29 December, 2012

The dangers of iPods

I love my iPod Nano. It makes my hour-long bus journey to work so much more interesting. I listen to Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme and turn up at work refreshed, relaxed and well informed. Result.

Yet I always take my iPod off as soon as I leave the bus. I don’t feel safe wearing it as I walk along the street because I can’t hear what’s going on around me. Can’t hear the traffic, can’t hear people coming up behind me, which makes me vulnerable.

But other people don’t seem to share my concerns. Not only pedestrians but also cyclists and even some car drivers wear their iPods as they travel. This seems crazy to me. How can it be safe to  negotiate a busy road when you can’t hear what’s going on around you and, worse still, are distracted by music or whatever else you might be listening to?

iPods may be hands free but, to my mind, they can still be dangerous in certain situations. It would be interesting to know whether any road traffic accidents have occurred that can be directly attributed to iPod-related inadvertence.

22 December, 2012

To Amazon or not to Amazon?

Our family has had a busy run up to Christmas this year. Busier than usual. This has been down in large part to one of our elderly parents having been in hospital for the past several weeks. It looks likely that she'll remain there well into the new year. This means that we have been more preoccupied than usual, and also more occupied than usual, driving down to the South Coast regularly at weekends to visit (a four-hour round trip) and having long telephone conversations in a bid to be as supportive as we possibly can.

And this has been in addition to the usual mad round of activities that any family with children experiences at this time of year -- St. Nicholas Day celebrations, two carol services, one music concert, two sets of school discos, and several Christmas parties at the last count.

Between us, my husband and I have a fairly large assortment of relatives, all of whom require Christmas presents to be bought for them, which means that we usually spend most of our weekends in December (and even some in November!) Christmas shopping. But this year, given our frequent trips to the hospital, browsing at leisure in town really hasn't been an option. Hence my grand solution when I had a spare few minutes at the beginning of December: for once, let's just go on to Amazon and buy a gift off everyone's wishlist. And we did. Not very imaginative, granted, but at least it got the job done and ensured that none of our family would feel bereft this Christmas.

This happened just before the furore about Amazon and tax avoidance broke. And then I felt a little bit guilty. Should I really be supporting a company that makes massive profits yet still tries to avoid paying its fair share of taxes? In the end, I stopped worrying. This year was an unusual year for us, and I'm sure that next year we'll be back to browsing the local stores. But Amazon is so convenient in so many ways. Why can't they be ethical (or even just pay their taxes like the majority of us) as well?

15 December, 2012

Work away days

I spent two days of last week in an expensive hotel, eating too much food, moving too little and feeling very, very bored. Apart from the boredom it sounds alright, doesn’t it? But actually the two days were a waste of my time.

The event was my work’s annual two-day away day (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) and the aim of this event is to give all participants an overview of the work that’s going on in our department as well as providing an opportunity for staff who don’t usually work together to get to know one another. In theory these are both Good Things, but in practice the reality is rather different.

For a start, my department is large—60+ individuals, all of whom are researchers working on complementary but highly specialised scientific research areas. By contrast, I am a project manager. I hold a PhD in Philosophy, but my scientific training ended three decades ago with an O Level in General Science. What this means in practical terms is that I sit through two days of talks and understand very little. At first I thought this was just me, but I soon found out that the science under discussion is so specialised that most people in the room don’t understand the talks. So, it’s arguable whether anyone actually does come away from the two days with an overview of what’s going on in the department, beyond a list of talk titles and a vague idea of general areas.
Having attended three away days now, I’m a bit of a veteran, and I try to fill the time constructively by taking my laptop with me and doing as much regular work as I can. But clearly my productivity is less than it would be if I were at my desk, with my equipment around me, able to communicate readily with my colleagues.

People certainly make an effort to get to know one another at these away days. A bit too much of an effort, if you ask me. After the formal sit down dinner at the end of day one, the hard core revellers make their way to the bar and drink continuously into the wee small hours. Enough said.

Perhaps the solution is simply to chill out. Enjoy the change of scene. Enjoy the free food. Forget my reservations. That’s what the rest of my colleagues appear to do. But still I can’t help feeling that something’s not quite right about all this. Where’s the return?

08 December, 2012

Twenty years of the text message revolution

I am reliably informed by Radio 4 that it’s twenty years ago this week that the first text message was sent. At the time no one envisaged—even remotely—how popular this technology would become. Around 150 billion text messages were sent in the UK last year, yet twenty years ago, it was Vodaphone’s intention to use SMS as an internal tool, a means by which its PAs could contact their bosses when they were on the move.

I've never really been won over by the text message revolution. Nor by mobile phones, for that matter. I’ve actually had a mobile phone from quite early on, acquiring my first brick-like model in 1999. But this was nothing to do with wanting to be ahead of the technological curve. Rather, it was because at that time I was commuting long distances in an ancient car and didn’t want to find myself stranded with no means of calling for help.

Some fourteen years later, I’m still not an enthusiastic mobile user. I’ve upgraded my old brick, but still have a pretty basic Nokia. No smart phone or advanced features for me. My mobile is mainly used for child-related purposes—the school can contact me if my kids are sick, and I can call school if I’m caught up in traffic and may be late for pick-up time.

There’s something that I dislike about the immediacy of mobile communication. I find it mildly irritating that you’re expected to be available and ready to take calls and messages 24/7. When I’m out of the house or office and away from my land line I rather like the feeling of being out of contact, of having a few moments’ precious time to myself, without the constant interruptions of modern life.

All of this will have to change, though, when my eldest child goes to secondary school in a few months. I know that if I want to be kept up to date with my offspring’s movements and whereabouts I’ll have to adopt texting wholeheartedly. And at that point I will (gritting my teeth!) have to purchase a smart phone. With the failing eyesight and lack of dexterity that accompanies middle age, I find typing on my phone’s tiny keypad nigh impossible.

One of the questions brought up by Radio 4 was what will replace the text message? Since technologies are fast moving and transient, high tech companies are always looking for the next best thing. One journalist suggested that perhaps ‘the great silence’ will follow the text revolution. Maybe the novelty of instant communication will simply lose its appeal. That would certainly fit with my current world view. But, in reality, I can’t quite believe it. Nor would I want this to happen. As I gear up to embrace 24/7 communication, the thought that my eldest child might not communicate with me while out and about and on the move fills me with dread.

01 December, 2012

Away from home!

My oldest daughter recently went away for a week-long residential trip with school. She's been away quite a bit by herself before--two nights away with school a couple of years ago, a few nights staying with her grandparents every summer holiday--but this was the longest period away by herself to date.

We went through the welter of preparations that were required in advance of the trip. Packing a huge suitcase filled with numerous sets of clothing suitable for outdoor activities. All of which had to be labelled, of course. Gathering together a mammoth-sized picnic for the three-hour coach journey. Providing any necessary medications to the class teacher. And then we dropped our daughter off very early on Monday morning, in time to catch the coach. We had to say our goodbyes at home beforehand, because no self-respecting ten-year-old will deign to kiss their parents in public, even if they won't be seeing them for a whole week.

And then she was there. Since the children aren't allowed to ring their parents (one of the aims of the trip is to increase their independence), all information comes via email from the school. We received a daily update telling us what the children had done the previous day and what was planned for the day ahead. The things they got up to were quite amazing--caving, canoeing, high ropes, mountain walking...

She arrived back late on Friday evening, having had a fantastic time and bursting with stories to tell us. We had missed her, but I'm not sure she had missed us, or not as much -- although she did say that she was pleased to be home.

All this excitement made me think back to my own school days, many moons ago. And it occurred to me that schools simply didn't provide these kinds of opportunities back then, especially not primaries. The best that I got was a French exchange trip at age fifteen. Things have certainly changed over the years...

24 November, 2012

Cyclists

I’m going to have a bit of a rant in this post—about cyclists.

Now, I do understand that cyclists have a hard time of it competing with all the other (much bigger) vehicles on the road, most of which rarely seem to give them enough space. I also understand that there are few dedicated cycle paths in this country and that the roads are very busy, which makes cycling a dangerous business.

However, I am also aware that some cyclists (some, not all) seem to treat pedestrians with the same lack of respect as some car drivers treat cyclists. There are two instances that I am thinking of in particular.

The first is that some cyclists appear to entirely disregard the rules of the road. Specifically, some cyclists seem to think that the green man for pedestrians is actually a green card for them to cross a junction in the path of all the pedestrians whose right of way it actually is. Cyclists, like all other road users, should of course stop at a red light, but many don’t, and this is both discourteous to, and very dangerous for, pedestrians. Not to mention illegal. A bicycle can do a lot of damage to a pedestrian—especially a child.
Secondly, some cyclists, when using shared cycleways/pavements, simply ring their bell to warn pedestrians of their approach and then push past without so much as a thank you. This seems rude to me. Surely it would be better (and some cyclists do this) to say ‘excuse me’ on the approach and then ‘thank you’ when the pedestrian moves.

I should reiterate that my rant only applies to some cyclists—many are entirely law abiding and polite model citizens. Call me old fashioned, but I think everyone should be aiming for law abiding and polite, whatever their mode of transport.

17 November, 2012

Punk history versus Horrible Histories

My family and I had an interesting day out in London during the half term holiday. We did something for the adults and something for the kids.

The something for the adults was a visit to the Hayward Gallery at the Southbank Centre to see a small punk exhibition called 'Someday all the adults will die!' I'd heard about the exhibition on Radio 4 and it sounded intriguing. And intriguing it certainly was. The display included fanzines, clothing and record covers from the punk years. These exhibits gave a real feeling for the era and it was particularly interesting to see the hand-drawn and photocopied posters and magazines which were characteristic of the movement -- at a time before professional printing was cheap and available to the mass market.

I was a little concerned when we entered the exhibition space and were greeted by the deafening wail of punk music that this perhaps wasn't the ideal place for kids (mine were the only ones there). But actually my two were totally unphased and browsed the exhibition with interest. My oldest asked lots of questions and declared at the end that she really liked punk style! Let's hope she doesn't take up the safety-pin-through-the-nose look in her teenage years!

The something for the kids was a complete contrast -- a Horrible Histories play at the Garrick Theatre -- but equally entertaining. The 'Barmy Britain' show aimed to provide a short history of Britain 'with the nasty bits left in'. True to the Horrible Histories formula, there were plenty of gruesome happenings and plenty of gallows and toilet humour. The acting was excellent -- just two actors on stage for an hour, supported by an ingenious range of props. We laughed a lot -- even the adults!

We completed our day out in London with dinner at Cafe Rouge. Everyone was happy and everyone had enjoyed themselves. A successful day all round!

10 November, 2012

Bath: hen party capital of the world?

Back in the summer, my husband and I had a night away in Bath. Just the two of us. It's something we did a couple of years ago and really enjoyed so decided to repeat.

We stayed in the same hotel again and did the same things -- spent the morning at the Thermae Spa, had a late lunch, wondered around Bath, checked into our hotel, then came out again a bit later for dinner at our favourite Mexican restaurant. Perfect -- so why change the formula?

However, something had changed about Bath since we last visited -- suddenly it had become the hen party capital of the world. Or so it seemed  Everywhere we went we were beset by groups of giggling young women, one of whom was invariably sporting L plates, or a tiny plastic tiara, or, in one case, a pair of head boppers with a tiny L plate fixed to the end of each stalk. Why on earth do people do that? Aren't they aware of how silly they look?!

These hen parties were omnipresent -- in the spa, wandering the streets, in the restaurant that we'd booked for dinner... Just about managing to make ourselves heard over the din that these young women were creating, we asked our waitress why they had so many parties in. She responded that Bath had recently become a very popular destination for hen nights and that the restaurant always had a couple booked in for dinner on a Saturday night.

We really enjoyed our night away in Bath and had a lot of fun laughing at the L plates and head boppers, but in some ways it was quite a relief to return to the tranquility of my parents-in-law's house to pick up the kids. I'd recommend Bath for many things -- beautiful architecture, nice shops, good restaurants, interesting museums -- but not for the hen parties.

03 November, 2012

Never mind the bollards!

I came across rather an interesting temporary sign recently when taking a walk along a shared pedestrian/cycle path in my hometown. Black text on a yellow background, it read ‘Bollards’.

The sign’s purpose was actually to warn cyclists taking part in a race that this particular cycle path ended in a row of bollards. Very useful to know for non-local participants in the event. And yet, something was missing, I felt. Perhaps an exclamation mark thus: ‘Bollards!’ would be appropriate. After all, ‘Bollards!’ does have the ring of a swear word about it. Or, as my husband suggested: ‘Never mind the bollards!’, which puts the Sex Pistols in a whole new light.

Either way, I found the sign rather amusing. But you’ll have to take my word for it—unfortunately I didn’t manage to return with a camera before it was removed. 

27 October, 2012

It's hard to let go, isn't it, parents?

There’s a lot to think about as a parent. Children starting secondary school, for example. This process has many implications. Not only the obvious ones of having to get used to an unfamiliar environment, needing to buy a new set of uniform, etc., but also much broader issues of freedom and independence. After all, when you’ve spent the past seven years accompanying your children to and from primary school, you can’t suddenly, on the first day of their secondary school careers, expect them to make their own way there. They need some kind of practice. They need to know how to cross the road, how to judge the speed of traffic, what to watch out for, what’s safe and what’s not. In short, they need a bit of world knowledge under their belts.

But world knowledge isn’t something that children gain while glued to their parents’ sides. There’s only so much that can be imparted through telling. In the end, being independent – having responsibility for oneself – is the catalyst through which we learn to negotiate the world, successfully and safely.

This kind of learning, though, is (or at least should be) a gradual process. Children need to build up their confidence bit by bit. They might start off by walking to school a little way ahead of their parents, for example, so that there is someone around to keep an eye on their road crossing and to make sure that they arrive safely. Or they might do a bit of shopping in the local supermarket with a parent in the background somewhere, on hand to help out with any issues if necessary.

My own experience has been that, once a child feels ready, they really enjoy becoming independent and taking on responsibility. But they also appreciate a build up; a gradual preparation prior to full-on independence.

It’s also my experience that giving this independence can be incredibly hard for the parent. Relinquishing control, trusting your child with their own safety, is tough when their safety has been your responsibility for so many years.

So you should be able to spot me easily enough. I’ll be the gibbering wreck in the corner having a really hard time letting go....

26 October, 2012

Recent author interview

You may be interested to read my author interview which appears on the Indie Book Blog Database: http://hampton-networks.com/welcome-beckie-henderson/.

It talks about my writing, my background and my favourite authors -- amongst other things...

20 October, 2012

The survival guide to starting secondary school

I was travelling to work on the bus the other morning when I saw a guy across the aisle from me avidly reading a book entitled "A Parent's Survival Guide to Starting School". It caught my eye because my family is going through exactly this dilemma at the moment.

In our case, our oldest is due to start secondary school next September and we have to submit our application to the county council by the end of October. Yikes! The deadline feels uncomfortably close now...

Somehow, when our kids started primary school, the decision of which school to choose didn't seem quite such a huge one. They'd been at nursery since they were tiny and primary school really just seemed to be an extension of that. Furthermore, primary school doesn't entail such non-negotiable and scary things as public examinations -- things that will impact on your kids' futures long term. So, when we were choosing primaries, we visited our catchment school, which seemed very good and very pleasant, and we put it down as our first choice. That was that.

Not so simple with secondary. There are three large secondaries in the town in which we live, all of which are large and none of which is particularly appealing. They're all OK, have similarly depressing 1960s buildings, and are all within walking distance of our home. None is over subscribed, so we have our pick. But the trouble is, we can't get excited about any of them. They're all much of a muchness -- each one has at some point in the past few years been designated 'failing', and each has had a new head come in and bring the school up to a satisfactory level again.

The key questions that worry us when choosing a secondary are those that worry any parent. Is there disruption in the school? Is there bullying? Will my children have the opportunity to learn and fulfil their potential? Which schools are their friends going to?

The problem is that, with our local schools, no one ticks all our the boxes and so comes out with a resounding yes vote. To put is simply, none of our local schools is that good. As as result we, and some other parents we know, have looked into the local independent schools, but with fees totalling roughly £170,000 for two children attending from year 7 through to year 13, this is an option that requires an awful lot of thinking about. Even if we felt we could scrape the money together, our day-to-day lifestyle would have to change quite considerably to accommodate the cost of the schooling. And is it really worth that?

So, I can well sympathise with the guy on my bus. As far as schools are concerned, it's a jungle out there and it's certainly a survival guide that parents need.

13 October, 2012

There but for the grace of God...

One thing that occurs to me from time to time is the apparently random nature of our lives and the courses that they take. All sorts of things completely outside our control impact on our lives -- our gender, where we were born, our parents, the schools we attend, the opportunities presented to us, the people we meet... The list goes on and on. These kinds of things have an enormous influence on us, our behaviour and the choices we make.

And yet, the things we do ourselves can also have a huge impact on our lives. As a parent, this is something I worry about frequently. What my children choose to do or not do will affect their lives, for better or for worse. And what if they make the wrong decisions? In a world as competitive and unforgiving as ours, second chances are rare.

These sentiments were brought home to me very strongly this week when I was listening to 'A Life Less Ordinary' on Radio 4. The guest was Sandra Gregory, who, in 1993, was arrested for attempting to smuggle heroin out of Thailand. She was imprisoned for a total of seven years, five of which she spent in an infamous Thai jail. She was just twenty-eight when she was detained.

So, Gregory's decision to carry drugs impacted hugely on her life, pure and simple. But the reasons leading up to her decision were complex: she was suffering from a bout of dengue fever and couldn't work; she therefore had no money; she was desperate to come back home to the UK. And then she met a man who offered her a 'solution' -- carry this heroin out of Thailand for me and I'll give you £1,000.

As a parent, you can only hope that your child will never find themselves in that kind of situation. Or that, if they do, they make a sensible decision and find a safe way out. Yet who knows what kind of external factors will drive the decisions that your children make? Personality plays a part, of course, but it's those things that lie outside our control (the opportunities presented to us, the people we meet...) that can so often tip the balance.

The old adage 'There but for the grace of God go I' springs to mind. Cold comfort at the best of times, and even colder comfort when the 'I' refers to your son or daughter.

06 October, 2012

Past the pushchair phase -- phew!


I was walking out of my local leisure centre the other day when I noticed a woman struggling past me in the opposite direction, lugging a baby in a car seat in one hand, with a toddler clinging tightly to her other hand. I see this kind of thing all the time, of course, but for some reason I looked this time. I mean really looked. And I felt so glad that I was beyond that stage (both my children are now in the later years of primary school).

I remember the pushchair stage well, though. I recall going back to work after my first stint of maternity leave and the greatest thing for me was being able to go out for lunch by myself in a cafe that was up a flight of stairs. The freedom was intoxicating. I used to visit this cafe regularly pre-children, but a cafe on the first floor with a small baby in tow takes on a whole new dimension of difficulty.

Granted, pre-teen children come with their own set of problems. Negotiating limits of freedom, learning how to manage relationships, even coming to an agreement about appropriate amounts of pocket money. But the rewards -- ability to communicate in plain English, no longer needing to cart baby paraphernalia with you on every outing, etc., etc. -- are ample compensation, in my mind.

29 September, 2012

Visiting Longleat Safari Park

I was rather sad to discover, when we visited Legoland Windsor last year, that Legoland occupies the spot that used to be taken by Windsor Safari Park. I have vague memories of visiting Windsor when I was very little (there's a family photo of me watching a giraffe from the safety of my dad's arms) and it seems a shame that the source of those memories no longer exists.

So, we decided to take our kids to a safari park this summer and eventually made it to Longleat a couple of weekends ago. We had a really good time there -- there's a lot of interesting stuff to see and do and, although there were many visitors, the park seemed to absorb them and didn't feel crowded.

We managed to fit in a stroll around the jungle kingdom, a visit to Longleat House, a safari drive through (two hours in total!), and a play (for our kids) on the adventure playground. Things that we particularly enjoyed were feeding lettuce leaves to the giraffes, walking amongst the lemurs, and the house, which is beautiful and very interesting and has very few visitors compared to the rest of the park.

It was a real experience to see so many wild animals so close up on safari. We had a rhinoceros standing (literally) right next to our car, and lions and tigers just a few yards from us. It was also quite an eye opener to see how blase the staff were about opening and closing the gates between the big cat enclosures with no protection for themselves!

One of the highlights of Longleat, of course, are the mischievous monkeys. We didn't dare drive through their enclosure for fear of the damage they might do to our car (I remember monkeys all over the windscreen and roof when I was young, and feeling really quite scared...). But we were able to watch all their antics from a safe distance by taking the bypass lane.

All in all, Longleat was a very enjoyable day out. Safari parks may have been around for a long time, but they have managed to maintain their allure over the years, and I'd prefer a trip to a safari park over a trip to Legoland any day!

22 September, 2012

Reducing grime, disorder and smear

I read something rather clever recently.

On my way in to work one morning I spotted a painter and decorator's van sporting the strap line 'Reducing grime, disorder and smear.' Nice line in itself, but if, like me, you live in the Thames Valley, it takes on a whole new level of meaning. That's because the strap line for the Thames Valley police, emblazoned on all its squad cars, is 'Reducing crime, disorder and fear.'

I've always found this rather amusing--as if the police force is some kind of private sector hit squad that needs to advertise its services in order to attract potential new custom.

Always good to know that one's sense of humour isn't unique. Or indeed warped.

15 September, 2012

The demands of primary school

School's only been back for a couple of weeks and already the requests are flooding in. Not from my kids, but from school itself.

So far I've been asked to bake two lots of cakes for two separate cake stalls, to sew sequins on to five T-shirts for one of my kid's class assemblies, and to volunteer a whole day to help out on a school trip. Quite a lot of requests in just a few days, I think you'll agree.

It's not that I mind helping out and I do understand that all these activities require extra support. However, when you're already very pushed for time (working plus running a freelance business in my case) it can be difficult to accept even more obligations. Almost every mum I know with school age children works, so the situation is pretty much universal, I think.

Primary schools, in my neck of the woods at least, do appear to be rather stuck in a bygone era. And they don't seem to recognise the nowadays commonplace phenomenon of two working parents (see one of my earlier blog posts).

People tell me that secondary school is entirely different. No requests for help, no more standing round in the playground, no contact at all with the school, it seems. I'll miss the playground cameraderie and the open, friendly atmosphere of our primary, but I can't pretend that it won't be a relief to receive fewer requests for assistance.

11 September, 2012

Blackberrying...and cooking!

We took the kids blackberrying at the weekend. I have memories of picking heaps of large, ripe blackberries as a child, along hedgerows in the middle of nowhere, with a gentle September sun shining overhead. And my kids were keen to experience something similar. But, of course, our outing was nothing like that. Well, it was sunny, but that's about as far as the parallel goes...

For a start, we were picking along a fairly well-frequented footpath, which meant that most of the berries had already been picked and those that hadn't were small and scraggly. I'd also forgotten how prickly blackberry picking can be. We spent a lot of time searching for dock leaves and consoling children who'd been scratched by brambles and stung by nettles.

But they weren't deterred. After half an hour or so, we'd managed to pick enough half-decent berries to flavour the apple crumble that was planned for supper...which neatly leads on to the second part of this blog post.

The kids had volunteered to cook for us -- guacamole, salad and bread, and apple crumble. Sounds great, doesn't it? But a ten and an eight-year-old doing the cooking does not mean that the parents get to put their feet up. In reality the parents supervise, which means advising at every step, helping with anything that the kids can't do themselves, and generally hovering in the background ready to avert all culinary disasters.

But I exaggerate. Every time the kids cook, they get better and need less and less supervision. This time they even loaded the dishwasher and wiped down the surfaces as well.

Oh, and the apple and blackberry crumble tasted great too, so it was worth the effort after all!

08 September, 2012

"The Taming of the Shrew" at Shakespeare's Globe

We recently went to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare’s Globe.

It was a great experience. The acting was superb – so lively and athletic that it thoroughly held the attention of my eight- and ten-year-olds. The building was fascinating. And one had the sense that the whole package was as authentic as it could be.

The play itself is also an interesting one. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story – one of the main plot arcs involves Petruchio, who wishes to marry Katherina on account of the size of her dowry. However, the one snag is that Katherina is a “shrew”, i.e. a wayward woman who shouts, screams, is physically violent and refuses to do anything that she is asked (or expected) to do. Petruchio therefore sets about “taming” her. He does this by starving her, depriving her of sleep, and denying her decent clothing unless she concurs with everything he says and does, even if that is patently false. (He insists that it is the moon that shines in the middle of the day rather than the sun, for example.) Deprived of her most basic needs, Katherina succumbs to Petruchio and becomes a perfectly “obedient” wife. She is, literally, forced to succumb in order to survive.

Sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t it? And indeed the play can be extremely difficult to stomach for a modern-day audience. But, of course, all of this needs to be understood in its historical context. Women were expected to defer utterly to their husbands. What did choice did they have, after all, when their husbands owned all their worldly goods, they had no personal freedom, no independent wealth and no means of earning a living? They relied on their husbands to provide for them in every way.

Given that this was the context in which Shakespeare was writing, the play becomes more understandable. But even so, Katherina’s personality and Petruchio’s attempts to subdue her are extreme. This allows for a number of interpretations. "The Taming of the Shrew" can be seen as a straightforward farce, or a piece of social commentary (the extremes of the play serving to highlight the unjust situation in which Katherina, and indeed all women of the time, found herself), or a depiction of the battle between two incredibly strong personalities (the fact that they are man and wife only being part of the picture).

Or maybe it’s none of these things and we’re just trying to make ourselves feel better by putting a modern spin on the blatant brutality of the play. Either way, the actors did a grand job and put on a thoroughly enjoyable show. A visit to Shakespeare’s Globe comes highly recommended!

04 September, 2012

Three cheers for the Paralympics!

My family and I attended the Paralympics on Sunday morning and had a fab time. We were extremely lucky because we saw Aled Davies win the gold in discus for Great Britain. The atmosphere was great and we were part of the the celebratory Mexican wave that went round the stadium after Davies' victory.

But it wasn't only the winning that meant we had a good time. We were impressed by many things, starting off right at the beginning with the organisation. Our train was greeted at Stratford by several staff who directed us and made sure we didn't do anything stupid (like falling off the platform onto the tracks!). The joining instructions advised us to arrive at the Olympic Park two-and-a-half hours before our event, but in fact we were through security and into the Park in a matter of minutes, including ticket check and security and bag scan. This was down to the number and efficiency of the staff, as well as lots of ticket checkpoints and numerous x-ray machines. The airports could certainly take a few lessons in managing crowd security from the Paralympic team!

The staff were also super-friendly. You might think that dealing with that many visitors all day long would be wearing, but the staff were unfailingly positive and helpful. They undertook their duties with a real sense of humour and made a great effort to interact with the visitors and particularly to make children feel welcome.

The catering was much better than expected too. I had envisaged McDonald's only, but in fact there were various catering outlets appealing to a variety of tastes -- Indian food, deli-style sandwiches, fish and chips, champagne and seafood... Again, there were plenty of staff around, directing people to less busy outlets so that they didn't have to queue for such a long time.

And the Olympic Stadium was a very impressive structure -- worth a visit in itself to admire the size and the design. Our seats were right at the back of the stadium, but still we had a good view. The angling of the seating meant that we had no problem with the heads of the spectators in front of us.

I wasn't quite sure how we'd find our Paralympic visit as we're not hugely committed sports fans, but the experience was really good, and this was down to the quality of the whole package, not just the sport.

03 September, 2012

And another great review for "A Matter of Degree"...

I have just received another really positive review for my novel "A Matter of Degree" from reviewer Lisa Wood. Here are some choice quotes:

"This book had me laughing, crying and eager to read more."

"ideal for a holiday read or just to be transported away from whatever you are doing in your daily life"

"the characters were believable and engaging"

You can read the full review on Lisa's blog here: http://bit.ly/PDwd9b

"A Matter of Degree" has received only four and five star reviews on Amazon, and people seem to really enjoy reading it. I'm very grateful to the various book review bloggers who have reviewed it so positively.

Thank you, everyone!

01 September, 2012

Calke Abbey: the "un-stately" stately home

On the way to our recent family holiday in the Yorkshire Dales, we broke our journey by visiting the National Trust property Calke Abbey.

This is rather an unusual place. Dubbed the "un-stately" stately home, it has been very little restored since being taken over by the National Trust in 1985. Unlike most of the Trust's properties, peeling paintwork, untidy, cluttered rooms, and overgrown courtyards are the order of the day here.

The idea is to present the property in the state in which it was left to the Trust, at a a time when families were struggling under the burden of maintaining these enormous houses and, due to lack of funds, were often forced to close up rooms (and sometimes whole wings) of their homes and let nature take it course. The effect is refreshing -- rather than passing through splendid room after splendid room, the visitor comes to understand the worries and problems faced by the owners of Calke and so gains a more intimate insight into their lives. It is also  interesting that, at Calke at least, preservation does not necessarily equate with restoration.

And finally, on a more modern note, when entering the Calke estate, you are handed a CD to play in your car on the drive up to the house. The running commentary explains a little about the history of the house as well as pointing out key landmarks as you pass by them. Once parked, you return your CD to visitor reception. All rather ingenious and not something I've encountered before.

Just in case you're wondering, I would heartily recommend a visit to Calke.

25 August, 2012

The draw of the Yorkshire Dales

We've just come back from a superb, relaxing holiday in the Yorkshire Dales. This area of the UK is stunning and has some amazing sites and places to visit. Here are a few of our favourites:

  • Jervaulx Abbey is a ruined 12th century Cistercian monastery. The ruins are quite magical -- peaceful, carpeted in wild flowers, and surrounded by beautiful scenery and grazing sheep. There is also a lovely tea room across the road where you can sit outside and munch yummy cakes. Perfect after a visit to the abbey.
  • The Forbidden Corner is billed as "the strangest place in the world" and this is indeed an apt description. It's an extensive folly in the grounds of a stately home. Originally built by the home owner for his children, the Corner was opened to the public in 1994 and was a runaway success. Our kids loved exploring the grotto, the mazes and hidden passages, and the surprise water fountains -- be prepared for a soaking!
  • The small town of Richmond, where we stayed, is well worth a visit with its castle, interesting shops and river walks. We were especially enchanted by the remains of nearby Easby Abbey -- another set of picturesque ruins that the kids enjoyed exploring.
In fact, we had such a great time in the Dales that we chatted, idly, about the possibility of moving up there. The peace and quiet, the rural landscape, the slower pace of life, the prevalence of local businesses are all really attractive. Yet there are downsides. My husband spent the week frustrated by the (very) intermittent mobile internet connection (he couldn't check out the weather forecast or opening hours using his iPhone). Property isn't quite as cheap as you think it will be -- the area is desirable and the prices reflect that desirability. You need to drive to access almost any amenity -- a large supermarket, a cinema, etc., etc.

Perhaps relocation isn't an option for us urbanites after all...

On the last day of our holiday my husband announced (only slightly tongue in cheek) that he was looking forward to getting back to his own bed and his internet connection. I agree wholeheartedly about the bed -- there's nothing like your own. As for the internet connection -- well, I'm just about to publish this blog post and  catch up on my unread email. What do you think?

19 August, 2012

Another four star review for "A Matter of Degree"

Book reviewer Miranda Stork has given my novel "A Matter of Degree" four stars on Amazon!

Her overall opinion: "I thought this was a perfect book for light reading, for example if you were on holiday or just chilling in the garden for the day. I did enjoy it, and I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys reading contemporary women’s fiction, but wants the added twist of another genre mixed in. The writing was very good, and I can’t wait to see what else this author comes out with!".

You can read the full text of the review on Miranda's blog here: http://bit.ly/TNIhaR or on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/PIAGLG.

Thank you Miranda!

"A Matter of Degree" is light and fun -- perfect in this hot weather. Why don't you give it a go?

18 August, 2012

It’s a small world...isn’t it?


I visited a model village with my kids last summer and something really quite surprising happened. I bumped into someone who I had last seen over twenty years ago. This was a young woman (back then) who I had known for just three months over the summer when we were both students. We’d been working at the same summer camp in the States and then travelled together with a group of other students.

The funny thing is that we hadn’t kept in touch over the intervening years. We said goodbye at the end of the three months and I really didn’t expect to see her again. It wasn’t that we’d fallen out or anything like that—just that the relationship had been a fleeting one.

So imagine my surprise when someone called my name out of the blue while I was watching my kids play in the model village’s playground. It took me a few seconds, but I pretty soon worked out that this person was none other than my old student acquaintance. Seemed like neither of us had changed that much over the years. Quite a relief in some ways, I suppose.

Anyway, it transpired that she was now married like me, with two kids roughly the same age as mine. She had been a student in Sheffield and had stayed up north until very recently, when she moved down south to be near her parents (cost efficient childcare!).

Neither of us lives very close to the model village. We just both happened to take a trip there on the same day at the same time and happened to bump into and recognise one another. And it wasn’t even definite that my family were going to the model village that day—it had been a toss up between that and another attraction. If we’d opted for that other attraction, I wouldn’t have bumped into my old acquaintance.

So what are the chances? It makes you wonder how many other people from your past you may have brushed shoulders with and just not recognised. Maybe that old adage about it being a small world is true after all.

11 August, 2012

It's school uniform time again!

It seems like we've only just broken up from school and already I'm thinking about replenishing my kids' school uniform.

I don't know about you, but we never get to the start of a new school year without having to buy something new, even if it's just socks. And then there are new school shoes, of course. I'm adamant that shoes should last for the entire school year, but by then my kids' footwear is in tatters.

So, I'm building up to our annual trip to Marks and Spencer. It may be boring, but at least good old M&S has the advantage of combining quality with (reasonable) value. What more can I say? But this trip always seems fraught with problems. Either they have the style that we want, but not the right size; or they have the size but not the style; or, sometimes, neither. In which case we have to resort to the internet. But how can you buy plimsolls on line and be sure they fit -- or anything, for that matter?

Oh well, the upside is that we always stop for a lovely cappuccino (or hot chocolate, in the case of the kids) once we've failed to buy everything that we need!

10 August, 2012

Can working parents have it all?


In a recent interview for Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour”, Edwina Currie commented on MP Louise Mensch’s resignation. The thrust of her comments was that while women can have it all, they can’t do it all.

I’m not sure that I agree with Currie’s definition of having it all.

In the course of the interview Currie talked about how she had managed her personal and family life in order to fulfil her obligations as an MP. This involved always employing others to care for her children—first nannies and later boarding school. She even mentioned a succession of “rent-a-grannies” who taught her children essential life skills such as manners—something she declared that she would have been useless at doing.

This sounds to me like a failure in parenting, rather than a family management technique. After all, what’s the point in having children if you never see them? A large part of the joy of parenthood is spending time with your children, teaching them, passing your values on to them. And that joy, by the way, is gender neutral.

I’m not denying that combining a high-flying career with parenthood is incredibly difficult. I made the decision to step down from a senior, highly-paid post in order to spend more time with my children, and I still occasionally feel the odd twinge of regret. But in fact I love spending more time with my kids, and my family life works much better as a result.

I agree wholeheartedly with Currie that women (or men, for that matter) can’t do it all. But I don’t agree with her that we can have it all. Two partners with high-flying careers and children don’t sit easily together. Something has to give, either career or family life. And a situation in which a working parent rarely sees or interacts with their children does not, in my books, count as having it all.

04 August, 2012

Queuing at my outdoor pool

A few weeks ago my family and I visited out local open air swimming pool. Yes, hugely surprising, I know, given the gallons of rainfall that we’ve had recently. But right at the beginning of the summer there was a really warm weekend day. Remember?

Anyway, the net result of said warm day was that the world and his wife (well, my local community and his wife) flocked to the outdoor pool. Now, our pool used to have a sensible system in place—three swim sessions a day with everyone thrown out at the end of a session and new people admitted at the beginning of the next session.

But this sensible system has changed. What happens now is that the pool opens first thing in the morning and stays open all day long, with no separate sessions and everyone allowed to stay as long as they like. This means that if you decide to go swimming in the afternoon, for example, there’s a good chance that you won’t get in at all. You’re reduced to queuing until enough people come out that you reach the front of the line. And this can take a very long time, as I can attest from my personal experience a few weeks ago.

If you’ve got young kids, queuing at length in the heat can be difficult—even more so if you’re forced to give up in the end. Why don’t the powers that be at the pool recognise this? Especially since the majority of their customers are indeed families with young children.

I should also point out that a system generating long queues simply encourages people to play dirty—queue jumping by joining friends who are further ahead in the line, for example. But that’s another story...

29 July, 2012

Another lovely review for "A Matter of Degree"

My novel "A Matter of Degree" has just received another lovely review on Amazon: http://amzn.to/LWzmTL.

"Mingling mystery, romance, the odd guilty secret...this first novel by Beckie Henderson is a great Summer read."

"Events move along at a good pace, the plot keeps you entertained and intrigued throughout..."

Thank you!

28 July, 2012

Government procurement cards rant #2

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the limitations now placed on the use of government procurement cards. To cut a long story short, this means that my department is now forced to buy text books via an online purchasing system which is much more long winded and much more expensive than using Amazon.

Just to hammer home the ridiculousness of this system, I though you might be interested in an update to the original post. In the end, I received the book that I had ordered a full calendar month after I finally managed to place the order. And this was after having chased the supplier via our purchasing team no less than three times.

To recap:

Under the old government procurement card system I could have purchased this book immediately and received it within three to five working days with no additional delivery charge.

But under the new system, it took a total of seven weeks (from me requesting long on details for the online purchasing system) for the book to be delivered, and the book cost £10 more than on Amazon. Not to mention the cost of my time spent chasing the delivery at various points over those seven weeks...

See what I mean?


21 July, 2012

End of term!

Finally, we've reached the end of term! But, my goodness, what a busy week it's been. Here's the detailed breakdown:

MONDAY
1. Oldest daughter running after-school cake stall in the playground, which meant I had to help set up/serve/take down.

2. Youngest daughter spending the afternoon at a friend's house, which meant I had to pack home clothes and sort out pick up arrangements with friend's mum.

3. Evening music concert at school (6 until 8.30pm), which meant I had to cook an early supper and ferry everyone to and from school.

TUESDAY
4. Oldest daughter spending the afternoon at a friend's house -- see (2) above.

5. School sports day. This was cancelled (hurrah!) due to wet weather, but still...

WEDNESDAY
6. Youngest daughter performing in music assembly before school finished for the day, which meant I had to leave work early.

7. Early evening school discos. Both daughters attending, but at different times, mind, as they're in different year groups, which meant I had to cook an early supper and go to and from school six times in total...

THURSDAY
8. Nothing out of the ordinary. YAY!

FRIDAY
9. Last day of term, ending at 1.30pm, which meant I had to ask a friend to pick my children up from school. I was at a work away day and so couldn't leave early.

Phew, I'm exhausted!

None of this was helped by the fact that my other half was away in another continent all week on business, which meant I had to cover his share of the school runs as well as my own. But hey, I'm a mother, I can cope!




19 July, 2012

Have the Olympic Games lost touch with their roots?


I, like so many others in my home town, turned out last week to see the Olympic torch passing through my neighbourhood. What really stuck me was not the spectacle, but the commerciality of it all, in particular the myriad sponsorship vans at the head of the cavalcade. Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonalds. You can pay for Olympic tickets with a Visa card (no other credit cards allowed), and if you don’t currently use Visa, then “your bank will be able to help you select and apply for the Visa product that best suits your needs”, according to the London 2012 website. Food can be bought at the Olympic stadium from the biggest McDonalds outlet in the world. And while we were waiting for the flame to pass, my daughters were gifted a bottle of sparkling brown nectar by the nice people from Coca-Cola.

Something strikes me as wrong in all of this. Why is a global sporting event being part-sponsored by a fizzy drinks manufacturer and a chain of junk food restaurants? OK, so they can afford to provide sponsorship, but surely it would be more fitting for companies who at least make a nod towards healthy eating to be sponsoring? How about PrĂȘt a Manger, for example? Perhaps they weren’t asked. But in the end it all comes down to what the consumer wants and what will sell, I suppose. And what the people want are burgers and fizzy drinks, evidently. Good health be damned.

Is this what it was like in Ancient Greece, I wonder? No one can really answer that question, of course. Global brands, in the sense that we experience them, wouldn’t have existed, so perhaps it’s an unfair comparison. But my gut feeling tells me that the modern approach is out of kilter and fails to reflect the true (original) nature and spirit of the Games.

14 July, 2012

Night Waking by Sarah Moss

I have just finished reading Sarah Moss' "Night Waking" and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's very well written, very funny and there's a lot of material in there that I can empathise with.

The basic plot involves an academic couple with two young children who are spending several months on a remote island off the coast of Scotland so that the husband of the couple can pursue his research into puffins. His historian wife, meanwhile, is struggling to complete her book on the history of childhood while looking after her two children pretty much single handedly.

The book covers some serious questions such as the challenge of combining career and motherhood, the role of a father in the care of his children, and the strain that these kinds of issues can put on a relationship. The seriousness is tempered with lots of humour, though -- the seemingly unendless stream of letters arriving from the Child Tax Credit people, the complete irrationality of small children, the culinary disasters that can arise from trying to prepare a meal out of the remnants lingering in a near-empty larder... The peculiarities of family life, in short.

If you have kids I'm sure you'll recognise many of the scenarios painted by Moss -- and enjoy reading the book too, I imagine.

12 July, 2012

Another 5 stars for A Matter of Degree!

My novel "A Matter of Degree" has received another five star review on Amazon.

According to Holiday Girl it is: "absorbing, relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable...full of intrigue and romance, I was hooked from the first page!" Full text of review here.

Thank you, Holiday Girl!

07 July, 2012

National Trust tea rooms

It’s that time of year again—spring and summer—which means that my family and I spend quite a bit of our spare time mooching around National Trust houses. Yes, I know, we’re suckers for anything musty and ancient...

Seriously, though, I have a lot of admiration for the NT—its staff are truly knowledgeable and its properties are really well displayed to the public. It also makes a huge effort to engage children via appropriately historic activities, dressing up, etc., which is great.

However, my one complaint is with its tea rooms. In my book, no visit to a stately home is complete without a visit to the tea room.  You would hope that this would be a pleasant and stress-free event, but in my experience, it’s anything but. The queues are often huge and poorly managed by far too few staff; the food frequently runs out; and the tables can be dirty and uncleared. This seems a pity—surely the NT brings in enough money (the food is expensive enough!) that it can employ sufficient catering staff. You would also think that its staff might be sufficiently experienced to make better predictions about the volume of visitors to their sites.

Perhaps the NT is simply a victim of its own success? Has a hugely successful advertising campaign resulted in more visitors than it can cope with? I recall visiting NT properties as a child back in the 70s, when visitor numbers were pitiful...

Incidentally, the NT isn’t the only relevant player here. There are also some wonderful privately-owned stately homes which tend to be much quieter than their NT equivalents. One such example is Sulgrave Manor—a fantastic Tudor manor house, which isn’t nearly as well visited as it ought to be...

30 June, 2012

The new knights of the road

I have great admiration for our dustmen. Not only because they pick up our rubbish and recycling for us, which is such a vital role in our society, but also because they are all round good eggs.

They are unfailing polite. They always say good morning to me when I’m walking the kids to school and stand aside to let us past. If you pull in when driving to let the dustcart go by, the men are hugely grateful. And if you wait patiently in your car behind the dustcart until they’ve finished emptying all the bins, well, you really get the red carpet treatment.  The other morning when I did just that I was saluted and waved through with a flourish. I consider our dustmen to be nothing less than the new knights of the road.

However, if you show any sort of impatience, blow your horn, or try to push past the dustcart, woe betide you. You’ll be stuck there twice as long as you would have been had you been patient. And you’re likely to experience a few choice words or an obscene gesture or two to boot.

And who can blame our dustmen? If I were trapped in a huge lorry surrounded by the stench of rotting garbage while performing a community service, I’d be expecting to demand some respect too.

23 June, 2012

Vehicles in bus lanes

I was walking to work the other day and saw a a minibus parked by the side of the road. It had a handwritten notice in the back window saying 'Bus lane enabled'.

This struck me as rather odd. If I put a notice in the back of my car saying 'Bus lane enabled' would that mean I was entitled to use the bus lane too?

It would certainly mean I got to work quicker in the mornings...

17 June, 2012

A jumble of holiday thoughts

We're now back from holiday -- have been for a few days, actually -- and before succumbing to a full attack of back-to-reality blues, I'll cheer myself up by setting down some thoughts about our travels. I don't have a complete story to tell, so a handful of observations and anecdotes will have to do...

I noticed a difference with my kids and the pool this year. They're both now fully competent swimmers, which leaves my husband and I free to read and relax by the pool, rather than sitting tensely at the edge, ready to jump in and save a life at any moment. Hurrah!

We were in Tuscany and visited some of the most heavily touristed places there -- Florence and Pisa. What amazes me, though, is no matter how busy the place, you don't have to go far to get away from the crowds. In Pisa we admired the Leaning Tower and the Duomo along with the masses, but we also visited the cemetery (the Camposanto), which is literally next door. It was absolutely beautiful -- wonderful frescoes on the walls, a tranquil inner cloister -- and we were pretty much the only visitors. Bliss!

Guess how much we paid for a soft drink at a cafe in the heart of Florence? Five euros! Gulp! The pizza that we had to accompany it wasn't much more expensive...

And a couple of updates:

As predicted, our BA flights were much better than the no frills alternatives in many ways. However, I have two complaints. Both our outbound and inbound flights were delayed. Not BA's fault, you might say. True, but a one-and-three-quarter hour delay can become a problem when you're stuck in the plane on the tarmac and the complimentary food offered by the airline on a lunchtime flight turns out to be a drink plus a bag of crisps or a cereal bar. To make matters even worse, they'd run out of crisps by the time they reached us.

And finally -- I can report that holidays during the summer half term are much less hot and sick making than those during August. My kids didn't throw up once. Result!

Roll on the next half-term holiday, I say. 

14 June, 2012

5 stars for A Matter of Degree!

My novel "A Matter of Degree" has just received its first 5 star review on Amazon! "A rollicking good holiday read" according to Liz Quintrell: http://amzn.to/NAGhlP.

The review site Indie E-books has also given it a great four star review: "...a relaxing and enjoyable read..." See the full text of the review here: http://bit.ly/MtcQQt.

It's got to be a bargain at just 77p or 99 cents... 
Thank you very much, reviewers!

09 June, 2012

The joys of procurement

You may have noticed that stories about so-called ‘government procurement cards’ have been in the news recently. Essentially these are credit cards that are issued to government departments in order to make the purchasing of small items quicker and easier. Unfortunately, some government employees have been misusing these cards to buy things like music downloads, stays at luxury hotels and, most bizarrely, doughnuts.

The place in which I work has such a card. As far as I am aware, no one has misused it, yet we are now no longer allowed to use it for any standard transactions. As an example, I need to buy an essential textbook for my team. In the past I would have been able to do this in a couple of minutes on Amazon using the card. BUT I am now forced to use an online government purchasing system in order to buy the book from a government-approved supplier.

A couple of interesting things about this:
  • the book is ten pounds more expensive (yes, that’s ten pounds more expensive) to purchase from the government-approved supplier than from Amazon; and
  • it took two weeks (yes, that’s two weeks) for our purchasing centre to issue me with login details that allowed me to access the government-approved supplier’s website and so purchase the book.
I always think it’s interesting to be aware of both sides of any story...

02 June, 2012

Packing for family holidays

It’s getting very close now to the time that we’ll be flying off on holiday, and I’m getting rather excited. However, before we can go anywhere we need to pack. And that poses an interesting situation for a family.

Our kids are no longer very young, so we don’t need all the baby paraphernalia, but they’re still young enough that we need to pack on their behalf—and I’m still amazed by the amount of stuff we need to pack for them. Plenty of spare clothes in case they’re sick/spill things on themselves (will there be a washing machine that we can use?); lots of amusements (books, pens and paper, swimming pool toys); high factor sun cream and sun hats; sweets to suck on the plane to prevent sore ears; car seats (if not already hired with the hire car company)... The list seems to go on and on.

We could, I suppose, get them to pack for themselves, but I know that if we did, we’d end up with a pile of inappropriate stuff. Mainly books and toys, and perhaps the odd pair of jeans or long sleeved top. Nothing useful like shorts or t-shirts...

26 May, 2012

Kids and car sickness

I love being on holiday and particularly so with my kids. They’re seasoned travellers, well used to flying and to staying in unfamiliar places. They also have a genuine interest in seeing other places and different things. They enjoy looking at old churches and archaeological sites as well as seeing how people in other cultures live—as long as there’s a good measure of ice cream and playing by the pool thrown in, of course!

The one thing they find difficult, particularly in the summer heat in Southern Europe, is travelling by car. This came to a head last year when my youngest got so sick that she dreaded even the thought of going in the car. In the end, we gave up and spent much more time by the pool than we usually would. And this year we’re opting for a holiday during half term, in the hope that less heat will equal less sickness. I’ll keep you posted!

On another note, the only thing that I’ve found to be effective in removing the smell of sick from cars is good old-fashioned bicarbonate of soda... Rather a useful tip, I think!

19 May, 2012

And even better flights

OK, so in my last post I talked about the budget airlines. But my holiday search has progressed further now and I've managed to book some flights with BA -- even cheaper than the budget airline equivalents. Don't ask me how.

The thing is that I now remember what the non-budget airlines offer or, more importantly, what the budget airlines don't. So, with BA we get:
  • allocated seating (no more rushing on board in order to nab four seats together)
  • generous weight allowance for hold baggage (no more skimping on items that we really, really need to take with us)
  • kids allowed to take their car seats into the cabin in addition to a piece of hand luggage (no more paying exorbitant prices for the raggedy kids' seats provided by the car hire companies)
  • a complimentary on-board meal (no more paying exorbitant prices -- again -- for rubbish food, because the rubbish food is free!)
I'm going to find it very hard to fly budget again after this luxury experience... Although fifteen years or so ago (pre-budget airlines) we wouldn't have considered this luxury -- just normal. Ho hum.

12 May, 2012

Cheap flights

Continuing in the holiday vein, I've also got a few words to say about budget airlines...

Actually, it's not all bad. We've regularly flown with easyJet in the past and had positive experiences most of the time. Flights on time. Friendly staff. No one trying to charge you extra at every possible opportunity. And, of course, cheap flights.

However, I do have one beef -- and that's with the speedy boarding service. Having children, we always pay for this service because it means we can get on the plane first and actually finds seats together. Two problems, though.

First up: it's nearly always a scrummage. It's rarely clear where you need to stand for the speedy boarding queue, which means that you really have to assert yourself to make sure that you're in it. Not good for the British personality.

And second: there are some unscrupulous individuals who swing this scrummage to their advantage. I've actually seen someone trying to tag along behind a family, in the hope of boarding the plane first -- even though they hadn't paid for the privilege. Luckily, a member of the ground crew caught them.

As for the 'other' cheap airline, try listening to Fascinating Aida's wonderful song, 'Cheap Flights'. Need I say more?

05 May, 2012

A Matter of Degree now 77 pence

My novel, "A Matter of Degree", is now available on Amazon for just 77 pence (99 cents in the US) for a limited period only. So buy it at this price while you can!

It's a fun, light story, ideal for reading on holiday or on the beach.

Here's the blurb... Enjoy!

***

Like a bit of romance? Like a bit of mystery? Then "A Matter of Degree" is for you!

When Katherine Valletta starts her new job at Deerhampton University, it’s clear that this is no normal workplace. Why has someone left an anonymous letter on her desk? Who is the arrogant woman who almost runs her down in that flashy sports car? And, most importantly, what is the story behind the handsome man whose arms she falls into on her way home?

As Katherine attempts to unravel these puzzles, her confidence and her self-knowledge grow, along with her relationships. She builds an unlikely friendship with Diana Woolf, Deerhampton’s tough new Professor of History. Fred Morris, the Admissions Tutor with a penchant for gaudy ties and knitted tank tops, seems like a useful ally. While in the midst of all the mayhem, Maddie Rose is a voice of reason, supporting her colleague Katherine all the way.

And in the background hovers sultry Biology Lecturer Chris Burberry. The more Katherine sees him, the more she likes him. But what does he want? What’s in his past? In fact, what does Katherine really know about him at all?

This witty, light-hearted novel is a great holiday read. Written in bite-sized chunks, it is also ideal for devouring on the move—while travelling to work, or when waiting for your kids to finish their swimming/piano/karate lessons, for example...

Holidays and the internet

Continuing the theme of my last post—I’ve been doing more looking into family holidays and realised that there are actually far more factors at play than those my kids generate. The internet, for example, is a great enabler but also a great inhibitor.

So, I’ve found some holiday apartments that actually fit our requirements—more or less—in terms of price, location, swimming possibilities, etc. The next stage is to check out the guest reviews, which usually involves going to TripAdvisor, and therein lies another problem. These days there is just so much information out there. So many reviews—often conflicting. So many candid photos—nowhere looks great one hundred per cent of the time, does it?
And once again I’m left scratching my head in despair. How can I be sure of making the right choice when faced with so much detail and so many opinions?

In the bad old pre-internet days we faced no such dilemma, of course. We picked our accommodation from the glossy brochures in total ignorance. There were no guest reviews and the photos bore no resemblance to reality—they were air brushed to perfection.

But there was some comfort in being at the mercy of the travel companies in this way. We set our expectations far lower, for a start. And it was so much easier (and quicker) to make a decision. After that, we simply crossed our fingers and hoped.
On reflection, perhaps those were the good old days...

30 April, 2012

Holidays with kids

OK, so I’m in festive booking spirit at the moment. This time it’s booking a holiday.

I’ve been looking at where we might go for our family break this summer and I suddenly realised how restricted we’ve become in our choices since having kids.
When my husband and I used to go on holiday before kids we really had no restrictions at all—though we didn’t realise it back then, of course. We were happy to fly at any time of the day or night and from any airport. All we needed was a hotel room to flop in at the end of the day. And we didn’t really care if the main attractions were an hour or so away from our accommodation because, Hell, we could always travel. So, the idea of backpacking round Greece with no fixed itinerary and not knowing where we would sleep from night to night was a positive attraction.

But now it’s a totally different story. For a start, we’re limited to school holidays when the prices sky rocket. We never pay less than £1,000 for flights and accommodation these days, which is scandalous, when you think about it. And we’re restricted to daytime flights from Heathrow in order to avoid overtired, grumpy kids, which inflates the price even more.

Then there’s the issue of space. With kids we tend to spend more time in our accommodation and we need to be able to cook on site (in order to avoid the cost of dinner out for four every night). So, we’re looking at a two-bedroom apartment—with swimming pool, of course, so that the kids can cool down in the heat.

And location has become all important. If we travel too far in a hire car in the heat, the kids throw up. So, our apartment needs to be (a) not too far from the airport (b) not too far from the local attractions (c) with swimming pool (d) clean (e) affordable...

And I’m left scratching my head in despair because it’s nigh impossible to satisfy all these requirements and go to somewhere that you actually want to visit.

Oh for the days of carefree Greek backpacking...

23 April, 2012

Olympic road signs

In an earlier post, I talked about the weird messages that you sometimes see displayed on overhead road signs.

We encountered another such sign yesterday, when travelling along the A34. It said: 'For Olympic events: Plan your journey. Arrive on time.'

Good message. Aiming to minimise traffic congestion, accidents and all that. But isn't it a wee bit early to start thinking about planning your journey for the Olympics? They don't start until July, after all...

18 April, 2012

Globe Theatre tickets

I recently attempted to book tickets for the Globe Theatre’s 2012 summer season and it was a nightmare.

Booking opened on 13 February and a few of days later I duly tried to book two adult and two child tickets for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. I thought it best to avoid the opening rush of booking, hence the few days’ delay.
I encountered two irritating problems. First, it transpires that you can’t book child tickets (or any concessions, for that matter) on line. You have to do it by phone instead. Don’t ask me why—it’s not as if you have to prove age when you ring the box office.

So, I had to resort to ringing up to book tickets—and here I encountered the second problem. I tried to call I don’t know how many times over two days and the phone was never answered. It simply rang off the hook. Meanwhile, on line, I could see the seats being booked and, literally, disappearing before my very eyes.

In the end I was forced to book four full price tickets on line, even though two of those tickets will be taken by children who should eligible for the concessionary rate.
Something’s not right here. The Globe must know how busy their phone lines are likely to get. Why don’t they put mechanisms in place to deal with the volume of calls? It’s surely reasonable to expect that your call will be answered at some point over a two-day period. And why on earth can’t child tickets be purchased on line?

Grump, grump, grump.

11 April, 2012

How it all Began

I recently finished reading a novel by Penelope Lively—How it all Began. It was an excellent read and I would thoroughly recommend it.

The book opens with an elderly lady being knocked down by a mugger, resulting in her breaking her hip and having to stay temporarily with her daughter until she is recovered. This one apparently small incident triggers all manner of other, much more major events that would not otherwise have happened. Things like a wife discovering that her husband is having an affair, a woman moving from London to the provinces and re-marrying, an Eastern European immigrant learning English sufficiently well that he is able to start a career in accountancy (his true profession) in the UK.

Lively loosely links this cascade effect to chaos theory via a quotation right at the beginning of the book. But, as always with Lively, it is the story that is paramount, and she really is a master storyteller. To read her prose is, I think, like listening to someone speak, with the plot unfolding apparently effortlessly through dialogue and sharp, witty observation.

If you are looking for a good holiday read, this book would be ideal. Alternatively you could read it (as I did) in snatched moments between work and childcare duties.

And, if you enjoy How it all Began, I would recommend another Penelope Lively novel—Making it Up—in which Lively takes significant decision points in her own life and considers what might have been had she made different decisions from the ones she actually did. This book is not so much about how it all began, but more about how it all continues—and ends.




05 April, 2012

The return of Gertrude

A few posts back, I introduced Gertrude, who works with me. And today we had another Gertrude-typical incident at work.

It went like this.

Gertrude needed to book a hotel room for a conference that she is attending. The rooms had been block-reserved by the conference organisers and she had been given a reference number to quote so that she would be charged the conference rate for her room booking. All she had to do was ring the hotel and make the reservation. Shouldn't be hard, should it?

Think again.

Gertrude took the portable phone out of the office to make the call. When she returned a few minutes later, I had a conversation with her that ran like this:

Gertrude: 'I couldn't get through.'

Me: 'What do you mean? Were they engaged?'

Gertrude: 'I don't know. There didn't seem to be an engaged tone. What should I do?'

Me: 'Did you dial 9 for an outside line first?'

Gertrude: 'No, no one told me that I had to do that.'*

(*Gertrude has made plenty of outside calls from this phone before.)

Slight pause.

Gertrude: 'Would you make the call for me?'

This woman is 40 years old. She has worked for several large organisations in the past, as well as ours. Yet she is apparently incapable using a work phone to make a hotel booking.

My eyes water.

01 April, 2012

Motorway speed limits

Some months ago there was talk of ministers raising the speed limit on UK motorways from 70 mph to 80 mph.

The main arguments in favour seemed to be (1) it is economically beneficial for drivers to get to their destinations sooner; (2) cars have more in-built safety features than they used to so an increased speed limit won't lead to more deaths on the motorways; (3) 50 per cent of drivers flout the limit anyway, which means that the law should be changed.

(3) is so clearly a spurious argument that it makes my head spin. How about: 50 per cent of men perpetrate domestic violence anyway, so we should revisit the laws that make domestic violence a crime. Or: 50 per cent of teenagers have shoplifted from a store anyway, so we should make the laws against theft more lenient.

Just because people flout a law -- even if it's 50 per cent of people -- doesn't diminish the severity of the crime.

The case made by (2) seems to me equally crazy. Note that the point being made is that deaths won't increase as a result of raising the speed limit. But what about injuries? No one seems to dispute that injuries are likely to increase as a result.

And this surely can't be a good thing. More injuries will result in more hospital visits and more medical care, thereby stretching NHS services further and so negating any economic benefit gained via argument (1) above.

Not to mention the damage done to people psychologically by being in a high-speed car accident...

I vote that we stick to the 70 mph limit. Given the traffic on the motorways where I live, you're lucky to make a steady 50 anyway!

27 March, 2012

Working parents

I’ve come to the conclusion that primary schools hate working parents.

You’ve got your childcare all sorted out to the nth degree—Mum picking up at 3.10pm on Mondays and Tuesdays; Dad picking up at 4.30pm on Thursdays after netball club and 3.10pm on Fridays ready to make a mad dash to the leisure centre for swimming lessons at 3.30pm; after school club on Wednesdays (deep sigh of relief)—when, boom, something totally unexpected hits you and screws up all your carefully laid plans.

This sentiment is particularly heartfelt for me right now since it’s the end of the spring term this week. Now, every other day of the week (after school clubs aside) my kids’ primary school chucks out at 3.10pm. HOWEVER, for some unfathomable reason the school finishes at 1.30pm on the last day of term. Not on the last day of every
half term, you understand. Just the last day of every full term.

And this occurs just infrequently enough that my husband and I always forget about the 1.30 finish, which leads to a mad panic a couple of days before the end of term. We always end up having to beg from someone—a favour from friends to pick up our kids for us; a favour from employers to allow us a couple of hours’ extra annual leave. After all, you can’t just leave your kids standing at the school gate for an hour and forty minutes until you’re able to come and retrieve them, can you?

Oh for the days of nursery. Open five days per week, 8am until 6pm, no matter what. Maybe it was because we were paying?

20 March, 2012

Motorway signs

I was travelling to London en famille last weekend when something caught my eye. You know those overhead motorway signs—the ones they use to advertise temporary problems or hazards on the road? Well, we passed under one which said ‘Caution – queues ahead at J5’ and then, a mile later, one which said ‘To junction 5: 10 miles; 10 minutes.’ Peculiar. Had the queues really cleared in the minute or so that it took us to get to the next sign, or had they forgotten to switch one of the warning signs off?

On the way back, we passed under another such sign, which told us to take our litter home. While this is of course a very laudable thought, I’m not sure that it’s optimum use of a motorway warning sign. And that got me thinking about all the other times when I’ve been travelling on the motorway and seen interesting things displayed on the warning signs. Messages wishing me a safe trip, telling me the ambient temperature, advertising local radio stations...

I wonder who loads the information onto these signs and I wonder whether their job is so boring that they amuse themselves with competitions to find the wackiest message on display that day.

Answers on a postcard, please.

15 March, 2012

Time management

Something came up about time management at work today.

One of the younger members of the team had a catch-up meeting scheduled with the Director. For some unspecified reason, he (the younger member) missed the meeting. It was in his diary but, well, he just missed it. Forgot to look in his diary, apparently.
The irony is that a couple of days prior to this he had booked himself onto a time management course.

When questioned, his response was: ‘Perhaps I shouldn’t schedule any more meetings until I’ve been on my time management course.’

Hmm.

08 March, 2012

Sunday trading

We recently visited IKEA on a Sunday morning. Due to the Sunday trading laws, you’re not allowed to pay for any goods before 11am, but the store is open for browsing from 10am.

Given the scrum that we’ve experienced in the past at IKEA, this seemed like a good option. We arrived shortly after ten (easy to park, for once), negotiated our way through a relatively empty showroom (for once) and made a list of the aisle and product numbers for all the goods we wanted to buy (as always).

Then, at five to eleven, we went to stand at the top of the stairs leading down to the warehouse and tills.

It was a scary experience, especially with young children in tow. There was a throng of people there already, all pushing and shoving to be down the stairs and at the tills first. In fact, the situation was so bad that there were three huge security guards standing at the front, holding the crowds back.
And, of course, they didn’t let us through until 11.05, at which point all hell broke loose.

I don’t have particularly strong feelings either way about Sunday trading restrictions. But, if you have any desire at all to protect life and limb, I would suggest avoiding IKEA until after 11 on a Sunday.

03 March, 2012

Cappuccino and chocolate

There was a rare event one afternoon this week—I had a free hour when I had nothing to do. No work. No children. House reasonably in order. Yippee!

I popped to Costa for an indulgent cappuccino and slice of carrot cake.

When the barista served my coffee, he asked if I’d like chocolate on my cappuccino. I said that I would and he made a very pretty pattern of chocolate coffee beans with one of those purpose-made stencils that fits exactly over the top of the cup.

Sipping my lovely hot coffee, it occurred  to me that these stencil patterns change with the season. Hearts on Valentines Day. Stars at Christmas.

And then another thought struck me—Western civilisation has reached a rather ludicrous position if one of its chief concerns is how to make our coffee look prettier. Surely there are more important things to think about?

But, hey, let’s not get too heavy about this. I enjoyed my cappuccino—and that’s the main thing, isn’t it?

28 February, 2012

Kids' costumes continued

I mentioned in my last post that my oldest child has a Tudor field trip on World Book Day.

What this actually involves is a visit to a local Tudor stately home dressed in Tudor-style costume (thank God for the internet!). Sounds like a great day out, doesn't it? Sixty plus ten-year-olds running amock in a listed building. Mmm. I'll be keeping my distance.

But what's even more interesting (worrying?) is that we're required to provide a packed lunch which has "an authentic feel for this period". (Yes, I am quoting directly from the parent information leaflet that my daughter brought home for this event.) Most intriguing is the information that Tudor drinks "would have come in stone jars with stoppers or wooden barrels."

They're not seriously suggesting that I provide my child's apple juice in an earthenware flagon, are they? Please tell me I'm wrong...