Friday, 29 May 2015

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I'm driving along next to Tooting Common when suddenly the electric wing mirrors on my car start to move by themselves. The button has fallen off exposing the workings beneath so now it's utterly unresponsive to my command. Essentially the wing mirrors have gone rogue. In order to see what is behind me when I change lanes I have to follow their maverick progress with my whole body away from and then back towards the car. This feels dangerous. Probably because it is dangerous. 

Let's face it the car is knackered. We bought it when Youngest was born and it was nine months old then. Youngest was 13 on Tuesday. Do the Math, as the Yanks say. Unfortunately the engine is still going strong, it's just everything around it that has been gradually decaying for the last 13 years. Me included.

The upholstery is worn, faded, torn in some places. The clutch is clanky. The steering is laboured. The suspension almost non-existent. Minor electrical failings are occurring in batches. First the air con, then the stereo, then the alarm, which has a life of its own and goes off randomly if we try to point and press with the key so now we have to put the key in the lock and turn it TWICE before opening the car. We may as well say a little prayer and do a bit of Voodoo as well. Then the boot locked itself the other day and nothing we tried would make it give way. On Friday a cyclist overtaking in Richmond Park cheerfully informed me through the open car window that one of the break lights is on the fritz.

I want a new one. Car that is, not break light, which Husband seemed to think was the solution to the whole problem. Husband says let's hang on to this car for a while longer, new cars are a waste of money, new cars devalue immediately, and we don't even use it that much.

This is the usual turn of events in our house. I'm for new. Husband is not. It was the same with the kitchen. I went on about it for several years and then he caved. Eventually. Same with buying a house, going on holiday, having a baby, having another baby, having a third baby, getting married (maybe not quite in that order). 

Our modus operandi is that I nag and he gives way. Eventually. How many marriages work like this? Hundreds of thousands, I should imagine. Can't we just skip Part One and go straight to Part Two, avoiding a huge amount of hassle and wasted breath on my part? 

And I think it is my duty here to inform - and to remind him - that in the many years we have been together we have purchased only one car with our actual money. ONE. We inherited two old cars from my grandfathers: a Mitsubishi Gallant from my maternal, a Honda Civic from my paternal. And we were kindly given a little money by Husband's stepmother once, which we used to buy our first car, an old, red Fiat Panda, which cost £1,000 (I'm working back chronologically here). So the only car we have EVER bought is this current one, our 14 year old Vauxhall Zafira. And please note that not a single one of those cars was cool. Well, maybe the Fiat, a bit. 

You could say we've been very parsimonious when it come to cars, and Green too for that matter. So now I have my eye on a Citroen Picasso Grand. MPV of the year 2015, according to Google. I was checking out a brand new one, in Shark grey, parked by the side of the road, when we went shopping just off the King's Road over the bank holiday. The somewhat frantic owner clocked me and ran up to claim it. She was all high striped shirt collar and pearls...

"I'm not stealing it!" I hastened to inform her, "I'm just thinking of buying one of these."

"Oh it's great," she sighed with relief, "I have the seats down in the back there all the time so I can get the surfboards in, and Buster as well."

I assume Buster is her dog. I didn't ask, and she didn't elucidate. Maybe he's the recalcitrant husband who doesn't toe the line and isn't allowed to ride up front? 

Now there's an idea.

Love E x


Friday, 22 May 2015

Tottenham Court Road.

Every couple of months I meet up with a friend who moved away from south London a few years ago to the 'burbs. This time she suggests we meet in Heals because she wants to look at cushions. I love mooching round Heals and they have a lovely coffee shop, so we arrange to meet there. 

In fact I love all furniture and interiors shops. In particular I like fabrics and lighting and crockery and cushions and jugs. Our house is stuffed with it all, especially jugs. There's so much crockery displayed in the kitchen that there's not space for anymore. Sadly.

I get the Northern Line, of course. Where's Heals? I think, as I sit on the tube with my new Kindle. Oh yes, on Tottenham Court Road. I haven't been there in years. They've been working on the station and it was closed for ages. It's all different round there now.

I'm absorbed in my book (sorry, my Kindle. No, sorry, my eReader) so I  get up automatically at Tottenham Court Road tube stop. It's only as I feel my feet hit the platform that it occurs to me that Goodge Street is much closer to Heals, and then the doors slam behind me. Too late. Never mind. The walk up Tottenham Court Road will do me good.

I go up the escalator, and then another one. Some man ascending on the parallel escalator looks at me, turns away, looks back. What? I think. Do I have dirt on my face? What? What! 

I try to avoid him at the top as I exit the barrier. I turn left in a hurry to get away and because that's what I always used to do at the top of the escalator at Tottenham Court Road if I wanted to walk north.

I walk. Gosh, it's changed a lot round here, I think. On the opposite side are two very old building facades, held up with nothing but scaffolding, no actual building behind, just empty space, quite eerie actually, and disconcerting. I pass a few of those London tourist shops selling tat: I Love London hats and mugs and key rings. Then a few music stores. Then a Primark. 

There's a Primark on Tottenham Court Road now! Wow, I must tell V (the friend I am meeting) and there are far fewer music shops than there used to be. Amazon has so much to answer for.

Eventually I see a tube station coming into view up ahead on the left. Goodness, I've reached Goodge Street already! With no sign of Heals yet. In fact there's a new Top Shop, a huge one, on the other side of the road, where Heals should be. Where is Heals? 

I can't read the name of the tube station from this angle but I can see the tiling around the top. It says: Oxford Circus, Oxford Circus, Oxford Circus, Oxford Circus.

Blimey, I think, Goodge Street tube must once have been called Oxford Circus, like Tooting Bec tube was once called Trinity Road and then re-named. Strange, because how could they call it Oxford Circus when it's so far from, you know, actual Oxford Circus? 

Then I stop dead in my tracks. People walking behind me narrowly miss smashing right into me. People coming towards me have to take sudden evasive action to avoid a collision. I'm not on Tottenham Court Road. I am on Oxford Street. 

The sudden, complete disorientation this causes in my brain is a shock. I am not where I thought I was. Not metaphorically this time, but actually. 

There is not a new Primark on Tottenham Court Road. The music shops are most likely still there. I turned the wrong way when I left the tube and did not notice my mistake until now, nearly at Oxford Circus. Not only that but I was prepared to believe TfL had wrongly labelled their own tube station rather than accept that it was I who had gone the wrong way. I think there's a name for that sort of delusion, and it's not a flattering one.

My brain has to do some fast realigning and for a moment, a fraction of a second, it struggles. Right, I will have to strike north east to get back to Heals if I don't want to walk the length of this street again, back to Tottenham Court Road tube before turning LEFT.

I'm mildly panicked. I consider jumping in a taxi. How late is this going to make me? I'm a long way from Heals now. Then I calm down. A taxi will probably take longer and I have a text from V saying that she's going to be late, her train was delayed. I text back: "Don't worry. Also late. Got lost!"

I start to walk again, using The Post Office Tower to navigate. I know that when standing in front of Heals you can see it before you. 

Okay, I think, so I may well have early onset Alzheimers but don't they recommend getting lost as a way to test your brain? To stave it off? I was lost, in a way, at least I wasn't where I thought I was, so now I will correct myself. Not using Google Maps or ringing Husband (who has a much better knowledge of central London than I do) or by asking someone. I will work it out myself.

I turn around, take a few steps back, turn left off Oxford Street, walk for a while, turn left again, go straight, look up to check the position of The Post Office Tower, turn left again and eventually find myself on Charlotte Street. I know this! And there's a sign for Goodge Street pointing ahead, which I follow. A busy road comes into view. This must be Tottenham Court Road. It is! I come out almost exactly opposite the shop, relieved, elated, and not even particularly late, only ten minutes.

I walk through Heals. The lighting department is stuffed with lovely retro lights like the ones I have in our kitchen. The crockery department has a complete set in a design I have recently began to collect, including a large jug. 

I go up to the coffee shop. It's closed for refurbishment. I text V - "And now the coffee shop is closed for refurbishment!" Then I go back downstairs and buy the jug.

Love E x


Friday, 15 May 2015

Old Age.

I've started volunteering for Age UK. This is for a mixture of altruistic and self-serving reasons. Starting with the fact that I have an opening since I resigned as a school governor late last year after our beloved primary head teacher - of 14 years - was forced out by the local education department following a critical OFSTED inspection. Incidentally no one saw that coming, least of all the Chair of Governors, who is still there. (That's Wandsworth education department btw. Bless 'em.)

Anyway this means there's a gap where governors' meetings and school visits used to be. I can do some other sort of volunteering, I thought, put something back, not spend all my time just thinking about me and mine. So I thought of old people. Why? Again, more than one reason. 

Because we will one day all be old (if we're lucky). Because the thought of being old and alone is a frightening one. Indeed a friend of mine suddenly asked the other day: what is your greatest fear, Elizabeth? My children predeceasing me, I replied, without hesitation, what's yours? Being alone, he said. And it seemed extraordinary to me that he should fear this since he has a busy life with a large family and lots to do. To be old and alone, I concluded, is a universal terror.

Because we're meant to live in groups, aren't we? Villages essentially, with young and old together. Or all under one roof like the lovely Patel family next-door to us, three generations, with old Mrs Patel still going strong in her 90s, cooking chapattis for her family, and sometimes for us too. 

We're not meant to hide old people away in homes where they sit in hard-backed chairs in rows in front of the telly. Or worse (arguably) leave them to rot alone in their own homes after their beloved spouse has died. Loneliness kills. Remember that Times campaign at Christmas? Silver Line. Half a million old people will spend Christmas alone, they said... 

I remember being taken to visit my great-grandmother as a child, this was in Birmingham, where all my family originally hail from (my parents tend to keep this quiet, I come from York because they moved there in the 60s when my father was offered a job at the brand new university), and she seemed so tiny and vulnerable and alone. I was deeply affected by the experience and wrote a short story about it when I was a teenager. It wasn't much
 different in essence to that novel du jour Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey, about an old lady living alone, a bit addled in the head, getting confused between past and current events.

And if you have ever been a mum at home with small children, as I have, you will have had a glimpse of what loneliness is, and what it could be in the future. There are moments, sometimes whole days, when the offspring have gone off to school or nursery, when you are completely by yourself, left behind to contemplate the mess: the full dishwasher, the spinning washing machine, the empty silence… 

Which brings me to the self-serving part because in volunteering I will get out of the house, meet new people, feel connected to my community. In Denmark, where women over 65 are the happiest people in the world apparently, according to recent research, they do lots of volunteering and it's thought to be one of the things that makes them happy. And lately my work has all been at home, which is isolating. Coffees and lunches with friends are all very well, but too many of them makes me feel like a spoilt housewife. 

So now for the altruistic reasons, apart from the desire to help alleviate loneliness. We have a new government, one that's planning 12 billion pounds in welfare cuts which will hit our most needy and vulnerable, and which also plans to increase the age at which you are entitled a state pension. It's already tough out there for elderly people surviving on a meagre pension. We've heard how many food banks there are, Jeremy Paxman helpfully furnished us with that information, in case we didn't know already: more than 400 at the last count, with 163 percent increase in food bank use according to figures from The Trussell Trust. Charities such as Age UK are going to be more important than ever. I can either sit quietly at home for five long years with my fingers crossed in the hope that this lot finally get voted out, or I can get off my bum and try to do something to alleviate the damage in just a teeny tiny way.

So far I've only done a few mornings for the charity, not being a friend to an old person as I had imagined, yet, but working in the office. This is because their faces lit up when they heard I had "office skills". "And you don't know how to do Twitter?" asked the lady who interviewed me.

"Er, just a bit," I replied.

Love E x


Related articles to cut & paste to links.

Why are Danish people so happy?

Food Bank Use Tops Million Mark

Thursday, 14 May 2015

More exam stress...

Lovely Mumsnet contacted me on Monday, asking if I wanted to write a guest post about exam stress similar to last week's blog: 700 words. 

Always tricky to try and condense what I want to say into so few words. Writing for newspapers and the rest is rarely what you think it's going to be - even when it was you who pitched the idea. So often there's a low word count or a very specific brief or, in the case of writing in for The Daily Mail, a right-wing agenda.

Of course I said I would love to write for Mumsnet, who wouldn't? I love them. I'd love to write more for them, lots more, and for some money would be nice if they ever have some spare kicking around. (Why is it that writing is so undervalued as a profession? If I'd worked as a professional lawyer for the past eight years no one would ask me to do a bit of lawyering for free, but I think I'm straying off topic.)

As it happens there's a great deal more I'd like to say on the subject of children and exams: that we test them too much, that schools pile on too much stress, that exams can always be retaken but childhood can't (I read that somewhere yesterday, good isn't it?), that it's important to keep the household calm and relaxed, running smoothly while exams are in progress, and that being attentive to the poor exam-taker is paramount but take care that attention doesn't tip over into added pressure through constant nagging and dictating how much revision they should do.

And then I turn to page two of The Guardian this morning and there's a headline: "Surge in young people seeking help for exam stress," going on to describe a 200% increase from Childline in children approaching them specifically with exam stress, adding that the NSPCC also report 87,500 visits to their website over the same issue. "My parents won't let me do anything apart from revision," says a quote from one child.

How many of these parents, currently piling on this sort of pressure, put in the amount of revision for their own exams that they are now expecting from their children? And even if they were incredibly conscientious themselves, that was their decision, taken about their own life (presumably), their child's life is equally their own. Or it should be. 

It's just not reasonable or healthy to expect a child - anyone in fact, let alone a child - to work all the time. Having free time to do other things, read something unrelated to school work, play a musical instrument, watch a movie, go out with friends, is incredibly important in order to achieve some sort of balance and some much-needed perspective. 

Anyway, I could go on and on, in the meantime here's the piece I wrote for Mumsnet in case you missed it, which you probably didn't because they tweeted it a lot. I'll be blogging on another subject tomorrow. Promise.

Guest post: "How to *really* help your child during exam season"

With exams looming large, Elizabeth McFarlane - whose son is taking his GCSEs - shares what she's learnt
Elizabeth McFarlane
I don't know how she doesn't do it
Posted on: Tue 12-May-15 14:39:13
Lead photo
'I can't do it for him, but I can be his roadie offering backroom support'
Exam season is upon us and with it comes the stress: sweaty palms, palpitating heart, the constant need to pee… and that's just me, not the actual child. As it happens, my GCSE-taking son seems fine. I may have been through it all before with the eldest, but it's no less terrifying second time around.

Rewind a few years and a friend with children lagging slightly behind mine in age exclaimed in wide-eyed innocence: "Surely it won't affect you? They're his exams aren't they?" How I laughed a year or so later when I overheard her describing the revision timetable she was drawing up for her son because: "He just hasn't a clue!"

It does seem to be the mothers of boys who particularly struggle, possibly because on the whole they're a conscientious and organised lot who probably approached their own exams with a colour-coded efficiency they're now expecting from their sons. Disappointment looms, because here's the rub: in my experience most boys aren't much fussed. My sons don't seem to measure their self-worth against academic success in the way I did, and mum whinging on day and night about doing some actual revision just gives them something to rebel against. I'm sure that goes for plenty of girls too, I just don't have any of those.

I heard tell of a boy banished to his room to revise, laptop and games console confiscated, who texted his mother the minute she'd gone out: "Ha! I still have my phone up here. I'm playing games on that!" While another mum I know hid outside by the front window and leapt out, catching her son red-handed going straight for the PlayStation, when he'd promised to revise. If they're determined to fritter away study time on displacement activities like playing the guitar, or suddenly becoming incredibly politically active (my Year 11 has just joined the Liberal Democrats), they will. On the plus side middle son has, at the last minute, implemented an impressive revision system - unlike his older brother, who approached studying in a frustratingly haphazard manner.
My sons don't seem to measure their self-worth against academic success in the way I did, and mum whinging on day and night about doing some actual revision just gives them something to rebel against.

There's obviously a balance to be struck here. It's lying somewhere between constant policing and going through the entire curriculum with him piece by painful piece, and not caring a jot. I've concluded that middle son needs only a few things from me at this stressful time: to know that it is an important time, that his future will be affected by the outcome, but also that we are here for him and that we will help in any way we can. Above all else, he needs to do this by himself. It's his performance - he is the one about to step out on to that stage. I can't do it for him, but I can be his roadie offering backroom support.

So here are a few dos and don'ts from my experience the first time around, not all of which I've managed to stick to…


1. Be anxious or over-dramatic: "So you want to fail ALL your exams not doing ANYTHING with your life, do you?” Bad.

2. Pop into their revision sanctum every five minutes for an update.

3. Write out a revision timetable for him. That's your plan, not his. He has to own it.

4. Provide a constant countdown of months/weeks/days/hours left: "You only have a week to go you foolish child, you had better get on with it!"


1. Be supportive, interested and sympathetic. Murmur comforting things like: "It's a rough time" and "Poor you."

2. Provide revision guides, paper, pens, Post It notes, highlighters, a quiet place to study away from siblings and distractions. Then stay away.

3. Provide snacks, treats, favourite meals, and a good breakfast on the day.

4. Pin the actual proper exam board timetable up so he knows when they are.

5. Encourage him to plan his revision a few days ahead at a time. Huge plans are hard to maintain.

6. Suggest keeping a tally of all the revision achieved. This accentuates the positives. Good.

7. Encourage fresh air and exercise: both great for dealing with stress.

8. And above all else remember it's his life not yours. (Good luck with that one.)
By Elizabeth McFarlane
Twitter: @doesnotdoit

Love E x 

The piece in The Guardian to cut and paste -

Friday, 8 May 2015

Exam fever

Forget hay fever, the mums around me at the moment are suffering from exam fever, and they're not even the ones taking them. It's especially afflicting the mothers of boys, I notice. 

Exam season is upon us and I've been through it all before with Eldest so I could come over all a bit weary and smug now if I felt like it, but I don't, because it's stressful every time - although some children do seem to cope better than others. This time it's Middle One's turn, GCSEs, starting next week.

I remember one of my friends, a mum herself, with children just lagging behind mine in age, saying: "Surely it won't affect you, they're his exams aren't they?" When Eldest was approaching his GCSEs. Ha-Ha-Ha-Ha, how I laughed. And how I laughed even harder when it was her son's turn and I heard her telling a mate about the revision timetable she was drawing up for him. 

Another mother of a boy I know even told me she was "teaching her son how to revise". If she's cracked that one then she could earn a fortune hiring herself out. And then there are those mothers who actually sit next to the boy and go through the curriculum with him, piece by painful piece. You know who you are. 

But even if you fully intend to stand back and let him sort out his own life, as I do, schools just don't let you. The GCSE evening 'Helping Your Child Through GCSEs' a few years back (I didn't go to it again this time around) was two hours long. TWO HOURS of being lectured at in a draughty school hall on a hard wooden chair about how stressful it's going to be and that you need to make sure he gets a good night's sleep before an exam day. Durr. 

The thing is that so many mums I know are highly conscientious and no doubt approached their own exams with colour-coded efficiency. Now they are expecting the same from of their sons. Disappointment looms. Because this is the rub: boys just aren't all that fussed, well, most of them aren't. Yes, plenty could get A*s if they put their minds to it, but they can't be arsed. They don't measure their self-worth against academic success in the same way that girls appear to. They don't get all lathered up by what their friends are up to. They don't really care. And mum whinging on at them day and night about sorting themselves out and doing some, you know, actual revision, just gives them something to rebel against. 

I remember a story about a boy banished to his room to revise, his laptop confiscated so he couldn't play games on it, who texted his mother the minute she'd gone out - 'Ha! I still have my phone up here. I'm playing games on that!' If they are determined to fritter away their time on displacement activities (improve my guitar playing, anyone? Suddenly become incredibly politically active?) they will.

So here's some random advice below gleaned from when Eldest took his exams, not all of it stuck to by me at the time I should add…

1. Do be supportive, interested, sympathetic. "It's a rough time." "Poor you." "How are you feeling?" all GOOD.

2. Don't be anxious and over-dramatic: "So you want to fail ALL your GCSEs and serve hamburgers in McDonalds for your whole life then!" BAD.

3. Do provide revision guides, paper, pens, Post It notes, coloured highlighters, a quiet place to study away from siblings and distractions. GOOD.

4. And do STAY AWAY. Don't pop up to his room every five minutes for an update. "Just thought I'd check how you're doing up here." BAD.

5. Do provide snacks, treats, nice food, their favourite meals, a good breakfast on the day. "And would you like homemade blueberry sauce with that pancake, my darling?" GOOD.

6. Don't write out a revision timetable for him. That's your plan, not his. He has to own it. "I'm not being controlling really, just call me Svengali." BAD.

7. Do pin the actual proper exam board timetable from school up in his room so he knows when they are. "Here you are, darling, just a little info for you there." GOOD.

8. Don't insist he get up early and go to bed early but SUGGEST this might be a good idea. 7 am: "Are you up yet working on your Physics yet?" BAD. 

9. 10 am: "Would you like to come down for your homemade blueberry sauce now, darling?" BETTER.

10. Don't do a constant countdown about how many months/weeks/days/hours there are left until the exams: "You only have a week left you stupid child, so you had better get on with it!" BAD, BAD, BAD.

11. Do encourage other activities apart from revising. Sport and going outside for a nice walk or a run, all GOOD.

12. Don't book a 6 day holiday in Italy when he is meant to be revising, as I did. BLOODY STUPID.

13. Do be around before and after exams to offer food and a friendly ear if you can and, crucially, only if this is desired. GOOD.

14. Remember it's his life. (Good luck with that one.)

15. Some of this also applies to girls but I don't have any of those so things with them may be a little different. I hear tell they revise in GROUPS at the kitchen table in a collaborative and friendly manner. 


Love E x