Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Capitalism in Action

Avid followers of my Facebook status updates may be aware that the small, charmingly-eccentric but brilliant-when-it-needs-to-be company that I work for has recently been largely taken over by a massive Chinese company. I say "largely" because they've bought a controlling stake in us, but don't want a hand in the day-to-day running. To put it in context, there are nine of us here, and four of us work part-time in some fashion - two because they're nearing retirement, one because he's retrained as a psychotherapist and does that one and half days a week, and me because I look after LittleBear two days a week. The company that's bought us has an annual turnover of £1 billion and employs over a thousand people.

Up until now, the company has always been privately-owned, largely by the founding members. Occasionally one of them has sold shares. There's also been a tranche of shares that have been sold around between three or four other companies who've at various times been interested in our technology. Not being a founder member, I didn't start out with any shares, but did buy a handful when they came up for sale. Only a handful, as they were £1 a share. The founders got their shares at £0.01 a share, just for context.

So... SDL invested £1.65 million in purchasing shares. I received £2,800 of this. The (three man) board of directors, who are the founders and majority shareholders, received most of that investment. Which is fair enough, given they founded the company. The fact that I (and the other drudges employees) have sweated blood for the good of the company for almost as long is irrelevant. I've been here 17 years out of the 25 we've been in business, but I wasn't in at the beginning, so it counts for nothing. Or 0.17% actually, which rounds down to nothing.

Meanwhile in China, despite the crash on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the announcement that SDL had bought us resulted in their share price jumping by 10%, adding £200 million to their value. Mr Big, who founded SDL, promptly sold 2% of his shares and realised £4 million. Which is pretty good off the back of a £1.65 million investment on 9 men in a shed.

So there we go, being in the right place at the right time gets you money. Employing really, really good people and convincing them to work hard for your benefit gets you lots of money. Having lots of money gets you lots more money. Working your arse off for a company? Not so much. Capitalism in Action. Now, where's that ballot paper with Jeremy Corbyn's name on it?

For the sake of balance, I will point out that I have earned a good salary for 17 years, no longer have a mortgage, have had fun and interesting work, have worked with some of the brightest and best in the world, and for some of the most revered scientific institutions on the planet, so it has not been an unrewarding or thankless experience. I would not in fact mind in the slightest that the directors have profited so massively if even one of them showed the remotest shred of humility, or the slightest jot of appreciation that the company has only succeeded and only brought them their good fortune because of the accumulated blood, sweat and tears of all of us. When faced with venal, hand-rubbing smugness at how splendid it is that we've "all" done so well, or self-righteous pride at how much they "deserve" their good fortune, quite frankly I want to gouge certain money-grubbing hearts out with a spoon. Even a simple "thank you" would do. Once. In seventeen years.


Monday, 28 September 2015

Me and the Rugby World Cup (Part I)

Last Christmas, BigBear fulfilled one of my ambitions and gave me tickets to Twickenham to see a Rugby World Cup match. France v Italy to be precise. It's taken rather a while to come round, but last Saturday evening I went up to London to watch my first ever rugby international. (And as a confirmed rugby fan for almost as long as I can remember, and a former rugby player, that it took till I hit 40 seems quite extraordinary)

The home of rugby

I was, naturally, quite excited about it, and I did the thing I often do - didn't really think through the process of going very clearly in advance. For instance, I went by train, and I took a book with me to read. I took The Scarlet Pimpernel. On a train filled with patriotic (and drunk) French rugby fans. Good plan PhysicsBear. The first train (Woking to Clapham Junction) was relatively quiet and civilised. And then Clapham Junction. Oh my. They didn't need any signs pointing to the right platform, just follow the flood of humanity. And it was only at that point that I remembered the panic attacks that overtake me when I'm in swarming crowds on my own. It was only then that I remembered my claustrophobia at being trapped in a crowded train. It was only then that I realised perhaps why I hadn't been to a rugby international before. It's so far outside my pathetically timid comfort zone. However, I had the ticket, I was half-way there, and I really, really, really wanted to go, so there was no stopping me.

The platform was so heaving that despite the trains arriving every five minutes or so, I didn't get into the first one, and barely squeezed into the second. And I mean squeezed. There were men on the platforms pushing us onto the trains in true Japanese-commuter style. And thus I ended up sandwiched into a seething mass of sweating, breathing, jostling humanity. There were men pressed against me closer than anyone but BigBear ever gets to be. And, to my great relief, despite the quantity of alcohol that had been consumed, they were all perfectly civilised, perfectly polite and generally happy. Then we stopped at Putney and on the platform beheld the extraordinary sight of eight very large, very drunk men wearing bright blue kilts and blazers, forming a scrum with which to engage with the train. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I'm not sure which, they chose to board the train rather than scrummage with it. They turned out to be the Galicia Rugby Club Old Boys. I'm not sure I knew rugby was played in Spain. Or that they wore kilts, but there we go. They joined the already jammed train and proceeded to sing songs about every rugby nation they could, or make bold attempts on the national anthems, with a minimal grasp of the words or tunes.

A Galician rugby veteran. A very happy Galician rugby veteran.

It was at this point that my stress levels began to climb. What had been a bit of a squeeze, with hands within inches of my bosom and resting across my back and shoulders, became an uncomfortable contortion to fit into the space remaining without either groping or being groped. I couldn't see out of the windows, I didn't know where I was, and all I could hear around me was the cacophony of half a dozen European languages, none of them discernibly variations on English, and none of them comprehensible to me. It was almost a perfect storm of things that make me panic. My heart rate rose, my palms were sweating, I was looking in every direction, listening, trying to see or hear something, anything, familiar to latch onto, to feel secure with. There was nothing. Within moments we were at Twickenham however, and as the doors opened, the fans exploded out of the train like coke from a bottle, spraying across the platform, stumbling over each other, laughing, singing, joking, jostling.

The gentle stroll down to the stadium in the warm afternoon sunlight was a delight. Families and small groups of friends chatting and strolling in the last of the summer. Stalls selling food set up erratically here and there along the street and in back gardens. I paused for a hog roast roll and to take photographs and meandered my way down to the home of rugby. It gradually became clear that the majority of overseas fans were French, and the majority of the "neutrals" were also supporting France. There were certainly more people with chickens on their heads than there were men dressed as Julius Caesar.

Men with chickens on their heads. It's a French thing.

Julius Caesar. Or a close approximation.

Once in the environs of the stadium, it was all vaguely familiar from trips to a variety of football stadia. OK, so the biggest I've been to is Stamford Bridge, which has half the capacity of Twickenham, but the feel of a crowded, excited stadium is familiar, and the organisation of ticket barriers, stairways, bars, concourses, stewards and fans is familiar. But, if I'm completely honest, the type of people were rather different. The women were broadly divided into two categories - young and slender, with long straightened hair, in skinny jeans, tweed jackets and oversized handbags; or middle aged in replica rugby shirts and pearls. I'm pretty certain I didn't fit either category, other than by being middle aged. And there were certainly more men in red trousers and Charles Tyrrwhit shirts with tousled gingerish hair answering to names like Rupert and Alistair than I've ever noticed at a football match. Once inside, the feelings of uncertainly and anxiety and fear abated; I bought a pint of beer and joined the throngs watching the tail end of Japan v South Africa on the big screens mounted throughout the concourses. Oh my. I'm sure there was an element of supporting the underdog, but I'm equally sure there was a strong element of nobody liking the South Africans. I have never heard a crowd watching a televised match make so much noise, or get so enthused and excited as in the last ten minutes of that match. It was almost worth going for that experience alone. And even better when everyone took their seats, beers in hand, and they replayed it again to a full stadium. Truly, nobody likes the South Africans. Which was a bit unfortunate for the two people sitting in my row in their Springboks shirts...

Based on my own principles of supporting the underdog, and the inherent natural bias of an England fan against the French*, I had decided in advance to support the Italians. It's a good thing that a lifetime of supporting English national teams in a variety of sports, not to mention the odd decade supporting Burnley Football Club has inured me to the prospect of watching my side lose.

An attacking line-out from the Italians, just to prove it did happen.

And thus ended my first rugby international. I say ended. I won't go into the details of the several hours it then took to return home, nor the horrible paucity of hours of sleep before LittleBear came and jumped on me, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Nor the regret at the beer consumed. Next time I go to a rugby match, it's not going to be one that starts at 8pm. Or it will be when LittleBear is old enough to come too and then stay asleep the morning after.

* For those unfamiliar with the past millennium of European history, you can't go wrong with referring to Sir Humphrey Appleby (Yes, Prime Minister) when discussing the French with Jim Hacker:
Hacker: Well they're our allies, our partners.
Sir Humphrey: Well, they are now, but they've been our enemies for the most of the past 900 years.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Probably about time I let some of this go

I take LittleBear swimming once a week, with a brilliant swimming teacher, and it's all jolly good fun, and LittleBear (now) loves it. He's forgotten that the first week (3 years ago!) he sobbed and cried and didn't even want to get in the pool. The lessons require me to fill in a form, including my own swimming ability, for which I tick the box "confident in the water". And every term, when I tick that box, I ask myself if it's really true. And every term, that question is absurd. I may not be the strongest or fastest swimmer in the world, but I'm happy to swim in any pool. I've surfed, I've sea kayaked, I've snorkelled, I've dived, all without qualms, and all without (much) hesitation. OK, so I was pretty rubbish at surfing, and the sea kayaking was a long time ago, but the swimming part was never an issue. But it turns out that my own school swimming lessons have left me with the lingering conviction that somehow I don't "deserve" to tick that box. And that gets me thinking about school PE lessons in general, and what I still think of as the PE-fascists who taught me. (Not all of them, mind you. I still remember Miss Gregory fondly, she was great.)

So, what's my problem with the PE-fascists? Well, I was quite good at sport. Not brilliant, not rubbish, but a bit better than average. My hand-eye co-ordination is pretty good. I'm relatively agile, relatively fast and relatively strong. But being quite good is not enough to put you into the teacher's pet bracket. Nor is it enough to get you into the school team. It's good enough to get you onto the reserve's bench of the school team. And there you languish. If you have the temerity to question why you are turning up to matches to spend the entire time sat on a bench and not participating you're told that you lack match experience. Well, whose fault is that? Who is it that focuses all their time, energy, enthusiasm and interest only on the top 5% of the class? Who becomes friends with the star pupils in all the school teams and treats the rest with contempt?

You think I'm exaggerating?

Let me take you through my experience of school sports...


I was quite good and a reserve on the team. I never played a match. Not one. Never. Yet, every year we had an inter-house netball-shooting competition, where you have twenty attempts to score a goal. Each attempt is taken from a different spot - five different spots on each of four different radii, from almost underneath the net out to the perimeter of the goal-scoring circle. One year I scored 19 goals and came first in the whole school. The next year I scored 20 goals. First in the school again. I was still never picked for the team. Do you know who was? All the same people who'd been on the team in the Third Form*, before I joined the school.


I was quite good. Competent with the bat, fast at running, and with a strong throwing arm that made me ideal for a deep fielder. I spent most of my school career on the reserves bench. Unlike netball, I did play the odd match, but only when someone else was sick or unavailable. Do you know who did play every week? All the same people who'd been on the team in the Third Form, before I joined the school. Then sixth form came, and the PE fascists decided they couldn't be bothered to actually muster a team. Most of their favourites had left to go to co-ed schools for their A-levels, and clearly there was nobody left worth bothering with. So I organised a team, captained it, agreed the fixtures and we had a blast. We even won occasionally.


OK, so my school were national champions in various disciplines, so I was never going to make the team, and it didn't bother me. What's more, it didn't matter and nor did I feel a lesser citizen because of it. And that was because this was Miss Gregory's field, and her lessons were great - inclusive and enjoyable, no matter my skill level. See? By not being a PE-fascist and not devoting all your time and effort only to the elite favourites, it's possible to make sport enjoyable for all. Why none of her colleagues grasped this is an enduring mystery.


I played the piano. Bear with me, it is relevant, and not because we had piano-tossing contests. I didn't go to school in Bulgaria. Piano lessons were scheduled for before school, during lunch hour or after school. Or, in my case, in the athletics lessons. Probably the sport I had most skill in, and I never even got to go to the lessons. We used to undertake Amateur Athletics Association awards, where you accrue points based on your performance across a range of field and track disciplines, and the points add up to an award level. One week my piano lesson was cancelled, and in one athletics lesson I accrued enough points for a level three AAA award. And it occurred to literally nobody that perhaps I had some ability at athletics that was worth encouraging, and that perhaps scheduling my piano lesson to preclude me from athletics for three years in a row was, just maybe, not in my best interests.


I was pretty average at tennis. Fair point.


And so we come full circle. The swimming lessons were divided into groups. The top group were the swimming team, the second were the really quite good swimmers, the third group were passable swimmers and the fourth group were struggling not to drown. I hovered somewhere between the second and third groups, moving up and down from year to year. I'm not a fan of water up the nose or in the eyes, so didn't really have the committment to be good enough to stay in the second group, but was reasonable at backstroke and front crawl, had mastered tumble-turns and was getting the hang of butterfly. And then... oh dear... one of the PE-fascists noticed my breaststroke was plagued by a screw-kick. A screw-kick caused entirely by being born with congenital hip dislocation. I can, with a super-human effort, force my right leg into the correct motion. And then I limp, in pain, for the next two days. Did this explanation hold any water with the PE-fascists? No, it did not. With a flaw identified I was relegated to a special "remedial" group, along with the near-drowners, in which I was condemned to practice only breaststroke until I did it right. I never did. For the remaining years of school swimming lessons I was only ever allowed to practice breaststroke. Unsurprisingly this did nothing to improve my skill at, or enjoyment of, swimming. Equally unsurprisingly it's left me questioning that "confident in the water" tick-box.

All other lessons excluding PE

There must be something about PE that attracts a certain kind of teacher, because in no other lesson do I remember encountering the same attitude. In fact, in some lessons, it was quite the reverse - if you were really good at maths (as I was) the trend was to be left to get on with it while the teacher devoted her time to the students who were struggling. In French, being lousy at pronunciation didn't relegate you to sitting in a corner practicing rolling your rrrrrr's; in English, failing to grasp the subtext of An Inspector Calls didn't condemn you to reading Janet and John books instead; even in Needlework***, being unable to tell one end of a needle from the other didn't excuse you from attempting to make a skirt.

Since I left school in 1993, it's just possible I should stop bearing a grudge against the PE-fascists. Maybe in another twenty-two years.

* For the uninitiated, this is an arcane year-numbering system used by British public** schools to make sure anyone who's not in their club feels left out. In my school's system it was IIIrd form, Lower IV, Upper IV, Lower V, Vth form, Upper V, Lower VI, Upper VI. Perfectly sensible. I joined in Lower IV, which I think equates to Year 7 in decimal currency, but I'm never entirely certain.

** A public school isn't actually public, it's private, but we call it public to confuse Americans. It seems to work.

*** Yes, the kind of all-girls school that has a Lower IV also has Needlework lessons. And Needlework was compulsory and not to be missed, not even for piano lessons, in a way that Athletics was not. Let's get our priorities straight here people - sewing is more important for growing girls than physical exercise.

Monday, 21 September 2015

A bit less than a penguin

And now for some snippets of conversations with my son...

Me: I love you more than anything in the whole world
LB: I love you.... a bit less than I love penguins. Or sometimes a bit more.
Me: Oh. Thank you. Well, I love you anyway

LB: Do you love me more than... you love yourself? (I see a future in pulp self-help books ahead)
Me: Hmmm... (I can't believe I'm actually seriously considering which answer will be less psychologically harmful at this point) I think I love you more. If something terrible were happening, I would definitely try and make sure you were safe even if it meant I got hurt. So, I think I love you more than I love myself.
LB: If there were a cannon at the window there?
Me: I'd definitely get you out of the way of a cannon.
LB: Even if the cannon... knocked your head off!
Me: Ah... that's not very nice is it?

Me: Do you like asparagus at the moment? We haven't had it for a while.
LB: I like it and I don't like it.
Me: Right. Well, should I buy some?
LB: You should buy some and not buy some. (Gee, thanks for that, Schroedinger.)

Me: What have we forgotten LittleBear?
LB: Tooth time! Come on Mummy! It's toothbrushing time!
Skipping through the house singing "tooth time, tooth time, yay, yay, yay!"

This last episode is only in any way astonishing, confusing or bewildering in light of LittleBear's usual response to toothbrushing time which generally involves screaming, crying, stamping, wailing and occasionally throwing himself on the floor. Every day. Twice a day. I have absolutely no idea who took my son away and replaced him with one who loves toothbrushing. I'm just hoping the new version hasn't dispensed with one of his more helpful behaviours as a trade-off.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

It's always the telephone

I should have known better than to write about how much more relaxed I am now. It's like telling people your baby sleeps through the night, or that your toddler eats anything, or never wets the bed - a sure fire way to end up sleep-deprived, living on a diet of fishfinger sandwiches and running the washing machine at all hours of the day and night and wondering how many sets of pyjamas to take for one night away from home.

So while I can smile contentedly to myself at my Domestic-Goddess-like ability to have a slightly impromptu buffet/party for a random number of people without turning into a gibbering wreck, here I now sit, pinned to my chair, staring at a phone number and not phoning it. For three days I have not been phoning this number.

The first day I excused myself because the person I wanted to talk to doesn't work on Mondays and it would be inefficient to phone and leave a message, much better to actually talk to her in person, definitely, I'm not avoiding it at all, I'm being sensible and minimising the risk of confusion and crossed wires, oh yes, that's definitely what I'm doing.

The second day I was very busy. Definitely too busy to make a single private phone call at work. Not even during my lunch hour. After all, I need to eat don't I? I can't make a phone call when I'm hungry, I'll just forget what I'm going to say, and then where would we be? And after lunch I somehow "forgot" until it was 5 o'clock and then I had to rush off to collect LittleBear from nursery, and besides the woman I need to call will have finished work for the day, so I'll just have to leave it another day...

And today? Today it's back to the same old story. I don't know what to say. I mean, I know what information I need to convey, which is that the doors on our new (and expensive) summerhouse don't actually close properly, the left hand one is not hanging correctly and I've had to remove the strike plate from the door frame to be able to slide the bolt home as it was catching. But what if she's mean to me on the phone? What if somehow it's all my fault? What if I'm supposed to have adjusted the hinges myself to make it close smoothly? What if that's just how it's supposed to be? What if she thinks I'm some kind of serial whinger? What if I am actually being incompetent? What if she doesn't answer and I have to leave a message? (I won't. I'll hang up, you know I will.)

And the absolutely best thing about not phoning is that it then provides me with plenty of scope for fretting about it at home and worrying about it at night. I can lie there and wonder how much time I have available in which to complain that the doors aren't right before I get told it's no longer an installation/warranty problem, but that I must have broken it myself and they won't fix it. Is it too late already? What if it can't be fixed? What if it can be fixed but all it takes is a single turn of a screwdriver and then I feel like a complete fool and wish the world would open up and swallow me? Is there an optimum level of difficulty in fixing it, at which the installers feel I've been justified in calling them back because I couldn't have done it myself, but they can actually manage it without screwing everything up? Why couldn't it all just be right straight away? Does the universe not know how much I hate complaining about things? How much I hate picking up the phone? How much I hate dealing with tradesmen?

Oh look, it's lunchtime. I can't call now, I'll have to do it later...

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Maybe I am more relaxed now

...or 'What a difference a decade makes'

This little muse goes along nicely with my previous thoughts on bookending a decade. Today, at rather short notice, I fed about 16 people for lunch. I say "about" because one of them was only 9 months old and therefore required minimal feeding on my part, one of them meandered in half way through the afternoon, two of them only decided to come on Friday, and then only one of the two came. So I sort of lost track of who was actually there.

If we gaze back into the mists of time, this is about the same number of people as I catered for at GrannyBear's 60th birthday. There were also infant-sized beings on that occasion too. I don't think there were any late entries or withdrawals, it being a rather better regulated affair. Now admittedly, I was very keen that everything should be perfect for GrannyBear's birthday, and on top of making a multi-course (buffet) lunch, I also made a large cake and decorated it with hand-made sugarpaste flowers. But even if we only consider the main dishes, I spent weeks planning what to make. Planning which plates it would all fit on. Worrying about which order to cook things in. Thinking about which combination of salads, tarts, cheeses and flans would work best. Wondering how many new loose-bottomed flan dishes I'd need to buy. Weighing up the pros and cons of new serving dishes and disposable foil trays. I lay awake at night going over and over and over it all in my head, cataloging the number of people, the number of dishes, how much bread, when I would arrange the last minute dash to the shops for the bread (not to mention the fact that I would be preparing all the food at home and then driving it 150 miles to BrotherBear's house, where the party was to be held). I took a day off work beforehand and spend the whole day baking. I even removed a partition in my kitchen and bought a new fridge just to be able to cater for the meal. 

Today? I'd got a vague idea what I'd make by Thursday, though couldn't find the recipes, so put in a Tesco order for a random assortment of stuff that would probably assemble into something edible. I delegated pudding to friend Piglet and LovelyColleague*. They volunteered and I'm no longer too proud to bite their arm off at a hint of an offer of help. Extra people said they'd come on Friday, so I increased the beer quotient before the delivery. Tesco duly filled the fridge on Saturday and by 10:30pm I'd made a chicken salad, a smoked salmon quiche**, a batch of sausage rolls, a batch of cheese puffs and grilled half a pig's worth of bacon for another salad.

* LovelyColleague and his Wife were the constructors of LittleBear's playhouse. In truth it was Wife who made the puddings, though it was LovelyColleague who volunteered (allegedly at her behest!)

** The reason it took till half past ten was this blasted quiche. It turned out it was pastry-week here and I hadn't really read the recipe properly before choosing to follow it, so ended up making a very short shortcrust, then chilling it, then rolling it out, then freezing it, then partially blind baking, then egg washing (don't want a soggy bottom), then completing the blind baking, then filling it, then baking it. Mary Berry would have been proud. And my bottom wasn't soggy.

Despite BigBear going out running for two hours this morning, I managed to hand over child-care to David Attenborough for a while and completed the chopping, mixing, slicing, shredding, spreading, dressing, chilling, warming and baking, interrupted approximately every 3 minutes by "Mummy! Come and see the amphipods!" or some other such irresistible offer. After the seventeenth time I was, I confess, growling through gritted teeth, "I am trying to get lunch ready. If you keep interrupting me, there won't be any lunch."


Well, it all kind of came together. People ate, drank and were merry. We took it in turns to say "No, don't wave the hoe in the air" and "No, don't feed cat biscuits to the baby". There's food left over, but not too much, which I take as a sign that it was tasty enough and plentiful enough. And we've got more bottles of wine than we started with. That's my kind of outcome.

And I'm pretty certain the children enjoyed it...

Ice-creams can induce four small children to sit down simultaneously

 The last guests left just before LittleBear's dinner time, and he shared a goodbye cuddle and kiss with his little friend, Piglet's daughter.

The welly with which she is standing on his foot makes it for me

I'm almost beginning to think I may be more chilled out now than I used to be. Or perhaps my standards have slipped to something below "absolute perfection". Or perhaps I'm now able to accept that my friends and family don't ration their love for me based on how flawless my baking is. Or perhaps I just ration my love and attention and give it to those who don't judge me, which makes being relaxed a lot easier. Whatever it is, today was a lovely day, made lovelier by not spending weeks stressing about it beforehand. I think I might need to wing it more often, it's not such a bad feeling***.

*** Shhhhh. Don't tell BigBear. He's been telling me to play it by ear for years. We don't want him thinking he's right or anything...



Friday, 11 September 2015

Stuff on my feet

Today, in no particular order, the following things have been placed, dropped, splashed or otherwise deposited on my (bare) feet:

A rather nice bronze coloured nail varnish. This was, without doubt, the only good thing that has happened to my feet today.

Urine, not my own*. As provided by a small boy who didn't quite make it to the toilet in time, and summoned me with a peremptory bellow, "Mummy, I need help". Naturally I dashed straight to the bathroom, to find him ensconced on his throne, wee everywhere, including the large puddle I was by that point standing in.

Bin juice. Yes, you know the stuff. That foul, putrifying liquid found in garbage compactor 3263827 on the Death Star. There is nothing that quite contends with the smell of liquifying potato. LittleBear came into the kitchen and promptly wrapped his whole arm across his face, burying his nose and mouth in the crook of his elbow and mumbling "that's a horrid smell". Yup, and now I've dripped it on my foot.

Lego. I don't know why it was put on top of my feet. On the plus side, it's better on top than underneath.

Various dinosaurs. Most of them were trying to eat me, my clothes or each other. Again, it remains unclear to me why my feet were providing the battle ground for the enacting of these scenarios.

The cat's bottom. He sat down. My feet were there first. His bottom is, once again, a rather unpleasantly matted department that may require another trip to a kind man bearing clippers. And he's quite happy to share said unpleasant bottom.

The cat's feet. He walked across me. I didn't look much like the rest of the garden, but I suppose by this point I smelt pretty special.

Grated cheese. LittleBear isn't exactly accurate in his distribution when adding grated cheese to his jacket potato.

Raw bacon. I'm not exactly accurate in my distribution when finely chopping bacon.

I think it's just possible my feet may get an extra special washing tonight before bed.

* Would it be better or worse if it were my own?

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Home: just like a holiday but with more responsibilities

You may recall, I claimed that holidays are just like being at home, only harder work. I think I may have been wrong. Shocking isn't it? Me, wrong. My world-view has taken a battering.

The thing about being on holiday, is that nothing is really your responsibility, other than trying to keep the whole family alive, fed and out of prison. OK, so some days even achieving one of those feels worthy of some sort of medal, but once you get home, you've got to do all that and more. On holiday, if the radiators are making a funny rattling noise? They're not mine! If the DVD player grunts and clatters mysteriously when you press switch it on? Who cares! If the side panel is falling off the bath? Meh! If the garden is an overgrown jungle of weeds? Pah! I was going to the beach anyway.

Meanwhile... back home.... if the circuit breaker for the whole of the downstairs has tripped? That's my freezer and fridge that have defrosted, my carpet that is soaked, my life that is filled with rotting food. If the cat has shredded the arms of the sofa? That's my sofa that's threadbare. If the cold air sneaks in through the gap under the window behind the desk? That's my cold feet, my heating bill, my masonry repair job. If the pipes start banging every time the hot water comes on? That's my air hammer to fix. And then there's the car...

A month or so ago, the bonnet catch stopped working and after topping up the engine with oil I couldn't close the damn thing. Fortunately I was at work at the time, and with the help of my colleagues we fettled it until it closed. (I say "we", actually, two of my colleagues did it while I stood by looking useless and saying things like "what's that sticky out bit for?" in a sudden rash of incompetence). The bonnet then closed, we went on holiday and I promptly forgot all about it. Now the bonnet won't open.

On the last day of our more recent holiday, the boot catch stopped working. Overcoming my previous rash of incompetence, I managed to find a way of tweaking it into closing, by manually moving the catch as I swung the boot down, lifting the handle, sticking my tongue out, standing on one leg and praying to the flying spaghetti monster. That got us home, but was clearly a last hurrah on the part of the return spring. Because yesterday the trick no longer worked. The catch can no longer be manually swung into place. So now my car sits on our drive, unlocked, boot unlatchable, and the garage can't take it till next Thursday. Please don't steal my car, m'kay? And if you do, don't try to top the oil up, the bonnet won't open*.

And then of course, there's the broken wing-mirror indicator light cover, from where I drove into a post in Tesco carpark, that I'm too embarrassed to even explain any further. And the mystery warning light that only comes on when it rains, because of a corroded cable. I keep reminding BigBear of our friend who broke her wing-mirror and reckoned that was reason enough to replace the whole car. With a brand new Jaguar. I don't seem to be winning that argument. Apparently the fact that we have a whole other car (BigBear's) that we basically never use is apparently a good enough reason not to actually need another car.

* PS. I'm wiring it closed from the inside tonight, so any of you proto-twoccers out there, there's nothing to see here, move along...

Monday, 7 September 2015

Sickened, saddened, sorrowful

It seems as though there's not much that hasn't been said about Aylan Kurdi, the three-year old boy who was photographed dead, washed up on a foreign shore, after he and his family fled their own war-torn country. Much of what I could, would, should, might have said has already been said, in particular by the Unmumsy Mum in her blog. She even links to the same Guardian article about ways to help that I was going to link to. If your heart is breaking at the thought of the men, women and children who are so desperate to escape from their own countries that they will risk everything to get away, then please at least look at that article and think about whether there's a way you can help. Don't just post another photograph of poor little Aylan Kurdi. Don't just sign another petition. Don't just write another tweet about how awful it is. If you care, do something. We cannot make a difference to the kind of world we live in just by sitting on our sofas nodding sadly about how awful it is, then pouring another glass of merlot.

Are things any worse in that respect than they ever were? Does the immediacy and ubiquity of social media make it too easy for a child's death to become a meme, a passing fad for everyone to re-tweet, before being forgotten again? Or am I just as cynical as Chumbawamba were about LiveAid, with Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records? I'm sad and angry with myself, and with the world, that it took a poignant photograph of a dead child to wake me up to the reality of the words contained in the news reports, to the individual tragedy that every death is to a family. I shouldn't be surprised - after all, we all heard the news about the famine in Ethiopia, but it wasn't until we saw Michael Buerk there in 1984 that it sank in, and it wasn't until Bob Geldof shouted at us all to pick up the phone and give money that most of us lifted a finger. But how many people carried on giving? How many people carried on caring, carried on trying to make a difference, carried on wanting to change the world? Not enough, if the state of the world is anything to go by...

And maybe we can't make a difference anyway. That thought depresses me. Because, no matter what we, the little people, do, no matter what donations we make, what food parcels we send, what campaigns we start, our efforts can only ever scratch the surface. How can I stop a war? How can I eliminate the hate and intolerance and prejudice and fundamentalism and inequality that underpin so much of the world's conflicts? I cannot stop Shia and Sunni from turning on each other, any more than I can stop Protestant and Catholic from doing so, or white and black, or rich and poor, or left and right.

I've tried voting, and it feels like it hasn't made a difference. I certainly don't have a government that reflects my own views or values. I suppose in the end, all I can do is help one person at a time. And if all of us help one person, then that's a lot of people helped. It's not enough to think that it's someone else's job to help. We are all human beings, it's up to all of us to help each other.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Transient smugness

One day of our holiday, after an abominable morning of tears and tantrums (most of them LittleBear's) over everything ranging from me using the wrong voice for animating a triceratops to me making stegosaurus say the wrong thing about the meteorite via me making the ash cloud fall on the dinosaurs all wrong, we went out for lunch.

This might not have been a brilliant idea, given the aforementioned state of near permanent meltdown about everything UselessMummy did wrong (and we won't even mention BigBear's alleged inadequacies as a tooth brushing supervisor...) BUT, as it turned out, it was a perfect opportunity for a bucketful of temporary smugness.

We've done this before, so we'd checked the menu in advance for the presence of one of the three things LittleBear might deign to eat, we'd packed the sticker book, we'd got the dinosaurs, the nanoo (and a spare). We were sorted. And LittleBear behaved beautifully. He sat, in a chair, at the table, before, during and after his meal. He chatted, he stuck stickers, he ate his lunch. He even went to the loo with only half-hearted cavilling.

"What's the big deal?" I hear those of you with no children ask.

Well... at the next table was a masterclass in how else it can pan out. Picture, if you will, the most stereotypically Sloane couple you can. He wore red trousers. She had a Hermes handbag. And they both had the unmistakable drawl of a Sloane. Their children were Arabella and Georgia. How do I know? Because for the entire meal we were accompanied by a non stop recitation of the following:

Bella no dear, don't climb that
Georgie, stop it
Georgie, come back
Bella come here
Georgie sit down
Bella no
Georgie no
Bella sit here
Arabella, don't let Georgie do that
Georgie don't do that
Arabella, come down from there
Georgia, that's not safe
Bella, no
Georgie put that down
Georgie don't climb
Bella stand up

And neither parent moved a muscle. Or actually attempted to stop their children climbing onto, over, under and through everything. And neither child paid the tiniest bit of attention to what their parents told them. Neither child sat still to eat. Neither child even stayed at the table while eating. Neither child had anything to play with (they were ~4 and ~1 I'd guess). Neither parent tried to talk to the children (other than the litany of what not to do).

The only pause was when the mother lowered her voice slightly to say "You see that little boy? He's sitting nicely and eating, why can't you do that?" Blimey. LittleBear held up as a shining example of good behaviour!  I am treasuring this moment.

Maybe the Sloanes were ground down by too many sleepless nights, too many bigger battles to fight than these ones, too many tantrums, too many knocked over glasses. I don't know.  But now is my opportunity to get all judgemental about parenting skills...

If you're going to say "no" to your child, you really ought to mean it. And follow through. Or, if you really don't give a damn whether your child runs rampant around a restaurant, don't make a half-hearted effort to pretend that you do. Don't sit there gazing into your iphone saying "no dear, come back" and then doing absolutely sod all about whatever it is your child is doing. And if your children are bored, try talking to them, or playing with them, or taking them off exploring somewhere until the food comes. I've had meals out with LittleBear where the entire episode is an exercise in tantrum-aversion and distraction. No, it's not fun, it's not a relaxing meal out, it's not like life before children, but you manage because it's the only opportunity to get some food inside all of you, and yes you'd all rather be at home at that moment, but you're here now, and under the circumstances it's always nice to try not to ruin too many other people's days.

Bella and Georgie and their ineffectual parents didn't actually ruin anybody's day I don't think, and certainly not mine. But they irritated me anyway, or the parents did. They irritated me, because they're the ones giving the rest of us a bad name. They're the ones that lead to the kind of comment thread on this Guardian article, in which it turns out that huge swathes of the (Guardian-reading-and-commenting) population seem to think that all children in all pubs are monsters and should be outlawed. They provide ammunition for those who think all parents are selfish, inconsiderate "breeders" who infest the world with noise-making dinner-ruiners.

And, let's be honest, it's hard to defend yourself in the face of those accusations, because anyone who says "my child is beautifully behaved and has never spoilt anyone's day by being obnoxious" is clearly utterly, pathetically deluded. But at least some of us try to make sure our noise-making dinner-ruiners are kept below a certain decibel level and ideally occupied with something when within range of someone else's dinner.

But I know that my smugness at not being one of those parents is only transient. It won't be long before LittleBear does something that makes me wish the world would open up and swallow me (again). Or I lose track of him for a moment and find he's explaining to some unsuspecting diner about the K/T extinction, or crawling under someone's wheelchair, or asking a man why his nose is so red, or trying to find out how to get all the pepper out of the grinder, or.... you know what? Maybe we'll just eat at home from now on...

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Best laid plans

I have these idealised plans about fantastic crafty, creative things that I will do with LittleBear. They rarely come to fruition. Actually I have fantastic crafty creative plans for myself as well, and they only slightly less rarely come to fruition.

This week's marvellous plan involved me having bought a sheet of A2 card, and mounted a map of the Isle of Wight in the middle of it. The idea was we could draw pictures, stick photos and mementoes on, mark the places we'd been, and generally get LittleBear involved in the process of what we were doing and where we were going and have a bit of fun with colouring and gluing.

It's already over half way through the holiday and we have done absolutely nothing towards this project. We've been too busy digging in the sand, eating ice-cream and playing with dinosaurs. So, today I cut up some small cards and started doing little drawings of buckets and spades and of ice-creams and of dinosaur footprints. Once LittleBear spotted this, he had a little strop because he'd wanted to cut out the cards... Then he spent about five minutes with me gluing them on, before getting bored and asking me to glue the rest on while he ate some chocolate cake. So much for that plan.

LittleBear then spent TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES sitting with a sheet of scrap paper (a data sheet from Applied Kilovolts as it turned out) and a pair of scissors, cutting the paper into tiny, tiny pieces.

There's a lesson in here somewhere. Something to do with leading horses to water. Or simple things making the best toys. Or the contrariness of small boys. Or the idiocy of trying to make grand plans when you are in the company of the Captain of Idiosyncracy.