27 December, 2014

The optimism of the young and the cynicism of the middle-aged

When I was out and about the other day I overheard two young shop assistants discussing their futures. They were talking about the degrees that they were currently studying for and how much they were looking forward to joining the world of work. One of them was hoping to enter the publishing industry, working with art books (her degree was in history of art, I think). “I just love the look and feel of those books,” she said. She sounded so excited, so enthusiastic, so full of energy.

I wonder what happens to us in middle age? Of course, some people still love their jobs, but many (at least those who I know) do not. Work is a means to earning money, to maintaining a certain standard of living, but the day-to-day grind is, well...a grind. I spent many years working in the publishing industry (and still freelance in the field). The work is fine, but certainly not glamorous. The reality is all about the bottom line, rather than the books, trying to get as much done with as little resource as possible. It’s much the same in most industries today, I think.

I look at the up-and-coming generation with awe. My oldest daughter is a case in point. She already, at the age of twelve, knows what she wants to do career-wise. And she is enthusiastic, articulate, confident, as are all her friends. I just don’t remember my own generation possessing such maturity and poise at such a young age. As middle-aged parents we need to be careful not to dampen our children’s spirits, not to tarnish their optimism with our cynicism.

22 December, 2014

My novel FREE on Amazon, 26--30 December

"Travels on a Greyhound Bus" will be free on Amazon from 26 until 30 December inclusive.

This is a lively, fun novel with a serious point -- how romantic relationships change over time and how people react when those relationships come under pressure. It has good independent reviews and 4.6 stars on Amazon.

You can download "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" at Amazon UK and Amazon.com.

The blurb follows below:

People change. Relationships evolve. But sometimes by too much...

Hip students Araminta Stewart and Giles Richmond meet entirely by chance when travelling around the USA by Greyhound Bus. They hit it off. Some twenty years later, they are married with three children and have reached a crisis point in their relationship.

Araminta thought she knew what she wanted all those years ago. But now she’s got it, is she really happy? Or could there be more to life than this?
Told from Araminta’s point of view, "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" follows the couple as they navigate these two very different periods in their lives. While their early relationship flourishes, their later relationship appears to be disintegrating.

Faced with disappointment, frustration and the biggest challenge to their marriage yet, the question is: will Araminta and Giles’ relationship survive the journey of a lifetime?

13 December, 2014

Christmas postage bankruptcy

There has been quite a bit in the news recently about Royal Mail and Amazon. Specifically, the complaint that by setting up its own parcel delivery service and so removing (some) of its custom from Royal Mail, Amazon is cherry picking the lucrative part of Royal Mail’s service, leaving Royal Mail with the much-less-lucrative rural delivery market.

I have been wrapping and sending off Christmas gifts and cards over the past few days. Last week, I took two parcels (one national and one international) and one card (international) to the Post Office. The total price for sending these three items was in excess of £40! I was astonished—the cost of delivery was almost more than the cost of the gifts themselves. My 2kg parcel to Southern Ireland cost over £26 (via so-called globaleconomy!!); my (almost) 3kg parcel to Scotland cost over £12; and my letter-sized card to Italy cost 90 pence. And the lady behind the counter assured me that this was via the cheapest services available. She was right—I checked online when I got home.

I am sure that Royal Mail would provide me with many reasons for the enormous cost of delivering my items. But the bottom line is that it is just too expensive for the consumer. I won’t be using Royal Mail to send my Christmas gifts next year because I can’t afford it! I will have to explore alternative options. And, yes, this may well include getting my gifts sent direct to my family by Amazon using, I assume, Amazon’s own parcel delivery service.

I don’t know anything about the ins and outs of parcel delivery and the associated cost to the delivery company. However, based on my personal experience, I can understand why Amazon has chosen to set up its own company rather than using Royal Mail. In the end, if there’s a much cheaper and equally reliable alternative, any sane person would take the cheaper option. And as for competition and cherry picking parts of the market...well, that’s how capitalism works. If someone can provide an equivalent service cheaper, then they are likely to gain custom. Similarly, if you are a privatised company, you can’t just expect to rely on people’s goodwill if you don’t provide them with value for money.

I wonder how Royal Mail survived prior to the advent and growth of Amazon? Not easily, if my memory serves me correctly, which, I suppose, is the problem.

06 December, 2014


We went to see the Paddington film last weekend. I really wanted to go as I remember very fondly watching Paddington on TV after school back in the 1970s. I also love the dry, oh-so-British understated humour that Paddington delivers. And it is all just so improbable, a bear from darkest Peru who is quintessentially English. I love it.

The film was certainly good, but not much like the old TV series. For a start, the film fell into the adventure genre. It didn't just bumble gently along, rather it was full-throttle action for much of the ninety minutes. But maybe that’s how it has to be in order to hold the audience's attention for that length of time. And it was perfect, of course, all computer graphics and no flaws. I rather missed the cardboard sets and pencil drawings of old, but I don’t suppose that would impress an audience nowadays. It really is just my nostalgia kicking into play. There was quite a bit of humour in the film, but it didn't take the form of Paddington being ironic (he was actually quite naive), rather it was largely situational, with a number of amusing references to other blockbuster films, presumably to keep the adult viewers on board.

It sounds like I'm being negative about Paddington, but I'm not. I really enjoyed the film; it was very nicely done—but it just wasn't quite how I had expected it might be. My kids really enjoyed it too, so I’d definitely recommend Paddington as a good, fun family outing. But when you get home, fire up your computer and watch a couple of the old TV episodes on YouTube. You may just find yourself addicted.

29 November, 2014

Christmas in the city

We had a very productive Saturday in London last week. We decided to combine seeing the Christmas lights with progressing our Christmas shopping.

First off we visited Oxford Street and saw the lights there—globes strung high up in the sky. I imagine that they would have looked really impressive at night, as if they were free floating in the darkness. We spent a lot of time in good old John Lewis and managed to buy quite a few presents there. The Christmas foodie gift section just has so much lovely stuff—beautifully presented chocolates, sweets, biscuits, preserves...the list goes on. And the range and choice in the Oxford Street branch is amazing—such a revelation for those of us from the provinces! We also spent some time in New Look on Oxford Street—our daughter needed some new clothes and our local branch of this shop doesn't have the teenage range in store. We collapsed on a chair while she hummed and hawed about what she might buy. I hate clothes shopping and try to get in and out of clothes shops as quickly as possible. But not so my daughter.

Then it was off to Covent Garden. The festive trappings were pretty impressive there too—a huge silver reindeer dominated. We were aiming to see the real reindeer there as well, but didn't make it in time. I'm not sure we would have got a look in anyway—I imagine that a single reindeer in Covent Garden in the run up to Christmas would be besieged. We browsed the stalls in the market—lots of pretty things on offer—and spent a few minutes watching the opera singer who was busking in front of diners at one of the open-air restaurants. She was quite unusual—a fantastic classical singer, yet dressed in ripped jeans and T-shirt with brightly dyed hair. Not a combination that you see often.

We finished off the day by wandering around the boutique shops in Seven Dials, then had an early dinner at Prezzo on St Martin’s Lane before heading back home.

I love that we live close enough to the capital to visit for the day, but I am also very glad that we don’t reside there. It’s just too busy and polluted to tackle on an everyday basis.

22 November, 2014

The changing world of work

I read with interest the recent furore surrounding Greencore. This sandwich manufacturer, which supplies ready made sandwiches to several of the big supermarket chains, hit the news because it had been in Hungary hiring staff, when local unemployed people in Northampton (the factory's base) knew nothing about the vacancies. People were outraged that an employer was looking abroad, rather than locally in the first instance, to hire its staff.

However, what really struck me about this news story was something rather different. First off, I was somewhat surprised that sandwiches were made by people on a production line, having naively assumed that such an activity would be mechanised. It was also interesting that despite the long hours, low pay, and cold conditions that the work entailed, one employee (a graduate from Poland) considered the job "a great opportunity". I know a number of people in similar situations -- highly-qualified graduates from across the EU who work in low paid roles in the catering and hotel business. There simply isn't the work available in their specialist areas in their home countries, or indeed in this country, hence they are forced to  find work where they can. What counts as "a great opportunity", then, is very much relative -- dependent on the particular circumstances in which you find yourself.

Things have changed a lot over the past three decades or so. Graduating in the very early nineties, I was just at the start of the employment situation becoming tougher. Having a good degree from a good university was no longer a passport to anywhere you wanted to go in the world of work. Ten years earlier, and things were quite different. A colleague recently told the story of how he dropped out of university at the end of his first year and then managed to get a job as a radiographer (without any experience in the area). Several years later, he returned to university and studied for an undergraduate and a Masters degree simultaneously! That kind of trajectory simply wouldn't be possible in today's world.

All of this makes me feel nervous for my own children. I (and they) assume that they will go to university but where, exactly, will that lead them? Quite possibly into low paid and/or unskilled roles with few prospects. Or perhaps halfway across the globe in search of something better. Or maybe, just maybe, things will have come full circle over the next decade and the world will again be their oyster.

15 November, 2014

The changing definition of 'friend'

A while back I heard an article on the radio about a woman who had set herself the target of phoning a certain number of her Facebook friends over the period of a year. Her aim was to reconnect with people she hadn't spoken to for years. She missed the kind of relationship which she (and I) remembered from her teenage years where she would get in from school and then pick up the phone and chat to one of her friends. She missed the intimacy and nuanced voice-to-voice conversations that you can have by phone, but which are almost impossible to have on line.

What surprised me, though, was the number of people she was proposing to phone. I can't recall exact details, but I know that it was in the high tens. How could all these people be friends, I wondered, and how on earth would she find that she had anything to say to all of them. Conversations by phone are considerably more in depth and demanding than communicating via someone's Facebook wall, for example.

This got me thinking about the nature of friendship and the change in the meaning of the word 'friend' that has been precipitated by Facebook and other social networking sites. In my book a friend is someone I know well, who I can trust, who I have things in common with, who I can sit down and really talk to over a cup of coffee. But a Facebook friend is none of these things -- not by definition, anyway. It is possible that a 'real' friend (as per my definition) can be a Facebook friend too, but a Facebook friend does not have to have any of the characteristics of a 'real' friend. And that, of course, is how people manage to have so many Facebook friends. . .but they're not really friends at all!

I've noticed something similar with LinkedIn. I had someone connect to me the other day who categorised me as one of their friends. This is someone who used to work in the same unit as me. We didn't work together as such, and we certainly weren't friends. Not in my book, anyway -- we had no social relationship separate from work. In my book we were colleagues. Yet this colleague is twenty years younger than me and so I wonder whether, being fully of the social networking generation, his definition of 'friend' is simply different from mine. His definition is informed by Facebook, and mine is not.

So, it seems that the on-line world really is affecting all aspects of our lives -- even the semantics of concepts as old and basic to human nature as friendship.

08 November, 2014


I have just finished reading Michael Frayn’s novel ‘Skios’. I loved it! It is an (almost farcical) comedy, yet with a serious point, if you care to look at it that way.

The basic plot involves two entirely different men who swap identities at the airport on the imaginary Greek island of Skios. One, the happy-go-lucky, up-for-anything Oliver Fox, sees a sign for one ‘Dr Norman Wilfred’ being held up by an attractive young woman and decides to take a chance, adopting the mantle of the esteemed academic, who is guest speaker of honour at the illustrious Fred Toppler Foundation. Meanwhile the ‘real’ Dr Wilfred unwittingly becomes Oliver Fox.

There follows a chain of hilarious consequences, in which Oliver Fox finds it remarkably easy to step into Dr Wilfred’s shoes, and soon has everyone at the Fred Toppler Foundation hanging on his every word. Meanwhile, Dr Wilfred becomes increasingly perplexed, finding himself marooned in a high-end holiday villa with a hysterical woman who appears to think that he is a rapist.

Despite the farcical elements of ‘Skios’, the plot is almost believable, which is what makes the book so funny. Frayn takes a stab at the world of academia, highlighting the fact that, once you’re well established, people will worship you, no matter how ridiculous the things you say. He also subtly questions the relevance of (some) academic theories to everyday life, as illustrated by the following extract: '...There was never any point in replying to this kind of nonsense. Except to make one small simple point. "Thirteen point seven billion years ago," he said." / He suddenly went blind...Her towel, he saw, as it fell off and the world returned. / "And that," she said. "You saw that coming, did you? Thirteen point seven billion years ago?"'

I would recommend ‘Skios’ very highly, especially if you’re looking for a short, funny and not too taxing read. With laugh-out-loud lines such as: '"Are any of us, in fact, anybody?" said somebody', how can you resist?

25 October, 2014


During the summer my husband and I went to the cinema to see the film ‘Boyhood’, directed by Richard Linklater. If you read my blog regularly you may remember that I am a fan of Linklater’s films, especially the ‘Before...’ trilogy.

‘Boyhood’ explores the notion of growing up, and filming took place over a period of twelve years with the same actors. The themes covered include how people change over time, how relationships develop, how people move on during the course of their lives, and interaction between the generations. So, as with the ‘Before...’ trilogy, Linklater’s interest remains with the passage of time, although this time he deals out a sustained study, rather than snapshots at nine-year intervals.

I really enjoyed this film. It is a considerable achievement to maintain momentum and focus over such a long, yet fragmented, period of filming, and this certainly strikes you when watching. It is also interesting to see how the actors themselves change over time—how they age or grow up, depending on their starting points. And there were a couple of points made in the film which certainly resonated with me. One, when the mother of Mason (the boy of the film's title) breaks down in tears as her son is getting ready to leave home for university, saying that she’s now passed all of life’s major milestones, bar one—her own funeral. And the second, where Mason comments that, although his mother has had so much experience and has worked really hard to get the job she yearns for, she still doesn't know what she really wants out of life and deep down is just as confused as he is.

So, eighteen or forty—it makes no difference to how you feel. Linklater is spot on, as usual!

18 October, 2014

The complexity of mental illness

There has been a strong political focus recently on mental health, with pledges to reduce waiting times for those in need of interventions and to put mental illness on a par with physical illness. There is also a movement to change people’s perception of mental illness, thus reducing stigma and enabling people to talk about and understand mental illness in the same way that they do physical illness. These moves have sprung from people having to wait many weeks before receiving treatment for mental disorders, with this, on occasion, resulting in suicide as patients despair of ever receiving help.

All of this is very laudable. It will be wonderful if we can reduce the stigma and get people talking about, rather that shying away from, mental health issues. However, I have experience of mental illness from a rather different angle, an angle that people may be less familiar with. One of my close relatives has suffered from schizophrenia—one of the most serious mental illnesses— for the whole of their adult life. The symptoms of schizophrenia include delusions (of persecution, for example), auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), and disordered thought patterns. The delusions, in severe cases, become overwhelming and replace the sufferer’s ‘normal’, rational view of the world. It is not uncommon that people who suffer from schizophrenia also suffer from a complete lack of insight into their condition—their delusions appear so real to them that they are incapable of recognising that they are ill, a condition known as anosognosia. My relative falls into this camp.

For someone who recognises that they are ill and actively seeks help, there is a good chance of curing that person (or at least of controlling the symptoms of their illness). But for someone who cannot recognise that they are ill, the outlook is much less bright. From my experience, try as you might, it is impossible to persuade someone with anosognosia that they need help. And suggesting to them that they are ill (or even failing to express agreement with their delusional beliefs) makes them extremely angry and, sometimes, violent. The situation becomes intractable.

What, then, happens in situations like these? Well, the simple answer is that nothing can be done, until the person exhibits behaviour that makes them a danger to themselves or others, at which point they can be detained under the Mental Health Act and forcibly treated. In these cases, pressure on the nearest relative becomes intense. (The ‘nearest relative’ is a legal term, defined in the Act, and it is not possible to stand down from the position of nearest relative.) The nearest relative is ‘consulted’ at every stage of the detention because, legally, someone cannot be detained under the Act without the consent of their nearest relative. But this process makes a mockery of the concept of ‘consent’ since, although the nearest relative has the right to object to the detention and, for example, discharge their relative from hospital, the responsible clinician can simply intervene if s/he believes this to be necessary (typically, if they consider the detainee to be a danger to themselves or others, which they have to be anyway in order to have been detained in the first place!).

As the nearest relative I found myself in an impossible situation. My relative was clearly desperately ill and in need of help, but refused to accept this. My relationship with my relative was pretty much non-existent, as a result of the years that I had spent struggling to cope with their schizophrenia. My relative demanded that I object to their detention under the Mental Health Act, which clearly I wasn’t prepared to do. The authorities persisted in demanding information from me about my relative’s condition and symptoms, information which I couldn’t provide because of my lack of a relationship with my relative. And, in all of this, no support whatsoever was provided to me, as the nearest relative.

So, my point is this: while it is entirely proper that we should provide help to people with mental health issues when they seek it, mental illness is so much more complex than this. There are a whole host of people who are ill but who do/will not seek help. What should we be doing for these people? And, perhaps even more importantly, what should we be doing for those individuals who are caught in the crossfire—usually relatives—for whom there is currently zero support or provision?

11 October, 2014

Fifty years celebrated at Martinstown House

My husband's parents had their fiftieth wedding anniversary in May, which is of course a huge landmark. My husband and I have been married for seventeen years now, which is quite a long time in the grand scheme of things, but seems to fade into insignificance when compared with fifty years!

My husband is one of three brothers, all of whom are married with children. It is rare that we all meet en masse, since one brother lives in England, one in Scotland and one in Ireland. However, we organised an entire family celebration to mark the fifty years. This took place in August (the first date that everyone was free) in Ireland (where the brother with the youngest child resides).

We stayed in a fabulous place called Martinstown House. This is a large country house located near the Curragh, an hour or so outside Dublin, and it really is stunning. It has a handful of rooms and is run, not like a hotel, but as a country residence at which you are an invited guest. The owner is your host, welcoming and treating you as a guest in his home.

The owner's wife and son are absolutely first class chefs and we were treated to fantastic breakfasts and dinners which were beautifully prepared using fresh, local ingredients.

The surroundings are lovely -- evening drinks by an open fire in the drawing room, period bedrooms boasting up-to-the-minute bathrooms, and lovely grounds in which to wander and explore.

We had a lovely weekend at Martinstown House -- a really fitting celebration of fifty years of marriage!

04 October, 2014

An unusual birthday treat

My eldest child chose an unusual outing for her birthday treat. She opted to visit Crocodiles of the World at Brize Norton, which is the UK's only crocodile zoo. She got the idea from my aunt, who had visited recently and been really impressed, both by the place and by the extremely knowledgeable staff.

We turned up without much of an idea what to expect, but we too ended up being impressed. The collection comprises not only crocodiles, alligators and caimans, but also monitor lizards, tortoises and turtles. My kids particularly enjoyed the 'meet a python' session, during which you could touch or even hold a python, if you so wished. And the staff were indeed able to answer all our questions and were clearly very enthusiastic about their line of work.

I would definitely recommend Crocodiles of the World as an interesting, educational and unusual day out.

We finished off the day with a meal out at Abingdon's newest Indian restaurant, Majliss, which already has a branch established in Oxford, The food and service were both very good. Again, recommended!

27 September, 2014

Getting under the bonnet

I experienced an interesting incident the other day.

I had cleaned my new car and then, still on a roll, decided that it would also be a good idea to fill up the wash wipe and check the oil. I duly opened the bonnet and checked the manual in order to locate the wash wipe reservoir. This was the first time I’d opened the bonnet of my new car, and I really didn’t want to ruin things by putting water and screen wash in the wrong place, so I was taking the time to get it right.

While I was studying the manual, the dustmen appeared to empty the bins in our road. I don’t know if it’s just my perception, but I always get the impression that these guys like to be noticed. My impression was confirmed when one of them called out to me, ‘Do you need a hand?’ I smiled and politely declined. He followed up with: ‘Are you sure? My friend here’s a mechanic.’

‘I think I can manage the wash wipe,’ I replied, laughing.

All in good humour, of course, but do I really look that much in need of help? The car was parked in my parking space, in front of my house, so I clearly wasn't stranded. And it wasn't as if steam was billowing from the engine or something. If I had been male and in the same situation—studying the manual with the bonnet open—would the dustmen have offered their help? I doubt it somehow.

While I’d be the first to admit that I'm no mechanic, I do feel vaguely uncomfortable that just because of my gender it is assumed straight off that I can’t be competent in the car maintenance department...

21 September, 2014

The Maharajah's Well and the church at Checkendon

We enjoyed the late summer sunshine a couple of weekends ago by taking a walk to the Maharajah's Well in the Oxfordshire village of Stoke Row. The well has an interesting history.

Edward Reade, Stoke Row's local squire, worked with the Maharajah of Benares in India for many years during the mid-nineteenth century. During his time there, Reade sunk a well to help the local community in Azimurgh and, when he left the area in 1860, he asked the Maharajah to ensure that the well remained available to the public.

A couple of years later, the Maharajah decided to make an endowment in England, in recognition of his many years of collaboration and friendship with Reade. Remembering his friend's generosity in Azimurgh, and also his stories of water deprivation in his home area, the Maharajah decided to build a well in Stoke Row. The well is lovely--very ornate with a colonial look and feel to it.

We ate our picnic lunch on the grassy area surrounding the well and, while we sat there, a couple of other groups came to view the well, so it's clearly something of a local attraction.

On the walk back to the car, we stopped off to visit the Church of St Peter and St Paul at Checkendon. Built in the 12th century, this grade 1 listed building boasts some beautiful 14th century wall paintings. These were plastered over around 1500 and only discovered recently during restoration work.

We had a great day out -- this area of Oxfordshire is definitely worth a visit!

06 September, 2014

St. Margaret's Church, Binsey

Last weekend, we visited an important Oxford site. Surprisingly, despite having lived in and around Oxford for the past seventeen years, we had only just become aware of its existence. What drew our attention to it was the mention in the Author's Note of Alison Mercer's novel 'After I Left You'.

The site in question was St Margaret's Church in Binsey. Binsey is a tiny village, just to the west of Oxford. You can reach it by walking along Binsey Lane, which links Botley (Oxford's western suburb) to the village. Binsey itself boasts the church, a pub and a handful of houses. Although the church is little visited and very peaceful (you reach it via a lane leading away from the main village), it is flanked, just a few fields away, by the A34, and you can hear the muffled roar of traffic as you approach.

The church is beautiful -- rebuilt on the site of a Saxon church in the 13th century, with additions in the 14th and 15th centuries. Although tiny, it still hosts services, weekly during the summer, and monthly at other times of the year.

Legend has it that St. Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, built an oratory at the site in Saxon times. In the churchyard stands St. Margaret's Well. The story goes that a spring appeared here in answer to St. Frideswide's prayers, and the well subsequently became a focus for pilgrimage in medieval times.

After having soaked up the tranquil atmosphere of the church, we retraced our steps to Binsey's pub, The Perch (which is far more touristed than the church!), and enjoyed a drink sitting in the sunshine in the garden there.

On the walk home along Binsey Lane we picked lots of blackberries, which we used to make a blackberry and apple crumble -- lovely!

16 August, 2014

Worry -- a symptom of middle age?

I spend an awful lot of my time worrying. About work. About my career. About my elderly relatives. I know that this worrying is all pretty pointless. I work hard. I dedicate as much time as I can to my family. I know that I've done pretty well career-wise as well as relationship-wise. And worrying won't change anything.

But this is me being rational. And the funny thing is that I can be rational; I can stand outside myself and know perfectly well that it is pointless to worry. I can tell myself that. But none of this actually stops me turning the things that concern me over in my mind.

Interestingly, I don't remember worrying to such an extent when I was younger, in my twenties. In fact, back then, I thought I could do anything, achieve anything -- and I did, with very little angst.

I wonder, then, whether worrying is symptomatic of middle age. After all, I'm now in my mid-forties. Perhaps all this angst is what defines a mid-life crisis.

Maybe as I move towards older age, my worry levels will decrease. But I was speaking to my aunt, who is in her eighties, the other day -- and she said that she, too, worries about anything and everything. Yet she comes across as utterly calm and collected -- and people frequently tell me that this is how I appear too.

I suppose everyone worries -- it's just a case of how clever one is at hiding it.

09 August, 2014

Abingdon open air pool

With this lovely weather and with it being school holidays, the kids and I having been partaking in al fresco activities as much as we can.

We are very lucky to live close to the Abingdon open air pool, which we recently visited. This is a lovely swimming pool on the banks of the Thames, which is open during the summer months. It boasts a large L-shaped pool, a baby pool, free sun loungers, and an ice cream and drinks concession -- all set in grassy grounds, surrounded by trees.

We were fortunate enough to visit during a very quiet session -- there were only five other families and us. This is pretty unusual -- usually, as soon as the sun comes out, the pool is mobbed, even more so during the holidays. I overheard the lifeguards chatting and they reckoned that the low numbers that day were due to the prolonged sunny weather. They thought that people were bored of so much sun and had 'done' the open air pool. Lucky us!

The open air pool is a great Abingdon asset. It has a long and interesting history too, which you can find out about here.

02 August, 2014

Mobile phones versus land lines

I'm not a fan of mobile phones. Never have been. Never will be. In fact, the only reason I have a mobile at all is (a) so that the kids and their schools can get hold of me if needs be, and (b) in case I find myself stranded in a broken down car and need to call for help.

There are two things that I particularly hate about mobiles. First, the fact that you are continually 'available'. People can ring you any time, anywhere--and what's more, they appear surprised if you don't answer or don't immediately return a missed call. Second, the reception is generally dreadful on a mobile. I spend my whole time saying 'Sorry, I can't hear you...' I mean, what on earth's the point?

I remember the good old days of landlines-only with fondness. For a start, you could have a proper conversation because you could actually hear what was being said. It wasn't a case of making an educated guess about what someone was trying to communicate to you. And, more importantly, you had choices. If you were out, you were out. People either had to leave a message or call you back. And there was no expectation that you would call them back within the next few minutes.

I wonder if anyone else feels the same way?

26 July, 2014

Le Weekend

My husband and I watched an interesting film, 'Le Weekend', this weekend (excuse the repetition!), starring the phlegmatic Jim Broadbent and the lovely Lindsay Duncan. This film is gentle and relatively slow-moving, but gives the viewer quite a lot to chew on.

Nick and Meg have been married for thirty years. They return to Paris, where they honeymooned, for their wedding anniversary in an attempt to reinvigorate their fading relationship. Things get off to a bad start when they find that the hotel they have booked (the one where they spent their honeymoon, of course), is not quite what they had hoped for -- shabby and run down, the bedrooms without a single view of any of the beautiful Paris landmarks. (I do wonder whether it is memory rather than the hotel which is letting them down -- and, of course, the fact that as you go up in years, your standards seem to rise at a similar rate!)

As the film unwinds and events play out, we see why their relationship is strained -- they are no longer physically intimate; Nick wonders whether Meg might be having an affair; Meg wants to enjoy herself and reinvent her life, whereas Nick is much more settled, only really wanting to be reassured that his wife still loves him. Despite their annoyances with one another, there is still something strong between them -- we see that they are capable of laughing and having fun together (successfully escaping from an expensive restaurant without paying the bill sees them running along the street together in stitches, every bit like a young, carefree couple).

Towards the end of the film, Meg makes a significant point. She explains how, one day when she was out with a friend, her mobile rang. When she hung up her friend asked her who was on the phone. 'Was it your lover?' she asked. 'You were laughing so much, having so much fun, that I thought it must be.' 'No,' Meg replied. 'It was my husband.'

And this, I think, is one of the fundamentals of a strong relationship. No matter what life throws at you, if you and your partner can laugh together and have fun, then you're still on track. It wasn't clear from the film whether Meg and Nick's relationship would survive in the long term, but it seemed to me that they were certainly still moving in the right direction.

19 July, 2014

A movie, and a concert in the abbey

We had an entertaining weekend last week.

Our youngest child was away at a sleepover and so we asked our oldest whether there was anything that she would like to do that her sister might not have enjoyed. She opted to go and see the film 'The Fault in Our Stars'. I had no idea in advance what I was going to see and assumed that it would be a kids' movie that I wouldn't much enjoy. I was wrong. It was a really interesting and moving story about two teenagers who have cancer and fall in love. It didn't end on a happy note. In fact, the whole film was pretty downbeat, really. But all three of us very much enjoyed it and were reduced to tears by the end. It's nice when your kids get to the age that they can show you really interesting stuff...

Then, on the Sunday (after the sleepover), all four of us went to see a classical concert at Abingdon Abbey. The abbey is fantastic--large parts of the original Medieval buildings remain standing and are used as  a venue for events throughout the year. We are very lucky to have it on our doorstep.

A cultural couple of days all round!

12 July, 2014

Wonder Woman and Feminism

Last week I heard an entertaining piece on the Today programme which debated whether or not Wonder Woman is a feminist. This whole issue arose because David Finch, the artist who is taking over Wonder Woman for DC Comics, has said that he wants her to be "strong" but not "feminist". The two women interviewed on the Today programme were in no doubt that Wonder Woman is feminist. She is an Amazon, hence was raised by women in an all-female society, she runs her own business, she slit Superman's throat with her tiara. How could she not be feminist, they quipped?

My overriding memory of Wonder Woman, never having been a comic reader, is the 1970s TV series starring Lynda Carter, which I grew up watching. Now that was cool. But given the era, I don't think there was much emphasis on Wonder Woman's feminist side. Certainly, there was a lot of emphasis on  her sexiness and there were an awful lot of dads (as well as sons) who fancied Lynda Carter rotten. But given the boob tube, shorts and knee-high boots worn by the gorgeous Lynda, rather than just drawn in a comic strip, who could blame them?

I don't think much has changed these days, either. You only need think of the utterly self sufficient but surprisingly scantily clad Lara Croft, or even the groan-worthy but addictive Xena: Warrior Princess TV series, to realise that, in the world of media at least, female strength is often painted hand-in-hand with sexiness.

And the same goes for (some) men too. The sister series to Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules, starred the lovely Kevin Sorbo. Not only was he super strong, but his sexual image was all-important too. The long hair, the blistering smile, the muscles, the tight leather trousers, the sexy wristbands--all of this aimed to seduce the watcher.

So perhaps strength and sex simply are natural partners. Maybe we just do find someone--man or woman--who is in control, masterful, and their own person inherently attractive. And maybe the issue of feminism is irrelevant here, or a side issue at best.

05 July, 2014

Giffords Circus

We had a lovely, and rather unusual, birthday party for my ten year old last weekend. We took her, her older sister and three of her friends to see Giffords Circus.

Giffords is a small circus which tours Gloucestershire and the south west of England, setting up on local village greens. It was started ten years ago by Nell and Toti Gifford and is a little bit different from the other circuses that you can see in Britain. It is, I suppose, what you'd call traditional -- more like a travelling troupe than a Chinese State-style extravaganza-- and that's exactly what the Giffords were aiming for.

There are acrobats, fire jugglers, strong men, dancers, horse riders, a super-flexible gymnast... There's an absolutely brilliant clown -- the best I've seen -- not just hackneyed slapstick, but 'proper' funny. And there are various animals -- horses, dogs, doves, and even a turkey and a goose! The dogs, by the way, are dalmatians, which delighted my daughter, who is absolutely mad about dalmatians -- indeed anything spotty!

The show has an intimate, family feel. This is partly a facet of the small top, but it's also the fact that the performers clearly love what they do (we bumped into one of them in the loos, who remarked with a big smile on her face, 'It's not really work!'). You can also get a sense of just how hard it is to do the kinds of things that circus performers do -- one of the acrobats, who was trying to to do a backwards double somersault onto the shoulders of a tower of three of his fellows, missed first time. But they simply did it again, and it worked!

The show was beautifully produced -- very theatrical, excellent acting, gorgeous costumes. And the troupe is supported by a group of musicians who are extremely talented, including a singer with a fantastic operatic voice.

This was our first visit to Giffords Circus (I only found out about them because I happened to be flicking through a local magazine while I was waiting for my kids to have their hair cut), but I certainly don't think it will be our last. I'm already planning next year's outing!

28 June, 2014

What it means to be British -- a philosophical question

The British Social Attitudes survey has been in the news recently. Not surprisingly, in view of the growth of the hard right in the UK, it appears that our social attitudes are hardening as well as our political ones. This is particularly so in relation to 'Britishness'. Thus, 95 per cent of respondents believed that someone had to speak English to be British; 77 per cent thought that it was important to have lived for most of one's life in Britain in order to be British; and 74 per cent agreed that it was important to have been born in Britain to be British.

This whole debate is, of course, an example of the philosophical puzzle of essentialism -- what is it that makes something the thing that it is; or what is its essence. This is a notoriously difficult problem in philosophical circles. Is something's essence just one quality (being born in Britain), or is it a combination of qualities (being born in Britain, speaking English, having lived most of one's life in Britain). And, if the latter, is it possible to remove some of those qualities, but for the thing still to retain its essence (can someone who speaks English, was born in Britain, but who has not lived here for most of their life qualify as British?). And, if you go on removing qualities, at what point does the thing lose its essence? The classic philosophical example is that of a ship which gradually, over time, has its planks replaced until, eventually, none of the original planks remain (the ship is only made up of replacement planks). Is this still the same ship, or has it lost its essence? (One might ask the same question of human beings, whose cells are continually replaced throughout their lives. Is an individual still the same person at the end of their life as they were at the start?)

My husband and I were discussing the British Social Attitudes survey at home. After some thought, my husband suggested that what made someone truly British was the fact that they considered themselves British. But I'm not convinced by this. Take someone who was born outside Britain, visited on holiday, and decided to stay because they loved the country so much and felt so much at home here. For these reasons, that person might consider themselves to be British. But I don't really think we'd want to say that that person actually was British just because they felt they were British -- at least, not until they had lived here for a numbers of years, could speak the language well, etc., etc.

Our Tesco shopping delivery interrupted our social attitudes discussion. While I was waiting for my husband to bring the last empty crate to the door, I struck up a conversation with the driver. What was our conversation about? The weather, of course. 'That's what it is to be truly British,' my husband quipped, after the driver had  pulled away. 'Being able to talk to anyone at length about the weather!'

How true.

21 June, 2014

Sofas...and an exhibition

We had a fun day out in London last weekend. There were a couple of things that we wanted to do there--order a new sofa and see an exhibition at the V&A--so we decided to kill two birds with one stone.

We'd already decided that we would order our new sofa from sofa.com. We'd seen their adverts in various publications, gone online to look at their website, and decided that this was the supplier for us. Designs and fabrics that we liked, an unfailingly good customer service ethic (even down to being prepared to take your sofa back if you decide that you don't like it once it arrives, for whatever reason), and five star reviews all round. But we didn't feel comfortable buying without seeing in the flesh, so we needed to make the trip to the sofa.com warehouse in Chelsea.

Chelsea sounds (and of course is!) posh, but the warehouse turned out to be in a rather dilapidated quarter--it was housed in one of the units at Chelsea Wharf. The area was fascinating, in fact. The old wharf buildings have been refurbished and are gradually being populated by young, trendy companies like sofa.com. But the exterior remains as it always was, I guess--raised platforms running over the mudflats of the Thames which would have been used in the past for loading goods onto the ships docked there. I love this about London -- if you're on foot and exploring, you come across the most interesting of places, just slightly off the beaten track, away from the crowds.

The warehouse was pretty good inside, too. Lofty ceilings, white painted walls, very helpful staff and lots of sofas. Just what the website boasted, in fact, and such a refreshing change from the soulless prefab units of mediocre companies like DFS.

We made our sofa choice pretty quickly, considering, and then headed off for the second leg of the day. We had tickets for 'The Glamour of Italian Fashion' exhibition at the V&A. We had a really good time there--lots of fabulous clothing to look at and videos about the history and growth of the fashion industry in Italy.

I haven't been to the V&A for a long time, and I'd forgotten how beautiful the building itself is. Exotic Victoriana at its best. Even the old loos are alluring--ornate tiles on the walls, huge ceramic basins, brass taps...

And just a final word about food. We found a lovely Italian restaurant for lunch -- Mozzarella and More on King's Road, Chelsea. Truly Italian staff and delicious Italian food. And we rounded off with tea and cake in the V&A's very own cafe, which was delicious as well.

Rather a productive day!

07 June, 2014

Love of Greece

We spent our half term in Greece. In the Peloponnese, to be precise. This is one of my husband's and my favourite places in the world. We first visited more than 20 years ago (backpacking on the buses, and moving on to a new place each day), then 10 years ago (still itinerant, but this time with suitcases and a hire car), and now with our children (staying in the same apartment for a week and with a car).

There is something simply wonderful about Greece, in my opinion. For a start, I love the ancient history. I love tramping around archaeological sites, trying to work out what was what, imagining the people alive at the time going about their business in those buildings, walking along those paths. Some of the sites are magnificent and stunningly intact, considering their vintage (the Parthenon, the theatre at Epidaurus...) but my real favourites are the tumbledown sites that are so untouristed that you often have the place entirely to yourself. And these sites are invariably in the most stunning locations.

I also love Greek food. Greek salad, souvlaki, spanakopita, tiropita.... Can't be beaten.

And there's something about the atmosphere of the place. Outside the urban bustle of Athens, the people are lovely -- very friendly, helpful and welcoming to tourists. The overwhelming feeling I have when in Greece is one of relaxation and contentment. I love it!

Luckily, the children seem to share our love of Greece. They had been wanting to visit for a while, knowing that we really liked it, and they weren't disappointed. In fact, on our return, they declared it to be one of our best ever holidays. So, I think we'll be back in another 10 years, if not before!

24 May, 2014

Snowshill Manor

We recently had a day out at Snowshill Manor, which is a National Trust property in the Cotswolds. This proved great fun for both us and the kids.

Snowshill is not your run-of-the-mill NT property displaying the usual array of fine furniture and artworks. Rather, Snowshill was the home of Charles Wade, a tireless collector of artefacts from around the world. The house is stuffed full of eclectic objects ranging from Samurai armour, to children's toys, to sea chests with complex locks... Everywhere you look, there is something unusual and fascinating to discover.

During Wade's lifetime, the manor house became so full that he had to move into the adjacent priest's house. You can see the living room/kitchen, bedroom and bathroom in the priest's house as Wade lived in them --and even here there are yet more objects from his collection.

The manor has beautiful terraced gardens (including a model village!) that are also fun to explore, and you can picnic in the orchard.

We rounded our day off with tea in Huffkins tea room in nearby Stow-on-the-Wold. If you haven't yet, you should try the Huffkins lardy cake -- a real treat!

17 May, 2014


As I noted in my blog post of a couple of weeks ago, we had a lovely weekend away in Suffolk over the May half term.

One thing that struck me when packing for the weekend was the amount of baggage that we managed to accumulate. We were only going for three nights, but we collected a suitcase, a hefty tote bag, a bag of food (we were self catering), a day rucksack for each of the four of us, a pile of coats and shoes (suitable for all possible permutations of the English weather), games and books, water bottles for all of us for the journey...

We had intended taking our smaller car for this trip, but in the end we had to take the car with the bigger boot due to sheer volume. I thought that as kids approached teenager-hood you were meant to have less stuff to pack, but in fact we seem to have the same amount -- just a different type of stuff!

07 May, 2014

Flash fiction piece published

I'm feeling rather proud of myself as I've had my first piece of flash fiction accepted for publication. It appears in flashfictionmagazine.com today and you can read it here.

Flash fiction, for those of you who don't already know, is a form of very short fiction. A piece of flash fiction tells a story in no more than 1,000 words--and often far fewer. It has become very popular over recent years, particularly with the growth in on-line literature. People also seem to enjoy being able to read something very short on a regular basis. flasfictionmagazine.com, in common with other flash fiction sites, publishes a new story each day.

Because there are so few words involved, good flash fiction is considered hard to write. But, in fact, it rather suits my style. Although I write books, these tend to be on the short side--around 40,000 words--and so fall in the hinterland between novella and full-blown novel. Not a popular length in the world of traditional publishing!

I am someone who prefers to be economic with words--both in writing and in speech. I don't like repeating myself. And for this reason I enjoy writing flash fiction. You just come up with an idea and write about it, as clearly and succinctly as you can. I'll be writing more of it, I think!

26 April, 2014

Lovely Easter weekend away

We had a great Easter weekend away last week in Suffolk, where we rented a barn conversion for three nights. The barn, called Middleton Granary, was really stunning—beautifully appointed, very clean and furnished to an extremely high standard. The owners even left us a homemade coffee and walnut cake, which we particularly enjoyed with our afternoon tea! You can check out photos of the barn on the owners’ website.

Suffolk is a very beautiful part of the UK—largely rural and very unspoilt in parts—and we thoroughly enjoyed the peace, quiet and resident wildlife. We also managed to fit in visits to several local attractions. Things that we particularly enjoyed were: Thelnetham Windmill—a windmill dating from 1891 which has been restored, is now working again, and can sometimes be visited. We were given a guided tour by a couple of very knowledgeable local volunteers. Ickworth—a beautiful Italianate mansion run by the National Trust. We particularly enjoyed the extensive 'below stairs' exhibition which really gave you an insight into the workings of a grand stately home. We also enjoyed eating our lunch in the sunshine on the terrace overlooking the croquet lawn. And, one especially for the kids, Bressingham Steam and Gardens—where you can ride on narrow gauge steam engines, play on the adventure playground, ride on a carousel, and enjoy 17 acres of beautifully planted gardens.

At the same time as all of this, I was running a free promotion for my latest novel, "Travels on a Greyhound Bus", and so keeping an eagle eye on its chart position and sales figures. Happily, it did really well—visit the post on my News page for details!

19 April, 2014

Video cassettes and beyond

I recently had an interesting conversation with my daughter, which reinforced just how different the experience of people from different generations can be – and also indicated how much technology has changed over the last 30+ years.

She was telling me about her geography lesson. She was currently learning about plate tectonics, she said, and had watched a film on the subject. ‘It was from about 2000 BC,’ she quipped. ‘Is it called a...cassette?’ I burst out laughing. Yep, a video cassette. Unknown to my daughter’s generation.

The pace of change is amazing, if you think about it. Videos were new-fangled in my generation. Remember the hours spent finding a blank tape, checking the time of the programme, punching in the relevant times and programme duration... Even then the programme didn’t always record for some unfathomable reason, despite the fact that you were sure you had done everything right. And if the programme time was changed last minute due to, say, a sporting event overrunning, then you really were stuffed. The only hope of seeing the programme then was if the channel chose to repeat it at some point. The technology improved, of course, and became more reliable. It even became possible to programme the later model VCRs to record multiple programmes at different times.

And then the technology changed. In the 1990s, DVDs superseded video cassettes as the medium of choice for pre-recorded material. Now we have digital set-top boxes for recording. We can record what we like, when we like, multiple programmes at a time, all with an easy-to-use visual interface. And, of course, we also have catch-up services, meaning we no longer have to remember to record the programmes that we want to watch. Nor indeed remember to watch them at the time when they are first screened.

Turning the tables, my kids are completely au fait with video on demand and catch-up in a way that I’m just not. It’s no problem at all for them to use iPlayer – and it’s not as though my husband or I have even taught them. They just work it out. Whereas I frequently find myself helpless when the HUMAX has crashed yet again and I can’t even switch on live TV. At times like these I find myself pining for the simplicity of the 1970s and 80s when there were only four channels and when, if you pushed the relevant channel button, the TV just came on.

It’s called getting older, I guess.

15 April, 2014

"Travels on a Greyhound Bus" -- 5 day free promo over Easter

My novel "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" will be free on Amazon from 17 until 21 April inclusive.

This is an easy, fun read about how relationships change over time and how people react when those relationships come under pressure. It has some good independent reviews from Laura's Book Reviews and Kirsty I Heart Books, and has 4.6 stars on Amazon.

You can download  "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" at Amazon UK and Amazon.com.

The blurb follows below:

People change. Relationships evolve. But sometimes by too much...

Hip students Araminta Stewart and Giles Richmond meet entirely by chance when travelling around the USA by Greyhound Bus. They hit it off. Some twenty years later, they are married with three children and have reached a crisis point in their relationship.

Araminta thought she knew what she wanted all those years ago. But now she’s got it, is she really happy? Or could there be more to life than this?
Told from Araminta’s point of view, "Travels on a Greyhound Bus" follows the couple as they navigate these two very different periods in their lives. While their early relationship flourishes, their later relationship appears to be disintegrating.

Faced with disappointment, frustration and the biggest challenge to their marriage yet, the question is: will Araminta and Giles’ relationship survive the journey of a lifetime?

12 April, 2014

The Signature of all Things

I recently read a really interesting book called 'The Signature of all Things' by Elizabeth Gilbert.

This book tells the story of Alma Whittaker, who is born in 1800, at the beginning of a new century, to vastly wealthy botanical explorer Henry Whittaker and his highly accomplished and knowledgeable Dutch wife. Alma is highly intelligent and, unusually for this time, her mother insists on Alma receiving an education equal to that of any man. Alma grows up to become a first-class botanist, carrying out research and publishing her findings  in the journals of the day. Despite (or perhaps partly because of) her academic success, Alma is unhappy in love and marriage.

We follow Alma as her life unfolds, beginning in Philadelphia, moving to Tahiti in middle age, and then finally settling in Holland.

If you enjoy expansive novels that cover 'big' issues such as the lot of women, the discovery of the new world, and the progress of human knowledge then you, like me, should also enjoy 'The Signature of all Things'.

05 April, 2014

Buying cars

We’ve recently been shopping around for cars. Not having bought a car for a few years, I had forgotten how annoying car salesmen can be. They really do go in for high pressure salesmanship.

So, for example, we test drove a car and liked it. We’d done our research beforehand so we knew that, if the car was a good drive, it was quite likely that we might order one. Once the salesman understood this, his hard sell started.

First of all, he told us that, actually, he could sell us the showroom vehicle that we’d just driven. This was the model up from the one we wanted to buy and had lots of additional features which meant, if we bought it, we’d end up spending £2,000 more than we originally intended—and we’d said right at  the outset that budget was a real issue for us. Furthermore, despite the fact that the showroom model had a few thousand miles on the clock and had, naturally, been driven by lots of other people, the amount that the salesman offered to knock off the RRP was miniscule.

All-in-all not much of a bargain, in our opinion. ‘But why don’t you want to buy it?’ the salesman asked us, feigning surprise (badly!). ‘Because we’d be spending £2,000 more than we intended for a model that we don’t want...’ we replied. Duh!

We stressed that we weren’t going to make up our minds, even with regard to the model that we were interested in, there and then. Our salesman then had to explain all of this to his boss and the boss had to come out and shake hands with us before we were allowed to go.

After thinking about it over the weekend, we decided that we would indeed buy the model that we had always had our eye on. There was a bit of a backlog of orders—a couple of months’ worth—but this didn’t bother us as we weren’t in a huge rush.

A couple of days later the salesman rang us to say that, if we liked, we could have our car a little earlier as there was already a car of the model, colour, etc. that we wanted on order for the showroom. The only snag was that this car had a spare wheel—we hadn’t gone for this optional extra because it cost an additional £100.

In the end, we went for the car-with-spare-wheel that would be ready earlier, largely because the salesman could give us an exact date for its delivery, whereas we knew that if we stuck to our original plan, there was a significant risk that the date would slip even further due to the large backlog of orders.

Despite out best efforts, the salesman managed to persuade us to spend £100 more on a new car than we had originally intended. How irritating!

29 March, 2014

War Horse

We recently went to see an ‘as live’ showing of the play of Michael Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse’. For those of you who don’t know, the National Theatre Live is a scheme that broadcasts real-time performances of National Theatre productions to cinemas worldwide. The ‘as live’ extension is when those broadcasts (or films) are replayed at times after the live performance.

We very much enjoy going to the theatre, but when the show that we want to see is in London and we want to go en famille, it can be a very expensive pastime. For this reason we jumped at the chance of seeing an as live broadcast of ‘War Horse’ in our local cinema. We didn't know quite what to expect – would it be like being at the theatre or more like a standard cinema experience? Well, there was some attempt at making it seem like you were at the theatre – the cinema screen showed the audience and the speaker system played the sounds of the audience coming from the theatre auditorium before the performance started – but in fact, it really was just like being at the cinema. The view was not straight on to the stage, rather there were a number of different cameras and the view cut between these, much like watching a film. This worked well and must have been difficult to do technically, given the issue of having to work round the audience.

However, what I really enjoyed was the story. I haven’t read any of Michael Morpurgo’s novels before (although my kids have), assuming that they were aimed squarely at children only. ‘War Horse’ tells the story of (aspects of) the First World War through the experience of the horses who were put to work on the battlefield, and it resonates on many levels, highlighting the futility of war, the desperation of those caught up in it, and the effect that war can have on people’s sanity. All are issues very much worthy of adult attention. ‘War Horse’, rather to my surprise, is now on my to read pile.

20 March, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and international cooperation

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the Malaysia Airlines jet that went missing two weeks ago. I guess we all have. The story has a high human interest factor. Not only what on earth can have happened to the flight (my husband and I have spent a good deal of time working through the possible options -- mechanical fault, explosion, hijack, pilot suicide; and one can imagine the Malaysian authorities doing exactly the same thing), but also the empathy that one feels with those left behind. How terribly difficult it must be to plan, to do anything, when you simply don’t know what has happened to your loved ones. As unpalatable as it may be, knowing with certainty that someone has died enables one to grieve, deal with the situation as best one can and, one hopes, eventually move forwards into the future. Not knowing what has happened, however, must make it impossible to know how to act. One must always be holding on to the hope that those people are still alive and will, perhaps, turn up again one day, however vanishingly small that possibility is in reality.

But the thing that strikes me most strongly in all of this is the amount of multi-national effort that is being put into locating a plane that was carrying 227 people. Not that I would want this to be any different (one imagines oneself in the shoes of the relatives of the missing here), but it is amazing that so many disparate countries (Malaysia, the US, Australia, China, Norway...) are cooperating so willingly on this task. This contrasts sharply with the current situation in the Ukraine, for example, which sits so dangerously on a knife edge and which, if the situation tips over into all-out war, has the potential for death and destruction on a massively greater scale. Yet there seems to be little likelihood of cooperation or reconciliation here, despite the stakes being so much higher.

What is it, then, that promotes international cooperation in the Malaysia Airlines case? Is it the human angle -- the fact that we can all empathise with the personal tragedy of the situation? But why, then, aren't we able to do this so easily in cases of war or famine? Perhaps suffering on a small scale is simply something that we can comprehend better than the ‘impersonality’ of mass suffering or mass loss of life. Or perhaps it’s just that, in the Malaysia Airlines example, those countries that are cooperating are able to put aside their personal agendas and their differences because these things have no bearing on the specific case in hand.

There doesn't seem to be a definitive answer. But the question is a valid one, and the comparison an interesting one to draw.

15 March, 2014

Public sector employment circle

I am employed in the public sector. The organisation for which I work is entirely government funded. It has no income stream other than that from the government. This means that I am paid by the government for the work that I do.

When I pay my tax and national insurance, some of the money that the government has paid to me goes back to the government to provide services like healthcare, education and pensions for me and my family.

Thus the government pays me so that it can pay itself to provide services for me. All seems a bit of self-referential, really.

08 March, 2014

Cultural weekend away

I had a lovely birthday weekend a couple of weeks ago, spending a cultural two days in and around London.

We visited two impressive stately homes:

Kenwood, in north London, has recently been refurbished. It is a beautiful Robert Adam-modelled mansion which houses a stunning collection of paintings. The grounds are very pleasant, too, and lead out to Hampstead Heath. We were lucky enough to have bright, sunny weather and so were able to take advantage of the outside tables in the restaurant area to eat lunch. Just about warm enough in the February sunshine if you kept your coats on! Kenwood is managed by English Heritage but, unusually, doesn’t charge for admission, so is great for family days out.

Hall Place and Gardens in Kent is a beautiful Tudor house with magnificent gardens displaying Tudor-style topiary. The house has an interactive display area in which both adults and children can learn a lot about everyday Tudor life. The house also hosts a programme of exhibitions. When we visited, there was an exhibition about the (now defunct) local textile printing industry. We also enjoyed lunch in the onsite cafe (not outside this time!). Once again, this was a good value day out for us – as National Trust members, we qualified for half-price admission and only paid £10 in total for the four of us.

The final element of my birthday weekend was an adult-only treat. The parents-in-law babysat while my husband and I enjoyed dinner out in London, followed by a trip to St. Martin's Theatre to see ‘The Mousetrap’ – great light-hearted fun, and very well acted and produced to boot. Highly recommended!

22 February, 2014

The decline of literacy

Interesting incident on the way in to work today. I had the misfortune to be walking in just before nine. Misfortune because all the students are making their way to their first lectures of the day at this time and they literally take over. Fill up the entire pavement by walking in large groups. Whizz along the road on bikes, skipping red lights and almost causing accidents left, right and centre.

Anyway, I was walking along next to one such large group when one of the young men piped up with ‘What does “panache” mean?...Only I want to be able to describe myself that way.' Sounds a bit risky, if you ask me, wanting to describe yourself with a word for which you don’t know the meaning. But the really interesting thing was that not one of his colleagues was able to answer his question. I helpfully obliged, which was met with thanks and comments along the lines of ‘Oh, so that’s what it means!’, rolled around on the tongue as if discovering a new and interesting vintage.

Now, this was a group of Oxford University students. It is natural to assume that such people will be bright, be educated and, quite frankly, know the meaning of a word such as ‘panache’. I could settle for one student in the group not knowing the meaning—but all of them? Come on!

And it’s not the first time that I’ve come across this kind of deficit. I work with a group of Oxbridge-educated postdocs who frequently don’t seem to know the meaning of words that I would consider commonplace. They also seem to lack the ability to spell.

So why is this? Is it that these people are scientists and so don’t have a bent for language? Language is my first love and I read and write all the time, so it makes sense that I have a wide vocabulary and know how to spell. Or is it an age thing? Perhaps young people aren’t taught English in the way that I was back in the 70s and 80s. Yet both my children are good writers, can spell, and seem to me to have large vocabularies (they are both voracious readers). Or maybe it’s genetic—my father was a writer, I am a writer, and my children appear to be following the family tradition.

Call me old fashioned (and, believe me, I often feel old fashioned when writing my blog articles!), but I think that the whole language package (writing, spelling, words) is undervalued and has become increasingly undervalued in the years since I was a child. You only have to look at the UK higher education landscape these days to realise that the areas most strongly supported and funded are the sciences (particularly those perceived as leading to human health benefits) and vocational subjects. Education no longer appears to be valued for its own sake, which means that the humanities in general are being systematically eroded. And it tends to be in the humanities that language—the ability to communicate, to express oneself well in writing, to be vividly descriptive as well as analytic—really thrives.

Yet, in my opinion, education should be about something more than a narrow-minded learning of one’s subject—whether that subject is scientific, artistic or vocational. It should be about awareness of the wider world, having an appreciation of culture and literature, and—yes—being able to write, spell, and use words correctly.

15 February, 2014

Religion and biblical fables

Last week, the media reported on some research carried out by the Bible Society, which indicated a number of things:
  • almost three out of ten children did not know that the story of the birth of Jesus comes from the Bible;
  • a similar number had never heard stories about Adam and Eve or the Crucifixion;
  • more than a third did not know that the tales of the Good Samaritan and David and Goliath come from the Bible;
  • many of the parents in the study considered the Bible to be a good source of values for their children AND YET almost half of them did not recognise that the story of Noah's Ark comes from the Bible, and many muddled up biblical stories with the plot lines of well know films such as the Harry Potter series.
I was surprised by these findings -- and the fact that parents were confusing biblical stories with film plots struck me as laughable. How was this possible, I asked myself?

In a bid to understand, I asked my children about the stories listed above and where they come from. They knew the answers and, it turns out, they know a lot more detail about these stories that I do. Our family is not religious (I don't remember having told my children biblical stories), but we do have a good level of general knowledge and my children do attend Church of England schools. Maybe that's the answer, then.

Even though I'm not religious, it strikes me as 'a good thing' to know a bit about the Bible, the stories and morals contained within it, and religion in general. Why? Well, first off because religion is an important part of the history and culture of this country, and is worth learning about for that reason alone. Second, because religion has shaped and affected many of the events and thought processes in British culture (the Crusades, divorce, dissolution of the monasteries, ordination of women, to name but a few). And third because whatever one might think of the Bible (or indeed religion in general) it does impart some significant messages. The importance of putting sectarian differences aside in order to help an individual in need (aka the tale of the Good Samaritan), for example.

Granted the plot lines of the Harry Potter films do highlight some thought-provoking issues, but  for some reason I find myself baulking at according them the same level of historical, cultural and moral significance as our religious and biblical fables.

08 February, 2014

A Life in Time

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I am a Penelope Lively fan. I was lucky enough to receive her latest book as a Christmas gift from my children, and recently finished reading it.

This book is called "Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time". Unlike most of Lively's other books (the ones I've read, anyway), this is not a work of fiction. Rather it is is something like a memoir, but not quite--perhaps it is best described as an extended essay on the topic of old age.

The book falls into five parts. The first examines what it is actually like to be old (Lively is now eighty)--the pleasures and the pitfalls; what old age feels like. The second examines the overarching backdrop to Lively's life--the political, social and archaeological era that has contextualised her existence. The third examines memory--why people remember as they do and how memory deteriorates with age. The fourth focuses on books and writing--Lively discusses some of the books that have made the greatest impression on her, and how they have have influenced her own writing. And the final part talks about six objects that Lively owns and which, in different ways, represent and define different parts of her life.

The quality of Lively's writing is, as usual, first class. When reading her prose, I always feel as if I am listening to a good friend. Her writing instils that kind of intimacy, while at the same time touching on profound, deeply meaningful matters. Quite a feat, but then that is her gift.

As with all of Lively's work, this book comes highly recommended, particularly the sections on old age and memory. (I found the section on the political and social context informative, but a little dull--although I suspect that someone of Lively's own generation would find the material here much more interesting.)

My only complaint is that this book has a touch of finality about it--memoirs, old age and so on are all suggestive of the end of an era. I just hope that this isn't so quite yet and that this won't be the last book that Lively writes.

01 February, 2014

The religious life

We were out on a family walk recently and our route took us past a monastery. This prompted our youngest daughter, always hungry for information, to ask what is the point of monasteries; what are monks and nuns, what do they actually do.

That's an interesting set of questions, especially these days. In years gone by, the answer to these questions was much more clear cut. The religious life could provide refuge from disgrace (inability to find a husband, birth outside wedlock, homosexuality), from poverty, from ill health. And once there, a religious house could provide opportunities that were perhaps not available to such people in the outside world--board and lodging for a start, a good education, a structured life, even a career for the ambitious. Of course, some degree of religious faith was also required--or at least the ability and willingness to go along with a religious life.

Yet nowadays, these kinds of advantages are widely available on the outside. Unmarried women are able to support themselves. Birth out of wedlock and sexual orientation are no longer an issue. The state keeps its people out of abject poverty.

So why do people become monks and nuns in the twenty-first century? The short answer is that far fewer do. According to a Guardian article, in 2000 there were roughly 710 nuns and 230 monks in Anglican religious orders in Britain and Ireland, but by 2008 those numbers had dropped by over a third--to 470 nuns and 135 monks. Some religious houses have even taken to running 'taster weekends' in an attempt to attract new recruits. One assumes that, for those who do take the habit, one of the overriding motivators must be religious faith, given that the other advantages of religious life are no longer apparent. Yet, as we all know, religiosity is on a downward spiral (in the UK, at least), with secularism being the order of the day.

I have some experience in this area. I grew up as a vicar's daughter and, when I was travelling with my father, we often used to stay in the guesthouse of the local nunnery. My overriding memories are of large gardens in which fruit and vegetables were grown, of meals eaten in companionable silence, of a quiet and slow moving life. I haven't stayed in one of those guesthouses for over three decades now--in fact, I have no idea whether such facilities still exist--but it seems a pity that they might not due to the lack of a religious 'workforce'.

Of course, the tables may turn again, I suppose. I am currently reading a book by Penelope Lively in which she points out that although we in the UK now live in a very open society in which all manner of things are talked about and done quite freely, social mores have changed more than once throughout history. The eighteenth century was similarly unfettered (debauched, some might say), yet the Victorian age of modesty was a direct reaction to the liberality of that time. And now we have come full circle.

Perhaps the religious tables will similarly turn, and ours will revert to a a much more spiritual society in which the youth are falling over one another to make it to the front of the religious order entrance queue. That's hard to imagine, though, from where we currently stand.

25 January, 2014

Before Midnight

I recently wrote a blog post about two of my favourite films -- "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset", starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. I mentioned there that I was looking forward to the next film in the 'series' --"Before Midnight", which I had put on my LoveFilm list.

Luckily for me, it turned out that I didn't have to wait for "Before Midnight" to appear on LoveFilm, because my lovely husband bought me the DVD for Christmas. We've now found time to watch the film, and here are my thoughts.

True to formula, "Before Midnight" takes place (both in the film and in reality) roughly ten years after the previous film, "Before Sunset". "Before Sunset" closed on a cliffhanger with Delpy and Hawke having just met for the first time after their initial encounter ten years previously. They are still strongly attracted to one another, but Hawke is now trapped in a loveless marriage and has a son. At the end of "Before Sunset" it was entirely unclear whether Hawke would return to his unhappy life in the US or remain with Delpy in Paris.

In "Before Midnight", we learn that Hawke did indeed remain with Delpy in Paris--we catch up with them at the end of a summer spent in Greece with their twin girls, aged six, and Hawke's son, now about to start high school. Seeing his son off at the airport, Hawke begins to question the life that he is now living. He may be living with the woman he loves, but he is missing out on his son's youth entirely.

Hawke and Delpy spend their last evening in Greece together without their children--courtesy of the friends with whom they are staying, who have booked a hotel room for them and are providing babysitting. Instead of being a romantic getaway, though, the evening turns into a full-scale row, with Hawke's fears about his son coming to the fore, and the couple's dissatisfaction with their lives and with one another emerging.

The themes that this film covers will be familiar to any long-term couple with kids--loss of romance over the years, how to combine career and family, how difficult it is for both partners to be fulfilled career-wise, the division of domestic labour, loss of identity, ageing, the 'rational' partner versus the 'emotional' partner...

Needless to say, the tone of "Before Midnight" is quite different from the first two films, which are romantic, focussing on the hopes and aspirations of a couple meeting for the first (and second!) time. In "Before Midnight" the romance is gone and reality has set in. It is not a feelgood film, but it does accurately reflect reality--the reality of an established relationship with children.

And that's exactly what I enjoyed about this film--the reality, something with which we can all identify. It's what I enjoyed about the other two films, as well--I could identify with them since they reflected my own experience and thoughts in my twenties, and then my thirties.

If you're looking for something interesting, provocative and conversation-worthy, the "Before..." trilogy comes highly recommended.

18 January, 2014

Giving up seats on buses

I travel into work and back on the bus three days a week, so am very used to observing people’s behaviour when travelling on public transport.

As a girl I was brought up to believe that, on a crowded bus, it was the right thing to give my seat up to those less able to stand than myself, i.e. elderly people, pregnant women, people coping with young children, etc., etc. And I still adhere to that belief, even though I am now middle aged (although still, of course, perfectly able to stand on a bus).

It appears, however, that the majority of young people nowadays have not been brought up that way. I have often observed someone elderly and frail board the bus, and not a single young  person has offered their seat, even though they are often taking up spaces at the front of the bus that are expressly labelled as being for the less able or infirm. Usually it falls to someone older (like me) to accommodate.

This morning, a lady made her way to the back of the bus, announcing that she was pregnant and asking whether anyone would like to give up their seat. Someone immediately did.

When I was pregnant with my two children, I travelled to and from work every day on the bus. On the occasions when there were no free seats, I don’t recall anyone offering theirs to me. I certainly  wouldn’t have asked, and, to be honest, I was perfectly fit during both my pregnancies and able to stand fine, even at full term.

It seems a shame, though, that things have changed so much since my childhood and that these kinds of small courtesies have disappeared amongst the young. People are so absorbed in their ipods and themselves that they are apparently oblivious to the world around them. Or perhaps that’s just a convenient excuse...