Goodbye SSD, Hello New Thing

I think this started as a bit of a laugh to be honest.

Ok. Maybe a bit more than that. Once I had a toddler. Toddlers make you tired and ranty and exasperated and exhilarated and tired and soppy and mad and amazed and engaged and apathetic and tired and happy and argumentative and tired. But that wasn’t even the thing. The toddler grew up and became Boy, a loving sensitive intelligent child who could wash himself and brush his teeth and use the TV remote and sleep through the night in his own bed. So of course then we did something stupid and wonderful and we had another baby.

Then, suddenly, I had another toddler on my hands. Second toddlers – because they come with an older sibling, and especially if they’ve been walking since they were ten months and have a unique ability to destroy everything in their path – just make you tired and ranty. At some point I saw a unique opportunity, through how the internet was becoming accessible to all (unless you’re North Korean or Chinese or Mongolian or five months old or my dad or an actual womble) to put my ranty, toddler related, tiredness out there and exaggerate it a bit to take the edge off my madness and maybe make a couple of other people laugh. Buggy wars, unimaginable teething shits, wanton destruction of property and the odd banning of stuff. They’re all here somewhere, but you have to look for them. Hard. And that’s the point.

Looking at the recent posts section just now I realise I have not really written about that sort of stuff at all for a while. Oh, there’s a lifestyle piece about travelling with your kids on holiday to Spain that’s vaguely amusing – at least I hope – and then it seems to be politics, education and food and much, much more serious than earlier pieces.

Frankly you must be confused.

I don’t have a toddler anymore and there is a section on here that explains why I won’t have one again. The stuff that interests me and engages me as a writer has changed completely to being more about how the world around us aids and prevents us from getting on with the business of living. Raising kids is part of that of course but it’s not the whole. I’m interested in how we feed ourselves and educate our young people. I’m interested in railing at the politicians who’s contribution to this is to give us a little, friendly downhill shove in the right direction before putting an enormous great big mountain in the way, all the time with their own noses apparently firmly in the trough.

I still like a good fart gag though. *WAAAARRRRP* See? Windy.

I have also rediscovered a love for fiction by reading more of that recently instead of just newspapers and columnists. I should really try and write more of that because someone respected once said I should and I have let them down with my complete inability to do so thus far.

The other thing is that blogs should be on a reasonably consistent subject, so the rules say. They should be updated regularly. It’s good to socialise and take part in linkies etc. I do none of this. I’d like to but my time is limited and my brain is completely random. I write when I can and that means I write about what’s on my mind when I can.

I’ve realised though that you wouldn’t even be able to tell that from my category list over there *points at baffling category list*

I have therefore decided to end this particular blog here before it disappears in to irrelevance and, instead, become random in an organised way. I have stared Not A Proper Blog though there is no content on it yet. That will be coming shortly. What is there already are proper categories:






It will not be a parent blog. I have grown to loathe the term. It will not be updated regularly. The chances are, like SSD, it will not have many pretty pictures or whizzy gadgets because I’m not very good at them. In short, what it won’t be is a proper blog, because, well, that’s its name.

What it will have is writing in organized categories that can be easily found or searched for. The writing will adhere to the categories. Maybe some guest posts and more than half an hour a year on appearance, if you’re really lucky. I hope to see all three of you over there.

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Has Our Food Obsession Gone Too Far?

I am what you might refer to as a foodie. I love cooking, I love eating out and I watch cookery shows and own a pile of cookery books. I have eaten at a couple of Michelin starred joints and, while they weren’t the highlight of my entire life, I certainly enjoyed every mouthful. So I should love that this stuff is all over my telly box and newspapers 24/7 right? Wrong.

This week brought a couple of illustrations that we have finally gone too far. Firstly Will Self penned this attack on Jamie Oliver in the New Statesman. Most people who’ve read it have taken it as a nasty and thinly veiled personal attack on a loveable TV chef. That’s because it’s a thinly veiled and nasty personal attack. Yet I wouldn’t go as far as the loveable bit. There are plenty of things about Oliver that stick in my craw too.

Firstly there’s this trumpeting about sourcing local and organic ingredients. I know it’s supposed to be good (but Jay Rayner of all people has written about the fact that local ingredients may not always be the best or even the most environmentally friendly) but do we have to bang on about it endlessly? My grandmother sourced all her ingredients locally and ate organic produce from my grandfather’s allotment but I don’t remember her lecturing her friends regarding it over lattes. Like it or not there is a very large section of the population who simply can’t afford to shop at butchers shops and farmers markets in either time or money. We’re reaching the point where we’re sneering at them.

And if you’re going to give your children slightly strange names and then just call them ‘guys’ anyway that’s fine in your own time but I’d rather not watch it on my television.

But take the other much more personal stuff out of Self’s article and look for a minute at the small bits of it that are restaurant review and philosophical comment and you can see he has a bit of a point. For he’s reviewing a pop up burger joint. Rarely could anything sum up the food conceit of the 2010s like a pop up burger joint. It’s the antithesis of everything I want when I eat out. Something not very good for you in a temporary venue that you could make at home. Serving things on boards and little zinc buckets (never mind that Jason Atherton and Tom Kerridge have been doing this for years as a little bit of a food joke). When I go out to eat I want a good local restaurant where I can have a nice meal and good conversation over food served on a plate. If I come back again I want to be recognised. To gradually work myself up to the status of regular and the good table and off-menu special access that come with it. Meanwhile gangs of bearded hipsters are roaming Hoxton looking for the latest high end temporary fried chicken joint. If you want fried chicken and stuff in a bucket just go to KFC ffs.

Then there is the philosophy angle. We have become so obsessed with food we have forgotten that it does a basic job of refuelling us and keeping us alive and healthy. Or at least that section of us that can afford cookery books have. I doubt it’s something you forget when you have £10 to your name and are clutching the energy bill that’s just risen by 10% in one hand and a hungry toddler in the other. But while they struggle to get by the rest of us seem to be intent on a competition to see who can make the most awful cookery programme.

There’s Nigella. Yes, she’s easy on the eye for some of us but the programme is hysterical. Oh look, Alan Yentob’s popping round for a surprise lunch. I’d better just whip up this spare Kobe Beef using equipment that isn’t even available to people on £50k a year. And just two letters off and just as bad here’s Nigel and his “leftovers” which always seem to include entire packs of mushrooms and prawns. Let’s see how you do with one banana, some dusty Digestives and the can of salmon your Nan gave you because it would come in handy.

Then there’s the aforementioned Kerridge. He makes the sort of food that turns me in to a slavering, dribbling wreck. I’d probably sell a gadget or two to eat at the Hand and Flowers just once. But as much as I love the man I can’t justify watching him do a six hour cook that will turn out as “proper lush” and that I can “chillaxo relaxo” during as highbrow television. I actually cringed typing that.

But I think we finally hit the nadir on this week’s Saturday Kitchen when Paul Assignac cooked tulips. Yes tulips. FFS again. This CANNOT be teaching us how to cook. “What would you like for pudding kids? Chocolate? Cake? Ice Cream? TULIPS?” And for that reason it’s not something I’d ever order in a restaurant. It’s a total waste of ten minutes and a recipe page. It’s the cookery equivalent of the unnecessary guitar solo or those paragraphs where Louis De Bernieres slips in to words you’ve never heard of. It’s wanking.

And yet I watch. I watch them all in case I can pick up a hint, a tip or a recipe that will make my kids lives better when all they really want is fish fingers or sausages chips and beans. Jamie Oliver’s not blameless in that either. He all but started the craze.

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The Teacher’s Strike is not Black and White

Today Boy’s school is closed due to a strike. Having written about my concerns over his education (and my growing opinion that Michael Gove is an imperious cockwomble) you would perhaps expect me to be in full support of the walk out. But it’s not quite that simple.

Firstly his school seems to be ever more at odds between what they say to parents and what they do. A stream of letters arrived last school year urging parents to make every effort to get their child to school whenever they could. “Even missing one day can have an adverse effect on their education” we were told. The head teacher was even in the local paper saying that she would be requiring a letter from parents’ employers if they requested holiday time in term , to prove that was the only time off they could get.

This was rather unfortunate as the school’s reopening was delayed by over a week due to the building work needed to turn it from an Infants to an all-through Primary. A week of “inset days”. Now they are just beginning to settle in to the new routine and they suddenly have another extra day off. If you believed last year’s letters home this will be an absolute disaster for them. They’ll probably forget how to count or something. Or maybe parents are just expected to take education more seriously than, say, building contractors employed on school projects. Or teaching unions.

Obviously, education apart, the strike means parents (including us) suddenly have to change our plans to provide child care. As an employee on a regular salary at least I’m not losing any money myself but this won’t be the case for all the parents. The school is in what is euphemistically known as ‘an up and coming area’ and many parents will lose a day’s pay or have to spend today’s money on childminding. Some of these will be earning considerably less than a teacher. So is it fair to economically and educationally inconvenience parents in a deprived area to protect a middle class salary and final salary pension?

You may find this surprising given what I’ve written about Gove in the past but if the strike was just about pay and pensions then teachers would not have my support at all. Working, as I do, in the private sector then pay freezes (or even reductions) are common place. At the lower end of the sector zero hours contracts have become more and more enforced. At the upper end it is now impossible to get a final salary pension. The company ones based on fund value have been devastated both by Gordon Brown’s tax changes and a volatile equities market. While pound cost averaging  will help the long term prospects of pension funds there is no guarantee at all that a future government of any colour will not further raid the tax concessions offered by a proper pension. If they do we won’t be able to strike.

I know. I sound like a Tory. It’s actually quite liberating.

But here’s the flip side. Firstly there is another issue being raised by the strike, that of workload. I know several teachers and trust me, it is not the 8-4 job with enormous holidays that some people like to paint it. There are lesson plans, marking, inset days, parent’s evenings to be done. Again comparing my hours to a teachers there was actually very little difference. Since the pay issue being raised is that performance related pay will be introduced then it’s not hard to forsee a situation where teachers have to work even longer hours just to keep their salary the same in real terms.

Which begs the question is teaching a career or a vocation? Strike action, for me, should be a last resort. There is no doubt that the miners in the eighties, while led by the truly hideous Arthur Scargill, were facing not a pay cut but the devastation of the industry and their communities. I’m not suggesting that we will suddenly see mass school closures and long term graduate unemployment, but what if teaching becomes so unattractive that young people no longer want to become teachers? A shortage of newly qualified teachers, particularly in the many areas where there is already a shortage of school places would be disastrous.

Already the government have allowed Academies to employ unqualified teachers. My strong suspicion is that this is a way to save money and put bums on seats. If the teaching unions genuinely believe that the new conditions will stop teaching becoming a career choice then the strike becomes far more justified.

Is it a just strike? I can’t decide. But just in case, how about we just have a national “Michael Gove is an Imperious Cockwomble” day instead? That should be fairly memorable when it comes to the 2015 election.

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The Problem with Teaching Children about Africa

I want you to use your imagination and conjure up a picture in your mind for me.

By 2050 there may well be 9 billion people on the planet. The climate may well have warmed making crops harder to grow. And children will go hungry. Very hungry. The poorest of them first. I want you to imagine that poor, hungry child. But not because this is a rant about environmentalism or a counter rant denying global warming. I’m just interested in what you thought the child looked like. Where they were.

Was it “Africa”? Dark skinned, rural, tribal? A mud hut in the background?  It was for me the first time I read the nine billion people stat and yet nowhere did the article mention Africa. It was just the first thing I imagined.

Will global warming be kinder to poor children in India’s untouchable castes? The Phillipines typhoon belt? Central American former warzones? Rural Laos? I doubt it.

Yet the reason I even reconsidered the image in my head, thought about it more, made all twenty of you do a bit of imagining, was a question from the Boy.

“Why don’t they have any electricity in Africa?”

Luckily he asked my wife who started giving a simple answer in six year old terms about relative poverty and not having power stations. And probably some other stuff. By this point I’d tuned out and my brain was doing the sorts of somersaults that usually result in my having to leave somewhere hastily having completely insulted the wrong person. What I wanted to say was “of course they’ve got fucking electricity in Africa”. Only without the expletive.

I often think we identify with the victims of an atrocity if they are like us or close by geographically. That’s not to say we don’t empathise with other victims. Merely that if we can imagine what someone was doing at the time of a terrorist incident it becomes more real to us. The terrible events in Nairobi were shocking because people were randomly killed, men, women, children and foetuses. But as stories and pictures emerged they were not of a Nairobi many had considered. This was no crime and hunger ridden shanty town. Here were TV presenters and poets, people shopping for a special gift for a loved one. A children’s cooking event was going on. It seemed far closer to home as each report hit. The place must have had electricity.

The same goes for the hotel in Cape Town that Anni Dewani left on the fateful night of her death. Or the tourist information offices in Egypt that service the divers of Sharm-El-Sheikh and the pyramid junkies. Or the Souks in Morocco or the bank and IT offices in Namibia or my mum’s favourite restaurant in Senegal.

I’ve chosen these places because they are so different. Or at least I assume they are. I haven’t been. Friends and family have and I’ve read about them and seen documentaries and travel programmes but I’ve not been. Perhaps when it comes down to it they are all exactly the same but somehow I doubt it. Africa is a continent full of VERY DIFFERENT countries damn it. And yet, from the school room to the all night fundraiser we lump them all together as one entity. Poor Africa. No electricity you know.

Wikipedia says there are over 2100 languages in Africa or at least it does today. That’s the first result that comes back when you type in ‘how many languages are there’ in to Google. Google completes the search for you to ‘how many languages are there in Africa’? No one is that bothered about how many there are in Asia or Europe. Even in wanting to know about the diversity of a continent we are lumping it all together in one giant google.

Of course this is too complicated to explain to a six year old. But not even challenging the question? Isn’t that wrong? Where has he got this from? He didn’t ask IF they had electricity. He asked WHY the whole continent didn’t. He already “knows” they don’t. Who told him? One of his friends? The teacher? Is this why people home ed? Will my brain PLEASE stop doing somersaults?

In the end I managed to add to OHs explanations of relative poverty and power supplies by saying that not all Africans had no electricity and indeed that some Africans were actually quite well off while others lived in cities a bit like us and him. Yet there were certainly people there who were terribly poor. I’m not sure it helped.

On a macro level, surely understanding the world’s diversity and culture in full can only help prevent other atrocities and can only help deal with inevitable floods and famines in the best possible way for the specific people involved, rather than treating them as one giant, homogonous super country. On a micro level I have been wholly inadequate in explaining this to an impressionable six year old mind. Just admitting I tried seems arrogant.

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Free School Meals and Phonics

So every child in Reception, Year One and Year Two will get free school meals from next year. An announcement made by Nick Clegg to no doubt try and put a positive spin on a car crash of a Lib Dem conference where scenery has crashed on television and spin doctors accidentally emailed strategy directly to hostile journalists by mistake,

Still it’s been largely received in a positive manner with people such as CBeebies Dr Ranj tweeting support. But I have to say I’m far from convinced. Why?

Firstly the current system works fine. Children are not going hungry at lunchtime if they are disadvantaged because they already qualify for a free school meal. Those on the margins either side may have a problem in that some under may be too proud to claim and those just over may struggle to meet the cost. The thing is this will still be the case when they’re eight. A means test has been replaced with an age.

And people really shouldn’t be too proud to claim. In fact what they should do is register for the free meal even if they have no intention of using it. Why? Because this allows the school to claim extra funding (free meals being used as a measure of the poverty level of the school’s attendees) and boy is that funding needed. Especially when you consider the nonsense a lot of funding is going on of which more later.

So could the money be better spent? Undoubtedly yes. Firstly the principle is that a hot school lunch is more nutritious than a packed lunch. Well it only is if the school meal really is nutritious and the packed lunch junk. When I tweeted about this I got a reply with an example that someone had sent their child in with a kebab as a packed lunch. But this policy shift is only putting off the junk food lunch till they’re eight. Instead of educating parents on what makes a tasty AND nutritious packed lunch the responsibility is being passed from the parents to the schools. At the same time tax payers are now providing free food for little Tarquin and Matilda. Another £400 a year for mother to pour petrol in to the BMW X1 that she parks on the yellow zig zags when she drops them off.

The assumption that school meals are nutritious also only holds if they are tasty. Up to last year Boy’s school did not have it’s own kitchen. It was reheating meals (prepared on a very tight budget) from another school. This was not Jamie Oliver revolution. This was reheated food prepared on a shoe string budget. The result? Mostly he didn’t eat it and wanted a snack when he got in.

So if the middle classes don’t need free food (and they really don’t) how can we spend on children’s nutrition positively? By increasing breakfast clubs for the most at need. This excellent piece by Jay Rayner highlights why breakfast clubs are needed far better than I could and yet they are continuing to disappear due to funding cuts. So if my taxes have to go on schools taking responsibility instead of parents then how about we support organisations like Magic Breakfast instead of tut-tutting at the chocolate bars in the packed lunch boxes of kids who can afford to be fed by their parents?

In fact I think the idea is a load of vap. Who really puts snemp in their kid’s lunchbox these days?

No I haven’t gone mental. These are actual words used in phonics tests according to this government document. So they must be real words? Right? Wrong.

While Education policy is now proposing re-routing funds to feed kids from rich families it is also spending money on teaching your kids to read nonsense words.

At the end of last year the Boy had his phonics test. Boy reads very well. In fact he’s registered gifted and talented for it and ploughs through chapter books before using the words he’s picked up to create stories. Yet he did less well than many of his classmates in this test. Had the test been using mixed methods to read actual words I can’t help thinking he and many others would have done a lot better.

But why are we testing 6 year olds anyway. I say 6 year olds – I mean Year One so some could still be 5. And there’s another point. At this stage the development of a 6 year old may be very different to that of a 5 year old. Yet the school is marked solely on the ability for very different children to be prepared for a uniform test.

In other words your kids are being taught nonsense words so the school can be rated by OFSTED and a mini housing bubble can be created around the good ones. Which is even more good news for BMW X1 drivers. Frankly it takes the steck.

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Things I learned on my recent holiday

1 – Gatwick Airport is a terrible first / last impression of England….

I normally change trains at Gatwick in the morning rush hour to get to work. I have always been staggered that there were no luggage trolleys provided on the station platform. Of course if you got your bags on a train you should be able to get them to check in without a trolley but this frequently involves angry looking parents dragging an angry looking child or two and a  couple of wheely suitcases in to the ankles of anyone who passes within a 5 yard radius of them. Trolleys on the platform would be easier I have often thought. Mostly as I have iced my ankles having used at least three varieties of anti-wheely swear words on twitter.

What I didn’t realise was that to get one anywhere – including arrivals – you have to deposit a pound coin in to a key release device. This you will get back only when you connect your trolley to another having taken your luggage off again. I have never seen this in any other airport in the world. Not Chennai where there are an army of free unofficial porters. Or in otherwise rapacious Hong Kong. Certainly not in Alicante where we landed. There we were waved through by passport control in a flash and there were an absolute stack of free to use trolleys.

So when you get your currency changed to go away(and do you these days or do you just use your cards) do you ask for 151 Euros for example? “We only do notes” the bank official will tell you. “That’s a shame” you reply. “I might need an odd Euro coin to operate some of the basic things one should expect in an arrivals hall”. Yet that is the reality in Gatwick. No correct UK coinage? No trolley for you Johnny Foreigner.

Add this to the train guards who feed upon any foreigner who can’t work the rail barriers and treat the airport as a sort of penalty fare open goal and the better but still, frankly, unacceptable security queues and Gatwick gives the first impression of the English as miserable, penny pinching rule enforcers.

2- A little language goes a long way………..

So we went to Spain. I speak O Level French, taxi / kitchen Mandarin Chinese and a few words of Italian and Japanese. The first due to school and the others to various work placements. I do not speak a single word of Spanish bar “Ola” and “Gracias”. I can’t even remember the basic stuff from Dora the Explorer because whenever Dora the Explorer comes on I am too busy pointing my fingers at the screen like a gun and screaming in my head “die horribly you whiny annoying uber positive arsehole”. It’s a good job my kids can’t hear my head. They love Dora.

So we go for tapas one day and I start ordering in English that has become pigeon from the English section of the menu. The waitress is perfectly nice but I’m sure in her head she’s thinking “here we go, another one straight off the plane that can’t speak a word. Whatever he orders I’m going to give him a well done burger and a fried egg.”

And then an old lady sits down on her own at the one table that was reserved. The owner comes out and makes a fuss of her and they start a conversation about what’s good today in French. My ears prick up. Owner disappears and she starts winking at Whirlwind who is in a cute – or at least less destructive – phase. “Etes vous Francais?” I enquire. She’s from Luxembourg but has an apartment in the town where we are staying. She is also a special customer of the restaurant. We have a conversation in basic French, quite possibly grammatically incorrect on my part. The owner and waitress have been watching and their demeanour changes. The food is delivered with a flourish and a ‘merci”. And then……………….

3 – The Boy can count to 8 in perfect Spanish…..

….Boy starts counting the dishes in Spanish. With an accent and everything. He can get to 8. I had no idea he could do this. Bloody Dora. By now we are a step away from special customers ourselves.

4 – Rich Eastern European Dads are a bit different………..

One afternoon I am playing a game with the kids in the pool. We have a li-lo. I am lifting them on to it and then tipping them off again. Each time this nearly gives me a hernia but I do it because they love it. It was Boy’s favourite thing about the holiday. Being tipped in to a cold pool from a pink li-lo. Nutter.

Suddenly a family arrive and start talking in Russian. The man is mid thirties and muscular in a Putin-ish kind of way. His wife is stick thin and bottle-blonde and his two daughters, who I would estimate at about 7 and 10 are stick thin and sun-blonde. They are watching us with suspicion. The older daughter goes and gets a rubber ring. Then she ties some string to it, long enough to pull it. By now my kids are tired and we get out and nod at the other family. When I dry them off I hear a shriek of excitement from one of the girls. Her father is in the pool lying in the rubber ring. She is pulling him round by walking round the outside of the pool and using the string. He must weigh at least 14 stone and it is 32 degrees in the shade.

5- The real colour of Spain is Orange

Eventually you will find that everything in Spain that isn’t an English caff or a pub called the Red Lion is coated in paprika or filled with paprika. Our meat is marinated in it. Our roast vegetables taste better with it. Our washing up water bubbles slowly turn orange in each wash. We have brought back several different types of paprika including ‘bitter sweet’ which I am going to have to guess will go in some sort of pasta and chicken dish. By the time we have got through the paprika I will be the colour of Katie Price and I might be able to get a job on TOWIE.

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Heir? Meh.

So we have a Royal Baby. Nothing – not even MMR or the time Brighton signed Stephen Dobbie – has so split my twitter timeline in terms of opinion. And yet my first reaction was how quickly I could get a James Hewitt gag in. Otherwise I feel strangely ambivalent*. But why?

It certainly wouldn’t have been the reaction of my Granddad. A staunch communist and republican he would have been moaning about the amount it would cost to maintain such a huge institution the second the first photo hit the papers. Then, the following week, he’d have paid his Union membership without a hint of irony.

It probably wouldn’t have been my Dad’s reaction either. Not a communist but certainly left leaning, he too was republican the last time we discussed it. Years of living in a large wine cellar in France might have mellowed his opinion but then again maybe not. He certainly lives in an area of France where a quick “vive la republique” will still get you bought a drink.

I am less republican. Maybe it dilutes in each generation in my family. I feel no need to genuflect, hang up the bunting or write to the Mail with a eulogy on how damn wonderful “Waity Katy” really is but I feel no real anger or jealously or injustice either.

When I see comments on twitter about the baby having a life of luxury paid for by the rest of us my reaction is “yeah – and?”. After all that comment was just posted using an electronic device that cost hundreds of pounds connected to an internet system that also requires money to connect to, in a Liberal Democracy that might snoop on you quite a bit more than you suspected, but no longer hauls you off to the Tower for a quick beheading for such a thought.

The fact is that if you live in the first world, particularly the English speaking first world, then your life is a lot more like the Royal Family than it is a family who have to work all day in tropical heat to earn the dollar or so it takes to give their kids rubbish tasting food and dangerous water. Or, if there has been drought or flood no food or water at all. There are some real flaws in our society and some really vulnerable people who lead fairly miserable lives, but the majority of us sit in relative palaces talking to one another on miracle devices purely because of where and when we were born.

When my eldest was born I promised myself there were certain parent things I would never do. I wouldn’t answer the question ‘why’ with the answer ‘because I said so’. This is a rule I first broke when he was about two. When we had two we promised we wouldn’t spoil or indulge them. Clearing out our attic and the kids room ready for our house move had demonstrated to me that, while they are no Violet Elizabeth Botts, they certainly haven’t wanted for things. But I never promised myself I wouldn’t say ‘life’s not fair’ because I have always believed that life isn’t fair. And whether you choose to tackle this with charity or libertarian harshness the truth is it probably never will be.

At the end of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life there’s a song that contains a line that urges us to consider ‘how amazing and unlikely is our birth’. And once you’ve digested that mindfuck then consider how amazing and unlikely it is that you were born the child of a Business Analyst and Nurse in a suburban new build in Welwyn Garden City as opposed to the eighth child of a labourer in rural Chad or a sweeper in Bihar. You may not be living in a Palace with everything paid for you but then nobody shoves a camera up your nose if you want to pop to Tesco Extra for a late night bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

In short, I’m uncomfortable attacking privilege by accident of birth from a position of privilege by accident of birth.

But if I’m uncomfortable with attacking privilege then I also don’t understand the fascination with the Royals either. OH LOOK, THAT WOMAN JUST GAVE BIRTH TO A BABY! OH LOOK, HE’S PUTTING THE CAR SEAT IN AND DRIVING OFF JUST LIKE A NORMAL BLOKE! Let’s face it if you are reading this you have probably gone though this sort of thing yourself without so much as a round of applause. I’d be interested if she gave birth to octuplets or, say, a lizard. That might make me look up from my cup of coffee and switch from the Sports section of the paper to the front page but ‘Woman has Baby’ is not really going to hold my attention for very long.

The fascination of others is, I suspect, due to familiarity by media. I avoid the celebrity and gossip pages and the Royal stories like the plague and therefore feel I barely know them. This was certainly true with Diana’s death too. While the rest of the country sobbed in shock I went off to play cricket having barely considered it. But should you be constantly bombarded with images of Royalty there’s no doubt you will treat a birth or death like it happened to a very distant relative or the woman up the road. If this is a natural part of human nature though, thinking of the Royals as your betters, to me, is not. They just got one of the Golden Tickets in the birth lottery.

*obviously not that ambivalent or I wouldn’t have just dedicated 960 odd words to the subject. So shoot me.

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An Open Letter to Mike Weatherley – Tory MP for Hove and Portslade

Dear Sir

I know you signed yourself “Mike” but that’s probably a bit familiar for now. I might get more comfortable with it later on in this letter but for now I think I ought to use your full title of Conservative Representative for Hove and Portslade. Just so everyone knows who you are.

Thank you so much for writing to me for my opinion, not once, but three times! It’s nice to know that in these times of necessary austerity there’s still a bit of spare cash around for headed House of Commons paper with your photo on. Do you get a prize if you use it all up?

Since you are so persistent I thought I’d do you the honour of a reply though I find the questions asked rather simple. In fact, as you are about to find out, I have more comments than could even be fitted overleaf from your simple questions. Perhaps I should have used the overleaf of all three letters I received?

So firstly. It’s nice to know you are in favour of an in / out referendum on the EU in 2017. I fear, however, you may be jumping the gun a bit, a point to which I’ll return later. I do wonder, however, given the proposed date how the good people of Portslade are supposed to make up their minds how they’d vote in it? We are, after all, talking about a totally hypothetical referendum in four years time. Crystal ball? Tea leaves? Perhaps Jeremy Hunt could shake some water in a mysterious way and we could all drink it and get super hero powers that allowed us to see in to the future?

Even if the referendum was tomorrow though there is nowhere near enough information supplied for me, or anyone else who isn’t an MP with a party whip to stick to, to decide. Perhaps you thought it was better to send a simple letter three times than an informative one once. Or perhaps – cynical I know but bear with me – the letter sent gives you the very best chance to receive or even spin the statistics you crave.

Before I could decide such a thing I’d need to seek out a lot more information. What would be the affect be on trade agreements? Would all parties explain copiously that the European Court of Human Rights was bound by the Council of Europe and not the EU? Would I need a visa to see my dad in France? How would the farce that is port and airport immigration deal with even slower lines of people they suddenly have to check more thoroughly? Should I believe UKIP when they say there will be 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians heading here to steal my job, live on benefits and be generally smelly? And is there any chance you could explain why it is that, when discussing Europe, the right reverts to protectionism and the left to defending trade?

I fear that you will actually receive very few replies. Portslade being a working class area – but more working than shirking – most of its residents will be far too busy trying to make ends meet under your austerity regime or struggling with the shortage of Junior School places and the frankly appalling local secondary school to answer hypothetical questions about something no-one understands properly. And any who suddenly find themselves living on one of Portslade’s many estates with an extra bedroom are probably saving all three of your letters to burn for heat when the winter comes round.

But, Mike (see, I said I’d get there), I think the real point is this. Democracy in this country is driven by general elections rather than referenda. As you rightly point out you don’t have a majority. It is my unending hope that come 2015, you, your hopeless Chancellor and your frankly backwards Education Secretary, not to mention Call Me Dave, will be voted back to the obscurity you enjoyed in the thirteen years leading up to 2010.

Hope this helps!

Yours sincerely


*real name used on printed copy to be posted this morning.

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Some Totally Made Up People’s Attitudes to OFSTED Ratings

Lilliania-May Thompson is 36. She works in social care and reads The Guardian’s Education section. She has considered Steiner education but couldn’t afford it. Her daughter Alfafa Bean is in Year 2.

“Of course the whole thing is a scandal. I don’t even know what they’re rated for and they take no account of alternative means and methods of education. Who says playing all day isn’t conducive to developing four year olds? Or that vegetarian only school lunches don’t provide proper nutrition? These people would have them sat in rows of desks repeating their times tables by rote and getting slapped with a ruler if they dare speak out.”

Reporter: “And what is the rating of Alfafa Bean’s school?

“Well it’s outstanding. It has been since they started inspecting I believe.”

Reporter: “And how did you get her in?”

“Well I may have fiddled the council’s residency records a bit.”

Oliver Bastard is a commodity trader for a firm of Swiss Nazi brokers in the city, specializing in jackboot futures. He likes rugby, champagne and following Jeremy Clarkson on twitter. His son Timothy is in Year Two at Station Primary.

“Bloody good idea I say! Makes sure they’re learning with the right kind of chap if you catch my drift. I didn’t gazump that Web Designer for the house right next to Timmy’s outstanding school for nothing you know. Now he’ll be able to read and write properly before we send him off to spend his teenage years in buggery and cold showers. An entire education spent without having to speak to a fucking chav. I just wish they did Latin.”

Reporter: Because it’ll be useful at private school?

“No you idiot, because it makes you fucking miserable and I had to go through it.”

Sara, 29, is a teacher at a satisfactory school. Her son Sam attends the nearest school to her house which has just been rated as “good”. He’s in reception.

“To be honest we’ve had so many inspections where I work and yet I’m sure we’re marked down simply for being in the catchment area of Bernie Grant House over there (here she points to a burned out shell of a block of flats with an Uzi poking out of a top floor window, clearly visible from the Head’s Office at her employer’s, Shameless Primary). We put Sammy in to the nearest school because we don’t think the OFSTED is as important as getting him and me to school on time and having some nice local friends to play with. In any case they always mark you on something different. I’ve literally no idea what we’ll be marked on next.”

Reporter: Here’s Michael Gove’s latest proposal.

“If you want me I’ll be in the toilet weeping.”

Wendy, 34, is a Stay At Home Mum who is also a qualified accountant. Husband Simon is in IT. Their son Toby is due to start school in September.

“Well we’re right on the border between two good schools but when we looked at last year’s admissions it was touch and go whether we’d get in  either. The nearest school to us is a church school and it’s outstanding but neither of us are religious and we just didn’t feel right sending him there. Unfortunately we didn’t quite get in either of the other two so now it looks like Toby will have to do a 3 mile return bus trip to Shameless Primary. It’s not ideal but at least they’ve cleared out the last of the crack dealers from Bernie Grant House.”

(noise of reporter choking)

Nigel, 37 lives next door to Wendy with his wife Mandy and their son Frank.

“Come in. Have a pew. And I do mean literally. They gave us that for the kitchen when we made up 60% of the collection for the new church roof. It’s amazing how connected I feel to the church despite only having gone for the last year. What’s that? No that isn’t a Richard Dawkins book on the shelf. Get out! OUT! I need to pray.”

Dave, 40, is “on benefits”. He likes Special Brew, Jeremy Kyle and farting. His son Tyrone is currently excluded.

“What’s an OFSTED? Whaaaaaarrrrrrp!”

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Cycling Is Fun

As a teenager I rode a bike all the time. From the age of 13 I did a paper round (actually most of the time I did two) and I did them on my bike. For this purpose my parents got me a red “racer” with three gears. At weekends in the summer me and my friend David would ride our bikes up in to The Downs. Sometimes just as far as Devil’s Dyke to shoot our catapults but sometimes a 30 mile, hilly route all round the Sussex countryside and back again. Proper cycling. David provided the puncture repair kit and the knowledge of things like what to do if your chain fell off. I (mechanically inept) provided the company. I enjoyed it immensely.

Then I stopped doing the paper round. Not long after I was with David and attempting a right turn on a busy road when I was knocked off. I only got cuts and bruises but it was enough  to put me off and before I knew it I had stopped riding my bike. Up until six months ago the only other times I had ridden a bike were when I was at my mum’s place in France and I borrowed my step dad’s ‘sit up and beg’ bike to ride round the French countryside. Like a little English vicar.

But six months ago I* decided I needed to get a bit fitter and I* also decided the best way to do this would be to get a bike and start cycling again.

*my wife

*my wife again

I asked some advice of some cycling types on twitter and then mostly ignored it by buying a bike I liked the look of. I know. But for the last few months I have been the proud owner of a hybrid bike which I have ridden as often as I can and, frankly, loved. Quite a few things have changed since I was a teenager however.

To start with it seems that the act of riding a bike has somehow become political. That somehow just by getting on it and riding I’m sticking two fingers up to Jeremy Clarkson style motoring libertarianism. As someone who doesn’t enjoy driving at all I was always ambivalent in the ‘motorist v cyclist’ rows that would sometimes rear their heads in the pub or on message boards or twitter. Now I’m firmly in the cyclist’s corner. Whether this is selfish self interest or just seeing things from a particular point of view I’m not sure.

Then there’s the reputation of cyclists locally. This certainly wasn’t helped when a well liked local business man was killed by a single punch from a cyclist. And while there are plenty of responsible cyclists there are also people like the guy who, on dark winter mornings, cycles the wrong way up my road with no lights or hi viz.

Meanwhile the Green Party run local council are building more cycle lanes. While I should be in favour of this as a big user of them I wouldn’t want budget used on them that could be providing school places or collecting the rubbish. When I was cycling as a teenager there wasn’t a single cycle lane anywhere. In short, cycling can feel controversial.

However, here is the other thing that’s changed since then; thanks to the likes of Sir Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendalton and particularly Wiggo cycling is also cool. In fact this picture of Bradley Wiggens may just be one of the coolest things ever. The cycle lanes that are there are being used more and more and even on quiet routes at odd times of the day I see plenty of fellow cyclists. This is a real Olympic legacy. People of all ages are out there, inspired to do something not because it may be good for them but because it is fun, available and part of the zeitgeist.

For me though, the best thing is how much I enjoy it. Much like when I was regularly playing football or cricket, cycling puts me ‘in the zone’. I don’t have to worry about office politics or making my connection at Gatwick Airport or who threw the weeble or why the carrots that were perfectly good for dinner last week are suddenly disgusting. It’s just me and the bike. Perfect.

Last night I asked twitter if I should go for a ride or start on the wine early but, really, I already knew the answer. As soon as Whirlwind was in bed I saddled up and went for a ride all round Brighton and Shoreham, observing families heading home from the beach and people heading out for a Saturday night on the town. One of the last parts of the route is along a road that runs between the beach and the harbour, near the houses with the private beaches where the slebs all live. It’s quiet at that time of evening and I let rip, pedalling as fast as I could. In no time at all I was overtaken with consummate ease by someone on a road bike who, frankly, left me for dead. I wonder if it was David?

P.S. I know you’re all thinking ‘but why the inane title’? I know I would be. Well it is, of course, a chance to post a link to this obscure song of the same name by Japanese pop band Shonen Knife. If Wiggo doesn’t inspire you to start riding this certainly won’t.

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