no 41. People who design trains don’t push buggies

Confession. I have not been posting recently because I’ve become addicted to The Vampire Dairies.  Where were the tales of hot vampires when I was a miserable teen goth?  All I had was Interview with a Vampire, with Tom Cruise being the antithesis of everything a pasty adolescent might fancy 

Don’t get me wrong, the Vampire Diaries is properly rubbish, but it’s the kind of rubbish I would have LOVED when I was moping in my bedroom in Scarborough, failing to apply mascara effectively.

And, as part of my regression to the Land of Puberty, I headed to my hometown this weekend: a beautiful 3.5 hours up the East Coast mainline.

Except this time I didn’t lean back into my pre-booked seats and admire the view, I sat on the floor in the corridor between the toilet and 5 bags of rubbish (which expanded to ten by the end of the trip). This wasn’t because I had failed to organise the booking; it was because I was a mum with a sleeping child in a buggy.  I usually try to nab the space for the disabled (not pushing wheelchairs out of my way to get it, I hasten to add), but on this particular train it was teeny and already taken.

So instead of the view, I enjoyed the toilet door slowly sliding open every 5 minutes to reveal the lovely odour and, occasionally, a bemused pensioner who couldn’t work out the locking system. I enjoyed drawing my legs in every time someone wobbled past on their way to buy £7 miniatures of wine, and I enjoyed the insane loudness of the wind rushing in through poorly shutting sash-windows.

It made me wonder what life would be like if the things we use on a daily basis were designed by the carers of this world, rather than those who have only known the professional life.  If trains were designed by engineer-mums there would be a space with fold-down chairs at the end of each carriage which could be used as seats or as buggy spaces.  If food labels were designed by those who care for the partially-sighted, they would all be in clear black and white, rather than a shade of pale blue on a background of light green.  And if disabled toilets were actually designed by disabled people, I bet far fewer of them would be hidden on a far, far away floor, through multiple swing-doors.

But the tools of life are designed, in the main, by people who have not cared for a disabled relative, or gone on long journeys alone with small children, and so the considerations in design are to maximise efficiency and ROI.

Now, over a year into single-parenthood, I realise more and more that power is still concentrated into the hands of those who have the most privilege and, frequently, the least insight.  I don’t say this bitterly. It makes sense that young, talented designers should want to make packaging look pleasing to the eye rather than legible to a visually-impared minority; it makes sense that the best new engineering is done by those who have had the health, freedom and (perhaps) gender to spend 20 years exclusively honing their craft rather than experiencing the difficulty of hoisting a pushchair up two unevenly spaced train steps.  These things are understandable.

But it’s still disconcerting to note that whereas I’ve always been happy to elbow my opinion into decision-making processes, i now have less confidence that my voice will be heard.  Now, my complaints are as part of “special interest groups”, rather than as someone who is swimming along on market forces.  And it gives me the sneaking suspicion that even in our amazingly open and liberal society, power is still held by the healthy, the unfettered, the professional and the wealthy: not by the carers, the communities or those who speak on behalf of others.

And so I’m writing to the train company.  Nobody should pay £90 to sit amongst other people’s rubbish, just because they’ve got a kid.  It’s the start of a tiny power-revolution.

Small steps. I’ll keep you posted…


This post is dedicated to the ticket-inspector on the train who took one look at my face, and the rubbish mountain behind me, and said,”it’s all part of parenthood, eh?”.  After my inner-vampire removed his throat, we got along fine…

No 40. Radio 4 has the answer

Waking up at 5.30 each morning, I’m treated to some of the most idiosyncratic programming on radio – Farming Today, Tweet of the day (a mercifully short feature of one bird singing) and On Your Farm. There’s also an odd walking programme with Clare Balding, which I can’t remember the name of. You spend 20 minutes in the company of Clare and (usually) some weirdo, as they traipse around a bit of the British countryside in the rain.  At some point she is guaranteed to cheerfully point out that “if it wasn’t rainy/snowing/foggy/a hurricane, we’d see a lovely view from here”: the added irony being that they could be puddling around on gravel in a studio for all the listener knows.

I was brought up on Radio 4. My clearest childhood memories have it burbling in the background: Dad doing the ironing to the the Archers omnibus, all of us listening to Gardeners’ Question Time over Sunday pudding or huddled round a crackly radio on a tiny boat, noting down the shipping forecast. I can still recite it like a poem – starting with the “general synopsis”, then the gale warnings and the rhythm of the shipping areas with winds backing or pressures rising.

Perhaps it’s just that bit of human nature which needs repetition and certainty to feel safe, but I can well believe that British subs were put on nuclear alert when the Today Programme went off air.  This may be an urban myth, but what stronger sign do you need of the coming apocalypse than John Humphries being silenced?

And, at a time of my life when interaction and intellectual activity has been curtailed, Radio 4 has provided conversation, stimulation and insight – never mind if I’m scrubbing Weetabix-concrete from the floor, I can still join in with Jennie Murray dissecting systems of oppression on Woman’s Hour. (Have to admit I was disappointed that Woman’s Hour did a feature on Spring fashions. Please stop such madness ladies).

When it comes to intellectual stimulation, my absolute favourite has to be Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time.  It is the most ridiculous and pompous bit of programming but for me it’s a win-win.  For those who aren’t familiar with the format, Melvyn Bragg chooses the most obscure and frankly useless bit of history he can (ie the Battle of Tours of 732) and then wheels out high-brow academics to debate it.  It’s brilliant. It either gives me a genuine laugh when he announces the topic they’re going to cover (and then to hear the poshest voices ever to escape the 1950s whiffling on about it), or it opens surprising new avenues of thought.  And all this before the second washing load of the day has finished.

From morning birdsong to The book at bedtime Radio 4 is the parentheses around my day, and much of the punctuation in the middle. When everything else is in flux and there are few steady points to anchor you, Radio 4 is the calmest port in the storm.

(This post has to be dedicated to Jim Naughtie and the C-word.  Ah, the joy of stifled laughter!)

No 39. “Lone parent” is like “Lone Ranger”

As a Lone Parent I feel I should be standing on a clifftop, the wind in my hair, gazing wistfully/stoically out to sea.  (Incidentally, as a Single Parent I feel I should be wearing over-stretched leggings and eating chicken nuggets.  I refuse to confirm or deny if this has happened).

“Lone” is such a great word. So many brilliant songs on being alone or lonely – The Lonely 1, One, I drink alone, Lonely Day. There’s a romance to being alone.

As always, Sunday is the day to really revel in aloneness. It’s not about just being alone yourself, it’s about feeling that NOBODY ELSE IS ALONE.  This morning was a good example: arriving in the park with Mini at 8.30am we were, understandably, the only people there. It was cold, blue, the blossom was shining pink, and Mini had free rein of all the play equipment, as the only other person around was the council worker clearing up the smashed bottles from the night before — and he didn’t seem to be taking his turn on the swings.

There is something both special and sad about our early morning park trips.  We go at 8.30am because there’s nothing keeping us at home – no lie-ins, or arguments over who had the last of the milk or making plans or conversation or compromises. But we also go at 8.30am because I sometimes find it hard to see other families on a Sunday, and it’s a time when I know nobody else will be there.

Despite this family-phobia, we usually stop off for a coffee and a banana afterwards.  The coffee shop is the kind of north London cafe that serves cake on a chopping board and charges £2.50 for a cuppa, but it’s sunny and bright and on the way home.  This morning it was packed with pairs: pairs of parents with pairs of children, pairs of friends with pairs of hangovers, even a pair of morning-after lovers (I guessed) sitting silently over a pair of over-priced BLTs (£6 each. Chewy).

Mini and I were like left-over cards in snap. A mismatched pair of “woman with pink hair” and “toddler with baked beans on cardigan”: and I felt a burst of sadness that other people’s unintentional togetherness should make me anything but happy.

Oddly, what I found myself missing wasn’t a matchy-matchy exclusive partnership, but the easiness of my pre-Mini single relationships: the group of friends I could always call on, the extensive weekend plans, or afternoon matinees when the plans fell through. I missed the flexibility of being able to pick up with any one of a group of special people and becoming a pair for a few hours.

What they don’t tell you in Lone Parent School is that being without a partner isn’t the only way you’ll be alone. You move subtly away from your friendships as well – just you and little Tonto, alone on the plain.

(In Lone Ranger style, this post isn’t dedicated to anyone.  Even the dedication is alone today)

No 38. The patriarchy stinks!!!

What a world.  The whiff of SEXISM is in everything from children’s songs to mainstream newspapers.   Today’s post IS IN CAPITAL LETTERS WITH LOTS OF EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!!!!!

But for the sake of easy reading, I will stick to lower-case.

(I confess I haven’t had the best of weeks and today’s blog post is rant-therapy).

The word “patriarchy” feels so old-school wimmins-libby I have never used it in conversation without a sardonic expression and unspoken comedy quotation marks. But it’s still relevant: with so few women in positions of political power, and so many insidious examples of gender-stereotyping leaking out of every social crevice.

I take Mini to toddler singing sessions every other week or so. Her favourite song is “the wheels on the bus”.  For those of you who haven’t given up hours of your life to nursery rhymes, the basic premise of it is that exciting things happen on a bus like doors going “open and shut”, bells going “ding a ling a ling” and wipers going “swish swish swish”.  (I have often considered writing my own localised version with teenagers going “text text shout” and drunks going “swear swear puke”).

On this jolly baby-bus, gender roles are clearly defined.  “Mummies” apparently go “chatter chatter chatter” and “daddies” go “shush shush shush”.  I don’t know what fantasy bus this song is referring to, but on the real bus mummies are either feeding their children snacks to keep them quiet, or are staring blankly into space, enjoying the quiet coma that the bus has sent their child into.  Daddies on the other hand are rarely seen on the bus.  If there is a daddy on the bus, he is probably reading the paper or playing angry birds. (I know that falling into my own gender-stereotypes is unhelpful but THIS IS A RANT remember?)

And then… oh joy… The Sun. A campaign from page three encouraging women to self-examine for breast cancer.  Enough anger on this matter has already been spewed onto the blogosphere and I have nothing new to contribute but, safe to say, it’s bollocks.  Promoting self-examination for women under 35 when your readership is predominantly male is the clearest indicator of bollocksness. Why not promote self-examination for testicular cancer with a similar front-page picture of a naked man cupping his balls? (I think we all know the answer to that one). If it gets one more young woman to self-examine and get treatment for cancer at an early stage then hooray for that. But what a pathetic and misogynist way to do it.

Saying “down with the patriarchy” without tongue-in-cheek feels slightly ridiculous, so it’s taken me a long while to realise that I want to shout it almost every day.

Walking Mini to the childminder, seeing the other mums doing the same and watching the dads head to work encumbered by nothing more than a cup of coffee: Down with the patriarchy!

Singing countless children’s songs where all the protagonists are “he”, as if everything from teddy-bears to giraffes is male unless stated otherwise: Down with the patriarchy!

Hearing toddlers being told to stop crying, just because they’re boys… Buying a toy for my nephew and seeing how much more interesting and educational the “boys’ toys” section is compared to the “girls’ toys”… Mourning the loss of potential, skill and wisdom experienced in some parts of the church because women are not encouraged to exercise their gifts… Uncovering the proportionate lack of funding in medical research for some women’s health issues compared to men’s…  Having to use the fingers on both hands to count the number of women I know who’ve been sexually assaulted… being ruled by a cabinet where there are more men from Eton than there are women from anywhere… Down with the patriarchy! Down with the patriarchy! Down with the patriarchy!

(This post is dedicated to Mary Beard    What we need is some old fashioned consciousness-raising about what we mean by the voice of authority and how we’ve come to construct it.” I may also have to dedicate it to the large glass of wine I plan to have this evening!)

No 37. Danger lurks around every corner (maybe)

It is 8.45am and a Rastafarian man is standing between me and the park.  He must be in his 80s. He is also in a pirate hat which, even for my neighbourhood, is unusual.  He stands unmoving, staring directly at Mini for moment after moment.  I do the usual London calculation of “what kind of crazy is this particular Crazy?”  Is he about to go off on a psychotic swearathon, or try to grab Mini as she ambles along in her wellies?  Or, more likely, is he just high high high and is the biggest risk that he’s about to fall over like an elderly drug-addled tree, crushing Mini while she squeezes past?

In the end he opens a terrifyingly decayed mouth and says: “adjoo barun hello hello. Walky walk adda”.  Mini is mesmerised, and replies cheerfully “hello walkin walky. Abba walkin”.  He laughs. She laughs. They continue saying “walky walkin” to each other while I discreetly tug at Mini’s hood.  For the next 50 metres or so she keeps turning back to have a good stare at the Rasta-baby-whisperer and occasionally say “walkin” or “bye”.  He has turned his head (his body still frozen) and is also saying “walky walk” and “bye”.

I am ashamed of my own paranoia.  Episodes like this are played out almost daily (although most of the people involved look less like Jack Sparrow), and although nobody has ever made a move to ATTACK, it takes a considerable act of will not to encase Mini in a bubble-wrap suit for every trip outside.

Things have got significantly better since the early days.  In those first few months I would lie in bed convinced that someone was about to break in through the back door with the sole purpose of grabbing her.  I started to research having a security gate installed, and began sleeping with pointy kitchenware under the pillows.  During the day I pretended I was still with her father so “they” (those highly organised MI5-style baby-stealers) wouldn’t think I was a soft target.

Writing this, I realise I sound completely bonkers.

Thankfully those loopy days are over, but I’m still aware of every possible danger.  Is this extreme hazard-awareness the same for all mums or is it heightened by singleness?  Either way, the army could significantly improve its reconnaissance if it hired paranoid single mums in the frontline.   They would need to give us a weapons upgrade though. I’m not sure a fruit-knife, a screwdriver and a bottle of gin quite cut it in the modern armed forces.

(This post is dedicated to one of the leaders on the ‘hostile environments training’ I attended a number of years ago.  As he helpfully put it.  “If you’re walking in a minefield, it’s probably best not to know”.)

No 36. A little language is a dangerous thing

Mini has chosen her first toy to name all by herself.  She hasn’t called it “Teddy” or “Pandy” or any of the names that most kids call their toys.

She has called it “Penis”.

The toy in question is the weird one-eyed mascot from the Olympics which unfortunately does have an uncanny resemblance to a phallus.  It also looks quite like a deformed penguin, and my hope is that this is what she’s trying to say.   Whether or not it’s true, I am encouraging this option and gently trying to rename it “Pingus”.

Seeing her language develop has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things about bringing her up: pointing at animals in books and hearing her repeating, repeating repeating the words until they’re fixed in her head.  And the little phrases she’s picked up from me: “hang on!” and “wait a minute!” which I now realise I say thirty times a day.  My current favourite is “what am I doing?” which apparently I say so regularly it’s become part of her baby-lexicon ahead of useful phrases like “help me” or “I want more”.

This tiny language-sponge is sucking up exactly how much I swear, say negative things and tell the truth. At 18months she is a toddling conscience, reflecting back at me all the things I wish I didn’t say and certainly don’t want people to hear.

I’m slightly dreading the moment when she starts to speak properly and can begin asking personal and public questions on the bus.  At the moment I am mildly embarrassed by her calling every man she sees “daddy”, but that’s nothing compared to “has that man eaten someone?” which I heard declared incredibly loudly by a three-year-old on the 210.

To be fair to her, I was wondering the same.

(This post is dedicated to Steven Pinker. “As you are reading these words, you are taking part in one of the wonders of the natural world”.  Hope you keep that in mind when you read this blog…)

No 35. I am not a jellyfish

Today, in a public place in central London, I was asked to be a rocket, a boomerang, and yes, a jellyfish.  Check your embarrassment at the door people, it’s half term!

I’ve made a couple of recent forays into London activities with Mini. The first was a very successful trip to the Royal Academy to see their beautiful architecture exhibition.  (Nb. the mathematical equation for trip success is: add the number of naps taken to the number of coffees drunk, minus the number of meltdowns and divide by the number of injuries. If you end up with a positive integer, it’s been A Good Day Out).

The second was a trip to the Southbank’s half-term children’s festival, which has made me fear for the future of humanity. And for my own future in particular.

It was billed as a dance workshop for all ages.  In reality it was like a battle scene from The Lord of the Rings. Adults were throwing themselves into a sea of marauding children, technically to do complicated “dance” moves such as lobbing imaginary balls at each other and getting into imaginary boats together, but really it was Thunderdome: if you manage not to be trampled on or have your eye poked out, you win.  Four hundred flailing limbs, bongo drums and a portly woman shouting instructions from the front. Terrifying.

And it was then that this little adventure pulled one of my deepest phobias out of my subconscious.

Deep breath.

Children’s. Parties.


If I can indulge in a little “on the couch” moment here, my earliest memory is of crying at my own birthday party as people sang me happy birthday. I’ve never been able to sing happy birthday since without grinding my teeth a little, and I generally make it as widely known as possible that if anyone tries to sing it to me, i will run from the room. I don’t know when I stopped having birthday parties but it was mercifully early as the whole thing was an endurance test, sweetened by the fact that I was allowed to drink fizzy pop and could eat more than one piece of cake.

And now I’m on the brink of a decade of children’s parties… screaming sugar-junkie 4-year-olds, grumpy glittery 7-year-olds dressed as fairies, party games and party hats and party poppers. Even the party paraphernalia makes me sweat.

I used to think that i didn’t like children — or, more accurately perhaps, that they terrified me. I now know that I love individual kids, it’s just that when more than two or three are gathered together they become a frightening collective noun: a screech of children? An apocalypse of children? A contraception of children…? I’m heading into some pretty intense party-aversion therapy over the next few years. And now that I know what an adult being a jellyfish looks like, I feel even less equipped to deal with it.

(This post is dedicated to the member of staff at the Royal Festival Hall who made me pick Mini up on the stairs as “crawling is not allowed”.  Crawling on the stairs is not allowed for safety reasons, but 100 adults and children throwing themselves on the ground simultaneously to “be sunbathers” is fine…)