Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Am I too old to have my ears pierced for the first time?

Not this, obvs.    Photo: Steve Evans

There comes a time in a woman’s life where it may become necessary to attract attention away from the face.
The sagging jowels and constantly angry demeanour I have cultivated just aren’t now terribly appealing to the viewer.
So – at age 39 – I have finally decided to have my ears pierced.
The trouble is, I was brought up to believe this was a barbaric practice for prostitutes and tribesmen only.
So strong was my father’s indoctrination, the evidence around me (that everyone from my 2-year-old niece to my dentist had it done) was not enough to spur me into even the most modest of studs.
So, for decades now, my dangling lobes have remained virgin. I am proud of it in the same way as I am proud of being a left-hander. It really makes not the slightest difference to anything but it’s sometimes fun to be in a minority.
But now, I feel a glorious pair of out-sized loops – see J-Lo – or a heavy pair of enormous lobsters (or should I say lobe-sters) could do a lot for my oppressed Hausfau look.
Who is going to look at my stained tabard when they are confronted by some miniature diamond chandeliers gleaming out from behind my greying bob?
Only one problem remains: who will conduct this mutilation ceremony? I am surely way too old for Claire’s accessories and too square for the highly-recommended tattoo parlour down the road.
Besides, they seem more interested in piercing people’s faces.
Will I have to do it myself like I have to DIY everthing else? Answers in the comment section please.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Name tapes hell: how I stopped caring about the back to school buzz

At last the long wet summer is over and it is time to equip our youth for their return back to social conditioning, school and sunny weather.
Parents across the land are busy bulk-buying rip-resistant trousers and the more neurotic will be hand-stitching nametapes into underpants.
This annual consumer surge got me thinking about how my approach to back-to-school has changed over the years. Let’s take a look:

First born starts reception:
1. Buy a new iron in preparation for my new hobby of ironing. I have never ironed before.
2. Pre-order entire uniform from M&S website, reading multiple reviews, researching quality and fit.
3. Express excessive concern over these choices until the boy is safety wrapped in said uniform.
4. Spend a certain amount of time looking down my nose at parents who buy their uniform in Asda or Lidl (ok, hate me, I just have an eye for quality)
5. Buy the bookbag with the official school insignia which costs £3 more.
7. Make cups of tea for grandma as she descends into madness machine-sewing nametapes into every single item of uniform (this is not an afternoon I would wish to repeat)

Second born starts reception
1. Wonder why I ever bought that iron.
2. Buy a few extra jumpers and stuff from M&S.
3. Moan that the shirts at M&S ‘Aren’t what they once were’
4. Delegate shoe-buying to Dad who doesn’t work in school holidays (A RISKY BUSINESS INDEED).
5. Scribble childs’ initials in permanent marker on clothes labels.

Both kids start the autumn term three years later
1. Stick head in wardrobe on August 31st to see if there are any passable items of school uniform around.
2. Pop to Asda for emergency uniform only to discover everything is sold out.
3. Field the ‘Why is Abdullah’s jumper so red when mine is pink?’ question from my middle child. I teach him the words ‘faded’ and ‘washed out’.
4. Field the “Should my trousers be just below the knee?” question. Start to sound exactly like my own mother as I answer: “Shorts are all the rage, you know”.
5. Decide to hold off shoe-buying until either one of them actually complains they are too small.
6. One of them complains their shoes are too small. Damn.
7. Flipflops are all the rage, you know.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

How long before the phonics books are sponsored by Chewits?

What is the education world’s equivalent of turning an ancient cathedral into a BMW showroom?
It sounds like the beginning of a schools journalist in-joke, but this is a genuine question I have  asked myself, following a series of unsettling news stories.
First, it emerged that back in my home town of Peterborough, the dean of the cash-strapped Norman cathedral had agreed for it to be used as the venue for a posh launch event for BMW. There were actual cars parked incongruously in the nave, surrounded by clouds of dry ice. Outside its glorious West front, cars were displayed on every scrap of well-tended ecclesiastical lawn, with fairy lights erected all around. Predictably, this caused outrage and disgust across the town, although some praised the dean’s efforts to raise funds in tough times. The dean, when faced with the criticism, claimed it was done “respectfully” because “no sales took place”.  He pointed out that the cathedral already has a shop and Fair Trade stand, so what, really, was the big difference? I laughed out loud when the local paper quoted him saying: “If Jesus is Lord at all, then he is Lord of BMW as well as of Peterborough Cathedral… We do not believe that God can be contaminated by the presence of a new car”.
Whatever his strained rationale for this ghastly endeavour, I felt the management of the cathedral had gone a step too far. Something about driving a spanking new Mini Countryman up the flagstones just seemed, well, a bit off.
The taste-free episode got me thinking about what the limits of commercialisation in schools might funds fall in real terms, and additional dosh is pumped only towards free schools and grammars. What might headteachers be driven to in the coming years? We’ve already had the stories of families asked to make hefty financial contributions. Some heads have left, refusing to compromise – or sell their souls - in the face of what they see as government neglect of the system.
But for those headteachers and bodies managing schools who remain and are increasingly desperate to keep courses running and the lights on – what would be their limit? Would you be happy if Nestle held a chocolate bar launch event in a school? What about representatives from computer game companies paying to hand out goody bags during assembly? What about charging for parents’ evenings (the teachers have to be paid...) or fining children in the wrong uniform? How about charging “education tourists” in the system who were not born in the UK? Or renting out the school hall to the local branch of UKIP?  And if the academy chain to which your school belonged insisted on you doing any of the above, would you rebel? It's sure if you opposed fundraising efforts you would be accused of being an "enemy of promise" intent on frustrating the "social mobility agenda".
Who knows where we might end up. No one imagined the Tories would be so effective at breaking up and effectively privatising vast chunks of the education system in such a short time. Lord Nash, the unelected businessman who seems to be in charge of schools, has expressed his belief that schools need to be run more like ruthless businesses and less like humane, supportive places of learning. Headteachers, he said, were too keen to offer staff “the benefit of the doubt” (ignoring the fact that this benefit of the doubt is the only thing keeping any sort of living breathing teacher in front of many classes).
Maybe it is only a matter of time before schools have their “Peterborough cathedral moment” and we allow Toy’s R Us to promote their goods during circle time and the phonics books are all sponsored by Chewits. Yeah, my son would love that.


Monday, 27 February 2017

Walthamstow's 29-storey monument to greed

When I first moved to Walthamstow 10 years ago it was a scruffy place, full of local colour, and a smidgen of middle class gentrification (I appreciate I contributed to that in my own way). You could walk down the high street in your pyjamas and no one minded. There wasn’t much point in keeping up with the Joneses because there simply weren’t many Joneses about.
I had found my perfectly distant haven, an ungreedy place away from the thrust of central London where I could shuffle to the cornershop in my slippers.
Cormorants and herons flapped overhead for everyone, both rich and poor, to enjoy. There were friendly shopkeepers, shabby but adequate public services, a well-meaning Labour council and rather too much dog poo (let’s not romanticise this too much).
Just after the 2012 Olympics, I welcomed the influx of small organic bread businesses, craft markets and general hipsterdom. Who would begrudge a man with a beard the right to launch a craft ale company on a run down industrial estate? I was not a denier of gentrification. I feel the area is better off for a few extra pizza places to break up the chicken shop monotony.
However, then the estate agents picked up on it all and started to “sell” the area to people without the wit or imagination to find it or appreciate its charms unaided. It was great for my house price (I say this without pride or delight). But I am vaguely sickened when agents send a postcard through my door featuring a piece of street art on the side of a house. They are keen to cash in on every pleasant detail of the area. No mobile kebab van is safe from exploitation, no mid-century clock tower escapes the estate agents’ graphic design software.
This is where it all started to go wrong. Please understand, I am still in love with the place and appreciate the need for more housing - especially of the "affordable" and social kind. I know it is easy for me to say I don’t want people to move here because Walthamstow is mine all mine. I know that is unfair. I was an interloper not so long ago and welcome our new residents, as long as they are tolerant, friendly and love the area as much as I do.
So I reluctantly accept the many blocks of flats popping up. They aren’t particularly pretty, but these low rise developments are probably an inevitable change.
But this weekend, the owners of our local shopping “mall” – a modest shopping centre containing modest shops – showcased their plans for an extension. Like almost everyone in the area, they are keen to “add value” to their property. I have mixed feelings about much of it. Plans to introduce “active shop fronts” in the form of cafes could improve the town square and gardens (which, worryingly, will shrink). There will be more big chains, which I despise, but I appreciate many will welcome them.
But there is one plan that is clearly unacceptable – I suspect even the owners of the mall know that it is so. They are due to lodge outline planning permission for two 29-storey blocks of flats towering above the mall. This beast, which is utterly out of scale with the rest of the area, will be built by the highest bidder for the site and the mall owners and developers will be laughing all the way to the bank.
The whole thing is particularly galling as we are expected to tolerate this greed and physical invasion on our public space and open sky as we watch the quickening collapse of our public services. For example, I recently learnt that the community-run swimming pool where my sons have their swimming lessons is under serious threat of closure.
If the plans for a tower go ahead, our human scale town will suddenly become another Stratford, where vast, aggressive and misshapen towers dwarf the people, homes and businesses in the area. The promised regeneration of that part of East London has become a sort of grim Gotham-ification of a poor but vibrant neighbourhood. It is a kind of obliteration where the less well-off are left to scratch at the shining windows of Westfield or stare up towards the shadow of looming concrete, glass and steel. We do not need these buildings. We are not the banking district and nor do we want to be. Create homes for people. Let the developers make money and contribute to the community, by all means. Just know when to stop. But I fear that they don't.