

It’s ridiculous. He’s forming relationships with other children and of course he will get hurt. There will be arguments, and fights, and upsets. That’s all part of being human, and it’s how he will learn about the world. I still can’t bear to think about it. Any hurt will pass, but in the meantime he will suffer. I don’t want him to.

I worry about the hurt being his fault. I know that when I was a child, it often was. I was selfish and mean. I had a short temper. I had, and still have, the capacity to act like a total twat. What if he’s inherited all that? Or if not inherited it, surely he might learn it from me?

I spend the whole playdate in the kitchen, wringing my hands. They don’t like me to be in the living room. They want to do their own thing, which mostly involves playing on the Playstation. I bring them orange juice. They don’t look at me, but then they barely look at each other.

Sometimes my son snaps at his friend for not “playing properly”. His friend is an only child. My son has a younger brother, whom he’s used to bossing around. Sometimes he gets muddled and calls his friend by his younger brother’s name. I’m thinking please be nice, please be nice. Please don’t mess things up. I want everyone to see how amazing you are, and to love you.

Eventually they stop for tea. I have cooked fish fingers, new potatoes and peas. Proper mummy food, like Sally on Coronation Street would make. My son’s friend says the peas are too small, and that he doesn’t like the skin on the potatoes. I tell him I’ll remember for next time. Inwardly, I am pleased, as this exchange indicates my son’s friend isn’t perfect. If both boys can be total sods, then surely they’re in with a chance.

The friend’s mother calls to pick up her son. The boys are still playing together. Nothing has gone wrong. I am relieved. My son hasn’t messed up, not yet. Just as they’re about to leave, my son’s friend turns round. There’s one last thing he wants to do.

During their playtime he’s been absent mindedly filling an Early Learning Centre washing machine with Lego Star Wars Storm Troopers, a mass of jumbled white plastic. Just as they’re about to go, he decides to toss Lego Darth Vader into the mix. Seizing on an opportunity, I decide to make an appropriately mumsy quip, just to seal the bond between mothers as well as between sons:

Ooh, careful there! You don’t want to mix your colours and your whites!

Which would, I think, have been an okay thing to say. Only it crosses my mind that we are talking, not about random Lego pieces, but about little men. And suddenly I’m terrified I’ve said something potentially racist. At which point the best course of action would have been to carry on with the conversation and hope no one else had had the same thought. But I am not like that. I am, on the contrary, a total twat:

Sorry, that might have sounded a bit racist, really. I didn’t mean it like that! I was just meaning, like, you shouldn’t mix things in the washing machine so the colours don’t run. But I don’t think that about people. Not even Lego people in a pretend washing machine! No, I’m not making a judgement on that. I’m bringing them up to understand that all relationships are –

At which point my son’s friend and his mother start backing away, smiling politely, but there’s fear in their eyes. My son seems oblivious, thankfully. I am filled with shame and horror. Why am I such a total idiot?

We have another playdate arranged for next week. This time at my son’s friend’s. I will worry. Four-year olds can be really foolish. But it’s the 37-year olds you have to really watch out for.


Jimmy Carr, I feel your pain

We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.

Leona Helmsley

So Jimmy Carr used a financial advisor in order to pay less tax. Big sodding deal. We’ve all done that, haven’t we? I know I have.

My tax avoidance antics started in May last year, on the day we all got handed our monthly pay slips. As we all know, a pay slip is just a piece of paper which displays the same numbers every single month. Nevertheless, it remains obligatory, every single month, to rip it open the moment it’s in your hands, and to pretend it’s some kind of National Lottery scratch card which might reveal that, this time, you’ve actually been given a million squillion pounds. Thus I tore open my pay slip and discovered that this month, the numbers had in fact changed. But not for the better. On the contrary, all of a sudden my take-home pay had become really rather rubbish.

I wondered, briefly, whether there might be a problem. Could I be paying too much tax? Don’t be silly, I told myself. You’re one of the little people, the people who never pay too much tax because their earnings are so insignificant to the world at large. Perhaps it was just something I didn’t understand. Probably something to do with the company car I’d been using since last year, although I hadn’t thought it’d be costing me quite so much. Still, mustn’t grumble. I crossed my fingers that the next month it’d be back to normal.

Alas the next month my pay was still surprisingly low. And the next month, and the month after that. Finally I plucked up the courage to see our payroll administrator. Of course, I was horrendously ashamed and apologetic about it. I am so sorry to trouble you, I’m a bit worried about the tax, it’s not that I don’t want to pay it, I’m just a bit, you know, obviously if you’re busy, blah blah blah. She took one look at my pay slip and told me it was wrong. I’d been given a K tax code when I should have got an L. I would explain this but it’s boring and I’ve forgotten the details and being one of the little people, I’m not sure I ever understood them to begin with. She scribbled some things down on a piece of paper, working out the exact code I should have got. We guessed the error had arisen from the fact that at one point I’d swapped cars. The company had notified, um, whoever it is you notify, but it seems “they” had assumed that I’d kept the old one and been swanning about in two cars (I’m bad enough at driving as it is).

The next step was to contact the Inland Revenue. I asked the administrator if she would do it, seeing as she knew what she was talking about. She said she couldn’t; they’d need to speak to me in person. Would I like to do it now, while I was in her office? I said no; I needed to psych myself up for this, and at least try to get my head around how it all worked. Plus I thought I’d maybe leave it another month. Just to see if it’d all work out by itself.

At this point it did of course cross my mind that I could just keep on over-paying tax. After all, I believe in paying tax. I believe in contributing to the greater good. Hadn’t it just so happened that I’d been given the chance to contribute even more? I considered this, but not for long. After all, I’m not a fucking saint. Moreover, if I wanted to use any additional money for the greater good, I’d rather use it in a more targeted fashion (ideally to make the kind of political contributions that might eventually ensure that the original “greater good” money didn’t get wasted on pointless wars and shit). And the truth is, over-paying tax would, in the long term, have seriously pissed me off. I know that, in the grand scheme of things, I am privileged. But, in the small scheme of things, over-paying tax while living on a shit estate and knowing, deep down, that rich people do stuff meaning that they under-pay tax – well, I’m a grumpy enough sod as it is. That, I’m afraid, would have got to me.

One month on I made the phone call:

ME: Um, hello. I’m ringing because, um, you know, I think I might be paying too much tax. I’m sorry.

TAX PERSON: Can I have your details please?

ME: [gives details] I’m sorry. I’m sorry for making such a fuss about this.

TAX PERSON: [goes away for a bit then comes back] It’s because of the cars. That’s why you have that code.

ME: Oh, the cars! I only have one car, though. I didn’t have them at the same time. That’ll be it.

TAX PERSON: It says here you have two cars.

ME: Oh, the thing is, I swapped cars in July. I’m sorry.

TAX PERSON: Our records say you have two.

ME: Um, but I don’t. Sorry. [starting to wonder whether in fact I do have two cars but just haven’t noticed]

This all sounds like it was going badly, doesn’t it? Well, in fact, I managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Or rather, I got a marginally better tax code in the end. Still a K code, but hey, I felt really grateful by then! Until I mentioned it to the payroll administrator. She was seriously unimpressed, and said I’d need to go back again. And then she went through the numbers one more time. I still didn’t really get it.

By this point I was despairing. But then I had a thought: what would JC do? Presented with a situation such as this, what would sex god and all-round genius Jarvis Cocker advise? He’d take one look at me – someone who struggles with money while remaining more middle-class than Waitrose and Outnumbered put together – and utter those immortal lines from Common People: “if you called your dad he could stop it all”. So I called my dad. He stopped it all. Him, and his personal accountant, a family friend who agreed to look at all my paperwork and contact Inland Revenue for free.

Two things amaze me in all this: 1) how hard it was to even attempt to sort things out on my own, and 2) what a total piece of piss paying less tax becomes when you have an accountant on your side. Within two days – two days! – I ended up with the tax code the payroll administrator said I should have had all along (that’s in case you were wondering whether I ended up with something even better. I had wondered myself whether a little fiddle would get thrown in as an added bonus). But the annoying thing is, if I hadn’t got the work done for free (in itself exploitative, I suppose), I wouldn’t have got it done at all. The money I was missing out on made a huge difference to me, but I’d have been scared that an accountant’s fees would have swallowed up all the money I got back, and more. If it’s not big money you’re dealing with, is it worth it? And more than that, what if I had got it wrong? What if I had somehow acquired a second car without noticing and therefore owed money in taxes and, due to making a fuss, to an accountant? I mean, it’s unlikely, but I once stole a bike by accident and who knows, perhaps I’ve moved on to bigger things.

This inclines me to think that it’s perfectly possible that lots of “little people”, far from being benefit scroungers, may be over-paying taxes and not doing anything about it. First, because they don’t have the sense of entitlement that comes with being rich and famous, so they wait before asking questions, and second, because once they know something’s wrong, they can’t pay anyone to help them. I mean, I couldn’t. I just went back to being 18 and asking Daddy for help. If only I’d been better at rape jokes, it would never have come to this.

I don’t know what people like Jimmy Carr or Gary Barlow think when they’re busy playing the system. Perhaps it’s something along the lines to a view expressed by national treasure Adele in a Q magazine interview last year:

I’m mortified to have to pay 50%! [While] I use the NHS, I can’t use public transport any more. Trains are always late, most state schools are shit, and I’ve gotta give you, like, four million quid – are you having a laugh? When I got my tax bill in from [the album] 19, I was ready to go and buy a gun and randomly open fire.

Well, today I took my son to the hospital for a check-up before dropping him off at his perfectly non-shit school. Thanks, Adele. As one of the millions of little people whose taxes are, individually, a mere drop in the ocean, I am eternally grateful for your gracious benevolence. Without Chasing Pavements, perhaps my son would have had to make do with one grommet rather than two. But as for you, Carr and Barlow, you can fuck right off. You owe me. After all, with us little people, it’s just take, take, take.

PS Due to austerity and whatnot, I no longer have a company car. I do however fully expect to be paying tax on a car I don’t have for the rest of my working life. It’s okay, fellow little people; no need to thank me. It’s not morality; I just can’t be arsed.

Michael Gove: An apologia

A post I started writing a couple of weeks ago then forgot about. Until Michael Gove hit the news again for proposing the abolition of GCSEs...

Arriving home after the England vs France Euro 2012 match, I was greeted by an excited four-year-old, eager to tell me about the match:

Mummy, it was a draw! Everybody won!

My first thought: Aw, how cute! My second: Ha, bet that response would seriously piss off Michael Gove!

We all love a bit of Gove-bashing, don’t we? Just the sight of his face, fixed in a permanent expression of priggish outrage at misuse of the subjunctive in five-year-olds, is enough to make the average person want to scream something grammatically incorrect at the top of his/her/their voice(s). In my workplace we even have a picture of Michael Gove’s face pinned on one wall. Every so often someone adds a sarcastic speech bubble, just for their own amusement. I’m not a teacher and I don’t work in a school. Perhaps every workplace has its own Gove-bashing facility, kind of like those relaxation tank thingies you imagine Japanese workers having, but to allow people to let off steam in a peculiarly British way.

I’m starting to worry, though. Maybe we’ve all gone a bit too far. Is he really all that bad? Isn’t he better than a lot of the others? And so I’ve decided, in a moment of complete madness, to see what kind of a defence I’m able to mount for him (you can thank me later, Michael. In Latin).

1. Unlike all the other vote-chasers, you get the impression that he really, really means what he says

Even if it’s total crap. But with Michael, everything’s personal. He started out poor, went to grammar school, pulled himself up by his bootstraps, got to Oxford and ended up mixing with the posh folks! And all he wants is for your child to have the chance to do that too! With the emphasis being on “have the chance”. You can’t have every child doing that. Just the clever poor ones. And the clever rich ones. And probably, as ever, the thick rich ones, too. The point is, if everyone’s given proper hard stuff to study, instead of the liberal pinko shit you get in state schools today, we could have exactly the same inequalities as before, but with better knowledge of Ancient Greek! Plus, a select few grammar school pupils could be living the Michael Gove dream! (Confession: I went to a grammar school. I went to Oxford. Do I think most children should be sacrificed for the sake of a few having the chance to be like me? Of course I do. But the opportunity to implement this just hasn’t arisen. I don’t think Gove should be allowed to get there first)

2. He’s endearingly in awe of academics

I mean, you might not think it. He wants academics to write A-level specs, and he wants them to do training so employers don’t have to bother. The only things he doesn’t want them to do is research, teach and run universities i.e. be academics. But then he says really cute things like this: “I’m a journalist by trade, a politician by accident, and a historian in my dreams”. That’s dead sweet, isn’t it? My partner used to be a professional historian (in the past!), and it’s nice to think Gove dreams of watching students vomit in campus lifts, buying shoes at Matalan and having to tell the millionth knob in the pub that no, we don’t all “already know what happpened by now”. I wonder if many historians dream of being Gove?

 3. He’s probably right about languages, even if it’s for the wrong reasons

Children used to be taught MFL, meaning Modern Foreign Languages. Now it’s to be just FL. Which sounds a bit like “fuck all”, and that’s unfortunate. But on the whole, I think the dropping of the “modern” has much to recommend it. Talking about the environment in German is boring. Being forced to engage with history and culture – in any language, dead or alive – isn’t. It also helps us to value the transferability of a linguist’s skills. It’s not about the language per se, but the learning of a language. I say all this, mind, and I don’t know any Greek or Latin. Perhaps they’re seriously overrated, rubbish languages. Middle High German is good, though. Let’s get that into every primary.

4. He’s probably wrong about the other things, but then so are my dad and my nan, and that doesn’t make them bad people

Several years ago I had a massive row with my dad and nan, who were doing the whole “young people today are thick as pigshit” routine. They’re not, you know. It’s just a thing people say, and it justifies anything: scrapping GCSEs at the drop of a hat, writing off children at a very young age, deeming generations unworthy of jobs that don’t in fact exist, and treating the ones you do employ like shit while claiming they all need “remedial help” (fuck off, CBI). Most young people I know are fine and can do apostrophes and hard sums and everything. Which is no use to them in the current economic climate, but hey, it’s good to know nonetheless.

5. It’s not his fault his face is like that

It just is. He might look permanently priggish, but I, for instance, look permanently grumpy. Sometimes, if I’m out and about and don’t realise I’ve encountered a mirror, I find myself thinking Christ, she looks a miserable cow. Glad I’m not her. Whereas actually, there’s a permanent party goin’ on inside my head (mind you, it’s quite late on at the party, and several people have drunk too much, and someone’s crying and another person’s just thrown up in the kitchen sink. But it’s a party nonetheless). Maybe it’s like that for Michael Gove. Only for him, it’s a veritable bacchanalia, replete with old Etonians in togas who finally accept little Michael as one of them.

This is about all I can come up with. I’d probably have been able to think up more, had I been of the generation who did O-levels and are hence mega-clever (unless of course I’d had to do CSEs, in which case I’d be mega-thick, but also completely invisible in any assessment of what a generation might have achieved). Anyhow, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m of the dumbed-down generation. Must go now because my youngest is asking me whether dolphins have wheels. Alas, I fear it won’t be the O-level track for him…

Cherie Blair vs the yummy mummies: Just what we need

While I wouldn’t quite say it’s my favourite song, I’ll confess to having a real soft spot for Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man. This is partly because I love her voice, but it’s also because it was number one in the UK charts on the day I was born. I mean, I doubt I was appreciating the song mere moments after my arrival in the world. I was probably crying and whatnot (for some reason, my memories are hazy). Anyhow, because it was number one then, I feel it is symbolic. A bit like star signs, or something. And yes, I have grown up to feel that sometimes, it’s hard to be a woman. Especially if you’re also a gemini.

As a feminist, I don’t find the song particularly offensive. I do stand by my man. Given the mother he’s got, I’ve no bloody choice. Therefore I was most displeased to learn that, in 1992, Hilary Clinton had a pop at Tammy in order to demonstrate how independent she was from husband Bill. In a TV interview Clinton announced that she was not “sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette”. Well, no. If Tammy Wynette had been on TV, it would have been to do some singing, quite possibly, at that time, with the KFL (I don’t recall Clinton ever being “justified and ancient”. Or “bound for MuMu Land”, for that matter). Hilary was on TV because she was married to Bill Clinton, by whom she was not, however, standing. Or sitting (she does seem to get a bit muddled on that point). This comment obviously offended Tammy and Hilary had to apologise, but not before the whole thing had been mediated by Burt Reynolds, of all people (it’s not quite Gazza bringing chicken to Raoul Moatt, but as crazy mediations go, it’s pretty good).

Twenty years later, we may be needing the help of Reynolds once more. This time it’s Cherie Blair who’s been misusing pop culture references in order to talk bollocks and lecture the rest of womankind on how they ought to be (rest of womankind: “Great. Just fucking great”). And the parallels don’t end there. Like Clinton in 1992, Blair is an exceptionally successful woman in her own right. But she’s successful in ways that wouldn’t normally give a person the public platform that she actually has. Part of the reason what she says is reported is down to the man she married, just as pretty much all of the reason why Clinton was on TV in 1992 is down to the man Clinton married. Put it this way, it’s not a great position from which to lecture womankind on what independence means (rest of womankind: “Too fucking right”).

During a speech at Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women event in London (just writing that clause makes me want to vomit), Blair is reported to have said the following:

One of the things that worries me now is you see young women who say: ‘I look at the sacrifices that women have made and I think why do I need to bother, why can’t I just marry a rich husband and retire?’ and you think, how can they even imagine that is the way to fulfil yourself, how dangerous it is […]

You hear these yummy mummies talk about being the best possible mother and they put all their effort into their children. I also want to be the best possible mother, but I know that my job as a mother includes bringing my children up so actually they can live without me.

Obviously, as a mother in full-time paid employment, I read this and think go Cherie! Sod the mother-in-law and her “making sacrifices for the children” bollocks! You’re on my side! Yeah, that’s exactly what I think. Or it would be if I wasn’t so busy thinking excuse me, Cherie, but what fucking planet are you on?

In a horribly crass troll-baiting manoeuvre, the Guardian has decided to respond to Blair’s comments by asking readers what is a yummy mummy, exactly? (the faux innocence of the phrasing is great, isn’t it?). Cue lots of pointless comments on how Blair’s mixed up stay-at-home motherdom with yummy mummyness, which has nothing to do with financial dependency, but involves being fit and fuckable (a MILF, as many of the commenters point out, eager to show off their knowledge of sexist acronyms). To a certain extent, they’re right. I’m in paid employment and that doesn’t stop me from being a yummy mummy (the fact that I ming, however, does). But I don’t think that’s the whole point.

It is easy to interpret Blair’s comments as reigniting what the American press refer to as the “mommy wars”, SAHMs vs career mummies, each fucking up their children’s lives in their own particular way. There’s an element of that, but I think what Blair is saying is so far removed from the reality of most mothers’ lives that it barely touches upon the tensions that we really feel. It’s a cardboard cutout version of life. We’re just not playing these Daily Mail roles.

How many women or girls do you know who have said “why can’t I just marry a rich husband and retire”? I bet you don’t know many. That is because, unlike Cherie Blair, we don’t all hang around in the vicinity of potential rich husbands. In my life I have known only two women who did this, both of whom didn’t have the qualifications or career opportunities enjoyed by women such as Blair (or indeed me). For one of these women, it worked splendidly. She’s now mega-rich, never works and isn’t being driven mad by her three kids because they’re at boarding school during the week. I could say “oh, but she isn’t fulfilled”, but the truth is, she seems perfectly happy to me. Life isn’t some great morality tale (although I imagine if you’re married to Tony “A Journey” Blair, you have to pretend that it is). For the other woman, it didn’t work out so well. She’s now left holding the babies with no career history and nowhere to go. But still, even if she’d chosen a different route, I doubt she’d now be a QC giving speeches for Fortune magazine.

The assumption of privilege in what Cherie Blair is saying is, frankly, painful. Blair claims that “every woman needs to be self-sufficient and in that way you really don’t have a choice – for your own satisfaction”. But not everyone’s career is satisfying. Not every woman relishes “self-sufficiency” when the alternative is destitution. Not every mother can even afford to work. And for many of us, whether we are in paid employment or not, what makes us “a success” – the things we’d like our children to admire in us – isn’t tied to how we pay the bills. Blair links paid employment for women to personal self-realisation and to setting a good example for children. To me this seems horribly sexist. Do you know, Cherie, some of us just work to pay for stuff and if we’re lucky, we have a job involving something we’re good at. It’s a bit like how men work. Actually, when you think about it, it’s exactly the same.

At the moment my partner doesn’t have a job, although he has an interview this Friday.* It is the only interview he has been offered all year and the post is part-time. But in some ways, this is good. Our youngest would only have to go to nursery half the week and he’d get loads of time with Daddy. Only now I’m wondering, would Cherie Blair approve? Would my partner be sacrificing his “self-sufficiency” in order to bring a child up unable to live without him? Would he be making himself a terrible role model? Would he be doing all this, despite the fact that this is the only sodding job on offer? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, what with him being a man. Should Tony be the one commenting on this? (I’d worry he’d be a bit “alpha” on this particular one. And indeed on everything else.)

Anyhow, I suppose my next question is, what’s the male equivalent for “yummy mummy”? No one seems to have found one. I haven’t thought of one yet, but perhaps I never will. I know my partner’s a great dad, and he’s also dead fit (a FILF, no less), but, after all, as Tammy would say, he’s just a man.

* I was in two minds as to whether to mention the interview in a post, in case it jinxes things. Then I thought perhaps someone who reads this post might be willing to think “lucky thoughts”. So if you would like to, please do so. But only if you are a “lucky” person.

Stefano Pessina: The exfoliated face of capitalism

Hey ladies! Time to form an orderly queue. Please allow me to present to you Mr Stefano Pessina:

Phwoar! How’s that for an Italian Stallion? Out of two I’d give him one. Stefano? For me it’s definitely a Stefa-yes etc. etc.

Ahem. Sorry. I really need to watch my language. For instance, just then I wrote “ladies” when I should have written “girls”. It’s important to use the correct Boots-based terminology. After all, we wouldn’t want to upset Mr Pessina, who’s CEO of Alliance Boots.

I don’t know what I expected the CEO of Boots to look like, but to tell the truth, I’m disappointed. It’s not bad for 70, but I was still wanting a little more Johnny Depp, a little less Ikea-smart. After all, this is a man who must have access to all the cosmetics in the cosmi-megaverse. Couldn’t he at least have found one product that would allow him to have his own “ta-dah!” moment? And yes, I know I’m being unfair. After all, you can’t polish a turd. We women have known that all our lives, and still we spend gazillions trying to do so, first with the help of Boots 17, and then No. 7 (presumably at some stage you get to Minus 3). It’s shocking to think of what gets spent on this fruitless quest for “real woman” perfection. No wonder Stefano looks, if not exactly attractive, then at least “untroubled”.

Today I was on my way to buy my sandwiches in Boots, then I changed my mind. This was partly because Café Soho had a special offer, but mainly because I am a stupid and get all het up about companies being run by cunts. Obviously if I took this to any logical extreme, I wouldn’t buy sandwiches anywhere. I wouldn’t even buy bread, or flour, or yeast. But I am too lazy and compromised to do any of that. But anyhow, moving swiftly away from that particular minefield, I didn’t buy sandwiches in Boots. And that’s not just because Pessina sells us the beauty myth while looking like he should be designing work surfaces. It’s also because the likes of Pessina don’t like you or me or anyone really.

Pessina claims that the atmosphere in the UK is “anti-business“. He’s right, you know. I fucking hate business, me. Bloody organisations doing stuff and making money. Can’t stand the fuckers. Of course, however true, it’s a risky thing for Pessina to say. After all, he still wants to do business with us, bless him. Hence he’s since qualified his statement, quoted here in the Telegraph

I am convinced the Government in the UK is trying to do the right things and the fact they are reducing tax is going in the right direction. Unfortunately, the public opinion, the environment is not as favourable to businesses as the government is.

So David Cameron and George Osborne are okay, the rest of us are nasty, business-ist morons. He’s right, you know. Take me, for instance. I’m such a business-phobic bitch I’m considering finally registering that Superdrug loyalty card and never heading Boots-wards ever again.

Just to make matters worse, US Pharmacy giant Walgreen has just taken a 45% stake in Alliance Boots. Being a knee-jerk business basher my first thought is, of course, it’s American and it’s got “Wal” in the title. Gotta be bad. I mean, there are in fact some serious question marks over how Walgreens have dealt with contraception provision in the US. But that’s just a random observation. The real problem I have is with the “Wal”.

Anyhow, what I’m saying is, I won’t be going to Boots any time soon. Except, knowing me, I probably will, as Superdrug are bound to annoy me in the near future. And look how long my Lush boycott lasted –  two weeks, or was it one? I’m always going back to these evil hellholes. You know, sometimes you’d think I didn’t mind people selling stuff, as such. I don’t mind choice, or using money as a means of exchange, or even buying crap which I know won’t work, since that’s my own stupid fault. I just expect the grasping capitalist bastards at the top to be a little less patronising. And, of course, to look a whole lot more like Johnny Depp.

My kids: They’re ace, so ner!

For some reason, late in the evening, I have started reading a Guardian website article entitled How do we improve childcare? Even more inexplicably, I’ve scrolled down and started reading the comments. If you have children and – gasp!- work, reading some of it’s a bit like being punched in the stomach.

Here are some choice views on why your children should have never been born or, at best, need to be excused away as “accidents”:

I’m a firm believer that you should not even contemplate children unless you’re in a position to look after, and raise them […] But let’s be realistic and accept the fact that circumstances change, and “accidents” do happen, and one then has to then deal with it.

What “in a position to look after, and raise them” means, precisely, is not clear. But I suspect I’m not in said “position” and never have been. And my children weren’t accidents.

I think for under 5’s it’s tough. It’s a childminder, nursery or au pair. Or even, shock horror, stay at home, look after your kids and tough it out on bugger-all money.

Hmm. The trouble is, for some of us having “bugger-all” money would actually mean enduring the levels of poverty that make families unhappy. Is that so hard to understand? It’s not “hey, let’s play at being thrifty and raiding charity shops and getting rid of the car and having oodles of smug vintage fun”. Most of us have to dabble in that kind of “thrift” while we’re still working.

I have some sympathy for people who say don’t have kids if you can’t afford them or are not prepared to take responsibility and make the huge sacrifices necessary, yet misfortune and unforseen calmities happen, and our childcare is horrendously expensive and very variable in quality.

Well, to be honest, any “misfortune” I’m experiencing now could have been predicted before I had children. Should I have ruled myself out of the game? Left the breeding to the rich? But then who would do the shitty jobs in years to come? (Obviously I’m still hoping that won’t be my kids. But hey, just for argument’s sake).

This is however my favourite:

Cutting back on obsessional consumerism, and providing a full time parent ?

Just a thought.

Style of thing

It’s not a very good thought, though, is it? Style of thing. I mean, yeah, my son’s in nursery so I can save for an iPad. And I’d have done it, too, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids (and the nursery fees).

To summarise, here is the limited range of options that should have been open to me:

  1. be rich and have kids
  2. be old-style poor (i.e. have same job but have bought house earlier) and have kids
  3. not have kids as noble sacrifice because actually, I can’t afford it

But I had kids! Without meeting the “having kids” criteria as set by the wise people of Comment is Free! Bugger! What have I done?

Well, the thing is, I had some bloody brilliant kids. They are way better than any of those people who are waiting for the “perfect moment” to “responsibly” have kids can possibly imagine. They are way better than the “I’m far too noble to have kids” people could ever dream. My kids are magic and I wouldn’t regret having them ever, despite my misgivings about nursery and despite all the things I would do differently if time and money were no object (hint: they’re always a fucking object). They are fantastic kids and they have not been ruined by not emerging into a perfect financial set-up. In fact, while I’d like things to be better, that’s only because I’d sometimes like the freedom that more money brings; I’d hate to turn into the kind of person who thinks having more money makes you a better, more responsible parent.

The main thing I wanted to say, though, is HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Hey there, Guardian commenters! You can say what you like about “responsibility” but the fact is, I HAVE ACE KIDS AND YOU DON’T!!!

Early miscarriage: Does it even count?

Were you aware that, back in the day, early miscarriages never used to happen? Or rather, they did, but they were not remarked upon, ever. The average woman would get up in the morning and make her way t’mill, wading through cobbled streets knee-deep in embryos carelessly dropped along the way. Perhaps she, too, would deposit one as she went along. She wouldn’t notice, mind. These were the days before First Response and Clearblue would make pregnant women aware of their condition with such unseemly haste. And even if our olden days woman had noticed – missed periods, vomiting, tits as hard as boulders – she wouldn’t have paid any heed, not even when it culminated in a massive hemorrhage outside the local workhouse. Women were made of harder stuff back then.

It’s all different now, you know. I blame the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Now women get upset at the drop of a hat, or even a fetus. I should know; I did it myself when I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks. I mean, 10 weeks isn’t as pathetic as five or six, but still, it’s not great going. Indeed, sometimes I have been tempted to add on a couple of weeks, to at least make it sound like I had a scan and – sniff – saw a heart beating. Otherwise it’s a bit like the whole miscarriage trauma happened in my stupid, pampered head.

Modern sensibilities aside, I am nevertheless surprised that some people, when you tell them that you found your early miscarriage upsetting, still see fit to inform you that years ago, no one would have given a shit. I mean, it’s not quite the same as them saying that they don’t give a shit. But it comes close enough. Close enough to make you feel that if you’ve not actually had a stillbirth, you really should shut the fuck up.

The trouble is, I really have tried to manage my emotions on this one. I know the statistics and long before I even got pregnant I came up with a plan for expectation management, just so I’d avoid being one of those people who gets carried away and makes a complete prat of themselves. I’m not sure how to embed PowerPoints in blog posts, so here’s the bullet pointed version:

Trying for a baby: The competition metaphor

  1. Having unprotected sex = Entering the contest
  2. Missing a period = Getting longlisted for the Baby Prize
  3. Passing the 12-week mark = Getting onto the shortlist
  4. Getting into your final trimester = Reaching the final
  5. Having a live birth = Congratulations! You won!

In theory, this all makes sense to me. Best not get too excited – you’re not a mummy yet. Unfortunately, though, this never works in practice. As soon as I’ve had my first condom-free shag I’m in there, thinking “was that it? Could this be the one?? What’s the date 38 weeks from now???” It’s awful, and is precisely why trying for a baby, regardless of how much shagging it involves, ends up being totally crap.

Whenever I’ve been pregnant I’ve told people way before the 12-week mark. I know this is against “the rules”, but I don’t give a toss. The only people who really understood how devastated I was post-miscarriage were the ones who’d known how excited I’d been. As far as everyone else was concerned, it was a miscarriage, but never a potential baby. Responses to the loss included “I presume it was an accident” (my dad) and “had you decided whether to keep it?” (my boss). I guess it’s reasonable; they’d never had to think of me as a pregnant person. But sometimes, I can’t help thinking: when it comes to keeping quiet for the first twelve weeks, whose feelings are we really sparing? Silence doesn’t make a pregnancy less real for the person experiencing it, but it can let everyone else off the hook when it comes to engaging with miscarriage as a common yet painful reality.

I’m not suggesting that an early miscarriage is as heartrending as a stillbirth, or even that it needs to be distressing at all (for instance, if the pregnancy is unwanted, the Penelope Trunk response seems to me to be perfectly reasonable). I do however feel that a huge amount of stigma surrounds early miscarriage and how it can affect people if the pregnancy was wanted. I actually feel embarrassed that I couldn’t at least have miscarried later. How dare I get so upset! Who the hell do I think I am? But I was upset. I might have only known it for a few weeks, but the difference between a life and a nothingness is overwhelming.

I find it interesting that while in recent years several celebrities – Kelly Brook, Kym Marsh, Lily Allen, Amanda Holden – have discussed late miscarriage and stillbirth quite openly, very few women in the public eye mention early losses. And there must be loads more who’ve experienced these. Perhaps you’re just meant to dust yourself down and get on with it. But it doesn’t seem right, or helpful, to me (not that I’m begging for a Heat “miscarriage hell” exposé, complete with “how I lost my first trimester weight”. Just a culture which recognises that something very sad is happening to a lot of people every day, and respects their right to discuss it openly).

Anyhow, I’m thinking of all this because last night I was reading the Mumsnet Campaign for Better Miscarriage Care talkboard. Five years since my own miscarriage it is strange to be reminded of all the pain and uncertainty miscarrying women go through, and also sad to know how hard it is to say anything that can make these women feel better. But just as an initial suggestion, “we never had this in the old days” and “it’s down to all these early pregnancy tests” is not the best place to start.

POSTSCRIPT: This piece by Maggie Koerth-Baker is absolutely heartbreaking and brilliant. Really recommend reading, just to know you are not alone.