Sunday, 17 August 2008

Wow! I heart this site!

School's Out For Summer

I can’t remember when my Dad first mentioned the possibility of sending my son to RHS. It’s always been there as an acceptable option since he was born, seeing that the majority of men on my dad’s side went. I don’t think I seriously considered it until the spring term of J’s year six, by which time it would be too late for him to begin at RHS in year seven.

I have two reasons for going down the boarding school route. One I can be completely open about, the other I generally keep closer to my chest.

The first is that he’s a bright kid, but very lazy. All he has learnt from his first year in a state secondary school is that he can do almost no work and yet somehow still come in the top three for all his subjects. As he’s the youngest in the school, that’s quite impressive, but it can’t continue for ever. The habit of not working, not listening and not thinking will take root and leave him without the options he’s capable of getting for himself, with just a little work. Instead, he will be stopping at the park on the way home from school with his friends, and as I’m not so very much older than him, I know what that led to for me, and worry that it will be worse for him.

Life is hard for teenagers to make sense of.

The second is me. Again, this is twofold but centres fundamentally on the inevitable fact that he was born whilst I was an unmarried teenager. Although in many ways I was an atypical teenage mother, I have a major fear that it will end up a self fulfilling prophecy if he remains at the state school, around such a wide cross section that is only manageable if staff employ some level of stereotyping. I also know just how judgemental and unkind secondary school teachers can be when there is a stereotypical scapegoat in sight.

The other aspect of that is that I feel that often I am a dreadful mother. I’m snappy and bossy and mean and I know that I take my lovely little (big!) boy for granted. I can’t help feeling it’s better for him to be away from me and around people who will treat him fairly and kindly instead of be constantly short tempered and unreasonable with him.

The entry relied on three aspects all coming together: the bursary, the exam and the interview.

The bursary application came first. As the number of bursaries given to students and prospective students had been cut from two hundred a year to twenty five a year, I didn’t know what his chances were. The reply came back that, if he was given a bursary, it would be for all but four hundred pounds a year. At nearly seven thousand pounds a term, this is one of the biggest bursaries available.

His interview with the deputy head went well. At least, he seemed to come out of it successfully, and he gained the top mark on his entrance exam. That led to a further exam and interview for an academic scholarship.

He did well in those, too, but was awarded the position of Honorary Scholar. This is because recipients of bursaries cannot also claim scholarships.

I went ahead and accepted the place knowing that J was not wild about leaving his friends at the state school. Year seven has been dominated by him trying to persuade me not to send him to RHS. Yet, it is a magnificent school and I am confident that he will settle and that it will be right for him in the long term and he’ll still have friends round every corner when he comes home.

After months of nagging, his leaving party was a few days after the end of term. It consisted of nearly thirty kids in our back garden playing chart music very loud, being high as kites on fizzy drinks, playing obscure and noisy games and generally having a good time. It was over within three hours and the cleaning up left to do the next morning was mainly plastic cups, paper plates and party poppers. With parties for twelve year olds, there’s none of the next-day biohazard sites that begin to arise with older teenage parties along with empties of White Lightning.

And suddenly, it’s just weeks away. Soon he’ll be gone. I have yet to buy a number of things on the list and concluded that there are many that I won’t buy new, he can just take from home. The biggest task left, aside from actually taking him, is sewing on the name tapes. Everything has to be named and I’m going to have to invite friends round for a name tape sewing circle just to get it done in time.

Then he’ll be gone, and the house will seem empty and quiet. I will be lonely.

I’m already looking forward to half term.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Yeah! This is cool!

Panic on the Streets of London

Today I got a phone call. I’d just finished scrumping some of my Dad’s apples while he was safely out of the way, had just got back in the car.

I’m glad I heard the call. Had my radio not locked itself when the car battery was changed I might have missed it.

It was my cousin, M. She sounded like she had a bit of a cold but it transpired shortly that actually she’d been crying. Here’s why:

Severely dyslexic, she’s been studying outdoor adventure management at university for a few years. She loves it, but what she doesn’t love is exams. She dodged an exam in the summer term because she was ill. Having seen her today I would hazard a guess that her fear of exams contributed to that illness.

A week ago some post for her was delivered to her mama’s house. A week later (today) her mama told her that post was there. One of the letters was from her university telling her that she had to re-sit the exam next Wednesday. It was this that had sent her into absolute meltdown.

My response to that would have been to go home, get my study stuff then hit the library.

Or rather, my response would have been totally different because I would have prepared for the exam in the first place and it is extremely unlikely that I would have considered missing an exam acceptable under anything but the most extreme circumstances. But M is not me and has been skipping exams and getting default grades from classwork for years, since her final year at school. I’m not really sure how she managed to get away with this but get away with it she has.

Now that there is no way out of an exam, she’s seriously considering dropping out rather than just taking it like a woman.

There are two issues that are stopping her. I can see where they come from and don’t blame her but she has to deal with them if she wants to move forward with her degree and her career.

First of all there’s panic. I am no stranger to panic myself and although I almost definitely have higher levels of anxiety than a lot of people, panic moves out of my mind as quickly as it sets in. I have a theory that this is because I invite it, but I can give it some one to one time, then show it the door. It works for me. It stops the panic taking over and infecting every thought and bringing me to a standstill.

I’m not talking about panic attacks that truly feel like a coronary, just the sort of brain freeze that used to leave me in an unfocused flap for days at a time.

Right now, M does not have days to be in a flap. She has an exam for which she has not prepared in less than a week and she has paid work in the meantime. On the plus side, she’s been on the course all year so the content shouldn’t have sunk to the very bottom of her mind just yet.

The second is classic and chronic M. She has a huge sense that the world has been fundamentally unjust toward her and her alone. Following her logic, if things don’t work out for her then there is someone else to blame.

Sometimes that person has been me, and M’s mama like a lioness protecting a cub has pounced. In fact, nothing like a lioness unless lionesses have taken to telephoning their nieces and shouting at them for things that really and truly are nothing to do with them.

So I know M does this, and I don’t hold it against her. Her mama does it too but I always hope than M will grow out of it. Right now, in the context of the Unexpected Exam, it unfolds like this:

a) It was not M’s fault that she missed her original exam because she was working too much at her paid jobs, one of which her mama had got her. Thus, it was her mama’s fault.

b) It was not M’s fault that she thought she wouldn’t have to do the exam because she was set an assessment covering the same topics as the exam. Thus, it was her lecturers’ fault and makes no sense anyway.

c) It was not M’s fault that she had done no preparation because she was ill from working too much in the few weeks leading up to the exam and when she was not working she needed to unwind (usually in the pub).

d) It was not M’s fault that she didn’t know about the exam until a week beforehand because her mama only just told her she had post. It’s her mama’s fault.

e) It was not M’s fault because life, God and the universe are unfair and it is always someone else’s fault. If in doubt, blame God.

All of this I have said to her and can be summed up simply by telling her she must take responsibility for her own actions or inactions. No excuses, just take the blame then move on.

I don’t know whether she’s managed to do it, though. Judging from a chat with her mama earlier this evening it sounds like she’s still panicking and so still casting around for someone else to blame. The panic and the blame jointly require energy and creativity, which she could be channelling towards constructive exam preparation.

After all, the exam is in Service Operations Management, not Panicking and Blaming Other People.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Love me, love me, say that you love me. Fool me, fool me, go on and fool me.

On a dark, dark, night there was a dark, dark forum and in the dark, dark forum was a dark, dark thread and in the dark, dark thread someone had written that there is no such thing as too much time online.

It was not a bad post – it was essentially about easing up on oneself about something which may, actually, be productive.

In essence I support this idea: the ‘whole lotta loafin’’ to do anything properly. I’d encourage people to let themselves off the hook and just faff around a bit. Life is short, but if it’s too full then it’s the quiet moments that will be lost.

I began writing a reply to that effect, but then I decided to stop. I cancelled the reply.
I realised I disagreed.

I disagreed because spending too much time on a forum is not loafing. It’s not the equivalent of sitting reading because it’s interactive, and it feeds on itself. The poster feeds other users and they feed the original poster. It’s easy to get carried away and live on chatrooms and forums.

That’s not what I call life, though. It rarely extends beyond the screen and rarely, if ever, involves other members of the household. The effect is of someone being there but not present. It’s like having a junkie in the house (without the drug-taking artefacts). It’s pretty spooky.

So why did I have this sycophantic urge to write a supportive post to something about which I fundamentally disagree?

It’s not an isolated case, either. I generally lack the courage to speak up when I disagree or if I have to openly disagree, I try to make it sound like agreement.

Well, I blame my parents. Actually, that’s not true, I blame myself. I blame myself for wanting to be all things to all people despite knowing that that just isn’t possible, always hoping that I’ll stumble into a kindred spirit somewhere.

So for all my realisation that I was doing again what I’ve done before, the original poster is further along the path to truth (or whatever?) than me, simply by stating what he or she wants to do for his or herself, instead of insisting that everyone else is right.

Faced with a challenge, time and again, I crumble and accept someone else’s version of events that happened before my eyes.

That has to stop.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Closing the gaps

We always try to give our kids the things we didn’t have.

For some time it has struck me that the aim of parenting as far as my friends are concerned, is to give their children the things in which they feel their own childhood was lacking.

My friend was the second eldest, the dependable one, of four children. Her family was not wealthy, often struggling financially during her formative years. Looking back, it’s the ‘stuff’ that sticks out most in her mind. The new clothes which she didn’t have, the shiny car her parents didn’t drive.

When she had her own daughter, she became a single parent. After living on a tiny budget for two years, she began paid employment. At the time, despite her intelligence, she was young and not well qualified. She didn’t have the pick of the job centre but set her mind that her daughter was going to have the things she missed during her own childhood.

That was eight years ago, and her daughter is no spoilt princess, but she has lovely clothes, shiny, hi-tech toys. Her mum drives a shiny car which is updated yearly and she lives in a comfortable home. For this, my friend holds down three jobs.

The one thing her daughter doesn’t have is time.

My childhood, on the other hand, was a world apart from hers. Both my parents had full time careers, which ate into time at home as well as during the working day. We lived in a big house with a large and intriguing garden in which I was largely unsupervised. My grandmother lived with us and I was rarely entirely alone but most of the time neither of my parents were around.

I had everything most children would want. My bedroom housed ever expanding libraries of books and toys and I kept up expensive hobbies without worrying that the money wouldn’t be there to pay for them. My parents had new cars every year and I went to a private school.

The one thing I didn’t have was their time. From the age of 7 months I was farmed out to a
childminder and put into school early.

And now I have two children of my own: one large, one small. I am a single parent living on a tiny income, trying to find ways to squeeze some earning around my daughter’s waking patterns. We have very little in material terms. A few of the nicer things we have were left from my separation and are getting tatty. The possibility of replacing them is always just out of sight.

This is the only job I have and I take it just as seriously as any other. I do my best to give my children my time and my presence. Maybe they’ll grow up and work non stop to provide their kids with everything they could desire, but to my mind, parental time is missing from so many children’s lives that without it, the stable childhood that is needed for people to grow into stable adults is disappearing fast.

At once I have the same and opposite view to my friend. We’re both trying to fill the gaps from our own childhoods, but they are different gaps and so the method of filling them remains individual.


Monday, 11 August 2008

Do I blame the patriarchy?

A long time ago, well, not so very long ago in the grand scheme of life, I sent my eldest brother an email. It was around the time when we all knew the USA was about to start bombing the living daylights out of Iraq on the pretext of a hunt for weapons of mass destruction.

I am not going to start debating that here, but my view was, and always has been, that the job should have been finished the first time and that the second time, UN procedure should at least have been followed. Too late for that argument now, we and they are there and the most that anyone can do is attempt to hold them accountable for their actions.

Anyway, all that is beside the point, really. At the time, I was getting about a hundred emails a day with links to sites of pressure groups, e-petitions, templates of letters to send to MPs and the like. As a student, I was in front my PC writing a lot of the time anyway, and the best of those I received I, too forwarded. I sent them to my parents and to friends who weren’t involved with the same combination of groups as I was.

At one point, my Dad said something like:

“You’re sending me all this stuff. M’s sent me the same stuff. You should just send it to M.”

Here’s the background: M is my eldest brother from my dad’s first marriage, thus he’s a half brother, really. Since childhood there had been a bit of hero-worship on my part. No-one I knew was as cool or as worldly as my big brother who had spent years living in a bus, had two children with someone he lived with but wasn’t married to (at the time that was a bit of a statement, but I don’t find it such a statement now that I have two children without having been married to either of their fathers), and had travelled throughout Africa. I thought he was amazing.

M, though, had snubbed me when I was a confused pre-teenager. That didn’t stop me trying, though. Every so often I’d give him a call, just to say “hello” for no reason other than that he was my big brother and I wanted him to fit that role. Each time there would be silence on the end of the phone and eventually I’d say goodbye.

When my dad was coming up to his seventieth year, I organised a party for him. Not knowing where to start I replied to a group email Dad had sent announcing his new email address. M was in that group and where everyone else had responded kindly, offering apologies or help, M said:

“I was unaware that he was 69 and to be honest I knew his birthday was in July sometime as is my mothers and brothers.

As you say this is at very short notice. It is now three weeks till the 14/7 and I am sure that this date has been rushing up to suprise you for your entire life.

I (M only) will be in the New Forest for the stag party of an old friend with whom I spent a year in Africa. I have been committed to his stag weekend and wedding for many months and can't imagine for one minute that I will be that presentable.

You say "HE" wants a party. He was here for a huge barbecue all last Saturday and most of the night at which he had ample opportunity and yet failed to mention this desire to either J or myself.I don't want to be negative but your father has never been of a gregarious nature amiable though he is! I think it nieve to expect to raise a spontaneous party for him from his friends (very few, extemly well dispersed, hard to find) and family (several who have no apparent interest in him), at this time of year. It could result in a very very very depressing experience where almost none will turn up.

Remember if you're popular and have a reputation for throwing a good party only half of those who say they will actually turn up

Of course if you have a rush of replies from more than a handfull of people please correct me, one of the most depressing things has to be too few turning up and I couldn't stand talking to you for too long.

I suggest you rethink this idea and call it a suprise 70th birthday set the date anytime three months in advance (at least) maybe September after the summer holidays and make a plan or get someone else to and make it a suprise for him invite him somewhere or get someone else to for whatever reason and suprise him.

If for some reason i.e. iminent death the date can't be moved then I guess I'll come to what would naturally be a depressing party.


First I have to say, I copy/pasted this in. The spelling mistakes are all his own.

I saved the email he sent. I was surprised at how vicious it was. He made it clear he wasn’t interested in being involved with the party. It really hurt.

The party ended up being well attended, with many friends from teaching connections and Navy connections, my other brother and his wife dealt with the food, the venue was perfect for a mixed age group and there was a genuinely good feeling to it. M turned up, seeming to be drunk, or stoned, or something. I don’t know, but he didn’t behave badly and took one third of the credit for the party, which I let him.

I was hopeful that it meant that maybe we could be friends. When Dad recommended that I forwarded some of the peace stuff to M, I was doubly hopeful. I thought that maybe here there would be some common ground: a connection, perhaps.

In the event, now that I check, I see that the email I forwarded wasn’t even particularly political, but an Oxfam one, of the same ilk as many of the inserts in weekend papers. Having done joint collections with Oxfam when I was chairing an Amnesty student group, I was not ill informed about Oxfam’s work and knew several people who had held voluntary and paid positions within its network who all spoke passionately about Oxfam’s development work. But that is beside the point.

Mike said:

“I have taken the time.
While you may not be entirely stupid, you are very nieve.
I have ears and eyes and despite what you may have been told or assumed, I have an IQ that is way way beyond that which is considered adequate or even healthy.
I can assure you that NGO's without exception are run as businesses, I have drunk and been drunk with them all.
If they had used the money they had been given as the donors had intended, instead of in expensive restraunts or lost it all on the stock market they would be prepared for whatever disasters may occur.
Now all they want to do is raise there TV profile to raise more money to secure there cushy chauffeur driven lives.I had a girlfriend who's mother was the head of a very big British NGO and I can assure you they are having a laugh on everyone.
The people who run these organisations exist on another level, way beyond anything most people, even you, could even begin to comprehend.
Call me cynical but there are almost no areas where you could have any influence whatsoever, even Tony the day after that massive world wide march turned around and snubbed every single person who got of their arses to demonstrate by pointing at a group of Iraqi refugees and saying that their voices really counted. I suggest that perhaps the terrorists may well be doing the only thing left that can work and now I'm talking about a method of releasing their frustration.
Suicide bombers are not making a sacrifice the are purely releasing their frustrations, curing their pain, they have no other means of expression.
Until the main powers can take on a true proportional democracy bombing them is all you can do as they will always manage to manipulate themselves into power.

All emails from this address have now been blocked.”

Again, I have to stress that the spelling and grammatical errors are his own.

Nice. And that was it.

Even revisiting that folder in my email account stings.

Fast forward a few years, six years, in fact and my niece, his eldest daughter, is trying hard to get to know her father. She is a lovely young woman, with insight and integrity. She’s creative and intelligent as well as beautiful and stylish and I am very proud that she’s a member of my family. For that she has my absolute support and I have no intention of letting her down.

Spending a day with her, one of the subjects that came up was M’s total and utter dismissal of me as ‘crazy’. Now, this doesn’t really come as any surprise and I would like to be able to say that I don’t care at all. I do care, though: certainly less than I used to, but I care. It also troubles me that this means I know nothing of his youngest daughter, my niece, and she’s unlikely to ever attempt to get to know me, because after all, I’m ‘crazy’.

My lovely niece said that M had mentioned to her that it was because I bombarded him with political emails. I had to think about this and check it back through the folder I have saved of his electronic communications with me, because it was long ago and really, a very small interaction.

I sometimes wonder whether, by saving the emails in a separate folder I bearing a grudge. Possibly yes, but I never look at them. They are there to remind me, should I be tempted to call or write (as my emails are all blocked), of my likely reception.

This is all neither here nor there, but for Dad recently talking about his will. Obviously, I love my dad very much. In many ways I’m like him, according to Mr ONIS. I can see it, easily, we both have idiosyncratic ways and are equally exasperating correcting others’ mistakes. As a child I found it embarrassing but I have grown into someone similarly pedantic. All that, though, is by the by, I put in time and effort with him, even though he can be a miserable sod at times, he’s also kind, in deed if not word. I love my father for all that he is and all he has bestowed upon me.

Recently, though, since he stated that his will says that M and I have to be on good terms in order for either of us to inherit anything when he dies. Dad is fond of talking about how well M has done with his various businesses. He often tells me about M’s lovely house and car and garden.

I, on the other hand, am broke. I have always been broke. It’s like an old friend. I have very little and can do very little of practical use. I’m over it: I know I’m no cash cow.

But there is an imbalance there, between who needs an inheritance more and who has tried harder to make friends, to be a brother and sister. Also between who makes the effort to speak to Dad, on the telephone or in person, daily, which I do for two reasons: one is so that he’s not too lonely, the other is to make sure he hasn’t had a stroke, a fall, a heart attack or dropped down dead for any other reason.

So recently, it came to light that the reason M cites for my ‘craziness’ is the fact that I sent him an email link. The email was recommended by Dad. Despite the fact that I am the only one who has ever made any effort, ever, somehow the animosity has come from one person – me. Now, it seems that Dad engineered the situation and is overlooking his own role in M’s irrational hatred of me (I have barely spoken more than two sentences to him in nearly twenty years, since I was twelve). And I’m the one that is going to be punished for it.

I’m not the type – I gain nothing from nastiness and grudges. I don’t know what sort of type I am – in a lot of ways I’m useless, I forget birthdays and often I’m running late, but I’m not the type to not look after and love my dad.

But in purely cost benefit terms, I might as well have been a bitch.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Sort it out, Beeunique!

I was horribly frustrated to realise on Thursday evening that is down for maintenance and a stock check.


They clearly don't realise that

a) I have a burning desire to spend about £40 on hair dye

b) no actually that's it.

I've been carried away with the pink! The subtle start succeeded in not scaring my daughter but it's just too subtle now! I have every intention of saying to my absolutely amazing and talented hairdresser that I want it bleached 'til it feels like straw and then dyed for hours.

I want the pinkest hair in Southampton.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Letter from Afghanistan

It began one very drunken night in late September 2005: one very drunken night. A matter of weeks later and the man with whom I’d spent that drunken night had joined the army and was enjoying the rigours of Basic Training. A few weeks after that and I felt duty bound to ask whether he was alone before I told him over the phone that I was pregnant with his child.

He was not the first person to know about my pregnancy, but about the seventh. I would have been happy to tell him sooner but he’d been on exercise and, frankly, had just about had enough of me acting like a weirdo anyway so I didn’t think he’d call back straight away.

There was never, ever any doubt in my mind that I wanted to keep the baby.

Of course, this is wrapped up with how the rest of my life was going at the time which was, in truth, bad. On the work front I was screwing up my job due to choosing it badly, on the money front I was skint and on the relationship front I’d broken up with the rebound fling (shortly before the drunken night in September) only to realise that all I’d done was postpone the sadness and emptiness of the loss of my previous relationship. I’m entirely prepared to admit that if these had all been better, then having a baby in adverse circumstances might not have looked so appealing.

But this is it. I defend absolutely the right to access safe abortion but I’d only ever take that choice in the most extreme of circumstances.

So Mr One Night In September (Mr ONIS) said that I had his full support whatever my choice was. I had already made that choice, he flatly refused to tell me what he would have done, on the grounds that if he wanted me to terminate the pregnancy I’d be upset and if he said that he really wanted us to have the baby I wouldn’t believe him. I still don’t know his initial thoughts on finding out I was pregnant.

Pregnancy is an odd time which can wreak havoc with feelings and bodies and during which, because of the British Army, I barely saw Mr ONIS and would honestly have had trouble picking him out of a line up.

The baby, our little girl, arrived two weeks early. I wouldn’t want to bore anyone with the details of her birth. It’s enough to say that I managed to time it perfectly as MR ONIS was on weekend leave. He met my mum for the first time in the labour room, and behaved impeccably throughout.

Since then, since he’s been in my life as much as our daughter’s, I find that new parts of my personality are coming through, and his accepting and steady nature has rubbed off a little on me. I stopped taking myself so seriously, chilled out a little and got a lot happier in the process.

Having not asked for her or planned her, there is no doubting the quality of fathering that our daughter receives, despite the army taking him away regularly and sometimes completely out of contact on exercise. I adore him as a human being but most of all as a father, I’m in awe of the way he’s taken it in his stride and consistently shows how much he loves her.

The most impressive thing is the impact that observing Mr ONIS with our daughter has had on my dad. I have never been the ‘Daddy’s girl’, when my sister in law told me that “you’re always your dad’s little girl” I remember thinking “No I’m not”. And I wasn’t. We weren’t close and had nothing apart from genes in common. I was a burden and a nuisance: the third child he didn’t really want but was stuck with anyway. Seeing Mr ONIS refer to our daughter by various clichéd pet names (‘angel’, ‘princess’, ‘beautiful’ etc), my dad began to use them about me. It was as though, once there was someone to model the behaviour of ‘having a little girl’, Dad treated this as instructional and followed suit. Suddenly, as an adult, I have become my dad's little girl.

Further, Mr ONIS values what I do. I am at home with our little girl now until she starts school. I’m fairly typical of modern mothers who experience guilt at their own choices as a defining feature of motherhood. (Few men have the same contradictory expectations foisted on them by the media and Society At Large so, no, I’m not including them in that statement.) I often feel that I should be doing everything better, shinier and with paid employment. Often, my degree feels like a waste.

It’s difficult to remain indifferent to the conflicting media messages about being a mother and, whatever your choice, it helps to have a supportive someone telling you how well you’re doing. I have that someone and he’s called Mr ONIS (not his real name).

But Mr ONIS has been away, playing an important-but-not-frontline role in the War on Terror [sic] in Afghanistan, since the beginning of April.

I made up my mind, from the outset, that as he hadn’t asked to have the massive emotional tie of a child, and that the rest of his army career hinged on how this tour went, I would do what I could from this end. To this end, I have sent him a weekly parcel of a copy of Nuts [sic and sick], puzzles from the Guardian, books, silly toys, toiletries, sweets and, fortnightly, a copy of Bizarre magazine. I’ve written emails or eblueys almost daily. He’s been away so long now that it’s just become a habit. Every week I say to the newsagent “It’s not for me!” as I pick up his copy of Nuts.

Inevitably, this hasn’t been matched by communication from his end. Realistically, it was never going to be. Where I can comfortably write (or talk) for hours, he keeps his own counsel a lot more. The letters I’ve had in return have been few and jokey. It’s not worth upsetting myself over, though. I have no idea what things are really like out there, no idea what he’s seen. I had never considered, in my boring civilian life, that anyone might be listening to or reading my communications but there is no escaping that possibility during a satellite phone call to a soldier on ops.

At first I was worried about who I’d be without him, but as the days, weeks and months have been slowly crossed off the calendar I realise that for the first time in years, I am happy. I’m not happy that he isn’t here, but I’ve found my feet, made social links, I’ve been writing again for the first time in (?) ages. The garden which Mr ONIS began excavating and remodelling is finished, I’ve been on holiday, redecorated, acquired large houseplants and dyed my hair pink.

The question now is not who am I without him but who I’ll be when he gets back. I realise this is horribly navel gazing but he’ll have changed (inevitably), I’ve changed. Will he still like me? Will we get on?

I don’t have the answers, and although, actually, the time has gone fast, I am now as nervous about his return as I was about him leaving.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Trapped In The Night Garden

“The night is black and the stars are bright and the sea is dark and deep.”

If you, like me, are the parent of a toddler you will probably recognise these words immediately as the opening to In ‘The Night Garden’, the now ubiquitous television show aimed at pre-speech and early speech toddlers. The gently hypnotic narration can lull even the most stubborn two year old into at least a temporary calm.

However, that has been won in part by getting parents on side. That’s not always difficult, because the parents of very young children (frequently mothers) mostly welcome a quality programme which will allow them thirty minutes respite to close their eyes, play catch up with the housework, read, chat on the phone or even (shock) watch with their child.

These days, there is not excuse for not knowing that excessive television is harmful for developing brains (and possibly for fully developed brains, too), but restricting television time can be a challenge in an age when so many channels of digital and satellite are dedicated to beaming in the dregs of children’s television. The absence of television can equal high effort parental input activities which leave the parent (usually mother) frazzled, and using television to give yourself a little bit of a break can be utterly guilt inducing.

‘In The Night Garden’ stands head and shoulders apart from the maelstrom of nonsense that passes for children’s entertainment. Possibly because it is equally hypnotic for tired parents as it is for young ‘uns.

The soothing colour scheme of the set is green on green, with characters sleeping in dens in caves and bushes, on a boat and in a magical bed which comes when you call it, out in the open and gently shaded air. Multicoloured birds sing individual songs which harmonise together at the end of each show to form one big chorus. Of course, they are not called ‘birds’ in the Night Garden, they are ‘titifers’.

A friend recently confessed, sheepishly, that she’d quite like to visit the Night Garden and crash out in Upsy Daisy’s bed under a starlit canopy of leaves. Someone else is captivated by the interior of the Tombliboo bush and I’ve been coveting Makka Pakka’s colourful duvet cover and minimalist cave bedroom for months. ‘In The Night Garden’ is the chill out room to the frenetic pace of some of the other children’s programming on television. In fact, it was created in part as a response to the permanent state of anxiety we feel about almost everything in the early C21st.

Aside from the seductive design and hypnotic narration, the Night Garden is exceptionally well thought out, as commentary from the show’s creators, Anne Wood and Andrew Davenport, who also developed the Teletubbies product.

Each episode runs like a well executed lesson plan, with an ice breaker, an introduction, a story and a plenary session where you figure out what just happened. Structurally, it borrows from books with different markers representing the turning of a page or the ending of a chapter, and the recap at the end features the same story told using more formal language, such is the difference between books and speech.

Reassurance is a major theme in ‘In The Night Garden’, beginning each time with a ‘shared moment’ between parent and child at bedtime and repeating the same predictable pattern consistently throughout. Clues lead to expected and sensible answers, friends look after each other and everything is as it should be. Arguably, these are features which many parents feel are missing from their lives, but begs the question of whether one half hour shot of viewing can fix that.

An inevitable part of reassurance is the social and emotional aspect, which is heavy handed in ‘In The Night Garden’. Whilst all the characters have roles within the overall social and emotional well being of the Garden, there is one character in particular which seems to do the majority of sorting out, cheering up and general companionship. That character loves flowers and kisses, dancing and singing and has the signature colour: pink. Yes that’s right. The key vehicle for much of the programme’s feel good factor is Upsy Daisy... A GIRL.

Alright, she’s not actually a girl, she’s a doll, but she’s unmistakeably a girl doll which wears a skirt and has pink ‘hair’.

Really, this is a minor factor in the story of the Night Garden, but there it is, again and again. An entire cast of characters which, without any suggestion to the contrary appear to be male (with the exception of Mummy Pontipine who, frankly, is so neglectful I’m surprised the NSPCC haven’t intervened) and a lone girl who does what girls, ladies and women, those ‘loveliest of creatures’ have taken full responsibility for since the first hints of the Industrial Revolution.

Admittedly, the burden is shared, and Upsy Daisy doesn’t carry the full weight of it alone. Makka Pakka washes faces and everything else in sight like a demented child given a sponge for the first time, before the novelty has worn off. The characters, unlike small people, are endlessly compliant at having their faces washed, which provides an excellent model of behaviour for toddlers everywhere. Additionally, the Tombliboos seem utterly capable of brushing their teeth (in mouths which don’t open and using tooth brushes as big as their heads) without the supervision of either Upsy Daisy or Makka Pakka. Surely they deserve a gold star for that?

The thing is, Upsy Daisy is a sweetie. She’s the kind of girl who thinks of others and helps them whenever she can. She’s Carrie the Caregiver, for crying out loud.

I’m not suggesting that ‘In The Night Garden’ is a primary vehicle for social change, but it is setting a standard and giving parents expectations of the kind of behaviours they want to encourage in their children. More specifically, girl children: every other character is probably a boy and with the exception of brushing their own teeth and a slight obsession with hygiene, they behave in much the same ways as boys have forever and are not discouraged from doing so. Why not? Because for boys, this behaviour is not detrimental: it’s good to be a risk taker and to have a laugh. Upsy Daisy, on the other hand, is channelled into acting for the happiness of others, all the time.

Although it is unlikely that any toddler would absorb this behaviour via a television programme and proceed to act it out for the next seventy years, the idea that it does nothing to challenge the Cinderella Complex (Colette Dowling) whereby girls are groomed socially from birth to grow into adults who take responsibility for the social, emotional and often physical wellbeing of others. This is important and exhausting but undervalued work. The Tombliboos, on the other hand, get to act silly and are disproportionately rewarded for managing to do basic things. Give it twelve years, and you’ll see this is how boys are treated. With regard to almost whatever they do, it is worth more than the default ‘feminine’ work of the Upsy Daisies we continue to nurture everywhere, without a second thought.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

"Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes." (or something like that) Walt Whitman

I have never had a job that’s right for me. If, perchance, any of my old colleagues were to read this (unlikely – I seem to be the only one reading it so far), they would wholeheartedly agree, with all their hearts.

I don’t want this to be a simple recollection of my jobs which would make sorry reading, indeed. Bad choice, followed by bad choice, leading to misery: sheer, unbridled misery. The point is that I know what I have learnt and I know it’s come slowly to me. I’ve known people who’ve had clear and distinct directions for their careers from an early age. They’ve managed to find an area which they like and a role that didn’t give them the cold sweats. That’s brilliant for them, very nice.

I’ve never worked out how they do it, though.

Maybe they just had really productive sessions with their careers teachers. Maybe they just had parents who boxed them into Very Sensible Choices which helped them Keep their Options Open.

Maybe the fact that they are able to complete simple administrative tasks without somehow making the entire company grind to a standstill makes them infinitely more employable. I’m inclined to think that’s probably it.

Sometimes, though, I think that what I’ve learnt from having a string of wrong jobs is more valuable to me than career advancement I might have made with the right jobs.

I have learnt that when you have colleagues who undermine your work constantly, that is bullying which can lead to stress, depression and lost earnings. That happened to me twice.

I have learnt that there are times when it’s better to act like an insider from the start, and there are times when acting like an insider can’t help. Sometimes it’s all fake.

For some reason, I didn’t know these things before I had jobs. I don’t know why this is, that I have gaps in my knowledge that seem common sense to the rest of the world. The only way in which I could learn them was the path I’ve taken and I feel that the fact that I have had to learn this consciously is of value. It’s as though I had no idea how to avoid completely fucking up.

I still don’t know that I could say with any certainty that I would manage to avoid it again, but I’ve grown, I understand more. I wouldn’t want to assert that I understand more about other people, but I know myself better. I know that I will cope with a lot and do so calmly without endless, fruitless self-blame. I also know that if I screw up, I can admit it. These lessons have had most value in my personal life, giving me valuable breathing space and time to adjust to the idea that I may yet have a meaningful and fulfilling career, but that it must be one of my own making.

I don’t fit easily into other people’s pigeonholes. I always perceived this as a problem but I hope now, that it doesn’t need to be.

Most of all, I have learned to accept myself a little more, both good and bad. I’m learning to hone in on the good and try to develop it further, to get the bad less bad and on the way to relax a little, and not try to be all things to all people, even when I have to be all things to myself.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

I want My Little Pony hair!

For the first time in 13 years, I’m planning to dye my hair pink: the whole lot of it.

I’m not going to do it in one go for the simple fact that it could well terrify my daughter who is only two and isn’t accustomed to seeing her mama with dramatic hairstyles. The same applies to my son, although at twelve, I’d hope he can be a little more rational about it.

It started when I helped my cousin re-do her pink streaks, and then, soon enough after that to lodge in my memory, I read about someone else having pink hair. I thought that following the trend might be a little too predictable, so I bought some blue dye. It didn’t take, but even before the take/no take had revealed itself I was online looking at amazing photos of women with fantastic pink hair. My mind was made up.

(The blue dye didn't work out so well. It barely took and where it did, my grey just looked even greyer.)

Every now and again I get a hair style or colour into my head and then have to have it. Typically, the dream hair is impossibly high maintenance and I quit within months. This happened with the Fimo beaded fringe inspired by a lesser known indie act of the 1990s, the pillarbox red short shaggy bob, the curls inspired by the Greek girl who sat in front of me in my statistics class, the blonde lifted directly from Elle Woods and the razor sharp straight Clara Bow look. I guess I am a bit of a hair whore, especially as there are times when even so much as covering my grey roots (there are a lot) is far too much like hard work.

I have no reason to suppose that going Atomic Pink will be any different. In fact it could well be worse.

As a raven headed beauty (well, that’s what I tell myself) anything that results in increased visibility of my face is hard work. Like many of my dark-haired sisters across the world, the beautiful dark hair’s evil twin is the painfully obvious facial hair: brows, lip and chin. Yes it’s true, I’m going to be the scary bearded granny my grandchildren have to kiss goodbye. But in the short term the pink hair’s going to mean I’ll need a regular babysitter for me to get my eyebrows done, as well as vast quantities of hot wax soothingly smoothed on before being ripped off, taking a whole crop of unsightly dark hairs which would take hours to tweeze and leaving horried white pimples which shine through make up. (The make-up which, of course, shouldn't be applied for at least a day after waxing...)

The other thing that wears me out about my fantasy must-have hair styles is the totality of the look. As with the fight against facial hair, the outfit must be equally eye catching and retro/sharp/dramatic. The fact of it is that as an at-home mama, there are lots of times when I just want to loaf around in distinctly un-edgy jeans and jumpers. I just don’t always have the energy.

Yet I’m doing it again. I’m entering a new phase with open eyes, going for it on the hair front, even if it’s temporary. I’ll just enjoy the ride and hold on tightly to my own My Little Pony mane.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Wide Mouth Frog Story

Shopping in Borders on Sunday morning, I noticed a children’s picture book telling the story of the joke of the wide mouth frog. It is beautifully illustrated with a hand puppet wide mouth frog in the centre of the book, ready to make the joke come alive.

In case you are not familiar with it, the wide mouth frog joke is highly visual and involves two main faces, one for the wide mouth frog and then another for the wide mouth frog when she’s trying to pretend not to be a wide mouth frog. It goes along the lines, with many variations, of a wide mouth frog going to the zoo to ask other animals what they eat until one says it eats wide mouth frogs.

It’s a joke that can be taken on face value, and certainly doesn’t appear at first glance to have sinister connotations, and the range of voices and facial expressions make it popular with children.

I’ve got a small problem with it, though.

(Small problems with cultural products come naturally to me, raised in the era of boycotting South African bananas and writing to the BBC to complain about the portrayal of Black people in soap operas.)

My problem is with the provenance of the joke.

Despite being an avid collector of jokes, my first encounter with the wide mouth frog was neither in a playground or a pub, but in Alan Dundes’ 1987 book ‘Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humour Cycles and Stereotypes’. This is not light reading, but fantastic for anyone who may have noticed patterns in the way stupid jokes break down into trends and come and go. Not the clever jokes that are always funny, but the ones that are kind of silly and all fit into a wider category.

Dundes links the popularity of certain jokes with current events. Although it is easy to dismiss such a theory, as there is rarely hard evidence to work from, it is at very least plausible to say that the surge of dead baby jokes that appeared in the late 1970s mirrored the Roe v Wade case, and that the wave of elephant jokes was actually relating to the popularity of the Democrats in the USA in the early 1960s. Linking in with the wide mouth frog jokes, Dundes and his co-author Roger D. Abrahams offer the interpretation that the elephant in the jokes represented White America’s elephant in the room: the end of segregation and the big and righteous push toward equality for Black America.

The wide mouth frog jokes came later than the elephant jokes, beginning to enter circulation in the early 1970s USA. Most tellers of the joke were unable to offer much in the way of interpretation, but Dundes’ conviction that jokes do not exist in a vacuum but as part of a society and popular folklore begs further analysis of this category of jokes.

This concept fits with the idea that humour falls broadly into three central categories, although that itself is hugely oversimplified. The three categories are: incongruity; superiority and relief. Dundes’ explanation of the metaphor behind the wide mouth frog jokes dovetails neatly with the third, tension relieving branch of humour.

This is where the fact that such a book has made it into print and into a major bookselling chain becomes slightly shocking.

Dundes argues strongly that the joke is in fact an analogy of the survival tactics of Black Americans. This works on two levels, the first is that the frog enters the zoo from a free world. On entering the zoo, it enters a closed society with unwritten rules and the frog has to learn to toe the line with these rules or face being eaten.

Although this can be taken to apply to outspoken people of any political persuasion when coupled with the speech patterns required for the joke, the need to conform and quiet down appears to be directed squarely at Black Americans, or at least a certain stereotype of Black Americans that was in circulation in the early 1970s. This is evident in the way sounds are made if you force your mouth into a maniacal grin when you speak. It produces a peculiar accent similar to ridiculous clichés of ‘Black American’ (Southern?) speech. As such, the wide mouth frog joke provides a socially sanctioned outlet for white people to ‘talk Black’, though, as Dundes notes, “what the Whites who talk Black say is that Blacks ought to be forced to talk White.”

But it seems that I’m alone in finding the wide mouth frog story book really, really offensive. After all, it’s a silly joke about a frog in a zoo. The book is sturdy and colourful and involves little more than silly voices. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced.

As Dundes says: “Racism need not be conscious to be destructive.”

Sunday, 3 August 2008

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Mother

The distance in age can be just a few years but the difference socially can be a thousand.
I spent my son’s early years taking him to toddler groups populated by mothers and childminders in their thirties and forties. I was twenty two, single, poor and grubby. My friends were at university or living far away, snogging strangers and staying up all night drinking, they were getting first jobs, cars and mortgages and leaving me behind.

It seemed like the exciting life I should have had, but truth was that I had missed that boat many years before. There are always other people involved, but I won’t try to spread the blame for my shortcomings as a person and as a mother.

It was years later that I realised that even people with apparently ideal circumstances can be just as lonely, if not more. Cliques of mamas at toddler group and playgroup are hard if not impossible to break into, and the torment of taking a small child to a new group alone, especially when the child is clingy.

Half the point of toddler groups is to enable parents and childminders who do an isolating job to get some social contact with people in similar positions. The advantages of this are plenty, ranging from parenting tips and points of comparison to the opportunity to meet people you might actually get on with and further root your kids as part of the community.

The difficulty comes when there aren’t people in similar positions. Or, scratch that, the same position. Looking back, sometimes I feel that I was really hoping to meet someone else who’d had a baby at nineteen, messed up their A Levels, was embarrassed that their child’s father denied paternity, lived on benefits, was bad at housework and good at reading. Obviously, that person was me, self evidently I didn’t find myself at toddler group. In fact I didn’t find me anywhere I looked. All I found were older women with less education and more experience. And they had husbands. The idea of being married had not yet truly crossed my mind but I had less difficulty then in saying I wasn’t married than I do now. Maybe I just don’t like correcting people so much any more.

Maybe it’s easier, as a defensive thing, when making new contacts is difficult, to blame difference. It’s easier to assert difference than explore similarities, that sets you apart and then it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Motherhood need not be one long, exhausting battle with conformity.

Fathers and Daughters

My relationship with both my parents is deeply special to me, but right now, this is about my Dad and me and my brother and my niece.

They are both complex men, different and similar all at once. My brother thrives on a reputation of being open minded and wayward, yet can surprise with the conservative nature of some of his values and beliefs. My dad is the opposite, like a picture in negative, his conservative reputation is important to him, yet every now and again he surprises me with his open mindedness.

They both have strongly misogynist streaks. Where has this come from? With my Dad I think it’s clear. He was married twice for nearly twenty years each time: his first marriage was to a woman who left him and their children while he was on a naval tour of duty, returning to port to find his car keys and a note with the Harbour Master. His second wife, my mother, was a woman who excelled in her field and earned more than him after he left the armed forces and retrained as a teacher. She eventually left him and took up with another woman.

With that in mind, I can delineate my Dad’s feelings about women reasonably easily. I know less about my brother’s experience, but he was one of the kids his mother left, which must obviously have had a huge impact, leading him to behave badly which resulted in my niece’s mother leaving him. She left without warning him and without notice. He just came back from work one day and she was gone.

(I confess a sneaking admiration for this. If you give warning and discuss it beforehand then it becomes an ultimatum and gives the soon-to-be-ex a chance to falsely improve their behaviour, which never lasts and only confuses matters. As such, I think this is how it should be done and she managed it, off to another country, with a baby and a toddler in tow. She’s a pretty impressive lady.)

Undoubtedly being dumped so abruptly had a massive impact on my brother, but one of the reasons she left was the ways his pre-existing misogyny played itself out.

He is also generally unpleasant.

So, my niece and nephew who are now in their twenties were brought up in their mother’s country of origin in a stable environment with grandparents, uncles, aunts and family friends over generations close by. They are distinct personalities, both creative, both intelligent, very much like their mother. They were not without male figures in their lives but they were shielded from their father. At no point was he denied contact, it was just stipulated (wisely) that their mother had to be present.

For the last twenty years, my brother’s ex has gone to great lengths to ensure that she remained in touch with our family and that both children had the chance to spend time with us and meet us. It’s only now that I spend time with my in-laws that I realise how difficult this can be, even when you get on well.

My brother, Mr WeeWeeHead, turned this into denial of access and then denial full stop. My Dad followed his lead, identifying wholly with his son. For years, the subject of his grandchildren was taboo and he denied their entire existence.

Meanwhile, Mr WeeWeeHead had a fling with a woman he met on his travels, she got pregnant and had their baby: a little girl. When he caught up with them back at home they got together, he moved in them and has been a father to their daughter.

I struggle to figure out whether this is a good or a bad thing.

This was the status quo for fifteen years. The eldest two didn’t exist and he has come back to be with his youngest daughter. It all changed earlier this year when my niece got in touch with him. Immediately he made the huge offer to take her on a skiing holiday for two weeks.

That’s big, generous, but it’s a fraction of what he owes her.

She feels that their holiday was amazing, like she had a real connection with him. He was clearly moved by her being there and proud of the young woman she’s become. He emailed my Dad photos of the two of them and for the first time in many years, my father began to accept her existence. My brother was eager to tell my niece what “really” happened, his version of events which leading up to that point. My niece is a smart girl and has spent hours around people who think about the differences in the ways those events were perceived and why that might be. He said nothing that surprised her, though uncharacteristically she didn’t respond or point out the inconsistencies. She nodded silently while she listened to his tale of woe (I have little sympathy for him) and gave herself a panic attack instead.

During the worsening panic attack, my brother told her ‘Daddy will sort everything out’ a doctor was called, and then an ambulance and she ended up in hospital, just for a while, but exhausted from the sedatives. Everyone was scared. The curious thing, though, was that at one point, my brother began to develop his own panic attack in sympathy with her and had to leave the room. This, my niece felt, bonded them, and they spent time getting to know each other and his pride in his daughter was obvious.

The difficulty, though, came when everybody went home. They went back to their normal selves. In my wee-wee head brother’s case, that is someone who is self-righteous, arrogant, dismissive, self-absorbed who spends more time in the pub than with his family. He puts time and effort into maintaining this image. Inevitably my niece called and tried to talk to him but was puzzled by his lack of enthusiasm and even interest for anything she has to say.

On the phone, that means she’ll keep talking. We’re alike in that respect, if it’s quiet, we need to fill the space.

On her next visit, a six day trip, he worked, she spent time with his partner and their daughter. She came to see me. We had a lovely day, but from what she told me, it seemed that she was discovering the other side of my big brother. I know that this is going to be a bumpy ride for her, but one that only she can take and she’s entitled to. The only thing I can do is to listen to her. I can’t bad mouth my brother, that would be inappropriate, however tempting.

The other thing I can do, and have so far done with success, is negotiate her pocket money from her grandpa. She insists that she’s an adult and has her own money. It’s true she’s an adult and has a job, but she is still my father’s grand-daughter, still a child of this family, and frankly, it’s the least he can do.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Race for Life

It’s now a couple of weeks since my lovely friend Natalie called and asked whether we were still doing Race for Life that Sunday. Some months prior to that I’d pestered Nat into signing up for it when I realised that I really didn’t fancy the thought of running five kilometres around Southampton Common alone, in the midst of groups of women dressed as if for a hen night in hyped up party spirits.

As the date crept closer, I’d wondered whether I’d maybe, perhaps, be able to forget about it, duck out, go to church and just have a normal Sunday, but with Nat’s call I realised that wasn’t going to happen. So on the Sunday morning in question, I picked up my son’s friend, picked up Natalie who’d been up and drinking ‘til two at a wedding, took the little one to her auntie’s, picked up Nat’s cousin Vicky and her son and then schlepped everybody to the Common.

We hadn’t been entirely sure where the race started but we needn’t have worried as the throng of pinkness was visible from the main road. Approaching, Vicky went to collect her car and my son was left in charge of all my valuable items in a cross strap bag. With a fiver for junk food and clear instructions not to leave the field and to wait behind the ‘Hot Donuts’ stand, my son and his friend mooched off leaving Nat and I on the edge of the expanding crowd watching a local radio DJ and a group of male cheerleaders. I have the greatest respect for true cheerleaders but these looked like guys from a gym who had been drafted in to provide some eye candy for the ladeez. It was disappointing.

Every link was filled with random statistics about cancer treatment, cancer deaths and cancer survivors. Nat and I have both loved people who have recovered from cancer and died from cancer, but couldn’t help feeling that Cancer Research were piling it on with the ‘cancer’ stuff.
Eventually that gave way to a young woman who seemed uncomfortable and inexperienced in front of a crowd, and yet another speech about cancer. This time it was about a local two year old who’d died followed by an awkward and obligatory minute of silence. I hate collective minutes of silence. In formal situations I can cope with them as time to say a prayer, or whatever, but on the Common, wearing tatty old joggers and some trainers bought the day before for five pounds and surrounded by women in fancy dress, it didn’t seem to work.

Thankfully that was followed by a Ms Motivator style workout/warm up with another showing from the ‘cheerleaders’. That made us all feel like idiots in some sort of Eastern European-style outdoor routine, but with everyone feeling that way, it didn’t seem to matter. Soon it was all over and we could begin queuing for the starting line.

After queuing for forty five minutes, Nat and I finally got across the line. It was impossible to move at anything faster than a moderate stroll for a while but we eventually settled into a pattern of jogging, walking and chatting. I had never seen Natalie run before and I came to realise that she has one of the silliest runs I’ve ever seen, as though she’s trying to Riverdance in a forward direction at top speed. I aeroplaned behind her.

Still, the running, jogging and walking were incidental. The real deal was the chatting and the carping. When you sign up for Race for Life, Cancer Research send you a number to pin or stitch to your front and a sign for your back which says “I Race for Life for...” and you’re supposed to write something on it. Lots and lots of people, it seemed, were Racing for Life for their mums, grandmas and grandpas but outside that was the ubiquitous and slightly limp “EVERYONE WHO HAS CANCER”. Nat and I concluded that it was a bit naf. Like in church when you have to instantly name someone in need of a prayer, it seemed that it should be more specific than “EVERYONE WHO HAS CANCER”.

I had sarcastically written “CHARITY” on my notice.

“You better hope that they just think it’s someone whose name is Charity.” Said Nat.

As we made a last run to the end, Nat’s sister and her fiancé had come to see us in and caught us with their camera phones looking universally pink, sweaty and scruffy. At this point I would like to thank them kindly for recording the moment and urge them not to post their pictures on Facebook.

The boys had wandered off and it took a while to track them down.

We were left wondering what it was all about. The women-only aspect suggests it should be about women’s cancers, but it isn’t. It also suggests it’s supposed to have feminist overtones, but it doesn’t. If anything it was pseudo-religious, with its testimonials, minutes silence and prayers pinned to backs.

Many of those who signed up will not have raced. Some will do it because someone in their immediate family has had cancer. Many will have done it to get fit and then not actually got round to training. More still won’t even send their sponsor money. It’s a big gig, for sure, and hopefully Cancer Research will profit on the sign up fee alone.

A week after the Race here in Southampton, another location featured in the “Thought for the Day” on Radio 2. I didn’t get the speakers name, but she had found the event moving, talking about thousands of women running for people they loved, in hope or as a memorial. That would, of course, have been a more charitable perspective and it was my choice to critique the Race in Southampton the way I did, but I could help think that her view was a little rose-tinted and she hadn’t seen the sulky teenagers mooching round the course texting or the crowd of girls who reeked of vodka and looked as though they hadn’t managed to get to bed at all on Saturday night. And maybe she hadn’t found that the talks, screens and jumping around at the beginning hadn’t left her on cancer overload and completely inured to further tales of cancer stricken toddlers.

Obviously, cancer is very sad, especially for young children, but after all even if you beat cancer you can’t beat death.