Dear Nicky Morgan, about those listening ears …

Dear Nicky

I sent my children to school today, as did most parents.  Some did not.  Over 45,000 parents signed the petition supporting the Let Our Kids Be Kids strike and boycotting of this year’s SATs, parents who feel so strongly that the new curriculum is damaging their children that they felt they needed to make a stand.

The fact that many more thousands of parents sent their children to school today does not mean that they are on your side – for this feels like lines are being drawn.

I sent my children to school for several reasons (apart from the very practical reason of being at work).

My eldest child is in Year 5.  The boy more or less invented Civil Disobedience.  At the moment this is reserved for broccoli, washing and his brother choosing what’s on the TV.  I am not about to give him the idea that boycotting school is an option if he can come up with a good enough argument.  This is because I care about him, about his education, and about moulding him into a responsible, intelligent citizen,.  At the moment, he couldn’t care less about much – telling him that school is anything other than non-negotiable is insane.

My youngest child is in Year 2.  He cares deeply about everything.  He’s a bright boy, conscientious and hates to be in trouble.  Keeping him off school today would have make him incredibly anxious that his headmaster or teacher would be cross or disappointed in him. I don’t think, at 7, he can understand the nuance of disagreeing with Government policy rather than the teachers.

So off to school they went.

In one corner, Government supporters will say that standards must be improved and our children deserve better.  Parents, teachers and mental health experts will point to increases in anxiety and the damaging effects this is having on our children.

I don’t think you understand anxiety (it’s a noun although I’m not sure what sort); I don’t think politicians, by their very nature, can. Politicians, must develop a thick skin, be decisive, be unswayed by opposition. These are not the traits of an anxious person. I don’t think you understand what it does to people, and children in particular. It is not fussy about intelligence or ability, it is not about strength or weakness. It’s about fear and with that fear comes a reluctance to try. Doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing.

Increasingly I see joy being replaced by worry.  A recent piece of homework asked him to memorise a poem to recite in class.  We eventually chose one, after rejecting some of the more unsuitable junior school ditties his brother had taught him. Although he has the memory of a supercomputer and had given a nativity performance to rival Mark Rylance, there were tears of genuine fear that he would make a mistake, or forget a line.  We had to very gently explain that the point of it was to encourage a love of poetry, to discover new things, not a memory test.

I see him reluctant to write stories like he once did.  I see him hesitate before using a difficult word in case he has spelt it incorrectly. I see the look of crumpled dejection when, although he’s on the top table, he’s still hasn’t got a tick in the top box.

He makes up the most amazing pun laden jokes, he has arbitrarily taken it upon himself to memorise capital cities at bedtime, he has mastered the armpit fart.

I spent a long time drilling my 10 year old that having messy handwriting did not mean that he couldn’t be great at writing (Goddammit).  Spotting the modal verbs in Jane Eyre (no, me neither) doesn’t mean you are any more capable of understanding what those words mean.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m something of a grammar pedant.  Whilst I’ll accept (and even commit) the odd slip, on the whole apostrophes are non negotiable and I know what to do with a semi-colon.  We have an amazing language which deserves to be treated with respect and its rules adhered to.  I also accept that a sound knowledge of grammar might make us a little better at languages.  In which case, ditch the SPAG and make French compulsory.

The Government spokespeople (whose own grammar isn’t that hot), obviously haven’t faired too badly.  Julia Hartley-Brewer defended them on PM today saying she had been ‘failed by the comprehensive system as she was never taught this stuff’  So much so that she is now a successful columnist, commentator, and regular on Radio4 and Question Time – the utter drop out.  She talked of woolly liberals who never want their children to fail, or get less than an A, and never want them to challenged.

It’s actually the complete opposite.

I want my children to be armed and dangerous with all of the myriad of skills they will need in adult life – skills that will make them successful and happy.  These are not fronted adverbials or subordinate clauses.

The Government doesn’t have a monopoly on wanting to make Britain great.  The skills that will make it great are not scoring 100% in spelling tests, the world has changed.  They are inventiveness, innovation, analytical skills, looking for answers, creativity, leadership, resilience and confidence in their own abilities and talents.

I and my children’s teachers seem to spend our lives trying to instil feelings of enthusiasm, joy and self-esteem only to have it knocked out of them when we’re not looking.

What we seem to be teaching children is that they are wrong.  The seed is planted that the ideas in their head aren’t nearly as important as getting the answer right.  That memorising facts and definitions is more important than understanding them.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

Worse than that, it’s teaching them not to make mistakes.

In the adult world, great leaders and managers don’t constantly criticise the people they lead (OK, some do, but they’re rubbish).  They look for strengths to develop, they encourage, they instil a vision that will inspire and motivate.

I can’t tell you how much I want my children to fail; to fail over and over and then have another go, to try things that they’ve never done before, to try things that they know won’t work but do it anyway. To get things wrong or to get things right but in an unexpected way.

To do something great, or remarkable, or just different … or not.

Instead we are in danger of raising a whole generation of very small animals entirely surrounded by water.  Children who know exactly what is expected of them and by what percentage they are lacking.  Children who always seem to get everything wrong, even when they are mostly right.

Now I know you and your colleagues are working towards expected levels on your listening skills.  Junior Doctors and patients don’t seem to be getting very far and now teachers, parents and experts are telling you about their actual experience of real life children, but you’re still not that bothered.  Apparently you do trust us to make decisions complex economic, agricultural and legal arguments on EU membership which I’m pretty guaranteed I, along with 90% of the rest of population, am not qualified to make.

So fingers on lips, hands on knees, and pay attention.

All too often we skip spellings but rarely story time, so I shall leave you with some hints and tips from Antoine de Saint Exupéry.  It’s a metaphor but I’m sure that will be OK. He’s French and everything.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Yours sincerely



Victoria Wood: I’m looking for my friend …

2016 has not been kind.  Maybe it’s just my age but the last few months have seen a steady stream of familiar faces shuffling off; a roll call of my childhood and teenage years.  Bowie, Rickman, Wogan, Corbett.  However the death of Victoria Wood today seems particularly cruel and unnecessary.

Her death has saddened me for all sorts of reasons. I must admit Bowie’s death was a blow but he was Bowie for goodness sake; extraordinary and other worldly, completely unique. Victoria Wood the opposite; gloriously ordinary, and very definitely one of us. A celebrity that felt like a mate even though I’ve never met her.

The BBC news bulletin flashed on my phone as I left a meeting.  I immediately texted my friend Jo.  Over the 30 years that Jo and I have been friends, Victoria Wood has been a constant.  As teenagers, in our heads, we were Wood and Walters; not as funny obviously but pretty damn close.

Victoria Wood crafted a language of her own, beautifully and exquisitely, and we have used it as a short hand between us ever since. Months might pass when we don’t see each other but the Facebook comment “did someone poke an eclair through the curtain?” is enough, or maybe the offer of a Meltis Newberry Fruit..

Not to mention my other friends, who went through the same rite of passage – the parallel Victorias and Julies.  Or my friend Simon – we’re not close friends, we used to work together many years ago but I believe he once used ‘totally fonybodo’ in a meeting and no more needed to be said.

The press have been littered with her ‘best lines’ but I’m not sure it really worked like that. These weren’t gags, this was an entire universe that you either inhabited or you didn’t – or you didn’t know you did. I have plagiarised and worked her lines into daily conversation for decades.

Last week, I may have used the phrase “I’m borderline hypo-glycemic, diagnosed pastry dependent”

Yesterday, I described a conversation with my son about his sex education class, as very like the tale of the chocolate raisins machine in the toilet.

So here are the things Victoria Wood has taught me.

It’s OK to be kind

I’m a cynical soul most of the time.  If you asked who my favourite comedians were, I’d most likely say Stewart Lee, or Bill Hicks, or some other edgy, bitter sort setting the world to rights. Victoria Wood’s comedy is different.  It is kind, and generous.  It’s a cliche which is closely followed by ‘national treasure’ but true nonetheless.  All of her characters, however flawed, are treated with fondness and warmth but resonate all the more because of it.

It’s always the quiet ones

People refer to Victoria Wood as shy, introverted, struggling with self-esteem.  That is where her strength lay.  She claimed she didn’t really enjoy acting as she “didn’t like wigs and costumes”, so she didn’t do it that often.  She didn’t want to be famous for the sake of being famous.  She had a talent, and she had something to say, and fame was merely a bi-product of that.  Of all the work she did, it is the series of 6 half hours she made in 1989 that are my favourite.  In every episode, there is a quiet rage simmering beneath the surface which is dealt with subtle and surgical honesty. Even all these years later, 28 minutes set in a health farm says everything about what is wrong with our self-obsessed, body image paranoia.

Look at Dana, I don’t know what she’s doing in that car but she’s certainly not working out the calories in a chocolate raisin.  She is, however, knackering the suspension.

Your friends will serve you well

Tonight Julie Walters said her “heart was too sore to comment,” and you felt her pain.  They were not a double act in the Morecambe and Wise, Two Ronnies kind of way.  Without resorting to stereotypes it was a far more female version of friendship.  They came in and out of each others lives and careers with ease and comfort.  Victoria may have been the real writing talent but she gave Julie all the best lines.

In fact, she gave all her friends the best lines.  The same cast of characters appeared time and time again, turning up like a family Christmas.

“It was made by disadvantaged oriental widows, you can see here where they were too depressed to stick down the edges”

And she gave Maxine Peake her big break.  Enough said.

There is comfort in the ordinary

Victoria Wood was 62 when she died, which is no age at all.  It is a year older than my mother when she died, which reminds me that she was no age at all either.  My husband used to roll his eyes and leave the room when Dinnerladies came on but it reminded me of my mother like some massive blanket.  Not just because the canteen she worked in was remarkably similar to the one she and I worked in.  Actually it’s not Victoria Wood that reminds me of my my Mum, but Anne Reid speaking her lines, if my Mum had been funnier.

“Ravel’s Bolero, what a pulsing rhythm, superb for tackling the ironing”

I remember when I moved to London in 1996, Victoria Wood was playing the Albert Hall.  I went by myself.  I was living by myself, didn’t have many friends on my side of town and was lonely. I can’t think of many comics I would go to alone but this felt like the right thing to do.  And indeed it was.

Sadness is funny

All the best writers know that comedy comes hand in hand with sadness.  Victoria Wood managed pathos with a delicate touch that I’m not sure has been rivalled. I’ve wept my way through enough episodes to know.

I could go on, but I won’t.

So I shall leave you with this…  If I ever get round to standing for Parliament, I’m nicking all of this

Tragic Events: Advice for Parents & Carers

We discuss the news a lot in our house, the radio is always on and there is little our children don’t hear.  I can explain about the budget, or strikes, but terrorism is much harder to explain without causing further fear and anxiety.

Sarah Clarke, Child Psychotherapist and a good friend of mine wrote this guest post, offering advice on how to talk to your children.  You can follow her on Twitter at @hide_seek_play.  

Sarah writes ….

The recent refugee crisis and terrorist attacks have prompted many parents to seek advice on how to talk to their children about such tragic and frightening news. Should we mention it at all? If so what should we say and how should we say it?

It’s easy to assume that children, especially young children won’t know or understand what is going on. Whilst this may be true, we know that children are very sensitive to how the adults around them are feeling. Before learning to speak, children learn to read facial expressions, tone of voice and body language to gain information about the world around them. It doesn’t matter if children don’t understand the complexities of the political situation, they do, undoubtedly understand that the grown-ups around them or on television are scared or nervous and this can make them anxious.

The following advice may help:

  • How do you know if your child is worried?

When children are scared or anxious they might become more dependent on familiar adults, they may seem more clingy; cry when being dropped off at school or not want to go to bed. Excessive whining, aggressive behaviour, toilet ‘accidents’ or bedwetting may be signs of attention and reassurance seeking. The best thing to do is to keep checking in with your child:

“You seem worried, is there anything you want to talk about?”

“There are some scary things on the news at the moment, do you want to ask me about anything?”

  • Reassurance

A child’s first instinct is to look for safety and security in adults they know and trust. They need very clear messages that we are doing everything we can to protect them:

“When you feel frightened, Mummy will always be here to look after you / Daddy’s job is to keep you safe / your teachers will take care of you.”

Older children can also be reminded that people they don’t even know are also doing this:

“It’s the job of the police and the government to keep everybody safe and a lot of people are working really hard on this when they go to work every day.”

  • Monitor scary and confusing images

The way the news is presented on television can be quite confusing for a young child as they process information in different ways to adults. They may also not have a good grasp of world geography so in their eyes the frightening events are taking place on televisions within their own homes:

“That news is frightening but it’s happening a long way away from us and where we live is safe”

Graphic and disturbing footage will be frightening to most people, again, if children don’t fully understand the factual information being presented they will resort to focussing on faces and voices. The words may not make sense but the child will sense that bad things are happening, sometimes when we are not even aware they are watching or listening. It is parents and carers responsibility to monitor what and how much of the news is on and when to turn it off:

“This news is really for grown-ups. I don’t want you to be worried or scared so I’m going to turn the television/ radio off / over onto something for children.”

  • Talking and Listening

We often struggle to find sense for ourselves as tragic events happen and it can be really hard to explain to children why things like terrorist attacks, wars, murders and natural disasters happen. If children ask questions it is a good idea to find out where they are coming from and what they know already:

“What do you think happened?”

“What do you know about that?”

Children’s understanding can often be wildly different from the truth as they are still learning the difference between fantasy and reality. We can then help set them straight, at a level appropriate to their understanding and let them know that it is normal and natural to feel sad or frightened:

“People believe in different things and sometimes when they don’t agree they fight – just like you and your brother/sister but some grown-ups end up killing each other when they fight which is really horrible. It makes me feel angry / sad / scared when I hear about it. How does it make you feel?”

It’s really important that children don’t think there is anything wrong with them for the way they are feeling. Anger and sadness are part of being human, especially when we feel powerless. One of the most important messages we can give our children is “It’s ok to be angry but it’s not ok to hurt other people.”

Offer children alternative ways of getting angry and sad feelings out:

“If you feel really angry you can punch the cushions on the sofa, you can’t hurt that!”

“Sometimes taking some really deep breaths and imagining you are blowing all the crossness out can help.”

“If you feel sad would a cuddle help?” (The answer is nearly always yes, even if they don’t say so!)

“When you feel angry or sad, talking about it will help to make you feel better. I am always here to listen.”

As adults it can help us to process by talking about things with friends but this is often another way children can over-hear things which may not make sense to them so we need to have these conversations when we can be sure they are not listening. Remember, children are like bats, their hearing is often far better than ours or than we realise. They may be upstairs or in another room but still able to hear what we are saying (hard to believe when they do such a good job of ignoring us when they are right next to us, but true!)

  • Taking care of ourselves

Children are like little satellite dishes – very sensitive to the way those around them are feeling and they will absorb our feelings until they become their own. As the adults around them become more confident, secure and hopeful, our children will follow.

If you need any further advice about your child’s behaviour, please do not hesitate to contact either myself or your child’s class teacher.

Sarah Clarke, Child Psychotherapist

(Adapted from information by The Fred Rogers Company)


Do You Love Me? The 9 year old’s guide to teenage angst.

It's Not Your FaultLately I have been reliving my teenage years, in a way that only a woman turning 40 can. I’ve started drinking cider again for a start.

I feel the need to mention that I also went to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet. Not only was this a welcome return to my life before children, it is also the play I studied for A level English, so is guaranteed to transport me back to self-indulgent melancholy.

The opening scene (thank God they’d moved To Be Or Not To Be back to roughly where it’s meant to be) saw Hamlet, in full teenage angst, listening to records in his bedroom. Although it was Nat King Cole rather than Nick Cave, we all knew how he felt.

This regression had also been sparked by the startling new research that Goths are more likely to be depressed. This led to much mirth and mutterings that people get paid to do this sort of thing. Now whilst not a full blown goth, I did have one of those tassled skirts and had a fondness for wearing purple and amplifying my paleness. And I did love a bit of teenage angst. Nothing too dramatic you understand but a general “Noone understands me, you just don’t know what I’m going through” kind of thing; I wrote some truly terrible poems. Obviously on the surface I was relatively perky and functional but this was only a symptom of just how terribly complicated I really was and only added to my tragic isolation. Noone even noticed.

This all came hot on the heels of a difficult week. My 9 year old had been something of an uphill struggle. Tired from returning to school, frustrated that we wanted him to eat vegetables and have a shower, all of the wheels had fallen off and we were witness to some extraordinary displays of pre-teen emotion.

He was a temperamental horse refusing every fence. It’s difficult to know what to do with his melancholy when he’s refusing to eat or calmly rearranging furniture or throwing things down the stairs – more in defiance than temper.   So much so that I was slightly concerned that half way through the Act II I’d heckle Cumberbatch to get a bloody grip and be nicer to his mother.

I think back to myself at that age and how I would never have dared to behave in such a way to my parents. This was the 80s and such things were not done in my house. But then Dear God I wanted to, all of that frustration and outrage festering away with nowhere to go.

My son is amazing (obviously) in many ways. He can be effortlessly charming when he feels like it, persuading even the most reluctant souls that something is a great idea. He is kind and has a fierce sense of justice. He is fearless and thrill seeking and is able to judge things instinctively, often in mid-flight. He’s not a model student by any means, but he is sharp. He has a logic which causes him to pick holes in everything. He won’t accept things blindly but constantly needs to try it out for himself to see if there is a better way.

These are all the things that make him wonderful, but also make you, on occasion, want to get him in a headlock and scrub his head. He’s an awkward bugger and will argue black is white (I don’t know where he gets it from). He always thinks he knows better, often ignores what you tell him. He rarely seems to look for approval. I have often said my parenting manual will be called ‘Kids Who Don’t Give A Fuck About Stickers. He is hardly ever still or quiet and we are often exasperated.

What was difficult was that, with this ill-temper, came his constant insistence that we don’t love him, that we prefer his younger brother and that he has no place in the family. He packed a case and announced he was leaving!

As a parent this is hard to hear. I cannot imagine ever being able to love my children more fiercely than I do. There is no obvious reason for him thinking that we prefer the other one. Admittedly, he does suck up to us a bit more. He can turn on the soulful eyes when required and is a little more, shall we say, straightforward. He fills the niche left by his older brother and as a result is largely careful and diligent. He has his own brand of stubbornness but it tends to be a little less confrontational – you may read that as ‘doesn’t send me into quite such a rage’.

There is something which makes my first born feel that it is his very nature that we’re objecting to, rather than the leaping over furniture.  That the things we find frustrating are so wrapped up in who he is, that there is nothing to be done. Compare this to his brother who simply doesn’t like wearing trousers.

I had to explain that actually feeling like you don’t belong isn’t always a bad thing. Some of the greatest people felt a bit different to those around them – the key is to find other people who feel that way too and stick together.   There is nothing that he could do that would make us not love him. “Even if I murdered someone?” “Well, I admit we’d be disappointed but yes, even if you murdered someone”. He then decided that this was brilliant as this meant he could do what he liked. We pointed out that although we will always love him, the things he does can still make us angry, or sad, or proud, or excited – and he gets to choose which one, and so do we.

There have been consequences to it all, but on the understanding that it is because we love him, not because we don’t, that we have a responsibility to turn him into a civilized human being – one that washes and eats brocolli.

And then it occurred to me that all of this is just practice. Just like rollercoasters practice danger, and ghost stories practice fear, all this drama is just practicing loneliness, practicing sadness, testing how far you can push people before they tell you to bugger off. All my teenage angst, far from making me depressed, gave me a jolly good rehearsal for the times when genuine sadness, grief and loneliness struck. Life might be rubbish but there is a comfort in melancholy because you know the drill. Tori Amos and that bit about the “too too sullied flesh” will make you at least feel like you’re in good company.

In the end, all you can do as a parent is keep telling them that you do love them. Over and over again. I was reminded of that bit in Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams keeps telling Matt Damon that it’s not his fault until he eventually cracked.

It’s easy to take it for granted that our children know that we love them, but no harm can come for telling them as often as possible, even when we feel like it the least. And that we love them because of the annoying bits, not despite them. They need the chance to have a go at being angry and misunderstood in the comfort of their own home, before they try unleashing it onto the big wide world.

Sometimes, I think that might be asking a bit too much of everyone but we can only do our best.

Please can someone pass me the cider.

50 Shades of Laundry: In Defence of Christian Grey

fifty_shades_of_grey_lego_trailer_stillAmongst the hype, the Lego and the dubious marketing efforts, there’s a growing backlash against 50 Shades of Grey

A campaign #50DollarsNot50Shades has been launched encouraging people to boycott the film and donate to domestic violence charities instead. Pressure groups and websites I usually support have got on board, arranging cinema protest and inspiring numerous newspaper columns.

However I have to say I disagree and, like a knight in shining armour, feel the need to defend Ana and Christian from their critics.

I liked it. There.  I’m not proud.

Now I love a bit of intellectual sneering as much as the next person. I will be the first to admit that they are not good.  However, this is pornography. And just as you don’t hear many men lamenting that Debbie Does Dallas lacks the cinematography of Citizen Kane, I’m not quite sure you can judge this by the same standards as literature.

It’s a clunky, clichéd ‘colour by numbers’ approach to fiction. She is always inexplicably banging on about her subconscious and really needs to give the whole Inner Goddess thing a rest. There’s a bewildering obsession about his trousers being on his hips (I’m not sure where she thinks other men wear theirs).

I’m also not the target market for this sort of thing. Despite my carefree exterior I am remarkably prudish. My favourite film is Brief Encounter and I’d far rather my heroine’s had soot in their eye than bodily fluids.   I’m also embarrassed by any direct mention of intimate body parts and immediately transported into a Victoria Wood sketch and the moment is lost.

That aside, I do think the critics of 50 Shades are missing the point. Their argument is that it romanticises abusive relationships and encourages naïve or vulnerable women into coercive or controlling relationships.

50 Shades is a sexual fantasy. More than that, it is a fantasy written by a woman, directed by a woman, for women. It is possibly the first example of mass market mainstream pornography aimed solely at women. It is unlikely to be the fantasy of anyone who has survived an abusive relationship or been assaulted and I accept that it can trigger a lot of painful issues for many people. I am not someone who believes that everything a woman does must, by nature, be feminist and should be supported.

However I do feel incredibly uncomfortable that groups of women are taking the internet to tell another group of women that whatever fantasies they may have or enjoy are wrong.

For crying out loud it’s been a long journey of sexual liberation to get to this point and women are already carrying enough guilt around with them without making them feel that they are responsible for the domestic abuse and rape of other women.

Fantasy is by its very nature an indulgence in what we don’t have. These stories have always existed. Growing up, my romantic ideals were a bizarre combination of Heathcliff, Sean Bean in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Father Ralph with a few Lost Boys thrown in. Christian Grey is not really my type (too weasely) but I must confess that my feelings towards Oliver Reed’s Bill Sykes are so against my feminist principles that I can no longer watch.

It’s also a ludicrously unrealistic portrayal of abuse. Christian Grey practically wears an ‘I’m an abuser’ T shirt with flashing lights, bears physical scars of his own troubled past and makes her sign a contract fairly early on to essentially agree to be abused.

Real life abuse is, in stark contrast, marked by its mundanity. They don’t start out abusive. They begin as doting, charming, loving with the gentle erosion of self-confidence and self-esteem. Often the victim doesn’t even realise what’s happening and when she does, by then it’s too confusing or frightening to leave.  The painfully slow storyline between Helen Archer and Rob Titchener is a far more realistic portrayal.

Men rape women, men abuse women and men control women. It’s a message that groups such as Everyday Victim Blaming constantly reinforce.  I find it hard that the focus is then on women for being complicit in the culture of abuse rather than the perpetrators.

Far better to concentrate on male culture. I am partial to the odd thriller but even I have grown increasingly uncomfortable at the level of casual, sadistic violence against women. Tombstone, Liam Neeson’s latest outing, follows the standard ‘anonymous pretty girl in peril’ format with mutilation and torture scenes that are shocking simply due to their normality. I would argue that this has a far greater influence over its largely male audience and their likelihood for contempt towards women.

All this gives the film more importance that it needs.

Surf_Liquid_546816-885441In reality, 50 Shades of Grey is really just a film about washing. I was greatly alarmed and amused to see Surf’s Limited Edition 50 Shades washing powder, complete with handcuffs, but actually it makes perfect sense.

It has become such a massive phenomenon because most of us are just knackered. It would never have been successful 30 years ago. I read a Jackie Collins as a teenager, and from what I remember there were a lot of power suits, high flying dominatrix kind of women wearing stockings and no knickers. However these days most women have tried that (maybe not the no knickers bit) and realised it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

What 50 Shades represents is not a consensual BDSM relationship but a total lack of decision.

I am married with 2 children trying to run my own business and remain vaguely interesting. My days are made up of endless decisions, logistics, and calculations that leave me exhausted by the end of the day. It’s not the manual toil, but the mental processes that are overwhelming.

A story where the central character has no autonomy and is required to make no decisions whatsoever is remarkably appealing.

I read 50 Shades a couple of years ago but the bits that stayed with me were not the sex. They were

  1. That scene where she wakes up in VERY expensive sheets to find that the clothes that she’d left on the floor in passionate abandon had been washed, ironed and put away for her and there were some new ones that had miraculously appeared.
  2. There was always food in the fridge, ready prepared just needing to be taken out and eaten.
  3. He buys her a car. She did not consult a single Which report on safety or fuel economy.
  4. She wasn’t even expected to park the bloody thing.
  5. There’s a whole section on her being really tired from all the sex and then having a really long sleep.

Now I have been with my husband for 20 years. I genuinely have no need for a handsome multi-millionaire with a sex dungeon and a large chopper (snarf snarf). However, we often get to 6 o’clock and realize there is nothing to eat. It took a long time to decide what colour to paint the hall. The nights when I’m exhausted from a night of non-stop sex (kinky or otherwise) are arguably less frequent but last week I was awoken at 3am to discover my 5 year old got into my bed and weed all over me.

So actually if you want to spend 30 minutes in the bath reading about total subjugation knock yourself out …. before you get out, realise there are no clean towels and go downstairs to help your husband look for his keys.

I would love to hear your views and this is in no way an attempt to take away from the incredible work that charities such as Women’s Aid do.  Therefore I have and would encourage everyone who does decide to see the film to still make a donation.

Ched Evans: A criminal who could once kick a ball.

ched evansIt was a rainy night in Soho.   I was a 19 year old student and, separated from my friends, found myself alone in Piccadilly Circus at 2am. I had been drinking quite a bit and had not taken a coat. I had only just moved into my new student house and, although armed with my trusty 1-4 travel card, I hadn’t a clue how to get home. I started to panic and was more than a little bit tearful. A man started walking alongside and chatting to me. His name was Norman. I explained I was a bit drunk, a bit upset and didn’t know how to get home. He told me to follow him. He took me round a corner and down more than a couple of side streets to a taxi rank. A car pulled up outside. He opened the door for me and I got in. Then he turned the driver, gave him a £20 note and said “She lives in Kentish Town, can you take her home?”

In the past 20 years I’ve often thought of Norman and the night that didn’t change my life; the night where nothing happened.

The Ched Evans case made me think about it again. This week he was released after serving half of his sentence for the rape of 19 year old girl. He has issued a statement apologising to his girlfriend, not the victim you understand. All debate now turns to whether or not he should be allowed to professional football play again.

A lot of the comments and opinions spouted have made me feel more than a little nauseous, not to mention news that Evans is fast tracking his appeal.  The vehemence of those defending him is astounding.

It’s no secret that I hate football, or more specifically, hate more than a few footballers. It pains me that my youngest son loved the World Cup so much. I hate the thought that he might hold any number of overpaid, entitled, self-serving morons up in any kind of high regard.

I get that it’s not just kicking a ball around a field, football is supposed to mean something. That’s why, as an entertainment business, it is worth so much. Fans are obliged to put their hearts and souls into these players, encourage their children to don their names on their backs and care whether the ball goes in or not. Personally I recommend their criminal convictions are added as a category on the Panini sticker captions but this is unlikely.

It’s not even about the technicalities of a criminal conviction, or of the definition of rehabilitation. It’s just about common decency. And so it came to pass that, during the World Cup, our breakfast conversation was ‘What would happen if I was Luis Suarez’s Mummy?’ and then, weeks later I had to explain a) why he was still allowed to play and b) why one of my son’s friends still wore Suarez’s name on his shirt. Why I had to explain why I wouldn’t allow John Terry’s picture on a wall.

Evans doesn’t deny what happened. The only thing which is disputed is whether she was drunk enough for it to technically counts as rape. Here Evans’ defenders fall over themselves to come up with reasons why it wasn’t, attacking the victim and launching campaigns to say why actually turning up to a hotel room to watch your friend have sex with a drunk stranger and then ‘having a go’ yourself is all perfectly normal.  OK he might be in the dog house with the Misses but move along, nothing to see here..

The fact of the matter is that we, yes even Judy Finnegan, still have such an appalling attitude to sexual crime that we fall over ourselves to prove that it wasn’t the fault of the accused. The trailer for the Moral Maze today, that bastion of reasoned debate, belied just how warped our attitude is. We don’t treat it as the violent crime that it is.  We assume that the girl must have ‘asked for it’ in some way. She was drunk, she was chatty, she led him on, she was walking home alone. It is easier to explain it away than look at the real cause.

Rape is not about sex, but about power and entitlement. It is about man categorizing women as lesser beings, as disposable and there to be taken. The inference in the victim blaming that goes on is one of ‘we’ve all been there mate, could have happened to anyone’ If it had been a man who had been raped in similar circumstances no one would be arguing that he only had himself to blame.

That is the reason why Evans can never play again. This has nothing to do with rehabilitation. Football clubs have a responsibility to represent more than just passing a ball around. Just as Gary Glitter doesn’t get much airplay these days, and Rolf is unlikely to reappear on Animal Hospital this side of Christmas. I’m not even going to get into Pistorius. Any kind of professional, lawyer, doctor, teacher, CEO would not have had their seat kept warm for them whilst they served their sentence. These are not the kinds of people that we want to hold up in high regard, sentence served or not, no matter what their talents.

I spend my life trying to teach my children to do the right thing, even when no one is looking. I do not teach them that if you try hard enough you will be elevated to such a position where ‘the right thing’, let alone the law, no longer applies to you. Nor do I want them to think that it is up to others to protect themselves from their violent behaviour, rather than to just treat people well in the first place.

As always, with great power comes great responsibility, and that responsibility to be a decent human being should be a prerequisite for being allowed to be paid millions to walk out in front of a crowd.

If I’m looking for role models for my children, I think I’ll stick with Norman.

Clarkson, go home

Dear Jeremy, or may I call you Jezza

ImageYou and I actually have a lot in common.   Apart from the fact that my husband quite likes both of us (actually possibly you more than me), we both come from relatively small towns. We both had working class parents who worked hard and did quite well for themselves. We were both relatively clever and so left to seek our fame and fortune in the big bad world.

I, unlike you, actually returned to the town of my childhood, the town where you, the voice of the working man, now send your children to boarding school. I believe we frequent the same Pizza Express.

Therefore, because of our kindred spirit, I thought you would appreciate me explaining a few things about the current pickle you are in.

I, although younger than you, grew up around a fair amount of casual racism. Wiggy, Waggy and Wally was my Gran’s preferred book at bedtime. When asked where Mum was, I would often be told that she’d ‘run off with a black man’, and we had an affectionate name for the corner shop that was largely based on the ethnicity of its owners. My Dad thought Alf Garnett was hilarious, and not in the satirical way it was intended. My parents were not bad people, they were not BNP members although my Dad did have an unfortunate fondness for Margaret Thatcher.  I am not disrespecting their memory to say this and I’m not patronising them when I say that they didn’t know any better.  In fact, I would go so far as to say they were incredibly kind and decent.  However, hey – it was the 80s.  Just as we didn’t wear seat belts, or thought Vienetta was classy,  they were ‘of their time’.

This is not that time. I am not that time.  I grew up, I left home, moved to the big city and learnt a lot about life and the world outside my small town. I can honestly say I have never used the language of my childhood as an adult. It could well still be in my head somewhere. It has never slipped out, it has never been uttered when I thought no one was listening, taken out of context or mumbled.

I just don’t say it.

The reason I don’t is not because I don’t believe in free speech, or want political correctness to go mad. It is because it is wrong. Not just to huge number of people it is used against, but also to me. That is because I am not racist.  Therefore, as someone who is not racist, I neither use these words nor allow others to use them in my company, overheard or not.  You see they are not just words, they are weapons that have been used for generations to put people in their place. At it’s very root, this is the language of slavery, of oppression and violence. It doesn’t matter that you use these words mischievously, or out of context, and you haven’t got a baseball bat in your hand. These words matter.

We are quick (quite rightly) to denounce people who desecrate or vandalise war memorials, even though they mean nothing to the offenders. Whether it’s mischievously spray painting Churchill or absent-mindedly mistaking a monument for a urinal. They are symbols which mean something to us, and to others. They matter.

The Sun, and many of your fans, may leap to your defence saying that ‘hard to believe this was once innocuous’, but it was NEVER innocuous. It was never innocent or a bit of harmless fun. It was an expression of power and humiliation. We just, on the whole, never used to care that much. But we should care now.

You knew exactly what you were doing. This did not just pop out like ‘fuck’ when you’ve stubbed your toe. You had a decent run in, and had the forethought to pause, switch to mumble mode and carry on regardless. This was no slip of the tongue. This was a deliberate attempt at straight talking, no nonsense, I just don’t care Clarkson. It was no more a genuine mistake than the ‘slope’ comment, or gag about the Mexican, or the murdered prostitutes.

You’re not stupid. Much like Farage, you have made your career on your ability to connect with the common man (and it usually is men) when you are largely anything but. You have earned millions of pounds, both directly from and off the back of the licence fee because you claim to represent average people – straight talking, what everybody’s thinking. MY MONEY. You’ve earned so much money that, just like the city bankers, you think you are too big to fail. Like an ungrateful indulgent child you are constantly pushing the boundary of that power to see just how far it goes, like nicking tenners from your mother’s purse.  Poor Carol Thatcher couldn’t survive a similar ‘off camera, off the cuff’ remark and her Mum used to BE the Prime Minister, never mind just have dinner with them.

Possibly the world’s greatest thinker once said ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ and everyone needs to remember that. In a time when bananas are still being thrown at footballers and wannabe politicians think Lenny Henry should move to a black country, it’s about time you took that responsibility and showed people how to behave, showed them what is acceptable and what a ‘thoroughly good bloke’ really looks like. I will tell you now that it is not a man who thinks it’s big and clever to not so accidentally use racist language in a humorous context and then cowardly grovel in order to keep his job.  I’m not sure you know what a thoroughly good bloke is.

So Jeremy, go home.   Honestly love, for your own sake, put your feet up, count your money, shout at the telly and let someone decent have a go.