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

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Famous Five's Sapphire Jubilee

The Queen isn’t the only one celebrating a major anniversary this year. The Famous Five are too. Did you know that Enid Blyton’s classic stories of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and George’s mongrel Timmy have been entrancing generations of children for a magnificent 70 years?

I was one of them. I loved Enid Blyton books so much that every Saturday morning I’d spend the whole of my two shillings and sixpence a week pocket money on a new story. Some weeks I’d go for a Malory Towers or St Clare’s tale, but more often than not it would be the Famous Five.

The first story to be published was Five on a Treasure Island, which came out in 1942. It was one of my absolute favourites - so much so that I recently downloaded it as an audiobook to listen to in the car. And guess what? I was as captivated as ever. The story sounds ridiculously old-fashioned, with children who spend their days swimming at a Dorset cove, taking Timmy for long walks and solving the mystery of an ancient shipwreck, but it’s still completely gripping.

These days some critics knock Enid Blyton for her simplistic language, while others accuse her of being elitist, racist and sexist. I know prissy Anne and her fondness for party frocks and dolls are a bit hard to take but the best thing about Blyton was that she could spin a great yarn. The fact that her stories have sold a mega 600 million copies is proof of that.

What struck me as I listened to Five on a Treasure Island was the freedom children used to have. Julian, Dick, Anne and George are all aged between 11 and 13 but they leave the house after breakfast and don’t come back till tea-time. They’re allowed to row out to Kirrin Island by themselves and camp there alone for two whole days.    

To mark the 70th anniversary, Hodder Children's Books have reissued five Famous Five stories, complete with drawings by some of the best children’s illustrators around, like Quentin Blake and Emma Chichester Clark. Not only that, from this month (June) you can download the Famous Five Adventure Trail, which takes you to some of the Dorset locations that feature in the Famous Five books. I’m half tempted to try it myself…

PS. Did you know that a 70th anniversary is a sapphire jubilee? No, me neither.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Friday book review - The New Jumper by Oliver Jeffers

Fashionistas who like to follow the crowd should read the latest book by super-talented artist Oliver Jeffers. They'd definitely learn a thing or two about having the courage to strike out and do something different.

The New Jumper is the first in Jeffers's new series about the Hueys, a group of characters who are all the same. They look the same, think the same and do the same things. Until one extraordinary day one of them decides to knit himself a new jumper. How on earth will the rest of the Hueys react? The Hueys’ name, incidentally, was inspired by Jeffers’s grandfather, who could never remember the names of his many grandchildren – so called all of them Huey.

In a nutshell, The New Jumper is a story about individuality. Even though the book is aimed at small children I’ve shown the book to several teenagers (the age when peer pressure to wear certain labels and listen to certain music really kicks in). And funnily enough, it has struck a chord with them all.

Jeffers, who grew up in Belfast but now lives in New York, certainly follows his own advice. His quirkily-illustrated books are totally different to most of the other children’s picture books on the market – and deserve the critical acclaim they’ve had.

I’ve been a fan of Jeffers’s work for a while. His books are perfect for the under-fives but his thought-provoking take on life appeals to older children too. His first story, Lost and Found, won a Nestle Children’s Book Prize Gold Award, but my favourite is Stuck, the zany tale of a little boy called Floyd. When Floyd gets his kite stuck in a tree, he tries to dislodge it by throwing everything he can think of – from the kitchen sink to a passing milkman. Take a look if you get the chance – it’s one of those books that brings a smile to everyone’s face.

The New Jumper by Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins Children’s Books, £10.99)

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The annual French exchange

As the exam season kicks in with a vengeance, my student daughter hit on a brilliant idea to revise for her impending French oral. She and her flatmate booked a budget flight to Lyon and spent two days immersed in speaking French. It was a far better (and more fun) idea than the usual method of improving teenagers’ language skills – the dreaded French exchange.

Apart from my schoolfriend Sarah, who became lifelong pals with the French girl she exchanged with, I’ve never come across a success story.

When I was 16, I swapped with a sweet French girl called Marie-Line who lived in a fishing village on the Normandy coast. I was desperately homesick, barely uttered a word of French and had nightmares for weeks after walking into the basement and discovering a massive tank of crabs, fish and other creatures from the ocean swimming around – the results of her father’s latest fishing trip.

My daughter did a French exchange at the age of 12, which was far too young. It came about after a French business contact of my husband’s suggested it – and we reckoned it would be churlish to refuse.

When Jean-Paul delivered his daughter Sabine to our house she was clearly appalled by the whole idea. She loathed the food I cooked, couldn’t understand a word I said in either French or English and spent the week buying up her body weight in sweets. It wasn’t her fault at all that she hated the whole experience but it certainly didn’t do anything for the entente cordiale. Worse still, when her father politely rang the following week to thank us for having Sabine to stay, he added: “Oh, and I hope you didn’t let her eat any sweets. I forgot to tell you that she isn’t allowed them at home.”

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Competitive tiredness - who is the most exhausted?

Did you know there’s a new syndrome called “competitive tiredness?” Apparently loads of us spend our lives bickering about who is the most tired. Well, in our house my husband reckons he’s in pole position because he works killer hours at the office. My children are revising for exams so they’re exhausted and I think I’ve got a claim because I’ve got a mass of deadlines piling up.

But perhaps the answer to the conundrum is to copy the example of two close friends. With four children – aged ten, seven, five and nine months – and a hi-tech business they run together, Charlie and Anna swapped roles for a week to see who had the most demanding life.

Anna took sole charge of the office for five days while Charlie ran around after the children. He got up in the night to see to the baby, organised the school run and did the shopping, cooking and cleaning. She worked 12-hour days at the office before coming home to four boisterous children at night.

It was a real eye-opener for both of them. Charlie couldn’t believe how shattering the constant broken nights were and Anna groaned with exhaustion when he handed over the baby the instant she walked through the door in the evening. But they both said they’d do it again like a shot and reckon we should all give it a go. The only trouble is that I wouldn’t be much cop at running my husband’s business and he'd be hopeless at reviewing books. Perhaps it’s best to stick to the day job. What do you think?

PS. Lunch at the pub is a brilliant way to recover from a bout of competitive tiredness. The picture above shows the village of Farnborough in north Oxfordshire, home to one of my favourite pubs. A glass of wine, delicious lunch and good company - my perfect spring Saturday.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Giant image of the Queen beamed across Buckingham Palace

The best-read blog I’ve ever written was about Face Britain, a stunning initiative that challenged children and teenagers across the UK to help create a giant image of the Queen.

Well, I thought I’d better bring the story up to date. On Thursday night, the artworks – more than 200,000 photographs, paintings, 3D images, graphic designs, you name it – were put together and beamed right across the front of Buckingham Palace. They formed two pictures of the Queen and covered the whole of the front façade. How cool is that?

If you want to see the image for yourself, you can see it tonight (Saturday, April 21), but if you can’t nip along to Buckingham Palace, here it is in its full glory.

Face Britain was launched by The Prince’s Foundation for Children & The Arts, an educational charity established by Prince Charles. The aim of the project was to celebrate the achievements of children and young people in the lead-up to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Oh, and in the process the organisers are hoping that the giant portrait will set a new world record for “the most artists working on the same art installation.”

Later on, the self portraits are going to be stored “in perpetuity for the nation” by the British Library. But as well as the children’s artwork, loads of well-known names (including Adele, Michael Morpurgo, Jamie Oliver and Fearne Cotton) have donated their own self portraits and these will be auctioned on eBay from May 3 in support of the work of The Prince’s Foundation for Children & The Arts.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

I love France - but I can't actually speak French

I had an inspiring French teacher at school called Miss Burgess. She drilled me so well that more than 30 years later I can still remember the words for an armchair (un fauteuil) and a spoon (une cuillère).

The problem is that even though my brain is stuffed full of Miss Burgess’s vocabulary and I can read French pretty well, I can’t actually speak the language. When I’m in France I understand the gist of what everyone’s saying but by the time I’ve worked out how to reply, it’s five minutes too late and the conversation has moved on. I’m far too hung up on getting my verb endings right when I should be gabbling away regardless.

One of my most embarrassing moments came when the painter arrived to decorate. The moment I shook his hand my mind went completely blank and I couldn’t think of any French words at all. It took a few second before something popped into my head. “Au revoir,” I spluttered. Oh dear. It didn't go down well.

I reckon the best way to learn French is to concentrate on speaking it from the word go. I’ve just received a copy of a brilliant new book for children called My First 100 French Words and wish it had been around when I was little. Written by Catherine Bruzzone and Louise Millar and illustrated by Clare Beaton, it lists 100 basic words – from numbers and colours to toys and transport – and gives a simple pronunciation guide for each one.  It’s a fun way to introduce young children to speaking a new language – and great for grown-ups too in fact!

My First 100 French Words by Catherine Bruzzone and Louise Millar (b small publishing, £5.99)

Monday, 26 March 2012

Getting dressed for breakfast

The world is divided into those who get dressed for breakfast and those who don’t.

A few years back I remember reading a story about students at an Oxford college being ordered to dress properly for breakfast. Apparently – shock, horror – the undergraduates had been turning up for their morning brew and cornflakes wearing skimpy nighties and no dressing gowns. Some appeared clad only in bath towels, prompting the dean to send out stern letters asking them to “dress appropriately.”

The dean’s words would be like water off a duck’s back as far as my lot are concerned. I can’t speak in the mornings till I’ve made myself a strong cup of Earl Grey so I certainly couldn’t cope with getting dressed first – or heaven forbid, putting on any make-up. And my children are pretty much the same. In fact my night owl daughter would quite happily drift around all day in her pyjamas (non-matching of course) while our former neighbours were perfectly used to seeing my son bouncing on the trampoline at dawn in his PJs.

My husband, however, is the complete opposite. He wandered into the kitchen this morning looking immaculate in a charcoal suit and pristine shirt (no tie, he says he’s never wearing one again) and stared in astonishment at the motley crew slumped at the table. And yes, by motley crew, I mean the rest of us!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

1976 - the best year to be a child

1976. The year of Raleigh Chopper bikes, Abba and the longest, hottest summer in living memory.

I remember it like yesterday. But even so, it was a surprise to discover that 1976 has been voted the best year to be a child. Apparently children spent an average of 810 hours outside, went on ten weekend family trips and unlike today, 90 per cent of us felt safe. In contrast, 2011 was the worst year to be a child, with a staggering one in seven youngsters spending just 26 hours playing outside during the entire year.

So what was life like in 1976? I was a teenager and even though I was supposed to be revising for exams I spent most of that glorious summer lying on a Dorset riverbank with my school pals. A friend called Larry bought hundreds of old copies of Jackie magazine for a pound at the village fete and we spent virtually every afternoon reading soppy love stories and pouring over Cathy and Claire’s problem page. Not surprisingly, my exam results were utterly dire.

The girls all wore floaty Laura Ashley dresses and lace-up espadrilles while the boys had long hair and side burns. Me and my best friend Angie listened to Eric Clapton and Jim Capaldi on an old-fashioned record player and lived on toast and homemade biscuits. One afternoon I burned the toast and set the school fire alarm off. The whole place had to be evacuated midway through exams. Not surprisingly, I was the heroine of the hour…

Saturday, 17 March 2012

A Mother's Day meme

It’s nearly a year since I started House With No Name and I’ve learned so much about blogging in that time. Twelve months ago I was utterly clueless about guest posts and tags and SEO and Stumbleupon, so it’s been a massive (but fun) learning curve. And today I’ve discovered yet another blogging term I didn’t know anything about – the meme. I had to look it up and it turns out that a meme is an idea spread across blog posts, where you answer a few questions and then ask another blogger to answer them too. 

Anyway, I feel very honoured because the lovely Yummy Mummy? Really? has asked me to join in a Mother’s Day meme. The challenge is to answer a thorny set of questions about being a mum. So Happy Mother’s Day to mums everywhere, and here goes:

Describe motherhood in three words

Brilliant. Tricky. Fun.

Does your experience differ from your mother's?  How?

My mum died eight years ago. We used to talk endlessly about everything and there are still days when I reach for the phone to ask her advice and then suddenly remember I can’t. She had me when she was in her early twenties and went on to build a hugely successful career later on. I concentrated on my career in my twenties and went freelance after my two children were born. But even so, I think we had the same ideas about being a parent. Maybe she was ahead of her time but unlike some of her generation she never left us to cry when we were little and when I was older she always said “ring me any time if you need to talk – even if it’s three in the morning.”

What's the hardest thing about being a mum?

Worrying about my children. I always reckoned being a mum would get easier as they got older, but now they’re almost grown up I worry about them even more. I worry about my independent student daughter whizzing around London by herself and about my son doing scary stunts on his bike.

What's the best thing?

The moments when we’re all sitting round the kitchen table at home, reminiscing about their childhoods and laughing hysterically about something ridiculous.

How has it changed you?

On the upside I’m far less selfish, but on the downside I’ve turned into a worrier (see question 2!)

What do you hope for your children?

That they will be happy, fulfilled and realise as many ambitions as they possibly can. My mum once wrote: “I don’t think my children owe me anything… As long as they’re doing what fulfils them I don’t think they owe me a letter, kindly or otherwise, a phone call, a card come Mother’s Day or Christmas, or even a hand-crocheted shawl, if ever I should come on hard times.” Hmmm. I’d really like my two to come home now and again!

What do you fear for them?

That’s a tough one. It’s so hard to imagine what the world will be like in 25 years time so I just want them to be as all right as they can possibly be.

What makes it all worthwhile?

Every second of it (apart from the odd squabble about messy bedrooms and staying out till all hours).

So that’s what I came up with. Now it’s my turn to tag five fellow bloggers, so I’m asking:

Here Come the Girls

I’d love to hear how you all get on.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Primary school children ask the trickiest questions

My sophisticated student daughter hates to admit it but she liked everything about her North Yorkshire primary school, from the home corner and golden time to skipping in the playground and dressing up as her favourite book character.

I loved taking her into the classroom every morning (she banned me from venturing past the school gate once she reached the heady heights of year 2), having a chat with her teacher and admiring the works of art festooning the walls.

But now, 15 years later, I’m visiting primary schools again – sometimes to interview heads and teachers, but often to talk about writing books. I’ve visited loads in the last 12 months and the sessions are always lively, fun and utterly unpredictable. You can prepare your talk as precisely as a military campaign but you always get a couple of questions that completely floor you.

I recently pitched up at a local primary school clutching a copy of my novel, The Rise and Shine Saturday Show, and several of my favourite children’s books (Madeline, The Swish of the Curtain and Clarice Bean.) After half an hour of talking to the four to seven year olds (and them talking to me about their Batman and Barbie books), the eight to 11 year olds were led into the school hall by their teachers.

I told them a bit about my newspaper days, read the opening chapter of my book and then turned things over to them. Scores of small hands shot up. That was great – you don’t want a hall full of bored, silent children. Their questions were searching and incisive, ranging from where writers get their ideas from to what were my favourite children’s books. That was easy – I thrust my battered copies of Madeline and The Swish of the Curtain in the air.

But then like a bunch of seasoned newspaper hacks, the children began lobbing in a few trickier questions. Did I spend more time writing than looking after my children? How many books will I write in my lifetime? And finally they cut to the chase with a belter – how much do I earn? Cue a long silence. For once in my life, I was completely stuck for words.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Guest post by Trouble Doubled - Twins: twice the work?

Happy Leap Year’s Day! I’m not sure whether such a celebration actually exists but considering that February 29 only comes round once every four years I reckon we should be shouting it from the rooftops. 

An enterprising fellow blogger – and author of the Trouble Doubled blog - agrees. She hit on the idea of running a blog swap carnival to mark the occasion and asked a host of bloggers to write guest posts for other bloggers. So I’ve written one for Here Come the Girls and I’m delighted to say that Trouble Doubled has written one for House With No Name. Here it is:

When I announced I was expecting twins, lots of different people started offering advice. Mainly family, and mainly older generations. Now, I’m not very good at listening to advice, especially from people who are no less clueless than myself on a particular topic, so of course, I inevitably ignored them.

The one piece of advice I heard most often from people (who I hasten to add had not had twins themselves) was that having two together was not much harder work than having only one baby.  This, of course, is complete and utter drivel.

The reality is that two babies are very hard work, and there are some things which really are twice as difficult with two, and some things that are nigh on impossible. On the plus side, I have found that there are some things which are easier.

For example, getting out and about anywhere isn’t just twice the work it’s actually more difficult than that. Single buggies are usually alright to fit through pretty much any shop door, or onto a bus. But with twins it isn’t about pushing two single buggies around, it’s usually a double width one. And you can’t fold up a buggy and carry it and the baby if necessary, twice over.  Once you have a baby in each arm, it’s impossible to do almost anything. The twins are yet to have their first bus trip.

Toddler incidents increase much more than two-fold. Having an active toddler is hard work for any parent, but it’s relatively easy to keep an eye on a singleton and prevent too many accidents and injuries. With two, it’s really tough because you can guarantee while you are being distracted by one, the other will be up to something which will end in a bump or a bruise. The twins seem to have had more accidents each than either of my older children had.

But then you get things that are not quite twice as bad, like sleep. If you can get your twins to co-ordinate their sleeping, waking and feeding, you will need to get up in the night as many times as a parent of a singleton, though you will likely be up for longer each time. Of course, you’ve twice the odds of getting a bad sleeper with twins, but I have also found that my twins settle better and sleep for longer than my older children did. I think this is because the twins keep each other company in the night.

On the positive side, some things are far easier, like play time. My twins are now a year old. They play together lovely. They chase each other round the room, laughing, completely oblivious to anyone else in there. They sit and babble to each other, passing each other toys. They don’t even notice when I leave the room for a minute or two if I need to. At this age, my older children would try and follow me out, banging on the door and screaming for me to come back. I don’t feel as clung to as I did previously. Result.

So if you are expecting multiples, please don’t listen to anyone who’s never had twins or more, themselves. They don’t know the half of it. Parenting multiples is a wonderful experience, which can be hard work but rewarding in so many ways."

Thank you very much, Trouble Doubled!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The trials and tribulations of paperwork

When I went slightly mad a few years ago and decided to try my hand at teaching (I was useless), the main thing that made me throw in the towel was the endless paperwork.

For every lesson I taught at my local FE college, I had to fill in reams and reams of forms. There were the schemes of work to plan out lessons for the whole of the academic year, the lesson plans covering every single second of every single lesson and something called “reflective practice,” where I had to analyse everything from what teaching principles my lessons demonstrated to whether the class seating plan was up to scratch.

Admittedly, I was a trainee teacher so seasoned pros probably don’t have to bother with the reflective stuff, but even so, I was delighted to read in the Huffington Post this week that teachers’ paperwork is being cut right back.

According to the HuffPo report, the government has scrapped hundreds of pages of guidance issued to teachers. Schools minister Nick Gibb said in the House of Commons on Monday: “I am aware that many teachers are doing enormous amounts of overtime and that is a tribute to the professionalism of teachers in our schools today. What is important is that overtime is not spent filling in voluminous forms or reading huge arch lever files of guidance.”

Quite. For every second I spent agonising over my forms I reckon I could have taught my A level English sets the entire works of Tolstoy. Twice over.

PS. When we lived in France, my son loved Golden Grahams (above)But when we came back to the UK I couldn't find them anywhere. But now they've miraculously appeared on supermarket shelves again. Result? One very happy teenager...

Monday, 27 February 2012

Jacqueline Wilson, B*Witched and sleepovers

A wave of nostalgia sweeps over me every time a gaggle of girls in navy blue polo shirts and matching skirts walks past the house. It seems no time at all since my daughter was a wide-eyed 11-year-old who loved Jacqueline Wilson books, glittery pens and a band called B*Witched (oh dear, she’s going to be furious with me for mentioning that).
But amidst all the wistfulness, the one thing I DON’T miss are sleepovers. The custom of inviting not one best friend, but four or five, to have supper and stay the night didn’t exist in my youth. But these days sleepovers are de rigueur for girls. They involve watching DVDs like The Sleepover Club, playing raucous music till all hours, eating vast quantities of sweets, chatting till 3am and getting up four hours later. And if you reckon your daughter has dark circles round her eyes the next morning, she won’t look half as tired as you feel.
Sleepovers are most parents’ nightmare – and they get worse as children get older. When my daughter was little we’d be lucky if she and her pals went to sleep by 11pm. One friend who stayed was terribly homesick while another felt ill in the middle of the night (probably after all those sweets) and had to be driven home.
Once the girls turn into teenagers, sleepovers involve even less sleep than before. They all bed down on the floor of the sitting room, watch a load of films back to back all night and emerge at dawn for endless rounds of hot buttered toast.
The worst part of it all is that having had practically no sleep the girls are pale, weary and in a filthy temper for the rest of the day. My exasperated husband always declared we should make the Sleepover Girls sleep in different rooms and switch the lights off at ten. The fact that this would have completely defeated the object of the whole exercise didn’t bother him in the least.  

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Why do baby girls always wear pink?

Victoria Beckham, who dresses her seven-month daughter Harper in subtle hues of cream, navy, black and slate grey, isn’t the only mum to eschew pink for girls.

When my daughter was born, I never dressed her in girly pink colours. For her christening party she wore a chic tartan all-in-one, while for her aunt's wedding she sported a blue silk beret from a milliners called Herald & Heart Hatters. Her most stylish outfit of all was an ochre jacket with bright orange buttons and matching tights.

I’ve never understood why parents love pink for a girl. Babies and toddlers look so much better in strong, vibrant colours than in washed out shades of pink and mauve. Admittedly a woman in the supermarket once tapped me on the shoulder and said “excuse me, your little boy’s hat has fallen over his face.” I thanked her politely and adjusted my daughter’s headgear, wondering why she’d assumed my baby girl was a boy simply because she was wearing navy blue dungarees.

And even though Harper is clearly the best-dressed baby in the world, why does her mum keeps talking about wanting to do “girly” things together? In an interview before Harper was born Victoria said she could imagine “painting her nails, putting on make-up and choosing clothes” as she grows up.

With two very independent-minded children, the one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t dictate their style, interests or clothes. So it’s perfectly possible that Harper Beckham, especially as she’s got three big brothers, may turn out to be the sort of girl who loves climbing trees, riding bikes and kicking a football round the park.  Then again, maybe she won’t.

Image: Photo © 2010 J. Ronald Lee, CC Attribution 3.0

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Cotton wool kids don't climb trees

My teenage son’s bike is his pride and joy so he was even more stunned than me by a new report that says one in ten of today’s children can’t ride one.

And that’s not the only shocker. The survey (conducted by charity Play England) reveals that parents are so over-protective that only one child in five plays outside every day while a third have never climbed a tree or built a den.

“Playing outside, chalking on the pavement, climbing trees and riding your bike are simple pleasures that many of today’s children are missing out on,” says Catherine Prisk, director of Play England.

If we carry on like this, our generation of parents are in danger of turning children into mollycoddled wimps. We drive them everywhere, monitor their every move and wrap them in cotton wool. We worry about everything from the dangers of online chatrooms to the risks of climbing trees. Some schools have even banned conkers because they could be used as “offensive weapons,” while others say games like Stuck in The Mud and British Bulldog are too dangerous for the playground.
My own childhood was far more carefree. When I was little, I was out every day of the holidays – building dens in the woods with my friends, biking hands-free round the block and playing on the swings down the road.
But times have changed and protecting our children while giving them the chance to have fun and play outside is a tricky balance to strike.
I definitely veered on the over-protective side when my two children were little but as they grew up they wouldn’t have it. My daredevil son ended up in casualty several times every summer after attempting manoeuvres on his bike that would make a grown man tremble - let alone his mum. He got stuck up more trees than I’ve had hot dinners and when I took him for his first riding lesson at the age of five he emerged saying “I was the only one in the class who dared put my hand in the horse’s mouth!”

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Working mums and latchkey kids - the debate goes on

My jaw drops with astonishment when I see pictures of high-profile women just a few days after they’ve had their babies. Svelte in designer outfits and killer heels, they look like they’ve come straight from the health spa rather than the maternity unit. When my daughter was born it took weeks for me to have the oomph to leave the house, let alone contemplate getting dressed up to the nines and going to the office. By the time she was six weeks old I was still grey-faced and jabbering through lack of sleep – barely able to put her complicated, fold-up pram together and walk to the shops in Camberwell for a loaf of bread.

Now Gaby Hinsliff, the former political editor of the Observer has ignited the working mothers debate with her insightful book, Half a Wife: The Working Family's Guide to Getting a Life Back. Should we race straight back to work in double-quick time after having children or stay at home to look after them? Or is there a third way? A halfway house, where as Gaby Hinsliff herself has found, you can have both? As she wrote in Grazia this week: "I'm lucky to have picked a career in writing, which turned out to be the little black dress of professions: a versatile standby that can be dressed up or down - Fleet Street or freelance, working from home or the office - to suit. But with a little corporate and political imagination, the same could be true of other careers too."

My theory is that women study what their mothers did and do the opposite. My grandmother worked long hours in a Lancashire wallpaper and paint shop. It was hard graft for not much money and my mother was frequently a latchkey kid, arriving back from school to an empty house. When my mum had children she didn’t want to give up her job so she asked her beloved aunt to move in and help look after us. 

My mother adored her career but she sometimes wished she’d been at home more. So when my children were born I attempted to have the best of both worlds by leaving my newspaper job and working from home as a freelance writer.

All good – except now my daughter is 20 and thinking about careers she’s horrified by the very thought of being self-employed.  After years of watching me, she hates the precariousness and solitude of freelancing and yearns to work in a busy office – with other people to spark ideas against, proper lunch breaks and (fingers crossed all round) a monthly salary cheque coming in...  

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Dangerous Book for Boys - everything a 21st century boy needs to know

The New Year has arrived with 85 mph winds lashing the country, driving rain and a clutch of ultra-depressing surveys.

Why are we so addicted to surveys? The papers are full of them – and the crazier they sound the more column inches they get.

Today’s batch is as eclectic as ever. So far I’ve clocked that only one in three of us bother with breakfast these days and more than 2.5 million of us will start a diet before nightfall. Oh, and if that’s not enough, another claims that two-thirds of UK drivers are so confused by basic road signs they simply copy the driver in front.

But the most annoying survey of all (apart from one saying that today is the gloomiest day of the year) reckons there’s a strong link between being involved in sport and popularity. Apparently the more teams and clubs your children play for the more friends they’ll have.

Hmmm. It sounds like yet another thing for parents to fret about. Rather than agonising about my children getting into sports teams I was far keener to see them reading books, playing with friends, riding bikes, building dens and going for long country walks.

When my son was little all he wanted to do was emulate the creators of his favourite book, The Dangerous Book for Boys. He had no interest whatsoever in becoming the next David Beckham but saw co-authors Conn and Hal Iggulden as super-heroes. He thought they covered pretty much everything a 21st century boy needed to know (well nearly), from racing a go-kart to making paper planes.

I became a fan of the book too after reading an interview with Conn – where he expressed his fears that parents have become so terrified of letting boys be boys that we’re in danger of creating “a generation of frightened men.” He spent his own childhood constructing catapults and spud guns and thought today’s generation should switch off their Xboxes and computers for a change and go and do something more adventurous. Interestingly, Labour MP Diane Abbott takes a smilar line in today's Evening Standard: "Carrying on with the chips and PlayStation 3 culture is not an option," she says.

My son loves his Xbox as much as the next boy but he's in total agreement with such sentiments. Rather than pleading to join the local football or tennis club, he threw himself into scary pursuits like mountain-boarding and biking – and has never looked back.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Children's self portraits for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee

It’s amazing to think that the Queen is celebrating 60 years on the throne. The year's celebrations will range from a Diamond Jubilee Pageant in the grounds of Windsor Castle in May to a magnificent flotilla of 1,000 boats sailing along the River Thames in June.

But I reckon one of the most imaginative and creative tributes of all is Face Britain. An initiative launched by the Prince’s Foundation for Children & the Arts, it's set to be the UK’s largest ever mass collaborative art project.

Open to children aged four to 16, Face Britain is challenging youngsters across the UK to create their own self portraits. The artwork - from photographs and paintings to 3D images and graphics - will then be combined to create a massive montage of the Queen and the result will be projected on to the front of Buckingham Palace in April.

As well as providing a spectacular snapshot of how the nation’s children see themselves it’s hoped that the portrait will set a new Guinness World Record for the artwork with the greatest number of individual contributing artists.

It all sounds huge fun and thousands of Face Britain registration packs have been sent to schools and youth clubs in the UK, with a letter about the project from former children’s laureate Michael Morpurgo.

Best of all, Face Britain isn’t a competition so any child can take part, whatever their level of skill and whatever medium they use. Children must photograph their finished work and then upload it to the Face Britain website before March 31.

PS. At 17 my son’s too old to join in (shame) but the picture above is a self portrait he painted in his primary school days. I liked it so much that I kept it.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Harper Seven - where did that name come from?

It was obvious from the start that Posh and Becks were never going to call their new baby daughter something plain and simple - like Mary or Jane.

But how on earth did they come up with Harper Seven? I know her name had to match up to Brooklyn, Romeo and Cruz, her three big brothers, but Harper Seven sounds like an upmarket washing liquid. Even though the Beckhams themselves say they named their little girl after a character in the Disney TV series The Wizards of Waverly Place, other theories have been flying around thick and fast. Some reckon her moniker comes from Harper’s Bazaar magazine, while others claim it’s inspired by Harper Lee, the novelist who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird (I really don’t think so!)

Choosing children’s names is always fraught with difficulty, with relations quick to take offence if the baby is named after one side of the family and not the other. “Where did that come from?” asked my mother-in-law when I first told her Ned’s name. “Don’t you mean Edward?” Ahem. No, we didn’t. Ned is just Ned.

It’s also a good idea to check the baby’s initials don’t spell something dire and that the names don’t rhyme embarrassingly. On the day Lottie was born we were about to tell everyone that our darling daughter was called Lottie Rose when I stopped in my tracks. Fast-forwarding a few years, I could suddenly hear classmates shouting “Snotty Nose” at her the minute she started school. We had a quick rethink and came up with Clementine – which nearly 20 years on, she absolutely hates.

The best tip I’ve ever heard on choosing names was from my glamorous Lancashire grandmother. Her advice was to fling open the back door and yell the name you’ve set your heart on at the top of your voice.

If “Harper Seven – it’s tea-time,” sounds completely ridiculous, then it’s back to the drawing board.
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