No complacency

I first became aware of feminism when I was a mere 11 years-old. I made myself a badge with my much loved badge-maker saying: “I’m a women’s libber. Are you?”. I can’t remember specifically what awoke my consciousness, but I felt very strongly about equal rights.

Fast forward nine years, and I was at university, wandering around with a copy of Spare Rib in my back pocket, carrying out my duties as the Women’s Officer of an all-women’s college. My spare time was spent reading The Women’s RoomThe Female EunuchThe Feminine Mystique and anything I could get my hands on published by Virago.

I was lucky that when I entered the world of work, at least at the junior level, law firms were real meritocracies. (Despite being asked, as part of my interview with one firm, whether I was a women’s libber. Slightly surprised, and remembering my badge,I replied “Well, I believe women should have equal rights with men”. They offered me a job.) It seemed that if you were bright, worked hard, very hard, there was no reason why you couldn’t achieve the same as the men.

Yes, there were very few female partners at law firms in those days, but my fellow female trainees and I were optimistic. After all, just over 50 per cent of the graduates from Law Schools were women so it was just a matter of time, surely, before we clambered up to the higher echelons of the firm and made our mark?

In most areas of life at this time, people seemed to be murmuring that feminism was an anachronism, after all we had the Equal Pay Act, misogyny was a social taboo and women were starting to make more of a mark in the City and in Parliament. Even the word “feminist” invoked negative stereotypes of bra-burning men-haters leading few women to admit to supporting a feminist creed.

Sadly, the charge to the top trickled down to a few intrepid mountaineers as many of us bailed out when the dual demands of motherhood and working all night became too hard to reconcile.

There is a huge pool of qualified, experienced professionals out there who are excluded from the labour market simply by the restrictive working times imposed by an outdated approach to resource utilisation. Clearly there are some professions that will never lend themselves to part-time work, but there are many others which could, if a more radical and flexible approach to the working day were adopted.

But even those who remained are not being treated fairly, according to a report out last week. A survey by the Chartered Management Institute revealed a huge disparity in pay and bonuses between men and women in executive roles. Female executives earn over £400,000 less over the course of their careers than male executives. Women also received less than half the amount than men in bonuses, with the average bonus for a male executive being £7,496 and £3,726 for a female.

At boardroom level the inequality was worse, with 50 per cent of male directors receiving bonuses against 36 per cent of their female counterparts. Women executives were also more likely to be made redundant than the men.

So, you thought we’d moved on from 1970, but apparently not. This is an area where both the Government and feminists, women – whether you call yourself by that moniker or not, need to focus their attention. Both tackling the brain-drain which occurs when women have children and making sure those who are working are paid the same as men. Last month’s historic victory by the Birmingham City Council workers extending the legal time limits for equal pay claims was a step in the right direction, but there is more to do.

It’s not just at home where women need someone to fight their corner, there are women all over the world still being dreadfully subjugated due to their gender whether through genital mutilation or mediaeval concepts of honour. Just last week a mother and father in Pakistan thought it was reasonable to throw acid on their daughter for looking at a boy. The fifteen-year-old died with burns on 60 per cent of her body.

So, no, feminism isn’t dead or defunct. Spare Rib might no longer be published, but for as long as there are issues out there which affect or prejudice women because of their sex, feminism has a role and we can all play our part.

 

A little of what you fancy…

I’m beginning to feel a little beleaguered as a parent. “Don’t hover”. “Children with active parental support achieve more”. “Don’t fill your children’s schedules”. “Do get them to learn an instrument”. “Don’t push them too hard”. “It’s harder for children leaving school with mediocre qualifications to find a job”, etc. etc. Sometimes, it just makes me want to go “Aaaargh!” Very loudly. Sometimes, at the end of the day, I just pop myself down and have a calming glass of wine. But now even that is wrong, apparently. “Aaaargh!”

According to a report published last week by the charity 4Children, two million parents drink every day, with the households most likely to drink being amongst the wealthier AB socio-economic group. 17 per cent of those interviewed had increased the amount they drank after they had children, with one in five parents believing their drinking had a positive impact on their parenting.

In the same week, Alcohol Concern claimed that middle-aged (55-74) drinkers were costing the NHS ten times as much as younger “binge” drinkers. Beleaguered, I tell you.

Now, I am not belittling the very real health and social concerns for alcoholics and their families, and the far-reaching effects living with an alcoholic can have on children. However, the reporting of these two studies will simply have every reader of a broadsheet flagellating themselves with a rolled-up copy of the Saturday supplements. What we need is a little balance and perspective thrown into the debate and so on behalf of all middle class parents who enjoy the occasional glass of wine, I take it upon myself to do so.

So, 17 per cent of parents increased the amount they drank after they had children. Now, forgive me, but I am rather a glass half-full kind of a gal (whether that be Rioja or water) and to my non-statistician reading that means that a whopping 83 per cent didn’t. How did they manage that? I take my hat off to them.

There was outrage in the media that two million parents drink every night. Now, it is unclear how much they are talking about here. If these two million parents, or the vast majority, were drinking just a glass every night then what is the kerfuffle? This puts them comfortably within the permissible units per week of 14 for a woman and 21 for a man, even allowing for a little white lie and the odd bookclub evening. That said, it is worth noting that, on top of the overall units limit, the Royal College of Physicians recommends two to three alcohol-free days a week.

But still, I count myself among the many parents who, five days a week, mark the start of their time in the evening, once the children are tucked up in bed, with a glass of wine. A glass of wine relaxes them, it doesn’t automatically lead to them polishing off the bottle. Obviously in the cases where it does, then that person has a problem and needs help addressing it regardless of whether or not the children are in bed. Every parent would want to be around long enough to walk their daughter up the aisle and bounce grandchildren on their knee and no child should have to witness the horrible long death of someone with liver cancer or cirrhosis.

There was shock that not only did 62 per cent of parents think their drinking had no effect on their parenting, but one in five felt it had a positive impact on parenting. I completely agree, provided it is in moderation. Back in the day when I was struggling to tell which way was up having had my first baby, I was heartened to read in my well-thumbed bible The Contented Little Baby that an exhausted and rundown mummy, whose very tiredness and stress might impact on milk  production thereby leading to more exhaustion and stress, was allowed a very sensible piece of advice:

“Although it is advisable to avoid alcohol, especially spirits, while breastfeeding, some experts advise that a small glass of wine or a Guinness can be beneficial to a mother who is finding it hard to unwind in the evening.”

(p. 74 The Contented Little Baby Book, Gina Ford, Vermillion Press)

Now, just as not everyone who smokes cannabis will end up smoking crack cocaine, not every mother or father who drinks a glass of wine in the evening to calm them after a day at the sharp end of parenting is going to become an alcoholic.

Indeed, as Ms Ford so rightly points out, a glass of wine in moderation can be beneficial. A more relaxed parent does parent better. A drunk parent doesn’t. There is an easily definable difference.

Parents are always examples for their children, but that shouldn’t mean that parents can never have a glass of wine when children are around. During the debate around how to stop binge drinking amongst the young, the Francophile lobby made a case for bringing up children with a more accepting, sensible approach to alcohol such as that adopted by the French: let it be seen to be used with respect and as certain mealtimes. Show how wine can be enjoyed without over-indulgence.

If wine becomes a forbidden fruit, maligned as an evil liquor and we all become prohibitionists, then the next generation will only want it more. Alcohol, and wine in particular, has been around since biblical times and will not go away. We need to teach children to respect it so that when they are old enough to buy it, they don’t go mad with it.

In the meantime, for every sensible parent just having the odd glass of wine at night, I say: enjoy, you have earned it and stop beating yourself up about it. For every parent who is fighting a battle not to finish the bottle and start the next, then for the sake of your children seek some help.

 

For more info:

http://www.nhs.uk/chq/Pages/846.aspx?CategoryID=87&SubCategoryID=871

http://www.4children.org.uk/Resources/Detail/Over-the-Limit

http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk

 

 

My generation

For the last eight years I have enjoyed a special relationship with a rather overweight, occasionally misogynistic, but very witty, man from Leeds. I could rely on him, no matter what trials the week held, to buoy me up and get me through with a laugh and a smile and a healthy dose of irreverence. But Chris Moyles is no longer on the radio and my mornings will be all the poorer for that.

I admit, it’s listeners like me who caused his downfall. Moyles, at the grand old age of 38 was declared too old for Radio One. Never mind that his Breakfast Show was the most popular and longest running of all the Radio One Breakfast Shows, he was not appealing to the target audience. Even despite the fact alongside older listeners like me he brought in younger ones too, his face, and grey hair, no longer fit.

I could launch into a whole polemic here about how this is another example of ageism at the BBC, but I won’t. Instead I want to talk about me. Or rather, people like me. Radio One’s target audience is teenagers; listeners like me are like the parents at a party trying to get on and down with the kids, leaving everyone cringing with embarrassment.

If I am not the audience Radio One wants, then who am I supposed to listen too? I feel far too young for Radio Two. That’s for the 60s baby boomers, isn’t it? My parents love it. The hits they play tend to be from my parents’ generation, and let’s not let them be left out. Their’s was a generation with an amazing musical legacy which certainly should have a platform. That’s Radio Two. That’s fine. But not for me.

I listen to Radio Four from time to time. It’s fabulous and cerebral and interesting and challenging. It also has a time and a place and there are some times I just want to listen to music.

Heart and Jazz FM don’t have the charismatic DJs, so I think, as a BBC licence fee payer, I am being overlooked. Where is the radio station for the modern middle aged?

My generation grew up with Madonna, Duran Duran, Prince and U2. We graduated to the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays (literally), but we love modern music too. Having been brought up to appreciate new sounds, should that just stop once we hit 40?

We also like some irreverent humour too. We spend all our days making our children toe the line, obeying the rules, doing what we ought to, but we still have a little rebellion left in us. Even if that just means listening to a slightly risqué DJ and listening to music, loud.

I love Plan B, Professor Green, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Kasabian, to name but a few. I may be over 40, but I still enjoy a tune. I like to think that by listening to Radio One, I am opening up the children to a new range of music and keeping my finger on the musical pulse of today. At home we listen to a variety of music. My husband loves a bit of Red Hot Chillis and Foo Fighters. We also listen to jazz, opera and classical. But in the car on the school run, mummy is in charge and we listened to Radio One. My youngest child is particularly distressed that there will be no more McFly days.

Should I heed Radio One’s unsubtle suggestion and give up on modern music? “Move along now lady, let the young people listen.” More to the point, am I trespassing on my children’s turf? Is this now their music? Don’t they need their own music to define their generation and their feelings just as I did? How can they do that if mummy is listening to grime with them?

I need to give them something to rebel with and music is a whole lot better than the alternatives of drugs, alcohol or food.  So perhaps this is a small sacrifice to make. I shall feign a sudden dislike of popular music, coin those mum and dad phrases, like “Call this music? I can’t understand a word he’s singing” and “What’s that terrible racket?”

I’ll listen to Radio Two when the children are around, and then surreptitiously listen to Radio One when they are not and get my fix of music. Meanwhile I will write to Points of View (if it’s still going): “Dear BBC, why oh why oh why can’t you provide a radio station for my generation? I know a great DJ who just happens to be looking for a job…”

Chris Moyles

 

Legacy of mind

Just when I was marvelling at the intense dedication and hard work the sports men and women had put in simply to participate in the Olympics, along came the Paralympics. Just when I was revelling in the wave of sporting fervour and pride that swept the nation, and that cynicism had finally left on the last bus out of here with optimism and joy taking its place, along came the Paralympics. Just when I thought inspiring a generation to take up sport was the most we could hope for in terms of legacy, along came the Paralympics.

The combined effects of the Olympics and Paralympics have left Britain with a shiny new psyche and an amazing opportunity to create a truly inclusive society.

Whilst living overseas, I had always struggled to describe what it meant to be British. Before the Olympics we were a nation whose glory days seemed to be in the past. Our parliamentary system has been copied around the world; our Monarchy secures a place in the heart of all who visit, but what of modern Britain? Before 2008, we could boast about our financial sector and the proportion of GDP generated by the City of London, but now?

Backpacking in my early twenties, I met the fun-loving and garrulous Irish, the chic and thin French, the liberal Swedes, and the unfashionable but affluent Germans. But Brits seemed to have no obvious defining characteristics. We have a quirky sense of humour, yes, but our favourite culinary dish isn’t even from these shores.

Yet in the 90 minutes of the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, Danny Boyle managed to capture what it is to be British. And we beamed this across the world to four billion people, saying this is who we are and we are proud.

When the sporting action began my children were gripped. I was gripped. I even eschewed my Gossip Girl box set to watch the news and Gaby Logan every night to hear what amazing successes we had managed to achieve that day.

Until this summer, my youngest child’s goal in life was to be famous. I am now mother to two wannabe Olympic swimmers and a gymnast. How delighted am I that this has now trumped the vile cult of celebrity spawned by programmes like Big Brother and the X Factor? Yes, I told them, there is no reason why, by working hard and practising lots you too could be winning medals for your country and our post box will be painted gold.

The TV was permanently on, but watching incredible hard work and commitment pay off with a medal haul to rival countries five times our size was infinitely better than watching American pre-teens talk back to their parents on Disney Channel.

Disappointed and jaded by politicians, financial regulators, and post-Leveson, by the mainstream media, financially straightened by the economic climate, and soddened by the wettest summer in 100 years, a less than amazing Olympics could have been the final nail in the coffin of optimism and hope. Instead this has been a summer of unbounded, unifying joy.

And then along came the Paralympics.

Physical disability is something many children find fascinating and confusing. They stare at people who look different to them and are curious as to why that man makes lots of loud grunting noises and how that lady is getting by in an electric wheelchair. So to see them now, accomplishing feats many able-bodied people couldn’t even contemplate, was an unprecedented opportunity to educate them.

The Paralympics gave us the chance to say, you thought the Olympics were amazing, now see how this man runs, and he’s got no legs. Or how that woman swims – and she’s shorter than you. Marvel at the adversity they have encountered, mimic their resilience and never ever look at someone less able-bodied with pity, just look at them as different.

Watching the Paralympics, children could look past the athlete’s disability and not become mired in awkward sympathy. It’s not an issue; all they asked was “did they win?”

If there could be two enduring legacies from these games, let it be that children are inspired to work hard and seek sporting excellence, but also, that this country which over the years has worked hard to embrace diversity in race and sex, might now embrace the less able-bodied as fully-fledged members of society.

For the next generation, I think we can, and should, expect society to be more inclusive, but we all need to build on this summer’s success. Parents need to talk about disability and the media needs to bring disabled sporting fixtures into the mainstream. We have an amazing opportunity before us, let’s not allow it to slip through our fingers.

Aled Davies on his victory lap after winning gold in the discus

 

Join the jubilation! (If you can.)

The one thing I was determined we would do for the Jubilee was to go down and watch the flotilla on the Thames. As enthusiastic newly returned subjects, I felt it was incumbent upon us to make the most of being back and would be the perfect moment to introduce the children to two tenets of life in the UK: defying the rain and supporting the monarchy.

We couldn’t quite crank up our patriotism to camp on the streets to secure a good spot, so travelled down post-lunch with my parents to London Bridge. As soon as we came out of the station the atmosphere was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. The bells of Southwark Cathedral were pealing, people dressed in anything red, white and blue they could lay their hands on thronged the streets, cafes bedecked with bunting and flags were blaring out “Land of Hope and Glory”, whilst staff wearing Union Jack hats served up Jubilee burgers.

I’m not sure the children have ever been anywhere as crowded as London Bridge that day. Clutching their hands, we managed to navigate our way through the crowds and past the group of policemen leaning against their motorbikes down towards the river only to find that access was limited to “ticket holders”.

“We only had two thousand tickets and they’ve all gone,” a bleary-eyed security guard told me. He said he had been there since 3 am when the crowds had already started gathering. “You might get one if someone leaves,” he suggested helpfully, as he moved on to explain to another disappointed group why they wouldn’t be seeing the Queen today. 

As we carried on westward the expedition became less a celebration and more of a challenge to pit my Londoner’s knowledge of riverfront access points against The Law. There had to be a way to get through; the river was a stone’s throw away. But, at every right turn, we were met by a wall of fluorescent-jacketed security guards explaining the riverside was full, and “elf and safety” meant they were letting no one else through.

At the next port of call, the oldest and youngest members of our party abandoned ship, deciding that it was all getting a bit too much and home was beckoning. The rest of us carried on, noting along the way the equal numbers of flotillistas who were walking back against our flow. Not a good sign, but we sailed on, buoyed up by the sheer number of other displaced boat watchers who were walking with us also looking for a spot to stand.

This was a crumb of comfort. We weren’t the only ones who hadn’t got the memo about ticket sales, or the invites to the ticket-only drinks party in front of huge TV screens. But, where and when had these ticket sales taken place? The night of the first full moon after spring solstice under the 3rd post of the 7thbridge? Had people come down the week before on a dry run and scoped out the best place to be and bought their tickets then? Had they all subscribed to the Flotilla Newsletter? And why oh why, hadn’t I taken a job at the FT/MI5/PWC to secure a riverside view from my office?

Disappointed now, and getting a little foot sore, we arrived at the Tate Modern with our motley crew of Brits, tourists, the able-bodied and the wheelchair-bound, pensioners and babes in buggies. “Let us through!” we pleaded, for the Queen would soon be sailing past and the river was just there! But the policemen blocking our way looked upon us pityingly and said, “No”. So, reluctantly, we admitted defeat. If we couldn’t even get to Bankside, it was time to call it a day and we left before it had even started.

Although we may have missed seeing it up close and experiencing the thrill of the music and the huge range of boats passing us by, we also missed the jammed up tubes to get home. Instead we sat, toasty and warm, in front of the telly and watched the heavens open, and experienced the much (and rightly) derided BBC coverage, accompanied by a cup of tea and a slice of Grandma’s Jubilee cake.

But I felt a lingering guilt: had I failed the children with my lack of organisation and reluctance to camp out on the Mall? As we watched the rest of the Jubilee celebrations on the television over the next couple of days, I wondered whether I had given them a sufficient experience of this once in a lifetime event. We had bunting, I’d even hung a Union flag out the bathroom window, and bought a Jubilee tin of shortbread from M&S, but was this enough?

Then I thought about my own memories of the 1977 Jubilee. I was six years old, but I remember certain things about it, enough to make me feel that I experienced it. I can reminisce with the best of them about that Jubilee, not that we had a street party or saw the Queen despite a lingering feeling she had visited us at school (she hadn’t). My memories are focussed on one thing: my mother’s home-baked cake with Union Jack icing. Hardly earth shattering, but definitely delicious. So perhaps the children do have the ingredients there to cook themselves up a satisfying memory of the event. You know, I think they’ll be ok.

The Joys of Driving (part one)

I do love driving. I loved it in the UAE and I love it here in the UK. There are differences, obviously. I left my adored Prado in the UAE (see my traumas with the end of that affair in my June 2011 blog below) and now have a new steady here. Another big car, but with half the engine size and the same appetite for fuel.

I miss pitting my wits against the traffic flow system in Abu Dhabi. I don’t mean driving the wrong way up one-way streets; there were very few of those. Most major roads are three-lane-highways constructed around a grid system with traffic lights that seem to take a generation to change from red to green.

Rather, I mean a preoccupation that I shared with a few other like-minded individuals. We were a select club of women united by our dislike of having our long afternoons of ferrying children around lengthened by queuing for hours at traffic lights. Together, we developed an obsession with finding the one true fastest route from A to B without stopping at a single red light.

We would share information about hidden roundabouts which could put you on the right road without waiting; discuss routes across the island navigated solely by use of no-wait right-hand-turn lanes and the shorter queues at left-hand-only lanes; and pass on little nuggets such as which lights on which roads were synchronised, what speed you had to do to make them all and on which day the system changed.

In the UK I do still occasionally get to flex my logistical planning muscle. Working out where the pause points are on country lanes to avoid you and the oncoming cars getting jammed between the hedgerows, for example. This in itself gives rise to my favourite aspect of driving since coming back: the courtesy drivers here, by and large, show each other.

You pause; they drive past and wave thanks. You wait; they flash their headlights at you so you can go past whilst they wait, because they’ve seen you’ve been waiting an awfully long time. And sometimes, when they wave to thank me, I even wave back. Is that really bonkers? I just love the civility of it all. Drivers actually interacting with the other human beings in other cars! And I don’t mean by flashing headlights at them from just behind their rear bumper to get them to move out of the lane, or tooting at them when they’ve been waiting a millisecond too long at the traffic lights. This is as near as you get to actually looking them in the eye and saying, “Thank you for that, I appreciate it. You have a good day now.” I LOVE IT!

What the UK sorely lacks though is the interaction between driver and pedestrian which is commonplace in Abu Dhabi. At least when it comes to parking. Backing into a parking space, without any request for assistance, I would suddenly find myself being helped and guided in by a passer-by. Then, once I was happily in the space they would just wander off. Job done. Feeble female helped with parking. I have to admit that, proud though I am of my parking skills, these good samaritans were very handy at times.

So imagine my shock reversing into a narrow spot in St Albans the other day: I had to do it all on my own. No one, not even the builder unloading his van, came over to walk confidently around the car, flapping his hands to show me which way to turn and how close I was to the other cars.

Another curiously British driving phenomenon is this whole personalised number plate thing. In Abu Dhabi, having a low number on your car number plate was an indication of how close you were to the Royal family (with the President driving a car with “1” on the number plate) and so were much coveted.

You can’t drive more than a mile in this part of the UK without driving past a JAMI3, or a MAG1K, or some other slightly more baffling ones. Some of them are such an obscure mash up of numbers and letters that they make a wait in traffic almost as much fun as doing a crossword puzzle. That said, I take my hat off to the woman who drives around with the legend “B1G BMU” on her car.

A top tip, however, for all drivers with personalised plates: you, of all people, should be trying to be civilised drivers. Don’t cut me up or steam past me when I am carefully pausing to let someone else pass, I know who you are, it’s on your blooming car. I will spot your car again, the number plate being quite distinctive and all, and next time I might just not let you pass, or flash you to drive by, and I most certainly won’t wave.

Mine’s a pint

I did something amazing yesterday. I gave blood. A whole armful, and it felt good.

As soon as we got back to the UK I signed myself up on the organ donor register and blood bank – eager to seize the chance to do my civic duty.

Provided you are aged between 17 and 65, and weigh over 50kg, and have no infectious diseases, you can donate your blood. I’m a rather bog standard, O+ blood type, so I thought my blood might be a bit two-a-penny, already got more than enough thanks, and that it was the rarer blood types who should really be donating their unusual red cells.

But the reverse is true, as my lovely nurse, Shelley, told me. O blood is the most useful, the one all blood types can use and as an O blood type I am what’s called a “universal donor”. If you have A, AB, or B type blood, you can safely have O type blood as well as your own. But if you are O, you can only have O. Got it?

I went into our local public halls where the mobile blood bank was stationed and was ushered into a booth by an assistant, Anne, who reviewed the lengthy questionnaire I had completed. Having lived overseas meant a tick in the wrong column and a trip to chat further with a nurse.

Eight years in the UAE didn’t pose an obstacle for donating. On the other hand, my youthful travels round South America did. Had I spent any time in a mud hut or camping in the jungle? Yes, I replied, wistfully, thinking that surely that was old news given it happened nearly 20 years ago?

Apparently not. My blood needs to be checked for a parasite that can be transmitted by bugs living in the mud huts that bite you as you sleep and then poo on the bite. Nice. I assumed the nurse was merely crossing all the “i”s and dotting the “t”s as it was so long ago.

But writing about it meant that I needed to know the name, so I foolishly googled “parasite mud huts” and turned up Chagas’ Disease, the symptoms of which can lie dormant for up to 20 years!! Will they tell me the results? The chances of me having it are slim, but I feel a week of self-prescribed bed rest might be prudent.

Back to Anne, who pricked the tip of my finger and squeezed out a drop of blood that she dropped into a vial of blue liquid to see how iron-rich it was. I was feeling quietly confident having just eaten some purple sprouting broccoli for lunch (my philanthropy knows no bounds).

That was when I had my Tony Hancock moment and cheerfully said, “Well, that’s that, I’ll have my cup of tea and a biscuit now!” Anne looked at me blankly and I mumbled something at my feet. Clearly not a classic comedy fan. (If you haven’t seen or heard the Tony Hancock sketch of him giving blood, click the link here )

After drinking lots of water I was allowed over to the beds where Bruce, another blood taker, or “vampire” as he jokingly referred to himself, scrubbed my arm and admired my veins. Feeling a little nervous, I gabbled away asking the poor man his life history.

Turns out Bruce, who sadly for me didn’t even slightly resemble Edward Cullen, has had a varied career including owning a village post office before becoming a phlebotomist nine years ago. (I do love that word.) Which begs the question: can you fall into phlebotomy (there it is again) or is it a calling?

I lay there, squeezing my fist as intructed and checked out my fellow donors. They were a really mixed bunch: men and women, of all ages (including a teenager who came in with his mum), tall, short, fat, slim. I mean when you get down to it, blood is blood is blood, isn’t it?

In no time at all, Bruce told me I was done. Lord Coe, take note, in this Olympic year, I think I may have stumbled upon a whole new discipline worthy of medals: I gave my donation in a stunning 5 minutes, 5 seconds. Top that if you can!

I have given blood before, pre-South America, when I was at university. I’m not sure that blood was particularly useable other than for accelerating fires given it was probably 95 per cent Baileys. But I’m glad I found the time in my hectic me-centred schedule even then to think of others, or maybe it was the free tea and biscuits afterwards…

This was what I was looking forward to when, with my plaster on, I went over to the relaxation area. But no tea allowed! As a relative newbie, I had to have water or squash; a hot drink might have made me faint.

No heavy lifting or doing anything taxing for me for the rest of the day. What, I wondered, scoffing my Digestives, constitutes taxing? Driving a 4×4? Helping with homework? Helping out in a room full of 25 seven to ten year old girls at Brownies? Possibly… But, I remembered, resilience is what made Britain great, and soldiered on, feeling absolutely fine.

My red blood cells will be replaced in 6-8 weeks time and I can donate again in 12-16 weeks. I’ve already booked my next session. According to Shirley, some donors like to think of donating as a way of detoxing the blood. Out with the old and in with the new. So forget drinking lettuce leaf soup; detox and save a life. 8,000 units are needed by hospitals every day and yet only 4 per cent of the population donate.

Go to www.blood.co.uk to sign up or call 0300 123 23 23 and do something amazing.

 

The legendary Tony Hancock

 

Ski ready

Look out skiers here we come! Yes, after 10 years of retirement, the Wadhams are hitting the slopes again, and this time we’re bringing the children.

Given that we are now in the same continent as the Alps (if I’ve understood David Cameron’s veto correctly) and the children are old enough to participate too, we’ve decided now is the time to dust off those old salopettes and C&A polo necks and are going on a ski holiday at Easter.

But 10 years is a long time to let those ski-skills languish. I mean, the last time we skied, I still had a waist and my pelvic floor could cope with me skipping and laughing at the same time. 10 years ago, it was enough of a job to look after myself on the slopes after half a glass of wine at lunchtime and this time I’ve got to do it with three children in tow!

Fortunately, we now live within a 20-minute drive of the Snow Centre at Hemel Hempstead. A bit like Ski Dubai without the environmental guilt of keeping the slopes freezing with an outside temperature of 30 degrees plus, it has real fake snow and plenty of courses for all of us to get ski-literate before we head off.

The children, as children do, took to skiing very quickly in their two-day beginners’ course and will soon be out-pisteing their parents. I decided to go to one of the mid-week women-only two-hour sessions. I rated myself as a level four skier, able to “control their speed using linked snowplough turns while adjusting for varying terrain”. That is if you call executing a turn when it all gets a bit too fast and swerving madly left or right in a frantic attempt to slow down whilst pretending to look like a Bond girl, but actually looking more like Bridget Jones in The Edge of Reason, ‘controlled turns’….

There were seven of us in the group; a mix of brand-new skiers who had finally succumbed to the ski holiday now the children were asking to go, or had new partners who have skied for years, and women like me who had taken a break of several years. Our instructor looked disconcertingly like Chris Moyles but managed us all with an avuncular approach of benign indifference and tolerance rooted in his belief that all we lacked was confidence. And he was right. By the end of the two hours, most of the group were executing beautiful parallel turns and showing a renewed love for speed.

The whole ski process took on a wonderfully feminised feel as established ski-terms were re-interpreted by a group of mothers. The manoeuvre for turning was likened to opening a child-proof medicine lid: push down and turn. Just as you bend your legs into the turn and rise up after it. This made me wonder about the possibility of re-describing every ski exercise in terms of maternal reference points:

Ski with your arms out front to perfect your balance becomes “just imagine you are trying to grab the hood of a fleeing toddler as they run full pelt away from you”.

Leaning forward into the boot becomes “Imagine you have managed to escape the house, the baby sitter was late and as you are running to catch the train you get the heels of your Manolos stuck in a crack in the pavement.”

Side-slipping is “that feeling when you have just managed to cure one child of coming into you in the night to take them for a wee, and the other child starts having nightmares. One step forward, three steps back.”

Now, having discovered a whole new group of muscles which have lain dormant for too long, although sadly still not the gazillion ski socks we once owned, I am on the way to being ready for our holiday. A few more lessons and I may be able to bid Bridget Jones a fond farewell and ski up nonchalantly behind Daniel Craig….

Square eyes

Several years ago, the comedienne, Roseanne Barr, did a hilarious stand-up piece about the perils of asking a fat person for directions. As she explained it, and apologies to Roseanne as I paraphrase from memory, a fat person will direct by reference to landmarks coloured by their love of food, saying, “Turn left at the chocolate coloured building, then right at the bakery, carry on until you see the poster for Dunkin Donuts and then right at the ice cream parlour”.

Similarly, you can tell what TV series has been dominating your friends’ lives over the holidays by the little references they drop into their speech. If you have a little dandruff and your friend says, “Aah, you seem to have epithelia on your shoulder”, or after someone’s scraped your car and driven off leaving no telephone number, they suggest examining the bumper for signs of “transfer”, that’s too much CSI. Worse, if they start talking to you sideways on and holding their sunglasses thoughtfully, that’s way too much CSI Miami.

Alternatively, popping round for a New Year’s coffee, if your next-door neighbour suggests taking tea in the parlour, she’s a Downton girl. And how many Brits refer to the casualty department as the ER still? And gorgeous George isn’t even in it anymore.

We’re all scando in our house as we reach the final episodes of season one of The Killing. This is part of our catching up on cultural reference points. My programme of re-entry into UK society. All work, work, work I can tell you. Only now do we begin to get the references to The Jumper.

I’m doing an evening course in Downton Abbey and then we’re graduating to Life on Mars. Getting all ready to fire up the Quattro (- eh?) and understand why a senior police officer mentioned it on News at Ten a couple of weeks ago.

But whilst this is all part of a co-ordinated effort to re-integrate in the motherland, such a demanding viewing schedule should not be undertaken lightly. TV can take over your life. It’s not only the references that seep into your brain and speech, it’s the way we plan our evening to accommodate as many episodes as we can reasonably fit in. We become hermits, shuttering out the world to make time to solve the murder of Nanna Birk Larsen. Kids in bed early, quick and easy supper, curtains closed and we may be able to squeeze in two before bedtime. No, sorry, we can’t possibly go out  for dinner with you tomorrow, it’s The Killing episode 19!!

Mange tak.

 

Agaphobia

It sits there in the kitchen glowering at me, daring me to try and master it. My husband has said I have a year to show it who’s boss or it goes. No, not the dog, my Aga.

When we bought this house I was delighted finally to own an Aga. This was true England. At the time, I was an expat, deep into an eight-year sojourn living in the Middle East and for me everything about the UK was rose-tinted. In my idealised view, everyone here pottered around in wellies taking their black Labradors for a walk then returning home to cook a warming tea on the Aga wearing their Cath Kidston aprons. We only finally moved in four months ago. I have the apron, now the Aga, some old wellies, and the dog is under negotiation.

Friends of mine who’ve grown up with Agas speak of them as if they were a member of the family. Memories revolve around suppers cooked on the Aga, conversations held huddled around its warmth. It really exemplified the heart of the home.

However, in 1970s suburban London, Agas were few and far between. I had no innate knowledge of how to turn the blooming thing on, let alone whip up a three-course-meal on it. And there lies the nub of my problem: Christmas is coming and there is no way my little combi-oven, on which I had begun to rely until my Aga-phobia was conquered, could possibly cope with a bird, and potatoes and parsnips. My goose was cooked. Or rather, not.

I’ve heard mutterings of “the seven minute rule”, “the 80:20 principle” from friends who’ve watched their mothers whip up countless meals on their Agas for years, but was still none the wiser as to what this actually meant. Did it mean everything took only seven minutes to cook on its fantastically hot hot-plate? Or that it took 80 per cent of your income to heat the Aga for 20 per cent of the year? I was scared, confused and in need of help.

Luckily, those who know how to use an Aga are almost evangelical in wanting to share the joy. I enrolled in a class at my local Aga shop to relearn to cook, the Aga way.

We were an eclectic bunch sat round the show kitchen that day as our demonstrator, for we were only to watch, taste and learn, not actually cook, bustled around the Aga which seemed tardis like in its ability to store different meals.

There were the other Aga foster mothers like me who had acquired their new ovens and way of life with their new homes. There was the young girl in her early twenties whose mother owned a four-oven Aga (Yes, four – now that’s pro in the Aga world – mine is the more modest, but no less intimidating, two-oven model) and had perhaps been told it was time she learnt to cook for herself on it. There was the gorgeous and glamorous wife who had dragged her husband along to open his eyes to the way of the Aga and agree to put one in their new kitchen despite the hefty cost.

Most intriguingly was the beany-hatted young couple, who were either recently returned expats suffering from STRES (see last month’s blog), visitors to the store who thought £15 for a complete day’s worth of meals was better value than going to a restaurant, or, more likely, recent inheritors of grandmama’s cottage complete with groovy retro cooking devices.

Our demonstrator, who looked like she’d walked straight off a James Herriot episode and was just waiting for her four strapping sons to come in off the farm demanding “What’s for dinner, ma?”, cooked breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and a roast dinner in the oven, all within a two-hour time slot. My head was spinning.

First, she grilled bacon on the top shelf of the hottest oven. “So that’s the grill,” I chortled happily to myself, having envisaged a lifetime of frying everything. She fried an egg on the hot plate with just “bake o glide” underneath. “So clever!” we all muttered.

Then there was curry sitting at the back of an oven, a crumble in another tucked behind the soup. Roast lamb, cauliflower, fish, white sauce, bread, pizza bases, meringues, roast potatoes, toasted sandwiches…. Oh me, oh my.

So, I am a little more confident about using my oven. I’ve bragged to my husband that it’s all about moving things around, that you have to be more instinctual, adaptable and just let the Aga-ness wash over you, as he shakes his head in disbelief at the cost of the new roasting tins, cold shelves and oven-to-table ware I’ve told him we now need.

I’ve baked scones and a Victoria sponge in it, surely the definitive test for an Aga-newbie. My mother tells me our Christmas cake, cooked to the old family recipe, looks just like the ones her mother made for her when she was a girl.

I think we’ll be ok on Sunday. Our old Abu Dhabi Christmas Day ritual of driving down to a nearby five-star hotel to pick up our pre-cooked turkey and trimmings will be replaced with my home-cooked bird. Gently cooked the old-fashioned way. Still, it pays to be prudent, so I might reserve a table in the local pub. Just in case.