Showing posts with label children. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children. Show all posts

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Yvette Cooper, family life and dressing up for school


There’s a great interview in this week’s Grazia with Yvette Cooper, who as well as being the shadow home secretary is married to shadow chancellor Ed Balls and has three children between the ages of eight and thirteen.

The best thing of all about the piece (written by Gaby Hinsliff) is that it gives a vivid glimpse of life in a hectic household, where two high-flying politicians are juggling about a million things at once. On the morning of the interview the roof was leaking, a builder had arrived to fix it, they were busy getting the children off to school and Cooper was trying to agree a quote about the police reforms.

And, I must say I couldn’t quite get my head round this bit, in the midst of the chaos Balls was trying to do his piano practice. Piano Practice? At eight-thirty in the morning?

Cooper admits that domestic life “may be a bit of a muddle” sometimes but they muddle through it together. She says that while Balls does “more tidying up and cleaning than I do” she tends to panic about things like “how come they need a Spanish costume for school tomorrow?”

Now that, I reckon that will strike a chord with parents everywhere. I’m a mega-admirer of teachers but the one thing I couldn’t cope with when my children were at primary school was the vogue for themed days. Over the years my two had to dress up as Victorian children, characters from their favourite books, characters from Roald Dahl stories, French children, animals, birds - you name it.

Quite apart from the fact that I’m the worst seamstress going, my son usually only mentioned it the night before. So I'd stay up till midnight  trying to cobble together an owl costume out of an old blanket.

And worst of all, schools assume that children love dressing up. Well, my son HATED it. On World Book Day the only outfit he deigned to wear was an aviator’s boiler suit and goggles. In the end we had to pretend that Biggles was his favourite book and he went as a pilot. Even though he’d never read any of the Biggles stories – and still hasn't.

And the following year he refused point-blank to dress up at all.  

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Two days in James Herriot country


The advantage of moving around a lot is that you feel at home in most places.

And that was certainly the case when we made a two-day trip to North Yorkshire this week. We lived in James Herriot country for three years and I’ve got very happy memories of our time there.

We renovated a three-bedroom farmhouse with glorious views across the fields and moved in when my daughter was four and my son was two. Even now they are virtually grown up they still talk fondly about our Rye House days. I’m not surprised, because they had the best social life ever. My daughter’s primary school was a short walk down the hill and most of her friends lived a stone’s throw away. She had tea at a different friend's house every day of the week and she still keeps up with loads of them on Facebook.

When we drove into the village at dusk we peered across the school playground, marvelling at the new classrooms and trying to spot whether the wooden bird my daughter made was still on display. Her year 1 teacher (one of her favourite teachers ever) was called Miss Wright and drove a retro white VW Camper van. She worked incredibly hard and 14 years later we half expected to see it still parked outside.

As well as seeing friends and family, we also made our regular trip to Bettys in Northallerton for coffee. When my son was little I often took him there for homemade lemonade and a toasted teacake after school and he once melted the heart of an elderly waitress by saying “Bettys make the best teacakes in the whole, wide world.”

He was absolutely right, of course.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Friday book review - The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable


If you’re racing to get your Christmas shopping done and need an enchanting story for girls aged ten and up, then The Wolf Princess could be just the ticket.

The first novel from journalist turned author Cathryn Constable, it’s the captivating account of penniless orphan Sophie Smith. Stuck in her drab London boarding school with her two best friends – brainy Marianne and immaculately groomed Delphine - she longs for something exciting to happen.

Then, thanks to a mysterious Russian visitor, the trio suddenly find themselves on a school trip to St Petersburg.  But when they arrive they are swept off by train to a winter palace – where a charismatic princess lavishes them with gifts, takes them skating on a frozen lake and weaves stories about her family’s tragic past. 

With its magical descriptions of ice, snow, diamonds and white wolves who prowl the palace grounds at night, The Wolf Princess is the perfect read for a chilly Christmas afternoon. The cover, as you can see, is glorious too.

The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable (Chicken House, £6.99)

Friday, 14 December 2012

Giveaway - win a copy of Lauren Child's latest Ruby Redfort story


I’ve been a fan of Lauren Child’s work for years. Her children's books, with their zany patchwork collages, wonky text going in all directions and off-the-wall stories, are utterly entrancing. In fact I reckon I’ve given copies of her fabulous Charlie and Lola books and Clarice Bean stories to just about every child I know - goddaughters, nieces and friends’ children. I even bought a copy of an edition of Pippi Longstocking she illustrated for, er… myself.

Child is incredibly prolific and last year she launched the Ruby Redfort stories for readers aged nine and up. Undercover agent Ruby first appeared in the Clarice Bean books but so many readers asked about Ruby that Child decided to give her her own six-book series. First came Look Into My Eyes and now the second – Take Your Last Breath – is out.

Super-cool detective Ruby is only 13 but she’s a genius at cracking codes and puzzles. This time round she’s on a mission to crack the case of the Twinford pirates, while evading the clutches of a vile sea monster and an evil count. And one thing’s for sure, if anyone can convince children that puzzle-solving and code-cracking are fun, it’s Child.

Now, thanks to HarperCollins, I have got a copy of Take Your Last Breath to give away to a lucky House With No Name reader. All you have to do is leave a comment about who you’d give it to at the end of this post and I’ll announce the winner next week.

This giveaway is open to readers with UK postal addresses only. The closing date is 12 noon on December 18, so get your entries in soon!

Take Your Last Breath (HarperCollins, £12.99).

Friday, 7 December 2012

Giveaway - win a copy of Michael Morpurgo's brilliant new novel


Michael Morpurgo is one of the most prolific writers around. He began writing stories as a primary schoolteacher 40 years ago and has since written more than 120 books. I remember my two children excitedly discovering The Butterfly Lion, a tale that so enthralled them that they proceeded to whizz through every other Morpurgo book they could lay their hands on.

Morpurgo, who was children’s laureate from 2003 to 2005, has the knack of writing books that catapult you into a different world. And none more so than his latest novel, A Medal for Leroy.

Partly inspired by Morpurgo’s own life and partly by the life of Walter Tull, the only black soldier to serve in the British Army during the First World War, A Medal for Leroy is a poignant story, movingly told.

As Morpurgo explains: “Walter Tull was the inspiration for Leroy in my story. This extraordinary young man had grown up in an orphanage in London, had played football for Spurs, then joined up with his pals when war began in 1914.

“He was incredibly brave in the field of battle and deserved a medal for gallantry. He never received one. He died leading his men into attack in 1918. He has no known grave. Many of the issues raised in this book spring from the life and death of this brave young man. This is why the book is dedicated to his memory.”

A Medal for Leroy, charmingly illustrated by Michael Foreman, is the story of Michael, a little boy living in London with his French mother after the Second World War.

Michael’s father died a hero before he was born, shot down in a dogfight over the Channel in 1940. But Michael has one of his medals and occasionally visits his two aged aunts, Auntie Pish and Auntie Snowdrop, to scatter snowdrops on the sea in his memory.

After Auntie Snowdrop's death, Michael discovers a writing pad tucked behind a photograph of his father. It's filled with his aunt's writing and contains family secrets that have remained hidden for years. “I knew even as I began to read – and I have no idea how I knew – that my life would be changed forever," says Michael, "that after I’d read this I would never be the same person again.”

Morpurgo has had a stupendous year. First the movies of War Horse and Private Peaceful (weepies, both of them) hit the big screen, and now he has written this fine new novel. Suitable for children aged nine and over, it is compelling and thought-provoking. Vintage Morpurgo.

Thanks to HarperCollins, I have two copies of A Medal for Leroy to give away. All you have to do is leave a comment about your favourite children's book at the end of this post.

This giveaway is open to readers with UK postal addresses only.

Plus, as a special Christmas promotion, you can buy A Medal for Leroy and get Little Manfred free.  Find out more here.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

A December weekend in Paris


As regular readers will know, my student daughter is at university in Paris this year. She’s settled into a flat on the Left Bank and, three months on, her French is pretty fluent. She says she still sounds English but that’s hardly surprising. Unless you’ve spoken French from the age of two or three it’s impossible to sound completely français.

I’m trying not to be a clingy parent, I really am, but I’d been counting the days till I could whizz across the Channel to stay with her. I booked a Eurostar ticket weeks ago (£99 return) and, finally, the big day arrived.

Paris has always been one of my favourite cities and December is the perfect time to visit. The Boulevard St Germain twinkled with chic white lights, a team of carpenters was busy building white wooden huts for the annual Christmas market and the shop windows were a vision of festive loveliness.

With temperatures dipping towards zero (I’m SO glad I delivered my daughter’s duffle coat – she really needed it), we spent loads of time catching up in Paris’s brilliant cafés.

My favourite place for breakfast was a tiny bakery (below) in the rue de Buci (6e). It’s called, quite bizarrely, The Smiths. When we asked the waitress why, she explained that the architect was a huge fan of the band and named it after them. But Morrissey apart, The Smiths sells a café crème, croissant and orange juice for 5.5 euros, which seems pretty good value. The French are clearly a hardy lot because even though it was freezing lots of people were sitting at tables outside. Luckily, The Smiths, like most other cafes, supplies blankets on the backs of chairs so you can wrap up warm as you sip your coffee.

Meanwhile the Rose Bakery is brilliant for lunch. Rose Carrarini (author of the fabulous cookery book, Breakfast Lunch Tea) co-founded Villandry in London in 1988 and later went on to open the Rose Bakery, an Anglo-French bakery and restaurant in Paris. Some people were sceptical about how the French would take to a menu featuring cakes, scones and brownies, but it was a roaring success. Ten years on, there are three branches in Paris, as well as others in London, Seoul and Tokyo.

When we arrived at the branch in the Marais (30, rue Debelleyme, 3e) the queue stretched the length of the narrow restaurant and spilled out on to the pavement. Within 20 minutes though, we got a table and happily sat down to lunch. Everything is kept simple – with brown paper laid on the table, hunks of warm wholemeal bread and huge carafes of water. The only tricky moment comes when you have to choose what to eat – it all looks (and tastes) delicious.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Wild About Britain - an RSPCA short story competition for children


Hurry, hurry, hurry – there’s no time to waste. If your children are interested in wildlife and love writing stories, then there are just a few days left for them to enter a great new short story competition run by the RSPCA. 

The Wild About Britain challenge is inspired by wonderful children’s classics like Wind in the Willows and The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In fact Peter Rabbit was voted the nation’s favourite wildlife character in a recent RSPCA survey, while Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox was named our favourite wildlife book.

There are two age categories in the competition – 11 years and under and 12 to 16-year-olds – and the closing date for entries is midnight on Monday December 10. The winner will receive a selection of books from publisher Random House and their story will be published on the website.

As Chris Packham, RSPCA vice president, says: “What could be a more perfect way to get inspiration for your story than to go out into our woods and search out signs of animals like hedgehogs, foxes and badgers? With the Olympics, Paralympics and Jubilee it has been an incredible year for Great Britain. Now it is time to remember that our wildlife is great too.”

I feel very honoured because I’ve been asked to be one of the competition’s guest judges. As a lifelong fan of stories like The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and Watership Down, I CAN’T WAIT to read the entries.

For more details of the competition (and to read some of the entries so far) go to the Wild About Britain website.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Friday book review - The Empty Stocking by Richard Curtis


With Christmas less than a month away (eek!), I’m busy writing a newspaper piece about great festive reads for children.

One of my favourites so far is Richard Curtis’s The Empty Stocking. The prodigiously talented Curtis – director and screenwriter extraordinaire – has written an enchanting tale for children, with sweet illustrations by Rebecca Cobb.

It’s the story of seven-year-old twin sisters Sam and Charlie, who look the same but couldn’t be more different.

Sam is angelic, while Charlie is quite naughty. Or as Curtis puts it: “Not interested in being obedient. Quite often very grumpy. Not very fond of telling the complete truth. But very fond of eating sweets, making a filthy racket and having too much fun.” (Actually, come to think of it, Charlie sounds the life and soul of the party).

The little girls can’t wait for Christmas and excitedly hang their stockings at the end of their beds on Christmas Eve. But the big question is - will Santa fill both their stockings with presents this year? Or is it time he got tough?

This is a lovely picture book for small children – and as well as being an exuberant and heart-warming tale, it’s got an important message too.

The Empty Stocking by Richard Curtis (Puffin, £6.99)

Monday, 26 November 2012

The kindness of strangers Part 2



My children are both at university now – but out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind. Far from it. The fact that I don’t see them every day makes me worry even more.

I was thrilled, though, when my 18 year old son phoned at 10pm last night. Except it wasn’t for a chat. It was to say that he was on a train from Manchester to South Wales after a weekend catching up with old pals and the train had been severely delayed because of the weather. He’d just clocked that his train was due to terminate at Newport - at midnight, 50 miles from where he needed to be and with no more trains till dawn. 

To make matters worse, his credit card had been nicked a few days earlier, he only had £10 on him and his phone was about to run out of battery.

“We’re stuck at Shrewsbury,” he said. “And I don’t want to waste my battery so I’m switching my phone off now.”

Before I could reply, he rang off.

At midnight, with no news, I rang Newport railway station. But the place had shut up shop for the night. Next, I called a taxi firm close by.

“Don’t worry,” said a cheery voice at Dragon Taxis when he heard the sorry tale. “I’ll go and find out. What does he look like? I’ll see if he’s there.”

How kind was that? The man came back ten minutes later and said my son wasn’t there. But he’d asked the rail staff and in fact the train had travelled on to Cardiff. After that, they’d said, Arriva Trains were laying on taxis (free of charge) to take stranded passengers home. And sure enough, when I finally spoke to my son at 3am, that’s exactly what had happened.   

So, all I can say is: A big thank you to the wonderful Dragon Taxis of Newport. Talk about going that extra mile...

PS. I've just realised it's exactly a month till Christmas. Help!

PPS. The kindness of strangers Part 1 is here.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike?


I’ve interviewed Professor Tanya Byron several times over the years and she talks more sense about children and teenagers than anyone I‘ve met. And the fact that she told me not to worry when my children refused point-blank to have anything to do with star charts was a bonus.

Tanya has been a clinical psychologist for 23 years and earlier this month I spoke to her about a keynote speech she’s giving to the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in December. Once again, her words struck a chord as she talked about her concern that today’s youngsters lack emotional intelligence and emotional resilience. A lot of them, she said, are afraid of failure, afraid to take risks and afraid to think for themselves.

“Children are being raised in captivity,” she told me. “When was the last time you saw a kid out enjoying themselves on their bike?

“Children are not really encouraged, supported or taught how to assess, take and manage risk and I think it is developmentally catastrophic for them.

“Risk taking is seen as a very dangerous thing and to be avoided at all costs.

“We live in a litigious, risk-averse culture where paranoia is rife and we have an education system that is so built around targets and testing that teachers and headteachers are constrained from being innovative.

“But risk taking is important because it helps children to accept, understand and embrace failure. The times when you fail are often the most powerful learning experiences one can ever have.

“When I talk to successful people and ask them about their most cherished memories in terms of how they got to be where they are, it’s usually built around times when they messed up. But boy did that really teach them something. It got them to expand their thinking and their learning and inspired them to push on in the most impressive way.”

Wise words in my opinion. What do you think?

You can read the whole interview in this week’s SecEd magazine.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Working parents - the debate goes on...


“Enough about saintly working mothers. What about me? I’m a working dad.”

That’s the headline emblazoned across the front page of Times 2 today, trailing a piece by Hugo Rifkind that sticks up for working fathers.

His gist is that society isn’t treating fathers equally. “… when she gets up many hours before going to work to deal with our children’s poos and pees and frankly unreasonable moonlit demands for Cheerios, she is a brave and selfless warrior for feminism,” he writes of his wife. “Whereas when I do, I’m just somebody who if he didn’t would be an a***hole.”

The most striking thing to me is that the parenting debate hasn't moved on at all over the last few decades. The trouble is, as each generation discovers in turn, if you’re a parent (whether you're a mum or a dad) you really can’t have it all.

Whatever anyone says, you can’t have a superstar career and be there 24/7 for your children. It’s just impossible.

In our house we never sat down and discussed how we would share the parenting. When my two were little my husband worked as a company turnaround expert, which meant being catapulted into businesses all over the place that were in trouble and needed sorting out. It sounds glamorous but it wasn’t. It was gruelling, tough and completely unpredictable. But he was self-employed and earned more than me, so no way could I say: “Hang on. You can’t go tomorrow. You’re looking after the children.”

If I’m honest, it irritated the hell out of me at the time. But then again, I knew that if he didn’t drop everything and go, then the mortgage wouldn’t get paid. OK, I could have found a live-in nanny and gone back to my old job as a news reporter but then I would have been away all the time too – which would have been terrible for the children.

So, we muddled through. I did the childcare and freelanced from home (a plus side of journalism), while my husband paid the bulk of the bills.

But suddenly everything changed. First my daughter went to university, followed this September by my son. And after all these years of wondering whether I did the right thing, I’ve stopped worrying. My children’s childhoods went by in a flash and I’m glad I didn’t miss any of it. 

Friday, 5 October 2012

Friday book review - Ratburger by David Walliams


David Walliams is the fastest growing children’s author in the UK  – so children aged nine and up will be thrilled to hear that his fifth novel has hit the bookshops.

Like its predecessors, Ratburger is hilarious, sad and at times downright revolting. It isn’t for children of a nervous disposition but most young readers will laugh uproariously from start to finish – in between gasping in horror at Burt, Walliams’s evil, burger-van driving new villain.

Walliams excels at writing uproarious, laugh-out loud stories that combine humour and heart, and this one’s no exception. Zoe, his latest young heroine, has a back story that brings tears to your eyes. Her mum died when she was a baby, her dad’s lost his job at the local ice cream factory and Zoe’s got a horrible new stepmother called Sheila who eats prawn cocktail crisps all day and is so idle she asks Zoe to pick her nose for her.

The only bright spot in Zoe’s lonely life is Gingernut, her pet hamster – but that ends in tears when Zoe finds him dead in his cage. She suspects Sheila might have had something to do with Gingernut’s sudden demise but as she says, “what kind of person would want to murder a defenceless little hamster?”

But one night Zoe hears a baby rat scrabbling in the corner of her room and decides to adopt him as her new pet. Desperate to hide the rodent from the wicked Sheila, she takes him to school in her blazer pocket and calls him Armitage (after spotting the name Armitage Shanks in the girls’ toilets).

With brilliant illustrations by Tony Ross, this story is great for boys and girls alike. Walliams is a huge fan of the late, great Roald Dahl and children who enjoy Dahl's books will definitely like this.

Ratburger by David Walliams (HarperCollins, £12.99) 

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The kindness of strangers Part 1



“I can’t believe I’m leaving you in Paris,” I told my daughter as we hugged goodbye on the Boulevard St Germain.

“I’m more worried about leaving you on the metro," she replied, deftly handing me a train ticket and a bright pink Post-it note with scribbled instructions to Charles de Gaulle Aéroport.

We’d just spent two action-packed days together and it was time for me to head home while she embarked on her new student life in France.

Determined to allay her fears, I strode confidently through the metro gate (getting my suitcase wedged in the barrier in the process) and hopped on the train to Châtelet-Les Halles.

But after that, everything came unstuck. As I waited in vain for the RER (the express train that connects the city centre to the suburbs), I started to panic. My flight was due to leave in 90 minutes time and I was still miles away.

Then suddenly a couple walked past and murmured something incomprehensible. “Je suis Anglaise,” I replied – my default response when I haven’t got a clue. The man replied in faultless English and told me the train to the airport wasn’t running.  We apparently needed to get a train to Mitry-Claye, a place I’d never heard of, then catch a bus.

It sounds ridiculous but I instinctively knew I could trust the pair. I hurried on to the packed Mitry-Claye train behind them and we hurtled through the grey suburbs of north-east Paris together, past places I’d be afraid to walk alone. The man told me he was originally from Cameroon and was on his way home to South Africa from a business conference in the US. He and his wife had stopped off in Paris en route to see friends.

When we finally reached Mitry-Claye I lost sight of them in the melée. As hordes of passengers tore down the platform in search of the airport bus, a few RER staff in red T-shirts apologetically handed us a tiny biscuit each. Not exactly what you’re after when you’re about to miss your plane, but still.

I pushed my way on to the packed bendy-bus, wondering where my new friends had got to. As it pulled away I spotted them standing patiently at the barrier. My bus was full and they’d clearly been told to wait for the next one. I waved like a maniac and mouthed “merci.” I don’t think they saw me…

PS. The kindness of strangers Part 2 is here.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Empty nest syndrome


There’s an autumn chill in the air, the garden is covered in leaves and the traffic in Oxford has resumed its usual snail-like crawl.

But this September feels very different for me. Why? Because for the first time in 16 years I haven’t got a child going back to school. I haven’t had to rush round frantically buying new shoes, files and geometry sets or doing the annual (always unsuccessful) hunt for my son’s rugby gum shield.

At the moment my children are both still at home but by the end of the week they won’t be. My daughter’s off to university in Paris while my son’s heading west to Wales (with his beloved road bike, of course).

I’m so excited for them but every now and again I find myself asking plaintively “where on earth did the last 20 years go?” It seems no time at all since my daughter, clad in a yellow flower-sprigged pinafore and matching hairband, clung to me as I took her into nursery school for the first time. And since my son was a toddler with white-blond curls and a penchant for Thomas the Tank Engine.

Now my daughter’s moving to another country for a year and my son’s excitedly looking forward to Freshers’ Week. The house is full of packing boxes, my son’s busy practising his cooking skills and my daughter’s rushing round seeing all her friends before she starts her new Parisian life.

It’s going to be very quiet around here in a week’s time…

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day - the app


It’s A level results day – the moment that will decide the future of thousands of 18 year olds in the UK. If the youngsters get the results they’re after, many will be off to university in the autumn. If they don’t, they’ve got the agony of deciding what to do next – resitting their exams, looking for a job or perhaps taking a gap year.

Tensions have been running high in our house while all this has been going on – but I’ve found the perfect way to relax. Earlier this year I reviewed an enchanting picture book called Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day by Amy de la Haye and Emily Sutton. It’s the story of a little girl called Clara who visits the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to get her granny’s hat mended.

I adored the book when I read it so I was thrilled to discover that a digital edition has just been launched.

If anything, the app is even more stunning than the book. Emily Sutton’s gorgeous illustrations come exhilaratingly to life on the screen. When Clara’s big brother Ollie whizzes into the room on his skateboard, thousands of buttons go flying. And the red double-decker the children catch to the museum (past famous shops like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason) actually drives down the street.

Children can read the story themselves or listen aloud. Best of all, they can tap on drawings of famous pieces on show at the V&A, gaze at photographs and hear audio descriptions. My favourite exhibits are the sky-high Vivienne Westwood shoes that Naomi Campbell was wearing when she toppled off the catwalk in 1993. Did you know that they are made of fake crocodile skin and are a whopping 30cm tall? No wonder she fell over!

Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day for iPad (Mapp Editions for the Victoria and Albert Museum, £3.99)

PS. The paperback of Clara Button and the Magical Hat Day is published on August 30.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Dreaded Sports Day - and the film of How I Live Now

The one thing I don’t miss from my children’s schooldays is the dreaded sports day. It was almost always one of the worst days of the year. At one school the event was competitive in every sense – from the parents’ picnics to the 100 metre sprint. The same children won everything year after year while the less sporty boys and girls were consigned to a far corner of the athletics track doing supposedly “fun” things like throwing hoops and hopping, skipping and jumping. My exuberant son didn’t think they were fun at all.

At his secondary school, I’m glad to say, the whole thing was far more relaxed. Everyone took part in three events, there were no picnics and In between races, the children wandered around in the sunshine. Everyone got a Zoom ice lolly for their efforts and instead of feeling like an abject failure by the end of the afternoon my son was on top of the world.

Some critics sneer at the “all shall have prizes” approach of some schools – but I reckon that when you're only 11 sports day should be wall-to-wall fun.

Mind you, the most competitive participants at the sports days I went to were the parents. My daughter’s first school, a tiny primary in the wilds of North Yorkshire, always held a mothers’ race.

A lovely mum who was incredibly laid-back the rest of the year was so determined to win that as soon as the whistle went she developed a competitive instinct Paula Radcliffe would be proud of. One year she came a cropper when she tripped halfway down the school field, tore a ligament and had to be carted off in an ambulance. The children – from reception right through to year 6 – were utterly gripped. It was the most dramatic finish to a sports day they’d ever seen.

PS. I’m thrilled to hear that one of my favourite books, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, is being filmed. It’s being directed by Kevin Macdonald (of The Last King of Scotland fame) and stars Saoirse Ronan (above) as Daisy, the teenage New Yorker sent to England to stay with her cousins. It's due out in 2013 and I'm certain it will be a must-see...

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Dressing up to the nines for the school run

My school run days are long gone.

But even though I’m nostalgic about those mornings when my daughter and I walked hand in hand to her North Yorkshire primary school I’m relieved about one thing. There was absolutely no pressure whatsoever to look chic at the school gate. We Iived in a windswept farming village, so the most common look for mums was mud-spattered wellies, coats and scarves. None of us turned up in Made in Heaven jeans, Joseph jackets or Kurt Geiger shoes. And rather than carrying Mulberry bags, we clutched book bags, show and tell treasures and lunch boxes.

Now the trend to dress up to the nines on the school run is gathering pace. Yummy mummy superstars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Elle Macpherson get praised to the skies for their school gate style and loads of bloggers proudly post daily pictures of the outfits they’ve worn for that morning’s drop off.

The August issue of Easy Living magazine features a piece showcasing seven mums on “the school runway” in Newcastle upon Tyne.

They all have glowing skin, immaculate hair and full make-up. One wears a Missoni dress, Prada sunglasses and Nine West wedges, while another is in a Hugo Boss suit and Gucci sandals.

It’s galling to admit this, but they’ve clearly put more effort into their school gate outfits than I do for a posh wedding…

Thursday, 5 July 2012

A year in France


When our children were little we took the plunge and uprooted to the French city of Orléans, on the banks of the Loire. My husband was offered a job working for a dynamic (and scary) Australian tycoon who’d snapped up a French business, so we crossed the channel, rented an old house covered in vines and enrolled our daughter at the local école maternelle

Ten months later the scary tycoon changed his mind about the project. We moved back to the UK and took up where we'd left off – older, wiser and a bit better at speaking French. But sorting my office out this week, I came across some columns I wrote in Orléans and the memories came flooding back. Here are some extracts:

“My daughter finishes school this week for the long summer holiday. Despite being the only non-French child in the whole school she’s coped brilliantly. She can now speak a few words in French, count to ten and has made firm friends with a group of five-year-olds in the next class up. One of them, a little girl called Philippine, lives near us and the pair of them kiss each other on the cheeks when they meet and hold hands all the way to school.”

“My two-year-old son’s hair, bleached even whiter by the sun, is the subject of much comment in the boulangerie. ‘That hair will keep you in your old age,’ one old man told me admiringly.”

“The French are intensely proud of their cheese. Charles de Gaulle once claimed there were more than 400 varieties of the stuff so we’re trying as many as we can. But my husband was stunned when I went to Paris for the day, stumbled across a branch of Marks & Spencer and couldn’t resist buying a packet of mature Cheddar. ‘It’s absolutely sacrilege,’ he protested when I got home. ‘How can you buy English cheese in France?’”

“I never realised how seriously the French take their holidays. Instead of staggering their time off work throughout the year, everyone goes away in August. By late July my daughter’s schoolfriends have all disappeared to the seaside, my husband’s office is virtually empty and even the local grocer has shut up shop for the month. When our neighbours realise we’ve booked our grandes vacances for September, they are absolutely astonished. 'Oh la la,' exclaims Marie Therese, our next-door neighbour. 'You’ll be the only people in the entire district in August.'”

“All the houses in Orléans, old and new, have shutters – to keep them secure and, in high summer, cool. We have seven pairs on the ground floor alone and closing them at night and opening them in the morning is quite a job. I haven’t quite got the knack of it yet. As I opened the dining room shutters this morning I almost beheaded a woman walking along the pavement.”
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