30 October, 2015

Pumpkin hunt

Today, my daughters and I followed our usual half-term tradition of doing the pumpkin hunt in the beautiful Waterperry Gardens, just outside Oxford.

At 11 and 13, I thought the kids might consider themselves too old for this kind of thing, but no. A few weeks ago, my youngest asked if we would be doing the hunt this year (she thought her sister may not want to, being a teenager now), but my oldest confirmed that she would be happy to do it too. And so we did.

We worked out that we have now done the Waterperry pumpkin hunt for nine years in a row, since the kids were tiny tots. The only difference is that we are now super-speedy at finding the pumpkins. It took us just 20 minutes today!

As usual, we wound up with a treat in the cafe.

On the way out, we noticed that Waterperry is running a reindeer hunt in the gardens during the Christmas holidays. Guess what? My youngest declared that she wanted to do that too! Talk about tradition!

24 October, 2015

How people's live can change

It sometimes amazes me how people's lives can change over time; how someone's life can begin on one trajectory and end up on quite another.

For example, many years ago, when I lived up in Scotland, I had a very close friend. We were studying for our PhDs together and we saw each other most days. She was even a bridesmaid at my wedding.

My friend was (obviously) very bright and she was talented in other ways, too -- she was outgoing, sociable, and a great comedienne and mimic. I have no doubt that she would have excelled at stand up, had she tried it. She was the heart and soul of any party and she was also a bit of wild child -- an extremely heavy drinker and a bit of a flirt. She was great fun to be around. And she seemed destined for a successful career, gaining a temporary lectureship at a time when jobs in academia in the humanities were almost impossible to come by.

Yet, not long after I received my PhD and moved down south, things seemed to take a turn for the worse for my friend. She gave up her job. She was in a car crash. And the next thing I heard, she had been sectioned.

Our lives took quite different directions and we gradually drifted apart. We exchanged Christmas cards for a while, but eventually lost touch completely.

The other day, in an idle moment, I did a Web search for my old friend and was shocked to find that she had been the subject of a missing person search. She had disappeared and police had appealed for witnesses, saying that they were becoming increasingly concerned for her safety, as they considered her to be "vulnerable". To my relief, she had been found safe and well a few days later.

But all of this made me think how transient success can be. Someone can apparently be headed in one direction, and then something can just change, which makes their life veer off in another direction altogether. My friend should have been a successful academic (that's where things seemed to be going), and yet, ultimately, her life has turned out quite differently.

17 October, 2015

A perilous Sunday afternoon

We had a rather perilous Sunday afternoon out last week.

We decided to combine something for us and something for the kids. The something for us was a walk in the beautiful Shotover Country Park, which comprises a lovely open plain plus numerous paths that meander through beech woods. The something for the kids was a visit to the cinema to see 'Pan', a film that they were keen to watch.

The walk turned perilous when we were almost run over by an escaped Shetland pony! We were alerted to its presence by the sound of galloping hooves behind us and turned round to see the pony bearing down on us, followed closely by a horse ridden by a woman who was clearly in a state of panic. We hurried to the side of the path out of the way, while the woman shouted at us to grab the pony. We didn't, of course. What idiot would try to get hold of a pony that was galloping along full tilt?!

We never did find out what had happened. The pony and horse disappeared out of sight altogether, and we didn't see them come back again. I only hope things ended well and that no one -- passer-by, horse, rider -- was injured in the fray.

'Pan', by contrast, was quite uneventful. A perfectly pleasant but totally non-engaging (for adults anyway) film. Cara Delevigne had a cameo appearance, which made my oldest daughter very happy. (You see, I wouldn't even know who Cara Delevingne was, were it not for my kids!)

10 October, 2015

How the work environment affects employees

I find it fascinating that the environment in which people work can have such an effect on how those people present themselves, both in terms of their style of communication and (more surprisingly) their physical appearance.

For example, I have a friend who used to work in a department which had little team spirit, where the leadership was poor, and where people were by and large not very friendly or helpful. Her reaction to this situation was to dress severely, to scrape her hair back in a tight ponytail, and to adopt an abrasive attitude. All of this actually reflected the fact that she felt unhappy and insecure in her work environment.

My friend then moved to a new department where the atmosphere was quite different. People were friendly and happy, the team was tight-knit and the leadership was good -- and she changed accordingly. She started to wear her hair down, she was smiling and more relaxed, and she adopted a much more approachable persona. She was working in a better place and her behaviour and appearance reflected that.

Employers often seem oblivious to the effect that the company atmosphere has on employees and their behaviour, but this effect is profound. Cultivating a good company spirit results in happier and, I'll wager, more productive employees.

03 October, 2015


Last weekend, my family and I went on a walk in the countryside close to us. Unusually, this was at the kids' request and they had been waiting to do this walk for a whole year!

The reason...conkers!

To be more specific: we did the same walk a year ago, and the walk passes along a lane lined by horse chestnut trees. The lane was littered with conkers and the kids, delighted, filled their pockets to bulging with the nuts. We took them home and distributed them in bowls around the house. They actually make a very attractive addition to the household!

The kids enjoyed gathering the conkers so much that they asked if we could do the same thing the following year. I duly noted the date in my diary and that's what we did at the weekend.

Generally the kids don't much enjoy walking in the countryside--they don't see the point--so it was great to have them actually asking to go out on a walk for once.

And we enjoyed the walk (and the conkers!) just as much this year as last.