Saturday, 22 November 2008

Brain Blast!

Well I have to admit that I am quite ashamed not to have been more frequently "on the blog" since early October. Thanks to Jane for nudging me - she had to resort to Facebook to find out what's been happening with me! (Though in truth I've been too preoccupied for even that the last couple of weeks.)

The thing that has been keeping me so quiet has been my presentation to the Swindon Philosophical Society, which finally took place last Friday 14th November (a date which has been etched on my brain for months, and which has elicited a nervous response in me every time I've thought of it!). I did quite a lot of research, beginning, according to my journal, about mid-September. It then took an entire week to write and rework.

My topic was "The effects of science and technology on human imagination and creativity". It wasn't my title, though I decided to rise to the challenge of presenting it anyway. Once I'd crafted my core argument all the background reading, listening and watching was interesting and fun, especially as it touched on my pet interests of neurology, psychology, consciousness, and whatever spiritual conclusions we might draw from all that.

The scope of my talk ranged across the following subjects: the real relationship between science and creativity; the effects of science in revealing the secrets of human imagination; research into psychic phenomena; and how science is or isn't responding to the hunger to know more about consciousness.

I pointed to the difference between "Logical, Scientific Rigour", which tends to close down further inquiry into "that which cannot be seen"; and "The Over-Active Imagination", which tends to cherry pick amongst scientific hypotheses to knit together a seemingly coherent, seemingly scientifically valid world-view, one that just happens to tally with their own wishful thinking.

In conclusion I highlighted the value of finding a balanced mode of thinking between the wild extremes of scientific skeptism and the over-active imagination. Over-active imaginations look gullible in comparison with skeptical scientific rigour, but, without the cynicism, the imagination is a powerful guiding force for scientific inquiry.

It was the topic of psychic phenomena which attracted the most lively discussion. I decided to take the line that much of western science finds psi inadmissable for some good reasons - which I named. However, my implicit portrayal of science being rather dismissive of psychic research prompted some strong reactions, quoting the thousands of dollars that have been invested by scientific foundations into this type of study.

Had I argued the opposite - that science must actually consider these areas worthy of investigation, because of the funding that has been allocated to them, I'm sure the scientists in the room would have objected on the grounds of scientific inadmissability. So it was a no-win situation.

Of course, in hindsight the best argument would have been to declare science to have been admirably open-minded in providing research funding - but that none of the research had returned conclusive evidence.

Nevertheless I would still have maintained that this impasse may well have resulted from skewed readings of the data: either by those with over-active imaginations which saw things in the data that weren't really there; or by those with a predisposition to doubt in a more or less cynical way, while allowing the funding to provide the smoke-screen, the pretence of open-mindedness.

In fact this would have illustrated beautifully my point about the need for balanced thinking, and a cooperative way for psi researchers and scientists to work together. Hmmm...

Anyhow, the evening turned out to be a splendid success. A full house, some new members, lively discussion and lots of people going on to the pub to continue the debate. Well and truly a brain blast, and a valid excuse for being absent from blogging for a little while!

Thursday, 9 October 2008

To coach or not to coach?

The other night I had a phone conversation with an old friend who is considering leaving the corporate rat-race to set up a coaching business. I had deja-vu. It reminded me of my own position seven or eight years ago when I left my Project Manager role to strike out on my own into the scary world of business ownership.

Here are my nuggets of advice:

1) Be clear and comfortable with the accredited nature and status of your coach training provider. While the profession remains unregulated - except for the work of the International Coach Federation - many coaching schools can get away with touting coach training with very little accreditation. If you are uncomfortable with the sales style or ethics of a training provider tread carefully.

2) Be aware that the majority of money being made in coaching today is in training others to become coaches. Get clear on what percentage of their coaching revenue comes from true coaching - how many clients do they have who aren't coach trainees? This will also give an indication of market demand for your services as a coach.

3) Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater - if you are considering making the transition from corporate employment to full-time coaching, you are unlikely to be able to replace your current salary immmediately. Much of the discussion within the coaching profession recently has been about "how can I make money out of being a coach?", and there has been a glut of courses and resources claiming to give coaches the key to kick-start their business. Once again, while no doubt helpful to coaches setting up on their own, this trend also reveals where the real money in coaching is being made.

4) Consider what other income streams are at your disposal as a coach. This could be as straightforward as holding down your full-time role and doing some supplementary coaching on the side - or even negotiating a change in your current role to give more in-house coaching opportunities. Alternatively it could mean a radical shift towards making money out of a creative talent, plus coaching, plus contract work or another more reliable wage-making opportunity. "Portfolio careers" have become all the rage in recent years, and seem to provide people with a fulfilling variety of work, with multiple income stream opportunities.

5) Keep a healthy perspective. Selling coaching is like selling anything - it helps if you completely believe in the product, and are able to demonstrate the tangible benefits that you and others have experienced through coaching. What difference has it really made? It will pay to regularly reflect on these types of question, so you can always respond to market need in the most effective and productive way.

6) Self-awareness is key - coaching that becomes "techniquey" is extremely off-putting and will be neither convincing nor helpful. It is vital to continue reflecting on your own personal development and experience in order to be most authentic and "useful". AND you need to get out of the way completely when you are coaching others.

7) Do you have a practical skill that you can combine coaching with?

For myself, coaching has become much more a way of life and an attitude than a business. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities I have had to learn and practice coaching, and I have met some remarkable, extraordinary, beautiful people along the way. I would like to see the coach approach practiced more widely within the world of education - and for the principle lessons of self-awareness, listening to and respecting others, busting self-limiting beleifs, trusting our intuition and being curious, all of which coach training delivers, to be of more central importance within our educational curriculum.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Scribblers are go!

Last night saw the first meeting of a new writing group - the Highworth and Blunsdon Scribblers. It was fun! Six of us turned up at the Saracen's Head on High St in Highworth, to have a drink and share our thoughts and ideas on what we're currently writing, what we're interested in writing, and what we'd like from a writing group.

The interests of the group are varied but complementary. Children's books, novels, short stories, radio plays and non-fiction are represented by the members so far. Some are extremely keen, others less certain; some need structure, others feedback, everyone encouragement and inspiration.

We intend to meet every month for a couple of hours to share readings, do writing exercises, seek advice and have fun with words. The group even felt comfortable with homework! Everyone was very honest and open, and it felt like a safe place to be.

Our next meeting is on Thursday 6th November, 7.30 at the Saracen's Head. Can't wait!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

"What have been the most powerful prompts or questions in your life so far?"

This question turned up as a topic thread on the coaching network. It intrigued me. Many of the responses to the thread quoted very coachy questions - like "Where do you give away your power?" and "What's the thing you want me to dare you to do?"

All no doubt valid questions, and powerful in their way, when you've hired a coach to make you think and give you a new perspective.

And while I can remember asking people questions like this when I've been "performing" as a coach, they didn't really sound like the kind of questions I have experienced in my own life as mould-breaking or delusion-shattering. I started to get curious about what those questions and comments have been, the ones that incited me to something, and that still resonate with meaning for me today.

I came up with a little list. Some of them are questions I asked myself, others aren't even questions but observations made by others. The circumstances of my hearing them are still very clear in my mind. Each one evokes the room where I was sitting, or the dress my teacher was wearing, the rain lashing, or the sunlight glinting on the fruit punch bowl in the Munro Room.

These are pivotal moments, containing information which mines deep and well.

"Why don't people just listen?" I asked as a frustrated eight-year-old, afraid of having my truest account of myself dismissed. I was standing next to my guinea-pig's cage at the time - the smell of damp, soiled saw-dust still comes to mind.

This has become such a mantra for me in recent years: the importance of listening to each other, especially to children, who have their own channels of wisdom and so much to teach us about ourselves.

These days I can turn this question into something meaningful, which stops me in my tracks and makes me think again - "What if I just listened?"

"I'd like to see the outcome of that little venture," spat my French teacher, in her knitted pink tube dress with a cowl neck, when I announced I wanted to go to Cambridge and do languages. I so wanted to ridicule her sarcasm and prove her doubts totally unfounded. I did.

These days I ask myself "What will I prove someone wrong about?"

"You are a diamond in the rough and you will go far." I wrote to my former university supervisor about 8 years ago to thank him for this comment he made 10 years before. We were making small talk at the linguists lunch after finals. I struggled to attribute any kind of sympathetic personality to this man whom I considered to be no more than an enormous brain, so at the time the comment didn't hit home. I'm sure the fruit punch didn't help. Years later I felt a great surge of gratitude for his generosity, so I wrote to him. He wrote back and told me that my letter had meant more to him than all the accolades he had received during his academic career.

These days I want to know "How am I shining and where am I going?"

"Do you want to come to a Quireboys concert?" Little did I know that the rugby yob striding towards me through the rain outside the porter's lodge was destined one day to become my husband. He'd chased me - unsuccessfully - for months, usually plucking up courage to speak to me only after consuming an inordinate amount of alcohol down the Mill on a Thursday night. But this was a Tuesday. He found himself asking the question, and I found myself replying "OK".

These days I ask myself "What new opportunity will I find myself taking today?"

"Will you marry me?" This question came exactly 5 years and 7 days after our trip to the Corn Exchange to see the Quireboys. He smuggled chilled champagne and 2 flutes into the anniversary suite at the hotel, then was irked when I switched on the TV to catch up with Neighbours immediately on arrival. But eventually he got my attention and went down on one knee. There was no ring - he wanted us to choose it together - but I remember lying in a bath full of bubbles sipping champagne and allowing myself to imagine the most beautiful wedding ever. I was committed, and blissfully happy.

These days I ask myself "What am I committed to?"

"So if you want to be a writer, write!" I was in awe of the woman from Logistics Planning. Not only did she know about warehouse picking and haulage companies, she'd just been telling me that what she really wanted to be was a novelist. She was working up a few ideas and had actually made a start on her book. I was probably salivating, hanging on her every word, hoping that some of her drive and ambition might rub off on me. I was probably wibbling about how I really wanted to be a writer, how that was a real childhood dream, that I'd even receieved a commendation in the WH Smith Young Writers' Competition when I was 11. And now here I was a Management Traine at WH Smith instead. Then she asked me what I was writing currently. And I probably mumbled "nothing really". At which point she uttered the line which still has the power to make me pick up my pen and write morning pages at the absolute minimum.

These days I just say "Bloody Well Write!" Sometimes there's no room for reflection. Sometimes you've just got to get into action. These are the most powerful kicks up the backside I can remember.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Purple Swans

The spare room is now complete and resplendent in its new colour scheme of violet white. It only took a couple of days - mostly because I cheated and only attempted to change the colour of the walls and nothing else. So the "amethyst" carpet remains, as does the lilac ceiling, the mauvish wood-work and radiator, and the lavender curtains.

The walls were painted with a roller and brush I found in the garage, and the bed dragged to the middle of the room and covered with a fusty old dust cover I found next to the roller and brush.

Proud of my thriftiness, I decided to treat the bed to some new linen, and was delighted to find a complete set - duvet cover, fitted sheet and pillow cases - on offer in M&S for under £50. Hurrah! So with paint, polythene dust covers to protect the carpet, new bedding and a new tidy rail so our guests don't have to persist in arranging their clothes all over the carpet, the makeover budget only just broke the £100 mark.

Mission Declutter has made a positive start. Life already feels simpler and more ordered. At last, the laundry room having been cleared out a few weeks ago, after hubby revealed the computer kit that was languishing next to the washing machine was no longer needed, I now have a proper routine for washing and ironing - without risking my neck everytime I go into the utility room for fear of tripping over cables and bits of server. It makes it a whole lot easier to be able to load the washing machine from the front instead of having to crane round and shove clothes in from the side because there's too much junk in the way. No wonder I've got a bad back!

I've managed to find a home for the mountain of books that were balanced precariously next to my bed. So now getting into bed no longer involves stubbing my toes on a long-forgotten volume by Trinny and Susannah; and when I get out of bed I no longer have to place my feet an uncomfortable distance away and then arch my back dangerously upwards in order to allow my shoulders to catch up with my feet and bring myself to a vertical position.

Mission Declutter is certainly proving both physically and mentally freeing. I can think far more clearly about things when I don't have to look at an untidy mound of stuff in front of me everywhere I go. And chores speed up, so I'm not spending such a long time doing the things that need to be done to keep domestic life ticking over. This means I can get on with the things I really like doing - like blogging, or researching my talk to the Swindon Philosophical Society, or having my Mum down for a visit.

The spare room project represents a purple patch of domestic order and calm. Meanwhile those little swan legs are paddling hard below the surface.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Unlocking Mission Declutter

Rather than finding the key to the filing cabinet this time I discovered that shifting the old filing cabinet was the key to unlock Mission Declutter. The brown and beige 2 drawer filing cabinet, which we'd bought on a budget 15 years ago, when we first joined the property ladder and needed somewhere to dump the aforementioned bumf that various financial institutions would send us, had to be shifted in order to make room for the large bookcase out of the spare bedroom. The bookcase out of the spare bedroom needs to be shifted so that I can redecorate the room.

So like one of those puzzles that you have to slide tiles around in order to create the picture, pieces of furniture needs to be shifted around between permanent and temporary homes and back again.

The redecorating of our spare room is long overdue. When we first moved in we were so bored by the perpetual beige and brown of the previous residents' decor that we decided to go radical. So one evening, over a bottle or two of red wine, we devised our colour schemes. The spare room became a riot of purple and orange, and I’m sure that guests of ours over the years have been rudely jolted into their Sunday morning hangovers by the violent clash taking place on the walls surrounding their bed.

The joke, if ever it was one, is wearing a bit thin now, and once again we are beckoned towards the safe haven of “neutrals”.

I used to be a project manager and I know about things like critical paths, milestones, plans, objectives and costs. I also know about risk management and contingencies, resource planning and implementation. It gives me a huge degree of satisfaction to plot the sequence of tasks that must be undertaken to ensure that nothing blocks the critical path and that all risks are averted.

Of course, in my relatively modest project called Mission Declutter, the risk management amounts to taking down the curtains before I start painting, and the contingency planning hinges upon the number of coats of neutral paint I’m going to need to cover the dark vileness that currently adorns the walls.

But now the filing cabinet has been moved the only thing that blocks my progress is lugging the great bookcase down the stairs. I have done my resource planning – having cleverly worked out that I require hubby’s assistance for this task, and sensibly acknowledged that I’ll have to wait ‘til the weekend, ‘til after he’s played golf on Saturday morning, before that milestone can be reached.

And with that I’m off to take down the curtains.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Wake up - it's September!

Always at this time of year I feel a huge amount of motivation to start new projects, and turn over new leaves.

This year is no exception as I've embarked on MISSION DECLUTTER, to get the house organised and do a bit of decorating, so I can feel life running smoothly.

Whenever there's a lot of stuff lying around I find it increasingly difficult to move, and think. Stepping over stuff all the time is extremely distracting, and fighting the huge pile of books, files and papers strewn around my desk makes it literally impossible to see the wood for the trees.

My first task has been to clear out our old filing cabinet - a grotty old metal one from Office World - which has been groaning under the weight of expired insurance documents, financial information and old tax returns for far too long.

A couple of years ago, my brother, a gifted carpenter and furniture builder, created a brand new filing cabinet for us, which truly is a thing of beauty. Today it has finally been commissioned for its intended use, rather than being used as a docking station for one of hubby's computers.

As I was going through all the bumf out of the old cabinet I grew increasingly irritated by the amount of paper issued by financial institutions, often with only a single line of information on about this or that investment, more frequently with reams of information you couldn't pay me to read and inwardly digest. It became clear that, like us, thousands of good people of the world must avail themselves of "private banking", to spread their financial assets across a wide range of global funds, only to be rewarded with tons of poshly bound paper reports that tell them a) their investment has dropped in value and b) the bank will charge an admin fee of £120 for the privilege of sharing this information with its valued (?) customers. What a racket!

I also have absolutely no idea what the global investment funds represent. Are they ethical - or do they sponsor capitalist activity which is actually exploitative or detrimental to natural resources? This is a big deal for me. And I feel blinded by financial gobbledegook.

Anyhow, of course I'm not blaming the banks for putting this stuff in my decrepit filing cabinet in the first place - I guess hubby and I had a hand in doing that - but I am waking up to how easy it is to go along with someone else's investment policy or approach without really understanding or appreciating what's involved, or the impact of our actions. Posh banks with their fancy bindings appear to legitimise everything - but is our money that is inevitably trickling away actually being put to good use, or are we just lining the pockets of smarmy city boys?

Like the clutter in my house this is something I'm not happy about stepping over any longer!

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


The summer holidays are coming to an end; the kids are going stir crazy; they are desperate to get back to their friends; they are fidgety and whiney and quarrelsome.

And then in the midst of all the rationalising I'm doing about how they can't wait to get back to school I notice something slide out of my daughter's hair. She's in the bath and has requested a hair wash. She lies back in the water and I apply a good squirt of strawberry-scented shampoo. The creature slips down to the end of her hair as I comb it through - and I am mortified to realise that it is a louse!

I have learned a lot about the life-cycle of head lice over the past couple of weeks - the amount of time it has taken me to get rid of all traces of infestation in my daughter's hair. Heaven knows how long she has had the things, or where she got them from. She is not given to cooperating over having her hair brushed during the school holidays, much less having regular nit inpsections. The critters in her hair looked pretty established - and fat!! She's certainly been feeding them well.

In my search for lotions to eliminate the unwelcome guests I learned that the nits themselves are actually the tiny white eggs of the lice, that are laid in the shafts of hair close to the scalp, and "glued" on with a substance it is impossible to shift with a dry comb or brush. You need something oily, to loosen the nits' hold. At first I was determined to beat the creatures using natural products, and read on the internet about smearing the hair with mayonnaise, which kills the imposters, then combing out the remains.

Well I didn't go as far as mayonnaise. I bought a product called Wild Child from Boots, which claims to contain no nasty pesticides or chemicals that could not only damage the nits but my daughter too. I also bought a nit comb called the Nitty Gritty, which has been acclaimed by Richard and Judy (?) as being the most effective weapon against the invasion of nits. For 2 hours my daughter and I (by this time I was convinced I had things running around in my head too) sat with Wild Child plastered all over our heads and sealed in with a disposable shower cap. (I'm glad I wasn't expecting any deliveries that day.)

The nits hatch into nymphs, tiny brownish creatures with wavy legs, which can be seen congregating around the edges of the hair, over the ears and in the fringe, as well as deep in the scalp, so all areas must be gone through, literally, with a "fine tooth comb." (Is the English language truly indebted to nit-nurses for this phrase?)

The Nitty Gritty comb claims that no other lotions or chemicals are needed with it - just your regular conditioner to loosen the grip of the bugs. I have to say that this claim is very sound. After Wild Child I combed our hair through with the Nitty Gritty and managed to remove a large number of nymphs and grown up lice.

The trouble is if you don't get to all the critters at the same time the cycle repeats itself, the nymphs grow into lice then lay their nits again, so there followed many hours on consecutive days of raking through my daughter's hair, each time eliminating a good clutch of wildlife.

Nits have become my obsession. I now have the eye for them, I can spot them at a distance, and neither of my children can come anywhere near me now without me staring fixedly at their scalps and poking around in their hair.

Two weeks of itching is way too much for anyone, so in a final attempt to banish the parasites I lathered all our heads in a preparation called Full Marks - which claims to work in just 10 minutes. That's 10 minutes sitting with a sticky head, followed by another good 15 - 45 minutes' meticulous combing.

Who knows whether they're all gone? Much to my daughter's horror I have decided to instate "nit night" on a Monday just to keep the situation in check. And each day I shall be sending her to school reeking of Tea Tree, as this is apparently a good nit repellent.

All in all I have spent £35 on my nit arsenal. And I have to agree with Richard and Judy then the £10 Nitty Gritty comb is the best investment.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Marian Alder 1918 - 2008

My Grandma was a gold medal-winning gymnast - not an Olympian, but nevertheless a champion of Marsh Gym in Leigh, Lancashire, and holder of the George Holden Cup. She worked in the cotton mills of the 1930s, and was whisked off her feet at the top of Blackpool Tower by Cyril Alder, my Grandad, who promised her the moon.

Marian was beautiful. She was an actress and a dancer in Leigh Amateur Dramatics. She married Cyril in 1941 and spent the next 40 years sharing his early mornings opening up the family bakery, delivering pies, pasties and barm cakes, as well as keeping house, making clothes, doing embroidery, and crocheting.

Her daughter Christine was born in October 1943, while Cyril was serving in Africa during the war. Grandad wrote home about the delicious fruit they were getting to eat, whilst worrying about what kind of rationing his wife and daughter were having to endure.

Cyril died in 1985 at the age of 65. Marian never fully recovered from her own grief, and continued to help friends and relatives of her husband as long as she could.

Marian gradually lost her own health and mobility through a series of aneurisms. Christine looked after her mother full time until 2002, when Marian became a resident of High Peak Nursing Home in Leigh.

Marian was buried on Thursday 28th August alongside her husband in Leigh Cemetery. Reunited at last, Cyril will finally be able to give her the moon.

"God Bless"

Monday, 25 August 2008


Never has a summer holiday gone by so quickly as this one. Somehow we have managed to cram in such a lot of stuff that we haven't noticed the time whizz by - and though I should be looking forwards to the kids' return to school next week, I'm not sure I'm quite ready for them to go. Have they had a good enough break? Have they enjoyed themselves? Have they spent enough time with their friends playing out and chilling - or have we forced them into too much of an adult itinerary, packed with things we think our kids will enjoy, rather than allowing them to make their own arrangements, and even be bored for five mintues?

The first week was spent on the golf course at our club's Junior Week event, which hubby helps to organise. It was a fantastic week, with over 60 kids between the ages of 4 and 18 in attendance, and there were daily competitions and skills challenges to keep everyone involved and entertained. Both our children took part this year, so I went along to assist. My hubby had even managed to recruit his Mum to help as well - so we both had a fantastic week walking around with the youngsters and, literally, marking their cards.

During the second week I decided to take off with the kids for a couple of days camping while hubby stayed at home and got on with some work. It was the first time I'd ever put a tent up on my own - and much to my surprise it neither let in water nor blew away, despite the less than clement August weather conditions.

After that we have made our annual trips north to stay with parents and parents-in-law in Lancashire and Cumbria, and fitted in rounds of golf and trips out to Blue Planet Aquarium near Chester, Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Longleat Safari Park and a performance of High School Musical at Oxford New Theatre.

Hubby and I also managed to grab a night away in Rydal in the Lake District, to celebrate our wedding anniversary. We climbed Great Rigg from Grasmere, walked along the ridge to Heron Pike and descended steeply back into Rydal over Nab Scar. We covered no more than 5 or 6 miles, but ascended 2500 feet, which explains why the back of my calves have been agony for a few days.

Sadly on the same day as our climb my Mum gave me the news that my Grandma passed away that morning. I felt extremely torn about whether to go ahead with our anniversary trip or not in the circumstances. In the end however I was glad I went, and I felt a real sense of purpose in getting to the top of Great Rigg fell, to place a stone on the cairn in memory of my Grandma, and shed a few tears.

We have got precisely seven days of the summer holiday remaining, into which we will cram a further wedding and a funeral. All life has happened during this short month of August. I'm not sure we're going to emerge from the end of it with quite as much renewal and feeling of being refreshed as we hoped. This summer has left me feeling more groggy wasp than beautiful butterfly.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Left-handers' Day

The note in my diary reminds me that today, 13th August 2008 is, for some reason, Left Handers' Day. This is significant for me personally as I am left-handed, and I wondered what could be special about this day. Maybe a day when all right-handers should be made to live left-handed? Or a day when left-handers can wear a badge so they can easily recognise each other and say Hi?

As it turns out today is also the 13th of the month. Unlucky for some, or so the saying goes. For me I've never been particularly bothered by the number 13. It's our address, and I never cringe from Fridays which carry this date.

However, today has been a real stinker for me. Firstly I played the worst round of golf in about 5 years, lost a grand total of 5 balls, and scored an appalling 15 stableford points over 18 holes. Maybe, ironically for today, I would have done much better if I'd played right-handed.

Secondly, while hubby was looking after the kids earlier, our daughter pushed our son over and he cut his head open on the corner of the radiator in the hall-way. (This is a five year old girl we're talking about, and her brother is 10.) I came home to find bloody tissues littering the kitchen and our son sitting in front of his computer with a very blood-drenched plaster over his right eye-brow. (At least it wasn't the left one - that would've been spooky.)

Also on my return from the golf course my hubby told me there was a letter for me. As soon as I saw it I knew it wouldn't be good news. It was very thin, with only one sparsely written side of A4 folded efficiently and properly, informing me that I haven't been successful with my recent job application. I am gutted, to say the least. Back to the drawing board on this one.

I'm not used to having bad days. I'm usually quite a cheerful and optimistic soul. But today has been tough. I haven't had a day when I've felt the need to retreat for a long hot soak in the bath in the middle of the afternoon for a long while. But today has been one of those days.

I can't help wondering if the unpropitious nature of 13 is compounded by the sinister influence of left-handedness? I know that being left-handed has long been considered "undesirable". So why mark the occasion on the 13th of the month?

Monday, 21 July 2008

Who says kids aren't competitive?

For the past couple of decades - or so it seems - a debate has been raging about whether or not it is right and proper to allow children to compete against each other, in races, football teams, highway code quizzes (does anyone else remember these?- I was never on the team but was totally in awe of my classmates who had swotted up on the highway code and could recite whole tracts of it), and all manner of other childhood pastimes, such that the outcome leads to winners and losers.

Minis' football in the UK very conscientiously refuses to admit to having a winning team in its events, which means that teams who become over-excited by the fact that they have scored 5 more goals than their opponent will soon have their joy and exuberance stamped out as every single member of both teams receive a medal for taking part.

In recent years my children's school has shown minimal interest in putting on Sports Day, claiming that it traditionally shows the highest rate of absences out of any other day in the school year. Hmmm - I wonder which came first, pupils' alleged non-interest in the event, or teachers' lack of enthusiasm for sport?

Last year my husband was most digruntled at having taken time off work to come and watch our son sit on his bottom for three-quarters of an hour, waiting for his turn to jump up and down three times on the spot. The poor man was so incensed that he even offered to organise a long distance race (well 3 circuits of the school field) for anyone in the school who wanted to take part. To his astonishment and fury, this offer was rejected on the grounds of health and safety.

Nevertheless, the format of this year's Sports Day was considerably different from the shambolic event of last year. I'm not sure if the words my hubby had with the head were anything to do with it at all.

This time every child was given the choice of which races they wished to take part in, and everybody got the chance to run a long distance race at the end - if they so chose. The atmosphere and level of engagement in the children was unrecognisable in comparison with last year. There was a real buzz on the playing field and children took as much pleasure in supporting their team mates as they did in winning.

For me this showed that children are completely capable of making the right choices for themselves, rather than being politically correctly herded and manipulated. Whenever this happens all the joy, spontaneity and good will is leeched away and children are left looking bored, feeling fidgety, and privately arranging with themselves to be off sick this time next year.

I have written beofre on the dangers of not allowing our children to experience what it is to win and lose. Ever since my daughter could speak there has been a constant jostling between the kids for the winning position. Such exchanges as "First one to clean their teeth is the winner - I win" and "Last one in bed smells of snakes" (?)have become part of the soundtrack of our family life.

So children are in my opinion naturally competitive - and - given the opportunity, naturally gracious in defeat (except perhaps in the case of siblings, or children who have been made to feel utterly unloved by touch-line parents who get completely stressed out at minis football matches). The more we give our children the opportunity to compete, the more they are learning, and the more their confidence and motivation builds.

Last week was a great winning week for our son. Not only did he win his golf competition on Sunday, he also won a Lego modelling competition at youth club, and a school Design Technology competition to build a hat out of newspaper. These are important land-marks in his development, and deserve to be celebrated, if only to remind him that competing is more than just taking part, it's all about winning (and losing) too.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Stop this muddled meddling!

I was most put out by the news of Lillian Ladele, the Islington registrar who last week won an employment tribunal against Islington council, citing "bullying and harrassment" as she refused to officiate at same sex civil partnership ceremonies on religious grounds.

What next? A judge being exonerated for failing to convict a serial rapist because, according to his religion, rape is an acceptable way to treat women?

Civil partnerships for same sex couples are now legal in this country, therefore a civil registrar is duty-bound to officiate at such ceremonies, regardless of his or her own religious convictions.

To be fair, Ms Ladele's victory was more to do with allegedly having suffered harrassment, and with the carefully argued fact that the tribunal found her actions not to have in any way impeded the provision of services to the homosexual community of Islington.

Of course it is wrong for anyone to be discriminated against, whether for their sexual preferences or their religion, and I do not condone bullying if indeed that took place. But to sanction someone's exemption from official duty on the grounds of their religious prejudice, just because the council was able to find a satisfactory "work around" solution, strikes me as morally arbitrary and rather dangerous: "Prejudice is usually wrong, but prejudice on religious grounds is OK - especially when the perpetrator is not indispensable to our function."

This entanglement of religious opinion, legal sanction, human rights and civil duty is a symptom of the extremely confused reasoning that becomes inevitable when the political landscape has ill-defined boundaries between church and state.

In a secular state we would not allow our common sense to be hijacked. Our lifestyle choices, such as what religion we belong to, would not, in the eyes of the law, be allowed to influence our attitude towards the lawful needs and choices of others.

The alternative is a doomed future of increasing political correctness, endlessly tip-toeing around each other and spending inordinate amounts of time and money trying to accommmodate everyone's preferences.

Where our lifestyle choice is incompatible with the public function or service we have chosen to pursue, then we ought to take responsibility for ourselves and step down from our public role, rather than expect the public office to flex and shift to our particular demands.

Now where's that subscription form for the National Secular Society?

Monday, 7 July 2008

Born on the Fifth of July!

My sister-in-law gave birth to a baby girl in the early hours of Saturday morning, having spent most of the previous week in hospital waiting for labour to start. What a relief! And what a wonderful gift the new baby is.

I really spent the whole of last week on tenterhooks, jumping out of my skin every time the phone rang.

But she's here now, safe and sound - and I'm going to meet her later this week. It is so exciting to have a new baby in the family, a little cousin for our two, and for it not to be mine!! I'm looking forwards to lots of cuddles and fun, AND to not having my sleep disrupted! Excellent.

One thing I learned BIG TIME last week is how difficult I find "not knowing". Not only did I "not know" when the baby was coming, my head was also done in by "not knowing" about the job I've applied for. The pressure really started to build up, as the void of not knowing left me vulnerable to day-dreaming and being totally unproductive. I didn't even manage to play a full round of golf!

In turn this restlessness led me to lose connection with my hubby and the kids, and as usual this caused me to experience seering pain in my body, particularly in the form of mouth ulcers, and stiffness in my neck and across my shoulders. It's been one heck of a domino effect, but I'm pretty sure the main culprit is the phenomenon of not knowing, and not being OK with that.

Thankfully I had the good sense to stop wrestling with it on Thursday and chose instead to go round to my friend's house to celebrate her birthday with her. It was great to get together, to chat and laugh and let off steam with each other. It was a great way to open a safety valve. Meetings like that always make me feel so grateful for my friendships - and always slightly guilty that I don't see more of my friends.

Unsurprisingly then on the same day I found out that I HAVE got an interview for the new job. Knowing this somehow felt like some kind of reward for dealing with "not knowing" in a different way. Rather than fight it, I gave in to it, and went to spend a lovely day with my friend. I used the time far more productively, and as a result, received the outcome I was hoping for. Thankyou universe, or whatever you are. Maybe I should go off and read the Secret now?

Monday, 30 June 2008

Time to break some rules

There has been an incredible transformation in our house since my last blog entry.

The TV has hardly been on after school - although our son is still wedded to his computer games- and my daughter and I have found other things to keep us busy. We've been to the park after tea, we've been swimming, cycling, entertaining friends for play dates, playing "Sorry", and one evening last week the kids went to the driving range with their Dad whilst I was working away.

The net result is that the kids are far more engaged, with us and with each other, and, especially in the case of my daughter, far more articulate and mature.

She's only five, but actually my daughter's at the age where as a mother I have to encourage her not to behave babyishly any more.

Prior to our conscious efforts to spend more time with her rather than relying on electronic media to entertain her, she was routinely behaving as if she was still 2, frequently reminding me that "I'm your baby, Mummy".

Kids frequently get a bum rap for "attention-seeking behaviour", as if they do this on purpose, with no other reason but just to make life hell for the adults around them. We can always choose how to respond to this. Either we can react impatiently, and perpetuate the mistaken thinking that kids are indeed out to get us, or we can get curious about why they are behaving in this way. Kids seek attention because they are missing something from us - either a feeling of comfort, or because they are ready to learn something new.

My daughter's babyishness I now recognise was both of these things. It's the only way she knows to demonstrate that she needs me. She wants me to respond to her in a particular way, to give her reassurance, and also to show her the way to grow up.

Little did she know that this behaviour was actually "turning me off", and causing me to back off from her and react impatiently, giving me cause to retreat ever deeper into my own world of distractions. I guess this is the viscious cycle that it is easy to fall into, such that parents develop a misconception about their children's behaviour and what it means. What I needed to do was wake up and get curious.

By paying attention to what our children's behaviour is really about we are instead able to respond in a way that is far more appropriate for both of us. In my daughter's case we both needed to learn something new about each other - I needed to learn that her babyish tendencies were actually a cry for attention, while she needed to learn that it's time to grow up, and I can show her the way.

Showing her the way has involved taking on new habits, and breaking a few rules.

For example, the rule that floats generally around young children, that they need to be in bed early, eight o'clock at the absolute latest, really needed to be broken in our house. This is because my daughter was neither tired enough nor secure enough to say goodnight to us so early, particularly in the light nights of June, and especially if all she'd done since she came home from school is watch TV, pick at her tea, get shouted at, watch more TV, then get impatiently packed off to bed.

It is truly shameful having to admit to all this, but really in my daughter's world this is what was happening. No wonder she didn't want to eat her meal at tea-time, nor go to sleep at bed-time.

Breaking the early bedtime rule has meant that we're more open to doing more activities after school and into the evening. School finishes at 3pm, there's still a good six hours left of the day, which are desperately difficult to fill if we've got an unbreakable set of rules in our mind about getting our kids to bed early.

Likewise, the rule that I'd made up about feeding my kids fresh home-cooked food every day has also had to be relaxed in the face of spending time having fun after school. Don't get me wrong, feeding our children properly is still high on my agenda, but not at the cost of leaving them in front of the telly while I concoct in the kitchen.

My daughter has been much happier on a diet of fish fingers, hot dogs, omelettes and "time with Mum" than she ever is sitting at the table in front of lentil bolognese or roast dinner. Sometimes we need to recognise that our kids need a different type of nourishment than just food.

Of course the other spin off benefit of all this is that when the kids do eventually go to bed they sleep much better, with fewer requests for yet more drinks of water, night lights, trips to the loo, or making sure that the dream -catcher is hanging straight, or that the house spider (which has become a pet) is safely in its corner.

Kids are past masters at making up all kinds of excuses to bring us closer to them, to help them feel secure and comfortable. The trick is to recognise what lies behind these tactics, and respond to what our children are really needing, in a way that works for everyone.

The postscript to this has got to be "be flexible". Because my husband and I both work from home this can be both easy and hard. Easy because we're our own boss and needn't work to strict "office" hours; hard because it's much more fun to be with the kids, so sometimes work doesn't get done when it should. As with everything there has to be balance, and an open mind about breaking rules, especially ones that we may have created for ourselves.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Another moment of Parental Inspiration

Intellectually and theoretically I know it. I advise others about it often. I'm pretty much aware every time I fall foul of it myself - and berate myself endlessly about it. But actually doing something about it invariably proves extremely difficult.

What am I talking about? Quite simply, the blatant, unassailable fact that kids don't deal very well with distracted parents.

When parents become distracted and preoccupied, we lose patience with our kids, as our attention and focus are elsewhere. If things are anything like our house, as parents we become increasingly reliant upon siblings, computers and TVs to provide our children's entertainment, so that we can have some peace and quiet to devote to our current distractions.

Sooner rather than later the sibling rivalry kicks off in time-honoured fashion with squealing and squabbling, as it becomes increasingly apparent that our children cannot be in the same room as each other without World War Three breaking out. In reaction to the bickering we temporarily awaken from our preoccupations to shout at them and tell them to behave themselves, so that we can go back into our own extremely important parallel universe of distraction and preoccupation.

All in all the children end up feeling not a little abandoned and "got at", which in turn triggers a feeling of insecurity. This then triggers attention-seeking behaviour in them, which in turn pushes the parents to impose increasingly punitive measures, until we've nowhere left to go short of locking our children in their rooms and forgetting about them for a bit. We all know that feeling of utter exhausted helplessness when we've literally run out of sanctions and threats, and our kids are still driving us up the wall.

If you can relate to this in any way I recommend you take a moment to step back and assess how distractedly you are behaving towards your children, and how much you're trying to put them off in favour of "more pressing and important" things.

It all came to a head for me this weekend when my own feelings of guilt at putting off my own kids yet again finally imploded. I decided that a family conference was needed and that we all needed to pay more attention to each other instead of hiding ourselves in our separate rooms to indulge our separate distractions.

I told my son that he needed to spend less time on his computer as it was making him forget how to relate to people rather than machines (Oh physic - heal thyself!!) And I told my hubby that we both needed to make more of an effort to be with the kids when they come home from school so that we can start getting on better as a family.

Of my daughter I shared my observations that her listlessness and disinclination to eat properly at mealtimes is directly linked to how much time she was getting to share with us after school instead of being mesmerised by the Cartoon Network.

My request was that this week we try an experiment - that we all try to resist electronic media as much as possible so we get to do other activities together and we get to talk more.

In response to this our five-year-old daughter became extremely animated, and started making suggestions about all the things she's been dying for us all to do together if only we'd been less distracted - "We could play a game, or go to the park after tea, or go swimming after school, or we could all go to the playing field and you can play cricket while I ride round on my bike without stabilisers...."

It's heart-breaking really.

Meanwhile our ten-year-old son has already become a bit of a hardened cynic and he began his habitual snarling at each of his sister's suggestions (except maybe the one about cricket). For this he received a severe dressing down from his father, who also agreed to make more of an effort when the kids are home from school to do stuff instead of languishing in front of his PC.

So, as a result of our family conference we have enjoyed an extremely pleasant weekend. On Friday afternoon we went to watch some Twenty20 Cricket in Bristol; on Saturday afternoon we went to watch the kids play golf in their respective tournaments, then in the evening we played Sorry instead of putting the telly on; yesterday for Fathers' Day we did a bit of a cycle ride around Swindon, called at a pub with a playground for a couple of drinks, then came home for a barbecue.

The kids have been a lot calmer, brighter and happier, they have played together really nicely, and to top it all our daughter ate 3 lamb kebabs for tea last night, which is some kind of record on her recent eating form.

The only reason why changing our experience is ever difficult is because habits are easily formed but tricky to break. It's so easy to fall into lazy habits as a family and not take the time to share activities and be together. Playing board games, joining in their play and enjoying the long days to go out for a walk or bike ride after tea are little ways to reconnect with our kids and put our own distractions to one side. I've noticed that not only does it help our kids behave better, it also makes the distractions far less preoccupying and significant.

The more we're aware of our habits, the more chance we've got to change them.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Gadget phobia, self-actualisation and holiday memories

I've finally sorted out my photos, and know now how to upload them onto my PC without having to limply get out of the way while hubby sorts it. I hate that!

He gave me my lovely new digital camera for my birthday, and I could tell by the way he hovered around me after it arrived, and while I was taking it out of the box, that he couldn't wait to get his hands on it and see how it worked. He was almost taking it out of my fingers when I told him to back off. I point blank refused to allow him to touch it before I'd figured out FOR MYSELF how to put the battery in, charge it up, use the zoom, understand the various settings, and actually take the pictures.

I just knew that if he picked it up before I had chance to do all these things then he would become the "new gadget expert" instead of me, and I would become dependent on him knowing how to work the thing. It would end up with me never using it myself because I wouldn't know what to do with it unless he explained it to me. And constantly having to have things explained to me is a serious drain on my personal pride, so something which I tend to avoid.

I know this sounds rather irrational - what would be the problem with me looking at the instructions myself? - but the point is I wanted to become the expert before him! If he became the expert first then, every time he saw me pick up the instruction manual to figure out what to do with the thing, he would be over in a shot telling me everything that he'd discovered about it.

Don't get me wrong, I know he has every good intention and only wants to be helpful, but my habitual reaction is "Oh well you deal with it then because you know more about it than me."

As I write it strikes me that this is a key way I "give away my power", to use a corny, new-agey, self-actualisation bit of jargon, and deny myself new learning, experiences and expertise. This is also the main reason why, despite being a complete music nut, I haven't caught up entirely with I-Pods and MP3s and the like, and why I have only just recently discovered how to send text messages on my phone - yes really.

Anyway, since I banned hubby from fiddling with my new camera, I've become a bit more savvy, and a whole lot less dependent. I have been sending text messages to my new friends in Manchester and Turkey and I've been uploading photos onto Facebook!

Even so, I'm still extremely grateful for all the sophisticated computer and network kit we've got at home - and for the fact that hubby, also affectionately known as "technical monkey", is the one who maintains it and makes it work. Because quite frankly it would have me tearing my hair out.

Without further adieu, here's some lovely pics from our recent holiday in Jard-sur Mer, western France:

The harbour at Jard sur Mer at sun-down

Swimmming pool at Camping Les Ecureuils where we stayed in a Eurocamp tent.

Playing on the beach

The beautiful and practically empty Plage de La Mine.

Our bike ride on my birthday. Our daughter was very pleased that she got to sit in the trailer because the rental place didn't have a bike small enough for her to ride safely!

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Distractions, procrastinations and solutions

Ooh dear - the time between my blog posts is getting longer and longer. I'm not losing interest -honest!

The kids went back to school yesterday and I had a list as long as my arm of things I would get on with given a bit of peace and quiet. We had a great holiday in France (I'll blog about it soon when I've managed to figure out how to upload the photos off my camera into the correct place on the PC without hubby having to take over), but the kids were really starting to drive me mad by the end of the two week break. (Something else to share my pearls of wisdom about.)

A couple of things came up over the weekend that I needed to get out of the way early doors this week, not least updating my CV for a new coaching opportunity which sounds interesting - and which is probably the only role I've seen in a very long while which I actually feel appropriately and adequately skilled for.

So yesterday I spent the entire day updating my Curriculum Vitae - well not the ENTIRE day - I still found time to catch up with some old mates in Canada, Australia and Brighton on Facebook. How distracting is all that social networking malarky? I could spend the whole day either looking for people I know and inviting them to be "my friend", or tapping happy messages to all the other people who are already my friend, whether I "know" them or not!!

I do love it - though it does require a resolution of steel not to keep skipping back to check for messages! (Don't stop sending them lovely people - just know that I'm working hard to resist chatting to you all the day long.)

It's amazing what other things I can find to do before I get down to doing the stuff I've got to do. There's always another load of washing to put into the machine or hang out to dry, or a load of stuff to tidy up or put away. It's not that I'm avoiding doing stuff particularly - I like doing what I do - I just like feeling that I've got clear space behind me and in front of me before I start.

I also think I like putting off the moment where I no longer have a big list of stuff to do, having done it all. I like having the list! It's comforting and exciting ("just think of all the stuff I've got to look forwards to!"). I guess it also gives me some sort of purpose (I must be important because look at all these things I've got to do!) Usually I won't admit that my to do list also includes things like "do the ironing" and "buy washing up liquid", but even having those things on there gives me some kind of focus, and once they're done I just love the sense of achievement I get when I tick them off!! It occurs to me that this is a much more productive feeling to get addicted to than the feeling of always having something to look forwards to.

OK so now I'm revealing my saddest secrets. I procrastinate because I'm afraid of running out of things to do. As if! Or looking at it another way, I'm buying creative thinking time so I can make sure I develop the best ideas possible. This also needs to be treated with caution as I have the tendency to loop off into different dimensions of the universe which are completely irrelevant to the here and now.

For example yesterday my hubby read a draft of the covering letter I was going to send with my CV. I hadn't been mulling it for that long, but I was looking forwards to writing it and I knew already that there was STUFF I WANTED TO SAY. So away I typed and then I said to hubby "Come and read this."

It was about 200 words long and contained precisely 2 sentences. Imagine! The longest, most jargon-filled sentence with the least amount of punctuation that you can get away with. I could feel my husband about to pass out through lack of oxygen intake even as he read it silently to himself in his own head. His sense of utter confusion at what I'd written was palpable and I knew that his verdict wouldn't be glowing.

Thankfully he responded by giving me just three simple questions: "What are you applying for, why are you suitable, where can they contact you." Some people are just born to cut through the crap.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Birthday Madness!

Every family has a time of year when everybody's birthday seems to happen. For us it's the period at the end of May and beginning of June. This always used to be a bit of a bummer for me with my own birthday on 1st June because every year it collided with the start of school exams, 'O' levels, 'A' levels and then university tripos exams and finals.

The day of my 18th was the day before my 'A' levels started, but I abandoned all my revision on that day to be whisked off to Alton Towers to enjoy all the rides practically to myself. There was something deliciously naughty about it, and typical of how intense my birthdays have been over the years, sometimes going on for days, despite the awkward timing.

I can see my daughter developing a similarly excitable attitude towards her birthday. Like mother, like daughter. She turned five on 23rd May, which was also her last day of term at school and the day of her party at our house. The countdown to it was almost unbearable for her. "How many sleeps til I'm five?" has been her repeated mantra since at the least the beginning of April, so it has been a constant challenge to my mental arithmetic capability, which isn't good at the best of times.

We have always held our children's parties at our house, doing the usual party tea and games, eschewing the popular trend for hiring out village halls and children's entertainers. Pass the parcel, musical statues, musical bumps and "duck, duck, goose" were my daughter's games of choice this year.

During the party preparations I almost decided against wrapping the pass the parcel prize in the same number of wrappings plus one as there were children coming to the party. I almost decided against putting a lollipop inside each layer, a practise supposed to make passing the parcel as democratic and fair and politically correct as possible. But I didn't decide against these things - bowing instead to the weight of contemporary expectation that every child should win something just for taking part. So I dutifully put seventeen wrappers, including sixteen mini chupa-chups, around the prize.

What a load of rubbish! First of all, as usual, three or four kids didn't want to play in the first place - depsite (or maybe precisley because of) the predictable promise of a sweetie each time a layer came off. Then came growing disillusion and boredom with every rotation of the parcel around the increasingly restless circle of remaining children.

Where's this aversion to allowing kids the anticipation of winning by chance come from? Why are we so scared that kids might not be able to handle losing? It's clear that the possibility of losing is part of the game, and makes the idea of actually winning all the more exciting. If everyone wins a small prize anyway just for taking part then the kids start settling for less and disengage from the possibility of winning the bigger prize. Is there a more precise demonstration of how to encourage people to tolerate mediocrity?

The kids get bored and drift off, having quickly sussed, and quite rightly dismissed, the patronising strategy which we adults have come up with only because we're terrified of having to deal with a losing child's tantrums. In fact, kids who lose under normal circumstances don't have a tantrum, they just shrug and get on with something else, quite accepting of the fact that losing occasionally is as much part of the game as winning.

So next time you're wrapping a pass the parcel prize, resist the temptation to include consolation prizes and then tie yourself in knots trying to keep track of which child's already unwrapped and who hasn't unwrapped yet. Put on only a few layers of wrapping, avert your eyes from the group completely and press the pause button totally at random. Kids are not stupid, they are really quite resilient,they really can handle it, and it won't drive you quite so mad.

Thursday, 15 May 2008


There are certain places that I have visited over the past ten to fifteen years which have truly stopped me in my tracks and given me a particular, peculiar 'feeling'. It's dfficult to know how to put this feeling into words, but the overall sense I get is one of connection to other people over hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. It's as if I'm looking at things through their eyes, and I certainly feel as if I'm treading in their footsteps.

The specific places I'm talking about which give me these kinds of tingles are both local to me here in Swindon and further afield. Of the local sites, I'm talking about Avebury stone circle, Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow, Waylands Smithy and White Horse Hill at Uffington, indeed anywhere along the Ridgeway and in amongst the North Wilts downs.

Further afield I love to walk in the sunken paths, the ancient holloways of Dorset and Somerset, feeling like I'm continuing an ancient tradition of migration. Robert Macfarlane writes very compellingly about these paths in his beautiful book "The Wild Places":

"These holloways are humbling, for they are landmarks that speak of habit rather than suddenness. Trodden by innumerable feet, cut by innumerable wheels, they are the records of journeys to market, to worship, to sea. Like creases in the hand, or the wear on the stone sill of a doorstep or stair, they are the consequence of tradition, of repeated action. Like old trees - the details of whose spiralling and kinked branches indicate the wind history of a region, and whose growth rings record each year's richness or poverty of sun - they archive the past customs of a place."

It is indeed the connection to others' habits and daily lives that gives me tingles in these places. All the hill forts, paths and monuments to ancient times either look out over, weave through or hide among landscapes that I can truly imagine others feeling every day fortunate to be part of.

When I first came to Swindon I was reading Thomas Hardy, and I felt thrilled to be walking the same Wessex routes as many of his characters. This landscape somehow captured my imagination and made me feel safe and connected to many other souls who settled here.

What is the magic that I catch in these places?

I'm not one necessarily for UFOs and Orbs and Crop Circles, although I'm open-minded about most things, but I can understand how others are driven, through their own tingles, to imagine evermore fantastical "powers" and unexplained apparitions. There's lots of video footage on Youtube purporting to reveal the appearance of orbs on the landscape, though George Wingfield, a Wessex Sacred Sites expert I was recently talking to, assured me that all these, along with the majority of crop circles, are of course the product of marvellous fakery.

Personally I believe the magic I'm catching is one of human consciousness and industry. All that has been written about these places, and all that has been constructed in these places, the remnants of which can still be traced, conveys a timeless sense of imagination, creativity, resourcefulness, response to beauty and deisre to work in harmony with the land, which is common to all humanity, as much then as now.

I wonder if the tingles I feel are at all similar to how Tim Smit felt when he first set foot, machete in hand, into the brambly overgrowth that was to become the Lost Gardens of Heligan. I went to listen to Tim on Wednesday evening as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature, and I was reminded of the remarkable effect Heligan had upon me when I first visited it 5 years ago.

It was a visit that changed my life and my outlook completely. I became fascinated by sustainability, local food production, kitchen gardens and the society they supported. On my return home I registered with an organic box scheme from a local walled garden, and stopped buying vegetables in the supermarket. As a consumer I voted with my feet, and am pleased to say that along with similar actions from other consumers the supermarkets are gradually changing their stock to be more organic, and more locally produced. But that is another story.

I was of course doing more than voting with my feet. I was also voting with my heart and my imagination, because the Lost Gardens of Heligan had given me the usual tingles. I saw so much evidence of Victorian and Edwardian ingenuity that had all been lovingly restored, the reminders of civilised and sustainable community and society before the barbarity of the First World War, and I wanted to reconnect with that ethos and that time and those resourceful human souls in a tangible way in my own life and habits. I wanted to find a way of translating those tingles, and carrying them away with me.

Like in so much of the rest of Britain, life was never the same again at Heligan after the war. The gardeners were wiped out, leaving their tools and pots and overalls to languish behind them. I guess the sadness of the Heligan story, and the triumphant regeneration of the place by hopeful and optimistic individuals, only adds to the tingles, and confirms for me that what I feel in certain places is indeed a pride and excitement about the imagination, the creativity and the resourcefulness of our forebears' consciousness.

So I'm grateful for these tingles. They remind me of my place in the human chain, and they inspire me to live my life with greater imagination and gratitude. They occur whenever I come across evidence of human relationships with the landscape, and with each other, and sometimes bring tears to my eyes.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Family history - what's the point?

I've just been to a question and answer session with family historian Mary Turner. I was interested to hear what an experienced researcher might have to say on the subject - what she may have learned about the human condition, whether she has observed any patterns bearing out nature or nurture, and whether she might claim any other surprising benefit to doing family history research, other than just the fact that it is fun and absorbing.

Unfortunately, if you weren't already a keen family history detective, then listening to today's session was unlikely, in my opinion, to make you hungry to get started.

Since the TV programme "Who do you think you are" interest in researching our ancestors has undoubtedly increased dramatically, with web-sites such as and GenesReunited making a pretty penny out of people's curiosity, and insatiable appetite to "know".

However, apart from advice about where to look, how to interrogate records and how to embark on the detective work required to populate a family tree, then bring it to life with its history, the whole topic inspires little to talk about other than the usual platitudes about it being fun and interesting, and then endless anecdotes about everyone's various skeletons in the cupboards.

Even the therapeutic avenue didn't hold much promise, as frequently people finding out about their ancestors unearth things which run counter to their expectations to such a degree as to leave them unhinged. Just look at what happened to John Hurt. He was devastated to discover that all through his life he thought he was rom Irish stock, only to discover that he was actually from a Scots line! Imagine!

One member of the audience today did volunteer some information about using ancestral death certficates to trace congenital illnesses that those in the current generation might then use some sort of spiritual jiggery-pokery to heal and expunge from the genetic line. Though this in itself elicited a rather chilly reaction from the rest of the audience.

So, why bother with it? Does it matter that my great great great grandfather was a blacksmith, or that the man my Dad thought was his father wasn't? It's hardly going to change my life to know these things, and in some way it might even be upsetting. So why do it?

Before I go on, I should like to mention that I am interested in researching my own family history, especially the line of my paternal grandfather. His family were the Joyces hailing originally from western Ireland. For me personally the whole notion of having Joyces amongst my ancestry is too delicious and romantic to ignore, especially since what I know of them paints a colourful and enigmatic picture, and since the descendants of that clan remain warm and eccentric characters. This gives me a certain amount of pride in our association, and a desire either to know, or at least imagine, more.

But why would this personal fascination be of interest to anyone else? Maybe if I discovered an ancestor whose story was particularly heroic or tragic or impactful in some other way, then I would be justified in sharing their story with others.

Mary Turner suggests that it is very dry to look just at records, names and dates without finding out a bit of the contemporary history of the society our ancestors were part of. Ms Turner is, in her own words, a "professionally trained historian" so knowing about the historical reality is of course her main priority.

My personal view is the opposite - that history itself is exceedingly dry unless we look at it through the eyes of the characters who lived at the time. Indeed it becomes even more fascinating if we happen to share the genetic code of the individuals in question. In a similar way to how literature helps us to relate to history through human eyes, getting to know who our ancestors were makes history much more accessible to us, and helps us feel much more connected to events of the past.

Mary Turner used the example of Jeremy Paxman bursting into tears as he discovered the truth about his own Scottish ancestors. This of course made sensational TV, and also points to the power of bringing together personal, familial experience and historical understanding for a greater sense of connection and empathy. Maybe the teaching of history in school can be transformed, and the social and emotional education of young people enhanced, if students were to start with the history of their own families first.

Finding out about our ancestors also gives us the opportunity to put ourselves in the context of history, and strips away the human tendency to believe that the universe revolves around us alone. It echoes the importance that primitive cultures place on the spirit of their ancestors, whose stories are used to guide people in the present, and to give them a sense of place and belonging in relation to the past.

All in all I am persuaded that knowing where we come from is a basic and commonplace human fascination, because it underlies so much of our sense of personal identity.

Finally, you never know when knowing a bit about your family history might come in handy. Eleven years ago my husband was asked to be best man at an Anglo-Turkish/ Armenian wedding in Australia. We don't have any current Turkish Armenian connections, so the request was in itself rather unlikely. However, imagine the uproar during the best man's speech when hubby was able to declare, on the strength of his mother's family history research, that he is one-sixteenth Armenian himself. Even for a big man it didn't take long for him to disappear amongst a writhing mass of fellow male bonding, and he was made to dance all night long to music from the old country. Perhaps in hindsight it might have been a piece of information he could have chosen not to disclose, but it did make the party go with a swing!

Monday, 12 May 2008

"Most personal tragedies can be averted by better use of the imagination"

Today I attended a lecture by Laurie Maguire, English Literature professor at Oxford University, who has written a book entitled "Where there's a Will there's a way". She was in Swindon for the annual Literature Festival, (which is becoming quite a thing in these parts) and she was talking about her book which examines how Shakespeare's plays represent the ultimate in self-help.

Laurie isn't implying in her book that people who read Shakespeare need self-help, nor is her book a Shakespeare study guide. Instead she analyses what we can learn about life from reading Shakespeare.

To me this isn't at all a new idea. As a student of English and foreign literature for most of my life I have been able to defend the seemingly passive and self-absorbed activity of reading as a neat way of acquiring wisdom, of learning about life and the human condition. There is nothing more relevant to life than learning how others, be they fictional characters or not, deal with certain situations. And this is largely the message that Laurie Maguire opened her talk with this lunchtime.

The quote in the title of this blog entry, or at least a version of it, does apparently feature as a key idea in her book, which I've yet to read, and I found it utterly striking. I'm fascinated by the reasons why people read, why they go to the theatre, why they become captivated by the telling of a good story, and of course why they write. It appears that as human beings our imaginations are constantly hungry for input and expression, for a way of reframing a familiar experience, or of giving us an inkling about something we may never personally know. Shakespeare knew this intuitively, and his art bears testament to how highly he valued human imagination.

But there is another reason why I found the idea about how we can use our imagination to avert personal tragedy so touching today. As a writer I tend to deal with my own difficulties and emotional challenges through the written word. I've done this ever since I can remember, always having a diary to scribble in, or, in more recent years, a luscious leather-bound journal, or even a blog!

For many years writing has been self-help for me. The product of my scribblings doesn't stand up to much scrutiny as a rule, and I can rarely bring myself to re-read any of my previous rants, which more often that not are much too whiney and self-piteous to stomach, but nevertheless the act of writing it all down in the first place really did serve a purpose.

These days I'm getting a bit more sophisticated in my use of writing as therapy. And I guess this is again where I concur so powerfully with Laurie Maguire's reading of Shakespeare's imaginative conviction. I am acutely aware of how my imaginative abilities have developed over the past year or so, and I've finally granted myself that crucial permission to allow my imagination to run free.

I've got out of the constraining habit of thought that everything has got to be factually accurate and perfect before I can write about it. I've allowed myself to write things anyway without having a purpose to them - I mean without being hide-bound by target markets, deadlines and article proposals. I've made stuff up, and made it look like it's real. I've told stories, and attributed them to imaginary individuals. It's been OK, I've got published, and I've made progress.

Then just over the past couple of days another bombshell hit me. Another way of using my imagination better. And who knows I may have averted a personal tragedy as a result.

Since I got back from Turkey something has really been bugging me, and it's been exceedingly difficult to concentrate on the here and now, and to be present and patient with my kids. I came back to post-holiday earth with a real bump, and I've been struggling to reintegrate myself with my normal routine.

As usual I began to write down my thoughts, and just allowed my pen to move across the page and spell out whatever came into my mind. As usual this activity began to bring some relief to my emotional state, and then, as sometimes happens during this process I had a real "light-bulb" moment, a sudden insight into what it was that had been bugging me. And I felt tons better from that.

But then things got even better. My imagination started to kick in, and I started to make up a story founded in my emotional mess. I found it was really easy to transfer all my stuff onto a totally made-up character, and allow her then to take up the reins for where it all might lead. Doing this also strenghtened the permission I gave myself to explore more deeply some stuff that was previously making me feel really uncomfortable. I could pretend, through the medium of my own imagination, that the things I'd been experiencing weren't actually mine, and this made them much more accessible and acceptable to me.

How neat to get some kind of perspective in this way, to use our imaginations to create other characters who can carry our baggage for us, while we get on with the practicalities of our own lives in the real world.

This may all sound like self-denial, which therapists, psychologists and coaches tend to agree is not such a good thing. I like to think of it instead as a way of letting go, and of freeing myself from the grip of unhelpful thoughts so that I can make better use of my creativity and wisdom. I might also get a story out of it too, another product in my portfolio. And my family get me back from la-la land in one piece. So, thanks to my imagination, the situation so far is WIN WIN WIN.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Holiday Mad

No sooner have my feet touched the ground from Turkey, than my hubby has flown off with his fellow golfers, including my Dad, to Belek, just a little bit further east along the Turkish Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile the kids' heads are spinning - as one parent flies in another flies out. It's a bit like March of the Penguins at the moment. Although Penguins don't fly of course.

Not only that, but when hubby gets back it'll only be another week and a bit before we all head off together to France for a week Eurocamping. When will I learn that going on holiday is not just about the actual week that you're away, it's also the week before to get ready, then the week after to recover and get back to reality? The month of May is looking like a write-off with regards to doing anything other than opening and closing suitcases.

However, nothing could be further from the truth! May is still so much more than an open and shut case. (Groan - sorry.) There's still loads happening in May. My Dad's 65th birthday, our daughter's fifth birthday party, my sister-in-law's birthday, two bank holidays, AND, last but by no means least, all the excitement of the Swindon Literature Festival, which started on May 5th, and which promises an interesting schedule for the week ahead. Add to this my fourth golf medal competition, plus my first singles knockout match, and I've no idea how on earth I'm going to fit everything in. At this rate I'm not surprised we used to have May Week in June at college - there simply weren't enough days in May to accommodate all the events.

I shall be posting my thoughts about the things I hear over the next week at the Lit Fest. I've marked my diary with all sorts of things from self-help in Shakespeare to druidry and mathematical philosophy. A glutton for punishment I am. Sometimes I think I should have gone to university at my present time of life, rather than at 19. Maybe I would have taken it all a lot more seriously, instead of spending the majority of my time looking for a husband, or, at the very least, "possible snogs".

One thing's for sure - we've certainly managed to keep up the holiday habit from our university days. It was the same there - no sooner had we unpacked all our cool posters and finally discovered the most satisfying configuration for them around the room, in a way that would look most impressive to the discerning eye of whomever we might invite round for coffee and "possible snogs", than it was time to pull them all down again, taking care not to leave scrappy pieces of Blu-tac all over the place.

So I concede this penchant for holiday madness, and cramming as much as possible into a single month - even shamelessly stealing an entire week from the following month because there aren't enough weeks available in the given month to do everything required - is a product of my rather privileged education. How on earth we're meant to achieve anything with said education is quite another question - and one that would surely drive me mad, if I had time to think about it.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Still in Dreamland

Well it's quite a while since I wrote as I've been on holiday to Turkey. And on my return the house was immaculately tidy, and all the washing and ironing had been done. Even the garden was tidy, with the grass mown and some of the more rampant shrubs given a much-needed trim. So I'm indebted to hubby and Granny Steph, who was down for the week to help out with the kids and give lots of moral support while I was sunning myself on Turkish sands.

I have to say I've been back for 4 days now and I'm still waiting to wake up from the Dalyan dream. I asked one of my friends last night when exactly I might expect Dalyan fever to wear off, so I can actually get on with my life.

Dalyan is a place I'd never heard of before last spring, when my Mum went out there with some friends who have been Dalyan veterans of some years' standing. Last year I wasn't able to tag along, but when they invited me this year I immediately said yes. I was curious to know a bit more about Turkey, to find out what all the fuss is about about Dalyan, and to spend some time just with my Mum - something that we have rarely done.

Of course since I've returned I've discovered that Dalyan has quite a posse of loyal visitors, who go back year after year, and who rave about it so much that there are numerous internet forums dedicated to lauding the place. I guess I too have been completely captivated by it.

Apart from its natural beauty, and the fact that it is amongst the top ten wildlife conservation sites in the world since it's a significant breeding ground for the loggerhead turtles of the Mediterranean, I think the thing that is so special about Dalyan is that it is a small resort still centred mainly around family run businesses: hotels, apartment complexes, restaurants and bars are all owned and run by local people, who rely mostly on word-of-mouth recommendation to keep going. And of course because they take such pride in their town and in their work the recommendations pile in, though canny tourists probably like to keep much of the secret to themselves!

We were lucky enough to be staying in the Ozalp Aparthotel with our gorgeous hosts Ozzy, Acelya, Celal and Afe. Ozzy took us on excursions to the Hamam (Turkish Baths), the beach at the mouth of the Dalyan river delta, the mud baths at the lake, and a boat trip to Bacardi Beach with swimming, snorkelling, sun-bathing and barbecue. The weather was beautiful, the sea pleasantly cool, the scenery stunning and the company delightful.

When the sun hid behind a cloud on our second day I went with Mum and one of our friends across the river to the ancient site of Kaunos, where there are Roman and Byzantine remains. An amphitheatre, Roman baths, numerous temples and an early Byzantine church are now mainly populated by tortoises, goats, and honey bees, though one Dutch guy told us he had also seen a snake as wide as his thigh up there too. Hmm. I'm glad I didn't know about that when I had to duck into the bushes for a quick wee!

Our evenings were spent in numerous local restaurants and bars; the ones most worthy of mention being Denizati for its delicious calamari and the Jazz Bar for stonking G & Ts, mellow music and its kind, attentive and welcoming host Bekir - you gorgeous man!

The Turkish language is a good challenge. I always like to try and pick up a few words, even if it's just to say hello and thankyou. I didn't do too bad, although for the first few days I was saying the equivalent in Turkish of Thak-nyou instead of thankyou. People were giving me strange looks until someone finally put me right on about the third night!

(My hubby has since pointed out that Turkish for Thankyou sounds a bit like "Takeshi's Red Herring". Check it out!)

All in all this holiday was one of my best ever. It was a treat to be able to read, laze, swim, walk, stroll and get up whenever I wanted in the mornings! I'll be back next year to visit all my new friends once again, and do all the things I didn't get round to this time!

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Wasp season

This morning I've had to fight my way across piles of books and correspondance to reach my keyboard. It's been a funny old week. I haven't been doing much writing, hence the way the detritus of my life has begun to crowd in around my desk, like ivy wrapping itself around everything and blocking all access.

The kids were back at school this week, so the familiar routine of making packed lunches in the morning and then cycling to and from school morning and afternoon recommenced. My least favourite time of the day is between 3pm and 6pm, the time when the children are home from school and when I'm typically preoccupied with making our dinner. It's such a restless time. My son usually disappears onto his computer as soon as any homework or spellings are out of the way, and leaves me wishing that he never had a computer, and why can't he go out and play like all the other kids I see on the field behind our house...? Then I remember that he hates football, which dominates the games of the playing field kids, and anyway he prefers his own company when he gets in from school.

Meanwhile my daughter will hang around my legs as I'm chopping veggies and keep asking me if I'll go and play with her. I invariably feel a stab of irritation each time she asks, as I curse myself for not having done all the food prep sooner, before they were back from school, so I could spend some time with them when they come home.

So it's a time of day when I feel most guilty, most out of balance, most irritable, and most likely to sting.

Speaking of which I've noticed the queen wasps are back hunting out a suitable location for their nest. We've had four enormous wasps in the house over the last week, and have dealt with them with varying degrees of cruelty - from nastily spraying them with wasp killer, throwing plastic fruit at them, and squashing them, to more humanely letting them fly away through the window, or capturing them in a upturned cup and releasing them into the garden. I really don't like killing creatures as a rule, not even wasps, I think they've got as much right to life as me to be honest, but as my daughter reminded me "wasps are horrid", and I'd certainly prefer one dead wasp to a whole colony of them burrowing and scratching around inside our woodwork.

This week my son invented the sport of throwing plastic fruit at the wasp which was buzzing around in the lantern light window above our dining room. It's quite high up, so the only way to dislodge anything from it from below is to aim a carefully chosen missile at it, one that won't smash the glass on impact. Plastic food is perfect for this job, and when I asked my son why he was throwing plastic fruit at the wasp he replied that he couldn't find the plastic chicken, which is what we usually use to dissuade magpies from pecking the bugs out of the outside of the wooden window frame.

Another thing that has caused me to be irritable and more likely to sting this week is the fact that I'm off on holiday tomorrow to Turkey, without hubby and the kids. This will be the first time I've been on holiday without him since we were married. For some reason this has become a really big deal in my head, and I've been worrying about how we'll all cope. Actually I know we'll all cope very well, but the thing that has become a really big deal for me is what will the house be like when I get back? What will be all the things I'll have to do when I get home? Will anyone think that I won't want to find a pile of dirty washing that urgently needs doing as soon as I walk in? Or that I won't appreciate bringing my suitcase through the door and tripping over a My little pony tea party in the hallway? All week I've had the nagging thought - "will anyone think..."

So I'm off to pack now, and to relax into the thought that of course they'll think. They might not act, but they will think. And all will be well.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Bit of a soap-box moment....

I have recently been introduced to an excellent web-site called It comprises a selection of talks by speakers of all disciplines, on all topics, and its strap line is "ideas worth spreading". I am a new visitor to TED - my attention was drawn to it through the newsletter of a fellow coach named Mary Rosendale, and then just the other day my friends Jane and Gary Spinks told me about a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson. (Thanks guys!xx)

If you are interested in children, in education, in creativity, or if you've simply got 20 minutes to spare to listen to something entertaining, then do take the time to check out the video! I tried to include a link to it in my blog but technology got in the way. Blogger wouldn't let me do it, so I have to trust that you will go and find it for yourself then come back here and read what other things I've got to say on my soapbox, and hopefully leave some comments, which I might even publish. So go to the TED web-site, search on Sir Ken Robinson, then sit back and relax for 20 minutes, and come back later!

Meanwhile, by way of an interval, here's a nice photo of some barbies on the beach:

WELCOME BACK! What did you think?

Sir Ken talks a little bit about learning disorders and ADHD. What he says strikes some as rather controversial, however I do agree with him that prescribing medication to children who are simply different, who have different needs, and who do not conform to the narrow strictures of a modern classroom, is tragically misguided, insensitive and unimaginative. These young people are far more likely to be the creative, innovative geniuses of the future than many of the "conformers", and yet we typically do not know how to deal with them.

I once saw a TV programme about ADHD and in it the mother of a young lad who was awaiting diagnosis actually said that she found her son's behaviour so difficult that she didn't know how to love him.

For me, this is precisely where the problem lies: it is our (innocent) ignorance and (innocent) lack of imagination, compassion and wisdom which causes us to get impatient with the behaviour of others. We withdraw from what we don't understand or feel comfortable with. When the object from which we are withdrawing is another human being, in fact a lonely, confused and highly sensitive CHILD, we cannot begin to know the impact of our action on that individual. When the person doing the withdrawing is the child's own mother, then the impact is magnified a thousand fold.

Actually the woman being interviewed was extremely brave to admit her feelings about her son. She didn't WANT to withdraw from him - she just didn't know what else to do. She was doing the best she could do, and she was becoming exhausted and desperate.

It IS exhausting always to be looking for something different from what we're faced with. It is exhausting always to be thinking, "I didn't want things to be this way, I wish they could be another way."

Why not just stop, take another look at what we do have, what's in front of us RIGHT NOW, what the beautiful best of it is, and work with that? It does require us to be extremely tuned in to what's going on with those around us, we need to be connected, we need to be open, we need to drop our expectations and our judgements about how things ought to be, and we need to listen and respond.

Four years ago I had a great teacher named Dr Roger Mills. I learned many things from him, and one of those things was that bad behaviour comes from insecurity. If you want a child to behave badly, withdraw from them. Show them no interest, no love. This sounds very harsh, and of course it is something that every single one of us as parents would say that we couldn't possibly do. In our own way we all believe wholeheartedly that we love our children and that we show them we love them. The trouble is, it is love by our own definition.

Instead of loving our children to the standards by which we were loved, by the confines of our own conditioning, we need to pay special and careful attention to how our children want us to love them. For my son, he wants me to speak to him honestly, without sarcasm, and to trust him. My daughter needs more interaction, she likes to play imaginative games, and she likes me to join in.

How we love our children, how they like to feel our love, is not dissimilar from how we educate our children. As they have different sensitivities so they have different intelligences.

What faces us now is how to use more of our own wisdom and creativity in designing education that will prepare our children best for the uncertainties of the future.

One thing I'm sure of is that this will be much easier if we stop trying to control and becalm everything and everyone that threatens to rock the boat. Withdrawal, exclusion and medication are cruel, inhumane and entirely unsustainable foundations for human civilisation, and yet these seem to characterise the experience of too many children.

Love, compassion, flexibility, openness and an ability to empathise and connect with others are the only ways to safeguard our children's future. Once we've got these things right, education, creativity and how to accommodate "non-conformers" will take care of themselves.