Posted in Family, Personal life

The Multi-Tasking Mummy

Plate spinning , Brisbane, Australia
Plate spinning – it’s what I do every day of the week (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few years ago, when I was working at a girls’ boarding school, I was asked at least once a year to give a careers talk to the pupils, because I was one of the few members of staff whose career had included extensive time away from a school environment.

Amongst other things, I’d been a journalist and a PR consultant. This experience meant I could speak with authority about the value of “transferable skills”, as the jargon put it.These are skills that would be of as much use in one job as another – number management, working with people, planning, and so on, as opposed to the ability to manufacture a Ford Escort car, say, which would only be of any use to an employee of the Ford Motor Company.

Before my talk, to be given under the watchful eye of the careers teacher, I made sure to do my homework. I put together an impressive collection of evidence of my previous careers to use as visual aids. Slamming down on the desk a big exhibition catalogue that I’d once edited would be very useful for waking up any girls who had nodded off.

I also took along a very interesting press cutting that I’d spotted in a national daily. This article predictied that by the time the current generation of schoolchildren had grown up, the notion of a “job for life” or even a career for life would be outmoded. Instead, the average worker of the future would be likely to do an estimated 17 jobs during his or her career. It would also become the norm to do more than one job at a time, with at least one of these being pursued from the home rather than in a separate workplace.

English: Screenshot from Linux software KTouch...
The essential 4th R for any career girl – after Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic comes typewRiting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I duly photocopied this article and  distributed it among the girls, just after I’d startled them by describing my first transferable skill: teaching myself to  touch-type.  They exchanged disbelieving looks at my description of my electric typewriter, which in those days passed for high-tech.

From the security of that full-time job in the school, I had no inkling that within less than 10 years I’d have a portfolio career myself – a concept that at the time had terrified me as much as it had the girls. Now, viewing the notion from the other side of the fence , I can’t believe that I survived working in just one job for so long without a crushing sense of claustrophobia.

The actress Bea Arthur
Bea Arthur, inspiration for BEA magazine

This complete about-face didn’t really strike me until I was interviewed recently by a terrific online magazine called Bea, which was set up as the antidote to the typical women’s   newstand publication. I love its strapline: “BEA… whoever you want to be”. And, do you know, I think I am now doing just that.

Click here to read their article all about, er, me….  (and lots of other great articles on a huge range of topics). And be amazed at how much I fit in to each day. I know I am. No wonder I’m always tired…

Posted in Family, Personal life

Golden Times

English: Trench watch (wristlet). The type of ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This new post is about a great idea for encouraging good behaviour from children in school: Golden Time)

For many children at our village school, the highlight of the week is “Golden Time”. Doesn’t the name sound alluring even before you know what it is?

Golden Time is a brief period every Friday when the pupils are allowed to do what they like – from playing on the computers to drawing pictures to curlng up with a good book. It’s a treat they look forward to all week as an antidote to their hectic schedule. It’s also an effective motivator for good behaviour, as staff may dock minutes from each child for misdemeanours. To allow naughty children to reform, the slate is wiped clean each week, everyone starting with a full score of minutes every Monday morning.

Attending a parents’ meeting in the classroom when my daughter was a new Year 1, I spotted on the whiteboard a list headed “Golden Time” with a number of minutes against each child’s name. Several other mums were as aghast as I was to see there were no numbers next to our children. What on earth had they done to lose all their time? Hesitantly, I asked the class teacher who smiled and shook her head.

“Oh no, Mrs Young, the numbers there represent the minutes those children have been docked!”

Phew, my daughter was a good girl after all! My relief was palpable.

English: Sundial on Moot Hall, Aldeburgh, Suff...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One recent Friday, all the girls in her class emerged from Golden Time with their hair in beautiful fishtail plaits, courtesy of their kind teacher. Next week, they were wild-haired from a lovely session of crazy, headbanging dancing.

Either way, they were happy, contented and effectively rewarded for being good all week.

I just wish there was a Golden Time for grown-ups. Or maybe there is, and I’ve just lost all my minutes for bad behaviour.

Hmm, must try harder…


This post was originally published in the Hawkesbury Parish News, November 2012.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one that harks back to my own behaviour in school:

What Size Is Your Jersey?

or this one about my daughter’s approach to time management:

What A To-Do! The Tale of My Daughter’s Action List

Posted in Travel

The Ceremony of the (Bubble) Bath – Ancient and Modern

Illustration of chamber pot being emptied into medieval streetTo my mind, the best way for a History teacher to grab the children’s attention in a lesson is to tell them something memorably gross.  

If you “did” the Middle Ages in a British school, you will certainly remember learning about the medieval concept of emptying a chamber pot out of an upper floor window, with a cry of  “gardy-loo”. It’s corrupt old French for “look out for the water!” – a euphemism if ever there was one. The use of molten tar to stop an amputated limb from bleeding (talk about a sledgehammer to crack a nut!)  went down well in my Year 7 History class. Miss Edwards was not pleased that we kept going up to ask her about it individually, all wanting to hear the horrible description from her own lips for ourselves.

Need a great fact about the ancient Egyptians? Mummification techniques are always a good starting point: e.g. pulling the brain out through the nose with a gadget  resembling a crochet hook.  (There’s some cross-over for needlework lessons there, too.)

Studying the ancient Romans is always good for a few cries of “Ewww, miss!” with their unendearing habit of eating dormice (how much meat can there be on a dormouse?), as is scraping the previously oiled dirt off a bather’s skin with a tool called a stygil. Would this practice really make a person cleaner rather than dirtier? we wondered. The idea made my class very glad to go home to our suburban baths with our bottles of Matey bubbles.

Roman Baths Aquae Sulis   9

Although my own  school education has itself receded into ancient history, those lessons  “doing” the Romans come back to me vividly on a visit to the wonderful Roman Baths Museum in the ancient city of Bath. In the cool, dark room alongside the series of small plunge pools, I stand reading a notice on the wall: the procedure for taking an ancient Roman-style bath. You disrobe and step into a series of successively hotter baths, before the old oil massage/stygil service is provided by an obliging slave. The final rinse and shine is provided by an optional leap into a cold plunge pool (eek!) To me, it reads like a refresher course: I’ve never forgotten that old school history lesson.

Dozens of overeas tourists pass this notice by unread, but with their audioguide at their ear, they hear the litany of the bath repeated in French, German, Japanese, Dutch.   No-one speaks: the museum is too awesome and this dim and shady atmosphere acts as a further damper on conversation. Unusually, the Roman Baths were also a temple, and the reverential atmosphere of a holy place still hangs over the gently steaming green waters. There’s also a sense of intruding on people’s privacy: images of “real” living Romans going about their bath ritual are projected onto the ancient walls of the place. More than once, I see one out of the corner of my eye and believe a real person is about to plunge into the pools.

Bottle of Matey Bubble Bath (modern packaging)And then I’m struck with a sense of the bizarre. What would the average bathing Roman think if he could see the multi-million,  high-technology tourist attraction that his daily bath venue has now become? I try to think of an equivalent that might remain from 21st century life a thousand years down the line. Certainly not the single, small bath of modern times, generally taken alone. It simply does not measure up, even for the biggest bath addict who plans their ablutions with military precision: entering the bathroom armed with a book to prop up on the bath rack, perfumed bubble bath, scented candle, glass of wine and bar of chocolate. (Or is that just me?) There’s nothing in there to gladden the heart of 22nd century children, no gross rituals to send a ripple of excitement around the History classroom.

Nor is it the socially unifying force of the ancient Romans. The closest thing we have to the Roman Bath House is probably the modern gym. Will the modern obsession for joining a gym in pursuit of physical fitness stand the test of time? (It’s never worked for me, even now.) I suppose it could make an interesting tour:

  • visit the self-torture machines and try to detect what each one is for
  • try to work out why so many people joined the gym each January and never went in other months of the year
  • list gym etiquette tips, such as bringing your own small towel to wipe your sweat off each piece of equipment after use (ok, so that one is slightly gross)
A head of Minerva found in ruins of Roman bath...
The goddess Minerva, found in ruins of Roman baths in Bath, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The lost property book would make no less interesting reading that the tiny scraps of lead that have been fished out of the spring in Bath. These listed the items stolen from people while they bathed and were sued to solicit vengeful curses from the goddess Minerva. This makes for an endearing display, reminding us that these ancient Roman bathers were ordinary people, just like us.

Another interesting exhibit would be the curious snacks and drinks containers obtained from vending machines – and a collection of coins and coin-like tokens found stuck inside them. I can hear the future’s children now: “Did they really drink that bright blue stuff? Did Powerade give them superpowers?”

But sadly there’s nothing there to truly compete with the allure of the ancient Roman baths. I say, bring back the stygil!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like the previous one inspired by the same visit:

New Beginnings and Old Friends in Ancient Cities

Posted in Personal life

Changing My Spots: How I Evolved From Sloth to Jaguar

English: a 2-toed sloth at the Jaguar Rescue C...
The sloth – not going anywhere fast (or the right way up)  Photo credit: Wikipedia

In the last 10 years, there’s been a new and recurrent theme in my life: running. Mostly I’ve not run more than 5K at a time – a nice round number, long enough to impress but not far enough to exhaust. I’ve done Race for Lifes, the Chippenham River Run (no, it doesn’t involve walking on water), and a couple of 10Ks too.

My first 10K was meant to be in Cheltenham. But then the organisers had a difference of opinion with the Town Council and relocated the race to the Moreton-in-Marsh Firefighters’ Training College. Instead of pottering gently round the elegant streets of a sedate Georgian town, we were faced with a route like Armageddon. We were surrounded by fake disasters that trainee firemen use to hone their skills: derailments, plane crashes, overturned cars and burnt-out buildings. There’s nothing like fleeing disaster to make you run a little faster.

And now there’s the first ever Hawkesbury 5K to look forward to. If the sun’s shining, that section of the Cotswold Way fondly referred to by some as The Yellow Brick Road will be glinting and golden. It will be hard not to slow down to enjoy the view.

I have not always been a runner. In school, I ran round at the back on cross-country, chatting away to my best friend Elizabeth, who was equally unenthralled with running. We kept our tights on under our shorts. She was my partner in crime in Geography too. The teacher scrawled in my exercise book “Why are you and Eliz. being so slow?” The reason: we’d got carried away with our drawings of an Oil Derrick, going on to design an Oil Graham, an Oil George, and an Oil Stanley. Our hearts were simply not in it.

Yet now one of my chief pleasures on holiday is to run in new territory. Round castle walls, along seafronts, down cobbled streets – it’s a great way to unite my adult interests of running and geography. The teenage Debbie would have been astonished at what she grew into: this leopard really did change her spots.

So if you’re not a runner yet, don’t write off the prospect. The new Hawkesbury 5K on 16th June 2012 might be just the thing to convert you. One of the great things about running is that your age doesn’t matter – you can still be running marathons when you’re 90. I’ll report back on that one. See you at the 2050 Hawkesbury 5K, if not before.

And she’s off… (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This post was originally written for the Hawkesbury Parish News, June 2012.)

If you’d like to read more about running in Hawkesbury Upton, try this: Running In Wonderland (You Can Call Me Alice)

Or for more nostalgia about my schooldays, how about this tribute to my former history teacher, Ms Trebst.

Posted in Family, Travel

Bubble Mum

Temporary tattoo free with bubble gumHow to occupy a child on a long journey: teach it to do something a little bit naughty.  It will be completely captivated for however long it takes. Example #1: blowing bubbles with bubble gum.

Laura often surprises me with a new ambition, and the latest is to learn to blow bubbles with bubble gum.  I suspect it is inspired by watching Sky television: in her favourite show, iCarly, resident bad girl Sam is an expert gum blower.

For most of Laura’s friends, bubble gum is a banned sweet and she’s never tried it before. But she has good strong teeth and I decide it won’t harm her to fulfil her goal at least once in her childhood.  I therefore invest two euros in a hypermarket grab bag of bubble gum and cunningly produce it just when we’re getting to the “Are we nearly there yet?” stage of a three hour drive during our French summer holiday. Laura is enchanted.

For the next half hour, I sit alongside her on the sofa of our camper van, training her in this not so gentle art. It must be at least 30 years since I last blew a bubble gum bubble. But sinking my teeth into the solid pink rectangle, I realise that it’s like riding a bike: once learned, it’s a skill you never forget.

I demonstrate how to soften it up, stretch it with your tongue and catch it with your top and bottom teeth before slowly, gently blowing into the middle. The resulting pink globe emerges to a look of disbelieving rapture on my daughter’s face. Can this really be Mummy doing this? It’s a special mother and daughter bonding moment.

I’m about to screw up the wrapper and put it in the bin when I discover a hidden bonus: inside each paper is a temporary stick-on tattoo.  I demonstrate this on my arm (precipitating odd looks in the patisserie later).  Appropriately my tattoo spells out the legend “Bubble Team”.  We investigate other wrappers, branding Laura with French slogans such as “completement mabulle” and “ce dechire“.  With the help of a pocket dictionary, we translate these tattoos loosely as “completely bonkers” and “it’s ripping”.  If this doesn’t gain me Cool Mummy points, I don’t know what will.

Still chewing, I return to my seat at the front of the van, leaving Laura to refine her bubble blowing technique unobserved.  By chance, my husband has put an Eagles album on to play. It’s a Proustian moment: the heady cocktail of gum and Hotel California  transports me back to my teenage years at an international school, where many of my friends were American.

For the next few kilometres, I’m gazing out of the window idly blowing bubbles. It’s not the Loire Valley that I’m seeing, but the smiling faces of those fine gum-blowing gals.  I think about the parties, the dances, the in-jokes we shared; the teachers, the lessons, our pride on graduation day.

And then I remember another small detail about the art of gum-blowing: never blow a bubble into an oncoming wind.  Sticky-faced, I furtively close my window, hoping that Laura wasn’t watching.